Ten Thousand Hours is a standalone contemporary romance novel about a woman trapped by her own goodness and a man with the skills to spring her naughty side from its cage. Reviewers report experiencing both unladylike laughter and leaky eye syndrome while reading, so partake in public at your own risk.


Ten Thousand Hours

© 2016 Ren Benton

138,000 words / 422 pages in paperback

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Potential Catnip: Opposites attract, fling-to-romance, family drama

Trigger Warning: Family drama, children in mild peril (not physically harmed)

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Weddings are Ivy Miller’s business, but when an ex proposes out of the blue, she flees to a tropical paradise rather than walk down the aisle. There, she discovers the passion missing from her sensible existence in the arms of a handsome stranger. She returns home, where no one suspects sweet, practical Ivy possesses a secret wild side — no one except the one-night stand standing in her parents’ dining room.

Semi-reformed bad boy Griff Dunleavy barely recognizes this cautious woman as the brazen temptress who left an impression on his flesh a week ago, but there’s no mistaking the sensual nature hidden behind her prim and proper façade. He makes an indecent proposal: a fling in which Ivy plays all the parts too untamed for her everyday life, which might supply enough variety to keep him intrigued for more than a day or two.

The offer is too enticing to resist — and too good to last. When reality demands full-time responsibility, Ivy can’t neglect family duty for a selfish fantasy. To keep his place in the life of the woman he loves, Griff must prove they can have forever… one hour at a time.

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1

The beachside terrace offered a serene space to enjoy breakfast and linger over a book — until the arrival of Tyrannosaurus bride.

“I am getting married today,” she repeated as if anyone in the vicinity had missed the previous twenty announcements to that effect. “I cannot have carbs touching my plate. Take this back to the kitchen and do it correctly!”

The young waiter apologized for his mistake in delivering the French toast with blueberry compote and whipped cream the carb-phobic bride had ordered minutes earlier. The moment the beast released him, he scurried toward the kitchen, too grateful to escape with his life to question the logic of telling the chef to correctly prepare a plate largely consisting of flour and sugar using no flour and no sugar.

Ivy took cover behind her book when she heard the predator’s approach and monitored the developing threat with furtive glances around the edge of her paper shield. The smug tilt of the bride’s lips confirmed she had barely begun playing with her food. She emitted a piercing laugh in response to a member of her entourage and resumed swilling her fourth mimosa.

Judging by the size of the glass, Ivy calculated each drink must contain twenty-four grams of sugar, but carbs in a glass were obvious exemptions on the Wedding Day Diet. After all, how would anyone recognize the special nature of the day if the participants weren’t shitfaced by midmorning?

So much for running away from home to escape all things bridal. If the hotel’s website had mentioned their mission of grinding newlyweds out of a nuptial mill, Ivy would have stayed home with the blinds drawn and let her calls go to voicemail instead.

She should have searched for a destination that prohibited weddings. Surely such places existed. If not, her tourism demographic was woefully underserved and ripe for exploitation. She would have found a way to pay extra for two entire days free of any exposure to marriage, even if she had to sell a kidney to finance the dream.

“There you are.” Camille sank into the chair across the table from her. She had run away from home to escape the grueling chore of being a goddess, with a similar lack of success. In just one day, she had absorbed the sun like a radiance sponge, giving her skin a burnished-copper luster. On an ordinary day, she drew stares. Here, people asked for her autograph because only celebrities glowed the way Camille did — and she was delighted to give it to them along with thanks to her fans, without whom her success as a florist wouldn’t be possible.

She tucked the loose end of the scarf protecting her tight curls from the ravages of the wind. “I spotted your hair from the other side of the hotel.”

The surf-scented breeze tossed the ends of Ivy’s upswept hair into her eyes. The same bottle of wine that spurred her to book this trip also convinced her it was time to experience life as a redhead. One box of dye later, her naturally nondescript brown locks rivaled the color of the merlot. Her hair continued to bleed when wet. Today, she wore it tied in a scarlet plume high on her head to protect her white peasant blouse from stains. “You should hail me from a safe distance to make sure you’re not being led to your doom by an escapee from clown prison.”

“You look good with some color on you for a change. You won’t admit it because you’d rather be invisible, god knows why.”

Before Ivy could explain invisibility was a state of being more than a preference, the voice of the beast rose once more. “The wind is messing up my hair. Do something!”

One of the bride’s companions suggested, “We could go inside the restaurant, Courtney.”

“I want the fresh air!” A fist pounded the table to emphasize each word.

Camille’s head swivelled to behold the commotion. “What. The. Hell.”

“She’s getting married today,” Ivy explained as the bride-to-be did likewise at the top of her lungs.

“Jesus save the poor man who gets stuck with that.”

