The temptation to be bad
Lingerie model Piper is a tabloid's dream come true. She's broken hearts, ruleseven a few laws. After her last little "adventure," however, Piper realizes her trashed rep won't just destroy her careerit'll destroy the one thing she really cares about. Now she's a Reformed Bad Girl. And nothing will stop her from being good.
Navy SEAL Neil Barrow is pretty much done being The Good Guy. He's hoping that the deliciously naughty Piper will set both his body and his reputation on fire. When they steal away for a few days, however, it becomes clear that this incendiary attraction is about more than just being bad. And Neil will have to choose between the woman he wants and the man he really is.
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"I don't want to do this." Waiting behind a backdrop. Piper rebelliously sneaked a peek at the crowd waiting on the terrace of the South Beach Yacht Club. The members of this club were conservative, distinguished. The movers and shakers of Miami.
"Don't worry," Piper's assistant, Ragi Bhagat, reassured. "All you have to do is look beautiful and present the trophy."
Hah. Piper clenched her fists. Story of my life. Looking beautiful was all she'd ever been good for. But it paid the bills.
Ragi swept Piper's long hair around to one side and flicked an imaginary piece of fluff off her linen dress. "You'll be fine."
Piper wasn't so sure. The last time she'd been in Miami she'd caused a horrible front-page scandal. Her photo had been splashed on the cover of every tabloid, along with a salacious headline about the "notorious bad girl's" arrest at the cruise terminal. That had only been four months ago.
"Smile." Ragi shoved a three-foot-tall, double-handled gold chalice into her hands.
Piper staggered under its weight, barely righting herself on her four-inch wedge espadrilles. After throwing Ragi a mutinous glare, she pasted on a smile and climbed the stairs to the dais, positioning herselfjust to the right of the podium with the microphone. The yacht club sat on a hill overlooking the water, but despite the ocean breeze, it was bloody hot for May.
The woman at the podium was wrapping up her speech. "And thanks to everyone who participated in the regatta, we've raised three-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand dollars for a children's hospital in Miami."
Applause erupted and the woman stepped back, extending her arm to her left. "And here is the winner of the race to receive his trophy, Lieutenant Neil Barrow!"
More applause exploded, even louder and more raucous, as a rugged man bounded confidently up the stairs to shake the woman's hand. His gray Go Navy T-shirt had a triangle of dampness down the front and under each arm. Dog tags hung around his neck. His sandy brown hair was slightly longer than she thought a military man's would be, and a few curls clung to his neck and temples. He flashed a smile to the crowd, and then placed his hands low on his hips and glanced at Piper.
He did a classic double take as he swept his gaze down her body and back up again to meet her eyes. She caught the gleam of appreciation and surprise.
What? He didn't think lingerie model Piper would spend her day at a charity event? Well, that was why she was here. To clean up her image, right? Though visiting the hospital this morning had been both enlightening and painful. So many children. There'd been that young boy who'd reminded her of Nandan. Her brother had been the same age the last time she'd seen him.
"Piper!" Ragi whispered loudly from behind the backdrop. "Hand him the trophy."
Piper pasted on her most brilliant smile and stepped forward, offering the trophy to the man. As he took it from her, she leaned in to kiss his cheek, but he turned so that her lips touched his. After a split second of shock he pressed closer, switching the peck into a real kiss.
His lips were warm, gentle, inviting. Then they opened to deepen the kiss. Her breathing hitched, and a heat that had nothing to do with the weather consumed her as his mouth took hers.
The audience burst into applause. Someone whistled shrilly.
Snapped from her daze, Piper pulled away. Her heart was pounding. She touched the back of her hand to her flaming cheek. Was she getting a fever?
The lieutenant's eyes twinkled as he lifted his head to focus on her. "Have dinner with me tonight," he whispered.
The bubble popped. Piper sighed. What had she expected? She'd just let him give her a sensational kiss. In public. She brought the arctic to her expression. "I'm busy."
His brows drew together. He seemed taken aback. Obviously he'd expected her to accept. Maybe even skip dinner altogether and jump right into his bed. But that was the old Piper.
He shrugged, then faced the crowd and grinned, lifting the trophy above his head. The applause roared to life. There was a palpable energy rising from the gathering. Bulbs flashed from journalists' cameras, and cell phones were held aloft to video the events.
