Maria’s Favorite Hangover Remedy
1 banana, chopped
1/2 container chocolate syrup
3 ounces milk
3 ounces rum
2 Tylenol, crushed
Dim the lights and for god’s sake, don’t open the blinds. Muffle the blender motor with a towel, then blend all ingredients until as frothy as a virgin’s prom gown. Don’t bother with a glass; drink straight from the damned pitcher.
Repeat as necessary. Then get to a mall and a Krispy Kreme store for further remedial help.
The gnomes inside Candace’s head were having a fiesta worthy of Cinco de Mayo, complete with the flashing red jalapeno lights and a band of hammers pounding out the rhythm to “Celebration” in double-time. The sound waved and rolled with her stomach, increasing in volume every time she moved a fraction of an inch in the bed.
A snippet of advice from Grandma Woodrow floated through her mind. Candace latched onto it with every bit of consciousness she could muster. Put one foot on the floor and you’ll get off the hangover Tilt-A-Whirl.
Candace wasn’t sure she could feel her foot, never mind move it.
She pressed her palms against her throbbing temples. Willing the headache away didn’t work. Shutting her eyes tighter only made the pounding intensify. She moaned and rolled over, clutching the pillow beside her.
The sheet came loose when she moved and cool air tickled against her skin. Down her spine. Along her belly. Past her legs.
Not against pajamas of any kind.
Candace froze and did a mental inventory. Exquisitely soft bed linens. No gurgle of the fish tank she had in her bedroom. No Trifecta snoring at the end of the bed. No traffic sounds outside the window.
Without opening her eyes, she ran a tentative hand down her body. She felt a bra. Panties.
She bolted from the bed, tripping over some shoes and landing in a heap on the floor. Scrambling to a sitting position, she glanced wildly around the room. A room she didn’t recognize. Her heart thudded in her throat, threatening to suffocate her.
The gnomes kept up their steady hammering. Maybe they were building a condominium in there. Candace closed her eyes again, but that only intensified her vertigo. She hoped, no prayed, that she was at a friend’s apartment. Yes, that was it. She was at Maria’s. Who had…
Candace scrambled for an explanation…
…gone on a major redecorating spree in the last twelve hours.
Yeah. That works. Doesn’t it?
A pair of Levi 505s lay in a crumpled heap beside her. Jeans she’d never seen before. Jeans that definitely didn’t belong to her. Or a woman, for that matter.
Okay. Take a breath. Try to remember.
Maria. Rebecca. The can’t-find-a-dress pity party at the restaurant. A few drinks. Okay, a lot of drinks. And a man.
Oh God, a man. She was pretty damned sure his name wasn’t Barry, either.
Candace bit her lip to keep from screaming. Nothing else existed in her memory-no name, no conclusion to the night and especially no memory of how she’d ended up in someone else’s bed wearing nothing more than her underwear.
She clung to the sheet, the one sane thing she had in Wonderland. She cradled her head with her other hand, praying for the throbbing to stop so the fog could clear. “Oh Lord, why can’t I remember?”
“Because you had too much to drink,” a deep voice called from nearby.
Unless Maria had gotten a sex-change operation last night, that was definitely not her best friend’s voice.
Candace ducked down beside the bed like a SEAL commando and peered over the edge for a glimpse of who had spoken.
The blinds were still drawn, but a tiny sliver of sunlight peeked through the slits. Most of the bedroom remained in shadow. Beside the massive four-poster sat a polished mahogany nightstand holding an empty bottle of German beer and a half-dozen books. Plenty of expensive furniture, but no body to match the voice.
She’d imagined this. A total tequila hallucination.
Behind her, a door creaked open. Candace spun around. Light spilled into the room from a bathroom ten feet away.
A man stood in front of a pedestal sink, shaving.
That was so not Maria.
Candace patted the hardwood floor. No luck. No magic rabbit hole to swallow her up so she wouldn’t have to deal with this man and anything that might have happened between them last night.
Oh God anything that might have happened?
An ocean of nausea rolled through her stomach, threatening to deposit whatever was left in her stomach on the Oriental rug.
Who was he? And why was she in his bedroom, doing a private Victoria’s Secret runway event? The obvious answer was too horrifying for Candace to consider.
