Authors: Susanna Carr
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
It was difficult going all the way with a guy when you were required to wear a tiara, but Michelle Nelson managed it. Barely.
She just never thought it would occur in the middle of the night behind the pinsetters at Pins & Pints, Carbon Hill’s bowling alley and the only source of entertainment one could have standing up.
Michelle shifted, her knees aching against the hard, cold floor. The alley was closed, the lanes silent, but she was bumping up against ancient, oily machinery. The location hadn’t been her first choice for her first time with her first love.
It didn’t seem to hold the right ambiance for Ryan Slater, either. “Let’s go back to my place,” he suggested in a husky tone that made her skin tingle.
She glanced down at him, but the shadows made it difficult to read his expression. Michelle felt exposed as she straddled him, the weak overhead lights almost reaching her. Her evening dress from the JC Penney catalog bunched up against her thighs, the pink polyester rubbing her bare, flushed skin.
“No,” she whispered, her heart pounding in her ears. She pressed her hands against his shoulders, pulling at his T-shirt with desperate fingers. “I can’t wait that long.”
It had to be now. She was leaving for Europe in the morning. Her bags were packed, she’d said goodbye to her friends, but there was this one last thing to do.
It had taken her all summer to get Ryan Slater. She could have pursued another local guy in a lot less time, but she wanted Ryan and no one else would do. It had been that way ever since she could remember, so at least twenty years. Unfortunately, all the prettier, bolder girls wanted him, too.
No matter what she had done in the past, it wasn’t enough to compete for Ryan’s attention. He’d never seemed to notice her. Not even when she’d worn the tiara and the Miss Horseradish sash for the past year. And God knew those were hard to miss.
He noticed her now. Had stared at her in awe. Or maybe he was staring at her tiara, which had a tendency to catch the light and blind people. That was probably it, but she couldn’t do anything about it now. The crown was pinned and shellacked to her updo.
The glittery distraction would serve her well, Michelle decided as she glided the condom onto Ryan. She didn’t want him to feel her hands fumble and shake. Rolling the latex down was not as easy as her best friend Vanessa had led her to believe.
The tip of Ryan’s cock nudged against Michelle’s flesh. The intimate contact made her feel hot. Tight. She grasped him at the base and lowered down.
Michelle jerked, startled, when Ryan clamped his fingers against her bare hips. “We’ll take it slow,” he said roughly, almost as if he said it through clenched teeth.
Her heart raced as he guided her. White heat crackled just under her skin when he gently filled her.
She closed her eyes, her breath hitching, as she relished every sensation. Michelle had been expecting pain. Nothing major, but something unpleasant. Nothing like the delicious heavy ache that flooded her muscles.
Michelle rocked against him, smiling as the pleasure heated her blood with a shower of sparks. She flexed her hips.
She swayed the other way.
“Michelle, slow down,” Ryan said hoarsely, his fingers tightening, sinking into her hips.
She wanted his hands elsewhere. Everywhere. Cupping her breasts. No, squeezing them. Pinching her nipples until she begged him to take them into his mouth.
She wanted him to thrust. Grind. Drive into her.
Maybe that wasn’t possible in this position. But she didn’t want to change sides. Here she felt alive. Bold. Free. She was wild. Sexy. Powerful.
She moved against Ryan, each move fierce and unchecked. Her world centered where they joined. He bucked against her, his moves shallow and hesitant.
Michelle countered with a deep roll of her hips, but his cock didn’t stretch or fill her to the hilt. She frowned and wiggled.
“Not like that,” Ryan said, his voice bouncing off the machines. He tensed. “Damn.”
He lay motionless underneath her. No thrusting, no rocking. Nothing.
This is it?
You have got to be kidding me!
She felt his cock softening, drooping—
—as it slipped out.
I killed it.
Five years later
“There’s been a change of plans.”
Michelle froze and her tired, aching muscles seized up. She pressed her cell phone against her ear and stepped out of the restaurant’s back door and into the gray, empty alley. The cold nip in the October evening felt good after being in the hot, steamy kitchen.
