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He grunted.

“Anyway, why are you in the spare bedroom? She sick of you already?”

“Gotta put my shit somewhere, Anne’s closet is packed. You girls, no idea about sharing.”

I shut the bedroom door and started shrugging out of my jeans, pulling off my shirt. Next came the panties. The neckline on the dress was wide and strapless bras always dug into my sides. There were few torture devices more horrible than a strapless bra. It wasn’t like my br**sts were big. The girl in the mirror looked good and happily, the dress still fit just fine. No way could I do up the zipper on the back however. I slid my feet into my super-high black heels saved for special occasions and headed on out, trying to hold my dress together.

“Lauren, would you mind–”

“That’s my job now.” Mal smiled and stepped behind me. “Cool dress. Classy.”

“Thanks.”

Mal leaned in closer, his breath warming my neck as he slowly did up the back. I immediately broke out into goose bumps.

“I never noticed how long your neck is. It’s very nice.”

“Mm.”

“And you have sweet little ears.”

“Um, thanks.”

“No bra?” he asked, his voice casual.

“No. With this dress, I can’t … We don’t actually need to discuss this right now.”

The tips of his fingers trailed up my spine, ahead of the zipper. I got shivery, the English language leaving my mind.

“That’s going to be a hell of a distraction, pumpkin,” he breathed. “Trying to look down the front of your dress all night.”

The look he gave me made me quiver in strange places. This was the problem; my inability to tell if he was serious or not. The whole scene was about establishing ourselves as a couple for Lauren’s benefit, right? It just didn’t feel like it for some reason. It felt personal. With Mal touching me, I kind of forgot Lauren was even in the room. She was, however, most definitely present.

Lauren groaned, loudly. “Oh good god, my ears are bleeding.”

He made me feverish without even trying. I needed to guard my reactions and keep it together. It was the only way this would work.

“Thank you,” I said, as my dress finished tightening around my chest and settled into place.

“My pleasure.”

I expected him to move back. He didn’t. If anything, he got closer. The warm male scent of him, the iron-hard feel, all of it got closer and closer. I tried to bend away from him in an effort to preserve what remained of my sanity, but he just followed. Overwhelming didn’t cover it.

“Guys.” Lauren was tapping her foot. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

“Ignore her. She’s just jealous of our love.” Mal’s arm came around my middle, holding me to him. The press of his hardening c**k against my rear could not be mistaken. I know we were supposed to be playing the couple, but was rubbing his penis against me really necessary? Me liking it was beside the point. Don’t even go there.

“Yes, Malcolm, I’m jealous of your love. That’s it.” Lauren shook her head slowly. “Come on, let’s get moving. Nate will be waiting and he doesn’t wait well.”

“We better go,” I said.

“Yeah.” His voice was soft and dreamy, and spoke of good, hard times in bed. Then he shook his head, gave me his usual grin. “Pumpkin, stop rubbing your ass against me. We gotta go! I don’t have time to do you now. Prioritize, woman.”

Sometimes the temptation to hit him was so huge.

***

Twice the crowd had gathered at David and Ev’s condo tonight. They varied in age from young teens to elderly, from conservative to edgy. All of them primped to perfection. Every inch of David and Ev’s condo had been decorated, also. White candles of every size sat in clusters around the room. Vases filled with bright bouquets were on every available flat surface. The ring of fine crystal and the popping of champagne corks battled classic rock for supremacy. Tonight’s vibe leaned heavily toward the romantic.

There was a buzz in the air, one of expectation. It was exciting.

Mal kept a tight hold on my hand, his big, warm fingers encasing mine. I took my cues from him, staying close to his side. Whenever some sexy siren tried to approach him he basically shoved me at them with a “Meet my girlfriend, Anne.” I’d almost tripped the first few times he’d used me as a human shield, but I was getting the hang of it now. With the last one I’d just held up a hand and said “He’s with me.” She’d taken it with relatively good grace.

“I thought that one was going to hit me,” I said, watching the disappointed girl stalk off into the crowd. “Being your girlfriend is dangerous.”

“What can I say? I’m a magnificent specimen of manhood. Of course they all want me. But I do appreciate you protecting my honor.”

“I should hope so.” I smiled.

“Come and meet Jimmy. This’ll give you a thrill.” He wound his way through the crowd, drawing me along behind him. “’Scuse us. Move please. Move.”

Jimmy Ferris stood beside the mantle like a painter had positioned him there. The man was living art. Dark hair brushed back, blue eyes bright. He was a lot like his brother, David, long and lean, but smoother and harder. More intense if it was possible. Maybe meeting Ev had chilled David out. Jimmy certainly lacked the lost-in-love eyes.

The dark looks he gave the woman at his side were far less than friendly. She kept her nose high in the air and ignored him. I’m not sure I could have maintained her pose of complete indifference so well. Jimmy Ferris had a lot of presence. There’d been all sorts of rumors going around about what he’d been up to since rehab. Given the size of him, I’d say lifting weights featured heavily. Ben was a big guy in general, heading on into lumberjack territory. But Jimmy appeared to have been working at it, hard.

“Jimbo,” said Mal, making room for me beside him. “This is my girlfriend, Anne. Anne, this is Jim.”

