Rush me, p.37
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       Rush Me, p.37

         Part #1 of New York Leopards series by Allison Parr
Page 37

  Across from me, one man stood utterly motionless.

  I stopped, breath stilling in my lungs, unable to blink. Abe’s jokes, the low chatter, even the music faded away.

  The tailored tuxedo stretched, elegant and stark, across his shoulders. He didn’t look any stranger in it than he had in his dinner dress or his uniform. The dim lighting highlighted the gold of his hair, the sharp angles of his face, his strong square jaw. His eyes, the only color against the unrelenting black and white, were pools of sky.

  His lips fell open as though they needed to drink in more air. He blinked, and I blinked, and then he crossed the floor without breaking my gaze, gracefully lifting two champagne flutes from a waiter’s plate. He stopped a step away from me. “Rachael. Abe. ”

  “And I’m outta here,” Abe said. I barely noticed him take off.

  “Hello, Ryan. ” I resisted the urge to smooth my hands over the front of my dress, as though I could sweep away my butterflies.

  Only now did his eyes leave mine, blazing a long, slow study over my body, trailing up my legs, lingering where the silk hugged my hips, drawing tightly over my breasts. I sucked in a breath, the back of my neck quivering. His gaze danced up my throat and settled on my face, and he slowly, slowly smiled. “You look beautiful. ” He handed me a glass. Our fingers touched, and I almost dropped it.

  I swallowed, and then raised the flute to my lips and swallowed again, the sweet liquid bubbling against my tongue, fizzing down my throat, joining the dancing butterflies. A bead of champagne pearled on my lip, and I slowly slipped out my tongue, melting it away.

  This time, Ryan swallowed, gaze fixing on my lips.

  “I wasn’t sure you were coming,” he finally said.

  “I couldn’t tell if you wanted me here. ”

  It surprised me when he flushed and ducked his head. “I did. I do. I just—I don’t know. ” He met my gaze, his bright and unflinching, a lake in August, sky at dawn, and my heart went pitter-patter. “Is this a game?”

  Shocked, I shook my head. “No. No, not at all. ”

  He let out a breath. Behind him, the guests moved slowly, a blurred sea of wool and silk, black and jewel tones. Ryan stood out, the one note of reality in the wash of strangers. “Because I don’t think I could deal with that. ”

  “Why would it be a game?”

  If he hadn’t mangled the sound so badly, it would have been a laugh. “Because I never know where I stand with you. Because each time I make a move you turn it down. And then the one time I do nothing, you kiss me, and now I don’t know what you want. ”

  Say nothing, that little voice whispered, huddled safe behind its thick walls, scared of the hurt outside. Say you want to be friends.

  Shut up, I told the voice, raising my chin. My voice came out huskier than I’d intended. “I want you. ”

  The light in his eyes made heat unfurl in my belly, and the smile on his face was as soft and bright as the painted clouds. “Good. ” His hands slid around my waist, warm and steady and firm. He drew me closer and I could feel his heat, feel my body respond like he was my lodestone and this was my course and nothing could stop us, not now that I’d finally switched that flip and said yes. My lips parted, small breaths slipping in and out, and I wanted his, curved gently, on mine. His eyes lidded and I sighed, my hands sliding up his chest, and then someone knocked Ryan to the side and we stumbled and broke apart.

  “Hey. ” Ryan glared at Mike.

  Mike just grinned unrepentantly. “Just thought I’d remind you guys that this is a public room at a childrens’ charity event and you’re causing a scene. ” And then he left.

  I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly while Ryan stared murderously after his teammate. “Oh. He’s right. We shouldn’t make out in the middle of the room. Think of the children. ”

  “There are no children here. ”

  “Really?” I stared at his lips again. “That doesn’t seem right. ”

  “I think they show up later. There’s a concert. They sing. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “Why are we talking about children?” Ryan raked a hand through his hair, the strands glittering in the pale light. I wondered why they all did that. I had copper highlights in my hair, but only a few strands, while his entire head looked like Rumpelstiltskin’s craft. My fingers ached to touch it. “Let’s get out of here. ”

  “Good idea. ” I leaned into him, and then I pulled back, shaking myself. “No. Charity. Children. ”

  “We’ll come back,” Ryan said, utterly unconvincingly, and then he laughed softly at my patent disbelief. “I’ll make a winning bid before we leave. ”

  “Okay. ” I was too dizzy to protest anymore. My hand slipped into his larger one, warm and safe, and we walked toward the closest auction piece, a quilt made by children from Queens. Ryan picked up the pen, signed away the equivalent of six months of student loans, and then we turned to go.

  “Hey, aren’t you Ryan Carter?”

  For a moment, we stared blankly at the couple before us. It took that long to remember there were other people in our world, old rich folk who wanted to talk. After the blankness cleared the lust away, I wanted to impale them with my fiercest glare, but Ryan had already changed over from my Ryan to theirs, to the charming quarterback with a ready smile and a firm handshake. “Yes,” he said, and his hand withdrew from mine to shake theirs.

  In the minute introductions took, a small, eager crowd gathered around Ryan, and our chance to escape slipped away. Maybe we’d been spared those first minutes because we’d stood too close and spoken too softly, but now the fans had flocked and I could only stand at his side, smiling and wishing my pulse would slow and that I could stop picturing Ryan sliding his hands under my dress and pressing his mouth down on mine.

  I swallowed and blinked and nodded as the woman beside me spoke. I tried not to focus too much on the timbre of Ryan’s voice, instead concentrating on his words as he told a story—and told it well—of the winning drive in the last AFC Championship game.

  His arm swept out as he demonstrated a point. His knuckles glanced across my upper arm.

  I focused entirely on the painting of the gypsy camp until I was certain I was in control.

  Ryan’s crowd of fans grew. It contained politicians and one of the museum’s board members. At one point, a movie star wandered by, did a double take, and came back to add his own voice, identifying himself as a native New Yorker and lifelong Leopards fan.

  I’d known people were passionate about sports. I had. There were sports riots, weren’t there? And hadn’t I read that Super Bowl Sunday was the second most observed holiday, after Christmas? And people wore their teams’ jerseys. And had bar fights.

  Could people buy Ryan’s jersey?

  Think about that later, Rachael.

  But watching these people, their glowing faces and their unifying gestures made the game’s significance hit home, and I was struck by a fierce pride for Ryan. Not that he was mine to be proud of.

  But he could be. If I let him in.

  “Having fun?” someone asked, a hand landing on my shoulder. I almost jumped at the feeling of fingers curling over my bare flesh, and I twisted to see Mike grinning at me.

  “Mike! Hi! I’m watching sports fans in action. ” Did I sound painfully turned on? Were my pupils inappropriately dilated, like I was on drugs or sex? Nothing to do about it now.

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