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Excerpt for It’s Not a Date by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

It’s Not a Date

By Heather Blackmore

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Heather Blackmore

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

It’s Not a Date

Falling in love is the hardest business of all.

Entrepreneur and innovator Kadrienne Davenport gets results. A demanding executive and stickler for punctuality, Kade throws herself into work to avoid hurting anyone, convinced she only causes pain to those she loves.

When Jennifer Spencer meets an incognito Kade at a conference, sparks fly. But when Kade unexpectedly becomes her boss, Jen’s problems multiply. The company she founded is going broke, her grandmother’s dementia is worsening, and her attraction to Kade—her difficult, brilliant, charismatic mentor—is growing.

Kade’s desire to keep things professional between them is in Jen’s best interest. Yet what’s in Kade’s best interest…is Jen.

What Reviewers Say About Heather Blackmore’s Work

Like Jazz

“This book is a top of the line winner that grabbed me, held me, and more than entertained me from start to finish! …I totally recommend this book; it is capable of being enjoyed on many levels, from different angles, and in its totality. Please do not miss this thoroughly satisfying book!”—Rainbow Book Reviews

“An excellent debut and an excellent book: well-developed, engaging characters, good plot, great setting.”—Rainbow Awards 2014


For Money or Love

“As it progresses the characters deepen, the plot thickens and it becomes so much more than ‘just’ a romance. The story pulls you along on a whole series of levels, with several interesting sub-plots and entertaining characters to follow…by half way through [I] literally couldn’t put it down…I loved it.”—The Lesbian Reading Room

It’s Not a Date

© 2018 By Heather Blackmore. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-150-1


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: March 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design by Tammy Seidick

By the Author

Like Jazz


For Money or Love


It’s Not a Date

Acknowledgments

My thanks to the many Bold Strokes Books staffers, authors, and volunteers who helped with the publication of this novel and provided a fun and supportive environment along the way.

To friends and authors Kathy Chetkovich and Cindy Rizzo: I greatly appreciate your thoughtful feedback on an early draft. Your keen insights and suggestions undoubtedly improved the end result.

Shelley Thrasher, editor extraordinaire: I have been so fortunate to work with you on all three of my novels. If you ever leave me, I will hunt you down and read accounting textbooks to you.

Shelly Lampe, my love and heart, thank you for your humor, love, and kindness, and for the title of this book. I am incredibly lucky to be sharing my life with you.

I wrote much of this novel on the peaceful grounds of Vajrapani Institute, a special, spiritual place in the Santa Cruz mountains that values wisdom and compassion. I was surrounded by nature’s beauty and silent, truth-seeking strangers. In today’s chaotic, technology-driven, limited-attention-span culture, rare havens such as Vajrapani encourage the rejuvenation of one’s soul and prove that kind forces exist to more than offset the greed and short-sightedness of many of those in power. Thank you, Vajrapani, for reminding me that Kindness is everlasting.

Dedication

To forgive a loved one for something deeply hurtful is as crucial as it is difficult, for it is only through forgiveness that we open ourselves to the infinite beauty and love that an unencumbered heart can experience. This book is for everyone brave enough to grant themselves such freedom.

Chapter One

The plane pulled into the gate at Maui’s Kahului airport five minutes early, which suited Kadrienne Davenport perfectly. She preferred to run on schedule, but early was better than late. Her keynote speech was slotted at the bizarre time of ten a.m., and if everything kept going according to plan, she could find her driver, check in to the hotel, get at least six hours of sleep, hit the stationary bike, shower and change for the conference, and enjoy a sit-down breakfast while she read an honest-to-God paper version of The Wall Street Journal, all before having to walk onstage. She hoped the gym inside her Kapalua hotel wouldn’t disappoint in the way such facilities frequently did, with equipment so in need of maintenance it was surprising guests weren’t issued a can of WD-40 at check-in.

It had been a few years since she’d flown via commercial airline, and as she retrieved her laptop, Kade pondered the rule about having to stow larger electronics during the initial and final minutes of the flight. The waste was staggering. With half a billion business trips taken in the US annually, she estimated the loss equated to over 16 million hours of productivity in the US alone. Surely some safety device such as a short cable that could secure one’s laptop to the seat or tray table could be designed. She decided she’d either invest in a startup that figured out a safe way around the problem, or she’d start one herself.

Since she was in the second row, Kade’s turn to exit came quickly. Carry-on strapped over her shoulder, she followed the initial passengers off the Jetway and into the terminal. She headed toward Ground Transportation and smiled upon seeing her middle name on a placard held by a man in a suit, wearing a chauffeur’s hat. Kade approached her driver.

“I’m Kade Delaney.” Kade typically opted to use her middle name when she traveled commercially in order to avoid having to engage in polite conversation on the rare chance someone recognized the name Kadrienne Davenport.

The man nodded and slid a hand into his breast pocket. “Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Delaney. I have a message for you.” He extended an envelope to Kade.

Confused, Kade pulled a sheet of paper from the envelope and read its contents.


Don’t be mad. –H


She leveled the man with an icy stare. “You’re not my driver?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Are you from a limousine service?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Did Holly put you up to this?”

“I’m only a messenger, ma’am.” He tipped his hat. “Have a good night, Ms. Delaney.” He turned to leave.

“Wait. Can I catch a ride with you to my hotel? I’ll pay you.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’m not allowed to take passengers.”

“Of course not,” Kade muttered. Holly, her assistant, would have seen to that as part of this little…whatever-this-was…adventure to force her to interact with people who weren’t on the agenda. Alterations to the plan didn’t make sense, given Kade’s packed schedule tomorrow. It wasn’t as if she could cram in an excursion. As she watched him walk away, she pulled out her mobile phone and dialed Holly’s number, which kicked over to voice mail. “Not funny, Holly. Call me as soon as you get this.” She ended the call and stormed through the tiny terminal toward the taxi stand.

