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Currently viewing the category: "Author: Michele Zurlo"

Time to Pretend
Awakenings, Book 4
by Michele Zurlo

Siren-Bookstrand

eBook ISBN: 1-61034-298-4

Daniel DiMarco needs to find a woman willing to love both him and his best friend, Evan, or he’ll lose his secret lover forever. He sets his sights on Alaina. She doesn’t think they’re serious, and she knows they’re hiding something from her. When she discovers their secret, will it tear them apart or bring them closer together?

Chapter One

The woman dressed in clingy black cotton pants and a red sports bra was more than prepared to take on the man throwing a kick aimed squarely at her midsection. Whirling out of the way, she responded with a roundhouse kick of her own. The man skipped out of the way just in time. Her momentum carried through, putting her in a vulnerable position.
In the silence of the abandoned martial-arts studio, the smack of skin on skin and the thud of feet against the floor mats echoed from the high ceiling of the older building.
Alaina Miles clenched her fists, silently rooting for the woman to recover. She was average height for a woman, but she was tall when compared to Alaina, towering seven inches above Alaina’s five-foot-even stature. Her athletic build put Alaina’s curvy frame to shame. No matter what form of exercise she tried, nothing seemed to make a dent in those curves. Clearing her freezer of mint chocolate chip ice cream might help, but she was loath to forego comfort food.
Alaina’s mental encouragement was futile, though. In two moves, with chess master-like precision, the man had the woman pinned to the mat. The few times she watched them spar as a warm-up before the scheduled self-defense class, he usually won. Of course, the woman got him back later when she used him to demonstrate the best techniques to fend off an attacker.
The man was a sight to behold. Broad, strong shoulders were corded with long, lean muscle. His massive chest tapered to trim hips and an ass that demanded attention. Though she had never seen him shirtless or in shorts, Alaina was certain every inch of his body was as well-defined as the biceps and forearms not covered by his blue cotton T-shirt. He was the tall-dark-and-handsome man of her fantasies. Literally. She was even tempted to name her newest vibrator after him.
Standing, he extended an olive-toned hand to the similarly complexioned woman and helped her to her feet with all the respect one athlete had for a colleague. “You left your right side open,” he said somewhat unnecessarily.
“Yeah, I figured that out when you got a hit in.” The woman headed to the bench next to Alaina and grabbed her water bottle. “I can’t think of how to counter that without committing to the kick.”
“Bring your arm down.” He demonstrated the move she should have made.
Alaina watched with casual interest. Later, in the privacy of her own home, with all the shades drawn, she would practice the moves the pair demonstrated.
The woman sat down heavily on the bench next to Alaina. Thinking of her as “the woman” and thinking of him as “the man” helped distance herself from both of them. Though they were both highly charismatic, friendly people, Alaina knew distance was necessary. She’d made the mistake once of thinking she could have a relationship with either one of them that was more than business. She wouldn’t be humiliated that way again.
To be fair, Sophia hadn’t meant to humiliate her. She had been distraught over her relationship with her boyfriend, Drew Snow. She had worked past it, and now they were engaged and planning a wedding for the following summer. It was scheduled for Midsummer’s Eve, to be exact. It had something to do with the Shakespeare play. Alaina tried to keep the conversations on business-related topics, so she didn’t know true details.
But she did know that Sophia hadn’t recognized her, despite having co-written the grant that brought Alaina to the free program Sophia put together for women who had been victims of violence. Alaina had made the mistake of thinking she was developing a budding friendship with Sophia and in thinking the fact that she was ten years older than the pair didn’t matter.
When Sophia had called her brother, Daniel, to pick her up from Drew’s house, Alaina had been about to end her disastrous date with Daniel. How had she ever thought dating a twenty-six-year-old, party-minded bachelor would ever work out? Even if the age difference wasn’t a factor, they led completely different kinds of lives. She didn’t judge Daniel or his life choices. They were simply vastly different from hers.
She knew very well she wasn’t Daniel’s usual type. A man as sexy and handsome and charming as Daniel DiMarco had his pick of women. He preferred tall, skinny, sexy, sultry blondes with large breasts. Alaina was short and curvy and ten years older. Various men had found her sexy over the years, but no one had ever referred to her as sultry.
Intelligent. Sharp. Brainy. Smart. Most people described her intellect and failed to notice she even had a body. She never understood why Daniel had asked her out in the first place. They’d spent the majority of the evening arguing. Their personalities just didn’t mesh.
