Authors: Seleste deLaney
Tags: #spy, #one-night stand, #cosplay, #geek, #suspense, #secret identity, #Seleste deLaney, #convention, #role-playing games, #contemporary romance
Oh, he already liked her a lot more than was wise. “I think I’ll choose to alternate between the two in order to keep you on your toes.”
“And here I thought you wanted to drive me off.”
“Perhaps.” He shrugged, noting the way her eyes lingered on his shoulders. “Or maybe I was just waiting for someone brave enough to stick around.” The bartender returned with her drink—something crimson and steaming. She’d said vodka, so he shouldn’t react to it too badly after the beer. The bartender set the glass down, and Cal tipped his head toward it. “I’ll take one as well, and put them both on my tab.”
The bartender was gone before Penelope managed to get a word out. Her mouth snapped shut a second later. She held up her glass, stared deep into the contents for a moment, then turned and met his gaze. “I appreciate the drink, but I hope you aren’t expecting anything for it.”
Huh? “Only the pleasure of your maddening company for as long as it takes you to drink it.”
She regarded him over the top of the glass, something like a challenge dancing in the depths of her eyes. The glass slowly tipped up, her lips molding against it, and she kept tipping. Her throat worked as the liquid poured through it. When she placed the glass back on the bar, it was empty. She ran her tongue along her lip, catching the drops of red that lingered. “And now?”
If she was this much of a spitfire all the time, he was doomed—in the very best way possible. Assuming she liked him, too…and that she didn’t have a boyfriend. He’d deal with the latter issue if and when it came up because, at the moment, she wasn’t acting like a woman with a man waiting for her.
He jerked his head to the side in a half-assed shrug—two could play her game. “And now you either walk away, let me buy you another drink, or stick around to talk just because you find me charming. Your choice.” He took a sip from his own glass and turned to examine the bottles lining the far side of the bar. And watch her in the mirror behind them.
Her lips curled up and then she pressed them together in a way that was simultaneously innocent and sexy as hell. “If I let you buy me another one I’ll have to drink it much slower. You could be stuck talking to me for hours. Positive you don’t want to take your chances with someone that’s more of a sure thing?”
This was so much better than a stalker-ific phone call could have ever turned out.
Cal tilted his head toward her and forced himself to frown when all he wanted to do was completely break character and grin like an idiot. “I don’t know about that.” He waved at the bartender and pointed at her empty glass when he finally got the man’s attention. “Seems like you just confirmed you are most definitely a sure thing as far as conversation goes.”
She ducked her head and giggled. As soon as her new drink arrived, she raised the glass and clinked it against his. “You have no idea. All right. Make the call. Out or in character? This halfway thing is killing me.”
“Out. There are enough fake people here to last a lifetime. Tonight, costumes or no, I could use a little happy reality.” The unhappy reality of Takamaki flashed through his mind, but he forced it away. He was off duty for the moment, and he was more than content to replace thoughts of terrorists with some one-on-one time with the adorable brunette.
“In that case…Penelope Holloway. Or Pen, whichever you prefer.”
“I alr…” In his effort to push away the negative thoughts, he almost blurted out that he already knew her name. Which would have been really awkward since she gave no sign she recognized him from earlier. “Er, I’m Cal Burrows.”
A tiny line appeared between her eyebrows as they pulled together, but it disappeared soon enough. “Okay, Cal, so what kind of geek are you? What do you do for a living? Married? Girlfriend? Spill so we can move onto something more interesting.”
And just like that, the idea of reality flew out the window. He couldn’t tell her what he did. “Gamer, film, and some comics. Not really into the anime thing. No woman in my life. As far as my career…I’m in coding.” Veiled truth worked, right? “Your turn. Same questions.”
“We match in general terms as far as geek squads. I also have a bit of a love affair with books, so I work at a university library. I’m their go-to computer nerd. And at the moment, my only romantic entanglements exist in those same books.” Her jaw tightened for a second after she stopped talking. If he hadn’t been watching so close, he would have missed it, along with the tiny shudder that seemed to shake off whatever had caused it.
