Sophie Jordan's New Adult Book FOREPLAY
FOREPLAY by Sophie Jordan
Smoke billowed up from beneath the hood of my car in great plumes, a gray fog on the dark night. Slapping the steering wheel, I muttered a profanity and pulled to the side of the road. A quick glance confirmed that the temperature gauge was well into the red.
“Shit, shit, shit.” I killed the engine with quick, angry movements, hoping that might miraculously stop the vehicle from overheating further.
Grabbing my phone from the cup holder, I hopped out of the car into the crisp autumn night and stood well away from the vehicle. I knew nothing of engines, but I’d seen plenty of movies where the car blew up right after it started smoking. I wasn’t taking any chances.
I checked the time on my phone. Eleven thirty-five. Not too late. I could call the Campbells. They would come and get me and give me a ride back to the dorm. But that still left my car alone out here on this road. I’d only have to deal with that later, and I already had a ton to do tomorrow. I might as well handle it now.
I glanced at the quiet night around me. Crickets sang softly and wind rustled through the branches. It wasn’t exactly hopping with traffic. The Campbells lived on a few acres outside of town. I liked babysitting for them. It was a nice break from the bustle of the city. The old farmhouse felt like a real home, lived-in and cozy, very traditional with its old wood floors and stone fireplace that was always crackling at this time of year. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The kind of life I craved someday.
Only now I didn’t quite appreciate how isolated I felt on this country road. I rubbed my arms through my long thin sleeves, wishing I had grabbed my sweatshirt before I left tonight. Barely October and it was already getting cold.
I stared grimly at my smoking car. I was going to need a tow truck. Sighing, I started scrolling through my phone, searching for tow trucks in the area. The lights of an oncoming car flashed in the distance and I froze, debating what to do. The sudden insane idea to hide seized me. An old instinct, but familiar.
This had horror movie written all over it. A girl all by herself. A lonely country road. I’d been the star of my own horror movie once upon a time. I wasn’t up for a repeat.
I moved off the road, situating myself behind my car. Not hiding exactly, but at least I wasn’t standing out in the open, an obvious target. I tried to focus on the screen of my phone and look casual standing there. Like if I ignored the approaching car its inhabitant would somehow not notice me or the smoking pile of metal. Without lifting my head, every part of me was tuned in to the slowing tires and the purring engine as the vehicle stopped.
Of course, they stopped. Sighing, I lifted my face, staring at a would-be serial killer. Or my rescuer. I knew that the latter was much more likely, but the whole scenario made me queasy and I could only think of worst-case possibilities.
It was a Jeep. The kind without a roof. Just a roll bar. The headlights gleamed off the stretch of black asphalt.
“You okay?” The deep voice belonged to a guy. Much of his face was in shadow. The light from the instrument panel cast a glow onto his face. Enough that I could determine he was youngish. Not much older than myself. Maybe mid-twenties at the most.
Most serial killers are young white males. The random factoid skittered across my thoughts, only adding to my anxiety.
“I’m fine,” I quickly said, my voice overly loud in the crisp night. I brandished my phone as if that explained everything. “I have someone coming.” I held my breath, waiting, hoping he would believe the lie and move on.
He idled there in the shadows, his hand on the gear stick. He looked up ahead at the road and then glanced behind him. Assessing just how alone we were? How ripe his opportunity was to murder me?
I wished I had a can of mace. A black belt in kung fu. Something. Anything. The fingers of my left hand tightened around my keys. I thumbed the jagged tip. I could gouge him in the face if necessary. The eyes. Yeah. I’d aim for the eyes.
He leaned across the passenger seat, away from the glow of instrument panel, plunging himself into even deeper shadow. “I could look under the hood,” his deep, disembodied voice offered.
I shook my head. “Really. It’s okay.”
Those eyes I had just contemplated gouging with my keys glittered across the distance at me. Their color was impossible to tell in the thick gloom, but they had to be pale. A blue or green. “I know you’re nervous—”
“I’m not. I’m not nervous,” I babbled quickly. Too quickly.
He leaned back in his seat, the amber glow again lighting his features. “I don’t feel right leaving you out here alone.” His voice shivered across my skin. “I know you’re afraid.”
I glanced around. The inky night pressed in thickly. “I’m not,” I denied, but my voice rang thin, lacking all conviction.
“I get it. I’m a stranger. I know it would make you more comfortable if I left, but I wouldn’t want my mother out here alone at night.”
I held his gaze for a long moment, taking his measure, attempting to see something of his character in the shadowy lines of his face. I glanced to my still smoking car and back at him. “Okay. Thanks.” The thanks followed slowly, a deep breath later, full of hesitation. I only hoped I wasn’t going to end up on the morning news.
If he wanted to hurt me he would. Or at least he would try. Whether I invited him to look at my engine or not. That was my logic as I watched him pull his Jeep in front of my car. The door swung open. He unfolded his long frame and stepped out into the night with a flashlight in his hand.
His footsteps crunched over loose gravel, the beam of his flashlight zeroing in on my still-smoldering vehicle. From the angle of his face, I didn’t think he even looked my way. He went straight for my car, lifting the hood and disappearing under it.
Arms crossed tightly in front of me, I stepped forward cautiously, edging out into the road so I could watch him as he studied the engine. He reached down and touched different things. God knows what. My knowledge of auto mechanics was right up there with my origami-making abilities.
I went back to studying his shadowy features. Something glinted. I squinted. His right eyebrow was pierced.
Suddenly another beam of lights lit up the night. My would-be-mechanic straightened from beneath the hood and stepped out, positioning himself between me and the road, his long legs braced and hands on his hips as the car approached. I had my first unfettered view of his face in the harsh glow of oncoming headlights, and I sucked in a sharp breath.
The cruel lighting might have washed him out or picked up his flaws, but no. As far as I could see he had no physical flaws.
He was hot. Plain and simple. Square jaw. Deep-set blue eyes beneath slashing dark brows. The eyebrow piercing was subtle, just a glint of silver in his right eyebrow. His hair looked like a dark blond, cut short, close to his head. Emerson would call him lickable.
This new vehicle halted beside my car and I snapped my attention away from him as the window whirred down. Lickable leaned down at the waist to peer inside.
“Oh, hey, Mr. Graham. Mrs. Graham.” He slid a hand from his jean pocket to give a small wave.
