An excerpt from Double Down by Katie Porter
Seamed stockings. The waitress was wearing seamed stockings.
Major Ryan Haverty groped blindly for his glass since he couldn't seem to drag his gaze away from those long, slender legs and the stockings clinging to every sleek inch. The cool wash of beer didn't do much to clear his head. When the woman's legs slipped out of view behind another table, he still pictured that sheer black and the darker line tracing up the back of each calf. Christ, maybe they were even silk.
She'd been cute as hell even before he realized the bonus she wore. Pixie-like features were topped with huge blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair twisted along her nape. Something about the quirk of her mouth said she wasn't as innocent as some might think.
"Yo, Fang." Captain Jonathan Carlisle waved a hand in front of Ryan's eyes. "You with us?"
Ryan blinked at the use of his call sign. He'd unconsciously shifted forward in his seat, the better to watch the waitress walk away. He stretched an arm across the leather bench, trying to focus on his friends.
Jon smirked at him before flicking a glance in the direction the woman had gone. "Really, man? A waitress? Hasn't anyone told you they're practically paid to flirt with the customers? Tips and all."
Jon's words came out rounded in some places and clipped in others-the high-class affect of Massachusetts. No surprise since the guy came from money. Buckets of it. He didn't play up the fact, but he was the reason they were sitting in Blakely's Steakhouse, a tiny family-owned joint. If not for Jon, neither Ryan nor their third friend, Captain Leah Bayern, would have ever heard of it.
The dining area was barely bigger than Ryan's small apartment, but it was lux. Light shone from frosted-glass wall sconces, and every table was blanketed by white linen. Were it not for formal Air Force events, he wouldn't have known what to do with the multiple heavy silver forks at each setting. The atmosphere had a softened white-noise effect, muting conversations from the other diners.
The meal itself had been amazing, as evidenced by the scatter of plates between them, which had been all but licked clean of food. Hell, there'd been a time in his childhood when Ryan wouldn't have hesitated to swipe up the last bits of rib-eye juices with his bare fingers. He hadn't eaten a steak that tender and flavorful until his twenty-fourth birthday, home from his first deployment and living large in New York.
"Wait, the waitress? Fang has a thing for her?" Leah twisted around in her seat. "Where'd she go?"
Ryan quirked his brows. "What are you going to do? Pass her a note that says I like her?"
Leah flipped around and flashed a manic smile. Her hair was pulled straight back in a slick ponytail. "So you do like her."
He couldn't help but roll his eyes, but just a minute amount. Any more and he might have to give up his balls. "Princess," he said, using her call sign, "sometimes you sound more like a ninth grader than a fighter pilot."
She stuck her tongue out at him.
Jon laughed. "Careful, little girl, or someone'll put that tongue where you aren't expecting."
Leah slugged him in the shoulder. Despite being scrappy and wiry, the other pilot didn't even budge, and Ryan knew from experience that Leah could hit hard when she wanted. "Ryan and I have already been there, done that. Wasn't worth T-shirts."
"Never say," Jon mocked, turning his pretty-boy features into a caricature of surprise. "Our waitress is going to be disappointed?"
"The problem wasn't the sex," Leah said. The woman had barely even a promise of tact. "We were too wound tight for each other. Two type-A's in a relationship is a very bad thing."
"Anyway, she's no one's waitress anyhow." Ryan stretched his legs to the side as cover for searching her out again. The booth really was too small for him-one of the perils of being a couple inches over six feet tall.
There she was, near the swinging wooden doors to the kitchen. Though clad in the same charcoal-gray skirt as the other waitress, she wore it with entirely more grace over her sleek curves. The plain white blouse did him a huge favor and clung to her small breasts.
Some short, rat-faced man had taken her by the elbow, and neither of them looked too happy. Red flushed across her rounded cheeks. Her pretty pink mouth twisted.
Ryan's hands fisted below the table. Those lips were meant for much more fun tasks than spitting words at a pinched asshole.
