Book 1 | International Love Games Series
When the world’s greatest summer athletic competition rolls around in Rio de Janeiro, three athletes must risk it all or go home. Let the flames begin . . .
Two-time All-American Chandler Ayres is finally headed to the greatest track competition in the world. The Summer Games only happen once every four years, and her road to compete has been cursed up till now. She’s not getting any younger. This may be her last chance to achieve her dream of winning more gold medals during a single games than any other track female in modern history . . . something she won’t achieve without single-minded focus.
Unfortunately, Australian Rhys Mack and Argentine Javier Cásan have other ideas about how Chandler should divide her attention. The rival suitors each want to add her to his list of victories before the competition in Rio concludes, but neither’s motives may be truly pure.
Not knowing which one to trust, Chandler’s determined to stay above the fray. But when an impromptu kiss makes her long for more than multiple rings of gold around her neck, the aspiring champion must fight to find a way to salvage her dream without throwing away the love of a lifetime.
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Wednesday afternoon, August 3
Her sister was flirting again.
No surprise there.
Chandler adjusted the sunglasses blocking the brilliant glare of Rio’s afternoon sun and eyed her younger sister with an internal shake of her head. A natural flirt and man magnet, Ariana was the complete opposite of Chandler. The woman had never met a cute man she didn’t like. If he also happened to be nice or athletic—or, heaven forbid, nice and athletic—Ariana Ayres could fall in love with him as easily as she could say hi.
The trio of buff Argentines trying to make time on the sandy whiteness of Copacabana Beach fell into the cute and athletic category. How nice they were remained to be seen. They sported, on a beach known to be packed with natives and tourists, casual wear bearing their country flag beneath the logo for the summer games. Clearly, they wanted the attention and notoriety being competitors in the greatest and most well-known athletic competition in the world would bring them amongst this international crowd.
Shopping for hookups? Probably. Little did they know being a medal hopeful didn’t play so well with Chandler. She and her sister were both competing. They simply chose to keep their participation under wraps as much as possible prior to the official start of the games two days hence.
“You señoritas are here to watch the games, yes?” The tallest of the gentlemen directed his question to Ariana. They’d already figured out she and Ariana were American.
Ariana sent her long, loose micro braids over her shoulder with a shampoo-commercial-worthy head toss and flashed a smile that had tied many a male in knots. “You could say that.” She giggled at her understatement.
The effect on the two men nearly sandwiching her between them brought thoughts of the classic Looney Tunes character Pepé Le Pew. Their instant attraction to Ariana couldn’t have been more comical if she’d suddenly channeled Penelope Pussycat and hearts had started swirling around the heads of her would-be suitors.
At least, Ariana had remembered Chandler didn’t want her broadcasting everywhere they went that they were games qualifiers. Ariana could have used the info to cement the men’s adoration, but she didn’t.
The third gentleman, who’d been hovering by Chandler for the last ten minutes, stepped closer and addressed Chandler in a low, seductive voice. “We’re on the athletics team. What would it take to get you to come watch me run?” He slowly brushed his fingers along her forearm, left bare by the ankle-length, yellow sundress she wore, then slid his hand down to loosely clasp her fingers.
Although he wasn’t grab-handy, he was still a little too touchy-feely for Chandler’s liking. “Um . . . I don’t know. Why don’t you let me think about that?” Chandler subtly pulled her hand away, using it to adjust her glasses one more time so he wouldn’t take offense.
Not daunted, he continued to try and cajole her into spending some private time with him using flawless English spoken with a heavy accent. His vowels poured out in the rich tones and cadence of his native Spanish.
Javier? Was that his name?
Whatever the name, he’d get no play from her. Not that he wasn’t gorgeous, and—she was surprised to realize—she found his Latin swagger quite charming, but the man had revealed he was a runner. A track and field athlete? No thanks. That was her and Ariana’s sport. The community of those who competed in international competitions was too small. If this guy was an up-and-comer, any interaction between the two of them would be easy fodder for innuendo and gossip headlines in sports mags and online media. Unless it was congratulations for a race well run, being the center of attention wasn’t Chandler’s thing.