Sophia had even commented on how unusual it was for Daniel to date someone like Alaina. Hearing his sister express Alaina’s deepest insecurities had been humiliating. She covered it up well, and now she kept a professional distance between them. She was polite and friendly, but not overly so. Six weeks had elapsed since that debacle, long enough for Daniel to have forgotten it completely.
Her relationship with Daniel was a little different. He contrived to treat her as if the date never happened. He was respectful of her role as a therapist.
He greeted her with a polite nod and no words. Snagging Sophia’s water bottle, he drank deeply. “I figure this will make us about even for what you did to me last week,” he said, continuing his conversation with Sophia as if Alaina wasn’t there.
On the surface, she smiled blandly and pretended a disinterest in their conversation. Inside, she seethed. How could a man who had the nerve to order her dinner without asking her what she wanted treat his sister with such obvious respect?
Easy. Sophia was family. Family meant everything to Daniel. It was the way he had been raised. It was part of his identity. Women on the inside of his familial circle could be respected as people. Women outside that circle were pieces of meat meant to be pawed and coddled until they spread their legs and gave him what he wanted. Then he moved on to fresh pastures.
Oops. There was a little of that bitterness leaking out. Why did she still find him so attractive? Just looking at him made her body respond with shivers of anticipation.
Breathing through the sudden twinge, Alaina brought her attention back to the present.
Daniel’s sweaty body was the first thing she saw. More breathing exercises were required.
Daniel was a poor choice to help Sophia demonstrate self-defense. In Alaina’s opinion, most of the women watching would never try to fend off any advance Daniel made. He was single, good-looking, and charming. He owned his own business. He behaved like an alpha male. On all the psychological and sociological factors that mattered, Daniel DiMarco was a good catch. Sophia’s repeated warnings about Daniel’s womanizing only seemed to make him more desirable in those women’s eyes.
On Alaina’s personal scale, he fell short. She wanted a man who respected her mind and her body. Daniel couldn’t care less about her mind, and he hadn’t been all that thrilled with her body. He hadn’t even tried to kiss her, and he had avoided any physical contact that wasn’t necessary.
It wasn’t a bad body. She didn’t dress in tight or revealing clothes, and she eschewed bright colors. Still, she could hold her own in a bathing suit, especially a one-piece with lots of Lycra.
Had he lost a bet? Was that why he asked her out in the first place?
Sophia smiled at Alaina and oriented her body to include her group’s psychologist in the conversation. “I didn’t do anything unfair last week, did I?”
Alaina didn’t need to answer. She glanced toward the door. Though Sophia tried to include Alaina, Daniel ignored her attempt. “You kicked me in the balls.”
Sophia shrugged. “You were supposed to stop me. Besides, you were wearing a cup.”
She didn’t usually watch Sophia and Daniel sparring as part of their warm up. Usually, she ran a group session before Sophia’s lesson. However, nobody had arrived. That was worrisome. What if none of the women came? While Alaina kept records of who came to the sessions, she didn’t have contact information for any of the women. Most of them wanted anonymity, and this program promised that kind of confidentiality.
With her attention elsewhere, Alaina became uncomfortably aware of the silence. Slowly, she turned back to an expectant Sophia. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“I asked if you were okay. You seem distracted.” The concern in her big brown eyes was reinforced by the hand she closed over Alaina’s fist in a brief, reassuring squeeze.
Daniel handed Sophia’s water bottle back. Sophia squinted into it, searching, probably for backwash. It was a pointless exercise. The bottle was empty.
“You’ve built some pretty solid relationships this summer,” Daniel said, looking at Alaina fully for the first time. “I don’t think those six women would skip. Remember Sophia could only secure funding for child care for two hours. She chose to schedule it for the later therapy session.”
Alaina stared at Daniel. It amazed her how someone who acted like such a Neanderthal could be so perceptive. “I was expecting someone early for a private session. I thought…” She trailed off as the door chimed. “There she is.”
Jumping up, Alaina went to the door to greet Tamara. While she couldn’t promise Tamara a true private session, when Sophia began offering child care, Alaina predicted the majority of the women would begin staying later. That’s why she suggested Tamara come early. It increased their odds of having time alone.
That was another thing that surprised her about Daniel. He had been the one who suggested Sophia provide child care. He had researched grants and hired the two teens who would be doing the babysitting.
