Make You Blush, page 6part #0.50 of Dumont Bachelors, the Series
There were a few other couples milling about, so Ryan dragged an oversize white rocking chair to a more secluded spot near the side deck rail. He sat down and Joy settled on his lap, nestling against him until he could feel her breath stirring at the base of his throat. He wrapped her in a loose embrace, and for the next several minutes, he rocked in silence, simply enjoying the breeze on his face and the scents of salty air mingling with Joy’s perfume.
Life didn’t get any better than this.
“Happy three-month anniversary,” she murmured against his shirt.
“This is the perfect way to celebrate.” She squeezed him in a sleepy hug. “Thank you.”
When he returned the hug, his body practically vibrated with an emotion so strong it bordered on painful. This girl owned him. He’d never imagined he could fall so quickly—or so hard—but Joy had captivated every part of his body and mind.
“You set the bar pretty high,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to top this for our four-month.”
“You can always come to me for your first tattoo.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She lifted her head and delivered a mock solemn look. “A girl’s first time is a big responsibility. Sure you can handle that?”
He pretended to think it over. “Yeah, I’m man enough for the job.” Then he kissed the tip of her nose. “I’ll even be gentle.”
“Will you respect me in the morning?”
“You bet,” he said. “But I should warn you—I’ll ruin you for all other tattoo artists.”
A slow smile spread across Joy’s lips, and something warm flashed behind her eyes. It looked a lot like love. “Yes, I imagine you will.”
• • •
Three meal courses and two cups of coffee later, they crossed the bow ramp into the dock parking lot and set off at an easy stroll toward Joy’s apartment in the French Quarter. A typical Saturday night, the sidewalks were teeming with a mixture of street performers, hustlers, and partiers, each one as important to the social ecosystem as the others. Ryan chuckled to himself when he noticed a group of tourists gawk in horror at a dominatrix leading her boyfriend on a leash.
New Orleans wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
He squeezed Joy’s hand and asked, “Hey, what’s your schedule look like this week? There’s a new band playing Wednesday at the coffee house, and I want to check it out.”
“Sounds fun. I don’t have anyth—” She cut off and came to an abrupt halt on the sidewalk, then dropped his hand like it was on fire.
Ryan glanced at his palm and back to her. “What’s wrong?”
She swore under her breath while staring straight ahead, apparently too shocked to answer him. When Ryan followed her gaze, he discovered a thirtysomething man feeding a parking meter. In his khaki slacks and short-sleeved polo, he looked like the kind of guy Joy would have dated at one time.
“Ex-boyfriend?” Ryan asked.
“No, worse.” She pushed down her hair to cover the multitude of piercings on the left side of her face and tugged the neckline of her dress to conceal more cleavage. “My dad’s campaign manager.”
Ryan didn’t see the problem, but judging by the way Joy glanced behind them as if to make a run for it, she must not like the guy.
“Don’t look over here,” she chanted. But the man had spotted them. With a smile and a wave, he headed their way. Joy formed a saccharine grin and told Ryan, “Stay here, okay?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
She strode ahead a few yards to meet the man while Ryan stayed behind, still confused by her reaction. He tried not to be nosey, but he couldn’t help watching the pair from his periphery and listening in.
The two exchanged a stiff hug and a few generic pleasantries. Ryan couldn’t hear the whole conversation, but snippets reached him on the breeze. The man asked Joy if she would be at some gala fund-raiser next week, and she said yes. Then he asked what she was up to tonight, and she told him she was heading home from dinner with friends. When she hooked a thumb at Ryan, her next words nearly stopped his pulse.
“. . . just ran into one of my physical therapy clients . . .”
After that, Ryan quit hearing anything at all.
Once, when he was a kid, he was running bases with a giant wad of bubblegum in his mouth. The gum had somehow gotten wedged in his airway, and for a few terrifying seconds he hadn’t been able to breathe.
He felt that way now.
Joy’s casual lie repeated inside his head, followed closely by his friend’s advice from earlier that day: If she hasn’t made the relationship public, it probably means she’s playing with you. Ryan didn’t want to believe it, but the prickle of dread creeping over him refused to be ignored.
His stomach grew heavy as the weight of Joy’s words sank in. Then, like evidence at a jury trial, the facts presented themselves one by one, each more undeniable than the last. Joy hadn’t introduced him to her friends. She hadn’t wanted him at any of her father’s political events. She’d spent two weeks hiding him from the public. And most damning of all, she’d just told someone he was a client.
Not her boyfriend. A fucking client.
She was ashamed of him.
The longer Joy left him there like a discarded napkin, the harder Ryan’s heart pounded. His body heated until he had to unfasten the first four buttons of his shirt. He knew he should feel hurt, but the only emotion racking him was anger.
Maybe her vanilla boyfriends hadn’t hit the spot, so she’d decided to try a bite of spiced carrot cake—secretly, of course. Because God forbid anyone like Joy be romantically linked with him.
Ryan’s head swam so fiercely he didn’t notice when Joy and the campaign manager parted ways. The next thing he knew, she was standing in front of him wearing a relieved smile.
