A trio of kids behind her started cheering.
“Everyone get their best bubble-catching hands ready! I’ll just go fire up my nifty bubble factory . . .”
Five minutes later, Georgie was racing from one end of the backyard to the other, a bubble maker held high above her head and leaving a trail of translucent bubbles behind her. Ten five-year-olds laughed and followed along, although one of them dropped out to dance to the Kidz Bop song that blared from the radio. There was always one.
“Okay,” Georgie gasped, planting her hands on her knees. “Who wants to get their face painted? I can do dragons or ballet slippers—”
“My mom says it’ll leave a rash and I can’t do it!”
A little girl with curly red hair stuck out her lower lip. “I don’t want a rash.”
“Me either,” said a boy, edging away from the pack.
Well used to the domino effect, Georgie smiled and knelt, getting down on their level. “How about I test the paint on your hands, so you can see it won’t give you a rash.”
“Test it on my mom!”
“Don’t test it on my mom. My dad says she’s too sensitive!”
Georgie sent an amused look over at the observing parents, her breath catching when she noticed Travis watching her with an unreadable expression, arms crossed over his chest. “Um. How about I paint one of the adults’ whole face? Would that make you feel less scared?”
As she’d known they would be, all the children were in unanimous agreement. “Yeah!”
Before she could think better of it, Georgie waved at Travis. “Mr. Ford would love to be our volunteer. Everyone say hello to Mr. Ford.”
A chorus of greetings filled the backyard, mingling with Travis’s low chuckle.
He set down his beer and swaggered his way over to the grass. Earlier, Georgie had set up a face-painting station, complete with card table and stool. Travis eyed the child-sized stool now with a dubious look. “You don’t expect me to sit on that, do you?”
Georgie blinked. “But you must. It’s the face-painting stool.”
“Right.” He scratched his jaw and Georgie’s belly flipped at the rasping sound, knowing exactly how that stubble felt rubbing in the crook of her neck. Travis caught her eye as he sat, lips twisting as if he could read her thoughts. “You’ve got me where you want me.” How dare he make sitting on a kiddie stool look cool? “Do I get to pick my design?”
She gestured to the riveted group of children. “We should really let the birthday boy pick.”
Travis’s mouth twitched. “Sounds dangerous.”
Never in her life had she worked a party where the parents stopped talking and paid such close attention. You could hear a pin drop in the backyard. Inviting Travis up to have his face painted was a bad idea. Terrible. She could feel her every action being scrutinized. Why did Travis have to pick now to reveal his playful side?
Attempting to disguise her nerves, Georgie turned to the birthday boy. “Carter? What do you think? Should we give him a butterfly? Or maybe a Minion—”
Travis sighed. “I’ve been typecast.”
Georgie bit back a laugh. “A dog it is.”
Trying her best to ignore Travis’s eyes, which seemed to be hooked on her every movement, Georgie dipped the paintbrush into the black paint, intending to start with his nose. The brush hovered for long seconds, refusing to move, despite what her brain commanded it to do. Probably because of his warm breath on her wrist. And the way his knee rested against hers, those big baseball player hands at the ready. As if they were going to pull her down on his lap if given the slightest encouragement. Or was she imagining that? It was totally possible Travis was suffering through this while she had a full hormonal breakdown.
“I have a dog! Her name is Lola.”
“My cousin’s dog bit someone.”
Thank you, little ones. The voices getting her back on track, Georgie smoothed the brush along Travis’s nose in an upside-down triangle. “Mr. Ford is more of a nibbler.” She snapped her mouth shut. “I—I mean . . .”
Travis threw back his head and laughed, along with several of the parents.
“Shut up,” she whispered, face flaming. “Help me backpedal.”
His gaze dropped to her neck. “Should I tell them how you found out?”
