Authors: Laura Strickland
Tags: #Holiday,Contemporary,Humorous/Romantic Comedy
Gerri leaned closer and looked into his eyes. “Not yet. Let’s keep the mystery going a bit longer.”
“Okay. Tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a tattoo artist—emphasis on
. I do custom work designed to order. My art graces some of the most unique bodies in this city.”
“That explains your cheek.” His gaze moved over her, warm and curious. “Any tattoos elsewhere?”
“I’ll never tell.” She licked the foam from her cup, far too aware that he followed the motion of her tongue. Surely a man like this wasn’t interested in a girl like her, was he?
“How about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a history professor at the community college.”
“Of course you are. You sure look the part—right down to the spectacles. My, my—I’ll bet your female students fall all over themselves to get detention.”
“Is that a compliment, Miss Webb?”
“I suppose it is. I know how susceptible girls that age can be.”
“Well, I’ve never noticed any of them falling over themselves, as you put it. Some do doze off during my lessons, especially on Monday mornings.”
He took a sip of tea, and his specs steamed up. Gerri, leaning closer, wished she could take them off to get a better look at those eyes, definitely his best feature and fringed with lashes of a ridiculous length.
“So,” she prompted, “what brought you to the library?”
“I saw the sign out front and—well, a cold, empty apartment didn’t seem very appealing. You?”
She confessed, “Same. When I read, I get to leave reality behind for a little while. And I like venturing into the unknown. Are you a mystery just like that book, Leo Rankin—waiting for somebody to unwrap you?”
Thoughts flickered through his eyes before he inspected her again from the top of her head downward, lingering on the front of her coat. This was just a game, she remembered—a diversion shared by two people on a night when they didn’t want to be alone.
She expected him to laugh off the flirty question, refuse the bait. Instead, he leaned so close his brown head nearly touched her black one, and his gaze captured hers.
“Miss Webb, would you like to find out?”
And, Leo wondered, what had possessed him to answer Miss Webb’s question in such a suggestive fashion? How would she take his reply—as an invitation? He didn’t usually put it out there that way. Far more often he wound up sitting alone at a party, or corralled by the boring guest to whom no one else wanted to talk.
How was that working for him? He pondered it even as he watched a number of emotions dance across Miss Webb’s mobile features.
Go with it. Lighten up for once and play the game.
A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth, and he had the sudden desire to kiss her.
“Maybe I would,” she said. “But I don’t do one-night stands.”
He blinked at her. “Uh—well, neither do I.”
,” she stipulated. “Of course”—a slight flush tinted her pale cheek—“the clerk at the library did say we should share the book and these candy hearts.” She prodded the bag with one black-tipped finger.
All at once Leo pictured those fingers running over his naked skin, touching him everywhere. His blood leaped, putting words into his mouth he might never, otherwise, say. “Does that include unwrapping each other?”
“I don’t know.”
What would be the harm? Other men did it all the time, picked women up in bars or at conventions for a night of nothing but sex. He’d never taken a walk on the wild side. Suddenly he wanted it—he wanted
. But would she be offended if he suggested it?
She poked the little red bag again. “Why don’t we see what the candy hearts say?”
Like a man in a dream, Leo drew a heart from the bag and placed it face up on the table facing toward her.
The smile in her eyes deepened. “Okay, I will: Want to come back to my place?”
They walked to her apartment, located just half a block away down a side street. She clutched the book and he the bag of candy hearts, like the trappings of some mad dream.
What the hell am I doing?
He wondered silently as they paused in front of a tall, narrow house.
She slanted a look at him. “It’s all the way at the top, I’m afraid, and no elevator. You’ll have to climb. Last chance to back out.”
Did he want to back out? Leo consulted furiously with his conscience and found that, astonishingly, he didn’t. He was—quite literally—up for it. He shook his head.
She gave him a closer look. “You have protection? ’Cause I might look like a wild child, but I’m not about to take stupid chances.”
