Excerpt for Bedding The Wrong Brother by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




BEDDING THE WRONG BROTHER

Bedding the Bachelors Book 1



by

Virna DePaul


Book Description


Determined to find her inner sex diva, Melina Parker enlists her childhood friend, Max Dalton, to tutor her after hours. Instead, she ends up in the wrong bed and gets a lesson in passion from Max’s twin brother, Rhys Dalton, a man Melina’s always secretly wanted but never thought she could have.


This #1 Bestselling Contemporary Romance is rated HHH ("Heat, Heart & HEA") and involves a bed mix-up, hot identical twins, sex lessons, naughty word games, light restraint, a shy sex bomb who's afraid she's boring and a playboy hero determined to prove she's got everything he'll ever need.



http://www.virnadepaul.com/


More From Virna DePaul


KISS TALENT AGENCY


HARD AS NAILS


GOING DEEP SERIES


BEDDING THE BACHELORS SERIES


HOME TO GREEN VALLEY SERIES


ROCK CANDY SERIES


SAY YOU LOVE ME SERIES


THE PARA-OPS PARANORMAL ROMANTIC SUSPENSE SERIES


Prologue



Dalton's Magic Rule #1:

Never reveal your secrets.



“Hey, Ladybug.”

Fourteen-year-old Melina Parker's hand jerked at the sound of Rhys Dalton's voice, causing the lizard in her palm to scamper away. Standing, she frowned to hide the sudden flight of butterflies in her stomach. “Darn it, Rhys. It took me almost an hour to get that one to come to me.”

Rhys, who even at sixteen towered over Melina's petite frame, rolled his eyes. He was an identical twin, and it was hard for Melina to believe there were two gorgeous guys with that same shade of honey-colored hair and light green eyes walking the earth.

“Your mom said to tell you to stay clean.” The left side of his mouth quirked up, revealing the slightest hint of a dimple. “Guess it's too late for that.”

Melina glanced down at the dust covering her jeans. Grimacing, she slapped at the dirt and groaned. “She's going to kill me. She's already mad that I wouldn't wear the dress she bought me. You should have seen it, Rhys. It had polka dots. I mean, me in polka dots. Can you imagine?”

“Oh, come on, it makes sense. Plus, I think you'd be cute in a dress.”

At the quiet words, Melina's head jerked up. He couldn't have meant—

No, of course not. He'd been so distant lately. He wasn't even looking at her. Instead, he was staring down at a playing card in his hands, folding it. Nothing strange about that. Like their parents, Rhys and his twin brother, Max, were always fiddling with some kind of magic trick. He was particularly fond of making coins disappear. Sometimes she wished he could make her crush on him disappear just as easily, but first she'd have to admit it to him. That was so never going to happen. She'd seen the types of girls he and Max were attracted to, and plain, chubby tomboys need not apply.

At least he didn’t call her “Four-eyed Porker Parker” the way some of the boys at school did. In fact, when Rhys had heard Scott Thompson called her that, he’d tracked Scott down and given him a warning. Now whenever Melina got close, Scott couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

Nudging her glasses in place, she moved closer, trying to see what Rhys was doing. “Um. So, have you heard from Max?”

His hands paused briefly before continuing. “Just that he doesn't hate football camp nearly as much as he thought he would. Might have something to do with the girls camp next door.”

She snickered. “Bet you're wishing you'd gone to camp when you'd had the chance, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

His gaze met hers. Unlike Max's, Rhys's pupils had a slight amber ring around them. She'd read somewhere that differing eye color in identical twins was extremely rare. The subtle difference fit Rhys's personality. While Max was almost always carefree and playful, Rhys had a quiet calmness about him—as if part of his mind was someplace else, someplace no one else could go.

He shrugged. “Time at home is rare. You know that.”

Melina nodded. She did. It was the hardest thing about being friends with the Dalton twins: the amount of time she had to spend missing them. Unless Rhys's folks were working up a new act, like now, they spent their time traveling and performing. Still, despite having to be schooled on the road by tutors, Rhys and Max always seemed to enjoy going to new places. She certainly envied their chance to see more than this small, university town she called home.

“Poor baby,” she teased, plucking a blade of grass from the ground and twirling it. “Getting to see the world with your famous parents must be a drag, huh?”

He frowned, then shook his head. “No, you're right. It's great.” He thrust his hand toward her. “Here. To replace the one I scared away.”

Dropping the blade of grass, she reached out and took the card. Looking down at it, she gasped. He'd folded the card into a shape that clearly resembled a lizard, with one spade as its eye. A smile split her face, and she actually squealed. “It's so cute!”

She looked up, happy to see that his frown had disappeared. A hank of hair had fallen over his eyes, and her fingers itched to push it back. She wouldn't have thought twice about it if he'd been Max, but with Rhys? She couldn't risk revealing how she felt about him. Next thing she knew, he'd pat her on the head and stop talking to her altogether, and that would kill her.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged again. “I got this book from the library—”

A movement behind his shoulder made her eyes widen. “Max?” She looked at Rhys, whose expression stiffened. “It's Max!”

Running past Rhys, she threw herself at Max. He laughed and lifted her, twirling her around before setting her on her feet. Even to an outsider, the differences between him and his brother would be obvious now. He was tanner, and his hair had grown longer, almost touching his shoulders. She reached out and flipped it. “What's with the girly hair?”

He narrowed his eyes and flicked a finger over her nose. “Still playing in the dirt, are you?”

She slapped his hand away. “You're home early. Rhys said you were having fun at camp.”

“I was. But I wanted to see what Mom and Dad were up to with the act. They're really pushing for something unique for the European tour. Your parents are here helping them?”

“Every day for the past week. Some kind of mechanical thingy.”

Max grinned and flung an arm around her shoulder. “Cool. Let's go check it out.”

“Okay. But first look at what Rhys made me.” She lifted up the paper lizard even as she turned to Rhys. “It's so cool. Rhys, let's—”

Rhys walked past her, nodding at his brother and slapping him on the shoulder. “Come on, dude. You're gonna love it. It's huge. I mean—”

As they walked in front of her, the two of them laughing and shoving, Melina frowned. She watched them, the easy way they had with each other, and hesitated. They'd be back on the road in another few weeks, and then it would be just her and her parents in their quiet little house, all of their noses immersed in books. No one to call her Ladybug or practice tricks on.

