Craft: Chapter One

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Today is the “publish-a-versary” of Craft!

You guys—I love this book. If you haven’t read it, it can be read as a standalone. (It’s technically book 2 in the Gibson Boys Series.)

Lance is a glasses-wearing, old-fashioned drinking “intellectual heathen”, as his brother, Walker, calls him. Ha!

Read Chapter One (okay—it’s actually Chapter Two!) here and see what you think!

***

 

Chapter Two

Mariah

 

“Let me be clear about one thing …”

“No, let me be clear about one thing,” I say, whirling through the doors of my office, my voice leading the way. “Get out of my office, Lance. Now.”

Shoulders thrown back, lips pressed together just as firmly as my arms clench across my breasts, I say a silent prayer my demonstration is enough to convince him I mean business. Then, I do what I always do: brace for his attack.

His free hand clasps the back of his neck, toying with the edges of his hairline, which is sharp from a fresh cut at the barber shop. He runs his palm around the side of his throat as he releases a low, amused chuckle. “Jessa, I’m going to have to call you back.”

“You don’t have to call her back,” I say, aware my voice is projecting a few octaves louder than usual or necessary. “You just have to take it somewhere else.”

Three.

Two.

One.

The bastard turns to face me, his full lips twisted into an undeniable smirk.

Bingo.

His shot is fired.

“I’m at work,” he says into the phone. He may be talking to her, but there’s no doubt his attention is set on me. Gaze searing into mine, the heaviness making it hard to breathe, he swipes his bottom lip with a slow, single stroke. The wetness left in its wake seems to somehow make its way between my thighs.

Damn it. 

Every morning when I pull into the staff parking lot, I tell myself it’ll be different. This is the day I won’t let Lance Gibson’s patented way of getting to me work. That he won’t quiet me with his smirk, immobilize me with his big green eyes, and twist me into a knot with his crude words delivered with the punch of a professional.

Of course, I’m also saying these things while balancing a tray of baked goodies I think he’ll love. I hate myself for that almost as much as I hate that I’ll be stripping myself of my panties in the ladies’ room between study halls because he’s so goddamn sexy and I can’t bear to feel them soaked between my thighs for the rest of the day.

Needless to say, I fail before I even walk in the door. I’m only a mortal. Silver lining? I’m a smarter mortal than I used to be. Nowadays, I can see what Lance is and ascertain what a disaster this intelligent, beautiful, smoldering book loving man would bestow upon me. After I spend the walk from my car to the  high school library’s doors imagining every way he’d touch me, I also visualize the heartbreak that would coincide with the ache elsewhere.

No, thank you.

“Do you think I fuck women while I’m working, Jessa?” he continues, amusement laced in his tone as he watches me with a perfectly quirked brow. “What kind of an animal do you think I am?”

“Oh, for the love of God,” I mutter.

Sitting my refrigerated lunch bag down, I cast him a narrowed glare as I make my way around my desk. The water in my purple Librarians Are Cool cup is room temperature, but I take a sip anyway. It’s a futile attempt to redirect my attention away from Lance and the vivid imagery of him with his fist in my hair as he bends me over this desk. This vision will be useful later, but not right now.

His games are frustrating. Listening to him make plans with his bevvy of bimbos is more than annoying, even if I’m conscious they may not be bimbos. It’s possible they’re just sexually satisfied and able to separate love from sex. Good for freaking them. I hate them.

As I watch him lean against the wall and his tongue sneak out between his perfectly straight teeth, I realize: I can’t blame him. At least he owns his philandering. Unlike my good-for-nothing, no-balls-having ex, Eric—Lance owns it. I can respect that.

I wish I could hate him. But how do you hate something that aesthetically pleasing, especially when he dampens his crass with just enough charm to soften you up? You can’t. I can’t, anyway. I can only remind myself to look through the smolder well enough to see the Y-chromosome. That specific chromosome, after all, carries the “master switch” gene, SRY, which decides whether an embryo will be a male or a female. It’s like men are apologizing from the start.

“Eight o’clock. See you then.” With a flourish, he drops his phone into the pockets of his pants. “How are you today, Ms. Malarkey?”

“My office is not a phone booth for your … whatever that was.” My cup hits the desktop with a thud, the chair beneath me squeaking as I relax onto its leather cushion. He leans forward, hands planted on a stack of papers, a grin digging deep against his chiseled cheeks.

There’s nowhere to go, no way to put any distance between us, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that I like it. And he knows it.

“Would you like to know what that was?” he teases.

“No.” Heat radiating from my face like it’s spent a long day in the sun, I stare back in hopes it’ll distract him from my blush.

“I can give you all sorts of details. Bet some of them will make you blush more than you are right now.”

