MAX had never felt more invisible in his life, which was a nice change of pace, actually. He’d built up a thick skin growing up as the gawky teenage boy who tagged along with his father cleaning pools and then graduating to be the (still gawky) pool boy himself, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed being leered at and teased.
Over the years he’d had to deal with overly amorous housewives (he blamed Hollywood’s clichéd portrayal of pool boys as sexy for that) and bullying, macho-type men who liked to belittle his job, his character, and his overall hygiene while he went about his business cleaning things like broken beer bottles and, in one very memorable instance, used condoms out of their pool filters.
He was much more than a pool boy now, of course. Since he’d taken the helm of Jansen & Sons after his father’s sudden death three years earlier, he’d expanded the company’s scope. Now he oversaw a growing business that specialized in all sorts of water treatment and cleaning, putting his chemistry degree to good use by consulting with contractors and builders about water management and drainage. When his brother, Ryan, had graduated with a degree in civil engineering and architecture, Max had expanded the business again, adding design and construction to Jansen & Sons’ scope. He would never abandon the company’s original mission, though pool maintenance was admittedly just a small portion of the services the company offered. Most of his best childhood memories involved working with his father after school and over the summers, and Max felt he was honoring his father’s memory by continuing that branch of the business, even if it was no longer the company’s main focus.
But this assignment had been too cherry to give to his summer pool maintenance staff, which was made up primarily of college students on their summer vacations. He’d taken quite a bit of teasing for scooping it up, especially from his sister-in-law, Brenna, who handled the company’s scheduling and bookkeeping. She and Ryan never seemed to tire of the jokes and innuendo, which Max grudgingly endured because he deserved it. All of the company’s pool maintenance techs had a good knowledge base in water care, but Max had to admit that with his master’s degrees in chemistry and geology, he was just a tad overqualified to be chlorinating water and checking filters.
Max crouched low, dipping a clear vial into the sparkling water and filling it halfway, leaving room for the chemicals he’d add later to test its pH. He’d just capped it and tucked it into the pack he wore on his belt when a low wolf whistle caught his attention. He looked up, lips set in the customary rigid pucker that served to discourage both come-ons and put-downs, but a quick assessment of the scene before him had Max rolling his eyes and concentrating his focus on his chemicals again.
The whistle hadn’t been meant for him. True to form, the pool deck full of gorgeous women in barely there bikinis hadn’t given him a second look. They were sunning themselves on a staggering array of luxurious chaise lounges that were spread around the concrete deck, studiously ignoring him in favor of their gossip magazines and dance music that pumped continuously from speakers disguised as coconuts on the palm trees that towered above the glittering, enormous pool.
The pool itself was a gem. Olympic-sized and pristine, kept at the perfect temperature and condition at all times. It was empty at the moment, but the array of women crowding around it made it obvious that it wouldn’t remain so for long. Max timed his visits carefully, making sure that he avoided the times that the women had the run of the pool. He glanced at his watch, his lips quirking in a ghost of a smile. Almost time.
The pool belonged to Hal Caldwell, whose claim to fame was owning Flesh, the most successful soft-core porn magazine on the market. It was a favorite spot for the women who posed for the magazine to attain their infamously line-free tans. Max’s company maintained the pool year-round, but it only received Max’s personal attention from April to October, when the Forest Glen Men’s Water Polo Team used the pool for its practices.
The team received plenty of ribbing for its practice site, but Max had heard the players’ gossip enough over the last two seasons to know that the benefits of their situation far outweighed the good-natured teasing the other teams gave them for it. The women loved to lavish attention on the players, and he couldn’t fault them for it. For a recreational club team, the athletes were surprisingly fit. They were extremely competitive and traveled all over the United States for matches, and a few of the players had been members of Olympic teams at one point or another.
It definitely wasn’t a hardship to watch them bob around in their Speedos as they practiced, though Max hoped he was less obvious about it than the ever-present gaggle of scantily clad models. By the end of practice, Max knew that more than half of the women would be topless, and as soon as the coach dismissed them for the day, a good number of the players would make their way to the smaller private pools and grottoes that dotted the landscaped area instead of to the small locker room that had been incorporated into the pool house.
Caldwell’s son Everett was the team’s center and the reason the Forest Glen team practiced here. The team had several corporate sponsors, but Flesh couldn’t be one of them because the league had strict rules about what types of companies could participate. So instead of donating money to pay for coaches, travel, uniforms, and the other things the team needed like a normal sponsor would, Caldwell had the existing pool in the backyard of his palatial mansion renovated to bring it up to regulation standards. Since he wasn’t seeking public acknowledgement, the league had agreed to let the team practice there.
Max bent over the side of the pool and filled another vial, letting his gaze slide over to the large building that Caldwell quaintly referred to as the pool house. It was larger than most two-story homes, with the small but well-appointed locker rooms—men’s and women’s—on the ground floor and Everett Caldwell’s private residence on top.
He usually timed his visits to coincide with the end of practice, since as a rule he didn’t like to put chemicals in the pool when it was in use. The fact that it also gave him a prime excuse to shamelessly watch the men play as he waited for them to exit the pool didn’t hurt, either. Max tried to never be more than ten or fifteen minutes early, which gave him ample opportunity to test the water and watch with what he hoped was polite disinterest until the team cleared the pool and he could treat it.
