Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(6)

by Meghan March

He didn’t speak for a moment, just studied me. He pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his worn jeans without breaking eye contact.

“Do you get a break?”

His question jolted me back to reality. “What?” I asked.

He pressed both palms against the scarred, graffiti-covered surface and leaned toward me. “Have dinner with me. Tonight.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Con, who seemed to have the shittiest timing on the planet, stepped out of the break room and came to stand behind me. “Councilman, I didn’t realize you’d come back.” Con’s voice held a note of something I couldn’t identify. It wasn’t jealousy. It was something … else. He must have glanced down at Simon’s forearm, because he said, “Glad to see you got your touch up. No charge for that. Feel free to be on your way.”

I glanced back at Con, giving him a what the fuck look. His behavior was completely off. He might not be unfailingly polite to every customer who walked in the door, but he didn’t usually try to throw anyone out.

“I got a new one, too. I’ll settle up with Charlie, Constantine.” Simon’s tone carried a stubborn edge.

Clearly there was history here I wasn’t privy to. And then Con’s words solidified in my brain. Councilman?

“Seems strange that someone rumored to be kicking off a campaign for daddy’s old congressional seat would be getting more ink.” Con wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me against him. “Or is it something—or someone—else that brings you back?”

I jabbed an elbow into Con’s gut. He dropped his arm. I spun and whisper-yelled at him. “Quit being a dick, and drop this whole junkyard dog pissing on your territory act. That shit doesn’t fly with us, and you know it.”

“Lee … I just…”

“Just what?”

He sighed. “He’s not the kind of guy you should be getting mixed up with.” Con bent close and whispered in my ear, “I know you keep a low profile for a reason, and being seen with Simon Duchesne might not be the best idea.”

The heat that had been thrumming through my veins turned to ice. Con was right. He had no idea why he was so right, but he was. Regardless, I didn’t need him to run interference for me. I’d been taking care of myself for the last year, and I’d keep on doing it.

I pressed a hand against his chest. “It’s cool. I got this, Con.” He stared me down for a moment and then turned and left.

I spun back around and faced Simon Duchesne. Councilman. Son of a congressman. Rumored congressional candidate. The kind of man my mother would have salivated over having me date when I was Charlotte Agoston. The kind of man who was off limits and straight up dangerous to the continued anonymity of Charlie Stone. The potential consequences of being seen with him—and recognized—played through my mind at hyper speed. I’d have to leave New Orleans and this makeshift family I’d fallen in love with. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

His eyes narrowed. “Because of Con? You’re with him.”

It wasn’t any of Simon Duchesne’s business who I was with, but I told him anyway. “No. It’s not that. We’re not … together, together.”

He continued to study me. “Then why? Because I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t see you every time you stopped and stared at me over the past hour.”

Well and truly busted. Conceited ass. “You’re pretty to look at, that’s all. Doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with you.”

“Fine. I won’t waste my breath then.” He handed over four hundred-dollar bills. “Tell Delilah to keep the change.”

He turned to walk away, and my ridiculous heart sank. Before I could berate myself for my ludicrous reaction, he turned back around and pulled something out of his pocket. A business card. He dropped it on the counter. “If you ever change your mind, Charlie.”

I turned down Con last Saturday night. It was the first time I’d ever done that. Given the awkward tension that had lingered between us all week, I was even more grateful to have the rest of the weekend off. Besides, I hadn’t had a Saturday night to myself in three weeks. And followed by an entire Sunday off? It’d been forever. Now I just needed my shift at the Dirty Dog to end already.

I looked at the clock. Twenty minutes to go. I sighed, reorganizing a rack of vintage concert T-shirts for the seventh time. My paycheck was going to take a hit this week because there was a Black Sabbath Heaven + Hell Tour T-shirt I needed to own. I didn’t splurge often, never really, but this shirt was so perfectly ironic because of the lyrics on the back. The part about blinded eyes and stolen dreams sent my thoughts back to Manhattan. The song summed up so much of my former life. Wearing it would be another little rebellion. I checked the time again. Five o’clock couldn’t come fast enough.

A slobbery tennis ball hit me in the side of the head. “What the hell?” I grabbed it off the floor and looked around for Huck. But all I saw was Yve rolling her eyes at me.

“What’s your deal, girl? You’ve been dragging ass all day and staring at the clock. Got a hot date?”

My breath caught in my chest. A hot date was exactly what I didn’t have. I thought about the business card buried in the bottom of my junk drawer. I still wasn’t sure why I’d kept it, but now it was dog-eared from all the times I’d dug it out only to shove it back in the drawer just as quickly. I hated the indecision Simon dredged up in me.

“Earth to Charlie…”

Shit. I hadn’t answered her question. “No—no hot date.” I decided, against my better judgment, to share. Maybe Yve would just kick my ass, and I could move on and stop thinking about him. I took a deep breath and added, “But … there is this guy…”

Yve rested her elbows on the glass case that served as a checkout counter and steepled her fingers. “Tell Yve all about it.”

So I did. I told her about both times he’d come to Voodoo, how he’d asked me out, and how Con had reacted.

“So, a hot piece of man asked you to dinner and you turned him down, why? Because Constantine was having a jealous moment?”

“It wasn’t jealousy really. It was more protectiveness … I think.”

“Call it what you want, but I’ve always thought your fuck buddy thing with Con was going to end with one of you gettin’ your heart broken.”