Beta: Climbing slang that means to gather information about a route.
"Go on, you can do it."
Melanie remained immobile, gaze glued to where her fingers wrapped around the holds on the climbing wall. The dark Adonis holding her safety rope had been nothing but positive and upbeat with her since she'd signed up for the private climbing lessons. Even without looking she could picture him, his wide smile bright against his tanned skin. Dark hair slightly messed, chocolate-brown eyes that made her think all kinds of naughty things.
"The next hold in the route is that blue one, off to the right. Match your feet, transfer your weight and you'll be there in no time."
As she moved to follow his instructions, she wondered for the millionth time if he was staring at her butt simply to help her find the best route, or if he was staring at her butt for more nefarious reasons.
She could only dream it was the second.
Derrick James was exactly the kind of guy she admired. Tall, dark and good with ropes. Now if she could get up the nerve to make a move on him other than when they were checking each other's harnesses for secure straps.
Concentrate. She needed to focus on the wall, not the dry spell in her sex life. Even if dry was the wrong word to depict something comparable to the Sahara during a drought.
A few adjustments later she'd made it to the hold he'd described.
"Awesome job. You want to go higher?" he asked.
Oh man. There were many things she wanted. She wanted to drag her fingers through his long hair and pull his head to hers for a kiss that would make her toes curl. If he happened to use his strong fingers on her back for a massage that somehow turned into a more erotic playtime, that would be fine as well. Maybe letting her crawl over him as they writhed together in wild, passionate lovemaking that would leave her gasping for breath and sexually sated. All of those were on the instant "hell, yeah" list.
Going past the fifteen-foot mark on the vertical climbing wall? That one wasn't nearly as easy a decision.
Melanie stared upward. The holds were simple on this section of the wall, the route easy to follow. Old training patterns kicked in and she automatically shifted her weight as she saw the correct sequence to reach for next. She could do this.
Until she turned and looked down. The floor wavered beneath her, fading farther and nearer like some freaky optical illusion. She clung to her handholds as her tongue stuck to the dry roof of her mouth. Fear laced through her, a shot of adrenaline making her limbs shake and all the blood rush from her head.
"I got you." The harness around her hips snugged upward as Derrick took in the slack of the rope and secured her in place. "That's as high as you're going right now, Melanie. Just take a deep breath. You're okay."
The bulging muscles of his arms as he held the belay ropes blurred into the background as she stared into his eyes. Her heart pounded, there was a ringing in her ears and she needed to pee. It took too much effort to squeeze out the words, and she sounded like a two-year-old. "Don't drop me."
"I've got you," he repeated. His expression was no longer the sexy one that got her blood pumping. There was deep concern, and suddenly the corner of his mouth was the most important thing for her to concentrate on. Because if she looked at his mouth, and thought about kissing that spot, then she didn't need to think about the fact she hung in the air above a hard floor. Didn't have to think about how much it would hurt if she fell again. "I need you to look at the wall, Melanie. Just turn and look at the wall so I can lower you. You understand? I'm not going to drop you. You're safe, but I need you in position to get you down."
"Scared." Throat tight. Breathing tough.
"I know, but I promise you're safe. I'm not going to drop you, and you know it. Want me to lift you a tiny bit? Prove that you're secure?"
She nodded rapidly. He leaned back and pulled easily, no more than a couple of inches. It was enough to make her body rise and take the weight off her shaking legs. Mel snapped her head back to face the wall. It took conscious effort to loosen her death grip and press her hips away from the wall. Letting go of the handholds made her heart leap to her throat, but she didn't change elevation. Derrick held her in one spot, rock solid and firm. Quickly, she wrapped one hand around the rope at her chest level, the other thrust toward the wall for protection. She moistened her lips so she could speak.
"Lower." The climbing command stuck in her throat, but she got it out.
"Lowering. Good girl." His deep voice enveloped her and she let the warmth act as a protective barrier.
Her descent was so smooth and slow she had time to walk her way down the wall like a little child inching down a sidewalk following a snail. She hung in a modified sitting position as she relied on him to control her motion. He did an amazing job--even the stop at the bottom came smoothly, no sudden jerk to startle her already overwrought nerves.
Why in the world had she thought facing her fears and learning to climb again was a good idea?
Her butt landed on the crash mat with a delicately soft touch, and she breathed a sigh of relief, laid back and closed her eyes. Only fifteen feet and she'd had a freaking acrophobia attack. After three weeks of hard work, that was all she'd accomplished? How was she supposed to get back to living a full and exciting life when she couldn't even get past the baby marker?
Beside her shoulder, the mat dipped, and she wearily popped one eye open to spot Derrick seated on her left. "I know you probably don't think so, but you did great."
Bullshit. "Define great." That sexy smile of his was back, and at least now she could blame the way her heart beat out of control on something other than her annoying new fear of heights.
