Over the hill and through the hoops…
Not exactly how the holiday song goes, but Carly couldn’t seem to get it out of her head.
Carly pushed herself harder, ignoring the scratch on the palm of her hand. It stung, but the pain helped in an odd way. “Harder!” she whispered to herself as she jumped over a log that she’d only seen at the last moment. Carly stumbled, but quickly regained her balance. She paused for a moment, frowning at the scratch on her hand, then back at the log, glaring at the obnoxious thing. “Okay, unexpected but…”
She turned and eyed the next obstacle. Her determination wobbled slightly, but Carly wasn’t giving in. Heights. Darn it, she really hated heights!
Carly considered walking around this one. Glancing towards the next obstacle, then the next and…well, beyond those two, she couldn’t see the next one since it was hidden in the trees. If she walked around one, why couldn’t she walk around all of them?
“I’m not giving in!” she muttered, squelching the thought. So, Carly climbed the rope ladder and hooked on her tether, the safety precaution that she knew Ryker had installed to ensure that anyone falling off wouldn’t hit the ground and break anything. Or necks. Was a neck a bone? No, it was a series of bones, she told herself.
“No broken necks,” she said with absolute determination as she looked out in front of her. “I can do this!” But staring at the logs that had been hung from the trees, Carly wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t just one log, but a huge log that had been cut into several pieces, each piece hung by two ropes. That meant that each section moved separately!
“Ryker, you must have a demented mind if you think this kind of thing is fun!” she muttered to herself.
Thankfully, there was a rope along both sides of the obstacle so she could hold on and, hopefully, maintain her balance. But as she stepped out onto the first log section, the stupid thing swayed dramatically and she pulled back.
Looking out at the woods, she took a moment to catch her breath. That last part of the obstacle course had been about a two mile run, so her heart pounded in her chest. Probably part of the psychotic test that Ryker had developed. A calm heart rate made it easier to navigate these insane obstacles. A rapid heartrate…not so easy.
She inched to the edge of the platform and glared at the stupid logs swaying in the gentle breeze. Were they taunting her? Were they laughing at her?
“Not today!” she growled, gripping the rope tightly.
“Calm your breathing, Carly!” a deep voice called from the ground behind her.
Carly’s foot had just touched the log again but with the familiar voice, she jerked back and looked down. Sure enough, Ryker Thune was there, right underneath her, his sexy arms flexed underneath that tight, black shirt and…wow, the man looked amazing! Did he have any body fat on him? Carly doubted it.
“Just calm your breathing and your heartrate will slow down.”
“Right,” she muttered. With Ryker around, her heart wouldn’t slow down. In fact, just the opposite. With him watching, she could feel her body tense, her heart accelerate, and all she wanted to do was shimmy down the ladder and throw herself into his arms. Or maybe jump down, right into his arms. Maybe she could get halfway across and just…fall, right into his arms!
Hmm….all of her options involved those arms. Good plan!
No! Bad plan! Ryker was the best friend of not just one of her overly protective brothers, but both of them. And since the oh-so-steaming-hot Ryker was also part owner in The Solutions Group, the company at which she also was employed, Carly didn’t think it would be wise to make a pass at him.
Not that she even knew how to make a pass at someone like Ryker. Ha! That was a stupid thought. Carly didn’t know how to make a pass at any man! Flirting just didn’t come naturally to her. Organizing? Yeah, she could take over the military and make it more efficient. Flirting, unfortunately, simply wasn’t in her skill set.
“Carly? Are you okay? Do you need help?” Ryker called.
Carly glanced down at him, realizing belatedly that she was standing on the stupid platform fantasizing about the man. Now he thought she was scared. She was! But she didn’t want Ryker to know that. Scared was for sissies and she wasn’t a sissy!
“Carly?” he called, drifting nearer to the rope ladder.
“I’m fine!” she answered, then bit her lower lip, thinking that maybe she should have let him come up and “save” her. She could have pressed against his hard chest and learned what it felt like. Just once, she wanted to know what Ryker’s arms and chest felt like wrapped protectively around her body. He was so damn big, stunning, and muscular and…
“I’m coming up, honey. Just stay there and I’ll get you.”
“No! I’m fine!” she told him quickly. And to prove it, she put her foot on the first log, gripping the rope with both hands as she stepped forward. “Why are you here?” she called out, needing a distraction. “You weren’t supposed to be back for three more hours.”