The airport was like a tiny replica of a big-city version, as if it wanted to be a life-size airport when it grew up. But that would require air-conditioning, Kade thought unkindly, as the humidity hit her like a noodle thrown at the wall to see if it would stick. There were only two terminals, which could be navigated end-to-end within minutes. Photographs of Hawaiian dancers in traditional Polynesian dress lined the walls. Kade imagined the male dancers smiling at all the deplaning passengers wearing jeans or other heavy materials while they hulaed to the off-camera ukulele in only their loincloths.

The word taxi stand was generous for what was a faded yellow curb, which at present was empty. In fact, the entire airport seemed deserted except for the folks who had been on her flight. It was only eleven p.m. local time. This was an international airport. Shouldn’t more people be here?

Kade waited. She was the only person trying to hail a taxi, and the longer she stood alone, the more certain she became that no cabs were forthcoming. She could call for one, but this was the land of “driving with aloha.” Rush wasn’t the operative word of the islands. She couldn’t rally behind the idea of standing around for God knew how long. Time to hit the rental-car counters. It meant losing the time she’d planned to work during the forty-minute drive to the hotel, but this taxi stand was seeing less action than an Antarctic snow-cone vendor. Holly had some major explaining to do.

Unlike at Chicago O’Hare or Boston Logan or LAX, it took her only a few minutes to arrive at the service counters. Only one car company was open, staffed by two tired-looking fifty-somethings. Hearing dot-matrix printers spewing forth contracts, Kade hoped the vehicles offered were newer than the office technology and mentally confirmed that she was current on her automobile-club membership.

At least the view was inviting. Kade noticed the blonde as soon as she entered the rental-car area. Any woman who could capture Kade’s attention while standing under the appalling fluorescent ceiling lights of a rental-car center after having spent the duration of the evening on an airplane deserved Kade’s admiration. At first it was because, aside from the two people presently being served, she was the only person waiting in line. And then it was because the woman turned around and unleashed a warm smile that could have melted Kade on the spot, had she not already liquefied from the humidity.

Kade had seen that smile before. A different woman, a different time, a different circumstance, a lifetime ago. But God, it was the same smile. Kade had come across two perfect things in life—well, in the life of her youth: her friend’s smiles and her friend’s hugs. Cassie’s smiles bested any chocolate, drug, compliment, sunny day, test score, promotion, or pardon. They had a transformative power that could boost Kade’s spirits in a heartbeat and alter for the better any mood Kade was in.

And her hugs. When Cassie hugged her, Kade felt the world dissolve around them. Kade would forgo food, water, sleep, and sunlight if she could feel Cassie’s arms around her again.

Given the less-than-ideal circumstances in which Kade now found herself, she was piqued that the blonde had captured her attention, and she wished she had someone like Cassie at her side, encouraging her to initiate conversation and possibly ask her on a date.

But reality was a harsh and unforgiving mistress, and Kade was stuck in her own skin, which meant squelching her desire to meet the woman with the engaging smile. She wasn’t here to socialize. She slowed her pace and pretended to study something on her phone, simultaneously relieved and disappointed when the woman was called to the counter.

* * *

Jennifer Spencer was surprised by the last entrant to the rental- car queue and somewhat frustrated she’d been called forward. She definitely would have struck up a conversation. She’d seen the brunette heading toward the taxi area earlier and was a bit envious of whichever driver would be lucky enough to get the fare, though it probably wouldn’t be the safest of rides with the driver focusing on the passenger via the rearview mirror instead of the road. At least that’s what Jen would be doing.

The woman walked with confidence and a take-no-prisoners attitude, the kind of stride that could carry her down the streets of New York City at two a.m., assured that no one would dare approach. She wore her silky brown hair in a low ponytail, likely for comfort during the flight as well as on the ground, considering the humidity. Her pantsuit was probably custom, given the tapered waist and extra length required in the leg. The flared hem offered glimpses of the stylish mid-heeled boots she looked like she could run in. She had a little ski-slope nose that Jen wanted to run her finger down, and her serious eyes were an interesting hazel. She wore either lip gloss or a lipstick shade that faintly accentuated the natural color of her lovely mouth, which Jen found oddly inviting, given the frown occupying it. Jen could imagine that mouth making its way down her naked body until it—

“Miss? Miss?” A voice pulled her back to reality like some vaudeville hook.

“I’m sorry. What?” Jen wrenched her gaze from the woman and returned her focus to the representative trying to issue her a vehicle.

“The supplemental insurance coverage. Do you wish to purchase or decline?”

“Oh. Decline. Thanks.”

With his ballpoint pen, the man marked a number of areas on the form with Xs. “Please initial here, here, here, here, here, sign here, and initial here.”

As she signed where indicated and tried to take in the rest of his instructions, Jen heard snippets of the brunette’s increasingly voluble conversation with the other clerk. She gleaned that this was the last inbound flight of the night, no cars were available without a reservation, and that, yes, the woman could speak with her manager, but she’d have to return in the morning when he was on duty. The brunette said something about taxis and bum-fucked Egypt, then sliced her palm through the air as if to strike her outburst from the record. She left with a curt “thank you” and marched back toward the terminal.

Jen grabbed the proffered key and tugged her roller bag, practically running to catch up to the woman. “Excuse me,” she called twice, louder the second time, and the woman stopped and looked up from her phone.

“Yes?”

Oh, those eyes up close—intelligent and appraising, sparkling with flecks of forest and autumn. Jen struggled to catch her breath and blamed it on the forty-foot dash. “Would you like a ride?” Jen seemed to catch the woman off guard because she studied Jen as if she were trying to complete a puzzle. Jen replayed the past few moments and knew the woman spoke English, so she tried again. She dangled the key fob. “I’m happy to take you wherever you’re going, or at least drop you at a hotel where you can call a cab or have one meet you.”

“Why would you do that?”

It was Jen’s turn to be confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I’m a stranger you just met in an airport. I could be anyone,” the woman said, seeming aghast.

Jen laughed. “What are you going to do? Steal my underwear?”

The woman again looked perplexed. Then something shifted, and she smiled. “What kind of underwear?”

