Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Eight)

I don't know how I ended up going to dinner with him. Actually, I do. He wouldn't leave.

I had to eat, and I was starving. So after I got out of the shower, I totally ignored him while I dried my hair and got ready, which actually doesn't take all that long because I didn't bother with anything more than the basic makeup-mascara and lipstick. The summer heat meant I'd just sweat off anything more, so why go to the trouble?

He irritated me no end by actually bumping me away from the bathroom sink with his hip so he could shave. I stared at him openmouthed, because that just isn't the way things work. He looked at me in the mirror and winked. In a snit, I marched into the bedroom and threw on some clothes, which again didn't take long because I didn't bring much in the first place, and what I did bring was color coordinated. Now that I wasn't in a fog of lust, I saw a small black duffel sitting open on the floor at the foot of the bed; that was evidently where the razor and shaving cream came from.

Come to think of it, the closet was fuller…

I whirled and opened the closet again. Yes, pushed to the side were a pair of jeans and a polo shirt.

I grabbed them off the hangers and turned to stuff them back into that duffel where they belonged. He came out of the bathroom in time to say, "Thanks for getting these out for me," as he took them from my hands and put them on.

That was when I realized he was out of control, and the best thing I could do was escape.

While he was pulling on his jeans, I rushed through the living room and grabbed my bag and keys on the way out. A rental sedan-a white Saturn-was parked beside the truck, another little detail I'd missed in my earlier delirium. I opened the truck door and slid behind the steering wheel… and just kept on sliding, pushed by his big body as he forcibly took my place behind the wheel.

I shrieked and tried to push him out; when he didn't budge, I pulled my feet up and pushed with them, too. I'm strong for a woman, but he was like a rock sitting there. And the jackass was smiling.

"Going somewhere?" he asked as he neatly filched the keys from the floorboard where I'd dropped them.

"Yes," I said, and opened the passenger door. I was sliding out when he caught me under both arms and hauled me back into the truck.

"There are two ways we can do this," he said calmly. "You can sit there like a good girl, or I can handcuff you. Which do you choose?"

"That isn't a choice," I said indignantly. "That's an ultimatum. Neither is what I want to do!"

"Those're the only two alternatives I'm offering. Look at it this way: you put me to the trouble of chasing after you, so you're damned lucky I'm giving you even this much of a choice."

"Hah! You didn't have to follow me and you know it. You had no reason other than being an arrogant jackass for telling me not to leave town, so don't act so put upon. You got laid, didn't you? I didn't notice you acting like I was a lot of trouble when you were tossing me on the bed."

He reached across me and grabbed the seat belt, pulling it around to buckle it. "I'm not the only person in this truck who got laid. Fun was had. Rocks were got off. It was a mutual thing."

"Which shouldn't have happened. Casual sex is stupid."

"Agreed. But what's between us isn't casual."

"I keep telling you there is no 'us.' "

"Sure there is. You just don't want to admit it yet." He started the truck and put it in gear. "Nice truck, by the way. It surprised me. You strike me as a luxury-car kind of person."

I loudly cleared my throat, and he looked at me with raised brows. I stared pointedly at his seat belt, which he hadn't fastened. He grunted and put the truck back in park. "Yes, ma'am," he said while he buckled himself in.

As he backed out of the driveway I returned to the argument. "See? You don't know what kind of person I am. I like driving pickups. You really don't know anything at all about me, so therefore we have nothing between us except for physical attraction. That makes the sex casual."

"I beg to differ. Casual sex is scratching an itch, and nothing more."

"Bingo! My itch has been scratched. You can go now."

"Are you always like this when your feelings get hurt?"

I set my jaw and stared out the windshield. I wished he hadn't realized that hurt feelings were behind my hostility and resistance to him. You have to care about someone before he can hurt your feelings, because otherwise what he said or did wouldn't even blip on the old radar screen. I didn't want to care about him; I didn't want to care about what he did or whom he saw, if he was eating properly or getting enough sleep. I didn't want to be hurt again, because this man could hurt me big-time if I let him get really close. Jason had hurt me bad enough, but Wyatt could break my heart.

He reached out and put his hand on the back of my neck, gently massaging. "I'm sorry," he said gently.

I could tell I was going to have trouble with him when it came to my neck. He was like a vampire, going straight for it whenever he wanted to influence me. The apology wasn't playing fair, either. I wanted him to crawl, and here he was undermining my resolve with that simple apology. The man was sneaky.

The best thing to do was fight fire with fire, and tell him exactly where he stood and what the problem was. I reached up and removed his hand from the back of my neck, because I couldn't think straight while he was touching me there.