“You guys don’t need me to come home?” She should be relieved. Really. She’d rather save that vacation time to catch up on her sleep. Or clean her rinky-dink apartment. Get audited by the IRS. Anything but participate in another Horseradish Festival.
So that didn’t explain the disappointment flooding her. It was thick and heavy, pulling down until her knees were about to buckle.
“No,” her brother Danny replied. “We need you here more than ever.”
That didn’t sound good. “What happened? Is the festival still on?”
“Yeah, and the scavenger hunt is still on, too. We’re getting a lot of buzz on that event.”
Yay. Michelle rolled her eyes. She would never have agreed to take part in it, but Vanessa was responsible for breathing new life into Carbon Hill’s main celebration. Michelle had said she would do whatever she could to help, and she meant it. She wasn’t thrilled about taking part in the hunt, but she’d do it and keep her complaints to herself.
“But now it’s couples only.”
Michelle frowned, staring at the faded graffiti on the wall in front of her. “I don’t understand. It was originally two people for each team.”
“How can I put this?” Danny paused and Michelle could imagine him rubbing his forehead. “Did you know that horseradish is considered an aphrodisiac?”
“Are you for real?” Her brother had to be kidding. Horseradish
, it was ugly, and not the least bit sexy.
But, considering how she avoided putting the root in any of her recipes—let alone eating it—that could explain her lack of love life.
“Seriously, Vanessa did some research on it and found this out.”
Vanessa, who’d recently started dating Danny, was researching aphrodisiacs. Michelle really didn’t want to know. “So what does this have to do with me?”
“Well, as you probably heard, the festival hasn’t been doing so well. It’s lost money for the past two years.”
“Uh-huh.” She hunched her shoulders, blocking out the city noises. “And I repeat, what does this have to do with me?”
“Everyone knows that sex sells, so Vanessa decided to put the two together.”
“Sex and horseradish?” In a word,
“The scavenger hunt now has a theme,” Danny said, his voice cracking. “A sexier theme.”
Michelle was afraid to ask.
“The contestants have to find things that relate to Homer and Ida Wirt.”
Michelle scrunched up her nose in disbelief. “The horse-radish farmers turned train robbers?”
train robbers,” Danny corrected her. “They were never brought to trial.”
Michelle tossed her arm up with impatience. “Because when the authorities were chasing them, Homer and Ida fell off the bluffs and plunged to their deaths in the icy river.”
Michelle placed her hand on her hip. “And how is an event that happened almost one hundred years ago and resulted in
“Okay, it’s sexy Carbon Hill style,” Danny admitted.
Michelle pressed her lips together. She wasn’t going to say it. Wasn’t going to say a thing—not one thing—about Carbon Hill style being an oxymoron.
“The contestants have to follow Homer and Ida’s trail and find the treasure at the end.”
“Is that the only change? No problem,” she said with a shrug. That would actually make the hunt simpler.
“And,” her brother continued in a suspiciously bright tone, “the winners are declared Carbon Hill’s Sexiest Couple.”
Michelle paused as the words sank in. “Excuse me?”
“So you and I are not allowed to participate as a team,” Danny said in a rush.
The words flashed before her eyes like neon lights.
“Despite what the other towns in the county say, Carbon Hill doesn’t promote inbreeding.”
“Sexiest Couple?” Michelle screeched. Her voice bounced off the brick walls.
“Only romantically linked couples are eligible. Which probably explains why nearly every team dropped out.”
“Uh-huh. Ya think?”
Danny ignored that. “When that happened, Vanessa was ready to reinstate the previous eligibility requirements, but the local media had latched on to the sexy element.”
“And since media coverage will bring more visitors, she has to stick to it,” Michelle guessed and she paced the alley, dodging the overflowing garbage cans.
“Exactly. The hunt needs at least three teams and the organizers need you to stay in the hunt.”
“Me?” She stopped walking. That didn’t make sense. She was no longer a resident of Carbon Hill. “Why not you?”
“I’m not a former Miss Horseradish.”
