Book 2 of The Crystal Warriors Series by Maree Anderson
A crystal warrior who believes himself unworthy of a woman’s love….
Ruby’s plus-sized, boyfriend-less, and turning thirty. But things are looking up when she’s given a piece of kyanite crystal and encounters the most beautiful man she’s ever seen. Wow, best birthday present ever! But the Adonis-like Kyan couldn’t possibly be attracted to someone like her.
Kyan can’t figure why Ruby hides behind smart comebacks and self-deprecating comments… and seems hell-bent on pushing another woman at him. How can Ruby not understand the allure she holds for a man like him?
Both Kyan and Ruby have powerful reasons to distrust their growing feelings for each other. But before they can sort through their emotional baggage, the Crystal Guardian intervenes… and time runs out for them both.
Other books in The Crystal Warriors Series:
- The Crystal Warrior (Book 1 of The Crystal Warriors series)
- Jade’s Choice (Book 3 of The Crystal Warriors series)
- The Crystal Warriors Series Bundle (Books 1-3)
- Opal’s Wish (Book 4 of The Crystal Warriors series)
|Format:||eBook, Trade paperback|
|Length:||Novel; 72,000 words/250 pages|
|eBook Price:||US $4.99 (or US$ equivalent)|
|Trade Paperback RRP:||US $10.99 /GBP6.99 /EUR8.99|
|Published:||Nov 2011 (eBook), June 2014 (print)|
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Reviews of Ruby’s Dream:
“Training for a triathlon would be a whole lot better if there was a gorgeous warrior getting you out of bed in the morning! […] The set up for this story is not new but Maree adds some twists that make it feel fresh and her characters are believable and lovable. There are moments of heart break that make you want to cry but this is a Romance so there is a Happily Ever After, they just need to fight for it! Can’t wait to go get the next one now.” (Read the full review by Lisette Carrithers on Amazon)
“Finally a love story for the plus sized divas. This is a great read and the series delivers the same intensity as the first. I love how each warrior has more depth to them than just grunt, fight, woman. But the author is able to make them strong and vulnerable. This is a wonderful continuation of a unique concept […] “(Read the full review by Shan on Goodreads)
“Really enjoyed this story, big girl meets hot guy and all the emotional baggage that entails. Wonderful read, loved the characters and really enjoyed the way the story was put together.” ~ Amy S, Amazon UK
“Wow, just wow. I have never fallen for one of my book boyfriends, as hard as I fell for this one. It’s hard not to love a guy who sees you for all of your full figured glory. I was so tickled for Ruby, and many times, while reading, wished I was her. […] an absolute #MustRead. ” (Read the full review by Lizzie on Goodreads)
“Having struggled with my weight all my life, I could identify with Ruby. Thank you for having the courage and insight to write about her and her struggles. There were parts that I laughed so hard that I cried. Truly an entertaining read.” (Authorgraph request from a reader)
Cover design by Rob Anderson
(Click on the image to see the full-size cover.)
The Crystal Warrior Series
Excerpt from Ruby’s Dream
By Maree Anderson
Ruby Roberts slumped on the floor amid the remains of shredded wrapping paper. She stared at her brother’s gift, so dumbfounded it took a minute to form actual words. It was like being slapped in the face with a stinky wet fish.
“Gee, way to make a girl feel good, Mike!” Her shriek echoed around the empty room, and those echoes were laden with the betrayal she couldn’t help feeling right now.
She tossed the gift on the couch and rubbed her arms, blinking back tears. Her own brother. She’d always looked up to him. She would have forgiven him anything…. But this?
This shredded her heart. This slammed her already chronically low self-esteem into subzero territory.
“I get it, okay?” Her voice cracked. “There’s no need to sodding well rub it in.”
Even though there was no one to witness the gesture, she defiantly crammed another handful of salt ’n’ vinegar chips into her mouth. Opening another present would cheer her up for sure because whatever it turned out to be, it sure as hell couldn’t be any worse than the last one.
The gift she chose was from Lani, a motherly Maori woman Ruby had first met in a clay sculpture class. Lani’s creations were earthy, to say the least. But this couldn’t possibly be one of Lani’s pieces because—
The wrapping fell away, leaving her grasping a box of ribbed condoms and a fire-engine-red triangle of lace.
Condoms? Hah. In my dreams.
She tossed the box aside and hooked a finger beneath the scrap of lace, lifting it from the wrapping paper. Attached to the triangle were a couple of thin bands made out of some transparent, stretchy, silicon-like substance.
Oh. My. God. Heat crawled up her face. Hazarding a guess, right now her complexion exactly matched the color of the g-string. She hadn’t worn a g-string since… since… well, ever. And if she wore this and dared sit down, the darned thing would have to be surgically removed from her butt crack.
Thank God for small mercies—namely that Lani had given Ruby the gift in advance and insisted it be opened on the morning of her birthday. If Ruby had opened this one at her party, in front of all her guests? She’d have curled up and died of embarrassment.
