18 Sep

Excerpt: Ten Thousand Hours (Part 5)

Ten Thousand HoursThe following is the fifth and final 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.

5

Ivy tossed and turned until Camille, who shared the queen bed with her, hit her with a pillow. After that, she stared quietly into the darkness until her travel clock read 4:03. She got out of bed and put on her workout clothes.

Alone in the hotel’s gym, she pounded her feet against the treadmill until her toes, arches, ankles, knees, and hips hurt and sweat pasted her T-shirt to her torso. Then she ran another mile, then two. She shut down the machine only when queasiness caught up with her.

She wasn’t going to be able to outrun herself that way, either.

She returned to her room to shower before Jen and Camille got out of bed and a fight for the bathroom ensued.

The inner-tube dress hung on the back of the bathroom door, an ugly souvenir of her failure to live dangerously. The shower could wait. She wanted the dress out of her sight immediately.

The front desk was unattended when she arrived. She waited for the clerk to return from his bathroom break until he’d had enough time to read two Playboys and the Wall Street Journal. The longer she was in contact with the dress, the more restless she became — too restless to stand around waiting for someone else to deliver it.

Burning agitation like fuel, she ran up the stairs to the third floor. Two wrong turns and corresponding backtracks later, she found room 325. She pounded her fist against the door, wincing at the volume of those three sharp blows in the predawn quiet. She’d wake the whole floor.

The three timid taps that followed wouldn’t be heard down the hall, and probably not through Griff’s door, either.

Neither variety of summons earned a response.

Normal people on vacation were sleeping at this hour. Gorgeous people who kissed like fantasies she hadn’t known enough to imagine before last night probably didn’t sleep alone often. It was entirely possible such people slept in rooms other than their own. In any event, coming to his room had been a waste of time.

Surely the front desk would be manned by now. Suddenly exhausted, she wrapped the dress around her arm and headed toward the nearest elevator.

A door clicked open behind her. A bleary voice said, “Liv?”

She took five more steps before she remembered that was her adopted name. Only one person knew her as such.

Well, she had his attention now. What was she going to do with it?

Heart thudding heavily in her chest, she turned to face him.

Griff stood in his doorway, bare chested, bedheaded, foggy eyed — until his eyelids snapped wide open. “What the hell happened?”

Before she could ask him to clarify the question, he hooked her hand, reeled her in, and netted her with an arm around her shoulders. The raw panic in his eyes prevented her from objecting to being dragged into a stranger’s hotel room. “Give me a clue here, Griff?”

He hustled her through the living room of his suite and into the bathroom, blinding her when he flipped the light switch. “Where are you hurt?”

“What?” She opened her eyes to a squint and caught sight of herself in the mirror. More remarkable than his fingers combing through her hair was the mantle of bloody red dripping down her face and neck and staining her shirt because her workout sweat had liberated another surge of dye from her hair. Her body quaked with suppressed laughter.

“Who did this to you?”

“There were two of them.” She clasped his stained hands before he made more of a mess of himself. “Merlot and L’Oreal.”

A flicker of understanding crossed his face.

She spelled it out to make it stick. “I’m not hurt, other than being mortally embarrassed. Wash your hands before the dye soaks into your nails.”

He turned on the tap and soaped up in the sink. He met her gaze in the mirror, strain evident around his eyes. “You scared ten years of my life.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was gentle to atone for the damage she’d done. “What a lousy way to be woken up.”

“I can think of better.” He dried his hands, then wet the tail of the hand towel he used to dry them under the faucet and used it to wipe her forehead, cheeks, and neck.

“I can do that.” He rubbed behind her ear, and she leaned into it like a cat being petted, making no move to take the towel from him.

The rough terry floated over her collarbones. “I’m happy you weren’t brutalized after I scared you off.”

“You didn’t scare me. And this hotel has exemplary security.” She sighed under his ministrations. “That is the sort of thing I research before committing, as opposed to the pros and cons of dramatic hair color from a box.” Twenty seconds on the internet would have steered her away from the latter.

She gave into that impulse and shortened a man’s life span. If she could do that much harm with just her hair, she didn’t dare be reckless with any other part of her body.

“It’s an effective ploy to gain entry to a man’s hotel room.” He draped the ruined towel over the edge of the sink. “Which leads us to a new, less hysterical line of questioning. What brings you to my door in the middle of the night?”

A scar sliced vertically from the top of his shoulder, shiny and silver like moonlight, emphasizing the round ball of muscle underneath. Distracted, she murmured, “Technically, it’s morning.”

“Liv.”

