Lara appeared on the sand like a goddess, her white-blonde hair flowing behind her in the gentle early morning breeze. Her long, golden limbs moved towards the shore, her feet leaving dainty footprints in her wake. Reaching up, she scooped her hair into a high ponytail, securing it with a band and creating the kind of messy but chic hairstyles you see in the magazines but can never quite replicate yourself. After a few elegant last-minute stretches, she was off, jogging along the shore, those golden limbs gazelle-like as they leapt across the sand. She made it look so easy and graceful.
It really wasn’t fair.
Emily stepped away from the window as her best friend disappeared from view and grabbed her wash bag from her not-yet-unpacked suitcase. She had to admire Lara’s dedication. As though it wasn’t enough that she went for a daily run back home, she kept up the regime even when they were on holiday. It was no wonder Lara had a smoking body and hoards of men queuing for the chance of a date. It was almost enough to have Emily reaching for her iPod and a pair of trainers and taking a jog herself.
Almost, but not quite.
It wasn’t that Emily was adverse to exercise. Okay, it totally was. Emily would exercise if she looked like Lara while doing it, but whereas Lara took on the appearance of a gazelle skipping along the beach with her easy in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth breathing, it was a very different matter when it came to Emily. Emily was transformed into a sweaty, puce-faced spluttering mess by her third stride, which wasn’t a good look at all. No, she would stick to her trusty one-piece and sarong combo for the beach and pray there would be at least one flawless-blonde-aphobe in Mallorca that would turn his nose up at Lara’s perfection and latch onto Emily instead.
Hey, it could happen.
Wash bag in hand, Emily toed the not-yet-unpacked suitcase under her bed. They’d only arrived in Mallorca the day before and the girls had had much more fun and important things to do than unpack, like checking out their new abode – a three-bedroom house right on Alcudia beach that belonged to a friend of Lara’s cousin – and sinking cocktails at a nearby bar. They’d stumbled home during the small hours so, rather rudely, hadn’t even said hello to Lara’s cousin yet. Still, there was plenty of time for that. Lara had promised Emily two weeks of fun at the beach house, which was more than welcome after her breakup with Liam. She’d spent the past four months mourning the loss of their relationship – which seemed indulgent now considering how much of a pig Liam had been – but she was over that now and was ready to inject a bit of life back into her existence. Jessie, apparently, was exactly what Emily needed. According to Lara, her cousin was the life and soul and would soon make Emily forget all about Liam and his piggish ways, which was a little strange as Jessie had been pretty timid the one time they’d met. But that had been six years ago at Lara’s twenty-first birthday party and people changed, didn’t they?
Emily made sure she had everything she needed before she made her way across the hall to the bathroom. In hindsight, she probably should have knocked first before she turned the handle and stepped inside. But Emily did not knock first.
There was a flurry of movement as Emily squeaked and covered her face with her wash bag and the very wet and very naked male threw a towel around his waist. But it was too late. Everything had been a bit of a blur due to the rapid movement, but Emily had clocked a rather large blur before it had been covered.
‘I am so sorry. I didn’t know anyone was in here.’ It transpired it wasn’t only exercise that transformed Emily into a sweaty, puce-faced and spluttering mess.
‘Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m sorry I gave you a fright.’
Emily was about to point out that he shouldn’t be the one apologising when it occurred to her that she didn’t have the foggiest who he was. He could be an overly hygienic burglar. Or something worse than that. Something much, much worse.
Emily took a step back. ‘Who are you?’ She attempted to sound brave but failed miserably.
‘I’m Jesse.’ His smile was disarming. Any scrap of courage Emily possessed evaporated, along with her anti-drooling capabilities. ‘You must be Emily.’
Emily stared at him. He was who? ‘You’re Jessie?’ Wow, people really did change. The last time Emily had seen Jessica she had been petit with a curtain of brown hair used to hide her face. Now she was tall and broad with beautiful blue eyes and a stomach rippling with muscles.