Oh my God. Jen wasn’t expecting that. Her cheeks heated. The woman could be playing off the idea of filching some fancy name-brand lingerie, or she could be flirting big-time. Jen extended her hand. “Jen Spencer.” They were similar in stature, and Jen realized it was the woman’s carriage that made her seem taller than her own five-nine.

The woman hiked her carry-on bag up on her shoulder before taking Jen’s hand. “Kade Delaney. And a ride would be great, thank you.” The greeting lasted several seconds longer than was customary, neither interested in ending the contact.

“You’re welcome. We’re this way.” Jen led them to the designated car.

As Jen adjusted the seat and mirrors, she asked, “Where to?”

Kade removed her laptop from its protective sleeve and flipped it open. “I’m at the Ritz-Carlton, but I’m happy to be dropped off wherever you’re going.”

“You’re not attending the Women in Tech conference there, are you?”

“I am. I take it you are too?”

“Which panel are you on?” With the confidence Kade projected, she probably wasn’t merely an attendee.

Kade turned her head and met Jen’s gaze. “I’m not on one. Are you?”

Jen put the car in drive. “Yes, and I’m trying not to freak out about it.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Miranda McArthur’s on my panel.”

Kade eyed Jen and waited.

Jen filled her in. “CEO of HipSpot.”

“Right. And?”

“The fastest-growing online travel company in the world?”

“I know who she is, but I don’t see why that should freak you out.”

“She’s amazing.”

“And you’re not?”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Not true, Jen Spencer. I know you show kindness to strangers in airports, you’re in high tech, and you wear underwear. Or at least you pack it. Of course, I’d have to…see it, to know for sure.”

“On?” Jen posed the question to get a better idea of the signals she was reading.

“You’re in the driver’s seat.”

Jen stopped the car before they exited the parking lot. “You’re flirting with me.”

Kade raised her hands as if in surrender. “You’re the one who mentioned underwear. I was merely staying on theme.”

“Totally flirting.”

“Sorry. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable.” Kade’s expression shuttered, returning to that of the woman who was told no cars were available.

Jen reached over and closed the lid of the laptop. “I rather prefer it.” She gently laid the device on the floor behind Kade.

The glint of playfulness immediately returned to Kade’s eyes. “I had planned on working during the ride.”

Jen grinned and turned onto the road. “How’s that working out for you?” Jen was pleased to see that Kade’s harrumph was for effect. Kade didn’t seem to be in any hurry to retake the computer.

“What’s the panel on?” Kade asked.

“Raising venture capital.”

Kade smiled wryly. “I hope they’ll be serving coffee beforehand.”

“I know, right? I’m only on it because I recently landed seed financing for my company and one of my investors recommended me. The panelists run the gamut of fund-raising experience, and I’m the newbie.”

“What time’s your panel?”

“Right before the keynote speech tomorrow. Seven, I think?”

“P.M.?”

Jen laughed at the surprise in Kade’s voice. “Yes. P.M. The agenda’s in my purse, if you want to grab it. Why?”

Kade snatched Jen’s purse from the backseat and immediately found the folded pamphlet. She indicated the light above her seat. “Will it bother you if I turn this on?”

“Not at all.”

Kade scanned the document. Then she started to shake her head. She returned the pages to Jen’s purse and turned off the light.

Jen could still see her shaking her head, her silhouette outlined by the streetlights. “What’s wrong?”

“My assistant misled me about the timing of some of these panels. I thought the main networking and conference events were in the morning, followed by breakout sessions. I thought I’d be on a plane by afternoon.”

“Time for a new assistant?” Jen suggested.

Kade laughed. “It’s complicated.”

“Isn’t accurate calendaring one of the basics of the job?”

“She thinks she’s looking out for me.”

“By screwing with your schedule?”

“By forcing me to take a day off. Now I have nothing on my plate until tomorrow night, my colleagues think I’m out-of-pocket so they won’t be pinging me, and I can’t turn around and go home in the meantime. Who knows? Maybe she thought I’d share a hotel shuttle and meet a new friend, or rent a car and go on an excursion. Make me wing it to see what shakes loose.”

“In her defense, it is Maui.” Jen heard Kade take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Is it really so bad, having a day to enjoy one of the most beautiful places on earth?”

“I like routine. Schedules. I’m not much of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of gal.”

“Well, you’re in luck, because I excel at spontaneity and can work with boundaries. How about this? If you’re not completely beat by the time we get to the Ritz, let’s grab a seat at one of the poolside bars, enjoy a cocktail, and, so that your assistant approves, talk about anything other than work. Then tomorrow morning, if you’re not already sick of me, we’ll meet for breakfast at a time you designate, and we’ll come up with a plan for the day that involves plenty of sunshine and beautiful women.”

“You’re not some sort of chaperone my assistant hired to keep me from working, are you?”

“Are you really that pathetic?”

“Guilty.”

“What kind of work do you do that you have to be constantly doing it? I mean, I’m a CEO and I take time off. Whole weekends, occasionally.”

“Not that I don’t want to delve deeper into the incredible laziness you just copped to—because, wow, weekends—but it might color what you think of me, and I’m enjoying my status as”—here Kade punctuated the air with her hands as if reading from a news scroll—“‘woman in technology who fails to use technology to read conference agenda.’ And by the way, how did you get a rental car?”

“It was the craziest thing. Are you ready? It’s called…” Jen took her time as if revealing a major secret. “A reservation. And nice deflection on the work question.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you really think it would change my mind about you if I knew what you did?”

“Does Miranda McArthur really intimidate you?”

“Oh, shit. You’re not Miranda McArthur, traveling under a pseudonym, are you?”

“You think I run a company that excels at helping consumers make travel plans, yet I can’t even rent a car?”

“Fair point. I don’t know what any of these business leaders look like. I know a lot of names, but if they’re not Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, I wouldn’t know them from Adam. You’re making me nervous.”

“And you drive like my mother.”

“A woman who has obviously done a few things right, so I’ll accept that as a compliment, Miss Avoid the Subject.”

Kade pointed toward the pedals. “When she talks, she tends to pull her foot off the gas, like she has difficulty multitasking.”

