“That’s the way, lift those legs!” Beth Jordan shouted. She smiled encouragingly and moved her own leg to the beat of the music, blaring from the speakers behind her.
Beth was a pretty and very athletic-looking woman, late twenties, dressed in very conservative exercise wear. She lead a class of middle-aged women in a slow and careful aerobic workout.
One of the class members groaned loudly enough to cause the others to laugh—in amusement and sympathy.
Beth’s smile widened, though she immediately cast her gaze over the various members of the class. There were times, she knew, when even she forgot just how great a difference existed between her physical capabilities and those of the older, heavier ladies who panted and perspired in front of her. Better to bore the ladies to death than to cause them to hurt themselves.
Beth slowed the pace even further. She saw a few smiles of gratitude from her charges and returned the smile -- genuinely, for she loved these women, knowing that one day she’d be the frumpy housewife trying desperately to recapture her youth or at least slow down the advance of time and “middle-age spread.”
In return, Beth’s ladies faithfully attended her thrice-weekly classes, braving L.A.’s evening traffic, helping Beth become one of the city’s most popular aerobic instructors.
Beth was about to yell another encouraging remark, when a movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to look in the direction of the glass window that separated the aerobics studio from the spa reception area.
From where she was lying, she couldn’t clearly see the figure at the window. She frowned. Male spa members were in the habit of staring into the aerobics room in hopes of seeing a group of nubile young ladies in their revealing aerobics outfits, bending and stretching and bouncing. She was used to shooing them away to their barbells and decided to do the same with this latest peeping Tom.
“Keep it up,” she said over the music, to her ladies.
“That’s what I keep telling my husband,” one of the ladies said, “so he sends me here. Fat, beer guzzling bastard.”
Beth chuckled along with the other women, then turned fully toward the window, intending to wave the figure away. As she turned, however, she saw the face behind the stare.
She drew in a quick breath. Instead of waving the man away, she sat there, staring back at him. She blushed, but continued her inspection of the most captivating face she had ever seen in her twenty-six years of life.
Thick, curly, dark hair, at once unruly and perfectly styled, framed a set of lean, chiseled features that belonged in a Marlboro ad. No, she thought, that didn’t do justice to that face. A face, she couldn’t help thinking, that seemed to stare at her across time and myth, from an age when heroes and gods walked the shores of ancient Greece.
She nearly laughed at the corniness of her own thoughts.
Then he smiled.
Beth’s heart seemed to stop, and she remembered that she wasn’t in an art gallery staring at ancient Greek sculpture. She tore her gaze from the window and saw that her ladies were still performing their leg swinging exercise. The music told her that she had lost herself for a few seconds only.
“All right,” she said, forcing a smile, her skin on fire, “we’re going to add a little something extra. Keep lifting your legs, but now when we come down, we’re going to tuck into the chest like this—”
She turned back to the window. The man there was openly appraising her, obviously liking what he saw. Beth turned back to the class, not knowing whether to be pleased or irritated, so she was both. “A little faster now,” she said loudly to her class.
Beth glanced at the window again. The man smiled and winked at her. Beth hesitated then, to her own horror, she smiled back. Then, embarrassed, she turned back to her class. “That’s the way,” she yelled, too loudly, “Looking good, ladies!”
Beth tried to refrain, but gave in and risked another glance at the window. The face was gone. She felt a sudden panic. Had it really been there?
A change in the music brought her out of her reverie. She turned back to her students, ashamed that she wasn’t giving them proper attention. Her pale green eyes revealed her confusion. For the first time, her aerobic class was something to be gotten out of the way. She resisted looking back at the window.
Where had he gone?
Because she wanted the class to be over with, it seemed to last forever. Finally she was sitting on the floor, leading the cool-down, rotating her head slowly in half-circles, to soothing music in the background. The music ended. Beth took a deep breath, deliberately resisting the temptation to leap to her feet and chase down the gorgeous peeping Tom. Instead she stood, giving her class her full attention. She smiled, genuinely pleased with her students. “You made it!” she said, “Good for you! And thanks for coming out again. I’ll see you Wednesday.”
