Greetings! I’m Alexis Alvarez, a romance author. Today I’m sharing the first three chapters of my novel Return, in which my heroine and her BFF discuss the finer points of certain oral maneuvers, and how to find the best tutorials on Google regarding said maneuvers. All for book research, of course…
Return is the story of Ava, an aspiring novelist, who bases the hero of her BDSM novel on sexy gym trainer Damian. When he finds out that he inspired a book, he demands payback — they’ll act out every kinky scene, with him as the dom and her as the sub. The passion is incredible, but the path to love is twisty and uncertain. There is an HEA, and some readers said it made them cry in a good way. Return has received 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon. Enjoy!
Excerpt from Return (First Three Chapters)
Ava Grimaldi twisted one of her long, brown curls around her finger and grinned at her best friend, Claire. Light streaming through the large plate-glass windows sparkled into the space, creating blinding white flares on her laptop screen as she folded down the lid and picked up her cup of coffee.
“So, how’s the writing going?” Claire asked, setting her steaming latte onto the table. She smiled at Ava and slung her purse over the back of a mismatched wooden chair. “I’m late, but you know I’d never miss our Saturday morning coffee here at MoonBeans.”
“I’m on a really sexy scene right now,” replied Ava, blinking back the solar glare and sipping her Americano. “Coincidentally, this particular short story starts in a coffee house very similar to ours.” The eclectic Chicago café enveloped them with the deep aroma of espresso and the sounds of low chatter, grinders and soft jazz, and Ava gestured as if inviting the atmosphere to join them.
Ava shot Claire a mischievous smile, crossed one lean, muscular leg over the other and continued, “About my novels—I’m nearly going crazy waiting for my first book to come out in stores. It will happen in the next two weeks for sure, Claire! And for the second book? I just sent the latest copy to my editor last night. I added in that scene she wanted. You know,” she lowered her voice and leaned forward, “that special one.”
She giggled and made a hand gesture near her mouth to let Claire know exactly what kind of “special” was on the menu.
Claire snorted. “I can’t believe you’re writing another kinky sex novel, Ava. Before you started your part-time author gig? I would never have guessed that you were the one with the dirty mind. You always came across as innocent and clean, the fresh-eyed computer programmer next door.”
“Hey,” Ava protested, and took a sip from her hand-painted green and blue mug, a modern-art ocean in her hands. “Coders are cool. I’m representing my kind, you know? Showing that numbers geeks have many talents. Who better than a math expert to capture the beauty of a sixty-nine in words?”
Claire rolled her eyes and tapped the side of her cup. “I’m curious. You must have given hundreds of specials to be able to write about them so well. Am I right?” She gazed at Ava with her Inspector Detective look, the one where she narrowed her pale blue eyes and pulled some of her brilliant red hair into a fake moustache.
Claire grinned. “In round numbers. Estimate it.”
“Well,” Ava shot back, “how many times have you specialized?”
“Me?” Claire paused and deliberated, releasing the fauxstache. “I mean, Ryan loves a good special. So, at least once or twice a week.”
“Really?” Ava was impressed. “Wow.”
“Well, sure. But he gives as good as he gets,” replied Claire with a wink. “Now you answer, Ms. Perverted Hemingway.”
Ava retorted, “You know I prefer to be called Emily Dick-inson.”
“Francis Ford Coppola-feel.”
“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Haha.”
There was a pause, then Claire interrupted. “And you totally changed the subject. Is it weird to ask? I’ve just been wondering.”
Ava fidgeted. “You’re funny. Honestly? Not often. Okay, once. Half of once.”
Claire popped upright in her chair. “Seriously?”
Ava shrugged. “I haven’t been with that many guys, Claire.”
Claire still appeared astounded. “I thought I was kidding about calling you innocent.”
Ava rolled her eyes. “I’ve had plenty of sex, okay? It’s just never been earth-shattering, I guess. And I never really wanted to try doing a blow job with any of them. It’s a mental thing.”
Claire had a strange look on her face. “How did you do half? You only licked one side of it?” She giggled.
“Shut up! It was with my ex, Matt, last year. He started pushing my head, and it tweaked my neck in this awkward way, and I got pissed. Then he told me I wasn’t doing it right, and I broke up with him. Not just because of that, but it was the final straw on our lukewarm romance.”
Claire slammed her cup down as hard as a cardboard container could go, causing coffee to slosh out of the plastic lid and onto her hand. She licked it off, commenting, “Never waste a good Java.” Then she continued her interrupted tirade. “What a jerk-off. A guy can’t just shove your head down there and be all, Blow me, baby. Maybe he was blaming you for his lack of sexability.”
Ava frowned. “He turned out to be pretty toolbox. But also? We didn’t have the right chemistry. Things between us were… tepid.”
Claire tilted her head and her freckles glowed in the sunlight. “Remind me why you dated him in the first place?”
Ava shrugged. “In the beginning, he was actually kind of sweet and funny. It was only later on that things fell apart.” Her eyes crinkled as the next thought came to her. “And if I’m being completely honest, I thought dating Matt would get my mind off of Damián. Not the best reason to start a relationship, apparently.” She gave Claire a wry grin and lifted her coffee cup. “Live and learn, or so they tell me.” She took a deep sip of the creamy drink and savored the hint of hazelnut.
Claire sighed. “Ava. You’ve been mooning over Damián for how long now? Half a year?”
Ava ran her finger along the table, mopping up a stray drop of coffee and using it like paint to make a swirl pattern. “It’s not a big deal. I date other people. It’s only a crush… it’ll burn out eventually, right?” A ray from the window made the droplets glow like tiny suns.