Joy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and pointed to her eyebrow hoops. “He would’ve lost it if he’d seen me like this.”
“Or on a date with a lowly tattoo artist, I guess.” Ryan didn’t bother softening the razor-sharp edge of his voice. He couldn’t have, even if he’d tried.
Her smile faltered as if she hadn’t heard him right. “What are you—”
“But it’s okay to talk to a client, right?”
When Joy’s mouth dropped into an oval, Ryan knew she hadn’t meant for him to overhear that tidbit. Slowly, she shook her head. “Don’t get mad. It’s not like that.”
“No?” he asked. “Then what’s it like? I think you don’t want anyone to know we’re dating, because then Daddy might find out. Am I getting warm?”
“No. You’re jumping to conclusions. There’s noth—”
“I’m not a felon, Joy!” he barked. When a few onlookers from across the street raised their brows at him, he lowered his voice. “There’s no legitimate reason for you to treat me like your dirty little secret.”
“That’s not what I’m doing, I promise.”
“Once again, your words don’t match your actions.”
Joy reached out for him, but seemed to think better of it. “Ryan, you don’t know my—”
“What am I to you?” he interrupted. “Your boyfriend? Or a temporary good time?” When she gaped at him, her wide blue eyes shimmering with unshed tears, he took the liberty of answering for her. “Since you don’t seem to know, let me tell you what I’m not. I’m not a hoop in your eyebrow that you can remove or hide whenever it suits you.”
A single tear spilled free, and she splayed her hands as if begging for understanding. “I swear I don’t see you that way.”
“What am I to you?”
He didn’t know why he was giving her another chance. It was pathetic. He should walk away, but damned if his feet would listen. They remained glued to the sidewalk in hopes that Joy could explain away all the evi
But that didn’t happen. Joy just stood there, dumbstruck and crying.
“Never mind,” he said. “I guess it doesn’t matter.” Ryan scraped together what was left of his dignity and handed her their souvenir picture from the Belle. He didn’t want it anymore. “Here, take it. Now you can destroy all evidence that you slummed it with a guy like me.”
Then he turned on his booted heel and left her behind. He didn’t look back.
Halfway up the block, the pain he’d been too shocked to feel caught up to him with lethal force. It started as a white-hot pinprick behind his breastbone and, within seconds, spread outward until he could barely breathe. Ryan had inked and pierced nearly every part of his body, but he’d never hurt like this. Once he was certain Joy couldn’t see him, he leaned against the nearest building and braced both hands on his knees.
Whoever said it was ”better to have loved and lost” was a serious dipshit.
The Horny Hippies were at it again, and judging by the volume of their moans, they were either achieving tantric climax or amputating each other’s limbs. Joy hoped for the latter. Because now that she knew what she was missing, each of their cries was like salt on a skinned knee, and she didn’t need another reminder of what she’d lost.
“Whatever,” she muttered while shuffling her slippers across the living room. “I can have an orgasm without a man.” But she tasted the lie on her tongue. No battery-operated toy could master her body the way Ryan had.
She kicked aside an empty pizza box and plopped down onto the sofa, then curled up in a ball to stare at the television. Welling moisture blurred her vision, not that she cared to watch whatever was playing. She dragged a crumpled tissue beneath her nose and blotted her eyes, which brought Ryan’s discarded T-shirt into focus.
Like an addict jonesing for a fix, she snatched the shirt from the coffee table and brought it to her nose, pulling in a deep breath. It still smelled like his spicy aftershave even after a week, and the familiar scent filled her with a mingling of relief and pain.
God, she missed him.
She missed the sound of Ryan’s voice and the lopsided curve of his smile. She missed the feel of his hands on her skin, both tender and possessive. More than that, she missed the way he listened when she spoke, as if nothing on earth were more fascinating than what she’d had for lunch that day.
Each night without him felt emptier than the last, and she couldn’t look at cupcakes, pretzels, or any flavor of Ben & Jerry’s without breaking into hysterics. Which made grocery shopping quite the adventure. Joy’s time apart from Ryan had finally allowed her to see that she loved him—straight to the bottom of her broken heart.
Not that it mattered.
When she’d tried to apologize, he’d screened her calls and refused to answer. Her instincts told her she could earn his forgiveness, but not unless she dated him publicly. Very publicly, as in taking him home to meet Mom and Dad. And she’d survived enough lectures on the science behind image in politics—everything from tie color symbolism to which hairstyles voters favor—to know that her father would have a conniption fit.
If only Ryan could wait until after the election . . .
But she had no right to ask that of him.
Her cell phone rang from beneath a pile of tissues, and Joy sprung from the sofa in hopes that Ryan had finally returned one of her messages. Her fingers trembled as she turned it over and glimpsed the screen.
Joy’s heart sank. She swiped the glass and answered. “I know, I know. I’ll be there.”
Mom paused for a beat. “You sound awful.”
“Oh, heavens. Are you sick?” In typical Mom fashion, she kept her panic level dialed to Impending Apocalypse. “Because there’s a case of meningitis at the university.”
