The following is the third 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.
After regaling Griff with increasingly absurd tales of duchessing, trading some of her mac and cheese for some of the duck fat pomme frites that accompanied his sandwich, and wishing she could turn back time to a point before she knew how amazing duck fat made French fries so she wouldn’t crave them for the rest of her life, they ended up standing in the street once more.
The sun had shifted from directly overhead while they ate. The buildings now provided shallow puddles of cooling shade. She stopped in one to say goodbye to her accomplice in flamboyance.
He raked a hand through his hair. The dark mass immediately fell back into calculated disarray. “What are your dangerous plans for the rest of the day?”
She ought to brag about skydiving into a hidden grotto and battling pirates for the treasure therein or some equally ridiculous story, but playtime had to end sometime. “More shopping. I’m still lacking a tasteless gift for my mother.”
“I feel responsible.”
“So you should.” She might, eventually, have resigned herself to exorbitantly priced penis had he not finagled it from her hands.
“Let me make amends by assisting in your search. I’ve already made the rounds and can direct you to the finest obscene gifts this port has to offer.”
Now that she was too weighed down with pasta, cheese, and duck fat to give chase, was this where his partner in crime snatched her bag and ran off with her ID, credit card, and gifts? She glanced over her shoulder and groped the tote to make sure it was as full as it had been before lunch.
He watched this display of paranoia with obvious amusement. “Your people’s inherent suspicion is thwarting my efforts to ingratiate myself before asking you to do something unthinkable.”
She knew it. Why did her first handsome stranger have to turn out to be the villain of a Lifetime movie? “I’m not smuggling heroin back to the mainland in my colon.”
People close enough to overhear dodged from her path as she headed back toward the shops she had yet to explore in search of the second most dickish souvenir on the island.
“If only my request was that appealing.”
She stopped short and turned wide eyes upon him. He could do worse? “I’d run away screaming if I hadn’t stuffed myself, but since I already fell prey to that phase of your diabolical scheme, I might as well hear the rest.”
He remained standing where she’d left him, three yards away, well out of reach should his proposition prove worthy of a slap. “What would it take to persuade you to accompany me to a wedding?”
She turned her back on him and kept walking. “You’re right. Being a mule is the lesser of those evils.”
He jogged to catch up and fell into step beside her. “I know how much I’m asking.”
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the burden of being the Wedding Date. As perhaps the sole unknown quantity in attendance, I’ll be the subject of hours of interrogation by the gossips who already know everyone else’s business.”
There were better ways to spend an evening than being asked by strangers why she wasn’t married at her ripe old age and being assessed like diseased livestock to determine if she still had any value on the market. In fact, all ways were better ways.
Her dilemma couldn’t resist butting in. All you have to do is get married, and you’ll never have to answer those questions again.
“That’s nothing compared to the burden of solo attendance,” Griff insisted because society applied no pressure to him to settle down and make babies if he wasn’t so inclined. “I’ve done the reconnaissance. The single women will outnumber me five to one.”
She’d accuse him of flattering himself if she weren’t confident he had experience being swarmed, but saving him from his irresistibility wasn’t her job. “Pick the prettiest one and use her to fend off the rest.”
“If I so much as smile too long at the groom’s sister, I’ll be hearing about how I led her on for the rest of my life.”
She’d tell him to pick the runner up, but no one would believe he’d settle for second best. Likewise, under no circumstances would anyone believe he’d settle for a chunky girl with a bad dye job. “You’ll hear about if you bring a stray to the wedding, too.”
She could hear it now. What bet did you lose to get stuck with her?
She picked up her pace, her only destination the end of this morale-destroying conversation.
Dammit, the Duchess had been floating a couple of minutes ago.
“I’m touched that you’re concerned about my suffering, but I can handle that kind of badgering.”
His big hand closed gently around her wrist. When she jerked, electrified, he released her instantly.
Had it been so long since a man touched her that casual contact jangled her entire nervous system, or was it only this particular man who should worry about her grabbing his hands and placing them at random coordinates on her body to see what effect they had elsewhere?
“You can be a foreign dignitary who speaks no English. I’ll translate for you. You won’t have to answer a single question.” His fingertips brushed her palm, slipping some of his assurance to her like a bribe. “Three months from now, when someone asks what happened to that duchess I was so smitten with, I’ll tell them you used me for purposes I can’t discuss due to an ongoing national security investigation.”
She looked up at him through her lashes. He was casting her as a femme fatale. How could she save him from his irresistibility if proximity to it made her soft in the knees?
“As a result of your treachery, my trust and heart will be too damaged to withstand being set up with any unattached women of their acquaintance.” His eyes focused on a far distant point, somewhere in his loveless future. “Perhaps ever again.”
She was a sucker for an imaginarily wounded soul. “So this ruse will have long-range benefits for you beyond the garter toss?”
That vision of the near future made him shudder. “I’ll also have to be abducted by Dangereusia’s equivalent of the Secret Service before I witness Ezra sticking his head under his wife’s skirt.”
