Authors: Seleste deLaney
Tags: #spy, #one-night stand, #cosplay, #geek, #suspense, #secret identity, #Seleste deLaney, #convention, #role-playing games, #contemporary romance
Love in an Elevator
Pen shivered with anticipation as she palmed the key over the lock. Her suitcase caught on the lip of tile and jerked her to a stop until she managed to manhandle it inside. She heaved it onto the king-size be
d and sucked in a dee
p breath of musty hotel air. Most people she knew hated staying in hotels, but she loved it. Every time she stepped into a hotel room, it felt like the beginning of an adventure, and with the way the city was displayed outside her window, she knew instantly this time was no exception. This weekend was going to be fucking epic.
Pen had immediately booted up her computer and logged onto
, but there was no message from Lohonas. She exhaled, trying to blow out the regret over not agreeing to meet him. At least without any commitments with him or anyone else, she had time to unpack. Adventure or not, Penelope liked having her things in their proper places.
Clothes in the dresser and closet, where she also stashed her empty suitcase, and then she moved to the bathroom. Tiles in various shades of brown, interspersed with ones coated in copper and brass, gave the whole place a very steampunk feel. All it needed was a kraken coming out of the vent fan. Okay, it needed more than that, but the kraken would have been a nice start. She organized her toiletries on the expansive countertop then gave one last glance at her computer.
It was stupid. Odds were he wouldn’t log in at all, since he was here. She camped out, stashed her key in her backpack, and headed to the elevator. After pushing the button, she whistled and waited and fidgeted…and then waited some more, until she finally started tapping her foot and debated taking the stairs down the ten floors. By the time the doors slid open, she was ready to jump inside.
She froze mid-leap.
A man stood to the side of the elevator, leaning casually against the wall and staring at the ceiling. The way his arms were crossed over his chest showed off the very nice lines of his shoulders and made his biceps strain against his T-shirt. Longish dark blond hair fell to cover one of his eyes.
Oh-em-gee, he is yumtastic.
With the faded darkness of freckles over his nose, she couldn’t help but see him as the human version of Lohonas.
When the door tried to close and bounced against her shoe, he turned toward her. “Is everything okay?”
His deep, throaty voice sent shivers down her spine all the way to her toes. Though a fair share of them took an exit and parked somewhere right around her hips. “I…uh…thought I forgot my key, but then I remembered I put it in my wallet and not my pocket. So stupid.” She stepped inside and the doors swished closed behind her.
Even if he
Lohonas—which was pretty fucking unlikely—a guy as hot as this one probably had bimbos throwing themselves at him all the time. In fact, odds were he had some bottle-blonde downstairs waiting for him now. Or better yet, one of those girls in the barely there anime costumes—the ones that covered even less than her wood elf get-up. Nope, Pen needed to get her head out of her ass. She’d blown the chance to meet Lohonas. Time to just accept the fact and get started having some fun. Sanity demanded she forget all about this guy as soon as she stepped off the elevator.
The car shuddered to a stop on the fifth floor, and Pen shifted out of the way. It put her closer to Mr. Forgot-about-him-and-his-hint-of-an-accent already, but she tried not to worry about it. A quintet of girls in
gear sauntered in, and she wished she didn’t have the urge to see if he was checking them out. Ugh. Before anyone else could crowd into the elevator with them, she stabbed at the button for the lobby.
He-who-shall-not-be-pondered must have had a similar plan because his finger reached the
a split second before hers. And the instant her skin touched his, every last one of the tingles his voice had caused flared right back to life—especially the ones that stopped at the scenic overlook. She couldn’t help the shiver that ran from her fingertip up her arm and all the way down her spine. So much for the forget-about-him-because-hook-ups-with-strangers-were-stupid plan. If casual touches with a stranger were making her clit throb, she
needed to get laid—and soon.
Damn it! I should
have put on makeup first.
The cute brunette in the Superman T-shirt he could deal with; at least she’d had—or come up with—an excuse for standing there gaping. And he’d planned on scanning the crowd for Megara, which would probably draw more attention than he wanted. But the women in pleather were another story. As soon as they stepped into the elevator, the Asian one had slithered closer. Not what he was looking for at all. He just wanted out of here so he could get the convention program. The sooner he broke the code, the sooner Takamaki would be in custody and his weekend would get back to sane and reasonable.
So, he’d punched the lobby button…and so had the brunette. Her finger skidded against his, almost like a rock skipping on the pond at his parents’ farm.