“I’m sure her soulmate finds her forthright demeanor enchanting.” They would live happily ever after, as long as he could meet such demands as shutting down the prevailing winds to preserve his beloved’s hair on special occasions.

Ivy’s dilemma raised a spectral hand to get her attention. So you admit low expectations are the key to long-term relationship satisfaction.

Her dilemma had a penchant for straw men, this time standing up low expectations as the opposite of impossible ones to make the former sound reasonable.

Ivy wasn’t falling for it. Expecting little might limit disappointment, but there was nothing satisfying about aiming low.

She and her dilemma had brandished the same points repeatedly during the past three days. The stalemate would continue until a new weapon came into play with the might to slay either the sensible choice or her desire for more.

Never one to pass up free entertainment, Camille openly watched the other table. “In your expert opinion, how long will that marriage last?”

Ivy had seen twenty brides a week for the past five years. It was her job to find the perfect representation of the bride’s personality, theme, budget — and, in one case, aura — in dress form. Most of her brides never passed through her dressing room again, but she saw enough repeat customers to identify certain patterns. “She hasn’t mentioned the groom once, so he’s a nonentity in her equation. He might cower in the background for years before she leaves him for not being man enough to take charge.”

“She doesn’t look like she’d put a dick in her mouth to make it worth his while, either.”

The mimosa pitcher slipped from booze-clumsy fingers and shattered on the tile floor, followed by a shriek that made Ivy shift her book for protection lest her water glass explode in sympathy. “Wouldn’t want to muffle that dulcet voice.”

“Who wouldn’t? The maid of honor looks like she wants to stab her in the larynx with a shard of glass.”

“You’re projecting.” Another glance over her book caught at least three members of the entourage looking wild-eyed enough to risk jail time. “Or not.”

“Ooh, a bridal breakfast. What fun!” Jen joined them at the table. She had run away from home with them to soak in the tub and nap without interruptions by her husband and three kids, and she’d had the most success of the three of them. She lifted the hand that wasn’t holding a muffin the size of a softball and waved at the other table.

Ivy sank lower in her chair. How had someone accustomed to invisibility acquired two best friends who lived in spotlights?

In the time it took Jen to introduce herself, strangers felt she’d been a friend for years. She exuded happiness toward everyone, even people she’d never met, and without exception, people reflected that welcome right back. Even while trapped in the vortex of an epic tantrum, every nonbride at the other table smiled and waved to her.

Jen dropped into the vacant chair beside Ivy and peeled the wrapper from her muffin. “Doesn’t that make you want to be a bride, Ivy?”

Camille turned her chair a few degrees to get the full benefit of the morning sun on her face. “Yes, she’s been waiting all her life for the opportunity to be a complete bitch to everyone she knows.”

Jen leapt to the cranky stranger’s defense. “It’s normal to be a little emotional. The wedding day is the most stressful day in a woman’s life.”

Ivy added another dagger to her arsenal to wield against her dilemma. She had enough stressful days without signing up for one guaranteed to top them all.

Women showed signs of that stress even a year before the big day when they came to her looking for their gowns. Scripting, staging, costuming, promoting, and catering a spectacle for an audience of dozens, sometimes hundreds, was an undertaking on par with producing a Broadway musical but without even the slim possibility of return on the investment. Of course it was stressful — and utterly avoidable. Ivy had no sympathy to spare for anyone who volunteered to put on the show to amaze friends and family and then used the performance as an excuse to punish everyone around her for their proximity.

Jen nibbled the edge of her muffin. “Someone order. I feel like a pig eating by myself.”

“I collared the waiter on my way in,” Camille assured her. “The mountain of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and waffles I ordered will make you feel righteously self-disciplined.”

Ivy’s breakfast had been far more disciplined than either of theirs, and she felt only envy. One poached egg, plain oatmeal, and a cup of blueberries hadn’t made her mouth water the way Camille’s order did, but she had the calories, fat, protein, sugar, and fiber content memorized for ease of notation in her food journal. “I ate earlier.”

“I bet it was oatmeal.” Camille’s head fell back when Ivy didn’t deny the allegation. “You do know you’re on vacation, right?”

After three years of monitoring the nutritional value of every crumb that went into her mouth, Ivy had reached the midrange of medically normal weight for her height. Theoretically, she could eat hot fudge sundaes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two days without swerving into overweight territory. Realistically, however, she had too many clothes that wouldn’t zip if she brought home five extra pounds of ass as a souvenir, and — particularly after this trip — there was no room in her budget for emergency fat pants.

“I don’t think she does. She went to the gym at five this morning.” Jen picked a chocolate chunk out of her muffin and popped it into her mouth. “Why does a hotel even have a gym? Who comes to a tropical paradise to sweat on a different treadmill? I mean, other than Ivy.”

