Authors: Miranda Baker
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotica
For Natasha Moore, who leads by example but also gives excellent advice!
Crystal rubbed the back of her neck, trying to ease the tension headache building at the base of her skull. It was always hard to keep her mental shield tight when she was surrounded by this many people, but tonight her head felt like a dry sponge, soaking up all the emotions in the air—and this was just the rehearsal dinner. It would be even worse at the wedding tomorrow when she had to perform her maid of honor duties.
She stifled a shudder as the groom’s cadre of frat-boy friends burst out laughing on the other side of the room. God, she hoped none of them recognized her. But of course they wouldn’t. Crissy LaRusso no longer existed, or if she did, she was very well camouflaged by black leather.
She edged out of the dining room and dropped into a chair in the restaurant’s lobby, hoping for some peace and quiet. She forced herself to smile as Beth, Alisa’s desk mate from the library, dropped into the chair beside her.
“God, what a crush, huh?” Beth said.
Crystal nodded. “It’s giving me a headache.”
“I bet it is.” Beth smoothed her thick wave of auburn hair out of her eyes. “Alisa says you’re psychic. Do crowds drive you crazy?”
“Pretty much,” Crystal admitted. “I’m not exactly a psychic, although that’s what it says on my business cards. I’m an empath. I feel emotions, not read minds; however, some people have such strong emotions it feels like mind-reading sometimes.”
“Can you feel what I’m feeling right now?” Beth asked.
“Yes,” Crystal said. “You’re curious…nervous. A little excited.”
, she reminded herself. “I get the feeling there’s something on your mind. Anything I can help you with?”
Beth’s cheeks turned pink. “Alisa says you are the person to ask about vibrators.” She whispered the last word.
Crystal’s tension eased as she found herself on familiar ground. “Did she tell you that’s how we met?” Since Alisa was going to marry the king of sex toys tomorrow, Crystal didn’t think her visits to Come Again were a secret anymore.
Beth bit her lip and nodded.
God, she was so cute, the absolute cliché of a repressed librarian—gorgeous, completely unaware of her appeal and scandalized at the mention of sex toys. Crystal gave her an encouraging grin. “It’s hard to talk shop without my props. Why don’t you come into Come Again sometime and we can discuss the various merits of length, width and battery power? I’m sure we can find you a good fit,” she offered. “We’ve got one of everything, and I’ve tried them all. What I like might not be what you like, but I can help narrow down the selection.”
“That would be great. I’m not picky. I’m just sick of dating jerks.”
Crystal caught a flash of bitterness and smiled in sympathy. “Got it. Men suck. I’m with you on that. Want to talk about it?”
Beth groaned. “Heck no. I just want a date that doesn’t lie or steal my jewelry. Pulse optional.”
“Darling, you’ll love the kind of pulse I have in mind for you.” She hummed under her breath, interrupting the rhythm and making Beth giggle.
“I think I’ll get another drink.” Beth stood. “Want one?”
“No, thanks.” A drink would make it harder to shield.
“Thanks, Crystal. See you soon.” Beth walked back toward the party.
Crystal knew she should follow her, but the thought made her head throb. The crowd was too volatile. She couldn’t do it. She’d have to find Alisa, say goodbye, and get the hell out of here. She pictured her quiet, empty house and the peace and solitude that waited for her until she felt serene enough to brave the throng again.
She stood and smoothed her skirt, long by her standards, over her hips. Her matching corset was the most modest style from the SoloPlay Vamp collection, but she’d been drawing stares all evening. She’d wager she didn’t have the only tattoo in the room, but everyone else had their ink discretely covered up while the exotic pink orchid flowering across her back was proudly displayed. Shiny thigh-high black leather boots and twice as much eyeliner as any other woman in the room completed her armor. She used her edgy look to control the way the world saw her. The leather, extreme makeup and tattoo helped most people judge her, pigeonhole her as a freak and then leave her alone.
Crystal stared into the dining room until she spotted Alisa, holding hands with Mark. They looked so sweet together. She smiled and shook her head, laughing silently. Those two kinksters looked completely normal on the outside—Alisa with her wispy blond hair and china blue eyes and Mark with his Ken-doll chin and quarterback shoulders—but Crystal knew they were seriously twisted in the middle. Her smile turned into a grin as she pictured Kinky Ken and BDSM Barbie becoming the spokespersons for Mark’s sex toy company, SoloPlay Enterprises. If Alisa had to go back to dating men—and there had never been a doubt in her mind that she would—Crystal was glad it was with someone like Mark, who could appreciate both kink and convention.
Crystal raised her hand and waved, catching Alisa’s eye. Crystal pointed at her head and then at the door. She waved again and blew a kiss.
Alisa shook her head and headed toward her, dragging Mark by the hand. “Don’t leave yet, Crystal! You’ve got to meet the best man. Hang on, I just saw him,” she said, glancing around the room. Mark searched with her, a self-satisfied grin on his face, but then, he always looked smug these days. Crystal wondered if he was ever going to remember they had gone to college together. God, she hoped not.
“His plane was late. That’s why he missed the rehearsal.” A happy smile curved her lips. “There he is. Don’t move.” Alisa darted across the room.
Crystal watched her approach a man with blond hair. She could only see his back, but dread began to spiral inside her. No, it couldn’t be. Her heart beat faster, egged on by the tense excitement of Mark, standing close beside her.
The man turned to greet Alisa. Crystal gasped. A bolt of fear, then longing, coursed through her, freezing her muscles in place. A kaleidoscope of emotions bombarded her as her mind and heart rioted, urging her to run. She stood, paralyzed, soaking up the changes in his appearance. The college-boy buzz was gone. His sun-streaked hair was brushed back from his forehead in an unruly mass that reached his collar. He was broader now, harder. His white shirt contrasted sharply with his deep tan, giving him a piratical look despite the classy suit. A wreath of lines bracketed his eyes, probably caused by the quick grin Crystal had never forgotten. He looked like the frat boy she had known, gone predator.