No one to dream about.

Which was silly, anyway. Her parents said things came to fruition through research and application, not dreaming. And they were right about everything.

Except polka dot dresses, she amended.

With a sigh, she carefully pocketed the paper lizard and scrambled to catch up with them. “Hey, guys! Wait up!”

Chapter One



Dalton's Magic Rule #2:

Continually challenge yourself.



“Listen to this,” Lucy Conrad said, waving Melina's magazine like a red flag. “98.9 percent of all women sometimes wish their lovers would just grab them, throw them down and fuck the holy hell out of them.” Tossing the magazine on the sofa, she pointed a finger in Melina's direction, her short and spiky red hair fairly vibrating. “You know what that means, don't you?”

“That women like to feel wanted?” Melina guessed, handing Lucy a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream before dropping into the chair across from her. Sitting cross-legged, Melina adjusted her glasses, then scooped out a bite of Chunky Monkey from her own carton. It had been exactly seven days since she'd allowed herself this taste of heaven. When the cold confection touched her tongue, she closed her eyes in appreciation. “Hmm,” she purred. “Gotta love Girls’ Night In.”

“You can say that again.” The soft but impassioned reply came from Grace Sinclair, who sat in a chair next to Melina. Melina held out her spoon and Grace delicately tapped it with her own. Grace, a career counselor in the university's humanities department, was class and calmness personified. While Lucy was Cherry Garcia—cherry ice cream with cherries and fudge flakes—Grace was Ben & Jerry's Crème Brǔlée—sweet custard ice cream with a caramelized sugar swirl. Blond and willowy with cool porcelain skin, Grace spoke with just a hint of a Southern drawl. “All we need is a Viggo Mortensen movie and I'd be halfway to heaven.”

“You already tried that, remember? Even with Viggo's voice playing in the background, you couldn't get off.”

Grace squinted at Lucy while waving her spoon. “Now don't you go blaming that on Viggo. I could hardly hear him with all the grunting noises Phillip was making.” Grace wrinkled her nose. “I swear, the man had the nicest table manners, but in bed…” She gave a mock shudder.

Melina giggled as Lucy thumped on the magazine she'd been reading from.

“Seriously,” Lucy insisted. “This does not mean women like to feel wanted. It means they settle for fantasies instead of focusing on what they really want at the beginning of a relationship. Which is exactly what you're doing, Melina.”

Sighing, Melina forced a smile. The last thing she wanted was to have another argument with Lucy about Professor Jamie Whitcomb. Unfortunately, despite the dusting of freckles that made Lucy look more like one of her students than a tenured professor, Lucy was a bulldog when it came to protecting her friends—even from themselves. “And exactly what should I be focusing on?” she asked.

“Passion,” Lucy fired back.

Of course. Passion. Lucy's favorite word. “And by passion, you mean…”

“Pure, animalistic chemistry. The kind that makes you want to rip each other's clothes off and do it against a tree if you have to. The kind of passion you don't feel for Jamie.”

The kind of passion she'd never felt for any man, Melina thought. Any man except Rhys, that is. But thinking of Rhys only made her sad, and being sad while she ate Ben & Jerry's was just wrong. “Ahh,” Melina said softly, trying not to sound too bitter. “You mean the kind of mutual passion that leads to love and lifelong happiness and is about as real as unicorns or flying dragons.”

“Rarity isn't the same as fantasy,” Lucy exclaimed. She stood, her face all flushed and her hands gesturing wildly. “That's what women have been taught nowadays. That passion and true love and friendship, all rolled into one, is impossible. So they settle.”

“Lucy does have a point,” Grace admitted. “Passion must be a basic female need. Otherwise, why would such a huge percentage of women be craving it?”

“Maybe,” Melina said, trying to be the voice of reason, “because 98.9 percent of guys aren't the throw-a-woman-on-the-ground type.” Her eyes automatically shifted to the pictures of Max and Rhys on her bookshelves. She had a feeling they were the exception, but they didn't exactly represent the average male. “Women want passion, but if it's not in a man's true nature to give it to her, then what's the point in wishing for it? Compatibility. Respect. Even love. That's what matters.”

“So then what's with all these?” Lucy pointed to several books on Melina's coffee table. The Joy of Sex rested prominently on top of the stack.

Melina shrugged prosaically, pretty sure Lucy already knew the answer. “Guys like sex. Jamie's a guy. Thus, part of getting and keeping Jamie is giving him sex.”

And not just any kind of sex, Melina thought. Mind-blowing, can’t-live-without-it, I'll-never-look-at-another-woman-for-fear-you-won't-give-it-to-me-again sex. The kind of sex she apparently didn't know how to provide, but was going to master this time even if it meant renting every porno she could find on the Internet.

“You like sex, too,” Grace pointed out. “Do you factor into this equation at all?”

“Of course, I do. I have no doubt that Jamie can give me what I want.”

Lucy harrumphed and narrowed her eyes at her. “Well, I'm glad your wants are still in the picture. At least Brian didn't totally squash your sexual confidence when he hooked up with his little co-ed.”

No, Melina thought, he’d squashed her confidence long before then. Every time he’d hinted she needed to lose a few pounds. And he hadn’t been the only one of her boyfriends prone to doing that. But insecurities aside, she knew she was healthy and reasonably attractive. That just wasn’t enough for some men. The key was finding the man who’d love her for who she was.

And who she could learn to be in bed.

“True passion isn't about technique, Melina,” Lucy insisted. “You can't manufacture it by reading about it.”

Melina nodded. “I get that. But I've never been overly passionate, anyway. After Brian, I was sure I was through with men for good. But then Jamie approached me. He's smart and kind and funny. I think I could be happy with him.” She heard the hesitation in her voice but charged on. “I just need a little extra insurance that I can make him happy, too.”

Snorting, Lucy shook her head. “If you're talking about making him happy in bed, there's no such thing as insurance. You'll just have to take the plunge, so to speak.”

“Not necessarily,” Grace drawled. “As my mama always said, practice makes perfect, right?”

