Make Me Sweat

Always, Book 2

Cherie M Hudson

Chapter 1

Borderline Insane

If you’re looking for a tragic, traumatic backstory, I’m going to disappoint you, I’m afraid. I’m not that guy. I laugh easy, joke often, and pretty much see the joy in almost everything around me. I know, unbearable, right? Sorry.

I’ve been this way forever. Honest, I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t the “glass is half full” person in the room. When I was a kid most of my friends thought I was weird. Or fake. A lot of them tried their best to drag out the emo in me. To mess with me enough to see me snap or crumble. I found out when I was seventeen that my best mate had bet a hundred bucks he’d be able to make me lose my temper enough that I would get suspended from school for a week before we graduated.

He lost.

Can you see what I’m saying? I’m a nice guy. I’m not a prick. I’m not a jerk. I enjoy hanging out with the guys, have a few “friends with benefits” on a semi-regular rotation, take a lot of pride in being healthy and enjoy my job as the Sydney University’s gym manager and personal trainer. I’ve got a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (Exercise and Sport Science)—those parentheses are important, as is the word Honors that goes with it—and six months left before I finish my Master’s in Exercise Physiology. I recently bought a betta fish that I call No Direction. I’ve got plans to open my own personal trainer business one day soon—Push It P/T—and spent a total of nine hours last week with a very helpful bank manager discussing loans, long-term business structures, future staff and, eventually, how I could help her lose the excess weight she’d been carrying since the birth of her twins eight months previously.

I can say with all truthfulness that I’ve only fallen in love twice. The last time I ended up on television and almost in jail after an American student, Maci Rowling became the target of the paparazzi due to the fact she was also involved with one of our local celebrities. (Just to fill you in, she didn’t choose me. She went with Raphael Jones. I still give her shit about that.)

The first time I fell in love…

Man, I don’t really want to talk about the first time. Of course, what we want and what we get isn’t always the same thing, right? Hell, I wanted the world to shake when I kissed Maci that time in my living room. I wanted her to say “Raph who?” when questioned by the media. That didn’t happen.

What did happen was I accepted we weren’t meant to be, put my “just friends” hat firmly in place and let it go. Got on with living.

That’s what it’s all about. Living. Enjoying every minute of every day we have. Not wasting it with second-guessing, regret, hoping in vain, wishful thinking or moping. Yeah, those things aren’t really in my vocabulary.

As I’ve said before, this attitude seems to irritate a lot of people, which I always find puzzling. Why would a happy person with no baggage piss someone off? Is it because I make them feel… less in some way? Less successful? Less complete? I don’t mean it to. Honest.

Life is about being in the moment. The present. And the present is pretty damn perfect. Except…

Okay, I can’t skirt around it any more. My brain keeps coming back to something I’d rather it didn’t. Actually, not something, but someone.

That “first” I mentioned earlier. The one that “got away”.

Yeah, that’s a lot of quotation marks there, isn’t it?

I just… I don’t…

Damn it, let’s start this again.

G’day. I’m Brendon Osmond. I’m a twenty-five-year-old post-graduate student at Sydney University. Most of my friends call me The Biceps, I suspect because I give Chris Hemsworth in Thor-mode a run for his money. I have big plans, big goals and a ridiculously positive outlook on life. Nothing fazes me. Nothing unsettles me.

Until the morning I woke to a text message from someone I didn’t expect to hear from again.

Someone. Okay, not just someone… that one. She of the quotation marks.

It was a simple text but one that shook me a little.

Thinking of you.

That’s it. Who sends a text like that after over two and a half years of no contact whatsoever? I mean, I followed this girl to the States, I opened my damn chest, took out my heart and gave it to her, and she gave it back. Told me we had no hope. And now she sends me this text? Without any follow-up? No text to let me know she’d sent that message to the wrong person. No apologies for the utterly random contact. No LOL Psyche! complete with a winking smiley face emoticon just to highlight the joke of it all.

Who does that?

Apparently Amanda Sinclair.

Amanda Sinclair, the American girl who made it clear we didn’t have a “relationship” because she “wasn’t for me”. Because she couldn’t “be what I wanted”. See? More of those damn quotation marks. I don’t think I’ve ever had the need to use quotation marks until Amanda Sinclair entered my life. Amanda Sinclair, the American college student I met almost three years ago during an amateur snowboarding competition down in Thredbo (that’s the main ski slopes in Australia, if you don’t know) and who I then proceeded to spend the rest of the comp in bed with.

We both lost our respective rounds, but we didn’t mind. Not at all. Holy fuck, did we… well, fuck. It was the most mind-blowing sex, the most intense, perfect, sublime sex I’ve ever had.

After the snowboarding competition finished, she followed me back to Sydney and crashed in my one-room apartment. We spent most of the days in bed. Most of the nights as well. We laughed a lot. She had the same approach to life I did: live it, don’t dwell on it, regret is just wasted energy, exist for the now. We occasionally went out, caught a movie or two. I once smuggled her into my Biomechanical Analysis of Movement lecture. We sat up the back of the lecture hall, where my professor—who wore glasses with the thickest lenses ever—couldn’t see us, and made out. And by make out, I mean Amanda went down on me while I was trying to take notes.

Six weeks after we first met, she realized she’d overstayed her visitor’s visa by a week. By that stage I was in love with her. That simple. I have no problems admitting that. If I’m going to spill it all, the whole sordid, woeful story, I may as well go the whole hog and leave nothing out. I was in love with her. And she was in love with me.

Of course, being in love doesn’t suddenly change geography. She was from the US and I was Australian. We both had studies to complete, families to think about. So she went back to the States the next day, back to San Diego where she was studying to be a high school English teacher at San Diego State University, and I stayed in Sydney. For three days.

Three days.

Long enough for me to finish my mid-semester thesis (Carb Depletion and its Impact on Muscle Regeneration), submit it to my professor, bring the assistant manager up to speed at the university gym, and buy a one-way plane ticket to San Diego.

One week later, I flew back to Australia. Alone.

The crib notes version of that week goes like this:

• I arrive in San Diego.

• Amanda collects me at the airport.

• We spend five incredible days rarely leaving her dorm room.

• I meet her family in the flesh three times.

• I eat with them twice.

• I tell her I love her on the fifth night.

• Amanda tells me on the sixth day she’s bored with us, that there is no us.

• I fly back to Sydney on the seventh day.

• Not a word from her since.

That’s twenty-seven months and three days of silence (yes, I’ve kept track, which is pathetic I know) and now this text.

Suffice to say, the guy that’s never rattled was feeling… shaken. But not rattled. I refuse to be rattled.

I won’t lie though. When I finally replied to her text I had to type Hi eight times before I got it right.

An hour later, I sent her another one. I tried not to, but I did.

Thinking of you as well.

For the next sixty minutes I checked my phone every minute. Not a single response.

I calculated the time difference between San Diego and Sydney. Seventeen hours. It was almost seven am on Wednesday over there. I downloaded a World Clock app just in case my math skills were as dubious as my math teacher suggested they were back when I was only fifteen.

As it turns out, my math skills were holding steady.

If Amanda was in San Diego—and as I pointed out, it had been over two years since we last spoke, so really I was only guessing that’s where she was—she should at least be awake. Maybe eating breakfast somewhere.

Sixty minutes of obsessive-compulsive phone stalking later, I sent off my third text.

What’s up?

I’d like to say she replied a short time after that. Instead, twenty-four hours passed. Have you ever spent a day, a whole day, waiting on a text? The text tone on my phone is the main chorus from “Eye of the Tiger”. I know it’s corny but that song from the seventies pumps me up when I’m working out.

I grew to loathe that song in that twenty-four-hour period.

Every time I heard Survivor sing that damn chorus my heart went into overdrive, my pulse smashed into my throat and my gut clenched. Every time I looked at my phone and saw the sender wasn’t Amanda Sinclair, I wanted to scream.

Go ahead, you can say it. I was rattled.