Michelle’s eyes narrowed at her brother’s gloating tone. She knew that title would come back to haunt her. She just didn’t think it would haunt her
But this was for Vanessa. Who was obviously too much of a scaredy-cat to tell her about the change personally. Because Vanessa was smart.
Yet her friend shouldn’t have to hide behind Danny. Vanessa should have known that she would accept the challenge, just as Michelle knew Vanessa would do the same for her. Although Michelle would never subject her best friend to this special brand of aggravation and potential humiliation.
“Fine.” Michelle slapped her palm against her thigh in defeat, causing a cloud of white flour to billow from her apron. “I’ll stay in. But how am I going to find a partner with this short notice?”
“I’ll help you find someone.”
Her big brother was going to find her a man. Scary thought. “Hey, what about Brett Shue?” Michelle asked. The guy was not the brightest crayon in the box, but he was cute and athletic.
“He’s married to one of the Weiss girls, making him ineligible as your partner.”
Well, that narrowed the field considerably. People married early in Carbon Hill. No idea why, but there were some unexplained traditions in that town. “How about Vance?”
“Vance? From next door?” Danny’s stunned pause piqued her curiosity. “Uh, he’s in prison.”
Michelle’s mouth dropped open.
The kid next door was now doing time. She couldn’t say she was all that surprised.
“Don’t you read Mom’s e-mails?”
“Yeah,” she said defensively. No need to mention that it was only when she wanted to go to sleep. Her mom always sent the longest, newsiest e-mails about people Michelle didn’t remember.
“Who would be single and living a clean and wholesome life?” Michelle mused out loud. “There’s Clayton.” He was about as hot and sexy as horseradish, but he might be helpful when it came to the scavenger hunt.
“He’s on one of the other teams,” Danny informed her.
Michelle tsked with annoyance.
Someone knew to snap him up quick. “Well, who can I get?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find someone,” her brother promised.
Michelle started to pace again. “Where are you going to find an eligible male whom I’m not related to and who is not over the age of forty-five?”
“There’s no age requirement.”
“That’s my requirement.” Michelle thumped her palm against her chest. “No way am I going to be hooked up with a guy almost as old as Dad.” She shuddered at the possibility.
“Any other requirements I should know about?”
A memory resurfaced, rushing to the front of her mind like a rolling thundercloud. She recalled Ryan Slater in vivid detail. The first thing she always remembered was his hair. Short and wavy, the dark blond tufts were streaked from the sun. Ryan always raked it back from his forehead, leaving a tousled, almost fall-out-of-bed style.
Creases and grooves lined his tanned face, but she’d never thought they diminished his good looks. Rather, they added even more interest to his angular features because the man was always smiling. His teasing grins, knowing smirks, and wide full-wattage smiles made her heart race every time.
But it was his eyes that made her stop in her tracks. They were bright, stunningly blue, and almost uncomfortably direct. Ryan had the uncanny ability to make her lose her balance with a sideways glance, pierce her soul with a long gaze, or make her forget to breathe, like when she saw the agony flicker through his eyes that time…
Michelle dipped her head, her shoulders curling inward as she pushed the image back into the shadowy recesses of her memories. Her lungs squeezed tight, just as the words bubbled and pressed against her throat.
Anyone but Ryan Slater
No! She couldn’t say those words out loud. It was safer not to say anything. Michelle took a deep, hitching breath, inhaling the sugar-laced aroma from the kitchen that mingled with the rotting fruit in the alley.
The chances of Ryan volunteering were so slim—so nonexistent—it wasn’t worth singling him out. “He has to be male,” she said in a husky voice, “unrelated, and under forty-five.”
“That might take some time,” Danny confessed. “Why don’t you bring someone down from Chicago?”
Oh, sure. There were lots of guys hanging around the restaurant who would sacrifice vacation time for her. Mmhmm. Right.
“No way, Danny. You offered to do this for me and I’m holding you to it. Call in favors. Bribe someone. Beg if you have to. Do whatever it takes and just find me a guy.”
Pins & Pints was crowded as usual, but Ryan didn’t pay attention to the noise or the people milling around. He was on a break and he was going to make the most of it. Focusing on his lane, Ryan released the ball. He knew his aim was good and smiled way before it smashed through the pyramid of pins.
