I squirmed as a balmy breeze swept across the deck and the trees rustled around us. He looked at me with such intensity that it almost seemed if I told him the truth, he’d hunt down the last guy I dated and either beat the crap out of him or pelt him with marshmallows.
Of course, there was a third option. He could see things the same way Jack had seen them, which was why I was terrified that if Ridge knew the truth, he’d clothe that glorious body of his, pack up his belongings, and start walking, never to be heard from again, just like Jack.
I groaned inwardly. It angered me that I had allowed the last guy I dated to affect me so deeply. Jack wasn’t his real name, but I didn’t even want to think his name, let alone have it pass from my lips. So I decided to give him an appropriate nickname, Jack, a shortened version of jackass. And he was a jackass. In the end, I’d found out the hard way that he didn’t know the first thing about loving a woman. It’d been a painful revelation, and one that was necessary for me to realize that he didn’t deserve me. So if I knew all of that, why did I still allow him to make me feel this way?
I had been meeting challenges head-on since I was sixteen, giving me five years of practical experience. But I supposed when it came to relationships, a whole new kind of insecurity seeped into my soul. Gone was the cocky, overconfident girl that I had become in all other realms.
My eyes fell to his magnificently carved body. His biceps flexed as he repositioned his arms, and he was still watching me, waiting on me to tell him what Jack had done.
“It doesn’t matter. He’s long gone,” I said, shielding my eyes from the sun, so that I could see him more clearly.
He had a strong jawline, and as he stood before me, I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t immune to his bronzed, muscular body.
His brown hair was relatively short with streaks of blond, indicative that he’d probably spent a lot of time outdoors this summer.
“So what do you do?” I asked, hoping to shift the conversation to more pleasant topics.
“Well, I just graduated from college a few months ago.” He walked toward me, sitting on the side of the chaise lounge, just inches from my feet. My body stiffened and a wave of self-awareness swept over me. I bent my knees slightly, giving him a little more room at the end of the lounger.
“What was your major?” I asked.
“So if I needed someone to change the light bulbs in my apartment, you could help me out?”
He laughed. “Yeah, I think I could handle that.”
“Good to know.”
“I was an intern at an engineering firm, and I was fortunate enough to get hired on after I graduated.” He ran his fingers through his hair, which was quickly drying, and the movement caused his muscles to ripple into action.
“Sounds like you’ve got it together.”
“Meticulous planning. That’s the key,” he said, turning to look at me.
“I agree that planning is important. Just make sure you remember to be spontaneous every now and then. We wouldn’t want you to be boring and predictable.”
He laughed then. “Have no fear, Ava. I may be a bit predictable because once I set a goal, I don’t stop until I’ve accomplished it, but no female has ever accused me of being boring.”
He stood, his red swim trunks riding low on his hips. My line of vision rested on his well-defined abs. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
I didn’t respond, just watched the graceful display of muscle and sinew as he moved. As I watched him, I wished things were different. I wished that Jack hadn’t deflated my confidence. Perhaps I was even angry with myself for allowing him to do it. But it didn’t matter. Knowing that I shouldn’t let a guy affect me that way wasn’t enough for me to keep it from happening. That had been part of the reason that I’d wanted to come here alone. I wanted to get over this hump, gain my confidence back, and tackle life, but being here with Ridge all week would keep my insecurities at the forefront of my mind, impeding any progress that I’d hoped to make. I lowered my head into my palms. I needed to dig deep and find a way past this.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked as he stepped back onto the deck and shut the door behind him.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” I replied, lifting my head and pasting a smile on my face. I noticed that he had his phone in his hand. “Did you get a signal?”
He glanced down at the phone. “No. I just wanted to access my calendar.”
“Oh. Still planning, I see,” I joked.
“Yeah. Old habits….”
He sat back down on the side of the chaise lounge near my feet and punched the keys on his phone. “So do you have any goals, Ava?” he asked, without looking up.
“You mean other than stringing up my sister and her friends for putting us in this awkward situation?”
He grinned. “Guess at this point, you’re stuck with me for an entire week.”
“Guess so,” I agreed. “You’re stuck with me, too. Still doesn’t keep me from plotting ways to torture her.”
“I know what you mean. Kelsey has aggravated the shit out of me over the years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fantasized about getting even for all of the pranks she’s pulled. Knowing her, she’d just aggravate me that much more. Having one, little sister is bad enough. I can’t imagine having two.”