“Car trouble?” a middle-aged man asked. The backseat of the car was illuminated with the low glow of an iPad. A teenager sat there, his gaze riveted to the screen, punching buttons, seemingly oblivious that the car had even stopped.
Lickable nodded and motioned to me. “Just stopped to help. I think I see the problem.”
The woman in the passenger seat smiled at me. “Don’t worry, honey. You’re in good hands.”
Eased at the reassurance, I nodded at her. “Thank you.”
As the car drove away, we faced each other, and I realized this was the closest I had allowed myself to get to him. Now that some of my apprehension was put to rest, a whole new onslaught of emotions bombarded me. Sudden, extreme self-consciousness for starters. Well, for the most part. I tucked a strand of my unmanageable hair behind my ear and shifted uneasily on my feet.
“Neighbors,” he explained, motioning to the road.
“You live out here?”
“Yeah.” He slid one hand inside his front jean pocket. The action made his sleeve ride up and reveal more of the tattoo that crawled from his wrist up his arm. Unthreatening as he might be, he was definitely not your standard boy next door.
“I was babysitting. The Campbells. Maybe you know them.”
He moved toward my car again. “They’re down the road from my place.”
I followed. “So you think you can fix it?” Standing beside him, I peered down into the engine like I knew what I was looking at. My fingers played nervously with the edges of my sleeves. “'Cause that would be awesome. I know she’s a jalopy, but I’ve had her a long time.” And I can’t exactly afford a new car right now.
He angled his head to look at me. “Jalopy?” A corner of his mouth kicked up.
I winced. There I went again, showing off the fact that I grew up surrounded by people born before the invention of television.
“It means an old car.”
“I know what it means. Just never heard anyone but my grandmother say it.”
“Yeah. That’s where I picked it up.” From Gran and everyone else in the Chesterfield Retirement Village.
Turning, he moved to his Jeep. I continued to play with my sleeves, watching him return with a bottle of water.
“Looks like a leaky radiator hose.”
“Is that bad?”
Unscrewing the cap on the water, he poured it inside my engine. “This will cool it down. Should run now. For a while at least. How far are you going?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“It will probably make it. Don’t go farther than that or it will overheat again. Take it to a mechanic first thing tomorrow so he can replace the hose.”
I breathed easier. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Shouldn’t cost more than a couple hundred.”
I winced. That would pretty much wipe out my account. I would have to see about working a few extra shifts at the daycare or getting some more babysitting gigs. At least when I babysat, I could get in some studying after the kids went to bed.
He slammed the hood back in place.
“Thanks a lot.” I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Saved me from calling a tow truck.”
“So no one’s coming then?” That corner of his mouth lifted back up again and I knew I amused him.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I might have made that up.”
“It’s okay. You weren’t exactly in an ideal situation. I know I can look scary.”
My gaze scanned his face. Scary? I knew he was probably joking, but he did have that certain edge to him. A dangerous vibe with his tattoos and piercing. Even if he was hot. He was like the dark vampire in movies that girls obsessed over. The ones that were torn between eating the girl and kissing her. I always preferred the nice mortal guy and never understood why the heroine didn’t go after him. I didn’t do dark, dangerous, and sexy. You don’t do anyone. I shoved the whisper back, batting it away. If the right guy—the one I wanted—noticed me, all that would change.
“I wouldn’t say scary … exactly.”
He chuckled softly. “Sure you would.”
Silence hovered between us for a moment. My gaze swept over him. The comfortable-looking T-shirt and well-worn jeans were casual. Guys wore them every day on campus, but he didn’t look casual. He didn’t look like any guy I ever saw around campus. He looked like trouble. The kind that girls lost their heads over. Suddenly my chest felt too tight.
“Well, thanks again.” Offering up a small wave I ducked back inside my car. He watched me turn the key. Thankfully smoke didn’t billow up from the hood.
Driving away, I refused to risk a glance back in my rearview mirror. If Emerson had been with me, I’m sure she wouldn’t have left without his phone number.
Eyes on the road again, I felt perversely glad she wasn’t there.
I craned my head to look around. “How are you going to find a table in this zoo?”
Emerson gave me an insulted look. “Oh, we’ll get a table. Leave it to me.”
“Here.” Georgia thrust some money in my hand. “First pitcher on me.”
“The only pitcher. We don’t need to buy our own drinks.” Emerson shook her head like we both had much to learn and motioned for me to move on toward the bar. “Go on. And while you’re there keep an eye out for you-know-who.”
I watched as they disappeared into the throng, convinced now that the whole point of sending me to the bar was for me to scope out the player bartender we’d come here looking for. I worked my way through the crush, wading through bodies until I stood in line behind a pair of giggling girls.
“Yeah, that’s him,” a bleached blonde said to her friend. “Lydia said he was hot, but OMG … that’s putting it mildly.”
Her friend fanned herself. “If he would mess around with Lydia, he’s going to think he hit the lottery with us.”
Who talked about themselves like that? I couldn’t help myself. A laugh escaped me. I slapped a hand over my mouth.
The dark-haired girl glared over her shoulder at me. I quickly dropped my hand and tried to look innocent, angling my neck as though I was impatient to place my drink order and not eavesdropping.
The blonde slapped her arm. “You’re so bad, Gina.”
Gina returned her attention to her friend. “Well, hopefully I’ll get to be bad with him tonight. I call dibs.” She waved a ten-dollar bill, clearly trying to gain the bartender’s attention.
I shook my head, regretting every time I'd ever judged Emerson for her lack of inhibitions. Compared to these two she was a Girl Scout. Clearly they were discussing my bartender. Wait. When did he become mine? I winced. From the sound of it, he belonged to every female that passed through Mulvaney’s doors.
I reminded myself that I would not be hooking up with anyone tonight … especially a bartender with a reputation for swapping DNA with the entire female population of Dartford. Thanks, but no. I couldn’t imagine myself with someone so undiscriminating. I had standards. There was no way I could contemplate messing around with someone like that. Even if it was to gain some much-needed experience to win over Hunter.
And then I saw him.
The air froze in my lungs. He stepped up in front of the two girls, bracing his arms against the bar top. I heard his voice, low and deep, over the steady drone of the bar. “What can I get for you?”