When she walked back toward Ryan's table, she smoothed her features into the genial friendliness required of servers. The skin around her eyes remained tight.
A hard swallow contorted her graceful throat as she set the leather check-holder on the table. Somehow she still managed to dredge up a smile. "Here you go."
Ryan grabbed the rectangular folder and flipped it open. His eyes bulged. For God's sake, the bill was almost a third what he spent on rent, and more than the monthly mortgage his mom had paid for their trailer when he was growing up.
With a fast display of dimples, Jon snagged it from Ryan's grip. "My choice. My treat. Go back to chatting her up."
Ryan resisted the urge to tell him to shove it. "Fine, but I'll get the tip."
"I hope you were happy with your meal," the waitress said.
"Everything was wonderful." The smile he flashed was the same one that had talked his seventh-grade gym teacher, Miss Pavers, into ignoring the fact he hadn't dressed out for a week. It was difficult to find clean gym clothes when his mom hadn't gotten off the couch in almost a month. He ignored the kick Leah aimed at his shins beneath the tablecloth. "Especially the service."
The woman's eyebrows went up. "Does that line work for you often?"
"See now, there's no way I can answer that," he said with a laugh. "If I tell you no, it'll just confirm what you think. If I tell you the truth, that I've never tried it before, you'll never believe me."
She gave a mock pout and shook her head. "That certainly is a difficult dilemma. I'm not sure you can recover at this point."
"Be careful," Jon said as he took the check and slipped a credit card inside. "At this rate you're going to make yourself a challenge. There's nothing Ryan here likes more than a challenge."
Leah smothered a laugh, making it Ryan's turn to kick at her.
"Ryan? That's your name?"
"Ryan Haverty." He stuck his hand out and nodded to her name tag. "And you're Cassandra, right?"
She put her hand in his with a curt nod. An electric tingle worked its way up to his shoulder. Her fingers were slender and graceful and so smooth that he could imagine them wrapped around his cock. He practically twitched in his slacks.
Cassandra nibbled at her bottom lip. The blue of her eyes shifted darker. "Any relationship to Joseph Patrick Haverty?"
"Not a clue who that is."
She pulled her hand back as she chuckled. "It was a joke. Mostly. He was a painter." She gave an abbreviated wave, as if to brush away her words. She picked up the check. "It's no big deal."
"Cass," said a voice with a distinct whine. The man Cassandra had been talking with near the kitchen doors approached the table. He wore a suit coat that did nothing to conceal his narrow shoulders. His eyes were amazingly beady. Ryan was surprised he could see at all. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he said to Ryan and patted Jon on the shoulder.
Ryan was surprised he didn't draw back a stump. Jon, call sign Tin Tin, might be something of a pretty boy-especially with his goddamn dimples and faux-innocent smirk. The guy had a ruthless side that was only more intimidating for its coldly mechanical streak. Ryan was willing to have him on his wing anywhere, anytime.
After a quick glance over Leah that spent entirely too long on her rack, the man tagged on a, "Miss."
Leah only raised her eyebrows, thank God. She could be a bit reckless at times.
The guy Ryan presumed was the manager returned his attention to Cassandra and tugged her to the back of the room. There was no mistaking their antagonistic body language. The guy hovered over Cassandra while she kept her face averted. Ryan probably shouldn't have been able to listen in, but he'd always had excellent hearing. And he was very interested in the conversation's outcome.
"Why are we out of napkins, Cass?"
"I don't know, Tommy." She rolled her eyes before facing her menace. "Probably because it's not my job to order them."
"You've been taking care of it for the last six months."
Her smile only got bigger, but it took on a brittle edge. "Let's not do this in the front of the diners."
"I tried, but you're the one who leaves the prep area every time I walk in."
"Fine," Cassandra said in a saccharine tone. "I stopped ordering the napkins when you dumped me and took up with Cynthia. How about you ask her to take on that duty?"
After gesturing to the dishwater blonde taking an order at the other end of the room, she stalked back to Ryan. Her eyes sparkled with an amusement that invited him to join in. She wiggled the black leather case with Jon's credit card inside. "I'll be back in a minute with this."
