Chapter Five

Joy

 

After a quick lunch, during which I manage to keep peopling at a minimum, I retreat to my room and set up at my desk, resigned to fighting for every word I put down.

The oddest thing happens, though. Periandros is no longer a faceless, blank slate. He has curly, golden hair, sculpted cheekbones, and eyes the color of the morning sky. His skin is paler than the prototype’s, because—hey—sun aversion. And now that he’s so vivid in my mind, things seem to have fallen into place.

I go back and correct his description throughout the handful of chapters I’ve written, to match Gorgeous Beach Guy, but with the looks came an irresistible swagger and snappy comebacks. It’s like Gorgeous Beach Guy gave new breath to my manuscript.

Why didn’t I ask his name? Oh right. I was too busy, keeping myself from drooling.

I’m still stumped as to how Periandros is supposed to tell Iokaste he’s a bloodsucker, but I’ll work it out, now that he’s asked her on a date and made her squirm with nothing but a few whispered comments.

A knock on my door makes me snap my head up from my laptop. Something in my neck creaks. Is it me, or did it get blurry in here?

How long have I been writing?

“Hello?” I recognize Thanasis’s voice. He’s been talking my ear off every chance he gets. “My aunt wanted me to let you know dinner is served.”

It’s eight already? I unhooked the phone when I sat down to write at two. Is it possible I’ve been working for six hours? Pride puffs my chest. I check the word count. Four-thousand words, including the rewrites. That’s like a record for me.

Thanasis knocks again. “Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine,” I call out. “I’ll be right out.”

I compile the document, save, and get up. My back is stiffer than my neck. Could I take a shower? Warm water might help my joints. I’m too young for this shit. I should hit the gym once in a while.

My stomach’s growling sets my priorities straight. Food now, everything else later.

But Gorgeous Beach Guy may be there. He said he’s here for the retreat, although he’s not a writer.

Oh God, is he an agent? The retreat schedule mentioned fun, games, and surprises, and getting an agent would make me a legit author, as far as my parents are concerned.

Whom am I fooling? They weren’t impressed by the publishing contract I got, and that came with a signing bonus. An agent will mean nothing to them.

Still, it’s with Gorgeous Beach Guy in mind that I do take a quick shower, select a lack lacy bra and matching boy-shorts to wear beneath my long, floral dress, and put on heels. Would he like my hair up or down more? Up shows off my neck, so up it is. I pull it up in a bun and apply the barest hint of makeup, to cover my freckles. A layer of bright-red lipstick I never wore back home, phone and keycard, and I’m out the door.

Not a moment too soon, either.

As my door slides shut behind me, my gaze falls on the tall, muscular man I’ve been daydreaming of all day. His golden curls frame his head and fall down to his shoulders like he just walked out of a shampoo commercial, and the corners of his eyes crinkle with a smile that dances in their blue irises.

“You’re gorgeous, and I feel so underdressed.” He indicates the honest-to-God toga covering him from one shoulder to mid-thigh. Even in flat sandals—with gold feathers on the sides, no less—he’s at least a foot taller than the five-nine I must be in my four-inch heels.

“You’re…” What? Entertainment doesn’t sound very nice.

He smirks and runs his fingers through his hair.

I wanna do that too.

“I’m a Greek god,” he says.

Well, no shit.

“Hermes, at your service.” He bows, and I go weak in the knees.

My grin is so big, it hurts my cheeks. “Someone is taking his role seriously. How did you end up in that?” I still don’t know his real name, but Hermes is a step up from Gorgeous Beach Guy.

He shrugs. “I’m a cover model. I’m to mingle with you, brilliant authors, for the next few days.”

He’s a model. Of course he’s a model. He’s stunning. And I feel frumpy, and a little stupid for putting on red lipstick to go eat.

“Mind if I start my mingling with you?”

Before I answer, yes please with a cherry on top, he takes my hand and loops my arm through his. “Allow me to take you to the dining room, fair lady.”

He can take me in the dining room, on the floor, if he wants. “Okay.” I float on air beside him, his warmth seeping through the cotton fabric of my dress to spread in my belly. This man wakes things inside me I didn’t know existed. My body gravitates into his, and every brush of his arm against my breast hardens my nipples further and adds to the wetness between my legs.