“I graduated, Mom.” Joy dabbed at her nose. “Remember? You were there.”
“What’s your temperature?”
“I’m not sick.” Not physically, anyway. Heartsickness carried its fair share of horrible symptoms, but it wouldn’t get her a day off from work. Or a free pass from fund-raiser gala. “I’m just upset.”
Apparently, Mom was okay with that. “Then hurry up and get yourself together. Charles Pennington is already asking for you.”
“You know,” Mom said. “That nice young man you dated a few months ago.”
“Oh.” She meant Orville Redenbacher. Joy grimaced and glanced at her palm, making a mental note to pack hand sanitizer in her purse. “Thanks for the warning.”
• • •
Two hours later, Orville—er, Charles—waved at her from the other side of the ballroom. He came bounding toward her with the enthusiasm of a puppy about to wet itself, and when he scrubbed a fist beneath his nose, Joy stretched out her arms to him, opting for a hug instead of a handshake.
That was her first mistake of the evening.
She kept her end of the embrace professional, but Charles didn’t. He planted a wet kiss at her jawline while his hands slid dangerously close to ass territory. Joy stiffened before pushing away. Charles didn’t strike her as the type to cop a feel.
“Great to see you again,” she lied while backing up a pace.
“You, too.” His gaze swept her from head to toe with the wide, unfocused eyes of a man who couldn’t hold his liquor. Clearly, he’d taken full advantage of the open bar, which explained a few things. “You look gooooor-geous.”
Only a drunkard would think so. All the makeup in Joy’s arsenal couldn’t conceal the puffiness beneath her eyes, and thanks to a week of nonstop pizza consumption, her dress zipper was begging for mercy. “Thanks. You’re too sweet.”
Caught off guard, Joy peered around the room at the rows of tables decked out in white linen and bone china. At a thousand dollars per plate, Daddy had packed in as many place settings as logistically possible, and every pocket of space was occupied by laughing partygoers. “I don’t see a dance floor.”
Charles slipped an arm around her waist and jerked her forward until she landed against his chest with an oof! “Who needs a dance floor?”
Joy turned her face aside to dodge another kiss, but that didn’t stop the stench of sour whisky from filling her nostrils. Sweet Jesus, what was up with this guy?
Charles crushed their hips together and showed her exactly what was up.
“Oh, God!” In a panic, she pushed back hard enough to detangle herself. Unfortunately, it was also hard enough to send Charles stumbling into a passing cocktail waitress. The girl lost her footing, and they went down in a clumsy spiral, along with the two dozen glasses of champagne on her tray.
The sound of breaking glass silenced the room and drew hundreds of gazes to Joy and the two soaking-wet victims at her feet. Cringing, she tiptoed through the glass and helped the waitress stand, but when she offered her hand to Charles, he waved her off.
“What’s your problem?” he demanded, his bow tie limp and crooked like an overcooked bit of pasta. “All I wanted was a dance!”
Joy’s face heated, but with anger, not embarrassment. “Go home, Orville,” she said. “You’re drunk.”
A large hand appeared at Joy’s elbow, and she turned to find her father bent over Charles. “So sorry,” Daddy said. “Please excuse us for a moment.” His unnaturally white teeth shone beneath a tight smile as he tugged Joy toward the lobby. Once they were out of earshot, he lit into her with a whisper-yell. “What were you thinking?”
“It was an accident,” Joy said. “I was just trying to get him off me.”
“Get him off you?” Daddy parroted. “For God’s sake, Joy, don’t be so damned dramatic. It’s not like he held a knife to your throat and violated you right there on the dinner table.”
“No,” she hissed back. “He licked the side of my face and shoved his erection on my thigh!”
Daddy’s eyes flew wide, and he darted a glance in every direction as if to ensure nobody had overheard. “Get a grip,” he chided. “That boy’s family has more money than God, and I busted my tail to get their backing. Your idea of gratitude is shoving their son to the floor just because he was a little . . . excited to see you?” He thrust a finger toward the ballroom. “Get in there and make it right.”
Joy’s lips parted. It took a few moments to find her voice. “What do you mean, make it right?”
“Talk to him,” he ordered. “Apologize. Invite him to dinner at the house. Whatever it takes.”
“Let me get this straight,” she said with a calm that amazed her. “Charles manhandled me, and you want me to have him over for dinner?”
“It’s not the end of the world,” Daddy said. “People are drawn to candidates who make them feel good. Right now, that’s my job—to make my supporters feel good. And by extension, it’s your job.”
“To make Charles feel good?”
Daddy scrubbed a hand over his face. “Stop trying to spin this into something sordid. Just go out there and make yourself useful.”
Make herself useful? Is that how he saw her—as a means to an end?
“Right now,” he added, confirming her theory.
Joy stood frozen in shock, her mind reeling. She’d heard stories about epiphanies, but she’d never experienced a moment of life-changing clarity—until now. Standing in front of her father, with his fake tanned skin and his gray hair shellacked to perfection, she understood why the spirits of her ancestors had wanted her to cut the apron ties.