If she’d been awakened from a sound sleep and needlessly injected with a life-shortening dose of adrenaline, she’d be terse about pedantic distinctions, too. She snagged the hanger holding the dress caught in the crook of her arm and held it aloft. “I have an early flight and wanted to get this dress back to you.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to leave it at the desk.”

She felt her own small shot of adrenaline. She knew it was ridiculous and rude to bang on his door at five-something in the morning, and she was embarrassed to be in his bathroom under these circumstances and thoroughly unsorry. “There was no one there and I got tired of waiting.”

“Probably a good thing no one else saw you. They’d have called an ambulance and carted you off to the hospital without you knowing why.” He leaned against the wall and dragged both hands down his weary face. “Are you always this impatient?”

“I’m never impatient.” She waited all the time — for a promotion at work, for her sister to spring the kids on her, for someone to invent low-calorie ice cream that tasted better than the carton. All she ever did was wait.

“You were walking away by the time I got to the door, tired of waiting for me, too.”

She had an ironclad defense. “When you didn’t answer, it occurred to me you might have company or be sleeping elsewhere, making waiting an exercise in futility. Under the circumstances, leaving was sensible, not impatient.”

“You made me paranoid about unwanted visits from sales clerks. In the time it took to consider you might have had a change of heart — which would be worth getting out of bed for — and put on pants so I wouldn’t seem presumptuous, you were halfway to the elevator.”

Her stare drifted lower, over his hard chest and ridged abs and that abdominal V she’d never seen in the wild before. “Since you gave chase, I suppose it’s good you took the time for pants,” she said faintly.

They were zipped but not buttoned. Something about that gap below his navel suggested the act of undressing, making her fingers itch to complete the task. His feet were bare, too, and it struck her that moments ago, he had been in bed, relaxed, warm, naked.

She knew without asking that Griff didn’t own pajamas.

He returned her stare, probably not imagining the T-shirt and yoga pants she wore to bed because she had a broken lock on her bedroom door and kids in the house as often as not. “What am I supposed to do with that dress, Duchess?”

Burning it would probably release toxic fumes. “If your mother thinks it’s too cruel to bestow upon an enemy, send it to the bride. She can spread it on the floor in front of the fireplace as a trophy of the fun she killed with her cakeless wedding.”

“I had fun.”

“Oh.” She warmed, softened, and approached melting. On this tile floor, he’d be in danger of slipping and falling into her. “Me too. But a deal’s a deal.”

She held out the dress, half bridging the space between them.

After a moment, he gave a bemused shake of his head and reached for the hanger.

She curled her fingers so the hook didn’t slide from her grasp.

He didn’t force a tug of war. “Sure you don’t want to keep it?”

“You couldn’t pay me to put it in my suitcase.” Still, she didn’t let go.

“If you don’t let go, I’m going to pull you over here and kiss you.”

She compressed lips suddenly gone tender. “That would be nice.”

His smoky eyes grew heavy lidded. “And then I’m going to go back to the bed you got me out of at this ungodly hour and use you to put me back to sleep.”

“Do you have a preference for your bedtime story?”

He gave a warning tug on the hanger.

“Or would you rather have me count sheep for you?”

He yanked.

She released the hanger so both hands were free to soften her collision with his chest — his bare, hard chest, on which a pink splotch spread from the point of impact. She slid her hands out of the way and pressed her lips to the spot to make it better.

Griff dropped the dress on the floor and used both hands to cup her face. He adjusted the tilt to an angle he liked and made good on the kiss.

Ivy had been kissed by a reasonable number of men, usually in a pleasant fashion. A pleasant kiss said, Hello there. With your permission, this behavior could escalate over time to sexual intercourse. Have your people call my people, and we’ll draw up the contract and reconvene in seven to ten business days to assess our progress.

Griff came to the table and laid out his best and only deal up front. No testing the waters. No negotiation. His mouth was direct. I want to fuck. Here’s a down payment on the orgasm I’ll give you in trade. One-time offer. Take it or leave it.

She wasn’t the kind of woman who had sex with strangers — but she also wasn’t the kind of woman gorgeous strangers devoured like a last meal. If this saturation with heat was what it felt like to be lusted after and the man giving her that feeling happened to be a stranger, she wanted to be that woman.

And she would get right on it as soon as she retired from being a sweaty, dye-stained mess. She put an inch of distance between their lips. “I should take a shower.”

“We’ll take one later.”

The thought of him bare, hard, and wet nearly shorted out her objection to being seen naked in harsh, unforgiving light — but not quite. Her reflection in the mirror looked frightful enough without removing her clothes.

What were the chances he wouldn’t be creeped out if she asked to watch him lather up solo?

