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Brighter Than the Boss (The Beach Squad Series Book 5) by Marika Ray (1)



I ignored the beach seductively calling my name. Didn't let myself feel the cool breeze or the warm sun blinding me as I entered the Lifeguard Headquarters building. Contrary to all the people frolicking around on the beach, I was here to do a job. A job I'd worked years to attain. I was finally hired as a full-time lifeguard in my ideal city, Huntington Beach.

The heavy glass door swung open in my strong grip. You didn't make it as a beach lifeguard for eight years without building a muscle or two. I was only five foot three, but don't let my height or the long blonde hair fool you, I was a strong, grown-ass woman. I'd had a lot of nicknames growing up, mostly to do with my short stature, so I'd always been focused on being the best at everything to show ’em up. Competitive? You bet your ass.

"Can I help you?" the girl said from behind the front desk with a sweet smile.

"Yes, I'm Sunny. I'm here to meet with either Ivan or Cain." She saw my nerves as I rushed to tell her the rest. "It's my first day."

"Well, welcome! Let me radio the guys and see who's available to run you through everything. Probably not's his birthday today and he's busy being a slacker, I bet." She smiled and picked up a walkie-talkie to call it in.

I took that time to walk around the Headquarters lobby, studying the pictures on the wall. I saw several pictures with Cain, one of two head supervisors in this division. His reputation in the SoCal area was one of a total player. Talented beyond belief out there in the water, but a ladies’ man of epic proportions. His tall, dark, and handsome was driven up a notch by his spectacular body and a rumored substantial bank account. If it was his birthday, I would bet he'd be out on the beach flirting with all the pretty ladies in bikinis.


I whipped around to find a tall blond man waiting for me with a smile on his handsome face. Thank goodness, it wasn't Cain. I don't think I could have gotten through a conversation with him on my first day. They didn't make boys like that back home in Muncie, Indiana.

Ivan showed me around the building and explained how they ran their department, which was slightly different from how they did things at my previous lifeguarding job further north in Los Angeles County. I was instructed to don my new red swimsuit and meet Ivan down at tower 3 while he got ahold of Cain to hand over his birthday present.

Pushing the door open to the locker room, I rushed to store my things in an empty locker and stripped out of my clothes, still feeling those first-day jitters. I was just about to step into the suit bottoms when the door burst open and a huge man barreled in. He skidded to a stop, a frown marring his face, and the door swung closed behind him with a clang.

At this moment of surprise and vulnerability, I'm sure most women would duck or cover. Instead, my first instinct was to fight.

I stepped into a wide defensive stance and raised my hands, ready for anything. I didn't take years of Jiu Jitsu without learning a thing or two. I didn't normally spar naked, but hey, I could adapt.

While I anticipated what he'd do, a tickle of awareness moved through me, leaving me feeling hot and dizzy. My intruder was freaking hot.

The locker room was small and cramped, which left him only a foot or two away, our gazes locked in a staring contest. I noted he blinked first, his gaze traveling down my body like a physical touch, the temptation of a naked woman too much to care about a silly stare-down. I don't know what he saw to change his current mood, but the frown turned into a giant grin, setting off new warning bells in my head.

I knew this guy.


My new boss.

Apparently he didn't know who I was because he took one giant step forward, grabbed my wrists and pulled my arms up over my head. He crowded me back into the lockers behind me, the cold metal and the look in his eye pulling a gasp from me.

"Thank you, Ivan," he muttered reverently.

I had no time to respond before his lips slammed down on mine, the warning bells silenced with the press of his firm body on my naked one. I felt every ripple of muscle and a steel pipe digging into my stomach, letting me know who was in charge here. I got lost in the kiss, forgetting who he was, where I was, and how badly this would inevitably end. The panic had quickly dissolved into red-hot desire.

One hand left my wrists to travel down my body, a trail of goose bumps and fire in its wake. His rough fingers settled between my legs, parting me and zeroing in with deadly accuracy. My eyes rolled back in my head, lost to everything but the expert way he strummed my body. His tongue and fingers coordinated their attack, leaving me high and definitely not dry. A few moments longer and I could come all over his fingers, I was sure of it.

He chose that moment to pull back a fraction of an inch, his heavy breath fanning across my lips. "Where did Ivan find you?"

I tried to blink away the fog and scrunched my nose. "Ivan?"

He paused, face now blank, fingers now frozen. All I heard was a constant drip coming from one of the showerheads, heading down the drain, along with my career.

He tilted his head and spoke slowly, "Who are you?"

The room came back into focus and my stomach dropped. I swallowed, knowing this was it. The moment where I paid for that epic kiss. The one I never dreamed I'd get from a man who would never normally look at me twice.

"I'm Sunny, your newest lifeguard."

His head dropped and I could smell his midnight-black hair. I memorized the scent of his gel, knowing I'd never get it out of my head and probably never be close enough to smell it again. His hand released my wrists like I'd burned him. The step back was only a foot or two, but the distance between us was now a gaping chasm. My nipples pebbled at the sudden chill, but he never saw, having averted his eyes like he couldn't stand to look at me.

