“The oysters here are incredible. Did you have the appetizer?”
I was terrible at mingling, especially with men. Especially with men who followed up that ridiculous line with, “You know what they say about oysters’ aphrodisiac properties.”
It had been forty minutes since we finished the sit-down dinner portion of my friend Christy’s engagement party and it wasn’t going well. For me. While Christy had met an amazing man in her fiancé Paul, his cousin, who was attempting to work his lackluster charm on me, was a complete dud. It was crowded in the restaurant and bar area, situated six floors up in a new boutique hotel right on the Baltimore waterfront. The amazing view of the harbor seen through a wall of glass was an attraction.
I smiled vaguely at…Bob. No, Bill. Something with a B. He was in his thirties, well dressed in a suit with a gray tie, as if he came directly from work. He had all his hair, was well groomed, yet seemed perfectly…average.
I really wanted to give him the brush-off, but he was related to Paul and I owed it to Christy to keep from alienating one of her future relatives. Besides, I’d probably have to see him at the wedding in a few months, and God forbid he was one of the groomsmen. Diplomacy was good in this instance and I tried to smile and nod, smile and nod, but he had the personality of a sea slug. We’d talked about Paul and Christy for a minute or two, but after that…he showed himself to be a player. He stood a little too close, his gaze surreptitiously dropping to my chest, and he had an odd leer. It had to be a leer or he had some kind of tick in the corner of his lip.
Why the guy was lingering with me where there was zero hope of…anything, I had no idea. I’d been burned by a man, okay, scorched to a charcoal briquette, and I wasn’t looking for another one. I’d survived, survived because Chris needed a mother, needed me to be the strong one. But he was away at college and I wasn’t shielded behind the role of parent any longer. I could chat about off-sides rules in soccer or PTA fundraisers, but talking to a guy, a real guy and not another parent from high school, was unbelievably hard. God, I was such an introvert!
I sighed and took a sip of my water. “Look, I’ve got to go. I think Christy’s calling me over.” I took a step away but he put his hand on my bare arm.
“You should only eat oysters in the months that don’t have an R.” He must have realized the direction he’d first taken with the oysters wasn’t working, so he’d pulled out another ridiculous fact. He nodded as if to confirm his statement.
My brain had wandered a bit, but stopped to think about what he said. Months without an R. November. No. April. No. May. Yes. June, July, August. This was the most interesting thing he’d said so far, but really…oyster-eating months?
“Then I guess you shouldn’t have eaten them then, right?” I wondered, eyebrow raised.
He shrugged sheepishly, even flushed a little. “September’s not too far past all the non-R months.” He grinned and I noticed a slight overlap of his front two teeth. “I like to live dangerously.” His thumb stroked over my arm and I stepped back out of the hold.
Right. I inwardly rolled my eyes. He didn’t look like he took any chances at all since he was talking to me and not some of the other women in the bar who were more provocatively dressed and a sure thing. Younger, too. At thirty-eight, I wasn't really old, but most women my age didn't have a son in college.
I wasn’t giving off any indication to Bob/Bill that said take me home with you. The way I had my arms crossed over my chest, even while holding my glass, was a classic indication of not interested. He had no clue. A woman wanted a guy who pushed her up against the wall and kissed the ever loving daylights out of her. Well, I did. This guy? Not a chance. If I had to guess, I’d say…accountant.
I took a sip of my ice water with lime and glanced up at him through my dark lashes.
“What do you do?”
“I’m an auditor with Social Security.”
Close enough. I nodded vaguely, trying to keep my eyes from glazing over. He was looking for a woman who wanted the white-picket-fence life with two kids and a dog. Been there, done that. I even got the T-shirt and now used it to clean my toilet.
Glancing at Christy from across the room, I saw her laughing at something the woman next to her said. She looked amazing in her red silk halter dress, her tanned shoulders and back exposed. Her hair was sleek and long and her makeup was definitely night-on-the-town heavy. It was a different look than her business suits for her job at the hospital, and even fancier yet than my everyday ER scrubs. Surprising Paul with her daring outfit had been her plan when we’d gone shopping for her dress, and the way his hand rested just north of appropriate on the small of her back, I’d say it worked. They were blatantly in love and it was a little hard to watch sometimes. The tug of longing was strong, like an ache, for I’d never seen the look Paul was giving her ever from Jack. I’d missed out and that hurt.
