Read an Excerpt
Vanilla on Top
A Walk on the Wild Side
By C.J. Ellisson, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 C.J. Ellisson
All rights reserved.
The bartender approaches us, carrying our drinks, a lopsided grin on his aging face. "Gin and tonic?"
"That's me," I reply, reaching for the squat glass.
He sets a wineglass in front of Carla. She accepts it with a nod and turns her perky blondness my way. "Who orders a mixed drink at a wine bistro?"
My best friend forgets, I'm not nearly as bold as she is and often require stronger fortification for my nerves. "Sometimes wine doesn't cut it."
The elegant room fills with bodies, and my temperature rises. So many handsome guys, I'm afraid to open my mouth and trip on my tongue. What in the hell possessed me to try this type of outing again?
Carla eyes the variety of men pouring through the double doors. "Linda outdid herself with tonight's event. There weren't this many hotties at the last one. But then again, it wasn't run by Linda."
I shudder at the memory of the first speed dating attempt she dragged me to.
God, I'd felt like such an idiot.
I clearly blocked the humiliation of how no one wanted a date with me afterward. Then again, the prospect of being alone the rest of my life doesn't sit well either.
"Yup, our lovely organizer did a great job with the men showing up tonight." I force a laugh to hide my awkwardness. "Maybe one will even call me later."
"Hey, cut that long hair into some semblance of a style and you might have the same luck Julie did."
I self-consciously tuck a strand of fine black hair behind one ear. I have no intention of getting a cute pixie haircut like Carla's. The long locks are one of the few things I like about myself. "Your sister lucked out with her hotshot property developer, but let's be real. Most of the good ones in this city are gay or married."
"Not true! I refuse to think there are no good ones left." She nudges me with her shoulder while pointing her glass at some of the men around the room. "Take a good look. I bet there are at least six here who aren't married, or gay and looking for a beard."
I gaze at my friend and appraise her good-naturedly. With curvy good looks and a low cut blouse, she has a much better chance of snagging a guy than I do.
Linda, the busty brunette in her forties who organized the event, waves at us from across the bar, gesturing we should head over to the tables like she explained earlier. Carla and I select small, two- seater tables next to each other, sliding into the cushioned chairs at almost the same time.
"Smile, Heather," Carla says with a cheeky grin. "You'll do fine."
"Oh, yeah." I hold back my grimace, reminding myself of the free booze. Maybe, if I drink enough, I'll say something charming and one of these men will choose me for a date. "I'm sure I will."
Carla leans over and swats my arm playfully. "Step out of your comfort zone, girl. Slip on a new skin while you're here."
Putting on a brave face, I nod. "I'll try."
I swirl the thin red straw in my gin and tonic while looking over the prospective men. There's a tall, dark, and gorgeous one in the corner. He's sporting a blinding white smile, offset nicely by his cocoa-colored skin, deep brown hair, and sharp casual jacket. Yum. My lips tilt up at the corners. He looks in my direction and I drop my glance to the clipboard on the table in front of me. I'd die if he caught me staring at him.
Carla once labeled me a "doormat" while we were commiserating over my past relationships. She might have been right. I'm always bending over backward, sometimes literally, to make a guy happy. And what has it earned me? An empty bed, lonely nights, and lots of meals for one in my freezer. I take a long sip of my drink.
Maybe I should slip on a new skin. Honestly, this current one isn't working too well. I stiffen my spine as I glance once more around the wood-paneled space. I know there's a guy out there for me. I just have to find him.
Two men arrive together, one looking slightly more harried than the other. The first one is sandy-haired and built like a runner, slim hipped and lean. His tailored, pinstriped suit still looks fresh at eight o'clock. He's got a dimple in his chin and an infectious grin as he looks around the room at the available ladies.
Quite a few women look older than me, so even if I'm not stunning, I'm still sitting near the top of prospects for the evening. This may turn out to be my lucky night, yet. The man behind the runner makes me pause. He's easily the best looking guy in the bistro. And sure enough, by the way heads are turning, I'm not the only one who notices him.
Though slightly shorter than his lanky friend, he must outweigh him by thirty pounds or so. His lean middle implies that extra bulk is all muscle. He's ... arresting. Sable-brown hair, cut short and styled in a lazy fashion that somehow looks professional on him. His charcoal suit drapes across his broad shoulders and defines his narrow waist like it was custom-made. His white shirt contrasts with his Mediterranean complexion, and when he looks up at his friend's teasing tone, I get a glance at his light brown eyes and chiseled cheekbones. What I wouldn't give to run my fingers through his hair and kiss him senseless.
I shift in my chair, aware of a growing dampness in my panties. God, how embarrassing. To be drawn to a man I've never talked to and who is obviously way out of my league. I probably don't have a snowball's chance in hell of attracting his attention. I wish I had something prettier on. This slim black skirt and snug spring sweater might emphasize my build nicely, but I'm betting it will take cleavage and a lot of leg to attract a man like him.