Leo’s mouth went dry. “Well, actually—”
“There’s a drug store on the corner.” She pointed. “I’ll wait.”
Leo hurried off, wondering again what had got into him. But the alternative, returning to his apartment rather than hers, remained so unappealing it drove him into the brightly lit, over-warm pharmacy. In front of a dazzling array of prophylactics he stood bewildered as a twelve-year-old boy and chose blindly before making his way to the checkout counter.
The clerk eyed his sole purchase with raised eyebrows but said only, “Will that be all, sir?”
“That’s it.” Would Miss Webb have gone when he returned, disappeared into her apartment and left him like the fool he undoubtedly was?
But she’d asked him. Prompted by the candy heart, sure, but still
“You mean to pay with those?” The clerk nodded at the bag of candy he still clutched in his hand, and he obediently dug out his wallet.
Hurrying back, his thoughts pounded at him.
If she’s still there
I’ll know I’m doing the right thing.
The breath streamed from his chest in a rush when he saw her, dark and slender, kicking her heels in front of her house. Was he really going to do this? Take her inside, unwrap her, and see if she had any other tattoos?
Gerri led the way up the three flights of stairs, mentally reviewing how she’d left her apartment. Housework rarely came first with her, and she certainly hadn’t expected to bring anyone home.
She clutched the as-yet-unwrapped book beneath her arm and examined her emotions. She felt excited for this, ready to touch him, taste him.
One night, just one, when I get to choose and enjoy the pleasure of his company—and then walk away.
All too often in past relationships she hadn’t been smart enough to walk away even when she should. She seemed to pick men with attitude, with a dark side, and then hold on while they took advantage.
She opened the door of her apartment and turned to look at him. This man appeared to have no dark side.
The corners of her mouth twitched. He stood looking around at the outré furnishings of her small apartment like a man transported to the future. She’d put her personality into it and gone with a steampunk theme, from the satin pillows to the fringed Victorian lampshades and an open-geared clock.
Quite suddenly, Leo looked like he wanted to bolt.
Very offhandedly she said, “You don’t have to stay, you know. That’s the idea behind this—it’s all on a whim. We try something we haven’t tried before, but nobody’s forcing it.”
He focused on her, blinking as the fog on his specs cleared. “I want to try you,” he said.
To Gerri’s surprise, her pulse leaped. She took a step closer, and they continued to gaze into one another’s eyes while heat flared through her. “I want to try you, too.”
He leaned forward and kissed her, a gentle contact of lips on lips, tentative and sampling. He was so tall she had to strain on her tiptoes for him.
“Umm,” she murmured involuntarily. If the rest of him tasted this good, she was in for her best Valentine’s ever.
And would he be so gentle all night long? Gerri, used to men who took what they wanted and thought mostly of their own pleasure, hoped so.
“Interesting apartment,” he murmured when the kiss ended. “Not what I expected.”
Gerri, unable to look away from his eyes, confessed, “This is my haven.” And yet she’d asked him back here. “I like to sew and created most of the décor.”
“You’re very talented.” He kissed her again, with more intensity this time, his lips persuading hers apart and his tongue seeking admittance. Gerri dropped the book on the floor, let her bag slide from her shoulder, and wrapped both arms around his neck.
It felt like an electrical charge flowed through her from the place his lips touched hers, sizzled when his tongue touched hers, and pierced her. She heated from the sheer pleasure of it and promptly began to melt.
He concluded the kiss in a wet trail across her cheek to her ear, where he whispered, “So, Miss Webb, how do we begin this?”
“I think we just did. And you’d better call me ‘Gerri,’ right? If we’re going to get intimate.”
“Oh, we’re going to get very intimate.”
She drew away from him, not far. “Let me take your coat. Get comfortable; I’ll light some candles. And I have a bottle of wine.”
He stripped off his long wool coat, juggling the little sack of candy hearts and the bag from the pharmacy while he did so. Gerri removed the latter from his hand and withdrew the packet. Her eyebrows soared.
“You bought the big pack. And, bubble-gum flavor. My goodness, Leo—what do you have in mind?”
