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"I've never fastened. I've always unfastened."
I felt his hands at my back. They were big, warm, and surprisingly deft with the tiny hooks. They moved to my waist. He hadn't kept his eyes closed. They were wide open, taking in my reflection. I flushed, embarra.s.sed at my own sudden voluptuousness. The bra created instant cleavage. I could have been a Victoria's Secret model. Third string, of course-one of the girls who does the clearance sale catalog, but still, this long-line thing was not just a waist-whittler; it was an ego-booster.
"I don't think I can breathe," Labeck choked out, eyes smoking.
"Oh, please. Try wearing the stupid thing."
His hands splayed along my ribs. "What's this stiff stuff here?"
"Boning?" His eyebrows zinged upward; I could see him in the dresser mirror. He laughed. He had a great laugh. Deep, booming, contagious, and it made him look-deceptively, of course-helpless.
Boning. I started laughing, too. It made my constricted ribs hurt. Magenta was right; we both possessed the maturity level of sixth-graders. Out in the hall, m.u.f.fin began yapping.
Labeck put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around until we were facing each other.
Oh, very bad idea.
There wasn't going to be any hanky-panky, I reminded myself. It had been more than four years since I'd stopped having hanky-panky with Kip Vonnerjohn, Mr. Priapism, who was bonking everything but the vacuum cleaner. I didn't think I even remembered how to commit hanky-panky.
Labeck slid his hands up and down my arms, which broke out in gooseflesh.
"You're incredible," he murmured in my ear, and the hairs inside my ear, hairs I didn't even know I possessed, stood up on tiptoes.
Then I wriggled out of his grasp, pulled on oversized flannel pajamas, and went out to sleep on the sofa.
That's what I did in my mind's eye.
What I really did was slide Labeck's shirt off his body, run my hands over his chest, glide my hands along the sculptured muscles of his back, caress the lovely big b.u.mps of his biceps, bring his face down to mine, and kiss him.
He was a wonderful kisser. His lips were warm and full, and when he slid his tongue into my mouth I lost every last ounce of resistance. I wanted him with painful intensity; every fiber of my body ached with my need for him. We staggered our way to his bedroom, shedding clothes. He kicked the door shut. I knew it was to keep m.u.f.fin from interrupting, but there was something thrillingly cavemanlike in the motion.
"Wait," I said.
"What?" He was standing behind me, unfastening the hooks he'd just done up. "Oh, right." He started frantically going through his dresser drawers. "Where did I put them?"
"You mean condoms?"
"Isn't that what you meant?"
"I'm on the pill," I said. "To regulate my periods." Twenty-one days on; seven off. Today was the seventh day. I was pressing my luck here; I was committing the birth control equivalent of jumping out of a barn. My pills were back at Taycheedah. How was I going to get a new prescription without being turned in by a pharmacist?
A smile spread over Labeck's face. "And I've been a good boy," he whispered. "So no worries."
"I mean wait, we shouldn't do this." This was the good girl side of me, making a last-ditch effort, warning me that all men were the same. They didn't respect you the next day.
There's not going to be a next day, you moron, sneered my bad girl. Last chance. Offer expires at midnight.
Labeck took a deep, ragged breath. He stroked my back, kissed my neck. "Don't you want to?"
"I don't know."
He kissed the spot between my neck and collarbone.
He kissed more spots. His hands were everywhere, caressing, stroking, awakening.
This was probably the only chance I'd ever have to be with a gorgeous male, I reminded myself as every corpuscle of blood drained from my brain to my tingly parts. Was I going to fling away this last opportunity for rapture? All I knew was that I desperately wanted Ben Labeck and was going to die if he didn't make love to me.
"I should shave my legs."
Labeck laughed deep in his throat. More growl than laugh. "I'll take my chances with bristle burn."
Oh, so will I, hot stuff, bet on it.
We kissed again. He kicked off his shoes. He unzipped his zipper and stepped out of his jeans. He pulled off his shorts. He stood there fully sprung and vibrating like a tuning fork and he made me forget to fret. It all came back, the incredible sensation of bare skin on bare skin, the urgency. It came back, better than I'd ever imagined it could be. There was nothing but him and me and the feeling of him being in me. We acclimated to each other, we found our rhythm. He murmured dirty words in French, which were an amazing turn-on-not that I needed to be any more turned on-and when I came I screamed and Labeck came at the same time and yelled and m.u.f.fin started barking outside the door.
