A French Whipping
WHEN BLAKE WEBSTER bent down to place the full pint glasses on the table, Nick had a clear but unmistakable view of her ample cleavage in the V-neck black crew shirt she was wearing. The bright green scarf tied in a jaunty bow around her neck only accentuated the creaminess of her skin, and he had to shift his gaze immediately to the embroidery on the upper right of her black T-shirt. Of course, he’d seen the pub’s logo a thousand times; it read The Hairy Lemon in green cursive just above a large yellow lemon, but he studied it like he’d never seen it before, trying to force his body to calm down.
He knew the waitresses wore more revealing clothing at other Irish pubs and thanked God that he didn’t have to endure seeing Blake in a tiny kilt and white stockings. If that had been the case, he wouldn’t make it through a happy hour without breaking down and begging her to touch him, or dragging the first asshole who made a lewd comment to her outside. His fist clenched in his lap, and he made a deliberate effort to relax, breathing out slowly and letting his hand fall open. None of that had happened, and she was right here in front of him. Safe and just his friend.
When she’d emptied her tray of drinks, she put her free hand on his shoulder and cocked her hip in his direction as she spoke to his friends Milton and Regina. He felt the weight of her hand pressing down on him, could feel the muscles in his shoulder knot with tension as he smelled the perfume she’d sprayed on her wrists. He could smell it over the spilled beer and remnants of the shepherd’s pie he’d ordered earlier. She liked perfume. She always had. Several years ago, when she’d worked at the perfume counter at Macy’s, he would stop by to see her, and she’d hold her wrist to his nose and ask him what he thought. He’d thought that he wanted to take her home with him and do unspeakable things to her.
She was so close. He wanted to pick up the hand she’d laid on his shoulder and breathe in the warmth of her. If she were his, he would kiss that wrist, feeling her pulse beneath his lips increase as he lingered. If she were his, he would pull her down to sit next to him and let her steal sips of his beer while his hand rested in the curve of her hip. If she were his, she wouldn’t be working in this pub while men stared at her.
She will never be yours.
He heard the voice in his head as clearly as he had for the past ten years. It wasn’t his voice—the words had been spoken by Blake’s first boyfriend, Keenan Shy—but the person who’d said it first didn’t really matter. Nick knew it to be true.
“So, where’re you going?” Blake half shouted across the table to his friends. She had to struggle to speak loud enough. Her voice, husky and damaged, was better suited to quiet, intimate settings.
His friend Milton and Milton’s girlfriend, Regina, were sitting at the table across from him, their backs to the line of people perched on stools at the bar. Bright green garlands of four-leaf clovers decorated the walls, leftovers from St. Pat’s on Tuesday. The owner, Kevin Hannegan, hadn’t gotten around to removing the decorations, and he’d probably been smart to leave them up—the usual Friday crowd seemed to be augmented with people who weren’t quite ready to let the raucous St. Pat’s party go. Shouts erupted periodically from a table of businessmen drinking Irish car bombs.
Regina, a pediatric oncologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, waited until the noise died down a little to answer. She smiled and slid Milton a look from beneath her lashes.
“He won’t tell me,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the noise. “But I know we’re going on the yacht, so I really can’t say I care.”
Milton grinned broadly, his white teeth flashing in his olive-skinned face. He’d been annoyingly happy since he and Regina had become a couple about a month ago. Nick thought it was only a matter of time before Regina moved into Milton’s brownstone. Mentally Nick shook his head. He knew he wouldn’t handle someone—even someone he loved—living in his house very well, but Milton would probably be fine.
Roland, their other friend and CEO of the software company that he, Nick, and Milton had started after they’d graduated from MIT, was leaning back in his chair, scotch in hand, suit coat slung over the back of his chair. His ascetic face looked drawn, the frown lines at the corners of his mouth deeper than usual. He’d been disturbed since someone had hacked into their system a few months earlier and stolen some data pertaining to a government project they were working on.
“I don’t think I’d care, either,” Blake murmured and shifted her weight as if her feet hurt. “A week or two of sun and sparkling water and drinks on the deck sounds fabulous after all this rain.”
Nick did his best to banish the image that had sprung into his head. Blake, in a bikini, her long limbs slathered in suntan oil, big sunglasses hiding her slightly tilted green eyes, as she pouted at him with red, red lips. He owned a yacht. He owned two, actually, and a sailboat. She could laze away all her days half naked on the deck of his ship, or go sailing with him around tropical islands. Somehow he knew that she’d love the beach and the sand and the wind in her hair.
He swallowed and shifted away from her slightly. She moved with him, making it seem as if she did it unconsciously, but her hand tightened on his shoulder. She was messing with him. Again. She’d been messing with him for weeks now, ever since they’d helped Milton put on a magic show at the hospital for the kids.