“Yeah, sometimes it can be a pain, but we actually get along pretty well, considering.”
London was definitely going to get an earful from me. Having expected to be totally alone, I hadn’t even brought my makeup. Part of me thought that I shouldn’t care, but what girl wanted to be stranded with a gorgeous guy and no makeup? It certainly didn’t help my confidence level any.
Even though he had no Internet access, he scrolled through his phone, and it crossed my mind that Ridge was the type of guy who could easily become a workaholic.
The soft chirping of crickets lulled me, replacing my carefully constructed wall of vigilance with the tempting notion of relaxation. I watched Ridge, who exuded confidence and ease around me, even though he’d never laid eyes on me before today. Envy slithered into my belly as I wished I could be so comfortable around someone of the opposite sex.
He moved then, his thigh brushing against the tip of my shoe. My body went rigid, my breath frozen in my lungs. I knew I was overreacting, but that didn’t prevent the spasms of panic that shot through my veins. Instinctively, I scooted my feet closer to me, needing more than a mere modicum of distance between us before I could even begin to regain control of my emotions. I breathed in deeply, hoping that I was being inconspicuous. The last thing I needed was for him to stare at me like I was going to have a seizure or something.
Inwardly, I cursed myself. It was beyond ridiculous that I had allowed Jack to bring me to this point. But no matter how much one side of my brain told me that it was absurd, the other side was telling me that I wasn’t good enough for someone like Ridge, that he would never find me desirable. So yet another internal battle began.
I took another deep breath, exhaling slowly. Refusing to fall prey to my traitorous brain, I forced myself to rekindle the conversation. “So you’re training for a triathlon?”
He looked away from his phone, his hazel eyes focusing on my face. I could tell I’d gotten his full attention with a subject that interested him. He shifted on the end of the lounger, facing me. I concentrated on slow, even breathing.
“Yes,” he said in a smooth, deep voice.
I watched his pronounced Adam’s apple as he spoke. My gaze traveled lower to his well-defined pectoral muscles, lower still to his washboard abs. He was definitely male, and that made me giddy and nervous all at once.
“Will this be your first one?” I tamped down the uneasy feelings that prickled along my spine, refusing to succumb to them.
“Yes. I watched a video online about a competition. It was a triathlon that consisted of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run that has to be completed in seventeen hours. Can you imagine doing all of that back to back?” His eyes met mine, but I didn’t answer. “So, anyway, in the video, the triathletes are pushing themselves to get across the finish line before time’s up, and as they near it, crowds of people are lined up along the side of the street cheering and holding out their hands. But it was the look on the triathletes’ faces that caught my attention. To know that they’d pushed themselves both mentally and physically to the brink of their boundaries and were still triumphant. If I could feel that kind of energy and emotion from a video, imagine what it must be like to be there. Imagine what it must be like to cross the finish line, to hear the crowd cheering you on. As soon as I watched it, I knew that was going on my list. I want to feel what they felt.”
He grinned. “It sounds kind of cheesy when I say it like that, doesn’t it?”
I smiled and a little bit of my anxiety melted away with his words. “No,” I whispered, not expecting my voice to sound so strained. I cleared my throat. “I understand exactly what you mean.”
He looked at me a little surprised. “You do?”
“I’m glad somebody does. Most of my friends can’t understand why I’d want to go through such torture.”
“It is torture.”
He straightened his back and looked at me hard. “You say that like you’ve done it.”
Did I? I repeated the last bit of conversation in my head. Crap. I hadn’t intended to say anything. Since when did I let my guard down around a guy for even a moment? I tried to decide how I’d play it off because I knew that beginning a conversation like this would lead to places that I didn’t want to go.
I couldn’t lie about it now. I’d just have to go with it. “We have something in common, Ridge. I know exactly what you’re talking about because I competed in a triathlon about a year ago.” That was the truth.
“You’ve already completed a triathlon?” he asked, leaning forward like I’d just gotten a whole lot more interesting.
“Yes, I completed it.”
He exhaled loudly. “You just let the air out of my big bag of macho.”
A smile pranced on my lips as I watched his face deflate and his shoulders slump. Even though I knew he was joking, there was something humorous about such a manly man being shamed by the thoughts of a female completing such a physical contest before him.
“If it makes you feel any better, I missed the deadline by eleven seconds, although I did complete the course.”
He lifted his head. “No shittin’? Eleven seconds?”
