11 Sep

Excerpt: Ten Thousand Hours (Part 4)

Ten Thousand HoursThe following is the fourth 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.

4

“You can’t go on a date with some stranger.”

Closing the bathroom door in Jen’s face would be impolite when it was her curling iron forcing style into the wedding coiffure, so Ivy merely repeated herself. “I’m not leaving the hotel grounds. I promise I won’t be the dumb tourist on the news.”

“I don’t care about that. You can’t cheat on Jared!”

Ivy pulled the iron down, releasing a springy ringlet. “First of all, consider yourself disinvited from my funeral in the event I am murdered.”

“You know what I meant.”

She carefully wound another strand of hair around the hot barrel. “Second of all, even if I had wild monkey sex with this or any other guy, I would not be cheating on Jared because Jared and I broke up three years ago. An out-of-nowhere marriage proposal does not make us a couple.”

“If you have wild monkey sex,” Camille piped up from her repose on the bed, “I want details. Size, shape, orientation, endurance, positions…”

“Will you stop?” Jen snapped over her shoulder. She returned her scowl to her original target. “You can’t just pick up strange men.”

“People do it all the time.” Ivy used her fingers to break the ruby spirals into loose waves. She decided to leave her hair down. In the event she somehow got wet, a wash of red dye could only improve the dress.

Her work done, she unplugged the iron. “In fact, I seem to remember you picking up a stranger in a bar while both of you were drunk.”

“That’s different. I married him.”

Camille hooted. “And she knew at the time that would be the outcome because the spirits told her he was The One.”

With the exception of embarking on a romance with a friend or coworker, relationships began by meeting strangers. Ivy generally relied on introduction by mutual acquaintance because a trusted friend vouching for a stranger increased her confidence that he wasn’t a serial killer and reduced the risk of rejection because he’d been primed to expect a great gal, but because she’d taken a sensible approach to dating in the past, she was excluded from the picking-up-strangers club?

Screw that. The Duchess of Dangereusia crashed any club she wanted to dance in.

She could get through the door tonight. Jen and Camille confirmed the dress was hideous, but she looked okay from the neck up. Her makeup was subtle yet flawless, her hair shiny as a freshly waxed fire truck. Even with lax arms, she had a fair shot at seducing a stranger desperate for an excuse to leave a boring event.

If she wanted to bait Griffin Dunleavy with the promise of escape and be the tunnel he had to squeeze through to attain freedom, she’d damn well do it.

A knock on the door silenced the ongoing bickering between Jen and Camille.

Ivy eased past the obstruction standing in the doorway. “Excuse me. I have a stranger to molest.”

When she opened the door of the room, a striped paper bag suspended at eye level greeted her. “Your horrifying maternal gift, your grace.”

She took the bag from Griff’s fingers and looked inside. “Does this mushroom have a face?”

“With quite a smug expression.” He leaned his shoulder against the doorjamb. In all white, he did indeed look in need of a yacht. “Can’t be related to his stature, so it must have something to do with the size of the moss-covered boulders he’s sitting on, which appear to be plagued by crabs.”

A delighted laugh spilled from her lips. “You chose the root over this? Sucker.”

“I’m not falling for the ‘duck season, wabbit season’ maneuver.”

“Neither am I, Bugs. This bad boy is mine now.” At her exposure of his transparent attempt to double wabbit her, he cursed under his breath, which summoned her dopey grin back for an encore. “Give me a second to grab my purse.”

While she exchanged the gift bag for the wristlet she kept inside the tote she kept inside the Bag of Infinite Holding, he propped the door open with his foot and wiggled his fingers at the pair of heads peeping at him around the wall dividing the bathroom from the beds. “Hello, ladies.”

Camille hummed deep in her throat. “Forget details. I want video.”

Ivy ignored her and nudged his foot away from the door. “Goodbye, ladies.”

“Have her home by dawn, young man!” Camille called as the door closed.

Griff’s gaze slanted from the closed portal to Ivy. “Video of what?”