Normally Blake liked to tease him. She would make him take her on roller coasters, or go shopping, or eat terrible food like Cronuts and drink sugary coffee drinks. She’d steal his car while he was out running and try to pick him up to go with her to Cape Cod. Sometimes she’d go so far as to call him handsome and try to give him advice on picking up women, but she’d never flirted with him the way she had lately. He wished he knew what the hell she was thinking.
“Any big plans this weekend?” Regina asked Blake. The two women got along surprisingly well—surprising since they had completely different backgrounds—but they weren’t best friends by any means.
Blake made an expansive gesture with her arm, including the bar and all its patrons, most of whom were watching March Madness on one of many large screens. “What? Bigger than all this?” she joked. “Actually, I do have plans this weekend.”
Nick couldn’t help himself. He looked up at her, a frown gathering between his eyes.
She didn’t return his gaze, but he knew she’d noticed his look. Noticed and was pleased, if the tiny smile on her lips was any indication.
“We’re working on a little project,” Roland chimed in, letting his chair fall forward so that once again all four legs were on the floor.
Nick’s gaze swung to Roland. A project? Roland had grown up with Blake, more or less, and sometimes Nick was a little jealous of how much she turned to his friend. Why didn’t she ask me for help with this project? He swallowed his irritation. She was his friend. Roland was his friend. All of them were friends. There was no reason to get upset.
Blake patted Nick’s shoulder as if to soothe him, and he realized that he’d grown tense, his shoulders hunched. He forced himself to relax, breathing deeply in and out through his nose. He would meditate tonight, maybe run through some of his forms, or go on a long run, hopefully clearing his mind of all thoughts of Blake Webster.
“He’s actually helping me with something,” Blake clarified cheerfully. “I’ve decided to change my life.”
“Oh, yeah?” Milton quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not thinking of becoming a pickpocket, are you? While you’re not bad, the little pack of little thieves I know from Harvard Square would eat you alive if you tried to horn in on their turf.”
Blake was actually an excellent pickpocket—Nick knew from experience. Not only did she sometimes steal his wallet without him knowing and then make him meet her somewhere to get it back, but he’d seen her in action with Milton and Roland back when they’d all first met over ten years ago. Nick, Milton, and Roland had been college students at MIT, and Blake had tended bar in the neighborhood near their apartment, but she’d been taught sleight of hand and pickpocketing by Roland and his cousin, Keenan, who was her boyfriend at the time.
Back then, Milton had performed magic tricks for a little extra cash in the public squares around campus, sometimes borrowing Blake as a lovely assistant, but now he did it for fun, or to entertain the kids at the hospital. Nick had even gone with him to Harvard Square a few times over the past few years, assisting with the tricks that required more than one person. Becoming a billionaire hadn’t changed Milton all that much—hadn’t really changed any of them. They were still tech nerds, building software programs for the company they owned, and they were still best friends, even after all these years.
“No,” Blake responded to Milton. “I’ve decided that I want to work with charitable organizations to raise money. I’m going back to school.”
As she spoke, her mouth firmed and her eyes narrowed. She meant it. Nick wasn’t surprised, not really. He’d seen how much she’d enjoyed working with the kids at the hospital and known that watching them struggle with life-threatening diseases had affected her deeply. Still, she could have come to him just as easily as she’d gone to Roland. She never did, though.
Over a year ago, when she’d gotten beaten up by her last boyfriend, Phillip, she’d shown up on Roland’s doorstep, so bruised and bloodied that he’d immediately taken her to the hospital. Nick’s hand tightened into a fist again. Why couldn’t she see these dickheads for the scum they really were? Nick knew within three minutes of meeting one of her boyfriends that the bastard would hurt her. He knew it the way he knew his own face in the mirror. But she didn’t seem to learn, and she never listened to him when he tried to tell her.
Keenan had nearly killed her ten years ago, but even Nick hadn’t realized how dangerous the man could be. Her second boyfriend, Carlos, had terrorized her by following her around everywhere, taking her phone, or locking her up when he felt she was doing something he didn’t like. Often, neither Nick nor Roland would be able to get ahold of her. She wouldn’t call them back for fear of Carlos. She’d finally realized she was in trouble, though, and asked for help getting away from him.
Her last boyfriend, Phillip, had been the worst. He hadn’t left marks on her, not at first. Nick actually wasn’t sure what all he’d done to her, but the sparkle in her eyes had been noticeably absent while that asshole had been in her life.
And during this time, Nick had been forced to stand by and watch it happen. He had no right to tell her whom to date; he knew that. Still, he and Roland had occasionally threatened, cajoled, or bribed some of the assholes she met into looking elsewhere, and when she finally did come to them for help getting away from the ones she was involved with, he and Roland had made sure that they never bothered her again. Well, with the exception of Keenan. None of them, including the police, had been able to locate Keenan since he’d disappeared.
The small crowd in the pub roared in enthusiasm as one of the teams scored, and the table of car-bomb drinkers cheered as well. “That’s great.” Milton stood up and worked his way through the crowd of people to give her a hug.
