Make You Blush, page 1part #0.50 of Dumont Bachelors, the Series
MAKE YOU BLUSH
A Dumont Bachelors Novella
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First E-Book Printing, April 2014
Copyright © Melissa Landers, 2014
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E-book ISBN: 978-0-698-15640-1
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Excerpt from MAKE YOU MINE
The couple downstairs was at it again, like two rabbits on Viagra.
Throaty cries of pleasure carried on the spring breeze into Joy McMasterson’s open window, disrupting her tranquil evening and bringing a blush to her cheeks. She was no prude, but she wished her neighbors would get a hobby aside from making each other scream. That way she wouldn’t have to picture their sexcapades each morning when she passed them in the stairwell.
It wasn’t a pleasant mental image.
She didn’t know their names, so she’d dubbed them the Horny Hippies. They sported dishwater-blond dreadlocks and wore matching Birkenstocks paired with baggy hemp clothing. If their red-rimmed gazes were any indication, they would probably smoke their T-shirts if such a thing were possible, and worse than that, the aroma trail they left behind in the hallway said bathing wasn’t high on their to-do list.
Apparently, the only thing on that list was “each other.”
Joy stalked across the living room and slammed the window shut, but she could still hear their muffled moans. An all-too-familiar emotion settled like a lead weight in her stomach.
It was jealousy, her faithful companion.
“Ridiculous,” she muttered to herself. “Why would I be jealous of them?”
Usually people envied her, not the other way around. Straight out of graduate school, she’d scored a job as a physical therapist at the swankiest sports-rehab facility in New Orleans. Her parents had footed the bill for her advanced degree, then bought her this trendy French Quarter apartment as a surprise graduation gift. If that weren’t enough, Joy’s ever-vigilant mother kept her social schedule filled with a steady rotation of trust fund bachelors, and her father, the Honorable Judge McMasterson, had the power to fix her parking tickets.
What more could a girl want?
“Oh, I don’t know,” she whispered to her reflection in the window. “Maybe passion. Or love. Or freedom.”
The Horny Hippies had all of the above, hence the sudden appearance of Joy’s green-eyed monster. The pair had found a perfect match in each other. Plus, they weren’t afraid to fly their freak flags, and hygiene issues notwithstanding, she couldn’t help admiring them for that. She was vanilla. They were organic granola crunch.
Joy didn’t know what flavor she wanted to be, but vanilla it was not.
Her cell phone rang, interrupting her pity party. The screen showed Mom calling, so she picked up right away; otherwise her mother would call the chief of police and ask him to inspect the apartment for intruders. Again.
“Hello, princess,” came the hasty reply. She was probably on her way to Bunco, or Drunko as Joy called it. “Don’t forget that Charles Pennington is picking you up at eight. He’s a bit of a dud, but be extra sweet to him. His family made a sizable contribution to your father’s campaign.”
Joy blew out a breath. In motherspeak, a bit of a dud meant a drooling sociopath. But with Daddy running for the U.S. Senate in the fall, Joy was regularly expected to take one for the team. “Don’t worry,” she droned. “I’m sweet to all of them.”
“Wear that pretty Chanel sheath I ordered for you.”
“With the understated black pumps,” Mom added. “Not the stripper shoes I saw you in last week.”
By stripper shoes, Mom meant the three-inch sling-backs Joy had worn on her date with a congressman’s son. If Mom knew about the peep-toe stilettos hidden in the back of Joy’s closet, she’d have an aneurism. To avoid yet another lecture on the importance of supporting her father’s ultra-conservative family values platform, Joy conceded, “Fine, but I need to go. We don’t want to keep Charles waiting.”
“That’s a good girl,” Mom said, then disconnected.
“Love you, too,” Joy muttered into dead airspace.
An hour later, she assessed her reflection in the bedroom mirror, turning to and fro to ensure no bra straps or panty lines were visible. The black sheath dress skimmed the curves of her body without clinging, its hem forming a tasteful line at the tops of her knees. Half-carat diamond studs winked from her earlobes in a way that was classic but not too flashy. Her blond tresses were smoothed to perfection, resting atop her shoulders in a graceful sweep. Overall, she looked polished and respectable.
Not to mention boring as a sermon.
“Only seven months until the election,” she reminded herself. “Then those peep-toe stilettos are coming out of the closet.”
The doorbell rang and she greeted Charles, who grinned nervously while blotting his face with a handkerchief. Yes, an actual handkerchief. His thick black glasses and red bow tie paired with matching suspenders reminded her of Orville Redenbacher, and she had to check the urge to offer him a bag of microwave popcorn.
“It’s great to meet you,” she said with a smile. “Thanks for inviting me out.”