I gawked, unable to blink. I had an unobstructed view of him in the space between the girls. The blood rushed in my ears, and suddenly it was last night all over again and I was on a lonely stretch of country road, the acrid smoke of my overheating car filling my nostrils as I stared at his familiar face. That dark blond hair cut close to his head. The tall, lean body that had bent over the engine of my car less than twenty-four hours ago. I could see him even more clearly now, but I hadn’t been mistaken in my initial assessment. He was hot. His jaw square and strong. His features like something chiseled from marble. There was a shadowy hint of stubble on his face, and his eyes were so piercing a blue they looked almost silver.
He looked just a few years older than me. I could see that now. It was probably just the way he held himself. Experienced. Capable. He wore a well-worn cotton T-shirt with Mulvaney’s stretched across one of his impressive pecs. Dimly I wondered if his shirt looked as soft as it felt? If his chest was as solid?
The girls were tittering like seventh-graders now. Gawking at him, too. I felt like someone sucker punched me. My rescuer. My bartender. Mulvaney’s man-whore. One and the same.
“What can I get you?” he repeated.
“What’s good?” Gina propped her elbows on the bar, no doubt flashing him some of her cleavage.
He rattled off the various beers on tap like he had done it a hundred times before, which he probably had. His gaze slid the length of the bar as he talked, assessing the crowd.
“Hmm. What’s your favorite?” Gina called.
Shaking his head, he looked back down at her. “Look, I’ll come back to you when you make up your mind.” His eyes snapped over them to me. “What’ll you have?”
My mouth parted, surprised that he was addressing me, that he dismissed them so easily. Just like that. And when they were flirting with him no less.
His eyes narrowed with recognition. “Hey. You.” He nodded slightly at me. “How’s the car?”
Before I could answer, Gina sent me a withering look and then turned back to him. She waved her money in his face. “Excuse me. We were here first.”
Sighing, he looked back down at them, his expression a blend of annoyance and boredom. “Then order already.”
She tossed her dark hair over her shoulder. “Forget it. The service here sucks. We’ll go somewhere else.” Turning, they shoved past me.
He didn’t even watch them depart. With his stare fixed on me, he shrugged one shoulder and flashed me a half smile that made my stomach lurch. I stepped up to the bar, trying to look confident. Like I hung out in bars all the time.
He braced his hands on the edge of the bar, leaning forward slightly. “Now what can I get for you?” His tone was decidedly friendlier than when he spoke to the other girls, and heat swarmed my face. I’m sure it was just because we knew each other—in a way—but it still made me feel special. Singled out.
I lowered my gaze, eyeing his arms. The muscles bunched. A tattoo peaked out from beneath his sleeve and crawled down his tanned bicep and forearm, stopping at his wrist. It looked like some kind of intricate feathered wing. I would have liked to study it further, but I was already conscious that I was ogling him, and I still hadn’t answered his question.
“Um. A pitcher of Sam Adams.” I knew Emerson liked microbrews.
“Oh.” I fumbled for the fake ID Emerson made me get last year for the one time she dragged me to Freemont’s.
He glanced at it and back to my face. A hint of a smile played about his lips. “Twenty-four?”
I nodded, but my face went from warm to scalding.
“Guess you just have one of those baby faces.” He didn’t wait for a reply. Still smiling faintly, he stepped away.
My eyes were drawn to his broad back. His T-shirt hugged the muscled expanse. He wore a pair of well-worn jeans, and the view from the back was almost as nice as the front. Suddenly the bar felt oppressively hot.
He set the full pitcher and a stack of cups in front of me.
“Thanks.” I handed him the money. He took it and moved to the cash register.
In the moments he was gone, I tried to think of something to say. Something cute and engaging. Anything that might draw out our conversation. I didn’t let myself consider why. Or that suddenly I wasn’t so averse to the idea of talking to him. Flirting with him. Flirting.
My throat closed up, panicking at the prospect. How did Emerson do it? She made flirting look so effortless.
He returned with my change. “Thanks,” I murmured, dropping it into the tip jar.
I looked up but he was already gone, moving on to the next customer. I hesitated, staring after him. Shaking my head, I reminded myself not to ogle. Tucking the cups under one arm, I held the pitcher with two hands and dove back into the throng. Only I didn’t make it two steps before someone bumped me. The pitcher flew from my hands, somersaulting amid bodies, sloshing beer everywhere. People cried out, wiping ineffectually at their doused clothing.
“Sorry!” I apologized to their glaring faces, grateful that I, at least, had somehow managed to stay dry.
Bending, I retrieved the plastic pitcher from the plank floor just as my pocket started to buzz multiple times in quick succession.
I dug it out of my pocket and read the text.
Emerson: Found table. Still at bar? Did u see him?
Rolling my eyes, I tucked the empty pitcher under my arm and texted her back.
Me: Yes. Yes.
Sighing, I squeezed back to the front of the bar and set the pitcher down on the surface. My gaze searched for him. He was serving customers a little way down the bar now, bending his lean body over the counter to better hear orders. I waited until he caught my gaze. He sent me a nod of acknowledgment. I nodded back.
My phone vibrated in my hand again. I glanced down.
Emerson: U r taking 4ever. Better be making out w/him 2 take this long
I snorted and was in the process of typing back to her when he arrived in front of me. He nodded at the pitcher. “That was quick.”
“Yeah.” I hastily slid my phone back in my pocket, almost as if I feared him seeing the texts about him. I smiled wanly. “I didn’t make it three feet.”
“Ah.” He nodded in understanding, bracing his hands on the bar top again. The action stretched his shirt taut over his chest and pulled it against his shoulders. “I’ll let you in on a secret. Nice girls get eaten alive in places like this.”
I stared at him for a moment, his words sinking in. I moistened my lips, reaching deep inside me where some reservoir of female instincts dwelled. “Maybe I’m not that nice.”
He laughed then, a short, deep sound that sent ripples eddying through me. My face flushed. I smiled hesitantly, unsure if his laughter was good or bad.
“Sweetheart, you’ve got ‘nice girl’ written all over you.”
The "sweetheart" made my stomach flutter. Until the rest of his words sank in. You’ve got "nice girl" written all over you. I frowned. Nice girls didn’t win the guy. Hunter’s ex-girlfriend flashed across my mind. She had been sexy, with sleek, surfer-blond hair and designer clothes that showed off her body. Sophisticated. Not your girl-next-door type at all. Not like me. No one would accuse her of being a nice girl.