"Okay, here it is," I said steadily, still focusing on what was outside rather than in the truck with me. "How can I trust you not to hurt me again? You cut and ran instead of telling me what the problem was, instead of working on it or giving me a chance to work on it. My marriage failed because my husband, instead of telling me something was wrong and working with me to fix it, started running around on me. So I'm not real big on trying to build relationships with people who aren't willing to put some effort into maintaining it and repairing the breakdowns. You do that for a car, right? So my standard is, a man has to care as much about me as he does about his car. You failed."

He was silent as he absorbed all of that. I expected him to start arguing, explaining how the situation looked from his side of the fence, but he didn't. "So it's a trust thing," he finally said. "Good. That's something I can work with." He slanted a hard look at me. "That means you'll be seeing a lot of me. I can't earn your trust back if I'm not around. So from now on, we're together. Got it?"

I blinked. Somehow I hadn't foreseen he would take a lack of trust and make it seem as if that meant I had to be in a relationship with him so he could re-earn my trust. I'm telling you, the man is diabolical.

"You've had a brain fart," I pointed out as kindly as possible. "Not trusting you means I don't want to be with you."

He snorted. "Yeah, right. That's why we tear each other's clothes off every time we get within touching distance."

"That's a chemical imbalance, nothing more. A good multivitamin will take care of that."

"We'll talk about it over dinner. Where do you want to eat?"

That's right, distract me with food. If I hadn't been so hungry, his ploy would never have worked. "Someplace with champion air-conditioning where I can sit down and some nice person will bring me a margarita."

"That works for me," he said.

Wrightsville Beach is actually on an island, so we drove across the bridge to Wilmington, where, in short order, he was escorting me into a crowded Mexican restaurant where the air-conditioning was cranked up on high and the menu boasted a huge margarita. I don't know how he knew about the restaurant unless he'd been to Wilmington before, which I guess isn't that much of a stretch. People go to beaches the way lemmings do whatever it is that lemmings do. There are a lot of beaches in North Carolina, but he'd probably been from one end of the coast to the other back in his hell-raising, college-ball-playing days. I'd been a cheerleader, and I certainly had hit almost every beach in the southeast, from North Carolina down to the Florida Keys and back up the Gulf Coast.

A young Hispanic man brought our menus and waited to take our drink orders. Wyatt ordered a beer for himself and a frozen Cuervo Gold margarita for me. I didn't know what Cuervo Gold was, and I didn't care. I assumed it was a special kind of tequila, but it could have been regular tequila, for all I knew about it.

The glass they brought it in wasn't a glass. It was a vase. This thing was huge. It wasn't actually a vase, but I wouldn't call it a glass, either. It was more like a gigantic clear bowl perched on a skinny pedestal.

"Uh-oh," Wyatt said.

I ignored him and gripped my margarita with both hands, which I needed to lift it. The huge bowl of the glass was frosty, and salt sparkled around the rim. Two slices of lime were perched on top, and a bright red plastic straw provided access to the contents.

"We'd better order," he said.

I sucked on the straw and downed a sizable gulp of margarita. The tequila taste wasn't very strong, which was fortunate, or I'd have been on my butt before I was halfway finished with the thing. "I like burritos rancheros. Beef."

It was amusing watching him watch me while he gave the order. I took another big sip through the straw.

"If you get drunk," he warned, "I'm going to take pictures."

"Why, thank you. I've been told I'm a very cute drunk." I hadn't, but he didn't know that. I had actually never been drunk before, which probably means I had an abnormal college experience. But I'd always had cheerleading practice, or gymnastics-or something unexpected, like an exam to take-and I didn't think any of those would be a happy experience while suffering a hangover, so I simply stopped drinking before I got drunk.

The waiter brought a basket of hot, salty tortilla chips and two bowls of salsa, hot and mild. I resalted half the tortilla chips and dug one into the hot salsa, which was delicious and definitely hot. Three chips later I broke out into a sweat and had to reach for my margarita again.

Wyatt reached out and moved my vase-my glass-out of reach.

"Hey!" I said indignantly.

"I don't want you getting pickled."

"I'll get pickled if I want."

"I need to ask you some more questions, which is why I didn't want you to leave town."

"Nice try, Lieutenant." I leaned forward and retrieved my margarita. "For one thing, the detectives are working the case, not you. For another, I didn't see anything other than a man was with Nicole, and he left driving a dark sedan. That's it. Nothing else."

"That you know of," he said, snatching away my margarita just as I guided the straw to my mouth for another sip. "Sometimes details will surface days later. For instance, the car's headlights. Or the taillights. Did you see them?"

