“That was a huge risk, you know.”
“I know,” I admitted.
He shook his head, a grin slowly sliding across his face. “I don’t know whether to scream at you or kiss you.”
For some reason, that admission made me shy, and my mind immediately went back to the peanut butter. I felt my face grow hot—damn—and I gave him a goofy smile. “I was hoping you’d catch on to what I was doing. If the others think we can’t work together, we’re safe if we happen to come into the final two again. Think about it—they’re going to keep us around because we’re a liability. We’d be fools not to play that up.”
He moved closer and grabbed the back of my head, twisting his hand into my thick, curly hair. For a moment there, I thought he was going to lean in and kiss me, but he only grinned and looked directly into my face, inches away. “You are a genius, you know that?”
This was getting dangerously close to flirting. I shoved at his chest, albeit in a more playful fashion. “I’m just tired of getting eaten by bugs.”
“Me too,” he agreed, pulling the cork out of the bottle. “But I wouldn’t have minded a sandwich. Dean held out the bottle, sniffed it, and then made a face. “Smells strong.”
I scratched at the welts on my arms. “Probably to keep the bugs away.”
“Waterproof, too, according to the label. That’s nice of them, considering they’ve parked us on a beach.” Dean grinned. He tilted the bottle in my direction, offering it to me. “Ladies’ first?”
I took the bottle from him and gave it a small sniff, then winced. He was right, it did smell really strong. I poured a small bit onto my hand and felt the texture—thick like lotion. The sand was going to stick to us like mad, but I didn’t care. I’d take gritty sand all over me and no bugs. With quick, enthusiastic motions, I began to rub it onto my bare, exposed arms.
Seeing my enthusiasm, Dean poured a small bit into his hand and began to cover his body as well. We stood there in the blistering sunlight, rubbing bug repellent lotion on our bodies, giddy with delight. After all, in swimwear there was so much skin uncovered, I suspected we’d end up using the entire bottle long before the game was over. I didn’t care—I wanted relief from bugs now.
I saw Dean’s hand slide over his lower back, and noticed a big bare patch where he couldn’t quite reach his skin. I imagined the bugs landing there. With my grease-slicked hands, I immediately began to rub the lotion across the span of his back, hitting between his shoulder blades and down his spine to cover his body in its entirety. Dean grunted at that, and I guessed he was pleased. “Thanks,” he said, as I slicked my hands over the rock-hard muscles one last time. “Here,” he said, pulling away. “Let me do you.”
I turned and presented my back to him, rubbing my hands on my bare stomach and thinking how different my body felt from his. His entire build was one of lean muscle and corded sinew—I was all softness and curves. Embarrassed, I almost stepped away again until I felt his hands slide over my shoulders, slick with lotion. And then I gave a sigh of pure pleasure. Not only would it keep the bugs away, but it was cool and refreshing against my hot, sun-dry skin. I arched and flexed a little under his skimming hands. Nothing should feel quite that heavenly.
After a moment or two, it became clear to me that the lotion-rubbing had proceeded past the ‘perfunctory’ stage. His hands still slid across my slick back, but the feel had taken on a more exploratory sensation, and I felt his fingertips trail across the dip in the small of my back, sending shivers across my skin. His hands flattened against my lower back, as if spanning my waist, and I sucked in a breath at the sensations that shot through me. They definitely had nothing to do with the game, and everything to do with Dean’s nearness. His fingertips moved along my sides, gently skimming in an almost ticklish fashion, trailing upward until I felt them touch against the straps of my bikini top. I sensed him moving forward a step, his shadow falling over me, and my entire body felt soft and languid, heat coursing through me.
“Abby,” Dean began in a low, husky voice, and I turned, gazing over my shoulder at him with heavy-lidded eyes. The look on his face was heated, sexual.
Something crashed in the underbrush nearby. Startled, I pulled away from Dean and averted my face, trying to hide the flush creeping over my face. He cleared his throat, and whatever moment we were having—or were about to have—vanished.
Two figures emerged out of the palm trees on the far side of camp and waved at us. I squinted in the bright sunlight, trying to make out their names. “Lana and… Will.” Both were dressed in vivid yellow that played well against their dark skin.
“Are they supposed to be here?” I glanced over at my partner.
Dean shrugged, his muscles still gleaming from the lotion. “I guess the cameraman will tell us if not, right?”
The cameraman usually assigned to our beach hovered not too far away—I barely noticed him anymore—and he didn’t seem to be having any sort of show-produced anxiety attack, nor was he calling his boss on his satellite phone, so I guessed that the occasional camp visits were allowed.
After a moment’s hesitation, I moved forward, following Dean.