Claire pushed at her cup. “But you don’t really date other people, not more than one-time deals. I know you like working out at Damián’s gym. And you spend a lot of time with him since he hired you off-hours to design his website. And he is really handsome. But—”
Ava broke in, thinking of sexy Damián. “Right? He’s gorgeous. It’s frustrating, because he flirts with me a lot, and I almost think there’s something there. Like last time when we met about the web design. He asked a lot of personal questions, and we were teasing each other. He got so close, and looked right into my eyes—I thought he was going to kiss me.” Her voice lost some spark. “He didn’t, though, and the next time I saw him at the gym, he was distant. I was something useful and dull, like a folding chair.”
Claire tapped Ava’s hand. “Folding chairs can be fancy, Ava. Did you know that the Versailles Palace in France has folding stools made of hand-carved, gilded walnut wood, covered with silk and velvet cushions with tassels? Fit for a queen. Or should I say king? Because you want him to sit on you, right?”
“Merci beaucoup, Claire,” said Ava, making a face. She did, in fact, want Damián’s hot, muscular body on top of hers, his dark eyes shooting her looks of passion, his warm brown skin hers to touch. She could almost feel her fingers running through his black hair, her mouth meeting his. And when it came to Damián, she’d be more than happy to lock her lips around the most intimate part of his anatomy. She’d do almost anything with him, including every wild escapade in her own romance novel.
While pondering this, she felt the small pang of concern that had been hitting her more often as the publication date of her first book loomed closer. Maybe? Maybe it wasn’t so cool that the fictional hero of her debut novel was kind of—well, nearly one hundred percent—modeled on real-life Damián Perez.
Tired of fantasizing about Damián, Ava had tried to exorcise him from her thoughts by writing her kinky sex novel with him as the hero. And when it came time to publish, she didn’t tell her editor that the protagonist was remarkably similar to a flesh-and-blood person. She probably shouldn’t have done it, but the truth was that she liked the character so similar to real-life Damián. This was a piece of her soul, now, this book; she didn’t want to change anything. This was her fantasy all written out, his face and body and traits mixed in with some imaginary, hot alpha-male sex.
Damián would never read a BDSM romance, so he’d never find out that his body and gym, his art and his love of rock climbing, his sexy accent and his Puerto Rican heritage had formed the inspiration for her hero. Who knew if anyone would buy it? Even if they did, what were the chances they’d even recognize him, especially since there was all the BDSM, something he surely wasn’t into? And she’d changed his name.
Still, though, she felt guilty, like she’d stolen something valuable, something irreplaceable.
She shook her head, as if dislodging the thoughts, and added, “Yes, but I don’t know if I’m his type. His ex-girlfriend? Mariana? She’s so pretty that I’d want to fuck her if I were a lesbian. She’s that hot. And she’s his ex. The one who didn’t make the cut.”
Claire shook her head back. “Didn’t you say Mariana was a raving bitch? See, personality matters to him, if he exxed her. Way to be a real man, Damián.” She raised her cup in a mock toast. “There’s hope for him yet.”
Ava waved her hand. “Of course personality matters. But you need the spark of attraction. And he can get any sparkplug he wants. He has infinite choices. I guess I’m not his, even if he’s flirty sometimes. Maybe I’m just not cute enough. No, I mean—something enough.”
She paused to think about it. Was she enough? At twenty-six, she was fit and toned, with a happy smile and sparkling green eyes and long curling hair (Claire often told her it was Pantene-worthy); her friends often complimented her witty attitude and her generous spirit. She was successful in her career as a programmer and worked hard to do her own private consulting jobs on the side. She had loyal friends and a happy life, a comfortable routine. She knew she was pretty, but she wasn’t the kind of woman who got constant catcalls, free drinks in bars, and so many phone numbers that her purse fluttered and bulged with hopeful scraps torn from the hearts of handsome men.
Damián was in his thirties and seemed successful at everything he tried, at least from what she knew of him—his art, his climbing, his sports. He had the full attention of every single woman at the gym, and even the happily married moms liked flirting with him. Although he didn’t seem like a vacuous player, his effortless ability to capture the attention of every female in the vicinity seemed unequal to her own, weaker pull on humanity. She didn’t like that.
Claire poked her back. “You’re perfectly cute as you are. Anyway, it’s not about cute. It’s just about chemistry. And moves. If he doesn’t make a move, and you’re too chicken to make one yourself? Stop obsessing. No more furniture or auto shop references. Move on.”
Ava grimaced. “Yes. I know. But sadly, the Good Decision Center of my brain didn’t get the message. Apparently the appropriate neurotransmitters are either on strike, or incredibly lazy.”
Claire laughed. Then she leaned forward, her head tilted, expression eager. “Ava, I need to know. How are you able to write about all this stuff if you haven’t actually done it? Your sex scenes are seriously hot. Not all stuff I’d do, like the bondage and spanking… but some of it’s wow. Like the blow job scenes—they really work. I tried one of your techniques with Ryan, the grapefruit thing? And let me just say, Oh. My. God. Happiest boyfriend in the world.”
Ava lowered her voice. “I research it. I have, like, eighty BDSM and graphic sex romances on my tablet. Don’t tell anyone,” she interjected. “I’d die if people at work knew.”
“You know I would never,” said Claire. “I take my HR confidentiality to heart. But seriously? Just reading gives you all of those ideas?”
Ava smiled with pride. “I have a good imagination. And I Googled dungeons and spanking and BDSM and blow jobs. I learned things, Claire.”
Claire bent over in her chair, laughing. “I can just see you watching blow job videos and taking notes!”
“It’s not that funny,” protested Ava, but she was laughing, too. “You’re right. I do take notes. It is kind of hilarious.” She leaned toward Claire and confided, “You know what? It’s harder than you’d think to find a good blow job tutorial on Google,” and giggled with pleasure at her friend’s surprise.