Lucy's brows furrowed, while Melina gave an internal groan. She recognized the challenge behind that drawl. For a woman who was so contained, Grace could throw down a challenge like nobody's business. Worse yet, she'd be the first to take one up, which made Lucy and Melina hard-pressed to turn one down themselves.

Melina turned to Grace, whose impish smile was unmistakable. “And just who are you suggesting I practice with?” she asked.

In sync, all of their gazes moved to the same shelf of pictures. Melina's stomach clenched even as she zoomed in on the most recent addition. Max and Rhys both looked impossibly handsome in black tuxedos. She'd taken it at the IBM Magic Convention in Vegas last year, right after they'd beat out Chris Angel and Lance Burton for Best Stage Magician of the Year. Of course, in the picture each had an arm around his date: Max, a tall, leggy redhead, and Rhys, a stacked brunette whose boobs were almost spilling out of her plunging neckline.

Melina dropped her gaze to her ice cream container. Unless they had begun manufacturing implants, she'd bet that brunette had never heard of Ben and Jerry. Suddenly feeling as if every bite of ice cream had gone straight to her hips and thighs, she set the carton aside.

“Rhys?” she asked doubtfully. “I said I need insurance I can satisfy Jamie, and you want me to drive head-on into a brick wall. Rhys is in a whole different league than Jamie.”

“Exactly,” Grace replied. “You want him, yet you've let fear hold you back. You're turning twenty-eight in a week, Melina. Why not overcome two fears at the same time? Prove to yourself you can satisfy a man like Rhys, and you'll necessarily prove you can satisfy someone like Jamie, as well.”

“You're wicked,” Lucy breathed, sounding utterly impressed.

Grace bowed in acknowledgment.

Melina shook her head and held up her hands. “Just hold on. You're assuming I can satisfy Rhys. How likely is that? I couldn't even keep Brian satisfied in bed, and he'd only been with two other women. With all the women Rhys has had…” Melina swallowed hard, the very thought of all those women causing an ache of mammoth proportions in her chest.

“All the more reason to ask him. Think what a fabulous teacher he'd be,” Grace urged.

But Melina was already shaking her head again. Defiantly, she picked up her ice cream container and took a fortifying bite. “No way,” she mumbled around the spoon. “Rhys doesn't even like me anymore. We haven't talked for months.”

Obviously, he was too preoccupied with the showgirl-type women he was often photographed with to have time for an old friend. Of course, he'd proved to her long ago that nailing the hottest chick was more important than friendship. Her mistake had been in thinking it was a one-time thing. “Forget it. I'm not asking Rhys for anything.”

Her tone brooked no argument, or so she thought. After a few seconds, Lucy shot her a sideways glance. “Okay, so if not Rhys, what about Max?”

Melina choked, coughed, and wheezed, “Max?”

“Of course,” Grace said, nodding and smiling in delight. “He has even more experience than Rhys. And she's completely comfortable with him.”

“Not that comfortable,” Melina interjected, only to be ignored.

“She trusts him,” Lucy agreed. “He's a hottie. They've already kissed once—”

“That was almost twelve years ago and he felt sorry for me—”

“And he's flying in for her birthday. He's perfect.”

“Perfect,” Grace echoed. “Talk about sexual empowerment.”

Melina's gaze bounced back and forth between her friends as her mind frantically tried to come up with a reason why sleeping with Max was a bad idea.

She couldn't come up with one.

Still, it would be humiliating to cave so soon. Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “And exactly what sexual empowerment issue would you two be addressing during my crash course in satisfying a man?” She looked over at Grace, who'd started to braid a strip of her long pale hair. “Grace?”

Grace stopped braiding, bit her lip, then shrugged, her mouth twisting into a sardonic smile. “No point in denying my greatest fear, now is there? My birthday's two weeks after yours, so I'll try to find the man I fear doesn't exist: the man who can get me off. I'm sure it will just lead to another weekend of frustration, but as long as I can keep my vibrator handy, I'm willing to suffer for the cause.”

Although she felt herself softening, Melina didn't reach out to her friend. This challenge had been Grace's idea. Maybe she needed it more than Melina did. She hadn't dated in almost a year, convinced that if she couldn't even attain pleasure with a man, there was no point in putting up with one. Lucy, on the other hand, put so much stock on pleasure that she often put up with a man's failings longer than she should. Melina turned to her friend, keeping her face impassive despite the scowl on Lucy's face. Lucy's birthday wasn't for a few months, but it was a big one, the big 3-0.

“I should get a pass on this one,” Lucy said. “I'm fearless when it comes to sex, you know that. I've tried everything there is to try. There's no reason—”

“You fear intimacy,” Grace said gently. “You only date jerks, guys who are never going to commit to you—”

“Just because I happen to love brooding, creative men with an edge does not mean I fear intimacy,” Lucy protested.

“It's one weekend, Lucy. One weekend with a nice guy you normally wouldn't give a second look,” Melina clarified.

“A nice guy?” Lucy looked outraged. “Oh, sure. For your birthday weekend, you get to ask a hot friend to show you everything he knows in bed. Grace gets to have someone pleasure her for two days straight or die trying. What do I get? A nice guy who probably doesn't know a cock-ring from a cockatoo.” She held up a hand to forestall Melina's response. “But fine. If you two can do it, then so can I.”

Lucy paused and smiled sweetly, which, from her, was the equivalent of a big, flashing “danger” sign. “I call the stakes. Anyone who puts their plan in motion and sticks with it the entire birthday weekend, regardless of the results, gets a full day of pampering at Silk Spa. Anyone who chickens out has to get up in front of my Women's Studies 101 class and explain why. In excruciating detail. And answer questions afterwards.”

Lucy stuck out her hand, palm down. After a brief hesitation, Grace placed her hand gently on top of it. Melina's hands curled into fists. Her gaze landed on the magazine that Lucy had been reading, the one with the sex survey she'd read through earlier. She'd committed one paragraph to memory: “Of those people who are very satisfied with their sex lives, ninety percent are also very satisfied with their marriage or committed relationship overall. The less sexually satisfied people reported being, the less satisfied they were with their marriage or partnership.”