The naval officer's biceps flexed as he pumped the trophy up and down in a traditional sign of victory. He waved to the people a final time then jogged down the platform steps. No opportunistic speech about his involvement with the charity? Nothing about his commitment to poor, sick children?
The woman emcee reclaimed the microphone and announced the charity race would officially end with the gala ball on the terrace at eight. The crowd dispersed. Piper was scheduled to attend the gala ball. Get her photo taken with the hospital administrator, the mayor and whoever else could help repair her reputation. Must play nice if she wanted her contract with Modelle Cosmetics renewed.
She headed down the steps of the platform and toward the club's lounge. Someone's hand touched her shoulder and she turned.
"Hey, I didn't mean to offend back there," the navy guy said with a lopsided grin. "Just got caught up in the moment."
Offend? A few months ago she'd have already had him in her hotel room by now, going at it hot and heavy. Piper offered him a tight smile in return. "It's fine." She went to leave.
"So give me another chance? I swear I can be a gentleman."
Piper stilled. Yeah. Sure. "Look, I know you think that because of what you've read about me I'm"
"Read about you?" He frowned.
She studied him. "Right. You don't know who I am?"
"Should I? I'm sorry. I'm out of the country a lot."
Out of the country? As if maybe he lived on a ship? Even still. Could he be for real?
"Honestly. I have no agenda but dinner." He lifted one shoulder and smiled. "And maybe a good-night kiss."
His smile jolted through her. She looked into his eyes. Warm brown eyes that reminded her of burnished copper. Eyes that seemed genuine and untroubled.
What would that be like? To spend time with someone who wasn't using her for their own selfish reasons. But that kind of person didn't exist.
Still, she was so bored with this whole reformed-bad-girl act. And she absolutely did not want to stand around at that gala tonight pretending to make nice. "Okay."
"Really? I mean, great. The club's dining room? Say an hour?"
Nodding, she turned away, her heart thudding again. Would she never learn to think before she acted? Despite his assertions, the guy probably thought he could get her into bed. Failing thatand he wouldhe probably wanted his name and picture linked with hers in the papers. His fifteen minutes of fame.
Ragi would be furious that she'd made this date. She'd insist on Piper schmoozing at the gala first. The PR firm had been scrambling to find events where she could make appearances and restore her image. So far, the approach had been working. Just last week Modelle had hinted that they would consider renewing her contract when it expired next month.
She'd signed on as the spokesperson for the makeup company when she was a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old. New on the scene. A rising star in the modeling world. Under the thumb of her agent, Ms. H, Piper's reputation had been unblemished back then.
Now? Well, she'd had a few troubling years. And Modelle insisted their models' characters be above reproach. After Piper's arrest in the cruise terminal, Modelle had threatened no new contracts. Since then, Piper had been conspicuously well behaved.
Yet here she was, back in South Beach. Maybe she should send the naval officer a note, canceling.
"Now, that was walking, talking trouble right there." Neil's buddy Clay lifted his shot glass toward the platform workmen were disassembling outside.
"The trophy girl?" Neil plunked down on a bar stool and ordered a beer. He glanced through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the yacht club's dining room. The curvy beauty who'd handed him the trophy didn't look like trouble. Regal. Haughty even. Although that could've been the slight British tones in her Indian accent. But there'd been something fragile about her, as well. And passionate. That kiss had sizzled. "What's up with her? One minute she's kissing me for all she's worth and the next she's freezing me out."
"Well, what'd you expect? Her last boyfriend was a French billionaire."
Neil paused with his beer bottle halfway to his lips.
"Why? Who is she?"
Clay's jaw dropped. "You been living under a rock?
Neil gave him a blank look. "Piper who?"
Clay shook his head in disbelief. "She's a famous model. You've never seen her in those Desiree's Desire commercials?" Clay whistled. "And that bikini she wore on the cover of SportsWorld last year? She's the most notorious bad girl on the planet."
A lingerie model? Oh, yeah, he could easily picture her in something sexy like that. Neil's body heated. He was going to have to start paying more attention to lingerie.
"She snubbed the Queen of England," Clay said, counting off with his fingers. "Crashed a Lamborghini." Another finger rose. "Dated and then cheated on Hollywood royalty Brad Benton and last but not least was detained by port authorities, returning from Mexico a few months back."
"Whoa, Bellamy, you read all those celebrity rags while you're at the salon having your nails done?"
"You're a real funny guy, Barrow." Clay spoke with the long, lazy drawl only someone raised in the Deep South can own. "I hear all that stuff from my mother. She lives and breathes it."
