Read Ask Me Online

Authors: Laura Strickland

Tags: #Holiday,Contemporary,Humorous/Romantic Comedy

Ask Me (4 page)

“Well, you know that whole genre-widening thing—?”

“Worked pretty nicely for us, didn’t it?” His tone sounded warm as the bed they had shared.

“I thought so. What if we exchanged for real? I’ll read one of your historical naval adventures and you read a steampunk.”

“Then?”

“Then we share opinions.”

Again he hesitated. “In person?”

Was that really what she suggested—that they see each other again? Well, of course it was. She might as well be honest about it. “If you like.”

He drew a breath. “When?”

“When do we exchange books, or when do we meet?”

“Both.”

Now Gerri hesitated. Did she really want to embark on what could easily end as another disappointment?

“Listen,” he said quickly when she didn’t respond, “I’ve got this thing tomorrow night, a function.”

“Function?”

“Of the history department. It’s a reception for someone who’s retiring. I hate going to these things on my own.”

Gerri’s heart thumped double-time.

“Uh—you could save me from being alone again. We could exchange books then.”

Gerri closed her eyes, teetering on the edge of refusal. Trouble was, when she closed her eyes she could feel the way he’d touched her—slid those warm hands down her body and coaxed that miraculous response—all over again.

A function of the history department sounded like the last place she wanted to be. But Leo Rankin’s arms might well be the first place.

Like a fool she responded, “Sounds good. What time?”

Chapter Five

I should have known better
. Gerri stood outside the restaurant waiting for Leo to unlock his car and drive her home. She had known, and had defied her instincts. For her, that rarely ended well.

Leo had picked her up at seven; her vintage, gear-driven watch now read no later than nine-thirty. The intervening time had been pure, unmitigated disaster.

So this is why you don’t date men like Leo Rankin
. She slid into the passenger seat. Not that his colleagues, to whom he’d introduced her, had proved unwelcoming. Sure, they’d looked at her askance, unable quite to hide their surprise, each of them marking the tattoo on her cheek before shooting sharp glances at Leo. But it had felt like stepping through the looking glass into a world less fantastical than boring, where she could barely comprehend the conversations and patently did not fit.

Maybe she should have dressed down, she thought now, ruefully—not worn the ruffled blouse and corset or the earrings with the golden gears.

But she’d wanted to impress Leo.

How had that worked for her? He got into the driver’s seat and just sat there, not attempting to start the engine. Trying to think of a polite way to say they shouldn’t see each other again. Leo—like all his associates—was nothing if not polite.

Trouble was, here in the dark confines of his car she could smell him, and that triggered memories that made her want to disregard all the differences between them.

He spoke at last. “You look so beautiful tonight, Gerri.”

“Oh?” Not what she expected.

He seemed to fish for words. “Exquisite. Beguiling. Seductive. I’ve never met a woman like you.”

She laughed, suddenly feeling unsteady. “Neither have your associates. I think, Leo, you might have lost some standing with your colleagues in there.”

“I don’t care.”

“No?”

Very gently he reached out and ran his fingers through her hair, which she wore loose. “I’ve been longing to do that since I picked you up.” He cradled her face tenderly. “And this.”

She sat frozen while he kissed her, his lips hot in the chilly dark. At least she started out frozen, the mere receiver of his caress. But hunger came leaping, and before it ended she had her arms twined around his neck, only the gear shift between them.

“My God,” he breathed then.

“What?”

“I didn’t imagine it—how I feel when I touch you. Tell me I can see you again—and again and again.”

A few threads of sanity returned to Gerri’s mind. She shook her head. “Not a good idea.”

“Why?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we have nothing in common—beyond the bedroom and a penchant for reading. I don’t know about you, Leo, but I haven’t been able to float a successful relationship with someone from my own world, let alone one so different I barely recognize the language.”

“But I have to see you. You’re like no one I’ve ever known.”

“Of course I’m like no one you’ve known; I’m a raven in a parliament of owls. That old gentleman, Dr. Younger—he’s influential to your career, right?”