“Nothing. You know how the paparazzi hound royalty.” She unzipped the pocket of her clutch and held up the thirty dollars she owed him for the gift.

“If I suggested paying for the little guy fell under the heading of my indescribably enormous debt, would you insist I take him back at the end of the night?”

“Yes.” The crab-infested mush-peen did not fall under the heading of mandatory equipment to perform his favor, and he had only agreed to find it for her, so it wasn’t fair that he should pay for it.

“That’s what I thought.” He took the money and tucked it in his pocket. “Would you want to know if I went over the thirty-dollar budget?”

“Absolutely not.” She’d given him a budget for a reason — exceeding it was his problem. “Are you always this irresponsible with money?”

“Of course not.” He linked their fingers as they walked toward the elevator. “My fiscal irresponsibility takes many forms. For example, room service brought me cold eggs this morning, and rather than waste time sending the whole plate back to the kitchen, I set a stack of money on fire and reheated them myself.”

This time, her shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and weak extremities weren’t symptoms of sexual deprivation. She did not joke about money. Ever. She didn’t have the bank balance to afford that kind of luxury. “We have to break up.”

“Aw, baby, no.” He raised the back of her hand to lips that promised to make staying worth her while. “I can change.”

Electricity zinged up her arm and into her breasts so intensely, she was surprised the front of her dress didn’t light up like headlights beaming through ugly curtains.

In the name of self-preservation, she extracted her hand from his grasp to push the elevator call button. “I’ll go through with the wedding because I’m not a welcher, but what you overspent is on you.”

“I’d have it all on me if you’d let me, Duchess.”

He stepped into the elevator behind her, and she had a sudden wild thought that it was as wide as a queen-size mattress. He would take up the same amount of space in bed, more than his share with his broad shoulders and long arms and loose-limbed sprawl, so she’d have no choice but to fit herself into his angles and cling to claim any space for herself.

