“This dress is too tight.” Allyson Benson tugged the bodice of the black dress up to cover more of her bosom. “Are you sure I have to go to the costume party as a vampiress? It’s an end-of-summer party. I’m a much better Bo Peep. I’m not comfortable in this thing.” She stared at her sister. “And why did you decide on a costume party for June?”
“If you play your cards right, you won’t have to worry about how tight the dress is, because it won’t be on you.” Susanna tugged the dress back into place. “An end-of-the-summer costume party is more fun than just a get-together. The reason I chose that dress for you was because I’m tired of my baby sister being mopey and lonely. Someone will see you in that dress and pounce.”
“I’ll cop to the lonely part, but not mopey.” She prided herself on keeping her desire to find a boyfriend to herself. The last thing she needed was her sister fixing her up. Susanna had Ray and, according to her, that was how life should be—everyone should be paired with their perfect match. Everyone should find someone and settle down in their own way.
Good for Susanna. Not so much for me.
Allyson adjusted the bodice of her dress again. No matter how hard she wriggled or tugged, half of her breasts showed above the lace around the neckline. What if she wasn’t interested in settling—not down or otherwise? Her sister would flip out. Susanna didn’t understand the way Allyson felt—like a square hole trying to find a decent round peg. The guys she tended to meet only wanted to say they’d done a kindergarten teacher. Like being with someone who had her job was a bucket-list item!
Yes, she taught five-year-olds, but there was more to her than a job. She tended to stop the guys at one date and didn’t invite many to bed. Two guys had found out about her kinks and both expected her to play with them full-time. She didn’t mind having a steady partner, but she couldn’t allow either man to collar her—not with the thick metal band collars they’d chosen. If the parents of her students figured out why she had such a thing, she’d probably get fired.
She remembered the blow-up when one of the high school teachers, Missy Pallas, had been caught in a compromising position with a parent. The school board had had a fit. She had kept her job, but her issue taught Allyson to keep her mouth shut. Then there was the incident with Katie and Corey Murphy. Katie’s mentee teacher had sworn he and she were more than teaching partners. She’d worked out the situation with her now husband, Corey, but the whole thing had been a disaster.
She sighed. Maybe she’d met the wrong men. Maybe she hadn’t looked in the right places. Allowing her friends to fix her up hadn’t worked, either. Besides, Katie and Lacy were both happily in relationships. Katie had married Corey and Lacy had a long-term thing going with Dane. Where was she? The odd duck without a date. Lacy kept trying to fix Allyson up with guys from her gym and a parent from her son’s preschool. Despite Lacy’s efforts, nothing worked out.
“Do you think I’m too picky?” Allyson draped the necklace around her throat. The enormous drop pendant nestled in her cleavage. “With guys?” She smoothed the dress again. At least she’d been able to wear the strapless bra with the get-up. God help her if her sister found out about her nipple piercing.
“I think you should be picky. I also think you need to open up.” Susanna adjusted the necklace. “The right guy will come along. You never know. He might be right under your nose.”
Allyson pressed her lips together. The right man—the one she’d dreamed about—was there and under her nose, but he wasn’t interested. Jordy Murphy featured in her fantasies. Tall, blond, tan and strong, he embodied what she wanted in a guy. Plus, her knees turned to jelly each time he smiled at her.
“Which is why we’re dressing up. If I had you show up in your normal clothes, you’d wear something baggy. The idea is to entice the guy, not keep him guessing that much.” Susanna stood behind her and shimmied into the teeniest Bo Peep costume Allyson had ever seen.
“Ah,” Allyson said. “I can’t be Peep because you called it.” She brushed her hair away from her eyes. At least in the low lights of the party, she could hide and escape if the shindig got too boring. She wobbled on her high-heeled boots and tottered out to the living room. Between the ridiculous shoes and the tight skirt, she’d kill herself by falling and that was before she’d even arrived it to the party venue. She managed to leave her sister’s condo and make her way to the recreation center on the complex property.
