HAWAIIAN HEAT: THE BABY TRAP is a sexy, contemporary romance. This story is the second in the HAWAIIAN HEAT series.
“I quit,” Rachel Greer announced and slapped the office key down on her boss’s desk.
“Again?” Mark Turner’s lips twitched with a suppressed smile. “That makes three times in the past six months.”
She huffed, planted her hands on her hips, and scowled at him. “Three times? Is that all? I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told you I need a change, but you keep sweet-talking me into staying. I’m sorry, Mark. I just can’t do this anymore.”
“Really? Call me crazy, but I’d think the top-selling real estate agent in San Diego would be happy with her career. What pissed you off this time?”
“Nothing p-pissed me off,” she sputtered in response to his calm logic. “I warned you a few weeks ago that I’d be leaving today. My plane to Maui takes off in four hours.”
Mark pushed aside the sales contract in front of him, leaned back in his chair, and laced his fingers behind his head. “How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know. At least six months.” Rachel wasn’t being evasive; she really didn’t know. Part of her wished for a fairytale ending to her adventure, but her pragmatist side knew she’d probably be back in San Diego sooner than later.
“What are you doing with your condo while you’re away?”
“Remember my older brother, Nate, the pediatrician at Children’s Hospital?”
“I sold his house faster than he expected and left him without a place to live. He’s going to stay in my condo while he’s shopping around for a new home.”
“Sure is. And Nate’s been very supportive. He thinks it’s great I’m following my dream.”
The real estate broker stroked his chin. “Does your best friend have anything to do with this?”
She bristled. “Maybe. So?”
“Think about it reasonably, Rachel. Yeah, she went to Maui, met her soul mate, and started a fun new career. What makes you think it’ll work out the same for you? You’re different. A driven, over-achieving career woman, not a beach bum.”
“We’re not that different. Ginny was a successful divorce lawyer before she became a romance writer, remember? And she hasn’t turned into a beach bum. She’s hard at work on her second novel.”
Her boss shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“C’mon, Mark. Doesn’t everyone dream of quitting their job to pursue something they’ve always wanted to do?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. What magic metamorphosis are you hoping for?”
Anticipating ridicule, she hesitated to reveal her dream career. But since it didn’t really matter what he thought, she finally said, “I want to be a chef.”
Her eyes narrowed while he enjoyed a good laugh.
“I didn’t think you knew how to boil water.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “When do you have time to cook?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t have time because I work twenty-four/seven. But I’m not stupid. I have a business degree, and I’m a whiz at real estate. So, I’m pretty sure I can learn to cook.”
“Why…cooking? Why not writing, like your friend? Or interior decorating?”
“My grandmother is French, and she creates the most amazing food. She wanted my dad to be a chef, but he disappointed her and became a brain surgeon instead. She never got over it.”
He snorted. “You’re doing this to please an old lady?”
“No, it’s for me.” The usual sense of wonder swelled inside her. “Cooking is so different from what I do now. It’s not about facts and figures. Food involves a person’s senses: taste, smell, sight, touch, and, sometimes, even hearing. It’s…glorious.” She sighed.
“Sounds a lot like sex to me.” He winked. “And you’re pretty damn glorious yourself, you know.”
Rachel tried to ignore the hint of guilt generated by his gentle reminder of their brief relationship two years ago. As was her style, she’d been the one to end the affair before things could get serious. They’d been good together, but it wasn’t worth the risk of him getting too close and discovering her secret. No relationship was worth that risk. Besides, what man would want a wife who couldn’t…?
Mark straightened in his chair and studied her for several moments. “You’re serious about this?”
“Well, hell. You just single-handedly ruined my sales projections for the year.”
“Sorry, but this is something I have to do.”
He came around the desk and hugged her. A flood of warmth flowed through her in reaction to his friendly, natural gesture. We were good together. She allowed herself to cling to him for only a second longer.
“I’d be lying if I said I hope you succeed, but hell, I do hope you learn how to cook good enough to catch yourself a husband,” he said, stepping back.
Her throat tightened. Her lack of cooking skills had nothing to do with her single status, but the truth was too painful to reveal to Mark or anyone. Instead, she gave him her signature, sexy smile. “That’s not part of my dream, Boss. You know I’m having way too much fun to settle down with one guy.”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets, and his smile reflected regret for what might’ve been between them. “That’ll change when you meet the right guy.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“I quit,” Professor Tony Ferrari announced, planting his palms on his boss’s desk.
“Calm down, Ferrari. Your temper is only going to make this harder for both of us,” Steve Sullivan said, his flabby face reddening. His expression suggested he dreaded the impending confrontation.
