It's Gotta Be You
FOLLOW THE WIND
Breathing hard, Oliver Heart ran down the beach near the edge of the ocean, barely avoiding the frothy surf washing over the packed sand. He needed a break, but instead of stopping, he pushed his endurance to the limit. Midmorning sunshine beat down upon his bare back, and his legs started to feel the burn of fatigue. Behind his Oakleys, beads of sweat stung his eyes, but he kept running until he reached the Sea Breeze pier jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Oliver finally slowed to a halt, not wanting to cross over to the public beach, where Heartbeat fans would hound him for autographs and selfies. Normally he didn’t mind mingling and posing with his boy-band fans, but today he had bigger issues on his mind.
Oliver bent over and grabbed his knees, sucking in deep breaths of sea-scented air. Damn, he needed a cold bottle of water. Or a beer, he thought, but then realized that day drinking might not be the answer to his dilemma. He needed to make his decision with a clear head.
While Oliver jogged, he started weighing the pros and cons of the conversation he’d had with Heartbeat’s manager just before his run. While Devin was a master at his job, Oliver remained far from sold on the direction Devin wanted him to go to bolster his solo career, which he’d wanted for a few years. This was the perfect time to launch it.
He made a mental list of the pros:
Wayward Records expressed serious interest in signing him for a solo album.
The recent Heartbeat hit single revived the boy band’s popularity, and his brothers were willing to perform several benefit concerts for the Susan Heart Lupus Foundation, keeping the revival going strong.
His brother Jimmy, a talented, successful songwriter, agreed to pen several songs for Oliver’s solo album, another plus in the eyes of Wayward Records.
Oliver would give a portion of the profits to his mother’s lupus foundation, something he and his brothers were determined to expand.
But one huge con was tipping the scales in the opposite direction. Just thinking about what Devin had suggested had Oliver shaking his head, making sweat fly into the wind. While he wanted a successful solo career, how far was he willing to go to make his dream happen? Oliver felt as if he walked a tightrope between cooperating and selling out, operating without his brothers as a safety net. And he was a big fan of safety nets.
Oliver finally stopped jogging when he reached the boardwalk leading through the sand dunes to his beach house. Sea oats danced in the gentle breeze and the weathered boards creaked beneath his feet.
Making decisions didn’t come easy to Oliver. He tended to be cautious, weighing the good versus the bad until he came to a conclusion. He was always the last to decide his menu choice at a restaurant, so having to make a life-altering decision was causing him to lose sleep at night.
A charmed childhood filled with love, laughter, and an abundance of music hadn’t prepared him for the loss of his father in a fatal car crash or the death of his mother due to complications from lupus. And while he missed the stage, the excitement, touring without his brothers might feel hollow and lonely. He also liked the comfort of living close to his siblings. But then again, perhaps he needed to widen his horizons, stop being the baby brother, and venture out on his own. A stickler for perfection, Oliver never did anything on a whim. He studied, he planned.
Oliver loved his five-bedroom, two-story home with the stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean. The deep blue sky created a gorgeous backdrop for the white stucco walls and red tiled roof. A beach entry pool shimmered in the sunshine and the spacious pool house to the left was big enough to live in comfortably. He’d recently added a cabana with an outdoor kitchen and cozy fireplace for cool winter evenings, which would make a nice romantic setting if he had a girlfriend to share it with. Unfortunately, being a celebrity in a small seaside town made dating difficult.
Oliver blew out an annoyed breath, but then reminded himself that he shouldn’t feel so damned sorry for himself. After all, he had a sexy Porsche, a sporty SUV, and a sleek cabin cruiser docked at the local marina. The massive amount of money he had earned from the heyday of the Heartbeat popularity meant he didn’t have to work another day in his life if he managed his money right, which he did. Even so, he gave voice and guitar lessons at the family-owned music store, and his involvement in the Susan Heart Lupus Foundation was fulfilling and worthwhile. He enjoyed hanging out with his brothers and at the family house that was jogging distance away. But he missed the excitement of Heartbeat, and the benefit reunion concert stoked the fire that had been dormant for a long-ass time.
