Bad days were like last night’s take out, easily disposable. You went to bed and the next morning, they were a thing of the past.
Bad lives were another matter.
The ferry sliced through rough seas so startlingly aquamarine as to seem like a foreign planet with the depths of its vibrant hue. The wind diminished the oppressive glare of the noonday sun in the near cloudless sky. In the distance, still a dark blip on the horizon, they cruised toward Pleasure Island, and what Lizzie hoped would be a week that would resuscitate her existence. She wanted a do over. Another chance to kick start her flailing life into a direction she wanted.
Lizzie didn’t want pity. That was an emotion reserved for fools and drama queens. While she might have been naïve in her beliefs, she rarely allowed her emotions to get the better of her.
In some ways, her life had been blessed beyond measure. What did a little rich girl with every financial advantage know of misery? When it came to the material world, she’d never suffered, and knew just how lucky she was because of it. However, in other aspects—the ones that mattered most, and couldn’t be bought, sold, or traded—her existence had been a series of disappointments and shortcomings, one after another.
Lizzie understood without a doubt what her parents, peers, and colleagues would think if she made her displeasure known. Her parents, Jonathan and Mary von Klepper, would direct her to seek psychiatric help and would then go on as if nothing untoward had occurred—merely writing her off for choosing to exist outside what they deemed acceptable behavioral parameters. They did not suffer fools or any softer emotions lightly. There were days when Lizzie wondered if her parents even loved each other, considering the lack of warmth and feeling in the von Klepper household. Now, if there was talk of mergers and acquisitions, that was another animal entirely.
Lizzie’s peers and colleagues, among whom competition and status were prized above all else, would smirk blatantly to her face. They would be overjoyed, because they’d think she had finally succumbed to the pressures of touring and performing nonstop, of being so transient that there was no place she could call home, and while she might stand on a stage playing for thousands and receive adulation by the bucket load, her life continued to be an empty shell of an existence. And she knew without a doubt how they would react, should she give voice to the pain inside, because of the snickers and whispers that had been present over the last six months whenever she walked into rehearsal. Finding your fiancé in bed with another woman could do that to a girl. Finding the nefarious couple in your apartment and your bed, well, that was another level of hell entirely.
Seven years of her life, down the toilet. Seven years of waiting for Edward to marry her. Seven years of patiently waiting for him to make an honest woman out of her. God, how he and the model he’d been banging must have laughed over her stupidity.
It was absurd, really, how gullible she’d been in their relationship. Most men didn’t want to wait to have a physical relationship, especially not with their intended bride.
Pretty stupid of her, in retrospect.
Lizzie rolled her eyes at herself and her predicament. Deep down, she had known that indisputable fact but she’d ignored the truth because she hadn’t loved Edward. Hell, she hadn’t been certain she even liked him. And he had obviously never cared for her, but had been as stuck as she in a prison of expectation.
She’d toed the line her parents had expected her to walk without overstepping the boundaries they erected. Because of that, she had lived a relatively sheltered life in pursuit of her career as a concert flutist. Even during her time at Julliard, she had been buttoned up with responsibilities and the terrible desire to please her parents, hoping that if she did as they asked of her, they would finally show a measure of warmth towards her.
So when her parents had introduced her to Edward Cunningham III, one of their friend’s sons, it had been the most natural extension in the world to accept his proposal.
Sheltered, secluded, and undeniably obtuse when it came to matters of the heart, Lizzie had caved to their unspoken demands. It was funny now, for when she looked back at how Edward had proposed, it had obviously been another business merger and nothing more. There’d been no softer feelings or emotions involved. And if she felt there was something lacking between her and Edward, she believed it was her fault. That it was somehow her fault that she didn’t generate great love from the people in her life. Even when she had such love to give, she couldn’t seem to produce those feelings in those closest to her.
Granted, she wasn’t totally defective in the love department. Lizzie knew she had a heart because of her love affair with music. Playing her flute was her safe space, which she poured her yearning heart into without repercussions or recriminations.
But it was no longer enough for Lizzie.
She wanted more from life. And she was determined to stop feeling guilty over that fact. What she yearned for, what she craved, what woke her up at night with silent tears and a sob lodged in her throat because the dream had ended too soon, was passion. Break the bed, overturned furniture, can’t get enough, heart-stopping passion.