We reach the wide, brightly lit hall with the rotund tables. A million mouthwatering scents waft my way from the buffet that’s set up along not one but two walls, but nothing smells as good as Hermes does, or makes me as ravenous. His scent is that of a breeze on the beach, on a warm, August morning. He smells of promise and light and life, and I’m smitten.

Which is a no-no. I’m halfway across the world from home. I’m not going to fall for a guy I’ll never see again.

He ducks his head to whisper in my ear, “I’m not supposed to play favorites, but you’re the most beautiful creature in this room tonight.”

Ah crap.

I pull away, laughing it off, but the heat in his gaze cuts the sound short on my lips. The light in the room reflects silver in his eyes. He’s breathtaking, and for this fleeting moment, he looks at me like there’s no one else in the world but him and me.

I wish that were true, but a roomful of hungry writers are watching, and the two ladies from yesterday’s crit session are smiling and gesturing for me to join them.

Begrudgingly, I withdraw my arm from his. “Thank you for making sure I was delivered here safely.”

He flares his nostrils and draws his gaze down my body so deliberately, it feels like time has stopped as my nipples strain to rip through my bra. “My pleasure,” he says. “Besides, it’s in my job description.”

“As a model?”

A slow, wicked smile parts his lips. “As a god. Among other things, I’m a conductor of souls.” He grimaces. “To the afterlife. This took a dark turn.”

He looks so shocked, I can’t help but laugh again. This is so unfair. He’s funny too? In my thirty years on this earth, I haven’t met a man this insanely alluring.

I need to get out of his magnetic field. “My friends—they’re waiting.” It comes out as a whisper.

Hermes nods. “And I need to make sure to talk to everyone.” But he doesn’t move.

“Well… bye.” I reach out to pat his arm, because I really want to touch that bulging bicep one more time.

He’s so fast, I don’t see him move before his arm is around my waist, pulling me to him. He lays a gentle kiss on my cheek—damn it—and whispers, “I’ll be thinking of you the whole time.”

I should say something. He’s not just doing his job, is he? This is flirting? I should be flirty back.

No. That would be stupid. We can’t have anything more than a fling, and I don’t do flings. I’ve had a total of two long-term, serious relationships, and both breakups hurt, even though I initiated them. I go into things all in, and when I sense the other party doesn’t… It just doesn’t work for me.

Am I watching his ass, to see if the toga rides up?

Embarrassment has heat crawling up my neck to spread across my cheeks. Upside—it also makes my feet finally move. Jolynn and Anne are still grinning and waving, so I head straight for them and pull out a chair.

“Who is that tall drink of water?” asks Jolynn. Her southern drawl is exacerbated by the alcohol I smell in her breath. Weren’t drinks supposed to be after dinner?

I shrug, playing it cool, like my cheek isn’t still tingling where his lips touched it. “A model. We met on the beach earlier. He’ll be here all week.” Stop talking, Joy.

“Is he famous?” Anne narrows her brown eyes. She’s the one who used to be a fighter pilot. She might as well be assessing a target, as watches him head for the table at the far end of the room.

“I don’t think so,” I say. My stomach knots at the thought of her putting Hermes in her sights. She’s a decade younger than Jolynn, which puts her in her mid-fifties, but it’s more Monica Bellucci mid-fifties than my mom mid-fifties.

But Hermes said he’d be thinking of me.

Why wouldn’t he say that? He may think I’d be an easy lay, something to keep him occupied tonight.

Or maybe he genuinely likes me?

Nonsense. He’s probably flirty by nature, casting his nets wide, to see what he’ll catch.

“I’m hungry.” I stand again and shuffle my feet to the buffet. My heels don’t feel that comfortable, now that I’m not resting some of my weight against Hermes.

I should find out his real name, if I’m to obsess over the guy.

I grab a plate and ponder the half-dozen salads available. I should have some veggies. They’re a healthy choice. But I want spinach pie and meatballs and pasta and crepes and…

Fuck it. I wrote four-thousand words today. I deserve this. And hey, I can have some salad too. Pasta salad, with feta, cherry tomatoes, onion, and olives.