Being the youngest, Oliver had always longed to be a few years older, to not be the last one to get to do everything. But now that thirty loomed just a year away, he felt as if life was a blur whizzing past him. Instead of being a passenger, he wanted to be in the driver’s seat. And if he did this thing his manager, Devin, suggested, he wouldn’t even get to be in the front seat.
Still deep in thought, Oliver walked over to the outdoor shower at the side of the pool house. He tugged off his running shoes and then shed his sandy shorts. Since his secluded house was flanked by tall, thick tropical vegetation on both sides and sand dunes at the rear, he enjoyed the luxury of privacy. Oliver often skinny-dipped in the pool, especially after a hard run on a hot morning.
Tilting his head to the spray, he washed off the sweat and sand. Groaning, he rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder, trying to ease the tension and fatigue. With so much on his mind lately, he simply couldn’t relax. He would fall asleep on the couch watching a ball game and then find himself wide-awake as soon as his head hit the pillow at night. Insomnia sucked.
After a few more moments, Oliver turned off the shower and then headed over to the outdoor fridge for a bottle of water. He drained the cold contents in thirsty gulps and then gave in to the lure of the pool. He dove into the deep end, loving the silky feel of the water against his skin. He floated on his back, trying to relax, but within a few moments he started picking apart his conversation with Devin yet again.
Heartbeat’s manager, Devin Booker, and publicist, Julie Jacobs, knew how to play the publicity game and suck in the paparazzi. They’d propelled Heartbeat to the top a decade ago, and Oliver shouldn’t have any doubts that their brilliant manager could do the same thing for him as a soloist. Riding on the coattails of the Heartbeat reunion, Oliver had taken Julie’s suggestions and beefed up his presence on social media with success. Oliver was game to doing pretty much anything within reason.
But faking a romantic relationship with former pop sensation Belinda Beal? Again?
Oliver was still thinking hard about that one. Years ago, he and Belinda had a pretend romance that had them splashed all over the popular teen magazines. So, rekindling—or, make that pretending to rekindle—the romance would draw immediate media attention. Apparently Belinda wanted to jump-start her career as well, and according to Devin, she was on board with the suggestion.
But Oliver wasn’t sure he wanted to play the game, especially with Belinda Beal, and he had resisted so far, especially since having Belinda stay in his pool house was part of the deal.
Uh, no way.
Oliver closed his eyes against the glare of the Florida sunshine, and damn if Belinda’s face didn’t slide into his brain. Back when Heartbeat’s glory days started to fade, Devin and Julie came up with the idea for Belinda Beal, then a pop star on a fast rise to the top, and him to have a highly publicized teen romance. The public gobbled it up and they became America’s sweethearts. But there was only one problem. While he and Belinda smiled for the cameras, they failed to get along in private. Arguing was Belinda’s favorite pastime, and he’d heard it was one of the reasons her career ultimately failed. She wanted things her way or no way at all.
Oliver floated over to the side of the pool and folded his arms over the edge. There was one more problem with Devin’s plan. While Oliver might have argued with Belinda, he secretly had a very real thing for her . . . not that he ever let her know it. Hell no. Giving her that kind of ammunition would have made their fake arrangement a solid nightmare for Oliver. So he’d pretended to like her in public and pretended to not like her in private, testing his acting skills to the limit.
Oliver sighed. “Ah, dammit.” Why couldn’t this just be about the music?
Maybe he needed to confide in his brothers and get their input . . . or maybe not. While his brothers were supportive of his desire to go solo, Oliver hadn’t talked to them yet about Devin and Julie’s proposed publicity stunt.
With a groan, Oliver pushed away from the wall with a splash, but then floated again. Part of him wanted to make the decision on his own, but the other part of him wanted to hear what they had to say, although he could almost predict how each brother would react. Grady, being the oldest, would probably feel the need to be protective and caution Oliver about getting involved in something he might live to regret. Jimmy, the serious brother, would most likely take a stance against doing a publicity stunt and tell him to rely upon his talent. Jesse would find the whole thing hilarious and encourage him to have fun and roll with it, especially with someone as hot as Belinda. Oh yeah, Devin made sure that Oliver saw plenty of recent pictures of the former pop star. The gorgeous teenager was now a stunning adult, and her curves were even more luscious.