It definitely ended on
. The logical part of his brain screamed that it was just static electricity from the dry air in the hotel. Inexplicably, he wanted to twist his hand over and hold hers, feel the weight of her touch for real—as if she finally succumbed to gravity and fell into the water.
He should have jerked his hand away. It would have been the smart thing. He was on a mission right now; he needed to focus on that. But he didn’t ball his hand into a fist or drop it to his side. Instead he drew it back slowly, his fingertips hovering just above her arm, close enough to brush against the dusting of hair that coated her skin. The contact was electrifying, and the way she shivered made him want more—so much more.
Damn the freaking terrorists to hell and back.
Duty first. Fun later.
The doors slid open and, after weathering a scathing look from the Asian chick in the chaps and midriff-baring jacket, he held it for the brunette. “After you, ma’am.”
She ducked her head, the hint of a smile crossing her lips, stepped out of the elevator, and headed directly to the registration table. Cal couldn’t decide whether to thank his lucky stars or curse them. He wanted to talk to her. Find out her name at least and maybe her number, so he could find her once he’d dealt with the latest threat to world peace.
She made it to the table in front of him and leaned over to fill something out.
Jesus, even her ass is cute.
He was so busy staring at her that he almost missed it when the person working the table asked for her name.
“Penelope Holloway. The badge should say Pen, though.”
Penelope Holloway. Penelope Holloway.
He could remember that until he got upstairs. Then it would only take a few minutes to track down her cell number and…
What was he doing? Did he think he could just call her later? And say what?
Hi, this is the guy you were in the elevator with. I hope you don’t mind, but I used my government contacts to get your phone number so I could call and see if you wanted to get a drink.
Oh yeah, because that didn’t scream stalker. He was being stupid—he should just ask.
Too bad when he dragged himself from his musings, Penelope of the epic-levels-of-cuteness was gone.
And in this crowd, he might never find her again.
Damn. To stalk or not to stalk?
Who was he kidding? There was no question—he was definitely going to end up stalking…at least a little.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot
Four hours later,
a man in cyborg gear was tr
aveling the length of the line for the meet-and-greet with Stan Lee. The cyborg pressed something into Pen’s palm then continued down the line, handing the same type of nondescript envelope to everyone. She tugged a pair of laminated papers from inside. Beneath the plastic, a holographic image was embossed over a ticket to the advance screening of
Holy shit! She’d been counting the days until the movie came out, and now she’d get to see it early! In an attempt to not look like an idiot, she stifled her ecstasy until it was little more than an internal happy dance. A closer look at the tickets showed tiny bits of metal embedded beneath the plastic, and was that…a computer chip?
Her examination was cut short by a voice right next to her saying, “Do you play
Heroes of Fallen Gods
Pen jerked her gaze away from the tickets to meet the hazel eyes of a guy with an artfully mussed head of black curls. She blinked at him. Had he gotten her message? “Lohonas?”
A huge grin crossed his face, and the guy swept into a low bow. “At your service.”
He wasn’t anything like what she expected, and she couldn’t help but compare him to the guy in the elevator. Still, this was her paladin, her hero, her partner. She returned his grin. “It’s so great to meet you in person. Sorry for being such a dork about it the other day. Just gun-shy, I guess.”
“Don’t worry about it”—he glanced at her nametag—“Pen. Nice to finally put a face with the avatar. What do you say to grabbing a drink and getting to know each other better?”
She bit her mouse nail and tried to judge how long the line actually was by counting people. Really long. Like hours long. Her shoulders sagged.
I suppose I can meet Stan Lee at the next con—assuming he’s still alive.
With Herculean effort, she tore her gaze away from the line and nodded. She glanced at his badge. “Sure thing, Kent. Lead on.”
He didn’t react to her words—the same ones she used every time she followed him in-game—and she tried not to feel hurt. Maybe she was the only one lame enough to pay attention to everything he said and did when they played. With the smallest of sighs, she followed him through the throngs of people until they came to the bar.
Neon lights in primary colors lined the walls as well as the bar itself—an oddly bright glow in the otherwise dim room. People in all manner of costumes crowded around the tables. Even at the bar, everyone seemed deep in conversation.
He led her to a booth in a dark corner. She slid along the semicircle of a bench only to find him meeting her in the middle and making the booth seem much smaller than it had a moment before. Her smile wavered as his leg pressed against hers. She didn’t feel anything. Not even a hint of the
she’d felt with Mr. Oh-so-very-yummy in the elevator.
But like the stranger, Kent was staring at her. “What is it?”
“I…uh…thought you’d be blond.”
Oh, nicely played, Pen. It’s a wonder you
get a date.
“Funny, I thought you would be, too.” He flashed her a wide and very white-toothed smile.