She, unlike Ariana, wasn’t in Rio to flirt or pickup men or even really socialize. She’d learned nine months ago that her drive and single-minded determination to be the best 400-meter hurdler in the world and make history by winning four track gold medals in a single games played hell on a relationship, particularly the romantic kind. She preferred to go it alone, except for the occasional foray out with her sister. Ariana was one of the few people who got her, loved her anyway, and managed to balance staying emotionally close without taking offense at Chandler’s penchant for solitude.
That innate need for solitude rebelled hard against the thirty minutes she and Ariana had spent interacting with team Argentina.
Recognizing her inattentiveness, Javier grinned. “I think the señorita would prefer to be somewhere else at the moment.” He gallantly gave a slight bow. “That’s okay, guapa. I’ll let you go for now. Remember, my name is Javier Montenegro Casán. I’ll look for you in the stands of Estádio Olímpico Friday morning, August twelfth. Eight hundred meter prelims, round one.” He kissed the back of her hand. “I know you’ll be there.” Leaving her side, he joined his friends’ fun and shameless flirting with Ariana.
Javier was right. Chandler wanted to get away, explore a little on her own. She and Ariana had planned to get some shopping in today, but her sister didn’t appear ready to leave the gentlemen three.
“Hey, Ari,” Chandler called to get her sister’s attention. “I’m going for a walk. Back in say, fifteen minutes? Then maybe we could hit the promenade?”
“Sure thing, Chan.” Ariana waved a hand in dismissal. “Take your time.”
Take her time, indeed. Well, that told her exactly where Ariana’s head was at. She must actually be attracted to one of the guys. Despite her natural tendency to flirt, Ariana wasn’t a fast girl. If she was putting off shopping, someone had wormed his way passed flirtland into possible beau territory.
Glancing over her shoulder, Chandler spied a small, deserted inlet on the south edge of the beach. The spot looked perfect for a little people watching, but would keep her close enough to Ariana to make sure nothing happened to her. Ariana was a big girl, but with the seven-year age difference between them, even at twenty-eight, Chandler still hadn’t outgrown the overprotective big-sister role. Plus, women couldn’t be careless with their safety anywhere in the world today. Too many stories abounded of travelers who had disappeared without a trace.
With one last look at her sister, Chandler walked away from the area of beach overrun with chairs, towels, and gigantic umbrellas. She wasn’t one for crowds. The sound of waves crashing against sunlit rocks in the unpopulated inlet drew her. The active aquatic sound appealed more than the calm waves lapping at the gaggle of people dipping their toes in this portion of the Atlantic. She wondered as she passed how many of the water-frolickers were native to Rio and how many, like her, were first-timers . . . in Brazil and at the summer games.
To keep her mind in the moment and off the upcoming competition, she played a made-up game with herself, spot the Olympian, where she tried to guess by sight alone which beach dwellers might be competing in the games. She’d identified a dozen possible competitors before the reality of her lofty goals for the competition took over her thoughts . . . again. Those four gold medals in a single summer games—that’s what she wanted. More than anything. Only one other woman had ever achieved the feat in track and field, and she’d done it way back in 1948.
The sound of a child’s squeal drew Chandler’s attention. She looked up to determine what particular delight had caught his attention. Her breath caught in her throat.
Horrified by what she saw, she kicked off her sandals and began to run.
* * *
He saw her start to run before he heard the scream.
The flowy yellow dress that had drawn his eyes to her from the moment he hit the beach clung to her legs and billowed behind her calves like a personal cloud of sunshine. She grabbed up one side of the sundress—revealing long, toned legs—and executed a burst of acceleration across the shifting sand that most women couldn’t have achieved had they been wearing shorts and running shoes on a paved road.