Oh Lord. This wasn’t happening. She was an aroused clown. Her nipples had turned into these awful, painful little spikes and the sound of Travis’s sex voice filled her mind. Virgin or not, you’ve thought about riding this dick or you wouldn’t have dropped your skirt for me. Tell me I’m right. A drop of sweat slid down her spine, absorbed by the bike shorts she wore under her costume. This was what happened when a girl remained a virgin well into adulthood, got a taste of Travis, then went back to depriving herself. She exploded. They wouldn’t need a piñata at this party—they could just collect little pieces of her off the ground.
Finally, Travis seemed to realize her predicament, because his smile slowly melted away. “Hey.” He licked his lips, his eyes a little unfocused. “Think about the time you spent an hour making the perfect hopscotch before Stephen and I sprayed it away with the hose.”
When that reminder did nothing to cool her lust, Georgie knew she was in big trouble, but she did her best to pretend his method had worked like a charm. “You’re right. I’m making you a really ugly dog,” she murmured. “With a gas problem.”
“That’s the spirit. Although I’m not sure how you can translate that on canvas.”
“Where there’s a will . . .”
Turned out, Georgie’s will was pretty strong, because she made Travis ugly as sin for the first time in his life. Through the magic of art, she made his cheeks look like heavy jowls, his nose stumpy. His flinch when he looked in the mirror sent the parents and children alike into a riot of laughter, providing her with no small amount of satisfaction. But nothing stopped the raw, physical draw she felt pulling her toward Travis. Not even the dog face. She’d always found him the most attractive man on the planet, but now she knew he walked the walk. Knew he could fulfill hungers inside of her she hadn’t even been aware of.
Even though it was against their one, single rule, her body wanted to go another round.
Her body wasn’t her biggest worry, though. It was her heart. She was a smart girl capable of objectivity, right? Now if she could only maintain that objectivity while Travis stared at her like a meal, she’d be golden. Was he the only man alive who could get to her like this? Watching him as they packed her party gear in silence, she couldn’t even conjure a decent memory of Pete’s face. Although Pete would no longer be an option as soon as word spread that she was seeing Travis, would he?
She waited for the regret, but it never surfaced.
“Hey,” Travis said, shouldering her carrying case and falling into step with her as they left the backyard. “I’m glad I crashed the party. I knew you were good, but I didn’t realize you ran the whole show like that. It’s a lot of work.”
“Thanks.” Wings of surprised pleasure beat in her chest. “It wasn’t always so organized. My first year of clowning was more like a series of mutinies. I’m still scarred.”
“Kids are no joke.” A beat passed. “This job hasn’t put you off having your own?”
“No way,” she said without hesitation, a smile curling her lips. “It makes me want them more. That look on their face when the cake comes out and everyone sings happy birthday. It’s like you can see a memory forming in their head. It’s magical.”
She could feel Travis watching her closely. Why the sudden interest? “Your mother made me a cake for my thirteenth birthday,” he said. “Only one I’d ever had.”
Georgie stopped walking, a fist taking hold of her throat. “She did that?” She barely checked the urge to bury her face in his chest and sob. “What color was the icing?”
He laughed without humor and glanced away. “Yellow. With white writing.”
Travis’s body language told her not to press any deeper. That he’d already given her more than enough for now. But God she wanted to. She wanted to relive all her earliest memories of Travis, but know what he’d been thinking this time around. “You see? Magic memories.”
“Yeah.” With a swallow that lifted his Adam’s apple, he set the carrying case down behind the trunk of her car. “How do I get this paint off my face?”
“You don’t. I switched to permanent lacquer when your back was turned. Good luck commentating with a dog face.”
“I have questions about our plan.”
“Wow, you really just jumped in feetfirst.” He stepped closer. “Fire away.”
Georgie pressed a hand to her fluttering stomach. “We’re going to be doing a lot of canoodling, so to speak, for the cameras,” she said quietly, in deference to the man not so discreetly snapping shots of them beside his blue Honda about forty yards away. “Let’s say you drive me home and someone is following us. They’re going to expect you to come inside. And . . . what if s-e-x just happens—”