Obviously there were man troubles in her past. How could anyone make a woman like this as jaded as she seemed in that brief moment? He wanted to find whomever had done it and have a couple minutes with him away from any witnesses.
Though Cal had told Pen they’d just talk, he really wished he could press his lips to the muscle that still twitched along her jaw.
the little furrow every time it showed up between her brows.
her lips every time she didn’t smile.
If he didn’t put the brakes on his runaway thought train, he was going to do something stupid and push her away. She’d already made it clear she was willing to walk. He wouldn’t drive her to leaving just because everything about her set his nerve endings on fire. He remembered what the casual touch of her finger had done to him, and he wanted it again far more than he should. Definitely time to keep talking.
“So, which fictional romantic entanglement has your attention at the moment?”
Pen frowned at him as if her thoughts had been a million miles away on some planet where English wasn’t the common tongue.
He brushed back a curl that had fallen from her pins but pulled his fingers away rather than letting them linger like he wanted. “In other words, what are you reading right now?”
“Uh…you’ve probably never heard of it.” A red flush crept up her neck and began to stain her cheeks.
Interesting. “Try me.”
The flush deepened to crimson that shone purple in the glow of the bar lights. “Fine. It’s a paranormal romance called
Who was he to judge? He cosplayed an incubus upon occasion—it just had a tendency to gain him more attention than he liked. But he was enjoying her blushing too much to just let it go. “Depends. Does it have a half-naked couple on the cover?”
She swallowed hard and looked anywhere but at him. “No. Just a half-naked incubus.”
Yep, sounded like his costume. “Well, it’s no bodice-ripper, but I’m a fan of anything that makes you blush like that. I can’t imagine a woman looking cuter than you do right now.” Like he’d flipped a switch, her embarrassed smile disappeared and the blush turned into something a little less friendly. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head and nudged her drink toward him. “You called me cute.”
Huh? “That’s because you
A look of frustration took over her features and she crossed her arms over her chest in a way that seemed a mix of anger and trying to hide. “Thanks, but if you want a puppy, I’m sure there are furries somewhere in the mix on the con floor.”
His jaw dropped open and Cal blinked at her. What the hell? When he’d said he’d let her walk, he never fathomed it might be because of
. He reached out and his hand slid down her arm to circle her wrist. “I didn’t mean it like that. At all.”
“Sorry, but cute isn’t a compliment.”
“On what planet? No. Don’t answer that. Just let me finish. I sincerely didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Fine. Tell me how cute works on Planet Burrows.” She didn’t quite face him again, but her fingers toyed with the stem of her glass.
“Okay.” She obviously hated the word, so he was going to have to tread lightly if he didn’t want to set her off. Once again, he wanted to beat whatever idiot had made her so angry. He still needed to be careful if he didn’t want to end up with a “stalker” label. “I saw these girls this morning. Maybe you noticed them? The
“They were gorgeous and oozed sex all over. Not exactly easy to forget.”
He begged to differ. “Sure, they had a specific set of features that are supposed to fit some universal definition of what men find appealing. Only, they didn’t appeal to me.”
She rolled her eyes in a way that made the stupid word they were arguing about spring to mind again. “Please.”
“In fairness, I can appreciate their looks, sure, but women who worry about being ‘hot’ don’t usually have much else going for them. I don’t like that. I prefer the kind of girl who looks as good in a pair of sweats as she does all dolled up, the kind who has interests outside of diets and exercise and shopping. Generally speaking, those women are ‘cute.’ And ‘adorable.’ And I find that kind of woman borderline irresistible.”
She blinked at him, slowly, like he was some sort of alien. The tension left her body and she relaxed against the bar.
“So. That’s it. If my thinking you’re cute makes you want to go, I will wish you well and hope you have a great time this weekend.”
And don’t get caught up in the Takamaki crap.
Damn. For a while there, with Pen, he’d managed to not think about it. He really didn’t want her to leave. He couldn’t keep her safe if she took off. “But if you’re okay with a guy who thinks you might be the whole package, even if that package includes the descriptor ‘cute,’ then I hope you’ll stick around.”