I pursed my lips and nodded. “Eleven lousy seconds. Do you know how many times I’ve replayed that over and over in my head, trying to decide what I could’ve done differently to cross the finish line on time.”
“That seriously sucks.”
“Tell me about it.” It had sucked, and I’d never forget the overwhelming feeling of defeat.
“My goal is to complete it in less than twelve hours. I think I can do it faster than that, but since it’s my first one, I’m not sure what to expect.”
I closed my book, completely engaged in my conversation with Ridge. “I have no doubt that you’ll make it,” I said, meaning it. I hadn’t even known him a full day, but it was quite obvious that once Ridge Sutherland decided to do something, he didn’t release it from his sights until he had accomplished it.
“You should try it again,” he suggested. “I’m sure a lot of people who don’t make it the first time come back and conquer it on the second try.”
“I should,” I agreed. “Have you ever given up on anything on your list?”
He shot me a look of disbelief, a steely resolve in his amber eyes. “Failure is not in my vocabulary. If something makes it on my list, it’s going to happen.”
“You make it sound so simple,” I said.
His confidence wasn’t unfamiliar to me. In fact, I shared his level of confidence in most of my activities, but there were times when it seemed to slip. Times like now.
“If I add swim with Ava by the end of the week to my list, guess what you’re going to do?”
A strange mixture of excitement and fear welled in my chest. I wanted to swim with him, but contrary to his philosophy, it wasn’t going to happen. “Laugh at you for failing?”
“Sweet, sweet Ava. I think I just explained to you that I never fail.”
“Are you issuing a challenge?” I asked, unsure of his intent.
“Are you offering one?” he asked, his brows raised as he awaited my answer.
Part of me wanted to say “yes,” but the other part had no desire to provoke Ridge into doing something that could possibly lead to disappointment for both of us. I should end this conversation now. I should remember how things ended with Jack, and…damn him.
“Yes,” I blurted before I overthought things, before I chickened out, before he could change his mind.
A wide grin spread across his face. “Challenge accepted.”
I was already second-guessing myself. What had I done? I had just made the conscious decision to give this guy a reason to talk to me all week. Why? Because I wanted him to want something from me. He was handsome and ambitious and sweet, and I strongly suspected that the two of us had a lot in common.
But I also knew that I had just set him up for failure. Not that I personally thought failure was that big of a deal. To me, failures were a chance to learn, to grow, a chance to take a step back and decide if another alternative was the better choice.
Maybe that’s what scared me the most. Maybe Ridge would decide that there were better alternatives to me. Even for something as simple as a swim partner.
He brought me out of my insanity by asking a question. “Why don’t you change into your swimsuit?”
I smirked. “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?”
He winked. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
I watched the ripple of muscles as he stood up and walked over to the rail. “Hey, did you notice this canoe?”
“It’s bright red. How could I have missed it?”
He turned and grinned at me. “Well, I don’t know, but I didn’t see it until now.”
“Women are more observant than men.”
“Has that been scientifically proven or are you making it up as you go along?” he asked, grinning at me.
“It’s just my own observation.”
He laughed. “Then who am I to argue? Besides, I’ve made a few observations of my own, one of them being that men rarely win when it comes to arguing with women. So I don’t do it.”
He turned back towards the canoe. “You wanna go for a canoe ride with a smart man?” Leaning on the railing, he looked over his shoulder at me.
“You think I’m going to fall for that trick? I know how that works. You get me in the middle of the lake in a canoe, and then, you accidentally tip it over, which leaves me having to swim to shore and leaves you proclaiming your victory. Um, no, not gonna happen.”
He chuckled. “That is a good plan, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I just thought it might be fun. I haven’t ridden in a canoe since middle school. When’s the last time you rode in one?” He gazed out over the lake as the water lapped softly against the bank.
“Like ever?” he asked, turning back to look at me.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Man, we’ve got to do something about that this week. You won’t have the proper cabin-on-the-lake experience until you get in that canoe and paddle out to the middle of the lake. And if you’re worried about me tipping you over, I’ll stay here while you go, but seriously, you’ve got to go.”
“What are you waiting for?” he asked, a twinkle of mischief in his eyes.
“I like to take my canoe rides in the middle of the night with some cinder blocks, a few feet of rope, and a dead body.”
A crooked grin shot across his face. “Guess that’s my cue to move on. I need to run, anyway.” He picked up his phone and glanced at the time. “I should be back in a couple of hours or so.”
