Smiley – Laurann Dohner

“Stop embarrassing me.” Carl hissed the words, glancing around to make sure he couldn’t be overheard by anyone except his target. “My father said you’re surly. It reflects badly on him. I just got my ass chewed out. Keep smiling and nod, Vanni. He also said you were rude to a journalist.” “Did you hear what he preached up there?” She was angry too. “I agreed to put on this long skirt because your father has a problem with women wearing pants. I didn’t say I’d talk with reporters and repeat the hatred he spews.” “You’re not supposed to talk at all. I know he’s old school but he is my father. We’re here to represent him.” “Old school? I’d use way harsher words for what he is. No, I only came because I thought we were having a romantic weekend at a nice hotel.

Instead, I discover you’re sharing a suite with your father and I’m stuck rooming with his insane assistant. You waited to spring this on me once we arrived because we both know I wouldn’t have come otherwise.” He stepped closer and wrapped his fingers around her upper arm, glancing around again. “This is important to him. It’s two more days. Just smile and keep your lips sealed. That’s all.” “You told me you have nothing to do with your father’s church. Why are we even here, Carl? I don’t understand.” “He never asks me for anything but some of the press have been questioning his family values.

He needed us here to show support. It’s only two days. Please, Vanni. I know this is a lot to ask but he is my father. That makes him family to you.” She was tempted to remind him they weren’t married yet. Her mind went over her options. She was two hours from home, without a car. Her roommate could come get her but she’d only ask a favor that big in an emergency. It hadn’t quite reached that point but it was getting close.

Carl softened his tone. “This is important to my father and he really needs me to be here. He asks for so little, Vanni.” She stared into his eyes and hated the way her resolve caved under that pleading look. “I don’t like his church members or what they stand for.” “I don’t either but I couldn’t say no. You’re going to be my wife. I wanted you here with me.” “They are bigots and I didn’t exactly wave that reporter down or ask to have a microphone shoved in my face. I just said two words, Carl—no comment.

Be thankful I didn’t tell him that dinner was an hour of my life I’ll never get back and how pissed I was, hearing that bullshit.” His normally handsome expression twisted into something less appealing. “My father and his followers just have different views. You’re not being fair.” “Fair?” Her temper flared again. “Don’t even say that word to me. You swore we’d never have to deal with this church business and then you lied to get me here. That was underhanded and low.” “It’s one damn weekend.” He hissed the words.

“Don’t be selfish.” “Who the hell are you and where did the man I know go? You hate the things your father stands for as much as I do or was that just bullshit to get me to marry you?” He glanced around and then stared at her. “He promised to give me fifty grand if I showed up. Your family isn’t exactly able to pay for a nice wedding. I’m the one who has to eat the extra costs.” She clenched her teeth, resenting the guilt trip and knowing that was exactly what it was. “I wanted something small so don’t lay this on me. You’re the one who wanted four hundred guests.” “They are clients. I couldn’t get married without inviting them.

” “I want to leave.” His hold tightened and he jerked her a little, looking away once again to scan the room. “Just stop it,” he snapped. “Go upstairs if you can’t put on a happy face. Don’t embarrass my dad again. Do you understand?” “I’m starting to.” She didn’t like the implications either. “So you want me to hide after you brought me here since I won’t get with the program?” “You can’t embarrass him.” “What about me? I’m embarrassed to be here with that so-called church.” She yanked her arm, forcing him to release her and backed away.

“You don’t have to agree with their beliefs but you will stand by my side so I can support my father. Someone has to pay for this wedding.” “Yes sir.” She raised her hand and smartly saluted. “I’ll be good and go hide upstairs so I don’t tell anyone that I was sickened by the hatred and stupidity your father preaches.” “You’re being dramatic. It’s not flattering, Vanni.” She bit back a nasty response. “Don’t forget to show up at breakfast tomorrow. We’re supposed to pose for pictures with my dad right afterward.

Wear the pink dress his assistant bought you.” She cringed. “It’s horrible. It reminds me of some nightmare bridesmaid dress where someone threw up carnations down the front of it.” Carl shook his head. “Just wear the fucking dress. Smile for the cameras and act like an adult. We’re doing this for our future and to pay for our wedding. Is that too difficult for you?” She was tempted to say yes. “Do it for me.