“No problem.” He sniffled loudly and dragged a hand beneath his nose, then extended that same palm by way of introduction. “I’m a big fan of your dad’s.”
Joy stared at his outstretched hand for one horrified moment before bucking up and shaking it. “Me, too. Don’t you just love politics?”
• • •
When Joy returned home, she immediately dispensed a dollop of hand sanitizer and rubbed it between her palms, then kicked off her pumps and collapsed onto the sofa. She didn’t know how much money the Penningtons had donated to Daddy’s campaign, but she hoped it was a lot, because she’d earned every cent.
Something had to give.
She couldn’t spend another seven months pimped out for votes and favors, but she wanted to support her father’s dream. It was a delicate balance. During the drive home, she’d give
She needed a steady boyfriend.
She decided to call her best friend for advice. Becca was newly engaged, and her fiancé had plenty of buddies. If nothing else, maybe she could pair Joy with someone who didn’t use the back of his hand as a Kleenex.
But when the topic came up, Becca said, “No dice. Half of Jake’s friends are married, and the other half are losers aspiring to the title of Beer Pong Champion.”
“Hey,” Joy said. “I like beer.”
“That desperate, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“Are you finally desperate enough to try the Sweet Spot?”
Joy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. For months, her friends had been pushing her to visit the Sweet Spot bakery. The young woman who owned the shop was a direct descendent of the most infamous voodoo queen in Louisiana history, and people traveled from all around for a slice of cake and a vial of love charm.
But Joy didn’t believe in that nonsense. “Can we be serious here? I need help.”
“Then let Allie help you,” Becca said. “Like she did for me.”
Becca wasn’t the only one drinking the Kool-Aid—three of Joy’s friends credited Allie Mauvais for their engagements. The woman’s reputation as a matchmaker was legend. But something about the whole thing seemed so . . . desperate.
A word Joy had already used to describe herself.
“What have you got to lose?” asked Becca.
“Just my dignity.” Joy’s gaze darted to the bottle of hand sanitizer resting on the coffee table. “But if we’re being honest, I think I already lost that.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
Joy puffed a sigh. “I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this.”
“You won’t be sorry,” Becca promised. “Your life is about to change big time.”
Joy hoped her friend was right. A change was exactly what she needed.
• • •
The following day, Joy left work and set out on foot toward the Sweet Spot, both to enjoy the warm spring afternoon and because she feared someone might identify her car if she parked anywhere near the shop.
Nobody went there for the cupcakes.
When Joy rounded the corner and spotted a hanging sign—THE SWEET SPOT: SOMETHING TO TEMPT EVERY SAINT IN NEW ORLEANS—she was surprised to discover her palms sweating. She wiped them on her khaki slacks while peeking inside the front window. A few teenagers were huddled in conversation near the cash register, so Joy lingered on the sidewalk and pretended to check her phone messages until the customers came out. Once they’d moved out of sight, Joy gulped a fortifying breath and opened the door.
The air inside the bakery was cool and sweet, wrapping around her like a comforting blanket of spun sugar, and when Allie Mauvais glanced up with a smile, all of Joy’s anxiety melted away. Miss Mauvais was one of the most strikingly beautiful women Joy had ever seen, leaning both elbows on the counter so her black curls tumbled down to frame her dewy, olive face. Her eyes were exotic beyond belief—one gray, the other amber . . . and both alight with a hint of mischief.
Joy liked her immediately.
“Hey, hon,” Allie said as if they were old friends. “What can I tempt you with today?”
Deciding she had nothing to be ashamed of, Joy squared her shoulders. “I’d like a love charm.” Then she felt the need to add, “And half a dozen cupcakes.”
“A woman who knows what she wants,” Allie said appreciatively. “I admire that.” However, her tone darkened and her smile fell. “But before I can help you, there’s something you need to know.”
Joy gestured for her to go on.
“The spirits only reward the faithful.” Allie delivered a pointed look. “You have to believe to receive. Can you do that?”
“You mean I need to have faith?”
“And do everything I say, no questions asked.”
Joy nodded. She didn’t know why, but she trusted Allie’s guidance. “I promise.”
“Okay, then.” Allie reached beneath the counter and produced a small bowl full of chalky-white shards. “First I’m going to read the bones. That’s the easiest way for me to communicate with the spirits of your ancestors.”
A chill crept up the length of Joy’s spine. “Are those human bones?”
“Shh. I need to concentrate.”
Lifting the bowl above her head, Allie recited a brief prayer, then spilled the bones onto the countertop and bent at the waist to study their patterns. She examined them from every angle, furrowing her brow in deep consideration. Seconds ticked by until she abruptly stood and announced, “I know why you haven’t found your match.”