The edge of his mouth dipped when he turned around and saw his bowling partner’s sulking expression. “What’s that face for?” Ryan asked Larry.
Larry set the beer bottles on the table and plopped down on the hard, plastic seat. “I am not doing the scavenger hunt, no matter who asks me.”
Ryan didn’t blame him. “Callie wants to do the hunt? Maybe she wants you guys to be known as the Sexiest Couple.” He waggled his eyebrows and picked up his bowling ball, preparing for his second try.
“Callie?” Larry looked up as if he’d forgotten the name of his latest girlfriend. “Naw, man. Danny just asked me.”
“Huh?” Ryan abruptly straightened his arm, the heavy ball hitting him in the leg.
“Danny Nelson.” Larry belatedly realized how that sounded and scowled. “And before you get any wise ideas, it’s his sister who needs a partner.”
Ryan sharply curled his fingers before he dropped the ball. “Michelle?”
“Yeah.” Larry took a long sip of his beer. “Seems she got roped into the hunt, but she doesn’t have a partner.”
His bowling buddy had to be wrong. Michelle didn’t live here anymore. Rarely visited. Larry had probably misunderstood. Pins & Pints was usually so loud at night you had to yell over the noise. “The festival starts tomorrow.”
Ryan scanned the hall. No sign of Michelle’s brother anywhere. “Who does she think she’ll get?”
“Danny says she’ll take any guy under forty-five.”
Yeah, any guy but him. Ryan flinched from that fact. He didn’t know why that bothered him. It shouldn’t.
“Hey.” Larry had that glint in his eye. “Danny hasn’t asked you yet.”
“Send him this way and I’ll stuff this bowling ball down your throat,” Ryan threatened and made a show of focusing his attention on his lane.
But what Larry had said was true. He hadn’t been asked. Which meant Danny had been given express instructions not to approach him.
He couldn’t blame Michelle on that score, Ryan thought as he stared at the pins. But the pins were a white blur as he saw disjointed images of rhinestones and Michelle’s amazing breasts spilling out of that pink dress.
The ancient pinsetters might have been replaced with modern technology a while back, but it couldn’t erase the memory of that one night.
Ryan had been aware of Michelle Nelson long before that. She’d been one of those classy girls in school. She hadn’t been the most popular student, or even the smartest, but there was something about her. Everyone knew she was going to go places.
When the spotlight had finally been directed on Michelle during her reign as Miss Horseradish, the quiet beauty turned into a stunning knockout. She turned heads and tested her allure. She grew brazen and became irresistible.
He liked the bold way she had pursued him. Liked it? It had made him hot. Made him sweat. She had made his head spin and put his body on edge. It had been a mind-blowing turn-on knowing that someone like Michelle wanted him, and wanted him immediately.
So, of course he had to mess it up. And just to make it worse, his first reaction was to put the blame on Michelle. As if that was going to hide the fact that he was a total loser.
Ryan grimaced, warding off that particular memory. He had been a jerk, and right in front of the one person he had wanted to impress most of all.
“Any day now, Slater.”
“Huh?” Ryan looked over his shoulder.
Larry gestured at the pins. “Bowl.”
Ryan walked to the red line and tossed the ball down the lane. It spun into the gutter before he could turn around and walk back to his seat.
Larry stared at the untouched pins. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing.” Ryan sat down and sprawled his legs in front of him.
“Were you meditating up there or something?”
“More or less.”
“Doesn’t work for you,” Larry decided as he rose to take his turn.
“Hey, Ryan.” Danny tapped him on the arm. “You got a minute?”
“Uh”—Ryan and Larry exchanged a look—“sure.”
Larry shook his head, obviously wondering why Ryan didn’t make an excuse to avoid Danny. Ryan was tempted to let his friend know that it wasn’t what he was thinking. Michelle Nelson wouldn’t go anywhere near him.
“What’s up?” Ryan asked Danny when they stood by the racks of bowling balls. Danny had the same dark hair as his sister, but other than that, they didn’t look alike. Which made Ryan’s life easier.