“You might be surprised,” I bluffed.
“Yeah.” He nodded, his gaze skimming me, and suddenly I wished I had worn something besides a shapeless sweater. “I would be.”
I clamped my lips shut to stop myself from arguing with him. He thought I was a nice girl because that’s how I looked. I wasn’t going to change his mind with words. That was the kind of thing one proved.
He bent his arm and tapped his elbow. “Use your elbows to get through out there.”
He stepped away and filled another pitcher. He set it down in front of me. I fumbled for my money in the tiny purse strapped across my chest.
He swiped a hand through the air. “Don’t worry about it.”
He pointed out into the main room. “Just remember to use those elbows, Nice Girl.”
With that parting tip, he moved down the bar to the next customer. I stood there and stared after him for a moment, contemplating our exchange. Nice Girl. It echoed through my head. Fantastic. That’s how he thought of me. No name. Simply that.
“There he is.” Emerson shook her head. “I can’t believe I gave him to you. He’s so damn hot.” She nudged me encouragingly and waggled one of her finely arched eyebrows. “You better climb all over that or I’m going to punch you. No backing down.”
I stood several yards back from the bar, tucked half behind Emerson as I scoped out the bartender undetected. Her words didn’t faze me. “You know the small matter of his interest in me, or lack of interest, might come into play.”
She looked back at me. “You’re kidding, right? You look good tonight. Better than most of these overdone peahens prancing around in here shaking their tail feathers his way. You’ve got something they don’t.”
She nodded. “Yes. You’ve got …” She paused, searching for the word. “… a freshness to you.”
I winced, feeling rather as if she'd just called me a "nice girl." I couldn’t seem to escape that moniker.
The bartender (I really needed to learn his name) wore another Mulvaney’s T-shirt. This one a soft-looking gray cotton with blue script across the chest. I had a flash of myself wearing that shirt and nothing else, wrapped up in his scent. Wrapped up in him. Sucking in a breath, I shook off the wicked image. Probably every girl who walked up to him entertained that fantasy—along with a few choice others that I probably didn’t need to visualize. That thought made me feel decidedly un-special. I had to somehow stand out from the rest of them, and I wasn’t convinced my freshness would do the trick.
He looked as good as ever if my memory served. Better. A body made for sin and a face that was too masculine to be beautiful, but the sight of it did something to me. Made me feel boneless and trembly all over.
“No backing down,” I echoed, my resolve still there, burning hot inside me, keeping me from turning and running out of the building.
It was just the two of us tonight. Georgia was off with Harris.
“Okay,” Em announced. “I think we’ve reconned long enough. Let’s move in.”
Her words sent a wave of panic washing through me. “It’s crowded …”
“It’s crowded every night. Unless you want to come stalk him on a Monday. Assuming he’s even working then.”
I shook my head. No. No more delays.
“Let’s go then. You should feel good. You look great.”
I glanced down. The jeans I wore belonged to Georgia. They were too tight, but Emerson said that was the whole point. You’ve got the perfect curves. Show them off. The blouse was Georgia’s, too. Various shades of orange and yellow. Very bohemian in style and flouncy. Emerson vowed that it went great with my hair. It was wide-necked, and every time I pulled it up over one shoulder, it slipped down the other one. Again, the whole point, according to Emerson.
As we inched toward the bar, Emerson shoved me in front of her. There were only three people working the counter, and we made certain to approach the side he was working.
I watched as he poured beer into a pitcher, admiring the flex of his bicep. His gaze lifted and scanned the bar, the way I’d noticed him do last night. Surveying, assessing the crowd. Maybe for trouble? Those pale blue eyes passed over me for a split second before jerking back.
He smiled crookedly. “Hey, it’s Nice Girl. How’s it going?”
“Nice girl?” Emerson hissed in my ear. “Okay, clearly you did not tell me everything about last night if he’s already given you a nickname!”
I elbowed her, unsure how to respond to his greeting. I smiled. “Hi.”
He handed off the pitcher, collected the money, and turned to me. “What can I get you?”
I ordered two longnecks. He glanced at Emerson. “ID?”
I watched her as she dug in her purse and pulled out her fake ID. When I looked back up it was to catch him looking at me. He looked away, giving her ID a cursory scan before moving to fetch our drinks.
“So hot,” Emerson muttered near my ear as he bent to grab them from the back chest. “And he was eyeing you. Did you see that?”
I shook my head, unconvinced, but my heart beat a hard rhythm in my chest.
“Slip him your number.”
My gaze swung to her. “What? Just like that?”
“Well, you’ll know if he’s interested by his reaction. Maybe he’ll call. Or he won’t. Either way, you can get this thing off the ground or move on to someone more receptive.”
I bit my lip, contemplating. The only problem was that I had decided it would be him. He would be my test subject. If he wasn’t receptive I didn’t feel like moving on—I didn’t want to. And where did that leave me?
Sighing, Emerson dug around in her purse.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, looking in his direction and confirming he was heading back our way.
Shaking her head, she pulled out an eyeliner pencil and snatched a thin square napkin off the stack sitting on the bar. Lightening fast, she scrawled my name and number.
I felt my eyes bulge. “Stop! No!” My hand dove for her arm, but she angled herself away from me, standing on her tiptoes and stretching out her arm.
“Here you go,” she called just as my fingers clamped down on her wrist.
Too late. I watched as long, masculine fingers took the napkin from her. My gaze followed that hand up to the bartender as he set our drinks down single-handedly. Bile rose up my throat.
I heard Emerson’s voice beside me as though from far away. “This is her number.”
Her. Me. The girl with the face as red as a tomato.
His gaze moved from the napkin to me. Those silvery blue eyes fixed on me. He flicked the napkin in my direction. “You want me to have this?”
He waited, his expression blank. The ball was in my court. Without giving me the slightest indication of whether he even wanted my number, he was asking me what I wanted.
I stammered out the words. "Uh, n-yes. Well, sure. Whatever.”
Lame. I felt like a thirteen-year-old girl. My face burned.
“She wants you to have it,” Emerson insisted from beside me.
If possible my face grew hotter. He leaned forward, setting his elbows on the bar, his gaze fastened on me with searing intensity. “Are you giving me this?”
Apparently whatever wasn’t going to work for him.
The air ceased to flow in and out of my lungs. I felt myself nod dumbly. Emerson elbowed me discreetly. “Yes,” finally spilled from my lips.