“I do not take my foot off the…Wow, I totally do that.”

“That’s okay. It’s just that much longer until the cocktail you’ve promised me.”

“So you’re game even though having drinks with a stranger wasn’t on tonight’s agenda?” Jen was tempted to ask Kade for her assistant’s address, so she could send a thank-you note.

“I’m taking a walk on the wild side.”

Jen reached for Kade’s hand and squeezed it softly. “It looks good on you.”

“It’ll look better once you have a few drinks.”

Jen appreciated Kade’s self-deprecating humor. It gave her a kind of accessibility Jen wouldn’t have necessarily pegged her for when she first saw her strut to the rental-car line. “If I have a few drinks, I’ll be under the table.”

“Perfect. I like when people look up to me,” Kade quipped.

Jen glanced at Kade. “I appreciate your covert strategy to take my mind completely off my panel tomorrow.”

Kade grinned. “Let’s not limit ourselves. Your mind doesn’t have to be the only thing to be taken completely off. Should we return to the underwear conversation?”

Jen smiled and shook her head. “What panel?”

Chapter Two

Upon arriving at the Ritz-Carlton, Jen parked in the temporary-registration zone and left her bag in the car. Kade assumed it was because she preferred to self-park close to her room, once she learned where it was. But as Kade was checking in, she saw Jen standing to the side, already out of line. Kade waved her over. “What room are you in?”

“No vacancy. Apparently the conference is pretty popular. And with the usual tourism…” Jen shrugged.

“You had a car reservation but not a hotel reservation?”

“No need. There’s lots of vacancy on the west side, and I figured I’d see what struck my fancy. Since I’m here, I checked, but frankly this place is a little steep for my company’s travel budget anyway. I’ll stay for that drink and then head out.”

Kade glanced at her watch. “But it’s late. You don’t want to go to hotel after hotel trying to find a room at this time of night, or drive after drinking.” She spoke to the clerk who was checking her in. “Make that two keys, please.” She turned to Jen and offered her the key card she’d been given. “I’m in a two-bedroom suite. Stay with me.” Kade flushed. “I mean, take the other room.”

Jen shook her head and lightly pushed the card away. “Thank you, but I can’t foist myself on you like that. Let’s have that drink and figure out when to meet in the morning.”

“You’re not foisting yourself on me. I’m offering. There’s plenty of room. I won’t even know you’re there.”

Jen cocked her head, unleashed a slow, sexy smile, and moved directly into Kade’s personal space. Her straight, natural-blond hair fell past her shoulders and framed a face of smooth, pale skin that seemed divinely inspired to highlight her blue eyes, which were pinning Kade where she stood. With effort, Kade held her ground. Jen was making it difficult for her to appear unfazed, when half of her wanted even less distance between them, and the other half wanted to escape to somewhere emotionally safer.

“That’s not a challenge, is it?” Jen asked. She took Kade’s hand in both of hers, traced her palm with her thumb, and whispered outside of the clerk’s earshot. “To see if I can get you to notice me?”

Kade sucked in a breath, hoping Jen couldn’t feel the shiver that ran through her. Hell, the simple caress practically had Kade arching into her like an affection-starved cat. Having experienced Jen’s engaging personality while they bantered throughout the long drive, Kade had been noticing far more about Jen than her good looks. She had an innate beauty that drew Kade in and an intrinsic decency all the more notable by how rarely Kade came across it during her typical workday. Kade would have to be made of ice not to notice her, but she hadn’t extended the offer out of a desire to get Jen into bed. She wanted her to know how much she’d appreciated her kindness.

She pulled Jen to a standstill several feet away. “I could never be in a room with you and not notice you. So if you can accept that I’m attracted to you, the room is yours. No strings. You have my word I won’t try anything.” Kade once again offered Jen the key card. “And it might not be good for your reputation to be seen sharing a room with me, so I suggest waiting a minute between each of us entering.”

Kade felt Jen scrutinize her at length. Finally, Jen pinched the card, but she didn’t take it from Kade’s hand. “I don’t know who you are, Kade Delaney, but I can tell you that when I choose to spend time with someone, I don’t give a damn what other people think. I’ll either get my bag and valet the car and we’ll walk together to the room, or we’ll say good night here.”

Few people spoke to Kade so authoritatively. Most deferred to her. Apparently, Jen’s friendliness didn’t also translate into her being some shrinking violet, and Kade’s interest shot up several more degrees. Kade nodded once and let go of the card.

When Jen returned from the vehicle, they walked in silence to the room. Kade opened the door and flipped on some lights. “Take whichever room you’d like,” she said. “I’m not going to get too comfortable, or I’ll never make it down for that adult beverage.” Jen went in one direction, Kade headed the other, and they both returned to the foyer at the same time.

The walk to the hotel lounge was also silent. Though it was too dark to see the ocean, the pool below the lounge terrace was illuminated an inviting blue, and the humidity was milder here than at the airport. They opted to sit at the lanai fire pits, which cast a warm glow amid the surrounding soft lighting. Once they ordered their drinks, Kade addressed the tension that had settled between them. “You’ve gone quiet on me.”

“What did you mean about my reputation?”

Kade should have known her comment would disconcert Jen, if not outright concern her. “I thought that might be bothering you.” Where to start? And why? It wasn’t like this was going anywhere. Jen could have been on a connecting flight from God-knew-where. They probably didn’t even live in the same state. “We agreed: no work talk.”

“So that was about your reputation.”

Kade shook her head. “Someone might think you’re angling for special treatment.”

Jen smiled. “Sexual favors?”

Kade frowned at Jen’s making light of it. “I’m trying to keep your best interests in mind.”

“And I appreciate it.” Jen covered Kade’s hand with her own. “I do. But since I’m the head of my company, I don’t see how being seen together could possibly mar me professionally.”

In reality, Jen was right. Kade was speaking theoretically. Kade had never heard Jen’s name in conversation and didn’t know the name of her company. Furthermore, Kade’s sexual orientation wasn’t common knowledge, so unless they pawed each other publicly, an observer wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they were more than friends. While it was still possible Kade’s concern for Jen could come to fruition, it was highly unlikely.