The dickweed followed her to the back of the restaurant, unfortunately obscuring Ryan's view of both her sweet ass and those sexy stockings.
Jon laughed and shook his head. "It's my card in there, but she tells you that she'll be back. Maybe you've got a shot after all."
Leah took a healthy swallow of her red wine. "Nah, that's a hot mess. You don't wanna get mixed up in all that drama."
For the privilege of holding those thighs, still wrapped in silk while he fucked her, Ryan would put up with a lot of drama. The last time he'd had an up-close encounter with a girl who liked fancy stockings had been in college with his ex-fiancée, Ashleigh.
Just look at how that had ended.
He shoved the past back where it belonged. "If anyone would know hot messes, Princess, it'd be you."
"No way. That's Tin Tin and his stream of women. All the way."
"They're not a stream." Jon ran a hand over his dark hair, which was buzzed to a quarter inch like he were some Army grunt freak. "They're a select assortment."
Leah laughed. "That's not what it looks like from here."
"Don't tell me you're jealous."
"Right," she replied with a look of disgust. "Just like I'd be jealous of the girls who make out with my brothers."
Ryan let their patter fade into the background, knowing exactly how their sibling-style bickering would continue. Instead he watched the kitchen doors. A blur of reddish hair zipped past but didn't return.
He tapped his fingers across the white tablecloth. It was way too long since he'd been with a woman who liked wearing rare bonuses like the stockings, because he certainly wasn't about to ask for them. This was an opportunity too good to pass up.
He needed an in. Something that would give him an edge. Make a date with him a challenge. If it was also a way to snub her nose at that cocksucker, so much the better. Cassandra was way out of that guy's league, and Ryan wasn't above rubbing it in the other man's nose.
He sat up straighter when she finally popped out the doors.
She plunked the credit-card holder down in front of Jon. "I'm sure you know the drill," she said with laughter lurking in her voice. She turned to Ryan. "I hope you guys didn't hear too much. Things have been strained around here lately."
Leah knocked back the rest of her wine. "Why do you put up with that crap?"
She shrugged. Slight embarrassment flickered across her features, temporarily turning her lush mouth down. "It's complicated." She plastered a grin on. "Besides, the tips are great here. You have my permission to take that as a hint."
Ryan laughed. "You've got more patience than the three of us combined."
"That wouldn't surprise me in the least."
Jon and Leah slid out of the booth and headed toward the door. Knowing when to make an exit was only one of the things that made them such good friends.
Ryan dug his wallet out of his back pocket. "What time do you get off?"
She checked her watch. "About fifteen minutes, thank the sweet baby Jesus. You asking for a reason?" Her hip cocked saucily, that slim gray skirt clinging. Beneath it the black stockings made his palms itch with curiosity.
He pulled two fifty-dollar bills out of his leather wallet. "I tell you what. This is your tip, no matter what."
Her lips parted on a quiet gasp. "That's thirty percent."
"You say the word and I'll leave it on the table."
He stood. Even in her slingback heels, she only came to his shoulder. Fuckin' A, he liked that. He'd never been into the macho thing, but there was something about her that brought out his protective streak.
The fact that she was hot as hell in an apple-pie kind of way didn't hurt at all.
"Or," he echoed, dragging out the word. "You come with me and we'll turn them into chips up on the Strip. Just to see what kind of trouble we can get into."
Cassandra Whitman did not fall for cheap lines. Or All-American smiles. Or biceps that strained against black cotton.
Nope. But being sainthood good for longer than she could remember made a girl greedy.
It didn't help that she was still boiling mad at Tommy-make that General Manager Thomas Blakely. She deserved medals and commendations for not mouthing off even worse in front of Ryan and his friends. Choice remarks about Tommy's allergy to foreplay and his Rogaine obsession had remained caged inside her seething brain.
She grinned at Ryan. "Your friend says you like a challenge. That true?"