‘Jesse Hawthorn.’ Ensuring one hand held his towel firm, he held out the other, taking Emily’s limp hand and giving it a steady shake.
‘You’re not Jessica.’
Jesse’s eyebrows were so bleached from the sun they were barely visible, but Emily still managed to see them knit together. ‘You mean Aunty Tracey’s daughter? No.’ He laughed, his sudden bark filling the small bathroom and making Emily jump. ‘Did you think that was who you were staying with?’
Emily gave a wave of her hand, forcing a laugh of her own. ‘No, don’t be daft.’
‘You did, didn’t you?’ Jesse was chuckling now, the movement inching down his towel. Emily should have warned him. But she didn’t.
‘I did not.’
She did. And why wouldn’t she? Lara hadn’t specified that they were staying with her male cousin Jesse and not her female cousin Jessie. She’d been rather scant on the details, actually, but then Emily hadn’t been interested in anything other than the fact that she only needed to pay for her flights and spending money. She was in desperate need of a holiday after Liam, and a super cheap holiday had been more than welcome.
‘Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be making fun of you. It isn’t very gentlemanly of me, is it?’ Emily noted that Jesse, despite his words, still couldn’t wipe the grin from his chops. ‘Why don’t I make it up to you? I’ll make us some breakfast while you jump in the shower? Is Lara up?’
Jesse was already stepping past Emily and into the hallway. The man smelled good. ‘She’s gone for a run.’
Jesse paused in the hallway, turning back to Emily with his pale eyebrows knotted again. ‘But she’s on holiday. Is she crazy?’
After that comment, Emily decided to forgive Jesse for mocking her. She climbed into the shower and changed into her prettiest maxi dress (which was not for Jesse’s benefit. Not at all) and joined him in the kitchen. Jesse had made scrambled eggs and toast, along with coffee and juice. Emily tried not to pout about the fact that he’d covered his body in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. She’d quite enjoyed the tiny towel look.
Jesse slid onto a stool at the breakfast bar and poured himself a cup of coffee. ‘We didn’t get off to a very good start, did we?’
Emily thought it was quite a nice start, actually, now that she was over the shock of finding a stranger in the bathroom. She’d had worse introductions.
‘Shall we forget we met in the bathroom?’ Like Emily could forget about that towel and all that was underneath! ‘Let’s start again. I’m Emily Barlow.’
She held out a hand and, with the corners of his lips twitching, Jesse took it and gave it a firm shake. ‘Jesse Hawthorn. Pleased to meet you, Emily.’
‘You too. Thanks for letting me stay here.’
Jesse gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I’m always happy to play host to beautiful girls.’
‘Guilty.’ Jesse grinned at her. ‘But it’s my mate Harvey you have to thank. It’s his place. I’m just borrowing it for the summer.’
‘The whole summer?’
Jesse gave the one-shouldered shrug again. ‘I can work remotely, so why not work from here?’
Why not indeed. It was a beautiful house, set right on the beach, with the gate at the back opening straight onto the white sand. Emily could hear the lapping of waves beyond the kitchen and the sun was already filling the room with light and warmth.
‘But don’t worry, I’m not going to be a boring git, shut inside working all the time. In fact, I’ve got a few people coming over tonight for a barbecue and a few drinks. I hope you don’t mind. You’re welcome to join us if you and Lara don’t have plans.’
‘Plans for what?’ Lara strode into the kitchen, helping herself to a glass of juice and draining it in one go. Emily couldn’t help feeling a stab of irritation that Lara would arrive now, just as she was starting to feel slightly comfortable in Jesse’s presence. She’d been enjoying being the centre of his attention, but Lara’s arrival was bound to put a stop to that. It always did. But then Lara raised an arm and gave her armpit a sniff, pulling a face, and Emily was reminded that the pair were related. Lara would never have done something so uncouth in front of a possible suitor.
‘As ladylike as ever, I see.’ Jesse caught Emily’s eye and raised an eyebrow. ‘And I was just telling Emily about the party I have planned for tonight.’
