Authors: Beth Ciotta
Conflicting emotions stormed the wall around my heart like a battering ram. The best I could do was smile Sugar's smile and walk Sugar's walk as Arch maneuvered me through the security checkpoint and onto the golf cart thing that sped us to our gate.
By the time we boarded our plane and took our seats, he'd flashed those passports twice more. As soon as I caught my breath, I intended to ask for a look. Just now I absorbed the captain's announcement regarding rough weather, dug in my tote for a Dramamine and struggled with the rumblings of a full-blown panic attack.
WOKE UP IN A DARK ROOM
in a strange bed. Where was I? Where was Arch?
My heart and head pounded with a ferocity that made my stomach roil. I'd been dreaming about going down in flamesâmy career, not the plane. Standing in front of a car dealership in ninety-degree weather, wearing a gorilla costume and holding a sign that said, You'll go APE for our prices!
That's what you get for flashing those forty-one-year-old tits,
Michael had admonished, standing next to a Cadillac, his arms wrapped around pubescent versions of Sasha and Britney.
I massaged my aching chest, waited for the depressing fog of the nightmare to dissipate. But, dammit, it clung. Just as I'd clung to my alcoholic beverage as the plane had dipped and bounced through that electrical storm. Probably hadn't been smart to mix Dramamine with two glasses of vodka and cranberry. In fact, I sort of remembered someone saying so. An older man with nerves of steel and a sexy smile.
I also sort of remembered him half carrying me out of the airport and finessing me into a cab. I had a vague memory of peeling off my cashmere shrug because the air was hot and sticky, and noting the palm trees and Monet sunset with a slurred, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
Arch had agreed.
Everything else was a blur.
At least my jaw hadn't locked, and I hadn't puked my guts into an airsick bag. Not that I recalled, anyway.
Determined to pull myself together, I flicked on the bedside lamp and padded toward the bathroom, wiping drool from the corner of my mouthâ
. I needed to wash my face, down two glasses of water and pee. Not necessarily in that order.
A scream lodged in my throat when I eased open the door. A dark-haired, broad-shouldered man hovered over the sink, squirting hair product into his hand. Smoke curled from the cigarette anchored between his lips. Black wires dangled from the buds lodged in his ear.
Paralyzed, or maybe I should say
since this stranger's body was freaking
my gaze trailed down his sculpted back, following the wires that led to a superslim MP3 player clipped to the threadbare hotel-issue towel wrapped around his taut waist. I glanced farther down and caught his bare foot tapping to whatever music he was listening to. Whoever he was, he'd just showered. The steamy room smelled of Irish Spring, tobacco and shaving cream. It was a sexy scent, smoke and all. Probably because it was so manly. I breathed in the testosterone-charged air and nearly climaxed on the spot.
He shifted and dragged his gelled fingers through his wet hair, the muscles in his shoulders rolling with the effort. I told myself to stop staring at his impressive bicepsâwas that a Celtic band tattooed on his right arm?âand to back away from the threshold with my dignity intact. Was this another cast member? The producer? Where was Arch and why had he left me alone with a stranger?
My fantasies took a detour and kicked into hyperdrive along with my pulse. What if this was all a bizarre plot to get rid of me? For good. Maybe Sasha had brainwashed Michael. Lord knows she'd done something to get him to the gym every day. Maybe Arch had been hired to deliver me to this guy. Maybe he was going to whack me or sell me to some wife-collecting sheik!
Maybe I should lay off Dramamine and B movies.
The dark stranger snuffed his cigarette, nabbed a hand towel and swiped it over the fogged-up mirror. Our gazes locked.
He turned and pulled out the earbuds.
I yelped and shot backward, tripping over something big and redâBig RedâscreamingâI was me, not Sugarâwhen the stranger rushed out of the bathroom.
I landed flat on my back.
He landed flat on top of me, his big hand covering my mouth. “Stop screaming, for fuck's sake. It's me. Arch.”
I recognized the voice, the accent, if not the man. I blinked up at him, amazed. Although, I should've known. All that testosterone. “Wah hahpn oo yor air?”
He removed his hand from my mouth. “What?”
“What happened to your hair?” I repeated. This afternoon it had been stark silver. Now it was jet-black, although it would probably lighten a shade when it dried.
“Temporary dye. Washes
in the shower.”
A thigh-tingling image came to mind. Mr. Manly Man buck naked. Hot water sluicing over that hot bod. My insides melted as I stared up at him transfixed. He was handsome, in a bad boy sort of way, early to mid-thirties. That closely trimmed beard, when silver, had made him look significantly older. Just now he looked rebellious. His grey-green gaze sparked with mischief. His face, less creased and more defined than upon first meeting, suggested a hard-knock maturity. His body suggested he worked out religiously. Amen.
Snap out of it, Evie.
“Did your wrinkles wash off, too?” I asked, tongue-in-cheek as opposed to tongue-hanging-out-of-mouth.
Pant. Pant. Drool. Drool
His sinfully attractive lips quirked. “Peeled off, actually. Prosthetics.”
If I'd had the slightest doubt, that crooked grin confirmed his identity. Arch Reece had a killer smile to go with his killer form. A rock-hard body that was presently squished against me. My heart continued to race although it had nothing to do with fear. “Um. So I guess that beer gut was fake, too.”
“Strap on, strap off.” The grin turned wicked. “What
My mind blanked then he raised himself up an inch or so and leered down at my bountiful cleavage.
I smirked. “They're real.”
“With the help of major padding, yes.” The ogling continued so I cleared my throat. I wanted him to roll aside. The pressure on my bladder reminded me how badly I needed to pee. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all. I value the benefits of push-up brassieres.”