He was definitely not the man she had promised to marry in twenty-one days. No, if today was Sunday, twenty days.
Her mouth went dry as she considered the possibilities of who he might be. Serial rapist. Psychotic killer. Deranged kidnapper. Right-wing Republican.
Using the bed as a crutch, she pulled herself to a standing position, ignoring the sudden blast of pain in her head and fighting with the sheet that had tangled around her feet. With a solid yank, she tugged it out from under her and promptly lost her balance. She tumbled to the floor again, losing her grip on the cloth.
She staggered to her feet and prayed the light-colored sheet covered her. It didn’t. A quick glance down confirmed the outline of black lace and a Wonder Bra.
She didn’t even want to think about how-or with whose hands-she had gotten undressed.
Her navy sundress was only a few feet away, draped over the arm of a wingback chair. Candace bent to grab it. But she didn’t move fast enough.
“Nice view,” said a voice from behind her.
She spun around, at the same time wrapping the sheet tighter.
He held nearly a foot’s height advantage over her. His hair, still wet from the shower, was slicked back in a dark wave. Deep blue eyes that appeared almost black in the half-light of the room studied her with clear amusement.
Her gaze traveled down, past his bare muscular chest, following the V of dark hairs to the waistband of a pair of checkered silk boxer shorts. The satiny material stopped mid-thigh along his lean, defined and-okay, she had to admit it-inordinately interesting legs. She jerked her attention back to his face.
And he knows it.
In her experience, which admittedly could fit on the head of a pin and still have room left over, men with that self-satisfied grin used their looks like shark hunters used chum. Bait, hook, use up the good parts, then toss the useless carcass to the seagulls.
“I take it you don’t remember anything that happened last night?” He wiped his chin with a hand towel, then sent it sailing into a corner hamper.
She shook her head, wishing she were anywhere but here, standing in front of a short-haired Adrian Paul doppelganger wearing little more than 200 count cotton.
He took a step closer, fingering the tip of the sheet. Even his eyes were rich, flecked with tiny bits of gold among the sapphire. He grinned again, either as a tease or a suggestion, Candace didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. “You had a wonderful time, I can assure you.”
The room swayed. Her stomach lurched. Candace smacked his hand away. “That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Perhaps.” He sat on the bed and began to pull on the jeans. “In my opinion, we enjoyed ourselves fully.”
She ignored the implications, hoping that’s all they were. “But…where…I mean, how…”
“How did you get here?” he finished for her.
She nodded, her cheeks warming.
“In my car, of course.”
“And who are you?”
He grinned. “Think of me as your knight in shining armor.”
Candace let out a few curses even Grandma had never heard. “I mean, what is your name?”
“Last night, you were content to call me Romeo.” A smirk played at his lips, displaying a crescent indent on the right side of his smile. He had a dimple. That caused a whole ‘nother kind of lurch in her stomach. “I kind of liked it.”
“I’m not kidding. Who are you?”
He rubbed his chin, ignoring her question. “Of course, you also called me Loverboy. Oh, and-”
Candace held up her hand. “Stop! Just stop. I get the idea. Forget I even asked.” She drew in a deep breath and knew she had to ask the question, even if she didn’t want to know the answer. “Did I, I mean, did we…” Her gaze dropped to the floor. Amidst the plush fibers of the carpet, she saw her shiny red toenails. The pedicure she’d gotten because Barry had this thing with her toes. She gulped. “Did anything happen?”
“Well, that depends on how you define the word ‘anything’.”
“Since I’m not packing a dictionary in my back pocket, I’d say anything beyond a handshake.”
He got to his feet, placing him closer, within touching distance. “I was a gentleman, more or less. Your reputation, if you had a good one,” he added with a grin, “is still intact.”
She didn’t rise to the bait. “Who undressed me?”
His gaze swept the room. “There are only two people in this apartment and one of them was a little too drunk last night to do, I mean undo, anything.”
Heat flooded her face when his gaze settled on the sheet. She clutched it tighter. “I’d like to get dressed now, please.”
“Go right ahead.” He zipped his fly. The vrrpp sound seemed as loud as a bullhorn in the heavy quiet.
“Would you mind leaving the room?”
