Authors: Laura Strickland
Tags: #Holiday,Contemporary,Humorous/Romantic Comedy
When Gerri didn’t answer, he said more kindly, “Anything I need to worry about, honey? You know I feel protective of you, like a younger sister.”
The others drifted away, affording them as much privacy as possible.
Max lowered his voice to a rumble. “He’s not stalking you, is he? I mean, I know the kinds of losers you tend to pick.”
“I didn’t pick him,” Gerri confessed helplessly. “Fate did.”
Max’s eyebrows twitched. “Well, then, what’s the problem?”
“We’re from two different worlds. Look at me! I’m hardly the sort of woman who gets flowers and candy.”
“You must be, though—right? Can’t argue with those. Look, kitten, if you’re from two different worlds, then build a bridge. But I want to meet him for an inspection, hear?”
Bring Leo Rankin here, with his tweed jacket and conservatively-groomed hair? Her mind boggled.
No. She’d call him tonight, thank him for the fabulous gifts, but tell him she still thought they made a bad prospect.
That night, though, alone in her apartment, she couldn’t convince her fingers to punch his number, and he didn’t call, either. Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He’d lobbed the ball squarely into her court.
Two afternoons later when the delivery man entered the parlor, all heads swiveled as one toward Gerri.
She stiffened. Working on one of her favorite customers, Natasha, she straightened and carefully laid her instruments aside.
“I have a delivery for Geraldine Webb.”
“Of course you have.” Max virtually bowed the guy in, waving an arm at Gerri. “There she is.”
The package, small and exquisitely wrapped, fit in Gerri’s two palms when the delivery man laid it there. Her heart started to slam hard. She never even saw the delivery guy leave.
“Wow,” said Natasha. “What’s that?”
“Gift number three in what appears to be a campaign to sweep Gerri off her feet,” Max replied. “Go ahead, kiddo—open it.”
Did she dare? The wrapping paper—midnight blue, with a deep iridescence, and held by a black bow—seemed too pretty to tear. Yet she slid the ribbon down to one end and unfolded the paper to reveal a jeweler’s box, unmarked except by a single embossed, silver teardrop.
“Ooh,” Natasha whispered, “I’ve heard about that jeweler. All their pieces are hand-designed.”
“I can’t accept this,” Gerri protested to no one in particular. “It’s much too valuable.”
“At least open it,” Phil urged. “The rest of us have to see what’s in there.”
The lid on the box opened with a little snap. Inside, on a bed of black satin, lay a necklace fashioned of interlocking, golden gears. From the center dangled a sapphire so dark it would have looked black save for its gleaming, blue-fired heart.
“Oh!” Natasha exclaimed. “Who is this man, and where can I find him?”
“He really seems to know your style,” Phil put in. “Read the card.”
Sure enough, a card, triplet to those that had preceded it, nestled beneath the sapphire.
This was the closest I could find to the beauty of your eyes. Leo
Gerri melted, so abruptly and completely she had to sink onto the padded bench. Without hesitation, Phil plucked the card from her hand.
He passed it to Max, who scanned it speedily. A big smile broke over his face.
“You know what this looks like to me?”
“What?” Gerri asked unsteadily.
Why didn’t Gerri call? Leo asked for the thousandth time while pacing the confines of his apartment, which now felt very much like a cage. Hadn’t she liked his gifts? Had they been too little? Too much? Inappropriate? He’d wanted a means to convey how rare and precious he thought her. Maybe it had been overkill. Perhaps he’d totally blown it.
Maybe she’d never call.
He could phone her, but his pride wouldn’t let him. He did have a little pride—though not much, as pertained to Gerri Webb. His longing for her had progressed to physical pain, and not just the sexual kind, though that definitely was a component.
He stopped pacing suddenly and looked around the apartment. Maybe the answer to the puzzle lay right here around him. Beige walls met his gaze, devoid of artwork aside from one framed print of a clipper ship in full sail. Brown furniture, equally as bland, squatted on an ecru rug.
He compared the place with his memories of Gerri’s apartment: all color, fringe, and artistic indulgence. God, his abode personified
—and so, by inference, did he.
