He walked ahead of her.
Like everyone else in his life, Alexia Burton followed.
The setting sunlight fell over him, eager to please, anything for Parker Hargraves. It cast his stylishly dishevelled blond hair in gold. It kissed his skin, tanned and smooth. As he cut a glance at her over his shoulder, it poured tawny into the green of his eyes.
‘Keep up,’ he said, mouth lifting.
She held his gaze. ‘Slow down.’
He didn’t slow down and she refused to keep up.
It was possible they were engaged in a power struggle. He, because he’d grown as the master of his life and took his power as a given. She, because he wasn’t the master of her.
At school, they didn’t talk. Didn’t share classes. Didn’t meet eyes. She was a drama enthusiast and he was…Parker. An adolescent angel, lost among humans, entertaining himself by making them do as he pleased and somehow convincing them they wanted to.
Alexia was unconvinced.
It was her own fault she was doing as Parker pleased, because fifteen minutes earlier he’d said, ‘I want to show you something. Come back to my place after work,’ and she’d said, ‘Sure,’ as if she went back to boys’ houses all the time.
She dragged her long curls over her right shoulder as makeshift sunblock, imagining what Parker wanted to show her. A movie, perhaps, so he could sit beside her on the couch, not touching, not talking, but so distracted by her that he couldn’t remember the plot afterwards. Sand caught between Alexia’s toes as she smiled a little, the sinking summer sun hot on her face.
He lived just out of Byron Bay, where tracks from the oceanfront properties led directly to the beach. Everyone at school knew he was loaded. His dad owned Lullabyron, a surf brand recognised worldwide. Quality, style, edge. Parker always wore his school shirts half-unbuttoned, showing off his branded singlet and braided leather necklace. More leather held onto his wrists, dark brown straps offsetting the tone of his skin.
He looked over his shoulder again. ‘You walk really slowly.’
‘You make really bad coffee.’
No offence taken, because the angel was inherently incapable of accepting criticism.
The only reason she was here at all, traipsing along the beach with her work shoes in-hand, was because Parker had been told to get a summer job. Prove he could handle responsibility. And Alexia had the joy of working in the cafe he’d targeted.
‘I’m the new kid.’ He’d spoken ironically that first day, standing too close. Hair still damp from the surf. Feet bare on the tiles. Aware of his charm and setting it free on her, leaning against the counter with a lazy smile.
She’d not seen him up close before. The brunt of his physicality draped heat over her skin like tight, lush fabric. With difficulty, she’d shaken it off.
‘Josh,’ she’d called, holding Parker’s gaze. ‘Give the new kid a sponge.’
That had gone down well. With Josh.
Parker held the sponge, confused. ‘I thought I’d serve.’
‘And I thought you’d start at the bottom like everyone else in a new job.’
No, no. He wanted to serve. Out came tactic number two: feign an existing connection. ‘We go to school together, right?’
‘We’ve never been anywhere together,’ she answered. ‘But we do attend the same school separately.’
He frowned. ‘You’re not very nice.’
‘On the contrary,’ Josh had said, ambling past with an armload of breakfasts. ‘She’s probably the nicest girl you’ve met.’
Parker hadn’t believed that. Four weeks later, after slaving through the height of tourist season together, he seemed to understand that nice didn’t equal doormat. Apparently she was ‘all right’.
Alexia maintained he was up himself, despite his presence tumbling her pulse. Yes, he was gorgeous. But he wasn’t her type. At seventeen, Alexia still didn’t have a type. She wanted to act for a living – that was the fact of her existence. Boys would only get in the way, her mother had warned her, and by the time they got out of the way, opportunities would be lost.
Her mother, who had also told her, ‘You can’t choose who you’re attracted to.’
She wasn’t wrong.
Parker led her up the beach to a set of sand-coated wooden steps and along a walking track. Trees crowded in on them, cutting off the outside world. The shade was welcome, the seclusion less so.
Still in front, Parker stripped off his shirt. Muscles grappled across his back beneath bronzed skin. If Alexia melted a little, she’d never admit it, but her stride slowed as she admired him, shoulders, back, and butt, unreasonably hot in black boardshorts.
‘Home sweet home.’ He didn’t look over his shoulder this time. Instinct probably told him he had a captive audience.
The Hargraves property was massive and enviable. Sweeping lawns. An opal-watered swimming pool. An untouched view to the ocean from a large raised deck. Timber structures and open doorways and wide windows without curtains.
‘I see why your folks needed you to get a job,’ she said, awkward as she followed him inside. The unit she shared with her mum was about the size of this sunroom.
‘Where are they?’
Lord. ‘Pass on my condolences.’
‘Hey, you asked.’
‘Anticipating that they were at the supermarket or something,’ she said, looking around as he led her into an airy lounge. Full-length windows, high arched ceiling, and a lounge setting with an interior design catalogue kind of homeliness.
‘They might be,’ he said, still walking. ‘I can call and ask.’
Alexia almost rolled her eyes. ‘Hi, I’ve got this random girl with me and she wants to know if you’re buying groceries in paradise.’
‘Alexia,’ he chided, tossing his shirt onto a sideboard and facing her. His green gaze was steady. ‘I’d use your name.’
Suddenly, she felt flustered.