“Want some help?” A man in a toga strode up to her. “I’m Chad. Have we met before? Are you going to suck my blood? I’ll let you.”
Good Lord. She hated the overeager guys. “We have met before.” Although she didn’t want to hang out with him, she took his hand to keep from falling over. “You tried to sell me insurance where I work.”
He helped her up the steps and into the rec center. “Stephanie, right?”
“No, it’s Allyson.” The jerk. There was a possibility he was bad with names, but she’d seen him chatting up the fifth-grade teacher. If he thought Stephanie was anything like her, he’d lost his mind.
“Oh.” He frowned. “Huh. I could’ve sworn you were Steph. I think she’s got that dress.”
“It is popular to wear a vampiress gown for an end-of-summer party.” He’d wounded her with his comparison to Stephanie. She hardly matched up to the elegant woman. Stephanie Anderson stood almost five-feet-ten-inches in her high-heeled shoes. She had a tiny waist, ample breasts and natural light-blonde hair. She knew how to dress well and worked a cool attitude. She was everything Allyson wished she could be.
“Wait.” Chad swatted her shoulder. “What about a date? You and me?”
“I’m past my quota on Romans. If you were Etruscan or even Greek, I might consider it.” She brushed past him and continued into the main hall. When she glanced back, Chad stood with his forehead crinkled.
“Nice,” she muttered. “Of course, your obscure reference jokes wouldn’t work. The poor guy has no idea what you meant.” She gave up chiding herself and took stock of the room. The strobe lights blared and the disco ball sent rainbows all over the place. The music could’ve deafened her. She struggled to see who had arrived. The longer she surveyed the crowd, the more she wondered why she was there. She didn’t know any of the tunes and wasn’t a crowd person. Throw her into a room full of kindergarteners and she’d be fine. Dealing with people around her age petrified her.
She turned on her heel, but instead of leaving the party, she collided with a solid wall of muscle. She breathed in the scent—pine and spice. Jordy? She took a step back and stared at the man she’d run into. “Jordy?” she blurted. “Is that you?”
The guy’s face was half obscured by a Phantom of the Opera mask. Scruff covered his cheek and, in the dim light of the foyer, she couldn’t be sure he was Jordy Murphy. But if she had to collide with someone, Jordy would be the guy. She dipped her head. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going. Excuse me.” She sidestepped him. “I’m very sorry.”
“Why?” He removed the mask. “It’s me, Ally.” He grinned. “You figured me out. I thought I’d be incognito.”
“Guess I’m a good…guesser.” She frowned. She really needed to stop talking. “I’ll see you.”
“What’s spooked you?” Jordan snagged her wrist. “Are you okay?”
“You surprised me.” Holy crap. He was not only there, but touching her. Her mouth watered and she swept her gaze over him. The suit did wonders in showing off his lean frame. He made the movie version of the Phantom look cheesy by comparison. She summoned up her composure. Don’t blow this. “Where’s Christine?” Too late.
“Who?” This time Jordy frowned. “Huh?”
“The Christine to your Phantom.” She tugged her hand from his and laced her fingers together. “You’ve never seen the play or the movie, have you? The heroine is named Christine. The Phantom takes her away.” Her body warmed to the core. From the moment she’d met Jordy, she’d wanted him. Who didn’t? The former baseball player had become the stud of the elementary school staff. He walked with a swagger down the halls and always looked so handsome in his requisite running shorts and T-shirts as the elementary school physical education teacher.
“Oh. You’re lucky I knew the character was even called the Phantom. I just liked the mask and the suit.” Jordy laughed. “Yeah, I’m clueless.”
“Or you’ve taken one too many kickballs to the head.” She nodded once. Small talk over and she’d only minimally embarrassed herself. Her toes ached from the boots and she wasn’t sure how much longer the dress would contain her breasts. “Well, I’m sure you’ve got a date and I’m needed…elsewhere.”