My own dress wasn’t remotely in the same caliber as Christy’s. I wasn’t trying to please my future husband and I wasn’t looking for one either. Not at a bar and not with Bob/Bill.
I had no clue how to pick someone up and I wasn’t twenty-one anymore. My dating skills weren’t just rusty, they were stored in a time capsule from the nineties. I observed other women around the bar area; some wore less clothes than I did when I was in my pajamas, leaving not much to the imagination.
“What do you do?” he asked.
I glanced toward Paul and Christy and caught sight of a man standing with them, a man who had not been there before. If he had, I wouldn't have taken my eyes from him.
“Oh, um…nurse practitioner,” I responded absently as I noticed the man’s arm, corded muscles shifting the white sleeve of the dress shirt. A tattoo peeked out from beneath the rolled-up cuff and his hands were big, the fingers blunt. I couldn’t see the rest of him, and a visceral need took hold to do so.
Bob/Bill took a sip of beer and inched even closer, irritating me. “Is that one of those aids that helps wheel patients to x-ray? I like those cute uniforms you get to wear.”
Stepping back, I ignored his words, frustrated I couldn’t get a glimpse of the man. Fortunately, a woman left the group, creating an opening where he was clearly visible.
Heat flooded my veins at the sight of him and I felt weird butterflies in my stomach. This wasn’t silly, school girl crush feelings. This was something else entirely. This was intense, raw lust. Holy hell, I swear my nipples tightened beneath my dress.
He was taller than Paul’s six foot frame with broader shoulders and closely cropped dark hair. Well dressed, he wore a silver tie, loosened with the top buttons of his crisp dress shirt undone, and dark pants. It seemed formal for him, but he wore it well, but I could only imagine him in a pair of worn jeans and…and nothing else because fit didn’t begin to describe him. He was all ripped, lean muscle and my fingers itched to feel them. From here I could see his eyes were dark, a deep and equally dark brow that shadowed them. If I felt this way by just a glance, what would happen if he turned that gaze on me? I swallowed at the very idea.
He was definitely tall and dark, but handsome? Not in the traditional sense, but he hit every one of my hot buttons, every button I had no idea I even had. The smile he gave Paul was wide and friendly and my heart lurched. Although I felt like I’d been staring at him for minutes, it had been a matter of seconds of ogling. My reaction was instantaneous and almost steamy and…why him? I’d seen more attractive men and never reacted this way before. My body didn’t care that his nose looked like it had been broken at least twice. It indicated a life had been hard and well fought and I could relate to that.
He was the complete opposite of what I was usually attracted to, which was based on attractive guys in movies, not real ones. If the latest James Bond happened to be across the room, I’d certainly knock the other ladies down to get to him. But this wasn’t James Bond. More like his brother who’d been born on the wrong side of the tracks, joined a biker gang, then picked up a law degree at Harvard. He looked comfortable in his tattoos and also in the tie.
“Well?” Bob/Bill shifted enough to block my view of the guy and I frowned. He was keeping me from staring at the hot guy. What had he asked me? Right, job.
“Yeah, no.” Such a chauvinistic idiot. “That’s a candy striper, and they’re either fifteen years old or eighty, so nothing like that at all.” Candy striper, my ass.
When I shifted to get a glimpse of mystery man again, he was gone. Of course he was gone while I was lingering with Mr. Dud. Surely he’d caught up to his girlfriend or wife by now. God, I was wasting my time. Why had I stayed chatting with a guy who made gross misogynistic assumptions about my profession? I should have made some kind of excuse and fled five minutes ago.
A hand sliding down my back and settling on my waist had my mind reengaging. “So, ready to head back to my place?” He took a sip of his beer and watched me over the glass, felt his fingers squeeze my side through my dress.