But that was nothing—the pounding heart, the choking pulse, the churning gut—nothing, compared to my body’s response when Amanda’s reply came through at two am, Friday morning.

I need you.

She didn’t answer when I called. That may have been a good thing. To be honest, I’m not sure what I was going to say to her. What she did do was call me an hour later—when I was in the shower, of course, trying to get myself sorted out under a punishing stream of cold water.

I came out to find the 1 New Voicemail message notification on my screen. Throat tight, I played the message.

“Hi Brendon,” Amanda’s voice messed with my sanity, her subtle American accent as sexy as ever. “I know… I mean…” A shaky sigh came through the phone. I don’t remember Amanda ever making such a noise before. “This is going to make no sense, and I know I’m asking a lot, but can you come to San Diego ASAP? Please? I’ll… I’ll explain everything when you get here.”

The message ended. I played it again. And again. And again. I rang her three times. She didn’t answer. Rather than try a fourth time, I opened my laptop and bought a one-way ticket on the first flight I found—Premium Economy. Sydney to LAX. Qantas. 6:40am. My credit card balance was not going to like me, and my bank manager was going to have some kind of conniption, but I didn’t care. I’d heard Amanda’s voice. I was essentially screwed, but in a good way. Life had presented me something, and I was taking that something. Live in the present, remember? The second I bought the ticket, all sense of being rattled and flustered vanished.

Despite the fact it was only 3:45 am on a Friday, I rang Heather Renner.

Now Heather had swooped into my life like a ADHD tornado a few years ago, starting our relationship as just a student who worked out in the uni gym before becoming an acquaintance I enjoyed talking with. We hung out occasionally before the whole Maci/Raph/Brendon situation (or as media called it The American Love Triangle), and it was during that time she morphed into one of my closest mates. Heather was Maci’s best friend while Maci was in Australia, and she somehow insinuated herself into my daily life after Maci went back to the States. I’m not complaining. Heather—who has only two speeds: on and hyper-on—is funny, infectious and almost impossible to say no to. Once upon a time she had a thing for me. Now she has a thing for her ethics professor, a fact I give her a hard time about constantly. Heather is like the sister I never had, and as such, I had no problem calling her at quarter to four in the morning.

She answered on the second ring. There wasn’t a hint of sleep-slurred confusion in her voice.

“I’ve told you before, Biceps,” she chirped, her normal exuberance somehow dialed up to fifty, “I will not go for a jog around Bondi with you.”

Heather has tried to convince me more than once she wasn’t responsible for the nickname “The Biceps” on campus. One of these days I may believe her.

Gaze fixed on my laptop screen and its ticket-purchase confirmation, I grinned. “Not even if I buy you breakfast at Triptych after?” I asked, completing the telephone conversation routine that had developed between us over the last few months.

She laughed. “Not even then. Now tell me what’s wrong. There’s no way you’d ring at this time unless there was a problem. Is it Maci? Is she okay? I was only talking to her yesterday and she sounded great. What’s happened? Is it Raph? It’s not Raph, is it? He was flying back from seeing his mum and dad when I was talking to her. Mid-flight in fact. It’s not his plane, is it? Tell me his plane hasn’t crashed and there’s no sign of the bodies. Jesus, how long will it take us to get to—”

“Heather,” I cut her off with a chuckle. See what I mean about only two speeds? “Maci and Raph are fine. At least, I assume they are. I haven’t spoken to either of them for a few weeks.”

A relieved sigh burst through the phone connection. Followed by an angry grunt. “Then why the hell did you let me think they weren’t? That’s not nice, Osmond. Not nice at—”

“Heather,” I repeated her name, firmer this time. If I’d been in her company I’d have grabbed her by the shoulders to hold her still. At times she was like a wriggling puppy. A wriggling puppy with an IQ of 128. “I need you to feed No Direction for a while.”

Silence came from the other end. I couldn’t help but lick my index finger and make an invisible stroke in the air. Chalk one up for The Biceps.

“I’m heading to the States,” I continued, “and I need you to feed my fish while I’m gone.”

Silence. Still.

I frowned. “Heather?”

“You’re not going over to try to break up Maci and Raph, are you?”

I burst out laughing.

“I take it that’s a no?” Wary confusion filled Heather’s voice.

“That’s a big no,” I answered, pushing myself up from my desk to make my way to my bedroom. I had a suitcase in the cupboard somewhere, I think. “A friend over there needs my help.”

At the word friend my chest constricted and my balls tightened. It was an odd sensation. Part nerves, part anticipation. All unfamiliar to me.

“A friend?” Curiosity had replaced Heather’s confusion. I could almost see her squirming about on the neon-pink shag-fabric swivel chair that held pride of place in her dorm room. “More details, please. If I’m going to be looking after your cherished pet, I need more than just a friend. Is this the friend you followed to the US a few years ago?”

“I’ll leave the spare key to my apartment in my letterbox,” I plowed on as I shoved aside a pile of sweatpants from the bottom of my closet, searching for my suitcase. Nope. Not there. “Just three pieces of food once a day. Don’t believe him if he makes out he’s still hungry after that.”

“Are you really going to the States, Brendon?”

I stopped my hunt for the elusive suitcase. In my chest, my heart was thumping faster than normal. Heather rarely called me Brendon. It meant she was serious. Heather rarely did serious. I owed her an explanation.

“Yes, I’m really going,” I said, closing my eyes for a moment. An image of Amanda filled my head straight away. Amanda smiling at me, a promise in her eyes I’d stopped believing in a long time ago. “And yes, it is the friend I followed to the States a few years ago. Amanda Sinclair.”

“Amanda,” Heather repeated, something akin to aggression in her voice. I don’t know why. Sometimes I have no clue the whys of the female mind. “That’s it. So, she wants to have another go at you, does she?”

The censure in her voice threw me. And the venom.

“I take it you don’t approve?”

A soft noise sounded through the connection. “I don’t. You may not remember what you were like when you came back from chasing after her the last time, but I do. And since then, you’ve become my friend. And I don’t like it when my friends are hurt.”

I swallowed. My throat felt thick. Like someone had stuffed it full of sand.

“I’m not going to get hurt, Heather. I’ve moved on from Amanda. Tried to get Maci in the sack, remember?”

Heather grunted. “Fine. I’ll feed your fish. But if you come back all gray and limp and broken and mopey like you did the last time, I’m going to beat the crap out of you and take No Direction away. Do you understand?”

“Deal,” I answered.

There was no way I was coming back from the US in that state. I had moved on. The only reason I was rushing to see Amanda was because we’d once shared something amazing and she clearly needed my help now. I was happy to give her that help. It didn’t mean I was expecting her to give me my heart back while I was there. I wasn’t even after her heart. She was the past. She wasn’t a part of my plan for the future.

Sure, I hear you say, that’s why you just maxed out your credit card with a plane fare your bank manager wouldn’t approve of.

“Okay.” Heather didn’t sound convinced. “When’s your flight? Do you need a lift to the airport?”

I glanced at the radio alarm clock on my bedside table. “Flight’s in three hours.”

Peals of laughter followed the statement. “Oh man,” Heather cackled. “Yeah, sure, you’ve moved on.”

“For that, you can drive me to the airport,” I said, returning to the search for my suitcase. “I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes later, after sending Amanda a text informing her of my flight details and staring at my phone for a reply that never came, I climbed into Heather’s beat-up, dubiously reliable hatchback. My passport pressed to my butt as I settled into the front passenger seat. In the boot was my gym bag, crammed full of whatever clean clothes I had at hand. My suitcase, it seemed, was AWOL.

Heather took one look at me and rolled her eyes. “You are so going to get your heart handed to you again, you know that, right?”

“Shut up, Heather.” I buckled in, wriggling into the seat—I wasn’t built for such a small car—and pointed at the dawn-tainted road ahead of us. “Drive.”

She drilled me the whole way. It wasn’t until I said, “I don’t know” for the umpteenth time that I realized just how out of character I was behaving, how many of my own questions were unanswered. Questions I hadn’t been able to ask because I hadn’t been able to talk to Amanda.

