The Player:Moorehouse Legacy(10)

By: J. R. Ward
Chapter Ten

A WEEK LATER GRAY WATCHED as Joy walked into the Congress Club’s bar. His blood pumped harder just seeing her. It was always like that. Anytime she came into sight. Anytime he smelled her. Anytime he thought about her.

To hell with exposure therapy. He wanted her more every day, not less, though he was keeping a leash on himself.

And he knew he was lucky. One of Cass’s friends had seen some of Joy’s work and ordered two gowns. Which meant Joy had had to stay in Manhattan even after she’d finished the dress for Cass. So he’d had a rare chance to see her on a regular basis.

He’d been with her almost every night, taking her to the theater, out to dinner, to a gallery opening. But at the end of each date, he left her at the lobby of Cassandra’s building with nothing more than the request to see her the next day. He was never sure he would. He kept waiting for her to pull the plug on him, uncertain when he phoned Cass’s that Joy would accept his call or even still be in town.

The combination of sexual frustration and newfound insecurity was driving him nuts. As a public service, every night he’d go back to the Waldorf, change into his workout clothes and hit the gym for hours. He was so sore from lifting, he could barely brush his teeth. And stairs were a challenge because he’d burned out his thighs on the treadmill.

At this rate he was going to end up with dentures and a walker. Prematurely.

When Joy caught sight of him, she gave him a little wave. As she came over to his table, other men watched her discreetly and eyed Gray with envy. He didn’t appreciate either kind of attention. He didn’t need to be reminded of how attractive other men found her.

“You are not going to believe this,” she said as he helped her with a chair.

God, she was beautiful. Her hair was up tonight and her cheeks glowed from the cold wind blowing through the city.

He wanted to kiss her hello, but didn’t. He’d been so careful not to touch her though the distance was nearly impossible to bear. Focusing on the pale line of her throat, he wanted to—

“Gray?”

“Sorry?”

She smiled at him. “I asked if you’d seen this.”

He looked at what she was holding out to him. It was the Style section of the New York Times. There was a picture of Cassandra wearing a stunning red gown and the caption underneath had Joy named as the designer.

“Cassandra’s dress was a hit at the gala! And four more of her friends want me to make gowns for them. Isn’t this great?”

He smiled, enjoying her pleasure. Her pride. “I’m not surprised in the slightest.”

“I’m going to see the women tomorrow morning and then go home and work on the gowns.”

“Home? To Saranac Lake?” When she nodded, he frowned. “Do you have to leave?”

“I can’t very well keep staying with Cass. She’s been far too generous with that guest room already.” As the bartender came over, she looked up. “I’d like a Chardonnay, please. Just the house.”

The man nodded. “Another bourbon for you, Mr. Bennett?”

“No, I’m good.” When they were alone, he said, “I have an extra bedroom. Would you like to stay with me?”

He almost hoped she’d say no. The idea of her sleeping across the suite from him was enough to make his skin itch.

“Thanks, but no. I have to go home. Grand-Em is better on her new meds, but they all need a break from watching her. And Nate and Frankie’s wedding is in three weeks. I want to be there to help out.” She leaned back as her wine was put down. “Thank you.”

Gray stroked the side of his glass, trying to rearrange his schedule in his head. “I have to go to D.C. tomorrow, otherwise I’d drive you back.”

“That’s okay. I like the train.”

“When will you return?”

A large shadow came over their table. “Hey, Bennett, what’s doing?”

Gray looked up at Sean O’Banyon. The man was wearing a well-well-well-isn’t-this-interesting expression.

“O’Banyon,” Gray said, while shooting a warning glance at his friend. “I thought you were in Japan this week.”

“Came back early. And who might you be?” the man murmured, looking at Joy.

“Joy Moorehouse,” she answered, offering her hand and a smile.

“Joy? Nice name.”

“Thank you,” she said, as they shook.

“Mind if I join you?”

Now, that was a bad idea, Gray thought. “As a matter of fact, yes—”

“Of course not.” Joy glanced across the table, obviously surprised at his rudeness.

As SOB took a seat, Gray reminded himself that the darkly handsome man was a good buddy. And not target practice.

