Jesus Harry Christ. Kill me now.
Ronin Palamo winced as his sister slapped him in the stomach. Two things occurred to him at once: he’d uttered his slightly blasphemous prayer out loud, and Hana packed a punch. Since he’d been the one to teach her how to throw a smack, he couldn’t prevent the thump of pride from pounding in his chest.
“Oh, stop being such a drama queen,” Hana grumbled. “You keep mumbling under your breath, and you won’t have to ask God to take you out. I’ll do the job myself.”
In spite of the threat she delivered with convincing menace, he grinned, wisely deciding to keep the “bridezilla” comment to himself. It still shocked him a little when he thought of their family’s tomboy with the Napoleon complex getting married. Hence this dreaded, mind-numbing, soul-snatching afternoon at the Seattle Wedding Expo.
He shuddered. Just the word “wedding” sent fingernails scraping down his back. And not in the good, hot-and-sweaty-mid-sex way either. It was a wonder he hadn’t broken out in hives. Yet.
Still, Ronin was the big brother—the only brother—of his loud, crazy, but loving brood of four sisters. And when Hana had come to him, asking if he’d attend this idea of hell with her, well, he couldn’t refuse. He loved her and would do anything for her. Including subject himself to boutonniere-induced seizures.
“You would threaten the man who gave up his Saturday—his last free Saturday before preseason starts, I might add? Talk about ungrateful.” Ronin tsked. “Who raised you? Wolves?”
“No, your mother.”
They glanced at each other and started snickering. Truth be told, their mother would probably find the comparison flattering. A fierce, dominant, protective female who provided for her pack and would rip anyone to shreds who dared cross them? Hell, the wolf was probably her patronus. Thank you very much, Harry Potter.
“Seriously, Han, how much longer am I required to suffer? We’ve been here”—he peered down at his watch—“two hours already. How many floral arrangements and invitations can you look at in one afternoon?”
Yep, he was whining. He didn’t care if he was being a big man-baby. The occasion called for it. And if any of his teammates found out about this, he would be the brunt of every joke in the locker room. Didn’t matter that he was the star wide receiver for the Washington Warriors football franchise and had been for seven of the eight years he’d been on the NFL team. Didn’t matter that he’d been All Pro six years running. Nope, if any images of him studying wedding favors leaked, his ass would be in a sling from now until the end of the season.
Thank God, no one had seemed to recognize him, probably due in part to a “gently used,” black fedora he’d picked up from one of the thrift stores near his house, and his long hair tucked into a bun that “only samurais and girls should wear,” as his oldest sister Alea put it.
He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. He wouldn’t dare steal any of his sister’s joy and excitement, but all these flowers with their cloying smells were like delicate-scented nooses strangling the hell out of him. Each slow pull drew him back to another time—exactly two years ago in just three more days—when baskets, arches, and sprays of flowers had filled a church, their fragrances suffocating him along with the dark hole of grief…
With something that felt uncomfortably close to desperation, he scanned the hall, searching until he located her.
The noose loosened a fraction, enough for him to drag in a cleansing, free breath of air. Yeah, this he was used to. Familiar with. How many times in the last two years had he eased the dagger-sharp pain of loss, the yawning, empty loneliness, with lust, with sex? Too damn many to count.
He’d noticed her almost the moment he’d arrived. Standing in front of a booth bearing a huge banner with an image of a glamorous hotel that looked like something out of a 50s black-and-white movie, and aptly named the Grand, she was a stunner. Rivaled the sophistication and beauty of the seven-foot image behind her. Even from across the convention hall, he noted her beautiful, almost…aristocratic features. Yeah, she had that “don’t come for me unless I call for you” vibe his youngest sister described as “resting bitch face.”
Except he didn’t see it as a negative.
No, she exuded graceful poise and confidence.
From the slanting, sharp cheekbones, to the elegant slope of her nose, to the full, damn near lush mouth that had his dick giving its stamp of approval, to the sleek fall of dark brown hair that framed her face and fell inches below her shoulders, she could’ve been a supermodel, or a warrior queen sitting on a throne, demanding her subjects’ attention and adoration.