He straightened. Without another word, he slipped the napkin into his pocket, took the money that Emerson handed him for our drinks, and turned away to another customer.
With one hand on my arm, Emerson dragged me away. I risked another look back at the bar, searching for him among the multitude of heads bobbing up to the front of the counter for their drink order. I spotted him. He was pouring more beer, holding the lever down. But he wasn’t looking at what he was doing. He was looking at me.
"He so wants you."
I glared at Emerson as I took a pull from my longneck, forgetting that I wasn't a fan of the taste. I was too annoyed. "I can't believe you embarrassed me like that." As the words spilled out of me, I deliberately trained my eyes on her to keep myself from glancing at him across the room again.
"We had to get things moving. Nothing was going to happen if you just ordered, paid, and moved on."
I frowned, leaning one hip against the pool table. I refused to admit she had a point. Or that maybe he would call me now. He had put my number in his pocket, after all. Or was that just simple politeness? To spare my feelings. Maybe he'd thrown it away already.
"God." I lifted my fingers and rubbed at the center of my forehead where a dull ache was forming.
She patted my back. "I know. It's hard being a girl who actually emerges from her dorm room and talks to sexy boys."
The guy beside Emerson nudged her, bumping her hip. "Hey, hot stuff, your shot."
Turning, she lined up her pool stick and prepared her shot, earning a lot of stares when she bent over, thrusting her bottom up in the air to the appreciative gazes of nearby guys, specifically the two that had invited us to play pool with them.
The ball plunged into the pocket with a whoosh.
"Nice!" Ryan-or Bryan?-high-fived her, clinging to her fingers longer than necessary.
Emerson didn't seem to mind. He was cute. I could tell she thought so, too, by the way she arched her throat when she laughed.
Unfortunately, his friend seemed into me, and I didn't think he was cute. Or maybe he was. I just wasn't into him. There was only one guy here that caught my interest and I'd just humiliated myself in front of him. I had actually muttered "whatever" when he asked me whether I wanted him to have my number. Not exactly the self-assured femme fatale I aspired to be. Really, I should just call it a night and go home now.
"You sure you don't want to play?" He offered me a stick. I tried to view him with an open mind. After all, my phone number could be wadded up in a trash can right now. Whether I liked it or not, I might have to contemplate other alternatives in order to gain the experience I needed. A foul taste coated my mouth. Easier said than done. For whatever reason, the bartender was the only guy that I could consider kissing and touching without feeling mildly revolted.
The guy in front of me wasn't bad-looking. A little pudgy-soft in the middle. Probably too many beers and late-night burritos. But youth was still on his side. He had nice symmetrical features. I predicted, he'd be sixty pounds overweight in ten years, but right now he was okay.
"No, thanks. You guys already started anyway."
He smiled, but looked disappointed.
For the next hour, I sat on a stool, watching as Emerson and Ryan/Bryan grew friendlier, laughing, talking, touching at every opportunity as they moved around the pool table. I made small talk with the friend. He stayed close even as he played pool, chatting me up and drinking steadily. Hopefully he wasn't driving.
The bar started to thin out around eleven.
"Bunch of big parties on frat row," Scott-I had since learned his name-explained when I wondered aloud where everyone had disappeared to so early.
I nodded, but couldn't help sneaking a glance down the length of the room toward the bar. I couldn't resist. With the crowd dissipating, there was little to obstruct my view.
Only one bartender worked the counter, but it wasn't him. I didn't see my bartender anywhere. Was he on a break? Or did he cut out early? If he left early he could have talked to me. If he wanted to. Now I was convinced the napkin with my number was balled up on the floor. Stupid tears burned my eyes. I blinked them away furiously.
Taking a breath, I commanded myself to stop obsessing. He wasn't the end goal, after all. Hunter was. I could find someone else to help give me the experience I was looking for.
"Can I get you another drink?" Scott asked, following my gaze to the bar.
I snapped my attention back to the pool table. Ryan/Bryan had Emerson in an intimate body lock, teaching her some move. I rolled my eyes.
"No, I'm fine. Thanks."
"How about we get out of here?" Ryan/Bryan suggested, stepping back from the table and looking first at Emerson, then at me and Scott. Then again at Emerson.
The four of us leaving together? I could already see where this was headed. Emerson making out in some room with Ryan/Bryan and me stuck alone with Scott. No thanks.
Emerson and I stared at each other, silently communicating. She gave me the barest nod, understanding. I was ready to leave but not with these guys. That was the good thing about Emerson. She might be in sexual overdrive most of the time, but she never put our friendship on the back burner.
I slid off my stool. "I gotta go to the bathroom."
Hopefully that would give her time to wrap things up with her guy and swap numbers. Or not. You could never really tell with Emerson. Sometimes I thought she was really into a guy and then she would drop him for no apparent reason. She once dumped a guy after a third date because he asked for a doggy bag at dinner. She claimed he was too comfortable with her if he did that. I don't think she cared that this made sense only to her. Personally, I think she was scared to get too serious with a guy, but what did I know? I'd only kissed one guy in my life.
I crossed the room to the narrow hall leading to the bathrooms. They were single occupancy and there was usually a line, but not tonight. Once inside, I dropped the little hook in place, locking the door. Turning, I caught sight of my reflection and winced. As usual, my hair was out of control. I tried to arrange the russet-colored waves. Maybe it was time for a haircut. Layers or something.
Moments later, I finished washing my hands and pushed open the thick oak door, immediately spotting Scott waiting outside. At first I thought he was in line for the men's room, but the way his gaze trained on me I realized he was waiting for me.
"Hey." He pushed off the wall.
"Hey," I murmured, stepping out into the narrow hall and wishing the lighter was better. The shadowy space made it feel too intimate.
He moved into my path. "Why don't you and Em come back to our place?"
I shook my head. "I have to get up early." I didn't, of course. My shift at the daycare didn't start until eleven, but he didn't know that.
"Aw. C'mon." He inched closer.
My back bumped the wall, rattling the picture frames and license plates that decorated it. I held up my hands in front of me as he encroached closer. "Uh, what are-"
He swept in then, planting his lips on mine. I froze in shock. His sour tongue pushed between my lips and I gagged. I didn't know if he was just too into the kiss and didn't realize I wasn't or he didn't care. Or he was too drunk. Or maybe he thought I was going to have a change of heart after another minute of this and start returning his fervor. Whatever the case, his lips stayed firmly glued to mine, messier and sloppier than my last kiss. Damn it. This was worse than the first. You would think things had improved since tenth grade.
