Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(8)


by Meghan March

Rather than his face, I focused on the black studs in his pristine white tux shirt, and cleared my throat.

“A sign of what exactly?”

He released the bars of the gate and tilted my chin up so I was forced to meet his eyes.

“I’m not sure. Maybe just my own good luck because I wanted to see you again.” He paused before adding, “Have dinner with me.”

I forced a humorless laugh. “I think you’re a little busy right now.” The crowd had started to move again, although slowly, but he was going to be left behind if he didn’t rejoin the wedding party.

He glanced over his shoulder and nodded. “Later. After the reception. Meet me somewhere.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Charlie—”

His words were cut off when someone yelled, “Duchesne, let’s go!”

I spun and shoved my key into the lock. Simon’s heat melted away as he stepped back.

“I’m guessing, based on the monster dog, this is where you live?”

I didn’t reply. I pulled the gate open and slipped inside. Simon didn’t try to stop me as I maneuvered around Huck and shut the gate in his face.

From behind the safety of my iron bars, I finally found the courage to look up at him again. His hazel eyes burned into me.

“I want to see you again. Just dinner. Or drinks. Your choice.”

“I think you should go. You’re losing your friends.”

“I’ll catch up. Just give me your number. Please, Charlie.”

I shook my head. He made me want things I couldn’t have. “Maybe I’ll see you around, Simon.” I turned and walked down my narrow corridor back to the safety of my garden oasis.

I thought about getting hammered at the reception, but I didn’t want to be that guy. Besides, there were too many flashing cameras to catch any missteps I might make. So I gave my toast. Tasteful, heartfelt. Derek and I had been friends since we were old enough to climb through the fence that separated my parents’ Garden District home from his. Given the close connection between our families¸ my parents had attended the wedding, though not the parade. My father was two weeks out from a knee replacement and would be recuperating through the summer at the house in Bar Harbor. Which meant I’d be saved from their meddling in my love life—or lack thereof—for two months. I loved them to death, but they were relentless in their quest to see me settle down. My father’s lectures about finding a woman who would be an asset to my political career were enough to make me want to find the nearest bottle of scotch. I didn’t want an asset; I wanted a best friend, a lover, a partner, someone I could depend on and raise a family with. At thirty-one, my friends were pairing off, and it occurred to me that I wanted that too. Not today, or maybe even this year, but sometime in the foreseeable future. Except I certainly wasn’t settling until I found the one. It was corny and cliché, but I was only planning on doing the marriage thing once. So I’d wait until I found her.

I pictured the woman who’d effectively shut me out earlier today. Charlie. I didn’t know her, or know anything about her, but I wanted to have the chance to get to know her. It was a nebulous feeling, but it seemed imperative. I didn’t want to let her walk away, but I wasn’t the kind of guy to keep going back where I clearly wasn’t welcome. She was just so damn different from every other woman I’d ever met. She wore her attitude like armor, daring someone to challenge her so she could tell him to fuck off. I shouldn’t have found it so appealing, especially because I was the one she’d most recently told to fuck off. But it was. She made no apologies for who she was, and it was sexy as hell. And I needed to move on.

I sighed and headed to the bar in search of that scotch.

As the bartender poured my three fingers, I pulled my phone from my jacket pocket and noticed I had a missed call and voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize. Tossing a tip in the jar, I grabbed my drink and headed out into the lobby, away from the noise of the reception. As soon as I heard her voice on the message, I damn near dropped my glass. I looked at the time of the missed call. Before the parade.

A surge of excitement rushed through me, followed closely by confusion. She’d called me before I’d seen her today. I dropped onto a bench near the door. It didn’t add up. It’d been less than an hour between the time she’d left the message and the parade. Something had obviously happened to cause her complete one-eighty. I looked down at my watch. I had to stay for at least another hour, but then I’d track her down and get my answers. I’d been ready to let go of my fascination with her, but she’d smashed the ball back into my court. This wasn’t over yet.

I’d finished the bottle of wine and changed into a pair of threadbare lilac cotton pajama pants to go with my wife beater. The bra had been tossed to the top of the bureau. If I could go the rest of my life without wearing one, I would. But with boobs that topped out just under double D, it wasn’t an option. I envied those B-cup girls some days. My hair was up in a ratty bun, and I was debating whether or not I wanted to open a second bottle. I’d be hung over in the morning, but I didn’t have to work, so why the hell not? I’d toast Simon Duchesne goodbye. Why am I still thinking about him? I gave myself a mental kick. Enough.

My buzzer rang as I reached for the corkscrew. I looked at the clock. It was 11:30 on a Saturday night. Who the hell? It rang again, and I crossed the tiny space to the ancient intercom on my wall.

“Yes?”

“It’s Simon.” As if my very thoughts had conjured him. Damn the juju in this town.

I inhaled sharply, my nipples perking up at his dark, rumbling voice. No, body, the brain has already made this decision. But the reprimand was pointless. I clearly couldn’t trust myself around him. Or his voice.

I pressed the button on the intercom again. “Go away, Simon.”

“I got your message.”

Oh shit. Of course he had. Finishing off the wine had helped me forget my earlier lapse in judgment. And now I supposed I owed him an in-person blow off. After all, I was sending off more mixed signals than a drunken air traffic controller.

“Hold on.” I slipped on my flip-flops and left Huck inside.

In the dim glow of the street lamps I could see him leaning against the gate, bowtie, jacket, and the top four studs of his shirt missing. His sleeves were rolled up, and I could see the anchor and trident on his inner forearm. I was all set to tell him to go the hell home, but that peek of his ink combined with the casually confident way he held himself had the words clogging in my throat. I couldn’t help but think that even though his public persona was hazardous to my very existence, it might be worth flirting with danger to steal a taste of the man beneath it. I stared up at the sky for a beat, seeking divine guidance. Finding none, I looked back to Simon.