“Rhys, mate, what are you looking at?”
Rhys Mack swatted away his best friend, Ian Danner. Looking ahead to where the beauty in the yellow sundress appeared to be running, Rhys eyed the coastline to determine what had triggered her haste. Finally, above an inlet free of the crowds covering the section of beach on which he and Ian stood, he saw the boy child. No older than five, he leaned through a double railing on a lookout point suspended over the water.
A woman holding an infant some distance away cried out frantically and scrambled towards the boy. The boy laughed, in the blessed cluelessness of childhood, completely unaware of the danger he perched above and finding funny the anxiety of the woman who appeared to be his mother. The child turned back to his thrill of dropping pebbles over the railing and grinned as he leaned further out to watch them plunge into the depths below.
From where the kid hung, a sizable drop separated him from the ocean raging beneath him. A fall from that height would be devastating and possibly fatal if the kid didn’t know how to swim or he hit land—or rock—instead of water.
The infant-toting woman raced on, only a few feet away from the sight of possible disaster when the boy began to slip. The fabric of his shirt made an excellent, though unfortunate, gliding surface as the weight of his upper body pulled his belly over the rail. The young man’s feet left the ground and his facial expression morphed from wide grin to wide-eyed. The revamped expression indicated his current state no longer passed for what he considered fun and he understood his situation grew more precarious by the second.
The lady in yellow began to clamor over huge rocks positioned strategically beneath the lookout point to truss up the inlet for maximum vista. Rhys didn’t know what made him move. He stood too far away to be of assistance to the boy at the rate the kid was sliding, but Rhys’s feet began covering ground nonetheless.
A strong premonition of an unknown nature built a pressure in his chest, making him even more uptight than the other onlookers to the pending disaster.
At the instant the boy slipped over the railing, too top-heavy to stop himself, the lady in yellow rose beneath him and pushed against his shoulders to stop his momentum. She didn’t have enough height or leverage from her stance on the boulder to push him back over, but she held on. Within seconds, the mother arrived and, one-handed, snatched the boy back by the waist of his shorts. The mother threw herself to her knees and squished the boy into her arms, with a squirming baby trapped between the emotional embrace.
The nearby spectators cheered.
Rhys felt no such relief. His eyes never left the female Good Samaritan. The sudden change in weight from hands now-relieved of the dangling boy threw her off-balance. She teetered and managed to right herself. But her reprieve lasted only momentarily. As she turned to scramble off the boulder, a massive wave hit her at knee level. Her right foot slipped under the force of the water, and she plunged backwards into the churning ocean.
It was his turn to run.
A male voice behind him shouted an alarm to the lifeguard at the nearest station. The guard on duty grabbed a flotation device, but Rhys didn’t slow his pace. He saw the beauty surface and take a deep breath. She began to tread water, fighting the force of the water and losing. She went under again.
With a fist to the back of his neck, Rhys pulled off his shirt without breaking stride. He chucked his shoes en route. The woman surfaced again and tried to swim away from the scattering of rocks around her, but the rebound of the waves pushed her forcefully towards the granite. She maneuvered her body to use her foot to keep from being pounded against the largest of the rocks. Pushing off, she gulped another deep breath before a rush of water covered her head. Her long, dark hair floated atop the water but nothing else of her could be seen. When she surfaced again, her efforts at self-preservation noticeably began to wane, though not cease.
Rhys had learned to swim in the ocean. He understood the flow of the waves, the strength and the fickled ebb of the ocean current. The lifeguard ran towards the spot where the lady had fallen. The man’s pace and destination increased the odds she wouldn’t last long enough for an official rescue. Rhys headed for a strip of beach ahead of where the undertow would lead her.
He dove in the water, catching a glimpse of her being pushed head first into a rock and disappearing from sight. He hit the ocean with a smooth entry and glided effortlessly to the surface. His arms immediately lifted to cut through the water with strong, steady alternating strokes.