Claire regained her composure and scoffed. “Ava. I seriously can’t believe you looked that up. And I can’t believe it’s hard to find a BJ video.”
Ava raised her eyebrows. “Videos, yes. Tutorials, no. If you Google ‘how to give a blow job,’ you will not find any actual footage of a real blow job on a real penis. Sure, there are tons of articles. But the only teaching videos are porn stars demonstrating on a banana.”
Claire protested. “But, potassium. So good for you.”
“It’s okay to see it done on a banana, but you know, it’s even more helpful to see it done on a real person. By another real person.” Ava’s voice rose. “Turns out you have to search for ‘blow job video’ and leave out the ‘“how to.’ Then you hit the mother lode, pun intended. But it’s surprisingly monotonous work, sorting through all the three-ways, disgusting stuff, and amateur hour. Most of it is repetitive and dull, made to appeal to a misogynistic asshole.” She shuddered, took a sip of coffee and added, “Also, I wanted to watch something that’s doable by two people who aren’t porn stars. So it was a big job. Pun. Anyway, I’ve watched, say, well over a hundred blow jobs.”
Claire acted impressed. “Sounds like you have a Bj.D by now.”
“Oh, you can just call me Doctor Blow. Hey, if you want any pointers, I can send you a list of my favorite clips. I mean, I’ve never done one, but I could probably teach a class by now. Isn’t that ironic?”
Claire snorted. “I… think I’m good. But thanks. And douche-ball Matt would kill himself if he knew what he missed,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
Ava warmed to her topic. “When I first started my research, I found a few websites reference this one movie, Caligula. There’s a blow job scene in the middle of this orgy? She starts with a graceful thing with both hands. It’s actually very pretty. Like a finger ballet.”
Claire was holding her stomach. “Ava. You’re killing me!”
Ava gestured, stacking her two hands as if gripping a cucumber, then rotating her wrists in opposite directions while moving both hands up and down and wiggling the fingers. “This is really the most popular technique in all of the videos, too, at least on the huge long dicks.” She demonstrated again. “Isn’t that elegant? It’s like I’m making pottery on one of those spinning wheels. Or doing an ethnic dance.”
Claire snorted, spewing coffee, trying not to laugh. “Ava, stop!”
Ava smiled and shrugged, a “who, me?” kind of guilty shrug. Then she continued her explanation. “I didn’t want to pay for any hardcore sites just to see some sex. Who wants to give their credit card information to a porn website? I wanted free research, Claire. Free.”
Claire was wheezing. “I can’t even breathe!”
Ava sighed. “So I ended up with some useful footage, but I did have to clean malware from my computer a few times.”
The two laughed together for a few more minutes, but suddenly Ava felt tears pricking at her eyes. She brushed at her lids.
“Why do you look sad?” Claire asked with sympathy.
“I don’t know,” said Ava, rubbing at a rough spot of glaze on the handle of her ceramic cup. “I guess it’s a little lonely, Claire. I write about these hot encounters and my first book is being published, but I still don’t have a special someone.” She blew out her breath. “Well, I’ll just keep on being myself and doing what I can. Karma will eventually lead me to my perfect match.”
Claire thought about it. “If Ms. Karma doesn’t produce, there are tons of dating websites. I’m sure someone out there is ready to appreciate your fountain of knowledge. Or to use your knowledge on their fountain. Ha! I’m so funny.”
Ava rolled her eyes at Claire. “Hilarious.”
Claire patted Ava’s arm and jingled her keys as she stood. “Ava? I have to go. Ryan and I are having lunch with his parents. But can I treat you to dinner this week? I need to thank you for spending so many hours teaching me that financial budgeting software last month, and how to deal with my stock options at work. Seriously, if it weren’t for you? I wouldn’t be so, what do they call it? Solvent.” She sliced a finger across her neck. “They’d be coming to repossess my freckles by now.”
“Oh, you know. That’s what friends are for,” said Ava, blushing. “No big deal.”
She had actually spent a significant amount of time helping fix Claire’s financial records, and had plans to do her friend’s taxes and help her start investing. “You’re my best friend,” she reminded Claire, “so it’s time well spent. But,” she added with a grin, “I won’t turn down a dinner at that sushi place with the moving conveyor belt.”
“Extra wasabi and sake if you get on top of it and act like a sexy cover girl while you ride around the bar,” encouraged Claire, wiggling her eyebrows and striking a pose.
The two women hugged, and then Claire left, waving her fingers in a small goodbye as she took a final sip of coffee and tossed the empty cup into the trash. Ava watched through the thick glass and saw her friend purse-fishing to extract a box of white Tic Tacs while she hurried to her car.
Alone at the table, Ava took a sip of her now lukewarm and no-longer-pleasurable coffee. Since she was not meeting anyone’s parents, or anyone at all, she didn’t need a mint. And for some reason, that thought made her want to cry hard. “Stop,” she told herself. “You’re twenty-six years old, not six.”
She didn’t usually go to a Saturday class at Damián’s gym since it was a longer, tougher workout. But today she needed to burn off this nervous anxiety and vague sadness, so she decided to head over. She was toned and strong, in good shape, but it was always important to stay on top of it, not to lose the routine. She wasn’t going specifically to see Damián, of course—only to work out.
And just for the hell of it, she ate three mints on the way.
As Ava walked into Fitness Zone, the previous class was still finishing up, so she stood along the side of the immense floor to watch, inhaling the odor of sweat, newly installed wood, and fresh air from the open windows and the old loading dock door. The main workout space was as large as a regulation basketball court and held specialized equipment for Damián’s personal training and boot camp classes: metal bars, weights and clips along one wall, pull-up bars and rings in one section, stacks of sit-up mats and ab mats in a far corner, and racks of medicine balls next to them.