She returned it, removing her hand from Nick’s shoulder, and he took a deep breath in both relief and disappointment.
When Milton released her, she kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Milton.”
Nick fought an insane urge to stand up and punch his friend in the face.
“Well”—she smiled cheerfully—“I better get back to it. See you later.”
Nick watched her go, enjoying the view of her heart-shaped backside even as he bristled at the looks that followed in her wake.
She looked back once, directly into his eyes, and gave him a saucy wink.
His own eyes narrowed. She was definitely up to something.
Blake let out a shaky laugh as she wove her way back to the waitress station. She was playing with fire and she knew it, but that was all part of her new life direction.
Grabbing an empty tray from a stack near the door to the kitchen, she began loading frosty pint glasses filled with various amber, gold, and dark brown beers. Shouts erupted again from the fans watching the games, and she mentally crossed her fingers that the tips would be good tonight.
She refused to let Roland and the others leave her tips. They’d gotten her this job, they’d helped her find an apartment—she wasn’t about to take their money. Lifting the tray easily with one hand, she carried the drinks to a table crowded with regulars—mostly businessmen from the offices nearby. They cheered again when they saw her.
“Perfect timing, as always.”
She smiled wryly. “It’s not that hard. Don’t let the bottom of the glass show before there’s another drink on the table.”
“That’s right,” they agreed, nodding cheerfully. They were mostly young men, faces flushed with drink and the excitement of the game. Handsome enough, but to her eyes—which were admittedly older than her thirty-two years would indicate—they seemed very young indeed. But then, she’d been young. Young and stupid and willing to give her love and trust to any man who said he needed her. She was no one to judge.
With a bright smile that nevertheless meant business, she deposited the full pints on the table and gathered up the empties, strategically avoiding the dark-haired kid with the cruel mouth. He’d never been rude, but there was a look in his eyes that she didn’t like—especially after a few pints—and she’d gone down that road enough to be wary.
“All right, boys.” She hefted the tray full of empties. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
They watched her leave—most men did, but now she paid them no mind. There was only one man who interested her this evening, and he was currently scowling at her. He was usually scowling at her, which was why she felt safe picking him for her plan.
His dark blond hair was getting long again and starting to curl at the ends where the sun bleached natural highlights. She knew he’d get it cut before the end of next week—in all the years she’d known him, he’d never liked his hair long enough to curl.
He wasn’t conventionally handsome. His face was triangular in shape, with a high forehead, a slight widow’s peak, and a crooked nose. But his eyes were almost turquoise blue, like pictures she’d seen of the ocean in the tropics, and a dimple dented the right corner of his mouth when he smiled. She didn’t see the dimple often, which was why she liked to tease him. Sometimes, if she tried hard enough, she could get him to smile fully, and the dimple would flash. When it did, it always made her catch her breath, astonished by the beauty of him.
He didn’t like to express emotion, though. Her Nick preferred to be calm and in control, with a routine that he followed most days. Up at four for a run every morning, and some kind of physical training in the evenings. The man had more discipline in his little finger than she had in her whole body. He ran marathons for fun, for God’s sake. Who did that?
Still—she licked her lips absently—surely that meant he had endurance for all kinds of things. Why hadn’t she ever thought about Nick this way before? Did he think about her? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes it seemed like he did. She would look over and catch him watching her with a dark and intense interest in his gaze, but then the look would be gone, and he’d be treating her with the same calm big-brother-esque attitude as always.
A wicked smile curved her lips, but she dragged it under control before he caught her. He knew she was up to something and it was unsettling him. Good; the only way she could get a genuine emotional response from him was when he was unsettled. And she’d decided that she wanted an emotional response from Nick. She wanted him, though she’d only realized it recently.
Back when they’d first met at the bar near MIT, Nick had seemed like a kid to her. He’d been quiet, a little brooding—not like Roland or Milton, who were both charmers, though in completely different ways. He’d never flirted with her, or told her she was beautiful, like all the rest of the college guys, and he’d certainly never made a move on her. But he’d always been around, looking out for her, and had tried to defend her once, when Keenan had shown up at the bar after her shift.
She felt her shoulders tighten at the memory and shuddered just a little. She never thought of Keenan Shy without a sickening feeling of wrong invading her stomach. She’d been so weak for so many years.
Well, no more. She wasn’t going to get involved with any more abusers. She wasn’t going to get involved in a relationship, period. She was going to take things slow, as her therapist suggested, and find someone she could relax with, and rebuild her confidence after the damage Phillip had done. She had always enjoyed sex before, and she wanted to enjoy it again. Nick, with his calm control and hot eyes, was the perfect person to help her. There was no one she trusted more than her friends, but he was the only one she was attracted to.
Chin jutting out, she loaded up yet another tray. She was going to reclaim her sexuality, her confidence, and her life, and Nick Cord was going to help her, whether he liked it or not.