No more safety nets for Lizzie. She’d lived her life in an insulated glass bubble: one she had every intention of shattering until it no longer existed.
Oh, she wanted romance and hearts and flowers too. Those were important and something on her internal list of things she wanted to achieve. But she also ached to be touched—and in a manner that wasn’t infused with benign disinterest. Until recently, she had begun to wonder if passion outside of music was in the cards for her at all. She’d never experienced anything but lukewarm sensations with Edward. Maybe that was why it had been so easy to go along with no physical intimacy and the plan to wait until their wedding night before engaging in anything more than a few, rather tepid, awkward kisses.
Perhaps she would have continued toeing the line her parents and fiancé had set for her if the kiss with her best friend, Solomon, hadn’t happened. Solomon had kissed Lizzie, and her brain had simply clicked off and a hunger, a burgeoning desire she’d not known existed, had overwhelmed her senses. With a single kiss, Solomon hadn’t just knocked her socks off but hurled them into the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
But it had happened and she wasn’t sorry in the slightest, even though she’d still been engaged to Edward. That stolen kiss at the McDougal wedding had left her aching and yearning for more. She’d desired more than a mere kiss that night, truth be told.
Lizzie had been the one to initiate their exchange in the conservatory after everyone had left for the reception hall. She’d slipped on the floor while stepping off the stage, and Solomon had caught her. Surrounded by his steely arms, pressed against the hard planes of his killer body, it had been the most natural thing to place her lips over his.
What she hadn’t expected was for something so innocuous to alter the fabric of her life. As though, until she’d placed her lips over his, she’d been glimpsing the world askew and it had now suddenly been righted. The simple brush of her mouth over his had erupted into a wild fire.
Lizzie could still recall his flavor: dark and smoky with a hint of indubitable danger. The way his large hands had felt cupping her butt as she’d plastered herself against him. Even now, the memory caused torrents of need to flare up in her belly.
Solomon had stopped their off-the-charts kiss. He’d wrenched himself away, this man who’d been her best friend for thirteen years, and glowered at her, with hunger mingled with regret swimming in his gaze.
But she didn’t feel remorse over her actions that night. Lizzie had never felt so alive as she had in Solomon’s arms. Even though she had been engaged to another man, it had made her examine her life. Even if she hadn’t walked in on Edward and the model, she had been planning to end things with him because their relationship was a farce.
Waltzing in on him boinking another woman had just been the final death knell and given Lizzie an easy excuse. However, Lizzie had a secret shame, one nobody knew.
She was the oldest effin’ virgin in the world. And no, nuns didn’t count.
As sad as it was, it was true. Elizabeth Annalise von Klepper, world-renowned flutist who’d played Carnegie Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and had just completed a special guest appearance with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, was a thirty-one-year-old virgin. Lately, she’d been considering adopting a cat or two but that was too clichéd even for Lizzie.
She had never intended to maintain that status for so long. It just sort of happened. During her upbringing, like so many other aspects of the rest of her life, her sex life—or lack thereof—had been one of those boundaries her parents had erected for her. In high school and college, dating had not been acceptable or tolerated by her mom and dad. They had promised to help her choose a suitable husband when the time came, then emotionally manipulated her into going in the direction they chose for her life.
And they all knew how well that had worked out for Lizzie. About as well as trying to cuddle with an anaconda.
This week on Pleasure Island, she was on a mission. Not from God—he had nothing to do with it, unless she happened to scream his name in the throes of an orgasm. No, her mission was to get rid of that infernal moniker once and for all, satisfy her out of control hormones, and live a fuller, more balanced life.
The offer to perform with Solomon over Thanksgiving week had arrived like a gift and Lizzie had accepted without hesitation. She and Sol hadn’t seen each other since Scotland and their one mind-bending kiss. But they were constantly in touch via technology. He was her best friend, and even though they tended to be on opposite sides of the world, they still managed to maintain contact. Even via simple text messages.
Despite the fact that they had studiously avoided the topic of their kiss entirely, Lizzie didn’t plan to let him off the hook. Nope. If her plan worked, he would be the one to relieve her of her virgin status.