Approaching the sight of the lady’s last disappearance, Rhys took a big breath and dove deep. He used his hands to push the water side to side as he spun beneath the surface, jerking his head around in an attempt to locate her. When he spotted her, her back was to him. Her hands moved in a disoriented motion, ineffective in moving her in the direction that led up.
Gliding behind her, Rhys grabbed her around the waist and kicked for the surface. She was a fighter. She hadn’t panicked in the water. She’d concentrated on air, and obstacles, and finding a way to survive. Those survival instincts stayed active, causing her to push against his arm and fight him for control in the water.
Rhys surfaced and pulled fresh air in through his mouth. “Don’t fight me or we’ll both drown.”
She sucked in air and coughed simultaneously, salt water hindering her lungs.
Her tension still worked against him, but her coughing fit gave him a small window to wrap one of her arms tightly against her side with one of his own. “Relax and let me do all the work.”
She turned and clutched him tightly around the neck. “My—” Another coughing fit cut off her words. “—dress . . .”
He’d forgotten she wore a dress. The garment, though stunning against her rich brown skin, most likely had wrapped itself around her legs. Her fight to stay afloat became even more admirable when he realized the added difficulty of her struggle. The effort to swim with fabric hindering her ability to kick her feet made her quick fatigue and her continued panic in his arms understandable.
“Don’t worry about it.” He held her close with a firm hand around her back, willing her to find her calm against him. “I’ve got you.”
With a bemused startle, she looked up for the first time. She focused on his eyes.
All struggle ceased.
Her eyes, the warmest, deepest mahogany, looked into him and a rush of heat ignited his center. The inexplicable thought that he didn’t want to let her go crowded his brain, simultaneously confusing him and firing a burst of adrenaline through his blood.
He’d been watching her on the beach in that yellow dress on and off for almost an hour. When she’d stopped to hang with the guys from Argentina, the depth of his disappointment and unexpected bout of jealousy had taken him by surprise.
Now, as she pondered his worthiness to give over her fear and accept her faith, a pure, unfettered desire filled him. Not the lusty, base desire steeped only in physical passion and randy needs—though there was that—but a passion that hinted of protectiveness and possession and nights filled with long walks and candlelit dinners.
Pushing aside the uncharacteristic, schmaltzy thought, he focused on calming her fears so he could get her back to shore.
Gently, he adjusted her clinging, wet hair away from her face with two fingers. “Trust me,” he whispered.
Chandler stared into the prettiest, brown eyes she’d ever seen on a man. Gold striations weaved through a luscious coffee brown rimmed with a thin, dark edge. Those dreamy eyes looked back at her with an intensity that made her belly clench.
In a city currently overrun with international accents, Chandler shouldn’t have been surprised to hear something other than Portuguese come from her rescuer’s mouth. But when she’d finally focused enough on his voice to recognize the sound of Australia, she realized her savior was likely a tourist not a Brazilian lifeguard. The realization startled her enough to halt her thrashing.
He’d asked her to trust him. She was so tired; she wanted to believe in his strength and competence. She was usually a strong swimmer, but battling the undertow with her dress locked around her legs had drained her. Plus, her head hurt from where she’d been whacked against some rock.
She dropped her head against his shoulder. The feel of his hard thighs against her legs and banded arm of steel around her back made the decision for her. With a nod, she relaxed and let him swim them back to shore.
When they reached land, he lifted her effortlessly from the water and cradled her high against his bare chest. She wasn’t a big woman, but she wasn’t exactly small either. She topped out at five-foot-seven and, though she didn’t look her weight, because of her workout regime she was a solid one-hundred-thirty-five pounds of muscle. So, the ease with which he carried her was no easy feat.