Holy crap, I was flying to American without actually talking to the person I was heading over to see. What the—

“We’re here.”

I blinked myself back into the interior of Heather’s car. Or rather, the exterior. Huh. Between all the I don’t knows to Heather’s interrogation, we’d arrived at Sydney International.

My heart slammed into my throat, a place it never ventured. The only real time my heart made itself known to me was when I was doing fifty-calorie-burn sprints on the assault bike. Going to see Amanda was nowhere near as grueling as that.

Drawing in a slow breath, I waited for Heather to pull to a halt outside the Departure terminal. “Thanks.” Before I could open the door, she grabbed my wrist. Hard. Man, I really needed to reassess her upper-body workouts.

“Listen, Osmond,” she said, fixing me with a steady stare. Heather and steady weren’t usually a thing. It was both jarring and oddly sweet. “I know you’re this big strong guy who prides himself on rolling with life and not letting anything bring you down, and to be honest, you’re pretty much the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a person living in perfect peace with himself, which is incredible.”

I grinned at her compliment.

She didn’t grin back. In fact, her grip on my wrist tightened. “But I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d beat the crap out of you if you come back broken. I will. If you let Amanda screw you up like she did the last time, I’ll kick your arse. Then I’ll fly to the States and kick her arse, and you don’t want to be responsible for America declaring war on Australia, do you? I mean, you’re already on Delvania’s watchlist after beating the hell out of their princess’s bodyguard, you don’t want to be added to the American list for inciting a hyperactive Aussie going thermo on one of their citizens, do you?”

A warm fuzziness bloomed in my chest. The realization you have friends who care about your emotional state and kind of take it personally can blow you away. That kind of friendship is a powerful thing, and for the first time since knowing her I recognized how significant Heather was to me, and me to her. We’d been through some slightly weird stuff together—the whole Maci/Raph/Delvania Royal bodyguard/paparazzi riot just to name one—and come out the other side closer. That she was ready to start an international situation over the state of my heart proved it. I leaned across the center console and kissed her on the cheek.

Two things happened. One, she let out a gasp I could only called surprised. And two, she followed that gasp with a melodramatic Ewww, gross, and shoved me away.

I laughed. She did the same, rolling her eyes. “Time for you to get out of my car, Biceps,” she ordered with mock command. “Let me know how it’s going while you’re over there, okay?”

“Will do.”

It wasn’t until her car turned out of the drop-off bay and disappeared from sight that I realized I had a lump in my throat. When the hell had I become so schmaltzy?

Hitching my gym bag up on my shoulder and patting my butt to make sure my passport was still there, I pivoted on my heel and fixed the automatic doors of the Departure terminal with a steady stare.

You may have gathered by now I don’t live life the way it’s expected of me. When I decided to apply for a Bachelor of Applied Science my school careers advisor advised me I was making a mistake. She told me I should concentrate on a job less cerebral in nature. Laborer was her suggestion. When I was offered a position playing professional football for the Balmain Tigers at the age of eighteen—complete with a six-figure deal sweeter than any junior football player had ever seen—I turned it down. When I was being threatened by a dick bodyguard bigger than me with a Glock permanently under his arm, I punched him in the face and broke his jaw.

Life is to be lived to the fullest, and I lived it that way. But even I had to admit, standing there on the footpath outside the Sydney International Departure Terminal, that dropping everything to fly to the States to see a girl who’d rejected me almost three years ago, without even speaking to her was… well, borderline insane.

So why was I doing it? Because I was still hung up on Amanda? Because she still made me horny? Because I wanted to prove to her—and myself—that she didn’t have the power to render me defenseless against her any more, and the moment I saw her in the States I’d know a hundred percent it was over?

No. I was doing it because a person once very important to me had asked me to. There was no other reason than that. And life was to be lived. And experienced. And if I didn’t do this, I wasn’t experiencing it, was I?

How’s that for a reason? And a life philosophy?

I refused to think about it any longer. Actually, refused is the wrong term. I chose not to think about it any more. This was one of those situations that didn’t require thinking.

I strode into the terminal, checked in, watched my overstuffed gym bag disappear on the luggage conveyor belt, and then made my way to the appropriate gate.

Halfway there, I stopped at an Australian souvenir shop that charged ridiculous prices for stuff I could have bought at a discount shop for less than five bucks. For reasons I didn’t question, or think about—remember, I’d put my brain into neutral—I bought a soft toy koala infused with eucalyptus oil, a soft toy kookaburra that laughed when you squeezed it, and a jar of Vegemite. I don’t know why. Amanda’s younger sister didn’t really like me, and a soft toy wasn’t going to change that. I bought them anyway.

It was then I realized I hadn’t brought along an on-flight bag. I had a thirteen-hour flight ahead of me, and I hadn’t brought anything with me apart from my wallet, iPhone and passport. Not even a book. Or a toothbrush and deodorant.

I wasn’t new to traveling (Hello? Previous trip to the US), so the fact I was an hour away from climbing onto a plane bound for the other side of the world, without any of the things that would make that trip bearable, hit me hard.

It took me forty minutes—and further credit card abuse—to procure everything I needed: small backpack, travel toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, new charger for my phone (superfluous and expensive given I already have three at home), new noise-canceling earphones (went the cheap route with those, but still, ouch), and travel pillow (Master’s of Exercise Physiology, remember? I know the importance of muscular comfort and posture and there was no way those airline—supplied pillows do anything but give you a stiff neck). I even splashed out and bought a pair of loose, long-legged PJ pants to change into come sleep time. Comfort is your friend on long-haul flights.

I also exchanged every Australian note I had in my wallet for US dollars which gave me a grand total of a hundred and thirteen dollars US.

After logging into my iTunes account on my phone and downloading my music library, along with a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger in case the inflight movies sucked, I stuffed everything into my new backpack, the soft-toy kookaburra laughing constantly as I did. A part of me wondered if it was trying to tell me something. The rest of me ignored it. What the hell does a soft-toy kookaburra know?

As it turned out, I probably should have listened to it. Sometimes living life in the present takes you by the short-and-curlies and you’re left wondering what the hell happened.

Chapter 2

Buff R We

I didn’t sleep for the entire flight. I watched every Dwayne Johnson movie on offer (Yes, even Tooth Fairy). I walked the aisles every thirty minutes. I did deep lunges up and down said aisles every hour.

I drank more coffee than I ever have in a thirteen-hour period. I put sugar in my coffee three times, not even realizing I’d done it until I took the first sip.

The passenger beside me, a rather large man with a dubious understanding of personal hygiene, had a habit of facing me whenever he yawned, so I kept getting drops of the saliva squirting from his mouth on my arm.

I thought of Amanda only once during those long hours. I remembered the last time we were together. Really together. Our bodies joined, our sweat mingling, our breaths doing the same as we moved to a rhythm so perfectly in sync it was a thing of beauty.

I’ll admit to finding myself in the memory halfway through Tooth Fairy. On reflection, that was a bad movie choice. It didn’t help that my new pal on my right decided to pick that exact moment to need to go to the loo. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hide an erection when you’re standing in a plane aisle while wearing loose flannel drawstring pants?

All in all, it was an interesting flight.

Twelve hours and forty-two minutes after takeoff, the captain announced we were going to be landing soon. I hurried to the loo, my jeans, toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant in hand. Thirty seconds later—PJs off, jeans not yet on, foamy toothbrush in mouth—the seatbelt warning sign chimed. A second after that, the captain announced we were heading into turbulence and everyone needed to return to their seat and buckle up, ASAP.

“We’re in for a bumpy landing, everyone,” he informed us all. “Sorry about that.”

I made my way back to my seat, bouncing side to side as the plane did its best to mimic some kind of insane ride at a theme park. From the overhead compartment, the raucous laughter of the kookaburra in my backpack provided a jarring soundtrack to the violent movement.

Thirty-five minutes later, with a screeching of tires and a teeth-clattering thud, we touched down. I refused to see the landing as an omen of what was waiting for me outside the plane. I was, however, going to pull that damn kookaburra from my backpack and rip the bloody thing to shreds.

