Authors: Michele Bardsley
O TO THE ZOO
Fourteen-year-old Marissa Vanderson snatched the pink paper from Gillian's hand. Her cheeks flamed at her sister's soft laughter. Just because Gillie was four years older didn't mean she knew everything. "What's wrong with going to the zoo? We've never been there. We've never been anywhere
"Except Paris, Rome, and London."
"We saw hotel rooms and restaurants and landmarks—with armed guards. Why can't we do normal family things? Picnics in the park and boating on the lake and—and visiting the zoo."
"Our parents have tried to make sure we have extraordinary experiences."
Marissa looked at her sister. "They only want us to have extraordinary experiences in protected environments. If they're not with us, we don't get to do anything. We have private tutors, private parties, private everything."
"You know why."
"Zachary." Marissa sighed. "I know he was our brother, but we never knew him. His kidnapping happened twenty years ago."
"Why do you think Mom and Dad try to stay low-key? Why do think they've been so protective?"
"I know that they love us, but why don't they spend more time with us? It's like they love each other more than...than...their own daughters!"
"It's complicated, Rissa." Gillie made a "gimme" gesture with her hand. "The list, please. We'll write it together, okay? Tomorrow, I'll take you to the zoo."
"But it's your birthday. You know Mom and Dad have planned a big
"As of midnight, I'm a legal adult and I can do what I want. And I want to take my sister to the zoo."
As much as she envied Gillie, Marissa loved the way Gillie made everyone around her feel special. She eyed her sister's outfit. The fringed purple top, sparkly leather pants, and army boots didn't look like pajamas. "You're sneaking out again, aren't you?"
"You want the zoo. I want Michael Feeney."
"Michael Feeney. He's amazing, Rissa. He has the body of a Greek god and the soul of a poet." Gillie's expression turned dreamy, her eyes glistening with a light that could only be inspired by teenaged love.
Marissa grimaced. "Yech. Spare me the details."
"One day you won't find boys so disgusting. In fact..." Gillie took the paper and grabbed a pen from her nightstand. She scribbled, "Toe-curling kiss," under the already-listed items and smiled. "French kissing. It's the best."
"I'm going to retch. No boy is sticking his tongue in my mouth." Still, Marissa decided to leave it on her list...for now.
For the next few minutes, they argued over what should be put on Marissa's Fun Stuff (a.k.a. The Wild) List. Rissa loved debating with Gillie; her sister was smart and funny and beautiful. Rissa knew she had brains, too, and lots of 'em, but she lacked any other glowing qualities, especially beauty. She might as well have been Gillie's shadow rather than her sister. Now Gillie had one more thing she didn't: a boyfriend she loved so much, she risked the wrath of their parents to be with him.
"Hey, kiddo, I gotta go."
Marissa watched Gillian raise the window. "The alarm!"
"I re-routed the leads to this one." Gillie grinned. "I'll be back before dawn. Don't worry about me, Rissa. I'll be fine. Like I said, tomorrow we'll go to the zoo, okay?"
"Giraffes, popcorn, and the rain forest display...the whole caboodle. Pinky swear." She extended the little finger of her right hand and Marissa extended hers; they gripped pinkies. Gillie swung her leg over the sill and hopped out, then pushed down the window. She blew a kiss at Marissa. The glass fogged momentarily; Gillie wrote evol uoy in the white circle created by her breath, then parted the shrubbery and disappeared.
Marissa stared at the reversed "love you," until it faded. A few minutes later, she heard the distant sound of a motorcycle gunning its engine.
T 2 A.M.
, THE loud gong of the doorbell had Marissa scrambling out of bed. Her heart pounded fiercely; dread made her limbs shake. She didn't bother with her robe or slippers. Didn't care that she wore nothing but a blue nightie as she stumbled to the door. Her hand slipped on the knob; the second try, she wrenched it open, dashed out of her bedroom and ran down the elaborate staircase. At the front double doors, her parents and Geoffrey, their long-time butler, stood in shocked silence listening to the woman in the police uniform utter phrases like, "fatal accident," and "sorry for your loss," and "need dental records."
Her parents held onto each other, tears of disbelief marring their perfect faces. They didn't look at Marissa, didn't invite her join them. As usual, they had only room enough for each other. Geoffrey enclosed Marissa in his strong, warm embrace and utter nonsensical comforts.