“I finished early and told Jimmy to get us home fast,” he replied, referring to one of the pilots that flew the various teams from The Solutions Group. The Solutions Group had ten private jets. There was always one plane here at home base for emergencies while the other pilots flew the teams around the world. They were all luxurious and amazing, but with extra-large baggage compartments capable of storing the teams’ sometimes bizarre equipment.
“That’s nice,” she replied back, focusing so that she didn’t slip and make a fool of herself.
“Point your feet out like a duck. That will give you better balance.”
She did so, angling her toes outward and, almost immediately, walking along the log was significantly easier. “Huh!” she moved to the second and then the third, making her way all the way along the logs to the next platform. “I did it!” she yelled, turning to look over her shoulder. But Ryker was no longer there. “Did you…?”
A strong arm pulled her towards the center of the platform and Carly squeaked slightly, her hands flying up as her back was plastered against the incredibly firm chest of the man who had featured in way too many of her dreams over the years.
“Yeah,” Ryker said, his eyes smiling down at her from his superior height. “You did it. Good job.”
Was his voice deeper? Huskier? Oh my, he was shockingly hard! Peering over her shoulder, Carly looked up into his eyes, seeing the crystal blue more intensely from here. Almost black hair, shockingly blue eyes, and tanned skin covering hard, yummy muscles, Ryker Thune was…smoking hot!
“You did a great job, Carly,” he told her. Even though she was nowhere near the edge of the platform, his arm remained around her waist, holding her firmly against his rock-hard chest. Since Carly had pictured this exact scenario so many times, there wasn’t any possibility of her doing anything that might cause his arms to shift.
“What are you doing?” he asked softly. And darn it, his arms moved away! Did his hand slide against her stomach ever so slightly? Maybe. Or it could be her imagination.
What was she doing? Carly doubted he’d want to hear that she was fantasizing about him making love to her right here against the rough bark of the tree. Nope, that thought was most likely reserved for her own mental amusement. Something she’d take out tonight when she was at home with Lucifer, her unsympathetic cat.
Pulling her gaze away from his too-handsome face, she sighed and stepped away. “I watch you all doing the course from my office window. I’ve never tried it and thought I wanted to give it a shot.”
“You’ve never said that you wanted to tackle this course. What changed your mind?” He walked over to the rope ladder and stepped down it as if he were walking along concrete. Did the man ever look stupid or awkward? Meanwhile, she took hold of the ladder and wobbled her way down, her foot slipping off the rope rungs several times.
Just to make her decent even more exciting and embarrassing…she had to go down backwards. This wouldn’t be a problem if she were alone. But nooo! Ryker stood right there on the ground, staring up at her! Ugh! Her workout leggings definitely didn’t hide enough for something like this!
When she finally reached the ground, Carly spun around quickly, not wanting to give him another view.
He smiled down at her, devastatingly delicious and completely unattainable. “Are you ready for the wall?”
Wall? Was he the wall? She’d definitely love to climb him!
“This way,” he started walking towards the next obstacle.
“Darn it!” she muttered, and turned to follow him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, turning to glance back at her.
Looking up into those blue eyes of his, she kept the sigh to herself. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” She focused on the path. “Don’t the teams need to run this path?”
“Yeah. But it’s okay to walk it, too.”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m trying to get in shape. I’m going to jog the course.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She stumbled slightly, and he grabbed her, saving her from face-planting into the ground.
“Thanks,” she told him, straightening up. “You don’t need to do this with me. I’m sure that you’re exhausted after flying all night.”
“I slept on the flight home. Besides, doing the obstacle course will be a good way to get the blood moving after being trapped in a plane for the past twelve hours.”
She couldn’t argue with that. Well, she could! But she wasn’t sure what her argument might be. Carly had trouble concentrating when Ryker was around and it had only gotten worse over the past few months. Maybe it was because her brothers, Oz and Jayce, were so happily married with kids. Maybe she was craving something similar.
No, if that were the case, she’d start looking for other men to date. Someone who could get rid of this pointless infatuation she had for Ryker.
“Ready?” he asked.
Ready to run with a man who was almost a foot taller than she was? “Um…why don’t we just walk it?”
“Come on. It will be fun,” he encouraged.
With a sigh, she nodded. “Fine. But I set the pace!”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he teased and set off at an easy jog.
An easy jog for him, that is. Carly was gasping for breath after just a few minutes, but she hid it, not wanting Ryker to know how long it had been since she’d run that fast. Maybe elementary school? Nope, not even then.
When they finally reached the next obstacle, she bent over, hands on her knees, gasping for breath.
“You okay? Did I go too fast?”
