28 Aug

Excerpt: Ten Thousand Hours (Part 2)

Ten Thousand HoursThe following is the second excerpt from Ten Thousand Hours © 2016 by Ren Benton.

The excerpts posted here will be part one of the book (Tick), which encompasses the whole one-night stand and is told entirely from Ivy’s point of view because this part is predominantly her story. In part two (Tock — also known as the novel proper), which is about what happens when one night isn’t enough, you’ll hear from Griff, as well.

2

Ivy struck out from the hotel on foot, leaving her friends to their separate pursuits — their only common one being tugging her in opposite directions.

The town was a quarter-mile stroll from the hotel via a narrow road shaded by towering palms and tamarind trees. She stepped off the pavement to clear the way for a taxi delivering more guests to the hotel.

An anole on a nearby branch stuck around to flash his red neck fin at her.

She was flattered to be the object of an interspecies courtship. Then the wind blew her hair over her eyes again and revealed a more likely explanation — the little lizard was posturing, not flirting, made insecure at the sight of a red fin many, many times the size of his.

“Be that way,” she told him. “I have too many men to deal with already.”

The anole darted deeper into the cover of the leaves.

Ivy continued walking, the better to aid in the digestion of the food for thought she’d just served herself. How pathetic was it that she considered one man too many to deal with?

Nearly as pathetic as the flash of a neck fin being the most romantic gesture a guy had ever made toward her.

She accepted her share of the blame for the lack of romance in her life. Her practicality nullified the value of the standard gestures. She hadn’t worn jewelry since learning the hard way that an earlobe relinquished an earring much more readily than a baby’s fist. She preferred plants with roots to cut flowers that shriveled and died within a few days. Given her struggles with her weight, she didn’t want a box of chocolates.

Okay, she wanted the chocolate, but not the shame and self-recrimination included in every box at no extra charge.

But there were plenty of possibilities apart from the stereotypical diamonds-roses-candy portrayal that fit conveniently within every thirty-second commercial that aired around Valentine’s Day. Either the men she dated were too unimaginative to think outside the heart-shaped box, or they used her practicality as an excuse to eliminate frivolous gestures altogether.

The pattern culminated in her one and only marriage proposal being based on Jared’s need for a wife to advance to the next stage of his career and her suitability for the position because she was inoffensive.

It had to be the first time the word inoffensive had been employed to seduce a woman into marriage. For the sake of women everywhere, she hoped it didn’t catch on. If sensible meant choosing to be boring, inoffensive meant too lacking in passion to be anything but.

She had plenty of passion, but she spent so much time compensating for her sister’s excesses, being a stable influence on the kids, and sucking up to clients, everyone who came into her life saw only sensible, responsible, inoffensive Ivy. When she found a rare private moment outside her service to others to express herself, men accustomed to her public face felt deceived.

I expected better from you, Ivy. This side of you makes me uncomfortable. Please go back to being boring.

So she packed away her passion like a winter coat she would have no use for anytime soon.

She came around a bend in the road and spotted an explosion of red that put her hair to shame. Their cab driver had called the marker at the edge of town a flamboyant tree. Its mantle of bright red flowers obscured a background of feathery leaves.

As Ivy passed beneath the branches, she touched a hand to the trunk and wished for some of that flamboyance to rub off on her for just one day.

~~

The street she traveled cut through the market square, which had a carnival atmosphere. Merchants manned rows of stalls, hawking generically tropical kitsch made in China to tourists obliged to run the gauntlet to reach the hotel.

Ivy avoided eye contact with the vendors and wove around shoppers and strategically placed obstacles without slowing. The day before, Jen haggled five bucks of junk down to fifty dollars here. To stretch her budget, Ivy counted on better value for her money in shops that didn’t vanish at the end of the day.

In a pirate-themed shop owned by a diver and self-proclaimed treasure hunter, she purchased a gold doubloon for her oldest nephew. The low price seemed unlikely for genuine gold with historical value, but the real gift for Blake would be fact checking the story on the card that came with the coin and figuring out how to validate the gold. Real or not, discovering the truth would be a triumph for him.

Heather wanted her own Bag of Infinite Holding, though she couldn’t lift Ivy’s off the floor. Another shop had a tote sized proportionately for a seven-year-old, hand painted by the proprietor with bright hibiscus blossoms. On her way to the cash register, Ivy spotted a perpetual motion toy with dolphins jumping through waves. It was inappropriate for a child of four, but Lily loved dolphins and was gentle with everything she touched, so Ivy took that, too.

Baby Cole thus far remained untainted by materialistic vice, and her dad scowled when she spent money on him, so shopping for them wasn’t on the agenda. Cole would be overjoyed crumpling his siblings’ wrapping paper, and the biggest chunk of pie or cake ensured Dad felt no neglect when gifts were dispensed to the rest of his family.