One of those arms stretched past her to push the button for the lobby. “You’re going to earn every bit of it, and then some.”

~~~

“Have I mentioned we’re breaking up?”

“That’s the best-case scenario,” the man seated beside her whispered. “At the risk of giving you ideas, I’ll be lucky if you don’t murder me before the night is over.”

“You’ll be lucky if I do. At least you’d get to leave.”

She’d get to leave, too. In handcuffs, but still.

He noticed her sidelong contemplation of his vulnerabilities and covered the program in her lap with his hand. “Maybe you shouldn’t read any more.”

She flicked his knuckles until he shot her a wounded look and took his hand into protective custody. “I’m reading. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.”

The bride was nearly an hour late for the appointed time, providing ample opportunity to peruse the six-page program printed on bright white, heavy-gauge card stock, which boasted all the ways in which the wedding was green.

“What are these things?” Griff shook the paper cone each guest had been presented with upon arrival. A dry rattle came from within.

“If you had read your program,” she said in her best teacher’s pet tone, “you would know it’s biodegradable confetti embedded with wildflower seeds to throw in the happy couple’s faces because rice kills birds.”

“Do you suppose the wildflowers are indigenous to the island?”

“Like I suppose seventy-six people flying to this shindig was beneficial to the environment.”

“The wedding planner’s slogan must be Show the power of your love by destroying an ecosystem.”

And her business plan was Sell every dope every ritual. The ceremony alone was going to have the running time of a movie featuring Hobbits — if the bride ever showed up. “What were the invitations like?”

“Everything but an endangered owl in a box, flown across the country express and driven to my house on a gas-guzzling truck,” he confirmed her suspicions, “but I was encouraged to RSVP by email.”

“Oh. Well. There you go.”

Eco-chic brides were a special favorite of Ivy’s. Some token gesture — such as biodegradable confetti — added a trendy touch of social conscience to the typical exuberant display of waste. Single-use dresses for the bride and bridesmaids — and, in this case, the guests. A commercial bouquet of roses soaked in preservatives, pesticides, and fertilizer, shipped via fossil-fuel furnace from the supplier. A gift registry that generated its own landfill full of boxes, polystyrene, plastic, and bubble wrap, also shipped.

But they called it green because emailed RSVPs were encouraged.

Couples who paid more than lip service to decreasing the impact of their event put on clothes already in their closets, rode bicycles to the courthouse, and skipped this whole circus.

He perched the cone point up, like a party hat, on his knee. “You just don’t love the environment like Ezra and Courtney do.”

Why did that name set off a warning bell? “If everyone loved the environment like Ezra and Courtney do, we’d be having this discussion on a garbage barge overrun with invasive plants while hurtling into the sun.”

“If only we could get out of this that easily.”

Her laugh got buried under the booming opening chords of the music they’d all been waiting for. The guests turned as one to witness the entrance of the star of the show.

Ivy would have steered her away from that dress, if for no other reason than the heavy satin ballgown was better suited to a cathedral than a beach, but she didn’t blame the consultant. Some brides refused to be diverted from their dream dress, carb-free French toast, and gallon of mimosas.

There would be hell to pay if someone didn’t shut down the wind before it disarranged the bride’s hair.

Ivy turned to face the altar. Of all the weddings, on all the islands, in all the world, she walked into Tyrannosaurus bride’s.

Griff bent his head over her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

She turned her face toward his. His lips were, at most, two inches from hers, close enough to induce a prickle of awareness. Lips didn’t belong in such intimate proximity if they weren’t going to kiss.

The little pinch between his brows indicated he’d noticed her change from companionable griping to genuine discomfort. This stranger couldn’t be that attuned to her moods. People who’d known her for years believed she didn’t have moods. Maybe reading body language was part of his job. In psychiatry. Or law enforcement.

Either way, it might be a good idea to stop joking about murder. She whispered, “I’ll tell you later.”

The bride completed her walk down the aisle. The officiant made much ado about how the bride and groom melted down their grandparents’ wedding bands to make the rings they would exchange today.

Griff muttered, “How much nonrenewable energy do you suppose was wasted destroying perfectly good jewelry?”

“I’m sure there will be a clip about it in the movie.”

“You’re kidding.” He snatched the program from her lap and flipped the pages looking for proof of her joke.

Sadly, he would find none. The film took up forty minutes of the program. No mention was made of popcorn. “Shh. The vows are my favorite part.”

Particularly after the officiant stated the couple wrote their own.

She leaned her head against Griff’s shoulder to see around the videographer blocking the aisle.

The groom began his speech.

Ivy closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.

Griff spoke against her hair. “Too corny for you?”

The groom read the second couplet from the iPad in his hands. “I vow to treasure your aspirations—”

“For through them your heart shines,” she said in tandem.

“I vow to be your partner in every way—”

“Working with you as my equal, not my possession.”

Griff lowered his chin, trying to see from her angle. “Is your vision that sharp?”

“This is the fourth time I’ve heard these unique words written from the heart. They must be the first search result for ‘personalized wedding vows.’”

Griff’s arm settled around her, warm and heavy, shifting her into position for a better view of the unmitigated gall and giving her other ear the benefit of his murmur. “This is much more fun with a date who shares my cynicism.”

She had to agree. “It’s a shame I have to dump you when it’s over.”

“It’s a shame he’s still talking.”

Her yelp of laughter was faster than the hand she clapped over her mouth.

An elderly woman seated in front of them turned in her chair to investigate the disturbance.

Griff rubbed Ivy’s arm as if comforting a woman overcome with sentiment. “Beautiful ceremony, isn’t it?”

The woman’s nose wrinkled. “I give ’em six months.” Prediction delivered, she faced forward again.

Griff pointed at the back of her silver head. “I found my date to the next wedding.”

Ivy gripped his thigh and squeezed to silence further attempts at provoking another outburst.

“I declare this man and this woman united in matrimony. You may now kiss one another.”

The newlyweds exercised their privilege in front of an audience of friends and family and at least one total stranger by eating each other’s tonsils. A round of polite applause celebrated the end of that awkward two minutes.

Then, because the script included too many cutesie tricks to perform in any coherent order, the audience was treated to a montage of candle lighting, sand pouring, glass stomping, butterfly releasing, and broom jumping before the happy couple made their exit in a hail of habitat destruction.

The chattering guests drifted in a loose herd toward the reception site.

Griff dropped their confetti cones, still full, in a trash can located along the path. “Only twelve more hours to go.”

“Adjusting for the delayed start time, the program threatens only four more hours.”

Though it promised to feel like twelve.

“I stopped trusting the program while marking the passage of time by the spread of Ezra’s pit sweat.” He offered his hand to help her up the steps to the deck where the reception was taking place. Neither of them made any effort to disengage while they looked for their table. “Regardless, I was told I could keep you until dawn.”

What would you do with me all night?

She pressed her lips together, stifling another impulse to ruin their fun with her clumsy flirting. Telling herself she had just as much right to seduce him as anyone else and executing the seduction in real life were two entirely different matters. She lacked the confidence of the porn peddler, Bikini Girl, and the boutique clerk to win a positive response.

If she was going to embarrass herself, she’d rather postpone the awkward goodbyes until she got a few more dimples and sizzling touches out of him.

Her longevity would be impaired by today’s predawn wake-up, though. Early to rise, early to bed — such was the life of a sensible, responsible, inoffensive woman. “I’ll give you until ten, and then you’re on your own with predatory bridesmaids.”

“What would it take to make my date predatory?” His hand on her waist prevented her from stumbling into a flock of cawing bridesmaids flapping across their path. “To lend authenticity to the ruse, of course.”

Of course. Flirtation came so naturally to him, he probably had to retract half the words he uttered to women to avoid unintended entanglements. “If we’re about to sit down to the typical reception dinner, I’ll be gnawing your femur within the hour.”

He pulled out a chair for her, undaunted by the threat of cannibalism. “I have never so eagerly anticipated undercooked chicken.”