My eyes shift sideways to Carla sitting next to me. The deep vee of her shirt showcases her plump, high breasts perfectly, and her tousled pixie-hair simply screams, I'm a fun girl, date me.
A small part of my eagerness for the night deflates over my chances of meeting him compared to hers. The two good-looking friends finish their paperwork and saunter to the bar. What am I really doing here? Sure, I might have a chance of meeting a guy for a midnight hook-up, but really ... speed dating?
Makes me wonder — what's wrong with these guys if they can't find a date on their own? Shut up, Heather! I scream at myself. You sabotage everything before it even starts!
All right, all right, some of the men could be normal. I sip my drink and scan the room once more. The only decent ones here are the man with the blinding smile, the runner, and Mister Italian Stallion with the sexy bed hair who came in last. A sigh escapes me as I realize I'm close to drooling. Each one of them looks utterly delicious and I pray they've got brains behind the pretty faces and gorgeous bodies.
Now, if I can just say something interesting to one of them in the allotted two minutes, I might have a chance.
Linda stands near the middle of the bar area and raises her arm. "Attention Speed Daters!" All eyes turn toward the organizer. "We're ready to begin. You all know the guidelines. Make polite conversation, ask questions that matter to you, make notes on your card, and move on. All in good fun!" She smiles and nods to a few of the participants around the room. "You never know. You just may meet your one and only match tonight."
I sigh and plaster on a happy face. Still better than sitting home alone with another microwave meal, so I'm not going to complain. I slurp the last of my drink through the tiny straw. Damn. Need to take advantage of that free booze or it will definitely be a ruined evening.
After getting a refill at the bar, I saunter back to my little table for two, ready to meet my first "date" of the evening. Mr. Serial Killer in Training sits across from me and immediately asks if I'm a vegetarian ... thank God for my second drink. I glance down the line to see who will be shifting to my table next. A shudder runs through me as I take another sip. Hopefully the alcohol will make meeting Sloppy Guy and Blinding Smile a little easier to bear.
In thirty minutes, the Italian Stallion slides into the chair at my table. He's just come from sitting with Carla and wears a smile from ear to ear. A lump forms in my throat from looking at him close up.
A small scar traces the left side of his jaw, its pale color faded with age. I'd like to hear the story behind the old wound. His full lips look soft enough to kiss and his classic Roman nose would be better suited on an Abercrombie model than a businessman in Manhattan.
His eyes glide over me, a slight spark of what I hope is interest in their depths. A flare of awareness ignites in my chest. The man's charming grin remains in place. A good sign so far. Right as he opens his kissable mouth to speak, his phone rings. His relaxed expression turns into a grimace as he digs in his pocket to retrieve the offending device.
"Sorry," he mumbles my way before answering. He turns slightly in his seat, angling himself away. "Yes?" He barks into the phone. "No, I won't be back in tonight. The instructions are in the email I sent."
At least I had the decency to turn off my phone before I came in. Hell, unless you're a doctor on call, I doubt there's anything that important requiring your phone to stay on for two hours. He looks into the distance and I feel a twinge of annoyance.
"No," his tone grinds out, authoritative and powerful. "You need to listen to me, Brian. The directions are in the email. You follow them precisely and the deal will close. Call me again and I'm going to be really pissed."
He clicks his phone shut and closes his eyes. Tension spills off him and I hesitate to break the silence. What could be so important that he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders? He takes a deep breath and opens them again, staring straight into my eyes.
"I'm sorry, that was rude of me." He angles toward me. I nod my reassurance that it's okay, but inside I can't help but think I've lost even more of my precious allotted time with this desirable stranger. He really is way out of my league.
"You know what I want more than anything?" he says with a touch of longing. "I want someone else to take control for a while. I'm really sick of being the guy in charge all the time."
I smile, not particularly sure I can relate, but willing to appear understanding. His phone rings again and sharp anger stabs my gut.
"Turn it off," I say, with a challenge in my tone. I sit up straighter and stare into the depths of his caramel eyes. "You want someone to tell you what to do?" He nods, his calculating gaze on me as the phone continues to ring. "Turn off that damn phone," I bite out, pretending I'm issuing a command. "Now."
Shock registers across his expression, but he hides it quickly. I raise an eyebrow and feel the sparks fly across the table between us. He returns my stare and smiles, the first real one I've seen on him since he came into the restaurant. It's kind of lopsided and lazy, curling my toes at the devilment it promises. The phone rings a third time and I break our standoff and glance away, tilting my chin an inch higher, showing my displeasure in his lack of action. He fumbles for the phone on the table between us and shuts it off.
My pulse races and a part of me waits for him to shout that I'm the rudest bitch he's met tonight. Well, I tried my hand at ballsy and domineering — worth a shot. I look toward him and smile, catching him off guard, if his raised eyebrows are anything to go by. The interest I thought I saw earlier still lurks in his eyes.
Hmmm ... Maybe tonight won't be a total wash after all.
I pick up my drink and tilt it toward him in greeting. "I'm Heather."
He raises his to meet mine and clinks it across the space. "Tony."
