Bed of roses, p.13

Bed of Roses, page 13

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  SATISFACTION, EMMA DECIDED, WENT A LONG WAY TO STAMPING out worry. The look in Jack's eyes when she opened the door was exactly what she'd aimed for.

  "I need a moment of silence," he told her, "to offer up thanks. "

  She gave him a slow, sultry smile. "Then let me say you're welcome. Do you want to come in?"

  Closing the distance, he trailed his fingers over her shoulder, down her arm. Those smoky eyes stayed fixed on hers. "I'm just having this thought about how I come in and we forget about the opening. "

  "Oh no. " She nudged him back, and stepped out. Handing him the wrap, she turned her back, glanced around as he draped it over her shoulders. "You promised me strange paintings, lousy wine, and soggy canapes. "

  "We could go back inside. " He leaned down to nuzzle her neck. "I'll sketch some erotic drawings, we'll drink good wine, and call out for pizza. "

  "Choices, choices," she said as they walked to his car. "Art opening now, erotic sketches later. "

  "If we must. " But he stopped at the car to draw her into a luxurious kiss. "I like the way you look, which is amazing. "

  "That was the plan. " She stroked her hand over the slate gray sweater he wore under a leather jacket. "I like the way you look, Jack. "

  "Since we look so good I guess we'd better go be seen. " When he got behind the wheel he sent her an easy smile. "How was the weekend?"

  "Jammed, as advertised. And successful, since Parker talked the clients into renting the tents for Saturday. When it rained, everybody stayed dry. Even better, we scrabbled around for more candles and some of my emergency supply of flowers so we had all this soft light and fragrance while the rain pattered on the tent. It was really lovely. "

  "I wondered how that worked out. I was out on new construction Saturday afternoon, and we didn't. Stay dry, that is. "

  "I like spring rains. The way they sound, the way they smell. Not all brides feel the same, but we managed to make this one really happy. And how was Poker Night?"

  He scowled at the road as his headlights cut through the dark. "I don't want to talk about it. "

  She laughed. "I heard Carter cleaned your clock. "

  "The guy hustled us with all that 'I'm not much of a card player' routine, and that open, honest face. He's a shark. "

  "Yes, oh yes, Carter's a real shark. "

  "You haven't played cards with him. Believe it. "

  "Sore loser. "

  "Damn right. "

  Amused, she leaned back in the seat. "So, tell me a little about this artist. "

  "Ah . . . yeah, I should do that. " During a beat of silence, he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. "A friend of a client. I think I mentioned that. "

  "You did. " She'd meant the art itself, but she caught enough in his tone to zero in. "And a friend of yours?"

  "Sort of. We went out a couple of times. A few times. Maybe several. "

  "Ah. I see. " Though her interest spiked, she kept her tone casual. "She's an ex. "

  "Not exactly. We weren't . . . It was more we hooked up for a few weeks. More than a year ago. Closer to two, actually. It was just a thing, then it wasn't. "

  His uneasiness struck her as both interesting and flattering. "If you're looking at this as boggy ground, Jack, you don't need to. I've had my suspicions you've slept with other women. "

  "It's true. I have. And Kellye - she spells it with an 'e' on the end - is one of them. She's . . . interesting. "

  "And artistic. "

  His lips twitched, intriguing her. "You be the judge. "

  "So, why did the thing stop being a thing, or is that too awkward a question?"

  "It got a little too intense for me. She's an intense sort, and high-maintenance. "

  "Required too much attention?" Emma asked, with just a hint of cool.

  "Required is a good word for it. Anyway, it stopped being a thing. "

  "But you stayed friendly. "

  "Not so much. But I ran into her a couple months ago, and we were okay. Then she got in touch about her opening, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to go. Especially since you're here to protect me. "

  "Do you often need protection from women?"

  "All the time," he said and amused her again.

  "Don't you worry. " She patted his hand on the gear shift. "I'm here for you. "

  After he'd parked, they walked through the cool spring evening in a breeze that fluttered the ends of her wrap. The little shops she enjoyed browsing were already closed, but the bistros did brisk business. A number of diners braved the chill for a chance to eat outside with candles flickering on tables. She smelled roses and red sauce.

