Authors: Beth Ciotta
His arm slipped beneath my stomach and lifted me onto my knees. I knew what was coming. I think I might have begged for it. I couldn't be sure. My mind was mush. I choked out my last coherent word. “Condom.”
When? I wondered, then he slid into me and my mind exploded with vibrant fireworks and a string of dirty words. A couple may have slipped out. That or Arch was a mind reader. He rode me hard, one hand on my hip, one on my shoulder, holding me captive as he made loveânoâ
Oh. My. Gaaaawd.
Decadent shock waves pounded my writhing body, pulled me under into dark erotic waters as his granite-hard shaft filled me to the hilt. As his hands stroked and kneaded, as his fingers skimmed and pinched. He slammed into me deep and hard, and yet I cried, “More!”
I glanced back, caught a glimpse of that rugged face and tribal tattoo. Every muscle in my body quivered. My stomach coiled into a tight knot and my lungs seized.
“Easy,” he soothed in a tight voice and I realized I was moving against him, frantic. Frantic for release. The climax started from deep within and fanned its way through my body, zapping nerves I'd thought long severed.
“Coming,” I managed in a strained whisper. Overpowered by a glorious wave of ecstasy, I cried out, my body trembling beneath Arch.
I felt his heated torso against my slick back, his warm breath against my neck. “I'm with you, lass.”
Together we crested, shuddered. He bit and kissed my shoulder and, after an erotic, mumbled curse, fell to his side and pulled me into a spooning position. My pliant body curved into him as I struggled for an even breath and a clear thought. I didn't know what to say, what to do. I certainly wasn't going to admit I was a stranger to sweaty casual sex. I tried to relax against him, to enjoy the delicious satiation.
You can do worldly,
I told myself.
If all else fails, channel Sugar.
Arch smoothed his palm over my shoulder and down my arm. My already thumping heart thumped harder when he interlaced his fingers with mine. “Evie?”
“Hmm?” I didn't turn. Somehow I'd managed not to make eye contact throughout the entire scene. It made the coupling less personal. Since a relationship was out of the question, I needed the emotional distance. Part of me wished he wasn't so touchy-feely in the aftermath. That he'd roll away and go out on the balcony for a smoke.
Instead, he cuddled and held my hand.
“Was I too rough?”
“You were perfect.” Sex, just, sex. That's all I want. Okay. That's a lie, but it's how it had to be.
“If you say a mistake, I'll have to hurt you.”
He smiled against my neck. “I was going to say bloody amazing, yeah?”
“Oh.” Since I was facing away, I grinned like an idiot. I'd satisfied a bad boy.
“Yes, it was very nice.”
“Nice?” He chuckled. “You're full of surprises today, Sunshine.”
I wasn't sure if he was referring to the hot sex or hot wallet, but the observation caused me to stir.
“Where are you going?” He tightened his grip, anchored me to the bed.
I shifted and made eye contact, willed my heart and mind steady. “We need to act before Lucas returns. Surely it won't take long for him to discover that his wallet is missing.” My eyes widened with a fresh thought. “I was hoping he'd think he left it in his room, but what if he assumes it was stolen? What if he goes to the island police or ship's security?”
He smoothed my hair from my face. “
worry. I'll take care of it.” He kissed my forehead. “You stay here.”
“But I want to help.”
“You already did.” He flipped through the wallet. “No key card. So much for a quick and easy entrance. I'll have to track down his room number and charm my way into his cabin.”
Via a pretty, impressionable housekeeper? I raised a brow. “
you could just break in. I'm betting you know how.”
“But it wouldn't be as much fun.”
He squeezed my hand then rolled away and out of bed.
Chilled and self-conscious, I pulled the quilted spread over my exposed body while openly admiring his naked form. The man was built. “Don't you think it'll look a little suspicious if Charles Dupont is seen roaming the halls of the crew's quarters?”
“I'm not going as Charles Dupont.” He pulled a white outfit from a garment bag in the closet and disappeared into the bathroom.
I glanced at the digital clock, amazed that so little time had passed since we'd hit the sheets. Then again, I had asked for a fast and furious coupling. I didn't regret it. It had been exhilarating. Purely physical. Exactly what I hungered for, though I knew satisfaction would be fleeting. Dallying with Arch was like dining on Chinese food. In an hour, I'd want more.
He exited the bathroom dressed in a white uniform and my stomach fluttered with a familiar craving. An hour? Try five minutes.
I realized that he was dressed as a crew member, but with a little bit of imaginationâand I had a boatloadâhe looked like a naval officer. An Italian naval officer, if there was such a thing. The fake moustache looked like the real deal. Sexy. He'd slicked his hair back with a colored gel, darkening his natural brown hair to black. His eyes were no longer green, but a dark chocolate brown. Dreamy.
“Contact lenses?” I asked, impressed and turned-on by his new swarthy look.
He winked and pocketed the wallet. “I
be longer than necessary.”
