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A Date on Cloud Nine
Lilly Marquette couldn't believe she was parked in front of Cloud Nine. Sure, she'd promised her best friend anything she wanted for her birthday, but she hadn't figured on a shop with a red-lettered notice on the glass door that said: adults only. must be eighteen or older to enter. no exceptions.
She snuggled deeper -- meaning lower -- into the limo's heated leather seat and turned her fur collar up on her neck. If she scrunched low enough, she could disappear, safe from the eyes of anyone driving by. The only witness to this fiasco so far was her driver, and he'd forget anything for a pound of Godiva.
"I'll wait here," she said.
"You can't," Betsy argued.
"It's okay, I like to watch it snow."
"Then don't hold the door open when you get out."
Betsy put on the same persuasive little pout that had gotten Lilly into lots of trouble over the years. Once they'd reached puberty, it usually revolved around the opposite sex.
"Go by yourself," Lilly insisted. "I wouldn't be caught dead in there."
Still the pout. "But you said you'd buy me whatever I want for my birthday."
"Yeah, a purse. Or a scarf. Not . . ." She trailed off, waving a hand toward the red adults only sign. "I'll get it off the Internet."
"But my birthday's today. What's your problem?"
"Gee, I don't know. Maybe watching you sort through vibrators might be embarrassing."
"Well it shouldn't be. Brady's been gone five months now. I'm sorry, sweetie, but it's a fact. And here's another one. If you ever expect to have those kids you want so bad?you need to start getting out. You should come in and practice making doe eyes at the clerk."
"Doe eyes?" Lilly snickered. "You've been buying your novels here, too, haven't you?"
"Don't knock it. Whatever you want to call it, it's set more men drooling over you than I can count."
"Flattery won't work. But feel free to keep it up."
Betsy grimaced. "Ooh, a word of caution. When you go in there, you might not want to say anything with the words 'keep it up' in it."
"No problem, I'm not -- "
"And it's not flattery." Betsy slumped against her door. "Shit, it's not fair. Men think they want blue-eyed blondes until they see you. You know what Brian said you remind him of?"
"Probably nothing nice." Because Brian was ancient history, before Brady, a two-and-a-half-year marriage, and widowhood.
"Whiskey," Betsy answered, as if Lilly were interested, which she definitely wasn't. "Let's see, how'd he put it? Something like you're 'a tall glass of prime liquor, with a golden spark in your eyes that sets a man on fire.' "
"There was more about burning a fire in his insides on the way down."
Lilly hooted, prodding Betsy with her foot. "You want to step out in a dignified manner, or do I have to open that door and shove you out?"
"You have to come in to pay anyway."
"I don't have enough cash."
"They take charges."
"Oh yeah, I want my accountant to think I shop at Cloud Nine."
"Come on, it'll give you a chance to meet the clerk. I promise, the man oozes pure sex. Swear to God, he's got enough charisma to jump-start a dead woman's heart. Though," she admitted, knowing it mattered, "I doubt he has a dime to his name."
Lilly slid a meaningful glance at the storefront. "Hence where he works. I'd like to think I'm more discriminating."
"Well, you should enjoy this then: I tried to pick him up last time I was here, and as much as it pains me to admit this"she lowered her voice"I failed."
Betsy bobbed her head in silent confirmation.
"Well now I have to go in." To see the man who'd turned Betsy down, Lilly'd brave both cold and embarrassment.
"Hand me that hat, would you?"
The only other car in the lot was a yellow taxi, with two bright red, heart-shaped balloons dancing at the end of their tether, tied to the antenna. It also had an inch of snow covering the hood, so it'd been there a good long while which meant there'd be no other customers to get embarrassed in front of. Lilly followed Betsy inside, pulling up short as soon as the door swung shut behind them.
"You go ahead," she said, suddenly wondering how she could make a graceful exit without appearing majorly intimidated by a few racks of wispy, next-to-nothing lingerie. She butted the door open, making excuses as she backed out. "I hear my phone. I think it's my broker."
Betsy hauled her back in. "Funny. You know that gadget in your purse you're so connected to? It's not ringing."
"It's on vibrate." She winced as soon as she said it, her gaze darting around to make sure no one was paying them any undue attention. So far, so good.
"I won't be long," Betsy promised. "Stay."
"Okay. I'll, uh, just hang around here, you know, by the door."
She felt conspicuous and stupid standing still, so she brushed snow off her hat, tucked a few stray dark wisps of hair back underneath, then stamped slush off her leather boots, all the while surreptitiously checking out the store to make sure there'd be no witnesses to their folly.
Surprisingly, once she allowed herself to really look, the inside of the store itself wasn't too bad. Instead of the sleazy, dirty, dimly lit, smoke-filled area she'd imagined from the condition of the neighborhood in general and the strip mall specifically, it looked like a place someone took pride in: well lit and tidy. Even the carpet was clean enough to pick up a wayward nickel and pocket it.
Betsy groaned, as if being with someone who'd pick up a stray coin was somehow ten times more embarrassing than being in a sex shop. "Tell me you didn't."A Date on Cloud Nine. Copyright © by Jenna McKnight. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.