“If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of trying to seduce me,” Jason said.
Arianne looked up from her coq au vin. A prickling sting crept into her cheeks and her heart stuttered. Was she that obvious?
Her nerveless fingers pleated the napkin in her lap—the cloth napkin that matched the linen tablecloth tinted golden by the late summer sun.
“Because I went to a bit of extra effort? The catered meals you order outshine this any day.”
He took a moment to nip the last bit of flesh from a petite drumstick, set it aside and licked his glossy fingertips. The wet sound and flick of his tongue coupled with the way his gaze stayed fixed on her face made her breathless and fluttery. Hot.
Who was seducing who?
Her scorching cheeks continued to burn, but she couldn’t look away.
“If you think so highly of what I serve, why have you been declining to join me lately? This is the first meal we’ve shared in weeks. What’s going on, Arianne? Have you been angry with me about something?”
She shook her head, growing even more self-conscious and uncomfortable. This attraction, crush, obsession—whatever it was—had already become impossible to stifle before she’d heard a snippet of gossip about him that had thrown her into a tailspin.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind. I wanted to ask you a fav…or.” Her voice quavered. “But I wasn’t sure how to approach it.” She cleared her throat.
“Yes?” He took up his wine glass and sipped from the oversized bowl.
It was a good white. She’d asked around to be sure. He didn’t seem to notice, only stared like a predatory cat. His eyes were keen slits and his body still and ready. He looked that way when he taught her fencing and she knew it meant he’d be giving no quarter.
Honestly, why on earth did such a dynamic, chiseled, sexy man waste his time with his frigid, repressed neighbor? His body belonged on a professional athlete, all lean muscle and economic movements. He was intelligent with a dry wit and had excellent taste in everything. He couldn’t lack for female company, yet they’d been sharing two or three meals a week for nearly a year. She’d been the one to reach out initially, thinking he must be as heartbroken as she was when their partners ran off together, but now…
Now she felt like the most naïve fool in the Western world.
“I don’t know how you pass yourself off as a writer of technical manuals,” she muttered with mild disgust, sipping her own wine and looking toward his stately mansion with the view of the ocean. What a Cinderella she was in her modest guest cottage, purchased from the mansion’s previous misfortuned owner by mortgaging herself to the rafters. She was so beyond her league here.
And so besotted.
“I didn’t hear a request for a favor in that statement.”
“No.” She almost wanted to quit now and look a small fool than pursue insanity and become a bigger one, but after weeks of wrestling this problem, she had made a decision and would stick to it.
In a minute. When she found her nerve.
She buried her nose in the bouquet of chilled sauvignon blanc.
“I don’t know how you pass yourself off as a successful real estate agent,” he mocked gently, swirling the liquid in his glass. “It requires a great deal of risk yet you balk at taking the small one of asking me a favor? Does it have to do with my work? Do you need an engineer’s perspective on something? A house?”
“I would get that from a construction engineer, wouldn’t I? Not someone with a doctorate in biotechnology. Why does that make you smile? I always have the feeling you’re laughing at me.” From the very first meeting she’d sensed he was—not better than her—but more. More worldly. More experienced.
“I’m not laughing,” he said, amusement hedging his words. “I just like it when you take that tone with me. I hear it when we’re fencing sometimes and I know it means you’ll give me a fight. That’s the woman capable of closing the million dollar deals, isn’t it? Why don’t I see her more often?”
“Why don’t I see the technical manual writer more often?”
“Touché.” He tilted his wineglass. “We all show different personalities for different occasions, don’t we?”
He shows his wild side in the bedroom, not the boardroom, Celine had told Arianne once. It had jumped started Arianne’s curiosity, making her wonder what it was like to possess a wild side. Pretty soon her marriage had seemed tame. Too tame.
She hadn’t known how to change it, though. Telling her husband that she’d like to spice things up would have been the blind leading the oblivious. And it hadn’t seemed worth the potential consequences of looking foolish and perhaps denting his ego. Craig had been a pouter. He’d been gorgeous, but also conservative and very set in his ways. He’d fought her on buying this cottage, calling it too risky.