  "You know what I haven't done for you?" Emma began.

  "I have a list, but I figured I'd work up to some of the more interesting items. "

  She poked him with her elbow. "Cook. I'm a good cook when I have time. I'll have to seduce you with my fajitas. "

  "Anytime, anywhere. " He stopped in front of the gallery. "Here we are. Are you sure you wouldn't rather cook?"

  "Art," she said, and breezed inside.

  No, not really, she thought immediately. The first thing she saw other than a number of people standing around looking intense was a large white canvas with a single, wide, blurry line of black running down the center.

  "Is it a tire tread? A single tire tread on a white road, or a division of . . . something?"

  "It's a black line on a white canvas. And we're going to need drinks," Jack decided.

  "Mmm-hmm. "

  While he left her to find some, Emma wandered. She studied another canvas holding a twisted black chain with two broken links titled Freedom . Another boasted what seemed to be a number of black dots, which on closer inspection proved to be a scattering of lowercase letters.

  "Fascinating, isn't it?" A man in dark-framed glasses and a black turtleneck stepped up beside her. "The emotion, the chaos. "

  "Uh-huh. "

  "The minimalist approach to intensity and confusion. It's brilliant. I could study this one for hours, and see something different each time. "

  "It depends on how you arrange the letters. "

  He beamed at her. "Exactly! I'm Jasper. "

  "Emma. "

  "Have you seen Birth ?"

  "Not firsthand. "

  "I believe it's her best work. It's just over there. I'd love to hear what you think. "

  He touched a hand to her elbow - testing, she knew - as he gestured. "Can I get you some wine?"

  "Actually . . . I have some," she said when Jack joined them and offered her a glass. "Jack, this is Jasper. We were admiring Babel ," she added when she found the title.

  "A confusion of language," Jack supposed and dropped a light, possessive hand on Emma's shoulder.

  "Yes, of course. If you'll excuse me. "

  "Busted his bubble," Jack added when Jasper slunk off. Testing the very bad wine, he studied the canvas. "It's like one of those magnet kits people buy for their refrigerator. "

  "Thank God. Thank God. I thought you actually saw something. "

  "Or somebody dropped the Scrabble tiles. "

  "Stop. " She had to suck in a breath to stop a laugh. "Jasper finds it brilliant in its minimalist chaos. "

  "Well, that's Jasper for you. Why don't we just - "


  Emma turned to see a six-foot redhead, arms outflung, burst through the crowd. She wore snug black that showed miles of legs, a pencil-thin body offset by high, firm breasts that almost poured out of the scooped-neck of her top. She jangled from the clanging of a dozen silver bangles on her arm. And nearly mowed Emma down as she threw her arms around Jack to fix her murderous red mouth to his.

  The best Emma could do was grab Jack's wineglass before it upended.

  "I knew you'd come. " Her voice was low, and nearly a sob. "You don't know what it means to me. You can't know. "

  "Ah," he said.

"Most of these people, they don't know me. They haven't been in me. "

  Jesus. Christ. "Okay. Let's just . . . " He tried untangling himself, but her arms tightened around his neck like a garrote. "I wanted to stop by and say congratulations. Let me introduce you to . . . Kellye, you're cutting off my oxygen. "

  "I've missed you. And tonight means so much, now so much more. " Dramatic tears glimmered in her eyes; her lips quivered with emotion. "I know I can get through tonight, the stress, the demands , now that you're here. Oh, Jack, Jack, stay close to me. Stay close. "

  Any closer, he thought, and he would be in her. "Kellye, this is Emmaline. " Desperate now, Jack gripped Kellye's wrists to unlock them from his neck. "Emma . . . "

  "It's wonderful to meet you. " Cheerful, enthusiastic, Emma offered a hand. "You must - "

  Kellye stumbled back as if stabbed, then whirled on Jack. "How dare you! How could you? You'd bring her here? Throw her in my face? Bastard!" She ran, shoving her way through the fascinated crowd.