The server set their drinks down and promptly left. Jen held up her glass. “To a nearly full day off.”

Kade clinked glasses with Jen and took a sip. “You’re not going to attend any of the afternoon sessions?”

“Are you?”

Kade shook her head. “No. I’m only here for the post-dinner events tomorrow.”

In a faux Southern accent, Jen asked, “Then, pray tell, whatever shall we do, sugar?” She looked Kade up and down as she said this but spoke so playfully that Kade knew she wasn’t suggesting they spend it naked in each other’s arms. At least, Kade thought so.

“Have you been to Maui before?” Kade asked.

“No. You?”

“Not in years.”

“Is there anything in particular you want to see?”

“Am I allowed to flirt again?”

Jen edged closer. “Encouraged, even.”

“Then yes. You, in a bikini.”

“You don’t have to be on Maui to see that.”

“Where do I have to be?”

“If any of these shops were open, our room.”

Kade wondered if Jen purposely skirted around mentioning where she lived. “Suite. We’re sharing a suite, not a room.” She took a healthy sip of her drink.

“Do you want to be sharing a room?”

Kade nearly spit out the liquid. She dabbed her mouth with a napkin. Knowing she was blushing, she folded the napkin multiple ways to avoid looking at Jen. The universe was once again conspiring against her, but this time it seemed to have a good sense of humor. She was as interested as she was outmatched. She met Jen’s eyes and smiled. “I’m so out of my league with you.”

“Why?” Jen’s expression was open and attentive.

Kade laughed. “You’re intelligent. Gorgeous. Driven. Funny. Warm…” She suddenly snapped her fingers and pointed at Jen. “And married.”

Jen smiled. “Single.”

“Ten kids.”

“Three houseplants.”

Another thought occurred to Kade. She finally had her. She crossed her arms. “Player.”

“Never had a one-night stand.”

“I rest my case.”

“What case are you making?”

“That you’re too much.”

“You’re overthinking.”

“I’ve been told worse.”

“Breakfast tomorrow. We’ll come up with a must-see list complete with timetable and dinner reservations.”

“Don’t you want to mingle at the conference dinner?”

“I’ll have plenty of opportunity when they serve drinks after the keynote. I’d rather have dinner with you.”

Kade rapped her fingers on her glass. She couldn’t come up with a good reason why she shouldn’t join Jen for the day, and it made her uncomfortable. A warm hand covered hers and stopped her tapping.

“Stop trying to make excuses. You’re unexpectedly free. Deal with it. Breakfast. What time?”

“Nine.”

“Nine it is.” Jen finished her drink and stood, holding her hand out to Kade, firelight dancing in her eyes. “Let’s go to bed.”

Kade knew she was being baited, so she simply shook her head and gave a little snort as she accepted Jen’s hand. True to her word, Jen showed no worry or hesitation in holding onto it during the entire walk back to the room.

In the suite’s entryway, Jen tugged her close and held her, thanking her for the accommodations and the drink. It was the kind of tight, lingering hug that Cassie used to give, and it made Kade feel special. Only with Jen, there was more. Kade had never paid attention to the press of Cassie’s breasts against hers or wished her hands would travel. But with Jen, Kade’s body was attuned to a pang of arousal, reveling in the feel of Jen’s body wrapped in hers and imagining where Jen’s fingers could roam. A faint apricot scent from Jen’s hair enticed her to nestle even closer, which she denied herself.

Although she contemplated making a move to see if Jen would be receptive to the idea of sharing a bed, she wouldn’t break her promise to not take advantage of the situation. When they broke apart, Jen stretched behind Kade’s head to remove her hair tie, which brought their faces tantalizingly close. She ran a hand through Kade’s hair and followed it with her eyes, as if contemplating the same idea Kade had. As she reached the end of the long strands, she toyed with them and shifted her gaze back to Kade.

“You’re very difficult to say good night to,” Jen said.

“You’re making it hard for me to keep my word.” Kade steadied herself by holding onto Jen’s hips.

“I didn’t make the same promise you did.” Jen smoothed the back of two fingers down Kade’s cheek.

“No, you didn’t.”

Jen cupped Kade’s chin and kissed her softly on the mouth. “Sweet dreams, Kade.” Then she walked into her bedroom.

Kade felt bereft. Certain only that whatever she dreamed tonight would be far more racy than sweet, she headed for the shower. She always felt like she needed a full-body disinfectant each time she sat in an airplane seat, and now she also needed to channel her arousal. She quickly stripped out of her clothes and stepped into the hot spray. As she lathered herself, she let her hands move slowly and caress her body in a much more sensual way than during a typical shower. The reason was maybe thirty feet away.

In her mind, Jen was touching her, Jen was bringing every nerve ending to attention, Jen’s seductive smile was tearing at her defenses and self-discipline. Good Lord. With one simple kiss, one fleeting sampling of her marvelous mouth, Jen had reduced Kade to a whimpering puddle of need.

Kade pinched her erect nipple and bit her lip, trying to remain quiet even though the water and walls would shield her sounds. The film from the soap bubbles helped her palms and fingers glide easily along her skin. She imagined Jen’s mouth on her breast—sucking, teasing, nipping. She twisted the showerhead to its pulsation setting. She let her fingers venture lower, through the curls at the apex of her thighs, until they met her swollen center. And then she stilled her movements.

No way could she orgasm to thoughts of Jen and expect to calmly spend the next day with her. She shouldn’t have riled herself up like this. The moment called for release or a cold shower, but she couldn’t manage either. She flipped the setting back to its normal spray and rinsed.

As she toweled off, she barely dried between her legs, needing time to come down from the stimulation. In her tank top and shorts, she headed to the kitchenette for a glass of water. And ice. Lots of ice.

Light from the outdoor fixtures came through the glass doors of the lanai, allowing her to see. She twisted an ice-cube tray above a glass and filled it with water. She took a healthy drink and walked to the lanai. Sliding aside the door, Kade stepped out and set down the beverage.