The purchase had come with grave consequences for both of them, but Arianne had wanted this house very, very badly, and now she had it. That risk had been worth it. She knew how to sell and negotiate and cut a deal. Surely she could channel that for a moment here? For something else she wanted very, very badly?
“You keep spacing out on me.” Jason leaned forward, his long fingers tucking her hair behind her ear.
Her pulse rushed to pound in her ears and make her arteries tingle. “Rude of me. I’m sorry.” Her face heated. Below the table she felt the leather of his boot brush the arch of her bare foot.
She withdrew then could have kicked herself. This was exactly what she was trying to overcome, but his boot felt so male and dominant. It made her heart beat fast. It reminded her she wore only panties, no pantyhose, for the first time. For him, because he didn’t like nylons.
That was something she loved about him, the way he could be so frank about certain things, telling her women shouldn’t buckle to convention, but wear what they liked. Do what they liked.
When he’d said that, slightly drunk a few months ago, it had been with his hand on her knee. She hadn’t exactly rebuffed the light pass, just hadn’t known how to react to it. While other girls had been losing their virginity in high school, she’d been helping her father care for her mother. When her twenty-something friends had been perfecting the art of hooking-up, she’d been studying for her real estate license. She was divorced, aching in ways she didn’t even know how to describe, but too busy paying her mortgage to get out and date.
How much easier this might be right now if she had let him take her up to the room he’d shared with Celine, but she had been certain it was only the approaching anniversary of their shared humiliation that had prompted his offhand invitation. And she’d known she was no match for him, no competition for Celine. It would have killed her to have him once, to disappoint him. There was no questions she would have. Then she wouldn’t even have their friendly suppers any longer. No, if she truly wanted to win him, she would have to be more woman than she currently was.
She deliberately placed her foot back next to his. She was hyper-aware of the slight abrasion against the side of her bare foot and ankle. Heated prickles climbed her calf. Being so forward embarrassed her. She could barely lift her head to see if he noticed.
He betrayed nothing, seemed lost in his thoughts, hardly breathing as he stared into his wine glass.
She caught her breath at how handsome he was with the candlelight throwing shadows across his face now the sun had set. She was as tongue tied as she’d been when Celine had introduced herself and her ‘lover’, Jason, eighteen months ago.
Celine had been as stunning as he was, if a stark contrast with her fair looks against his black hair and toasted almond skin. Arianne had wished herself to be as blond and lithe and given to grace. She didn’t know why she had longed to attract Jason’s notice, not when she had her steady, sturdy husband, but the yearning had been there.
There had been fear too, of course. She had felt the power of Jason’s potent sexuality and had been both frightened and fascinated, unaccountably shy when she was usually the outgoing one, hiding behind her more staid husband. Craig had fallen under Celine’s spell in a similar way. The only difference had been that when the time came, Craig hadn’t been afraid to act on his urges.
“Tell me what you need, Arianne,” Jason said in a husky tone, his gaze lifting while she could have sworn the pressure of his boot against her foot increased a fraction.
She needed to stop being so afraid of her own feelings. “I want you to introduce me to Dominic.”
* * *
Jason pushed himself away from the table, from watching all that he’d carefully built come crashing down. When he reached the short stone wall surrounding Arianne’s patio he turned to face West, to the dark border of hedges and the streetlights beyond, rather than looking at his own mansion and the window to his downfall.
Only when he felt the butt of concrete against his knee did he realize it was too late to say, “Who?” It came out anyway and he heard Arianne’s scornful noise behind him. Funny, but he didn’t appreciate her impudence this time.
“Don’t play dumb,” she said. “Celine told me—”
“What?” he demanded. His hands clenched into fists as he braced himself for the lash of Arianne’s contempt. Surely she would express some. Maybe even worse.
Then it struck him, what she’d said.
