“Here we are.”
At the quiet announcement, Gabe turned toward his friend, Jamie Whitcomb, hoping no one had noticed that he’d practically had his nose pressed to the passenger side window, taking in the swanky homes lining the street. Hell, he’d known Jamie’s family was rich—rich in a way very few people could even comprehend—but he was still surprised when he got his first glimpse at Jamie’s family home. Gabe practically had to clench his teeth together to keep his mouth from hanging open.
Jamie’s house was Mediterranean style, with high, imposing walls and a red tile roof. The landscaping around it was lush and green, and the smell of the ocean, salty and warm, hung on the air as they pulled through the tall gates and into the circular drive with a Porsche and a sporty BMW already parked there.
Jamie cut off the engine of his Mercedes and Gabe got out. Just then, Eric pulled his Alpha Romeo into the drive. As Eric, Ryan, and Luke climbed out of Eric’s car, Gabe noted the house seemed even bigger now that he was standing next to it. It dwarfed the others around it, and its greenery and thick windows screamed money, as did the glittering blue ocean behind it.
Misgiving filled him. He, Jamie, and the other guys all went to college together and played on the same teams: lacrosse and soccer. On campus, the differences between them were not so noticeable, though Gabe had been aware of them nonetheless. Now…here…the chasm between them seemed as obvious as the house itself, at least when it came to how much more privileged Jamie and Eric had been growing up.
The sound of a motorcycle roaring into the drive halted his thoughts and he turned to see Cole pulling up. As usual he had foregone a helmet and his slightly too-long brown hair was messy and wild.
Gabe let go of the breath he’d been holding. Luke, Ryan, and Cole were from solidly middle-class families. They still had more money than he did but at least they hadn’t been raised in a house so huge it looked like an entire apartment building back in his own neighborhood.
No, check that. The apartment buildings in his neighborhood were usually burned-out messes with drug dealers huddled on their stoops or squatters grimly hanging on to whatever they could.
His heart sank. This was probably a really bad idea, and he didn’t mean just this trip to Coronado Island. Messing around with rich kids was stupid. But they all knew he was dead broke and from a bad neighborhood. He’d even taken Eric to Clement Gym. Introduced him to his friend and mentor Sam. So far, he hadn’t treated Gabe differently because of where he’d come from. In fact, Eric had confided that his family was what was known as “new rich”; his mom’s parents had been teachers, and his father’s parents still lived in a small town in Montana where they ran a hardware store. Eric visited them every summer, just as he had since he was born.
No matter. Eric might not have started out rich, but from what Gabe knew, the guy’s family was even wealthier than Jamie’s.
Cole walked up to Gabe. “Dude, do you see the ocean?”
Gabe nodded. “Kind of hard to miss.”
The front door opened and a stunning older woman stepped out. She had the same wheat-and-honey colored hair as Jamie. As she came toward them, her expression was surprisingly warm. Not just delighted to see her son, but seemingly excited to meet his friends, too.
“Well, there you are,” she said in a low throaty voice. She threw her arms around Jamie, who hugged her back tightly.
“Hey, Mom, meet the guys. Guys, this is my mom.”
“So nice to meet you all.” She opened her arms to Eric, who hugged her warmly. “Eric, it’s wonderful to see you again. Just leave your luggage right there. I’ll have Stan take them to your rooms.”
Stan appeared. In a jacket and tie. Gabe tried not to stare. A butler? They had a butler? Did they even call the guy a butler?
“Hey, Stan,” Jamie said. “These are my friends. You know Eric. This is Gabe. Ryan. Luke. Cole.”
“Nice to meet you, gentlemen,” Stan said.
“Same, Stan,” Gabe said.
“C’mon, guys,” Jamie said. “I’ll show you your rooms and we can go check out the pool.”
Gabe followed the others into the house. The gleaming floors, the artwork on the walls, and the air of wealth made him walk more softly than he normally did. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to break something and that didn’t change even after they’d all changed into their swimsuits and were relaxing outside next to the pool.