“To tell you the truth, I was so rattled I chose those at random.”
Charming, that he would be forthcoming enough to admit it. But she saw nothing tentative, now, in his eyes.
She leaned up and kissed him again. “That’s okay. Lucky for you I like bubble gum.”
Gerri divided the last of the wine between her glass and Leo’s, and realized with some surprise they’d finished a second bottle. How long had they been cozied up on her sofa, sharing bad-luck stories?
She knew she’d regaled him at length with tales of losers she’d known and left—possibly not optimum conversation for a first date, only this wasn’t a date but something else, something exciting and unprecedented. And he’d shared his own horror stories—the woman who’d bought not just one but five wedding dresses and hung them in her closet after their first date, another who’d started out perfectly nice only to turn unaccountably insane.
“She stalked me for three months,” he’d concluded with his charming modesty, “and I’m hardly stalking material.”
Now he peered at her through the specs. “You’re not crazy, are you?”
Gerri set her wine glass down very carefully, reached out, and removed his glasses. “Maybe just a bit. Do you mind?”
“I think we’re probably both crazy, to be sitting here talking when we could be—” He kissed her once more, a long, luxurious, and wine-flavored kiss. She moved toward him eagerly, and he gathered her into his lap.
She’d removed her boots when they sat down; now he ran a hand down her leg and captured her arch.
“You don’t have a hidden foot fetish, do you?” she asked.
“No. Well, maybe for your feet: pretty, and small enough to fit into my hand.” He began to massage her arch with hypnotic, circular motions. Electricity soared through her again, stronger this time.
“You’re right,” she murmured, “it may be time to move on to the next stage of the evening. Let’s see what the candy hearts say.”
She dug into the bag he’d set on the coffee table and snagged a heart, which he blinked at owlishly.
“You’ll have to read that, I’m afraid. I can’t see it without my glasses.”
“It says, ‘Ask Me.’ ”
He stared. “You’re kidding. Again? Okay—Gerri Webb, will you come to bed with me?”
Her pulse leaped ravenously. “I will.”
He gathered her up and stood, displaying unexpected brawn. Suddenly she wanted to see—and feel—all of him, so much her throat went dry.
“Bring the bag of hearts,” she suggested. “We may want some guidance.”
He obeyed but told her, “I assure you, Gerri—I’m going to need absolutely no guidance.”
The bedroom, mere steps away, felt cool and looked hazily dark. Gerri could hear sleet tapping against the window, and she shivered as Leo laid her on the bed tenderly. The only light came from beyond the door, but it allowed her to see the intent expression on his face when he deposited the bag of hearts on the bedside table, along with the packet from the pharmacy, and unbuttoned his shirt. Soft radiance flowed over him as he stripped it off and cast it aside, and Gerri narrowed her eyes judiciously. He had a slim, well-muscled torso with nary a tattoo.
Well, that made a change.
She sat up with the intention of removing her sweater and skirt, but he came down onto the bed, cradled her head in his hands, and kissed her again.
“Let me,” he said then.
“Umm—nice.” Luxuriant desire streamed through her in a warm wave. Sudden fantasies teemed in her mind. Would he fulfill them all?
It seemed so. His warm hands moved up under her sweater to explore her with gentle dominance. He cupped her in one palm, and Gerri went weak.
“Sweet,” he murmured, and even as she wriggled out of the sweater he bent his head.
Oh, what talented lips he had for a mere professor of history! And what clever hands—still waters must truly run deep. Who would have thought from looking at him he’d know just how to touch her in order to set her on fire?
Still wearing his ivy league-style trousers, he removed her garments piece by piece, following each with hot, wet attentions from his tongue. Gerri, afire with delight, couldn’t miss the fact that he was now more than ready to culminate proceedings. But, oh, she wanted this to last.
“Come here,” she growled as soon as he’d disposed of all her clothes. She wrapped herself around him and buried her fingers in his hair. He smelled wonderful, and tasted even better.