“You want me to introduce you? Why? Do you even know who he is?” His gut knotted around the little dinner he’d eaten. He didn’t want to explain. How could he? He barely understood it himself.
“Celine told me he helped her discover herself. Sexually.” Her voice strained to pronounce the last word.
“I bumped into her at a salon a few weeks ago.”
“What else did she say?”
“Would you quit yelling at me?”
“I apologize.” He reined in his flare of temper. “I wasn’t expecting this.” He caught back cynical laughter at the understatement. No, he had begun to imagine something else entirely would come from this dinner. Attempting a calm tone, he forced himself to turn and face her. “Why would you like to meet him?”
She was still seated and kept her head down so she spoke into her lap. “I’m not exactly the most sensual person in the world. I thought he might help me with that.”
Disbelief pressed against the back of his throat.
“Arianne,” he scolded. “Look at yourself. The way you cook,” rich and delicately spiced, “your home,” plush in texture, with splashes of exciting color, “your hair…” She didn’t know what to do with the thick, waving mass, she’d said once, but leave it to fall around her shoulders. He could think of a thousand things to do with the mink-colored tresses, all of them involving naked skin.
She shook her head. “Craig—”
He made an angry noise and took a step toward her before he reminded himself to remain in control. She had the capacity for passion, but it still startled her. “Your ex-husband was not the type of man to bring out that side of any woman.”
“He lacked sophistication, true, but so do I. At least he had the nerve to explore new horizons.” She buried the words in a quick sip from her wine glass.
“Are you calling the lower end of town the horizon? Because that’s as far as the two of them got. They’re currently cutting a sexual swath through the natives there. I hope that’s not what you aspire to.”
“Of course not! I just want to be…different.”
“Different how?” She was positively seductive exactly as she was. When color rose in her cheeks like that and carnal promises grew in the curve of her pouted lips, he imagined exploring the finer points of erotic pleasure with her. Teaching…learning. Oh yes, she had it in her to expand his own horizons, but until tonight she’d quelled every hint of interest in doing so.
The way her marriage had crumbled was to blame and he couldn’t rush the kind of healing she’d needed. He’d understood so he’d tried to be patient while she found her way back to feeling attractive. Now that she was here, he wanted her to explore her sexual boundaries with him.
Clasping his hands over the back of the chair he’d vacated, he said, “Why would you feel a need to be different?”
“Because no man wants a woman as stifled as I am.”
“Would you quit patronizing me?” She threw her napkin onto her plate and stood to stack dishes. “I’m so inhibited that just pressing my foot against yours made me feel…”
“What?” he prompted, excitement sweeping through him again at the remembered glory of her making advances for the first time.
“Like it’s wrong. Like I’m a slut or something.”
“Arianne.” She had only hinted at this before with brief remarks about a strict upbringing by elderly parents. A confession once that she’d developed early and was teased mercilessly. An embarrassed retelling of the office-Romeo calling her a tease.
Until this moment he hadn’t recognized the true height of the walls erected around her sexuality.
“Did you like it? The touch of my boot against your foot?” he asked, feeling tension coil in his center.
“I don’t know! But I wanted to let it happen without—” She clunked down the plates she’d lifted and her gorgeously full breasts heaved. “I’m tired of being a freak.”
“You’re not a freak.” He stepped behind her and placed his hands on her slumped shoulders, digging gentle thumbs into the ridges on either side of her spine. Months of carefully introducing innocuous touches had brought him this far. It was the only tension release she allowed him to offer and it never seemed to relax either of them no matter who gave or who received. Nevertheless, he took advantage of the liberty so he could reassure her. Touch her. Drink in the luscious feminine scents of cosmetics and unacknowledged arousal.
“You’re still patronizing me,” she said.
“I’m not and you’re insulting me by saying so.” Her hair tickled his knuckles. It was all he could do not to pull her back against him so he could ease the ache in his groin by pressing into the firm, lush curves of her bottom.
“I have hang ups,” she murmured. “I can’t even relax when you give me a harmless massage.”