“So, Joy, has Bennett been showing you a lot of the city?”

“Is it so obvious I’m not from here?”

SOB smiled, clearly determined to dust off his charm. The bastard. “No, I just recall my man mentioning that you lived up north.”

Joy’s eyes skipped across the table, as if she were surprised Gray had been talking about her.

Gray glowered. “Don’t you have to be somewhere hocking stocks, O’Banyon? Like a widows and orphans convention?”

SOB laughed and ordered a whiskey.

“I’ve got plenty of time to spare. Unlike yourself. I hear Wright’s got a shot in the mayoral election thanks to your magic.” The man smiled across the table at Joy. “Has Bennett told you what he really does for a living?”

Gray nursed his bourbon. “She doesn’t want to hear about that.”

“Actually, I do,” Joy said.

“No, you don’t.”

“Ah, Bennett’s just being shy.” SOB rolled right along. “He’s a makeover artist. He turns people into whoever he needs them to be to get elected. I keep telling him if he gets tossed out of Washington, he could always pick up some tweezers and a tube of lipstick. You know, work the Chanel counter somewhere.”

“I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Joy said, glancing at Gray with expectation.

God, the idea of talking to her about what he did made him feel the proverbial dirt under his nails more than ever.

When he stayed quiet, she prompted, “And it must be so exciting.”

“It isn’t,” Gray said briskly.

“Oh, come on,” SOB shot back, “you’re at the epicenter of American politics and I love your stories. Remember that time when—”

Gray’s voice sliced right through his friend’s words. “So, O’Banyon, I hear you’re bringing out an IPO on one of Nick Farrell’s companies.”

There was a long pause.

Sean’s eyes narrowed and Joy shifted in her chair.

And then thankfully the conversation veered in another direction as SOB went into a whole spiel on initial public offerings. Joy asked a lot of very insightful questions, and by the time Sean had polished off his whiskey, he was looking at her as if he were actually seeing her.

This rankled, of course, but Gray had to give his friend credit. No matter how lovely Joy was, O’Banyon never looked anywhere except in her eyes. And he didn’t let his cutting humor hit on topics like men, women and relationships or Gray’s job.

When SOB got up to leave, he shook Joy’s hand, clapped Gray on the shoulder and sauntered off.

“It was nice to meet one of your friends,” Joy murmured as she watched the man cut through the crowd. “Have you known him long?”

“Since college.”

“Is he married?”

“O’Banyon? No way. That man’s not going down the aisle unless there’s a shotgun involved. And the business end’s pointed at his head.”

“Oh. Well, it sounds like he works a lot.”

“He’s one of the best investment bankers in town.”

“Doesn’t he get lonely sometimes?”

Gray laughed. “Trust me, if he spends the night by himself, it’s his choice. He’s got more women than he knows what to do with.”

Joy seemed chastened, looking down into her wineglass.

“When are you coming back to the city?” Gray asked.

“Why don’t you want to tell me about your work?”

Gray frowned. “Don’t listen to O’Banyon. It’s not that interesting. So when are you coming back?”

She stayed silent.

“Joy?”

“Is it because I’m not sophisticated?”

“Sophis—no, not at all.” He simply was not in a big hurry to tell her about the things he’d done. The threats he’d made. The threats he’d followed through on.

“Then why?”

“It’s just not relevant.” He wanted to reach across the table and take her hand. “Now, tell me, when will you be back?”

She hesitated, as if debating whether or not to let the subject drop. “After the wedding.”

Had she said her sister was getting married in three weeks? That was so long. Too long.

“I’ll come up to Saranac Lake before then,” he said. “If you’ll let me see you.”

Joy moved her wineglass from side to side, sliding it over the table’s glossy surface, the little Congress Club napkin under its base acting as a sled.

“Will you let me?” Gray pressed, aware that his whole body was tight. The idea that she would go up north and disappear terrified him for some reason. “Joy?”

She slowly nodded her head. “Yes. I’ll see you.”

“Good,” he murmured, relaxing.