But she would worry about later… later. She couldn’t concentrate when he was backing her out of the bathroom and lifting her shirt over her upraised arms, stripping her down to her sports bra. She turned her head to make sure she didn’t trip over the furniture and promptly tripped over her own feet. She grabbed the nearest sturdy object.

He grabbed her, too, hands splaying across her back to hold her steady.

For her own safety, she climbed him like a tree and wrapped her legs around his waist. A deep kiss denied him an opening to complain about carrying her. He curved his hands under her ass to take some of the strain off his back and picked up the pace, in a hurry now to unload his burden. His hips flexed against her as he walked, foreshadowing more friction in her future.

The bedroom was dark except for what little light spilled through the door from the living room. He squeezed her thigh, her cue to slide her legs down his body until her feet touched the floor.

His hands fell away from her. “It’s not too late to still be the kind of woman who doesn’t do this sort of thing.”

How courteous of him not to exert influence by applying his hands to her weak flesh while testing her will. “We could be past that point if you’d talk less.” She reached for the zipper of his hastily donned trousers.

A laugh huffed through his lips. “Ah, yes. I see it now. The patience of a saint.”

She growled at the reminder of her saintly virtues. Not here, not now. She was going to leave him singed, not sanctified.

She sank to the edge of the bed and used his open fly to tug him between her knees. She slowly slipped his pants down his narrow hips, exposing the rigid length of erection trapped against his belly. Physically, he was ready, but his hesitation suggested he was the one who needed a nudge to proceed.

She nudged him with her mouth, starting with little flicks of her tongue to sample his salty taste, then long sweeps to measure his length, graduating to taking as much of him as she could into her mouth.

When she popped off for air, he peeled her sports bra over her head in one smooth move. Before she could return to her oral fixation, he pushed her back onto the mattress and loomed over her.

Just when she remembered her inadequate breasts flattened to nothing in this position, the clever man found a nipple with his lips and tongue, the stubble on his chin scraping her skin, and she no longer cared how flat they looked because they felt swollen and firm and tingly. She gasped at the sudden ice when he abandoned one wet peak to work on the other.

She’d never had to broach this subject because the men she had sex with were respectful and responsible, but this man was the enemy of common sense and got away with any liberties he wanted, so she’d have to insist. “Condom.”

“Wallet.”

She followed the vague point of his finger in a direction beyond her head. Craning her neck, she saw the black square on the bedside table, far out of reach. “Get off me.”

When he did, she rolled onto her belly and stretched her arm to grab the wallet. “Got it.”

A hand seized her ankle and dragged her backward. The unfamiliar sensation of being manhandled coupled with the sheet abrading her tenderized nipples turned her muscles buttery.

His arms braced on either side of her shoulders. “I thought you were quitting.”

Quit? Not a chance. She shuddered deliciously at the weight of him pressing her lower body into the bed. “I’ll be finished before you even start.”

His hand slid under her belly, beyond the waist of her workout pants, inside her underwear. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

She was so needy, so well primed, one finger applying pressure to her clit was all it took to set off an orgasm. She pressed her face into the bed to muffle a long, drawn-out moan. Her hips rocked, undecided whether they wanted to escape the torment of his fingers or demand more. Every evasion pushed her bottom against the hard ridge of his cock, reminding her no matter how good this little tickle felt, her hollow ache had yet to be satisfied.

A hand down the back of her pants smoothed over her butt, then joined his other hand in stripping the last of her clothing from her body, along with her shoes, leaving her naked and receptive.

A hand between her legs urged them apart. Fingers delving inside while she was still pulsing made her writhe.

“I need that condom,” he rasped. “Now.”

She fished it out of his wallet, tore the foil, and grinned when he snatched it out of her fingers like a desperate man. “Who’s impatient?”

“Just trying to catch up with you.” His hand slid under her again. “Lift for me, Duchess.”

She shifted back on her knees, keeping her shoulders down. Her hips circled of their own volition, loving all of this. She could be lazy. She didn’t have to worry about how her breasts and stomach looked, and gravity was kind to her back and ass in this position.

He slid his cock into her and oh god. If she’d been any less slippery, being stretched in every direction, filled to the limit after so long without, would have hurt. Her body couldn’t contain both of them at the same time, and her skin felt taut all over, hot, ready to split to make more room. She dug her fists into the mattress and shoved back, silently demanding harder, deeper, more — anything to set her free.

A muscular forearm locked around her, pressing into her lower belly, fingers tightening on her hip. “Hold still.”

“No.” He might not be in a hurry, but she was sick of waiting for what she wanted. There was no hold that could prevent the little tilt of her pelvis that rubbed just enough quivering nerve endings to do the trick.