And he should really lay the fuck off Outlander. All this poise–elegant-cheekbones–adoration shit was threatening his Man Card.
It would help if he could stop staring at her like a creepy stalker. But even with the features of a queen—there he went again—her body was that of a goddamn porn star. Slender, but damn, curves for days. The form-fitting black suit jacket and skinny skirt didn’t conceal the breasts that appeared to be a perfect handful—perfect for hands his size—or the generous flare of hips that could no doubt take a little rough handling. Hell, she looked built for sex. And not the gentle, under the covers, all the lights out sex. No. Fucking. She seemed like she could not only take a fucking but give one out so good it’d make a man sell his soul for another raw, sticky-skinned, dirty round.
Need, rough and spiked, knotted his gut as he returned his regard to her lovely face. From this distance, he couldn’t detect the color of her eyes, but he’d bet his left nut her gaze was straightforward, unwavering, and didn’t take any shit. Damn, he wished he could see the color, so he could picture what they would look like glazed from a hard-won orgasm.
“Here,” Hana said, tearing him from his slightly obsessed scrutiny of a sexy-as-hell stranger. He glanced down to see her shove a small piece of cake in a sparkly paper cup into his chest. “Have some cake. You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.”
He snorted, but for the next half-hour, he gorged himself on bite-sized samples of hideously expensive cake, going from table to table bearing banners for various bakers. Red velvet, devil’s food, strawberry delight… The sweets violated his strict diet, and he’d have to put extra hours in the weight room. But totally worth it.
“When I did this, I always imagined Mom with me, not you,” Hana murmured. She lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. “No offense.”
“None taken.” Ronin pulled his sister close and pressed a quick kiss to the top of her dark curls even as he forced himself to swallow past the sadness, anger, and worry that had lodged in his chest. Clearing his throat, he squeezed her shoulders. “I wish she was, too.”
Because their mother should’ve been with her daughter, oohing and aahing over all this wedding shit that bored the hell out of him. And if she hadn’t just been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer, she would’ve been. So, he’d volunteered to go with his sister, all the while trying to remain strong for his mom, the woman who’d been his rock his entire life. Struggling to hide that he was shaken, hurting, and fucking terrified of losing her.
Jesus, he didn’t think he could survive another loss of someone he loved.
“Mom’s going to be fine. And if she knew you were at this expo upset, she would rip me a new one. And let’s be honest. My ass is way too nice for that.” Hana’s fist connected with his stomach, and he released an exaggerated grunt then laughed. “It’s almost time to check out these dresses that cost more than my car,” he announced. “Let’s go get a seat.”
This was Hana’s day. No sadness. He took her empty paper plate and tossed it along with his before letting her lead the way to the huge stage and runway set up in the middle of the convention center. Several rows of chairs flanked either side, and he groaned as Hana headed toward the few empty seats on the front row.
“I feel like such a pussy,” he muttered, crossing his arms. “Hold my seat. I have to hit the can.”
Before his sister could object or stop him, he shot to his feet and slid past the row full of women, hurrying in the direction of the bathrooms…and freedom.
As soon as he cleared the area with most of the booths, he inhaled the first wedding-free breath he’d taken in hours. The heavy metal doors with their crossbars beckoned, and he detoured toward them. If he was going to make it the rest of the afternoon, he needed a break, even if it was a short-lived one. As long as it was absent of flowers, arches, dresses, and embellished card stock.
Pushing on one of the doors and exiting as if committing a jailbreak, he strode across the convention center’s lobby. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand all the fuss and money spent on one day, when the ceremony would probably last longer than the actual marriage. Why in the hell would someone willingly put themselves through the torture of—
“Ronin,” an unfortunately familiar voice called his name.
No fucking way. He groaned, not needing to turn around to lay eyes on the woman behind him to identify her. Marissa. The Clinger. Mentally, he slapped his palm to his forehead. How had she found him? Did she have a GPS tracker on his truck? As soon as he and Hana left this place, he was taking his vehicle in to be checked.