She checked the tag. Maybe—? Damn. It was even the right size. There went her only valid excuse to exchange it for granny knickers.
Ruby heaved a deep, bracing breath and fumbled to open the accompanying card.
A little something to give that special man in your life a big thrill! Love, Lani.
Geez. It was way worse than she’d imagined. Cue a full-body cringe.
Ruby rubbed the fine hairs on her nape, which had decided to sit bolt upright at the mere thought of their owner wearing that g-string to give a man a big thrill. A big nightmare for a week, more like. Ruby would much rather have dealt with one of Lani’s phallic sculptures.
So she could face Lani with a credible outpouring of delight at the party tonight, Ruby rehearsed aloud what she was going to say. “Thank you so much, Lani! I’ll save them for a… a… special occasion.” Yeah. Like, if she ever had sex with something other than her vibrator again.
She eyed the last parcel—a large one—with growing trepidation. Because any gift from her mother was destined to wreak havoc on Ruby’s self-image. Last year Pamela Roberts had presented Ruby with a gym membership. The year before, a Swiss ball and a manual of recommended exercises entitled Core Strength. Sadly, Ruby’s “core” hadn’t possessed the endurance to inflate the darn thing to anything resembling the correct dimensions with the stupid little pump enclosed with the ball and the manual. But hey, even a half-inflated Swiss ball had its uses. Like, for a spare seat whenever Ruby had a bunch of friends over.
She almost talked herself out of opening her mum’s gift. Almost. But curiosity was a powerful thing.
She tore off the gift-wrap….
It was as bad as she’d predicted.
Her mum’s gift was a set of Pilates DVDs that would—wait for it—allow Ruby to exercise to her heart’s content without all the complicated equipment usually associated with Pilates.
Ruby fist-punched the air and hollered, “Yes, my friends, this entire workout regimen uses only an exercise mat—included as part of the gift, of course. Because when it comes to blatant hints, my mother leaves nothing to chance. Thanks, Mum. Woohoo. And various other expressions of faked joy.”
At least Ruby always knew what to expect from her mother. Her gifts had lost the power to wound years ago. Unlike Mike’s totally unexpected unpleasant surprise.
To take her mind off her brother’s hurtful gift, Ruby opened the boxed set of Pilates DVDs and selected a couple.
Bun and thigh sculpting. Accelerated body sculpting. Ouch. Sounded painful.
The accompanying brochure described the basic exercises and showed photos of some lithe young thing demonstrating each exercise with a smile firmly fixed on her pretty face. Yeah. Right. Like any normal person could smile while doing that.
Ruby’s mother was a born-again fitness freak—the worst kind. Doubtless Pamela Roberts was fondly imagining her daughter huffing and puffing over hellish-sounding exercises named “The Hundred” and ‘The Criss-Cross” at this very moment. What better way for a girl to spend her birthday morning than contorting herself into a pretzel, and rocking back and forth on her tailbone?
She should introduce her mother to Caroline—they’d get on like a house on fire because Ruby’s workmate was another of those poor, demented souls who went to the gym and worked out on their birthday. As if. Ruby sooo would not be joining them. Instead, she succumbed to a wave of self-pity and heaved herself onto the couch, assuming her favorite lounge-lizard position. To add insult to injury, she had to extricate Mike’s gift from beneath her bum.
The elephant in the room wasn’t going away. Ruby couldn’t ignore it any longer. Bugger.
Mike had always supported her. He’d never once put her down, or hassled her about her overly generous proportions. Until now.
In all honesty, she supposed it was bound to happen sooner or later, what with their mum’s constant nagging at Mike to join The Dark Side for “Ruby’s own good”.
Her brother’s birthday gift? The one that made her want to cry?
A cookbook. Specifically, a cookbook bursting with low fat, healthy recipes, cooked by a professional chef who used ingredients Ruby would never buy in a million years. That wasn’t what upset her, though. No. It was the fact the cookbook was sponsored by a pharmaceutical firm to promote their latest wonder-pill for the long-term treatment of “significantly obese patients”.
Ruby scrabbled about in the chip packet for another handful but there were none left—not that she recalled eating the entire packet but the empty bag sorta stated the obvious. Damn.
She wasn’t obese.
Overweight, maybe— Oh, all right. Definitely.
Unfit? Well, yeah. But not obese.
She heaved the cookbook at the wall, and took no satisfaction whatsoever when it missed by a good couple of feet and smacked the carpet. Enough was enough. Either she was going to crawl under her duvet and refuse to come out for the rest of her life, or she had to do something to nip this constant nagging in the bud.
So what’s a thirty-year-old girl to do when her beloved brother makes it clear as day he thinks she needs to lose weight?
Why, something utterly stupid, of course. Ruby rolled off the couch and marched into her bedroom. She would show Mike if it was the last thing she did.