Beth sighed. Whoever it was had probably already left. Or the reflection off the glass had played tricks with her eyesight and the guy was actually a George Bush lookalike. She smiled, laughing at herself and remembering that no matter what, she still had her ladies. At that moment, one of the oldest of those ladies, Anne, approached.
“A very nice class, as usual, dear,” said Anne, smiling.
Beth returned the smile.
“Was that your new boyfriend?” Anne asked innocently.
Beth laughed. “No, Annie,” she said, “just another peeping Tom.” She glanced at the window. “At least this one was good-looking,” she added.
“I’ll say,” Annie replied. “He reminded me a little of my Harold -- before he passed away, of course.”
“Of course,” Beth said, completely serious.
“Harold was quite a stud, you know,” Annie went on, as serious as Beth, “My, he must have been...” Annie held her hands ten inches apart. “And if I hadn’t been such a big woman myself -- “
Beth took Annie’s hand and patted it. “You hold that thought, Annie. I’ve got to get going.”
“Oh, of course, dear,” Annie said. “You musn’t keep that handsome man waiting——he must have every piece of fluff in town after him. And make sure he uses a condom. Have you got the kind that look like earrings?” Annie pointed to her own very distinctive looking earrings. “I carry them all the time. Better safe than sorry, I say.”
Beth suppressed a chuckle. “Thanks for the tip, Annie.”
Beth headed for the doorway that led into the spa foyer. She was no longer in a hurry and no longer feeling at all bad. She was wondering who she could tell about Annie’s latest advice -- the old gal certainly talked a good game, and Beth suspected that the woman really did have a past that included more than just talk. She emerged from the aerobics studio into the reception area.
He was leaning against the reception counter.
Beth paused in mid-stride, her mind going from elation to nervousness and then to disappointment in a matter of nanoseconds: the Peeping Tom was speaking with Candy, the buxom blonde receptionist who was wearing an outrageously revealing aerobics outfit -- again. Candy stood behind the counter, listening in obvious rapture to the stranger’s every word.
The reception counter blocked Beth’s view of the Peeping Tom’s body, which was just as well, since Beth was already picking a basket of sour grapes in preparation for making whine. The guy had to be forty if he was a day, and was obviously a huge man, probably fat. And no real man would be interested in a slut like Candy.
Beth immediately felt sorry for the thought. Candace, as Beth insisted on calling her, wasn’t a bad person. It was hard, however, not to feel... irritated and... resentful and even, admittedly, a little intimidated by a six foot tall blonde with the body of a beauty queen and the wardrobe of a hooker.
Beth’s frown deepened. Quite apart from her rather natural jealousy, Belt also felt that Candace was damaging to the club’s image -- and to women in general. The last thing Beth or any other woman needed was to be lumped in with the Candances of the world, begging to be ogled, showing off every square inch of skin that the law allowed. Beth subconsciously adjusted her aerobics leotard where it tucked under her butt.
Beth herself was a three-time winner of the Vancouver Island Triathlon and had finished the royal Victoria marathon in less than three hours. She was, in short, a serious athlete. That, and not the length of her thighs, was what she wanted admired when she conducted a class.
Well, she decided, she was going to set a good example and ignore the whole situation. She certainly wasn’t going to throw herself at some stranger just because he happened to be... Beth closed her mind to what she had been about to think. Feeling a flutter of fear inside her, she turned toward the staff changeroom.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
Beth stopped and turned. The guy’s voice was amazing -- deep, resonant, glowing with confidence and raw sexuality.
He was staring at her with eyes as amazing as his voice -- hazel/green eyes set in a face that was the epitome of masculine handsomeness -- nothing feminine or “pretty” about him. He was forty, all right, and every year had obviously been increasingly kind to him.
“I hope I didn’t... disrupt your class,” he said, his eyes probing her own, his gaze not once touching her body, but instead holding on her face.
