Michelle trudged into the water, laid her board on the moving waves, and tried to remember a little bit of what Ashton had taught. All the guys already seemed to be catching on. She walked slowly, watching them.
“Come on, sweetheart.” Victor fell into step beside her. “You can do this. I’ll stay close to you.”
“Oh hey, I thought you were already out there.”
“I didn’t want to leave you behind.” His voice was soft and casual. “Besides, I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.”
“Well, we haven’t spent much time together since we hung out at your baseball stadium.” Michelle felt her cheeks grow warm. Or was it just the sun. She didn’t care. Victor made her smile and laugh, and that day on the ballfield had offered her a peek into how her life would look if she chose him at the end of this process.
Michelle never intended to fall in love during this silly reality show, but if Victor continued comforting her just when she needed him, she could see herself considering the possibility. He was so different than the other guys. Much more mature, more worldly. He was smart and funny and incredibly sexy. Michelle found herself glancing at his bare chest and abs but forced her eyes back to his face.
Victor raised his eyebrows. “Were you checking me out?”
“Maybe…” Michelle splashed him with a little water and bit her lower lip.
“Did you like what you saw?”
“You know you did,” Victor said. “I know I like what I see when I look at you.”
“I feel a little exposed, actually,” Michelle admitted. “I’m not used to having ten guys ogling me in a swimsuit.”
“You’re beautiful, sweetheart, with or without clothes.”
“You know what I mean.” Victor sounded sincere. “Whether you’re in an evening gown, or sweats and a t-shirt. You’re naturally beautiful.”
“You always know how to make me feel good.” Michelle was now up to her waist with waves crashing around her, and knew it was time to stop flirting with Victor and get on her surfboard. “Hey, will you hold this board still for me while I attempt to climb on and paddle out?”
“Absolutely,” Victor said. It took her a few minutes, but she was finally in the right position and plunged her arms into the water in what she thought was the correct technique. It was awkward at first but eventually she got the hang of it. Finally, she was out far enough that the waves were larger and crashing down onto her.
A large wave flipped Michelle off her board and suddenly Ashton was right there beside her and called out to her. “You okay, babe?”
“I think so.” Michelle coughed and sputtered. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Ashton said. “Come on, let’s get out past this breaker. If you’re going to punch through the wave, you need to paddle hard, get as much momentum as you can, and just before the whitewater gets to you, you’re going to peel your chest up and create a space between your chest and the surfboard. Right before the wave hits you, it will pass in between you and the surfboard, sometimes it will actually pass under the surfboard and you’ll go over it.”
They pushed over the large wave before it could crash on her head this time, and like magic the water was calm.
“Nice job. Maybe someday I can teach you how to duck dive and then you can get beyond the breaker a lot easier.”
“I can almost guarantee this is the first and last time you’ll talk me into surfing.”
“Ah, don’t be so quick to dismiss the power of the surf. Once you get on that board, you’re going to have so much fun you’ll be begging me to take you back out tomorrow.”
“I’m going to need a chiropractic adjustment and massage tomorrow!”
“I volunteer for that job.” Ashton spoke with such a straight face Michelle laughed out loud and threw her head back. His teasing was helping her relax and forget her nervousness.
“Very funny, Ashton.” Michelle reached over and pushed his shoulder. He pushed hers back and she almost fell. “Stop that!”
“Come on, let’s catch this next wave,” Ashton said. “It looks like it’s going to be perfect for a beginner.”
Michelle reluctantly followed his lead and paddled in the correct direction, right along next to him.
“Okay, you’re almost in the right position,” Ashton called. “When I say now, you paddle as hard as you can toward shore. Remember the instructions. Come back onto your knees and then pop up.”
Easier said than done. Michelle didn’t quite pop up. More she got halfway up and fell sideways. He helped her back to the starting position and the next time she overcompensated to avoid falling to her left again and fell to her right.
After two more tries, Michelle finally got into a standing position, barely, and managed to stay upright for almost twenty whole seconds before falling.
“Can we stop now?” Michelle called out. “My legs and arms are like jelly.”
“Of course.” Ashton’s brow pulled together. “I’m sorry. I forget you’re using muscles that don’t normally get used. You must be exhausted.”
That was an understatement, and she was not the only one. By the time they paddled into shore, most of the rest of the guys were already collapsed onto the beach sucking on cold water bottles. Brock handed her a water bottle and she grabbed it as she fell face first onto her towel. Victor came up beside her and draped another towel over her shoulders.
“Thanks.” She appreciated both the warmth and the cover-up. Victor understood her. He sat down next to her on his own towel. Ashton didn’t sit down but picked his board back off the sand after he’d downed half a bottle of water.
“You ready, Mason?” Ashton asked.
“Ready for what?” Mason was flat on his back, shielding his eyes with his hand to try to look up at Ashton.
“Let’s go back out,” Ashton said. “I haven’t even had a chance to surf yet. You said you’d give me a run for my money.”
Mason groaned. “I’m exhausted… but okay.”
“Anybody else?” Ashton looked around at the group, most of whom were avoiding eye contact.
“It’s all you, buddy,” Brock said.
“Us,” Ashton corrected. “Me and Mason. Taking on the waves.” Ashton wrapped his arm around Mason’s shoulders, leading him back toward the water’s edge.
“Wish me luck,” Mason said, looking over his shoulder. “If I drown, I’m blaming you, Ashton.”
“If you drown, you won’t be able to blame anyone… because you will have drowned.” Ashton turned around and winked at Michelle but kept walking backward.
“Have fun, you guys,” Michelle called after them. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them tight against her chest and draping the large towel around her shivering limbs. “Be careful.”
“Always.” Ashton turned back around and trudged into the surf.