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Max's problem

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“The Mayor has complained about increased thefts on the beach,” Ines said to Max and Miranda. “Get yourselves over there and sort it out.”

Miranda’s eyebrows drew together. “Wouldn’t an increased uniform presence do more to deter thefts than us?”

“In the short term, possibly,” Ines said. “But I want to get to the bottom of it. So pack up your beach bags, blend in with the locals and catch me a thief.”

Miranda looked anxious at the assignment but Max was thrilled. “Hanging out on the beach! Getting paid for it!” Miranda shook her head. Later, Max would realise that she’d been right and that he, not for the first time, hadn’t been thinking things through. For now, though, he was just thinking about the sea and the sand.

He took Miranda back to her place and waited in the car while she got changed. She came out in some sort of floaty dress with a wide straw hat on her head and a large tote over one shoulder.

They went back to his after that and he quickly changed into his Bermuda shorts and a linen shirt, throwing a towel around his shoulders while she sat in the car, studying the file on the thefts. Her gaze flicked him up and down as he came out of the apartment. “Could have buttoned it up,” she muttered as he sat in the driver’s seat, although her eyes were on his torso for longer than strictly necessary.

He managed to find a parking space not too far from the beach and they wondered across, Miranda telling him that the thefts didn’t appear co-ordinated but there may be a pattern they hadn’t spotted yet. They found a spot and dumped their stuff, Max looking around for an ice cream vendor, Miranda scanning the beach for potential victims or suspects.

Max flicked his towel out flat and sat down on it, wondering how on earth they were ever going to make progress on possibly un-linked thefts amid the teaming mass of people on the beach. Miranda stared down at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her usual scepticism to the fore.

He shrugged. “Thinking.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s going to get us very far, do you?”

Max had been about to suggest that actually he was very good at thinking when his problem began. She shook her head impatiently and said, “I think we’re going to need to be a bit more proactive than that.” And she dropped her hat on the sand and pulled her dress over her head, revealing perhaps the smallest, stringiest bikini he’d ever seen.

She turned and bent down to delve into her beach bag, giving him a view of her bottom in the air, a tiny white triangle stretched over it, and he felt his mouth go dry.

She stood up with a bottle of sunscreen in her hand. She flipped open the lid, pouring cream into her palm, telling him that they needed to wonder around the beach for while, get a feel for the place. He stared as she started to spread the cream along one arm and then the other.

She moved onto her legs, looking down her body as she worked, and he watched as her hands slid along her thighs, circling her ankles and then back again, barely listening to a word she was saying on the likely modus operandi of beach thieves.

Legs complete, she straightened up and poured another dollop of cream into her palm. “So, is that agreed?” she said, smoothing the cream across her stomach and around her ribcage, her fingers sliding slightly underneath the triangles that barely covered her breasts, and he swallowed hard. “Max?” she snapped.

“What?” he said, his mind unable to think about anything other than the body beneath Miranda’s fingers. “Uh, sure. Agreed.”

“Ok,” she said, her palm now sliding across her cleavage, under the straps that wrapped around her neck, over her shoulder blades and back again, around the breasts that were in danger of spilling free from the tiny white scraps of fabric.

Miranda finally stopped talking and thrust the bottle towards him. “Uh, no thanks,” he said. “Don’t really need it.”

“Not you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “My back. Please.” And he stood up and took the bottle, hoping she couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

She turned around and waited. He swallowed and poured cream into his hand. “It might be a little cool,” he said, and she shrugged.

“Just get on with it.”

Max nodded, although she couldn’t see, and took a deep breath. Her back was smooth and slim and very pale. He did need to do this properly. She would fry in a few minutes if left unprotected.

He thought the shoulders were the safest place to start, and cupped his hands together so there was cream on them both then placed them gently on the top of her shoulders. He smoothed them outwards, and down, making sure he covered her from the back of her neck to where the bikini string tied across her body.

Her skin was warm beneath his fingers and he was careful to keep his touch light. But he couldn’t help staring at the image of his hands on her skin, her neck bent as he rubbed the cream into her spine, and he found he could hardly breath.

His eyes drifted south, to the lower part of her back, the skin between the tie of the bikini top and top of the bikini bottoms. The bottoms fitted low across her hips and he could see two dimples, one on each side just below the small of her back. His mouth was open and he closed it tight.

“Hurry up,” she said. “It’s over thirty degrees out here. I’ll be cooked to rare in about five minutes.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” He poured out more sunscreen and carefully laid his palm against her lower spine. He smoothed his hand left and right, edging downwards. As he went lower he turned his hand sideways, slowly moving it from side to side, until he reached the fabric of her bikini bottom. He felt heat in his body that was in no way connected to the sun. His palm was flat against her body, his index finger aligned with the top of the bikini bottom, and as his hand slid to the side his finger edged slightly beneath the white fabric. His heart was pounding. “Just need to, uh. Don’t want to miss anywhere.”

He held his hand still for a moment, at the small of her back, his finger circling gently and she said, “Of course.” If this was affecting her even slightly the way it was affecting him, she was doing a good job of hiding it. There was a pause, then she lifted her arm slightly and said, “I think I missed a bit here.” She waved in the general direction of her side. Max swallowed.

“Ok,” he said. He was pretty sure he couldn’t see any gaps in the glistening coating of sunscreen, but was beyond caring. He ran his hands from the small of her back upwards, until they reached the string across her back, and then out. Moving slowly, his palms rounded her ribs until his fingers reached the soft sides of her breasts. “Here?” he said.

“Mm,” she nodded. He took a deep breath and feathered his fingers downward.

“Wouldn’t want to get burned here,” he muttered, running his fingers back up, inching ever so slightly underneath the edge of her bikini top. Her skin was clear and beautiful and he longed to move his hands further, to hold her properly, to kiss the skin at her nape.

He smoothed his hands back down to her waist, holding her gently, then he stilled and they stood for a moment, their heads lowered, his hands at her sides. He felt, rather than heard, the hitch of her breath. Then she quickly lifted her head and took a step forward. “Thanks,” she said briskly, reaching down to pick up her hat before plonking it on her head, obscuring her features. “So we agreed we’d take it in turns to recce, yes? Do you want to go first?”

“What? No, that’s fine, you go.” Max watched as she strode off, her head turning from left to right as she went. Gradually his heart rate slowed to normal. He stared down at the bottle of sunscreen, as if it was to blame for his problem.

Max Winter wasn’t a stupid man, and he wasn’t blind. He’d known Miranda had a beautiful face, and that her body was trim beneath her boring work clothes, what with all her running and cycling and the endless salads.

But Max was good at compartmentalising. Until now, he’d been able to box up his thoughts about Miranda’s body and label them as ‘work’. Completely separate from Carmen, who was labelled ‘home’. He didn’t think that was going to cut it for much longer. He was a good man, and he worried that things were about to get complicated. He stared at the bottle of sunscreen, thinking hard, before reaching for it and dropping it carefully into Miranda’s bag. The heat was picking up. She might need another coat.