Damn, this sucked. His best friends Zephirin and Dom might call him a man-whore—and in all fairness, he might have earned that title in the last couple of years—but being raised by a single mom with four sisters prevented him from being disrespectful and offensive to any woman. Which was why he never lied to one, was always upfront about only wanting a night or two of mutually satisfying sex and nothing more. Most women accepted it. Sad but true—a lot of women he encountered just wanted the bragging rights of fucking a professional football player.
But Marissa was a whole ’nother story.
Desperate, he surveyed the partially empty lobby. He could head back into the convention hall, but he didn’t put it past the persistent one-night stand from hell to follow him inside and cause a scene. He didn’t want to put Hana into that position.
Damn, he should’ve just kept his ass in the seat for the fashion—
The door leading to the wedding expo opened, and she exited. The woman from the hotel booth. The one who’d captured his attention and fascination.
His feet moved in her direction even before his brain had fully formed an idea.
* * *
“Landon, just let Rankin know that even though I’m in Seattle, the team that came up with the concept for his marketing campaign is still in place in Boston. Tell him everything is running smoothly and set to launch next week as planned. And if any issues pop up, I’m just a phone call away.” Kim Matlock shoved out of one of the wide doors and into the partially empty—and much quieter—lobby of the convention center where the Seattle Wedding Expo was being held. Holding back a relieved sigh, she continued her conversation with one of her Public Relations department heads from Bishop Enterprises’ Boston offices. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she listened as Landon continued on about the complaints from a high-maintenance president of an insurance company they’d recently acquired. “He should be satisfied that we’ll provide the necessary rebranding and publicity, as promised when Bishop Enterprises bought them. Listen, shoot me his email, and I’ll reply to him, okay?”
Seconds later, Kim ended the call and exhaled a deep breath.
This she could handle—projects, clients, campaigns. Give her a problem, and she thrived on solving it. As Vice President of Public Relations with Bishop Enterprises, her half-brother’s financial and holding company, she’d spent the last eight years proving her presence and position had been earned rather than gifted through nepotism. And to some degree, she’d succeeded. But being a woman—and a woman with brown skin when her CEO brother’s was white—in a male-dominated field brought its own set of challenges. But damn if she didn’t meet those head on, too. She refused to be defeated.
In business, at least.
This time, she released the sigh that she’d previously held back and scrolled through the list of texts she hadn’t been able to answer for the past few hours. Today, all her attention had been devoted to ensuring the expo was a success for Bishop Enterprises as a sponsor, and the Grand as the hotel chain they were promoting. This expo was just step one in revamping the marketing and branding for the beautiful, old-world hotels. Advertising their huge ballrooms as the perfect wedding and reception venues to excited brides and mothers-of-the-brides had been one of the ideas she’d come up with when directed to take on this project. The Grand hotel chain was bleeding money, and if she didn’t turn the financial trajectory around in a year, they would have to dump it, sell to the highest bidder. Which would only piss off her father since the chain had originally been his acquisition. First, his son had taken over as CEO a year ago and had relegated Malcolm to the position of another Vice President. And now, his bastard daughter, who he resented the hell out of, had been called in to save his failing project. He was not overjoyed.
Still, regardless of her father’s connection to the hotel chain, she wasn’t letting it go under without a fight.
Even if it meant spending a weekend in her private version of hell.
Weddings. Brides. Love. Marriage. Commitment.
Lies. Pain. Betrayal.
Only a few years ago, she’d been like one of those excited women in the convention hall, visiting the different vendors and ogling the wedding dresses in the fashion show.
But marriage to a cheating football player had obliterated those hopes of happily ever after, boisterous kids, a messy but deliriously happy home, and celebrated anniversaries. Her shit-show of a union had reduced her dreams to just that—dreams.
Now, thirty years old and divorced, she’d rather dance barefoot on a bed of Washington state’s famed prickly pine tree needles than be here among these smiling, foolishly optimistic and naive women. Lambs to the proverbial slaughter.