Ruby critically surveyed her reflection in the mirror. The cleverly draped dress disguised most of the wobbly bits she wanted to cover. The color suited her. She like the way the material swished, caressing her legs when she walked. It made her feel sexy… at least for a moment or two, until reality whispered in her ear, reminding her that she was anything but sexy.
Her broken doorbell squawked. Ruby quickly touched up her lipstick before swishing off to greet her first guest… who was a half hour early. Not that she minded. She’d been ready for the past hour, and having company meant she could quit rearranging canapés on their platters and obsessively checking her appearance.
Barring herself, everything was as perfect as Ruby knew how to make it. And, bravado being her specialty, she was determined to present a confident smiling face to her guests. She pasted on a wide, toothy smile and yanked open the door.
“Hey, Jules!” Ruby’s forced smile morphed into a genuine one. She opened her arms to hug her best friend in the world.
Jules responded by planting a hand on Ruby’s chest and backing her up a few paces so Jules could slam the door shut. And then Jules advanced, looking like doom personified.
Ruby danced clumsily backward, trying not to freak out at the sight of Jules’ tight features and clenched jaw. Her stomach twisted into a huge knot. Something bad had happened—she knew it. “How come you’re here so early?” she asked Jules. “Where’s Alex? Is something wrong? Is he okay?”
“Chill. Everything’s fine in Alex-land. He’ll be here soon.” Jules halted to toss her handbag on the couch. She grabbed Ruby by the wrists and peered into her face. “Are. You. Insane?”
Ruby blinked. “I—”
“That scrawny bitch put you up to this, didn’t she? It’s not enough for her to be a gym-junkie, she’s got to suck you into her treadmill of pain and suffering too? Wait ’til I get my hands on her. I’ll smack her into the next dimension. I’ll—”
“Calm down, Jules.”
“It’s like that time she talked you into buying that bloody dress. She’s pure evil!”
Ruby knew exactly who Jules was talking about. And “that bloody dress”—a testament to Caroline’s scary-ass persuasive superpowers—still hung in Ruby’s wardrobe. It’d been two sizes too small, but Ruby had let Caroline talk her into buying the dress because it was pretty and feminine, and Ruby had secretly coveted it. Not to mention been embarrassed as hell when the salesgirl loudly proclaimed to the whole store that the dress didn’t come in a bigger size… and then ignored Ruby to bond with Caroline over personal trainer recommendations.
“You’ll fit it if you do a little exercise,” Caroline had said—insisted really—dismissing Ruby’s protests with the supreme confidence of the terminally skinny. Yet despite Ruby’s mammoth efforts, and eventual success in dropping a few kilos, when she’d finally dared to try the dress on it had still been far too tight. So tight, in fact, Ruby had busted the zipper and burst a couple of rather crucial seams trying to extricate herself from the damn thing. Nightmare. She still vividly remembered being sore and tired and red-faced from the exertion. And that at one stage, she’d seriously contemplated sleeping in the bloody thing, and wearing it to work the next day.
Her face flushed with heat at the humiliating memory—yet another one she’d rather forget. Alcohol. Yeah. That’s what was required right now.
Ruby made a beeline for the drinks table and one of the many lethally alcoholic cocktails she’d premixed for the occasion. Mmm. What to choose?
She braved an experimental sip of Mai Tai mix before adding ice to the shaker. Not bad.
“Well?” Jules demanded.
Ruby shook the mix vigorously before pouring it into a glass. “Well, what?”
“Is Caroline showing her face tonight? I hope so. Because then I can strangle her. What was she thinking? She’s supposed to be your friend, for fuck’s sake!”
While Jules paced the floor and ranted, Ruby’s fertile mind ran an entertaining little scenario featuring Jules and Caroline in a wrestling match. Tall, model-skinny, blonde Caroline, versus pocket-Venus, voluptuous, raven-haired Jules. The guys’d be thrilled to bits. They’d thank her forever. And if it came down to placing bets, Ruby would put her money on Jules, because Jules didn’t take crap from anyone. Mind you, Caroline worked out regularly. She even sported some of those lumps in funny places that Ruby was reliably informed were called muscles….
She shook her head to clear the increasingly silly images from her mind, and downed a large swig of courage-boosting Mai Tai. “Much as I’d love to blame Caroline for forcing me to register in the triathlon, I can’t. It was all my own idea.” She hoped her expression didn’t reveal even the slightest hint of the other reason—that her brother was so ashamed of his sister, he’d sent her a message she couldn’t ignore rather than confronting her face-to-face. The bloody coward.
“It’s time I got fit, and this triathlon seems like the perfect motivation,” she said, as much to convince herself as Jules.
Jules simply stared, wide-eyed with horror. “This was your idea?”
“You came up with it all by yourself?”
“What the fuck possessed you to go and do something so incurably stupid?”
“Here.” Ruby slopped the dregs of Mai Tai mix into another glass and handed it to her friend. “You look like you need it.”