Without conscious thought, Chandler let a weary hand drift down over a defined, hairless pectoral. She felt him flinch at the touch. She hadn’t intended to cop a feel. The effort of holding on had simply become too much. But the feel of his warm, wet skin beneath her palm pushed the drama of her unexpected swim to the back of her mind and the naked, except for swim trunks, hunk to the front. The erratic ping of her hormones made it official, despite its long hiatus, her libido wasn’t dead yet.
He looked down as she looked up, her senses reeling from the feel of his pec jumping beneath her hand. The beauty of those brown eyes struck her again. They stared at her from a rugged, sun-kissed face. She wondered if he spent a lot of time in the sun back home or if he just had one of those complexions that absorbed the perfect tan no matter what he did.
Whatever he saw in her eyes made his lips turn up in a slow, closed-mouth smile that added heat to his irises and dripped sex appeal through her pores all over her baby maker. His expression suggested he thought her a morsel he’d like to devour, and intuition told her she’d enjoy every minute.
“Chandler!” Ariana came barreling forward, ruining the moment. “Chan, are you alright?”
Chandler broke the hold of the magnetic male gaze making her innards churn and reached a hand to her sister.
Mr. Down Under kept walking, not slowing his pace, and prevented her for making contact with Ari. “No sudden movements,” he said.
Ari opened her mouth to say something then looked at his face and closed it abruptly. Her eyebrows rose and her eyes darted to Chandler’s, communicating her appreciation in that wordless sister-speak they’d perfected in childhood. Clearly, Ari had forgotten—and forgiven—her savior’s brusque, take-charge behavior, lured into uncharacteristic silence by his hunky good looks. Her sister fell into step behind them to await Chandler’s eventual release.
The Australian moved Chandler further up the beach. “We need to get that head looked at.”
“I’m fine.” Chandler raised her hand to her throbbing temple and came away with blood on her fingers. “Great. Just great.”
He frowned down at her hand, but didn’t speak.
“You can put me down now.”
“I’ll put you down in a minute.” He clasped her tighter against his chest.
His authoritative tone and renewed grip caused her to look back at him. She took the opportunity unobserved to study him further. His ruggedly handsome face was smooth-shaven. Square-jawed, hard-bodied, all-over-tanned, and dripping wet, he must have made quite a picture rising from the ocean.
He continued to carry her without strain; his body made of solid muscle like her own. His tall, sinewy frame made her think of an NFL running back, built for speed and high impact. American football wasn’t an Olympic sport, but she’d guess this guy was an Olympian in some other athletic discipline. If he wasn’t, then he was at the very least a sports fanatic here to enjoy the summer games.
They reached higher ground. He sat her down on a blanket spread on the sand. He smoothed her hair away from her forehead, looking intently at her temple. “You’ve got a pretty nice gash there.”
“It’s a surface wound. Mom always said I had a hard head. She’ll be glad to know it came in handy for something other than driving her crazy.”
His concern turned into a chuckle. “You’re quite the little warrior, aren’t you?”
A feminine scoff sounded beside them. “You have no idea,” Ari deadpanned.
A man came running up. “Dude, one minute you’re there, and the next minute you’re off like lightning.” The man’s accent dripped just as much Outback as her saving stranger. He swatted a bunched shirt into the planed abdomen of his dripping friend.
With a tolerant exhale, Mr. Down Under grabbed the shirt.
His friend continued his rant. “What the hell? Are you out of your mind? Playing hero like that? What the hell do you think . . .” The man blinked hard as his eyes dropped to Chandler. “. . . the lifeguards . . .” He blinked again. “. . . are for?” The last two words trailed off slowly and his mouth hung agape.
Chandler looked down at herself. After her dunking, her dress clung in see-through instead of yellow. The soaked, cotton fabric left nothing to the imagination, making Chandler glad she’d donned matching bra and panties this morning. Unfortunately, the matching intimates also happened to be yellow so they did little to shield her sexy bits.
* * * End Excerpt * * *
© Copyright 2016, Lisa Rayne. All Rights Reserved.