And she was flat-out sexy.
Oliver kicked his feet, doing a few laps of lazy backstroke, stretching out his aching muscles. He wanted to slow his racing thoughts, but failed. Unfortunately, he needed to make a quick decision, because according to Devin, Belinda wanted an answer. Well, she can wait, Oliver thought, and when his stomach growled in protest at only having a protein shake earlier that morning, he swam over to the side of the pool. Placing his hands on the warm concrete, he hoisted himself out of the water, slicked back his wet hair . . .
And found himself gazing into the violet eyes of Belinda Beal.
“Holy shit, your ass is naked. Well, all of you is naked,” she said with a hint of a southern drawl that surprised him.
Oliver felt heat creep into his face and glanced around for a beach towel. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“I rang the doorbell but you didn’t answer.”
“As you can see, I was swimming.”
“I can see that and a helluva lot more than that.” She had the nerve to grin.
Feeling, uh, exposed, Oliver covered himself with his hands. He took a step backward and considered jumping back into the pool. He wanted to make a run for his clothes, but they were too far away and he didn’t really want to show her his bare ass. “You’re trespassing.” He felt the edge of the pool and was about to step into the water, but her grin stopped him.
“Did you really just say that? What are you, eighty? Did I step on the lawn?”
“Obviously, you took me by surprise.”
She raised her eyebrows.
Oliver glanced around for a towel. Nothing. Okay, this was going south . . . fast. “What are you doing here?”
“Is that how you speak to guests?”
“You’re not a guest.”
“I was invited!” Belinda exclaimed, and didn’t bother to shield her eyes from his . . . predicament.
Where was a fucking towel when you needed one? Maybe he should jump in the pool and take her with him.
Still grinning, Belinda pointed to a sweat towel lying on a nearby chair.
“Really? Not quite big enough.”
“Mmm . . .” She arched a dark eyebrow and then reached for the towel. After hesitating, she extended it to him. “Are you sure?”
Oliver grabbed the small towel and put it in front of him like a loincloth. He also resisted saying that the water was cold. But in the end, he couldn’t just stand there nearly naked, so he walked with as much dignity as he could muster, which amounted to a big fat goose egg.
Feeling her amused eyes upon him, he reached for his discarded shorts and pulled them on, cringing at the abrasion of the salt-crusted material. Turning around, he walked over to her and folded his arms over his chest. “So what are you really doing here?”
“What do you mean? You already know.” Belinda tossed her long hair over her shoulder. “I’m moving in.”
“What?” Oliver shook his head. “No . . . I just talked to Devin about this earlier today. I haven’t decided—”
“Don’t even try that.” Belinda cut him off with a flippant wave of her hand. “Devin led me to believe this was a done deal. I’ve been working with both him and Julie Jacobs.”
“Then Devin overstepped his bounds,” Oliver said, confused as to why Devin would do such a thing. But then again, it would be like Devin to force this on him. Devin was aware that Oliver hated making decisions, and it drove him nuts. “And so did Julie.”
“Not my problem.” Belinda merely shrugged. “Take it up with them. Devin approached me about doing this, by the way. I seriously don’t know why you’re getting so uppity.”
“I don’t get uppity,” he said, sounding uppity, so he toned it down a notch. “I’m just not a fan of surprises. Why didn’t you let me know you were on your way? I mean, you have to admit you just showed up out of nowhere.”
Belinda nibbled on her bottom lip. “I assumed you’d been told.” She looked around and then pointed at the pool house. “So, there’s where I’ll be staying? Mmmm, not too shabby.”
“Uh . . .” Oliver felt panic grip his throat.
“Okay then, I could use a hand unloading my car,” she said, and turned on her heel.
Oliver stood there for a few seconds, stunned. After a moment, he caught up with her. “You can’t stay in the guest house.”
Belinda gave him a sideways glance but didn’t break her stride. “Well thanks, the main house looks amazing, but I prefer some privacy.”
“No, I mean, you can’t stay here . . . period,” Oliver insisted, but she kept on walking like a boss to her car. He tried not to notice how her tight black yoga pants hugged her very fine ass.