It took me a few moments to realize I was not… at my best. Wired, sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated. Not my usual state.

Choosing not to take it out on the soft-toy bird, I disembarked. My B.O. resplendent traveling companion followed closely behind me. It seemed he didn’t just have a poor understanding of personal hygiene, he wasn’t a big fan of personal space either. After we crossed through the doors leading to Customs he moved from directly behind me to directly beside me.

“Hey,” he said, puffing as he matched my stride. “You’re that guy who was in the news last year, right? The guy who beat up some other guy over some American student at Sydney University?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized since that incident happened. Fame, even fame as surreal and superficial as mine, has a weird impact on people. In the immediate days that followed the infamous “Mackellar House Brawl” as the media christened it, I’d been contacted by more than one news program, followed by more than one Biceps Groupie (who had a Facebook page documenting where I was, what I was eating, what I was wearing) and been confronted more than once by guys who wanted to prove they could take out the guy who took out a royal bodyguard.

The world is full of strange people and I don’t normally worry about that. But I was tired, desperately wanted a shower and the kookaburra was still uttering the odd chuckle from my backpack. I didn’t snap at the guy, but by the way he scurried away from me when I shot him a look, I must have had bloody murder in my eyes. Of course, the second he did, I was flooded by another emotion I’ve never found myself experiencing.

Doubt.

Oh man, why was I doing this again? Why was I here? Sucking in a slow breath, I dragged my hands through my hair, counted to ten, and exhaled just as slowly. I was okay. I was good. I was gravy. I was chillaxed.

That mantra stayed with me all the way through Customs. Even when the kookaburra started laughing halfway through the process, causing the officer behind the counter to study me with a look that said “please explain”, I was okay, good, gravy and chillaxed. Nothing rattled me. Not my gym bag being half-unzipped on the luggage conveyor belt and my Calvin Klein undies deposited a few feet behind, all grimy and scruffy, not the kookaburra who now seemed determined to laugh every ten minutes with insane delight.

Okay. Good. Gravy. Chillaxed.

Right up until the second I exited Customs and entered the arrivals hall of LAX and found Amanda Sinclair standing in the crowd, watching me.

Did my heart slam up into my throat and try to smash its way out of my body?

You fucking better believe it did.

She looked… incredible. I stopped walking and just stared at her. My throat seized up. My chest grew tight. My gut seemed to roll in on itself and twist over the other way. I forgot how to breathe, how to blink. My whole body seemed to be suddenly hot and prickly, like I’d put in a massive cardio session in the space of a heartbeat. I can’t really explain the surge of sensations that crashed through me at seeing her any other way than that. I guess there’s a reason I’m a gym-junkie muscle head and not an English Lit major.

I stared at her and she stared back. She tucked a strand of that coppery-russet hair of hers—hair that felt like cool silk streaming through my fingers—behind her right ear, an ear that still had the tiny gold cuff I bought for her one morning at Bondi Beach after a particularly awesome surf.

I ate up her face with my eyes. I apologize for how cheesy and corny that sounds, but I did. I stood there among the tired travelers and sign-carrying drivers, and took in every inch of her face. Her blue eyes, her straight, dark-red eyebrows. Her slightly turned-up nose with its smattering of freckles. Her lips… lips I’d felt against mine over and over…

Oh fuck, I wanted to kiss her.

Right there. Right then. In the airport, no doubt stinking from over half a day of traveling, I wanted to run to her, swoop her up like some lame-arse movie hero and kiss her. Erase the last twenty-seven months of being denied her with a kiss that would make the airport security kick us out of the terminal.

I wanted to remind her, in that kiss, why she’d overstayed her visa in Australia. I wanted to point out how stupid she’d been to walk away from us. I wanted to prove to her I was the only one who could make her feel alive, that if there was someone else in her life now, it was time to say goodbye to them.

Yes, I understand how full of myself I sound, how arrogant. I’ll even go as far as to say I sound like a condescending wanker, but I was looking at Amanda Sinclair, and no matter how many times I’d tried to convince myself otherwise in the months since she left, I knew she was “the one”.

Again with those damn quotation marks, eh? I guess you can figure out what state I was in at that point. Keeping myself motionless, keeping myself from running to her and hauling her off her feet was harder than any workout I’ve ever done.

Instead of running to her, I smiled.

She smiled back.

It dawned on me then the Amanda standing in front of me was not the Amanda I’d last seen here in the States almost three years ago. There was a hesitation in her eyes I’d never seen before. A nervousness. She was also slimmer, like she’d shed a lot of weight quickly. Too much weight. And she looked… tired. Drawn. She was still the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, but she looked far more fragile. Fragile was not a word I’d ever associated with Amanda Sinclair, and it did my head in.

The smile on her lips faltered. A little. “Hi Bren. Thanks for coming.”

Amanda was the only person I knew who called me Bren. Amanda was also the only person to rip out my heart, but I wouldn’t hold that against her right now.

When I didn’t respond, her smile faded completely. To be honest, my brain was still in a holding pattern. Somewhere stuck between kiss her you idiot and this doesn’t mean we’re friends again.

“They served chicken and sweet potato on the flight,” I said.

Way to go, brain. You champion.

Amanda frowned. “Was it nice?”

I nodded.

She frowned some more, studying me. One of the things I first noticed about Amanda, way back when we met on the Thredbo ski slopes, was how expressive her eyes were. You know the saying “The eyes are the window to the soul”? That was Amanda.

For the entire time we were together, I knew what she was feeling. I could see it in her eyes. Except for the day she told me we were over. I couldn’t read a damn thing in her eyes then.

Now was the same. I had no hope of knowing what she was feeling, thinking, as she stood there frowning at me. I suspect, however, that she’d expected something more than a recount of my inflight dinner.

Clearing my throat, I tried again. “Hi, Amanda. You look good.”

And she did. Even with the exhaustion in her face. Yes, she’d lost weight, but no one could ever accuse her of being anorexic. Her hair was longer than it had been in Sydney. It hung over her shoulders and past her breasts in loose, messy waves. She wore makeup, which threw me a little: Amanda had never worn makeup in Australia. Her eyes—still unreadable—were made all the more intense by the dark eye shadow and eyeliner rimming them.

And yet, even makeup couldn’t hide the dark smudges under her eyes. She really looked tired. And haunted. As if something horrible had happened in her—

Before the thought could finish forming, Amanda closed the distance between us, took my face in her hands and kissed me.

This is the point in my story where everyone’s meant to go awwww, I’m sure. Two young lovers with startling natural chemistry (to quote The Sure Thing, one of my mum’s favorite movies) finally reconnect in a busy airport. This is also the part of my story where I forget Amanda ended us without a reason that made any sense, and lose myself in the exquisite beauty and passion of her lips, right?

For one brief moment, that’s exactly what happened. I gave myself over to the kiss, to the feel of her lips against mine. Every fiber of my body remembered what kissing Amanda Sinclair was like. Remembered and reveled. I’ve kissed other women in the interim—Maci Rowling for one—but none of those kisses reached to the very core of my existence like Amanda’s kisses had. Like this kiss did. This one simple kiss.

It was beautiful.

And then I pulled away, removing her hands from my face. “Why am I here, Amanda?”

That haunted shadow filled Amanda’s eyes again, replacing an emotion I couldn’t decipher. “Because I asked you to come?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, there’s that.”

She smiled, a weak laugh falling from her. “I’ve missed you, Bren,” she whispered, before sliding her arms around my body and pressing her cheek to my chest.

We stood in the busy terminal, with people hurrying and dodging past us, Amanda’s cheek against my chest just above my solar plexus, her belly and thighs warm against mine. I don’t know what was in her head, and I didn’t care. What was in my head was the simple belief life had brought us together again. Life, the universe maybe, had recognized it had fucked up and brought us back together. I’d deal with whatever the reason was for Amanda calling me here, fix it, and we could get on with our lives together. Simple. I am Brendon Osmond, after all. Nothing rattles me, not really, and nothing can get me down. The eternal optimist, remember?

