Melinda Edgeworth had vanished–bridesmaid dress, pearls, up-do and all—-and she hadn’t even had the courtesy to leave a glass slipper lying around as a clue to her whereabouts.
Pete hunted for Mel in the posh wedding crowd at Miami’s Playa Bella Hotel, with no success. She’d disappeared faster than a Swedish meatball down the gullet of a guest.
He accounted for the other four bridesmaids, who were easy to spot in their matching turquoise gowns, but Melinda wasn’t among them.
Not a good sign. Pete frowned, recalling even through the fog of his continuing hangover what he’d promised Mark: to make sure his little sister had a good time at the wedding.
Mark and Kendra had tied the knot in a beautiful ceremony less than an hour ago. The photographer had rounded up all the groomsmen, including Pete, and taken a goofy shot of them admiring Kendra’s ring. Then he’d rounded up all the bridesmaids, including Melinda, and taken an equally goofy shot of them in a gaggle around Mark with the blue garter that was now, presumably, back around Kendra’s thigh.
After that, Melinda had gone missing.
Pete lurked outside the Ladies’ room for a couple of minutes, with no luck. Then he tried dialing her room in the hotel, but nobody answered. Finally he dug another couple of ibuprofen out of his pocket, swallowed them dry, and ducked out the back doors.
It was like stepping into a postcard of sunset, sand and ocean waves. The Hotel Playa Bella was located, true to its name, on the beach–on a tiny private key in downtown Miami. That meant the beach, too, was private and open only to guests of Playa Bella. Since Pete worked there in account management, and was specifically in charge of new business development, he’d been able to cut Mark and Kendra quite a deal.
Pete put a hand up to his bleary eyes—God, what had possessed the groomsmen to do all those shots last night?—and looked out towards the water. Sure enough, he spotted a turquoise-draped figure with a brunette up-do, walking in the sand with her shoes in her left hand.
“Mel?” Pete called, but he knew it was futile. No way could she hear him over the wind. He looked down at his shiny formal shoes, then back at the sand, and groaned. He sat down on a deck chair and untied his laces, slipped off the shoes and peeled off his socks. He rolled up his pants a couple of times and headed after her.
The ocean breeze had picked up, and the force of it plastered his shirt to his chest as he approached her. It also did things to Melinda’s dress that he couldn’t help appreciating. The flimsy fabric clung to her curves like plastic wrap, and he got a very intimate look at her generously proportioned, sexy derriere.
It was wrong of him to look. Mel was Mark’s kid sister, the pudgy little girl that they’d buried to the neck in the sand, petrified with ghost stories and trapped in the old tree-house when they’d stolen the ladder . . .
But look Pete did. And the closer he got, the more he liked what he saw. He hadn’t noticed her body at all during the rehearsal dinner—she’d worn something shapeless and forgettable—but the turquoise bridesmaid dress was also fitted at the waist, and more than a little snug in the bust area.
She seemed to sense his gaze on her, because as he approached she turned towards him, and he was faced with a heavenly eyeful of deep, shadowy cleavage. Her breasts strained against the fabric that confined them, and he himself strained mightily not to look at them.
Her face became pink as she said, “Hi, Pete. What are you doing out here?”
Heat rose in his own face. “Looking for you.”
“Why?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I was going to ask you to dance.”
“Me?” Mel swung a champagne bottle out of the folds of her skirt and lifted it towards her lush, pink mouth as Pete raised his eyebrows. She drank, her lips kissing the bottle. He watched the liquid pour down her throat from inside the dark green glass, the sight erotic as hell. His own mouth went dry.
Little sister. Mark. Again, he had to remind himself.
“What’s the matter, Pete?” she asked, throatily. “You’ve never seen a girl drink from the bottle before?”
“Er,” he said stupidly, around a tongue that felt thick and woolly. “Would you like a glass?”
“No, thanks.” She smiled at him. “It would spoil my whole Barefoot Bohemian Bridesmaid thing.”
“Oh. I get it,” said Pete, who didn’t.
Yeah . . . that was another oddity. Melinda Edgeworth wasn’t at all bohemian. Not the sort of girl you’d find wandering a beach barefoot, slugging back booze from a bottle. And yet here she was. Looking like a whole lot of big, blue-eyed trouble, with her up-do acting like voodoo on him.
For somehow, over the years, Mel’s freckles had faded and her huge blue eyes—-he remembered, with shame, how they’d called her Bug-Eyes—-now fit her lovely face.
“Want some?” Mel asked, extending the bottle to him.