The walls were still a pristine white; since this was a new business, Damián often told his clients that they got to experience the growth and development of his gym along with him.
Damián Perez was standing with his hands on his hips, shouting out encouragement. His muscular legs and arms were damp with perspiration, and his thick black hair was mussed. Ava loved the color of his skin, a light tan, like coffee with a lot of cream, and his brown eyes framed with thick black lashes.
He smiled at her and nodded his head, and Ava’s stomach flipped as their eyes met and a sizzle of electricity zinged through her body. She swallowed and blushed as he held her gaze a second longer than necessary before turning back to his class.
“You made it through the kettlebell swings and four-hundred-meter runs,” he urged, “these push-ups are the last part. Finish strong.” He added, “Everyone—it’s important to do these moves correctly, to get the most out of the exercises and to avoid injuries. When I tell you to change something, I’m not just being picky, okay? I’m making sure that you don’t get hurt.” He stepped closer to a plump, middle-aged woman panting with exertion. “Kayla. Shift your hands to just underneath your shoulders and spread them out a bit more. Now flex your butt and quads hard as you do the push-up. Yes.”
Kayla’s form improved. “Do you feel the difference?” He watched and waited intently for her reply.
“Yes,” she said, in between breaths.
“Keep breathing the way I told you,” he added. “If your heart rate is getting too high, switch to knee push-ups. It’s more important to stay safe and maintain good form than to do a million of these, got it?”
Ava’s eyes tracked Damián’s form, and fantasies danced in her mind: Damián pulling her in for a rough kiss, his brown eyes flashing passion; her fingers spreading out across Damián’s hard chest, touching his shoulders; her hands running over his sexy ass, his quads clenching, her thighs too—
Kayla nodded, face red with exertion, and Damián moved to the next client.
“Michael. You’re not going down far enough at the bottom. Make sure that your chest brushes the floor before you come up. Keep your back straight. Got it?”
Michael grunted in reply, but his back straightened, and on his next rep, his chest brushed lower to the floor.
Ava’s mind filled with new images: Damián making a sexy sound as he brushed her breasts with his rough hands, bodies and mouths going up and down—
She drank some of her lemon-flavored water, then started at a touch on her shoulder as her friend Stace came up behind her.
“They’re just finishing up?” Stace asked. “Now we know how we’ll look in exactly one hour.”
Their friend Ben joined the group, his blond hair flopping forward into his face. “Looks like they’re beat up. It’s a tough one today. Get ready for the pain.” Ava always chatted with Ben and Stace during classes, and lately, it seemed as if the two of them were acting a little more interested in each other than usual.
“But it’s the good kind of pain,” Stace said, making a face. “The pain that lets you know that you’re already stronger and sexier. That your ass is on the way to magnificent.”
Ben glanced at Stace’s backside. “Don’t think you have much to worry about,” he told her with a grin.
“Sweet talker,” Stace said, and she wiggled said backside as she sashayed past to greet a handsome man with an impressive six-pack, shooting Ben a sidelong glance.
Ava stepped back into a beam of sun as Stace passed by, and reached with both hands to arrange her curls into a ponytail. As her Lycra shirt pulled tight with her motion, she noticed Damián looking at her, gaze intense. Her stomach lurched.
Ben reached out and touched a strand of hair, tugging it. “Wow, Ava. In the light, your hair has pieces of gold in it. Are you a secret princess?” He smiled at her, but Ava saw his eyes glance past her to land on Stace, who turned back, her gaze snagging on Ben’s hand. Ava knew Ben wasn’t flirting with her, not really—Ben was like a big brother. She figured he was using her as a prop to try to make Stace jealous.
“It’s no secret,” Ava said, trying to look at Damián without being obvious, wondering what he thought about her hair in Ben’s hands, and if he cared at all. “I got a certificate from a Cracker Jack box and everything, so it’s totally legit. I await my prince.”
“Who’re you waiting for?” Stace asked, coming closer and stepping up to Ben’s shoulder, a minuscule tinge of frost in her voice, and she crossed her slender brown arms across her chest.
Damián’s head turned sharply and his eyes moved over Ava, making her glow.
Ava smiled. “Well, I assume a handsome young royal is coming to pick me up and bring me back to his castle, where we will live happily ever after. Or possibly I’ll just drive myself home and stop at the grocery store for green beans, because that’s my donation this week for the soup kitchen. I always like to mix up my schedule, keep things fresh.”
Damián met Ava’s gaze, then averted his eyes, checking something on his clipboard.
“Although, at the soup kitchen,” Ava continued, “it’s not random princes who want to climb up my tresses, but insects. Last month we had a few guests with lice and all of us volunteers had to tie up our hair in bandanas and nets. We all avoided it, though. Whew, right?”
Ben dropped Ava’s hair and angled his body more toward Stace.
“I’m a different sort of Rapunzel,” Stace said theatrically, gesturing at her tight black cornrows with dozens of blue beads.
Ben’s smile was wide now. “Your hair is crazy perfection,” he said. “And remember, you have that ass.”
Stace’s grin was immediate. “Hey,” she complained, poking him in the chest. “Perv.”
Ben wiggled his eyebrows at Stace, then leaned in to continue the conversation with her alone. The two of them murmured in low voices, small shrieks of laughter and deep chuckles punctuating their space, Stace’s hand fluttering like a shy bird to land tentatively on Ben’s arm.
The timer buzzed, and Damián shouted, “Time. Great job, everyone.”
