Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(7)


by Meghan March

My eyebrows shot up to my hairline. “Umm … what? No. It’s not like that between Con and me. So, just no.”

“Whatever you say. So what’s the real reason you’re not calling this guy?”

I cringed, because I couldn’t tell her the real reason. But I could give her at least part of the truth. “Because Simon is Simon Duchesne. Current city councilman, son of a former congressman, probably going to run for Congress?”

She tapped one perfectly manicured nail on the glass. “And?”

“And—well, look at me.” I gestured to my tattoos. They started at the tops of my shoulders and swirled down my arms and sides, stopping at my wrists and hips. I didn’t have a chest piece, or any on my hands, but still. I was a walking work of art. Not exactly prime arm candy material for a politician, even if I could risk the cameras. But it wasn’t like I wanted to be, or would ever allow myself to be, someone’s arm candy. “I’m not exactly his type.”

“He asked you out. So he thinks you are his type. Besides, that old rule about good girls liking bad boys—it cuts both ways, sugar. He’s a good boy, and you’re a pretty bad ass bad girl.” She paused. “I notice you didn’t say anything about not wanting to take him up on his offer because you weren’t attracted to him.”

I skimmed my hand along the rack of hanging shirts. “How could I not be? I mean, the man is gorgeous. I thought I was going to have to find a new pair of panties after he left.”

Yve shrugged. “So take him for a ride. Doesn’t mean you have to keep him. You get off, he gets his bad girl fix, and no one gets hurt.”

Goddammit. “I hate it when you make sense.”

“Then get out of here, girl. Go get your booty call. I’ll close up. It’s been a slow night anyway.”

So Huck and I went.

My hands were sweaty as I sifted through my junk drawer for his card. I can’t believe I’m even considering this. If it had just been about scratching an itch, I could’ve gone to Con. But it was more than that. It was something unique to Simon—he exuded this innate confidence, this I’m strong enough to handle anything you can throw at me vibe—and it drew me in.

Finding the crumpled piece of white cardstock, I scanned it for what seemed like the millionth time. I punched his cell number into my prepaid phone and buried a hand in Huck’s fur as it rang. I hadn’t been this nervous to call a guy since middle school. My stomach churned as it rang a second time, then a third, and a fourth. And then, Simon’s voice asked me to leave a message. Shit. I didn’t know what to say, but for some stupid reason I didn’t hang up. I mumbled something about being Charlie from Voodoo wanting to take him up on his offer and rattled off my number. I dropped my phone on the kitchen counter and scrubbed both hands over my face. How very anti-climactic.

Huck head-butted my thigh and padded to the door. He was right. It was a gorgeous late-May evening and perfect for sitting in the garden oasis. I uncorked a bottle of cheap red wine and grabbed a glass.

Setting myself up at the bistro table, I poured a generous serving, and cracked open the book I’d brought down.

Huck rolled in the grass, all four long legs in the air. His head arched to the side as he tried to bite his tail. Crazy mutt. I shoved the book aside and dropped onto the ground beside him, scratching his chest and belly as I polished off my first glass of wine.

I was lying next to Huck when I heard one of my most favorite sounds of the Quarter—the sousaphone, drums, and brass band that signaled a wedding parade. It was quiet at first, the beats rumbling through the still evening, and it grew louder and louder. I actually felt giddy when I realized they were coming down my street. I pushed off the ground and ran up to my apartment to get my keys for the gate. Pausing by the table, I splashed more wine in my glass.

I wanted to watch like a goddamn tourist.

I slipped down the narrow brick walkway that led to the gate with Huck on my heels. I squeezed out, locking him inside. He growled his displeasure, but I was already entranced by the large crowd of wedding guests marching and dancing down the street toward me. Neighbors and tourists lined the sidewalks, snapping pictures and cheering on the crowd. The bride’s parasol bounced in the air, delicate white feathers floating from the edges. The band stopped and broke into a raucous tune. The wedding party and guests grabbed partners and danced with abandon, handkerchiefs flying. The groom swept the bride up in his arms and spun her in dizzying circles.

It was my own secret fantasy—one that I’d never admit. I swallowed back the regret for what would never be and focused on the happy couple. The groom … he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I sipped my wine and tried to recall where I’d seen him before. It hit me as soon as I saw him.

Simon.

He was leading a gray-haired woman in a jaunty waltz in the middle of the street, dressed in a black tux tailored to perfection. Gone were the jeans and simple T-shirt that he’d worn the last time I’d seen him. He looked every inch the Southern gentlemen-politician in black tie. Several women in matching seafoam green dresses watched him like he was last Versace dress in creation designed by Gianni himself. Bridesmaids. A surge of jealousy ripped through me to think about Simon as the stereotypical groomsman who would, by the end of the night, undoubtedly have the opportunity to nail one—or more—of them. I suddenly felt ridiculous. I looked down at the nine dollar wine in my glass, my wife beater, tight, pale gray skinny jeans, and two dollar flip-flops. For a split second I wished I still had some of the wardrobe that would put those bitches to shame. I gave myself a mental shake. No. That’s not me. And it’ll never be me again.

I shouldn’t have called him. Shouldn’t have left that stupid message. I’d never belong in his world. And what’s more, I didn’t want to belong there. I didn’t.

I turned away from the parade, spirits doused, and struggled to fit my key into the lock. My hand shook, and I kept missing the tiny keyhole. A large, tanned hand closed over mine. A second hand gripped the bars and trapped me in the circle of his arms.

I stared down at the white dress shirt and monogrammed silver cufflink peeking out from the sleeve of his black jacket.

He spoke into my ear, his voice low and gravelly. “If I keep seeing you, I’m going to take it as a sign.”

I swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut. Huck growled, but I reached out a hand and patted his head through the bars. He quieted and lay down against the gate. I turned in Simon’s arms, careful to avoid spilling my wine, and stared up at him. At five-four, I wasn’t exactly short, but he dwarfed me, especially when we were this close. He had to be almost a foot taller than me, and with his broad shoulders filling my view, I couldn’t see anything but him.