Neil grinned. It felt good to get Clay Bellamy on the defensive for once. "Your mother's a saint."
Clay's eyes narrowed. "The woman you met is real different from when she raised me."
Neil sipped his beer as he studied the sunset through the wall of windows. Clay never talked about his childhood in Alabama. Neil could only guess it hadn't been idyllic. But then, whose was? His own mother fell into the same category. She only seemed like a saint to the public.
Though Neil didn't mind donating his time to her charities, he preferred swinging a hammer for Build a Home rather than racing some rich dudes up and down the Miami coast. But at least it helped the children's hospital foundation. One of his mother's high-profile pet projects that looked good on the resume of a senator's wife.
Would he have asked the trophy girl out if he'd known she was a famous model? She was mouthwa-teringly gorgeous. Creamy caramel-colored skin, delicate cheekbones and full lips. Her long, straight black hair fell almost to her waist. She was tall and slender, but not bone thin like the runway models he'd seen. Her sleeveless pink dress hugged some substantial curves.
But it was her eyes that had captivated him. Neil couldn't get the image of the woman's luminous light green eyes out of his head.
And whether she actually showed tonight or not, he intended to enjoy what was left of his week's leave. Take his mind off Lyndsey and the divorce. Or rather, the almost divorce. Had she signed the papers yet? His attorney had assured him it was just a formality. He was supposed to overnight the final papers to Neil as soon as Lyndsey signed. Neil wanted the whole mess over with.
He tore his gaze away from the purple-and-pink-streaked sky and cleared his throat. "Well, sorry to ditch you, bro, but the lingerie model's meeting me here for dinner in." He glanced at his watch. "Ten minutes."
"Hmm, what do you know? Straight Arrow Barrow hooking up with bad-girl Piper. This calls for a toast." Clay gestured to the bartender for a refill of his shot glass. "I guess our weekend plans to raise hell are getting off to a good start."
"You're the one who said we'd raise hell down here, not me."
Clay shrugged. "I thought it'd do you some good. You been living like a monk since the separation."
"Didn't know you cared, Bellamy."
That remark earned him a rude gesture. But the idea of veering from the straight and narrow appealed to Neil. And an affair with the hot cover model would be the sweetest cure for the contagion that seemed to have spread in his soul ever since he'd returned from a tour in Afghanistan to find his wife in bed with her lover.
Despite a lifetime spent trying to do the right thing, nearly killing himself to be the best, to make his father proud, all his efforts had come crashing down nine months ago.
Though now he could see that things had been crumbling for years.
Clay thumped the second shot glass upside down on the bar next to the first one. "Least now I can fly back to Little Creek knowing you'll be just fine down here for the rest of your leave."
Neil chuckled. He and Clay had been pals since BUD/S, standing next to each other in lineup, two last names starting with B. Surviving the training course in Coronado, freezing their petunias off Hell Week. Going through all that alongside another guy tended to cement a friendship.
Clay clapped his shoulder. "Man, an affair with the Piper. Just come up for air every once in a while, okay? You want to be able to walk after your leave is over."
Neil's beer slid down the wrong pipe and he choked and coughed while Clay slapped him hard on the back.
"Jeez, Bellamy. You work hard at being crude or does it just come natural? I'm down here for a little R and R, that's all. I'm going to hire a boat and do some deep-sea fishing, maybe sail down to the Keys "
Clay raised his brows. "Fine, but this weekend our objective was to find us some women and go wild. And since you're already mission accomplished, I'm down one wingman tonight."
"Tomorrow we'll hit that honky-tonk you wanted to check out. Now get out of here."
Clay stood and saluted. "Suh, yes, suh!" Then pivoted on his heel and headed for the exit. As Clay took off, in walked the long-legged model in a slinky short black dress that didn't leave much to the imagination. She'd actually showed.
But now that he knew who the woman was, he couldn't see the dinner going anywhere. The illustrious Piper probably wouldn't give him the time of day. He was no Brad Benton. Besides, celebrity models and navy SEALs lived worlds apart, right?
Still, she'd agreed to dinner. So who knew?
When Piper passed Clay, his friend turned around to walk backward, wiggling his brows behind her back.
Neil ignored him. His attention was riveted on Piper. She brushed her long hair behind one ear and gave him a hesitant smile. Neil swallowed.
Oh, he sure hoped she wanted to be bad tonight.