It sounded so simple, she thought. Keep a man satisfied and he'd be less likely to stray, right? Continually blow a man's mind in bed, and he'd be yours for life. In that way, men weren't unlike the bugs Melina studied: give them what they wanted and they'd give back to you.

With Max as her teacher, she'd learn to keep a man sexually satisfied. And she was an excellent student. She'd just never given that particular skill her total focus. Once she did, how hard could it be?

She shakily laid her hand on Grace's.

She'd never have Rhys. Maybe being with Max was the next best thing. One thing was for sure, though. Given the parameters that Lucy had set, none of them was backing out of this challenge.


* * *


“So, when do you leave for Sacramento?” Rhys called to Max. He tried to sound nonchalant, focusing his attention on lifting Laura’s supple, feminine leg and placing the delicate ankle in the leather restraint. He refused to look at Max, instead tugging the leather to make sure the restraint held firm. Then he did the same thing with Laura’s other leg, ending with a playful growl that caused her to giggle.

Satisfied that she was now fully restrained, he continued to play his part, absently dragging his fingertips up the inside of her gently curved calf and then her soft, pale thigh, continuing the journey over a lush hip, nipped waist, generous breast and upraised arm until he grasped the single restraint that bound her two fragile wrists together. Max still hadn't answered.

Standing directly in front of Laura, his feet braced apart, his chest just brushing her magnificent breasts, he turned to look at his brother. “Max?”

His brother wasn't paying any attention to him. Instead, he was staring at the floor, his brows flexed. Rhys sighed, released the leather restraint that was suspended from the contraption on a chain, and smiled at Laura. “Give me a second?”

She chewed her gum and winked. “I'm not going anywhere.”

Rhys marveled at the huskiness of her voice. Although she was dressed in a modest leotard and tights rather than the skimpy sequined outfit she wore during a performance, everything from her voice to her polished toes was a walking wet dream. It wasn't necessarily an act, either. Even when she was lecturing her teenage son about doing his homework, she still managed to sound like a sex phone operator. Striding toward Max, who leaned against the stage-left wall, Rhys rolled his shoulders and tried to suppress his impatience.

It figured that the moment their dream was within reach, Max would get into one of his brooding moods. Normally, Rhys could tolerate and compensate for Max's moods, just like Max did for him, but with the recent back-to-back rehearsals combined with the time he was spending working the kinks out of the Dalton Brothers’ newest stage trick—the most spectacular one to date—his tolerance was spent. Next week's show had to go off without a hitch. Add to this stress the fact that Melina's birthday was coming up? Exhausted didn't even begin to describe how he was feeling.

“Max? Max!”

Max blinked and straightened, his faraway gaze focusing on Rhys and then on Laura, who still hung in the customized apparatus behind them. He raked a hand through his already disheveled hair and jerked his chin at Rhys. “Did you need me to test out those restraints now?”

Rhys smiled tightly. “I'm sure Laura can wait until her hands go numb if you need a few more minutes in la-la land.”

Shaking his head, Max strode to Laura. “Sorry about that, babe. I was just thinking.”

Behind him, Rhys snorted. “I thought we agreed that until we land the contract with Seven Seas, you'd let me do the thinking while you focused on flexing your muscles and shaking your ass at the audience.”

“What would it matter if it was my ass or yours? The audience rarely knows the difference.”

Rhys hung his head. When Max was right, he was right. The whole mystique around the Dalton Twins’ Magic Show was that the audience knew the magician performing that night was an identical twin; they just didn't know which one. Not until the end of the show. The problem was that he was more and more content to let Max be the performer so that he could do what he liked best: focus on managing the act and inventing new tricks. He'd had to step up the number of his own performances or risk losing the mystery hook altogether. Plus, once they unveiled their new trick, Rhys wouldn't get a reprieve for a good long time. Floating Metamorphosis would be spectacular only if the audience saw both Dalton twins on stage at the same time.

After tugging on the restraints like a volunteer from the audience would do, Max nodded his head at Lou, one of the backstage assistants. As Lou began to loosen the restraints, Max absently patted Laura's hip. In response, Laura blew Max an air kiss.

Laura and Lou left the stage, but not before Laura shot a seductive backward glance at Max. Suddenly, the fact that the two of them had sauntered into practice half-an-hour late, their hair mussed and looking like they'd barely slept, took on new meaning. Rhys glowered at his brother. “Jesus, Max, you just couldn't keep your hands off, could you? Not even for a few weeks?”

Max shrugged and held out his palms in a “what of it?” gesture.

“What happens when you piss her off and she quits the night of a show? Are you trying to screw up everything we've worked for?”

“You're not giving Laura enough credit. She's a big girl. Last night was fun, but she's still got a thing for her ex. She's driving up to see him this weekend. And her son, too, of course.”

“That's not the point,” Rhys snapped. “I've had to double security since we caught Joey Salvador trying to sneak backstage. Seven Seas is insisting we come up with a G-rated proposal for their family-night performances. And let's not forget that after tonight's show, I'm going to have to get everything packed up and shipped to Reno on my own, while you jet to California for the weekend. Things are crazy enough around here without me having to worry about your sex life, too.”

Grim-faced, Max opened his mouth to respond, but a voice offstage stopped him. It was their father. “Boys, your mother's about to have a stroke. Jillian insists we need to shake things up for the Seven Seas folks and replace your black ties and cummerbunds with something that matches the girls' outfits. I think they're getting ready to battle it out. Come quick!”

Forgetting for a moment why he was so pissed, Rhys looked at Max. He was sure his face reflected the same horror that Max's did. Their stage assistants wore shimmery sequined costumes in colors ranging from rose to fuchsia. No matter what Jillian called it, it was still pink to Rhys.

Max cursed. “Are you done flaying me? ’Cause I, for one, don't want to go on stage looking like a pansy.”

Rhys swiped his hands over his face before shaking his head. What was the point? Max was just being Max. It wasn't his fault Rhys was wound so tight. Not really. “Fuck. Forget it. I'm just tired. I'll go deal with Jillian.” He paused, then muttered, “Tell Melina happy birthday for me.”