Lana was waving cheerfully, a sly smile on her face as we approached, and I guessed that she’d seen Dean and I doing the mutual-lotion-rub-down. Her partner was juggling two coconuts in his arms and held them out as we approached. “Housewarming gift,” he declared in a cheerful voice.
The two of them were far too happy to see us. It made me uneasy, considering we were playing a competitive game in which one team could easily eliminate the other. Still, as Dean strode forward with an easy grin, his hand out to shake hands with them, I tagged behind, feeling like the reluctant a**hole that I’d been cast as.
Lana hugged Dean and pulled away, wrinkling her nose. “What is that you’ve got all over you?”
Dean grinned and put a hand back down to his greasy chest as I pulled up alongside him, trying to contain my frown. “Sorry, we were trying out our bug repellent.”
As I watched, Lana’s brown eyes lit up and she reached for Dean again. “In that case, I should rub up against you some more.”
My partner sidestepped with a small laugh and Will grinned, but I couldn’t muster the same. I settled for a tight smile that didn’t feel as if it belonged on my face.
Another awkward moment passed, and then Lana waved her hands as if trying to chase away the awkwardness. “We wanted to see if you guys had fire and if we could borrow some, since we’re practically neighbors.”
“We have food,” Will added, holding up the coconuts. “And two bananas.” He pulled them out from his shirt.
I have to admit, I gasped in delight at that. “There are bananas on this island?”
“And mango, if you know where to look,” Lana said, smiling. “We can show you if you promise not to show anyone else. In exchange for fire, of course.”
I glanced over at Dean, and he looked at me. “Can you give us a second?” I asked, and before anyone could answer I grabbed my partner by the elbow and dragged him away.
“What do you think?” Dean whispered low in my ear. The feel of his breath against my neck made my entire body shiver with want.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted, still a little irritated at the sight of beautiful Lana rubbing her hands over Dean’s chest. Why that bothered me, I couldn’t quite say. I mean, Will was good-looking too, but I wasn’t getting upset at the thought of Lana putting her hands on him.
“If they can show us where the rest of the fruit is—”
“I know, but fire?” I shrugged my shoulders, then crossed my arms over my chest. “What if we’re the only ones that have fire? How much of an advantage are we giving away?”
“We’re not the only ones,” he reminded me. “Remember the matches? And besides, I think we’ll need allies in the next few weeks to come. We could do a lot worse than sharing information with our neighbors and bringing them to our side.”
Unless they use it against us, I thought uncharitably. I glanced over at the waiting duo, and Lana had her hand to her eyes, shielding them from the sun. She gave me a cheerful smile and I racked my brain, trying to remember what I’d been told about her. “What was her job again?”
Dean thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Camp counselor. And I think I remember someone said that Will was a teacher.”
“I guess they sound okay,” I said, caving in. “I just worry that someone’s going to mess this up for us when we’ve got things going so well.”
Dean gave me a greasy hug, rubbing my arm. “Don’t you worry about a thing.” His hot, oiled skin slid against mine as he pulled me close. “I’ll handle them.”
To my vast shame, it felt marvelous to have Dean hold me close to him, feeling his sun-warmed skin against my own. The urge to sink against him was consuming. Lana was giving us an interested look, and too late, I remembered that we were supposed to be at each other’s throats. I jerked away and followed Dean back over to Team Nine, trying to remain as nonchalant as possible, despite Lana’s gloating grin.
“Fire for food sounds like a good deal to me,” Dean said, stepping forward. Lana clapped her hands happily, and Will burst into a smile, and I realized just how much they’d needed fire. They were probably desperate for something to drink that didn’t come out of a coconut.
Will handed the fruit over to Dean, who handed me a banana. I immediately began to peel it and eat it—the fruit inside was a little green and hard, but it was still one of the best things I’d eaten in a long time. I noticed Dean was eating his as well, and we made no pretense of trying to have a conversation as we scarfed the food down.
When I’d eaten the last bites of the banana and sighed, I pondered what to do with the peel. Maybe we could boil something in it later. Or… something.
“Fire?” Lana said expectantly.
Dean glanced over at me and nodded. He put his arm around Will’s shoulders and gestured at the heavy thick of palms in the distance. “Why don’t I have Will show me where the food is, and you show Lana the fire?”
I nodded and we split up, us girls heading back to our camp while the guys tromped into the heavy underbrush. Lana gave me a scrutinizing look as soon as they were out of sight. “So how are things with Dean?”
“Fine,” I said slowly, not sure how much to reveal or how much she’d already guessed. “How are things with Will?”
“Very platonic,” she said with a faint half smile. “He’s gay.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to take that. Will was the only black man on the show, well-built and utterly gorgeous to look at. “So I guess you two aren’t an item?”
Lana snorted, the sound overly loud out of the petite Asian woman. “He’s been talking about your partner, Dean, for days now. No, I’m afraid that boy likes dick.”