Oh, shoot. She went briefly weak in the knees. It wasn't just the automatic "ma'am", but how he made it earnest. A real Southern gentleman.
"Good," she said. "Then here's one for you."
He was. Completely. Dark eyes fixed on hers. He'd leaned closer. His intimate posture suggested confidences and sordid secrets. Crossed arms on another man might seem defensive, but Cass could only admire how his black button-down stretched smooth over the caps of his shoulders.
He took care of himself. She wanted him to take care of her.
A night out. It was about time.
"Tommy," she said. "My manager."
"Definitely ex." She matched his intimate posture, just the angle of her hips. "He never liked public displays of affection."
"Guys who can't perform generally don't. Too many witnesses." His voice was huskier now, going from good to wet-undies sexy.
Cass licked her bottom lip and smiled when he noticed. "But I don't want to get fired. Can you meet me in about ten minutes?" She gestured back to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. "Through there, take a right, and you'll find the employee locker room."
Something about this guy Ryan had her thinking words beginning with B. Brazen. Bold. Balls. If anyone had the balls to stride into the kitchen and kiss her in front of Tommy, it might be Ryan. If they both managed to go through with it...
Well, then the night had turned golden.
"How do I know this isn't a plot to get rid of me? Ten minutes is a long time. Slip out the back door. I'd never see you again."
He made that sound like a tragedy. Cass definitely approved.
"Consider it a show of faith. Just like I'll assume you aren't some weirdo murderer maniac."
Oh, he had a great smile. She loved guys who smiled. Tall, built, interested guys who smiled were like big-time Vegas jackpots. You heard about them, but you never imagined seeing one in person.
Some sex demon took possession of her hand. That studly arm was too tempting. She ran the tip of her finger down the firm curve of muscle. The breath Ryan quietly sucked in was almost as exciting as his body.
"I'll be there," she said. "And I'll clean up. I hate smelling like I've been hauling steak for six hours."
Before he could reply, before she lost her nerve, Cass turned and walked toward the kitchen. When she reached the door, she couldn't help but look back over her shoulder. Ryan stood in the same spot. Arms still crossed. Expression still intense. He was staring at her, but not at a guy's usual T&A choices. Cass glanced down at her calves, half thinking she'd find a splatter or stain. Wouldn't have been surprising at all. After six hours on the floor, she felt like a filthy dishrag.
She only found her stockings, the seamed ones she wore when she wanted to feel like a woman, not an overworked waitress and gallery lackey.
Ryan met her eyes. His frank sexual interest was one thing. The naughty grin sent a shiver up her spine.
She barged into the kitchen. The doors clanged against the inside wall. She laughed to herself when the staff looked up from their preparation tables and sizzling grills. Pulsing excitement made her giddy, even reckless.
After shutting the locker-room door, she stripped out of her disgusting uniform. The only thing she had to change into was the spare set she kept for emergencies-yet another gray pencil skirt and white shirt. Her plans for the evening had involved staggering home exhausted, with a shower and pajamas optional as she collapsed. Now she had the energy of a nuclear reactor.
Gillian Flores, an MFA candidate who studied sculpture, shut her locker. "You outta here?"
"Yup. You just getting here?" Cass ran hot water in the sink.
"Tommy's gonna give me shit for being late again."
"I wouldn't worry about him tonight."
Gilly doubled a rubber band around her thick black ponytail. "Oh?"
"Yeah, I got him covered."
"Now I'm intrigued. You plan on giving him the kicking he deserves?"
After running a washcloth over her skin, Cass toweled off. "Just don't be out on the floor in about four minutes. I've found someone intriguing."
She wiggled into her spare uniform. The skirt wasn't the flashiest in the world, but she appreciated how it fit. Like the stockings, it made her feel curvy and feminine. She undid her hair and combed it with water, then braided two pigtails that trailed over her shoulders. Splash of perfume. Powder and clear lip gloss. She didn't have time for anything else.