Jules obediently downed a hefty swallow. And choked. “Jeeesus, that’s strong!” She sank into a chair, wiped her watering eyes, and braved another more cautious sip of the potent mix. “Okay, Rubes, time to cut the crap. What really happened?”
Damn. Jules knew her too well.
Ruby flopped into a battered easy chair and contemplated her toenails. Huh. All that effort to paint them and she’d already managed to chip the polish. “It’s because of what Mike gave me for my birthday. I was so damned angry and hurt that I—”
Jules threw up a hand. “Hang on. Mike? Your can-do-no-wrong brother? The same guy you’d swear farts roses after listening to you sing his praises? I don’t believe it.”
Ruby carefully placed her cocktail on the carpet beside her chair. She levered herself from the grasp of the squishy cushions, and stalked to the cupboard where she kept her recipe books. She snatched Mike’s gift from the pile and held it up for Jules to see.
Jules craned her neck, squinting. “A cookbook? So what?”
Ruby brought over the offending item and plonked it in Jules’ lap. Then she grabbed her drink and downed the contents as she watched Jules’ face. And waited.
Silence from Jules as she flicked through the cookbook. Then openmouthed dismay. Followed by pity, which was the worst of all. “Oh,” Jules finally said. “Shit. I’m sooo sorry, Rubes. What was he thinking?”
“Duh. It’s pretty obvious what he was thinking.”
Jules muttered something nasty beneath her breath. “What are you going to say when he calls you for your birthday?”
Ruby didn’t answer because she hadn’t the faintest clue. Chances were she’d do what she always did: Pretend everything was fine and quickly change the subject.
“You can’t take this lying down, Rubes. You have to say something. Tell him how much he hurt you. Scream at him. Tell him he’s an arsehole. And for God’s sake, toss this piece of crap. Or by God, I will.” Jules held out the cookbook and waved it.
Ruby snatched it and replaced it in the kitchen cupboard. “I’ll toss it in the recycling bin later.” When she could look at it without wanting to cry. Or hit something. Preferably Mike.
She held it together ’til she resumed her seat and copped a glimpse of Jules’ sympathetic expression. Tears stung her eyes. She rounded her eyes and blinked them back. Wouldn’t do to ruin her carefully applied mascara. Sheesh. Wanting to bawl your eyes out was pretty shitful when you had guests arriving any moment.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Jules ventured, her tone soft. “You could always pull out and forfeit the registration fee.”
Ruby straightened from her slump. “No way. There’s a real possibility I might come last, but I don’t care. I’m gonna do this triathlon if it kills me. I’ll be buggered if I’ll pull out so everyone can say ‘I told you so’ behind my back. Don’t suppose you would register, too, Jules? Just ’cause I’m determined to do this, doesn’t mean I’m not scared witless. Having you with me for moral support would mean a lot. It’s a women’s triathlon for beginners, so it’s not like we’ll be mowed down by testosterone-driven guys stampeding for the finish line. We can take our time. No one’ll care how we do.”
Jules screwed up her nose. “Shit. Sorry, Rubes, but I can’t wear a swimsuit in public for at least six weeks. And the chafing from sitting on a bike would probably be the end of me.”
Huh? “Come again?”
“God, it’s awful,” Jules mourned. “My regular girl was crook last week, so I let a trainee wax my legs and bikini line. Big mistake. It was the kid’s first time with a real customer and she didn’t have her technique sussed. Now I have ingrown hairs everywhere. And I mean, everywhere.”
She shifted, wriggling like she had a nest of ants in her pants. “Sorry ’bout this.” She straightened her legs, lifted her butt off the couch cushion, and proceeded to itch her crotch through her silky trousers. “God, that feels sooo much better.” Next, she yanked up her trouser legs and raked the skin of both shins with her fingernails.
Her legs were covered with inflamed red bumps. Ruby winced in sympathy. “You poor thing.”
“You should see my bikini line—it’s heaps worse,” Jules said cheerfully. “Only way to fix the problem is to regularly exfoliate the hell out of everything, and wait for the hairs to grow long enough to wax again. Upside is, because of the chafing you-know-where, Alex and me are doing it—” she paused to stick out her tongue and pant “—doggy style. The orgasms are faaabulous.”
Ruby snorted a laugh. She always knew where she stood with Jules. And Jules had certainly stood by Ruby over the years. Like the time Jules had decked a guy who’d dared make a crude joke about fat chicks. Ahhh. Such fond memories. God knows what she would do without her best friend. She wouldn’t have a social life, that’s for damn sure.
“Ooops, almost forgot. Happy birthday, Rubes!” Jules grabbed her handbag to rummage through its copious depths. “Got a little something for you in here somewhere. Somewhere…. Aha! Here.” She tossed an oddly-shaped package into Ruby’s lap.
Ruby tore off the tissue paper to reveal a bluish-white hunk of stone shaped like a knife blade. “Thanks, sweetie. It’s, ah, very nice. Um, what is it, exactly?”