He walked among the athletes, stopping to talk to each person, give a high-five and ask how many push-ups they’d completed. He wrote the numbers onto his clipboard.
Ava couldn’t take her eyes off of his strong body, and when he glanced her way, she was still looking. His eyes met hers briefly and he shot her a smile. Butterflies awoke in her stomach and started a frantic dance as he came up to her.
“Ava, good to see you,” he said in a low voice, putting one hand on her arm. The touch alone sent a jolt up her spine and she tried not to suck in her breath.
“You too,” she said, unable to stop a smile from stretching her face. He was smiling back at her, and then he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Ava was unable to mask a small squeak of surprise at the touch of his lips on her skin. Kiss me again, kiss me for real, she urged him in her mind.
He turned to the assembled athletes. “Everyone for the eleven a.m. class, five minutes until we start warm-up,” he called, striding to the center of the gym floor. Ava felt tingly from his attention and an extra bounce boosted her movements.
Stace looked at her with raised eyebrows, cleared her throat and hitched one shoulder in the direction of Damián. “What was that?” she whispered, sotto voce.
Ava took a deep breath. “What was what?” she answered, and bit her lip to hide her pleased smile. “A lot of Hispanic guys give their friends kisses on the cheek,” she informed Stace. “It’s a thing. A sort of, you know, respectful happy greeting.”
With narrowed eyes, her friend retorted, “Girl, he never kisses me on the cheek to say hello. Or Ben.”
“Ha.” Ava grabbed one ankle with her hand and stretched out her quad, just shrugging as Stace pursed her lips.
Ben was listening. “You saying you want a kiss?” His eyes were trained on Stace’s, and as the tension between her two friends ratcheted without warning into something more private, Ava took a step back, smiling.
While loosening her calves, Ava let her mind wander back to her first romance book, the one she’d discussed with Claire. It had taken nearly seven months, but soon it would actually be sold in real stores, to flesh-and-blood people! Too bad she couldn’t tell everyone about it, though.
What’s your novel about? she could imagine her mother asking. Or maybe her aunt Chelsea. Or her very conservative boss in the IT department at work.
“Oh, you know,” she might answer. “Just the standard romance book. Let me know your favorite chapter. Did you like the part where he spanks her with a paddle and fucks her from behind while she’s bound and wearing an anal plug? Maybe you really enjoyed the chapter where he teases her and denies her an orgasm for a while, makes her give him a blow job with her hands tied behind her back, whips her with his belt, and then gets her off with his mouth?”
Yeah… no. This was going to be the kind of book that was better shared with a small, selective audience. And hopefully millions of anonymous strangers.
After class, Ava was covered with sweat and her muscles were trembling with exertion. “The good kind of pain,” she murmured aloud. She couldn’t help but wonder about other good kinds of pain, like how it would feel to have Damián’s hard hand slapping her bare ass. She’d written her sexy hero with Damián in mind, hoping to banish him from her fantasies. Instead, she couldn’t stop thinking about what sex with Damián would be like. Would he be suave and gentle? Or rougher, harder? Or both, depending on his mood?
As she walked over to grab her water and gym bag, swiping her face with her towel, Damián called her name.
“Ava? A moment, please?”
Ava loved Damián’s voice: the depth of it, the rough timbre and the faint Puerto Rican accent that deepened when he was excited about something, like healthy eating or fitness.
“Of course!” she said, and then, feeling a bit too eager, she forced herself to take the time she needed to catch her breath. “What’s up?” she asked, taking a sip of her water, enjoying the tart bite of citrus.
“My website. I need to make some changes. Do you have time today to help?” His eyes flashed, and his muscles stood out with more definition now that he’d been demonstrating various exercises to her class. She could smell a hint of sweat and faded cologne, and it sent a wisp of desire spiraling through her body.
Was he standing closer to her than usual?
His eyes were large and brown, with flecks of gold and hints of green. Clear, gorgeous eyes. And those thick lashes.
Oh, he was talking.
“I need to change the scroll speed on a banner ad, and something’s wrong with the font sizing on a few of the dropdown menus.”
Ava paused. “I have some things to do. But if it’s just a few questions, we could do it this afternoon.” She kept her voice crisp and professional. Sure, she’d been hoping Damián would say, “I find you wildly attractive and I want to take you home and fuck you into Monday.” But she could handle website stuff, too.
“Would three p.m. work?” Damián asked. He was standing closer, Ava was sure of it. “If you don’t need to get ready for a hot date, or anything?” His smile held a question.
“Three is fine,” she told him, biting her lower lip without exactly meaning to. But while she was at it, she decided, she’d give the lip a little lick, too.
A muscle jumped in Damián’s cheek. “Three it is, then,” he said. Ava’s heartbeat sped up, and she steeled herself to be cool.
“Yes,” Ava agreed. “The usual coffee shop?”
“Sure,” said Damián. “I’ll bring my laptop. I really appreciate how much work you’re putting into this website. It’s a big success thanks to you!” He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. The touch was electric.
Did he touch me longer than he touches other people?
She frantically tried to do some mental approximations, found it too confusing, gave up.
Her polite smile felt fake. “I enjoy helping businesses be as successful as possible,” she parroted. “It’s a pleasure for me to see how well the site is running and to know it’s helping you gain new members.” Although this was generally true for all of her clients, she did a mental gag at how trite she sounded.
Damián didn’t reply, though, as several other people hovered nearby, waiting to talk to him. He turned to Elsie, a blond bombshell wearing skintight leggings and a bra-style tank top.
Elsie twirled her braid. “Damián! I’m trying to get down to fourteen percent body fat and, ohmigod, I’m stuck at a plateau. Do you think I should add more kale to my green smoothies? Or do, like, a second workout daily?”
