I met him at the candy store. He turned around and smiled at me. I was surprised enough to smile back.
This was not a children's candy store. This was Sweet Heaven, an upscale, gourmet candy store. No cheap lolli-pops or chalky chocolate kisses, but the kind of place you went to buy expensive, imported truffles for your boss's wife because you felt guilty for fucking him when you were both at a conference in Milwaukee.
He was buying jellybeans, black only. He looked at the bag in my hand, candy-coated chocolate. Also in one color.
"You know what they say about the green ones." The rakish tilt of his lips tried to charm me, and I resisted.
"St. Patrick's Day?" Which was why I was buying them. He shook his head. "No. The green ones make you horny."
I'd been hit on plenty of times, mostly by men with little finesse who thought what was between their legs made up for what they lacked between their ears. Sometimes I went home with one of them anyway, just because it felt good to want and be wanted, even if it was mostly fake and they usually disappointed.
"That's an urban legend made up by adolescent boys with wish-fulfillment issues."
His lips tilted further. His smile was his best asset, brilliant and shining in a face made up of otherwise regular features. He had hair the color of wet sand and cloudy blue-green eyes; both attractive, but when paired with the smile...breathtaking.
"Very good answer," he said.
He held out his hand. When I took it, he pulled me closer, step by hesitant step, until he could lean close and whisper in my ear. His hot breath gusted along my skin, and I shivered. "Do you like licorice?"
I did, and I do, and he tugged me around the corner to reach inside a bin filled with small black rectangles. It had a label with a picture of a kangaroo on the front.
"Try this." He lifted a piece to my lips and I opened for him although the sign clearly said No Samples. "It's from Australia."
The licorice smoothed on my tongue. Soft, fragrant, sticky in a way that made me run my tongue along my teeth. I tasted his fingers from where they'd brushed my lips. He smiled.
"I know a little place," he said, and I let him take me there.
The Slaughtered Lamb. A gruesome name for a nice little faux-British pub tucked down an alley in the center of downtown Harrisburg. Compared to the trendy dance clubs and upscale restaurants that had revitalized the area, the Lamb seemed out of place and all the more delightful for it.
He sat us at the bar, away from the college students singing karaoke in the corner. The stools wobbled, and I had to hold tight to the bar. I ordered a margarita.
"No." The shake of his head had me raising a brow. "You want whiskey."
"I've never had whiskey."
"A virgin." On another man the comment would have come off smarmy, earned a roll of the eyes and an automatic addition to the "not with James Dean's prick" file.
On him, it worked. "A virgin," I agreed, the word tasting unfamiliar on my tongue as though I hadn't used it in a very long time.
He ordered us both shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey, and he drank his back as one should do with shots, in one gulp. I am no stranger to drinking, even if I'd never had whiskey, and I matched him without a grimace. There's a reason it's also known as firewater, but after the initial burn the taste of it spread across my tongue and reminded me of the smell of burning leaves. Cozy. Warm. A little romantic, even.
His gaze brightened. "I like the way you put that down the back of your throat."
I was instantly, immediately, insanely aroused. "Another?" said the 'tender. "Another," my companion agreed. To me he said, "Very good."
The compliment pleased me, and I wasn't sure why impressing him had become so important.
We drank there for a while, and the whiskey hit me harder than I thought it would. Or perhaps the company made me giddy enough to giggle at his subtle but charming observations about the people around us.
The woman in the business suit in the corner was an off-duty call girl. The man in the leather jacket, a mortician. My companion wove stories about everyone around us including our good-natured bartender, whom he said had the look of a retired gumdrop farmer.
"Gumdrops don't come from farms." I leaned forward to touch his tie, which featured a pattern that upon first glance appeared to be the normal sort of dots and crosses many men wore. I, however, had noticed the dots and crosses were tiny skulls and crossbones.
"No?" He seemed disappointed I wouldn't play along.
"No." I tugged his tie and looked up into the blue-green eyes that had begun vying with his smile for best feature.
"They're harvested in the wild."
He guffawed, tilting his head back with the force of it. I envied him the free and easy way he gave in to the impulse to laugh. I'd have been afraid people would stare.
"And you," he said at last. His gaze pinned me, held me in place. "What are you?"
"Gumdrop poacher," I whispered through whiskey-numb lips.
He reached to twirl a strand of hair that had fallen free from my long French braid. "You don't look that dangerous, to me."
We looked at each other, two strangers, and shared a smile, and I thought how long it had been since I'd done that. "Want to walk me home?"
He didn't attempt to make love to me that night, which didn't surprise me. He didn't try to fuck me, either, which did. He didn't even kiss me, though I hesitated before putting my keys in the door and smiled and chatted with him before saying good-night.
He hadn't asked for my name. Not even my number. Just left me buzzing from whiskey on my doorstep. I watched him walk down the street, jingling the change in his pocket. He faded into the darkness between the streetlamps, and then I went inside.
