“I’m sorry, ma’am, there’s nothing I can do.”
Jan Marone wrung her hands. “But I have a reservation.”
“I know, I’m looking at it right here.” The pretty blond at the desk tapped her screen sympathetically. “I’ll refund your deposit immediately.”
“I don’t want my deposit. I want a room. My cousin’s getting married tomorrow, and I’m in the wedding.”
The girl spread her hands. “The problem is, when one of the upstairs tubs overflowed this morning, the ceiling collapsed on your room. It’s out of service for the weekend, and we’re booked solid.”
“I understand,” Jan said, struggling to remain polite. Hearing the same excuse three times didn’t make it easier to swallow. “How about a sister hotel?”
“We’re independently owned. Paradise Inn is the oldest hotel on the island—”
Jan held up a hand. She knew the spiel. The large, rambling guesthouse was unique, and very Old Key West. Which was exactly why she’d booked it.
“Can you at least help me find a room somewhere else?”
“It’s spring break. I’ll make some calls, but …” A discouraging shrug and a gesture toward the coffeepot.
The girl didn’t seem very concerned, but Jan smiled at her anyway. “Thanks, I appreciate you trying.”
Parking her suitcase beside the coffee table, she surveyed the lobby wistfully. The windows and doors stood open, the wicker furniture and abundant potted plants blurring the line between indoors and out. The warm, humid breeze drifted through the airy space. Her parched Boston skin soaked it up like a sponge.
To a woman who’d never left New England before, it spelled tropical vacation. And it was slipping through her fingers like sand.
Growing ever gloomier, she wandered out through a side door and into a lush tropical garden—palm trees, hibiscus, a babbling waterfall.
And at its heart, a glittering pool, where six gorgeous feet of lean muscle and tanned skin drifted lazily on a float.
Ignoring everything else, Jan studied the man. Thick black hair, chiseled jaw, half smile curving full lips. And arms, perfect arms, draped over the sides, fingers trailing in the water.
He seemed utterly relaxed, the image of sensual decadence. Put him in an ad for Paradise Inn, and women would flock. Gay men would swarm.
As if sensing her attention, the hunk lifted his head and broke into a smile. “Hey Jan, getcha ass in the water!”
Mick McKenna. Her best and oldest friend.
He rolled off the float and jacked himself out of the pool. Water streamed from gray board shorts as he crossed the flagstones.
Stopping in front of her, he shook his hair like a Labrador.
“Geez! Don’t you ever get tired of that?” She brushed droplets off her white cotton blouse.
He laughed his big happy laugh. “Never have, never will. Get your suit on. The water’s a perfect eighty-six degrees.”
“I can’t. They don’t have a room for me.”
The grin fell off his face. “What the hell?”
“Water damage.” She shrugged like it wasn’t tragic. Like she hadn’t been anticipating this weekend for months.
“They must have another room.” Mick started to go around her, no doubt to raise hell at the desk, McKenna-style.
She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “I tried everything. They’re digging up a room for me somewhere else on the island.”
He tunneled long fingers through his hair. “Take my room,” he said. “You found this place, and it’s great. You should stay here.”
“Forget it. I’m not taking your room.” She wasn’t that pathetic. Mick would give her the shirt off his back, which he’d literally done more than once since they were kids, but she wasn’t taking his room out from under him.
He knew better than to argue with her. Disappointment slumped his shoulders, but he buttoned his lips, looking down at her from troubled eyes bluer than the pool gleaming behind him.
She mustered a smile. “Can I use your bathroom?”
She followed him inside, down a short hallway, and into a room that was eighty percent bed.
“Yikes. The reviews said the rooms were tiny, but sheesh.”
Mick shrugged. “Who comes to Key West to sit in their room?”
That was Mick. Mr. Brightside.
A quick glance around revealed the limited amenities: modest flatscreen on the wall; dorm-sized fridge; and a tiny bureau that doubled as a nightstand, holding a digital clock and small lamp. At the foot of the queen bed, Mick’s suitcase flopped open on a narrow bench.
Jan sidled along the bedside and closed herself in the world’s smallest bathroom: a budget-sized toilet wedged between a teacup sink and a phone-booth shower stall.
Everything was clean as a whistle, but one wrong move and she’d have black and blue funny bones in the wedding photos.
Washing her hands in the teacup, she made the mistake of looking into the mirror above it.
“Hello, palest person in Key West. And your hair.” Six hours on three airplanes, and her bun straggled like spaghetti.
Unwrapping the scrunchie that bound it, she ran her fingers through the light brown waves. Humidity or not, she was wearing it down this weekend.
In fact, she was wearing it down from now on. “I’m done with the bun,” she rapped to the mirror, and tossed the scrunchie into the trash.