Waves crashed over the sand in a melody that settled her mind and relaxed her body.

For some reason, she wasn’t startled when she heard the stool being dragged directly behind her. Nor was she surprised by the touch of warm hands on her upper arms or the legs enveloping her and pressing against her thighs. Fingers softly caressed her neck, her clavicle, her shoulders. They wove into her damp hair and came out again, slowly sliding over her chin and throat. Kade arched into each touch, reveling in the attention of this woman.

Soft lips followed a similar path, lightly brushing her skin and affecting the rhythm of her breathing, more erratic now. When that warm mouth closed over her earlobe, Kade whimpered. Oh, God. She should have let herself come because she might very well do so if Jen continued her maddening, gentle exploration.

But the hands didn’t stray farther south, and soon they were brushing Kade’s hair off her shoulders. “I wanted to say good night,” Jen said quietly, planting feather-light kisses along Kade’s neck.

“You…did,” Kade managed to say.

“Not the way I wanted to.”

“How…” Jen’s lips along her skin diminished Kade’s capacity for speech. Kade heard her own exhale. “How did you want to?”

Without taking her hands off Kade, Jen slid off the stool and pushed it away with her foot. She turned Kade around to face her. “Like this,” Jen said. As if looking for something, she searched every inch of Kade’s face. Fingers followed her gaze, tracing Kade’s eyebrows, cheeks, nose, and chin. “Beautiful,” she said as lips supplanted fingers, kissing each area with equal devotion. When she arrived at Kade’s mouth, she gazed into Kade’s eyes and smiled, a magnificent, radiant thing that breathed life into the farthest depths of Kade’s soul. Jen stopped a razor’s edge away, giving Kade the final say.

But Kade had no choice. She was completely, helplessly, deliciously owned by Jen, and all she could do was surrender to her desire. Kade touched her lips to Jen’s. It was a whisper of connection, the faint touch of a downy feather. She increased the pressure, nearly fainting with pleasure as Jen parted Kade’s lips with her tongue, seeking entrance. Wet warmth cascaded into Kade’s mouth, making her borderline delirious.

Kade gave herself over to the kiss entirely, reveling in the softness, the taste, the puzzle and its answer—all things Jen. She couldn’t have imagined a more perfect moment, a more perfect kiss, a more perfect woman. She was at once grounded and exalted, confused yet absolutely clear. She wanted this, and for the first time in ages, she indulged in the experience.

Jen eased out of the kiss, and they took a minute to descend from the exquisite heights to which they’d climbed. “Good night,” she murmured as she slowly stepped away, not letting go of Kade’s hand until she could grasp it no more.

Far better than good, Kade thought. Sublime.

Chapter Three

Beyond tired from the time-zone change and the flight, Kade didn’t bother to set the alarm early enough to sneak in a trip to the gym. She dragged a brush through her hair and opted for another ponytail, lest Jen think small animals took up residence there in the night. The bathroom mirror was being particularly unkind this morning, and Kade considered putting on some makeup before going in search of coffee. But chances were good she and Jen would be hitting the pool or beach today, where all hell would break loose in the looks department anyway.

Upon entering the kitchen, Kade spied the coffee machine and brewed a cup. She noticed Jen on the lanai and joined her.

Jen’s hair was also in a ponytail, but of course she was fresh-faced and welcoming, whereas Kade wasn’t usually welcoming of anything before two cups of java. A bowl of fresh fruit, a pitcher of orange juice, a mug of coffee, and The Wall Street Journal surrounded Jen at the outdoor table, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

“Good morning,” Jen said brightly.

“Morning.” Kade plunked herself into a chair. “Let me guess. Morning person?”

“Not especially. Every day I wake up is a good day, considering the alternative.”

This comment got Kade’s attention. She edged forward in her seat and grabbed Jen’s arm. “Jen, you’re not…sick, are you?”

Jen offered an amused smile. “Overindulging in tragic romance novels again, honey?”

“I worry about you. Too much perk. It’s unhealthy.” Kade popped a grape into her mouth and grabbed a section of the paper. “Aside from that, you’re fantasy material right now. Coffee, OJ, fruit, the Journal.” She pointed under the table to Jen’s crossed legs. “Killer legs.” She jutted her chin in Jen’s direction. “Toned arms. Amazing smile. Arresting blue eyes. Maybe I’m the one who was sick and this is heaven.”

Jen set the paper down. “You know, for someone who claims to be uptight about schedules and timetables, you’re pretty relaxed and awesome in the morning.”

Kade grinned. “That’s because I’m not myself today.”

“No? Then who are you? Because I like her.”

Kade chewed another grape and gave the question some thought. “It’s you. Well, you and this unplanned day. Something about the combination is liberating.” Suddenly the buoyant feeling she’d been experiencing in Jen’s company flagged at the notion this was all temporary. “At the stroke of midnight, I’ll be a rat again.” Though the idea saddened her, Kade understood its truth.

“Don’t you have other friends who bring out this side of you?”

No sense denying it. Kade had known as soon as she first caught Jen smiling at her in the rental-car line that she was Cassie all over again. Worse. She and Cassie had loved each other like sisters, whereas Jen, in an alternate universe, could have been so much more.

Kade looked directly at Jen so there was no mistaking it. “I did, and it didn’t really work out for her.” She needed to move Fantasy Woman back onto the reality plane. “I can do this for a day, Jen. I can’t hurt you…no one can get hurt in one day, especially if we have a plan and stick to it. So if you’re still up for it, let’s come up with an itinerary. If not, you’re welcome to use the suite—”

Jen covered Kade’s hand with hers. “I’m up for it.”

* * *

Sightseeing wasn’t in the cards since some of the island’s best experiences, such as the Road to Hana and the Haleakala Crater, were long drives away. They settled on finishing breakfast at the hotel, stopping at a swimwear shop, taking the short drive to D.T. Fleming Beach Park, eating a light lunch at a taco stand, lazing by the pool in the afternoon, and sharing an early dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.