The gym had been otherwise unoccupied, but Ivy attributed her solitude to the hour, no different from a gym at home. The people with beautiful bodies to maintain wouldn’t show up until they had company to appreciate the taut, toned fruits of their exertion, displayed in teeny shorts and midriff-baring tank tops.

People with bodies like Ivy’s worked out in thigh-covering T-shirts and did their ungainly lumbering while everyone else was asleep.

Her diet and exercise habits might not have a vacation mode, but she wasn’t behaving exactly as she would at home. “I didn’t answer that call from Holly during dinner last night.”

“And we were so proud of you,” Camille praised in a tone appropriate for a successful potty training session, “until two minutes later, when you developed a sudden, overwhelming urge to pee and ran off to check your voicemail.”

Ivy turned to the next page without reading the one in front of her. “It might have been an emergency.”

Jen’s lips puckered for an instant before smoothing out. “So what did she have to say?”

Nothing about an emergency.

“The same thing she says every time,” Camille answered when Ivy didn’t. “Aunt Ivy has to take the kids so Mommy can go out partying.”

Jen accepted that response as accurate — which it was. “Does she know you’re two thousand miles from home?”

Ivy called her sister from the airport to advise her not to drop the kids at the curb and speed away because no one would be home to watch them for a couple of days. Her boarding call cut short Holly’s apoplectic fit, but not before Ivy got an earful about how selfish she was for ruining Holly’s plans for the weekend by leaving her without free babysitting and also for not inviting her — in which case her ruined plans and childcare needs apparently wouldn’t have been cause for upset.

The bride across the terrace, sensing her routine wearing thin with her audience, switched tactics. Her voice rose in a wail. “If you loved me, you would support me!”

The scene was an amateur rendition of Holly’s recorded performance the night before. You’re never there for me. You don’t know the meaning of family. This is how you repay me for all the times I protected you? I guess there’s no one in this world I can count on anymore.

Jen turned her muffin to the unnibbled side. “If you hadn’t left the Bag of Infinite Holding in the room, I would have thought you got an early flight so Holly could have at least half a weekend.”

Ivy’s shoulder bag typically held everything necessary to be prepared for work, kid wrangling, hair and makeup repairs, changes in weather conditions, and minor injuries, for starters. Everyone made fun of her survival kit — until they lost a filling and needed some dental cement, and then she was a superhero. She never left home, even a temporary one, without it. At the moment, it held all the necessities to survive a weekend away from home, minus the smaller tote currently underfoot, which held only the necessities to survive a couple of hours in town.

Camille adjusted the split in her skirt so the sun could worship her legs. “She’ll be sorry she didn’t come when called.”

There were always consequences for denying Holly, but Ivy could better afford those than the penalty for changing the terms of their discount travel package. “I couldn’t leave. I have a previous engagement keeping you two from strangling each other.”

Jen brightened at the opening. “Speaking of engagements.”

“Ugh. No.” Camille masked her eyes with the fingers of one hand.

“That’s why she’s here. To make the most important decision of her life.”

“I wasn’t saying no to talking about it. I was reiterating my vote on the issue: Ugh. No.”

“Jared is perfect for her.”

“If he was so perfect for her, she wouldn’t have dumped him three years ago.”

Dumped made the split sound dramatic. Ivy and Jared cordially agreed to part ways. No tears were shed. No hearts were broken. The end of the relationship was as quiet and civilized as the rest of it.

They saw each other occasionally because they shared a friendship with Jen and her husband Roger. Those encounters were courteous and unemotional. On the latest occasion, several months ago, Ivy joked it felt just like when they were together. Jared laughed and concurred.

And then he showed up at her door Thursday evening and suggested they get married.

“The important thing is that he’s realized his mistakes and wants her back, permanently this time.”

Ivy raised her book higher and let their debate wage without her input until the battle resulted in one of them raising a point she hadn’t already considered.

“His mistake was being boring, and inflicting that on her permanently is cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Ivy doesn’t mind. She’s boring, too.”

Ivy lowered the corner of her book so the glare she aimed at Jen wouldn’t burn a hole through the pages she hadn’t read yet.

Jen parried the attack. “You’re on vacation, hitting the treadmill before dawn, eating sensibly, wearing SPF 50, and reading a book you’ve already read often enough to recite from memory. Show me where the thrill is.”

Camille, usually quick to argue with Jen on principle, left Ivy to fend for herself.

“Okay, I’m boring, but you could be more tactful about it.”

“Fine. You’re sensible. Better?”

Sensible was worse than boring. Sensible was choosing to be boring.

If she weren’t so sensible, she’d fling the contents of her glass in Jen’s face to avenge the insult.

“The sensible thing to do is accept when a decent man comes through with a marriage proposal. You’re not getting any younger, and it’s not like the offers get more frequent when a woman starts to wrinkle and sag.”