Cass had just slipped back into her heels-her tired feet protesting like whoa damn-when she heard the commotion in the kitchen. Perhaps the sound of a certain customer venturing where he didn't belong? A glance at the wall clock made her smile.
Tall. Built. And punctual.
She'd almost been second-guessing herself. He was right in saying ten minutes was a long time-not for getting ready, but for letting the doubts creep in.
"So show me the money, missy." Gilly, wearing the world's most fantastic shit-eating grin, pulled opened the locker-room door with a flourish.
Ryan was right there, standing in the doorway. His hand was poised to knock. Backlit by the much brighter lights of the kitchen, he filled the space. Owned it. "There you are, Cassandra."
Shivers that were becoming more familiar by the second climbed up Cass's back. He said her name like the low harmony of a song, making love to each syllable.
She gulped back the last of her nerves and met him in the doorway. He offered his arm like the Southern gentleman she'd imagined. His forearm was solid beneath her fingertips.
Fluorescent lighting generally did no one any favors. Not so with Ryan. Now she could see the exact sun-tea shade of his short, neat hair. His skin was smooth and lightly tanned, with only the slightest hint of scruff. His eyes weren't as dark as when the dining room's tasteful low-watt atmosphere had obscured their color. In truth they were a perfect blend of brown and green, a true hazel, full of mischief and blatant, panty-dropping desire.
Cass snuggled deeper, with her palm curled flat around that miraculous biceps.
"You ready?" he asked.
She looked around the kitchen. Tommy was nowhere to be found. A flicker of disappointment seemed ridiculous considering the man she stood next to.
It seemed the fates and the gods and the whole damn universe were on her side that night. Tommy walked through the swinging doors. He stopped dead. Pinched eyes swerved from Ryan to Cass, then back to Ryan again. If a man could bristle, Tommy did.
"Can I help you?"
"No, sir." Ryan glanced down at Cass, his humor like an aphrodisiac. "I'm good."
"You can't be in here."
Lordy, how had she put up with that for six months? Being sensible wasn't worth that level of compromise. What did it say about Tommy that his customer was the one who used "sir" while he mislaid that courtesy?
"Don't worry," Ryan said. "We were just leaving."
Tommy smoothed a hand down his suit, that telltale nervous habit of his. "Cass, you said you'd close tonight."
Shoot. She had.
"That was probably because you thought I was a no-show," Gilly said. She stood against the notice wall where schedules and time cards were the only decoration. All the finery in Blakely's was saved for the dining room. "I'm here now. I'll close."
Cass mouthed a silent thank you to her friend. Knowing Gilly, she'd want to be repaid in details. Maybe for once Cass would have a few to share.
"I can't believe you," Tommy said.
The flush was high on his cheeks. He was handsome. He really was, no matter his squint and his lanky thinness. Yet he could look downright rodentlike when he turned mean. Cass suppressed a shiver of a different kind. Their last argument-the Big One, as she'd dubbed it-had revealed his true colors. Being called desert trash wasn't something she'd ever forgive, let alone how he'd wet his wiener between Cynthia's rail-thin thighs.
"You're just going to go with this guy? This guy you met an hour ago?"
"Now hold up there." Ryan's voice sounded gruff and confrontational, but Cass caught the teasing glint in his eyes. "I was a customer an hour ago. We only met about, what, fifteen minutes ago?"
"Maybe twenty," Cass said. "Not long."
"Yeah, not long."
She'd been expecting a grand, passionate grope-the kind that would roast the innards of any still-clingy, still-possessive ex. That didn't seem to be Ryan's style. He leaned down, taking his time, inviting the tiny world of Blakely's kitchen to watch. He nudged one pigtail aside with his nose. His kiss, when it came, was the gentlest touch of skin to skin. Warm lips pressed against the hollow behind her jaw, just below her earlobe.
Much better. She forced herself to hold still, to soak in his deliberate restraint. Let 'em wonder what went on behind closed doors. They'd get no wild mauling from this gentleman.
Only his exhalation gave him away, hot against her cheek. Too fast. Too erratic. Good. She liked the idea that he was raring to go, no matter this slow pantomime.