Crystal struggled to surround herself with a wall of cool calm. She couldn’t run, at least not yet, but she could hide in plain sight.
Ryan looked directly at her and his emotions blasted across the room, burning through her defenses.
Desire. Resentment. Heat.
Longing swept through her again, stealing her breath. His dark eyes absorbed the light in the room and reflected it back at her.
Mahogany eyes, warm, like bittersweet chocolate. He was braced over her, waiting, holding her gaze with infinite tenderness. Her soul opened, enveloped him. Her consciousness spun out around them.
Crystal jerked back from the memory. Her feet felt rooted to the floor. Her heart pounded as Ryan and Alisa moved toward them.
Beside her, Mark chuckled. She turned to glare at him.
“What?” he asked. “I figured turnabout was fair play. You introduced Alisa and me, after all.” His usually reserved blue eyes were full of fun.
Mischief. Memory. Satisfaction.
Now she understood why he’d been so smug all evening.
It felt like a cosmic joke that Mark had finally remembered they’d gone to college together just in time to reintroduce her to the man who had ruined her life. Crystal was grateful for the anger that reminded her she wasn’t vulnerable anymore.
Mark cocked his head, looking down at her, eyes suddenly wary. “I thought you might enjoy a blast from the past.”
The irony made laughter bubble up in her throat, so she released it in a breathy chuckle. Laughter was excellent camouflage, better than leather, ink and the color black. She slid one arm around his waist and leaned up to whisper in his ear. “I’m positively thrilled, darling.” Mark didn’t know, no one did—and if she could hold it together through the wedding weekend from hell, no one ever would.
Ryan allowed Alisa to tug him across the room toward the woman he had noticed as soon as he’d arrived. This was Crissy LaRusso? She looked nothing like the sweet-faced eighteen-year-old he remembered from the Alpha Sig party. That Crissy had been an innocent. This Crissy looked like a stripper, dressed in shiny black leather and bare skin. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
He watched her whisper in Mark’s ear and felt jealousy slice through him.
Alisa pulled him to a stop. “Ryan, I’d like to introduce Crystal, my maid of honor. Crystal, this is Ryan Anderson, Mark’s best friend and the man you’ll be walking down the aisle with tomorrow.”
Crystal smiled but didn’t meet his eyes as she held out her hand. “Hello again.”
He took her hand and held it when she would have pulled away after a brief touch of fingers. “Crissy—”
“Crystal,” she corrected immediately. “It’s been a long time, Ryan.”
He nodded, staring down at her until she looked at him. It only took a second for the years to disappear.
“Do you two know each other?” Alisa asked.
Biblically, carnally, unforgettably, yes
, he thought.
“Not anymore,” Crystal said, firmly dismissing him. She yanked her hand out of his grasp and looked at Alisa. “Sweetie, I’ve got to go. It’s way too loud in here for me. I’ll see you in the morning, bright and early, ready for your fairy princess transformation. Don’t stay up too late.” She winked and gave them all a wave. “Nice to see you again, Ryan.” She turned her back and walked out of the room.
Ryan watched her go.
He felt something cold and wet nudge his fingers and he drained the scotch Mark offered him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’ve been holding out on me, buddy.”
“And me, too, apparently,” Alisa said, crossing her arms.
Mark gave them a self-satisfied grin that made Ryan want to punch him. “Ryan came to visit me at college ten years ago and hooked up with Crystal at a frat party. It took me a while to recognize her because she looked so different back then. Ryan will deny it, but I know damn well he never forgot her.” Mark hooked his arm around Ryan’s shoulders. “Surprise, buddy.”
Alisa looked shocked. “Crystal? Are you kidding me? But she doesn’t—”
“She did back then,” her fiancé interrupted. “Trust me. You should have seen those two before they finally made it up to a room.”
“Stop.” Ryan didn’t want to think about the details again. He rubbed his chest, but he knew it wasn’t the scotch that caused it to burn. He’d fallen in love with Crissy LaRusso that night and every minute of the long trip back to California the next day had been torture because he’d lost his cell phone and couldn’t call her. By the time he hit San Jose, he’d decided to transfer to the Norton School of Business for graduate school, even though he had a teaching grant at Stanford. He just wanted to be with Crissy. God, he’d been so…young.
“Aren’t you going after her?” Mark asked.
Ryan shook his head, shrugging free of his friend’s arm. “Once was enough.”
“All work and no play makes Ryan a dull boy.” Mark pressed a business card into his hand. “In case you change your mind.”
The pink card was lettered in a funky, modern font with a highly stylized drawing of a tropical flower in the background.
Crystal LaRusso, Sensual Psychic. Get In Touch and Come Again.
Crissy was pretending to be psychic? He looked up at his friend.
Mark’s eyes gleamed, daring him to refuse the bait. “Come along, darling.” He tugged his fiancée toward the dance floor. “Ryan has some catching up to do. See you later, buddy.”
Ryan ran his thumb over the flower on the card. Even after all these years, the memory of betrayal was still sharp. She claimed they didn’t know each other anymore? He wondered if they had ever known each other at all. She had a lot of nerve treating him like a stranger. Anger burned through him. Abruptly, he decided he wouldn’t allow her to dismiss him as easily as she had ten years ago.
He arrived outside in time to see the valet hand Crystal her keys. Was it his imagination or did she pretend not to see him as she ducked into her car and drove away? His resolve to catch up with her hardened.