Pete took it, touched his lips to where hers had just been, and drank. The wine was cold, dry and effervescent. He felt his hangover stir sleepily and pull the new alcohol over it like a blanket. Yeah, that was it: a little hair of the dog would cure everything . . . and he’d just drown this sudden, unwelcome and inappropriate lust of his for Melinda.
She walked a couple of paces ahead of him, then bent down to pick up a small sand-dollar. The fabric of her dress molded, once again, to that curvy backside of hers, and if she wasn’t wearing a thong, then his name was Abraham Lincoln and not Peter S. Dale.
Pete barely restrained a groan.
Mel stood up with her prize and smiled. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? So amazing that nature can create something so perfect.”
He nodded and held out the champagne bottle, but almost dropped it when Melinda slipped the sand-dollar into her cleavage. She took the bottle without noticing that he’d practically started drooling.
“That gives me an idea,” she said. “I’m going to make pies that look like sand-dollars . . . and cookies that look like star-fish. Maybe cakes shaped like fish, too. It’s a perfect theme for Miami.”
Mel had graduated from a culinary school and become a professional pastry chef with her own business.
“How about suns and boats?” Pete suggested.
“Great idea.” Mel upended the champagne bottle again, drinking deeply. “I’m going to make it, Pete, no matter what anyone says.”
He drew his eyebrows together. “Of course you are. Why would anyone doubt that you’re going to be a success?”
Pete noted with alarm that a good three quarters of the bottle was gone.
“You wouldn’t believe,” she said, after finally taking a breath, “how many demeaning comments I got while I was enrolled at the Culinary Institute.”
“What do you mean?”
“Pastry chef?” Mel mock-scoffed. “Oh-what-cute-cupcakes-you’ll-make-for-your-kids-one-day.” Up went the bottle again. Glug, glug.
Pete ’s radar detected deep wounds hidden under Mel’s words and consumption of champagne. “Who said that to you?”
The wind had blown a stray lock of hair free and into her face. Mel attempted to blow it back into place, but failed. “My brother Mark, for one. And my dad asked me if I could really support myself by baking cakes and pies.”
Pete had been ready with a rejoinder about what a jerk the comment-maker was, but he shut his mouth. “I’m sure they don’t mean to be unsupportive.”
“Right,” she said. Glug.
“So what about your mom?”
“My mom doesn’t take it seriously either, but she does order lots of cakes for her friends’ birthdays and other occasions.”
Melinda was perilously close to finishing off the bottle of champagne. Her speech wasn’t slurred, but Pete noted that every time the tide came in, she leaned backwards a little. And every time the water rushed away again, she leaned forward, unconsciously echoing its rhythms. Her face had begun to flush, too, because of the alcohol.
Pete deduced that she’d drunk the champagne very quickly, and that more of its effects were going to creep up and clobber her any moment now. Time for a little friendly interference. “Hey, Bug-Eyes,” he teased. “Give me some of that.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but handed over the bottle. “I could have lived without being called that ever again, you know.”
Pete winked and gave her a friendly shrug. He took two large gulps and k.o.’d the champagne. Then he set the bottle in the sand and manfully restrained a belch.
“Do you know what a complex you and Mark gave me? I went crying to my parents and begged them to take me to the eye doctor so he could fix the problem! I had nightmares about becoming a fly—and no, I never saw the movie because I was afraid to.”
Pete struggled mightily to look sympathetic and suitably remorseful, but he burst out laughing instead. “I’m sorry,” he gasped.
To his relief, Mel began to laugh, too. “It’s not funny,” she exclaimed.
“Yes it is,” he said, backing away with his palms in the air in case she tried to smack him.
“Well, it wasn’t funny at the time!”
He got control over himself and tried to imagine how scary it would be to a six-year-old to wake up in the middle of the night, in the dark, terrified that she’d sprout several hairy insect legs and a pair of wings to go with her existing ‘bug eyes.’
Regret washed over him. “Mel, I’m truly sorry if we said anything to traumatize you back then. We were just a couple of dumb kids.”
“It was years ago,” she said dismissively. “Forget it.”
She picked up the empty bottle and peered into it. “Hey! You drank all the champagne.”
Pete decided not to correct her, though he’d had approximately one-eighth of the bottle and she’d had the rest.
“That’s not very nice.”
“What can I say? I’m not a nice guy.” He grinned at her.
She frowned back. “Yes, you are. You weren’t always nice as a kid, but now you’re so nice that your picture’s next to the word in the dictionary.”
He found that he was mildly offended. “Not true.”
“It is, too. You took off your shoes and came all the way out here to talk to me.”