Yep, Jimmy gave me the same chin tip as the others. It was a secret handshake. So I gave him one back. He smiled, but only just. It was a fleeting thing.

Mal leaned down in front of me, getting in my face. “Nope. No crazy eyes. Your theory is bullshit, pumpkin. They’re only for me.”

“It’s lovely to meet you, Jimmy,” I said, pushing my pretend partner out of the way.

“She still doing the eyes thing?” asked Jimmy.

Rock stars gossiped. There you go.

“Lust has no expiration date, Jimbo. And hello, Lena. You look very nice.” Mal offered his free hand to the woman at Jimmy’s side. The arctic chill of her manner turned equatorial in an instant. How strange.

“Mal. How are you?” The woman gave his fingers a brief squeeze, before offering her hand to me to shake. Brown hair fell past her shoulders and funky red plastic-rimmed glasses sat on her nose. “And this must be Anne. Great to meet you. Mal’s told me so much about you.”

“He has?” I shook her hand, returning her smile.

“At band practice today, you were all he could talk about,” she said.

“She’s the love of my life,” sighed Mal, throwing an arm around my shoulders.

“See? You’re the love of his life.” Lena gave me a charmed smile. Apparently it was only Jimmy she detested.

“This week,” said Jimmy.

With a small sigh, Lena half turned her head toward him. That was all it took.

Jimmy gave me a strained smile. “Sorry. That was a shitty thing to say.”

“Pumpkin, Lena is what we in the industry call ‘a babysitter’,” said Mal. “If you’re an unmitigated f**king ass**le who doesn’t know how to behave, you get a gorgeous girl like Lena to follow you around, making sure you’re not a PR disaster for the record company.”

“I said I was sorry.” Jimmy stared out across the room, doing the same crinkly forehead thing his brother did. It kind of reminded me of James Dean.

“Hey.” Ben appeared on my free side, staring down at me from his lofty height. There was more chin tipping. All of the band members wore matching black suits, but Jimmy had lost the vest and added a thin black tie. Ben wore the tie but had ditched the vest and jacket and the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up his strong arms. Both limbs were liberally inked. Tattoos and suits made for a damn good combination.

The quality of the eye candy tonight was off the scale. Mal still had them all beat, of course.

“Pumpkin, guess what?”

“What?”

Before I knew what was happening I’d been dipped back over his arm. The entire room had turned upside down. Fuck, was the front of my dress gaping? I slapped my hand down over my collarbone, just in case.

“Shit, Mal! Up.”

He immediately righted me. Blood rushed about inside my head and the room spun. Beside us, Ben and Lena laughed. I think Jimmy was busy doing his bored-stare thing. It was hard to see with my head still spinning. I’m pretty sure people were watching. If I heard an upside-down girl shouting obscenities, I’d probably take a look.

“No one saw anything,” Mal said, reading my mind. “You okay?”

I nodded. “Fine.”

His thumbs rubbed circles into my hip bones through the fabric of my dress. He held his face close to mine. “Sorry, pumpkin. I didn’t think.”

“It’s okay.”

He squinted down at me. “Is it really okay or are you just saying it’s okay and you’re going to bust my balls about it later?”

I thought about it for a moment to be sure. “No. But don’t do it again or I’ll hurt you.”

“Got it. No more throwing you around.”

“Thank you.”

“I won’t embarrass you again, Anne. Promise.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“See,” he said, his smile huge. “Our communication skills as a couple are f**king excellent. We’re working out great!”

“Yeah, we are,” I said, my heart elated. It was strange, we’d only known each other a few days but I trusted him. I liked him and I was really grateful to spend this time with him. After the disaster with Skye, I needed Malcolm Ericson in my life right now. Hell, after the last seven years I needed him. He brought out the sun.

“Yeah,” he whispered.

And then he kissed me and ruined everything.

CHAPTER NINE

It wasn’t a soft kiss. No passing brush of the lips or token peck of affection would do for Mal. Hell no, of course not. It was an amnesia-inducing drug of a kiss. No memory of another remained. Chemical bliss. I’d obviously never been really and truly kissed before because this … he covered my mouth with his and owned me. His tongue slipped over my teeth and his hands slid into my hair. In response, I grabbed two fistfuls of his vest. It might have started out being in surprise or anger. But it turned into a safety measure fast. My knees went weak.

The man kissed me stupid.

His tongue rubbed at mine, encouraging me to play. It might not have been the smart thing to do, but I couldn’t hold back. I moaned into his mouth and kissed him hard. Every bit as hard as he was kissing me. My thighs tensed and my toes curled. Every hair on my body stood on end. His hold on me tightened, as if he couldn’t let go. I, on the other hand, was basically clawing my way through his three-piece suit. The need to get closer was huge. Nothing else mattered.

All around us applause broke out, which was fair enough. A kiss this awesome deserved a standing ovation. Fireworks wouldn’t be overkill. The string quartet seemed a little odd, however. Surely a crazed drum solo would be more in keeping, something primal to match the demented beat of my heart.

“Guys,” Ben hissed, nudging us with an elbow. “Knock it off. Guys!”


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