That left Holly and Mom.

Ivy used to agonize over shopping for her sister. One Christmas, she scoured the internet for the precise make, model, and color of MP3 player Holly bemoaned being unable to locate. She drove across state lines and bought it from a guy whose store was the back of his rusted-out van, which might also have been his residence.

Holly’s reaction upon opening it? They’re coming out with the new version in March.

Ivy had an epiphany as she watched her foray into black market electronics being cast aside like a crushed bow: no gift from her would ever satisfy Holly. Her response to a flawless diamond the size of her fist would be identical to her response to a ring Ivy got out of a gumball machine for a quarter.

Her goal shifted from the impossible one of pleasing Holly to merely preventing Holly from complaining she’d been left out. Shopping subsequently became much easier. Any bit of junk would do.

She found a sea glass necklace that would play beautifully off her sister’s green eyes, accepted the inevitability that Holly would hate everything about it — including that it wasn’t valuable enough to pawn — and moved on to the challenge of adding to her mother’s special collection.

Tucked in an alley near the café where they’d eaten dinner the night before, a gilded sign overhead promised objets d’art within. A bell tinkled as Ivy stepped through the door. A young woman wearing a name tag as glittery as the store’s sign smiled in greeting without interrupting her discussion with another customer.

Ivy was content to browse on her own. Asking for help finding the sort of item she sought was likely to get her tossed back into the alley.

She explored the perimeter of the store, admiring hand-dyed silk scarves, gourds transformed into lacquered bowls and vases, netsuke-like miniatures carved from avocado pits, and a stunning necklace dripping with multiple strands of creamy baroque pearls. She was tempted to finish all her gift shopping for the rest of the year here and splurge on something for herself, but the inventory was too refined to suit her immediate needs.

The bell over the door tinkled as another shopper entered.

She turned toward the sound to guide her to the exit — and then she saw it.

On a shelf of honor at the center of the store rested a sixteen-inch curved rod of worm-riddled mangrove root with a bulbous prominence at one end.

Perfect.

She heeded a placard that encouraged handling the merchandise and lifted the sculpture from its resting place to search for a price tag.

“Is there any chance you’d put that back on the shelf and walk away?”

She turned to face her questioner. The tilt of her head required to meet his smoke-gray eyes indicated his height topped six feet by an inch or two. The same wind that snarled her hair had affectionately tousled his raven locks. A rueful smile carved the suggestion of a dimple in one tanned cheek.

Tall: check. Dark: check. Handsome: check plus.

The odds of most women complying with any request he made were high, particularly when voiced in that low, intimate tone, but he underestimated the stakes of her acquisition of phallic bric-a-brac. “Do you work here?”

“I wouldn’t for long if I discouraged purchases. I saw it yesterday and planned to come back for it if I couldn’t find anything more obscene.”

“I take it your search was unsuccessful.”

“Alas, I was unable to locate anything in excess of two feet.”

Confirming there were no better options was the wrong tactic to persuade her to relinquish the prize, but her continued possession didn’t stop him from staring at it.

A downward glance explained the intensity of his interest. She gripped the wood near the base with one hand while the other absently stroked the satiny polished surface. Mortified, she dropped her stroking hand.

Unsupported, the heavy shaft fell between her breasts.

His eyes crinkled at the outer corners.

Prickly heat sped up her neck.

He took pity on her. “If it makes you feel better, when I picked it up, I had an overpowering urge to find out if it could be played like a flute.”

Now that he mentioned it, the hole placement did suggest irresistible whistling properties. She whispered, “Oh, dammit.”

“I dare you to do it.”

What’ll you give me if I do?

Her heart thudded against her chest in protest of the idea of flirting with a man astronomically out of her reach. Accidental embarrassment was difficult enough to recover from. Deliberately making a fool of herself would haunt her for the rest of her life.

She ignored his dare like a sensible adult but challenged herself to see how long she could hold his attention — in honor of her deal with the flamboyant tree. “Do you suppose it came out of the water this way or received help measuring up to its potential?”

“I asked the artist last time I was here.” He inclined his head toward the woman laboring over a sale to the high-maintenance customer. “She didn’t seem to grasp to what potential I referred.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I doubt she would grasp that, either.”

Ivy compressed her lips to stifle a snicker.

His attention settled on her lips for a moment before returning to her eyes. “I suppose there’s a minuscule chance someone in this world is that pure-minded, but I’d guess her inscrutable poker face enabled her to retire from the gambling circuit at an early age, buy a private island, and amuse herself selling pornographic knickknacks to tourists looking for something pretty to take home to Aunt Mabel.”

She took offense on the owner’s behalf. “This is a respectable establishment. There’s nothing else pornographic here.”

“Really?” One dark brow edged upward at her hopeless naiveté as he swept a palm toward a bowl displayed on the table behind her.

