Interrupting multicolored, icing-infused make-up sex was pretty high on Ben’s list of awkward experiences. Delivering a rainbow-colored unicorn cake to a birthday party at a casino promised to rank only slightly lower.
Some things, once seen—like two people rolling around on the kitchen floor, wearing only the color spectrum in buttercream—could not be unseen. Fortunately, the cake had already been boxed up, because Ben was willing to do anything, including volunteer to be the delivery guy, to escape the happy little reunion he’d walked in on a few minutes ago.
“Are you sure you don’t mind doing this?” a freshly dressed Trevor asked as he shut the back door of Ben’s SUV after putting the giant cake box on the seat.
“No, it’s cool,” Ben lied, peering over his shoulder to see how big Amber’s little Oh by the way favor was. “You and Amber go do your, uh, thing.”
“I’m really sorry about bailing on you and everything,” Trevor said for the ninety-ninth time.
“I’m glad for you guys, I really am,” Ben told Trevor, buckling his seat belt. He wasn’t even that bummed out about being stood up for their trip. He’d been resigned to spending his leave listening to Trevor moan about missing his ex for the whole month. Instead, Ben could now, well…
“What are you going to do?” Amber, wrapped in a towel that barely covered her butt, joined Trevor in the driveway, combing her just-rinsed hair.
Having seen her naked a few minutes ago, Ben couldn’t even look at Amber as he answered, “I’ll find something.” He’d have to. Especially since he’d sublet his apartment until the end of the month and couldn’t go back to San Diego.
“Well, you’re in Vegas, baby, and you’re headed to a birthday party. If you can’t keep yourself occupied, you’ve got problems,” Trevor said with a slap to the roof of Ben’s SUV.
Ben’s smile probably lacked enthusiasm. The thought of walking into the hotel bar full of strangers made his skin prickle and sent a bead of sweat down the middle of his back, but he reminded himself he was no longer that kid with debilitating shyness; he was literally captain of his own vessel—a fighter jet, no less. He was making his way in the Navy, so he could deliver a cake without needing Xanax. Granted, when he was in the cockpit of his jet, he didn’t have a crowd around him singing “Happy Birthday.”
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Amber asked.
“Yep,” he told her, holding up his phone with Google Maps open and ready.
“Don’t forget to light the candles on your way in!” she reminded him as he backed out of the driveway.
He waved his confirmation and hit the get directions button.
“And don’t forget to enjoy what Las Vegas has to offer!”
Trevor added. “Meet some women, for crying out loud!”
“Oh my God, you guys!” Megan gushed as her family cheered and clapped. “I can’t believe you did this for me!”
Well, except that they’d been whispering constantly for the past week, only to stop and try to look innocent every time Megan walked into a room. But honestly? It didn’t matter that she wasn’t really surprised. When her family showed her that they loved her, all of her loneliness and frustrations took a back seat to the many reasons she loved her job managing their Vegas variety act.
Dad’s hug was warm and firm and smelled of Old Spice and the Noxzema he’d used to remove his stage makeup. “Get yourself a drink.” He signaled to the bartender, who nodded and carried over the first pitcher of beer. Megan’s brothers and sister emptied it in seconds. That was fine. She’d get some on the next round.
“I wonder where the cake is?” Mom said, looking out of the bar and into the actual casino. “I think I told the baker we needed it delivered at ten, but maybe I didn’t. Oh darn it, I shouldn’t be put in charge of these things.”
“Not your job today,” Dad murmured in Megan’s ear, then told Mom, “I’m sure she’ll be here soon, and if not, we’ll dig something up from the hotel snack shop.” He raised his eyebrows at Megan in an I really mean it gesture, which was good, because she was sorely tempted to run interference and make sure her birthday party went smoothly so everyone else had a good time.
“Open my present!” Megan’s sister said, shoving a gift bag at her.
She pulled out the tissue paper and peered inside. “Oh, a cookbook!” Megan exclaimed. “Thanks. I can’t wait to look through it.” Which was true. She’d look through it and decide what she’d order the next time she got carryout, because heaven knew her cooking skills needed more than an instruction manual. If only her family would get that message.
“We went in on a Williams-Sonoma gift card,” one of her brothers said, handing her an envelope.
“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she told them. Since they had, however, she’d use it to buy them presents for their birthdays. Optimist that she was, she truly believed her family would learn that not only was she a lost cause in the kitchen, but learning to cook wasn’t going to help her find a husband.
As she looked around at her raucous, exuberant parents and siblings, she smiled and reminded herself that she really didn’t want a husband, a boyfriend, or a friend with benefits. She had all she needed right here, if she didn’t count the vibrator in her nightstand.
The enormous hotel-casino-entertainment complex was closer than Ben expected, and he pulled up to the valet before his social anxiety had a chance to kick in. Put him in a thirty-ton F-18 Super Hornet going a thousand miles an hour, and he was cool as a cucumber. He could easily walk into a casino carrying a birthday cake, even though there was a doorman who would gladly deliver this cake in exchange for a hearty tip.
He thought about what his commander had said during a recent review—you’re one of the most competent pilots we have—which had felt more like an insult than a compliment when he was passed over for promotion. He worked his ass off for the Navy; he was more than confident about that. He suspected it was his reluctance to engage with people that held him back. Well, he’d learned to fly, had pushed himself to get over the reticence that would have kept him out of the military, and he believed, if he kept stepping out of his comfort zone—and doing shit like delivering a birthday cake to a casino—that someday, somehow, he’d stop getting clammy hands at the thought of meeting new people.