“Well, yes,” Leo admitted. “He’s the department chair.”

“You must have noticed the way he looked at me.”

“Gerri, Gerri.” He caressed her cheek where her tattoo perched. “The old ‘gentleman,’ as you call him, looks at everyone that way.” Leo drew a ragged breath. “Come home with me. Please?”

Gerri’s heart bounded with desire before sinking sickeningly. She shook her head once more.

“Please,” he pressed.

Carefully she drew away from his grasp and fished in the back seat for the book she’d brought. She held it out to him, making a barrier.

“We don’t have to go through with this if you’d rather not. It might be better just to end it now, have no reason to see each other in the future.”

He took the book. “I want a reason to see you. I want a thousand reasons.”

“Leo—”

“But of course I’ll respect your wishes.”

He fished in the side pocket on his door and produced a book he laid in her hands. “Promise you’ll read it and call me when you’re done.”

Gerri hesitated. Would it be healthy for her to keep such a promise? Yet this had been her idea. She couldn’t beg off now.

“Okay.”

He turned away and started the engine, drove her home in silence, and drew up in front of her apartment.

Hastily, she unbuckled her seatbelt and prepared to climb out.

He touched her wrist very gently. “This isn’t over, Gerri. You’re in my blood now—I can’t be done with you.”

Clutching his book, Gerri fled.

****

Leo stayed up far too late the next two nights reading the book Gerri had loaned him, entitled
The Clockwork Lover
. He couldn’t sleep anyway. Every time he tried to do anything beyond reading or course work, thoughts of Gerri ran rampant. Lying in the dark, alone in his bed, proved fruitless, so he read instead, sublimating his restlessness in an alternate, fantastical Victorian world.

He hadn’t expected to like the book, yet he devoured it with real enjoyment. Not so different after all from the naval adventures he favored, it centered on a damaged hero bent on upholding a personal brand of honor and a heroine who reminded him of Gerri with her unconventional beauty.

The night he finished it at three in the morning, he lay a long time wondering why she’d chosen this particular book for him. Just because it was one of her favorites? For some deeper reason? To Leo, the story echoed their own situation: the hero—a clockwork automaton—had to take a risk in order to be with the heroine forever.

Leo, of course, could claim no “hero” status. He knew he led a staid, academic life that must seem utterly dull to a woman of Gerri’s creativity. Was that why she couldn’t see them together, why she refused him?

Then why give him
The Clockwork Lover
?

No matter; having finished the story, he could now call her. Well, not now, perhaps. Peering through his specs at his phone, which lay on the bedside table, he marked the time. Tomorrow.

His heart picked up rhythm at the prospect. They could meet somewhere to exchange opinions of the books. He’d be able to talk to her, look at her, glory in all the things that had haunted him: the way her deep blue eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled; the delicate way she moved, like a dancer; the gleam that shone from her silken-smooth hair. He just wanted to be with her—sex or no sex—and hear her laugh.

He wondered what she’d made of the book he’d lent her,
Sails of Fire
, and whether she’d finished it. Maybe she hadn’t—maybe she’d yet to start it, and that meant they couldn’t meet after all.

Leo slid down into his blankets with a groan. He simply had to apply all his intellect and find a way to persuade Gerri Webb she belonged in his life.

Chapter Six

The flowers arrived half way through Gerri’s shift while she put the finishing touches on an intricate design for one of her best customers, a young woman called Meg. The parlor hummed with activity and low conversation. Patrons filled all four stations, and for the first time in days Gerri had managed to drag her thoughts away from Leo Rankin.

She heard a commotion at the door but paid little attention till someone called her name.

“Geraldine Webb?”

No one called her “Geraldine” except her grandmother. She lifted her needle without haste and turned to look.

A giant bunch of flowers—with legs—approached, directed by her boss, Max. Well, the bouquet didn’t have legs. It traveled in the arms of a delivery boy, who peeked around the blooms at her as he came.

The entire parlor went silent, or as silent as it ever got, and people stared. Flowers never appeared here. And such flowers!