He bent down and swiped my red suit off the floor, handing it to me, gaze firmly looking away. "I'm so sorry." His voice was gruff, sending chills down my spine at his intimate tone.

When I pulled it out of his hands, he stalked to the door and left, taking all the warmth of the summer day with him.

I'd just had my best and my worst kiss, all rolled into one.

I'd just been fingered by my new boss.

* * *

A warm tongue woke me up bright and early Tuesday morning, the swipe cleaning my left cheek and part of my eye.

"Chili..." I grumbled. My seven-pound Yorkie whined in response, not caring that it was early, nor that I'd had the worst day in history yesterday. I pulled the covers over my head when the movie started playing behind my closed eyes. The one where I let my new boss stick his fingers in intimate places on my body. The one where I abandoned all my self-defense training and kissed him back. The one where the playboy of Huntington Beach felt me up, apologized for it, and left the room while I wallowed in complete and total humiliation.

I mean, what in the world was wrong with me? I could have fought him off. I could have told him who I was. There were multiple other ways that little scene could have gone down yesterday. And yet I'd chosen none of the sensible options. Just the one that left me embarrassed and wondering if I'd have my dream job for much longer.

Chili yipped again, clearly needing to go out and take care of business.

"Okay, okay, Chili dog," I said, muffled from under the covers. Taking one last fortifying breath, which I felt was absolutely necessary to face this day, I flipped the covers back and rolled myself out of bed.

I walked through my apartment, slipping my feet into flip-flops and grabbing the leash by the front door. Once Chili was clipped in, I walked him down the path to his favorite strip of grass, giving him plenty of leash to do what he needed to do.

Tipping my head back, I took in the orange streaks lighting up the early morning sky. It really was crazy beautiful and I got a big smile on my face, remembering how lucky I was to live here. Ever since college, I'd lived in L.A., with traffic, trash, smog, and cramped spaces being my constant companions. Huntington Beach was a total beach town, the huge sky and expansive beach areas making me feel much less claustrophobic. I could breathe here.

"C'mon, Chili, let's get breakfast." I tugged on his leash and got him moving, his short legs working double time to keep pace with mine.

I made a healthy protein smoothie, slathered myself in sunscreen, and then got on my red suit, polo and shorts on over. Finally, my hair went in a tight ponytail and I was set for the day. Grabbing my bag, water, and towel, I headed out the door, but not before I gave Chili a few extra kisses and belly rubs.

"Be good. No peeing on the carpet and no chewing up my shoes today." I gave him my best stern look, but his tail just kept wagging and his tongue came out the side of his mouth. Bejeezus, who could be stern to a puppy with a face like that?

I locked up and spun around, excited to climb onto my new ride. When I'd gotten the contract signed with HB Lifeguards, I'd immediately sold my piece of crap car, planning to never be in a long commute again, and got a mint-green Vespa. She was a beauty!

My paraphernalia was stored in the seat and I hopped on, firing her up. My helmet went on next. Safety first, my friends.

I swung out of the parking lot and quickly got onto Pacific Coast Highway, the two-lane highway that ran up and down the coast. If there was a better commute to work, I didn't know what it could possibly be. The sun was fully up now, lighting up the day with possibility. Mornings were such a great time of day, and no, not just because my name was Sunny. The possibilities for your day were literally endless when it was just beginning. Think about that for a second. How freaking cool was that?

In a quick ten-minute drive, my commute was over and I was parked in the lot outside the Headquarters building. All my early morning positivity died a quiet death as I stared at the building, knowing I'd have to face Cain again. Would I be walking in and immediately pulled aside and fired? The thought of losing my dream job after one lousy day made my stomach lurch like that time in elementary school when I'd found out I was lactose intolerant.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment, wondering what he must think of me. I hadn't seen him at all yesterday after he'd left me dazed and confused in the locker room. Maybe that was normal, or maybe he was avoiding me. I couldn't tell.

I climbed off the Vespa and stored my helmet. I felt the pit in my stomach expand and I didn't like it. I mean really, why was I feeling embarrassed? He was the one who marched into the women's locker room and put his hands on me. He was the boss. I was just an innocent new employee trying to follow orders on her first day. In fact, he should be scared spitless that I would accuse him of sexual harassment!

So there.

I threw my bag over my shoulder and marched across the lot, a bounce back in my step.

I had nothing to worry about.

* * *

Except for the staff meeting where I had to sit with everyone and listen to Cain talk about the day ahead of us and our personal assignments. I sat in the back, which was already a break from my normal behavior, but when I'd walked in and saw who was standing at the front of the room, my legs threatened to give out and I slid into the closest available seat. I checked my phone like my life depended on it until I heard that gravelly voice of his call the meeting to order.

Cain studiously ignored me the entire time, even when he called off my name and assigned me to washing the dirty trucks for the first half of the day and then relieving one of the guards at the last tower on the south side of our beach zone. A couple coworkers I'd met yesterday threw me apologetic looks across the room, everyone knowing I'd received the crappiest assignments possible. Usually the truck washing went to new recruits or people being punished.

