Audrey’s tongue suddenly felt glued to the roof of her mouth. This was her moment. This was the time that she put aside all childhood longings and secret crushes and confessed just how she felt about this man. How she’d felt for as far back as she could remember. How she’d always loved him. How he meant everything to her and she wanted to take this love she had for him and turn it from one-sided into something she could share with him.
His expression was gentle as he waited patiently for her to speak, and it encouraged her.
“I . . .” She swallowed hard. “I wanted to talk to you about . . . how much it means to me that you’re here.” God, this was harder than she thought, especially since he was waiting on her with that patient look in his eyes. “You and I, we go way back.”
“We do,” he said with a grin. “I remember when the neighborhood kids used to steal you and Daphne’s trikes and I had to go and steal them back for you.”
“You always were our hero,” she said softly.
“I always will be,” he said solemnly. “Anytime you or your sister need me, you know I’ll be there.”
“I know. Just like this weekend.” Audrey reached out for his hand and clasped it. It was warm against her own, and he gave it another friendly squeeze. Like he would a little sister who needed encouragement. “I . . .”
She leaned in a little, letting her hair fall forward on her cheek and fluttered her false eyelashes at him. If it gave any sort of effect like it did to Daphne, her eyes were big and bold with the fake lashes. She hoped she looked soft and vulnerable to him. Alluring, maybe. “I just wanted you to know how much I value that we can lean on you. You’re so important in my life.”
“You’re important in mine, too,” he assured her.
This was turning into a pat on the back conversation more than anything else. Just come right out with it, she told herself. Tell him you love him. Grab him by the collar and kiss him like you did Reese.
Except this was Cade, and she couldn’t be all impulsive with him. She remembered back on the docks, back when she was thirteen. The disappointed look he’d given her when she’d shoved Daphne into the water. Like she’d turned out to be someone he didn’t want and didn’t like. She never wanted to see that expression on his face again.
And looking at him now, with a touch of impatience in his eyes as he waited for her to say what was so important, she realized . . . he’d be looking at her like that again if she confessed how she felt.
Because she knew, she just knew, that it was one-sided.
And the words glued in her throat for good.
“Cade?” Daphne’s voice called out from the house. “Cade, are you back? Do you have my pill?”
Cade touched Audrey’s arm, then glanced back at the lodge. “I need to go, Audrey. We’ll finish this later?”
“Sure,” she said with a small disappointed sigh. “Later.”
He gave her another small smile, then headed back into the house, gently closing the door behind him.
Audrey stared out into the woods at the hateful sunset.
She could have taken matters into her own hands. Planted a kiss on Cade whether he’d wanted it or not, just to get Reese out of the house and win the bet. But that would have felt wrong on so many levels that she wouldn’t have been able to handle it. She was frustrated with Cade for not giving her the perfect opening, but more than that, she was frustrated with herself.
After all, she’d been the one to accept the stinking bet.
The door creaked open and she didn’t look over. She knew exactly who it was. It was Reese coming to gloat about how he’d won their little dare. This was two in a row that he’d more or less forced her to walk right into. She should be incredibly pissed.
Instead, that butterfly of excitement was back in her stomach, making her pulse race.
She glanced over at Reese. He stood on the porch, arms crossed over an old gym T-shirt borrowed from Cade, a pleased smile on his face. “You get cold feet in the last moment, Miss Prim and Proper?”
“Something like that,” she said, then shrugged. “Of course, it’s impossible to win when someone deliberately stacks the deck against you.”
“Who would do such an outrageous thing?”
“Someone who was up at dawn with Cade and knew he wasn’t in the house when the bet was made,” she said dryly.
He gestured at himself in mock surprise, then flashed her a naughty—oh so naughty—grin. “I told you I’d do whatever it takes when it comes down to winning.”
“You certainly proved that today,” she told him, forcing her voice to be utterly bland. “Way to go. You won yourself a skinny-dip with Daphne Petty’s unattractive twin sister. Congratulations.”
He gave her an odd look. “You’re making it rather hard to gloat.”
“What’s there to gloat over?”
“The fact that I won a hot night of skinny-dipping with a lush, sexy redhead?”
She snorted. “You’re just gloating because you won. No more, no less. You don’t have to lay it on so thick.”
“Suit yourself,” Reese said, then glanced out at the pond. “You want to go now?”
“In broad daylight?” She looked scandalized.
“An hour from now?”
She considered it, then shook her head. “Daph and Cade will still be awake. I don’t want them knowing about this little bet of ours.”
“Heaven forbid anyone have fun while at this cabin,” Reese said dryly.
Fun for you, she thought with a dark frown. “Midnight.”