After losing sixty pounds, sagging was already an issue — one that developed subsequently to the last time any man saw her naked. Dread at the prospect of apologizing to a new lover for her deflated body had a lot to do with her lack of nudity.

All that diet and exercise, and she’d been less self-conscious while fat.

There was an additional point in favor of marriage: no more fear of sexual rejection. Jared wanted a sensible wife, not one with a hot body, so she need never worry about disappointing him in that regard.

“So hurry up and lock down that bore you didn’t want three years ago.” Camille’s smile for the young waiter who came bearing tribute made him blush and back away, dazed, after laying the feast before her. She took the adoration as her due and twirled a strip of bacon like her scepter. “You’d think the bore would appreciate how much you hate surprises. Did he say what prompted his sudden interest in matrimony?”

His rationale was very… sensible. Ivy would rather keep the whole truth to herself than volunteer what Jen would consider unassailable logic in his favor. “Basically, neither of us is getting any younger, and it’s not like the offers will get more frequent as we wrinkle and sag.”

“Romantic,” Camille opined around a mouthful of fried potatoes.

“Marriage isn’t about romance.” Jen injected the last word with scorn.

“Mine is. I got it in writing. If I wanted a damn roommate, I’d have put up a flyer at church.”

Jen gave up on converting Camille to her side and appealed to Ivy exclusively. “Jared is a decent man.”

“You keep using that word.” Camille refused to be excluded. “Von is as decent as they come, but he manages to do it with spice, whereas Jared has the kick of a bowl of plain oatmeal. I forbid Ivy to submit to a lifetime eating nothing but plain oatmeal when she hasn’t even tasted an enchilada.”

Jen picked at her muffin. “The last time I had an enchilada, it gave me diarrhea.”

While Camille wheezed with laughter, Jen reached over to squeeze Ivy’s forearm. “Think of the children.”

Ivy’s insides shriveled. That was the cannon sitting in the background during her little slapfight with her dilemma, waiting for someone to light the fuse.

Camille’s laugh dried up. “Which children?”

“You know which. God forbid, if something happens to Holly, Ivy’s going to inherit those four kids. She needs a dependable” — Jen emphasized the word to prove she knew one other than decent — “man to help her raise them.”

Camille leaned forward, eyes deadly. “She’s already languishing in the burbs with a mortgage and a minivan like a prematurely middle-aged soccer mom because her sister drops her litter on her doorstep twenty days out of every month. Those kids go to the best public schools in the county because they passed criteria for living with Ivy. She has given enough without yoking herself to a prematurely middle-aged soccer dad on behalf of someone else’s children. Right, Ivy?”

Her nieces and nephews could not be left out of the decision. They had a shortage of reliable men in their lives, and Jared was as reliable as he was decent and dependable. Ivy’s income was adequate — with strict budgeting — to provide for them to the extent she did, but she worked on commission, and her paychecks waxed and waned in too precarious a fashion to support four kids full time.

They would only get more expensive as they got older.

A second income, particularly the substantial, stable one of a regional bank manager, had been one of the earliest entries in the pro-marriage column.

She would be ashamed of herself for thinking in such mercenary terms if Jared hadn’t introduced the topic as a motivating factor during his proposal. In fact, he’d placed so much emphasis on the benefits to the children if she did what he wanted, she couldn’t help but note some resemblance to Holly.

He hit her in the guilt center — think of the children — but had nothing to say to her as a woman. He hadn’t gone down on one knee because they were equals. He hadn’t offered her a ring because if she insisted on a trinket between saying yes and I do, she ought to choose it herself and get one she liked.

And no doubt pay for it, too. It would be, after all, a whim of hers, not a mutually beneficial purchase warranting joint investment.

She had promised him an answer when she returned home, but Camille wanted one sooner. Ivy couldn’t provide it. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Jen prodded, as if a reminder of the time pressure would clarify the issue on the spot.

Ivy had twenty-some hours to make the correct decision — and to come to terms with that decision if it didn’t take her happiness into consideration.

She shoved her book into her bag and stood, sending the hem of her skirt swishing across the top of her sandals. “Then I should spend the rest of the day soul searching.”

Camille swirled a hunk of waffle in a puddle of syrup. “If you find oatmeal in your soul, keep searching.”

Jen gazed up at Ivy with soft, hopeful eyes. “I know you’ll do the right thing.”

Ivy fingered the neckline of her blouse to confirm its position well below her collarbone. The eyelet ruffle hadn’t crept upward, so it must have been the sense of inevitability tightening around her neck like a noose.

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.

3

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.”

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.


The jailbreak has barely begun. Choose a format and seller to find out how Ivy liberates herself from respectability prison with the help of an ugly dress, a bad dye job, and a handsome stranger who doesn’t think she’s boring at all.

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