Want a peek of By the Hour? How about the whole first chapter? Here you go! :)
Copyrighted Material Roni Loren 2017 - All Rights Reserved
*18 and over only* - This is a pre-copyedited chapter so please forgive any mistakes. :)
Maybe she was a masochist after all. God knows what else could’ve compelled her to attend someone else’s party on her birthday. Dr. Elle McCray shifted against the worn wooden chair and traced her fingertip over the smooth-with-time initials that had been gouged into the table of Parrain’s PoBoys. D + R = 4Ever
Forever. Sure. That’s a realistic plan, D and R. Good luck with that. She flattened her palm over the stranger’s engraving and tried not to look like she was about to jump out of her skin.
She should’ve never come. The food was good and the music all right, but the festive atmosphere was grating against her mood and drawing blood. Dr. Marin Rush had gotten a permanent position at The Grove, the elite mental health institute where they all worked, and everyone was celebrating. Yay for Marin. She’d also gotten the guy. Donovan West, former resident of Elle’s bed, was currently wrapped up in an embrace with Marin, smiling like a love drunk idiot. Radiating for God’s sake.
The deep fried shrimp Elle had eaten a few minutes ago turned in her stomach. Ugh. She hated the knee jerk reaction seeing the two of them caused. Why should she care one way or the other? She didn’t even like Donovan West. Personality-wise, they’d always been incompatible. But he’d been a convenient solution to her no dating policy. Donovan had seemed as uninterested in a relationship as she was and was fine keeping it strictly physical. It had worked.
But somehow, a new, younger psychologist had strolled onto the scene and had woken up a part of Donovan that Elle hadn’t even known existed. Elle had been discarded like yesterday’s takeout. And that—that feeling of losing—had stirred up old crap and turned her into some embarrassing version of herself. The jealous shrew.
God. She’d tried to get Marin fired, all because Elle’s pride had been dinged—and her feelings hurt. The thought was enough to make her want to gag. She was not that type. She was not that woman who fought over a guy. When she’d caught her husband cheating, she’d walked away without fighting for him, without letting him see her flinch. She couldn’t hold onto much dignity with what had happened in her marriage, but she’d held onto that. Until now.
So every time she looked at Marin and Donovan together, that was all she could think about. I’ve become that woman. I screwed up and let myself feel something for a man. Once again, the man had reminded her exactly why she couldn’t let her guard down. He’d bailed, leaving her looking pathetic and petty. Runner-up to some other woman. Again.
Second place. First loser.
It was her own fault. She’d broken her rules. Lesson learned. Never again. That was the main reason she’d forced herself to this party—to show that she wasn’t bothered, that she was a grownup. That, and the fact that it was her birthday and it felt a little too pathetic staying home alone for it. Not that anyone knew her calendar had clicked over to a new year today. The only birthday card in her mailbox had been from her mother. The inscription had been the same as the one on the Christmas card she’d received from her a few weeks ago. Best wishes. Love, Mom.
There’d been an expensive bottle of Pinot Noir delivered with it. Elle had brought it to the party as a gift, an olive branch of sorts. She’d even managed to congratulate Marin and mostly mean it. At the end of the day, it wasn’t Marin she was angry with. The situation with Donovan had been fucked up before the woman had ever arrived on campus.
As if hearing her name from Elle’s thoughts, Marin glanced her way, a wrinkle in her brow. The woman was probably wondering why Elle had shown up. They’d managed to forge a professional working relationship in the last month or so, but they were not friends who hung out after work and would never be. But before Elle could attempt to give some sort of polite, nothing-to-see-here nod, Marin walked with purpose over to one of the other guests. The man she singled out turned and offered Marin a smile full of warmth and affection, the expression lighting his already too handsome face. An unwelcome ripple of awareness went through Elle.
Great. With all her ruminating, she hadn’t noticed him walk in.
