The Girl Least Likely To...
by Dorien Kelly
By the time Hallie returned, Steve had champagne chilling, the dark green goosedown quilt from his bed spread over the flattest part of the parade float, a dozen candles glowing in old Mason jars he'd found on a shelf, and a meal that was the best Sandy Bend had to offer. Diana Krall, his favorite jazz vocalist, sang from his portable CD player.
Hallie hesitated in the doorway. "Wow! You work quickly."
He gave a low whistle at her altered appearance. Her paint-covered clothing had been replaced by a black sleeveless top and white shorts that ended mighty high on those long, long legs. Her hair was clean and dry, and pulled back from her face.
"You're no slouch, either. Come on in and bar that door behind you."
"What, no Do Not Disturb sign to hang out?" She turned and, for an instant, stood with her hands resting against the door latch. Her shoulders rose as though she were drawing a deep breath for courage. Steve held his own breath, waiting to see if she was going to leave the door open as a signal that she wasn't ready for the kind of night he hoped awaited them.
She pulled the door shut and dropped the wooden bar Chief Bud had installed years before to keep Cal and him from bugging him while he worked on his 'Vette. The larger, sliding door next to the small entry was already firmly in place. When Hallie turned and gave him a nervous smile, he relaxed. At least sort of relaxed.
"Now come on up here and let me serve you my favorite kind of dinner."
She neared and took his offered hand. "What kind's that?"
He helped her up, then let go before he was tempted to haul her into his arms and forget the food. "The kind where I don't have to do any cooking."
Her answering smile was an addictive sight. Steve ushered her to the quilt. Once they were settled on the edge of it with their feet on the sandy "beach" she'd hauled in the other day, he opened the champagne and poured her a flute.
As she sipped it, he commented, "You know, tonight's the crucial test for your cat-dander theory, and I have to tell you I'm not holding out much hope for its validity."
"So here's what I propose. As long as we're on this float, no matter what we're doing, some part of you has to be touching some part of me. If your theory fails, you won't be able to say it's from lack of effort on my part."
She frowned, but he wasn't certain whether it was from the champagne bubbles tickling her nose as she drank, or from his proposal.
"Do I get to pick the parts?" she asked.
"Sure, I can be a sport about this."
He toed off his worn Top-Siders, too threadbare to be of any use sailing, but still his all-time favorite shoes. "The best thing about the beach is going barefoot, don't you think?"
He reached down and slid off her flip-flops, then tossed them over the side of the float. A little crease appeared between her brows as he began to bury her feet in the sand.
"Now don't move them," he ordered. "I don't want you chickening out and taking off."
"As if I would," she scoffed.
Steve trailed one hand up her leg to the outside of her hip, then over to her elbow as he reached for the strawberries. He hid a smile at the tremor that rippled over her skin.
At her nodded assent, he popped a small berry into her mouth, then traced one perfect shell of an ear. Hallie glared at him as she chewed and swallowed.
"I thought I got to choose the body parts."
He grinned. "Choose any part of mine you like."
She linked her pinkie with his, then crawled around him to grab the French bread. Once she was settled back in place, she propped her feet across his legs and let go of his hand.
Steve gave a rueful shake of his head as she broke the heel off the loaf and ate with gusto. "I don't think you're getting the spirit of this."
She grinned. "I'm getting the spirit just fine. Now what else do you have to feed me?"
He rolled onto his side and reached for the asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. As Hallie nibbled, he ran his palms up the silken skin of her shins, which were dusted with the same honey-brown freckles as her nose.
"What's the beach like in Carmel?"
She took a sip of her wine. He noticed her hands were trembling.
"Not very big, but nice," she said. "Still, I don't spend much time there. When I have weekends off, I like to go to Point Lobos, a nature reserve not too far from where I live. If it looks like it's going to be a clear day, I bring my watercolors."
Just to see what she'd do, and because it felt so damn good, he placed his right hand on the back of her knees and began caressing the soft skin. She shivered, but gamely kept on talking.
"Sometimes when it's really quiet, I can hear the sea otters in the bay opening shellfish with their rocks."
With his left hand, he traced the edge of her shorts across the tops of her thighs. She was so apple-pie wholesome he could just about eat her up.
"D-did you know that sea otters carry their favorite rocks with them? There was one off Monterrey that everyone would look for because h-he used a beer bottle instead of a rock."
For the sheer pleasure of watching her, he moved closer and cupped the side of her face with his hand. "Have you ever tried counting your freckles?"
"Mostly I've tried to make them disappear."
"Now why would you want to do that? They're part of what make you . . .well, you." He brushed a kiss against one cheekbone. She scooted back.
"Nuh-uh, no breaking contact," he reminded her.
"You're making me nervous."
"Good nervous or bad nervous?"
Good nervous. "So what do you think of your cat dander theory, now?"
"It might need a little reworking."
He grinned at her grudging admission. "It needs to be dumped. But you know, I've been thinking about this problem of ours, too." He stood. "The way I see it, we just need to even the playing field between us."
Hallie's mouth grew dry. He had already knocked her off-kilter with all the touching, but she had a feeling that was small stuff compared to what was to come. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"I mean, this time it's my turn." He tugged off the preppy white polo shirt she'd smirked at earlier and dropped it at his feet. There was nothing to smirk at now. Not that broad, tan chest with just the slightest dusting of golden hair. Definitely not the six-pack abs.
"But you've seen me without my shirt more times than I can count," he said.
She didn't recall him looking this good.
He frowned. "In the interest of fairness, I think we have to carry this a little farther, don't you?"
"No, really, I'm sure the playing field's even. Couldn't be any flatter if you steamrollered it." His hand was closing over the copper button at the top of his jeans and she was babbling as though words could hold him back. Her gaze was riveted to the motion of that button coming open, but as his hand moved to the zipper below, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
Temptation whispered to her. So what do you think, is it boxers or briefs? Or maybe nothing at all...
Deprived of vision, she was hypersensitive to the slight rustling sounds as he shed his jeans. Still, she kept her eyes closed.
"Now we're a little closer."
Hallie forced herself to open her eyes, but couldn't bring herself to look beyond his face.
"I dare you," he said, laughter and challenge dancing in his dark eyes. "Heck, I double-dog dare you."
Hallie sent her gaze on a journey south.
My, oh my...
Steve was a boxer man.
A midnight-blue silk, trim and sexy, boxer man.
"There's one more thing I have to add before we can call ourselves even," he said.
He sounded so very serious.
"Hallie, I want you."
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