“You’re crazy if you think I’m going to stand here and let you fire me.” Tony pushed off from the desk and stomped across the office to the windows. Of course, his temper was a problem, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it when he needed the bluster to disguise the concern growing inside. Drawing a deep breath, he brought his emotions down a notch. Sometimes, being Italian wasn’t easy.
“You’re not exactly fired,” the CEO of the Covington Writing Seminar in Maui explained. “It’s an…an involuntary, indefinite, unpaid leave of absence.”
“That’s a bullshit euphemism for fucking fired, and you know it.” Tony snorted, glad he’d tempered his anger before responding, or he might’ve said something inappropriate or unprofessional.
Sullivan’s gaze darted around the office as though searching for reinforcements. He looked everywhere except at his irate employee. After five years, he should’ve been used to the volatile behavior, but if he wasn’t, Tony didn’t much care at this point.
“What can I say, Ferrari? You haven’t published anything since we hired you. Lack of publication doesn’t look good on the bio of a writing professor. We warned you a year ago to get busy. And, well, you obviously ignored our warning.”
Tony bristled. “How do you know I haven’t been working on the next great American novel?”
“No, but I’ve been…thinking about it.”
“Thinking about it?” His boss shook his head incredulously. “What would you do if one of your students failed to hand in a written assignment, but explained the failure with the excuse that he’d been ‘thinking about it’?”
Well, damn. He massaged the tight muscles at the back of his neck. “I thought your comments last year were a suggestion, not an ultimatum.”
Sullivan adjusted his reading glasses and glanced down at the open file. “Let’s see. I think my exact words were, ‘If you don’t publish something significant in the next twelve months, there’ll be serious consequences.’” He looked up, pinned Tony with a you’re-dead-in-the-water scowl. “That doesn’t sound like a suggestion to me.”
Tony turned away. Indignation, embarrassment, and frustration flared beneath the surface as he struggled to maintain his composure. Did his fool boss think he was happy about his lack of publication? The inability to put meaningful words together, the failure to write creative fiction or informative non-fiction, gnawed at his confidence day and night. Five days a week, he taught students how to improve their writing so they could achieve their dreams of publishing their masterpieces. His failure made him a fraud, an imposter with the motto: Do as I say, not as I do.
Sullivan cleared his throat. “Is your personal life the problem?”
Tony whipped around to glare at his soon-to-be-ex boss. He can’t possibly know. No one here knows. “What are you talking about?” He marched back to stand in front of the desk.
“Uh, well, the Board is aware the female students seem to…to like you, and we’ve been concerned it might be creating problems for you.”
He snorted again. “Are you old guys concerned or jealous?”
“Watch yourself, Ferrari. You’re a terrific instructor, but you’re not irreplaceable.”
“And I suggest the Board not worry about my personal life. It’s none of your goddamn business.” His anger surfaced again. “What you should be concerned about is my teaching ability, my competency. Have you had any complaints in that area?”
His boss glanced down at the paperwork, but Tony figured the guy already knew the answer.
Without looking up, Sullivan sighed. “No, there haven’t been any complaints about your performance as a professor. The student reviews have all been excellent. In fact, as you probably read in the newsletter, two more of your former students have recently sold their manuscripts.”
Tony spread his arms wide. “Don’t you think that’s what attracts students to Covington? Not whether I’ve published some highbrow novel they’ll never read. If I was doing a lousy job of teaching my students to write publishable manuscripts, I’d agree you have grounds to fire me. But I’m not. I’m a really good professor.”
Sullivan lowered his gaze from Tony’s glare to the personnel file. “You make a good point, but it doesn’t matter. Bottom line, Ferrari, the Board voted to give you a year. We’ll hire an interim professor and record your absence as an academic sabbatical. But, this is your last chance. If you haven’t sold something to a traditional print publisher in twelve months, you don’t have a job at Covington anymore.” He smiled smugly. “And that’s definitely an ultimatum.”
I’m here. I’m really doing this.
Rachel Greer stared out the window as the jet swooped in from over the Pacific Ocean like a gigantic seagull and touched down with a slight bounce at the Maui airport. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, feeling more like a swarm of bees than the gentler insects. Through pursed lips, she blew out a long breath to release the pressure of her restrained excitement.
When she reached the baggage claim area, she surveyed the crowd for her best friend, but couldn’t spot her. After several minutes of futile searching, she resorted to her cell phone. “Hi, Ginny. I’m here, waiting for my bags, but I can’t find you.”
“Aloha, Rach. That’s because I’m not there.”
“We’re stuck in Honolulu.”
“Uh oh. You missed your flight?”