No doubt Gerri, a woman of formidable creative talents, had picked up on that about him. The stuffy reception to which he’d dragged her hadn’t helped. What had he been thinking?
Yet he was who he was, and honest to the bone. Did he want to lie to her about himself?
No, no, and no. He wanted her to call him anyway, agree to see him, fall into his arms for another night of blinding passion.
He wanted her to want him.
His phone rang.
For an instant, he didn’t recognize her number. Then his heart leaped into his throat, making his voice husky when he said, “Hello?”
“Hi, Leo. It’s Gerri.”
“Yes,” he said like a foundering fool. “Yes, it is.”
She laughed, and it sounded uneasy—also so sexy he began to sweat.
“I should have called sooner to thank you for the wonderful gifts. I—well, I really don’t know what to say.”
“I just wanted to show you”—he paused helplessly—“try and show you what I think of you. None of those things came close. I’m sorry about that stuffy reception. I don’t know what I was thinking. But, well, that’s my world, dull as it may be.”
He heard her draw a breath and thought,
This is the moment. Either she gives me the kiss off and I never hear from her again, or I have hope of seeing her in the future, laughing with her, touching her…
“Nobody’s ever treated me that way,” she said. “You really shouldn’t have.”
What did that mean? Had he blown it?
“I thought,” she went on unsteadily, “we could meet and return our books.”
“Right. Sure. When?”
“I’m free tomorrow evening.”
“Great! So am I. Why don’t you let me take you out to dinner? You choose the place.”
“Okay. Can you pick me up at seven? I’ll tell you where, then. And, Leo? I was very touched by the gifts—really.”
“Good, great.” He sounded like a fool. “Tomorrow at seven.”
How would he live till then?
Gerri examined the reflection in her mirror, wondering if she looked too flamboyant. She wore what she considered a plain gown of deep blue velvet, dressed up only by the golden filigreed corset that cinched it around her waist. She’d chosen both to match the pendant that graced her throat, lying cool against her warm skin. She had to admit, it suited her like nothing she’d ever owned.
Turning from the mirror, she inspected her apartment. She’d straightened up before setting the table with a cloth of black brocade and her good dinnerware. A Victorian-style meal of roast duck in plum sauce warmed in the oven.
What would Leo say when he discovered they weren’t going out? She wanted a quiet place where they could talk, discuss their books.
She admitted she wanted far more, as witnessed by the clean sheets she’d just put on her bed. She pressed her fingers to her cheeks. Too bold? But she’d longed so desperately to be with Leo again.
A knock on the door made her jump. Well, at least the man was prompt.
She opened the door to find him standing with his brown hair disarranged by the wind and the smell of cold around him. He clutched
to his chest and froze when he saw her, heat flaring in his eyes.
“You’re wearing the necklace! You look beautiful.”
“I feel it, with this on.” She touched the sapphire with one fingertip.
“Good. That was my intention.”
“Come on in and get warm. I thought—well, I didn’t really want to go out, if you don’t mind. I’ve made dinner.”
“I don’t mind.” He shed his coat, revealing the inevitable tweed jacket worn over a brown sweater that matched his eyes. Gerri’s fingers itched to remove both garments.
You’re just going to talk, try to work through this dilemma, see if there’s any chance of finding more common ground than the bedroom
“I love your apartment,” he said surprisingly. “It feels warm and welcoming. You should see my place, terribly dull and bland.” He smiled wryly. “A bit like me. Is that why you were reluctant to see me again?”
Well, the man didn’t pull any punches, did he? One thing they had in common.
“That’s not why. Wine?”
He hesitated. “Might not be a good idea, after last time.”
“I thought just one glass each.”
“I could use a glass.”
“I’ll pour; you sit down.”
He sat at the table, looking like a man perched on broken glass. “Dinner smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Roast duck and rosemary potatoes, with stuffed artichokes.”
“You can cook, as well?”
Carefully, she filled his glass. “As well as what?”
“Hold down a creative job, and look like that.”
She smiled but didn’t reply. Blindly, he reached for his glass.
“So what did you think of
He laid the book on the table. “I couldn’t put it down. Really enjoyed it.”