After what seemed like a long time our breathing slowed. We were sprawled sideways at the foot of Labeck's bed. His chest was shining with sweat, his lips were swollen from kissing, and he looked so incredibly s.e.xy I wanted to grab him and do it all over again.
He traced the curves of my face, my lips, touched his sweaty forehead to mine. "I don't think I could have held out much longer," he said, smiling into my eyes. "Last night when you ran your fingers over my palm-I thought I'd explode. When you'd bend to pick up m.u.f.fin, I almost-it got to be painful to walk."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I didn't know what to say. I'm not the romantic type. Plus, I thought there was a good chance you'd punch me."
Labeck may not have considered himself romantic, but he wasn't a roll-over-and-fall-asleep guy by any means. He left the room for a minute and when he came back he was modeling his tuxedo. Well, part of it anyway-just the c.u.mmerbund, wrapped dashingly around his waist so he looked like a cross between a buccaneer and a p.o.r.n star. He was holding a bottle of wine, two gla.s.ses, and an opener. "It's just El Cheapo sparkling," he apologized. "If I'd known I was going to get lucky I'd have had Cristal Brut on hand."
I'd just had the most fabulous s.e.x of my life with a man who could have repeated the Gettysburg Address in French and made it sound like p.o.r.nography. I ought to be feeling as bubbly as that champagne. Instead I felt as though splinters of bra.s.siere boning were jabbing through my veins.
In the old days, with Kip, I'd have swallowed down my hurt. I didn't like fighting. I didn't want to be a drama queen. I'd just simmer in quiet resentment for days, afraid to explain why I was upset. But over the past few days I'd outfought rapists, outfoxed killers, and outsmarted politicians. I was a lot tougher than I'd dreamed. I'd earned the right to say I was mad when I was mad. I'd flung my heart at this Canuck clod and he was talking about getting lucky? Suddenly I was well and truly steamed.
I heaved myself upright. I stood up on the bed. I was naked, and I didn't care. "Getting lucky is talking a woman into going home with you ten minutes before the bar closes," I yelled. "Or banking in a shot in a stupid hockey game. Getting lucky is scoring. Is that what this was about-scoring?"
Labeck's Adam's apple bobbed up, down, up. The dark eyes blazed into mine, and I had to resist the urge to flinch away from that flame. "Getting lucky," Ben Labeck said in a quiet voice, "is finally making love to the woman I've been crazy about for four years."
I folded my arms across my chest. "We've only known each other four days."
He approached the bed, keeping a wary eye on my foot, which was within striking distance of his most vulnerable parts. "I guess we should have had this conversation before you jumped me and dragged me off to-"
"Dragged you? You were the one who-" I was getting mad all over again, and then I noted the glint of pure devilment in Labeck's eyes.
"Sorry," he said, trying to clamp down on a grin. "I can never resist teasing you. Are you done yelling yet?"
He did that rubbing the back of the neck thing guys do when they're embarra.s.sed.
"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
"Say what? This better not be the part where you tell me you've got a wife in Quebec."
He shook his head. He turned his attention to the wine, trying to shimmy the cork out of the bottle with a corkscrew that didn't work any better than a paper clip. "You know I was there, filming your trial, right? Of course you didn't notice me; you had a lot more serious things on your mind. I remember the day the jury came back with the guilty verdict. You didn't cry. You stood there with your chin up, like you were facing a firing squad, like you were going to ask for a last cigarette and yell Vive la France! And I just sort of . . ."
He thumped a hand over his heart. "I wanted to go up to you, wrap my arms around you, tell you everything was going to be okay. But of course, it wasn't okay."
I shook my head. Definitely not okay.
"I've never been able to let the thing go. I felt that you hadn't been given a fair shake. I got a copy of your trial transcript and went over it word by word, trying to pinpoint what was wrong. It's bothered me ever since. I used to wonder what it was like for you in prison. This is going to sound kind of stalkerazzi, but I once even wrote you a letter. You never wrote back."