” He reached out and took her hand, his thumb brushing over her engagement ring. “For us. It will make me happy and it’s only two days. That’s all. He’s trying to gain support for his church. There are reporters here and the coverage is just what he needs. We’ll get a nicer wedding out of it.” Vanni cringed inside. She wouldn’t be heartbroken if his father’s church faded into oblivion and hoped no one took to heart the crap she’d heard during dinner. The speech Pastor Gregory Woods had given had made her lose her appetite.

She would have walked out if it hadn’t been for Carl. She’d tried to avoid an argument but hadn’t succeeded since a reporter had attempted to interview her right afterward. Her “no comment” remark had pissed Carl off and apparently his father as well. “Shit,” Carl muttered. “Reporters at two o’clock. Get the hell out of here before they spot us.” He glanced down at her and his gaze narrowed. “Go upstairs and stay there until breakfast. We’ll discuss this in the morning.” She spun away, eager to leave the banquet hall.

The Carl she knew had radically changed once they’d arrived at the hotel and she wasn’t enjoying this new side of him. He’d been a first-rate dick. It made her seriously reconsider their future. Pastor Gregory Woods’ personal assistant, Mable, was another nightmare for Vanni. The woman was rude and snooty. The idea of returning to the room they shared turned her away from the elevators. The bar sign beckoned. She strode toward it and entered the dimly lit area. The tables were occupied but she spotted an open barstool. She rarely drank and bars weren’t her scene.

The bartender caught her eye as he approached. He was in his mid-thirties and flashed a friendly smile. “What can I get you?” Vanni smoothed the long skirt as she took a seat and shoved a hand inside her pocket, regretting leaving her purse in her room. She had a twenty-dollar bill and her room keycard though. Her license was in her wallet so she couldn’t prove her age if asked to show ID. Could my luck get any worse? “Just an iced tea but no lemon. Thanks.” He nodded and turned away to fetch her drink. She kept her head down until someone cleared his throat to the left of her. She hoped it wasn’t some drunk about to hit on her—the reason she hated bars.

One deep breath and she turned her head to face her fellow bar mate. The gasp was automatic when she saw his features. It came as a shock to realize he wasn’t just any guy. He had the firm jawline, pronounced cheekbones and generous lips that told her he was New Species. Her gaze lowered to his jeans jacket and the way the sleeves were tight in the shoulder and upper arms. He wasn’t sporting the black NSO uniform that she’d spotted a few of them wearing from the brief glimpses she’d gotten of them in the lobby. She lowered her gaze to glance at his jeans. They were molded to muscular thighs. Her attention jerked upward to gawk a little at his face again. I shouldn’t have asked.

My luck can get worse. Panic struck her next. Carl would have a fit if someone spotted her sitting next to a New Species and told him or his father. This New Species possessed lovely brown eyes with long dark eyelashes. He had silky black hair that fell just past his shoulders. He blinked before he spoke. “Are you all right? You’re really pale and your hands are shaking.” His voice had a deep tone that sent chills down her spine. She wasn’t sure if it was from fear or because it was the kind of voice she found sexy. It was gruff, masculine and pleasant at the same time.

She struggled to come up with an answer but acknowledged being tongue-tied. He leaned in a little closer. “I’m not dangerous if that’s what you heard about my kind. I’d never attack you. Do you want me to go?” He tensed as if to get up from the stool. “No!” She managed to speak. It made her feel a little guilty that he was ready to leave because of her deplorable reaction. “I was just surprised, that’s all. You’re fine where you are.” He leaned back on his barstool.

The bartender distracted her when he brought her iced tea and dropped off a dark-colored drink to the New Species. She withdrew the twenty. “I’ll pay for both of them. Keep the change.” It was the least she could do after making him uncomfortable. “You don’t have to do that.” The bartender fled and she faced the man with the whiskey voice. His nose was wider than most but his eyes were striking with the long dark eyelashes. Beautiful, even. “Call it my version of an apology.