“But I have to be honest, I wish I could say no. I wish I didn’t care whether or not I ever ran into you again. Actually, I wish I didn’t want to see you at all.” She frowned. “That sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be.”

“Doesn’t matter. As long as you want me. Want to see me, rather.”

“Oh, I want you, all right,” she said wryly. The blush that followed suggested she’d spoken without thinking and wished she could take the words back.

His eyes locked onto her lips. He remembered how soft they were. What they felt like against his. He imagined his tongue slipping into her mouth, penetrating, stroking.

“Gray?” she whispered. Her eyes widened, as if she’d guessed where his thoughts had headed and he’d surprised her.

He kicked back his drink, draining the last inch in the glass. “Let’s go in to dinner.”

While they ate, Joy seemed quiet, or maybe he was the one who wasn’t talking much. Whereas his mouth wasn’t working, though, his eyes were pulling overtime. He couldn’t stop staring at her, as if he were storing up memories for the next couple of weeks when he wouldn’t be able to see her as much.

And the preoccupation got worse as they went back to Cassandra’s in the limousine.

God, the idea she was leaving felt all wrong to him.

“Will you call me as soon as you’re home so I know you got up north safely?” he said.

“Sure.”

The car paused at a stoplight.

“I’m going to miss you, Joy.”

She looked across the seat as if he’d astonished her. And then she shocked the hell out of him.

She leaned forward, put her hands on his chest and kissed him softly on the mouth.

The brush of her lips against his was like getting whipped. As his body surged, he gripped her upper arms, getting caught between the urge to drag her on top of him and the memory of how he’d hurt her before.

He carefully forced her back a little. “Joy…”

“I can feel you tremble. Why are you pushing me away?”

He didn’t trust himself to speak. Because if he opened his mouth, he was just as likely to lick the skin of her neck.

When he stayed silent, she fought against his hold, her palms working their way into his jacket, onto his pecs. His body jerked reflexively, his hips popping off the seat and begging for any part of her. Her hands. Her mouth.

Dear God, her mouth.

“Do you shake because you want me, Gray? Or is it something else?”

“Sweet woman…” he groaned.

“Please, I need to know. You’ve hardly touched me since…that night. I don’t know what we’re doing on these dates. Do you still want me?”

He let go of her arms and cupped her face. “Let’s not talk about that—”

“Do you?”

“Joy—”

“Fine. I’ll find out for myself.” With a quick movement, her hand went down between his legs and settled on his heavy arousal.

His head flipped back against the seat and a moan broke out of him.

“Good Lord,” she whispered. “Gray, why are you denying us?”

He tried to peel her hands off of him and the friction of her wanting to stay with his body while he attempted to move her away was beyond pleasure. The rubbing, the heat, the knowledge that it was her hand on him, it all took him right to the edge of release. He clenched his teeth as sweat broke out across his forehead.

“Stop it,” he said, taking control. He forced her back against the seat using his strength and weight advantage. He was panting like a dog and rabid like one, too. “We’re not going to do this in the back of a limo. I’ve already treated you like a whore once, I’m not going to do it again.”

Her eyes glittered up at him. “How long are you going to penalize us for a mistake you didn’t make?”

“Until I don’t want to get sick every time I think about it.”

While he smoothed her hair back, her lips parted as if she was ready for his kiss. Looking down at her, he thought it was quite possible he would never see anything more lovely. Her cheeks were tinted with the high color of feminine desire, her chest was moving up and down in an uneven rhythm, the heat of her body was coming through her clothes into his.

“You’re so beautiful right now,” he said in a guttural voice. “You take my damned breath away.”

He couldn’t help himself. He put his mouth on hers, swallowing her sigh of satisfaction. But as much as it killed him, he kept the kiss light.

“I want you. Never doubt that,” he said. “All you have to do is look at me and I’m hard, ready, starved. I can’t remember what it’s like not to ache.”

He rolled off of her, moving back to his own side of the seat. With a wince, he rearranged himself in his pants and then put his head in his hands. The pain of wanting her was sharp and shiny as a blade, bearing deep into the muscles of his thighs, making his back spasm. He tried to keep as still as possible because even the slightest shift of his boxers had him grinding his molars.