Alaina guided Tamara into the back room where chairs were set up for the therapy sessions. When she first began coming, Alaina had arrived early to set up the chairs only to find them already arranged. She had assumed Sophia was doing the set up until she saw that Sophia’s arrival time wasn’t consistent. More often than not, Sophia arrived later. Daniel had joked about his sister’s lateness enough for Alaina to figure out it was a lifelong problem that wasn’t going to go away.
The joking had taken place before she made the mistake of going out with him. There was no more lighthearted banter and no more joking between them anymore.
Pushing away thoughts of Daniel, Alaina focused on Tamara. Later, she watched Sophia pummel Daniel as she demonstrated self-defense techniques on her brother. Then she conducted a group session where she felt several of the women made real progress. She was glad to see some of them coming consistently. The women were bonding, learning they weren’t alone in the world.
It was a shame there were only two sessions left. Sophia was moving on with her life, and these classes didn’t fit into her new schedule. Alaina was happy for Sophia, but there were so many more women who hadn’t yet arrived at that point in their recovery. Alaina had found alternate programs for many of the women, but she doubted they would attend.
Still, confidence and self-esteem were on the rise. A pleased smile brightened her face and lightened her step as she folded the chairs and stowed them in the closet. Daniel and Sophia had disappeared upstairs over forty minutes ago. She didn’t expect to see either of them again.
That’s why she jumped when she turned around to see Daniel in the room with her. He was dressed in jeans and a light blue polo shirt. His hair was damp from his recent shower. The room was a good size for ten women to sit around and talk. With just Daniel in the room, it seemed suddenly too small.
She wanted to drag her hands through his dark brown hair and jerk his head down until his lips met hers. Hand over heart, Alaina closed her eyes. “Did you need something?”
Daniel’s chuckle had her eyes flying open. He folded a chair. “I thought I would help you clear the floor.”
Glancing around, Alaina counted two chairs not put away. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll be out of your hair in a minute. I can tell you want to get out of here.”
“Can you?” He seemed amused.
Yes. Just as much as she did.
“Well, yes. You obviously have a date, and I’m keeping you from locking up and leaving.” She reached for a chair at the same time he did. His fingers brushed over hers. Alaina yanked her hand back, feeling as if she’d been burned. She hated the adolescent way she reacted to him. She’d never behaved this way around a man before, even ones who were better looking than Daniel. Admittedly, few men existed who were better looking than Daniel, but still. She hadn’t been sixteen for twenty years.
“What makes you think I have a date?” His head cocked to the side, and a slight frown marred his mouth.
Her eyes flicked up and down his body, taking him in and striving to dismiss him in one gesture. She grabbed the remaining chair and turned away. “You’re dressed nicely, you fixed your hair, and you’re wearing cologne. You don’t go through all that trouble just to go to bed.”
She wanted to shrivel up and die the moment she alluded to his bed. The image of him lounging, tangled in the sheets, that dark hair tousled from wild sex, was too much. Why couldn’t she get him out of her head? He’d never even kissed her!
“Maybe I just wanted to give you a hand,” he said. “Maybe I’m that kind of guy.”
She nearly snorted out loud. “Controlling?” She was baiting him, and she needed to stop. “If you’re helping me, it’s not for altruistic reasons. You either don’t trust me to put the chairs away correctly, or I’m not moving fast enough to suit you.”
As she spoke, she stowed the last chair and closed the closet door. It was white. Everything in the room was painted white, except for the yellowed trim along the floor. Alaina noticed stupid little details when she was nervous, and Daniel made her nervous. Turning to leave, she crashed into his chest. Instead of reaching out to steady her, he pushed her against the door she had just closed.
Alaina gasped, her chin rising sharply to direct her glare at his face. If she didn’t, his chest would bear the brunt of her anger. She had time to notice how the thin cotton of his shirt molded to the dips and planes of his muscles. Her hands itched to feel something that looked so good.
“I thought you might appreciate the help,” he said, ignoring her outrage. The baritone in his voice vibrated from his chest to hers, though inches separated them. “I see I was wrong.”
Something was wrong with her breathing. Air wouldn’t seem to fill her lungs. Frantic, she did the only thing she could think to do. Borrowing a move from Sophia, she brought her knee up sharply between his legs. Unwittingly, she squeezed her eyes shut and waited for contact.
Hard muscle clamped down on either side of her knee, holding her leg hostage. Alaina pried open one eye and looked down. He had countered her move. Only the white, painted door at her back helped keep her balance.