She lifted a finger up into the air, silently asking him to hold on for a moment. She needed several moments to catch her breath. When she was finally able to straighten, she frowned at him and noticed that he wasn’t even breathing hard. “Damn it!” she mumbled.
He knew what she meant and chuckled. “I do this for a living, honey. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s great that you’re even out here trying.”
She nodded and turned to face her next challenge. “Right. That’s what they’ll put on my gravestone. ‘She was out there, trying’. It will give others a moment’s pause before they meander over to their dead relative.”
He laughed softly as they both turned to face the next obstacle. But this…this wasn’t an obstacle. This wasn’t some log in the path or crazy ropes hanging from the trees. “That’s a wall, Ryker.” She stared at the wood, not sure what she was supposed to do about it.
A man of few words, he looked down at her, the look obviously stating, “What are you waiting for?”
“Why in the world did you put a wall up in the middle of the forest?”
He laughed again. “We go up and over the wall, hon.”
She stared up at him, then turned to look at the wall. “That’s an eight foot wall!”
“Yeah. Give or take an inch caused by the dirt settling around the supports.”
Again, she turned to look up at him, then at the wall. “And…uh…what am I supposed to do with the wall?”
“Climb up and over the top, then jump down to the other side,” he told her, his tone clear that the explanation should be completely obvious.
“Right,” she replied, nodding her head as she stared at the wall. “Um…how?”
He laughed. “Want to walk around it? There’s–”
“No!” she cut him off. “If others can do this, so can I!”
She walked over to the wall and reached up, but her five foot, five inch height didn’t even get near the top.
Turning around, she noticed he had that “let’s-watch-what-she-tries” expression on his devilishly handsome features.
With a sigh, she glared up at him, crossing her arms across her with exasperation. “Okay, big guy. What’s the trick to this?”
He shook his head. “It’s different for men and women.”
Of course! Why make things easy? “How do you do it?”
He didn’t answer her. Instead, he walked over to the wall, reached up and, because he was six feet, four inches tall and had the upper body strength of “The Hulk”, he literally lifted himself up and over. Then he vanished over the other side. A moment later, he walked back around. “Want me to show you how women do it?”
“I hate being a woman!” she grumbled, but then acknowledged that her ‘tude wasn’t going to get her up and over this stupid wall. “Okay, give me the trick.”
“Personally, I like that you’re a woman, Carly.”
She swallowed, not exactly sure how to take that comment. Her insides melted into a warm, gooey goo and she was pretty sure that her cheeks tinged a bright, embarrassing pink.
Then he started talking and that goo…hmm…still there, but she focused on his words.
“Women have more power in their core versus their upper body. So, you’re going to use that to pull yourself up.” He stepped back, then ran for the wall, jumping so he could grab onto the top of the wall, his running shoes braced against the face of the wall. “Just jiggle your body as you pull your feet up, then slide your leg over.”
Carly watched him, amazed at the muscles straining in various places. It was so interesting, that she almost forgot to watch what he was explaining.
“Got it?” he asked, jumping down from the wall and coming back to her.
Unfortunately, she didn’t “get” any of him, Carly thought. “Got it,” she replied, adding a nod for confidence. But she wasn’t confident. Not even a little. Perhaps if he wasn’t around, she might be able to shimmy herself up and over that stupid wall, but with him watching, it was going to be an exercise in humiliation.
“Right. I got this,” she muttered to herself.
“That’s the right attitude.”
Carly frowned at him. With grim determination, she glared at the wall, took a few steps back, then raced towards it. Leaping up as far as her trembling legs could go, she…just about reached the top with her hands.
Carly was just about to drop to the ground when strong arms caught her and lifted her those last couple of inches. She was so surprised by the shocking heat that shot through her that she almost released the wall. But instinct kicked in and she tightened her fingers.
“Good, now grip the wall with the balls of your feet.”
Carly tried! She really did! But when he touched her like that, she just…it felt…she wanted to drop down and throw herself into his arms.
Instead, she just fell.
Once again, he caught her so she didn’t fall to the ground. When she looked up at him, time stood still. She was in his arms, his hands around her waist and…what would it be like to be kissed by Ryker? Was he passionate? Or soft? Would he try to climb into her mouth? Or was he gentle and sweet? Would his hands touch her with passion? Or would they stay still on her body?
“Are you okay?”
Carly jerked backwards, stunned that he was wondering about her health and welfare when she was thinking about kissing him. Sooo not fair!