  "Okay, this was fun. Let's go. " Jack grabbed Emma's hand and pulled her to the door. "Mistake. Big mistake," he said when he managed a good gulp of fresh air. "I think she punctured my tonsils with her tongue. You didn't protect me. "

  "I failed you. I'm so ashamed. "

  He narrowed his eyes as he pulled her along the sidewalk. "And you think that was funny. "

  "I'm a bitch, too. Coldhearted. More shame. " She had to stop, just stop and howl with laughter. "God, Jack! What were you thinking?"

  "When a woman has the power to puncture a man's tonsils with her tongue, he stops thinking. She also has this trick where she . . . And I almost said that out loud. " He dragged a hand through his hair as he studied her glowing face. "We've been friends too long. It's dangerous. "

  "In the spirit of friendship, I'm going to buy you a drink. You deserve it. " She took his hand. "I didn't believe you when you said she got too intense and so on. I figured you were just being the usual no-commitment guy. But intense is way too quiet a word for her. Plus, her art is ridiculous. She really ought to hook up with Jasper. He'd adore her. "

  "Let's drive across town for that drink," he suggested. "I don't want to chance running into her again. "

  He opened the car door for her. "You weren't the least bit embarrassed by that. "

  "No. I have a high embarrassment threshold. If she'd been remotely sincere, I'd have felt sorry for her. But she's as fake as her art. And probably just as odd. "

  He considered as he walked around to get in the driver's side. "Why do you say that? About her being fake?"

  "It was all about the drama, and her in the center of it. She may feel something for you, but she feels a lot more for herself. And she saw me, before she jumped you. She knew you'd brought me with you, so she put on a show. "

  "Deliberately embarrassed herself? Why would anyone do that?"

  "She wasn't embarrassed, she was revved. " She angled her head, looking into his baffled eyes. "Men really don't see things like that, do they? It's so interesting. Jack, she was the star of her own romantic tragedy, and she fed on every moment. I bet she sells more of that nonsense she calls art tonight because of it. "

  When he drove in silence for the next few moments, she winced. "And all that really hammered your ego. "

  "Scratched it, superficially. I'm weighing that against knowing I didn't somehow give her the wrong signal and actually deserve that entertaining little show. " He shrugged. "I'll take the scratch. "

  "You're better off. So . . . any other ex we-had-a-thing you want me to meet?"

  "Absolutely not. " He glanced at her, and the streetlights sheened over the golds and bronzes in his hair.

  "But I do want to say that, for the most part, the women I've dated have been sane. "

  "That speaks well of you. "

  T HEY CHOSE A LITTLE BISTRO AND SHARED A PLATE OF ALFREDO. She relaxed him, he thought, which was odd, as he'd always considered himself fairly relaxed to begin with. But spending time with her, just talking about anything that came to mind, made any problem or concern he might be dealing with in some corner of his brain vanish.

  Odder still was being excited and relaxed around a woman at the same time. He couldn't remember having that combination of sensations around anyone but Emma.

  "How come," he wondered, "in all the years I've known you, you've never cooked for me?"

  She wound a solitary noodle on her fork. "How come in all the years I've known you, you never took me to bed?"

  "Aha. So you only cook for men when you get sex. "

  "It's a good policy. " She smiled, her eyes laughing as she nibbled away at the noodle. "I go to a lot of trouble when I cook. It ought to be worth it. "

  "How about tomorrow? I can make it worth it. "

  "I bet you can, but tomorrow won't work. No time to market. I'm very fussy about my ingredients. Wednesday's a little tight, but - "

  "I have a business thing Wednesday night. "

  "Okay, next week's better anyway. Unlike Parker, I don't carry my schedule in my head backed up by the BlackBerry attached to my hand, but I think . . . Oh. Cinco de Mayo. It's nearly the fifth of May. Big family deal - you remember, you've come before. "

  "Biggest blast-out party of the year. "

  "A Grant family tradition. Talk about cooking. Let me check my book and all of that, and we'll figure it out. "

  She sat back with her wine. "It's almost May. That's the best month. "

  "For weddings?"

  "Well, it's a big one for that, but I'm thinking in general. Azaleas, peonies, lilacs, wisteria. Everything starts budding and blooming. And I can start planting some annuals. Mrs. G will put in her little kitchen garden. Everything starts over or comes back. What's your favorite?"