~~~

Griff tapped a roll with his butter knife. “I could strike two of these rolls together and get a fire going if you’d let me burn money.”

His cold, underseasoned prime rib was still twitching and hemorrhaging on his plate. In lieu of cooking it over a cash bonfire, Ivy shared half of her cold, underseasoned, overcooked salmon, which the environmentally conscious couple had chosen rather than any variety of fish caught by local fishermen. “How are the potatoes?”

“Unidentifiable as such.” He pointed his fork at her. “When do we start eating each other?”

In her imagination, shortly after she’d licked him all over to determine the tenderest place to bite. “Look at it as more room for cake.”

A woman across the table from them raised her voice to be heard over the music. “Oh, Courtney went sugar-free a month ago to prepare for the wedding. She won’t ruin the day with cake.”

Now that she’d captured Griff’s attention, the woman flicked her tongue at her upper lip and winked.

Ivy had been under the impression the lip licker belonged with the man seated to her left — primarily because he had introduced her as his wife. Apparently, the five single women weren’t the only threat to Griff’s virtue.

Not that Ivy made a very effective shield. She could have told him other women would see her as an easily defeated rival, not a deterrent. She’d be swatted aside to establish rank in the female pecking order, and the victor would devour Griff in front of her as a display of dominance.

He rested his arm along the back of her chair and coiled one of her curls around his finger. “Honey, can you explain how sugar deprivation is preparation for a wedding?”

Many a bride ordered her dress too small as motivation to lose a few pounds, waited until the last minute to initiate any lifestyle changes that would result in weight loss, and then went on a crash diet that made her and everyone around her crazy — but only someone with insider knowledge would know how common that procedure was, and the duchess had nothing to do with brides and their mass nuttiness. “I have no idea, but if the end result is no cake, cupcakes, doughnuts, waffles, pie, ice cream, candy, chocolate fountain, or anything else that makes a wedding worthwhile, I’m out of here.”

He stood as she did and took her hand to arrest her flight. “You’re not a welcher.”

“The wedding I agreed to attend is over.” She stepped around him and headed for the nearest gap in the fairy lights caging the deck.

He caught up with her in two long strides. “You subsequently agreed to be mine until ten.”