Cal held his breath and waited, watching as some sort of internal war raged behind Penelope’s eyes.
She propped her feet on the rung and swung back toward him, rescuing her drink from its place by his hand. “I’m not sure I believe that isn’t just a line—and I still hate the word—but I’m willing to stick around and see what else you have in that crazy head of yours.”
Time to aim for safer territory. “Okay then, new topic.
With a snort, she shook her head, another curl breaking free from the leaves to caress her cheek and neck and shoulder.
Focus on her face, damn it!
all the way.”
Suddenly she had all his attention. “Solid choice, but why?”
“Without getting into the new
crap-of-a-trilogy, both it and
are too…big to be real. It makes everything that happens in them feel contrived, from the fighting to the romance.
was about a ragtag group of people who didn’t even necessarily believe in the same thing, but they bonded together to stay alive. There isn’t this huge noble purpose to everything they do, but they’re noble nonetheless. And the love stories? Each one’s unique, but all things that felt genuine. Plus, the women were strong from the beginning. It wasn’t some bullshit add-in after introducing them as damsels-in-distress or sex-objects.”
“And they’re ‘big damn heroes,’ right?”
Her eyes had their twinkle back. “Ain’t they just?” She took a swallow of her drink then leaned close, her loose curl brushing against his skin, the contact electric. Her breath feathered over his ear, brushing the hair of the wig against his skin until he shivered. “I should warn you. A man who quotes that show has found a direct path to me falling for him.”
Oh, fuck caution
. “Then it’s only fair I warn you that since the moment we both hit the lobby button in the damn elevator earlier, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”
She froze, her mouth dropping open slightly almost as if inviting him to kiss her. Then her lips moved, though it took a second for her voice to catch up. “Is it really stupid if I say I thought it was you?”
He didn’t answer, didn’t know
Her fingers abandoned her drink and drifted toward his on the bar. By the way she bit her lip either she was still adorably nervous or she didn’t realize she was doing it. “I have to admit, I’ve thought about you more often than I should today, too. I just never figured I had a chance with a guy like you when there were all the bombshells walking around.”
“Oh hell no. I love these things, but usually only once I’m in costume. It tends to make the women who aren’t my type a bit more hesitant about approaching.”
The noise in the room seemed to disappear while they were talking, and a glance around showed that the bar had indeed started to empty. When he turned back to Pen, she was frowning at him slightly, her fingers now close enough to his that he could feel their trembling.
She let out a slow breath. “I’ll bite.” Oh, how he hoped she would. “What is your type?”
“A woman who can spot the differences between the various models of the USS Enterprise. One who’s willing to talk DPS and mana and mobs.” Feeling bold, he tipped her chin up with one finger, savoring the contact. “For me, the perfect woman is a combination of Zoe Washburne, Inara Serra, and Kaylee Frye.”
Her eyelashes fluttered and Pen swallowed hard before responding. He couldn’t help but wonder if she felt some fraction of what he did when they touched. “No River Tam?”
“Hell no. ‘Morbid and creepifying’ is a bit much for me.” He took the chance to turn the question around while she chuckled. “What about you? What’s your type?”
She twirled her glass, letting the liquid catch the light, then took a slow drink—clearly stalling. “That’s easy, I guess. I’m looking for someone who not only loves the idea of me, but the reality, too. To keep it short, I’m looking for a hero.”
The bar could have filled back up and he wouldn’t have noticed. For the moment Cal’s entire world had been reduced to Penelope and how much he wanted to be the hero she craved. “The best part about meeting at a con like this? Fantasy is reality, and reality is fantasy. Here we both get to be whomever we are inside and no one judges. Hero, heroine, elf, wizard, alien… So, right now, I have the opportunity of a lifetime—I get to know the real, uncensored you.”
The way she raised her right index finger and started biting at the nail made him worry that he’d sounded cheesy or like it was a line. Then she sucked in a breath and pushed her drink away. “Not here, you won’t. Let’s go upstairs.”