The pool was an enormous L-shaped thing that hung right off the edge of the yard, giving the impression that they could leap right into the water of the ocean just beyond. Thirty minutes later, Gabe lay on a lounge chair, letting the sun beat down on his body. The other guys were shouting and laughing, either goofing off in the pool or just chilling in their own chairs.
Cole took a beer from the bucket Stan had brought out earlier. “I knew you were rich, Jamie. I just didn’t know how rich.”
“Yeah, I’m lucky, but it’s just a house. And it’s not like it’s mine, guys. I’m dead broke until I get my next paycheck. I’m not rich; I don’t even get my trust fund until I’m twenty-five. Do you know how hard it is to get girls when you don’t have any money?”
“Gabe is a real chick magnet and he doesn’t have money,” Luke said with a grin. “Maybe it’s you, man.”
“Yeah, my charm can’t hold a candle to Gabe’s street cred. I asked out that girl Kylie a few weeks ago and she said no. She said she liked bad boys. Then she asked me what Gabe was doing.”
He and Jamie had already talked about Kylie, and Gabe hadn’t been interested. Even if he had been, Jamie was a cool guy, and he was a friend. There was no way he was going out with a girl who had dissed his friend like that.
“What’s up guys?”
He looked around to see Eric walking toward them, his lean body clad in board shorts, sunlight glinting off his brown hair. He looked comfortable and at ease as he plopped down into the vacant chair next to Gabe and Jamie.
“Did Dad corner you again?” Jamie asked.
“Ah, it’s okay. I always enjoy talking to your old man.” Eric fist-bumped Jamie and asked, “So where’s Brianne?”
Jamie turned to Gabe. “My sister. She’s in her first year of college but she might stop by.”
The talk turned to other things and Gabe loosened up a little. The view was amazing, and he’d needed a break. He was in school on an athletic scholarship and he had to work hard to keep his grades up.
He’d been a football player all through high school, but he’d always preferred soccer when he wasn’t boxing in the gym. He liked his courses. But the constant worry that if one thing went wrong he’d be trying to scrape up a living in a factory somewhere had worn him out, and so had his huge workload at school.
He eyed the other guys. None of them seemed the least bit intimidated by the house or the people who worked in it. They didn’t even seem to notice the man pruning the bushes.
He closed his eyes, letting the sun lay on his lids.
“Hey, Jamie,” the voice was low, musical and decidedly feminine.
Gabe’s eyes snapped open and he watched as Jamie greeted his sister with a huge hug, then turned to introduce her to them. “Meet my friends.”
Brianne was gorgeous. She had long brown hair that fell in a thick waving sheet to the small of her back. She was of average height, but lean, the most elegant thing he’d ever seen. She looked like a princess, even in the plain denim shorts that showed off the upper reaches of her tanned thighs and the plain pink tank top. His eyes went back to the shorts she wore. They’d been cleverly designed to make it look like she’d carelessly cut up a pair of jeans. The pockets hung below the hem and little strands of white thread dangled across her golden skin.
Her smile was blindingly white as she spoke to Gabe. “Hello.”
He realized everyone else had already introduced themselves. “Hey there. Gabe. Nice to meet you.”
Their eyes locked. Gabe’s heart beat just a little faster and his cock hardened. He managed not to shift and give himself away but it took a great deal of effort.
“Mind if I sit there?” She waved one slender hand toward the chair next to his, recently vacated by Luke, who stood staring at Brianne from the table that held their beer.
“No, not at all.”
As she sat, her shorts rode up her thighs. “So you’re the star soccer player, I hear.”
He shrugged and took a long pull of his beer. “I’m part of the team.”
“He’s so modest,” Jamie said. “He’s the only reason we win most of our games. He’s a bad ass on the field.”
Brianne’s eyes held his.
“Brianne plays soccer too. She’s good but she kicks like a girl.”
“I’d hate to get in front of one you were trying to put in the goal then,” Gabe said. “You women play hard.”
Brianne laughed and her hand came out, touching his briefly. Even that tiny contact was enough to send little thrills racing up his back. “Why thank you. It’s nice to know there’s one guy with sense in the bunch.”
“Aw come on…” Jamie groaned and their laughter rang out.