“Is that so?”
“Loved the angst and the black humor. And the love scenes were…” He stopped speaking abruptly, then resumed. “I may be hooked on steampunk. Is it all that good?”
“A lot is, though that’s one of my favorites. I enjoyed
Sails of Fire
, too. The hero reminded me a bit of you.”
“Me?” He raised his eyebrows. “How’s that? He’s dashing and bold, probably my antithesis.”
“He was intelligent, a man of principle who trusted his instincts and wasn’t afraid of breaking accepted molds.” She leaned across the table slightly, unable to resist. “Are you afraid to break the mold, Leo Rankin?”
“Would I be here if I were?”
Just like that, he bent forward and kissed her. Fire leaped through her veins, and all her native caution crumbled.
Can’t blame it on the wine this time, she thought. She hadn’t even had a sip.
The kiss ended in a lingering contact of lips on lips. Leo smiled into her eyes. “We liked each other’s genres,” he said. “Why not each other’s lives?”
“Does it have to be?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed. She did know she wanted him—more than dinner, more than self-preservation. “Dinner’s warming,” she whispered. “It can wait, if you like.”
“I like.” He reached into his jacket pocket and produced the crumpled bag of candy hearts. “Hope springs eternal.”
“So it does.” She reached into her own pocket and brought forth a single piece of bubble gum, which she unwrapped and laid deliberately on her tongue. “Can’t seem to get enough.”
The heat in his eyes flared. “We’ll see about that.”
An uncounted number of hours later, Gerri stirred in the bed, reached across Leo’s sprawled form, and snagged the tiny bag of candy hearts he’d brought into the bedroom with him.
She dug one out and scrutinized it judiciously.
“What?” Leo murmured.
Heaven help her, her pulse now leaped at the mere sound of his voice. Of course, it had reverberated through her at the most delectable of moments.
She rolled over and began to kiss her way down his body—chin, throat, pec, stomach, navel, before things became really interesting. By the time she reached the pertinent area, he already stood for her magnificently. No, nothing dull about Leo Rankin.
She caressed him with lazy flicks of her tongue, and he—devoid of spectacles—blinked at her.
“What’s with the candy heart, Miss Webb?”
She crawled back up him and laid the morsel on his chest. “It says, ‘Ask Me.’ ”
His lips curled. “Of course it does. So—ask me.”
“I’m not sure I dare. It’s a bit out there.”
“Since I met you, I’m all for ‘out there.’ ”
Deliberately, she ate the candy heart from his skin. “You sure?”
He gave her a quick, hard kiss that blasted her nerve endings. “What do you think?”
She wiggled a bit closer. He placed one finger against the sapphire in her necklace—the only thing he’d left on when he removed her clothes much earlier.
“I have some vintage handcuffs,” she confessed. “Victorian, and padded on the inside so they won’t hurt. Never used them. Want to try them out?”
One of his eyebrows twitched. “You, or me?”
“I thought we’d take turns.”
“Who goes first?”
She ran her fingers down his chest. “You?”
He drew a breath. “That requires a lot of trust.”
“That, Professor Rankin, is the point.”
“Then I think you’d better go get them.”
Who would have thought, Leo marveled still later when he gathered his sanity enough to make sense of his emotions, surrendering control could be such a turn-on? Who could imagine pleasure might be so intense under the ministrations of Gerri Webb’s tongue?
Of course it had all been playacting and fantasy, the handcuffs mere toys with padded silk linings. He might have broken free any time he wished. But he hadn’t wished, and would gladly submit to this woman’s mercy any time she asked.
As for subduing her in turn, he’d been far more aroused by her shivers of pleasure and the way passion darkened her eyes than anything else. He was humbled that she would place such trust in him, staggered to have her in his arms.
Now he eyed her and wondered if she slept. He’d enjoyed his sojourn into her world—no, “enjoy” didn’t begin to describe what he felt. But he had to think about leaving.
Would she agree to see him again? Could he live if she didn’t?
“It’s getting late,” he whispered, “and I have to work in the morning.”
She opened her eyes, deep and dark as the sapphire she still wore. “You can’t leave.”