Her phone vibrated then pinged in her hand, dragging her from her morose, bitter thoughts. Thank God. She was depressing her own self.
“That was fast.” Glancing down at her screen, she expected to see an email notification from Landon, but instead… “Oh, shit,” she muttered, fingers tightening around the cell. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She narrowed her eyes at the little card-like text notification, but nope. The name stayed the same.
Matt Cooper. Her low-life, cheating, lying ex-husband.
Her ex-husband who obviously couldn’t take a hint about leaving her alone. This was the fourth text he’d sent in as many days.
Apparently, “I hope you die, resurrect, choke on a bag of dicks, and die again,” didn’t mean what it used to.
Swiping her thumb across the screen, she relegated the message to the trash can, unread. On a good day, she had a limited number of fucks to give, and this weekend’s event had drained her of every last one. But even if she’d been home doing her couch potato act, she still wouldn’t waste a single, solitary fuck on him, of all people.
“Damn,” she whispered, shoving her phone in her jacket pocket, hating that her hand trembled. Hating that even though a year had passed since she’d discovered Matt’s infidelity, she still resembled a bombed-out, burned shell of a house after a riot—looted, empty, scarred, abandoned…lonely.
Hated herself for allowing just the sight of his name on her phone screen to affect her.
Get it together, she ordered herself, jerking her chin up in a defiant gesture that was lost on everyone in the lobby except her. Matt, her marriage, the devastation he’d wreaked—they were her past. Her career, this project revamping the hotel—they were her future…
Big, thick arms covered in geometric patterns and swirls of black ink banded her waist, pulling her back against a rock-solid wall of muscle.
Shock whipped through her like wicked, wild lightning, paralyzing every limb. Her lungs seized, trapping her breath but allowing her heart to pound out a rapid, What the living hell? beat.
Do something! Scratch! Stomp a foot! Grab a nut!
The mental shouts reverberated off the walls of her skull like ping-pong balls on speed, but every self-defense technique she’d learned at the YWCA absconded along with her ability to move.
“I think you might have mist—” she began, finally locating her voice.
“Help me.” The deep rumble vibrated against her back before the actual words reached her ears, reminding her of a bear’s growl. Not a Care Bear or Yogi, but a hungry grizzly just waking from hibernation. It was official; she was losing it.
She shook her head, trying to empty it of the inane thoughts. With that voice, she’d have expected him to say a smooth come-on or even something dirty and raw. Definitely not an S.O.S. Apparently taking the gesture as a rejection of his request, he murmured in her ear again with that gravel-and-midnight timbre, his lips brushing her skin.
“Please,” he pleaded. “I’m being hunted. Like big-white-hunter-on-safari hunted. Help me,” he repeated. “I’ll pay you back. A house. Do you need a house? Or maybe a car? Whatever, I got you. I’m desperate…”
Shut up, she mentally hissed at her faceless, flesh-and-blood wrap. And not because he’d just offered to buy her real estate. No, it was because he’d offered to buy her real estate in that voice. That dark, husky growl deserved an aisle in the back room of a sex shop devoted to it. Right next to the nipple vibrators and clamps.
“You know, this smacks of sexual harassment. #MeToo. Ever heard of it?” she asked, injecting a firmness in her tone that was lacking from her resolve not to notice how good. He. Felt.
“Believe me, I’m down with the #MeToo movement. I completely love and respect women. But my virginity is being threatened. Help.”
“Uh…” What the fuck did she say to that? She weakly plucked at a thick wrist. Which was a colossal mistake. Because then she couldn’t help but notice the size of said wrist. Her shock thawed, curiosity creeping in. Jesus. Would her fingers be able to fit around it? As if her hand had seceded from her brain, she could only watch as said fingers sought an answer to the question, circling one of the wrists across her waist. A gap separated the tip of her middle finger and her thumb. Damn. He must be a freaking giant. As if that one thought unlocked a door, a deluge of impressions—of sensations—flooded her.
He surrounded her.