“I mean, do you mind getting off?”
“Why, Ms. Parish, we hardly know each other.”
Lingering chemicals dulled my wit. By the time light dawned, he'd shifted his weight.
“You may want to close your eyes, love.”
“Why?” I asked at the same time I realized something hard pressed against my thigh. Something massive. I rolled my eyes to cover my own arousal. “What are you, on Viagra?”
“What can I say? You're lovely.”
If I'd thought he was sincere, I would have blushed with joy. “Yeah, right.” I could only imagine what I looked like just now. Tangled hair, bloodshot eyes, wrinkled clothes. I'd probably smeared red lipstick across my chin when I'd wiped away the drool. Lovely.
. “Bet you say that to all of your costars.”
“Only the stunners.”
Oh, brother. Now I knew he was playing me. This guy was a textbook charmer. And
was way too vulnerable and horny. “I have to pee.” There. That should kill the moment.
“Right.” He stared down at me, one brow raised.
. My heart pitter-pattered.
. Now I knew why he wore those kooky, tinted glasses in public. They kept the average woman from swooning in his path. If that failed, he could beat them off with his cane.
“Fair warning, love. Lost my towel in the tumble.”
Still going for worldly, I said, “Nothing I haven't seen before.”
was a lie. If this were a Warner Brothers cartoon,
would have been the sound effect accompanying the visual of my eyeballs literally springing out of my head as Arch pushed to his feetâfull monty. It's not as if he stood there posing. I got a two-second glimpse, tops.
Regardless, the image was burned into my brain. Holy smoke.
Then he turned around to step into a pair of grey sweatpants and I got a good look at his butt. A spectacular butt. Not quite as breathtaking as John Thomas, but impressive all the same.
I scrambled to my feet and into the bathroom before I said something stupid like,
“Is that penis for real?”
While I was in there doing my thing, I collected my wits and memories. In one day, I'd been a flasher
a flashee. If you asked me, I was fast on my way to forfeiting my conservative crown. Sullying my reputation and rubbing Michael's nose in it was a tempting goal.
At least I had something to work toward. I'd already turned cynical; surely I could handle adventurous. So long as it didn't involve turbulence or rocky seas.
The plane ride came back in mortifying chunks. By the time I'd washed my hands and finger-combed my hair, I'd remembered everything right up until I'd fallen asleepâmake that passed outâwhich was probably one hour into the flight from hell.
I opened the bathroom door and leaned against the doorjamb, feeling foolish and confused.
Arch sat at the desk, his callus-free fingers attacking the keyboard of a laptop. My first thought was that he was writing me out of the script. My second thought was that he looked nearly as sexy wearing sweats and a baggy T-shirt as he did wearing a towel. Nearly.
“You held my hand when we hit that bad patch of turbulence. You engaged me in a game of movie trivia to distract me from getting sick.” His knowledge of the classics floored me. Michael used to disappear when I indulged in any film dated pre-Technicolor. I cleared my throat, tucked my hair behind one ear. “Thank you for being so understanding.”
“Thank you for not hurling on me.”
“So am I, you know, fired?”
“For getting wasted on the job.”
requires an actress who can convincingly play the role of Sugar Dupont whenever in public,” he said, typing and talking at the same time.
How did he do that?
“You followed my cues and stayed in character even though you were pissed. That's bloody impressive, yeah?”
I blushed at the compliment. “Well, thank you. Except, I wasn't angry.”
He glanced at me over his shoulder.
“Wait. Don't tell me. Across the pond,
is slang for trashed. Heard it in a movie.” I shifted my weight, angled my head. “So what are you? Scottish? British? Irish?”
“Aye.” He pushed out of his chair. “Are you hungry?”
I blinked at the swift change of subject. Plus, I wasn't clear on his answer to my question. Maybe he was a little of all three.
was Scottish, right? But
â¦wasn't that a Brit thing? Yet at other times I caught a twinge of a “Danny Boy” lilt.
I glanced around the generic hotel room. “Where are we, anyway?” Surely I would've remembered boarding a honking-big cruise ship. Granted, I'd been loopedâI'm one of those people who gets fog-brained on cold medicineâbut not
“An airport hotel. Tomorrow morning we'll cab over to the cruise port, board the ship. That's when the real work begins.” He snatched a room service menu from a side table, gave it a three-second glance, then passed it to me. “It's half-past eight and I haven't eaten since morning.”
Come to think of it, neither had I. “I could stand a little something.” Like a big, juicy cheeseburger and a plate of fries smothered in brown gravy. I settled on a mixed salad and bottled water with lemon. After seeing Arch's body, I was more than a little self-conscious about my soft spots. Tomorrow I might even do aerobics.
He shifted back to his laptop, closed the file he'd been working in and shut down. “You want a sandwich with that salad?”
No. “Yes.” Sort of. Mostly, I wanted to tone up overnight. Like that was going to happen. But, hey, that's what I do. Dream. Imagine. Pretend. According to my mom, my free spirit was at the root of all my problems. If I'd gone to college like my brother, I would have had a teaching degree to fall back on. Instead, I was looking at life as a gorilla.
you shower?” Arch said as he moved toward the phone. “Change into something comfortable?”
“As in skimpy?” The notion appalled and intrigued me. Talk about confused.
His lips twitched. “Would you be comfortable eating dinner and going over your character profile in your bra and panties?”
“Are you asking Sugar or me?”
His cocky grin liquefied my bones. Wow. Instead of melting into a puddle, I dropped to my knees and popped the latches of Big Red.