My mood has nothing to do with you. I’ve been on edge all day.” He lifted his drink and took a sip. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” He put down his drink, ran his palm over his thigh then offered it to her. “I’m Smiley.” Her still-stunned mind scrambled for the definition of the word. Rumors speculated they picked their names to reflect their personalities. It was a nice one.

“Vanni.” His hand was large and warm. He took hers very gently, shook it and released her. “Vanni is a pretty name.” “It stands for Travanni. My mother had a thing for weird names. I hate it. All my life I’ve just gone by Vanni.” She sipped her tea, trying not to babble. She did that when she was nervous and speaking to a New Species made her very much so.

“My poor sister got stuck with Mortimia. She usually refuses to tell people her full name and just goes by Mia. We are certain that my mom was obsessed with vampires.” He appeared a little confused. “I don’t understand.” She smiled. “Travanni reminds me of Transylvania, home of Dracula. Mortimia, well, Mort translates into dead. Mia translates into me. Dead me.

” He chuckled now. It was a nice sound. “I see. Are there any other siblings with strange names?” “I have an older brother. He got stuck with Count. Again with the vampire theme. Count Dracula. She said it means noble but we’re on to her.” Shut up, she ordered herself but then the New Species laughed. She relaxed.

“She’s weird but we love her.” “What did your father think about those names?” She hesitated. “He was a workaholic. He was gone a lot, out of the country on business when most of us were born so I don’t think he had much input. He pretty much got her pregnant and then flew away. We joke that we know when he had vacation time by counting back nine months from our birthdays. He’s retired these days.” “That must be nice that he’s home now.” “Well, my parents haven’t killed each other yet so I guess it is.” Vanni took another drink of her tea.

She was downing it fast. It might silence her before she over-shared too much about her family just to find a topic of conversation. “I take it you’re here for the thing?” He blinked. “Thing?” “You know. The conference thing.” The New Species Organization was promoting the expansion of the NSO Reservation to start a wildlife sanctuary to take in more rescued animals. Gregory argued they were really training them to attack people. He was nuts. He nodded. “Yes.

Are you as well?” She wasn’t going to admit it or he might ask who she’d come with. Pastor Gregory was one of New Species’ biggest adversaries. After hearing the vicious things Carl’s father had said about people like Smiley she was ashamed to be associated with that church in any way. He seemed nice and definitely not deranged. “Vacation,” she lied. He nodded. “It’s beautiful here in Los Angeles. I love the city lights I see from my room. It’s like a different world from where I come from.” “Do you live at Homeland or Reservation?” “Homeland.

” He drank more of his soda. “I’m here on security detail. I just finished my shift.” She nodded, deciding to change the subject. “You’re drinking Red Bull and vodka?” She glanced at the glass he held. He shook his head. “Most of my kind don’t drink alcohol. This is just a soda.” She’d heard so many rotten things from Carl’s father about New Species but talking to Smiley proved him wrong, so far anyway. It wasn’t a surprise that the pastor was a gasbag.

She cleared her throat, trying to think of a topic to talk about. “Take my advice and just enjoy the city from your room. This neighborhood is nice but I wouldn’t want to venture a few blocks over. The crime rate is horrible.” One dark eyebrow arched as he peered at her with curiosity. “That older brother I mentioned is a cop. He made me swear not to leave the hotel after doing a computer check of the area before I arrived. I got a lecture about carjackings, muggings and rape complaints that had been filed. He acted as though I’d take moonlight strolls down alleys or something.” She grinned.

“I’m always going to be five years old to him, I swear. I’m hoping that one day he realizes I’m an adult but I’m not holding my breath.” “He worries about you.” She completely relaxed. “That’s what big brothers do all the way from New York. He moved there five years ago but Dad mentioned my trip so I got ‘the phone call’. I know he loves me, even though he’s kind of a pain.” “Thank you for the warning about crime but we aren’t allowed to leave the hotel.” That surprised her. “Why not?” “There are a lot of humans who wish us harm or death just because we exist.

