Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(9)


by Meghan March

“What are you doing here?” I asked. My tone was less than welcoming. If he let me run him off, then I’d be saved from the temptation that was Simon Duchesne.

“You called me.”

“I shouldn’t have.”

“I’m glad you did.” He shifted, as though annoyed by the bars between us. Sorry, Simon, I thought, even without the bars, there will always be impenetrable walls.

A thought struck me. “Are you drunk?”

“No,” Simon replied with a laugh. “Are you?”

“A little.” At least I could be honest about that.

A provocative smile spread over his face, and I caught a flash of dimples. Damn. Come on world, throw me a bone.

“Are you going to ask me in?” He punctuated the question with a raised eyebrow.

“I shouldn’t.” To myself I added, I really, really shouldn’t.

“You don’t look like the kind of girl who doesn’t do things just because she thinks she shouldn’t.”

I looked down at the uneven cobblestones beneath my feet. “Don’t pretend like you know me.”

“I want to.”

“Why?” It was a question I desperately wanted answered. I was still trying to sort out all of the reasons for my attraction to him. Maybe he could articulate whatever this crazy thing was between us, and solve the mystery for me.

He reached through the bars and tucked a flyaway strand of hair behind my ear.

“Honestly, I have no idea. You’re just … there’s something about you.”

Dammit. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, giving myself a moment to think. Ultimately, it was his honesty that decided it. We were equally off balance here. I was probably going to regret this, but … what the hell. I twisted the lock and opened the gate. For some reason, it didn’t feel wrong. I thought of Yve’s advice. One night. Get him out of my system. I never had to see him again. I could steal this night and emerge unscathed.

My heart hammered as my plan formed. I forced myself to walk slowly as I led Simon to the inner courtyard, and he paused to take in the garden oasis. It was magical. A hidden gem in the middle of the Quarter. The brick walls enclosed a huge live oak, draped with thick blankets of Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Fairy lights and solar-powered Chinese lanterns dangled from the branches. The tinkle of the fountains and the koi pond were the only sounds beyond the noise of the city. The blue water of the small splash pool reflected the lights and the stars.

“This place is amazing.” Simon spun in a slow circle, taking in the oasis and the spiral staircase that led up to my apartment.

My plan was crazy, but I had the privacy I needed; Harriet was at an art showing in San Francisco. Simon was going to think I was insane, but in my messed up mind, this was the only way I could make it work. I wanted us on a level playing field, and his shiny black dress shoes, pressed white shirt, and tux pants did nothing but remind me of my past and the light years between our current situations in life.

My hands trembled as I reached for the hem of my tank and tugged it up and over my head. I let it dangle from my fingertips and float to the ground. My courage faltered as Simon turned to face me, but I kept going. I stepped out of my flip-flops and caught the waist of my pajama pants with my thumbs and tugged them down. His eyes widened comically, and his jaw slackened as he took in my nakedness. I pulled the elastic from my hair and let the waves fall around my shoulders. The black, red, and purple tresses covered my breasts and hid the gold rings that pierced my nipples. I tried to picture myself from his point of view. Inked from shoulders to wrists. Script down my left side, along my ribs. An abstract phoenix down my other side. My legs were pale white, yet untouched by the needle. I was offering him everything I was, stripped down to the core of me—albeit temporarily. I turned and stepped into the splash pool, the warm water rising up to my chest. My hair floated on the surface before sinking down and clinging to me.

“Are you coming in?” I was proud that my voice didn’t shake. He hadn’t moved, and I couldn’t read his expression. But I wanted him to be as naked as I was—all evidence of his status and position left outside the little bubble I was creating. For tonight, I wanted there to be no past, no future. I just wanted right now. This moment. With him.

“Charlie—”

I leaned back and let my body float to the surface as I treaded water with my hands. I never thought the synchronized swimming lessons I’d been forced to take would ever come in handy, but the gracefulness with which I floated proved me wrong.

“Don’t think, Simon. Just strip.”

He tugged his bottom lip between even white teeth and hesitated a moment before reaching for his belt and unbuckling it. He unbuttoned his pants and drew down his zipper. I watched, fascinated by his efficient movements. He pushed his pants to the ground, revealing snug black boxer briefs stretched by his thick erection. Well, it’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good idea.

He plucked the remaining studs from his shirt and shrugged it off, letting it drop to the ground, before gripping a handful of the back of his white undershirt and pulling it over his head. Underneath it he was all broad shoulders and defined muscles. I let my eyes wander down his rippling abs to the trail of dark hair that began at his navel and disappeared into the gray band of his underwear. He obscured the perfect V of his hips when he hooked his thumbs in the top of his boxer briefs, and my eyes snapped up to his. He was grinning at my unabashed ogling of him. As much as I wanted to look down, I held his stare. He bent slightly, and I knew he was stepping out of his briefs. He crossed the last few feet to the pool, stepped into the water, and came toward me. I paddled toward the far end and he followed.

“What game are you playing, Charlie?”

“No game. Just … this.” I spread my arms out wide, gesturing to … everything. Because I couldn’t explain myself any other way without exposing too much.

Backing me into a corner, he trapped me in the circle of his arms, much like he had earlier at the gate. I reached up and laid my palms against his chest, tracing the compass inked on his pectoral muscle with my index finger. Our skin didn’t touch anywhere else, but mine prickled with the need to feel him against me. I leaned closer, but he grasped my shoulders, effectively holding me back.

I looked up questioningly.

“You left me a message, then slammed a gate in my face, then you strip in front of me, and invite me to go skinny dipping. I can’t keep up with you. I need to know what the hell is going on here before it goes any further.”