“Who said I had a date?” Jordy stepped into her path. “I’m on my own tonight.”
“Oh.” She swayed on the boots. “You’ve always got a date. Hell, I thought you were seeing Stephanie Anderson. I saw you with her at the Robin’s Nest back in June.” They’d held hands and Stephanie had looked longingly into Jordy’s eyes. Allyson remembered the scene well because she’d wished she’d been in Stephanie’s place.
“We went to lunch.” Jordy shrugged. “She’s got a thing for Phil and thought she’d make him jealous. It worked. He got angry and they patched things up.”
“Huh.” She hadn’t thought Phil was Stephanie’s type. Phil rarely spoke, hardly looked up from his computers and thought everyone understood calculus like he did.
“I’m here to support my buddy, Ray, and his old lady, Sassy Susanna.” Jordy nodded once. “She’s a trip.”
“She’s my sister.”
His eyes widened. “Susanna? The girl who dances on tables and shouts at people is your sister? No way.”
“Yep.” She was the boring sister. She’d never danced on a table or shouted at anyone. No, she’d just gone to the piercer and had a metal ring inserted in her nipple. She liked to frequent a dungeon a hundred miles from Valley City in order to sate her desire to be spanked and tied up. Yeah…she didn’t compare to Sweet Susanna.
Jordy tugged her over to the opposite corner of the DJ table. “Better.”
“Ah, so no one will see you with me. Smart,” Allyson said. She knew her place in the social strata.
“No, so maybe they will,” he said. Jordy flipped his cape out of the way. “What is it about you?”
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I don’t know, but you can cut the act. I like you. Have since I walked into Valley City Elementary. I’d love a chance to be with you, but I know you. You’ve got me right here, not because you’re interested, but so you can keep the other women at bay. Or are you avoiding someone?”
Jordy clutched his heart. “You’ve wounded me.”
“Am I right?” She folded her arms, bunching her breasts beneath the black fabric. “You can be a dog when you want.”
“I am not.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Sure.” She shook her head. “Look, I’m here because my sister wanted me to meet a guy. I did. His name was Chad and he was boring. Now my job will be to help her clean up the mess. I’m not generally good enough to be around her friends, but she must’ve decided to make an exception tonight. Besides, I’m shy and hate crowds. She must’ve been shorthanded for tomorrow, too.”
“I didn’t think I’d seen you at these before. I’ve known Ray since high school. He’s a jerk, but he throws one hell of a party.” Jordy leaned against the table and folded his arms. “But I’d never call you shy. You and Katie work a room like no other.”
“A classroom, maybe. I hate being in front of my peers.” Talking to him scared her to death. “I feel like I’m being judged. Right now, in this dress, I’m guessing I am. There’s a woman across the way in a powder-blue fairy costume. She’s looked you over twice. When she spotted me, she crinkled her nose. I get it. I’m out of your league.” Oh God, she’d babbled and said way too much.
“I don’t think so.” Jordy turned his back on the woman. “She has nothing to worry about.”
“Thanks.” She needed to go. “I’ve heard the other teachers talk. They think because I’m quiet, I don’t hear things. I hear more than they believe. I’m kooky, shy and the one voted least likely to get married. You, on the other hand, are the school saddle. Everyone gets to ride. If there’s gossip, your name comes up.” She couldn’t help but be a little jealous. She wanted to be the woman in Jordy’s life at least once, but she’d messed up by speaking her mind.
“I try to ignore the rumors. They aren’t true.”
“Right.” She rested her hands on her hips. “Look, I should be going. You ought to be out there dancing and having a good time. The girls over at the DJ stand are eyeballing you. They’ll be over soon and I don’t want to be in the way.” She’d talk herself out of just about anything at this rate.
“Who says I’m not having fun or wanting to be right where I am?” Jordy stood and towered over her. His breath warmed her face. He grasped her hands in his. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Yeah.” She couldn’t help but be rather happy he’d shown up, too. Her skin tingled from his touch. She liked him more than she wanted to admit and hated herself for falling for him. Between her shyness and not being like any woman he probably preferred…she’d aimed right out of her league.