“I’ll come up the weekend after next,” he muttered. “Because as much as it hurts to be around you, it’s worse when I don’t see you.”

* * *

WHEN JOY BOARDED her train the following afternoon and picked a place to sit, she figured she had two things going for her: she had a window seat and the car was full of businessmen. For the next three hours, the view of the Hudson River would be a welcome distraction and the relentless flipping of newspapers was better than the howls of bored, cranky children.

Although to be truthful, she was feeling something close to colicky herself.

Her meetings with Cassandra’s friends had gone well enough. The women were clear about what they liked, but not rigid. The timelines were reasonable. And the pay was outrageously good. As with Cass, the give and take as designs were discussed was something Joy really liked and the faith that the clients had in her sense of style was a compliment the likes of which she’d never had before.

So she should be happy. And she was. But as the train emerged from the Penn Station tunnel system and trundled past the high-rise apartment buildings and the projects, she felt as though she was leaving something important in the city.

Gray.

God, she missed him already. Even though she had no idea what she was to him. Did they have a relationship? She wasn’t sure. He called her, took her out, treated her with kid gloves and the utmost respect. But he never talked about feelings, or the future, or where they were going. It was, she supposed, like dating a ghost. When they were in front of you, they had your total attention. When they disappeared, you realized how little of them you’d seen.

Shaking her head, she flipped through the most recent issue of Vogue with quick fingers and careless eyes. She barely noticed the clothes, taking more interest in jettisoning the subscription flyers and ripping out the perfumed inserts that made her sneeze.

From across the aisle, she heard the soft, electronic dialing of a cell phone. She glanced over as a businessman put some NASA-worthy silver gadget up to his ear. The guy must have been in his late twenties, just like her, but he seemed way out of her league with his Wall Street clothes and his stylish, dark-rimmed glasses.

“Hey,” the guy said softly. “I’m glad you got my message. No, nothing. I was just calling to see how you’re doing.”

Joy looked away, trying not to eavesdrop.

“Today was awful, but thanks for asking.” He laughed. “You’re sure you want the gory details?” Another chuckle. “Okay…”

Definitely talking to his wife. Sharing his life with her.

Joy shifted in her seat. Crossed and then recrossed her legs. She tried to imagine Gray unloading his stress the way the guy across the aisle was doing with his woman. She couldn’t.

In the past week, Gray had reestablished himself as a great listener and a lousy talker. He always asked how she’d spent her time, where she’d gone, who she’d seen. But he never volunteered anything about himself. And when she inquired about his day? Like the politicians he worked with, he always gave her a smooth, solicitous, empty answer.

Last night at the bar, she’d been so hopeful when his friend had brought up Gray’s work. But then he’d changed the topic. Sternly.

The man across the aisle laughed again. “You’re right. I probably shouldn’t have gotten on my high horse. But the guy was undermining me in front of— I know. Yeah.”

The respect in his voice was hard to hear.

Joy looked down at her lap and realized she’d linked her fingers together and was sitting up straight. It was a pose right out of Grand-Em’s old-fashioned playbook. The proper way for a lady to sit.

As if good posture might make her worthy of being Gray’s confidante.

How pathetic.

With a series of jerks and shuffles, she tried to loosen herself up and to not dwell on how Gray saw her. The former was a success as she curled one leg under her butt and slouched against the window. The latter was an abject failure.

When she’d pressed him on why he wouldn’t talk about his work, afraid that he didn’t think she was sophisticated enough, all he’d said was no, that wasn’t it. Which was not the same thing as, No, you are not hopelessly provincial and incapable of understanding the big, bad sandbox I play in. It just meant there was another reason he kept to himself other than her being simpleminded.

Which she knew she was. At least compared to him and the kinds of people he was used to. After all, she hadn’t come to him as a woman of the world, but as a virgin from the sticks.

God, when she thought of it like that, what in good heavens had given her the confidence to get into his bed in the first place? Or to stand up to him the following morning? Or to turn him down at Tiffany’s?

Certainly she’d done all of those things. It just seemed, as the train got farther and farther from the city, she couldn’t remember how.