"I'm the last," she whispered.
Her mother turned and pulled Marissa out of Geoffrey's arms. The flowery perfume she'd forever associate with grief settled around Marissa as her mother fiercely hugged her. "We won't lose you, baby. I will never allow anything to happen to you. Never."
Her mother's vow seemed more like a threat than a promise.
IN THE silver Mercedes parked across the street from the smoky hellhole called the Paradise Club. A few minutes passed before he caught sight of the woman sashaying toward the squat flamingo-pink building. Damn he loved the way her hips moved. And the curve of her ass...he exhaled. Her lush body inspired a man's lust and his raging hard-on was a testament to her feminine power. She paused outside the teal door and bent to smooth her hose; she rose and straightened her skirt. His gaze caressed her long, smooth legs.
How easy to envision those beautiful limbs wrapped around him...
his breath fogged the rolled-up window, as he leaned closer and watched her entered the club.
He'd wait a while.
Then he'd follow her.
And she would learn that she belonged only to him.
Dane Sinclair barely caught the soft-spoken words. Pounding music reverberated through the Paradise Club, pulsing in time with multi-colored lights, and with the throbbing of his headache. He turned and leaned on the bar, coming face-to-glasses with a woman. "What can I get you, sweetheart?"
Her lips curved upward, exhibiting a nice set of white teeth. For a smile, it wasn't bad...except for the trembling lower lip.
Dane noticed the fine cut of her clothes, the proper chignon balanced on her head, and the delicate, precise movements as she folded her hands on the slick black counter. An expensive floral scent infiltrated the usual bar smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, and beer.
What the hell was a society type like her doing in the Paradise Club?
Dane looked around, knowing from experience that
traveled in packs of four or more. His ex-wife had never gone anywhere without her entourage and she wouldn't have put a pedicured foot in this place. His gaze returned to the woman. She looked young, but he knew she had to be at least twenty-one. His brother, Charlie, owned the club and checked IDs at the door. The father of two teenaged daughters, Charlie took a dim view of underage drinking.
Dane took a dim view of bluebloods trying to slum it.
"Lady, I got other customers. You want a drink or not?"
"Can I have um...oh...champagne?"
"You don't sound too sure."
She bit her lower lip. "I'm afraid I don't know too much about drinking."
Yeah, he just bet she didn't know much about real booze. Her idea of an alcoholic beverage was probably a hoity-toity drink like a Mint Julep or a Cosmopolitan. Needed a little education, did she? Dane grinned. "Forget champagne. You need a Slippery Nipple."
Her mouth rounded into a perfect O. Her gaze dropped to her shirt then she looked from side to side. She leaned across the counter. "Does it involve disrobing?"
Dane choked back a laugh. Would she take off her shirt if he said yes? He shook his head. "No. It's made in a shot glass." He picked one up from under the bar and showed it to her. "I use Bailey's Irish Cream and Butterscotch Schnapps, but you can make it with Sambuca and grenadine, too."
Her shoulders drooped in apparent relief. "Oh. Is it a good drink?"
He kept a straight face as he answered in a low voice, "I love a good Slippery Nipple."
Despite the dim lighting in the club, Dane swore he saw a blush stain her cheeks. "Is there something else you'd recommend?"
"Sex On The Beach? Or maybe I can slide you a Between The Sheets." He snapped his fingers. "How about an Orgasm?"
She peered at him. "These are sexual innuendoes, correct? Are we flirting?"
Dane's smile faded. Her blunt query surprised him. He'd been trying to rattle her, not flirt with her. "I'm just making conversation."
"I should have read a book about alcoholic beverages instead of looking up
positions on the Internet."
"The Kama Sutra,"
she shouted. "I was particularly interested in the Snake Trap position. It really is quite interesting how the participants arrange themselves. See, the hands are placed—"
"Save me the details. I'm an old-fashioned guy."
Dane watched the shaggy young man on the woman's right touch her shoulder. "Honey, I'll put my hands wherever you want."
Instead of punching the guy's lights out, she squinted at him.
"Are you familiar with the
"No, but I'm looking for an instructor. Interested?"