It also allowed him the opportunity to watch them climb out of the pool in their ridiculously tiny Speedos and towel off, though Max did have the grace not to stare. Obviously, at least. His mirrored aviators had been a hefty investment but worth every penny.
Max had his head down, dripping chemicals into the vials to test the water when the deck erupted in catcalls. He carefully finished counting out the drops before screwing the tops back on the bottles and giving the vials a little shake. Only after he’d finished and casually set them aside did he allow himself to look up and follow the scantily clad water polo team members’ progress toward the pool. As usual, Everett was last, shooing his teammates toward the water and pulling them away from enthusiastic spectators when necessary. Max let his eyes wander over the smooth, tanned expanse of Everett’s chest, following taut muscles all the way down to the blue Speedo that hugged his groin, leaving little to the imagination.
Watching Everett herd everyone into the pool to start practice wasn’t quite as nice as watching the reverse, since after practice the team was dripping wet and flushed from exertion. But since Max had a full schedule of consultations that afternoon, it would have to do. He’d actually squawked when Brenna had suggested he let one of the actual pool techs cover for him for the day, and Max knew she was never going to let him live it down. It wasn’t like it was a big secret why he insisted on being the one to carry out the routine pool maintenance during water polo season, but Max did have the grace to feel a little embarrassed when Brenna teased him.
Max grimaced when the vials of test water changed color. The pH was too high, which meant he needed to add some muriatic acid. Keeping everyone out of the pool for half an hour after the treatment wasn’t usually a problem, since Max made a habit of coming after practice was over, but the team wouldn’t be done for another two hours. He’d have to come back after his afternoon and evening appointments.
Sighing, he packed up his kit and ambled over to the edge of the pool, watching Everett slice through the water with a neat, efficient stroke as he warmed up. The entire team was swimming laps, but it was still easy to pick out which figure was Everett. They all had their numbers on their swim caps—not that Max needed that to be able to tell them apart, even with their faces in the water. He crouched down at the end of Everett’s lane, waiting until he closed the distance between them. Just like Max had hoped, Everett stopped instead of using his normal flip turn.
“You’re here early today,” Everett said, breathing hard from his warm-up. He adjusted his goggles, raising them up to rest on his head as he looked at Max.
Max swallowed. He checked in with Everett after every treatment, giving him an update about the water and noting any concerns Everett or the other swimmers had registered about the pool. It was usually a two-minute conversation, but Max looked forward to it. In his current position, he found himself a lot closer to Everett’s gorgeous hazel eyes than he normally was, and he couldn’t stop his heart from kicking up a notch.
“Yeah, scheduling conflict. The pH is high, but I can’t treat it while you’re in the pool. I’ll come back tonight, if that’s all right? It’s not dangerous—the water just might get a little cloudy until I can fix it.” Max fumbled with his phone, looking at his calendar. “I could come by around nine tonight. Does that work? The pool needs to be empty of swimmers for about thirty minutes after I treat it.”
Everett raised an eyebrow. “Scheduling conflict? You’re usually in and out in ten minutes, tops. How many other pools are you treating that you can’t get back here for eight hours?”
Max flushed, his jaw tensing. He hated it when people assumed that he spent his days pouring chlorine in water and cleaning out filters, though he wasn’t about to point out that the pools at the Flesh mansion were the only ones that got his personal attention these days. Max had helped design the entire six-pool landscape when Caldwell renovated it so the team could practice there, though he doubted Everett knew that. Everett had still been training with the Olympic team when his father had revamped the pools.
Everett surprised him by speaking again before he could respond, rubbing a hand over his face and saying ruefully, “Sorry, that was rude. Yes, it’s fine to come by later. My father is having a party, but that doesn’t start until eleven, so you should be safe coming around nine.”
Max nodded, making a note on his calendar so he wouldn’t forget. Not that it was likely he’d forget an opportunity to possibly see Everett twice in one day.
“Thanks. I have back-to-back appointments up until then, so I really appreciate it. I should have had someone else come take your appointment today, but I thought I could squeeze it in.” Max nearly pinched himself, horrified that he’d rambled so much. He’d just meant to thank Everett and leave.
“That’s a lot of pool maintenance,” Everett said lightly, but his easy grin took the sting out of the earlier unintended slight. Max smiled back. “Your boss shouldn’t work you so hard.”
Max laughed. “You have no idea. My boss is a real slave driver. I haven’t had more than a ten-minute lunch break in about three years.”
He stood, slipping his phone into his pocket. Max was notoriously clumsy, which was a pretty big liability when it came to electronics in his line of work. His last three phones had died a watery death, and even though he’d sprung for a supposedly waterproof casing on this one, he didn’t want to test it out.
Everett was still looking at him when Max saluted him and started to head off, but he was startled into stopping when Everett yelled his name as he came up to the gate.
“Knock on my door when you come tonight, all right? Just come up the central staircase in the pool house. There’s a door at the top.”
“Sure thing, captain!” Max said, touching a finger to his temple in the same spot where the captain’s star was visible on Everett’s swim cap.
Everett rolled his eyes and laughed, pulling his goggles down and heading off to finish his laps. Max indulged himself in another quick ogle, watching as Everett’s lean body cut through the water, his strong arms and shoulders on display. Coming at the beginning of practice apparently had its benefits, too.