Staff Feature: Leslie DeVooght
Under an almost pitch-black night sky, Shaw dipped his kayak paddle into the seemingly dark waters of the Indian River, revealing a magical display of neon lights. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Ella stared straight ahead with a stiff back and her paddle across her lap, somehow ignoring the mullet jumping from the water all around them. He should probably just be grateful she’d still gotten in the clear boat with him after Ella’s sister’s friend appeared at the meeting spot for the bioluminescent nature tour. He’d underestimated how irritated Ella would be with their little trick, but hopefully, by the time this tour was over, it would be worth it.
“I’m sorry.” He switched his paddle to the other side of the boat. “I shouldn’t have let Hannah talk me into inviting another friend, but I really thought it was okay. Since it is her birthday, we both thought it’d be fine with you. Can’t we just enjoy our night?”
Ella spun her head around, glaring at him. “Why would I be fine with Hannah bringing a friend when the entire point of this outing was to set her up with the guide? He’s perfect for her—granola with a hint of adventure and topped off with her favorite subject, marine biology.”
“You know he’s not actually a dessert.” Shaw chuckled.
Ella turned away from him, likely rolling her eyes. “If Hannah had been the odd person out, she’d be in his kayak right now. In all the setups you’ve helped me with, have I ever suggested bringing a friend to the date?”
“I guess not, but if Hannah is supposed to make a connection with the guide, don’t you think it’ll still happen?” He pushed his paddle alongside the kayak, steering them toward the shipwreck turned reef where they could find some privacy from the other people on their tour.
Thankfully, Ella’s sister Hannah had disappeared as soon as they’d launched the kayaks into the river, and since she was in on his plan, she wouldn’t be a further distraction if he could get Ella to accept his apology. But maybe this hadn’t been the best idea.
“I hope you don’t expect an answer,” she said. “Because you know how carefully I design these setups, which is why I have such a high success rate.”
“Maybe, but maybe it’s more that you pair the right people together rather than create the perfect date. You are really good at reading people.” Leaning forward, he playfully poked her side in the place he knew she was ticklish.
Ella squirmed away from him. “Don’t you dare try to compliment me. I plan to stay mad at you.”
“You know you can’t.”
“Hmph.” She straightened, tossing him a glower over her shoulder, but an exceptionally gifted mullet chose that exact moment to demonstrate its vaulting prowess and smacked Ella on the cheek. “Ahh! Get it off.” Ella leaned back, swinging her arms.
Apparently during the mullet’s barrel roll through the air that rivaled an Olympic gymnast, it missed its landing in the water and instead was flipping between Ella’s thighs and flapping hands.
Shaw dropped his paddle in the bottom of the boat and dropped to his knees behind Ella. “Calm down. It’s just a little fish.” He reached around her from both sides, clasped the fish, and tossed it overboard.
With their erratic movements, the boat dipped to one side before sloshing to the other, and the water around them erupted in swirls of glowing greens and blues.
“Thanks.” Ella grabbed the sides of the boat. “But don’t flip us.”
“Me?” Shaw laughed, dropping his hands over hers.
“Sorry.” Ella slipped free from his hold and turned to face him, her nose inches from his. “For everything.” She gave him a small smile.
“So you’ve decided not to be mad at me?” He arched a brow, hoping for confidence as his heart did its own tumbling routine, and he tried to look anywhere but her lips.
“Don’t be cocky.” She pierced him with her eyes.
A wave rocked the kayak, and Ella clasped his shoulder, but her gaze never left his.
This was his moment. They’d been here before, but this time he wasn’t going to let it pass. Sweat dripped down his back, but the hot, humid Florida night couldn’t compete with the nerves boiling him like a blue crab in a pot.
“Ella, have you ever considered why you, the matchmaking queen, have never set up me, your best friend?”
“I don’t know.” She twisted those too tempting lips. “I haven’t found the perfect person for you.”
With his pulse racing as fast as the mullets skipping over the water beside them, Shaw cupped Ella’s face. “Ever think you could be the perfect person?” He brushed his thumb over her cheek, still glowing from her encounter with the mullet.
“Am I?” She whispered.
“I think you are, but do you want to be my perfect person?”
Shaw slid his hand to the back of her head and drew their lips together. With each caress, Ella yielded more to his leading. As they lingered together in this moment that would change their relationship and likely their lives forever, a flood of warmth washed away the tension from the anticipation of her reaction.
For a long time, he’d hoped the love that drifted through their friendship would surface into something more. Tired of waiting, he’d decided to take a page out of Ella’s matchmaking playbook. Nuzzling her neck, he inhaled her scent of lemongrass and lavender.
Ella pulled her head back, narrowing her eyes as she studied him. “Why do I get the feeling you set this all up with my sister?”
With what he knew was a much-too-smug grin, Shaw shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“I just can’t believe you set it all up, and I fell for it.”
“I did learn from the best.” Shaw gathered Ella into another kiss before she had the chance to shove him out of the boat.
When Leslie isn’t writing, she cheers on her three children and enjoys date nights with her husband, who loves that she researches kissing. Leslie is represented by Bob Hostetler of the Steve Laube Agency.
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