Make You Blush, page 7part #0.50 of Dumont Bachelors, the Series
Because Daddy had changed.
The knight in shining Levi’s who’d once wrestled a wild possum in the attic was gone. The senatorial candidate in front of her was a stranger, and his love came with a price. Joy thought of Ryan, and how he’d loved her without asking for anything in return. She’d given her loyalty to the wrong man.
It was time to rectify that.
“No,” she said. “I quit.”
Daddy’s gaze hardened like flint. “Over my dead body, you quit. I’ve never denied you anything—money, cars, an education, even the roof over your head.”
“And all you want in exchange is my dignity.”
“Your support. Once again, you’re being dramatic.”
“Give me a few weeks to find a new place,” Joy said. “Then the apartment is yours. Sell it and put the money where your heart is—in your campaign.”
That seemed to get through to him. His brows lifted by a fraction, an impressive feat considering Botox had deadened half his face. “That’s not—”
“Same goes for the car.” She loved her Audi, but not enough to let Daddy lord it over her. She’d rather drive a rusted beater. “Your name’s on the title, anyway.”
“Are you done behaving like a child?” he asked, gripping his hips. “Are you ready to have a grown-up conversation now?”
Joy refused to take the bait. “Tell Mom she’s free to call, but not if she’s going to harass me about this.” She pointed at her father. “And until you apologize, you’ve not only lost me, you’ve lost my vote.”
If that didn’t reach him, nothing would.
Then she turned and strode out of the banquet hall. Once she reached the dim parking lot, she released a breath, feeling lighter by a hundred pounds—the approximate weight of Daddy’s shadow.
Now to reclaim her life. And the man who’d helped changed it.
“Dude,” Ryan said to his friend, “I never want to be this close to your bare ass again.”
Paul was stretched out on the reclining workroom chair, his athletic shorts pulled down over both butt cheeks to display the demonic looking Smurf tattoo he wanted Ryan to magically transform into a bald eagle. “But you can do it, right?”
“Well . . .” Ryan was good, but maybe not that good. If he squinted and tilted his head to the side, he could kind of imagine the Smurf’s floppy hat as a bird’s beak. “Yeah, but it’ll be painful. For both of us.”
“Thanks, man. I owe you.”
Truthfully, Ryan didn’t mind. He did his best to stay busy these days because it helped keep his thoughts off the ever-present ache inside his chest. And if anything could distract him from Joy, it was a botched cartoon ass critter. After sketching the eagle, he transferred the image onto his friend’s backside and prepared his ink.
“What were you thinking?” Ryan asked, shaking his head at the Smurf’s warped face.
“I wasn’t,” Paul said. “It was senior-year spring break.”
“Was your old buddy Jim Beam involved?”
“You know it. And that rat bastard Jose Cuervo.”
“Sons of bitches, both of them.”
“Amen to that, brother.”
When the tattoo machine was ready, Ryan placed one latex-gloved hand on his tool grip and the other on his buddy’s naked ham hock. “You ready?”
Over the next half hour, he worked methodically while Paul discussed his strategy for the next season’s fantasy football draft. Ordinarily, Ryan engaged his clients in conversation, but this cover-up required more attention to detail. So he tuned out his friend’s chatter and offered an occasional mmm-hmm to keep him happy.
Ryan had just finished the eagle’s head and begun inking its neck when the lobby door opened with a ding! He set down his tool and blotted the excess ink and blood from his buddy’s skin. “Sorry,” he hollered through the doorway. “My receptionist’s off today and I’m in the middle of a job. Won’t be done for at least another hour.”
“No worries,” said a painfully familiar voice. “I heard you’re worth the wait.”
It was a good thing Ryan had set down his tool before he glanced into the lobby, because the resulting double-take would have had him poking a hole in Paul’s ass. Joy was standing there watching him with a coy smile, but he never would have recognized her if she hadn’t spoken first.
In cherry red stilettos that matched the new color of her hair, she clicked across the waiting area and leaned against the doorjamb to the workroom. She’d swapped out her delicate eyebrow hoops for bolder curved barbells, but what really had Ryan’s jaw dropping was her vintage swing dress. All black with white polka dots, it gripped her slim waist like a second skin before flaring out to the knee. Two halter straps tied behind her neck drew Ryan’s eye to a deep line of lush cleavage on display. In this getup, Joy was a retro wet dream. He almost forgot which century he was in.
But what was she doing here . . . dressed like that?
“Wh—” he began before all the air left his lungs.
“I’m ready for my first tattoo.” She used a red-painted fingernail to trace a heart above her left breast. “The name Ryan, right here where everyone can see it. What do you think?”
Thinking wasn’t really an option. He was too shocked. Joy had just strode back into his life, and it sounded an awful lot like she wanted him—and not for man candy. Ryan couldn’t stop the corners of his lips lifting in a grin. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he knew he should play it cool, but he’d missed her too much for that. It was all he could do to stay in his seat and not rush across the room to scoop her into his arms.
“Sounds permanent,” he said. “You can’t take off a tattoo whenever it suits you.”
“No, you can’t,” she agreed. “That’s kind of the point.”
