The wind blowing in off the water contained more than a hint of coolness as twilight settled over the island. A shiver raced through Cassie’s small frame, and goose bumps broke out across her skin, her short shorts and thin cotton camisole not offering much protection from the brisk ocean breeze. She brushed stray wisps of hair that had escaped from her ponytail out of her eyes and glanced down at the frothy surf flowing around her ankles.
The water was the real culprit responsible for her trembling. Despite it being mid-August, it was freezing. Born and raised in California, she shouldn’t have been surprised. The chill of the Pacific with its northern current, even as far south as San Diego, was common knowledge. But when the sparkling blue water glistened in the warm sunshine, it made her forget.
She’d done so this evening when she walked down to the surf until the waves rolled in and covered her bare feet and ankles. Although tempted to, she didn’t cut and run. Instead, she braved the cold for several minutes, getting used to it as she’d done as a kid. It was that or never get in the water, the latter an unacceptable option for Cassie who loved the beach.
As she stood, soaking it all in, she closed her eyes, enjoying everything from the salt-scented air, to the sand between her toes, and the always soothing sound of the waves rolling in. It muted the chatter and laughter from the party going on behind her, one she’d just left.
She knew no one there and had only come out to Coronado Island to explore and get the lay of the land before her big day tomorrow. On her way home, she couldn’t resist stopping at North Beach to take a stroll along the sparkling golden-sand shoreline while watching the sunset over the water.
She hadn’t intended to stay longer, but when she passed a group of twenty-somethings playing volleyball, she’d gotten caught up watching the game. Not only due to the fact the guys, who were lean, tan, and fit, had stripped off their shirts, but also because they appeared to be having a good time. They were laughing a lot, mostly at the girls on the other side of the net who were really bad at the game. They kept missing, which got them giggling and only made things worse. The coolers in the background, which she was certain contained beer, rather than soda, were partly responsible, no doubt.
Cassie stood by grinning as they ran after stray balls, often tripping over one another, or going down in a tangle of arms and legs as they lunged to keep another shot from hitting the sand. Not once in the entire time she watched did they manage over a two or three hit volley. The guys, who were more coordinated—or less inebriated—didn’t seem to mind that the girls couldn’t get it together. She imagined they indulged their lack of skill because the young women were tan, fit, and beautiful, and wearing minuscule bikinis.
When they noticed her watching from the sidelines, and laughing along with them, they invited her to join in. She didn’t hesitate—something not like her at all—but after being alone in a new city for two long lonely weeks, she was bored and in need of some fun.
One game turned into several, and before she knew it, the sun set. They had to stop playing when they couldn’t see anymore, but wouldn’t hear of her saying goodbye, and convinced her to stay for a bonfire.
By the time the fire was blazing, the coolers, which had once been packed full of beer as she suspected, were down to only a few remaining bottles floating in melted ice. One guy got out a guitar, and while he tuned up, a joint made its way around the circle. Cassie passed it to the person next to her without taking a hit, thinking it wise to abstain since she was starting a new job for the government the next day. She didn’t care in the least if the others indulged, however.
She didn’t need to get high. It was enough to sit cross-legged in the sand as she enjoyed the warm, crackling fire, the moonlit night, the sound of the ocean in the background, and good company. Not to mention the free entertainment because the guitar player could sing. A few others with talent joined in, harmonizing in perfect counterpoint to his melody.
It was a great way to relax at the end of two hectic weeks. Unfortunately, with her first day at work looming in the morning, she had to drag herself away much sooner than she wanted to. But before she left, she got a few names and numbers. She needed new friends, and this group knew how to unwind, something she’d be looking for in the stress-filled coming months.
As she walked down the beach toward the public lot where she’d parked, she felt the buzz from the beer and had to pause to get her bearings. This brought her to where she was now, her face in the breeze, eyes closed, breathing deep while trying to clear her head.
When it came to alcohol, she’d always been a lightweight, with two beers her long-standing limit. She’d foolishly had three. Driving home would be stupid in her condition, so a cab ride was in her future. She wrinkled her nose thinking of the stale air in just about every taxi she’d ever been in, the tattered upholstery that had seen countless strangers’ asses, and the sticky floors—the cause of which she didn’t want to imagine—and didn’t relish the experience.
Sighing, she opened her eyes and took one last look at the ocean.
There was nothing quite like the Pacific. She’d grown up further north in the Bay Area, but wherever she went up or down the coast, if she could see the water, she felt like she was home. She’d missed it while living back east. Boston was a great city, the people were friendly, the history abundant, and she had plenty to do, but the weather was horrendous. In the summer, she sweltered, but far worse than the heat and humidity was the bitterly cold winter with snow measured in feet, not inches.