And there were only two people in this room that knew why I was being punished on only my second day on the job. It was like pouring salt on the wound to have my coworkers’ pity. They probably thought I was a screw-up already, when in reality, I'd made only one mistake.

Granted, it was a doozy. Huge. Goodyear Blimp flying low over a kiddie birthday party in the park, huge.

Now, not only did I have to worry about keeping my dream job, I had to keep avoiding Cain, who was clearly pissed at me. And I needed to work twice as hard to change all my coworkers’ perception of me too. All because that jerk up at the front of the room decided to take what wasn't his.

The meeting ended and I jumped up before anyone else, grabbing my bag and racing to the locker room without a backwards glance. I didn't get mad often, but when I did, it was usually legendary.

There was that time in middle school when Shawna, the class mean girl, tripped me when I walked by in the cafeteria. Food flew everywhere and I was majorly embarrassed. Fortunately for me, I was also super athletic. The next day in P.E. class we were playing flag football. She caught a pass and I decided detention was totally worth it. I tackled her to the muddy ground and “accidentally” pushed her face in the mud as I went to stand back up. For whatever reason, she gave me a wide berth after that, instead of retaliating. My friends and family never let me forget it either, no matter how many times I explained that she had started it.

Well, Cain had definitely started this one too and I wasn't afraid to retaliate. I had gotten a little older and wiser though. The anger bubbling up in my chest was still alive and well, but I planned to handle it better this time. I'd play the game, on the surface looking like the happy, pleasant, team player I was. But inside?

Oh, lordy, on the inside I'd be planning my attack.

* * *

I flopped down on my tiny couch, exhausted after a morning of washing trucks like my life depended on it and then being out in the afternoon sun on tower 19. I was used to being out in the elements, but it wasn't normally after three hours of hosing down vehicles and scrubbing with towels. I'd had to get out a step ladder to even reach the top of the trucks, something that brought much amusement to several of my coworkers. I kept smiling the whole time though, not willing to let Cain's unfair treatment of me spoil this job.

Chili lay down on his pillow right by my feet, having exerted all the energy he could muster barking his head off when I'd come through the front door. I'd fed him first, without a thank you in return I might add, then grabbed an apple out of the fridge before lying down where I was presently comatose.

My cell phone rang, but I let it go, seeing that it was back on the kitchen counter and therefore out of reach. When it rang again a second later, I heaved out a breath and struggled to standing. I picked up the phone on the last ring, rushing to get to it before it went to voicemail when I saw it was my mom calling.

"Hi, Mom!" I put some enthusiasm back in my voice. If I didn't she'd be asking me twenty questions to get to the bottom of why I sounded so blue.

"Hi, love, how'd your day go?" Mom's voice was subdued, but pleasant, her good manners trumping any pesky emotions.

I sat back down on the couch and propped my feet up on the coffee table. "Good. No one drowned, so I'd say that's a good day." I chuckled. She didn't join in like she usually did which sent a tingle of fear up my neck. "You okay, Mom?"

There was a slight pause. Long enough for the fear to ratchet up a notch.

"Well, that's why I'm calling, honey. Remember I went to the doctor last week?" I nodded my head, not realizing she couldn't see me. She went on anyway. "He got the results back in and he told your father and me that I have a lump on my breast they want to remove right away. The biopsy came back positive for cancer."

The room fell away, the sounds of the house around me muted, leaving me in a vacuum where all I heard was that awful word on repeat. Each repetition was a bit louder, bouncing off the walls of my brain and making me dizzy. I forgot to breathe, frozen there on the couch.

"Honey?" My mom's voice came to me, echoing down a long hallway. "Sweetie, are you still there? I know this is a lot to process, but we caught it early. I'm going to be just fine." Her voice was louder now. The feeling seemed to have come back to my extremities.

A thousand urgent questions rushed through my head and I sat up straight to launch them at her. "So do you have the surgery scheduled? Do you have to do chemo too? What stage are you in? What exactly did the doctors say?"

She chuckled. Actually chuckled at me while delivering the bomb that she had cancer. "Calm yourself, child. The doctors have all assured me that the surgery, followed by chemotherapy, should give me an excellent prognosis. I go in for surgery tomorrow morning and should be home by dinnertime."

I stood up and rushed over to my laptop in the bedroom. "Let me see if I can get a red-eye."

"Sunny, no. I don't want you coming out here for that. I won't even get to see you before you'll need to fly back for work. I'd rather you give your new employers a good first impression of you. That way you can take time off later when I'm home and need some company during the chemo treatments."

I rubbed my eyes, not even wanting to think about the kind of impression I'd made on my new employers. If my mom knew, she wouldn't have to worry about cancer getting her. She'd die of a heart attack first.

I sighed, feeling helpless. How did we get here, where our conversation was about surgeries and chemo treatments? "Mom."

She paused and when she spoke again, the wobble in her voice told me she understood. "I'm going to be fine, Sunny. I have grandkids I intend to see before I leave this earth."

"I love you," I whispered.

"I love you, too," she whispered back.

"I love you more."

"I love you most."



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