Because she sensed it wasn’t harmless, he thought wryly.
“Feeling self-conscious about the way your body reacts to sexual stimulation does not make you a freak. And there are other ways to overcome it than what you’re suggesting.”
“Don’t you dare offer a pity—” She knocked his hands away and turned on him. “—l-lay.”
“Fuck,” he provided. “It’s called a pity fuck. And you’re bent on pissing me off tonight, aren’t you? Why would you accuse me of offering such a thing?”
“I’m sorry. That wasn’t exactly what I meant, only that you’ve never thought about me like that so you must be just trying to be nice right now.”
“Which would still amount to a pity fuck and aside from the fact that it’s not in me to be that nice, if you would like the truth, I began thinking of you ‘like that’ the very day we met across this stone wall. You were wearing a yellow summer dress and I thought it would look better without the bra.”
She swallowed and brought her arms up to hug herself, shock seeming to steal a layer of color from her skin. “Well, you can see how ignorant I am. I had no idea.”
He wondered if he should mention that he could see her nipples hardening now beneath her silk blouse and lacy camisole as she plumped her breasts with her crossed arms. No, she was doing her withdrawal thing, turning away to collect more dirty dishes.
“And now that you do? Have an idea, I mean?” he asked, moving in front of her so she couldn’t retreat to the house.
She put down the dishes with a clatter and another little sigh.
“I don’t think these inhibitions of yours are so monumental, Arianne.” He stroked one knuckle on her bare arm, up to the ruffled cap-sleeve of her blouse. “Let’s talk about them. I’ll be honest with you, you know that.”
“And then you’d know what a neophyte I am! I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of you like that. Our friendship would suffer. I value this you know.” She nodded at the table in disarray with abandoned silver and the pepper mill knocked on its side. She set it upright again. “I can’t risk losing your respect.”
“Surely I deserve better than a We’re Just Friends brush off?”
“That wasn’t—you just won’t understand, will you?”
Her skin pimpled under his touch and he soothed away the bumps, felt the heat rising beneath her skin. His shy little sensuality artist. “Explain it to me. Help me understand because if you won’t allow someone you know and trust to help you, then I can’t fathom what’s driving you.”
Her head dipped and he felt little shivers chase over her skin again.
“I—” She waved modestly at the table. “This is a celebration. I’ve been the top agent twelve months running. I received a bonus. A cruise.”
“Well that’s wonderful isn’t it?” He opened his hand on the softness of her upper arm. Women’s skin was always soft, but Arianne’s compelled him to pet and stroke unceasingly. If only she would let him, if only—but he was supposed to be listening. Giving her the admiration she rightly deserved. “I’m not surprised but I’m very proud. Well done, beautiful.” He touched his lips to her skin for the first time, a light press at her temple that made her breath stall. Heat surged through him.
“For two,” she added after a moment of significant silence. She kept her chin tucked. “I leave in a week.”
He used a gentle touch to tilt her face up to his. “Two?”
“It’s a cruise for two. At first I thought I’d take a girlfriend, perhaps Ella from the office. But there would be politics and on the boat she’d be intent on cutting one of those sexual swathes you talked about. Essentially I’d be cruising alone. Then I considered trying something like that myself but aside from the fact I’m hopelessly ill-equipped, I’m built for relationships.” She shrugged awkwardly. “It’s just who I am. I’d rather invite a man to share the cruise with me. I even had someone in mind—”
“I beg your pardon?” His hand firmed involuntarily on her jaw.
“There is a man to whom I am attracted,” she said, lashes lowered in uncertainty. “I would like to invite him on this cruise, but I can’t. Not if I’m going to ruin everything by being some kind of sexual introvert.”
“Who is he?” he demanded. He was jealous, he realized. Insane with it.
She pulled away and bent to blow out the candles. “Do I ask you the names of the women you pursue?”
There was only one. Arianne. She’d been in his thoughts for eleven months. Over a year, if he wanted to be honest, but he didn’t want to be that honest. She might guess the rest and he dreaded that.