She’d been excited the first time she’d seen the ground covered in white. Except what started as fluffy and beautiful, turned treacherous if you got caught driving in it. When it hung around for days on end, she got tired of it fast, especially when it turned into ugly, black piles on every street corner. And, she couldn’t walk on the beach whenever she wanted, not from October until at least May without freezing her butt off. Enduring half the year without feeling sand between her toes was just plain wrong.
She was back on the west coast now, hopefully for good, and in the morning, she started a new chapter in her life. To do so, she needed to get home, into bed, and try to sleep for at least six hours.
Cassie turned, scanning the wide expanse of beach for her landmark—a lifeguard tower just past the dunes—when a big wave rolled in. It came up to her knees and staggered her a bit. She made a run for dry land before the next wave surged but didn’t make it. Another crashed into her, this one hitting her mid-thigh and soaking the cuffs of her white denim shorts.
“Crap on a cracker,” she muttered while shivering.
The shifting sand didn’t make slogging through the waves any easier. Nor did the sharp rock or shell digging into the tender arch of her foot. Thrown off balance, she fell to her knees with a splash. To keep from face planting in the surf, she put her hands out and went down on all fours which allowed the next wave to soak the rest of her. They seemed to come in faster and more powerful, knocking her onto her back, and dragging her out with them.
Never intending to go for a swim, Cassie shrieked in frustration. It turned into a startled yelp when strong fingers wrapped around her upper arm.
“I’ve got you,” a deep, masculine voice said from well above her head. He began hauling her out, just as another wave hit. This time she managed to stay on her feet but only because of his firm hold.
Once on dry sand beyond the reach of the rising surf, he stopped, steadying her with both hands as he turned her to face him.
“Thank you,” she gasped, as she glanced up at her rescuer.
A dog barking beside her made Cassie jump.
“Quiet, boy,” the man ordered the animal bounding excitedly around their feet.
With clouds rolling in and filtering the moon, the best she could make out was his dark shape and the whites of his eyes as he looked up at her. The next moment, he nudged her hard, his cold nose working its way under her hand demanding attention. He was a big boy, his head coming up to her waist, and his body weight combined with the sudden movement knocked her into the man in front of her.
As her wet body collided with him, his fingers clamped around her arms again, tight but not uncomfortably so.
“Manners, Roscoe. Sit.” Though pitched low in a smooth baritone, his order held an edge of steel.
This time, the dog dutifully sat at attention, his hot breath panting against her thigh. Cassie felt compelled to fall in along with him, considering the command held an unmistakable air of authority.
“I’m sorry. He’s never met a stranger. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she replied, patting the dog’s head, and giving him a scratch behind the ear before glancing up at his owner. “I hadn’t realized the tide was coming in, and so fast.”
Cassie saw him stiffen. “You’ve been drinking,” he stated. Next, he leaned in and sniffed. “And smoking.” She couldn’t see his expression clearly but could feel the intensity of his disapproval. “What were you thinking going into the water while under the influence? Were you trying to drown yourself?”
“Are you here alone?” he interrupted. A burst of laughter from behind her drew his gaze to the group of partiers down the beach. “You should get back to your friends and don’t wander away until you’re sober.” He paused a moment. “Are any of them fit to drive?”
“I’m not with them, not really. I was heading back to my car—”
“You’re not getting behind the wheel as you are; you can barely stand up.”
That wasn’t true. Without the onslaught of the incoming waves and free of the shifting sand, Cassie was quite steady. Irritated by his bossy, pejorative manner, she pulled away. “I hadn’t planned to drive. I was going to call a cab.”
“Good. I’ll walk you back and wait while you do.” Without getting her agreement for this plan, he turned, and with her wrist in his inflexible hold, began walking. A shrill whistle pierced the air suddenly, making her jump yet again. “Roscoe!”
The dog obediently fell in line beside her. Who wouldn’t?
“This is unnecessary. I’m capable of returning to my car on my own.”
“It didn’t look that way to me a moment ago,” he muttered. “How much did you drink, and smoke?”
“A few beers, and if it’s any of your business,” she snapped, letting her annoyance show, “I wasn’t smoking. As for the mishap in the water, the force of the waves startled me. And I intended to call a cab. I’m not an idiot, no matter what you may think.”
He pulled her to a stop standing close enough for her to see his features if it wasn’t dark. She suspected he was frowning when he said brusquely, “Forgive me, but you kids can’t always be trusted to do what is best, or smart. Case in point wading with the tide coming in.”
“I didn’t know it was coming in,” she protested.
“It’s something you should know before coming to the beach, especially if you plan to stay after dark or get into the water.”
“That was an accident,” she repeated, her voice rising.