A glistening flower had been painted on the interior surface of the bowl. “There’s an inherent female sexual quality to flowers. You can’t blame that on lewd intent.”

“I forgot the view is different from a woman’s perspective.” He reached beyond her, his arm so close she felt his warmth against her skin, and rotated the bowl one hundred eighty degrees on its stand.

From the new angle, the act captured midpenetration was clear. Her mother would melt a credit card in this place. “This woman is a genius. I wonder if she has an online store.”

She flipped the sculpture over to check the flat end for more information. The sticker there told only the price, and when she saw that, she nearly threw the thing at her rival.

For a hundred and twenty bucks, penis ought to come with prime rib and a concert.

Before she could concede, her stomach gave an audible gurgle. Dangerously low blood sugar would explain the reckless words that tumbled from her lips. “I’ll let you have it if you buy me lunch.”

She had no bargaining position. If he declined, she couldn’t spend that much money to restore a shred of her lost dignity. All he had to do was wait for her to slink away in disgrace.

“Deal.”

He must be desperate for reasons she couldn’t begin to fathom to agree without any attempt to negotiate. She handed over the loot. “Congratulations?”

His mouth pulled to one side as he took it into his hands. “Thank you?”

For him, the shopkeeper abandoned the customer she’d been doting on when Ivy entered the store. She wrapped the hunk of wood as if it were made of blown glass, keeping up a steady stream of chitchat throughout the procedure.

Ivy was sure her fawning had looked as painfully obvious to any observers, but at least she was getting lunch out of it.

The shopkeeper wrote something on the receipt — probably her phone number — and released him until they met again.

He joined Ivy at the door and noted her struggle to contain her amusement. “What?”

“Not a thing.” Being hit on twice within five minutes was such a mundane occurrence to him, he thought nothing of it. She held open the door for him in deference to his precious cargo. “Shall we?”

He stepped into the alley. “For the record, this isn’t for me.”

“Of course it isn’t.”

“It’s for my mother.”

“For the record, that may not be an appropriate thing to give to your mother.”

“And who were you going to give it to?”

She inclined her head to let that jab sail past. “I withdraw my objection.”

The street offered less protection from the midday sun than the narrow alley. Ivy paused to retrieve sunglasses from her bag.

Her date volunteered, “My mother collects inappropriate items to give her enemies on special occasions.”

Ivy’s mother displayed them in a curio cabinet in the dining room, but she liked his mom’s style. “I’m stealing that idea for the next gift exchange at work when I’m not thrilled with the name I draw.”

The ladies at the shop got along well, in general, but occasionally someone butted into an appointment without being asked and stole half a commission, resulting in petty vendettas a driftwood dildo might go a long way toward avenging.

He fell behind, and she looked over her shoulder to find him holding open the door to a restaurant.

“By ‘lunch,’ I meant a sandwich.” She pointed her thumb toward a stall near the market square.

He didn’t spare that venue a passing glance. “I don’t even eat street food at home, where I can see the certificate from the health inspector.”

Coward. Ivy could recite the menu of every food cart within a mile of her job. “I like to live dangerously.”

His eyes crinkled again, shielding his vision from either the glaring sun or her glaring lie. “Do you have a name, dangerous lady?”

He was a stranger. She was a woman, alone, far from home. The physical threat to her well-being was low in a public place, but the risk remained of a mailbox full of brand new, maxed out credit cards if she volunteered too much identifying information.

Sensible might be boring, but it was also often smart.

She raised her chin a defiant degree and lied even more extravagantly. “Livinia Dangereuse.”

The lift of his lips increased correspondingly. “May I call you Liv?”

She liked the ring of it, as a directive if not a name. “You may. And you are?”

“Griffin Dunleavy, at your service.”

Fair enough. They would both use farfetched fictitious names like a couple of conspiracy theorists.

“Liv, after you’ve employed a phallic object to extort a meal from a strange man, you can safeguard your gastric health without damaging your daredevil status.” When that assurance failed to lure her into the restaurant, he added, “If your heart is set on a sandwich, I’m sure you can cram meat into bread here.”

She had a deadline to make a decision about her future. Before her stood a reminder of what an ordeal meeting and dating new men could be.

For the sake of research, she accepted his invitation.

~~

Ivy knew all the dieting guidelines for eating out. Low-fat protein, grilled or baked. Steamed vegetables. Minimal starch. Above all, never eat the whole jumbo portion.

But for now, she wasn’t Ivy. She was Livinia Dangereuse, blackmailer of attractive strangers, who never allowed boring old consequences to interfere with her enjoyment of the moment.

This moment called for the most decadent thing on the menu. So her companion wouldn’t feel neglected during her quest for the maximum oral satisfaction permissible in a public setting, she inquired, “What brings you to the island, Mr. Dunleavy?”

“Griff,” he corrected. “I’m here for a friend’s wedding.”