Lane Cannon. Resident sex surrogate for The Grove’s sex therapy wing—or the X-wing as most of the staff had dubbed it. Big. Blond. And way too cocky for his own good. Though, he probably should be, considering he’d figured out how to make a legitimate living sleeping with their wealthy, often famous clients. Therapeutic assistant. That was his official title. But in her opinion, getting some certificate in California didn’t make what he did much different than being a prostitute who happened to be a good listener. She’d said as much to a colleague one day when he’d suggested one of the patients may benefit from Lane’s services. Of course, Lane had walked up and overheard her calling him a hooker. He hadn’t said a word, but the dimpled smirk he’d given her had held a big dose of go fuck yourself.
Then, he’d proceeded to talk to her colleague about the patient and ignore Elle completely.
First, it had pissed her off. It was her wing, dammit. Her patients. She’d started to interrupt, but then he’d sent her a look of simmering challenge, brow cocked, eyes daring her. For some reason, it had sent a rush of wildfire through Elle, heating her from the inside out, and it’d had nothing to do with anger. She was so used to people deferring to her, being exceedingly polite, being professional because she was a doctor, because she was a boss, because she was in charge. Because she could be a scary bitch and didn’t apologize for it. But with that one look, Lane had thrown down the challenge. You don’t intimidate me, doctor. You don’t impress me. Just try and play those games and see what happens.
It had been further proof that her wires were tangled now when it came to sex and men. Other women wanted romance, sweetness, love. She’d been that way once upon a time. Her ex-husband had promptly burned that fantasy to the ground, exposing it for the sham it was. Window dressing on lies. Now, she got turned on by the thought of a good hate fuck. Those were honest. Those were real. Pure physical release.
And everything in that look that day had said that Lane was more than capable of hating her right into a screaming, begging-for-more orgasm.
So when Marin handed Lane a fresh glass of wine and nudged him Elle’s way, Elle should’ve known that it was time to get up and leave. She didn’t like Lane. He didn’t like her. And she certainly didn’t need Marin sending him over because she pitied Elle sitting alone. Screw that.
But Elle couldn’t seem to make herself get up and bail. With Lane eating up the space between them with those long, powerful legs, his green eyes locking with hers, she couldn’t seem to do anything at all. His lips curled at the corner, as if he knew the effect he had on her. To others, the expression probably appeared friendly. After all, he was the laid back, good time guy in everyone else’s eyes. The guy you’d call when you got a flat tire or if you drank too much and needed a ride. But she saw the wicked glint beneath. The one that said he liked to stir up trouble, that he liked to put people off balance. That he could put her off balance.
And damn, it didn’t help that he was nice to look at. Dark blue henley stretching over broad shoulders, jeans soft and worn in the right places, and thick-soled boots that made a heavy sound against the wood floor. Nothing pretentious or overdone. He looked like a guy who drank domestic beer and worked with his hands.
Hands. The thought snapped her back into reality. The guy did work with his hands. On other woman. Hell. This is why she needed to steer clear of Lane Cannon. He scrambled her goddamned brain, especially after so many months of abstinence. She sat up straighter in her chair and crossed her arms, sending the go away signal with a bullhorn. That always worked. She had a Ph.D. in that signal.
Lane ignored it. He grabbed the chair next to her, slid into it, and then plunked the glass of wine he’d been carrying onto the table in front of her. When she didn’t reach for it or acknowledge him, he draped his arm over the back of her chair like she’d invited him there. He didn’t touch her, but his body heat warmed her neck as he stared out at the group like she’d been doing. “You know, I’ve heard you can’t really kill someone with a look. But good on you for continuing to test the theory.”
She didn’t look his way and tried to keep her expression smooth as he did the man-spread next to her—knees wide, big body taking up too much space. He smelled like laundry soap and dark, rich beer. And when the side of his knee bumped against hers, soft jeans against her bare skin, an uninvited spark of awareness shot straight upward, announcing his presence to her renegade lady parts. She cleared her throat. “Brave of you to be a test subject.”
His lips quirked in her periphery. “I saw you give the death ray to Donovan earlier. Figured if he survived, I was safe.”