I clutched the blanket to my chest and sat upright. “What should I do while you're gone?”
My body hummed with anticipation. My lip quirked. “What for?”
go ashore, we can attend the karaoke party. Gavin will be there along with several other possibilities. We need to continue with our ruse, Sunshine. Lucas may or may not be the little fish. We
know for sure until whoever it is offers usâ”
“A chance of a lifetime.”
“Aye.” He paused at the door. “Are you going to be all right with what just happened?”
Ooh, boy. Bad boy was back to business. Now was the time to dredge up my worldly facade. “Are you referring to the meaningless sex and the understanding that it won't lead anywhere?” I shrugged. “Why wouldn't I be?”
He angled his head and studied me with those new dark eyes. “Because, aside from Stone, I'm the only man you've shagged in, how many years?”
“We were married for fifteen years. Hooked up two years before that.”
He whistled low.
“Don't get a swelled head,” I said, needing to trivialize the relevance ofâ¦
a man I barely knew. “You just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.”
“You mean the right time.”
“No, I don't.”
He smoothed his fingers over that moustache, a grin tugging at his mouth. “Your ability to recall my exact words is a bit disturbing, yeah?”
“It's a gift. Unlike lifting wallets, no practice necessary. I was born with a scary-good memory.”
“Possess any other skills I should know
I grinned, stretched. “Does being unbelievably flexible count?”
“And here I thought you were a nice girl.”
“That would be the old me.”
“Huh. Should I be nervous?” he asked while exiting the cabin.
Sensing I'd unbalanced the unflappable man, my grin turned evil. “Absolutely.”
EVERAL HOURS LATER
, dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dupont, Arch and I made our way toward the Don Juan Lounge. “You're absolutely positive that there wasn't anything in his wallet or room to suggest he might beâ¦fishy?”
Even though I'd asked in a whisper-soft voice, Arch still hushed me. “For the fiftieth time, I'm sure. Let it go, yeah?”
I'd been trying. I just hated to think that I'd
a man's wallet and put us at risk for nothing. Arch hadn't complained, but somehow I felt as though I'd botched my first attempt at duping the bad guys. I huffed an exasperated sigh as we passed the Fiesta Theater. “Well, even though I missed San Juan, at least I didn't have to experience it with Carol Parker.”
“Friendly gesture, yeah?”
. “Our last shopping endeavor proved disastrous.”
He blinked. “What shopping endeavor?”
“Yesterday. In the gift shop. I ran into her at the counter. If it wasn't for her, I never would have bought that jasmine perfume. I mean, it had to be coincidence, bad timing, rotten luck, butâ¦” I glanced up and caught him frowning. “What?”
“It was a coincidence, right?”
“You tell me.”
“Nothing to tell.”
Hard to believe we'd gotten naked and sweaty only a few hours before. We were back to square one. Me, clueless. Him, secretive. Ugh. “She's shifty if you ask me. Not that you did. I'm just saying.”
“Do me a favor, love,” he said, affecting Charles's accent as he escorted me into the lively lounge. “Don't ruffle Carol's feathers.”
I started to ask why but was distracted by the loud music and party atmosphere. My gaze swept across the room, taking it all in. A swarm of crazed butterflies attacked my stomach.
“You all right, love?”
“Peachy keen,” I answered in Sugar's high-pitched voice.
It wasn't a lie, precisely. I'm a professional. A veteran. I've performed in countless capacities on countless stages in countless venues. I know the joy of thunderous applause and the agony of chirping crickets. I've survived auditions, rejections, accolades, insults, catty women, grabby men, competitive artists, loud drunks, affectionate drunks, lewd drunks and drunks who puked on the dance floor. Due to booze, not my performance.
I've seen it all, experienced it all. Yet eyeing the room, my stomach knotted, my mouth dried, my pulse skipped. It wasn't the posh setting that intimidated me. Don Juan's was an upscale lounge, but no more so than any of the casino lounges I've played. Nor was I put off by the stage. A DJ had set up his gear stage right. A lone mike stand stood center stage cradling a wireless Shure 58. Audio monitors and a TV monitor were positioned down front. Standard equipment. Familiar ground.
Since bean counters long ago scaled back on budget and the use of live drummersâdon't askâI'm used to singing with smaller groups, which almost always means using sequenced tracks. So, it wasn't the thought of singing along to inflexible karaoke CDs that had me shaking in my four-inch, metallic, pointy-toed pumps.
It was the thought of performing in front of Arch.
Sure, he'd heard me noodle around with a verse of “Conga” and “Fever.” But this was different. The pressure to impress was enormous. I seriously wanted to turn tail, find a secluded corner and a bag of oatmeal raisin cookies.
Good thing I was Sugar, not me. Sugar bopped into the lounge ready to boogie.
Arch, who'd transformed back into Charles, and who'd declared his ankle now strong enough to forgo the wheelchair, limped toward a vacant table with the use of his cane. I bobbled alongside him, my spiky heels sliding over the marbled foyer then sinking into plush carpet.