My lips part to respond, to tell him he’s dreaming, but the twinkle in his eye stops me. He’d enjoy calling me out if I were to say anything. It’s happened more times than I care to admit. Instead, I deflect.

“You can’t keep coming in here,” I tell him half-heartedly. “It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is. We have this conversation every week.”

And we’ve had it for so many weeks you could measure it in months. The exact date this began is lost to time, but it seems like it’s always been this way—him working to irritate me, me working to be irritated by him.

Biting the inside of his cheek, he fights a grin. “You’re just mad that’s all I’m invading.”

“You wish.” I wish.

“Not denying that,” he says, a flicker of something I don’t want to name ghosting across his face. “Is that a roundabout offer?”

“Hardly,” I scoff. Totally.

His burst of laughter sounds through the room just like his cologne spices the air as he moves.

“How many women do you talk to? In here alone? Since the beginning of the year, I’m guessing twenty? Thirty? More?”

He cocks his head to the side. “Just talking?”

“Oh my God …”

“Fine. While I find it extremely satisfying you estimate my numbers that high, I would have to disagree with your figures. There are repeats.”

“You do see some of them more than once?” I balk. “That’s surprising.”

“Why is that surprising?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug. “I just figured you for a one-and-done kind of guy. Maybe that’s because I figured some of those women would be smart enough to not take your shit a second time, but I could be was wrong.”

“For the record, smartass, they’re more than willing to take my shit multiple times,” he winks.

Scoffing, I turn away.

The afternoon sun is poised almost directly across from my office, the streaks of light warming my skin as I face it. Lance moves around behind me, the energy exuding off him and tugging at me from different angles.

Despite my exasperation with his man-whoring, selfish ways, this part of my day is always my favorite. It’s the routine of it all, the mere predictability of his insolence, the sureness of his presence. There’s something steadying about him that I can’t quite put my finger on and don’t try to. Putting my finger on something about Lance, even if it’s in theory, feels like opening a can of worms I can’t afford to unlock.

“What can I say?” he asks. When I turn back around, he’s shoving his phone back in his pocket. “I’m a hot commodity.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Ah, so you admit you eavesdrop?”

I stare at him blank-faced. “It’s hard when I walk in here and you’re giving aural.”

His laugh permeates the space between us. The blend of rugged and smooth creates a sensation in the room that I couldn’t ignore if I tried.

“Giving aural?” he chuckles. “Is that a partial Freudian Slip?”

“No.” Sighing, I fall back into my chair again. My shoulder bumps my computer and bring the screen to life. “Will you just go?”

“Let me ask you a question.”

“No.”

“When is the last time you went out on a date?”

“Recently enough,” I reply, not looking up from the computer screen.

There’s no way I’m telling him my last real date was six weeks ago and that I’ve been in a dry spell for almost six months. Someone like him, someone who doesn’t bother with liking, feeling, or loving doesn’t get hurt. People like me, who get our emotions twisted up in a half a second flat, have to guard ourselves constantly. It complicates everything.

Half-sitting on my desk, he stills. “Really? With who?”

“What’s it to you?”

“It’s nothing to me. I’m just curious,” he says, his tone a touch softer than before.

This is what kills me with this man. This is the final move in his little game of chess, the one that captures the king. Or, in this case, the librarian.

It’s his ability to switch from smolder to sweet, from crass to charismatic, that, as much as I would never admit it out loud, intrigues me. I hate that I notice and I wish with every book on the shelves in this library I didn’t, but he makes it impossible.

He’s impossible.

I face him again. This time, folding my hands in front of me only inches from his thigh, I lean forward. He bites; he’s leaning closer to me like I’m about to tell him a secret.

“Lance?” I whisper.

“Yeah?”

“Take your curiosity out of my office.”

A low rumble courses from his throat as he twists his lips in amusement. “I’m about to take—”

We both jump, Lance clamoring to his feet as I shove away from my desk at the sound of a knock. The door is semi-closed, but Tish’s head pokes through the small opening. “Am I interrupting something here?”

“No,” I say, running a hand through the air. “Mr. Gibson was just leaving.”

“Uh-huh,” Tisha grins. “Looked like it to me.”

“I wasn’t, but guess I will now.” Lance sweeps his gaze across the room, stalling briefly on me, before settling on a plastic-covered bin on the corner of my desk. “Have you had one of these, Tish?” He pulls back the plastic and exposes the chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting I made last night. “Damn, they’re good.”

“Hey! Those aren’t for you,” I tell him, jerking the plastic back over the dessert.

“Your fault,” he says, pulling back the yellow paper liner. “You left them unattended.”

“In my office.”