Maybe he was just trying to be charming, but she couldn’t quite dismiss the squirmy feeling that wriggled around her spine. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, but this was Lohonas. If there was any hope for guys online, surely he was it. She ignored the bad feeling and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Weird how that works with gamers.”
He just smiled as they ordered their drinks. Stiff, horribly uncomfortable small talk followed—nothing like their in-game banter. When the drinks arrived, though, he paid for both before she even had a chance to go for her credit card.
“I figured you for a real drinker as well as a blonde. A gummy bear martini? Really?”
She mentally counted the shots in her martini and shrugged—it was strong enough that more than a couple would have made her turn the table into a dance floor. “What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know, something less…girlie?” His eyes twinkled. She couldn’t be too offended under a gaze like that, especially since he was attractive in that geekboy-trying-to-get-the-chick way.
“Well, last I checked, I was indeed a girl. However, I can switch to vodka tonics if it’d make you happier.”
“Nah. I guess the girlie drink is fine.” He raised his glass. “To meeting at long last.”
She chinked her glass against his and took a sip.
“You know, I already paid. I bet no one would stop us if we snuck out with our drinks. Want to go up to my room where it’s a little quieter? Better for conversation.”
She’d barely touched her drink, and alarm bells were going off in the back of her brain that this was a
idea, but…it was Lohonas. Plus, it
really loud in the bar. She could always insist he prop the door open for her peace of mind. “Sure. I guess we can do that.”
They were out of the bar and in the close confines of the elevator a minute later, the same one where she’d met the guy this morning. The one who sizzled and made her insides dance a damn jig. Standing with Kent, there was no sizzle and no dancing. She let out a sad sigh. Was she really the only person who was more or less the same online as she was in real life? Because this Lohonas was nothing like the guy she thought she knew.
Before the thought had finished forming, she found herself sandwiched between Kent and the elevator wall. He had a hungry look in his eyes and a cocky little grin across his lips. Surprise quickly gave way to the realization that he had no intention of talking when he invited her upstairs. Then he crushed his mouth against hers, and she fought to remember she kind of liked him—at least in-game. Pen tried to return the kiss but Kent was all over the place, not giving her a chance to breathe, much less catch up with him. No, she definitely wasn’t liking this. And then he clamped his hands down on her breasts, kneading them painfully, and shoved his tongue down her throat until she gagged.
She pushed at his chest for all she was worth, but he didn’t budge. As scrawny as he was, he was still bigger than her, and he wasn’t letting her go.
Oh. My. God.
She’d actually thought for a moment he was a nice guy. The way he treated her when they played
. Inviting her here… She wanted to be sick, but she wanted away from him as quickly as possible even more.
When shoving harder only seemed to urge him on, she didn’t bother thinking. She pulled her leg back and drove her knee into his crotch. His breath left on a whoosh of whiskey-scented air and he staggered, dropped his glass, and clutched at his balls.
Pen shifted toward the door, pounding every number on the pad in an attempt to get the door to open sooner. “I don’t know what the hell you thought was going to happen, but no. Not now. Not ever.”
She was still shaking as he moved toward her, but the doors slid open and she staggered out into a mass of people. Kent snarled something unintelligible and probably insulting, but all she cared about was getting away from him. “I should have stuck with my first instincts and refused to meet you.”
With so many people around, he didn’t bother trying to go after her. He did, however, flip her off as the doors closed. Pen sagged against the wall, only realizing when it sloshed on her hand that she was still holding her damn martini. Her “girlie drink” that she abandoned on the nearest room-service tray.
You know what? Fuck you, Kent. I drink what I want. I kiss who I want. And I sure as hell sleep with who I want. Pretty sure that wouldn’t have been you even before I realized how much you weren’t like Lohonas.
Hell, she was probably better off avoiding anyone who played
Heroes of Fallen Gods.
Between her experiences with Kent and Aaron, she was convinced they were all assholes. Maybe she could find some Trekkies or something at the bar…as soon as she changed and washed off all remnants of Kent and everything that reminded her of Lohonas.
Cal sat in the bar nursing a beer and trying to ignore the babble of voices around him. He’d spent hours decoding the message hidden in the program d
escriptions. None of his software, even the stuff he’d designed himself, had been any help.
In the end, while going cross-eyed from staring at the program for so long, the word
had jumped out at him. As soon as he noticed it half a dozen times on the first page of the program, he saw it everywhere.
Meticulously, he pulled data from the program, feeding it into a spreadsheet. He wrote a fast and dirty program that would twist and poke at the words. From there, he found the cypher within thirty minutes, and he blew out a slow breath as he shoved away from the computer.