Damián leaned toward her, intent on his reply. Elsie smiled and licked her lips, flowing into his personal space like bubblegum lava, and Ava wanted to snap her in two.
“I guess I’ll see you later, then,” said Ava to Damián’s back.
Under her breath she added, “I need to get to five percent body fat so I can just slip under the door when I come home. The key is, like, too slow. Maybe I could get to zero percent and hire myself out as a shadow! Ohmigawd?”
“Did you say something?” Damián turned. “Ava?” His eyebrows were raised and Elsie frowned, cut off mid-sentence.
“No, I’m totally, like, good.” Ava spoke in a matter-of-fact, cheerful voice with only the tiniest tinge of Valley Girl. “See you.”
Ava showered and examined her closet with a frown, wanting to look good but not trying too hard good. It was a delicate balance that required the counsel of a BFF.
“I need some fashion advice,” she announced, sitting on the bed in her underwear with the phone propped at her ear. She held up a gold sandal to examine its worthiness for today’s meeting.
Claire was enthusiastic. “Lay it on me. I’m channeling my inner Claire-mani as we speak. I am now Dolce and Claire-bana.”
Ava laughed and continued, “What screams I’m hot without even trying as I meet you here in the coffee house to discuss website stuff?”
Claire was quiet for a moment. “Are you meeting Damián?”
Sandal in hand, Ava responded, “He asked me to make some quick changes to his site.”
Claire spoke in an even voice. “I’m worried that you’re letting him take advantage. Would you meet another client on Saturday at a coffee shop? Or would you require them to stick to a scheduled appointment?” She added—and this annoyed Ava, who knew her own hours better than anyone—“I know you do your personal web consulting after hours, when your regular IT day job is done. But you need to really protect your time so you don’t get overwhelmed with it all.”
“Claire! Don’t make this into a deal,” Ava said, putting down the gold sandal and picking up a white one for consideration. “No. Okay? I never meet my clients on the spur of the moment. But, well, Damián asked me, and it will only take a few minutes. Besides, the customer is always right… right?”
Claire sighed. “Or do you mean, the customer is right when you want to sex it up with him?”
“Whatever,” Ava answered. “But his website is nearly done, and I won’t be working with him directly much longer.” She put down the white sandal. “Why? Do you think I’m being a doormat or something?”
Claire said in a neutral voice, “I don’t think you should do extra work for free because you have a crush on him. If he isn’t into you, it’s not good to torture yourself, like you’re dangling an unobtainable carrot in front of your own nose.”
“Well,” said Ava with a flash of irritation. “I have to meet him today, because I promised. But what’s wrong with looking good?”
“Nothing,” Claire responded. “You are pissed.”
“I’m not pissed,” retorted Ava. “Forget I asked.”
“Now you’re sulking,” cajoled Claire. “Wear that shiny gold top you have. And here’s some real fashion advice: why don’t you just put on your big girl panties and tell him you’re interested?”
Black jeans and the gold blouse ended up making the cut, along with the gold sandals. Ava applied her makeup to be subtle but pretty, with soft pink gloss on her lips. Her cheeks were still flushed from her workout and her smooth skin needed no powder or creams. A spritz of her favorite floral perfume and some dangling gold earrings completed the ensemble. Her reflection smiled back at her with eager eyes.
Claire’s undergarmentary advice floated through her mind. Writing a book about kinky sex had given her self-assurance, not only because it was being published, but because she’d embraced something new and found success. She could definitely say that she wore her BGPs while writing. Why did she need to put on granny waist-highs with guys?
This lingerial confidence lasted all the way to the coffee shop until she saw Damián. He was looking down at his laptop and his body radiated a quiet power that sparked a darting, nervous warmth in her stomach. He was wearing worn blue jeans and a trendy button-down shirt, and was easily the sexiest man in the place.
Damián stood to greet her, and Ava noticed that his hair was styled and he looked freshly shaved. She wondered how his smooth jaw would feel close to her own skin, and blushed.
“Ava. Thanks for meeting me,” he murmured, catching her eyes with his and leaning forward to kiss her cheek, just like he’d done at the gym. She could smell the citrus-sandalwood of his soap, and his own clean skin, and she liked it.
“You look lovely,” he added, his eyes perusing her with new intensity, one hand resting on her arm.
While Ava pulled up his website, she tried to ignore the tingle in her cheek, and the matching tingle in her lower abdomen. She also tried to ignore the two hot college girls who were looking at him and whispering.
Damián went to the counter to get coffees and Ava didn’t offer to pay him back. She knew he’d insist, especially since she was here doing him a favor. Although he’d paid her consulting fee upfront, she continued to meet with him as needed for follow-up support and didn’t charge him for it.
“Thanks,” she told him, accepting the cup, trying not to suck in her breath when their fingers touched.
“You’re welcome,” Damián smiled back, his gorgeous dimple-revealing smile.
The changes were easy and Ava showed him updates as she worked, but she was aware of his body and his proximity to hers, an undercurrent of heat. There was an invisible stretchy band between them, because when he got within a few inches of her, she felt warm and bubbly; when he leaned back, the bubbles faded.
An hour later, the changes were done; Damián grinned at her and said, “I know you’re probably busy. Thanks for doing this.”
Ava laughed. ”I’m terribly busy,” she replied. “You are so lucky you got some of my time.”
“Well,” Damián answered, “right now I do consider myself a very fortunate man.”
A flush rose from her neck to her face as Ava’s eyes snapped to his; she bit her lip and ducked her head back to the screen.
Damián paused. “Like another coffee?” he asked in a neutral voice.
Ava’s heart beat faster. “Are you having more?” she asked.