“No. Drew and I finished the meeting with our literary agent, who’s here from New York on vacation, in plenty of time. But when we got back to the airport, our flight had been delayed for mechanical problems. We’re not due in Maui for another three hours. I’m so sorry.”
Rachel’s exhilaration deflated a little. She hadn’t seen Ginny since she’d flown over for the wedding weeks ago. And she’d been so busy preparing for her move, they’d hardly even talked on the phone. They had tons of news to catch up on, and now they’d have to wait three more hours.
“The Kahului airport isn’t a great place to hang out for that long,” Ginny said. “Drew suggested you could wait for us at the club. Assuming you feel comfortable driving across the island to Lahaina by yourself. Do you remember how to get there?”
“I think so.”
“I’m sorry you don’t have a key or you could just meet us at our place.”
Rachel laughed. “Not a chance. I’d never find the driveway to your sweet, beachfront bungalow. As I recall, it’s more of a cow path than a driveway.”
Ginny chuckled. “Yeah, we like it that way. Keeps tourists from stopping to ask for directions. Are you game for meeting us at Club Lahaina?”
“Sounds good. I need to rent a car anyway, so I’ll just pick one up here at the airport. I should be able to find my way. How lost can a person get on an island this size?”
“You’d be surprised. Oh, gotta go. Drew’s dragging me to a restaurant to grab some dinner. Can’t wait to see you, Rach.”
Rachel pushed aside her disappointment and stashed her phone in her purse just in time to grab one of her suitcases as it appeared. The second one showed up a minute later. With her computer bag hanging on one shoulder and her purse on the other, she pulled the two large suitcases behind her as she headed toward the rental car area.
Even in the dark, she had no problems navigating out of the airport and finding the road that traversed the island to the west side. She turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the window of the Corolla. Despite the late October date, the balmy night air blew soft and warm. She breathed in the salty scent of the ocean seasoned with the spicy fragrance of some unknown tropical flower. She smiled. San Diego might label itself “America’s Finest City,” but Hawaii was truly paradise.
Light traffic lessened the stress of driving on the barely familiar highway. She sped along with the breeze feathering her hair and blowing away her cares. By the time she reached the small, tourist town of Lahaina, Rachel’s nervous excitement had been tempered by calm contentment.
She located Club Lahaina with ease, but had to circle the parking lot several times before finding an empty space. While she ran a brush through her hair and freshened her lip-gloss, she recalled the story Ginny had told her about how she and Drew had first met at the club on a Friday night. I wonder if fate repeats itself. Not a chance with my luck. Besides, I’m not looking for something or someone permanent. She hummed as she tapped her foot to the pounding beat emanating from the neon-decorated building.
Rachel’s stomach growled, urging her to hurry because she hadn’t eaten since breakfast in San Diego many hours earlier. After locking the car, she scampered across the parking lot to merge into the throng of people flowing through the entrance.
Controlled chaos greeted her inside. Friday night was rockin’ at upscale Club Lahaina. A mass of bodies filled the large dance floor with sensual movement and a kaleidoscope of colors. She couldn’t tell if a blast of hot air came from the overworked AC or the revved up libidos.
Partying patrons crowded everywhere, practically obscuring the vibrant, tropical motif Rachel remembered from her previous visit. Tray-balancing servers dodged between milling customers. Shouted conversations competed with the pulsing music of the live band.
She scanned the tables and booths surrounding the dance floor and didn’t spot a single vacancy. She wove through the customers toward the bar, playfully slapping away a few too-friendly hands, and laughing away annoying pick-up lines. Standing on tiptoe, she surveyed the slightly quieter bar. Every booth and table was filled…except the booth in the back corner, which was partially hidden by a servers’ station.
Rachel zeroed in on the empty seat, easing around people with a mantra of, “Excuuuuse me, please.” When she reached her target, she turned to wave at a waitress while she backed into the booth. Mission accomplished, she plopped down with relief.
“Ow,” exclaimed a deep voice behind her.
She bounced out of the booth with a squeal of surprise and whipped around to find a man leaning against the far wall with one long leg stretched across the length of the bench seat. Heat crept into her cheeks when she realized she’d sat on his leg. “I’m soooo sorry. I didn’t see you. I thought the booth was empty.”
“Perhaps it is a reflection of how I am feeling, Signorina,” he said. His sexy Italian accent caught her attention as much as the actual words. From the shadows at the end of the booth, he stared at her for several seconds before setting down his drink and standing up into the brighter light.
Rachel swallowed an Oh, my God.
“You and your friends may have the booth.”
His gloomy tone and expression contrasted starkly with the party atmosphere of the club. Without thinking, she reached out and touched his arm. His dark, deep-set eyes met hers.