It was Amanda who broke the embrace this time. She stepped away from me, her fingers trailing down my sides as she put distance between us. Her eyes, haunted and somehow secretive, met mine.

“I was going to do this a different way, Bren,” she said. I couldn’t miss the choked tension in her voice. “I was going to…”

She stopped and looked away, grief eating up her face. Grief, and something close to contempt.

My gut knotted. My pulse thumped hard in my ears. “Going to what?” I asked. Why the hell was I feeling like all the air in the terminal had suddenly turned to steel wool?

Amanda turned back to me, her teeth gnawing on her bottom lip. A part of me—the purely male part—reminded me how incredible that lip felt between my own teeth. That purely male memory sent a tight finger of heat into the pit of my stomach and for a dangerous moment I didn’t want to hear what Amanda had planned to do differently. For a dangerous moment, that purely male part of me wanted to take control of the situation. Wanted to haul Amanda back into my arms and kiss her until her knees crumpled and all she could do was cling to me as I rendered her defenseless against the pleasure of our—

“You were going to what?” I asked again, killing the caveman inside me. I smiled, letting her see it was all good. That I was okay, that we were okay. That we were gravy.

She looked at me, and then let out a slow sigh and said, “I’m scared.”

“What are you scared of, Amanda?” I asked.

She let out a sigh that belonged more to a world-weary octogenarian instead of a vibrant twenty-three-year-old. Although to be honest, vibrant wasn’t the word I’d use to describe Amanda at this point in time.

“I’m scared you’re not going to like me any more after…” She stopped and looked away.

My gut knotted. After what? “You became a human drug mule?” I asked. I needed to make her laugh. I needed to see the Amanda I knew, the one I’d once loved. I wanted her to know she didn’t have to rush revealing whatever had brought her to ask me to come.

And I also didn’t want her to reveal it.

Selfish of me, maybe, but there really is bliss in ignorance. I wasn’t ready to know why I was here. I just wanted to be here. With her.

That haunted expression filled her face again for a moment, making my chest ache, and then she smiled.

“Yeah, I’ve become a mule. I transport an experimental drug called Sunshine around the globe. The pay sucks, but at least no one can tell me to stick stuff where the sun don’t shine anymore.”

I burst out laughing. The statement—slightly depraved—was thoroughly and utterly Amanda.

“Well, in that case,” I said, “consider yourself still on my like list.”

She grinned. Yes, I could tell there was still a guarded hesitancy to her, but I was prepared to roll with it. “Let’s go.”

We left the terminal walking side by side. The urge to take her hand overwhelmed me more than once. I resisted, just.

“So,” I said as we crossed the road outside the building, dodging speeding taxis and shuttle vans as we headed for Amanda’s car. “How goes your degree? Second last year, right? Have you had your first prac yet?”

As it had the last time I was in the States, I enjoyed the sense of being in a different country, breathing in different air, standing under a different sky. Southern California bore a similarity to the east coast of New South Wales, with its gum trees and warm, dry heat, but there’s no way it smelled the same. Walking toward the parking lot where Amanda’s car waited for us, I couldn’t stop myself drawing in a deep breath and studying the sky, marveling at how different it all was. Sometimes the simplest things moved me the most.

As a consequence, it took me a while to register Amanda hadn’t answered. I shot her an expectant look. “So?”

She shrugged a lop-sided, one-shoulder response. “Me and university didn’t take.”

My eyebrows shot up before I could stop them.

She laughed, a self-deprecating, playful chuckle that made me forget what I was doing for a moment.

“What? We can’t all be entrepreneurial world-changers like you, Osmond. You own your own personal trainer business yet?”

“Waiting for the thumbs up from the bank, as we speak,” I answered with a grin.

Amanda laughed again, bumping her shoulder to my arm as we walked. “Oh man, why am I not surprised? What’s it going to be called? Buff R Us?”

Buff R We, thank you very much.”

“The perfect name.” For a wonderful moment, there was the faintest hint of shallow dimples in her cheeks and the Amanda Sinclair I knew in her delight.

It dawned on me then she’d very successfully sidestepped the issue of her teaching degree. I wanted to re-address it, but left it alone. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a bit of a high achiever, and Amanda—at least the Amanda I knew—was the same. Something in my gut told me the reason for my presence here in the US was connected to her incomplete studies and, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t ready to have that reason revealed to me yet.

If you’d told me I was a coward before Amanda stood in front of me again, I would have laughed in your face. But here I was, not asking about Amanda’s reasons for wanting me to come, and not asking about her reason for dropping out of uni.

The things you learn about yourself when your heart gets involved. It truly is a stupid damn organ at times.

“So,” I asked, “you seeing anyone?”

Apparently my brain was as stupid an organ as my heart.

Before I had the chance to process the pending idiocy of my question, Amanda burst out laughing. “No, I’m not. You ruined me for anyone else, Mr. Osmond. Couldn’t find anyone here with your atrocious sense of humor and impressive muscles.”

There’s a point in the life of every guy who spends time working out where something is said that makes them want to check out their own muscles. It’s a confirmation, as such, that the body they think they’ve achieved through an insane amount of hard work, dedication, denial and willpower is, in fact, the one they’re walking around in.

That moment hit me then. For the first time, really. Sure, I’d flexed before to get a laugh (and I’m the proud owner of a tank top that reads on the front I Flexed and the Sleeves Fell Off) but I’d never before felt the need—like a physical pressure—to make sure the “impressive muscles” Amanda spoke of were actually there.

It was an insecure moment, and it threw me. As did the fact I felt my arm curling and my fist bunching, causing my right biceps to flex, before I realized what I was doing. Thankfully, Amanda stopped beside the driver’s passenger door of the most insane car I’ve ever seen and I forgot about my biceps.

“This is yours?” I asked, staring at the neon-purple Volvo station wagon before me. Along its dented side was painted an emerald green Chinese luck dragon, complete with stylized flames flaring from its nostrils. The wheels were the same green. On the top of the antennae was a long, crimson ribbon. It was startling to look at to say the least.

“It’s Chase’s,” Amanda answered with a grimace bordering on a grin as she unlocked the door and pulled it open to reveal purple leopard-print seat covers and neon-green fluffy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.

“Okay. I can see that.” Amanda’s sister is… let’s go with unique. “How is she?”

“As snarky and prickly as ever.” Amanda tugged my gym bag and backpack from my shoulder and indicated for me to climb into the car with a twitch of her head. Her lips, I couldn’t help but notice, were also twitching. If nothing else, putting me in her sister’s Volvo was filling her with mirth.

She watched me fold myself into the front passenger seat before nodding in satisfaction and closing the door, trapping me inside the purple dragon-mobile with a thud. I wriggled my butt on the plush purple seat cover, knees up near my chest. The car smelled of roses, oil paint, and possibly weed. That last one I wasn’t sure of. Strangely, the whole package stirred fond memories of Chase in me. If Amanda was driving her sister’s car, I realized there was a good chance I’d be seeing her. There was no bad blood between Chase and I, but she didn’t pull punches with her opinion of anything. That was of course, when she chose to talk at all. As I said, unique.

After Amanda deposited my bags in the back of the Volvo, she climbed in behind the steering wheel and slid the key into the ignition. “Chase is rebelling against her hearing aids at the moment,” she said, pausing for a second as the engine kicked over. I didn’t look behind me to see if an eruption of black exhaust smoke spewed from the back of the car. Even though Chase wasn’t there to witness my misgivings about her motor vehicle, I didn’t want to risk any bad vibes.

“In what way?” I asked. How does one rebel against hearing aids? Especially when one is severely deaf in one ear and moderately deaf in the other?

“She’s not wearing them.” Amanda steered the Volvo out of its parking space and headed for the exit. I’m not going to lie. The car turned heads. “Dad’s about ready to go ballistic on her ass.”