  "July. A weekend at the beach - sun, sand, surf. Baseball's cruising. Long days, grills smoking. "

  "Mmm, all good, too. All very good. The smell of the grass right after you mow it. "

  "I don't have grass to mow. "

  "City boy," she said, pointing at him.

  "My lot in life. "

  As they both toyed with the pasta, she leaned in. The conversations humming around them barely registered. "Did you ever consider living in New York?"

  "Considered. But I like it here. For living, and for the work. And I'm close enough to go in and catch the Yankees, the Knicks, the Giants, the Rangers. "

  "I've heard rumors about ballet, opera, theater there, too. "

  "Really?" He sent her an exaggerated look of puzzlement. "That's weird. "

  "You, Jack, are such a guy. "

  "Guilty. "

  "You know, I don't think I've ever asked you, why architecture?"

  "My mother claims I started building duplexes when I was two. I guess it stuck. I like figuring out how to use space, or change an existing structure. How can you use it better? Are you going to live in it, work in it, play in it? What's around the space, what's the purpose? What are the best and most interesting or practical materials? Who's the client and what are they really after? Not all that different, in some way, than what you do. "

  "Only yours last longer. "

  "I have to admit I'd have a hard time seeing my work fade and die off. It doesn't bother you?"

  She pinched off a knuckle-sized piece of bread. "There's something about the transience, you could say. The fact that it's only temporary that makes it more immediate, more personal. A flower blooms and you think, oh, pretty. Or you design and create a bouquet, and think, oh, stunning. I'm not sure the impact and emotion would be the same if you didn't know it was only temporary. A building needs to last; its gardens need to cycle. "

  "What about landscape design. Ever consider it?"

  "Probably more briefly than you did New York. I like working in the garden, out in the air, the sun, seeing what I put in come back the next year, or bloom all through the spring and summer. But every time I get a delivery from my wholesaler it's
like being handed a whole new box of toys. "

  Her face went dreamy. "And every time I hand a bride her bouquet, see her reaction, or watch wedding guests look at the arrangements, I get to think: I did that. And even if I've made the same arrangement before, it's never exactly the same. So it's new, every time. "

  "And new never gets boring. Before I met you, I figured florists mostly stuck flowers in vases. "

  "Before I met you, I figured architects mostly sat at drawing boards. Look what we learn. "

  "A few weeks ago, I never imagined we'd be sitting here like this. " He put his hand over hers, fingers lightly skimming while his eyes looked into hers. "And that I'd know before the night was over I'd be finding out what's under that really amazing dress. "

  "A few weeks ago . . . " Under the table, she slid her foot slowly up his leg. "I never imagined I'd be putting on this dress for the express purpose of you getting me out of it. Which is why . . . "

  She leaned closer so the candlelight danced gold in her eyes, so her lips nearly brushed his. "There's nothing under it. "

  He continued to stare at her, into the warmth and the wicked. Then shot up his free hand. "Check!"

  HE HAD TO CONCENTRATE ON HIS DRIVING, PARTICULARLY SINCE he attempted to break the land speed records. She drove him crazy, the way she cocked her seat back, crossed those gorgeous bare legs so that the dress slithered enticingly up her thighs. She leaned forward - oh yes, deliberately, he knew - so that in the second he dared take his eyes off the road he had a delectable view of her breasts rising against that sexy red. She fiddled with the radio, cocked her head long enough to send him a feline, female smile, then leaned back again. Re-crossed her legs. The dress snuck up another half inch. He worried he might drool.

  Whatever she'd put on the radio came to him only in bass. Pumping, throbbing bass. The rest was white noise, static in the brain.

  "You're risking lives here," he told her, and only made her laugh.

  "I could make it more dangerous. I could tell you what I want you to do to me. How I want you to take me. I'm in the mood to be taken. To be used. " She trailed a finger up and down the center of her body.

  "A few weeks ago, or longer than that, did you ever imagine taking me, Jack? Using me?"

  "Yes. The first time was after that morning I saw you on the beach. Only, when I imagined it, it was night, and I walked down and pulled you into the water, into surf. I could taste your skin and the salt. I had your breasts in my hands, in my mouth, while the water beat over us. I took you on the wet sand while the waves crashed, until all you could say was my name. "

  "That's a long time ago. " Her voice went thick. "A long time to imagine. I know one thing. We really need to go back to the beach. "

  The laugh should've eased some of the ache, but only increased it. Another first, Jack concluded: A woman who could make him laugh and burn at the same time.