Beth liked that. “I beg your pardon,” she said, incredibly aware of Candy’s presence, the taller, more beautiful woman “hovering” behind the stranger.
“When I looked into the aerobics room,” he said with a gentle rumble, “I got the feeling I was... distracting you.”
Beth felt a wave of irritation wash over her. He was being condescending. Worse, he was silently attacking her with his confidence, trying to overwhelm her with his masculinity -- no, he wasn’t trying, he was just... allowing it to happen.
“Don’t worry,” she said coolly, “I’m not easily distracted.”
The square jaw, the slightly cleft chin, the strong, masculine neck, the eyes... as if a sculptor had been commissioned to create a statue of the perfect man, then had set it to moving and speaking. To her.
He pushed away from the counter and stood straight. He was huge -- football player huge.
Beth’s expression went from cool to frigid.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, slowly, his voice like a warm, invisible blanket that swaddled her.
She realized that his voice alone was making her feel warm in places and in ways that... it was as if he had reached across the fifteen feet separating them and clasped her to him, dominating her as easily as he might blink or... smile. Never had she felt this way. At least not from this distance.
She thought of Jeff and felt a stabbing pain in her chest.
“Is something wrong?” he repeated.
Beth mentally shook herself back into the moment.
He still stood there, looking on with what now seemed a genuine look of concern. Beth was five feet nine inches tall, but this stranger was half a foot taller than she. And huge. Beth realized that the breadth and thickness of his body, even when covered by the looseness of his obviously expensive suit, were too great to be composed of muscle alone.
Beth guessed that he was an overweight ex-jock. What a terrible waste: the face of a god deserved a lean, lithe physique to support it.
“You’re doing it again,” he said, and laughed.
Again Beth had to snap out of her reverie. “Doing what?” she asked quickly.
The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Looking frightened... or something.” His expression suggested that he knew exactly what that “something” was.
His arrogance angered her. “Peeping Toms usually affect me that way,” she snapped. “You never know what they’re thinking.”
Beth wondered what it would be like to hear that voice and know that it belonged to her man.
“I would have thought,” he replied, “that everyone knew what peeping Toms were thinking.”
Beth felt her face glow, and knew how red it must be. Desperate to redeem herself, she was about to reply when a third voice interrupted her.
“Scott! How the hell are you?” John Kemp shouted gleefully.
Beth sighed. So this stranger, this “Scott,” was exactly what she had thought he was -- another of John’s ex-jock ‘buddies.’
John Kemp was the spa owner, a big, brawling Californian who’d played professional football and served in the first Iraq war. He’d come to Canada ten years before. In the years since, he’d founded a chain of spas throughout the country.
Beth shook her head in disapproval as John rushed by her, toward the stranger named Scott. As astute a businessman as John was, he was just as much, Beth felt, a loud, aggressive ex-jock.
Beth was genuinely fond of John. Watching him now, though, she had to restrain herself from clucking in disapproval. John and Scott enacted a boisterous and protracted greeting, hugging each other in a way that would have broken the ribs of lesser men.
“Mister Kemp,” Beth finally said, loudly over these two grown men’s childish whooping, “don’t you think that you’re causing a bit of a disturbance?”
John released Scott and turned to Beth, an expression of mock severity on his face.
Scott cocked his head slightly and regarded her with a slight frown.
Beth was careful to avoid Scott’s gaze.
“Well, Beth,” said John, “What do you think we should do? I mean, so that we don’t cause a disturbance?”
Beth inhaled deeply, knowing John was taunting her.
“I think I know what we can do,” Scott said, staring openly at her.
Beth turned to him in irritation, and was immediately caught in the brilliance of his stare. She wished she didn’t blush so easily.
“I think you’re talking about a different ‘we’, Scotty,” said John, and chuckled.
“I guess I am,” said Scott. He smiled, though something in his expression suggested a trace of doubt.
“Well, I think you’ve met your match here, Scott,” said John. “Miss—I’m sorry, Ms. Jordan is a bit different from what you’re used to.”
“Is she?” Scott asked, refusing to release Beth from his gaze. Now, however, he seemed genuinely wary, despite his obvious hold on her.