My heart skipped a weird little beat. I’d forgotten how sexy Amanda sounded saying something as American as ass.

“Mom’s at a loss what to do with her. She dropped out of college last week. Six months away from graduating her art and marketing degree and she quits. No real reason. Just comes home one day and doesn’t go back.”

“Whoa.”

Amanda snorted. “Whoa is one way to describe it. When she started quoting Malcolm X at Dad—”just because you have colleges and universities, doesn’t mean you have education”—I had to intervene before their screaming match woke…” She stopped. Frowned. Flicked the indicator and turned into the flow of traffic rushing away from LAX. “Before things got out of hand. Dad’s not coping with… with it all.”

I studied her profile, suspecting another one of those moments had occurred. The ones connected to my reason for being here. And as before, I let it slide without comment. I was okay. I was good. I was gravy.

I was a coward.

“So,” I said with a dry chuckle, “business as usual, then?”

Another snort escaped Amanda. She didn’t look at me, her attention now fixed on the insane LA traffic heading southbound. It allowed me to take in her profile more so. There were little lines at the edges of her eyes I didn’t remember. Lines somehow out of place on her twenty-three-year-old face.

“Business as usual.” She grinned, flicking me a glance so fast our eyes didn’t connect. “She’ll be happy to see you.”

It was my turn to snort. “The Walking Deltoid from Down Under? Isn’t that what she called me?”

“That. And other things. I think my favorite was Ostentatious Osmond.”

“Oh, nice.”

Amanda chuckled. “And then there was Brendon the Benign.”

“Ouch.” I pulled a mock pout, shifting on the seat. Weren’t Volvos meant to be comfortable? “That one kind of hurts.”

My melodramatic protest earned another quick glance. “Her issue with you was directly proportional to the size of your biceps. Of course, given your arms are bigger than the last time she saw you, you’re screwed. You been bench-pressing trains or something?”

“Semi-trailers,” I smirked. “The axles make them easier to hold.”

“Oh, that’s good to know.”

She really did give me a look this time. Our eyes really did connect. A frisson of heat shot straight through me when they did, sinking into that place between my legs over which a guy has little control. My groin picked that moment to react to Amanda’s close proximity, to the delicate scent of her perfume, to the sound of her voice and its sexy American accent, to her eyes…

Clearing her throat, Amanda jerked her stare back to the busy freeway.

I wrapped my fingers around the handgrip above the window, repositioned myself as well as I could in the confined space, and swallowed. “How long will it take to get to San Diego?”

“’Bout an hour and a half. Little less if there’s no accidents on the freeway.”

“Excellent. Can you recommend a hotel?”

A long stretch of silence filled the Volvo, and then Amanda frowned. She didn’t take her eyes off the road, but I saw her chest rise and fall in a deep, slow breath. “I kinda thought you’d stay with me.”

Chapter 3

The Austerity of the Aussie Shower

Okay.”

If she was surprised by my answer she didn’t show it. Strangely, I felt calmer than I had since buying the ticket for my flight here. I hadn’t planned on crashing at Amanda’s place, nor had I even considered the possibility she would offer, but the moment she did, I knew it was the right place to stay.

And for the record, I didn’t say yes to get into her bed. Even if she offered that—which I doubt she would—I was taking the couch. I’ve slept on plenty of couches. The experience is always an adventure… and a way of making sure I wake early to get in a morning run or a workout.

Feeling elated, I grinned at her profile. She was no longer frowning. She was now gnawing on her bottom lip. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Do you live near a gym?” I asked.

She laughed and shot me a smile. The open joy in her face, in her eyes, sent a lick of contented warmth straight through me. “You haven’t changed at all, Bren.”

My throat grew tight with a hot lump. I deal with compliments with ease, but Amanda’s statement…

I wanted to tell her not to be too nice to me. Not yet. Not until I knew why I was here. But I didn’t. Who was I kidding? I’d flown halfway around the world because she asked me to, without a word of explanation. It would take her confessing to be a serial killer or an exterminator of puppies and kittens to change my core feelings for her.

“I’ve changed,” I said instead with mock indignation. “I have at least three percent more body fat than I did the last time you saw me. But my strength is up, so it’s not all bad. And my biceps are fourteen percent bigger than what they were, and my quads are—”

She shut me up with a whack to the chest with the back of her hand and a laughing “Oh my God.”

I grinned and then rubbed my chest with a wounded pout. “You been working out yourself? I don’t recall you hitting me this hard before.”

The next ninety minutes flew past. Too fast. The interior of Chase’s Volvo proved to be a comfortable environment for Amanda and I to reconnect on a purely platonic level. We chatted about inane topics: our favorite movies we’d seen in the last year (mine, the latest entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise. Hey, I’m a Rock fan. Don’t judge me. Hers, the most recent Avengers sequel. She’s a geek through and through); what we thought was going to happen in Game of Thrones (both fans, as it turns out); the current state of the Australian political scene; the current state of the American political scene.

When I asked her if her mom and dad knew I was coming, if we were going to see them, she didn’t answer, complaining instead about the road-hogging behavior of the car in front.

Before I realized it, we were turning into a quiet, gum-tree-lined street, the high San Diego sun baking the air outside the car with a shimmering intensity that made me think of summer back home.

“We’re here,” Amanda said, killing the engine.

Here was on the street in front of a four-story red-brick apartment building. All the windows facing the road were open. An elderly woman sat in one of them, studying us with squinted eyes through the smoke wafting up from the cigarette dangling from her lips.

I frowned. This was not how I’d pictured Amanda’s home. Sure, I hadn’t stepped inside yet, but the building looked… tired. Beaten. Not at all the apartment of the beloved daughter of an upper middle class professional family.

“It doesn’t look like much,” she said from behind the wheel, as if hearing my thoughts, “but it’s rent-controlled and the neighbors are friendly. Old Mrs. Garcia there watching us helps me out often when I can’t…”

She faded off.

I frowned at her, unsettled by the ambiguous tension once again back in her face.

“When I need it,” she finished, offering a smile and a wave to the woman in the window. “And her son keeps the scum away when the need arises.”

“Scum?”

She shrugged at my surprised question. “It’s not the Hilton. But it’s clean and safe, I promise. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”

The mystery surrounding this new Amanda and the reason for my being in her life again welled through me once more, like a thick wave of heavy pressure. Unnerving pressure. What had happened to her, what had happened in her life, for her to be in this place, now? This was not the kind of apartment I could see her father approving of for his daughter to live.

When it came to fathers, Charles Sinclair was up there with the best of them for being doting. Some would say over-protective. Especially when it came to who his daughters dated. When he first met me, he’d ran a contemplative look over me, sniffed at my “G’day, Mr. Sinclair”, and spent the next thirty minutes talking loudly about the importance of a solid education of the mind to provide security and safety for the future.

Secure and safe were hardly the words I’d use to describe Amanda’s apartment building. What was going on here? Charles never really thought I was good enough for her. Was she rebelling against him? And if so, was I here to help her with that?

Surely not. Amanda wasn’t that kind of girl. Vindictiveness was not her style. At least, it hadn’t been…

I opened my mouth to speak, but Amanda climbed out of the Volvo before I could say a word.

Which was probably for the best. When it comes down to it, sitting inside a purple station wagon on a suburban street, watched closely by a woman who looked older than God, wasn’t the ideal setting for what was likely to be a significant moment in my life.

Climbing from the passenger side, I drew in a deep breath. It was hard not to remember what I’d felt like the last time I breathed San Diego air. The day Amanda told me—in her parents’ backyard—that we were over. I’d been confused. Shell-shocked. Numb.

Was I going to be experiencing that all over again this time?

No. I wasn’t. I refused to. For starters, as blind as I was to why Amanda had called me, my heart wasn’t in her hands. Sure, my body had reacted when I saw her, and it had got a little… hmmm, excited by her kiss, but my heart? Nope. Not hers. Not anymore. Didn’t matter how great it was to talk to her on the drive here, how natural it was to be in her company again, what came after I walked through the door of her apartment wasn’t going to leave me reeling, confused or numb.