On second thought, I use the tongues to push aside any visible slices of onion before I scoop some loaded pasta onto my plate. When I get to the tray of spinach pie, I look around to make sure nobody’s watching, and take two corner pieces. You would too, if you tried this homemade phyllo.

A gurgling laughter from across the room makes me turn in time to see another author—slimmer than me, a couple inches taller, writes cozy mystery—slap Hermes’ shoulder playfully. She’s cute and batting her eyelashes in a way that makes her cuter.

He’s leaning over her shoulder, saying something to the rest of the table. All four women watch him, mesmerized.

As do I.

Focus on the food, Joy.

Greek meatballs have lots of garlic. Should I…? Eh, one won’t hurt. And two ham, cheese, and mushroom crepes… Next up, chicken skewers. I can’t reach the mustard sauce without stretching, though.

There’s a scuffing sound, and Thanasis’s voice comes from right behind me. “Lemme help you with that.”

I straighten and spin to face him, plate held to the side because he’s so close there’s no room for me to hold it between us. “I’m good. Thanks.”

He takes a step back and smiles apologetically. “Sorry. Didn’t calculate the distance right.” Even in head-to-toe leather, he seems friendly and nonthreatening, with his shaggy hair and full cheeks. Definitely embarrassed, going by the stooped shoulders and lowered gaze. “Enjoy dinner.”

“I will.” I bring a piece of pie to my mouth and bite a good chunk out of it. “God. This is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”

“My aunt will be happy to hear that. She makes the phyllo herself.” His tension seems to seep away.

I relax too. Until I look across the room.

Hermes is watching Thanasis. His head is tilted to the side, eyes narrowed and jaw tense, and he has his arms crossed over his chest, muscles bunched. What’s with the aggressive pose?

When he meets my gaze, his eyes soften. He mouths something, and it’s like the words form inside my head.

Are you all right?

I nod. I hope I understood him correctly and that he didn’t say, “Fuck you all night,” for example.

Though I’d nod in that case too. I try to be ashamed to admit it, but I’m not.

My cheeks are burning again. I hate my pale skin some days.

I reclaim my seat and try to focus on my plate and what Anne and Jolynn are saying about the stroll they took earlier. The village is quiet this time of year, but a few of the tourist shops are still open, and one has the loveliest of knickknacks. Plus the food at Eleonas is apparently out of this world.

“We’re thinking of renting a car and driving to Naoussa tomorrow,” Anne says. “Care to join us? We’ll leave early in the morning and be back by lunch. We’ll miss the morning writing session, but think of all the inspiration we’ll gain. It’s livelier than Alyki, we can do a little shopping and maybe check out Butterfly Valley. Not sure it’s on the way, but it’s only thirteen kilometers from here.”

Which means little to my non-metric-system-adjusted brain. I think you divide kilometers by two for miles. Or do you multiply it?

“I bet you Joy will be sleeping in tomorrow.” Jolynn’s smile is that of the cat that ate the canary.

Huh? I frown. “I’m usually up around eight…”

She flat out points at Hermes. “That boy over there has no intention of letting you get much rest tonight, darling.”

And I thought she was the sweet southern-grandma type.

I force a chuckle. “You’re seeing things. His job is to make nice with the authors. He just happened to run into me first, and since we already met this morning—” I shovel pasta in my mouth, to signify there’s nothing more to say.

Jolynn shakes her head and downs a gulp of her red wine. “I know men, my dear, and that man is interested in you.” She arches an eyebrow. “And by how you’ve been keeping tabs on his whereabouts since you sat down, that interest is reciprocated.”

“I’m only watching him because he’d work as Periandros,” I protest. “He’s really bringing the character I had in mind to life.”

“Whatever you say, hon.” She pats my hand, and the fork I’m holding clutters against the plate.

Anne forks a chunk of steak. “Damn. I was hoping I’d hit that tonight,” she says while chewing. She swallows and wipes her mouth. “Oh well. There’s always tomorrow. You said he’ll be here till the end of the week, right?”

I bite down on the chicken skewer hard enough to snap the wooden stick. Why am I so annoyed by her suggestion? I shrug and try for casual. “That’s what he said.” Should I be insisting I won’t be spending the night with him? I should, no?

Why won’t the words come out?