The strap of her tote twisted through her fingers. Wedding guests. Wedding food. Wedding music. Her sacrifice, if she chose to make it, would be great.
Griff bent his head so his breath caressed her ear. “Did I mention I will owe you a debt of indescribable magnitude?”
Her dirty mind stirred from hibernation, scenting mating potential. He smelled good — not cologne, but soap and shampoo, clean, warmed by the sun and the heat of his body. She felt dainty in his tall, broad-shouldered shadow, which was a pleasant change from her typical sense of being an ungainly ox. The chest almost close enough to lean against tapered to narrow hips she could easily wrap her legs around.
Best of all, he didn’t know she was too sensible to have hot, sweaty sex with a stranger who owed her a debt of indescribable magnitude.
She lowered her head with a defeated sigh. Extorting lunch was one thing — extorting sex was a criminal thing.
Moral fiber was such a killjoy.
She stole a wistful look at the face she wouldn’t be kissing as a reward for her suffering. “Find a gift for my mother of equal or greater absurdity than the one yours is getting, and we’ll call it even.”
Pity softened his expression. “That’s not going to be nearly enough compensation for what you’ll have to endure.”
A dress code.
It wasn’t enough for this bride to inflict ugly dresses on her bridesmaids. No-o-o-o. Even the guests had to don a costume and play a part in her control-freak fantasy.
Ivy stared at the reflective wall of a small dressing room in the hotel’s boutique, mesmerized by the prescribed floral-printed sack enveloping her from halter neck to knee. Fashion magazines claimed coral was a universally flattering color on all skin tones. Either they lied, or something other than the predominant shade in the print caused her complexion to look as if she’d drowned two weeks ago.
The fabric had the drape of a shower curtain, made a zipping noise when it rubbed against itself, and gave her the same shape as a bean bag chair.
Only a sadist would force another woman to bare her upper arms. Ivy’s workout rotation included weight training. She was proud of the little groove carved between her biceps and triceps. However, after she lost sixty pounds, no one airbrushed her to disguise the skin that was never going to tighten like shrinkwrap. No matter what exercise she did or what lotion of empty promises she rubbed on herself, she was stuck with floppy bits, such as the backs of her arms, where she was convinced all eyes would land after being repelled by the retina-searing print.
To make matters even worse, because she never wore anything that exposed her arms, she didn’t own a strapless bra, and the boutique didn’t sell one, so her breasts would be hanging loose and low for the evening, getting all sweaty underneath. After only a couple of minutes in her portable sauna, she could feel the heat trapped against her body by the mystery textile, steaming her like a head of cauliflower.
On the bright side, because she’d been wearing a skirt, she did have the spandex shorts required to keep her thighs from rubbing each other raw.
A situation was dire when the bright side was a thigh shaper.
“Need help, Duchess?”
Livinia Dangereuse was known in the society pages for being helped out of her clothing by men in public places. She would make headlines for attending this wedding naked to protest the dress code.
Ivy simply wanted company in her misery. “What are you required to wear?” she called through the door.
“Oh, it’s awful.”
Confirmation of a nondiscriminatory policy slightly diminished her feeling of persecution.
“White shirt, white pants.”
He was lucky her glare didn’t burn a hole through the door and vaporize his black heart. “You poor, poor man.”
“I was warned there would be a surprise at the end of the reception. I’m guessing we’ll be forced into either a Karate Kid reenactment or recruiting new members for a cult.”
Many men would look suited for either role, but when she tried to picture Griff in the specified getup, she saw him lounging on a yacht, cool and casual. “Or, to pay for the wedding, they sold you to the hotel to work as cabana boys.”
“That would explain the orientation manual on my pillow.”
The mirror reflected her dopey grin. This man turned going with the flow into a water park and gave her a day pass to play for free.
Jared would have expressed his disapproval of defaming the newlyweds and the hotel by suggesting they had engaged in unethical behavior and discouraged her from opening herself up to lawsuits.
Her lips lost their curve. She couldn’t dredge the sound of his laugh from the depths of memory and wondered if she had ever heard it. How could she spend the rest of her life with someone she couldn’t even share a joke with?
“Let’s see it, Liv.”
She didn’t want to be seen in this condition by anyone, but maybe Griff would take one look at her and change his mind about the necessity of a wedding date.
She emerged from her dressing room at the same time as a neighboring brunette wearing a bikini. The open fishnet shawl slung around Bikini Girl’s hips for decoration concealed nothing — not that the bronzed goddess had anything to be modest about.
Several seconds passed before Griff took notice of the woman he’d brought to the store. He extended one arm, hand flat, palm down. “Go ahead. Get the wrist slapping over with.”
“What for? I looked, too. Granted, probably not for the same reason.”
He returned his fingers to his front pocket. “Catty, Duchess?”
“Little bit.” Otherwise, she wouldn’t have counted the few butt dimples visible through the net. They obviously didn’t trouble their owner. “Mostly, I’d like to know where she got the guts to walk around practically naked in public.”