"You interested in keeping your hand attached to your arm?" asked Dane. He looked pointedly at the guy's fingers clutching the woman's green blouse.
"Relax, dude." The arrogant jerk winked at Miss Prim. "I'll be on the dance floor if you change your mind." He slipped away into the crowd.
The woman smiled at Dane. "Thank you." She reached across the bar and tucked her hand into his reluctant grasp.
Vanderson? He seemed to recall meeting the Vandersons at one of Lorraine's endless social engagements, but his memories of those days spent in elite circles were fuzzy.
The delicate bones of the woman's fingers pressed against his and her smooth, soft skin reminded him once again of her breeding. He dropped her hand. "Dane Sinclair."
"Delighted to meet you, Mr. Sinclair."
Dane couldn't see her eyes due to the glasses and lack of decent lighting, but her lips curved into another nice smile. She had a wonderful mouth. Whoa...what was he thinking?
"I'll fix you a drink—on the house."
He grabbed the bourbon, wishing he hadn't let Charlie talk him into working tonight. If his brother hadn't thrown in the courtside seats to next week's basketball game, he'd be sacked out on the couch watching a late night action flick instead of fixing a drink for Marissa Vanderson. He pushed the glass in front of her.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Perfect for you. It's called a Presbyterian." Dane tapped the rim. "Bourbon, soda, ginger ale."
She nodded then drank it down. Dane gaped at her. Forget delicate sips and raised pinkies.
Did she just wipe her mouth with the back of her hand?
Had he pegged her wrong? Lorraine would have died of thirst before exhibiting such crude behaviors.
"Another one, please."
He debated arguing the point, since she appeared to have little experience with real alcohol. Hell, she was an adult. She had a right to get walloped if she wanted. Still, he dosed the second with more ginger ale than bourbon, and watched as she did the same gulp-it-down-quick routine.
"Hit me again," she said with a silly grin. "That is the appropriate phrase, is it not?"
Dane couldn't help it. He grinned back. "Yeah, you got the language down. But don't you want to pace yourself?"
"Oh, no. It's very wild, isn't it?"
"I'd consider it tame compared to other things."
Dane's brows rose as a feeling of unease snaked through him. Miss Society or not, the little darling did not belong in the Paradise Club. Why was she here? No. No. No way. He was done with rescuing princesses. So, he squashed his concerns. The woman was capable of making her own decisions. He shouldn't care what she did or where she went.
"Tell me about other wild things," she asked with the enthusiasm a student would quiz a teacher about a favorite subject. "And give me another Presbyterian."
He didn't bother adding the bourbon this time. He watched her fine-boned fingers with the manicured nails slip around the glass. She tossed down the drink, smacking her lips in satisfaction.
"How long until I'm—I'm—" She frowned, then heaved the biggest, ugliest, puke-orange purse he'd ever seen onto the bar. She opened it and pawed through the contents, her elbows poking into the people on either side of her. With a cry of triumph, she yanked a crinkled, ripped pink paper from the purse, then read it.
"Buzzed. Of course, I would prefer not to have the hangover, but I will suffer through such a thing if it means having the whole experience."
Her statement hit him like a bolt of lightning. She wanted to get drunk and have a hangover? She acted like doing such a thing was an amusement park ride she'd never been on.
She glanced at the list. "Would it be appropriate to have sex with each other? Later on, I mean. After the flirting."
Dane rubbed his earlobe. Surely he’d heard her question wrong. He leaned forward. "What did you say?"
She tucked the list inside and closed the purse. "I was merely inquiring if our current situation would eventually lead to sex. Remember, The Snake Trap?"
Snake Trap. Yeah, that about sums it up.
Dane stared at her. The music pounded, people jostled closer to the bar, and Charlie shouted at Dane to get to work. Instead, Dane motioned the woman to go to the end of the counter. She did so without questioning him and her naive trust set his teeth on edge. He took her by the arm and led her into Charlie's small office. Silence mercifully descended when he shut the door.
"Are you going to make a pass at me?" she asked in a breathless voice.
"Make a pass—you know, come on to me."
Her shoulders drooped and she wilted into a nearby chair. "Why not? It's the next step, isn't it?"
He'd disappointed her. For God's sake, she should know better than to just offer herself to a man.
"You just asked me to have sex with you," he snapped, "at least call me Dane."