“No, I wouldn’t think of it. You haven’t even finished your drink. Besides, my friends won’t get in from Honolulu for a few hours. I’ll find another seat. Thanks anyway.”
He glanced down at her hand. “If you are also alone, why don’t you join me until your friends arrive? Then, I’ll leave.”
As Rachel evaluated her options, she studied the whole package. He wore expensive-looking tan slacks and a blue business shirt on a tall, lean frame. His eyes were as black and shiny as obsidian with lashes many women would die for. He’d tucked his long, black, wavy hair behind his ears, but it seemed to beg for female fingers to play with it. His brooding demeanor created an enticing mystique. Even more important, she loved an Italian accent, and his was heating her libido like the hot Hawaiian sunshine.
Oh, heck, why not? Her lips curved into a sexy smile, and she automatically slipped behind her fast and flirty façade, the one that protected her from serious relationships. “Thanks. That’s the best offer I’ve had all day. I’m Rachel,” she said, extending her right hand.
It disappeared into his large, warm one, his long fingers wrapping around hers. “I am T…Antonio, Anthony in English.” He waited until she’d settled comfortably on the opposite bench before taking his seat.
The server saved them from an awkward moment of silence. “Aloha. What can I get ya folks?”
“I’ll try your house chardonnay—no, wait—make that a mai tai. When in Rome…” She winked at Anthony. “Do you have nachos?” she asked the waitress.
“Yeah. Small or large?”
“Large. With extra guacamole and two plates. I haven’t had dinner, and I want enough to share with…my new friend.”
The woman shot her an envious scowl, then turned a seductive smile on Anthony. “And what can I do for you?”
Rachel swore the woman wiggled her eyebrows at him. Possessiveness pinched her. What the…? Where did that come from? I don’t even know the guy.
After Anthony refused to order or engage, the server transformed her smile into a pout. “You’re not gettin’ off that easy. I’m comin’ after ya again later, Hunk.” Her hips reinforced her promise, swaying as she strolled away.
Not if I can help it. Rachel blinked. Geez. What is wrong with me? She turned back to find Anthony watching her instead of the waitress. That’s better. She smiled sheepishly. “Hope you like nachos. Guess you can take the girl out of San Diego, but you can’t take San Diego out of the girl.”
“Ah, so you are here on vacation, yes? Aloha, welcome to our wonderful island.”
“Thanks. But I’m not just visiting for fun. I’m training for a new career.”
His expression tightened. “Is the change voluntary or involuntary?”
“Oh, definitely voluntary. I’m pursuing my dream.”
“Ah, good. And what is your dream?” He rested his elbow on the table and cupped his jaw in his hand, giving her his full attention.
“I want to be a chef. I’m enrolled in courses at the Institute of International Cuisine for the next six months.”
His face lit up. “Food is very dear to an Italian’s heart. You must enjoy cooking, as I do.”
“Well, I…uh…don’t know…yet. I haven’t had much time in my life to cook.”
“You have been busy with other commitments?” he asked, his gaze darting to her left hand.
She chuckled. “Not with a husband and kids, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been a real estate agent for the last several years. Satisfying, but a total time-suck.”
The server appeared with the mai tai and nachos. After arranging the platter, plates, and silverware on the table, she gave Anthony a wink and an air kiss before sashaying away. He caught Rachel rolling her eyes.
“You do not approve of the young lady?”
“I agree. Her flirting is childish. A mature woman uses more subtlety in her seduction, making it far sexier and more effective. At least with a mature man.” His intense gaze emphasized his message.
Heat spread through Rachel. “I guess an Italian would be an expert in such things.”
She cleared her throat. “Well, enough about my former and future careers. What do you do?” She transferred her attention to the nachos, scraping some onto her plate and adding generous scoops of guacamole and sour cream. When he didn’t respond, she looked up to find his inviting lips pressed into a tight line.
He took a long swig of his drink before answering. “I’m currently…unemployed.”
The clipped way in which he delivered the words warned her not to pry. Based on his earlier question about her circumstances, she guessed his situation was involuntary.
After another swallow, he added, “But I’m a writer, so, of course, I’ll be writing during this lull in my employment. I welcome the opportunity, actually. I have wanted to finish a novel I began…a lifetime ago.” His deep voice held a mournful note. He stared into his glass for another moment before draining it in one gulp.
Her companion returned to the brooding man she’d originally encountered in the booth. He signaled their waitress with his empty glass, and she brought a full replacement immediately.
Rachel turned on the charm, and within a few minutes, had Anthony chatting again. He was friendly enough, but far from hitting on her. She remembered his comments about subtle seduction and wondered if that was his style. If so, she liked it. A lot.