He stepped out of his SUV.
“Welcome to the Masquerade,” said the guy in the overdone outfit who took Ben’s keys and handed him a ticket.
Ben opened the back door and hoisted the cake. Between the bulkiness of the box and the weight, he had to pay close attention to his step. He managed to make it to the concierge desk and let them know he’d be back to check in after he made his delivery to someone named Megan with the Wallace party.
He put the box on an unattended blackjack table outside the bar, took off the top, and gaped at the baked monstrosity inside. A freaking unicorn. With rainbows coming out of its ass. Okay, maybe that was supposed to be a tail. Its body bore a script “Happy Birthday, Megan.”
Alongside the cake lay a gold-foil cone-shaped thing with candles flaring from the tip, which he assumed was the horn. He stuck it between the ears of the poor horse and fished the lighter Amber had handed him out of his pocket.
Hopefully, the birthday girl would be wearing a crazy hat or a shirt with her name on the back. All he had to do was tell the first employee he saw that he was looking for Megan and let them find her for him. Easy as pie.
Of course, as was the way with all the plans he’d made for this next month, there was no hostess, no server, nor bartender anywhere near the entrance. A little farther inside, however, there was a circus.
The party was something from a Game Show Network nightmare. A middle-aged female magician, in white coat and tails wearing booty shorts, slow-danced with a man, about the same age, also wearing short-shorts and a sparkly tank top. They were flanked by two young men in clown costumes throwing glittery bowling pins back and forth, narrowly missing the dancers with each toss. There was also a woman in LED-trimmed spandex, helium balloons tied to her outfit, on freaking roller skates.
The woman standing next to the dance floor wearing good old-fashioned clothes was the person who held Ben’s attention, though. Long, wavy, dark hair fell down her back, and one shoulder sported a falling-down bra strap. She had on a plain white tank top and jeans, but her curves gave them a vintage fashion model look. A dignified nose and high cheekbones added to her exotic allure.
His mouth watered, but not because he was carrying fifty pounds of birthday cake.
And then she turned those dark eyes his way and looked him up and down with a brilliant, welcoming smile.
His knees went weak.
Yeah. He could do this. With a deep breath, he shoved his insecurity out of the way and started to move—at exactly the same time someone yelled, “Hey, sis! Catch!”
As though in slow motion, Ben turned his head toward the clown who had called out, right when he threw one of the bowling pins he’d been juggling straight at the pretty woman’s head. Her eyes trained on Ben, she didn’t move, didn’t even appear to hear the warning. “Watch out!” he yelled, springing into action at the same moment the bowling pin turned into a bouquet of silk flowers.
Megan batted the flowers away and leapt toward the hot guy who was in the process of dropping—what the hell? A flaming unicorn? Instead of catching the cake, she latched onto the guy, grabbing his biceps just as he swung her around by the waist. Their near do-si-do came to an abrupt halt within inches of the box of broken, bleeding cake. The big candle thing sputtered out in a glob of orange icing, and whatever was coming out of its butt was a colorful smear.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” she asked the guy, who blinked down at the mess before his whiskey-colored eyes met hers.
His arms were hard and hot under her hands. He was tall, dark, and beyond handsome, with golden brown skin, a cleanly shaved head, and smiling lips that begged to be occupied. With hers. Her stomach flipped while he held her waist as they gazed at each other for a long moment. He seemed to realize this was a weird situation, because he cleared his throat and steadied her before stepping back to ask in a deep, rich voice, “Do you know anyone named Megan?”
She didn’t get to answer, because with a predictable blast of drama, her sister moaned, “The cake is ruined!” while her family pressed around them to stare down. Hot Guy glanced around—probably for an escape route—but instead of making a break for the door, motioned toward the bartender, doing an excellent job of miming, “Pastry disaster. Please send all available cleaning supplies!” He ran a large, capable-looking hand over his smooth head and said, “I’ll get it replaced. There must be a bakery around here.”
Megan glanced down at the cake. No edible parts were touching the floor, so she said, “That’s ridiculous. The whole thing’s still in the box. It’s just a little…rearranged.” Turning to her brothers, she asked, “Can you guys get this picked up?”
Hot Guy bent to help lift the wobbly box to the table, and Megan couldn’t help but appreciate the way the muscles in his back and shoulders flexed while she supervised.
Once the cake was safely on the table, Mom said, “I already paid Amber for making this, but hang on, I’ll get you a tip.”
“No, I’m doing a favor for a friend.” Hot Guy shook his head, then glanced toward the exit.
Megan didn’t blame him. Most people—well most hot guys, anyway—caught see-you-later-itis where her family was concerned. Considering she didn’t even know this guy’s name, she was unaccountably disappointed, especially as he kept looking at her, then glancing away. Oh well. Best not to get too attached to strange men who came bearing flaming unicorns.
Instead of rushing away, he surprised her when he gave a barely perceptible nod, swallowed, and said, “I’m really sorry for ruining Megan’s birthday party.”
“Well, I’m Megan. You did not ruin my party.” Then, conveniently overlooking the fact that she’d sworn off men, asked, “Will you stay and join us for a drink and some resuscitated birthday unicorn?”