"I didn't see the headlights," I said positively, intrigued by the question. "The taillights… hmm. Maybe." I closed my eyes and replayed the scene in my head. It was shockingly detailed and vivid. In my imagination I saw the dark car sliding past, and to my surprise my heartbeat picked up in response. "The street is at a right angle to me, remember, so anything will be a side view. The taillight is… long. It isn't one of those round ones; it's a long skinny one." My eyes popped open. "I think some models of Cadillac have taillights that shape."

"Among others," he said. He was writing down what I'd said, in this little notepad he'd evidently dug out of his pocket, because it was bent like a pocket dweller.

"You could have asked me this over the phone," I pointed out acerbically.

"Yes, if you were answering your phone," he replied in the same tone.

"You hung up on me."

"I was busy. Yesterday was a ballbuster. I didn't have time to worry about your car, which, by the way, I couldn't get anyway because you didn't bother giving your keys to me."

"I know. I mean, I didn't know then. I found them a little later. But the paper only identified me as a witness and that made me feel uneasy, and Tiffany was whining, so I rented wheels and came to the beach."

He paused. "Tiffany?"

"My inner beach bunny. I haven't had a vacation in a long time."

He looked at me as if I'd grown two heads, or had admitted to having multiple personalities or something. Finally he asked, "Is there anyone besides Tiffany living inside you?"

"Well, I don't have a snow bunny, if that's what you're asking. I've been snow skiing once. Almost. I tried on those boots and they're so uncomfortable I can't believe people actually wear them without having a gun held to their heads." I drummed my fingers. "I used to have Black Bart, but he hasn't shown up in a while, so maybe that was just a kid thing."

"Black Bart? He was your inner… gunfighter?" He'd started grinning.

"No, he was my inner maniac who would go berserk and try to kill you if you hurt one of my Barbies."

"You must have been hell on the playground."

"You don't mess with a girl's Barbies."

"I'll remember that the next time I have the urge to grab a Barbie and stomp it."

I stared at him, aghast. "You'd actually do that?"

"Haven't in a long time. I must have gotten the Barbie-stomping out of my system by the time I was five."

"Black Bart would have hurt you bad."

He seemed to notice his little notebook on the table and got a puzzled expression on his face, as if he couldn't figure out how the conversation had devolved from headlights to Barbies. Before he could reroute, however, the waiter brought our plates and set them down in front of us with the admonition to be careful because the plates were hot.

The tortilla chips had kept me from total starvation, but I was still mega-hungry, so I dug into the burritos with one hand while I took advantage of his distraction to retrieve my margarita with the other. Being ambidextrous has its uses. Not that I can write or anything with my left hand, but I can definitely retrieve kidnapped margaritas.

Like I said, the drink wasn't strong. There was a lot of it, though. By the time I finished my burritos, I'd downed about half the drink, and I was feeling very happy. Wyatt paid for the meal and kept his arm around me as we walked to the truck. I don't know why; I wasn't staggering or anything. I wasn't even singing.

He lifted me into the truck as though I wasn't capable of sliding in on my own. I gave him a bright smile and hooked one leg around his. "Want to get it on, big boy?"

He choked on a laugh. "Can you hold that thought until we get back to the cottage?"

"I may be sober by then, and remember why I shouldn't."

"I'll take my chances." He gave me a lingering kiss. "I think I can get around that."

Oh, right. My neck. He knew about my neck. I could see I'd have to invest in some turtleneck sweaters.

By the time we got back across the bridge to Wrightsville Beach, the happy glow had indeed faded, leaving me sleepy. I slid out of the truck under my own steam, however, and was walking toward the front door of the cottage when Wyatt scooped me up. "Does that offer still stand?"

"Sorry. The glow has faded. Alcohol-induced lust is a transient thing." He carried me as if he barely noticed my weight, which, by the way, since I'm toned and muscled, is more than you'd think. But he was ten inches taller and muscled himself, which meant he outweighed me by at least eighty pounds or more.

"Good. I'd rather you want me for reasons other than being looped."

"My brain is back in control, and my earlier reasoning still stands. I don't want to have sex with you." Boy, was that a lie. I wanted him like crazy, which didn't mean I should have him or that things would work out between us. Our little talk hadn't reassured me in any way, because actions matter way more than talk and one afternoon together didn't amount to much.

"I bet I can change your mind," he said as he opened the door, which was unlocked because I'd been in a hurry to escape and he'd been in a hurry to catch me.

An hour later, a thought surfaced just as I drifted off to sleep. Forget turtlenecks. To hold him at bay, I needed full body armor.