Maybe there was something in the Manhattan water. Like a mineral that activated the brain’s chutzpah receptors.

“About twenty minutes,” the businessman was saying. “Which is a godsend. I’m half asleep as it is.”

Joy pictured the woman on the other end of the call and wanted to be that person in Gray’s life. The one he sought out for counsel. The one he called when he was unsure. The one he held at night—

“I love you, Mom,” the man said as he hung up.

Okay, strike that. She didn’t want to be Gray’s mother.

But she would have loved the opportunity to be his equal. His partner.

Although that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. He wanted her, but he wasn’t willing to take her to bed. He liked her well enough, but affection wasn’t love. He felt badly for treating her as he had, but that was hardly a basis for a relationship.

And as she’d told him, fielding his regrets wasn’t something she was interested in.

After all, how many romantic movies had the hero and heroine embracing in the rain, their future finally clear as the man whispers, I guilt you, I truly, truly guilt you.

Yeah, right. Now there was a happy-ever-after.

So the question was, Why was she holding on?

Hope, she thought. Hope and…love.

There was just something that drew her to him. And that pull was making her resent every mile that took her farther north.

She wiggled around, drumming her fingers on the armrest. As the city receded and the suburbs began to dominate the landscape, she thought it was a little bizarre that she now knew how to get around the Big Apple. Sure, she was far from being a native, but she was familiar with the basic layout of the streets and avenues and the locations and characters of the different neighborhoods.

Heck, the Flat Iron District now meant something to her. And she could actually find it without a map. Although why Sixth Avenue had to be called the Avenue of the Americas she couldn’t understand. And circumnavigating the subway system was still a little scary.

She actually wanted to be pounding the pavement right now, heading to the garment dealers to look at samples. She’d grab a deli sandwich on the run and eat it quickly. Maybe stop later for some Zabar’s coffee that she could take out onto the street with her. She’d rush along with the other pedestrians, visions of the gowns she would make for her clients filling her mind.

As night fell, she would meet Gray for dinner at some interesting, out-of-the-way restaurant. And this time, when he took her home, he would kiss her. Come upstairs with her. Stay until morning.

By the time the train pulled into the Croton/Harmon station, and the young businessman got off, she realized she didn’t want to go home. At all.

The reticence struck her as a betrayal.

But if she was honest, heading toward White Caps made her feel as though she was strapping on a yoke. Or stepping into clothes that no longer fit. She didn’t want to go back to being the younger sister of super-competent Frankie. The sole keeper of Grand-Em. The one who’d missed and now worried so much about Alex. She didn’t want to be the good old reliable, never-ruffle-the-feathers, follow-the-rules, Joy Moorehouse.

She much preferred being a woman in the big city. Who was starting up a new business. Who was free to go where she wanted, when she wanted, without worrying about who would cover for her with an elderly person. She wanted to be that person who could tell Cassandra Cutler what would look good and be right about it. Who could find her way around New York and be comfortable in the back of a taxi all by herself.

Most of all, she wanted to go back to being a lover capable of making Gray Bennett burn until he lost his voice.

She buried her face in her hands, feeling selfish. Frankie had given up so much to become a parent after their mother and father had died. Grand-Em hadn’t asked to lose her faculties and she deserved to be cared for properly by someone who loved her as Joy did. And Alex needed support now, even if he shrank from it.

Maybe it wasn’t that she didn’t want to see her family. Maybe she just wanted them to see her in a different light.

Until recently, it was as if she’d gone through life as a kite in the wind. Tethered to her family, to White Caps, she’d skated this way and that, never choosing her direction, just responding to the currents. She’d taken business courses in college out of necessity, not because they interested her. She’d known the B&B was losing money and a practical major would mean she could get a higher-paying job and help out more. And while she was at UVM, she’d worked those jobs to save on living expenses, foregoing all that dating and partying. After graduation, she’d come home and cared for Grand-Em because their grandmother desperately needed help and there wasn’t enough income to support a nurse.

Put in that context, it seemed like designing a dress for Cassandra was the first thing she’d chosen to do.

Well, that and giving herself to Gray.

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