“Are you sure he’s that special?” Ryan gestured at his tattoo machine. “Because I do a lot of cover-ups, mostly of names.”
Joy’s smile slid away, and she gazed at him with an intensity that made Ryan’s breath catch. “He’s the best,” she said. “And I’m crazy in love with him.”
That’s when Paul piped up and ruined the moment. “This is so cool. It’s like the end of Grease, where Sandy shows up at the carnival dressed like a hooker.”
Ryan smacked his friend upside the head.
“What?” Paul asked, rubbing his scalp. “All I’m saying is she changed for you.”
Joy laughed and smoothed the fabric of her dress. “I didn’t change for anyone. This was always me; I just didn’t know it until now.” When her gaze landed on Paul’s backside, she wrinkled her forehead. “Hey, is that a Smurf? With the head of a bird?”
“It’s a work in progress.” Ryan covered the eagle with a sterile bandage and asked Paul if they could finish the job later.
“Sure, man.” Gingerly, Paul pulled up his shorts and stood from the recliner. “Just call me when you two are done making up.” He winked at Joy, and then he was gone.
Ryan rose from his seat, but he wasn’t sure what to say. Now that he and Joy were alone, a haze of awkward silence had settled between them. Finally, he worked up the nerve to ask, “Did you really mean that?”
Joy clicked into the workroom, closing the distance until she stood close enough to fill his space with the sweetness of her perfume. “Every word. I want you to know I’m sorry.” Her gaze dropped to the tips of her pretty toes. “I was an idiot, but I was never ashamed of you. If you take me back, I’ll tell the whole world we’re together. I’m not exactly on speaking terms with my family, but I’ll introduce you when that changes.” She peeked up from beneath thick lashes. “Can you forgive me?”
Was that a trick question? His heart had belonged to her as soon as she’d stepped through the door. “On one condition,” he said.
The signature pink blush he adored stained her cheeks. “I love you,” she said. “I love the way you look at me like I’m the only woman alive. I love the way you narrate the gory scenes in movies so I don’t have to watch people die. I love the way my face fits perfectly in that spot on your chest. And more than anything, I love that you appreciated me when I was vanilla.” Moisture welled in her eyes, and her voice cracked to a whisper. “I love everything about you.”
In one step, Ryan eliminated the space between them and took her cheeks between his palms. He kissed her in a gentle sweep of lips and whispered, “Love you too, Cupcake,” before capturing her mouth with all the passion threatening to burst him at the seams.
She locked both arms around his neck and crushed herself to his chest, and for the next several minutes, Ryan closed his eyes and filled his senses with Joy—the sweet taste of iced tea on her tongue, the firm cushion of her breasts against his ribcage, the lingering scent of dye clinging to her hair. It felt surreal to have her back in his arms, and she must have agreed, because their kisses built from a soft dance of tongues into a desperate tangle of limbs.
When they broke for air, Joy panted, “Wait, stop,” then gained a few inches of distance.
“I didn’t come here for a temporary good time,” she said. “I want to take you out for lunch—a very public lunch.”
Since all the blood in Ryan’s brain had traveled south, it took a moment for the message to sink in. Then he recalled that the night they’d broken up, he’d accused her of using him for sex. “I appreciate the gesture,” he said, “but I have a better idea. How about I lock the door and we have a private lunch instead?”
She pushed both hands forward. “No. I’m taking you out and showing you off.”
“Trust me, it’s not necessary.”
“I insist.” And the firm set of her jaw said she was serious.
Damn it. Ryan had cock-blocked himself. Who complained about a beautiful woman using them for sex, anyway?
Joy must have seen the desperation on his face—or outlining the front of his pants—because she walked her fingers up his chest and smiled seductively. “But after that very public lunch? I’m all yours.”
“Now you’re talking.” Ryan drew her in for a chaste kiss. “But no tatts for you today.”
“Because your skin will need time to heal.” He bent to whisper in her ear, “And that means I can’t lay you down and kiss every inch of your body.”
“Good point,” she said with a delicious shiver. “Tomorrow, then?”
He shook his head. “Next week.”
“Well it is my first time,” she breathed. “So we probably shouldn’t rush.”
Ryan wanted to tell her they had the rest of their lives for such things, but he kept that sentiment to himself. It was still early, and like Joy said, there was no need to rush. “Don’t worry,” he said while leading her to the front door. “I’ll clear my schedule whenever you’re ready.”
After he locked up, he turned to find Joy peering across the street at the Sweet Spot bakery. He joined her, wrapping an arm around her waist and wondering what she was thinking. Maybe she wanted to pick up some dessert after lunch.
“Does Allie Mauvais have anyone special in her life?” Joy asked.
Ryan shrugged. Aside from an occasional wave hello, he and Allie didn’t interact much. “I don’t know. But I haven’t seen many guys go in there.” Most of Allie’s customers were teenagers looking for love charms. He remembered the day Joy had strolled into his shop with that ten-pound box of baked goods in tow, and he pulled her nearer with a smile. “I sure am glad she sent you my way, though.”