“I suppose the beer and pot were an accident too,” he countered. “Both are prohibited, and this beach is patrolled often at night. You could have been arrested on several charges.”
“What are you, a cop?” A public drunkenness arrest on the eve of starting her new job wouldn’t thrill her employer.
“I’m not a police officer. But this is a resort island and we’re used to drunk and disorderly tourists on the beach. As well as underage consumption. If you were my daughter, this stunt would earn you a grounding for a month, after a trip over my knee for a good hard spanking.”
She gasped for two reasons. First, because he thought she was young enough to be his daughter. Cassie often found herself mistaken for a teenager which had caused endless irritation over the years. Being five-foot-three and one hundred ten pounds soaking wet, added to the misperception. She needed to stop wearing her hair in a ponytail which would help.
Second, his suggesting she needed to be punished, like a child. Chosen to get a reaction, she doubted hers was one he’d expect. She’d been over a man’s lap for discipline before and liked it. It had been a while—five, perhaps six years—and she missed it. The mere mention of it after such a long dry spell sent a delicious tremor coursing through her.
But he couldn’t know her shiver wasn’t from fear or outrage. Wouldn’t he be shocked to learn she got off on being taken over a man’s lap for a good paddling? Though tempted to throw it in his face, she wasn’t so reckless.
Still, who did this guy think he was? They were complete strangers. What right did he have to imply she needed a real punishment? She liked a trip over the knee for a warm, tingly bottom the same as the next submissive, but outside of a relationship, or a club scene she negotiated with a dominant of her choosing, no way.
“You know,” she said curtly, “I appreciate your help back there, but I’m not drunk. Furthermore, I’m not a kid, but an adult who doesn’t need a lesson from a stranger who for all I know is a serial killer.” She jerked on her arm. “Let me go.”
He released her, immediately, and took a half step back. When he did, Roscoe surprised her by sitting on her feet and leaning against her legs, his tail thumping on the wet, compacted sand.
The moon made an appearance just then, and she saw him for the first time. Not clearly, but she could make out a firm, clean-shaven jaw, a mouth turned down in a frown—like she’d guessed—and eyes framed by a thick fan of long, dark lashes, though she couldn’t make out their color. His hair, slightly long on top but cropped close on the sides, was a light shade, either a dark blond or sandy brown. He wore an Under-Armor shirt which fit him like a second skin, accentuating a muscular upper body and incredibly broad shoulders. Even in the dark, she could tell he was handsome, and not that much older than she was, mid-thirties, at most.
He sighed suddenly and dragged a hand across his jaw. Cassie heard the rasp of a beard and imagined he sported a five o’clock scruff, something she always found sexy.
“You’re right,” he admitted, surprising her. “I jumped to the conclusion you were a college kid who had too much of a good thing and ended up floundering around in the waves.” He gestured behind him to where the public beach ended and the long row of private properties stretched down the coast. “I live on the island, and we get a lot of that. Especially in late August, as a last hurrah as summer ends and before classes start up again.” He paused a moment, looking out over the water. “Just last month we had a girl go missing while out for a swim past sunset. There was a rip current. A SEAL team from the naval base had to be called in to help recover the body.”
“Oh my God! How awful.”
“Yeah, so it’s fresh on my mind.” He turned back to her. “My advice… You shouldn’t be wandering the beach alone, especially after drinking even one beer, and never where the waves can take you by surprise.”
She appreciated his owning up to his incorrect assumption and was about to tell him so when she saw his eyes dip down her front. When they lingered there, her gaze followed. At the sight of the t-shirt plastered to her body, her nipples hard and standing out through the sheerness of her bra, she let out a little shriek of alarm.
She pulled the fabric away from her wet skin, but it was a wasted effort. As soon as she let go, the snug fitting shirt snapped back in place. She repeated the move with the same ineffective result. Left with no other option to preserve her dignity, Cassie crossed her arms over her chest.
Covered, but utterly mortified, she peeked up at him. When he didn’t comment, she was grateful for it, although she thought she saw his lips twitch the tiniest bit.
He didn’t give her time to come up with a response before he suggested more politely, “Allow me to see you back to your car. If you have a phone on you, it’s ruined after that soaking. I’ll use mine to call the cab and wait with you until it arrives. Miss…”
“My name is Cassie,” she replied. “And I left my phone in the car. I can call a cab from there, so you don’t have to stay.”
“That seals it for me, I’m afraid. You’re by yourself after dark, without a way to call for help, slightly tipsy, and a lot bedraggled, so yes, Cassie, I do have to stay. I’m Flynn, a stranger, but good guy, and I swear,” he laid his hand on his chest, “I’m not a serial killer.”
His lips kicked up in a smile which she couldn’t keep from returning.