He tipped his head toward a display on the wall. “The bikinis are right over there if you want to walk around practically naked.”
She made a sound in the back of her throat. “I lack the nerve, not the four square inches of fabric.”
The dimple tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You impress me as being plenty nervy.”
Just nervy enough to show her arms to strangers she would never see again. She pinched her elbows against her sides for maximum jiggle prevention. “Will this get me in the door?”
Smoky eyes glided from her bare toes to her aggressive hair. “You look good to me. The aura of despair is the perfect accessory for the occasion.” His eyes widened as hers narrowed to slits. “Oh, were you hoping I’d let you off the hook?”
“Of course not. Though I wouldn’t cry all night if you did.” She muttered the last as she fished the price tag out of her clenched armpit to learn how much this monstrosity would set her back.
He reached out and snapped the tag from its plastic stem before she saw the number. “It’s on me.”
“I wish it was, but I don’t think it comes in your size.” She made a grab for the tag.
He held it over his head, where she would never reach it without full arm extension and braless jumping — so that wasn’t happening. “It’s mandatory equipment for the favor I asked of you. It’s only fair that I pay for it.”
Only fair would be the bride getting her head out of her ass and letting guests wear their own damn clothes.
The unseen price would have been calculated with an eye toward gouging tourists. Ivy’s unease about allowing a strange man to buy her overpriced clothing scuffled with her inability to afford to win their second argument about money.
She compromised. “All right, but I’m returning it to you after performing the favor.”
“What am I going to do with it?”
She rasped her nails against the fabric. “Let your mother give it to someone she particularly despises.”
His teeth flashed. “Deal.”
She retreated to the dressing room to escape both the ugly dress and the yearning clawing at the back of her sternum. Why couldn’t she find that kind of rapport with a man in real life?
She wanted to blame the failure on the shortage of Griffin Dunleavys at home, but it probably had more to do with the shortage of Livinias. Even Mr. Friend-to-Everyone would have a hard time relating to someone uptight enough to be renowned for her inoffensiveness. Boring Old Ivy would never do any of the outrageous things she’d done today.
Maybe Jared never laughed with her because she wasn’t fun with him.
“Toss the dress over the door, and I’ll check out while you get dressed.”
She stripped and hurled the dress, hoping it would fly into the slowly churning paddle fan above and be shredded to confetti. It fell short, caught on the top edge of the door, and dropped to the floor on the other side with an audible thud.
There was a moment of silence before Griff asked, “What the hell is it made of?”
“Lead and broken dreams.” She stuck her foot under the door to kick the hateful thing from her sight.
She yanked her foot back when his finger trailed over her arch.
His voice rumbled up from knee level. “What are you wearing right now?”
A few inches of air and a flimsy wicker panel separated her from an irresistible man, and she wore nothing but flesh-toned spandex. The fan spun without cooling her skin. Her nipples tingled and tightened.
She touched the door with the very tips of her fingers. “Mascara.”
He made a throaty sound, and the dress slithered from view. “Reports of your nerve deficiency have been greatly exaggerated.”
She listened to his receding footsteps and exhaled slowly, releasing the erotic charge generated by the friction of fantasy rubbing against reality. That’s all it was — mental masturbation. Her galloping pulse was certainly out of proportion to an innocent touch on her foot.
Once she got her libido under control, it took only a minute to throw on her own clothes and sandals. She hitched the tote over her shoulder and went in search of her partner in pretend.
He hadn’t gone far. Bikini Girl was modeling for him at the counter. She sashayed away at Ivy’s approach. “Was it something I said?”
“She knows she can’t compete with your mascara.” Griff pushed the wad of fabric and the tag across the counter toward the clerk. “Charge it to room 325.”
“Yes, sir.” She took his room key as identification and beamed at him. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your stay more enjoyable.”
He accepted the bag that held his purchase and looked up just in time to intercept Ivy mid eye roll. “What?”
She backed away from the counter. “Someone will be tapping on your door tonight to make your stay more enjoyable.”
“The plaque at the front desk does guarantee the staff is dedicated to providing the ultimate guest experience, at any hour of the day or night.”
The base of her spine softened under his palm as he guided her out of the store — definitely too long since she’d been touched. “So dedicated, an employee from the women’s apparel department will come to your room after her shift ends to see to your needs.”
“You’d think their reviews would be better.”
She bumped him in the side with her elbow. “You’re a bad man.”
“I am.” He grinned down at her, cheerfully unrepentant. “Where to next?”
“I have to spend the next two hours in hair, makeup, and wardrobe.” She relieved him of the boutique bag. “You get to chase bikinis and shop girls until your shift by the pool starts.”
He heaved a sigh. “It’s tough being a man.”
“So I’ve heard.” She patted his chest to console him in his time of hardship — and added a couple of extra pats to console herself. She did have to wear that dress, after all. “Should you happen to come across a horrifying mom gift not in excess of thirty dollars during your adventures, I’ll deduct it from your debt of indescribable magnitude.”
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