Rhys hadn't taken more than four steps before Max clapped a hand on his shoulder, yanking him back a step. “Why don't you tell her yourself? I know I haven't been pulling my weight lately. I'll stay. You use my ticket and surprise Melina.” Max grinned. “See if she notices the switch this time.”

Rhys managed to smile. When they'd been younger, he and Max had played the same stupid games with Melina that they'd played with everyone else. They'd taken turns pretending to be one twin while subtly urging their victims to say something derogatory about the other. Melina was the only one who'd never fallen for it. Not once. She had an uncanny ability to tell them apart, even from a distance. That was one of the things that had drawn him to her in the first place.

It was also why, when he'd found her kissing Max on the night of her sixteenth birthday, there'd been no telling himself she'd really meant to kiss him.

Rhys's smile vanished at the memory. That kiss had interfered with two friendships over the years: his friendship with Melina and his friendship with his brother. Max and Melina's kiss had apparently been a one-time deal, but it had still enflamed the sense of discomfort he'd already felt when they were all together. He'd fought that discomfort for close to ten years by trying to remain Melina's friend. All it had done was make it impossible for him to get over her.

His plan had been working, though. By minimizing their contact over the past two years, he was finally beginning to miss her less. Hell, he could now go hours, days even, without thinking of her, and his focus was exactly where it should be: on his family, their act, and ensuring the continued success of both.

Max gave him a shove. “My ticket's in my dressing room. If you pack now, you can leave right after the show and—”

Shaking his head, Rhys couldn't quite meet his brother's eyes. “I can't,” he clipped out. “There's too much to do.”

“What's to do? The crew knows how to pack up without us. The Salvador Brothers wouldn't dare show their faces around here again. And as far as Seven Seas’ ridiculous request for a kiddie show goes, they can shove it—”

Rhys raised his brows pointedly, causing Max's words to trail off. He grimaced. “Too much?”

“Just a little.”

“I can tone it down. I know Melina would love to see you—”

“No,” Rhys said, shaking his head again. “You're the one she feels comfortable around. She always has.”

“Damn it, Rhys, she's not a kid anymore. And she's had a crush on you for years.”

Rhys jerked back as if his brother had hauled off and punched him. He immediately narrowed his eyes in warning. “I'm not a substitute for you or anyone, Max. I never will be.”

His brother flushed guiltily. “It was one kiss, and she didn't even initiate it—”

“Yeah, so you told me, but we're talking ancient history. I got over her a long time ago.” The two of them, mirror images, stared at each other, and it was Rhys’s turn to flush. Unwilling to face his own dishonesty, he stared at the stage floor.

“When did you turn into a liar?” Max asked quietly. “And more importantly, when did you start to think I was an idiot? We work together. We're brothers. You don't think I can read you?”

Rhys's face jerked up. “Yeah, well, maybe that's the problem.”

“Now we have a problem?”

“You think you know me, but you don't. Just like you don't really know Melina. If you did, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Even if she did want me for more than your stand-in, I can't give her what she wants any more than you can.”

“Speak for yourself.” His gaze dropped to Rhys's groin. “Something happen I don't know about?”

“Asshole,” Rhys gritted. He reached out and punched Max on the shoulder with a little more force than necessary. “I'm talking about stability. Roots.”

His brother rubbed the spot where he'd hit him. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh. You know she's prime mother material. She's got a job she loves. She wants the white picket fence, two-point-two kids. I can't give that to her.”

“Maybe she doesn't know what she wants. Maybe she wants to travel. Going on the road could be an adventure.”

“She could travel. She chooses not to. Not even with her parents. Even if she'd consider it, it wouldn't be for the long term. You really think she'd do that to her kids? The childhood we had, Max—” He lifted his arms and encompassed the entire theater in one sweeping motion. “The life we have now isn't conventional. It's not what most people want.”

“It sounds like maybe it's not what you want anymore. Is that it?”

Unease tickled at his brain. He could feel it. They were about to become big—really big—and he was used to the lifestyle. Maybe at one time he'd wanted something different, but that had been a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side moment. “Are you kidding? I've never liked traveling as much as you, but if we land this contract with Seven Seas, we'll at least have our own theater. No more moving from one place to another every two weeks. We're at the top of our game. It's what you've always wanted.”

“You mean we.”

“What?”

Max stared at him. “You mean it's what we've always wanted.”

“Sure. You. Mom and Dad. Me. We. That's what I meant.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Boys!” Their dad poked his head around the corner, his sparse hair sticking up in tufts as if he'd been pulling at it. “Fair warning. I'm not the one who's going to go on stage in sequins.”

“I'm coming, Dad.” Shaking his head, Rhys began walking backward. “Look, I don't know how we got on this ridiculous topic. Melina and I are friends. I'm happy with the act. Everything's cool.” Turning so he wouldn't have to see the doubt on his brother's face any longer, Rhys strode toward backstage. Over his shoulder, he called, “Take her out. Make her feel special. And tell her I'll see her…well, I'll see her sometime.”

Rhys forced himself to keep walking despite the little voice in his head screaming that he was a coward. Hell, he wasn't a coward, he was just realistic.

He had his life and Melina had hers. Plus, he'd told Max the truth: Their goals were so far apart they might as well live on opposite ends of the world. Still, he thought with a sigh after opening the door to the costume room, he'd been tempted by Max's offer more than he should have been. Especially because he'd wanted Melina to mistake him for Max.

Just once, he'd have liked Melina to greet him the same way she did Max. With open arms and an open smile instead of a friendly but reserved detachment that always left him wanting more.

Chapter Two



Dalton's Magic Rule #3:

Learn from those with more experience.



“Teach me how to please a man.”

Max, who'd just taken a gulp of his beer, choked on it and kept coughing until Melina rose from her chair and began slapping his back. Putting down the bottle, he raised his hands, wheezed, and gently nudged her away. “I'm fine. I just…I think I misunderstood—”

Face flaming but trying to act nonchalant, Melina returned to the chair next to the sofa, crossed her legs, and smoothed her wool skirt so that it covered her knees. “You heard me right. I want you to teach me how to please a man.”

He stared at her with rounded eyes that quickly narrowed. Making a big show of looking around her small, neat living room, he muttered, “Is this a joke? Did Rhys put you up to this?”