Day One of the New-Jan Plan.
Out in the bedroom, she found Mick stretched out on the mattress, hands locked behind his head, watching a Simpson’s rerun.
“You’re getting the bed wet,” she said automatically.
That was Mick, never worrying about anything, while she worried about everything. And where had it gotten her? Out on the street, that’s where, while he was tucked up in Paradise.
Which was exactly why she was changing her old, boring ways. They weren’t working for her. At. All.
“Wow.” From Mick. “Your hair got long.”
“Eh.” She plopped down next to him. “Hair grows.”
“It’s just that you never wear it down.” He reached out and rubbed the ends between his fingers. “Soft.”
She eyed him. Sometimes she wondered about Mick. They’d been friends since kindergarten, through the years when boys and girls were supposed to hate each other, even through high school when he was the quarterback and she was a dork.
Twelve years out, he was still captain of the team, so to speak. Fire Captain at his Engine Company, a bona fide hero with a shiny new Medal of Valor, and a mother’s lifelong gratitude for rescuing her eight-year-old.
Meanwhile Jan was still fighting dorkyness. Still too skinny, too nerdy, too plain to be anything more than his buddy, his pal.
But sometimes … sometimes when he looked at her the way he was looking at her now …
Nah. She locked it down. She wasn’t Mick’s type. And truthfully, he wasn’t hers either. If she ever found a guy, he’d be white collar all the way. A lawyer or an accountant. Not someone who risked his life every day.
Her mother had that much of it right. Yes, she was controlling, neurotic, and paranoid. But about marrying a man with a dangerous job, Jan’s mother could speak with authority.
Knuckles rapped the door, and Mick hopped up and opened it to the blond from the desk. “Hey, Barbie.”
Barbie’s gaze tracked slowly from Mick’s bare chest up to his lips. “Hi, Mick.” Breathless.
Jan rolled her eyes and did a finger wave. “Looking for me? Did you find me a room?”
Barbie dragged her gaze away from Mick. “Um, no. No rooms.”
“Nowhere on the island?” Mick dragged a hand through his hair. “This is bullshit,” he declared to the world at large.
“I’m so sorry.” Barbie sounded genuinely sympathetic—on Mick’s account, not Jan’s. “The whole island’s been booked for months. Even if someone cancels, everyplace has a waiting list. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Thanks for trying.” Mick melted Barbie with a smile. “I’m turning my room over to Jan. I’ll figure something out for myself.”
Jan popped up. “Wait just a minute—”
Barbie steamrolled her. “I’ve got a spare room at my place,” she said to Mick. “You can crash with me.”
“No.” Jan wagged her head definitively. “No no no no no.”
Mick had a way of pissing women off. Not completely his fault, since he never made any promises. The problem was, Mick loved women. He couldn’t help making them feel special, and their imaginations ran away with it.
Then, when he didn’t fall in with their plans, things went downhill with a bullet.
All Julie’s wedding needed was Barbie storming the reception and dumping the cake over Mick’s head. Julie would lay the disaster at Jan’s door, because Mick was her wedding guest.
But Barbie was clueless, batting lashes as long as her namesake’s. “Really, Mick, I don’t mind.”
“I mind,” Jan said, sounding more possessive than she meant to.
Mick must have picked up on it, because he flicked his gaze her way, a quick bolt of blue that could steal an unsuspecting woman’s breath.
Her clothes were sure to follow.
But Jan wasn’t an unsuspecting woman. She’d been there from the beginning, keeping herself out of harm’s way as Mick learned to handle his sexual mojo, wielding it like a blunt instrument in high school, and like a light saber ever since.
Sometimes, like now, he carelessly swung it in her direction.
Ignoring the sting, she took one for the bride and groom.
“Thanks anyway,” she said to Barbie, “but Mick’s staying right here with me.”
* * *
She did not just say that.
Mick froze like a statue. Holy shit. Three days—and two nights!—in this shoebox with Jan?
He opened his mouth to say so, then snapped his jaw shut. He’d cut off his left nut before he hurt Jan’s feelings.
She obviously had no qualms about a platonic roommate arrangement. So if his frustrated fantasies of getting her naked kept him climbing the walls all weekend, that was his problem, not hers.
Barbie raked her with sullen eyes. “Your suitcase is in the lobby. The hotel can’t be responsible if someone walks out with it.”
“I’ll get it.” Mick used the excuse to duck out from between them.
In the lobby, he hit up the water cooler, gulping an icy cupful down his parched throat.
Christ, rooming with Jan was the last thing he needed. He’d loved her for twenty years, while she’d never seen him as more than a friend. Sharing a bed with her would be torture.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the timing couldn’t be worse. He already had one foot in crazytown and the other on a banana peel. And all because of the rescue, the one that earned him the medal for valor.