She frowned, hating that any of her emotions about Donovan had slipped through, hating that she even had emotions about Donovan. “Don’t be too confident. If you’re coming over here to tell me to smile or join the party, I may dial the look up to eleven.”
“Ouch, Spinal Tap level.” He took a drag off his beer. “But no. You do your thing. I don’t need you to smile and fake it to make me comfortable. I’m good.”
“Because you’re comfortable anywhere,” she said, not hiding the wryness in her tone.
He shrugged. “Pretty much.”
She grabbed the wine and sipped, enjoying the smooth warmth of it and hoping it would settle the jumpy feeling Lane’s presence was causing. “Must be nice.”
“It is.” He peered her way. “So why are you so uncomfortable?”
“Never said I was.” She took another long gulp of wine.
“Right. So you’re totally chill with watching the guy you used to hook up with fawn all over his new woman?”
The wine caught in her throat, making it burn and forcing her to cough. No one except Marin was supposed to know about her and Donovan’s history. They’d been so careful. “He’s not—we weren’t.”
“Calm down. Not judging. Just observant.” He glanced back at Donovan and Marin as the two goofed around and danced to some upbeat country song drifting from the jukebox. “If it helps, she turned me down for him. So that just proves that fate had a plan for them.”
She snorted. “Fate?”
“Absolutely. Because, let’s face it, I’m really hard to turn down. I mean, look at me.”
Elle turned automatically and he grinned.
“Made you look.”
She groaned. “Can you go away now?”
He swigged his beer. “Nope. This is fun. We should do this more often. Or are you afraid my hooker cooties are going to get on you?”
She sniffed. “If you’re expecting me to apologize for stating an opinion, don’t hold your breath. You get paid to get off. I call it like I see it.”
“Is that right?” He cocked his head. “Always so sure you know it all, huh? Must be a nice view from that glass tower.”
He teeth pressed against each other.
He leaned in, getting way too close, and lowered his voice. “Truth is. You don’t see me at all, doc. You don’t try to see. Not me or anyone else at this party.”
He tipped his beer back, finishing it off and holding her gaze, then plunked it down on the table. He turned to face her fully, arm still on the back of her chair.
“But they don’t see you either,” he said. “Because you don’t want them to. And because they’re not willing to look hard enough.” His gaze traced over her face, down her throat, and then back up to her eyes, challenge there. “But I see more than you think, and that freaks you out.”
The assuredness of the statement cut right through her, made her muscles go tense, her defenses heighten, but something else charged along with them to the surface. Awareness. Deep, visceral awareness of this man who was now so close.
“I know this game,” he continued, his voice like a rough caress. “Get them before they get you. I can play it better than anyone. Believe me. But nobody wins that game. It’s a miserable fucking existence. You came to a party with people who aren’t your friends to do what? Sit here in judgment? To prove a point? To show him that you moved on? What? It’s certainly not to try to make friends because I’m the first person to really talk to you tonight, and you’ve done everything you can to chase me off.”
She wet her lips, defiantly holding his stare. “I don’t need a friend. If you’re here for that, this is the wrong tree to bark up.”
Something flickered in his gaze at her tone and his jaw flexed. “What do you need then?”
The question hung between them, taunting her. What do you need? What do you want?
The silence stretched on until she could hear her heartbeat in her ears.
“Tell me,” he said, quiet command in his voice. “And maybe you’ll get it.”
That was what she was afraid of. She knew what she needed, but he was the last person she should get it from. This was why she should’ve walked out when he sat down next to her. “I need to forget.”
The words slipped out as his thumb moved along the back of her chair, giving an inadvertent, barely there brush to her shoulder. It set her on fire.
All of it. Her failed marriage. Her screw up with Donovan. That she was almost forty and alone on her birthday. That she was—So. Fucking. Angry. All the goddamned time.
She needed oblivion and to get out of her head and to just be for a little while. She needed to leave, go to some other bar, find some other man in some other place. Escape the knowing gaze of Lane Cannon. But that’s not what came out of her mouth. “I need to forget that you’re you and I’m me and that we don’t like each other.”