As for the holiday and forgoing spending it with family, her parents were no longer speaking to her since she’d called off her engagement to Edward, so it wasn’t like she had plans. Not to mention, she still had to figure out where she would spend Christmas next month. While her parents might be just dandy with Edward screwing some tall, leggy model whose image was splashed over magazine covers everywhere, Lizzie wasn’t. Regardless that she didn’t have deeper feelings for him, she had tried to make herself care about Edward by attempting to bed him for years. And each time, he’d stopped her, because he said he wanted their wedding night to be their first time together. More like: he was already banging another chick and didn’t want to accidently holler her name in the throes of climax.
In her naïveté, she’d thought him sweet and romantic, with his mild-mannered kisses that barely mustered a glimmer of interest in her. That chapter of her life was done. Lizzie was ready to commandeer her own vessel and choose who she wanted, purely because they made her feel.
She disembarked The Leg Spreader, helmed by a big bruiser of a man, Derek, his mocha skin stretched over what seemed like acres of muscles. He reminded her of those large gym rats who spent oodles of time pumping iron. While his ship’s name was exactly what Lizzie wanted to have happen on Pleasure Island, the boat captain didn’t seem like the ideal candidate to relieve her of her cherry. The man was too huge, and would likely not only take her maidenhead but split her five-foot, petite body asunder. Although, if it came down to the finish line this week, he’d do in a pinch. Especially since his black gaze regarded her with interest.
One way or the other, when she left Pleasure Island, she would no longer be a virgin.
Perhaps she was being overly dramatic about her situation. Maybe it wasn’t the huge, gargantuan problem it felt like. It might possibly be better if she just picked a guy up in the bar and got the sordid deed over with. Then she could wash her hands of the issue once and for all.
But, in her heart of hearts, she wanted her first time to mean something to the recipient. Which was damn near impossible to accomplish in this day and age of sexting, and pick up lines via dick pictures, where people changed partners like they changed shoes.
And part of her issue had always been that she wasn’t forward or outgoing like other women. She wasn’t loud or outspoken, she didn’t get jiggy with it and dance on table tops. What she did do was play the flute better than anyone in the world. That had to count for something—or at least, she thought it did. Except the men she interacted with tended to be intimidated by her status, her success.
Lizzie had worked her ass off to get where she was, and had sacrificed years of her life to honing her discipline. There had also been that farce of an engagement, which she had to admit had worked on a surface level because she’d been too busy minding her career while giving off the image of having it all. The great career, snagging one of the most eligible bachelors for a fiancé, wealth both from her parents and the fortune she’d made on her own… But none of that shit mattered when you’d never been cuddled with in bed, or even hugged all that much. Lizzie yearned for affection.
And that was her two-ton elephant in the room.
In the six months since her split with Edward, she’d gone on a multitude of first dates but no second ones. Once the guy discovered what she did for a living, they skedaddled faster than a cockroach running for cover when the light was switched on. So why didn’t she date some of the men she knew in orchestras? She could have snorted at the mere thought. With the way gossip traveled in their little epicenter, word would spread faster than a grease fire.
Most of the men were officious jackanapes, and once her virginal status was revealed, yikes. She winced at the thought. The embarrassment of it—much like the horrid dream of finding yourself naked in front of your classmates—and the revelation would send every jealous hound sniffing at her skirt for more details as to why she’d been engaged for an eternity and was still a virgin.
This week, Lizzie would change that status. She wanted sex, and lots of it. If she had to do the submissive thing this week, after and in between her performance to achieve that goal, fine. It wasn’t a problem.
Fear beat wings inside her chest as she descended the gangway plank. The only problem would be convincing the man she wanted to lose her virginal status with. That was her true conundrum.
“Elizabeth, lass, welcome. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” This from the hunk of burning love, the sexy Scottish gent, Jared McTavish—who, word had it, was now engaged—and who stood on the docks waiting for her. Lizzie was certain that female hearts worldwide had broken because of his newly taken status. The man was simply beautiful, with his ginger hair loose and wavy in the morning sunlight, brushing his wide, broad shoulders which were covered by a crisp, white linen dress shirt. His breathtaking smile, in a tanned face that carried a hint of just how naughty a man he could be. His gorgeous torso tapered to his lean, narrow hips, encased in gray pinstripe slacks. It was a bleeding shame he couldn’t do the honors for her. He was an impressive slab of man beefcake.