She leaned forward and waved her hand in front of his face, knowing it would annoy him. “Focus, Max. I'm not joking.”

Grinning now, Max swatted her hand away and wiggled his eyebrows up and down. “Oh, really? So what, you're suddenly hot for my body? Not that I blame you, but—”

“Will you stop?” she hissed. “I'm being serious here.” She yanked her wrist from his grip and stood, turning her back to him even as she hugged her arms close to her chest. Where were her friends and her Ben & Jerry's ice cream when she needed them? Knowing she had no choice, she forced herself to continue. “I-I suck in bed.”

The stunned silence behind her was deafening. Embarrassment threatened to swallow her whole, and she had to forcibly stop herself from running into the next room.

“Hey, that can be a good thing,” Max joked, but his attempt at humor was obviously strained.

“I'm a lousy lover,” she clarified.

Again, that moment of silence.

“Says who?” Max growled.

She studied her fingernails, frowning at how ragged they looked. She'd been chewing on them again. “Lots of people.”

“Lots?”

“Okay, not lots. Three. But they would know.”

“Three? Hell, Melina, that's not enough to conclude anything. And who said it last? That bastard you broke up with six months ago? For a woman who studies bugs for a living, you sure have a problem recognizing the less evolved of the male species. That guy probably couldn't find a woman's G-spot if I drew him a map.”

Melina sighed. Wasn't that the truth? But she had to stay focused. She had it on good authority that Brian's inability to find her G-spot was because she hadn't inspired the search. His new girlfriend had taken great delight in pointing that fact out to her.

“Well, not all men are fortunate to be famous entertainers whose female fans want them to sign their underwear.”

She heard Max rise and walk closer to her. “Yeah, it's a tough gig, but someone's gotta do it. And it's their naked bodies they want us to sign, not their underwear. I, of course, am always happy to oblige.”

Sniffing, she raised her hand. “Of course. Forgive me.”

His arms encircled her from behind. Resting his chin on her head, he just held her. As always, she felt protected in his arms. Sheltered. But there was no zing of desire. None of the heat or shivers that overtook her when Rhys was near. On the plus side, there was no feeling like a moron and running away, either.

Not that it would have made a difference if Max did make her hot. Both Max and Rhys were way out of her league, and neither had ever shown the slightest bit of interest in her anyway. Sure, Max had always flirted and teased. Told her to come see him when she wanted a real man. But she knew, as with everything else with him, it had all been a game.

Unfortunately for him, she was calling his bluff.

“If there were, uh, issues—” He cleared his throat. “They were his fault, Melina, not yours.”

She snorted and pulled away. “I wish that were true, but he's not the only boyfriend to tell me I don't know what I'm doing. And according to his new girlfriend, he's the bomb.”

He winced. “Please. Don't try to talk modern. It just doesn't work.”

“See what I mean?” she pouted. “I can't even talk sexy.”

“You don't need to talk sexy. Behind those god-awful glasses,” he tapped the top of her wire-rimmed glasses for emphasis “lab coats, and lumpy suits you wear, you are sexy. You just don't go around advertising it.”

“Right.”

“Melina,” he said warningly.

“I'm not putting myself down. I'm not beautiful and don't have the best body in the world, I'm attractive, I dress well—”

His snort was getting rather annoying now.

“—and I'm smart. That counts for something, right?”

“Melina—”

“I'm kind. Loyal. I think I'd make a good mother.”

Max's eyes bugged out. “Uh, Melina—”

She put her hands on her hips. “Oh, hush. I'm not asking you to father my child. And you don't have to look so relieved, either. But we both know I'm not a femme fatale. I don't want to be. I just want to get married. Have a family.” A big one. She wanted lots of children, not an only child who would grow up lonely and longing for the type of sibling relationship that Max had with Rhys. “I don't want to wither up and die surrounded by a bunch of bugs.” She dropped gracelessly onto her coach and leaned her head back against the cushion.

His expression grew suspicious. “Is this about your biological clock? Honey, you're still young. There's plenty of time for you to start a family.”

When she didn't answer, he dropped down next to her and took her hands. “I thought you liked your bugs,” Max said quietly. “Are you that unhappy? Why didn't you tell me?”

She shook her head. “I love my job, but I…but I want to be—” Her voice hitched. “I want to be loved. I want someone to love me.”

“Your parents love you. Rhys and I, we love you, Melina.”

“My parents and you, maybe. Rhys, I'm not so sure of anymore. And anyway, it's not enough. I want a partner.”

“But you're talking sex. Mechanics. Not love.”

“One leads to the other,” she insisted. “With guys, sex comes first, then emotion, right?”

He looked like he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. “Well, I guess. To some—”

“To you, right?”

“But I'm not the one you want to make fall in love with you.” He said it hesitantly, as if he wasn't sure what her answer would be.

“No. But you'd certainly be demanding. In bed, I mean.”

He raked a hand though his golden hair. “Jesus, Melina—”

“I'm just saying…” she soothed.

“What's causing all this? You got your eye on someone specific?”

Her fingers plucked at the corded edge of one of the sofa cushions. Despite Lucy's fervent belief that she'd be settling with Jamie, there was something about the man that called to her. A sort of offbeat humor. A serious stare that pierced you and made you wonder what he was thinking. And whether he was thinking about you. The way Rhys's stare did. But unlike Rhys, he'd expressed interest in her. Asked her out for drinks after the conference next weekend. And she wasn't going to mess up her opportunity with him.

Not this time. “Sort of.”

“‘Sort of’ is a wimpy answer.”

She pounded the sofa cushion with her fist. “Okay, I do.”

“Let me guess. He's an academic?”

“Well, of course. The sex thing is necessary in the beginning—”

“And in the middle and end,” Max said drolly.

“—but after that, we need commonality to build on. I mean, he's not just smart. He's sexy, too. And he's interested in me. There's a conference next week that we're going to be presenting at—”

Max eyes widened in that expression of disbelief again. “You're presenting at a conference? Since when? The last time you tried speaking at a public event, you almost passed out.”