“You chickening out on me, Petty?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t want everyone knowing our business.”
“Midnight it is, then,” he conceded. “But if you try to bail on me—”
“I’m not going to bail!” God, he was irritating. God, she wished that flutter in her belly would go away.
“Good.” After a moment of silence, he turned and walked back into the house.
Apparently she now had a midnight date for skinny-dipping. Hell. Audrey sighed. Why was it that when she’d pictured this cozy weekend in the cabin with Cade, she’d imagined snuggling up with him by firelight while Daphne slept and they got to know each other all over again? Instead, the bad twin had the undivided attention of the hero and the good twin seemed to be making all kinds of crazy, ridiculous bets with the local miscreant.
Wasn’t the good twin supposed to be the one who was rewarded at the end of the day? Somehow it didn’t feel like it.
The hours ticked past agonizingly slow. Dinner was awkward, with Daphne refusing to eat again. Reese made burgers for Audrey and Cade, and when he’d claimed it was her recipe for the delicious burgers, she’d done the dishes as a thank you. He was still pulling his weight when it came to this charade, after all. Now if he’d only quit giving her such knowing looks, she’d possibly quit blushing.
Citing exhaustion, Audrey went to bed early that night. She dug through her clothing, looking for a bra and panty set that would be as close as possible to a swimsuit. No dice. Unlike all the romance heroines she read about, she didn’t wear pretty, sexy underwear just because she could. Audrey liked function and utility in all her clothing, right down to her undergarments. Her serviceable nude-colored bra and matching bikini panties would have to do.
And then she laid down and tried to sleep for a few hours, but that was impossible. The butterflies in her stomach had somehow turned into something the size of ponies, and her pulse was pounding so loud in her ears that she was surprised the crashing wasn’t bringing the others running.
She was . . . nervous. This wasn’t something that sensible Audrey Petty, good twin extraordinaire, did. Daphne might, but Daphne also liked mind-altering drugs and booze.
When her twin came in a few hours later, Audrey feigned sleep. It didn’t matter. Daphne immediately dropped onto her side of the bed, adjusted her pillows, and was sound asleep within moments. Audrey waited a few minutes more anyhow, then glanced over at the clock on the bedside.
Eleven thirty. Damn. Another half hour to go.
She lay in bed waiting, stiff with anticipation, watching the clock tick down toward midnight. She prayed Cade was fast asleep and she wouldn’t wake him up when she snuck out. How utterly mortifying would that be?
All too soon, it was time. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and paused, waiting for Daphne to stir. Her twin was sound asleep, though, and after a moment’s hesitation, she got out of bed entirely.
No response. Well, that was good.
Audrey pulled on a pair of jeans over her sleep shirt and then dragged her hair into its usual tight bun. She padded down the hall, wincing with every creak the floorboards made.
Reese was waiting by the back door of the lodge, leaning against it and checking his watch. He was dressed in those sleep pants he seemed to live in and another one of Cade’s too-tight T-shirts. He grinned at the sight of her, his gaze moving back to her tight bun. “All armored up, I see.”
“Just shut up and let’s do this already,” she told him in a hushed voice.
“Wait here a second,” he told her, and disappeared into the hall. He returned a minute later with a pair of fluffy towels.
For some reason, the sight of those towels made her stomach drop. Oh, God. She was really, really going to do this. Panic flashed through her, and she forced it down. She’d get this over with as quickly as possible and head back to bed. No one needed to know about it. No big deal. Guys like Reese probably went skinny-dipping with women all the time.
She plucked a towel from his hand and opened the back door, stepping outside.
The night air was brisk. No, more than that. It was chilly. She gave a small shiver as she stepped out, feeling the wind cut through the thin fabric of her clothing. “Can’t we do this some other night when it’s not this cold?”
“Would you rather use the hot tub?”
Visions of Reese naked in the hot tub with the heiress flashed through her mind, and she frowned at the reminder. “Absolutely not.”
He chuckled, his hand going to the small of her back. “Come on, then.”
The walk down to the shore of the lake seemed to take forever. Reese was murmuring something but she wasn’t paying attention. The butterfly in her stomach seemed to have taken up permanent residence, and she walked in a fog, the only thing soaking through her mind the strong, warm hand at the small of her back. For some reason, she liked that hand.
And then they were at the end of the dock. Audrey stared down at the dark water lapping against the wood and then looked dubiously at Reese. “I just want you to know that I hate you.”
Reese chuckled, setting his towel down on the dock a safe distance away and then putting his hands on his hips. “So, you ready?”
“Of course not.” She tossed her towel down on top of his. “I’m not going in first, either.”
“Yeah, you are. You’re the one who lost the bet.”
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