“Why don’t you like me?” Jordy asked. “You look at me and run. I’m not that awful, am I?”
“You had to ask that?” she blurted. She’d seen him operate and longed to be on the receiving end, but her damn bluntness had gotten the better of her. “You’re all cock and bull. I don’t know how to talk to you.”
“Like you are right now?” He frowned but didn’t let go of her. “You’re giving me a complex.”
“I’m sure one of the princesses over there will help you mend your ego.”
He rubbed the top of her hands with his thumbs. “I’d rather you did. Give me a chance. Ally, you’re not like the other women. You’re refreshing.”
“Ah. That translates into ugly.”
“Come on,” she said. “It’s the dress, then. You’re paying attention because my assets are on view.” She’d kick her sister for picking the ridiculous outfit for her.
“I’m seeing a new side of you, yes.”
She glanced down at her attire. Shit. Was there a hole? A runner? Had she split the thing and not realized it?
“What?” Jordy curled his fingers under her chin. “You look fantastic tonight.”
“Just don’t. I’m not that kind of girl you sleep with once and throw away.” If he learned her secrets, he’d either run his mouth or run away. “The rumors are right—I’m going to be the last teacher to get married because the right guy isn’t out there.”
“I disagree. I’d like to see you, Ally. Maybe we could dance and have a few drinks then get to know each other better.” He stepped up close to her again. “I won’t haunt you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He paused. “See? I did watch the movie. I know what the Phantom does. I might whisk you away to my basement dungeon and have my way with you, but you have to give me the chance first.”
“Smart ass.” She debated wriggling free of him, but her body refused to cooperate with her brain’s request.
“I might bite—or, better yet, let you bite me.” He laughed. “I’m easy.”
Oh boy. She hesitated. He was the one she wanted. She’d fantasized about him and to actually be in his arms… She’d had her dream come true and her nightmare exposed. “Okay, but don’t do this so you can dodge someone.”
“I’m not that kind of guy. You’re my focus.” Jordy brushed his thumb across her bottom lip. “When I’m with someone, that’s it.”
“Uh-huh.” She allowed him to tug her from the main hall out to the foyer, then the uncharacteristically cool June night.
Jordy held her to his chest, then spun her around so her ass nestled in the vee of his crotch. He rubbed against her. He slid his hands from her hips to her belly and kept her tight to his body. “I wanted to dance, but out here because it’s chilly.” He dragged his lips along the back of her neck. “You’re one hot vampire.” He nibbled on her skin. “Maybe you should bite me.”
She turned around to face him. God, the man was handsome and strong. His embrace warmed her to the core. She draped her arms about his neck. She had him where she wanted him. “What would you do if I asked if we could leave?”
“I’d think you were ditching me.” Jordy kept her close. “Why?”
If she wanted a chance with him, she’d have to go for it herself. “Do you like me?”
“Ally?” He stared at her. After a second, he loosened his embrace. “Do I like you? You’re my sister’s friend.”
“Ah.” So that was the score—she was locked in the friend zone. She wriggled free and gathered her composure. “I understand. Thank you.” She started away from him. Damn it. She refused to let him see her crack. She knew she was out of his league.
“Ally.” Jordy kept up with her. “I didn’t—I’m confused. Talk to me.” He stepped in front of her, forcing her to stop.
Fuck it. Instead of explaining, she mashed her mouth on his. She hooked her fingers into his belt loops. The bulge in his pants rubbed against her again. Touching him stoked the fire deep within her. Ignoring him hadn’t done any good in getting him out of her system. He still managed to creep into her thoughts. Kissing him only reinforced her desire for him and confused her more. She should be pushing him away, not pulling him closer. If she’d only admit she wanted him, this would be a lot easier. Too bad she excelled in taking the pockmarked, potholed road.