She whined — just a little, probably not loud enough to be heard outside her own head. Moral fiber was a poor substitute for cake. “Next time a man invites me to be his shield, I’ll know not to agree without a written guarantee about the cake situation.”

“Cake guarantees aren’t legally binding. You can only specify a clause for the provision of supplemental cake in the event of a reception failure.”

She pressed against his arm to avoid collision with a groomsman staggering toward the dance floor. “Have you run this scam often enough to master its rules, or are you a lawyer specializing in cake fraud?”

“The legal term is torte law.”

Her squeak of helpless laughter was drowned out by the DJ’s announcement that it was Gangnam Time. She raised her voice to be heard over the hoots of the guests who had found the liquor. “Whereas this is torte-ure.”

He scowled with mock severity. “If you’re going to one-up my terrible puns, this relationship is over.”

This man had never experienced a mutually painless breakup. He inspired too many feelings to undergo civilized partings. Tears would be shed, curses shouted, tires slashed. There would, of course, be pathetic pleas not to go on his lover’s part.

“Aw, baby, no.” She clung to his arm and rolled out her lower lip. “I can change.”

“Now, that would work on me.” He peered at her with gentle accusation stitching his brows together. “Is the secret those big brown eyes, or am I just more softhearted than you are?”

Jared’s proposal made her wonder if she had a heart at all. On paper, he seemed damn near perfect — she’d compiled a bulleted list of his positive attributes as evidence. Her lack of feeling was no fault of his. Only a defect on her part could explain a multitude of positives and no negatives registering as zero on her emotional scale.

Griff volunteered his hand again to help her descend the deck’s stairs. A bougainvillea-covered trellis offered sanctuary from the noise and lights of the party. The path was wide and otherwise unoccupied, but Ivy stuck close, her breast pressed to the back of Griff’s arm, her thigh rubbing against their joined hands with every step. He voiced no objection to the unnecessary contact.

Jared liked his personal space, and Ivy gave it to him, but she liked touching and being touched. She could live without for prolonged periods of time, but could she live the rest of her life with a man who considered her physical presence so intrusive, he wore pajamas to prevent skin-to-skin contact while he slept and woke her if she snuggled against him to exile her to her own side of the bed?

Jared would never leave her, but he would never truly be there for her, either, in ways she needed.

“If you’re debating the wisdom of arming me with your seduction secrets, I promise to use the knowledge only for good.”

Griff would leave, quickly, but every moment he stayed, his presence would be felt. The impression he made would linger even in his absence, etched in memory.

Her thumb stroked the back of his finger — the one with the scarred knuckle, she thought. His big, roughened hands would surely be missed, too. “The difference is, you believe a woman would want you to stay because she couldn’t live without you.”

“And you believe what?”

“That you’d say anything to ensure I provide the promised service because you’d be inconvenienced if I opted out.”

The arm to which she was attached stopped moving, halting her with it. A hand cupping the side of her neck turned her so their bodies aligned, separated by the width of their clasped hands. She stared at his shadowed face, breathless, waiting.

Lips really didn’t belong in such intimate proximity if they weren’t going to kiss.

“Before I walked into that gift shop, I had every intention of coming to this wedding alone.” His thumb rubbed the underside of her jaw, a spot she’d never known was so sensitive. “I didn’t ask because I needed you. I asked because I wanted you. Anyone who makes you feel like no more than a convenience is an ass.”

She was the convenient babysitter, convenient come-early-stay-late employee, convenient prospective wife. People in her life thought of her as such because she consistently played the part, cultivating their need because they wouldn’t want her otherwise.

Until Griff pointed out the difference, she’d been able to pretend being useful and being wanted were the same.

She disguised the catch in her breath with a weak laugh. “You’re a quick study. That would work.”

“I’ll add it to my repertoire.” He lowered his hand, brushing her bare shoulder. Heat penetrated deep into her skin and smoldered after the contact ended.

He removed his mouth from kissing range without putting her receptivity to the test. “Maybe someday I’ll meet another woman like you and get a chance to use it.”