"You didn't expect to be able to hit the ceiling so soon, did you? Go back to free climbing and lead climbing as if nothing happened? You had a major fall and it's going to take time to get over--"
"Shut up." Mel snapped to a sitting position to glare at him across a more even playing field. Damn, that was inexcusably rude, but she didn't care. The intensity of anger that hit came as a surprise, yet it was a welcome relief to counteract the paralyzing fear that controlled her life. She tilted her chin and met his gaze again. "Don't tell me it's going to take time. It's been three years, and I'm still so chicken I'm afraid to walk across the street without looking both ways twelve times."
Confusion flashed over his face. "What does that have to do with climbing? Or your accident? The ropes failed. It was a freak situation and never should have happened, but you've recovered and--"
Melanie slammed a hand onto the mat next to her. "Recovering. I'm not nearly as strong as I was. Before the accident, I was always traveling and exploring the wilderness. Set new routes for others at outdoor sites in the summer. I used to climb all day and dance all night. And it's all gone, okay? The exploring, the friends. The dancing and enjoying being with other people. I've been living like a hermit. Shit, I haven't had sex in three fucking years. So when the hell am I going to get over being afraid?"
Oh my God. She hadn't said that. She scrambled to her feet and turned her back on him, fumbling to undo the figure-eight knot holding the rope twined through her safety harness.
Strong arms surrounded her, his hands blocking her attempts at the knot and holding them still. He was a wall of muscle behind her, hot and firm, making all her earlier thoughts return. Sweaty, needy, entangled bodies and...she wasn't going to be distracted from the fact she was pissed off. She struggled and his grip tightened as he backed up a pace, moving away from the wall.
"Melanie, it's okay." He didn't release her, but his clasp changed, one hand locking her immobile, the other caressing her gently. Prying her hands from the rope until he could slip his fingers over hers, his fingertips teasing the webbing between each digit. The motion was intimate and soothing even as it sent a tingle up her arm.
She closed her eyes, the heat in her face slipping to her chest and farther inside--a rush of warmth that tightened her throat and made it tough to breathe.
He nuzzled at her nape, the warm air of his breathing a caress down her neck. "Melanie?"
Right there in front of her was the wall that had defeated her again. She tilted her head to stare at it, fear making her legs quiver the higher her gaze rose. Only this time Derrick was solid at her back, his warmth a cocoon of safety.
Longing to move forward hit like a thunderclap. Longing for the touch of a man--this man--intertwined with her desires. She'd been afraid for so long.
Melanie twisted in his arms to stare into his eyes--dark midnight pools that were filled with something more than concern. Derrick brushed a knuckle against her temple, smoothing back a loose hair. All the time his gaze fixed on hers.
Then he leaned closer, slowly. Giving time for escape, for retreat, before his lips made contact.
Whisper soft. Not hesitant, but careful.
Too careful. Melanie leaned in harder, accepting his offering. Derrick responded, becoming more forceful and direct. Heat built between them as he ravished her mouth and her mood flipped again. All her stored-up frustrations burst out into glorious lust and she opened her lips willingly. Somehow she found her fingers tangled in his hair like she'd dreamed of earlier. He showed his approval by clutching her hips to him, his arousal evident even through the mass of webbing in the harnesses lashed around their hips. The safety rope wove between their bodies; the hard surface another contrast against the delicate brush of his fingers as he trailed them up her arms.
He kissed her, his tongue teasing along her teeth, tickling her lips, plunging deep. Their breaths mingled as they separated for a second to gasp for air then dove back for more. The tight knot of fear in her belly slipped into an aching need a handspan lower, centered between her legs.
Maybe she should have freaked out sooner. Maybe coming to the climbing wall and forcing herself to get back into a harness was the best thing she could have done.
Maybe she should just concentrate on the man she wanted to climb up and swing from the rafters with. Her swelling desire shoved the lingering stench of her anxiety into the corner as she let the thrill of arousal take her away.
Derrick figured he'd be kicking his own ass once this was over, but for now he reveled in the woman melting in his arms. For the past three weeks he'd been as patient and gentle as a saint. He'd ignored the urge to make a move, sensing her nervousness, thinking it was about her getting back into the swing of climbing again. He'd forced himself to stay aloof and make the situation as peaceful and serene as possible, all the while longing to find out what Melanie Dixon tasted like.
Even the fact she was related to a good friend wasn't enough to stop him from expressing interest in the dark-haired beauty. Kane's little sister was grown up enough to know her own mind, and what she'd said she needed was to regain her courage in the climbing arena.
If she had given him even an inkling of what she'd just shared, he would have been all over her weeks ago. Now he was finally getting the chance.
Screw the consequences. She needed this--maybe even more than he did. And he needed it bad.