He bent over her back to grate in her ear, “Damn, woman, you’ll be the death of me.”

He gave her long, controlled strokes when she wanted him to fuck her the way he kissed her — like he wanted her too much to be sensitive.

She reached back and dug her short nails into his thigh. That sting of pain surprised a sharp, hard thrust out of him, into her.

She laughed into the sheets, giddy with power.

He swept her wrists above her head and pinned them with one hand to protect himself from further attacks. He breathed heavily against her shoulder. “Message received.”

He shoved into her hard and fast, as deep as he could get each time. She wound tighter and tighter, every touch twanging through her body, until she snapped, unspooled, and went limp.

Griff cursed against her nape and buried himself in her one final time before falling on the bed beside her, legs tangled with hers.

Ivy peered at him through the messy curtain of her hair. He looked exhausted. She’d done that to him.

She bit her lip to stifle a giggle.

His eyes were closed, but he sensed her glee. His mouth stretched in an answering grin. “Quit it.”

The laugh bubbled out.

He rolled and scooped her up to nest in his big spoon. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”

“I am.” Her head rested on his arm. His heart thudded behind her head, frantic pace gradually slowing. The tension that had kept her awake all night had been wrung out of her. Her body was ready to catch up on missed sleep with his long, warm body curled around her.

Tragically, daylight bloomed around the edge of the drapes, and she had a plane to catch. It was time for her to go.

Easier thought than done. When she tried to move from the comfy nest of the bed, Griff’s arm tightened around her waist. Shifting only got her pulled deeper into his quicksand embrace. It was like trying to extricate herself from her colicky nephew after spending hours trying to get him to sleep.

Except her nephew didn’t sleepily rub the underside of her breast with his thumb.

She removed his hand from that region. “Stop that. I put you to sleep.”

“You paralyzed me.”

Was it wrong to feel a fierce stab of pride? “You’ll recover after extensive physical therapy.”

After a few more attempts, all ending with his hand somewhere calculated to make leaving undesirable, he allowed her to throw off his arm and rise from the bed.

Her underwear was conveniently located inside her pants, so she pulled them on as one. Her bra had landed on a lamp, which made her grin again as she crammed her tender breasts back into it.

She might have to bronze her first wildly discarded undergarment.

She straightened and found Griff watching her with heavy-lidded eyes. Presumably, he had seen the entire undignified production of squishing herself into elasticized fabric.

Much to her amazement, she felt no trace of embarrassment. Her body still hummed from sex. He wouldn’t be around to remind her of any flaws in her execution. She could surf home on the wave of good vibes she was riding.

Soft with gratitude toward him for giving her that, she tucked the sheet around him, covering up temptation to stay and see what other miracles he could perform. She brushed his hair from his forehead and pressed her lips there. And to his unscarred shoulder. And the bulge of his biceps.

It would defeat the purpose of covering temptation if she stripped him so she could put her mouth on all the temptations, so she limited her goodbyes to those exposed ones.

His hand curled around her thigh as she rose. “Best wedding I’ve ever suffered through.”

“Put that on the note when you send the dress to Bridezilla.” She returned his hand to his personal space. “I’ll let myself out. Sleep tight, Griff.”

“Liv.”

Oh, right. Her alter ego. From the bedroom doorway, she looked back at the shadowed bed.

“You’re not boring.”

Face fixed in a smile, she retrieved her T-shirt and the dress from the bathroom floor. She draped the dress over the back of a chair and put the shirt on her body. She turned off the lights before stepping into the hall and closing the door behind her.

She had just committed the most sordid act of her life — the only sordid act of her life. She felt liberated from the bondage of expectations, those of others and her own. She was the kind of woman gorgeous strangers desired. She was the kind of woman who had one-night stands with men who didn’t even know her name.