  He whipped the car off the road and onto the long drive of the Brown Estate. There were lights glowing on the third floor, both wings of the main house, and the glimmer of them in Mac's studio. And there, thank God, the shine of Emma's porch light, and the lamp she'd left on low inside.

  He hit the release for his seat belt even as he hit the brakes. Before she could do the same, he managed to shift toward her, grab hold of her and let his mouth ravish hers. He molded her breasts, gave himself the pleasure of riding his hands up those legs, under that seductive red.

  She closed her teeth over his tongue, a quick, erotic trap, and struggled with his fly. He managed to yank down one shoulder of her dress before he rammed his knee into the gear shift.

  "Ouch," she said on a breathless laugh. "We'll have to add knee pads to the elbow pads. "

  "Damn car's too small. We'd better get inside before we hurt ourselves. "

  Her hands gripped his jacket, yanked to bring him back for one more wild kiss. "Hurry. "

  They shoved out of opposite sides of the car, then bolted for each other. Another breathless laugh, a desperate moan, sounded in the silence. They stumbled, grappled, and groped as their mouths clashed. She yanked and tugged his jacket away as they circled up the walk like a pair of mad dancers. When they reached the door she simply shoved him back against it. Her mouth warred with his, breaking only so she could drag his sweater up, nails scraping flesh before she tossed it aside. The heels and the angle brought her mouth level with his jaw. She bit it as she whipped the belt out of his pants, and tossed that aside as well.

  Jack fumbled behind him for the doorknob, and they both lurched inside. Now he pushed her back to the door, yanked her arms over her head and handcuffed her wrists with his hand. Keeping her trapped, he shoved her skirt up and found her. Just her, already hot for him, already wet. And her gasp ended on a cry when he drove her hard and fast to climax.

  "How much can you take?" he demanded.

  Breath ragged, body still erupting, she met his eyes. "All you've got. "

  He drove her up again, beyond moans and cries, storming her system with his hands, with his mouth. Heat sheathed her, slicked her skin as he dragged the dress down to free her breasts, to feed on them. Everything she wanted, more than she could imagine, rough and urgent, he used and exploited her body. Owned her, she thought. Did he know? Could he know?

  Want was enough, to want like this, be wanted like this. She would make it enough. And wanting him, craving him, she braced against the door and wrapped a leg around his waist.

  "Give me more. "

  She consumed him, in that moment before he plunged inside her, the look, the feel, the taste of her consumed him. Then with a new kind of madness, he took her against the door, battering them both while her hair tumbled out of its pins, while she said his name over and over. Release was both brutal and glorious.

  He wasn't entirely sure he was still standing, or that his heart would ever beat normally again. It continued to jackhammer in his chest, making the basic act of breathing a challenge.

  "Are we still alive?" he managed.

  "I . . . I don't think I could feel like this if I wasn't. But I do think my life passed before my eyes at one point. "

  "Was I there?"

  "In every scene. "

  He gave himself another minute, then eased back. He was indeed still standing, he noted. And so was she - flushed and glowing, and naked but for a pair of sky-high sexy heels.

  "God, Emma, you're . . . There are no words. " He had to touch again, but this time almost reverently.

  "We're not going to make it upstairs yet. "

  "Okay. " When he gripped her hips, lifted, she boosted up to wrap both legs around his waist. "Can you make it as far as the couch?"

  "I'm going to give it a try. " He carried her there where they could fall in a tangled heap. T WO HOURS LATER, WHEN THEY FINALLY MADE IT UPSTAIRS, they slept. She dreamed, and in the dream they danced in the garden, in the moonlight. The air was soft with spring and scented by roses. Moon and stars silvered the flowers that bloomed everywhere. Her fingers twined with his as they glided and turned. Then he brought hers to his lips to kiss. When she looked up, when she smiled, she saw the words in his eyes even before he spoke them.

  "I love you, Emma. "

  In the dream her heart bloomed like the flowers.

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