Ryan straightened to his full height. He nodded once to Tommy, then to Gillian. "Sir, ma'am, have a good evening."
Cass helped make their in-your-face exit perfect by guiding him back through the kitchen toward the door to the employee parking lot. Her knees were mush. Her feet felt a hundred yards away. Every time she thought her strength would fail-out of sheer, unbelievable excitement-she gripped his rock-solid arm.
The air outside was no relief. Vegas in April may as well be a cool day in hell, and it wasn't even summer yet. The exit door closed behind them. Compared to the din in the kitchen and the throb in Cass's head, the city noises were almost peaceful.
Ryan chuckled. "Hot damn, that was fun."
The tension in her chest burst out in laughter to match. She collapsed against the restaurant's stucco outer wall. "Oh, yeah. Best time I've had in months."
"We're not done yet."
"Good." And she meant it. She wanted more and more, like a kid at a fair gorging on cotton candy and too many rides.
He stalked closer. Hard body. Hard wall. Cass was caught in between. Only the grin clinging to his fine mouth kept the moment from becoming intimidating.
"Can I kiss you?" he asked.
"You just did."
"For real this time."
"That one cost you, didn't it?"
"You have no idea." Ryan ran his tongue over his lower lip, almost bashful. "Especially with those braids."
Again she caught that intensity in his eyes-the same he'd shown when staring after her stockings. Okay, that was hot.
She touched the place where his shirt opened at the throat. The tiniest hint of chest hair brushed beneath her fingertip. "Can I tell you a secret?"
He swallowed audibly. "Yeah?"
"They're old-fashioned," she whispered. "Lace tops. Garters. The works."
She shoved gently against his chest. He was built like a goddamn Mack truck, but she had a clear advantage. He staggered back just a bit, his expression slack, then followed as she walked toward her tiny Honda. She clicked her key fob and made for the driver's side door.
"You assume I'm a magician if you think I can fit in that tin can," he said.
"Your choice. Give it a try or don't." She raked a long look up and down his body. "You're cute, but I'm not letting you drive."
Rather than press or make another joke, he returned her deliberate perusal, inch for inch. Cass wiggled in her own skin. She'd let him kiss her, all right. If she admitted the whole truth, she was probably going to let him do a lot more. The night was young, and she hadn't been to the Strip in ages.
It was time to play.
Even with a small stack of chips sitting in front of him at the blackjack table, Ryan couldn't concentrate on a damn thing other than Cassandra's legs. As if the old-fashioned seamed stockings hadn't been enough, she'd gone and told him about the garters. With lace tops. He'd like to drag them down using only his teeth.
Ever since, he'd been sporting a bit of a chubby, even when he'd needed to fold himself into her ridiculously compact car.
More proof Ashleigh had been right all those years ago. They'd dated through his entire senior year of college, long enough for him to propose when he'd started making plans to join the Air Force after graduation. Long enough that he'd risked confiding his secret wants and needs.
She'd been disgusted with his confession. He still recalled the look of pinched condescension on a face that had once shone with respect, even love. Their engagement ended the same night. He hadn't made that mistake again, instead swearing off giving in to those urges.
It wasn't like he'd asked Cassandra to wear the stockings or do her hair in pigtails. That was all her own initiative.
Tossing a chip into play, he couldn't take his gaze off her. She deliberated carefully, worrying at her pink bottom lip, flashing a glimpse of white, even teeth.
Then she crossed her legs. Christ, he even liked her knees.
The air went thin in his lungs, as if he'd stripped his oxygen mask at thirty thousand feet. He coughed. "So," he said, without any idea of what he would follow up with. Anything that would get his thoughts back in line.
Of course, thinking about the way she'd pulled her strawberry-blonde hair into two pigtails wasn't much better. He could wrap them around his fists while she did delicious things with that lush mouth.
She glanced at him out the corners of her eyes. A knowing smile curved her lips. "So," she echoed.
"Haverty. What did you say? John Patrick?"