“I don’t think it’s very polite of you to discuss me as if I weren’t here!” Beth blurted, desperate for a way out of her predicament. Is this what it felt like to be paralyzed, helpless while others examined you at their will?
Scott abruptly frowned. “I think Ms. Jordan is right, John,” he said. “My name is Scott Robbins, Ms. Jordan, and I apologize.”
Beth swallowed noisily. What would he say now? Why, oh God, why did he have to be so... beautiful?
Scott extended his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Beth.”
Beth hesitated, then accepted the handshake. Her hand disappeared into his, but he held her with just the right amount of pressure -- gentle without being weak, firm without being hurtful.
“You’re very pretty,” he said.
Beth felt a thrill run through her and silently yelled at herself for being like some swooning teenaged girl. “Thank you,” she said. “May I have my hand back now?
Scott released her hand. “Would you have dinner with me tonight?” he asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world -- which it probably was, for a man like him.
“I -- I don’t date men who... I’m not dating right now, thank you,” she stammered.
Scott glanced inquiringly at John who shook his head discretely. Scott turned back to Beth. “I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” he said, then, without waiting for an answer from her, turned back to John.
Beth felt as if she had been dropped from Scott’s embrace. Her legs actually felt suddenly so weak that she feared for a moment that she might really fall.
“Do you have an office we can slip into, Jocko?” Scott asked John, not noticing Beth lean against the nearby wall.
“Straight ahead, buddy,” replied John, leading the way.
Scott followed without so much as another glance at Beth.
As the two men disappeared into one of the small sales offices situated between the locker rooms and the weight area, Beth felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.
“Kinda’ cute,” Candy said nonchallantly.
Beth hesitated, then admitted reluctantly, “Yeah, he is,” hoping that she sounded as casual as Candy did.
Beth turned and began walking toward the staff changeroom.
“I wonder what he’s like to work for?” Candy added.
Beth thought she detected a calculating tone to Candy’s words. She turned around to face the taller, devastatingly cute woman. “What do you mean?”
Candy shrugged, pretending to be absorbed with her nails. “He told me he’s buying the spa. Funny, I thought John was selling to you.”
Beth felt as if she had been slapped.
“I guess John figured that the place needed a man to run it,” Cindy went on. “And God knows, those two guys in there are men!”
Beth frowned, sorting through her thoughts, trying to cope with the shock of Candace’s revelation about John selling the club to someone other than her. A rage began building in her. “Drinking beer and dragging around a paunch doesn’t make a man,” she replied, ”And from the look of him, that ‘cute’ man is another burnt-out, egomanical ex-jock gone to fat.”
“Oh yeah,” Candace replied, still smiling. “I forgot—you don’t like jocks, do you? I guess I can’t blame you. If I had your luck with them, I wouldn’t like them either.”
Beth’s eyes widened in surprise. The remark stung her. She hadn’t expected Candy to insult her so blatantly. “Candace,” she managed from between clenched teeth, “I know all about you and Jeff.”
Candy was obviously startled. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Beth replied, turning away as she did so, “that you shouldn’t be so smug about having shared Jeff’s bed. I can tell you from experience that that makes you a member of a a very non-exclusive club—one which neither of us will ever belong to again.”
Candace’s gasp brought Beth no satisfaction as she turned and walked up to the office door, knocking loudly on it. She thought of Jeff, the only man she’d loved.
As soon as John opened the door, Beth stormed past him into the office. Scott was seated by the desk.
Beth, wanting so much to see his face again, had to force herself to keep her back turned to him. Even so, she was aware of his overpowering presence.
“What’s going on, John?” Beth demanded.
“Have I ever told you I prefer the athletic type?” Scott asked casually.
Beth ignored him. “Candy told me you’re selling the spa to Mr. Robbins here.”
“I, uh....” John stammered.
“Is there something wrong here?” Scott asked.
John hesitated. “Beth made an offer for the spa some months ago.”
Both Beth and Scott stared coldly at John.