I squeezed a hand out from between us. Curling my fingers into a fist, I beat him on the shoulder. He didn't budge, and that's when I felt the first thread of panic. Even as it worked its way through me, I told myself to stay calm. We were in a public place. What could happen that I didn't want to happen? Well, besides a terrible kiss that tasted of sour beer and didn't appear to be ending anytime soon.
I hit his shoulder harder with my free hand. He held me so tightly I couldn't get my other arm out from between us.
Then he was gone. Just like that.
I sagged against the wall, dimly registering that the corner of a particularly jagged license plate scratched at my neck. Funny I hadn't noticed that before. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand as if I could rid myself of the unwanted kiss and stepped away from the wall, focusing on the scene before me.
Scott was on the floor, and someone stood over him, gripping him by the front of his shirt. It took me a second to recognize the back of my bartender-to understand that he was here, whaling on Scott, helping me. Rescuing me yet again.
I moved, my feet covering the short distance. Peering over his shoulder, I gasped at the sight of Scott's face. He was bleeding, mostly from the mouth. You couldn't even distinguish the whiteness of his teeth amid the wash of blood. I latched onto the bartender's arm just as it was pulled back, ready to deliver another punch.
He looked down at me, his expression feral, nothing like its usual blankness. Tension lined his jaw. A muscle ticked his cheek. I didn't know how long he stared down at me with glittering eyes. It felt forever before he spoke, before I felt his voice, low and deep, pulse through me. "Are you all right?"
I nodded. "Fine." I nodded toward Scott. "You can let him go."
Scott was blubbering now. I couldn't decipher his speech. It was more sobs than words.
Tightly-bunched muscles eased beneath my fingers and I realized I was still clinging to the bartender's bicep. And yet I didn't release him. Not right away. I looked down at that arm as if I had to see for myself where our flesh connected. Where his tan skin met my pale fingers. My hand curled over part of his tattoo, and I imagined the inked skin felt warmer there. Unthinkingly, I brushed at the dark edge of the wing and something inside me squeezed and twisted. I dropped my hand.
He tore his gaze off me and looked down at Scott again. He lifted his other hand and Scott flinched like he expected another punch. Instead he pointed down the narrow hall. "Get out of my bar."
Scott nodded fiercely, his face a mess. I winced. It hurt just looking at him. He scrambled to his feet, mumbling, "I'll just get my friend."
Scott was almost out of the hall when the bartender called after him, indifferent to the customers who glanced curiously in our direction. "I don't want to see you in here again."
Nodding, he scurried off.
Alone with my rescuer, I inhaled into lungs that suddenly felt impossibly tight, too small for air. "Thank you."
He faced me. "I saw him follow you into the hall."
I cocked my head. "You were watching me?"
"I saw you pass by."
So yes. He was watching me.
Silence filled the air. I rubbed my hands along my thighs. "Well. Thanks again. I hope you don't get in trouble with your boss for any of this. If you need me to vouch for you-"
"I'll be all right."
Nodding, I stepped past him, took three strides and stopped. Turning, I pushed the wayward fall of hair back from my face and asked, "What's your name?"
It just seemed absurd to keep thinking of him as The Bartender. I didn't want to go back to my dorm tonight, lie in bed, and stare into the dark thinking about him-because I knew I would-and not know his name.
"Reece." He stared at me, through me, his expression impassive, unsmiling.
"Hi." I moistened my lips and added, "I'm Pepper."
I nodded lamely. The napkin. Of course. With a shaky smile, I stepped out into the main room.
I was halfway to the pool table when Emerson was there, her eyes enormous in her round face. "What happened to that guy's face? It looked like a truck hit him, and he practically ran out of here."
I linked arms with her and steered her toward the exit. "The bartender happened."
"What?" Her cheeks flushed. "Like he got jealous and … hit him?"
I winced. "More like Scott tried to suck my face off against my protests and Reece intervened."
"Reece?" she echoed.
"Yeah. He has a name."
Shaking her head, she looked at me in awe as we stepped outside. "I think you've gotten more than his attention, Pep."
I snorted. "He was just doing his job-"
She shot me a look. "He's a bartender. How is kicking some guy's ass for getting fresh in his job description?"
"He's not about to let a customer get accosted outside the bathroom."
She looked skeptical as we weaved our way out into the parking lot. "You just don't see it. You don't know how to see it. Trust me. He's going to call you." I wasn't as naïve as Emerson claimed. He could have kept me longer in that hall, said something more to fill that awkward stretch of silence. For being such a player, he didn't make any moves on me. He didn't even smile.
No. He wouldn't call. This wasn't me being negative. I just knew.
Walking through the parking lot, the soles of my boots crunched over the loose gravel. I almost turned back around when I remembered the burger I had wanted. Instead, I continued walking, thinking which drive-through I wanted to hit on the way back to the dorm. I was contemplating chicken strips and Tater Tots when a hand fell on my shoulder.
With a shriek, I whirled around, my fist instinctively flying, lashing out, making contact. My knuckles grazed off a shoulder.
“Whoa. Easy there.” Reece stood there, holding one hand up in the air while his other hand rubbed at the top of his shoulder where I'd struck him.
I covered my mouth with both hands. My words escaped muffled. “OhmyGod! I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I should have called out. Good reflexes. But you should work on your aim.”
My hands fell from my face slowly.
I stared at him, still trying to comprehend that he was here. In front of me. It was strange seeing him out of his element. Other than that first time, I’d only ever seen him inside Mulvaney’s. Here, outside, he seemed bigger, larger than life.
My head cocked to the side. “Are you"—I waved a finger between him and me —"following me?”
“I saw you leave.”
“So. That’s a yes.”
He was watching me? He noticed me. I wasn’t invisible after all.
He continued, “Look, you shouldn’t be out here alone at night. Guys get a few drinks in them, see a pretty girl walking by herself …” His voice faded away, his implication clear.
I only heard one thing. Pretty.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” he finished.
“Thanks.” I turned in the direction of my car. He fell in step beside me.