Kade was definitely a stickler about arrival and departure times, and meticulously adhered to the schedule they established. But she was fine creating whole blocks of time for a broad purpose, such as “pool” or “beach.” Much to Jen’s amusement, Kade showed Jen the calendar on her phone, quickly scrolling through the next thirty days, multicolored blocks filling morning, noon, and night. Then she made a face when she hit five weeks out and the schedule was empty except for the odd event. “All that white space. Hate that,” she’d said, making Jen laugh.

When Jen parked in front of the beachwear boutique and saw the outfits in the window display, she said, “We may need more time here.”

Kade frowned and swiped at her phone. “You get twenty minutes. We’re not spending this beautiful day indoors, trying on outfits. Whatever you buy will look fabulous on you.”

“When’s the last time you went swimsuit shopping?”

Kade’s eyes swung skyward as if to give some thought to the question. Seconds passed with no response.

“A while, then,” Jen surmised.

“Years.”

“And did you just grab something and go?”

“I did what any twenty-something American woman would do. Tried on a bikini, immediately moved to one-pieces, littered the fitting room with rejects, settled on something in slimming black, scored a fantastic cover-up, and successfully declined all subsequent pool-party invitations.”

Jen laughed. “Okay. Points for honesty. Here’s my thinking. First, we agree that sunscreen is our friend and pasty-white means healthy. Second, no snickering at the other’s farmer tan. Third, we rip this off like a Band-Aid. I’ll choose four swimsuits for you, and vice versa. We decide from those.”

“Bikinis or one-pieces?”

Jen considered this issue, knowing she’d prefer Kade in a bikini but allowing for comfort. “Two each.”

Kade offered her hand, which Jen shook. “Deal.”

But all that planning flew out the window as soon as Jen saw Kade hesitantly step out from behind the fitting curtain, wearing the jade bikini Jen had selected for her. Jen’s pulse beat faster, and she couldn’t focus on whatever she’d pulled from a rack. Without taking her eyes from Kade, she managed to hang the item back in place before striding over to her, corralling her into the tiny fitting area, and feeling haphazardly behind her to pull the curtain closed around them. There was barely standing room for two people, but all Jen noticed was her desperation to touch Kade.

Kade’s startled, confused face was mere inches away, but Jen dropped her gaze. The green material barely covered Kade’s cleavage, and her chest rose and fell with each increasingly ragged breath. They both watched Jen reach up to caress Kade’s breast, her thumb gliding across the bra to Kade’s nipple, which strained against the material. Kade’s head snapped up as her mouth parted in a gasp that Jen swallowed in a searing kiss. It wasn’t gentle or sweet or teasing. Kade’s lips parted as Jen sought entrance with her tongue, yielding to Jen’s overpowering need to own her in that moment.

Jen broke the kiss, fighting for breath, stumbling for control. Her behavior shocked her. To the questions evident in Kade’s surprised hazel eyes, all Jen could say was, “This one.” Jen blindly felt behind her, flicked open the curtain, stepped out of the fitting room, and snapped it closed. She darted out the door and took a number of calming breaths, trying to come down from her arousal, trying to regain herself. Her actions were completely antithetical to her usually grounded self, and she didn’t know what to make of them.

Jen sat on the curb in front of an empty parking space, hands in her lap. She didn’t want to apologize, but she’d do whatever it took to ensure Kade didn’t change her mind about spending the day together. If it meant having her hands tied behind her back to prevent further misbehavior, she’d do it. (Though as soon as she thought about who might do the tying, she realized it was not the best choice of images.) Minutes later, she heard footsteps and, in her peripheral vision, noticed Kade sit next to her, plastic shopping bag in tow. Jen steeled herself with a deep breath before daring to look over at Kade, whose eyes focused on the parking lot, hidden behind sunglasses.

“Well, bathing-suit shopping will never be the same,” Kade said before sliding her eyes to Jen. “How was your day?”

Jen chewed on Kade’s comments before bursting with laughter.

Kade pointed to the convenience store next door. “If it’s all the same to you, I’m going to grab some sunscreen. I trust you’ll find something.”

Once they concluded their shopping, Kade navigated them to the beach park, known more for boogie-boarding and body-surfing, but which was close and clean, offering lifeguards and shade. They changed in the public restrooms before heading onto the sand to scope out a spot, where they laid out their mats and towels.

Jen found the view nearly as breathtaking as the woman next to her.

As they applied sunscreen, Kade said, “You know, in the movies, whenever the star-crossed lovers reach the beach scene, they’re never glistening with sweat. I’m drenched, and we just got here.” She scooched to the edge of her mat and presented her back to Jen, along with the bottle of lotion. “And with that lead-in, I’m sure you can’t wait to do me.”

Jen poured some into her hand before bending to Kade’s ear. “Slip of the tongue?”

“I thought that was earlier,” Kade said, her voice lower than usual as she gathered her hair in her hands and held it off her shoulder.

The sexy tone catapulted Jen’s attraction ever higher. Jen warmed the lotion between her hands and laid her right palm on Kade’s back, a touch below the bra line. She moved down to the bikini bottoms, then up to where she’d started. She slid her thumb under the bikini top.

“The uncovered parts, darling,” Kade said good-naturedly, though Jen noticed a small hitch in her breath.

Jen moved her hand along Kade’s side, then slowly forward, until she spread her palm across Kade’s stomach. She shifted to her knees while she inched her thumb below the center of Kade’s top. Mouth at Kade’s ear, she softly asked, “Did you get this…area?”

“I…did, thank you,” Kade said breathily.

“Good, because I want to make sure I do you right. Darling.” The endearment was so foreign, her words and actions so atypical, she froze. What was she thinking? She was on a public beach, for God’s sake, not making some soft-porno film. The woman beneath her touch was someone to be respected, someone she did respect. Why did she lose her ability to reason whenever Kade was near? Twice today, she’d reacted to Kade’s proximity like a cat in heat, and she wasn’t proud of herself.