“It’s my room,” he pointed out. “I don’t have to leave.”
He obviously wasn’t going to make this easy for her. With a frustrated huff, she reached for her dress. He reached out at the same time, his hands closing over the garment, and over her fingers, before she could get away.
Electricity jolted through her. She stumbled back, trying not to stare at his bare chest, trying desperately not to think about what it would feel like against hers. Had he held her last night? Had he curled himself around her, draped a leg over her hips and pressed his-
She shook her head. The gnomes drummed those traitorous thoughts right out of her head. She was engaged. Three weeks from married. She’d leave thoughts like that for the nights when Barry was snoring like a chainsaw and the only sex she could get came with batteries included.
“I’m sure you’re enjoying this little game of cat and mouse-” Her hand darted out for the dress. He whisked it behind his back. All she got for her efforts was a smug grin from him and a handful of air. “-but I need to leave. My fiancé expected me hours ago.”
A lie, but not a bad one. The only people waiting for her had four paws-well, some had three-and whiskers. Barry was away this weekend.
“Do you always do what people expect you to do?”
“Of course.” She held out a hand. “My clothes?”
He leaned closer. “You’ve never once done something spontaneous, wild and unexpected?” He glanced down at her white-knuckled grip on the sheet. “Except for last night, of course,” he added with a mischievous smile.
“If you had so much as a shred of decency, you’d give me my dress and leave me alone.”
“If I were any less of a gentleman, you wouldn’t be wearing anything at all right now.” He rubbed the back of his head. “And I wouldn’t have a stiff neck from sleeping on my couch.”
Relief surged through her. Nothing happened. Thank God and Jose Cuervo. But then, a teeny, tiny part of her felt disappointed. Must be the hangover. It was ridiculous to think she’d actually want to do anything so stupid as a one-night stand. Besides the twenty percent chance of ending up pregnant or with an STD, there was the Barry element to consider.
Oh God, Barry. She needed to leave.
Candace put out her hand again. “My dress?”
But he didn’t hand it over. Instead, he placed it beside him on the bed, out of her immediate reach. “Not so fast. We didn’t get to know each other very well last night.”
“I don’t want to get to know you. I’m getting married in three weeks and it’s a little late for me to invite any new ‘friends.’ So, let’s just write last night off as a mistake and go our separate ways.”
“You keep telling me you’re engaged and yet, here you are with me. Is going home with men you don’t know something you do regularly?”
She glared at him. How could Maria and Rebecca have left her in the clutches of this maniac? “No, it’s not. I have no idea how I ended up here. Besides, you’re not my type.”
“Oh, really. Just what is your type?”
“A man who’s responsible, mature and practical.” The words rattled out of her mouth before she could stop them.
He mocked a yawn. “In other words, boring.” He stood and moved closer. “What about sexy, romantic, humorous?” He took another step. Only a few inches and a Waverly separated them. She could smell the faint scent of his cologne, a mixture of woods and man that sent shivers down her spine.
He reached out and drew the back of his hand slowly down her cheek, tracing the line of her jaw. Her body temperature leapt twenty degrees. For a minute, the room went fuzzy. “Trouble can be so much fun sometimes. Don’t you agree?”
“I-I-I wouldn’t know,” she stammered. A few Tylenol, an ice pack and a hot bath would set her straight. This hangover had to be a king-size Whopper. Otherwise, Candace knew a man like him would never make her react like a kangaroo in heat.
And yet, at the same time, she got the distinct feeling she was lying to herself.
His hand stayed along her jaw, one finger beneath her chin. Candace didn’t pull away; didn’t want to pull away. Searing electricity hummed within her, a feeling so foreign it seemed to overtake all five of her senses-a self-made mutiny. She stood there, unable to move, to think, to do anything but stare up into the stranger’s sapphire eyes.
“Last night, you told me you were tired of being bored,” he said, his voice dropping into the lower quadrants.
She swallowed. “I did?”
He nodded, slow, deliberate. “You said you wanted a man who could show you what you’d been missing.” His finger tugged her chin closer, inches from his. He leaned down and his breath tickled along her lips.
The room disappeared. Her heart stopped beating; her breath stopped coming. A tingling, twisting yearning brewed within her, making her feel she’d collapse in a heap at his feet if he stopped touching her.