“It’s a crystal. Aligns your chakras or some spiritual bullshit like that. An old dude in this weird little shop recommended it as the best one for you. And after reading your triathlon email, I figured you need all the spiritual help you can get.”
Ruby stroked the striated surface of the crystal with a fingertip. Vaguely, she heard Jules nattering about exchanging the crystal if she didn’t like it. Ruby must have shaken her head, or made some satisfactory verbal response, because Jules rose from the couch to fix herself another drink.
Hesitantly, Ruby lifted the crystal from the nest of tissue paper and weighed it in her palm. That was when she saw him. And, somehow, forged a mental link with him. He invaded her mind. She experienced everything he felt, his suffering, his anguish. And the tidal wave of horror and despair engulfed her….
The sorcerer’s void had sucked him into a blackness so absolute that it defied any rational explanation. He was powerless, deprived of sensation, sight and sound, imprisoned in a vast expanse of nothingness. All that he was, all that he could be—his very essence—was held in stasis. Not so his mind, however. And his thoughts were dark and twisted things, born of despair and self-loathing.
He understood at some elemental level that this place-that-was-no-place was his punishment. He had feared this place as a child, and then laughingly discounted it as a grown man. ’Twas merely a tale to frighten naughty children. Everyone knew it did not truly exist.
Now he realized how wrong he had been, for here he was. Condemned to suffer forever in Halja—Hell.
Some unnamed force pried open Ruby’s fingers. The visions cut off the instant the crystal dropped to the carpet. She was on her feet, yet she didn’t remember moving from her seat. Her finger joints throbbed, and she massaged her hand. Even her jaw ached, as though she’d been grinding her teeth together.
What the hell just happened?
A flash of color and movement caught her eye, drawing her to the window. She pressed her nose to the glass and spotted an elderly man strolling down the footpath. His clothes were rather trendy for an old guy—jeans and boots with a white shirt, and a bright golden splash of silky material wrapped around his throat and tucked into the open neck of his shirt.
Auckland weather was mild this time of year, so the scarf struck Ruby as odd. She watched him until he rounded the corner and disappeared from view.
“Bugger! It’s broken in half.”
Jules’ dismayed voice reclaimed Ruby’s attention. She turned to see her friend kneeling on the floor. “Sorry, what’s broken?” she asked, dazed.
“The crystal I bought you. You would have thought the bloody carpet might have cushioned it. What a piece of crap. God. I’m so sorry, Rubes. I’ll buy you another one.”
“It’s fine, Jules, really.” Ruby shook herself—physically and mentally—trying to slough off a lurking uneasiness. “My fault for being so clumsy. Must have gotten a bit heavy-handed with the alcohol in that Mai Tai mix. Anyway, it’s all good. Because now I’ve got two crystals, and double the chakra power.”
Jules grinned, admiring Ruby’s faked positive take on the incident. “Trust you to look on the bright side.”
“What kind of crystal is it, anyway?” Ruby asked. Not that she was curious or anything.
Jules re-wrapped the crystal halves in the torn tissue paper and placed the bundle on the phone table. “Beats me. The old guy from the shop called it ky-something-or-other. But I’m sure I’ll remember after a few more of these cocktails.” She waggled her empty glass at Ruby.
“What am I? Your slave? Get your own bloody cocktail.”
“Some hostess you are.”
The doorbell gargled like some unfortunate small creature dying a slow, painful death. Jules hunched her shoulders and made a face. “God. When are you going to get that damn bell fixed?”
“Never. I’m used to it now. It’s quirky. Like me.”
Someone jabbed the bell again, and Ruby could hear catcalls and loud chatter from outside.
Jules pinned her with a sharp, too-knowing glance. “Are you ready?”
Ruby had no trouble deciphering that glance, or the sub-text of the question for that matter. Was she ready for the disbelief and unwanted advice from her friends regarding this outrageous goal she’d set herself? Was she ready to face their well-meaning platitudes that she was perfectly okay just the way she was? Was she ready?
The answer was, “Shit, no!” No way in heck was she ready. And, in retrospect, maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to email her entire contacts list about registering for the triathlon. But Ruby would bluff her way through this evening—as she had so many others.
She smoothed her dress over her hips, threw back her shoulders and stuck out her chest. “Fix me another cocktail, Jules. It’s show time.”
Jules saluted her with an empty glass. “You got it, babe.”
Ruby sashayed over to the entranceway with an exaggerated wiggle of her bum that made Jules snort with laughter. She opened the door… and the effusive welcome she’d planned stuck in her throat. All she could do was stare, openmouthed, at the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life.
No exaggeration. Because Ruby was a connoisseur of the male form. Other women her age bought gossipy fashion mags. Ruby splurged her wages on her secret vice. Really classy magazines that celebrated the male form in all its masculine splendor. Ooh la la!
So how did this guy stack up with those airbrushed fantasy men?