A fellow victim of the inescapable specter of matrimony. That explained her sense of kinship better than their mothers’ perverse taste in knickknacks. “Shouldn’t you be consoling him?”

Too late, she remembered openly admitting disdain for the proceedings just wasn’t done. “I mean, helping him celebrate this joyous occasion.”

She peeked over the top of her menu to assess whether he’d noticed her lapse. He leaned against the back of his chair. One arm stretched forward so his hand rested on the table. His fingers were long and callused, and a pale scar slashed across the second knuckle of the one flicking at the edge of his menu. She wasn’t sure he’d even looked at it. Was he waiting for her to order so he could throw money on the table, fulfill his end of the bargain, and then flee the wedding-hating clown? “Do you know what you want?”

His gaze didn’t waver from hers. “Yes.”

A clear path to the exit, probably. Oh, well. As long as he didn’t stick her with the check, she couldn’t call him a cheater.

A different waiter passed by the table carrying a white dish with cheese dripping and browned on the sides. Ivy turned in her chair to watch it pass. “What is that?”

“Probably the mac and cheese.”

She raked her menu with accusing eyes. “How did I miss that?”

“You didn’t look at the appetizer menu.”

Of course not. Appetizers and desserts were never sensible nutritional decisions.

Their waiter returned, and Ivy snapped her menu shut. “I’ll have the mac and cheese.”

“And for your entrée?”

At her house, the dish that had paraded past would feed four kids after she’d sampled a dozen spoonfuls to test for seasoning she’d gotten right the first time. “Just that, please.”

Griff ordered the sandwich she would have settled for before temptation beckoned. After the waiter’s departure, he picked up the conversational thread she’d cast off to follow strings of bubbling cheese. “We’re friendly enough that I warrant an invitation, but not so friendly I’m obliged to aid or hinder his escape if he decides to bolt.”

So she wasn’t the only one who expected one half of every happy couple to succumb to cold feet, change of heart, or vented spleen before completing the deed. “Do you think he will?”

“I don’t have that kind of insight into the inner workings of Ezra’s mind, but it would give me a better story to tell than ‘I went to another wedding.’”

She gasped in mock outrage. “The happy couple spent months and thousands of dollars orchestrating a memorable experience for you.”

“Unless ninjas drop from the rafters in the middle of the ceremony, it will be indistinguishable from the last hundred weddings I’ve attended.”

The poor man had her beat several times over, if he wasn’t exaggerating. “That’s a lot of weddings.”

“I’m everybody’s friend.”

He hadn’t turned on the charm for her, after all — his default setting was let’s hang out. She was enjoying airing her matrimonial grievances too much to mind that she wasn’t special enough to be an exception to his paralyzing introversion. “What I remember most clearly about each wedding is the degree of awfulness of the food.”

He nodded as if that were perfectly sane. “The best I ever had was takeout pizza.”

Even the worst pizza beat rubbery chicken. “I always thought the ultimate reception venue would be a sports bar. The theme is prefab, nobody has to dance, and anything breaded and deep fried tastes good.”

Jared would never agree to that, of course. He would have to impress his business associates with something elegant. Therefore, if she married him, she would have to sacrifice her childish preference in the name of being sensible.

“If I had a basket of breaded and deep fried anything to look forward to, I would try harder to stay awake during the ceremony.”

She could easily envision Griff feeding his new wife the first bite of the ceremonial nuptial nachos with those big, rough hands. “You should remain vigilant for the ever-present threat of ninjas. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

The smile that never quite left his lips grew. “Who are you?”

They had met outside the context of her everyday life. He had no idea she was sensible, responsible, inoffensive.

Boring.

She would never see this man again. She could pretend to be anything she wanted and not be tripped up by the lie.

She wanted to be anything but boring. “I’m the duchess of a small central European nation.”

His lips twitched. “Which one?”

“Dangereusia.”

He nodded once. “I’ve seen it on the news. It sounds like a treacherous place.”

In her mind, her homeland took the shape of Westeros. “Few survive from one season to the next, but for those who do, the lifestyle builds character and quick reflexes.”

He leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “You’re really not going to tell me anything, are you?”

She mimicked his posture, lowering her voice as if to confide a deep, dark secret. “I bore myself. I didn’t travel a vast, unspecified distance to this tropical paradise to be bored.”

In twenty-nine years, he was the first handsome stranger to give her more than a moment’s notice. The odds of finding a second before the end of the day were vanishingly small. Her one shot of escaping the prison of others’ expectations depended on his cooperation.

Please play along.

“I came expecting to be bored.”

His words stabbed a hole into the balloon holding her spirits aloft.

“You, Duchess, are the first serious setback.”

And those words breathed into the hole to fill her back up and send her soaring. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

All she had to do to hear it was be someone else.


Continue to Part 3.

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