"What do you do, Tony, that has people calling you after office hours?"
He stiffens and his tone comes out flat. "I head acquisitions in a large shipping conglomerate. We're organizing to buy out a small firm this week."
I nod, not sure if knowing what he does matters. He seems wired pretty tight, poor guy. "Who did you arrive with, that guy with the sandy-colored hair?"
Tony lifts a brow and interest lights his expression. "Why?" His grin broadens. "You want me to introduce you?"
I stare back at him with a feigned confidence I don't possess. "I'll meet him soon enough, won't I?"
"Touché." He touches the timer on the table. "We are speed dating."
"That's why I asked. You don't seem like the type to be here."
"Probably not, but Marcus talks me into lots of stuff I might not normally try on my own. He's an old college buddy. Dragged me here 'cause he said I needed a break from work."
I glance down my nose at his phone, angling my head a bit. "He might be right."
"And hey — what makes you think I'm not the type to try speed dating on my own?" he asks, a twinkle in his eye.
This man doesn't know me from Adam. I could be anyone in this moment, anyone who is brash enough to tell a stranger to turn off his phone. Carla said to slip on a new skin ... maybe she was onto something ...
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I reach across the table and trace a finger down the back of his hand. "You're wound too tight," I say, dropping my voice, trying for a seductive tone. "Like you're going to snap." I gaze at him through my lashes, hoping I can pull off a sexy look like I've seen in movies. "What you need is to let off a little steam."
Desire sparks in his caramel eyes and he turns his hand over to grasp my own. "Really? What did you have in mind?" Tiny shocks of pleasure shoot up my arm at our increased contact.
The two-minute timer dings and the prospective dates around the room say their goodbyes and shift out of their chairs, eager to move on to the next person down the line.
I shrug and pull my hand away. "Why don't you follow me to the patio and find out?"
There's no doubt I've piqued his curiosity. I pick up my drink, still staring into his stunning eyes, and circle my tongue around the tiny swizzle stick before slipping the red plastic into my mouth for a taste of my drink.
Tony's lips part in an exhalation of breath, his stare locked on my mouth.
I smile at his expression, pleased I've made an impression. He seemed to like when I told him what to do. I wonder how far I can take this with him willing to follow. I slide from my chair, now glad I wore a pencil skirt that emphasizes my butt, and walk out of the room without a backward glance, hoping he takes the bait.
My black stiletto heels rap against the marble tile of the bistro as I swish my hips toward the narrow door leading to the closed outside seating in the rear of the restaurant. I push the door open and step through. The metal door whisks shut behind me. It's early spring and unseasonably warm outside tonight, but still too early for the bistro to have the area set up for receiving diners.
My heart races as I lean against the cool brick. What the hell am I doing, trying a stunt like this in a public place? Will he come out here? If he does, what do I do then? Anyone could walk out here, and by the full ashtray on a stack of tables, the probability of it being a smoker is high.
Ten minutes. All you need is ten minutes.
Can I talk my way through this? Well, why the hell not? If he follows me out here then I've definitely intrigued him enough to learn more about me. But how do I set myself apart from the countless women who've probably already thrown themselves at him?
The door creaks open and Tony steps out. You can do this, Heather. Take command. Tell him what you want. Tell him what to do, just like he said he wants. Now or never.
I smirk with a confidence I'm not completely feeling. "Nice of you to join me, Tony." I relax against the brick and check him over from head to foot, making sure he knows with just my eyes exactly how desirable I find him. You can do this, don't panic. He won't laugh at you.
I nod toward the stacked chairs. "Take off your coat." He slips the expensive garment from his shoulders, pulling the starched fabric of his shirt across his defined chest. I nod my approval and his eyes glint with desire in the dimming light.
He smiles, seemingly eager to play whatever game I've got in mind. "Anything else?"
I push down my inner anxiety and grin, in what I hope is a teasing manner. "Your tie."
His eyebrows shoot up, but he loosens the knot and pulls the material free. The red silk slides over his shirt, and then is tossed carelessly toward his coat.
Holy crap, he's doing it. He's listening to me. What now?
"Unbutton the top two buttons of your shirt." The command springs unbidden to my thoughts.
He complies and reveals the golden skin below his throat, with a few stray chest hairs visible near the neck of his undershirt. He looks so good I'd like to grab his shirt and rip it open, licking the skin as it's uncovered.
Holy cow, where did that come from? I'm not this aggressive woman I'm pretending to be.
"How's that?" he asks.
My pulse pounds so loudly in my ears I can only nod, afraid I'll give too much away if I answer. I clear my throat, reaching for nonchalance. "It'll do." My hands slide to my hips and I take the plunge, pouring every ounce of courage I possess into my next actions.
I grab my skirt's black material and work it slowly up my thighs. Tony's eyes grow round as he follows my movements.
"Get down on your knees," I say, forcing out my voice in a firm tone. Keep it together, girl! He looks like he's game. Keep going.
Excerpted from Vanilla on Top by C.J. Ellisson, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 C.J. Ellisson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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