Oh, he was right up there with the best of them. Really up there. Cover boy material—the best of the best.
He was tall—at least six foot. He’d scraped his blond hair back from his face and secured it with a tie. The severe style highlighted intense blue-green eyes the exact shade of an aquamarine necklace stuffed in the bottom of Ruby’s jewelry box. With his high cheekbones and full lips, his face was saved from being too pretty by a nose that was a tad too long. It suited him, though. Made him appear regal. And the icing on the cake? A honed, muscular physique that appeared to Ruby’s discerning eye to have been formed by years of actual physical exertion, rather than merely pumping weights at some fancy gym.
He was a man to sigh over. With a physique to die for. And Ruby was positive she wasn’t merely imagining his amazing body because, courtesy of the unlaced leather vest he wore instead of a shirt, there was such an awful lot of him on display. In fact, she was having such a wonderful time drooling over all that burnished bare skin and those rippling muscles, she barely noticed the other guests hovering behind him. Or their grins.
Having completed her voyage of discovery, she dared raise her gaze to his face again. His gaze locked with hers. The rest of the world blurred, relegated to a tiny corner of Ruby’s brain. Unimportant. Meaningless. There was only him and her. And God, the way he was looking at her—like she was some delectable treat he couldn’t wait to eat.
A bray of high-pitched feminine laughter broke the spell.
Ruby blinked. And saw herself reflected in his eyes—a chubby, thirty-year-old woman, wearing a scarlet “look-at-me” dress and matching lipstick, who’d squeezed her feet into high-heeled sandals in a vain attempt to look sexy.
Huh. Fat chance.
Haha. Good joke. And, as usual, the joke was on Ruby. As if any guy who looked like he did, would ever be interested in someone like her. Unless… he was being paid. Classic light bulb moment. Now it all made sense—his intent gaze, the way he made her feel special simply by focusing his attention on her.
It was all a careful act, designed to please. One of her friends had booked a stripper.
Ruby flushed, hyper-aware she was still staring. By now, everyone would surely have noticed her making goo-goo eyes at the gorgeous himbo. She could imagine what they were thinking. And for once she couldn’t summon the smart repartee she relied on whenever she was embarrassed. She had nothing. So she dropped her gaze to stare fixedly at his chest.
Ah, what the hell. Might as well make the embarrassment count. Best get her thrills before he figured out he’d been paid to entertain her, and ran screaming into the night.
Her gaze drifted lower.
A figure detached herself from Mr. Dreamy’s side. “Whose idea was the stripper, Ruby?”
“Uh, hiya, Caroline.” Ruby tore her gaze from the stripper’s fabulous abs to greet her workmate. “Um, I don’t know whose idea it was.”
Caroline clutched Ruby’s shoulders and air-kissed her cheek left and right. “Whoever it was should be congratulated on their excellent choice in men,” she purred. “Come on, Hunkalicious.” She ushered him inside by the simple expedient of squeezing his bum.
He jumped like a scalded cat and Ruby caught a perplexed kind of frown before he smoothed his expression and sauntered inside.
“Nice present, Rubes!” someone called out amidst a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” greetings from those standing outside. Around a dozen of Ruby’s friends filed in after Caroline, and clustered around the stripper, leaving the Birthday Girl hanging onto her doorjamb and gaping at their backs.
“Hiya, Rubes.” Jules’ boyfriend, Alex, strode down the pathway toward her, brandishing a bouquet of orchids. “Happy birthday, babe.” He kissed her cheek and presented the bouquet with a flourish.
“Thanks, Alex. They’re beautiful.” Her favorite flower. He’d remembered—he always did. He was a sweet guy. And Jules was one lucky, lucky girl.
Alex linked arms with Ruby and escorted her inside. “I gather he’s the planned entertainment?”
“I guess so,” Ruby said.
“Don’t think it was Jules who organized him—better not have been, anyway.” Alex uttered a low, rumbling mock growl that turned into a disgusted snort. “Babe, you better get over there before that estrogen-starved twig decides she wants your stripper all for herself. Look at her, groping his arse again. Jesus. Girl’s got no class. That poor bugger’s gonna have some mighty fine bruises tomorrow.”
Ruby snickered at the twig reference. Alex preferred his women “to look like real women”—doubtless why he adored Jules’ curves. And got a pained look in his eye whenever he was forced to socialize with Caroline. He’d once commented that having sex with a scrawny thing like her would be like screwing a bag of bones. Eeeuw.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Ruby wrapped her arm around his waist to give him a quick side-hug.
He planted an affectionate kiss atop her head. “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Something prompted Ruby to glance up and she surprised Mr. Dreamy glaring at her and Alex. His eyes suddenly seemed more green than blue—and a pissed-off kind of green into the bargain.
A little jealous, perhaps? Typical. The stripper someone had chosen for her was gay. That anonymous “someone” had a real warped sense of humor.