“Thank you for that reminder,” she gritted out, but without much heat. He was right. She didn't do well in the spotlight. At the workshop Max was talking about, she'd stepped up to the podium only to become paralyzed with terror. She'd morphed from confident scientist into Cindy Brady, staring at a blinking red camera light despite the audience surrounding her. It wasn't an experience she'd ever sought to repeat again. That's why she'd chosen research in the safety and anonymity of her lab. That's what she was used to. That's what she was comfortable with. But with Jamie, things were different. He'd urged her to come out of her shell, and, surprisingly, she'd agreed, confident that he would step up if it was too much for her. That alone must mean something, shouldn't it? “Anyway, Jamie shouldn't be as hard to please as…say, you or Rhys would be. If you could just do me this favor…” Horror overcame her. “I mean, you kissed me once. I know it didn't mean anything but…well, the idea…it doesn't, well, gross you out, does it?”

“What? Of course not.” But he was looking panicked now. His hand moved to rub the back of his neck. “It's just, I don't want you thinking there's anything wrong with you. You're just, you're just—”

“An amateur?” she suggested.

“Well, I was going to say selective, but given the men you've chosen, you obviously haven't been picking from the cream of the crop.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Please. I've met the guys.”

“They were all smart. Influential. Okay, so they're not tall and handsome and fly to London to perform for the queen, but—”

“They were pansies. And it sounds like this guy you want to bang is a pansy, too.”

“He is not a pansy. And the others were just uninspired.”

“Melina—”

She shook her head. “Tell me the truth. You go for experienced women. Women who know how to please you in bed.”

“Well, sure, but—”

“In the insect world, bugs mate for one reason and one reason only, because they get something out of it. I want a mate, Max. I want to know how to keep one. So, if it doesn't disgust you to be with me, can you please do me this favor?”

He seemed to think about it. “Why me? Why not Rhys?”

Because I'm not safe with Rhys, she thought. Not the way I am with you. With Rhys, assuming that he would even agree to it, it wouldn't be about simple biology, learning positions and technique, or walking away when the session was over. With Rhys, she'd lose herself. She'd start believing in unicorns and flying dragons and mutual passion leading to lifelong happiness. She'd want more than she could have. “Why Rhys and not you?” she hedged.

“Come on, Melina. We both know that of the two of us, I'm the bastard. I'm the…the—”

“Man whore?”

He cleared his throat. “Again, I was going to say least discriminating.”

“Be that as it may, you've never left me hanging just so you could get laid.” She held up her hand. “I know you're always trying to make excuses for Rhys's behavior that night, but it was lame. And you were there for me, just like you've always been. If that's not enough reason, the fact that you have the most experience is another point in your favor, right?”

He looked at her oddly. “Quantity doesn't necessarily equate to quality. Believe me, Rhys knows what he's doing.”

The image of Rhys doing anything to her made her nerves tingle in interesting places and had her thighs clenching together. “Look, are you going to do it?” Do me, she amended internally. “Or not?”

“I'll ask again. Why me?”

“Because I trust you.”

“And?”

“Because you'll be nice. During. And afterward. At least, I thought you would. Now I'm not so sure,” she said pointedly.

“Sex with me isn't nice, Melina. Sex done right isn't nice at all.”

She swallowed hard. It had suddenly gotten hot in here. “So show me.”

“What if I say no?”

“Then I'll find someone else.”

“Rhys?”

“Argh! What is your obsession with your brother? Is this some kind of weird kinky twin thing? Do you want me to say his name when we're doing it?”

“No,” he said, obviously struggling for patience. “I want you to tell me who you'll go to if I say no.”

She shrugged.

“What's that mean? You'd just do it with some stranger?”

“Haven't you?”

Fascinated, she watched him turn red. “We're not talking about me. And you're talking about this as if it's one of your damn experiments. You can't just decide you want to be a sex diva and ask me to teach you how, Melina.”

“Actually, we are talking about you. And that's exactly what I'm asking for.”


Chapter Three



Dalton's Magic Rule # 4:

Practice with the right tools.



Overnight bag with toiletries. Check.

Sexy underwear. Check.

Contraception. Check.

Hotel room.

Duh.

Melina stared at the three brass numbers affixed to Max's hotel room door. They hadn't changed in the five minutes she'd been standing there looking at them. She had the right room. She had everything she needed. Let the sex education begin.

Right?

Biting her lip, she closed her eyes and tried to talk herself into sticking the key card into the little slot. Inserting part A into part B had never been her problem. It's what happened afterward that she clearly lacked skill in.

Still, she hesitated.

Something about this felt wrong.

Could she really get naked with Max? Touch him? Let him touch her?

The image of him looming over her in bed, surrounding her with warm skin and hard muscles, certainly wasn't unappealing, but it wasn't exactly pulling her tractor either.

Maybe there really was something wrong with her.

“Face it, Melina,” Brian had said to her after she'd found him in bed with one of his veterinary residents. “A man needs more than a stiff board underneath him when he wants to screw. Doesn’t matter how well-cushioned it is. You show more passion for the bugs in your lab than you do me. Take my advice. Get some practice in before you try to nab a guy again.”

She hadn't broken down at the accusation. In fact, she'd handled herself like the lady she was, even letting him take the dog they'd adopted from the pound a year before. Then she'd called Lucy and Grace, and the three of them had thrown darts at Brian's pictures while drinking sangria. Still, the knowledge that what she and Brian had been doing was “screwing” when she'd thought they'd been making love had haunted her for days.

And the worst part was, he'd been right. In previous relationships, she'd tried to be an active lover, only to score low when it came to evaluations. With Brian, she'd been content to let him take the lead, thinking that's what he wanted. Apparently, screwing was more complicated than she'd thought, and like it or not, she was going to get the practice that Brian had so cruelly suggested.

In scientific terms, it simply made sense.

Lady in public. Whore in the bedroom. She could do that, right?

Five minutes later, still standing in the same location, she thought, apparently not.

She leaned her forehead on the door and thumped it twice. The second time, not so gently.

What are you waiting for?

Max was gorgeous. Sexy. He cared about her. Plus, she'd sworn him to secrecy. Other than Lucy and Grace, who'd expect a full report, no one would know about this but the two of them. And if he couldn't bring out her inner slut, who could?