I wasn’t sure why he found it necessary to fill me in on his schedule. We were just two strangers who happened to be staying in the same cabin. “Okay.”
Once he went inside, I began to breathe easier. Before the incident, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to going for a swim or a canoe ride with him. But now, things that I once did without thought required me to summon courage, to cling to bits and pieces of positive experiences in my mind and remember that I was the same girl I’d always been, to beckon the confidence that was still within me, although now it seemed to lurk in the recesses of my soul, just out of my reach.
Frustrated that I had allowed my mettle to suffer at the hands of Jack, I cursed myself for the tenth time today. I had hoped to come to terms with how I felt about him this week, deal with it, and move on. No man should have this kind of power over me. No man should be allowed to make me feel so damn inadequate. I knew that. I did. Now, if I could just get my brain to agree, to stop sliding in thoughts that would make me think otherwise.
I opened the book in my lap. The main character was dealing with worse situations than I was, and I desperately needed to escape my own world.
I awoke to a tap on the shoulder. Startled, I sprang into a sitting position, only to realize that it was twilight and Ridge was standing over me with a huge grin on his face. My book slid out of my lap and thudded against the deck flooring.
“Sorry, I contemplated on whether I should wake you or just leave you alone, but I thought you might be getting hungry.” He offered me a plate with two slices of pizza. “Besides I thought it might be nice to watch the sunset.”
“You cooked?” I mumbled, running the back of my hand over my mouth, hoping I wasn’t drooling all over myself.
“Yeah. My skills in the kitchen aren’t quite as good as they are over a grill, but I can usually handle frozen pizza.”
I took the plate from him, and he handed me a bottle of water. “Thank you.”
He smelled clean, and I realized that he’d already showered. How long had I been asleep?
Ridge took a seat at the picnic table, facing me in a dark green tee shirt and khaki shorts. His feet were bare. “So you ready to go for a swim?” he asked, right before he bit into a slice of pizza.
“Is your plan to wear me down by asking me every five minutes?” I asked.
“Considering you’ve been out here snoring for a good three hours or so, I’m not sure how you came up with your theory.”
“You haven’t even been back for three hours,” I accused. Had he?
“Well, I did stay gone a lot longer than I had intended, but I’ve been back for three hours and five minutes. And you’ve barely budged.”
“You were watching me sleep?” I asked, horrified, hoping he was only joking about the snoring comment.
“It’s not like I snuck in your bedroom or anything. I mean, you are out on the deck.”
I wanted to slink down into the chaise lounge and become part of it.
“I was starting to wonder if you had passed out drunk. I don’t know anyone who could sleep on a lounger that long.”
“I don’t normally drink,” I said, and then took another bite of pizza.
“I guess that rules out that you were up all night having a party.”
I was up all night, but unfortunately, a party had nothing to do with it. I rubbed my eyes and exhaled. “I just haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
He took a drink of water. “I know the perfect cure for insomnia,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked, almost desperate enough to try anything.
He motioned toward the lake with his thumb. “A nice, long swim. It relaxes the mind and exhausts the muscles.”
“Has it even been five minutes?” I asked, referring to the last time he asked me to go for a swim.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, pointing at me. “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to go for a swim. I merely pointed out that it was a great way to cure insomnia. But now that you brought it up, I’ll go for a swim with you, if you want.”
“Okay?” he asked, surprised. “That was way easier than I expected it to be.”
“Swim out to the middle of the lake and wait for me there,” I ordered.
“Let me guess. You’re gonna deliver some cinder blocks that you want me to hold for you until morning, right?”
I giggled at the thought. “Maybe.”
As the sun dipped below the tree line and exploded into massive streaks of pink and orange and yellow, I watched Ridge as he looked out over the lake. He had a strong profile, and I found his chiseled jawline extremely appealing. We sat in silence, drinking in the beauty and peacefulness of this place. I suspected that if I had been alone this week, the cabin would’ve contained all the special healing powers I had been hoping for.
The moon rose into the night sky, a silver ball suspended in the inky blackness. Its reflection glistened on the surface of the lake, rippling with the movement of the water.
After several minutes of silence, Ridge finally rose. “I’m going to bed. I want to get an early start on running. Oh, and in case you get any ideas, I’m going to lock my door.”
I smiled into the darkness. “Good night, Ridge.”