Takamaki’s message shone in terrifying simplicity across the screen. The buyer was instructed to come “prepared”—whatever that meant—to the screening of
, where the item would be demonstrated. Takamaki’s people had done a great job making the message nice and vague. On the off chance some random con attendee with too much time on his hands decoded it, the words would just look like an advertising ploy.
Cal immediately sent the message to Trevor and Marron. Within fifteen minutes, his boss called and told him to enjoy the rest of his weekend. Apparently Marron’s confidence in Cal’s field readiness didn’t go so far as to knowingly send him into the heat of things. For a moment, Cal had considered arguing that he
ready. Then he remembered ConDamned was his vacation. And maybe part of this test was to see how willing he was to follow orders.
Instead of insisting on his ability to control his rage, Cal cracked his neck and said, “Sounds good. Keep me in the loop if you need me for anything.”
He’d thumbed off his phone and laid it on the desk, certain it would ring within minutes. But it just lay there, quiet, taunting.
Screw it. The team would take care of Takamaki from this point on, and he would do what he came here for. Though it hadn’t been part of the plan, he hunted up a number for Penelope Holloway…and stopped there. Even doing that much was wrong and he felt like an asshole of the first order for the invasion of her privacy.
He gave Megara a fleeting thought, but he was in no state to try hunting up his
partner right now. All he’d end up doing was showing her a side of him that would confirm every one of her worries. A man with a tendency toward violence and lacking in the ability to tell a woman anything about his life was better off by himself.
So, he did what any self-loathing gamer with a penchant for cosplay would do: he painted himself up as a dark elf with purplish-blue skin, pointed ears, and a long, bleached wig. Blackout contacts, blackened aluminum chain mail, black leather pants, and bracers completed the look. Then he headed out for a drink.
Strange how a little change in makeup and clothes made the women stop fawning over him. Like this he was free to just be…and brood.
He barely needed to give off a fuck-you vibe—everyone left him alone.
The message had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. The screening was for a new cyberpunk thriller produced by one of Takamaki’s front companies, and it was invite-only. With the arms dealer planning to stage something in a place with this many people, it meant if TRAIT didn’t stop the deal straight off somebody here at ConDamned—likely a lot of somebodies—would die.
He itched with the need to do
, to help finish the job somehow, but he’d been neutered by Marron. It didn’t matter, though. Unless he found a way to take his mind off work, he’d wonder if he should have argued, should have put himself out there, insisted he wasn’t some wild dog that needed careful handling. But until they had the weapon and Takamaki in hand stress would be his constant companion. And that meant he couldn’t just be Cal, much less Lohonas. He never should have asked Megara to come here.
Part of him did consider the idea of hooking up for a distraction. Then he reminded himself of two facts. One: he hated stupid girls, and they seemed to be the ones who approached him. Two: he hated one-night stands; if he was going to have sex with someone she’d be someone worth seeing again. Which meant revisiting point one.
Nope, he would bury his nerves in beer. Or maybe something stronger. Yeah, something stronger sounded just about perfect.
He waved the bartender over but a girl slid onto the stool next to Cal and the bartender stopped for her first. Typical.
“What is the strongest decent-tasting vodka drink you know how to make?”
Her voice startled him and his fingers slipped in the condensation on his mug. Only his quick reflexes kept the beer from sloshing all over him.
She turned his way. Same dark brown waves—this time done up with leaves pinning them to her head—same button nose, same sensual golden-brown eyes. Somehow good fortune had decided to shine on him for the moment and brought her to his side again.
Penelope leaned on the bar and pursed her lips as she looked at him. Her gaze didn’t rake over him like other women’s—she stayed fixed on his eyes like she could pin him in his seat. He’d never felt so happy to be trapped. “For a minute there, I figured you had on some ridiculous gauntlets or something, but I guess you just have butterfingers.” She winked, breaking the spell she’d cast on him. “Cursed by a sorcerer with a flair for the ridiculous?”
His lips twitched into what felt like a very non-broody non-dark-elf smile, and he fought his way back to seriousness. “Unlikely. I would have killed him before the incantation left his lips. I rather think it was shock at the way in which you so boldly invaded the space I’d clearly defined as my own. Few would have the nerve to attempt such a maneuver.”
“Yes, well, not so long ago I sent a human aggressor into the fetal position with nothing more than a single move of hand-to-hand combat. I’m feeling rather full of myself right now. Pardon me if I don’t consider a dark elf who can’t decide between a scowl and a smile to be much of a threat.”