Those heavily tattooed and muscled arms. The wide chest that completely covered her back and shoulders. The thighs that bracketed her legs.
She closed her eyes. Another mistake. His scent—wild like a rain-burdened wind before a storm, and earthy like sunbaked, freshly turned soil—enveloped her in a sensory embrace. The feel of his hard, big body against her smaller, softer frame became even more pronounced, and an image of him holding her the same way in a bed instead of in the middle of a convention center lobby flirted in her head before she could evict it.
Him behind her, his arms still holding her close, thighs spreading her legs wide, hot damp skin branding hers, a cock worthy of the size of those wrists penetrating her, stretching her, setting her on fire…
She shuddered. Had it been so long since she’d been touched that even a stranger whose face she hadn’t even seen could elicit such a strong, visceral reaction? Yep. The answer echoed in her mind as this man nuzzled a spot directly beneath her ear. A spot, coincidentally, directly connected to her nipples. The long-neglected tips hardened as if doing their own happy, it’s about damn time dance. It’d taken Matt a year of dating to discover that particular erogenous zone and this stranger, oh, five-point-two seconds to locate it. Another shiver rippled through her as soft but coarse hair grazed her jaw.
A beard—whoever he was that had her body zooming into hyperdrive sported a beard. She preferred clean-shaven men, not even a five o’clock shadow…didn’t she?
Yes, she firmly—desperately—reminded herself. And no way in hell was she imagining how that hair would feel brushing her inner thighs or her feminine flesh as he lapped at her clit… Aforementioned thighs trembled as heat rolled through her in a long, sinuous wave.
Good God. She was losing her mind along with her control. Scrambling for a tenuous foothold in common sense, she plucked at his wrist again.
“Please. Did I mention I’m desperate?”
“I—” She cleared her throat. Tried again. “Um, fine. But what do—”
He abruptly released her, only to grip her shoulders and turn her around. She just caught a flash of dark eyes with the thickest lashes before a firm, wide mouth settled over hers.
Sank into hers.
Firm? Had she thought firm? No, his lips—his incredibly mobile, talented lips—were soft, sensual. A man with the voice of a grizzly had no business possessing such a lush mouth, capable of delivering the gentle brushes he currently swept over hers. Bristly hair caressed her chin. Strong teeth nipped at the center of her bottom lip seconds before he soothed the tiny sting with a tender lick and slipped inside her.
A moan escaped her. Shivers overtook her, centering in her chest, belly, and knees. Desperate for purchase in this sudden, confusing landscape of shock and lust, she curled her fingers into his T-shirt, her knuckles bumping a rock-solid wall—or his chest. A big hand cradled the back of her head, another cupping her hip, holding her still. And close. So damn close. For an insane moment, a sense of safety swamped her. In that crazy instant, she believed that anything or anyone gunning for her would have to get past the giant plastered to the front of her body. And even more nuts? She suspected he would mow down anyone who tried.
Especially since his stroking, sucking tongue was the most threatening clear-and-present danger to her sanity, her body, her control.
Yet, she didn’t pull away. Instead, she stood there, allowing her mouth to be fucked. She leaned her head into his palm, opened her mouth wider to the increasingly more demanding thrusts and pulls of his mouth. Enjoyed the harder grip of his fingers on her hip. Savored the darker rumble of his groan. It vibrated against her, setting her nipples into peaks so tight, so tender, she barely stopped herself from rubbing against him like a cat in heat.
“Ronin?” an angry falsetto demanded, penetrating the erotic, midnight haze that had wrapped around her. “Are you serious?
The mouth that had become the center of her universe for the last few moments lifted, abandoning hers. She immediately turned so he couldn’t glimpse the shock, and God yes, lust that probably suffused her face. Lifting trembling fingers to her swollen, sensitive lips, she dipped her head because, yeah, maybe she didn’t want to see his face either. Didn’t want to see that maybe the kiss that had rocked her world had left him completely unmoved.
The huge body that had been pressed against hers shifted, aligning against her side. A heavy arm slid over her shoulders, anchoring her to that frame. Good thing. Her knees still hadn’t recuperated from their Jell-O-like state.