They might have come straight from a steampunk dream. Not only the size but the color of the blooms impressed her, for they had the deepest and most velvety petals: ink-dark iris and black knight delphiniums, blossoms she couldn’t hope to name, along with trailing fronds of exotic, fragrant vine.

Everyone looked from the enormous display to her face.

“For me?” she squeaked. “There must be some mistake.”

“Geraldine Webb,” the delivery guy said again.

Meg sat up, her eyes wide. “Who are those from?”

“I have no idea.” But she had a suspicion, and her heart began to thump double-time. He wouldn’t. She hadn’t even called him yet, though she’d finished
Sails of Fire
two days ago. She knew she needed to return his book, she just didn’t know how or when.

“Hey, Gerri,” Roman called. “What did you have to do to get those?”

“There’s a card,” Meg pointed out.

So there was—perched on a pick in the middle of the gorgeous blooms.

She accepted the bouquet from the delivery boy and set it at her station. Max tipped the boy and, along with a number of others, gathered to stare.

“Who is he, Gerri?” Max asked.

“I told her there’s a card,” Meg pointed out.

“Well, read it!”

Like a woman in a dream, Gerri reached for the crisp white envelope, her name written on it in deepest black ink. She drew the card out and read,
These are neither as exotic nor as beautiful as you. Leo
.

“Well?” Max prompted.

Cheeks flaming, she slid the card back into its envelope. “It’s personal.”

“Whoever he is,” Meg breathed, “he must have money. Have you ever seen such flowers?”

Phil, who rented the next station over, tipped his head. “They suit you, Ger. Whoever he is, he
gets
you.”

“That is, hands down, the biggest bouquet I’ve ever seen,” Max pronounced. “You didn’t tell me you were seeing somebody new.”

“She didn’t tell anybody,” Roman put in.

“I’m not.”

“Well, he must want to
start
seeing you—bad.” Max went lumbering off to, rather surprisingly, find a vase and help Gerri arrange her flowers in water.

She really should call Leo and thank him, she thought later that night when she bore them home and settled them in her apartment, a lingering reminder of him. Their delicate, elusive scent soon perfumed the air, piquing her senses.

She picked up her phone not once but three times, and set it aside again. What to say to him?

This is a fabulous gesture, but I don’t think it changes our situation

She had never before received flowers, certainly not delivered to her place of work. They made her feel oddly cherished, but that didn’t turn seeing Leo Rankin again, dating him, or sleeping with him, into a good idea. This just proved how far apart their worlds remained: he might be the kind of man who sent flowers; she had never been the kind of woman who received them.

Until now
.

That thought stole into her mind like a single ray of sunshine.

She could call him, thank him, and suggest they return each other’s books. She had a ready excuse. But, as the flutter of panic in her stomach argued, not yet.

The chocolates arrived the next day, just before closing. They came in a big, flat package bourn by a messenger girl, and this time everybody in the parlor immediately stopped to stare.

Gerri, busy cleaning her instruments and alone at her station, once more became the center of attention.

“What’s this?” Max asked.

“Geraldine Webb?” the messenger inquired, and ten people pointed.

“For you.” The messenger laid the packet in Gerri’s hands and departed.

“Open it!” demanded half a dozen people.

With hands that trembled slightly, Gerri did, revealing a gold-foiled box inscribed with the name
Pomfret
.

She gasped. The chocolatier—legendary in the city—produced handmade confections, rumored to cost twenty dollars apiece.

“Damn,” Roman said.

“Who are they from?” demanded Max.

“There’s another card,” Phil pointed out.

So there was, nearly identical to that which had accompanied the flowers. Gerri opened it and read,
Each of these can only hope to be as individual as you
.

“She’s turned pink again,” Phil observed with a smile.

“Who is this guy?” Max drew up to his full height. Six foot three to the top of his polished, bald head, he looked like a threat on two feet. “Besides well-heeled, I mean.” He eyed the chocolates. “Those must have set him back a small fortune.”

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