She nodded, then tapped her cards so the dealer would hit her with another. "He's obscure, but I like his work. He's most known for a painting of a piper. It was one of the most famous lithographs in the eighteenth century. Morose, perhaps, but the textures and the colors are memorable."
"You know a lot about art."
A bright pink flush spread over her cheeks. "Sorry, I shouldn't go on like that."
He couldn't help but reach for the pigtail nearest him. A lock of hair like raw silk slipped between his thumb and forefinger. "I don't mind."
"That makes you a rare man indeed. No one's been able to listen to me babble about paintings."
"There aren't many men like me, but that's probably a good thing."
He tapped his cards. Cassandra lifted her eyebrows as the middle-aged dealer flicked him another. Ryan made himself look down and saw why. He'd hit when he'd already been on eighteen.
An older woman, the dealer wore a red vest over the white long-sleeved shirt of the Bellagio uniform. She scooped away his chips. Her dark eyes twinkled, but all she said was, "House wins."
A laugh burst from him. "Yeah, I should think so."
Cassandra leaned an elbow on the padded, green table edge. "You're not much of a gambler, are you?"
Her blouse wasn't low cut, but her angle plumped the soft inside of her breast, bringing it barely into view. "You're not great for my gambling," he said.
"Ah. Your head's not in the game."
His gaze dropped back to her legs. He could almost swear her slow uncrossing and re-crossing was deliberate. "Can you blame me?"
Something hot and sexy flashed in her already bright eyes. She gathered up her chips, then his, and shoved them in his pocket. Her slender fingers brushed his hipbone through the thin fabric lining, sending a full-body shiver out from the base of his spine.
The mischievous look she angled at him didn't help calm him much. Her lashes were thick but pale, almost glimmering with blonde at the tips. Absurd to think, but he'd like to feel them against his skin.
Cassandra hopped off her stool and looped her fingers beneath his black leather belt. "Come on. I've got an idea."
Ryan followed her blindly as she wove through the casino floor. Banks of brightly lit slot machines chinged and dinged with electric recreations of the waterfalls of the coins they'd once spit out. Voices rose and fell, a loud cheer going up from the far side of the room. Someone must have hit a jackpot.
A virtual conga-line worth of drunk people streamed in the opposite direction. A few of them wore three-foot-tall paper hats with absurd sayings. Ryan remembered with crystal clarity why he didn't spend too much time on the Strip, despite living a stone's throw away. The idiot quotient was way too high.
Two brunettes wearing short-as-hell miniskirts and carrying yard-long margaritas stumbled at them, giving Ryan an excuse to fold his arm around Cassandra and pull her near. She fit there perfectly. She was neither too lush nor too skinny. Her curves pressed against his hip, and she wrapped a hand around his biceps, just as she had in the steakhouse.
Combined with how she looked up at him, her eyes shining like he was some bloody hero for pulling her away from drunks, he felt like the king of the hill.
"Over here," she said, abruptly veering them to the right.
In only a few steps, they stood in a relatively quiet, dim corridor. Signs pointed to the elevator at the back. To their left was a bank of payphones. Vegas was probably the only place in the world where the relics could still be easily found. All for the tourists. The clang and noise of the casino floor sounded miles away.
"What are we doing back here, Miss-?" He broke off, surprised and chagrined. "I don't even know your last name."
Considering what he'd been imagining doing with her, he felt pretty shitty about that. She pulled away to lean against the wall-unsurprising when he'd revealed himself quite the jackass.
She only smiled. "We can't have that, not with what I'm about to do for you, Mr. Haverty."
The low, sultry way she used his last name sent him into overdrive. With the naughty librarian skirt, the pigtails and musical voice, he wassurprised that he hadn't all-out mauled her yet. He braced a hand against the wall beside her head. Jackass wasn't even close. He was way worse.
"Give me your name." He couldn't keep the growl out of his words, even though he hoped like hell he didn't scare her away. "I should know more about you, considering that I'm going to kiss the hell out of you."