” She thought she saw a flash of pain in his attractive brown eyes but hoped he didn’t notice her guilty look. Pastor Gregory and his church were part of the problem. “They are idiots.” “The hotel has good security so it’s safe for us as long as we stay inside. We also have our own security teams in place but we’re under orders to stick together.” She glanced around the bar then back at him. “I don’t see any other New Species.” He hesitated. “The two humans sitting at a table in the far corner are on our task force. They are keeping an eye on me.

We travel in teams. I just wanted some alone time.” “I’m sorry. And here I am chatting away at you. I’ll go.” She started to slide off the barstool to give him privacy. “Don’t. I didn’t mean that how it sounded. I wanted to get away from them, not you. I’m enjoying our talk.

” Vanni settled back into her seat and drank some tea but couldn’t resist glancing at the far corner. Two big, burly men regarded her from a table. They looked mean and she knew without a doubt they were part of Smiley’s security team. She stared up at him. “I hope they don’t deem me a threat.” Smiley chuckled. “I’ll deserve some pain if you attack and cause me harm. No offense.” “None taken.” She laughed.

“I know I’m intimidating at five foot three. This flower-print skirt really screams badass, doesn’t it?” She glanced at her lap. “God, I hate this thing.” “Why are you wearing it?” Because I was ordered to and thought it was easier to put it on rather than argue with Carl . “I had a dinner to attend earlier and it was appropriate attire.” She didn’t offer more of an explanation, just sipped her tea and tugged at her shirt. She had begun to sweat. “Wow. It’s really hot in here.” “I was just thinking the same thing.

It must be ninety degrees.” “At least.” She bypassed the straw to take a gulp of her drink, hoping the coolness would help. Smiley shifted in his seat and peeled off the jacket, revealing a black tank top and tan, muscular arms. She tried not to stare but it was difficult. He was built. His biceps flexed as he twisted enough to drape the jacket over the back of his chair. Somebody works out a lot. She had to admire his broad shoulders too since so much of them showed. They were wide and thick, the kind she saw at her local gym on body builders.

He smiled. “That should help.” Stop gawking at him before he notices! She forced her gaze away from his body to stare up at his face. “You’re really fit.” Oh my god. I just said that aloud. “I am Species.” He shrugged. “It’s genetics and I am in Security. What do you do for a living?” “I’m a chair jockey.

” That eyebrow of his rose again. “What is that?” “I work in an office sitting at a desk most days. My version of exercise is running back to grab the phone if I left my desk to send off faxes or use the copy machine. I get to deal with a ton of paperwork, for the most part. The technical term for my job is executive secretary but I prefer chair jockey. It sounds more exciting than what it really is.” “I wish that was my version of exercise. We run miles a day and train all the time.” “What do you train for? Like with guns and hitting what you aim at?” “Fighting and yes, we know how to use guns but we want to keep our reflexes at peak levels. Hand-to-hand-combat training is what we mostly do.

” She glanced at his thickly muscled arms and those wide shoulders again. Don’t drool. Smiley was the exact opposite of her fiancé. Carl was a lawyer. The only exercise he got was swinging golf clubs at the country club. He was pasty white, just a few inches taller than she was and they were about the same weight. Smiley had to be well over a hundred pounds heavier and he appeared tall, even sitting. He was very appealing and she definitely noticed. I’d have to be blind not to. Don’t forget you’re engaged.

She gulped more of her tea but not even the icy drink could help her cool down. “Wow. It is really warm in here.” Vanni could feel perspiration trickling down her back and between her breasts. She shifted in her seat, wishing she wasn’t wearing a skirt nearly to her ankles. Her thighs felt damp too, as if they were sweating. “Maybe I should hang out in this bar more often. It’s like a sauna. Who needs exercise?” Smiley lifted his arm and waved to get the bartender’s attention. The man walked over but he didn’t look happy about it.

He kept back from the counter. “What do you need?” “The female is hot and so am I. Could you please turn up the air-conditioning?” “Sure.” He spun and nearly ran to the opposite side of the bar. “‘So much for giving good service after getting a big tip,” Vanni muttered. “He appeared frightened.” She glanced up at Smiley. “You think so?” He nodded. She glanced at his arms. “You took off your jacket.