Her cheeks blazed like a four-alarm fire and Dane realized he'd embarrassed her with his harsh tone. "I'm sorry, Marissa. It's not every day a guy gets propositioned by a nun."
"I'm not a nun. In a literal sense, anyway." She looked up at him and smiled. Her lower lip trembled, and Dane bit back a curse. Aw, crap. Princess tears. His fucking Kryptonite.
"It's all right. I appreciate your candor. I know I'm rather plain, but I did hope willingness would make a difference in desirability."
"Willingness to have sex?" asked Dane dubiously.
"To have passionate, uninhibited sex."
Dane sucked in a breath, feeling gut-punched. She blinked at him behind those ridiculously large glasses, head tilted, teeth pulling on her full bottom lip.
"It's the last item on my list," she continued as if she hadn't asked for
passionate, uninhibited sex,
"so I have plenty to experience before the one-night stand. Can you hire for that sort of thing?"
He inhaled deeply and counted to ten...twenty...twenty-five. "Let me get this straight. You want to hire someone to have sex with you?"
"No, not really. I hoped to entice someone sufficiently so they'd take me on—on something like that." She pointed to the desk. "I want my skirt jerked up and buttons popping off my shirt..."
Dane looked at the emerald-green top with big, gold, poppable buttons; he couldn't help but notice the roundness of her breasts under the well-fitting fabric. The dip of her small waist, the curve of her hip...barely covered by the short skirt...he tugged at the collar of his T-shirt.
Jeez, it's hot in here.
His gaze traveled down the enticing lines of her legs—encased in shimmery white hose. Damn nice legs.
"...wearing my crotchless panties because there's no reason to ruin the silk ones."
He stopped breathing, choked, coughed. She frowned at him and he waved away the concern marring her brow.
"Crotchless panties?" he repeated in a hoarse voice.
"I wasn't sure about protocol...book knowledge only gets you so far." She laughed as she tugged on the skirt. "I’ve never worn silk stockings before, and I have to say, getting them clipped into the satin straps was rather difficult."
Dane's heart skipped a beat, then re-started at a frantic pace. He was having a heart attack. No. A lust attack. He would not think about crotchless panties, long legs, garters, and crazy women. He closed his eyes and thought about the North Pole. Ice. Cold. Snow.
Too late. His body had already decided the desk fantasy was a damned fine idea.
Dane tucked his hands into his jean pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Let me give you some advice."
"You have experience with women's lingerie?"
How the hell was he supposed to answer that question? He knew a thing or two about lingerie, but what he liked best on a woman was...nothing. Okay. Maybe nothing but red spiked high heels. He liked red.
Dane bit back a curse. His libido was raging out of control and it was all her fault. "I don't want to discuss women's underwear."
"Okay." She focused completely on him. "I value any advice you can give me about my situation."
Her total attention unnerved him and the lecture about her outrageous behavior getting her into serious trouble jumbled around in his mind. Searching for a nice way to say, "Get therapy," he examined her face for signs of insanity or inebriation. Heart-shaped, delicately pale, her features were a bit sharp with her honey-blonde hair pulled back. The glasses overshadowed the high cheekbones, pert nose, and the color of her eyes.
"You seem to be a nice man," said Marissa before he could speak again. She checked her watch. "I only have twenty minutes until the wet T-shirt contest begins. Thank you for your time and for your kindness."
Dane watched as she pulled out the mangled pink paper from the ugly orange purse. He took it from her. Some words were faded and others were scratched out. Different inks had been used and the handwriting had changed; childish, boxy letters with heart-dotted I's transformed to strong, clean lines. Some of the items seemed immature, a girl's wishes.
Several were double-starred, including....
"Go to the zoo?" Dane queried with raised brows.
"I've never been. My sister was supposed to..." she hesitated. "It's important to me that I complete the list. By Saturday."
"Why the deadline?"
She shook her head. "Let's just say I need to keep a promise."
"You want to do all of these things? There's a lot of stuff on here and some of it you can't even read."
"I know what every line says. I don't need to accomplish everything this week—just the starred items."
Dane frowned. "Have sex" was starred. So was "toe-curling kiss," "get a pet," and a couple more sentences he couldn't make out. "Marissa, you don't have to do these things to experience life."