It wasn’t.

We walked together to the main door of the apartment building, Amanda giving me the rundown of her neighbors as we did so. Part of me wondered if it was a sales pitch—see how wonderful everyone is here? Wouldn’t you like neighbors like these?—the rest of me gave myself a mental slap down for being so egocentric.

Amanda was not going to ask me to live with her.

As we crossed the threshold into the grimy, hot and stuffy foyer, Mrs. Garcia called out something from above us, in Spanish I assumed.

Amanda burst out laughing. “Sí, sí,” she called back, waving her hand above her head as she flicked me a sideways smirk, “es muy grandé.”

I raised my eyebrows. In response, Amanda nudged my arm with her shoulder and winked. That was all.

Four sets of stairs later—with interruptions from Mr. Bradshaw, an off-duty firefighter in 1C, Miss Cox (who couldn’t have been a day under eight-six) in 2B, and Mrs. Murdoch, an out-of-work stuntwoman in 4A—we arrived at Amanda’s door.

She slid the key in the lock and then paused. “Oh God,” she said, without looking at me, “I don’t remember if I tidied up before I came and got you.”

Without hesitation I threaded my fingers through the hair at the back of Amanda’s head and turned her face to mine. I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t think; I just did it. “Hey,” I murmured, smiling down into her eyes, “I’ll take you as I find you any day.”

A soft moan sounded in her throat. Her eyes fluttered closed. “Bren, you don’t know what—”

I kissed her silent. Nothing aggressive or ridiculously macho, just a simple brushing of my lips against hers. Ah, but man, did it shake me to my core.

“C’mon,” I said, pulling back, trying like hell to gain some semblance of control over myself. “Let’s get inside. I need a shower.”

For the time it took my heart to beat twice, Amanda searched my eyes for something. And then she nodded, the lips I’d only just kissed curling into a small smile. “You do.”

“Hey.”

Laughing at my mock indignation, she unlocked the door and we both entered her home. It wasn’t as messy as Amanda feared. Books and magazines were scattered across the living area and the two sofas. Surprisingly, the magazines were all cooking ones, and the books had titles like The Fault in Our Stars and My Sister’s Keeper. I had no idea what they were about—the “Stars” one sounded familiar, but they weren’t the kind of books I remember Amanda reading when we were together. Back then she was devouring titles like Horns and Pet Sematary, and the covers didn’t involve smiling people.

She had a lot of colorful cushions, all of them actually on the sofas, which was a hell of a lot better than my cushions, which were, I’m pretty certain, on the floor of my apartment.

The dining table was free of clutter—again, I couldn’t say the same about mine—as was the small kitchen. When I spied a jar of Vegemite on the counter among the more traditional American spreads like marshmallow crème and peanut butter, I couldn’t help but smile.

“Damn it,” Amanda said beside me. “I knew you’d see that.”

I grinned at her. She’d proclaimed loudly and proudly while in Australia that she thought anyone who liked Vegemite needed their head read.

“It’s small,” she said, as she moved past me, deeper into the apartment, “but it’s home.” Trailing her fingertips along the back of the largest sofa, she ran her gaze over everything around her. “It’s not like in the movies, I promise. There’s no train right next door to rattle our teeth every hour, and we’re not under any flight path. The walls are soundproof and the plumbing works.” She looked back at me, a smile I could only describe as hopeful on her face. “It’s home.” Her voice cracked on the word.

“It looks good,” I said honestly. And it did. It spoke of the Amanda I knew. Even with the slight chaos of books, magazines and a few jackets, shoes and hats strewn about the place, it was Amanda. On the walls were framed posters of famous art works (my high school art teacher would be very impressed with the fact I remembered what a Mondrian and a Klimt looked like), and framed posters for the movies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The King’s Speech and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The whole interior was a mishmash of eclectic taste, and looking at it, taking it all in, filled me with a warmth in my chest I should have found unnerving. Dangerously close to my heart, that warmth was. Dangerously close.

“The shower is through that door,” Amanda said, pointing to a closed door on the far side of the apartment. “The water hardly ever runs cold, so you can take all the time you need in there to decompress.”

Hitching my gym bag farther up my shoulder, I gave her a wide smile. “Be out in five.”

“Ah, that’s right,” she rolled her eyes. “The austerity of the Aussie shower. Get in, get clean, get out. I still remember that backpacker’s hostel we stayed in Queensland with the timed showers. The one that cut off my water when I still had shampoo in my hair.”

I chuckled. “And I remember you demanding you join me in my…” I stopped talking. Just like that. Snapped my mouth shut and kind of froze. Crap. The last thing I needed was to be thinking about Amanda in the shower with me. That kind of thinking would lead to certain things coming up that really needed to, well, not.

“That door,” Amanda said, pointing again to the other side of the apartment, her expression unreadable.

“That door,” I echoed. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. There are clean towels on the rack. You can use them.”

I nodded.

Before I could say anything else, she turned and made for the kitchen. “I’ll make you a cup of tea. Green still your tea of choice?”

“Yep.”

She didn’t look back at me. I didn’t let myself watch her move about in the kitchen. The air was charged with a tension I couldn’t describe, like sandpaper scraping exposed nerve endings. I hurried to the bathroom and closed the door behind me, my pulse pounding in my throat. Were we both suddenly aware of the fact I was going to be naked in her home? Or was Amanda unsettled by my blundering reminder of one of the many times we shared a shower? Or was it all in my head? Was I reading too much into it? Maybe it was me, hyped up on zero sleep and the scent of her in every breath I took?

I ran the cold water. It was either have a cold shower, or take care of the, umm… situation with my hand, and if the thought of being naked in Amanda’s home was messing with my head and body, the thought of masturbating in it…

Fifteen seconds later, I stood naked under water nowhere near as cold as I wanted it to be, with my head bowed, my eyes closed and my hands rammed flat to the tiled wall.

Crap. This was harder than I thought, and I wasn’t just referring to my—

The shower curtain slid open. Amanda stood on the other side, still completely dressed, her eyes wide and enigmatic as she looked up at me. “Bren…” she whispered.

Without a word or hesitation, I reached out, cupped my wet hand at the back of her head and drew her into the shower with me. She came without resistance, pressed her body to my eager one, tangled her fingers in my wet hair and met my hungry mouth with her own.

We kissed for a lifetime. Reacquainted ourselves to each other’s mouths and tongues. The water streamed over us, drenching Amanda’s shorts and shirt.

I needed to fix that problem. And yet, I couldn’t drag my mouth from hers. So I resorted to undressing her without breaking the kiss. That meant tearing her shirt open—for some reason I couldn’t find the patience to undo its tiny buttons. Amanda didn’t seem to mind. She moaned as I did, and again as I pulled the clinging wet shirt over her shoulders.

Another moan vibrated deep in her chest as my hand found her breast, contained by the lace of her bra. Her nipple rubbed at the center of my palm through the lace, a scraping friction both wonderful and frustrating. I wanted to feel her flesh, all her flesh, without anything—even something as flimsy as lace—getting in the road. I wasn’t exactly gentle as I yanked the edge of her bra aside and took her nipple in my mouth.

Once again, Amanda didn’t seem to mind. She never had before. When it came to sex, neither of us had been shy or self-conscious. She’d often laughed when we were together that I approached sex like I approached a workout session: go hard, or go home. Of course, she would also point out that the very fact I was hard kind of negated the “go home” bit. That and the fact we were going at it like rabbits in my home.

When it came to sex with Amanda, none of the rules I lived my life by mattered though.

The second I sucked her flesh into my mouth, she clawed at my scalp and begged me to do it again. “Oh God, Bren,” she panted, knotting her fingers in my wet hair and holding my head closer to her breast. “I’ve missed you doing this so much.”

For a cruel moment the thought of someone else doing what I was doing now smashed through me. Jealousy—hot and furious—flooded me and I growled around her nipple. She wasn’t someone else’s, she was mine.