She removed her hand and scooted back several inches. She rubbed sunscreen across Kade’s back and shoulders, covering the area with wide, clumsy swaths, eager to finish the job. Tossing the bottle onto Kade’s mat before dropping onto her back, she slid her sunglasses into her hair and hid her face in the crook of her arm.

The sand next to her gave way a little as Kade sidled up to her, giving Jen a tiny shove to move over to share the mat. “Hey,” Kade said.

Jen lifted her arm, offered Kade an apologetic look, and mumbled, “Hey,” before ducking back into hiding. Kade pushed against her again, silently asking for Jen’s attention. Jen rose onto her elbows and donned her sunglasses. “I’m not like this, you know. This…lust-filled letch who can’t keep her hands to herself. I’m so sorry.” Jen dropped onto her back and gazed at Kade. She traced her fingers over Kade’s cheek. “You’re just so beautiful. I’m defenseless against you.”

Kade brushed her lips across Jen’s fingers. “Then I’m in good company.”

“Don’t be nice to me.”

Kade shifted onto her back and rested her head on Jen’s stomach. She took Jen’s closest hand and entwined it with hers. “Few people accuse me of being nice.”

Jen played with strands of Kade’s hair with her other hand. “Why is that? You’re lovely.”

“Male-dominated industry. Over-compensation. Inflexibility. Set in my ways. You name it.”

Jen chuckled. “You sound like a seventy-year-old, not a…how old are you?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Not a thirty-two-year-old.”

“You?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Whippersnapper.”

Minutes passed in relative quiet. Small waves lapped at the shore, children shouted in the distance, beachgoers lazed in the sun. Jen was content. She felt like she was away at camp, with spending money and no chaperones. Her grandmother was in good hands, Jeremy had everything under control at work, and she’d stumbled upon a woman who was quickly becoming important to her.

Continuing to gently play with Kade’s hair, Jen said softly, “Kade?”

“Hmm.”

“I’m glad you took the day off.”

“Mmm. Me too.”

The hum of a helicopter grew steadily closer, invading the peacefulness with its noise, then faded into the distance.

“Kade?”

“Hmm.”

“You’re going to drown in the sweat that’s pooling on my stomach from your hot head if you don’t get off me.”

Kade’s laughter rippled against her. “Hot-headed. A much more apt accusation.”

* * *

Over dinner, they broached the subject of family. Jen’s parents were on the East Coast taking care of Jen’s maternal grandparents, leaving Jen as the primary caretaker of her paternal grandmother. Jen didn’t mind, since she was close to her grandma Edna, but with Edna’s worsening dementia and Jen in a demanding job, she often found herself pulled in competing directions. Those very issues had inspired her to build her company. “No work talk, I know, but finding qualified, affordable caretakers is difficult. And on short notice? Practically impossible. My company’s going to change that.” She sliced another piece of their shared apple turnover, making sure to add ice cream and a berry to the forkful before holding it out to Kade.

“Many of the best technologies we have today were created by an entrepreneur who personally experienced an unsatisfactory product or service and decided to make a better one.” Kade took a bite and moaned. Dessert had never sounded so lovely to Jen’s ears, nor had she ever wanted so few bites herself. Delighting in Kade’s pleasure was proving to be her favorite way yet to end a meal—no small feat for an admitted sweet tooth.

“Is that what you’ve done?” Jen asked, proud of herself for being able to keep track of the conversation, since she was mostly focused on Kade’s delectable mouth.

“Ah-ah-ah. No work talk. You’ll have plenty of it at the networking event tonight.”

“What about you? Are you close with your parents? Any siblings?”

“I’m somewhat close to my mom,” Kade said as she offered Jen a bite. “My father and I are cordial at best. I inherited all his worst qualities.”

“Do tell.”

“Hyper-disciplined, obsessive about cleanliness. Blows a gasket if you’re five seconds late. What else? Sexist. Warm as an arctic winter.”

“Well, you obviously didn’t inherit all those qualities.”

“I’m not sexist,” Kade said as she gently pulled a berry into her mouth from her fork tines. Jen sensed Kade was completely unaware of how provocative she was, which ratcheted up her sexiness tenfold.

“Oh, come on. From what I’ve seen, none of that describes you.”

Kade shrugged. “I got lucky for a while. I had other role models. When I was eleven, we settled into a new neighborhood where I met my best friend, Cassie. I practically lived at her house, and her parents treated me like one of their own. That’s who I think of as my family.”

“I’m glad you had them.”

Kade gazed at Jen as if she were the answer to something, and then her expression closed. She glanced at her watch and signed the bill to her room. “You need to get to your panel.”

Jen took Kade’s hand and interlaced their fingers. “Where did you go just now?”

Kade caressed Jen with her thumb. “You remind me of her. Of Cassie.” Jen could see Kade’s eyes soften in the dim light. “Same smile. Same warmth.” Kade got out of her chair and squatted next to Jen’s, taking Jen’s hand in both of hers. The adoration and affection she looked up at Jen with stole Jen’s breath. “Jen Spencer, you’ve been an absolute gift to me these last nineteen, twenty hours.” She rose and kissed Jen’s forehead. “Thank you,” she whispered. She caressed Jen’s cheek before softly kissing her mouth. “Thank you.” Then she walked away.

* * *

The panel was a blur. Jen was thankful she’d rehearsed her brief spiel about who she was and what her company was building, because the other parts of her brain had shut down. The moderator skillfully elicited audience participation, Jen didn’t make a fool of herself in front of Miranda McArthur, and she had no idea about the rest. She was completely swept up in Kade Delaney.

Wanting the keynote speech to end before it even started, Jen was currently favoring a plan that had her bailing on the meet-and-greet afterward so she could find Kade and figure out what was between them.

Then the auditorium lights went dark, and the stage lit up. The CEO of the conference sponsor was onstage, introducing the main speaker, who was apparently the author of some best-selling leadership book as well as partner of a venture capital, or VC, firm. He provided a laundry list of the speaker’s accomplishments, and Jen wanted him to get on with it. When he said, “Please welcome Kadrienne Davenport,” the spotlight illuminated Kade, who waved to the audience as she walked back and forth during the applause.


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