Perhaps the next woman like her — really like her, not pretending to be European royalty — would be more courageous. If she had the guts to seize the opportunity, Ivy didn’t begrudge her. In fact, she felt solidarity. A sensible woman needed all the support she could get to do something senseless. “For future reference, women like me can’t be reasoned with when hungry. Weaken her resistance with food to make sure those pretty words don’t go to waste.”

“Sweet food before sweet talk. Got it.” They proceeded to the end of the trellis and turned with the walkway. “Will you look at that? Food.”

The hotel’s formal restaurant glittered behind a wall of glass. Candlelight glinted off crystal and silver. The men seated within wore suits; the women sparkled with jewels.

Griff headed for the door. “I wonder if they have cake.”

Ivy dragged him to a stop with her grip on his hand. “We’re underdressed.”

“If they deny us entry because I’m not wearing a tie, it will be the perfect opportunity to ask if they know who they’re dealing with.”

“Who are they dealing with?” Maybe he was a restaurant critic in real life.

He looked pointedly at her.

“No! Everyone knows there is no Livinia Dangereuse, Duchess of Dangereusia.” Even the books she read to her four-year-old niece stopped short of that level of unbelievability.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“A safe distance from the not-so-fine line between roleplaying and fraud.” It was fun while it lasted, but now — before she had a heart attack — seemed like a good time to confess being tediously responsible.

He squeezed her hand and let her go. “You wait here. I’ll do all the talking.”

Ivy waited by the door while he approached the host. From her position, she would see the police coming and could take cover behind a broad-leafed potted plant that coordinated with the print of her dress.

The host left his station, and Griff gave her a thumbs up.

She sidled toward the camouflage the plant offered. While the police apprehended him, she could sneak out the exit. If she burned this dress and shaved her head, witnesses would be unable to identify her as the badly dressed co-conspirator with clown hair.

At last, she’d found an advantage to looking ordinary. All she had to do to exploit her gift for being nondescript was become a criminal.

She was so focused on detecting the approach of the law, a touch on her elbow made her jump — right into the plant, which rustled at a volume magnified beyond rational explanation in the hushed interior environment.

Her attempt to manually silence the leaves only exacerbated their agitation. She clasped her hands against her stomach and backed away.

A hard wall of chest blocked her retreat. Above her head, a voice rich with amusement said, “I got us takeout.”

Griff opened the door and gestured her through using the plate in his hand.

She didn’t get a good look at what was on the plate in passing, other than stripes she hoped were various shades of chocolate. “What kind of takeout comes on china?”

“The kind that requires collateral, so kindly refrain from throwing the plate against the wall in celebration of my glorious cake victory.”

“You dare tell me to refrain?” She raised her nose haughtily, braver when the game was between just the two of them. “Do you know with whom you are dealing?”

“A woman who listens better when her mouth is full, or so I’m told.”

He held up a fork laden with something she could barely see by the light leaking from the restaurant’s windows. Because she was brave, she opened her mouth and closed her lips around the tines. Dense mocha cake, a ribbon of gooey fudge, and a cloud of hazelnut mousse slid onto her tongue and melted.

Sweet food delivered, he tried the sweet talk. “Please don’t throw the plate I have to return to the nice man to get my wallet back.”

As promised, cake made her agreeable. “I would never, but what’s your policy on licking?”

“Strongly in favor of. Have another bite.”

Not while the taste of the first lingered — that would be like cheating. She leaned her back against the post at the end of the trellis. “Your turn. I want to know what you’ll go along with when caked up.”

“Is it not enough that I agreed to the licking?” He took a bite and was quiet for a long time. When he had savored the many texture combinations of cocoa and sugar, he offered, “I will paint your house.”

Her suburban abode dated back to the era of solid masonry construction and had red brick on all sides, not just a veneer facing the street. The faux-historic personality of the exterior was her favorite thing about the house. “If you’re one of those people who advocates painting brick, I’ll have to break up with you again.”

“I would never. Need your garage cleaned?”

Her dad hadn’t raised a garage slob. “That’s my chauffeur’s domain. What else do you have?”

He thought about it for a moment. “I have more cake.”