At that thought, an emotion I couldn’t identify—far hotter and angrier than my jealousy—swept through me. Although swept is not really the correct word. Pummeled me, is better. Consumed me, also more accurate.

This half-dressed, soaking wet woman in the shower with me was responsible for the most incredible and destructive moments of my life, and the very notion of someone else, anyone else, being in her heart, her thoughts…

It undid me. Crap. So much for not letting her get to me. So much for okay, good, gravy and chillaxed.

Lifting my head, I stared down into her face, ready to tell her we had to stop.

“Please don’t,” she whispered, cupping my jaw in a shaking hand. Beads of water clung to her eyelashes, turning them spiky. Her glorious hair hung around her face in dark, shining strands. Her lips glistened. “Let’s just give ourselves this, okay?”

I didn’t have the strength to deny her. When had I ever?

Without a word—for none formed in my head—I took her lips with mine once more and lost myself to the pleasure of being with her.

At some point, I stopped kissing her. I was on my knees, peeling her wet shorts from her hips and rolling them down her legs. The water trickled over her belly, little rivulets that ran over the soft flesh in multiple paths down past her pubic hair. The last time I’d seen Amanda she’d been waxed free of hair and her stomach had been firm and flat with the subtle lines of a strong core and abs. I’d reveled in the smooth, satiny-slick mound of her hairless pubic curve. I’d worshipped that stomach, admiring the physical strength and healthy lifestyle it spoke of. And yet, there was something utterly female about the belly, and the dark curls I now devoured with my eyes. Something beyond me.

I watched the water stream over her flesh, traced the path of more than one down to her wet pubic hair with my fingers. A choppy breath tore from her. She moaned my name, along with words I didn’t understand. My brain was too fogged with a raw pleasure I hadn’t experienced since she’d ended us. I’d had sex since then, but nothing had rocked me like this. Nothing had moved me.

Ah, fuck, I really was in trouble.

And still, I couldn’t stop. Nor did I want to. I licked the shower water from Amanda’s belly, and then stroked my tongue over her trimmed curls… and lower, until I found her warm flesh.

She snagged my hair in a tight fist, sending pain and incredible pleasure through me at once. “Oh Bren…”

With the water streaming over my head, my shoulders, and flowing down my back, and Amanda’s fingers tugging my hair, I lingered for long, delicious moments on her sex, giving myself over to the taste of her, the feel of her, the sound of her. The memory and the reality of her.

It was exquisite. Perfect.

And even more so when, her voice shaky and shallow, she panted my name, held my head hard and came. It had been too long since I’d had Amanda’s release on my tongue. Too long. The warm flow of her orgasm detonated a hunger in me I could only describe as primitive. It wasn’t enough that I’d made her come with my mouth. I wanted to own her, fill her in the most elemental, animalistic way possible.

Dragging my mouth from her receptive flesh, I pressed my face to the soft curve of her belly and curled my arm around the back of her thighs. “Mandy…” I groaned.

I’d only ever called her Mandy twice since knowing her—the first time we had sex, our mutual, mind-blowing orgasms shocking me as much as they rocked me; and then when she told me we were done, and I asked her to change her mind.

The fingers in my hair turned to fists and, without a word, she tugged. Hard.

I rose to my feet. I want to say I was controlled and modulated, even romantic (I know, what guy ever uses that word?) but I wasn’t. I was hungry and impatient and undone by an urgency to be inside her, to bury myself to my balls in her tight heat.

“Bren…” Amanda rasped as my body slid against hers, as my erection nudged the curve of her sex. “Hurry the fuck up and get inside me. Please.”

“Condom?” I groaned against her neck, on fire.

“Pill,” she moaned back, rolling her hips.

At the single word, I crushed her lips with mine, grabbed the back of her right thigh, yanked her knee up to beside my hip and sank into her in one fluid thrust.

I spend most of my work hours and all of my study hours focusing on the way the human body moves, but there was nothing that could prepare me for how sublimely Amanda moved against me. With me. There was a synchronistic beauty to it. To how our breaths mingled and our tongues slid together. I bunched one hand in the wet hair at the back of her nape and held her raised thigh with the other, driving deeper and deeper into her. And then her nails scored across my back, my shoulders, and she threw her head back and cried my name as her inner muscles contracted around my thrusting dick.

The uninhibited passion and honesty in her orgasm plunged me into my own wild climax. I ground my teeth and rolled my hips and tried not to slam harder into her delicate sex, tried not to surrender to the concentrated pleasure of being one with her again, making love to her again.

Tried and failed. For all my self-deluded determination that I would walk away from Amanda Sinclair unscathed and untouched, I was utterly enslaved by her. Now. In the shower that was meant to be helping me decompress, I had become a creature of sensation and desire ruled by the one person with the power to render me defenseless.

And I willingly surrendered to it. I held her. Close. Drawing in breath after deep, slow breath as the pulse of my orgasm faded from my body.

“Oh, Bren…” she murmured against the side of my neck as I released her thigh and nuzzled her temple. “Oh, Bren… I… I…”

A shudder rippled through her. Another one. And then, with a soft, shy chuckle, she raised her face to mine and smiled. “I didn’t realize you were having a cold shower. Sorry about that.”

I laughed, the action causing my now flaccid cock to slip from her. The loss of connection with her body didn’t worry me. We may not have been joined physically, but we were together in a more profound way. “Is this your way of telling me you need me to warm you up, Ms. Sinclair?” I asked.

“This is my way,” she answered, trailing her fingers over my pecs, her gaze following their path as they displaced the tiny beads of cooling water resting there, “of saying it’s time for me to make you some Vegemite toast.”

“Not as much fun, but still very appealing.”

Reaching around me, Amanda killed the shower. We stood chest to chest, hip to hip, our skin wet and glistening. The small room hung heavy with the sounds of our rapid, shallow pants.

I consider myself a very fit guy, it takes a lot to push my breathing and heartbeat beyond their normal rate. But at that very second, I was more physically spent than any insane, high-intensity cardio workout had ever left me.

She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead to the base of my throat for a heartbeat, and then stepped away. “We should probably get dressed first.”

“That definitely doesn’t sound as much fun.” I caught her hand before it slipped free of my chest completely. “I’m sure there’s no rule against eating naked.” I smoothed my hand down her back to squeeze her butt. “Besides, I’ve got over two years of not seeing you naked to make up f—”

Amanda turned, slipped a blue towel from the top rack and left the shower. My throat wanted to get thick at her sudden absence. My chest wanted to get heavy and tight. I wouldn’t let either. Instead, I reached for the towel beneath the empty rack and scuffed myself dry. I wasn’t going to rush out there after her. What had just happened… I suspect it had shaken us both. Taken us both by surprise with its intensity.

Fishing a pair of loose gym shorts from my woefully packed bag, I pulled them on commando-style, blasted my armpits with deodorant, cleaned my teeth and raked my fingers through my wet hair. I didn’t look in the mirror. If I did, I’d know exactly what I would see staring back at me: a guy gone. I wasn’t worried that I’d let the exact opposite of what I’d promised myself wouldn’t happen, happen. We’d work it out, Amanda and I. How hard could it be?

Physically drained to the point of exhaustion, I dragged in a slow breath, held it for the count of ten, and let it go. Time to address the situation once and for all, so we could move forward. Plan.

Two steps from the bathroom, half naked and still thrumming from what we’d shared in the shower, my brain registered Amanda was not alone. Her sister was standing near the coffee table, her dreadlocked hair a vivid blue, her piercing gray eyes framed with ink-black liner, and dancing with something beyond my ability to comprehend. It dawned on me Chase was seeing me obviously fresh from a shower, as she stood next to her sister—who was wrapped only in a towel with her hair as wet as mine. There was no way Chase couldn’t join the dots.

With one of those smiles that said she knew something about the world no one else did, Chase ran her gaze over me, from the top of my wet head to my crotch and back up to my face again, and then cocked one pierced eyebrow. “If it isn’t the Wonder from Down Under. So… tell me, what’s it like to find out you’re a father?”