She blinked, steadying herself just as a pair of fire-engine red stilettos and endless, slim legs appeared in her line of vision. They were connected to a gorgeous, furious-looking brunette in a halter-style dress with a knee-length, flared skirt. Behind Kim, the handsy, I-kiss-total-strangers giant, who she assumed was Ronin, didn’t drop his embrace, and she couldn’t miss the fine tension that invaded his body. Especially since he was wrapped around her like an anaconda.
“Hey, Marissa.” He greeted the other woman, the amused and relaxed drawl belying the tautness in his giant frame. “I didn’t know you were attending the expo. What a coincidence. Right, sweetheart?”
Kim blinked again. What reality show hell had she just been dumped into the middle of?
“Sweetheart?” he repeated, giving Kim a not-so-gentle squeeze.
“Right. Coincidence,” she blurted, forcing her lips into a smile that felt as fake as the Gucci wallet the street vendor outside had tried to sell her. “I’m Kim. Nice to meet you.”
Marissa glared at Kim’s extended hand as if it were infected with scabies. All righty then. She lowered her arm.
“I thought you didn’t do girlfriends,” the other woman sneered, scanning Kim from head to toe. One corner of her mouth curled into a derisive smirk. “Isn’t she a little…bland for your tastes?”
Bland? Okay, that was uncalled for. So all her lady bits were covered in a perfectly respectable suit jacket and skirt. That didn’t make her boring; it made her professional. Bitch.
“Maybe he just needed something a little”—Kim paused and pursed her lips, tapping them with a fingertip—“different for him to change his mind,” she finished, pouring so much sugar in her tone that diabetic shock was a real possibility. She shrugged, not an easy feat under the weight of that heavy, tatted arm, and turned in his embrace, dismissing the brunette. “Sweetie, we should really get back inside. The fashion show is starting, and you know I wanted…your…opinion… … Oh, fuck.”
A dark, piratical eyebrow arched high at her hoarse curse, and scalding heat poured into her face. But shock had kidnapped her voice once more, and she couldn’t apologize. Because damn.
Ronin was gorgeous.
Like stunning, swashbuckling, shiver-me-timbers gorgeous. Or gleaming bare chest, loincloth, dancing around a roaring fire gorgeous. Black eyebrows with a wicked arch slashed over equally dark eyes that flashed with humor. Strong cheekbones and an elegant blade of a nose that any model would’ve put out a hit for almost drew attention from a sensual…generous mouth that she intimately knew could deliver on every erotic promise it hinted at. The full, but trimmed, beard completely covered his jaw and framed those lips, making them appear lush, more carnal.
And his body. As her very British mother would say, “Oh my giddy aunt.” She’d felt it pressed up against hers. Surmised from how he damn near surrounded her that he was a big guy. Hell, his hand had nearly spanned her head when he’d cradled it. But she hadn’t been prepared for…this. Her ex had been a large man at six-feet-two, but Ronin… He towered even taller, his shoulders wide and straight. The navy-blue Pac-Man T-shirt covering his chest—that rock-solid wall her knuckles had brushed against when she’d been fisting his shirt—and upper arms couldn’t hide the tight muscles that had her fingers itching to pinch and stroke. Lean hips and powerful thighs completed the package of a man who looked as if he felled trees for a living. Single-handed. The vintage shirt and even older-appearing, faded jeans only added to his almost overpowering masculinity.
He wasn’t pretty; he was too powerful, too virile, too raw, too…just too to ever be labeled that. Even the black hair tucked into a loose bun at the nape of his neck couldn’t detract from her impression of him as a fierce warrior. She’d bet her last Michael Kors purse that at least one of his parents or grandparents could boast of a proud Samoan or Polynesian heritage. With his beautiful golden skin and the big body that towered above her?
Oh yeah, last purse and shoes.
“Overly anxious, isn’t she?” The brunette snickered. “I don’t mind sharing you, Ronin. I think it would be kinda…hot,” she purred.