“Now you’re talking.”

The doom-prophesying woman from the wedding came around the corner as Ivy accepted her second forkful of chocolate. She acknowledged them with an upward jerk of her chin. “No cake and a cash bar. I give ’em two months.”

Ivy’s solidarity extended toward her, too. “The restaurant has cake.”

“I have a bottle of rum in my room, sweetie. I’ll stick to the booze.” She pointed at Griff as she passed. “A man who feeds his woman is a keeper. You two will last.”

Ivy waved goodbye while Griff loaded the fork again. “I don’t have the heart to tell her you’ve already dumped me.”

“It’s kind of you not to shatter her youthful optimism.”

“I’m nothing if not kind.” He demonstrated by letting her have the final bite of chocolate.

It was gone too soon. She took the fork from him and took her time sucking the last bit of ganache from between the tines. When she emerged from her blissful reverie and opened her eyes, she caught him staring at her mouth.

He raised his gaze to meet hers and arched a brow.

She lifted one shoulder. There must have been some monetary sleight of hand involved in the acquisition of the cake. The least she could do was make sure he got his money’s worth.

She licked the back of the fork one more time to make sure it was clean, then placed it on the plate with a tink.

The strains of music drifting from the reception changed to something slow and indistinct. Griff bent to set the plate on the ground. When he straightened, he held out his hand. “Shall we dance?”

She wasn’t a dancer, but she could stand and sway without humiliating herself too badly. She bypassed his hand and stepped into the circle of his arms, which he cooperatively cinched around her.

His callused hand zipped over the fabric covering her hip. “It sounds like… an inner tube.”

She tipped her head back and inhaled sharply. “That’s it! It leaves the same friction burn when it scours across my skin, too.”

“If I haven’t mentioned it already, I am so sorry.”

She hoped so. Without the protection of a bra, her nipples were taking the brunt of the abuse. A little remorse was called for. “On the bright side, in the event of a flood, you can use me as a flotation device.”

He turned her in time with the music. “If it’s any consolation, you look beautiful in the moonlight without that hideous color turning you gray.”

She squinted up at his face. “In the store, you said I looked good.”

“Would you have come if I said you looked like an extra from The Walking Dead?”

“I’d have appreciated the honesty. It’s not like I didn’t know I look ghastly.”

“That’s all the fault of the dress. You put it on, and the life drained out of you before my eyes. It was all I could do not to rip it off you and perform CPR.”

“Alas, we’ll never know if my gratitude toward you for saving me from the blight would have offset the mortification of public nudity.”

“Every woman there would have envied you.”

Only because he was giving her mouth to mouth. “Not Bikini Girl.”

“What Bikini Girl?”

“The one with three times my tits and half my ass, but nice try.”

“You are a tough crowd, Duchess.” He twirled her — slowly enough that she felt delicate as a feather — then brought her back into his arms. “You are beautiful in moonlight, and in daylight in anything other than that dress. I would still like to get it off of you.”

Delicacy deserted her, and she stumbled over his feet. When she untangled her hooves and looked up at him again, he was grinning. Relief washed over her. “You said that just to fluster me.”

“I tell one little white lie to spare your feelings—”

“And facilitate getting your way.”

“—and suddenly you don’t trust me at all.” His voice lost its teasing note. “I said it because around the time you squeezed my thigh during the ceremony, my thoughts shifted from my good fortune in finding a tolerable bodyguard to wanting you touching more of me, preferably while you’re wearing nothing but mascara.”

His hands burned where they rested on her hip and back in an entirely appropriate fashion, arousing entirely inappropriate feelings — warm, tingly, gaspy ones.

He was accustomed to having that effect. If he’d enlisted any other woman to be his date, he would be playing the same seduction game.

Which was why it seemed more habit than genuine interest in her. His voice conveyed more desire when talking about the cake. He didn’t spend many nights alone, and on this one, she happened to be convenient.

Why did her vagina do the wave for a man who didn’t care that he didn’t even know her name? Why had it never been this reactive to the decent, dependable guy who asked her to marry him?