Having said that, the man she’d chosen for the dubious honor, Solomon, was doubly impressive, with potent dark sensuality. The thought of him made her air stutter in her lungs and a low burn ignite in her belly. Solomon was her target; he just didn’t know it yet.
She took Jared’s outstretched hand. “Please, call me Lizzie. Thank you for inviting me, Jared. I’m really looking forward to this week.”
“I’m delighted that you could make it, what with the holiday this week, lass. Are you certain your family won’t be missing you?” he asked, escorting her, with a casual hand against her back, to a waiting golf cart.
“I’m positive they won’t.” Miss her? They’d barely tolerated her existence, and that was before she’d broken off her engagement with Edward. If she attempted to bridge that gap Lizzie was certain they would make her wear a scarlet letter over her breast and perform self-flagellation at their behest.
“Well, on Thursday, you must have dinner with my fiancée and me. My Naomi is cooking a Thanksgiving feast for our immediate friends, and you are most welcome to attend,” Jared offered, helping her into her seat. He walked with a sure-footed grace, which was uncommon for such a large man, around to the driver’s side.
Lizzie had only met Jared once before, briefly, at the McDougal wedding nearly a year previously, and he was about as nice a man as they came. He was also an alpha Dom to his very core. A rather potent combination. His congenial offer suffused her with unexpected warmth. There was no subterfuge at work, no guessing what his intentions might be. It was a world away from what she’d known.
Jared drove like a man used to the world bending to his will, yet still managed to maintain a calm, steady air. The path rose from the docks in a gradual ascension. A riot of greenery and flowers of every color bloomed along the path. The warm breeze carried a hint of salt water and orchids. Lizzie replied, “That would be lovely, thank you. It’s so pretty here.”
It was a castaway paradise. What better place to lose her virginity?
Jared nodded, a magnanimous smile hovering over his lips. “It is. And since we are booked up this week, I have you in one of our suites in the main hotel. I hope that will suffice.”
“Of course. I’m just pleased that you remembered me and extended the invitation. Frankly, staying in the hotel will make it easier with the shows. And I’m used to living on the road so a suite isn’t a hardship, I assure you,” she replied as they parked in a space near the ivory dome of the hotel.
The hotel itself had a unique, Jetsons like quality to it, what with the way it sloped up in a rounded shape, with the balconies for the rooms carved into the dome so that no ledge or overlook jutted out but gave it a smooth, space age appearance.
“That cannot be easy, the constant travel,” Jared said, escorting her into the elevator.
“It certainly has its moments.” Like, for instance, cutting a trip short to find your fiancé in bed with another woman.
“I’ll bet. Let me show you where you will be playing first. Your luggage is being delivered to your suite, so you have nothing to worry about there. In your welcome packet, I’ve asked them to include a pair of island cuffs, if you’ve a mind to attend the club in the evenings. If you’re not submissive, then don’t worry about those. I just wanted to offer them in case,” Jared explained.
Was Lizzie submissive? Gosh, she had no idea. A part of her thought she might be, but how did one know when one hadn’t experienced sex?
Since she had no answer for him, she said, “Thanks for that.”
She could determine later whether she needed to wear them or not. When the doors slid open, they stepped off the elevator and into the hotel lobby. Lizzie had performed in some of the grandest music halls ever built but when it came to this hotel, grand didn’t even begin to describe it. While the exterior might look futuristic, the interior boasted a sublime elegance. The reservation desk and concierges, with their sleek lines, were on her left. Beyond the reservation desk was the entrance to a restaurant, Master’s Pleasure, and beside it, a gift shop that appeared to offer everything, from grocery staples to island apparel and items for the kinky side of life. On her right was a seating area with leather couches and chairs, tropical plants in a profusion of leafy greens and riot of colors, which accented and softened the inherently masculine furniture. In the corner of the seating area was a glossy black Yamaha baby grand piano.
It was the man sitting on the piano bench, his long fingers—which she knew from a lifetime spent in his company—fiddling with the ivory keys that caused all the blood in her body to churn. Solomon Ventura, one of the finest piano players in the world, and the only man who’d ever kissed her brainless. Darkly sensual good looks. Tall and well built, especially for someone who spent his life sitting at a piano bench.