A half-smile touched his lips, a slow lift, but there was no humor in his eyes. His gaze was intent, searching…soul-stripping. “I like you just fine, Elle McCray. In fact, I’m liking you more and more each second that you look at me like that.” He thumb traced along the spot where her neck met her shoulder—hardly a touch but most definitely on purpose this time. “Tell me what would make you forget.”
She swallowed, trying to ease the sudden dryness in her throat and ignoring the gathering warmth between her thighs, the brush of her hardening nipples against her bra. She was losing control of this fast and wasn’t sure if she was happy about that or panicked. “Do I have to spell it out? Or are four-letter words too long for you?”
The smile became a full one now. A predatory one. Her insult seemed to only egg him on. “Bold suggestion from a woman who was trying to scare me off a minute ago. You don’t even like me.”
“No. I don’t.” She closed her eyes for a second, trying to regain her breath, and whispered. “That’s the best part.”
The confession slipped out and and he tipped his head, like he was processing her words, assessing her. But then his thumb pressed against her spine. “I promise you. That definitely won’t be the best part.”
Her neck felt hot, the air in the room thick. “No?”
He bent close to her ear, his scent drifting over her. “No. The best part will be when I’m deep inside you and you’re riding your edge, begging for this guy you hate to give you exactly what you need, to drive you so out of your mind that you have no choice but to forget everything except the way I’m fucking you and how good it feels and how much you want it.”
She closed her eyes, the words rushing over her like open palms on naked skin. Fuck. “We can’t…I don’t…”
Lane sat back. “Tell me to go away again, Elle. Lie and tell me you want me to go away and I will.”
Her eyes fluttered open and she wet her lips, nerves and good sense trying to take hold. She shifted her gaze to the party. It felt like spotlights were burning down on her and Lane, exposing all their secret whispered words. But no one was paying attention to them. And even if someone looked over, all anyone would see were two people talking. No one would be able to see how fast her heart was beating or how damp her panties had gotten. No one would see that the man who spent his days patiently guiding people in intimacy training had just offered to fuck her until she was begging.
She needed to say no. To end this. “We can’t leave together.”
His smile went smug. “Don’t want to be seen slumming it with someone who doesn’t have a doctorate?”
She shot him a look.
“Give me your address. I know you live on campus. You can leave first. I’ll wait a few minutes and then head over.”
Before she could think too hard about it, she nodded. “I’m the only house on the northwest side of the pond. My name’s on the mailbox.” She took a breath. “No one can ever know about this. I don’t want to talk when you get there. You will use protection. And if I say no to something, you stop.”
“Wow, a checklist. No romantic wooing for you, McCray? No drinks by the fireplace while we get to know each other?”
“If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking at the wrong woman. And let’s not pretend you actually want to get to know me. We have nothing in common.”
He narrowed his eyes, considering her. “Leave your door unlocked. Keep the lights low so no one sees me coming in. And don’t change out of this dress.” He let his gaze slide down over her with slow deliberation. “I want to have the pleasure of ripping it off of you.”
A shimmer of anticipation went through her at that image. Maybe this was exactly what she needed tonight. An ill-advised forbidden night with a guy who looked like he could keep a dirty promise. She drained her wine and then picked up her handbag, rising on tingling legs. “’Til then.”
He stayed in his seat but grabbed her wrist before she could leave. “One more thing.”
She tugged her arm free of his loose grip in case anyone looked there way. “Yes?”
“If you lock your door, I’ll walk away and never come back. You can dislike me all you want, but you won’t play games with me. At least not that kind.”
She nodded, the undercurrent of authority in his voice doing more to her than it should. Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky had a darkness to him, things lurking in his tone that scared her a little. She wished seeing that didn’t made her want him ten times more. “Nothing will be locked. You’ll have full access.”
The look he gave her promised filthy, tawdry things. “Full access.”
To everything her body had to give.
And nothing her heart did.
She left him sitting there and walked out of the party without saying good-bye. She hadn’t found any friends tonight, but maybe she’d found exactly what she needed for her birthday.
A way to forget.
And someone to forget with.