‘A party?’ Lara’s eyes lit up and Emily could tell she was already planning her ensemble. ‘What kind of party? Beach? House?’
‘A bit of both, I suppose.’
Lara pursed her lips. This posed quite a quandary, but she was sure she’d be able to find suitable attire in her suitcase – she’d packed for pretty much every eventuality. In the end she opted for a pair of tiny white denim shorts and a cropped white netted top over a turquoise and hot pink bikini, which, even she admitted herself, displayed her bronzed body off to perfection.
‘I hope Jesse has some hot friends.’ Lara pouted at her reflection in the mirror before swiping at her lips with a tube of lip gloss. ‘I love a holiday fling, don’t you?’
Emily made a non-committal sound. She’d never had one. ‘If Jesse has friends here on holiday too, why are we staying here and not them?’
Lara gave her hair a scrunch. It had that just-got-out-of-the-sea look that she’d spent the last hour in the bathroom achieving. ‘Because I bagged it first.’ She perched a pair of designer sunglasses on top of her head, twisting this way and that to check the effect in the mirror before taking them off again. ‘Besides, Harvey and I go way back.’
Which translated as ‘we once had a torrid fling’.
‘I don’t remember you telling me about a Harvey.’
‘Sure you do.’ Lara gave the perched-sunglasses look another go, leaving them put this time. ‘He took me out on his yacht that time. I recreated the Titanic “I’m flying!” scene and then he –’
‘Yes, yes, I remember now.’ Emily was blushing. Lara never spared her any details of her escapades, unfortunately. ‘Do you think he’ll be here tonight?’
‘I hope not.’ Lara finally removed herself from the mirror and slipped her feet into a pair of wedged sandals. ‘He’s married now. Ugh. What a waste.’
Emily hopped off Lara’s bed and followed her downstairs, where Jesse was preparing the barbecue in the garden. She watched from the doorway as Jesse wiped his brow before peeling off his t-shirt, revealing the glorious body she’d spotted in the bathroom that morning. It was like witnessing a Diet Coke advert without the pesky television screen getting in the way.
Emily jumped back and averted her gaze when Jesse caught her ogling. ‘Hi. Do you need a hand with anything?’
‘Do you mind chopping up a bit of salad?’ Emily shook her head. She didn’t mind at all. She’d do anything Jesse asked her to. Anything. ‘Cheers. You’ll find everything in the fridge. Get Lara to help if you can drag her away from the mirror.’
‘I heard that.’ Lara appeared in the doorway, a hastily created cocktail in hand. She stepped into the garden and plonked herself on a sun lounger.
Jesse stared down at her. ‘So you’re not going to give us a hand then?’
‘Do I look like the hired help?’ Lara nudged her sunglasses so they slipped from her hair and down to her nose expertly, conversation over. Jesse looked at Emily, but she simply shrugged her shoulders and retreated into the kitchen. Lara was her best friend but Emily knew she could be a lazy cow at times. It was the pitfall of being incredibly beautiful; Lara was used to people falling over themselves to help her and she was never expected to reciprocate.
‘You look gorgeous, by the way.’
Emily jumped yet again at the sound of Jesse’s voice, but luckily the fridge door hid her shock. Jesse seemed to startle her at every turn, but then she was jumpy anyway, intimidated by his looks. She’d been in a sort of bubble-like world while with Liam, so it had been a long, long time since she’d fancied anyone. And boy did she fancy Jesse.
‘Oh?’ Emily dumped the tomatoes on the counter and looked down at her floral sundress with its busy print that distracted onlookers from any misdemeanours beneath. She wanted to tell Jesse that he was being ridiculous. Emily knew she was no ogre, but she also knew she was far from gorgeous. But she kept her gob shut. If Jesse wanted to live under the notion that she was gorgeous, who was she to stop him? Instead, she channelled her inner flirt, putting into practice everything she’d learned from Lara over the years.
‘Thank you. You don’t look so bad yourself.’ Understatement alert! Emily had never seen anyone rock a pair of shorts quite so well in her life.