Lizzie hadn’t known what to expect when she saw him. They’d been friends, the best of friends, for more than a decade. Until the night of that fateful kiss. It had been nearly a year since then. Since she’d had her world turned inside out.
Solomon took her breath away. He always had, but she’d never understood the emotions she felt until the first touch of his lips on hers. His midnight hair was shorter than the last time they’d seen one another, and he had a smattering of dark stubble growth on his square jaw that was new. It made him seem more raw, less refined, and caused a low burn in her midsection. His skin always carried a trace of a tan, in contrast to her own ivory skin that wouldn’t hold color to save her life. His broad shoulders moved with a sinuous grace, muscles rippling beneath his heather gray Henley, which sculpted and fit his chest: defining, and outlining how ripped his body was as his hands moved over the keyboard.
The man, quite simply put, made love to his instrument. It was the only way Lizzie could describe how Solomon played the keyboard. His entire body was fluid and intense, leaning and swaying as his fingers moved effortlessly. He caressed the black and white keys, stroking them to sounds as he wanted them to, and left the crowd panting, wanting more. It was exactly what Lizzie believed love should be, especially the first time. Maybe she was naïve, and that wasn’t how the world really worked. But in her opinion, it was how it should work.
She felt the same way about the flute.
“Lizzie,” Solomon said the moment he spied her, his deep, smooth baritone sliding over her like melted butter as a smile spread across his handsome face. It all had the effect of an atom bomb on her erogenous zones. He unfolded himself from the bench and stood. All six feet two inches of power packed muscle emerged from behind the piano.
“Sol. You’re well, I take it?” She lifted her face as he enveloped her in a friendly embrace. His gunmetal gray eyes were full of delight and the warmth of friendship.
Lizzie returned his hug but felt awkward. The knowledge that she was planning to try and seduce one of her oldest friends caused tension to enter her frame.
“Very. I’m glad you decided to join me this week so we can do what we do best together,” Solomon said, with an overly dramatic wiggle of his dark brows. She couldn’t help the laugh that escaped, or the fact that the inherently sexy innuendo stirred her blood. She sighed internally when he released her. All she wanted was to sink into his embrace and stay there.
“Will this location work for you both?” Jared asked, glancing between them. Lizzie noted that, while she found Jared attractive, Sol eclipsed him. It didn’t make Jared any less handsome. It was just that, for her, Solomon’s energy overrode everything else. And his dark woodsy scent that surrounded her when he had hugged her, seemed to linger. It made her want to curl into him.
“Yes. The acoustics are fine and will work for our duets.” Solomon slid his hands into the pockets of his Levi’s. His jeans contoured the long lines of his powerful legs.
“But?” Jared gave Solomon a glance with a raised eyebrow.
Solomon shrugged, confident and at ease as he replied, “Well, it wasn’t built as a music hall but it should work for our purposes here this week. Once you get the outdoor theater built, I’d love to try that out.”
Jared assimilated that information, respect for Solomon in his gaze, and said, “Good enough. I’ll keep you in mind for a return engagement once it’s complete. You both have today to get yourselves settled. Then three shows a day starting Monday—tomorrow. I have the times marked in your registration packets that I had delivered to your rooms. They are next to one another, so you will be close—since you mentioned, Solomon, that you’d want to rehearse.”
“What do you say, Lizzie, shall we go up and reacquaint ourselves with each other?” Solomon shot her a sideways grin.
She knew he meant it in a friendly manner. That was Sol. He was a charmer, always up for a good time, with a glimmer in his eyes and flash of teeth in his smile. But somehow along the way (and if she were honest with herself it was before the wedding kiss last year), she’d begun to yearn for him, imagine him in a way no friend should. Most people didn’t look at their best friend and wonder what they looked like naked.
But she had. And on more than one occasion.
Solomon slipped her arm through his and said, “Come, mia bella, I’ve been waiting in agony to play with you once again.”
At his suggestion, she clenched her free hand, digging her nails into her palm to keep herself from audibly sighing. There would be time this week to address the fact that his words turned her insides into an aching mass of need. Instead of launching herself into his arms, she acted like they always did, twining her arm more solidly through his and replied, “Lead the way, my friend.”