“Boogie Oogie Oogie” pulsed through the speakers suspended from the ceiling. Several dancers had already taken to the floor, including Martha and her young friend. “I'm surprised at how crowded it is considering what Gavin said about slow nights in port.” It didn't look slow to me, although maybe he'd been speaking specifically about participation in karaoke.
“Can't hear you well, love. What do you say we sit away from the speakers?”
I recognized more than a few people as he led me to a table at the rear of the lounge. Several waved. I smiled and waved back, feeling a tad overdressed. Then again Sugar's taste in fashion was faithfully over the top.
Dress code for the evening was casual, but I'd glitzed up. A sparkly, clingy pink cocktail dress with a modest neckline and a plunging back. I'd applied dramatic makeupâsmoky eye shadow, kohl liner, ebony mascara, shimmering blush and Sugar's signature Cajun Crimson lipstick. Between my teased hair, high heels and short hemline, I
looked leggy and tall. Overall, the look was va-va-voom sexy.
Arch had taken one look and said, “Bollocks.”
Yeah, baby, yeah.
I'd had three things in the back of my mind when I glammed up. One: To bolster my confidence on the off chance Carol-the-witch Parker joined the festivities, equally spiffed up, trying to steal my thunder and my husband. Two: To wow Arch. I was seriously hoping to extend our one-night stand by a day or five. Three: I wanted to impress Gavin. If he was the little fish, I'd hook him and reel him in. If he was a straight-up cruise director, I'd put a bug in his earâat some pointâabout hiring me on as an entertainer. A performer's age was less of a factor on cruise ships. No sense in ignoring an alternative for the future.
I wasn't sure how I felt about a six-month tour away from my friends, but I couldn't ignore my unemployed status at home and my bolstered spirits here on the ship. It wasn't merely the attraction to Arch, but the change of scenery, the positive atmosphere. Here everyone, passengers and crew, seemed happy.
I could hear Nicole impersonating Madame Helene.
Go to the happy place.
I'd rather tag along with Arch.
Evie Parish: Sidekick to an international spy.
The dreamer in me wanted to pursue a future in espionage. I mean, they must utilize people like me from time to time, otherwise why was I here?
The realist in me, which was really the ever-present voice of my mom, said,
You'd better have something to fall back on
. That's why I wanted to impress Gavin, second-in-command regarding entertainment. At forty-one, I could no longer afford to ignore my mom's soundâgagâadvice.
So basically, I was looking at this karaoke thing as an audition.
Considering my last audition, you can see where I'd be a tad apprehensive.
Arch and I settled at a four-seat table. He ordered a scotch, what else? I ordered a glass of vodka and cranberry. If I had to sing “Crazy” or “I Will Survive” for the eight-billionth time in my life, I needed inspiration. With any luck the alcohol would melt the knot in my stomach and provide a little false courage.
and I held hands and ad-libbed about remodeling his estate or possibly purchasing an apartment in Manhattan. He could work anywhere, he said. He emphasized the fact that he wanted me to be happy.
I thought about all the places, all the people we'd touched over the last couple of days with our fabricated tale. We'd been visible, friendly and open about our well-off status. Employees talk. No matter the department, gossip gets around. I know that from my years in the casino industry. Even if we hadn't had optimum exposure to whomever Arch was after, surely the mark knew what we were about. Surely he'd pitch his deal in the next day or so. Maybe even tonight.
The more I thought about it, the more my pulse raced. Or maybe that was because of the way Arch brushed his thumb back and forth across my hand. My breath caught when he wrapped one arm around me and leaned close. My eyes rolled back as he kissed my neck, nipped my lobe.
“Listen close, love.”
I had to listen hard because something was pounding in my ears. Oh. My heart.
“If anyone approaches you with an exclusive opportunity, play along. But make it clear, I handle the finances, yeah?”
Before I could respond, he kissed me. Slow, deep. So not fair, the way he could muddle my mind. I wanted the kiss to go on forever. I wanted to drag him off to a coat closet and rip off his prosthetics and clothes. No particular order.
He eased away and my fantasies fizzled. I opened my eyes to find him leaning back in his seat, sipping scotch and watching me through those sepia-tinted glasses. He knew the effect he had on me. Damn him. I smiled as if to say, you'll get yours. The roaring in my ears reduced enough to hear the DJ, Elliot, relaying the objective of the evening.
“It's easy,” he said. “Pick a song from the extensive list being passed about and I'll call you up in the order that I receive the requests. Don't worry if you don't know the words. The lyrics will scroll across this television monitor. No fuss, all fun. It's your night to shine!”
I saw Gavin mingling with various passengers, handing out song lists and encouraging guests to sign up for a turn. I saw him coming my way, knew what was expected. Knew what I had to do. For Arch. For the greater good.
Mental note: No matter what happens, don't flash your boobs.