” “So?” She licked her lips and shifted in her seat. A dizzy spell struck and she gripped the edge of the bar to keep steady until it passed. “You’re really buff.” “That’s terrifying?” “He probably realized you could kick his ass.” “Oh. I’d never attack someone without a good reason. Should I tell him that so I don’t frighten him? I’m no threat to the male.” She shook her head. “Just ignore it. Some people are paranoid morons.

” Smiley took another sip of his soda. “You’d think I terrified him just by being Species.” “You don’t terrify me. You’re nice.” “Thank you.” He lifted his wrist to glance at his watch. “Do you have to leave?” “No. I just can’t believe it’s ten at night. It doesn’t feel that late. I guess I should finish my drink and go to my room.

I have an early shift in the morning.” “Yeah. I should go to my room soon but I think I’ll eat something first. I picked at my dinner earlier.” He studied her. “It wasn’t good?” “I had to eat dinner with some people who said things that made me feel sick. It kind of killed my appetite at the time. They are idiots. It seems to be going around tonight.” “So why did you eat with them?” “I had no choice.

I was kind of pushed into it by someone else.” He seemed to understand that. “They have good food here. I ate dinner at this bar yesterday. I’d recommend the steak.” He looked like a meat eater to Vanni. Carl was a vegetarian. An image of a white onion with Carl’s face on it suddenly popped into her head and she burst out in giggles. A firm hand gripped her upper arm. “Are you well?” She stared up at Smiley and the humor faded. He was really handsome and she noticed he smelled good. “What is that cologne you’re wearing?” She sniffed and wanted to be closer to get a better whiff. She leaned forward and nearly fell off her barstool. “Vanni?” Smiley gripped her other arm to keep her in place. “What is wrong? Your pupils are dilated and you’re almost panting.” Am I? The dizzy spell had passed but she still felt lightheaded. She focused on her breathing and realized Smiley was right. “I’m hot and,” she glanced at what little was left of her iced tea, “feel drunk. I think the bartender gave me the wrong drink. I said iced tea, not a Long Island Iced Tea.” “I don’t understand.” She lifted her head and stared into his eyes again. They were gorgeous. “One has alcohol and one doesn’t. I, um, think he gave me one with booze. You have bedroom eyes.” She realized she’d said that last part aloud. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you that.” He leaned in closer until their faces were inches apart. She couldn’t help but stare at his lips. They looked kissable and soft, despite him being so masculine. “Vanni? What can I do? Should I call someone? Do you have a friend here at the hotel who can escort you safely to your room? I could call hotel security. I’d take you myself but that might be inappropriate.” She cringed, imagining her roommate tattling instantly to Carl if she showed up two sheets to the wind. He’d ordered her to go upstairs and wouldn’t be happy that she’d gone to the bar instead. He’d lose his mind if Smiley walked her to the door and Mable got a look at him. “I’m not going to take advantage of you. You’re safe.” “It’s not that.” She shook her head and regretted it when the room spun. “It’s my roommate. Crap. That would be so bad.” He helped her sit upright in her chair and released her arms. “You should eat. I’ll order food.” Her stomach muscles clenched and it almost hurt. “No.” She gripped the edge of the bar and tried to figure out what was wrong with her. She was lightheaded, sweating, and the pain in her stomach intensified and traveled lower to between her legs. Her eyes widened when her clit began to throb as though it had a heartbeat. “Oh shit.” “Vanni?” Smiley’s voice softened. “What can I do? I want to help you.” She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. Instead it made her aware of her breasts. They started to ache and she was pretty sure her nipples grew taut. Something was definitely wrong. Another hot flash struck and she fought the urge to tear off her clothes since it felt as if her skin was on fire. It passed and relief swept through her for a few seconds until the chills began. She’d gone from hot to cold in a flash. “Vanni?” Smiley leaned in, his voice almost against her ear. “Do you need a doctor? I could see if one is staying at the hotel.” She opened her eyes and turned her head. Her teeth started to chatter and she trembled all over. “I’m so cold,” she admitted.

.

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