Brianne asked what they were all doing in school. Gabe looked into his beer bottle’s mouth, not speaking. Jamie was in Business, Cole and Luke were exploring law enforcement, Ryan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and Gabe…he was even more lost than Ryan.
He had no idea what to say. As usual, he was outclassed. Would there ever be a time when he’d feel comfortable in this world? He was sure he stuck out like a sore thumb, the odd man out in his group of friends.
“I think I’m gonna take a walk.” Everyone looked at him, and Gabe felt a tell-tale warmth creeping over his face. He’d nearly shouted, desperate to get away from the pool. There was too much happening in his head.
“I’ll show you around,” Brianne said, standing.
Not what he’d been going for. He’d wanted to get away from her.
She was too much. Too beautiful, too rich. She made him feel dizzy and hot and unsure of himself. It was hard enough being the poor kid in the middle of the rich kids. She only made it worse, highlighting everything that was wrong with him.
But she didn’t give him a chance to object. “Come on, we’ll go to the beach.” She led the way, and Gabe decided to play it cool instead of arguing and looking like an even bigger tool than he felt. There was a gate just off to the side of the pool area, concealed by perfectly trimmed hedges, which opened to a set of stone stairs leading to the beach. It was like something out of a movie.
“What are you thinking?” Brianne asked once they reached the sand.
“Honestly? I was thinking how I didn’t know people lived like this in real life. I can’t imagine having my own private entrance to the beach. I mean, how cool is that?”
She chuckled. “It’s not such a big deal.”
“Spoken like someone who lives like this.”
“I guess you don’t, then?”
The waves crashed on the sand, and Gabe turned his head to watch them. She’d caught him off guard, asking him what his thoughts were, and he’d said the first stupid thing that came to mind. He sure as hell hadn’t intended to reveal he’d grown up poor, but it was probably written all over him.
“Not really,” he admitted. He left it at that.
They walked for a long time in silence. The warmth from the sun, beating up from the sand, was no match for the way his body burned from the inside out. He was tempted to jump into the surf just to cool off.
“So what are you doing here, Brianne? I heard you were in your first year at school.” It seemed like a pretty safe topic.
“I am. I, uh…I come home on the weekends sometimes, and whenever I get a chance during breaks.”
“So you’re a homebody?”
“Not really. I just ended a relationship.” She took a deep breath. “We were engaged.”
His first thought was that her fiancé must have been a total asshat to have let someone like Brianne go. “I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “It wasn’t meant to be. I mean, we’re too young. It was dumb. I need to experience more from life before I settle down, right?”
She was trying to be brave. He wanted to reach out and touch her, comfort her. Make her feel loved. Because even in the short time he’d known her, he knew she deserved it. She deserved everything.
“He was cheating on me,” she admitted.
“What a stupid shithead.”
She stared at him for a beat, then laughed.
“Sorry. I just can’t imagine a man being stupid enough to cheat on you.”
Brianne shook her head, laughing lightly. “You know, and this is going to sound silly, but that’s exactly the sort of thing I needed to hear right now.”
His heart swelled just from knowing he’d made her happy, even if it was only for the moment. It was bizarre, the thoughts going through his brain over this girl. A girl he’d just met, and one who wouldn’t look twice at him if she knew where he came from.
She stopped walking, and turned to the surf with her hands in the pockets of her cutoff shorts. “Do you wonder how many people the ocean is touching, right this very minute?” The water swirled around their feet.
“Not really,” he admitted. He looked down, watching the bubbling water. He felt it pull at him as it rushed away, then flow back over him upon its return.
“I wonder how many people are feeling this same water right now. I wonder what their lives are like. You know? Who are they, and what are their problems? Do mine pale in comparison?”
He couldn’t tear his gaze away from her profile, and when she turned to smile at him, the sun was hitting her just right. A puff of air rushed past them, carrying the scent of her perfume and shampoo to his nose.
And that was the moment he actually felt himself fall for her.
She walked further into the water, until the water was up to her knees, and dared him to come in with her.
He laughed, shaking his head.
“Oh, come on, chicken!” Hands on hips, she pretended to pout just as a big wave rolled in and knocked her off balance.