Now she could breathe, but the air came out in short little pants. His heat penetrated the pale nylon covering her legs. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, a move she knew communicated desire, but she couldn’t help it. If he kissed her now, she wouldn’t stop him. She didn’t want to want this kind of attention from him. It made her seem as cheap as the rest of the women he’d been with.
Desperately, she lashed out at him, swinging with her right fist. He captured it, and the left that followed, pressing her wrists to the door. She whimpered with need and hoped he took it for fear. As much as he used women, he did it honestly. Daniel wasn’t a man who would force his attentions on a woman who didn’t want them.
“Are you finished?” His lips hovered near hers. She felt his breath on her cheek, but he made no move to actually touch her anywhere except her wrists and knee. “You have a lot to learn about taking a swing at a man, Lainie. Maybe you should join class instead of watching.”
He was the only person who had ever shortened her name like that. It was too intimate, as was the heat smoldering in his eyes and the way her thigh was pressed between his. She closed her eyes, but that proved to be a mistake. It focused her senses on his smell. He wasn’t wearing cologne. She had been wrong about that earlier. The scent was a combination of his shampoo and soap and something distinctly Daniel. It was a heady aphrodisiac.
Gathering her courage, she hit him with words. At least she was good with words. The articles she’d published in various medical journals over the years had been well received. “What now, Daniel?” Okay, she used to be good with words.
His lips traced patterns over her cheeks and down her neck, teasing her with their proximity but never coming close enough to actually touch her. Breathing stopped. Her body arched forward in a vain attempt to press against his. All of this happened without her permission and without her approval.
“You tell me, Lainie. Tell me what you want.”
She wanted him to kiss her. It was obvious she wanted his kiss. Her head darted forward, trying to mash her lips against his, but he moved out of range.
“You want me to kiss you, don’t you? I see you looking at me when you think I’m not paying attention. I see the way you’re licking your lips now. You want to devour me. Say the words, Lainie. Tell me you want me.”
He wanted her to beg. He wanted to humiliate her even more. He talked in that low, seductive voice of his. He was smooth and suave. She knew his kind. The moment she admitted her weakness, he would use it to reduce her to nothing. Alaina refused to submit to him. She would not let him humiliate her.
Taking a deep breath, then another and another, Alaina gathered her wits. “I want you to let go of me, Daniel. I want you to get out of my personal space.”
Disappointment and frustration took turns crossing his face. With obvious reluctance, he admitted defeat and released her wrists and her knee.
The distance between them widened. Remnants of his heat against her body faded. Alaina wanted to call him back. She shivered instead.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs outside the room. Why hadn’t Alaina heard them when Daniel had come down? Hastily, she turned to the counter on the other side of the door. Her purse was there. Unzipping the top, she dug deep in search of her car keys. The faster she was out of there and in the safety of her own home, the better.
“Daniel? Are you ready? Did you invite Alaina?” Sophia’s presence did nothing to diminish Daniel’s.
Alaina didn’t turn around to see the negative answer. Deep, cleansing breaths would help her biorhythms return to normal.
Sophia didn’t appear to notice that Alaina was avoiding turning around. “Alaina? A friend of mine is having a poker game tonight. You’re welcome to join us.”
Finally, Alaina turned to face the siblings. “Thank you. I have plans tonight.” Her smile was tight, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.
Sophia’s eyes flashed with excitement. “With that new doctoral candidate?”
Alaina forced her smile to widen. “It’s only coffee.” Technically, they did have plans to meet for coffee, but the only topic of discussion was going to be a critique of his proposed research procedure.
“That’s great.” Sophia clapped Daniel on the back. “I told you she’d get up the courage eventually.”
Daniel’s look was black. He didn’t respond to Sophia’s enthusiasm.
Alaina excused herself and fled to her car. If she didn’t feel such a strong responsibility for the women in the support group, she would have found a way to stop coming. She had no problem running from a man like Daniel, a man who could completely absorb and obliterate her very existence. But she couldn’t abandon women who had already been hurt by people they trusted.
She arrived home close to ten. The meeting with Robert, the doctoral candidate she was mentoring, had been short and to the point.
Alaina locked herself in her study and tried to transcribe her notes. Images of Daniel eventually drove her upstairs. She pictured his hands on her body as she turned the setting on her vibrator to high.

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