I slid him a long look. Without the distance of the bar top between us, I was fully aware of his height. I was no tiny thing like Emerson, and the top of my head barely reached his chin. He had to be a few inches over six feet. It was a new experience—feeling delicate and petite.
“I hope you don’t get in trouble for leaving the bar. Are you on a break?”
“It’ll be fine.”
I was conscious of his arm, so close to mine as we walked. He slid one hand into his front jeans pocket.
“You’re leaving early,” he noted.
“Yeah.” Silence fell. Feeling a need to fill it, I added, “Not feeling it tonight.” At least I wasn’t before. Now I’m feeling it. I’m feeling everything. His body beside mine radiated heat. My every nerve vibrated like a plucked wire, achingly aware of him. We’re not even touching, but it’s like I felt him everywhere. It was a shock I could even talk in a steady voice.
“Not feeling it tonight,” he echoed, his voice low. There was laughter in his voice even though he didn’t come right out and laugh. He dropped his head back and looked up at the stars. A slow smiled curved his mouth.
“What’s so amusing?”
“Just thinking about that.”
He looked back down. “I can’t count the nights I’m not ‘feeling it,' but I still have to be there.”
Have to. Interesting choice of words. “You don’t like your job?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes I do.”
“Are you a student, too?”
“Did you graduate already?”
“Just high school.”
So working the bar was all there was for him. Again, there was that stab of disappointment. Which was not only judgmental of me but absurd. I wasn’t considering this guy for a boyfriend or lifelong partner material. I shouldn’t feel anything at his lack of ambition.
He continued, “You in college?”
“Let me guess. Dartford?” There were three universities in the area, but Dartford had the most prestigious reputation.
“Thought so. You’ve got "Ivy" written all over you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You look sweet and nice. Smart.” We were almost to my car when he added, “And you’re not a regular, but you’ve been here three nights in a row.” Not a question. Just a statement.
Again, that he was aware of me made me go all warm and fuzzy inside. “My friend, Emerson, comes here a lot. You’ve probably seen her before. She’s hard to miss.” He neither confirmed nor denied this. “She invited me along. I don’t do the bar scene all that much.”
“So you’ve decided to start living the college experience in full then. Is that it? Last night didn’t scare you off?”
I frowned. “Oh, you mean that guy by the bathroom. Should I have let that scare me?”
He didn’t say anything, and I thought back to his comment on Thursday night about nice girls getting eaten up in places like Mulvaney’s. “Oh. That’s right. Nice girls like me should stay home.”
“I didn’t say that.”
We stopped at my car.
The low rumble of his voice continued, “Getting mauled outside the bathroom might have turned some girls off from coming back again the next night though.”
“I’m not most girls.” He had no idea. I might look naïve and innocent, but my scars ran deep. It took a lot to spook me.
I fumbled for my keys, the slow burn of my temper making my hands shake.
“I might look like some nerd college girl and not one of the sexpots tripping through the bar every night, but—"
His voice cut in smooth and deep, no hint of the temper I was feeling. “I didn’t say that, either.”
“You’re thinking it.”
“You’re right. You’re nothing like the other girls I see every night.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I muttered.
My fingers closed around the hard steel of my keys. Unlocking the door and pulling it open, I looked up to face him, ready to tell him off, but then I lost myself in those pale blue eyes until I wasn’t sure what I was mad about anymore. Those eyes made everything inside me go hot and weak all at once.
“And that’s not a bad thing. Trust me.”
Suddenly my knees felt all trembly, and I knew I needed to sit down.
“Thanks for the walk.” I started to duck inside the car, but his voice stopped me.
“Tell me something, Pepper.”
It was the first time I'd heard my name on his lips.
I nodded dumbly, the open door at my back. “How old are you really?”
The question caught me off guard. “Nineteen.”
He laughed, the sound loose and dark, curling through me like hot chocolate. “Thought so.” His well-carved lips quirked. “You’re just a kid.”
“I am not a kid,” I protested. I haven’t been a kid since I spent my nights in motel bathrooms, listening to my mom getting bombed with random guys on the either side of the door. “How old are you?” I shot back.
“You’re not that much older than me,” I argued. “I’m not a kid.”
He held up both hands as though warding me off. His half smile mocked me. “If you say so.”
I made a growl of frustration. “Don’t do that.”
“Condescend to me,” I snapped.
One of his dark eyebrows winged high. “Uh-oh. I made you mad. College girl is pulling out the big vocabulary now.”
How did this guy get girls to make out with him? He was a colossal jerk. I could blame it on his looks, but not all hot guys were jerks. Hunter wasn’t.
“Prick,” I muttered as I turned to slide into my car. “Why don’t you go back to serving beer and stale peanuts?”
His hand closed around my arm and pulled me back around. I looked down at his hand on my arm and then up to his face.
“Hey,” he said flatly, all hint of a smile gone. My pulse skittered at my neck and I resisted the urge to press a hand there and steady the wild thrum of my blood. I wouldn’t reveal his effect on me. “The peanuts aren’t stale.”
I might have laughed except there was no levity in his expression. His pale blue eyes fastened on my face. His fingers clung to my arm, burning an imprint through my sleeve.
Then those eyes dropped to my lips.
OhGodOhGodOhGod. He’s going to kiss me.
This was it. The moment of my second—scratch that. Third kiss. Unsolicited or not, I had to count last night. This one was the one I had been waiting for though. The one where I would learn to actually kiss. From a guy—a man—who knew how to do it properly.
He inched toward me. My heart erupted like a drum in my chest. His head dipped, and then all thought of what I was about to do fled. There was no thinking. No calculated logic. Just pure sensation.
Blood roared in my ears as he closed the last scrap of space between us. It wasn’t fast. Not like in the movies. No swooping head. I watched his face coming closer. His gaze moved from my mouth back to my eyes several times, studying me, watching my reaction. His hand touched my face, holding my cheek.
No one had ever done that. Well, not that I had a lot of reference, but the warm rasp of his palm on my face felt so very intimate. It made the moment so real, so powerful.
I jumped a little when his mouth finally settled over mine. As though the contact brought on an electrical shock or something. He pulled back and looked at me. For a moment, I thought it was over, that he was finished after just that brush of our lips.