Don’t. Don’t stop. Don’t do this. Don’t stop. Don’t…
“Do you still want to know?”
She opened her mouth to answer but no words came out. Instead, she felt her head, which seemed disconnected from her body and her brain, give a short, quick nod. A hot gush of anticipation rushed through her veins.
Don’t. Oh, yes. Do.
He closed the gap between them, his lips a breath away from hers. “Good,” he murmured, the word sounding sexier than anything she’d ever heard. And then, the wait was over, his mouth was on hers, hot and insistent, tugging at her to respond, her resistance evaporating in an instant.
He didn’t just kiss her-he orchestrated a concert against her lips, his mouth at first tender, seeking, then hot and demanding. She leaned closer, gripping at him, the sheet forgotten, her life outside this room a distant memory. His body was hard-harder in some places than others-and that only fueled what she felt, adding kerosene to the flame.
His tongue slipped into her mouth and she responded the same, grasping and seeking, and not even knowing why. All she wanted was more. More of whatever magic he seemed to possess in his touch.
And then, just as quickly, he ended the kiss, pulling back and inserting distance between them. Candace stood there, stunned and mute. Her entire body pulsated like one giant hormone.
“Does he ever kiss you that way?”
She blinked. “Who?”
“Bob Boring.” She stood there, drawing a blank. “Your fiancé.”
“Oh.” Candace swallowed and forced herself back to Planet Earth. Engaged women did not kiss other men. They also didn’t go home with strange men and wake up in their underwear, but for now, she was just going to deal with the kissing part. Bad idea, bad thing to do-
But oh-so-good for those few seconds.
No, she wasn’t going to think about that. This had been an exceedingly bad choice. She would forget about it, move on, and marry Bob B-
Barry. His name was Barry.
“Sure, he’s kissed me like that before.”
“Uh huh. Of course he has.” The man grinned. His hand dropped away and his demeanor changed back into the teasing one she’d seen earlier.
Teasing she could deal with. Kisses that imprinted themselves on her lips like permanent tattoos, well-
“Have you ever read ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?'”
What? Had he just said what she thought? After what happened a moment ago? The man was crazy. Clearly a flag-waving conservative. “I’m standing here in my underwear and you want to discuss poetry?”
He reached over and withdrew the third book from the pile on the nightstand. “Read it sometime,” he told her, tossing her the thin volume. “You might realize what you’ll be missing if you marry Mr. Boring.”
Instinctively, she put out her hands to catch the book. The sheet dropped to the floor, landing in a puddle of cream.
To her surprise, Romeo/Loverboy averted his eyes, glancing up at the ceiling instead of at her underwear. She clutched the book in front of her with one hand and bent to grab the sheet off the floor with the other. “For your information,” she continued as if nothing happened, as if that kiss wasn’t still burned into her brain, as if she still had her wits about her and hadn’t lost them somewhere between the Oriental carpet and the Casablanca fan, “I’m not missing anything. Barry happens to be a wonderful man.”
“If he’s so wonderful, why are you here with me?”
Candace wasn’t about to answer that question. Not for him and certainly not for herself. She wasn’t going to ask herself why she’d kissed him back, why her instincts were screaming at her to drag him back to the bed and see what happened when they went beyond mouths.
Instead, she yanked her dress off the bed. When she turned on her heel, the sheet tangled around her ankles and she lost her balance. Again.
Before she could topple to the floor, a strong arm looped around her waist. He released her an instant later, but not before a blazing heat shot through her midsection, undoing a good portion of her resolve. Her gaze traveled back down to his legs. Damn. Those were an unfair advantage over her hormones.
She blamed it on too many Highlander episodes and Jose’s morning-after effect.
“Bathroom’s over there, in case you forgot.” He pointed to the room on her left, giving her a knowing smirk.
Oh God, he’d caught her looking. Red heat crept up her neck. “Oh, I noticed everything in the room,” she said. “I just didn’t pay attention to the things that didn’t interest me.” She passed a quick, dismissing glance over his torso.
There. That should set him straight.
Then she tossed her hair over her shoulder and walked across the room with as much aplomb as was possible for a woman wearing bed linens.