Joy felt her eyebrows rise. “Why?”
“Because you’re hiding.”
“No, I’m not,” Joy objected. “I put myself out there all the time.”
Allie shook her head and pointed at two bones, one resting beneath the other. “Look at the way these are positioned. The small one on the bottom represents you, and the larger one represents someone influential—probably your father.” She glanced up, her gaze deadly serious. “You’re trapped in his shadow. Until you break free, you’ll never find happiness. And you’ll certainly never find lasting love.”
The skin on the back of Joy’s neck prickled into goose bumps while the hair on her forearms stood on end. She felt a static charge in the air, undeniably real. If she’d ever had any doubts about this woman’s powers, they were gone now. Joy stood there, speechless—struck utterly dumb by the truth of those words.
Allie gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “It’s okay, baby. This is an easy fix.”
“Tell me what do to.”
“Simple,” Allie said with a shrug. “Be yourself.”
She made it sound so easy, but what did that mean?
Allie swept a hand toward Joy’s sweater set and pearl choker. “Is this the real you? No offense, but you look like a Stepford wife. I don’t know anyone your age who dresses like that.”
The sting of hot tears built behind Joy’s eyes. She blinked them away, but her voice cracked when she whispered, “No, this isn’t me.”
“You’re young,” Allie said. “This is the time to have fun and experiment. The spirits of your ancestors want you to be true to yourself. What do you want?” When Joy hesitated, Allie urged, “Don’t think—just say the first thing that comes to mind.”
“I want to do something wild.”
“Good,” Allie said. “That’s a start.” She plucked a tiny sachet from below the counter and handed it over. She went on to say, “This is gris-gris”—pronouncing it gree-gree—“for self-discovery and clarity of heart. Keep it in your pocket at all times, and once you stop hiding who you really are, I promise you’ll find your match.”
Joy brought the pouch to her heart, warming all over with gratitude. “I can’t thank you enough. How much do I owe you?”
“Not a dime,” Allie said. “It’s bad juju to take money for helping others.”
Joy knew a way around that—she cleaned out Allie’s supply of cupcakes. After a hug and a quick good-bye, she strode outside weighed down by a ten-pound box of baked goods but feeling lighter than ever. She was determined to take one step, however small, toward expressing her true self. That’s when she glanced across the street and noticed Gibson’s Tattoo and Piercing.
A smile uncurled across Joy’s lips. It was time to do something wild.
Ryan Gibson was kicked back, relaxing in the side-room tattoo chair and browsing the latest issue of Inked when a young blonde walked in the front door. He had to do a double-take, mostly because she was gorgeous, but also because she wasn’t the kind of woman who usually came in here. All manicured and dressed to the nines, she looked like she’d taken a wrong turn and needed directio
Not that he was complaining.
Her beauty was inarguably wasted on khaki pants and cashmere sweaters, but she filled them out with the kind of curves that would raise any man’s flag. And that wasn’t the best part. What really drew his eye was a hint of sweetness hidden just below the surface—a vulnerability in the way she bit her lower lip and stood on tiptoe to scan the seemingly vacant shop. It made Ryan want to wrap his jacket around her shoulders and carry her books to class. He’d never felt that particular urge before, and he wondered how this woman had appealed to a side of himself that he hadn’t know existed.
“Hello?” she called toward the back office. In her arms, she cradled an oversize white bakery box. “Anyone here?”
Maybe she was selling something. Whatever it was, Ryan was buying.
“Sorry.” He stood from the chair and joined her in the main room. “You caught me on a break.”
For a stunned beat, she blinked up at him with cornflower-blue eyes; then two spots of color rose high on her cheeks. Ryan bit back a smile. He’d made her blush.
She surprised him by abruptly lifting her white box and blurting, “Want a cupcake?”
Ryan chuckled from deep in his belly. No introduction, no pleasantries—just right down to business. “I can probably be persuaded. Did you bake them yourself?”
She cringed as if cursing her own name. “That’s not what I meant to say.”
“Does this mean I can’t buy a cupcake?”
“I’m not selling them,” she said. “I bought these across the street at—”
“The Sweet Spot?” he finished with a wink. “Did you get a love charm, too?” Ryan was only teasing, but when her already flushed cheeks deepened to the shade of a maraschino cherry, he knew he’d made a direct hit. This time he couldn’t hide his answering smile. If she was single and searching, it meant he had a shot, however slim. Ryan didn’t know what shocked him more: that she was unattached, or that he was interested. She looked like the kind of girl who knew the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork. He was more of a spork enthusiast.