“Yes, sure,” said Damián. “I’ll get you one, too?” His accent sounded thicker, his voice rougher.
“Okay,” said Ava, more casually than she felt, and bit back a smile, watching him walk to the counter. She took an even breath and glanced out the large windows at the sky. The light was muted and the air hung motionless, heavy with potential. She tried to remember if she had an umbrella somewhere in the trunk of her car.
“Two medium coffees, room for cream,” Damián told the barista, and Ava felt a sudden joy that he not only remembered how she liked her coffee, but also that he liked his the same way. The grinder whirred loudly behind the counter, sending spirals of new burst beans flowing into the air to overtake the undertones of latte and caramel.
When he returned and handed her a cup, she wasn’t sure what to talk about. But Damián asked easily, “So tell me, Ava, what is it that you work on in your spare time?”
“I’m writing my second novel,” Ava answered. “The first one is actually going to be sold in stores this week.”
“Congratulations,” said Damián, taking a sip of coffee and giving her a broad smile. Ava watched his neck as he swallowed. “What’s it about?”
“It’s a, ah, romance,” said Ava. And then, feeling bold, she added, “A very sexy romance novel,” and licked her lower lip. “Written under my nom de plume, Erin Rutherford.”
A muscle in Damián’s cheek twitched, but apart from that Ava couldn’t see any obvious reaction to her admission. “Very sexy, huh?” he queried.
“That’s right,” she returned. “You can only imagine how fun it was to research.”
Damián’s eyes flared with something more than she’d seen from him, and he was now regarding her in a frankly assessing way. She felt his eyes move over her breasts to her lips, back to her eyes.
“I’d like to read it sometime,” he said, maintaining eye contact.
Ava smiled. “When it hits the stores,” she suggested, “maybe I’ll offer private readings.” Then, feeling a little overwhelmed with her own words, she changed the subject. “So, Damián, tell me more about your art. You still paint, yes? And do photography?”
Damián nodded. “Yes, I painted some pieces on commission in the past. Right now, though, my big thing is that I sell photographic prints and lithographs of my most popular works online. I’ve actually become a pretty big name in the modern art scene in Puerto Rico.” He ducked his head and gave a slight grin. “But the gym is my full-time passion now and doesn’t leave me much time for painting and sketching. I’ll get back to it once I get the gym fully functional, but I do miss it.”
“Why?” Ava hesitated. “If your art is so important, and sort of your full-time career, I’m curious why you’re taking the time to start up a gym from scratch? It’s such a lot of work.”
He nodded seriously. “I’ve lost some family members to health issues that could have been avoided if they had exercised and eaten better. I really want to help people, in their memory.” His voice was somber. “This has been on my mind, starting a gym, ever since I lost my father to diabetes complications ten years ago. He was significantly overweight and smoked, and developed a heart condition. When he fell and broke his leg, his body didn’t heal right after the surgery. He got gangrene and had a leg amputated, then his kidneys shut down, and he died. It happened so fast, Ava. It was heartbreaking. The worst part was, he lived his life ignoring all advice on how to be healthier. It could have been different.”
“I’m so sorry.” Ava gave him a sympathetic smile and put her hand on his for a second. “That’s sad.”
“Yes.” His voice was solemn. “It is. None of us, nobody in the family, ever really lectured him or took him to task. We just let his health go… and go… until he went. It was hard to talk to him about it, so nobody ever did. Not that he’d listen, anyway. But I feel the need, now, to help people who want to be helped. So, I love my art, but it’s on hold for now while I make this happen. This is big to me, you know?” His voice was urgent.
“Maybe you could combine your two passions, and do portraits of people at the gym?” suggested Ava. “And use them as personalized artwork on the walls.”
Damián pursed his lips as he thought, then said, “That would be a great way to show my dedication to helping the clients, as well as highlighting the personal family feel I want to build at my gym.” He smiled.
Another idea occurred to Ava. “You could even do a huge mural,” she exclaimed. “You could paint pictures right onto the wall, of various gym members doing exercise, and include motivational quotes. It would be beautiful and inspiring at the same time, and so much better than plain old white.”
Damián nodded. “I can see it.” He looked into the distance over Ava’s shoulder, as if envisioning the gym wall. “I didn’t realize you put so much thought into the aesthetics.”
Ava shrugged, but her cheeks glowed. “It’s the same with web design,” she explained. “Content is king. But aesthetics can make or break the user experience, and make a difference in whether a person chooses to view your website. For you, people will come to the gym because of the classes and your training skills. But having a well-designed space that’s comfortable and motivating—that’s not really just fluff. The whole ambience helps create an uplifting mood, and that will help people want to come back again.”
Sipping his coffee, Damián nodded. “I’m only one year into this project. I’ve always planned that when my gym is complete, it will be designed with the right colors, flow, spacing and art to hit the right psychological high for clients. Now that I have all the equipment, and I have a good flow of clients, I can start to improve the décor and design.”
“You’ve read studies about how color affects mood, right?” Ava liked how his eyes were lit up, making them look more green than brown.
Damián agreed. “Yeah, in art classes in grad school. It’s been proven that color can affect mood. Green for calm, red for energy. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. And space matters, too,” Ava continued. “I read a study about foot traffic in department stores. When people are faced with an obstacle in a main walkway, like a table of shoes, they choose to pass on the right seventy percent of the time. So smart storeowners put eye-catching, easy-to-sell merchandise on the right-hand side, and the more ordinary, bland things on the left.”
Damián was interested. “I don’t know how that could affect me,” he remarked, “but it’s a little creepy that marketers know so much about shopping habits.”