Then his mouth pressed down on mine again and there was nothing tentative about it. His kiss was confident, demanding. Pure deliciousness. Still holding my face with one hand, his other one moved to the small of my back, drawing me closer. His lips tasted mine, angling first one way and then another. As though he wanted to sample every possible direction. His tongue traced the seam of my lips and I shuddered, letting him inside my mouth. My hands gripped his shoulders, fingers curling around the soft cotton, reveling in the warm solidness of him beneath the fabric.
Then it was over. Too soon. I staggered, losing my balance. I caught hold of my open car door with one hand, blinking like I had just woken from some sort of dream. I lifted my hand to my lips, brushing them, feeling them, still warm from his lips. I focused on him, watching in astonishment as he turned and left me standing beside my vehicle.
Not another word. Not another look back.
His strong fingers surrounded mine while his gaze scanned my face, scrutinizing me, searching me in a way that made me squirm.
The room throbbed noisily in my ears. A glass broke near the bar and he didn't even look that way. Without a word, he turned, pulling me after him. I marveled at how bodies seemed to part for him. He didn't even use his elbows. He simply cut through the crowd.
"Where are we going?" I shouted at his back, recovering my voice.
He didn't even glance behind him. And yet I knew he heard me. His fingers tightened ever so slightly around my hand.
A horrible thought seized me. As we passed the long length of bar and stepped onto the ramp that led into the smaller back room where food was served, I gave voice to it. "Are you throwing me out?"
As mortifying as that would be, he could do that. He worked here, after all. Would he? Had it come to that?
We approached the counter where a girl in the classic Mulvaney's T-shirt scrawled orders onto a notepad and then stuck the slips of paper behind her onto a spinner for the cooks.
The line for food was much shorter than the line for drinks, but a few people waited there already, eager for a burger to go with their beer. We bypassed them. Reece lifted the countertop and pulled me after him. The girl taking food orders looked up.
"Mike's in charge," he told her.
Her gaze flicked from him to me and her mouth sagged open in a small O of surprise.
We walked through the kitchen, past the two fry cooks with nets over their heads. Reece stopped in front of a pantry door. He pulled out a set of keys, unlocked it, and pulled the door wide open.
Peering inside, I didn't see the shelves of supplies I expected. A set of stairs stretched up ahead of us. He pulled me in behind him and locked the door.
My heartbeat quickened. Blood rushed into my ears at the proximity of him. At our sudden aloneness. Instantly the sounds of the bar were muffled, like someone had just lowered the volume on a remote control.
A light glowed from the top of the stairs, saving us from total darkness. Not that we lingered long at the bottom of the stairs. He pulled me after him, his warm fingers folded over mine.
Our steps thudded on the wood stairs, reverberating in the narrow space. The steps abruptly cleared to a wide open room. Wood floors, brick walls. Some interesting framed photographs were scattered here and there. On the walls. Leaning against a bookcase. The area was large, equipped with a bed, office, and living area. A kitchen occupied the far right corner. A dark couch sat in front of a big screen. Otherwise not too much decor. Typical guy pad, I assumed. Not that I had been inside many. He released my hand and sank down onto a chair. I watched dumbly as he unlaced his boots.
"You live here?" I managed to get out.
"Yeah." Just that. A single monosyllable. The first boot hit the floor. He didn't look up at me as he worked on his second boot.
"Just you?" Duh. Did I think all the bartenders slept up here?
He shot me a quick look. "I own the place."
"Mulvaney's? You own it?"
"It's been in my family for fifty years. I'm Reece Mulvaney. My dad ran it until two years ago. Now I do."
"Oh." I don't know why that changed anything, but suddenly it did.
Suddenly I felt more uncomfortable. He'd grown up in this place. He'd seen it all. Everything. All manner of silly, horny college students traipsing through the doors. I thought of my earlier confession to him. That I'd come here looking for experience. God. He must think I was the silliest of them all.
I buried my hands in my tight pockets, watching, waiting for him to say something else. To explain what it was he was thinking. What we were doing here.
What I was doing here.
He stood back up in one fluid motion. He moved like some kind of jungle cat. Effortless and graceful. His eyes settled on me intently, glowing in that strange way, like lit from within.
He approached-not fast, but with easy strides.
He stopped before me, leaving only an inch between us. I couldn't breathe. The air left me, but I couldn't draw it back in. I fixed my gaze on his chest, suddenly too overcome with nerves to look up at his face, and that posed a whole new problem for me. Because I could only think how broad, how hard his chest looked. I could only gawk at the golden skin peeking out of his collar.
Then his hands were on my face, his palms cupping my cheeks, his fingers burrowing into my hair. My scalp tightened and tingled. He forced my face up. I saw a flash of his pale blue eyes before his head descended, and everything else was lost except this. Him. His lips on mine. Blistering hot.
There was just his mouth, his hands gripping my face, my head. His tongue stroked my bottom lip. I gasped and he took advantage, sweeping inside, and I was full of the taste of him. I leaned forward, melting into him. His hard length against me made me feel giddy, boneless. Sensation overwhelmed me. There was no mistaking his power, his strength. It radiated from him in waves, and as heady as all of that-all of him-was, it also frightened me a little. Like one of those rides at the amusement park that dropped you from the sky and then jerked you back up a second before smacking to earth. I felt far from safe right now.
I broke for air, panicked and gasping. "Wait, please." My voice trembled as I looked toward the stairs, assessing my escape options. My eyes did a quick scan, confirming what I already knew. I was totally at his mercy up here.
How insane was this scenario? I let him lead me upstairs to this room. I didn't do that. That wasn't who I was.
"What?" His voice was steady, his hands still cupping my face, each of his long fingers a searing imprint.
I fought the dark cravings that urged me to throw myself back at him and continue kissing. I gulped a breath, commanding myself to think this through and ignore the little voice in my head (that sounded a lot like Emerson) urging me to jump his bones.
Avoiding his gaze, I inspected his loft like I might find a solution in the large space. My attention strayed to the bed. And stayed there. The activity in the bar was a low, steady drone beneath us. Like the rumbling from the belly of a beast. For all that it reminded me that there were people below us, we might as well have been on a deserted island. We were well and truly alone. It was just me and him. Us.
He must have read some of my anxiety. His hands flexed on my face. I snapped my gaze back up as his head dipped. He kissed me, capturing my bottom lip with his teeth. My belly did another dive. His teeth released my lip and he licked the tender flesh.
His lips moved against my mouth, talking. "Don't worry. I don't do virgins."