Oh, for the love of… “Can we go? It’s a little crowded out here,” Kim gritted out.
“Of course,” he murmured, finally removing his arm from around her. And no, damn it, that wasn’t a tiny shaft of disappointment sliding through her. “Nice seeing you again, Marissa,” he said to the other woman then, placing a wide palm to the small of Kim’s back, guided her toward the doors leading toward the convention hall. He grabbed the steel bar, glancing back over his shoulder before releasing it. Relief passed over his features. Turning to face her, he heaved a sigh.
“Thank you for that.” He flashed a sheepish, perfect grin. Of course it’s perfect. Why wouldn’t it be? “And I’m sorry for placing you in that position. But I’m not going to lie. I was scared.”
I will not be charmed. I will not be charmed.
“Just be glad I don’t charge for my services by the hour.” She heard the words as soon as she uttered them. And groaned. Damn. “I didn’t mean—”
His bark of laughter cut her off, and hell, even that was sexy. The low timbre of it slid its way down her spine, culminating in a sizzling tingle in her lower back where his hand had touched her. “Sweetheart, for you, I’d pay by the minute. I have the feeling you’d be worth it. Kim.” He stated her name slowly, as if sipping it like a fine wine, savoring it.
Unnerved by the image, and the coiling in her stomach, she snorted. “I’m sure that was a compliment in a Pretty Woman sort of way. Is that the line you used to land Marissa back there?”
“Of course it was a compliment. But to be fair, you introduced hourly rates into the conversation. And since you asked, it was my”—he leaned closer, as if about to impart a deep, dark secret—“wit that landed Marissa.”
She arched an eyebrow. “It’s been a while, but is that what they’re calling dicks these days?”
Another loud burst of laughter escaped him, turning heads in their direction, and she cringed. What was wrong with her mouth? She didn’t banter with strange men—hell, men period. After being with Matt so long, she’d forgotten the art of flirting. And since finding out what a cheating douche the man she’d been married to was, she hadn’t had the desire to flirt, date, or have sex. To say she was rusty in all areas man-related would be like saying the Grand Canyon was a really big pothole.
She should go, return to her booth. Walk away and forget all about this incident and the man who’d incited it…
“Can I ask you a question?” Inside her head, what the hell are you doing? reverberated. “Why don’t you just tell her the truth? If you’re going to such drastic measures to fend her off, you’re clearly not interested. Why not just tell her you don’t want to be bothered and back off?”
“You think I haven’t tried?” He shrugged. “What kind of jerk do you take me for?”
“Umm, one who will plant a kiss on one woman when he doesn’t know her from Tom, Dick, or Harry, just to avoid confrontation with another?”
He gasped. Seriously. Freaking gasped. “I would never kiss Dick. He’s married, and I’m not that kind of person,” he objected, offense coloring his tone. Part of her was surprised he didn’t press a hand to his chest, clutching non-existent pearls.
“Really?” she drawled, holding back a snort. Barely. Who the hell was this guy? “Are you serious right now?”
“Hell, yeah. I respect the institution of marriage,” he added, one of his piratical eyebrows arching, and that already deep, somehow melodic voice lowering. “And if I were less than the gentleman my mother raised me to be, I would gladly point out that your tongue wasn’t exactly trying to evict me from your mouth. It was too busy tangling with mine. And you were definitely”—he paused, his dark gaze dropping to her suddenly sensitive lips—“tangling.”
She cleared her throat and tried to ignore the twist and grind of lust in her stomach. What the hell? Men who had hair longer than hers, who didn’t shave, and whose fashion sense included T-shirts bearing 80s video game icons weren’t even remotely her type. She favored urbane, well-groomed, clean-shaven men. Men who looked like they stepped out of the boardroom, not the bedroom. As in, just rolled out of that bed. And yet… It didn’t take much effort to still feel that mobile, giving mouth on hers. Didn’t stretch her imagination in the least to once more hear that low, hungry growl. Would only require a sweep of her tongue over her bottom lip to savor the lingering taste of his kiss…
“So glad you’re too much of a gentleman to mention it, then,” she said, aiming for wry, but the breathlessness in her voice torpedoed the hell out of her best intentions. “Still, if you’re going to indulge in booty calls, you might want to prepare a good escape plan afterward.”
