Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(14)

by Meghan March

I smiled slightly, but my heart wasn’t in it. His statement made me think about my relationship with my own mother, which was much too screwed up for such a pure sentiment.

We walked through the front door of a house a fraction of the size of the mansion, and Simon turned to face me. “Hey, Huck’s going to be all right. Jack’s one of the best.”

He’d mistaken my silence as concern for Huck, and guilt flooded me; I’d spent two minutes not worrying about my pup. I was a bad daughter and a bad dog mom.

“Thank you. Again. For everything.” I looked away and took in the dark paneled interior of the foyer and the crystal chandelier hanging overhead. A wide, gleaming wooden staircase curved up to the second floor. I stood dumbly. I didn’t want to get the grime of my person on the pristine furnishings.

“How about a shower?” Simon asked.

“That would be great,” I started, but paused to look down at my blood-smeared shirt. “But I don’t have any other clothes.”

“I’ll find something for you. Might be a little big, but they’ll work for tonight.”

“Umm … okay. Thanks.”

I followed as Simon led the way up the stairs, lost in my own thoughts. He seemed to understand that I needed the silence and didn’t fill it with inane chatter. He gestured to a bathroom and opened the glass enclosure to flip on the water and adjust the temperature.

“Wait just a minute.”

He left and returned with a fluffy white robe, a T-shirt, and boxers. He stacked them on the counter.

“Thanks,” I whispered again. He closed the door as he left me alone in the white and gold bathroom that was quickly filling with steam. I stripped and stepped into the shower. I let the water cascade over me, soaking my hair and skin. Whatever strength had been holding me together was washed away with the grime and remaining traces of Huck’s blood. I lowered myself to the tiled floor, wrapped my arms around my knees, and let myself fall apart.

I paused outside the bathroom door, listening to Charlie’s gut-wrenching sobs. I gripped the back of my neck with both hands and stepped away, not wanting to invade her privacy any more than I already had. I hated seeing the stooped set of her shoulders. I much preferred her with her chin held high, blowing me off. Wanting to do something, anything, I called Jack. He assured me that Huck was doing fine, and although the recovery was going to be long, he’d likely come through it as good as new. For Charlie’s sake, I hoped he was right. She treated the dog like most people did a child. For a non-dog person, that might seem strange, but given the way my mother coddled her Pekinese and my father had babied his retrievers until they’d passed, it was nothing new to me. Hell, even the homeless folks in the Quarter twisted the sentiment to their advantage, using pathetic looking dogs to pry dollars from the hands of softhearted tourists.

But for Charlie, it seemed to be something more. She was a mystery, a standoffish enigma. In the age of Google, everything about my life was available for public consumption with a few keystrokes. I didn’t know her last name, but I wondered what I would find if I did. Honestly, though, I’d rather learn about her from her. But that seemed unlikely to happen. She freely admitted she was only interested in one night—or less. But something about her made me want to explore this … whatever this was between us.

I’d almost come in my pants like a teenager the night she’d casually stripped in front of me. She was willing to show me her body, but I wanted more. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Normally I was the one pushing women away. Charlie had shut me down more times in a handful of days than I’d been shot down in years. I wasn’t trying to be arrogant—it was just the truth. First, I was the son of a congressman, then a Navy pilot in a strike fighter, which was a straight up pussy magnet. Most recently, I was the decorated vet returning home to take his place in the family dynasty. The former debutantes my parents pushed at me wilted into my arms. I carefully extricated myself from those situations, because the daughters of the city’s leading families would expect a ring, when I wouldn’t even stay the night.

So why was I so pissed when Charlie turned my very own M.O. on me?

Probably because I had my own reasons for not staying the night, and they had nothing to do with not wanting to do so on occasion. I headed to one of the guestrooms and turned down the bed. Given her worry about Huck, I hoped my actions would seem gentlemanly and not strange.

I met Charlie in the hallway as she came out of the bathroom drowning in the white terry cloth robe. Her clothes were rolled up in a bundle under her arm, and my shirt and boxers dangled from her other hand. Damn. That meant she was naked under the robe. I pushed the thought away and gestured to the guestroom with the two glasses of bourbon I held.

She followed me into the room, and I set one glass on the nightstand. Charlie placed her bundle of clothes on the dresser. She laid out the T-shirt and boxers on the end of the bed.

“Thought you might want a drink to help you sleep,” I said.

“Thank you.” She took the glass and sipped. She surveyed the room, lingering on the artwork. “This isn’t your room.”

“No. Guestroom.”

She turned to face me. “Good to know my instincts aren’t completely off. Cezanne’s fruit doesn’t really seem like your style.” She gestured to the still life painting on the wall with her glass.

My eyes narrowed, and once again I was struck by the feeling that this woman was much more than she pretended to be. She drank the rest of her bourbon, and I cast about for something to say; I hit on the most pertinent fact.

“I called Jack and checked on Huck. He’s still doing fine.”

Her shoulders tensed for a beat before relaxing. “Thank you, again. I was going to ask you for his number so I could do that.”

“I’ll make sure you have it.” The silence stretched between us, heavy and awkward. “I guess I’ll let you get some sleep then. I’ll be down the hall if you need something.”

She watched as I pulled the door shut, but said nothing about my abrupt departure.

I walked down the hallway to my own room, wishing I wasn’t so fucked up that I couldn’t have a woman spend the night in my bed. Because that’s where I wanted Charlie, even if all I was doing was holding her close to take away some of her worry and replacing it with peace of mind. Not that she’d let me. Yet.