“Unattended.” He breaks his smile only long enough to insert half the cupcake. “So good.” Crumbs fall from his mouth along with the words, a dollop of icing is left in the corner of his mouth as he swallows.

“Missed some.” Tish points to his face. “I could lick it off, if ya want.”

“Why aren’t you this helpful?” Lance asks, looking pointedly at me.

Tish giggles. “Because I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“And you do?” he asks, his brows pulled together.

“You were leaving. Remember?” I ask, crossing my arms in front of me.

“I think you missed the part where I said I don’t have a boyfriend,” Tish interjects. “That was the focal point of the sentence. Me. Unattended, if you will.”

Lance laughs, licking his lips. “You’d break me in half.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Tish purrs.

He starts to leave but turns back and grabs another cupcake.

“Are you serious right now?” I ask, jerking the dish toward me. “Get out of here.”

“I’m going. I’m going,” he chuckles, heading for the door. “Goodbye, ladies.”

“I have Prep sixth period,” Tish calls after him. “I’m happy to chat. I’ll bring brownies tomorrow.”

Knowing there’s no chance Tish isn’t watching him, I don’t bother pretending I’m not.

As he reaches for the door, his back muscles shift beneath his shirt and I’m taken back to the day in the spring when I stayed late to shelve books. The doors were locked so I had to exit through the gymnasium. The sound of squeaking tennis shoes and shouts from the basketball team met me in the hallway, so I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for, not in the least, was to see Lance shirtless, sweaty, and mid-layup. That V-cut of his groin is imprinted, permanently, I fear, in my brain.

“Is it wrong that I requested my classroom be moved across the hall from his?” Tish asks. “Principal Kelly just laughed, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence he’s positioned in the middle of a bunch of male teachers.”

“What are you getting at?”

“She wants him for herself! Obviously,” she groans.

“She’s married,” I laugh. “And so are you.”

“And what point is that supposed to make?” she sighs. “I’m fifty percent sure my husband is screwing his secretary, which is fine by me but I wish he’d just leave me for her. Damn. Let her do his laundry.”

“Tish!”

“What? My God-fearing soul can’t file for divorce.”

“But you can have an affair?”

“What is this? Morality hour?” she laughs, taking a cupcake from the tray. “Besides, I don’t know how any woman could have restraint around him.” Watching me expectantly, she waits for my reaction as she peels the wrapper from the dessert.

I look down, cheeks hot. Again.

“Do you?” she asks.

“Do I what?”

“Come on, Mariah. Don’t you find that boy attractive?”

Gulping, I pucker my lips together. “I find him … frustrating.”

“All the good-looking ones are, honey,” she says, biting into a cupcake. “These are good.”

“Thanks. You have some icing on the corner of your mouth,” I laugh.

She grabs a tissue and dots her lips. “Every day I come in here and every day he’s in here. That wouldn’t be true if all you found him was frustrating.”

“Look,” I say, gathering my pride, “he’s cute. For sure. But I’ve had cute. Eric was cute. He was smart on paper. He could be funny. And the only good screwing I got out of him was out of the sheets.”

Ignoring my shiver, Tish pushes on. “You need to forget about him. It’s been, what? Two years?”

“Ish,” I sigh. “And I have forgotten about him. I just remembered him to make a point.”

Her laugh fills the room as she brushes her hands off over the trashcan. “What about the guy you’ve been seeing? How’s that going?”

“I haven’t been seeing anyone,” I mutter.

Picking up a paper, I try to be interested in the numbers. Truth is, I have no idea what I’m even looking at. Saying Eric’s name out loud, something I never do, ushered in a tenderness in my heart I can’t just brush off. It hurts. It stings. I wonder if it always will.

The bell rings, breaking me out of my reverie.

“I gotta get back to my classroom,” Tish says. “The freshmen are in there and they’re the worst class I’ve had in the twenty years I’ve been teaching.”

“Good luck with that,” I say.

“See ya tomorrow.”

She disappears into the library. I turn towards my computer when I spy the cupcake container. The plastic is dropping into the icing, the pieces missing from Tish and Lance.

As I fix the covering, a warmth washes over me like a warm summer rain. I settle back in my chair and try to get back to work. Yet, as my fingers hover over the keyboard, they don’t move. Instead, I glance at the cupcakes again.

Memories sweep through my mind of baking with my grandmother. She taught me the peanut butter icing recipe that Lance loves so much. Gran taught me how to bake, crochet, and even let me read the romance novels I craved though my mom said they were trash.

Everything was trash to her unless she could garner a social benefit. Me included.

One day, I tell myself, swiping up a dab of icing on my finger. One day I’ll have a family of my own and won’t rely on acceptance from co-workers to prove my mettle.

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