Because I’m shoving spinach pie into my mouth. And watching Hermes make another table of women laugh. Is he ever getting to us?

“Is he a model too? What’s he supposed to be?”

I follow Anne’s gaze to the table to our right, where a guy a couple years younger than me is sweating inside a three-piece suit and blushing every time one of the writers at the table talks to him.

“No clue.” He looks like a kid playing dress-up. Unlike Hermes, who’s making the toga look cool.

Anne snaps her fingers at Suit-Guy. “Hey, kid, what are you?”

“A… A millionaire,” he stammers in a very un-millionaire-like tone.

She gives him a sweet smile. “And how old are you?”

“Twenty-five, ma’am.”

“Good.” To us, Anne says, “I like it when they call me ma’am.”

Get it, girl.

The enthusiastic wink I give her has nothing to do with my relief that she’s not after Hermes anymore.

Speaking of… Hermes skips the table Thanasis is chatting up, and comes to stand right behind me. He closes his wide palms on my shoulders, and I barely bite back a moan when the tips of his long fingers brush my neck. Would it really be so horrible if I slept with him tonight? Nobody has to know—except for Jolynn and Anne, who are watching us with avid interest.

“So how are you ladies enjoying tonight’s buffet?” he asks.

Anne licks her lips. “Oh, it’s definitely to my taste.” There’s no doubt she’s talking about him. My pulse throbs in my temples. I have no right to feel territorial, but I want to tell her he’s not on the menu.

Jolynn rolls her eyes, and it looks so funny, coming from a composed lady her age, it manages to calm my nerves.

I inhale slowly, waiting for Hermes’ response. He’ll flirt back. He has to.

He squeezes me and taps his index finger on my collar bone. “What’s your name, darling?” he asks.

Darling? Really?

Anne squares her shoulders and pushes out her breasts. “Anne. Anne Landers.” She holds out her hand, but he doesn’t take it.

“Well, Anne Landers, I’m sure there are available snacks that would be happy for you to devour them, but the one you’re considering is all over someone else’s plate.”

I can’t see his face, but he sounds upbeat, and Anne lets out a girly giggle.

“Had to give it a try,” she says. “Now remind me the name of that one.” She points at Thanasis’s friend.

“That boy is half your age.” Jolynn scowls.

That doesn’t stop Anne from winking at the guy when he turns our way. “Good. Maybe he’ll keep up.”

Thanasis is looking at us and waving. Shit. What does he want now?

“If you’ll excuse me for a couple minutes, ladies, it’s time for the big surprise.” Hermes runs his thumb down the back of my neck, sending tingles sparking all the way down my spine. “I’ll see you later.”

Something about how he says it makes me sure it’s directed at me.

I look up as he heads for the small elevated stage at the other end of the room. God, his legs are so toned, and his ass…

I catch myself licking my lips, and shove the whole meatball in my mouth. So good.

Thanasis brings a mic to the center of the stage, and he and Hermes set up a table beside it, complete with a white tablecloth that matches the rest of the tables in the room. Kalliroe, the hotel owner, climbs up beside them, holding a bucket with a bottle of what looks like champagne in one hand, a large glass bowl under her other arm.

Thanasis hurries to take the bowl from her, and she places the bucket on the table before stepping up in front of the mic, facing the room. Under her watchful gaze, two waiters start making the rounds, picking up the tables. I stuff my face with as much of the crepe as I can, before begrudgingly letting go of my plate. To my delight, a smaller plate with a slice of chocolate cake framed by fragrant fresh fruit replaces it in front of me.

“Hope you lovely people have enjoyed your evening so far,” Kalliroe says into the microphone. When we focus more on dessert than her, she adds, “Pay attention, or there will be no spinach pie tomorrow.”

She’s chuckling, but I can’t risk it. I drop my spoon and stare right at her. I’m not the only one the threat worked on. Cheers and clapping fill the room.

Kalliroe grins. “Like I said, I hope you’re enjoying your evening. And it’s about to get better.” She loops her arm around Hermes’ and pulls him to the front of the mini-stage, beside her. “See this beautiful creature? He’s a model”—she waits for the chorus of of course he is and never would have guessed to die down—“and he’s going to do a professional cover shoot for one of you. How exciting is that?”

 

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