“I came to talk to you because I like you, not because I’m nice.”
“You said you wanted to dance with me.”
“Yeah . . . ?”
“Well, that proves that you’re nice.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Pete said.
This was ridiculous–they were behaving like little kids.
“I wanted to dance with you because you’re a beautiful, sexy woman,” Pete told her.
Mel snorted and turned away. “Riiiight.”
He put a hand on her arm and tugged her back around to face him. “You are. What’s with the horse noise?”
Mel’s face, already flushed with alcohol, deepened a couple of shades. “Pete, I’m not one of Playa Bella’s high-roller clients. You don’t have to suck up to me.”
Stung, he opened his mouth to make an uncharacteristic retort. Then he saw the shimmer of tears in her eyes and stopped himself.
“I want some more champagne,” she said.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
He shrugged. “Okay. I’ll get us some more in a minute. What’s got you so upset, Mel?”
“What’s Nothing’s last name? I’ll go beat him up for you,” he said teasingly.
“You’re going to cold-cock my mother?”
Pete winced. “Okay, maybe not. So what did she do, honey?” Mel expelled a long, quivering breath.
He waited for her to take another and blow that one out too, staying quiet, not pressuring her to share. Pete knew how to listen. He was a pro. He listened to litanies of complaints from picky customers all day long. He then listened to staff complain about the complaints, as a matter of fact. So whatever Melinda had to say wasn’t going to faze him.
“My mother,” Mel laughed softly. “My stick-thin mother and her backhanded compliments . . .”
“She told me how lovely the cake looked—the wedding cake I did for Mark and Kendra. And in the same breath she said my life would be so different if I did something outside the ‘realm of temptation,’ the ‘calorie-rich’ environment of my bakery.”
Pete hissed in a breath. Ouch.
“Yeah, nice, huh?”
“It probably just came out wrong,” he said, trying to make her feel better.
She rounded on him. “Oh, so there’s a right way to say that?”
“Noooo, maybe not.”
“I’m really good at what I do! I’m proud of it!” Two angry tears overflowed Melinda’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
“Of course you are.” Pete wrapped his arms around her and tucked her head under his chin. He rubbed her back and tried very hard not to notice how good her hair smelled—like camellias–or how her breasts mounded solidly against his chest, or how his body reacted to her dangerous curves.
“Then why doesn’t my own family take me seriously?” She sniffled against his tuxedo jacket. “My dad still asks me if I need money. My mom treats me like a wayward teenager, and she recently subscribed me to Weight Watcher’s online without permission. And Mark only let me do his wedding cake because it was free.”
“That cake is stunning,” Pete said with honesty, but also because he needed to distract himself. Part of him was hardening, and unfortunately it wasn’t his heart.
He prayed that Melinda wouldn’t notice. They’d been kids together. She was Mark’s baby sister. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, pop a woody. Not here, not now.
He cleared his throat as she lifted her face from his tuxedo jacket. “Thanks, Pete. You’re such a good guy.” She hugged him whole-heartedly. “Just for that, you get a free birthday cake.”
How about a free birthday suit? Yours?
His body loved that idea.
Oh, hell. Pete closed his eyes.
Houston, we have a problem: the missile has launched.
Melinda stiffened, staring fixedly at the third button on his starched shirt for a beat too long.
She’d noticed. Of course she had.
As if to make sure she’d actually felt his wayward cock pressing into her abdomen, she shifted against him again.
Heat climbed Pete’s neck and burst into his cheeks. He took a deep breath. His instinct was to shove her away from him, but it might hurt her already wounded feelings . . . not to mention that it would leave him exposed, with a tell-tale tent at his crotch.
So Pete babbled instead. “Absolutely gorgeous, that cake. You made it yourself? How do you get the icing so smooth? How do you make those perfect roses?”
He knew he was asking too many questions, and asking them too fast.
Mel raised her eyes from the oh-so-fascinating button and met his gaze. Then she moved a hand down his side, trailing it downwards to his upper thigh.
Pete swallowed hard.
No way. Mel had been brought up in a conservative household, and she wouldn’t . . . unfortunately . . . act on this. It wasn’t going to happen, no matter how eager his trouser snake was. She’d had a lot of champagne, true, but—
Nah. Forget it. Not gonna happen.
Then Melinda stepped back two inches and wrapped her fingers around his colossal erection, squeezing it lightly through his trousers.
His mouth fell open.
“Do you really want to hear about how I make roses out of icing, Pete? Or would you like me to help you with this, instead?”
Excerpted from Bringing Home a Bachelor, by Karen Kendall. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.