There’d been moments like this at the café. He would focus on her – interested, intense, and a bit bewildered. The puff of self-importance would leave his chest, as if granting space for a new breath, an awareness of someone other than himself. More than once, Alexia felt as if she were that breath. As if he wanted her to fill him up.
It was no wonder she’d followed him home.
As always, Parker puffed back up on the next inhale. He grinned, and she finally comprehended that he was naked but for shorts and leather bands. Alone with her in the privacy of his home. Charged with testosterone and his own self-importance.
Her mum would freak.
With a tilt of his head, he led her downstairs. The basement, she realised as the air grew cool. Her senses sharpened, but she followed because he had something to show her. No big deal. She could be mistaken about the movie, and really, she should hope she was. They moved with different crowds, with far different priorities. There was nothing substantial between them. When school went back on Monday, he’d probably beg her not to mention this minor deviation in his social status.
She had a reputation too. She wouldn’t tell a soul, not on her life.
The basement was his realm. Couches, beanbags, arcade games, and a huge television. Guitars, drums, and a record collection that actually made her consider giving him the satisfaction – everything a spoilt rich kid could want to show off to friends. Alexia stood by the stairs, ill at ease, bag slung over her shoulder and shoes still hanging from her fingers.
Parker raked a hand through his hair, a standard surf-god blond without the sunlight, and settled his attention on her.
‘So.’ She glanced at her watch and couldn’t have repeated the time if her life depended on it. ‘You wanted to show me something?’
He closed in. Suspecting he was messing with her, Alexia retreated until her back hit the wall. Broad shouldered and tall, Parker’s body crowded her as he gave a lazy half-smile and murmured, ‘Me.’
Her lungs emptied.
‘Like, with a movie?’ she managed to ask.
‘If that’s your thing.’ She jumped as the tips of his fingers grazed her hip. ‘I knew this one girl who always had to have Macy Gray playing when we did it. God, I got so sick of it. I’ve probably still got the album on my iPod though, if you want.’
Alexia was silenced by everything wrong with that suggestion.
Then his thick golden lashes dipped to her mouth and her pulse spiked.
‘No,’ she said, alarmed. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Parker would’ve had movie dates at thirteen. At seventeen, that couch held very different potential.
‘I can’t believe you’ve done this to me.’ He shifted closer, wrapping his body heat around her. This time she couldn’t shake it off. Adrenaline charged her blood as his breath swept over her cheeks. ‘I choose who I want. And they always choose me. But then you came along, all wild hair and annoying come-backs, and I’ve wasted most of my summer trying to get you here.’
Alexia’s breath came fast. Panic shot as deep as her bones. ‘I shouldn’t have come.’
‘Tease,’ he said, hand grasping her waist and drawing her against him. God, was that – ? Her heart thudded. He was hard down there. His fingers found the waistline of her shorts and moved beneath. He was well-practiced, confident. And she wanted none of it.
‘I’ll scream,’ she said, throat tight.
He paused. Confusion swept down his honeyed brows as he pulled back. ‘In ecstasy.’ He said it cautiously.
The frown deepened. ‘But you want this.’
Fiercely, she shook her head.
‘But.’ His hand on her waist changed from a possessive grip to a closed fist. ‘You’ve been making eyes at me. Laughing. Talking.’
Alexia moved her chin aside. His mouth was too close. ‘I was being friendly. A girl can treat you like a human without wanting this.’
That sank in slowly. Then he stepped back, arms out to the sides, gesturing to his form and fortune. ‘Why wouldn’t you?’
His raging ego made it so difficult to think of dozens of reasons. ‘Because I’m not interested.’
‘Yes, you are.’ He half-smiled. ‘You’re hot for me.’
Maybe she’d looked during shifts. Admired. But looking was a far cry from having sex.
‘My parents are away until next weekend, if that’s what’s worrying you.’
It definitely was. She found the bottom step with her foot, feeling hot and cold at the same time. ‘Ever consider that I’m not ready for this?’
Judging by the shock that slammed across his face, no, he hadn’t. His gaze ran the length of her, partially hidden beneath long hair, dressed in unhemmed shorts and a singlet.
‘You – haven’t,’ he stated.
‘Aren’t we in the same year at school?’
She gritted her teeth. ‘Yes.’
‘You talk to guys and stuff.’
She didn’t respond.
‘And you’re all right,’ he said, gesturing at her rectangular figure. She suspected he considered that a generous compliment. ‘What’s stopping you?’
Her face burned, but her chin stayed high. ‘After such sensitive questioning, I couldn’t possibly say.’
The bitterness came then, shoving his confusion aside. ‘Saving yourself for some nerd dressed as Romeo?’
She inched up the step and set her foot on the next. ‘So what if I am?’
‘He won’t be as good as me.’
She locked her arms across her chest. ‘He’ll treat me like a woman, not an entitlement. Inexperience will be a fair trade off.’
Oh boy. He didn’t like that.
It became clear at some point between Parker calling her frigid and Alexia escaping backwards up the stairs that he hadn’t been rejected before. He didn’t know what to do with it. He certainly couldn’t make any sense of it.
‘Don’t tell anyone or I’ll tell them you were my worst!’
With tears in her eyes, Alexia slammed the door behind her.
Not on her life.
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