“Yes. I’m fine,” she replied, wiping her hands on her butt as she stepped back. “Um…I really want to do this on my own. So…”
He immediately lifted his hands in the air and stepped back. “It’s all yours, hon.”
She smiled, or tried to. But when he used those sweet endearments, she wanted to smile like a goofball. And wish that he meant them.
“Right,” she told herself again. Crouching slightly, she focused only on the wall. “Pretend the wall is Ryker,” she thought. “Pretend you’re going to climb his body. Or pretend that he’s going to take you out on a dinner date with a heated, passionate kiss if you make it over this stupid wall!”
And then she was off. With a kick of her feet, she leapt up as high as she could, reaching out and catching the top of the wall. “I did it!” she shouted.
“Great!” he clapped. “Okay, now swing your legs slightly to get your feet where your knees are now.”
She swung her legs and…shockingly, it worked! The balls of her feet secured to the wall.
“Excellent. Now shimmy your feet by swinging your hips out, while pulling up with your arms.”
She followed his instructions, her arms shaking from the strain. It was an inch by inch kind of thing, but slowly, she got her legs higher and higher. Eventually, she was able to tilt her body slightly and hook her ankle over the top of the wall. After that, it was much easier to bring the rest of her body over.
When she was finally at the top, she sat up and looked around, joy filling her chest. “I did it!” she yelled, her feet swinging out with success. But the feet swinging thing was bad because it threw her off balance and she quickly put her hands back on the wall.
When she looked down over the other side, Ryker was there, grinning up at her with those crazy, blue eyes of his. “Okay, you did it. Now, come on down.”
Carly looked at the ground. It was a long way down! “Um…I think I’d like to just…hang out here for a moment.” Especially since her arms were shaking so badly from the climb up that she wasn’t sure she could make it down, at least, not gracefully.
“Just swing your other leg over, then cantilever your body so that your weight holds you for a moment.”
She bit her lower lip, contemplating that maneuver. “Really. I’m fine right here for a few moments.”
He moved closer and she could see the amusement in his eyes. “Carly, the wood is going to start hurting in uncomfortable places. Why don’t you just swing your other leg over and I’ll grab you to help you down?”
As soon as he said it, Carly realized that the wood was biting into her groin. “Ouch!” she hissed. “Okay, coming down.”
Slowly, she swung her leg over to the other side and leaned forward, intending to drop herself down to the other side inch by inch. But as soon as both of her legs were over, she felt those strong hands griping her thighs and…well, the rest was inevitable. His touch was distracting and her arms gave out. Instead of coming down in a graceful, athletic glide, she tumbled over and it was only his strong hands gripping her legs, then her butt, that saved her from falling.
How many times was he going to have to save her?
She didn’t have time to answer, since he spun her around, lowering her slowly to the ground, inch by inch just as she’d intended. But she hadn’t anticipated sliding along his hard body every inch of the way.
Burning. Heat! White-hot heat sizzled through her vein her. When her face was even with his own, she could barely breathe.
He didn’t lower her any further. For a long moment, she hung there, his hands wrapped around her legs right under her butt. Carly’s arms tightened automatically around his neck and she couldn’t stop her legs from lifting, wrapping around his waist.
Suddenly, the wooden wall pressed against her back with Ryker pressed against her chest. His breathing was just as labored as hers as they stared at one another from an inch apart. It was shocking to feel him against her and Carly couldn’t stop her hands from reaching out, cupping the back of his neck. The next thing she knew, she was kissing him. And he kissed her back!
Passionate! That’s the way Ryker kissed! His lips devoured hers, his tongue caressing her lips, demanding entry. And when she opened her mouth, his hands shifted, exploring her body, grinding his hips against hers. For too many years, she’d fantasized about this, wondered what it would be like to kiss him and finding out was better than she could have anticipated!
Over and over, their lips pressed, teased. When he lifted his head up for even a fraction of a second, she whimpered with need. It was too much and not nearly enough! More! She needed more and angled her head and her body, pressing herself…
Oh my gosh! This was Ryker! What was she doing?!
“I’m sorry!” she gasped when he lifted his head again. Shifting against him, she shimmied down from his arms and stumbled away from him. “Ryker! I’m so so sorry!” she gasped, pushing her hair out of her eyes. How had her hair gotten loose? She’d…it didn’t matter.
Pressing her fingers against her lips, she glanced down at the ground, at the wall, the trees…anywhere but at Ryker. Good grief, he must think she was an idiot!
“I’m so sorry. Please…,” she backed up a few steps. “Please don’t tell Oz or Jayce about this. They’d be furious that I...I’m sorry.”