Keeping the conversation away from personal topics, they talked in depth about a variety of safe subjects, including Hawaii, and Maui in particular. When the waitress sullenly removed the empty nacho platter, Rachel glanced at her watch. They’d talked for almost three hours. And he hasn’t asked for my last name or cell phone number. Yet.
“Please bring Rachel a piece of lava cake,” Anthony said to the server. “And put it on my tab.”
“I can’t. Really,” Rachel objected.
“But you must. Club Lahaina has the best lava cake. As a future chef, you will, no doubt, appreciate its uniqueness. Instead of the usual plain chocolate center, they mix red food coloring and raspberry flavoring into rich, white chocolate. When it oozes from the decadent, dark chocolate cake, it appears more lava-like.” He kissed the tips of his fingers in the classic Italian gesture. “And the flavor combination is delizioso.” He splayed his hand over his heart and bowed his head. “My aloha gift to you.”
When he raised his head, his dark eyes scrutinized her face, feature by feature, as though searching for a way through her façade. Her heart pounded faster than the band’s beat.
He glanced toward the exit, hesitated, and then met her gaze again. “I should go now.”
Rachel swallowed hard. Don’t leave. But he stood up before she could respond.
“This has been most enjoyable. Grazie for brightening my night, Rachel. And good luck with your career as a chef. Arrivederci.”
“Thanks. Good luck with your book.” Ask me for my number, puhleez.
But he didn’t.
Anthony worked his way to the cashier at the bar, paid his tab, and disappeared toward the exit without a backward glance.
Rachel stepped out of the booth and stood on her tiptoes to catch a last glimpse of him.
Tony Ferrari swore in Italian all the way to his red Porsche in the Club Lahaina parking lot. He yanked open the door and dropped into the driver’s seat. Gripping the steering wheel, he exhaled three hours of frustration. Rachel was sexy as hell, and her bottomless, dark chocolate eyes promised a depth far beyond the flirtatious façade she wore like a shield. He’d succeeded in not hitting on the pretty blonde, but he couldn’t say he was happy about it.
While he fought the urge to return to the booth with the delicious chef-to-be, he spotted a man and a woman hurrying past the next line of cars toward the club. He recognized his former students, and his jaw clenched. He’d read in the latest Covington newsletter that both had sold their manuscripts to a major publisher. He didn’t begrudge them the sales, but their success magnified his failure, his fraudulent image of a writer.
After jamming the stick shift into gear, he whipped the Porsche out of the parking lot with a squeal of the tires. The sports car raced through the night as Tony wrestled with his demons.
What the hell had he been thinking when he invited Rachel to share the booth? If he hoped to write again, he should stay away from women altogether. Not only did he have to destroy the player persona he’d so carefully crafted to keep women at arm’s length, he needed to avoid all temptation. He’d spent years perfecting his shallow, superficial playboy image to protect his secret, but meaningless sex resulted in meaningless writing. And he couldn’t risk a real relationship because it might expose his secret. His other, more personal failure. Besides, what woman would want a husband who couldn’t…?
Damn, he was trapped in a Catch-22. He couldn’t have casual sex because it destroyed his muse. And he couldn’t have a committed relationship because it could ruin his life. The idea of no women was foreign. And scary. But a sacrifice he must make.
No sex, no women at all? Well, hell. How’s an Italian supposed to live like that? It’ll be torture.
As if to emphasize the point, Rachel’s tempting figure flashed in his mind. Curves in all the right places. Legs long enough to easily wrap around a man’s hips. Full breasts begging to be caressed and molded. He stopped before mentally undressing her.
Of course, she knew nothing about Tony Ferrari. Not his faux player persona or his true damaged self. He frowned. Why hadn’t he introduced himself as Tony, but instead as Antonio, his legal first name, which he never used? A Freudian slip or intentional? Who knows?
What he did know was that if meaningful words were going to flow again, he needed a metamorphosis.
After parking the car in the garage of the Lahaina Lanai Condos, Tony headed straight for his unit. He ignored the calls to join them from the residents—particularly the women—still partying by the pool. Once inside, he grabbed a Coke while his laptop booted up.
He settled into the black, leather recliner in the living room to read the pages he’d written years ago. His throat and chest tightened. He swallowed hard as his vision blurred. After several pages, he had to close the computer and set it on the end table.
Burying his face in his hands, he struggled against the tsunami of emotions drowning him. The years hadn’t lessened the impact of his words. They struck at his heart, his very core. His old fear awoke like a long-dormant volcano.
I can’t do this. What if someone guesses the truth?