“Sorry, that’s already been decided,” she said as she popped the hatch of her SUV.
“Well, this is one of those rare times. I don’t mean to be rude, but this is my home, not a hotel.”
“Look . . .” Belinda turned to face him. “I drove through the night from Nashville and I’m totally beat. So can we not argue?”
“As I recall, we always argued.”
She shrugged again. “We were kids back then. For this to work we have to get along.”
“This isn’t going to work.”
Belinda wagged a finger at him. “Not with that negative attitude. You always were kind of a Debbie Downer.”
“I was not! And don’t wag your finger at me.”
“Uh, yes you were, and you’re being one right now.” When she poked that damned finger into his chest he grabbed her hand to push it away. “Ah, holding hands . . . now that’s better,” she said in a low voice that slid over his skin like silk. Damn, but the southern thing was a turn-on. “See, this pretending to be lovers thing won’t be so hard,” she added, and her gaze dropped to his mouth. “We can pull it off with a little practice.”
Oliver realized he’d succeeded in having her hand pressed against his rapidly beating heart. She was standing close enough for him to smell the light floral scent of her perfume, and damn if he didn’t have the urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless, but he wasn’t sure if he was being played or if she felt the pull of attraction too. The not-sure part had him letting go of her hand. He took a big step away from her. “So, you said you drove from Nashville? Since when do you live in Nashville and have a southern twang?”
“Since all my adult life, except for a few years in LA. And I don’t have a twang. I have a classic southern drawl,” Belinda corrected with a lift of her chin. “I grew up in a small town in Tennessee. On a farm.”
“You didn’t have a southern drawl when we first met,” Oliver said, finding it rather sexy . . . no, make that super sexy.
“Yeah, I sure did,” Belinda said, and something flickered in her pretty eyes and made him a little less angry with her.
“So you kept it hidden?” Oliver pressed, wanting to know more. “Why?”
“I was told by my record company to lose it. Among other things—like weight—and I did, until I gained it back again,” she muttered, and then turned back to her luggage.
“Oh, well, that wasn’t right.”
“Tell me about it, but you know this business,” she said lightly, but he noticed a slight tension in her voice, and it bothered him despite the situation. “Now, it’s cool to have a big butt.”
“You don’t have a big butt.”
“So you’ve been looking at my butt?”
She turned and gave him a yeah-right look.
“Well, you were walking in front of me,” he sputtered, and she laughed. “Your butt is, like, front and center.” This is when Jesse would start singing, “I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie.” “Sorry.”
“What?” His head was spinning, trying to keep up with her. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, forgetting what he was supposed to be sorry for.
Belinda laughed. “Don’t be so serious. Jeez.”
Not knowing what to say, Oliver gazed over her shoulder and decided to change the subject. “Wow, lots of luggage.” The SUV was packed to the gills. “What other things did you and Devin talk about?”
“We can discuss it over lunch. I’m starving,” she replied, and shoved an overstuffed floral duffel bag into his arms.
“What the hell is in here? It weighs a ton.”
“Maybe you need to work out more,” Belinda said with humor in her tone.
“Yeah, well . . .” Oliver had a retort on the tip of his tongue but she bent forward, giving him a glimpse of lush cleavage, and the words vanished from his brain.
“We can get the rest later.” After tugging a giant matching floral suitcase from the SUV, she extended the handle and began walking swiftly toward the pool house.
“Okay . . . you. Such a gentleman. Thanks!”
Oliver stood rooted to the spot for a minute, but with a shake of his head started following her. “I’m going to regret this,” he grumbled, but allowed his gaze to linger on her perky ass hugged by the tight black pants.
“I heard you,” she shouted in a singsong voice.
“I just know it,” Oliver added loudly this time, but without much conviction.
“Heard that too.” While she added a little sass to her stride, Oliver sensed something softer simmering beneath the surface. He inhaled a deep breath and blew it out. While it might not be the best idea to allow her to stay, Oliver suddenly realized he was grinning. Although he remained far from convinced that the fake romance was the way to create interest in his music, he was willing to give the idea some thought. Plus, Belinda had captured his interest, something no woman had been able to do in quite some time. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all, he thought, hoping like hell he was right.