"I threw away most of my mail. Too many crazies."
"When I heard you'd escaped from prison, I asked to be a.s.signed to the crew that was covering the story."
"Really?" I was starting to soften, but then I remembered how Labeck had treated me that first night. "Then why were you so mean?"
"Mean? I saved your skin!"
"You manhandled me, forced me to take a bath, made me think you were a sociopathic killer-"
"Self-defense, baby. You scared the h.e.l.l out of me."
"At that point I was only half-convinced you were innocent. And I had to keep my guard up because you were going to wriggle away if I so much as blinked. Then you'd have been caught and thrown back behind bars."
He came closer. Standing atop the bed, I was taller than him for once. My emotions were a jumbled mess, my eyes were hot with incipient tears, and my voice came out raw. I forced back the tears. "I just . . . I thought . . . what just happened between us . . . was because I was here, conveniently available-"
He put his arms around me, held me close, laid his head against my heart, spoke against my breastbone. "Nothing about this whole thing has been convenient, Mazie. My life has been turned upside down since the day you stowed away in my van."
"I'm sorry." I looked up at the ceiling so my tears wouldn't drip down my cheeks.
"But convenience is very overrated."
For a not-romantic guy, this was not bad stuff.
"Okay, I just handed you my heart on a plate. Aren't you supposed to say something nice back?"
I wasn't ready to serve up my heart yet. Not with my track record. So, stall. "Nice. Like a compliment, you mean?"
He laughed. "It's a start."
"Well," I said. "It's good that you turned out not to be a psycho killer."
He wigwagged his hand. "Might go psycho on Senator Brenner."
I took a deep breath. "And you're an excellent doctor."
"Thank you." He turned my injured hand over and kissed my palm through the bandages.
"And . . . you're really sneaky. The radon guy thing and the way you snuck me into Vanessa's house? That was impressive, sneakiness-wise."
"Thank you. n.o.body's ever appreciated my sneakiness before."
Setting his hands around my waist, he lifted me to the floor. We arranged the pillows we'd knocked to the floor and drank the El Cheapo after Ben finally managed to open it. We talked, and it was nearly as good as talking to your best girlfriend. I told him about growing up on a Wisconsin farm. He told me about growing up in a town on the Canada-Vermont border, about his dad, who was a cabinetmaker, his mom, who taught history at a junior college, and his three sisters, whose main interests in life, according to Ben's spin on it, were tormenting him. He'd gone to college in Wisconsin on a hockey scholarship and gotten a part-time job as a cameraman for the college television station. Eventually this had led to full-time jobs with commercial stations. He hadn't wanted to admit to me that he was Canadian because he'd neglected to reapply for his visa extension and was currently a resident alien.
The Canadians among us. They talk like us. They look like us. They're undetectable, like radon.
"What about that name?" I asked. "Bonaparte?"
He groaned. "I'm going to punch Magenta in his big fat mouth."
"Come on. You know all my secrets."
"It's a family name."
"It could be worse."
"My real name is Margarita. Pretty lame."
"I like it. It's s.e.xy. It doesn't go with Maguire though. That's Irish, right?"
"Not exactly." I explained how I pictured G.o.d as Atticus Finch.
"Let me get this straight." Labeck rose up on his elbow and leaned over me. "You think G.o.d is a dead white movie actor?"
"Hey, freedom of religion."
"G.o.d is that black woman on the Law and Order reruns. The one with the funny name."
"S. Epatha Merkerson?" We watched a lot of Law & Order in the can.
"That's the one. She's tough but fair. You can tell she's seen it all. She wouldn't be allowing any holocausts to happen, no sir. You wouldn't want to mess with Her."
"Well, I'm hoping S. Epatha and Atticus are on our side tomorrow night." I rolled over, yawning. "Any wine left?"
He upended the bottle. A couple of drops dribbled out. "Gone." His eyes had changed from Hershey's Kisses brown to dark, decadent chocolate, the kind with 80 percent cocoa. He ran a finger from my neck hollow to the valley between my b.r.e.a.s.t.s and spoke in tones that sent tremors of l.u.s.t sizzling along my nerves. "But I'm back."