When he wasn’t judging, he could be charming. And he had an awesome name that suited him. She also liked his firm, no-nonsense attitude, although she didn’t let on. At another time and place, she’d have flirted with him, especially, if he had a dominant bent. From their encounter, she suspected Flynn did—if he didn’t, what a waste.
She didn’t argue with his plan any further, only nodded, now that the misunderstanding was behind them. When a gust of wind blew hard, whipping her long ponytail and the loose tendrils of hair around her face into her eyes, she brushed it back, leaving one arm crossed over her chest. Her nipples tightened painfully, poking hard against her forearm, and it wasn’t only from being chilled.
Though she wanted to say something, to test the waters—bad pun not intended—she didn’t. Her Dom-dar was off these days. The spanking comment, although out of line wasn’t completely off base considering his assumption she was a reckless, irresponsible college kid. And she didn’t dare risk embarrassing herself further if she was wrong.
“You were running,” she observed softly, hoping he wouldn’t notice the breathless quality in her voice.
“Yes, but I won’t miss a few miles this evening. Roscoe, on the other hand, will be your friend for life if you save him from exercise. He might look like a dog, but trust me, he’s really a fur-wearing, couch potato. Though, as a gentleman, he would insist on escorting you and would ignore me to follow you up, if I didn’t. His calling is to see to all damsels in distress, especially if it means getting out of running. Isn’t that right, boy?”
On cue, the dog barked, coming to his feet, his tail whipping back and forth, so happy to be included, he looked like he might wiggle out of his fur.
Cassie laughed. Flynn joined her, the low, rumble charming her further. And Roscoe, not to be outdone by his master, tilted his head to the side, tongue hanging out, and gave her a pleading look with his beautiful dark puppy-dog eyes.
“How could I say no to such gallantry? Lead on, sirs.” She could have been mistaken, but she thought she saw a spark of interest in her rescuer’s eyes, but again, he didn’t comment. He did crook his arm and offered it to her.
When they started walking again, Flynn adjusted his stride, so his long legs matched her pace, which was nice.
“I know at first look it may not seem like it, but I’m not a partier.”
He didn’t respond to that either.
“I’m new in town. I came here for a walk, and to watch the sun go down. When they invited me to join them, I did, in celebration.”
“I start a new job tomorrow.”
“Thanks. I was feeling sorry for myself, being the new girl in town and not knowing a soul.”
“Now you know two souls, me, and Mr. Couch Potato.”
She angled her head up to him. Innate hotness aside, she was starting to like him, a lot.
Roscoe barked again, clearly insulted, and with his tail in the air, picked up speed and moved ahead of them.
“Oh, you’ve hurt his feelings.”
“Impossible. He’s a lab; happy all the time, which makes for a crap watchdog, let me tell you. Everyone is his friend—the mailman, joggers, serial killers.”
She laughed at his gentle jab. “He’s sweet. As are you for coming to my rescue.”
“I’m glad I came along when I did, and that I didn’t have to put my CPR skills to the test.” She caught a flash of his white teeth in the dark. “You’re little, and with the waves rolling in, knocking you around, you looked like a flounder washing up on shore.”
His husky laughter wrapped around her, sparking a tingle of excitement. Too enamored to take offense at being compared to a flat, ugly fish, and a dead one at that, she joined in.
They chatted amicably all the way to the lot where she’d parked. Cassie retrieved her phone from her purse in the trunk where she’d left it for safekeeping, good thing too or it would have been waterlogged for sure. She called a taxi, and as promised, Flynn kept her company while she waited, without a lull in the conversation until it arrived. He opened the back door for her, but before she slid in, took her phone from her fingers. She didn’t protest although she leaned in, watching as his thumbs moved over the screen adding a number to her contacts.
“Next time you’re lonely or need to celebrate, you call Roscoe and me. We’ll keep you safe and out of trouble.” He said this with a smile in his eyes that thanks to the street lights she now knew were a beautiful gray with hints of dark blue. Though he didn’t say a word, one dark blond brow quirked in amusement as he handed back her phone. She accepted it, suppressing a groan upon seeing his very masculine hand holding her girlie-pink glitter case. No wonder everyone thought she was a kid.
Still, she tamped down her embarrassment and said sincerely, “It was nice meeting you, Flynn.” His dog whimpered ensuring he wouldn’t be left out. She bent and gave him an ear scratch. “And you too, Roscoe.” Her gaze shifted back to his handsome owner, wondering if this would be the last time she saw him. “Thanks again.”
“Anytime, Cassie.” He stepped back, and she had no choice but to slide into the back seat of the waiting cab.
As it pulled away, she gave him a little wave, knowing she’d never have the nerve to call him. Because the way he left it, with her having his number, not the other way around, she’d have to be the one to make the next move—something out of character for her.