Joy bit her lip. She didn’t seem to like his answer.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“I just hope Allie’s as happy as she made me.” Joy gazed up at him, her blue eyes shining with the gratitude of a woman who had everything she wanted. “Nobody deserves it more. If it weren’t for her, I never would have met you.”
Ryan wasn’t sure he believed in Allie’s voodoo charms, but he was mighty thankful that fate or kismet or whatever she wanted to call it had inspired Joy to visit him that day. “Thank God for love spells,” he said.
“Especially cupcakes,” he agreed. They’d made his life sweet in so many ways.
“Ready?” Joy nodded toward the other end of the street.
“You bet.” He took his girl by the hand and set off toward his favorite deli. “You and me and pastrami makes three,” he joked. “Could this day get any better?”
“Oh, definitely,” she promised with a wink. “The best is yet to come.”
Like the taste of Allie Mauvais’s
Read on for a sneak peek of Allie’s love story,
MAKE YOU MINE
by Macy Beckett
Available from Signet Eclipse in May 2014.
Please note: All services offered by the proprietor are for entertainment purposes only, with no warranties, expressed or implied, in regard to accuracy of information. Clients receiving services are responsible for their own actions and the consequences thereof.
Allie Mauvais noticed her customer’s gaze darting, once again, to the legal disclaimer mounted on the wall above the list of two-for-one bakery specials. Something in the stiff set of the woman’s shoulders told Allie she’d come to the Sweet Spot looking for more than a chocolate-chip muffin.
Most people did.
“That’s state-mandated—just ignore it.” Allie reached over the counter to squeeze the young blonde’s hand. No wedding ring. She probably wanted a love charm. “Unless you’re checking out the scones, in which case, go with the brown sugar pecan. It’s better than sex.”
The woman released a shaky laugh and nodded at the trays of crullers displayed behind glass doors. She looked vaguely familiar, but Allie couldn’t place her. “Smells like heaven in here. I can already feel my waist expanding.”
“Calories don’t count in my shop, baby,” Allie said with a wink. “Voodoo priestess, remember? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
The girl chewed her bottom lip and squeezed her leather clutch hard enough to choke the little Dooney & Bourke duck. “Um . . . kind of. I drove up from Cedar Bayou.”
“Hey, I’m from Cedar Bayou!”
“I know. We went to school together. You were a few years ahead of me, though.” She peeked up through her lashes and added, “Shannon Tucker? You probably don’t remem—”
“Oh,” Allie interrupted as the pieces clicked. “Jimmy’s little sister, right? You ran the school paper.”
“Yeah.” Shannon grinned, losing an inch of height as her posture relaxed. “I can’t believe you recognize me. I never had the guts to talk to you.”
Not surprising. The upside of being a direct descendant of New Orleans’s most infamous voodoo queen was that people didn’t screw with Allie, not even when the Saints lost the Super Bowl. Sure, the whole parish had blamed her, just as they had the time Sherriff Benson broke out in shingles, but they’d done it quietly from their living rooms. Even when she’d escaped to the city, the locals had pegged her for Juliette Mauvais’s great-great-granddaughter. The eyes gave her away—one amber, one gray, just like Memère’s.
But the upside was also the downside.
Allie wanted someone to screw with her once in a while. The men from her superstitious parish weren’t brave enough to risk the “Mauvais curse” and ask her out, not that she found any of them particularly appealing. Well, except for one, but his tendency to cross to the other side of the street when she walked by put a damper on their would-be love affair.
“You’re talking to me now,” Allie said. If she c
Shannon cleared her throat and leaned forward, lowering her voice despite the fact that they had the whole shop to themselves. “I’ve heard you can see things.”
Allie nodded. She could see all kinds of things—like facial expressions and body language. The kinds of things anyone could see if they paid attention. She could hear, too—the subtle changes of inflection or tone that often contradicted the spoken word. People didn’t need voodoo heritage to understand each other. They just had to turn off their iPhones and take their heads out of their asses every once in a while. Luckily, they had Allie to do it for them. Maybe she didn’t have magical powers, but she gave her clients the prodding they needed to find happiness.
“My friends say you can read the bones,” Shannon whispered, then immediately straightened and clarified, “not that I believe in all that.”
A smile tipped the corners of Allie’s mouth. Of course Shannon believed in all that. Everyone in Cedar Bayou did, whether they admitted it or not. They claimed such nonsense was beneath them, but they still came, still defaced Memère’s tomb with markings and oddball trinkets in exchange for favors from her spirit. Voodoo was rooted deeper than the tupelo gum trees in these swamps. It was tangled up with good Catholic upbringing until no one could separate one from the other. Even Allie attended Mass each Sunday morning, right before returning home to assemble gris-gris bags for her customers’ protection and luck.
Around here, everyone believed, even if they didn’t.
That said, Allie had more faith in the power of the human psyche than in Memère’s curses or Father Durand’s holy water. The mind was a powerful thing, and she knew how to direct it. She pulled her mat from beneath the counter and spread it on the Formica surface, then asked, “What do you want me to look for?”
A light flush stained Shannon’s cheeks. “I want to know if you see anyone . . . you know”—swallowing hard—“special . . . in my future.”