God, she could kiss. She held his head in traction between her palms, lips tight to his. Every breath he dragged in tasted like her, with that damn tongue exploring and rampaging through his mouth. He cupped her butt and dragged her higher to line them up better, thrusting his own tongue along hers, pulsing it like he wanted to pulse into her body. Her moan of approval rippled along his spine, and he went from hard to utterly rigid. The confining straps of the harness holding his khakis in place pressed on him violently enough to cut off circulation.
Derrick took another step back. There was a sudden jerk as the rope between them snagged and he tripped. Melanie let out a little scream. He rolled instantly to his back to catch her, swearing at his own stupidity in giving her any reason to not trust him. Great, asshole. Drop the woman who's afraid of falling.
Nothing happened. He lay flat on his back, but instead of the sudden contact of her body slamming against his, he heard a peal of laughter echo off the high walls of the climbing gym.
"Damn it, Derrick, get me out of this mess."
Her voice came from directly above him, and he looked up to see her face hovering over his. It took a second to follow the lines and figure out what had happened. The loose end of the rope was tangled around his torso, pinned in place by his body weight. The middle of the length rose to the ceiling, looped through the support hooks as it should and returned down to where Melanie's harness was secured into the other end.
She hung suspended a foot over him, facedown, with the rope caught over one shoulder. Her feet were planted on the wall, holding her in place. She looked as if she were laying flat on her tummy on an invisible diving board.
He stared into her face, checking for any signs of fear, but all he saw was amusement. "Are you okay?"
She snickered. "I'm fine, but a little stuck. Could you please get me down?"
The situation was too tempting to resist. He gripped the rope to keep her in place, then swung himself into a direct line. When he released the rope, letting it slide through his hand an inch at a time, it lowered her all right.
Directly on top of his waiting body.
It felt so damn good, the increasing weight of her settling on him. The warmth of her thighs met his legs, her breasts crushed against his chest. Her gaze bore into him, and he wondered if he'd overstepped his boundaries for the second time.
"Did you plan this all along?" she asked.
He shook his head, trying to ignore the violent urge to rub their groins together to satisfy the hunger burning inside. He couldn't do that, not unless she showed some indication she was agreeable.
Tying up a woman to get into her pants--it wouldn't be the first time, but he only did that with willing partners.
"Couldn't have planned it in a million years," he confessed.
Her eyes darkened as her gaze darted over his face, landing on his lips with a hungry stare. "Damn, I'd hoped it was on purpose."
Hallelujah. He let go of the rope and rolled her, diving back into the kiss. Only this time the feel of her under him made him crazy. She opened her legs and his hips settled in tighter, except for the layers of harnesses between them. Like some kind of modern chastity belt, the wide webbing snagged together as he rocked his hips, stopping him from rubbing his erection against her mound. He growled out his frustration.
She grabbed one of his hands and tugged it to her breast.
Okay, he could be pacified for a moment or two.
They slowed the frantic kisses as his need to taste her skin grew beyond restraint. While he licked and nipped his way along her jawline, her fingers skipped over his back, tugging his shirt upward until she reached bare skin. Her short nails weren't enough to scratch, but her strong fingertips dug in and pulled a groan from him.
He wanted to be naked with her. He wanted to strip off the long-sleeved shirt and sports bra she always wore, and suck on her firm nipples until she screamed. Then he'd--
A buzzer went off and they both tensed. They glanced toward the clock on the wall and Melanie let out a huge sigh. "Opening time."
The after-school crowd was waiting for him to open the door to the climbing gym. Screw it. They could all wait for a few minutes.
It took an extraordinary amount of time to untangle themselves and find their feet. Derrick held her close for longer than he needed to, pretending it was to make sure she had her balance. He just didn't want to let her go.
The damn buzzer went off again, this time accompanied by banging fists on the doorframe.
"Your students are eager to get started." Melanie stared away from him, all her concentration centered on untangling the knot tethering her to the rope.
He wasn't going to leave it this way. A wild tumble on the climbing mats and nothing more? "Would you like to go for dinner with me?"
Her head snapped up, a small smile appearing. "Tonight?"
Derrick nodded as he headed for the door. "I can get away around six thirty. Seven if you're okay waiting that long."
Melanie paused and he held his breath. "I'd like that. You want me to come here?"
Excitement raced through him to rival any teenage boy planning a first date. "That would be great."
They were grinning at each other like fools, he was sure of it, but he really didn't give a shit. Not about the continued protesting at the door behind him, or the faces peering in. Not about his lack of finesse. She turned and headed for the change room, and he watched her ass with a growing conviction that fate had intervened today and that tonight was going to be the start of a fine relationship.
Melanie wanted to relearn how to live? He could help her with a lesson or two, and if somewhere along the way they happened to get involved in some heart-pounding, body-aching sex?
He was good with that as well.