Rhys's name popped into her head.

Just like that, the image of her and Max morphed into her and Rhys. Of course, the picture didn't change all that much given they were twins, but her reaction to it did. It was as if it had been two-dimensional before but suddenly had turned real. She could feel the heat of Rhys's bare skin, see the sweat dotting his forehead, and hear his groans of pleasure as he moved against her. Inside her.

And lo and behold, she was even on top this time, normally not one of her favorite positions.

Closing her eyes, she valiantly ignored the sudden wetness between her legs.

Yep. How twisted was that? They looked identical, but only one of them got her hot. And it was the one who didn't even care enough about her to call.

Max cared, she reminded herself. And they were good enough friends that they could do this. She'd just look upon it as an experiment. Two days of trial runs and data analysis. Then Max would get back on a plane to Vegas or wherever his next show was, and the next time they saw each other, she'd be happy and in love with Jamie. Maybe she'd even be pregnant if the next Dalton Twins’ Magic Show tour went on for a while.

The image of her holding a baby cinched it. She stuck the card in the slot, waited for the green light, and pushed the door open.


* * *


In the lobby bar, Rhys watched Max check his watch for about the tenth time. His brother was acting weird, no two ways about it. Leaning back in his chair, he raised his hand and wiggled his fingers. “Spill it.”

“Huh?”

“What's going on? You've been acting like a nervous Nellie since I got here. What did Melina say that you couldn't tell me on the phone?”

Max's brow quirked. “Nervous Nellie?”

“You know what I mean, butthead. Now what the hell's going on?”

“Butthead? Your skill with words is mind-boggling.” At Rhys's low growl, Max held up his hands. “All right already. Will you just ease up? I already told you it wasn't an emergency.”

Rhys barely refrained from grabbing his brother by the throat. “Your exact message was: 'Something weird is going on with Melina. Get your ass on a plane right now.' You refused to answer any of my calls, so that's exactly what I did.”

“Would you have gotten on the plane if I'd said I needed your advice about something?”

Rhys slammed his palms on the table. “Damn it, Max, I don't have time for this. You have ten seconds to start talking or I'm driving back to the airport.”

“It's her birthday.”

Stunned, Rhys stared at him for several seconds before answering. “Yeah, I know. That's why I told you to tell her happy birthday.” It was also why he'd thrown her present in his suitcase during his frantic rush to get a flight. Just in case.

Max lifted his drink—water instead of his usual beer—and took a healthy swallow. Rhys narrowed his eyes. What was going on here?

“All that stuff you said about her wanting the white picket fence and two-point-two kids? That stuff doesn't matter,” Max said softly. “You're hurting her.”

The accusation caught him off guard, but he couldn't deny it either. He looked away.

“She's not an idiot, Rhys. She recognizes that you've pulled away. That you don't call. You don't visit. Hell, she's certain you forgot about her birthday. And why wouldn't she? You two barely say anything to each other anymore.”

Rhys gritted his teeth. “She works with her bugs. Visits her parents once a month. Dates safe, nice guys. What else is there to know?”

“How about what that so-called ex-boyfriend of hers did to her?”

Rhys sat straight up. Was that what Max's call had been about? What had been the loser's name? Bradley? Brian? Yeah, Brian. Had he hurt her? Hit her? A slow but intense wash of anger began to pump in his veins. “What?”

Max shook his head in disgust. “Nothing. Forget I said anything.”

Rhys stood, braced his hands on the table, and got nose to nose with his brother. “I'm not forgetting anything. Tell me. Did he hurt her?”

Max leaned back and spread out his hands in a welcoming gesture. “And what if he did? What are you going to do about it? Scare him to death so he pisses his pants like Scott Thompson did?”

“I'll kill him,” Rhys spit out from between his teeth.

Max stared at him, then grinned. “I believe you would.”

“What are you grinning at? I'd think you'd be right in line with me.”

“I know I would. I'm just surprised you said it out loud. Where Melina is concerned, you're prone to changing the subject.”

Straightening, Rhys raked his hands through his hair. “Since when has there been any question that I care about Melina? She's one of the sweetest…” Sexiest. Hottest. Most intriguing. “…women I know, and we've known her for years. Hell, Mom and Dad would get in line to beat the guy up, too.”

“Then why? If you care so much about her, why don't you finally lay it on the table?”

Rhys shook his finger. “Oh no. We're not having that conversation again. Stop playing games, Max. I just want to know if Melina's okay and whether I'm going to have to kill anyone tonight.”

Max shrugged. “She's okay. Her boyfriend bruised her pride, that's all. She's more hurt by your callous actions than anything else. I know you didn't want to come here, but I'm not apologizing. You can damn well say happy birthday to her face.”

Rhys practically fell into his chair. He wanted to rail at his brother for his deceptive tactics, but his own guilt weighed on him heavily. He hadn't thought that his pulling away would hurt Melina that much. Then again, he hadn't thought beyond wanting to stop his pain. But Max was right. Melina was his friend. It wasn't her fault he wanted her to be more. “First thing in the morning, I promise.”

“Good. You still going to fly to Reno?”

“Right after I see her.”

“We don't have to be in Reno for another few days. You're obsessing—”

“The last time we worked the Magic Underground, the backstage crew was a disaster. And you weren't the one caught trying to do an Omni Deck in front of five hundred people only to flounder when it didn't happen. I'm not going to let something like that happen when the Seven Seas contract is at stake.”

His brother reached out and placed his hand on Rhys's arm. “You've always been the brains behind our success, Rhys. I know that, and so do Mom and Dad. No one can take that success away from us, even if we don't end up getting Seven Seas.”

A little stunned by Max's admission, Rhys said, “We'll get the contract so long as everything goes as planned.”

Max gave a curt nod, then stood. Rhys looked at him in surprise. “Where are you headed?”

“There's a blonde at the bar who's eyeballing us. Unless you've changed your prudish ways and want to join us—”

Rhys didn't even bother looking at the woman. “Go ahead. I'm going to turn in. I'm beat.”

“Yeah. You really should turn in.” Max turned, paused, then turned back. “It's been a hell of a decade on the road, don't you think?”

“It's been fun. The best.”


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