Alex stiffened. Ruby guessed he’d also spotted the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head. Hmm. Might be a good idea to suggest Alex go find Jules before Mr. Dreamy got the wrong idea and tried to chat him up.
“Will you look at that?” Alex murmured. “A man after my own heart.”
“What do you mean?”
Liar. Ruby scanned Alex’s face for clues. He sported one of those insufferably self-satisfied expressions—the kind that screamed he knew something important, but he was going to make her work it out herself. For her own good, of course.
Cocktail in hand, Jules sidled over to join them. “Hey, babe.” She kissed Alex on the mouth, taking her time about it. When she came up for air she said, “What were you looking so smug about?”
He wound an arm about her hips and squeezed her bum, eliciting a squeak. “My secret.”
“C’mon, Alex,” Jules wheedled. “’Fess up.”
“Awww, Aleeex!” She pursed her lips in a cutesy pout.
He snickered. “You’ll have to do better than that, babe.”
The grin Jules hit him with was pure evil. “Just you wait ’til tonight. You’ll be sor-ry!” Her threat was issued in a horror-movie-worthy singsong tone.
“Bring it on,” Alex drawled.
Jules grabbed his arm and shoved it up behind his back. “Tell me.”
“Gee. Ouch. Is that all you got?”
She increased the pressure.
“All right already. Geez. I was smugly contemplating that old saying about beauty being more than skin deep.”
“Huh?” Jules released him to glance at Ruby in askance.
Ruby shrugged. “Sorry. Clueless.”
Alex heaved a longsuffering sigh and changed the subject. “Honey, do you know who organized the stripper for Rubes?”
Jules considered said stripper thoughtfully. “No idea. He’s pretty hot though, huh?”
“Don’t ask me. I don’t swing that way.” Alex scratched his chin. “Gotta be his first private do, I reckon.”
“What makes you say that?” Ruby asked.
“He doesn’t know what to do with himself. Hasn’t even brought along his own music. Must be an amateur. Hey, Rubes, you should get over there before the girls talk him into a Full Monty.”
Ruby flushed at the mere thought of Mr. Dreamy shucking his leather pants along with his vest. Gay or not, he was off-the-charts hot.
“Go on, Rubes. Let him know you’re the Birthday Girl!” Alex gave her a push.
Ruby stumbled forward, teetering on her higher than usual heels. Please God, she didn’t trip and end up sprawled on the floor, crowned with a mashed bouquet of orchids.
Like magic, the gaggle of women clustered around her stripper parted and he was there, reaching out to steady her with a hand clasped about her forearm.
Her flush deepened and she fought the urge to fan her cheeks with the bunch of orchids. “Uh, thanks. I’m, uh, the Birthday Girl. Is there anything you need before you, um, start?”
His lips curved upward for a split second before his brow knit into an impressive frown. “This is your celebration?”
“Yep. My, uh, thirtieth birthday.” She waved a limp hand at the guests. “Hence the flowers and guests and stuff.”
He winced, and released her arm. “As the guest of honor, perhaps you would be so kind as to request these brazen females refrain from pinching my arse.” His perfect white teeth flashed in a sardonic grin. “I find myself ill prepared for such a mob.”
Uh oh. An unhappy stripper. This wasn’t going at all well. Still, despite his obvious unhappiness, his voice rolled over Ruby like liquid silk and it took a few moments before she could formulate any sort of coherent speech. “Um, right. Okay. Hands off, you lot!” She scowled at the bunch of smirking women. “You, especially, Caroline. Quit bruising the goods. It’s rude.”
Caroline made a face and stuck out her tongue. “Party pooper. When’s this show getting on the road? I’m dying for him to get his gear off.” She giggled as she swigged the cocktail she’d somehow managed to grab in between grabbing the stripper’s bum. Caroline always did know how to look after number one.
“Your wish is my command.” Ruby shoved her flowers at Caroline, and bared her teeth in a weak attempt at a smile. “Be a sweetie and put these in a vase? And I’ll see what I can do about getting the ball rolling, ’kay? Thanks!”
Caroline abruptly seemed to recall it was Ruby’s birthday and guests were supposed to be nice to the Birthday Girl. She shut her mouth with a snap and flounced off.
“Cocktail table is over yonder.” Ruby shooed the rest of the hovering women away. “A bit of privacy, please?”
They grumbled but obeyed. Thank goodness.
“Sorry ’bout that,” Ruby said to Mr. Dreamy. “Caroline comes on a bit strong when she drinks. It’s her lack of, uh, padding. There’s nothing to soak up the alcohol and prevent it from going straight to her head. She doesn’t mean to be offensive. And she wouldn’t pinch any man’s bum. I mean, he’d have to be really hot—like you. If you weren’t, like, amazingly good-looking, even if she were drunk as a skunk she’d not give you a second glance.”
Oh, God. She was babbling. “So it’s a compliment, really,” she finished lamely, wishing the lounge floor would open up and swallow her whole. “So, um, do you need some music or anything before you start the, uh, show?”