‘Yeah?’ Emily felt a swoon coming on as Jesse raised his pale eyebrows and she felt the need to crawl into the fridge to cool down.
Okay, Lara wouldn’t have done that.
‘Yes.’ Emily’s voice wavered, far from the confident minx she was attempting to emulate. ‘You look pretty hot.’
There. She’d said it. If only she could get her cheeks to calm down and stop battling with the sun for brightness.
But Emily didn’t have to worry about her cheeks as the kitchen suddenly erupted with a chorus of voices before it filled with bodies, all vying for Jesse’s attention. He was swept back out into the garden, but not before he’d glanced back to grin at Emily before he disappeared from view.
So, had Emily successfully flirted with an extremely good-looking bloke who was way out of her league? Or had she just made a complete fool of herself? The answer to that question would take a while as the party began in earnest. Meat was thrown on the barbecue, music was chosen and a game of volleyball was set up on the beach. A mishmash of chairs, sun loungers and beach towels were set up along the sand and the beer and cocktails were flowing. Lara lapped up the attention bestowed upon her by the fellow partygoers while Emily did her best to keep a low profile, either holed up in the kitchen or hidden behind a book on the outskirts of the group, afraid to face Jesse and the verdict of her clumsy flirtation attempt. Jesse was in the thick of it, playing the perfect host as he hopped from group to group. Emily tried not to feel too gutted as the girls flocked to him, their bodies barely concealed in their bikinis and tiny dresses. How could she compete? That’s if she was even in the running in the first place.
‘Hey, you. Didn’t anybody tell you there are no books allowed?’
Emily peered over the top of her paperback. One of Jesse’s friends loomed over her, grinning down at her with uneven teeth before snatching the book and tossing it down on the ground.
‘Do you know what the punishment is for being a book nerd?’ Emily didn’t have time to answer – or to tell him where to go – before he’d scooped her up from her seat and flung her over his broad shoulder. Her ribs rattled as he took off, sprinting over the sand and – oh no – towards the sea.
Emily gasped as she was flung, fully dressed, into the water. She squealed as she hit the cold water and felt it seep through her dress. She was going to kill him, slowly and oh so painfully. She was already unsteady on her feet as she rose, making an immediate lunge for the grinning buffoon, when a wave knocked her face first into the water. Her nosedive caused great hilarity for the beach full of holidaymakers but Emily was not amused. Rising from the water once more, coughing and spluttering and squinting through stinging eyes, Emily felt a pair of arms around her. She was about to kick out – swiftly and aiming for the nuts – when she heard a voice that did not belong to Jesse’s friend.
‘Here.’ It was Jesse himself and he was wrapping a towel around her shoulders. ‘Let me warm you up. Apparently, I’m pretty hot.’
Emily cringed and hid her face in the towel under the pretence of drying her eyes. ‘Is that so? What fool told you that?’
‘A very cold and wet but still incredibly beautiful fool.’
Emily forced herself to peep out of the towel and found Jesse grinning at her. Her legs started to wobble and it wasn’t entirely because she was thigh-deep in the sea. His grin dropped as he reached out to tuck a string of hair behind her ear.
‘Are you okay?’
‘No, I don’t think I am.’ She pressed her lips together to stop herself from giggling as Jesse’s eyes filled with concern. ‘I swallowed an awful lot of water. I could have drowned. I think I might need the kiss of life.’
‘Did you know that I’m a trained life guard?’
Emily was impressed. She bet Jesse would look great in a pair of tiny red shorts. ‘Are you?’
‘No, but let’s give it a go anyway.’
Jesse grasped the edges of the towel, tugging Emily towards him. She ignored the jeers and wolf whistles piercing the air from the beach as she tilted her head and closed her eyes against the still-bright sun. As Jesse’s lips met hers, Emily knew her stay at the beach house was going to be the best holiday ever.
If you enjoyed The Beach House, why not try one of my full-length rom coms? Find them here