Gabe rushed forward, catching her before she hit the water. She screamed, landing in his arms with a laugh. But Gabe didn’t laugh. He was too busy feeling like he’d been hit with a thousand volts of electricity. She was so warm in his hands, so soft and yielding. She hummed with energy, her tanned skin tingling.
For one crazy moment, he thought about kissing her. As if she’d read his mind, she tilted her head back to look into his eyes. She was so close. All he had to do was lean down…
“That’s what I get for being a smartass,” she murmured, disentangling herself from his grasp.
He stepped away, disappointed but not surprised. Of course she wouldn’t want him to kiss her. She might have just had her heart broken, but there had to be a hundred guys waiting in line for a chance with her. Guys with money, connections, a bright future.
Once again, they walked for a while, up and down the beach. They talked about soccer, recent games they’d played. Gabe told her about boxing, and how he’d gotten into it. He didn’t tell the whole story, of course—only that a man named Sam had mentored him. She asked all the right questions, and seemed genuinely interested. Most girls he knew were airheads, cute but dull. She was far more than cute, and smart as a whip.
“Aren’t you worried about hurting your face?”
He looked at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”
Was it just his imagination or was she blushing?
“Well, it’s just you’re so… I mean…I’m sorry. I don’t want to make you feel weird.”
“No, it’s okay.”
She shrugged, blushing more deeply. “You’re a nice looking person. Aren’t you worried boxing will mess up your face?”
She’d complimented him without a trace of guile or motive, and he suddenly wanted to puff his chest out at the knowledge she found him attractive. “Eh, it adds to the street cred. Gives a man something to brag about.”
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “I guess we should get back,” she said. “Mom’s gonna want to feed you guys eventually.”
Did she sound regretful? Or did he just want to believe she was into him?
He supposed their time together was over, but it had been sweet while is lasted. He tried to soak in as much as he could as they walked back to the house.
“Where’d you two go?” Jamie said when they reached the pool after climbing the stairs.
Bri smiled at Gabe, then at her brother. Just as she opened her mouth to answer, Jamie’s mom stepped out onto the patio with a man who was obviously Jamie and Brianne’s father. He’d given Brianne her wavy dark hair and eyes.
Jamie’s mom called out. “Brianne, did you say hello to Eric? You’ve met his parents before, you remember, at the Charity Ball this past spring? The Davenports.”
“Yes, and of course I remember Eric’s parents,” Brianne said.
“Eric, are you planning on attending the charity polo match next month?” Jamie’s mom continued.
Eric smiled hugely. “I’m planning on being in it.”
“Are you? How exciting!” Brianne’s hands came together in a small spatter of applause. Her eyes came back to Gabe. “How about you, Gabe? Are you going or playing?”
Gabe didn’t ride horses. Plus, he was pretty sure anything that mixed charity work and rich people would be something he couldn’t afford to go to. He managed a tight smile. “No, sorry.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her hands.
It stung Gabe more than he could believe, that one gesture. A door might as well have slammed shut between the two of them.
“Brianne was just saying how she didn’t have a date for the event yet,” Mrs. Whitcomb said. “Eric, you should escort her. That is, if you don’t mind.”
There was no missing the way Brianne’s eyes bored holes into her mother. Gabe guessed she wasn’t the kind of girl who liked being set up—especially when the set-up was so obvious, and when it put her on the spot. He wondered how long it had been since her breakup, then wondered if it was wrong to hope she wasn’t ready for a relationship yet. At least, not with Eric. He felt a pang of disloyalty at the thought.
Brianne looked right at Gabe. A little pulse beat at the base of her neck and there was a question in her eyes but it was one he couldn’t answer. He didn’t belong in the world of charity polo things and giant summer houses that overlooked a vast expanse of shining sand and water. He was a street kid whose one good outfit consisted of a second-hand suit jacket and a pair of dark slacks. On the other hand, even though Eric’s parents didn’t come from money, they had it now, and Eric would one day inherit his father’s fortune.
“I’d love to escort you,” Eric said and then he gave Brianne an over-the-top bow that made her bright, tinkling laughter sound out again.
It was just as well, Gabe told himself. She deserved a guy like Eric. Privileged. Well-connected.
One who could give her all the things she deserved.