Ava grinned. “You need to put a table of women’s running shoes right inside the front door, and, to the right of that, a display case of gym shirts, protein powder, energy bars and stuff like that. Since people walk to the right most times, they’ll see the display case. And you know, protein powder practically sells itself. And to help them not go left? Maybe a pit of alligators. Something like that.”
His chuckle burst out so suddenly that Damián almost choked on a mouthful of coffee, and Ava found that so funny that she started laughing. She couldn’t help but notice with a flash of guilty pleasure: Those two girls? The ones who’d been staring? They were looking over with undisguised jealousy… and it was totally awesome.
After the laugh, though, they both fell into silence, and Ava perused multiple conversational forays. More about murals? Why are baby carrots just ground down big carrots and what do they do with the extra carrot pulp? Do they sell it for veggie burgers? To zoos? Or to carrot juice companies?
“What?” Ava was so engrossed in her discards that she missed what Damián was saying.
“So I guess I’m lucky you didn’t have a date this afternoon?” Damián said in an easy voice, but his eyes were intense.
Her voice rose on the reply. “Looks like you’re single today, too?”
Mariana’s fit of anger was a popular source of gossip in the gym; everyone knew how she’d yelled at Damián in front of a class and stalked out. Talk had been so fierce about it that the gym was packed for a week. Flagging members came out of the woodwork like nighttime roaches to gossip about the flame-out. But she wasn’t sure if he was already dating someone new.
Damián cleared his throat. “I am single,” he said, a hint of question in his eyebrows.
Ava smiled back, feeling her face get hotter. Make a move, she encouraged herself. Claire is right—either get onto the field or leave the stadium. But she wasn’t quite sure how to do it in a subtle yet obvious way. Classy yet sassy. And some part of her wanted him—if there was going to be a move made, here—to make it. To show that he had true interest and was not just taking lazy advantage of hers. She wanted a man who would take charge.
“Well,” she said. “The website should be good now, but let me know if you have more questions.”
They stood in a mutual agreement to leave. He laid a hand on the small of her back as they walked to the exit, and Ava felt a shiver of warmth run through her body.
Their cups landed into the trash at the same time and Ava spoke automatically: “Five points.”
“What?” Damián looked at her with an amused smile.
“It’s a thing,” Ava explained. “If I toss something into the trashcan and it makes it in without hitting the floor, then I get points.”
“Your hand,” remarked Damián, “was right over the can, Ava. Hate to be a spoilsport, but five points? For that? Two, tops.” His grin made her swoon. “And that’s factoring in extra points for being cute.”
Ava pretend-punched him in the arm as her pulse quickened. “Don’t be a sports snob,” she chastised. “Some of us are not NBA material.”
“NBA material? If you can’t make a trash shot at that distance, you are looking at bifocal material, Ava,” Damián clarified. He stepped back a few feet and balled up some napkins. “Now watch carefully and learn. This is worth points.” He made a show of stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders in their joints.
Ava crossed her arms and leaned against the door. She scoffed. “No way you make that shot. Too much air resistance. The napkins aren’t balled tightly enough. You need tighter balls.”
Damián chuckled as Ava realized what she’d said and burned red. He grinned at her and shook his head as he continued loosening up his arms.
Ava recovered her aplomb. “You are so not making the shot.”
“Bet you?” Damián raised one eyebrow at her.
“Sure,” said Ava. “Safe bet for me. Because you’re going to miss.”
“What do I get if I make the shot?” Damián asked, his voice lower, the teasing tone gone. His eyes were locked onto hers.
“What do you want?” murmured Ava, in as provocative a voice as she’d ever heard come out of her mouth. She raised her chin and kept his gaze, and smiled just a bit.
Damián smiled, too, then turned and tossed the napkins, which suddenly seemed to be very tight and balled up, directly into the trash. Ava swallowed and pushed open the door, letting outside air flow past her into the shop. She exited into the parking lot without a word, holding the door for Damián, who took it and then put his hand back on her, this time onto her shoulder, the touch possessive.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.
Ava felt the heat of his hand through her shirt. He was walking so closely that their bodies brushed. She was one hundred percent sure now that he was flirting, and she was so filled with nervous energy that her body was nearly vibrating.
The parking lot was quiet, the coffee shop in a closing lull and, for the moment, they were alone on the blacktop, just the two of them and the pre-twilight air, a hint of a chill in the dusk and some tentative clouds assembling on the horizon. When they reached her spot, she managed, “Well, thanks for the walk. And the coffee.”
“No. Thank you, Ava.” Damián’s voice was husky and deep, his accent strong.
Ava dropped the laptop case by the passenger door and fumbled for her keys, which had unhelpfully disappeared into the inner depths of her purse. Damián took the purse and set it next to her feet.
“Leave that for now,” he murmured, and stepped closer, forcing Ava to back up against the driver’s side door. He leaned his hands onto the car on either side of her head, trapping her between his warm body and the cool metal. Ava gasped and her eyes widened, seeking his. “Ava,” he said, “there’s something here, something with us,” and it didn’t sound like a question.
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Blurb for Return
Ava Grimaldi models the hero of her kinky erotic novel on her crush, sexy gym owner and artist Damián Perez, without asking his permission. When Damián finds out, he’s furious, and Ava is worried he will sue her. Damián demands a different payment entirely, though, and soon the two are involved in an intense BDSM relationship of their own.
With each sexual encounter growing more passionate and personal, Ava falls hard for Damián, but is hurt when he continually insists that their relationship is only physical and temporary. He refuses to acknowledge their relationship in public, even though he spends time with his bitchy ex. Eventually Ava has enough of being second best and won’t settle for less than she deserves. Can they work through their misunderstandings and hurt to start again, this time with a basis of trust and love?