“Show?” That cute little crinkle appeared between his brows again.
Ruby’s brain kicked up a gear. “You are the stripper, right?” Crap. What if he was attached to one of her male guests and she’d totally gotten the wrong idea?
She mentally ran through the guest list to try and figure out who he might be partnered with. Nope. She had nothing. Besides, surely only a stripper would wear that sort of get-up in public. She was panicking for nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. She was panicking because of him. He unsettled her. And the thought of him shucking his clothes…. Yikes. A pity fans had gone out of fashion because she could sure do with one to flutter and hide behind right now.
Ruby didn’t allow herself to fall desperately in lust with men anymore. That would be begging for disappointment. But this man…. The perfect planes of his face, the incredible physique. He might be gay, and therefore unobtainable, but he’d stepped right out of her fantasies, and she wanted to enjoy this particular fantasy a little while longer. Hell, what was wrong with that? It was her birthday, after all.
“I am a warrior,” he said, his tone ringing with unmistakable pride.
She smiled. “The Warrior Stripper. Yeah, well you certainly look the part. Great outfit, by the way. Don’t have a clue how you manage the pants, though. Do they have strips of Velcro at the sides or something?”
He blinked, staring at her like she’d morphed into some alien creature.
She took pity on him. “Look. Here’s the deal. If you’re not comfortable taking off your clothes and prancing ’round half naked to entertain a bunch of drooling women, I understand. Believe me, I get it. You don’t have to do this if it’s freaking you out. You can leave—no hard feelings, okay?”
His eyes widened and his beautiful lips parted.
Friggin’ fantastic. She was about to be lumbered with paying off an inexperienced gay stripper suffering an attack of the shys. She forced a smile. “If you haven’t been paid, I’ll—”
“You wish me to remove my clothes and dance for these people?”
Ouch. When he said it like that it sounded awfully sleazy. Ruby cooled her burning cheeks with the palms of her hands. “I guess. That’s sort of the idea, anyway. Um, yes?”
“And I will receive a stipend to do this?”
Huh? Stipend? Ruby’s stomach did the whole sinking sensation thing. Fab-u-bloody-lous. On top of everything, she had to score the foreign import with no real clue what he’d gotten himself in for. What the hell had she done to deserve this?
She inhaled a deep breath and silently counted to five. “That’s generally how it works. Or so I’m told. But if you don’t want to, that’s cool.”
She patted his arm, hoping to project reassurance. And hoping she didn’t succumb to the temptation of squeezing his muscled biceps and whimpering. “I won’t force you to do something you’re uncomfortable about. But if you don’t want to strip, I’ll have to ask you to go. I’m sorry, but the natives are getting restless and if you stick around much longer they might take matters into their own hands.” She jerked her chin toward the bunch of women gathered by the drinks table, all whispering and staring avidly in his direction.
Mr. Dreamy’s gaze drifted over her guests. Around forty people had arrived, and were either squeezed into Ruby’s kitchen, living room and dining area, or milling around outside on the lawn. Most of her guests were women she knew from work or the frequent and varied night-school classes she’d taken over the years. But there were a few men, too—boyfriends and husbands who hadn’t been quick enough with an excuse to beg off this party, and got stuck with helping Ruby celebrate her birthday.
“And the men?” Mr. Dreamy asked. “Do they, too, enjoy the spectacle of a naked man dancing?”
How to say this without giving offence? “Well, I think most of the guys here tonight would actually prefer a female stripper.”
“What about you, Birthday Girl? Do you prefer a female stripper? Or would you prefer me?”
Geez. Stupid question, much? Of course she preferred him over some pneumatic-breasted female stripper. To be honest, flamboyant public displays weren’t usually Ruby’s style. She preferred to confine her perving to the men in the pages of her magazines. But she wasn’t about to miss the chance of a live performance from this Adonis-like male. God only knew what Mr. Dreamy thought of her. And it was just as well he couldn’t read her mind. The poor guy would be shocked out of his socks… if he was wearing any with those boots.
He’d cocked his head, obviously still awaiting a response. Uh…. “I’m a girl,” she blurted. “At least I was last time I looked. And I happen to like men. So if I’m going to watch anyone take off their clothes, of course I’d prefer it was a man.” And of course I’d prefer a man who looked like you and wasn’t gay. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers.
His gaze turned speculative, like he was weighing his options. And then the quality of that gaze morphed to something so obviously approving that it brought another wave of heat flooding to her cheeks.
“There is no question that you are indeed female,” he said, and pivoted on his heel.
“Hang on.” She grabbed his arm. “What’re you planning on doing exactly?”
He smiled down at her. A lazy, self-satisfied, supremely confident smile that made her toes curl. “I am going to entertain you.”
He was actually going to do it—take his clothes off.
In her lounge.
To entertain her.
Ruby’s knees turned to putty.
Ruby’s Dream by Maree Anderson
© Copyright 2011, Maree Anderson