"My name is Cassandra Whitman." Her eyelids drooped with desire. "I have a degree in art history, I'm twenty-six, and I've lived in Nevada all my life."
"And you like old-fashioned garters."
Her throat worked over a swallow. "I do."
The rapid-fire flutter of her pulse at the base of her throat drew him. He bent his head, giving her plenty of time to get away, but he needed another taste of her skin. That moment in the restaurant kitchen had been for the benefit of her ex, but Ryan craved another go. Her skin had been soft, the tickle of her hair across his nose even softer.
She was everything he'd remembered. Just spicy enough. His fingers clenched against the cool wall. He brushed his lips over her neck, then forced himself to pull back. "Apparently, you like dragging men into secluded corridors too."
"Only certain men and only for certain purposes."
He chuckled, but it was strained by his choppy breath. "Should I be afraid?"
She pushed him back to arm's distance with a few fingertips against his chest. "I don't think so. This is for your benefit, after all."
"Is that right?"
"Certainly. I'm altruistic. Practically a saint. You can't keep your head on the cards because you keep thinking of my stockings. So..." She drew the word out. Blood surged down Ryan's body before he even knew what she was up to.
Her hands slid down her torso. Down farther, down, from her hips to the hem of her skirt. Slim fingers curled around the dark gray material and tugged. So fucking languid.
First came inches of sheer black, made even hotter because he knew they were backed with the seams. Then came a wide band of black lace, topped by tiny silk bows with even tinier pink rosettes in the center. The skinny straps that disappeared under her skirt were pink as well.
That was as far as she went, but it was more than enough. His chest practically shook with the force of his violent breathing. His only saving grace was that she breathed just as quickly, which pressed her breasts against the plain white of her blouse.
Ryan caged her head with his hands. Either that or he'd palm the creamy length of thigh peeking out between the stockings and her skirt. If he gave in to that impulse, he'd be inside her as soon as he could kiss her into agreeing. They'd be booted out of the casino for indecent behavior-which would catch him hell from his CO.
He swiped his tongue across his bottom lip, but it didn't do much good. His mouth had gone as dry as the desert outside. "I'm going to kiss you now. If that's not what you want, you better duck and run. Right now."
She tilted her head back against the wall. "This is me, not running."
He forced himself to lower his head by degrees, in case she panicked. He wasn't sure how he'd get himself under control if that happened. Thank Christ she didn't. She even surged up on her toes, meeting him halfway.
Her mouth was ten times sweeter than her skin. She tasted like crème brûlée-candied, rich and a hint of burnt sugar. Her lips readily opened under his. He dipped his tongue inside, first to taste the plump vulnerability of her bottom lip, then to stroke over hers.
She gave a quiet moan in the back of her throat, and he hungrily drew it into his mouth. Her breath rushed hot over his cheek. Feminine hands curled into the muscles over his ribs, under his arms. He wanted to touch her but couldn't risk removing his palms from the cool wall. If he touched her, even to cup her face, he might lose his tenuous patience.
Shit, he could be in real trouble with this woman. She had a sense of adventure that seemed woven through with naughty good humor, threatening to turn him inside out.
He tried to pull back, but even that was harder than he'd expected. He swooped back in for another kiss that was no less of a turn-on for its speed.
"Do you...?" He hesitated and tried to swallow the hot lust that hamstrung his body. He hadn't moved this fast since he'd been an idiotic teenager living in the trailer park. He'd thought joining the Air Force and going through officer training and flight school would beat some sense into his head.
"Do you want to get out of here?" he asked.
Pale lashes fluttered, clearing the haze from her pretty blue eyes. Her fingers trailed down his ribs then danced over his belt. Nibbling on her bottom lip, which was still wet and slick from their kiss, she stroked over his cock. He hissed in a breath, hoping that was more manly than the moan he'd needed to choke down. Her touch was a fascinating mix of bold and tentative, which did nothing to calm him.
"More than anything. But..." She shifted her hand to the pocket that held their stash of chips. "We've got some gambling to do."