God, when had she started sounding so prudish and…bitchy. Uh, right. A year ago. When her husband imploded their marriage with his succession of hookups that, according to him, “meant nothing.” Too bad they’d meant everything to her.
“Does anyone even call it a booty call anymore?” he asked.
She snorted, trying to purge the picture of him and the Marissa woman from her brain. Not that it bothered her. Because it didn’t. Much. “I’ll concede your point. It’s as 80s as that shirt.”
“Now look here, woman.” His brows arrowed into a fierce frown, but the amused gleam in his eyes ruined the pretense of affront. “You can talk about my manners, my kissing technique—which we both know is stellar—or my avoidance of potential ugly-cry skirmishes. But my vintage T-shirts? Off-limits. I have to draw a line somewhere.”
Laughter at his inane argument bubbled up inside her chest. But she tamped it down, the sensation…foreign. Which was just fucking sad. Shaking her head, she crossed her arms. And not against the convention center’s air-conditioned breeze, but in self-preservation against his rough charm. “You should’ve drawn the line at the door…of the store you bought it from.”
His laughter seemed to boom off the walls of the large lobby, drawing curious gazes from the people milling about. Not that he seemed to notice. His grin and the twinkle in those bottomless eyes—whose eyes actually twinkled, other than Santa Claus’s?—were pinned on her. As if no one existed for him but her.
Another strange feeling. It’d been a hell of a long time since she’d been anyone’s sole focus.
She shook her head again, harder this time, as if the sharp motion could dislodge the crazy thought.
“I like you,” he said, the soft rumble in his voice sliding over her. Under her suit jacket and shirt. Over bare skin.
Combatting the disconcerting sensation, she scoffed. “Uh-huh. Like Marissa.”
He frowned, and this time, it was barren of amusement. He studied her, and she fought not to fidget or flinch under the piercing inspection. It was startling for all that playfulness to so suddenly disappear, and it left her momentarily reeling.
“Another thing I don’t do to women—lie. I was upfront with her about what I wanted, about what I could give her. And that didn’t include a relationship. Sex. Hot, good, harmless fucking—that’s what I promised. She turned the tables. She tried to make it into something I never wanted or agreed to. But that’s still no reason to be unkind, to treat her like shit.”
Stunned, she stared at him, rocked by his quiet, dignified statement. In that instant, she became the bitter bitch she’d sworn she wouldn’t allow Matt’s betrayal to transform her into. It was one thing to believe football players were walking dicks just waiting for a willing pussy to stick themselves into. But now, she’d judged a man she didn’t know, a regular man who had been attempting to be chivalrous in his own ass-backward way. Or so it seemed.
He very well could be as upfront with other women as he claimed. Yet, he was still here, at a wedding expo, with a woman hunting him down like he sported ivory tusks. Hell, she didn’t know. It would be refreshing if he was as honest as he claimed. Truth be told, she would’ve appreciated honesty from Matt. At least then she would’ve had the choice whether or not to continue in their sham of a marriage.
She lowered her arms, cocking her head to the side. “A word of advice, though?” At his nod, she dipped her head in the direction of the wide doors that led back to the hall. “You might want to keep the kissing of strangers to a minimum if you’re at a wedding expo. I don’t know if you’re here with someone, but—”
A look of absolute horror crossed his face. It would’ve been comical if not for the real terror in it. “Oh shit! Hana.”
Between one moment and the next, he vanished, having disappeared through the doors in a speed that was surprising for such a big man. Bemused, she stared after him. Or rather the place he’d once stood. Shaking her head, she followed him several minutes later.
Kissed by a complete stranger. Confronted by his pissed-off one-night stand. Chatted up about the aforementioned kiss, Pac-Man T-shirts, and booty-call protocol.
This had to be the weirdest wedding expo ever.