I thought about him the next morning in the shower while I washed the scent of smoke from my hair. I thought about him while I shaved my legs, my pits, the curling dark hair between my legs. When I brushed my teeth I caught sight of my face in the mirror and tried to imagine seeing my eyes as he had.
Blue with flecks of white and gold visible upon closer observation. A feature many men praised, perhaps because telling a woman she has pretty eyes is a safe way of judging whether they can next move on to putting a hand on her thigh. He hadn't mentioned them. He hadn't, actually, complimented me on anything other than the way I'd drunk the whiskey.
I thought about him as I dressed for work. Plain white panties, comfortable in cut and fabric. Matching bra, a hint of lace, enough to make it pretty but designed to support my breasts rather than flaunt them. A black skirt cut just above the knee. A white blouse with buttons. Black and white, as always, to make the choices easier and because something about the pure simplicity of black and white soothes me.
I thought about him on the ride to work, my headphones tucked inside my ears to discourage random conversation from strangers. The shield of modern times. The ride was no longer than it ever had been, nor shorter, and I counted the stops the way I always did and gave the bus driver the same smile.
"Have a good day, Miss Kavanagh."
I thought of him, too, as I climbed the cement steps to my office and pushed through the doors precisely five minutes before I was due in my office.
"You're late today," said Harvey Willard, the security guard. "An entire minute."
"Blame the bus," I told him with a grin I knew would make him blush, though the blame was not upon the bus but upon my distracted gait that had made me slow.
Up the elevator, down the hall, through my door, to my desk. Not one thing was different, but everything had changed. Not even the columns of numbers in front of me could wrest my mind from the puzzle he'd presented.
I didn't know his name. Hadn't given him mine. I'd thought it would be easy, two strangers looking to fill a mutual need. A standard seduction. One that didn't need names to complicate it.
I didn't like men knowing my name, anyway. It gave them a sense of power over me they didn't deserve, as if by gasping out my name when they jerked and spasmed they could cement the moment in place and time. If I had to give a name, I gave them a false one, and when they shouted it out in come-hoarse voices it never failed to make me smile.
I wasn't smiling today. I was distracted, disgruntled, discombobulated...I'd have been disenchanted if I'd ever been enchanted to begin with.
I worked the problem in my mind like I'd figure a calculation. Separate the equations, decipher the individual components, add the pieces that made sense and divide them by the parts that didn't. By lunchtime I still hadn't been able to relegate him to a memory.
"Hot date last night?" Marcy Peters, she of the big hair and tiny skirts, asked. Marcy is the sort of woman who will always refer to herself as a girl, who wears white pumps with too-tight jeans, whose blouses always show a little too much cleavage.
She poured herself another cup of coffee. I had tea. We sat at the small lunchroom table and peeled open sandwiches delivered from the deli, hers tuna and mine, as usual, turkey on wheat.
"As always" came my reply, and we laughed, two women bound in friendship not from qualities in common or mutual interests but because our alliance forms the cage that protects us from the sharks with whom we work.
Marcy fends off the sharks with a blunt and unassuming, forthright presentation of her femininity. Of herself as woman all-powerful, all-intriguing, all-encompassing. She is blond and buxom and not above using her attributes to get what she wants.
I prefer a more discreet approach.
Marcy laughed at my response because the Elle Kavanagh she knows does not go on dates, hot or otherwise. The Elle Kavanagh of her acquaintance, junior vice president of corporate accounting, makes the cliché; of the lady-librarian-with-spectacles-and-bun look like Lady Godiva.
Marcy doesn't know anything about me, or my life outside the walls of Triple Smith and Brown.
"You hear the news about the Flynn account?" This was Marcy's idea of lunchtime conversation. Gossip about other employees.
"No," I said to appease her and because she always did manage to dig up the best stories.
"Mr. Flynn's secretary sent the wrong files over to Bob, who's handling the account, right?"
Glee danced in Marcy's eyes. "Apparently, she e-mailed Mr. Flynn's private expense account, not the corporate one."
"It has to get better."
"Apparently, Mr. Flynn likes to keep track of how many hundred-dollar hookers and bootleg cigars he buys!" She wriggled in her seat.
"Bad news for Mr. Flynn's secretary, I guess."
Marcy grinned. "She's been blowing Bob on the side. He didn't tell Mr. Flynn."
"Bob Hoover?" That was unexpected news.
"Yeah. Can you believe it?"
"I guess I can believe anything of anybody," I told her honestly. "Most people are far less discriminating about who they take to bed than you'd think."
"Oh, really?" She gave me a ferrety look of interest. "And you'd know this because...?"
"Pure conjecture." I pushed away from the table and threw away my trash.
Marcy didn't look disappointed, only more intrigued. "Uh-huh."
I gave her a sweet and bland smile, and left her alone to meditate on my mysterious sex life.
Excerpted from Dirty by Megan Hart Copyright © 2007 by Megan Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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