Valor. Ha. People wouldn’t think he was so brave if they knew about the nightmares. Or rather, one nightmare, always the same every night, replaying the collapsing ceiling that missed him by inches.
Except in his dreams, it didn’t miss. In his dreams, the sheet of flames caved in on him, ripping from his arms the little girl who’d counted on him to save her. Pinning him to the floor, broiling him alive.
He came out of the nightmare screaming, lungs on fire, skin melting off his bones.
Not exactly pajama-party material.
He shivered in the heat.
Barbie said his name, and he turned, his smile automatic, a conditioned response to estrogen proximity that she apparently took as encouragement, because she tapped his chest with one finger.
“You didn’t look thrilled back there,” she said.
Was it that obvious?
“I get it,” she went on. “You don’t want to hurt her feelings. But honestly, is it worth your weekend?” Lavender eyes blinked slowly, invitingly. “I can show you parts of Key West tourists don’t get to see.”
Her tone said the parts she wanted to show him were up under her flouncy skirt.
The truth was, another time he would’ve taken her up on it. But not this weekend.
For better or worse, he’d be spending every minute with Jan.
And here she came to the rescue, hands on her hips jealous-girlfriend style. “Damn you, Mick McKenna, I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute.” She blistered Barbie with a step-off glare.
It was an old ruse, dating back to high school, and very effective at fending off the girls who thought nothing of elbowing Jan out of their way to get to Mick.
Playing his part, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tugged her to his side. “Thanks for the offer,” he said to Barbie. “But we’re here for a wedding. No time for sightseeing.”
Barbie crinkled her pert nose. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” She disappeared through a door behind the desk.
Jan made a move to duck out from under his arm, but he tipped his head toward the eye in the sky. “We want her to think we’re a couple, right?”
She let out a hiss. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
“I’m a certified pain in the ass.” He wheeled her suitcase along as they walked lockstep to their room.
When the door closed behind them, he questioned his sanity again. The room was claustrophobically tiny. And her light scent—the same strawberry shampoo she’d used since tenth grade—permeated the air, unsettling him to his marrow.
While Jan took it all in stride.
“We should hang our wedding clothes on the bathroom hook,” she said, all business. “That’ll cut down on wrinkles.”
She patted the bed, and he hefted her suitcase onto it, standing numbly by as she opened it. Then she took a flowered dress off the top, and he got a glimpse of what was under it.
Black lace panties.
Black satin bra.
His eyes fell out of his head and rolled onto the bed.
Jan was supposed to wear granny panties and old-maid bras. White cotton; no lace. He was absolutely, unequivocally certain of that.
She glanced around. “Where’s your suit?”
He opened his mouth but no words came out.
“Mick? Hey, are you having an attack? Can you breath?” She dropped the dress and pressed her ear to his chest, listening to his lungs.
Her cheek seared the skin over his heart.
Curling his hands into fists, he turned his eyes up to the ceiling. “I’m fine,” he got out. “I haven’t had asthma in twenty years.”
“Mmm, well, your lungs do sound clear,” she murmured. “But your heart’s beating like a drum.”
He took a half step back, away from the yard of soft hair tickling his bare chest like fingertips. His shoulders hit the wall with a thud.
She gazed up at him like he was a doofus. He could see the flecks of green in her root beer eyes. “Don’t knock the wall down,” she said, “or we’ll both be out on the street.”
And she turned away, oblivious to the emotions storming through his system.
“Where’s your suit?” she asked again. “Don’t tell me you haven’t unpacked it.” She bent over his suitcase, her ass six inches from his crotch, and he snapped back to life.
Bad enough he’d seen her underwear; she didn’t need to see his.
Batting her hands away, he closed the lid. “I dropped it at the cleaners. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.” He nudged her aside with his hip. “Why don’t you suit up? The water’s perfect.”
“Okay. I got a new bathing suit. What do you think?”
With that, she dug through her suitcase and pulled out a—God help him—bikini.
A sound erupted from his throat. Distress, but Jan took it as derision. Her face crumpled.
“I thought …” She plunked down on the bed. “I just wanted to try something different. A new Jan.”
The hurt on her face made him pull it together fast.
“First of all,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with the old Jan. And there’s nothing wrong with…” He waved a hand at the pink-polka-dotted Band Aids that passed for a swimsuit. “It just surprised me. You always wear a one-piece.”
“I know.” She met his gaze, her expression earnest. “Maybe I should just—”
“You should just put it on. It’s”—too skimpy—“cute. You’ll look”— too sexy—“great.” He faked his best-pals smile. “See you at the pool.”
He did a one-eighty, and scrammed.