Who else might she be if given the opportunity?

~~~

By the time she got back to her room, the shower was occupied. She indulged in a mental grumble over her failure to make use of Griff’s while it was available, regardless of whether he could have been coaxed out of bed to wash her back.

“Where have you been?” Jen took one look at her and wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. Never mind. I can smell the gym from here.”

With a subtle undertone of sex.

Jen stuffed her curling iron in its heat-safe pouch and dropped it in her suitcase. “I don’t know where you get the nerve to walk around like that where people can see you.”

The mirror above the dresser confirmed she was a disheveled, dye-stained mess, but her reflection was smiling. Maybe that was where Bikini Girl got her nerve — deeply satisfying sex that convinced her whatever attributes she had were worthy of flaunting.

Ivy selected her clothes for the flight. “Reports of my nerve deficiency have been greatly exaggerated.”

6

Camille’s husband was waiting when they got off the plane. The two of them exchanged a private kiss in public.

When Von came up for air, he caught Ivy watching. “Perv.”

“Just waiting my turn, big fella.”

He gave her one of those friendly kisses and touched a finger to her hair, accompanied by a sizzling sound effect. “Need a ride home, firecracker?”

She did, but her suburban abode was well out of their way. Besides, judging from that kiss she’d witnessed, they were eager to make up for their two and a half days apart. “Thanks, but Jen’s giving me a lift.”

Jen trailed behind, progress slowed as she complained into her cell phone.

Camille shook her head. “I will never understand why you’re friends with that woman.”

“She wants what’s best for me. She’s just wrong about what that would be a lot.” Ivy gave her a pert smile. “Which is exactly what I tell her about you when she expresses the same sentiment.”

Jen put her phone away and closed the remaining distance at a brisk clip. “Roger’s parking the car. We can get out of here soon.”

“You two go on.” Ivy pointed a warning finger at Camille, then Von. “No funny business while the vehicle is in motion.”

“I make no promises,” Von said with a shrug, as if some risks were worth causing a freeway pileup.

Camille grabbed her in a lung-compressing hug that would be appropriate if they wouldn’t be seeing each other again for years. “You smiled more in five minutes talking about the enchilada than you ever have, total, talking about Jared,” she whispered in Ivy’s ear. “Do not marry a man who can’t even make you smile.”

“Can I have Von?”

Camille shoved her away, affection forgotten. “Bitch, back off my man.”

“If you’re not going to share, mind your own business.” She shooed her selfish friend toward that handsome, bighearted business. “I’ll be okay. See you Tuesday.”

Von confirmed the plan. “I’ll man the grill, you woman the dessert.”

“And I’ll lush the booze,” Camille concluded. “All the components of a balanced meal. Call me if you have any urges to make a dumb decision and need an intervention.”

The last time Ivy did that, she ended up with a hangover, bleeding hair, and a one-night stand that shifted everything inside her.

She didn’t know whether that change would be more permanent than the whisker burn reddening her breasts or what, if any, effect it would have on her life now that she was back in the land of routine, but she had no regrets.

“Remember — enchilada, not oatmeal!” Camille called over her shoulder as she and Von walked away with arms around each other.

Easy for her to say. Enchiladas had been throwing themselves at her since puberty. She had her pick of fillings, toppings, and heat level.

Ivy had to work to get even her occasional bowl of oatmeal.

She and Jen headed for the exit at an unhurried pace suited to their delayed transportation. Jen reiterated her stance. “Oatmeal is healthy for you.”

“I know, Jen.” But enchiladas were so much more satisfying.

Stepping out into the afternoon sun was disorienting. The time zone differed from the island by only an hour, but her brain wanted back some of the seven hours confined to planes and the airport during the layover in Atlanta.

Roger trotted up with a smile for Ivy and relieved Jen of her suitcase.

Lips thin, his wife pointed out, “You’re late.”

“Your plane was late.”

“And if it had been on time, we’d have been waiting for you almost an hour.”

“And if I’d been on time, I’d have waited an hour for you, so the timing worked out for the best, didn’t it?”

They did not kiss. They did not walk out of the airport with their arms wrapped around each other. There was no funny business in the car. Conversation focused on everything the kids had done for the past two and a half days in their mother’s absence and how difficult it was to keep up with them and housework without any help.

“Try it for five years,” Jen snapped as the car slowed in front of Ivy’s house.

She shoved the door open before the car came to a full stop. “Thanks for the ride, Roger. Love you, Jen. See you soon.”

~~~

After a brief vacancy, her home smelled like a stranger’s house. She turned on the AC to stir the stale air. She washed the airplane germs off her face and started a load of laundry and still didn’t find it any easier to breathe. Her dilemma sat on her chest like an anvil.

Jared would be at work. Calling him now would be inconsiderate, but no more so than making him wait for the answer she had promised.

She wasted no time on preamble when he picked up the phone. “I can’t marry you.”

Air surged into her lungs, free and clean. Maybe she would never get a better offer — or any other offer — but she would rather be alone than attach herself to someone who guaranteed a lifetime without passion and called that a virtue.

Ivy called a life of deprivation a sentence.

“We can’t discuss this over the telephone.” Pages flipped in the background, as if he were looking for an opening in his planner to schedule a meeting with her.

“Saying it to your face won’t change my answer.”

The polite thing to do would be to thank him for considering her for the position of his wife, but oddly enough, starting her day with a good fuck didn’t dispose her to being polite.

“Goodbye, Jared.”


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