“The problem is, if this man shares my bed, he’ll find out what a dud I am—”
“Stop talking about yourself like that.”
“It’s true! I don’t know what I’m doing there. I don’t even know why other people are so keen to test the limits of what can be done there. I don’t want to be this ignorant, Jason! I want to know how to satisfy a man in bed.”
“Fine. Invite me.”
She snorted. “Right. How would that work? You’d bring me up to speed then release me into the world after the cruise? Then what? We continue our cozy dinners with that between us?”
“It could be the beginning of a relationship,” he said through clenched teeth. “Did you think of that?” She could forget this other man to whom she was attracted.
“And when you found out what a dead fish I am, you’d be outta there and how in the world would I ever sit across a table from you again? No, I’d rather spend a week taking lessons from someone I’ll never have to face again.”
She didn’t know who Dominic was. She couldn’t. Either that or she knew everything and was punishing him. Thoroughly.
Deep down, he didn’t care one way or another. There was an iniquitous part of him exploding with excitement thinking of her with Dominic. She’d test the hell out of him. It was beyond exciting to consider. His entire body coiled with anticipation.
At the same time, the velvet of an ocean-scented breeze swirled around him, but it wasn’t warm enough to quell the icy tendrils of guilt wrapping around him.
“But I do need someone I can trust, and you trust him, right? I mean, you trusted him with Celine didn’t you?”
“I indulged her desire for him. They had a history,” he said reluctantly.
“So I could trust him, too. Otherwise I’ll have to find someone else—”
“Are you truly going to be that stubborn about this? You’ll put an ad in the classifieds or something unless I arrange this?”
“Well there is that guy at work who seems to know his way around the bedroom, but I don’t really want—”
“Neither do I,” he cut in, flaring his nostrils to take a deep, calming breath. “But I think you’re being foolish. If this man you are so attracted to calls himself a man, he would find your natural innocence as charming as I do.”
“I don’t want to be innocent! I want to be passionate.”
“You’re highly passionate. You once lectured me for half an hour on recycling.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. Every time I think about sex, a little voice inside me says, ‘but that’s not me.’ When a guy asks me on a date, I freeze up, terrified because he’ll expect me to be something I’m not. I’m curious, but the internet is just words. It’s not real. I want to feel what it’s like, learn things I didn’t know were possible. Orgasm, okay?”
“I can give you that.” Frustration drove him to slip the leash on his control. He pulled her against him, letting her feel the hardness of his throbbing wood against her stomach. “How do you want it? A long, slow build up then a hard push over the edge? What do you want me to use? My dick or my tongue? Fingers? All of the above until you can’t speak?”
“Jason.” She sounded breathless. Her hands pressed against his chest in resistance but he held her close enough to feel her heart racing.
“Because that’s what Dominic will do. Do you understand that? He’ll run his tongue between your legs and ask you to suck his fingers and cock. He’ll expect freedoms for every lascivious pleasure he can conjure. He’ll fuck you. Often. As fast or slow or hard as your pussy can stand. Are you prepared for that?” The images blew his mind and tightened his grip on her arms.
“No,” she breathed. “But that’s the point, isn’t it? I should be.”
He could sense the contradiction in her, the opposition of her arms, straining for release, yet the faint scent of physical excitement rising off her skin. He suffered a similar incongruity in himself. He was drowning in such possessiveness he wanted to overcome her protests and seduce her right here and now.
Arianne wasn’t with him, though. She was biting her lip, her sexual confidence balanced on a knife’s edge as she waited for his decision.
The blade of guilt in his chest gave a few twists. If she needed to hear from a stranger that she was sexy as hell, he should arrange it. Hell, Dominic had enough control to bolster her without touching her, then point her in the direction she ought to be looking: right here.
Or was that a bullshit rationalization? He didn’t let himself overthink it. It was only one encounter.
“If you insist,” he growled. “You can meet him.”