Parts of her — the erogenous parts — wanted to go for it. How could she know meaningless sex with strangers wasn’t for her if she never tried it?

But the try-one-lima-bean argument wasn’t working on her other parts. If she did something so far out of character on a whim — which would also be out of character — who would she be afterward?

Her parents already had one daughter with an impulse-control problem and a long history of bad decisions.

Regret made her words husky. “As much as it pains me, physically, to admit this, I’m not the kind of woman who has one-night hookups with strange men. I can’t even pretend to be.”

“What kind of woman are you?”

“Sensible. Responsible. Inoffensive.”

He whistled softly. “Thanks for the warning. Those are terrible qualities.”

“They are when they’re polite synonyms for boring.”

Any other day, Ivy was content to leave excitement to those who didn’t have to pick up their sister’s kids from school or work late off the clock getting the store ready for a sale because she needed to be known as a team player to get a management position or any of the other boring but necessary chores she performed on a daily basis to keep life running as smoothly as possible on the track toward a pleasant future. Any other day, everyone she interacted with was equally dull, getting through the present as productively as possible to create a future they would enjoy someday, when they had the time, as long as no disasters occurred in the meantime to rudely disrupt their dreams.

Any other day, her dissatisfaction with that way of life was only a vague nagging in the distance. This day, attracted by a handsome stranger with an appreciation for the ridiculous and fancy cake, it surged to the fore and flourished dramatically to make sure she saw how much of life she was missing by devoting every minute to responsibly squirreling away nuts in preparation for a far-off future that might never come.

Griff murmured against her hair, “I wouldn’t describe a minute of our time together as boring.”

Her dissatisfaction roared. Never in her life had she wanted so much to be exciting to someone, and all the temptation she needed to do something reckless, daring, unexpected was pressed against her body from chest to thigh, swaying out of sync with faint music that had changed a while ago to something bouncy and irritating.

If only the sensible, responsible, inoffensive aspects of her weren’t rallying to contain that wild urge like a dangerous animal, tranquilizing her hands, her lips, her voice when they threatened behavior in violation of security protocol.

The beast paced the perimeter of its cage but couldn’t find an escape route. Thwarted, it retreated to the shadows to hibernate for another few decades, when the jailers might be too old and feeble to enforce the bonds of propriety.

She relinquished her fantasies of bad behavior with a sigh. “It was fun while it lasted. Thank you for playing along.”

There was such a thing as a friendly goodbye kiss. She had exchanged them with relatives, friends, the occasional excitable client. She meant this to be one of those.

None of those kisses began lips to lips. Nor did they evolve into lip sucking and proceed to tongue sweeping. Never had she gripped hair to hold the other participant in place. She would recall if big hands had cupped her ass and boosted her up to give her better access to an equally demanding mouth. None of those kisses made her nipples so hard they stabbed back against her when smashed against a hard chest. There had certainly been no whimpered mmf when she saw spots from lack of oxygen and pulled back for air and his teeth scraped her swollen, sensitive lower lip and sent a yearning echo to other soft, membranous regions of her body.

The man was scorching and unsafe, and sensible women did not play with fire. “I have to go.”

His hands loosened their grip on her ass, sliding around to bracket her hips.

She remained on her tiptoes, her body pressed fully against his. “I mean it.”

His stubborn hair remained wrapped around her fingers.

With visible effort, he restrained his grin to one corner of his mouth. “Do you want me to walk you to your room?”

She’d be humping him in the elevator.

She pried herself from him, clenching her grabby hands into fists to keep them to herself. “No. It’s… I can… I’m good.”

He turned the smile loose to prey on the nearest bystander. It gnawed savagely upon her willpower. “Unfortunately.”

She took a reluctant step backward. “Will you be all right? With the bridesmaids, I mean.”

He glanced in the direction of the reception. “I’m unmotivated to suffer through an encore. I’m going to return the china and silver and go hide in my room, too.”

He let her go without so much as a word of protest. He wasn’t the reason she felt trapped.

She was the jailer of the cage she couldn’t escape.


Continue to Part 5.

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