My mouth fell open as I stepped back, making his hand fall away. Perhaps I was better at picking up guys than I thought. All I had to do was say “yes” and I could take Bob/Bill home with me. I needed serious practice though if this man was what my skills hauled
in. “Are you serious?” I had to laugh and he looked slightly abashed, although not for
“Of course I am.” His gaze raked over my body as he closed in once again. I needed a shower. “We’ve got a connection.”
Connection? Yeah, right. “I don’t even like oysters,” I countered.
“That’s not the connection I was talking about.”
“Sorry I’m late, baby. This place is so crowded, Paul pointed me in your direction.” I felt a hand on my shoulder before I realized the voice was talking to me. The surprise contact made me jump, but it didn’t feel creepy and gross like Bob/Bill’s hand had. It felt like…electricity crackling in the air before a thunderstorm. Glancing back, it was Mr. Bond’s brother—that would make him Mr. Bond as well, then?—smiling at me. At me!
His brown eyes weren’t just dark, they were almost black and they were focused
directly, completely, utterly on me.
I froze in complete surprise and gawked at the man. So did Bob/Bill.
“See, Paul knew just where you were.” He pointed in my friend’s direction on the other
side of the room.
Paul gave me a thumbs-up sign, as if approving of this man showing up and pretending to…to what? Know me? Did Paul really know his cousin was a sleaze and was saving me? They were family, so of course he knew his cousin was an ass.
“Thanks for entertaining my girl since I was late.” His voice was deep, rough like gravel and had a tone of get the fuck away from my woman. He shook Bob/Bill’s hand, who looked like he had indigestion, perhaps from the oysters he ate in a non-R month or from his one-night-stand plans being aborted.
My girl. Oh my God.
“No problem,” Bob/Bill murmured, then stepped back into safer territory and cleared his throat, checking Mr. Bond out, picking up on the extra few inches in height, thirty extra pounds in weight and a crap load of badass he’d never have. There was no way he was going to argue with the guy.
Neither was I. Up close, he was even more…gorgeous. Manly. Virile. Holy shit, he was hot. Dark stubble roughened his jaw and his hand against my back was warm, even through the cotton of my dress. The butterflies in my stomach earlier were now angry bees, and surely he could see my heart practically beating out of my chest. Unlike Bob/Bill, his gaze hadn’t dropped lower than my chin. It did though, dip briefly to my mouth and my lips parted slightly, trying to catch my breath.
“What were you two talking about when I interrupted?” He shifted his eyes off me and onto Bob/Bill, who seemed to turn green around the gills, clearly afraid to say.
Propositioning this man’s significant other was not good for his health.
“Oysters,” I said, willing to spare Paul’s cousin a possible slow and merciless death. He was pretty sleazy, but harmless enough, especially with Mr. Bond beside me. Mr. Bond somehow made me feel protected, sheltered and safe from any of Bob/Bill’s less honorable intentions. He made me feel…feminine in comparison to his ultra-masculine presence.
I darted a brief glance again at Paul across the room. He winked at me, then was pulled back into a conversation. He had sent this guy over to save me from Bob/Bill.
“Oysters? That’s fascinating.” From Mr. Bond’s tone, it didn’t sound as if it was. “You don’t look too good.” He gestured with his chin at Bob/Bill who now had beads of sweat dotting his brow to go along with the off pallor. “Ready?” he asked me, his eyes raking over my face.
Without waiting for me to answer, he took my hand and all but dismissed Bob/Bill. His hand was so big mine was all but swallowed up. His touch was gentle, which was surprising for a man who seemed so…aggressive, as if the calm exterior was just a façade and he had tension and energy coiled and ready to be unleashed, especially when aimed at a man who was bothering me. I could feel rough callouses on his palm and when his thumb brushed back and forth over the back of my hand, a chill went down my spine.
Ready? To go off with Mr. Bond? Mmm, yeah. I nodded, then turned to Bob/Bill. “Guess you should’ve followed the rules and skipped the oysters.” Or skipped propositioning me and demeaning my job. I faked a smile and let Mr. Bond lead me away. Everyone seemed to be looking at us, at him, for he had the bearing and presence that screamed
Get out of my fucking way.
I placed my glass on an empty high top as we walked by. Mr. Bond let go of my hand—he had a drink in his other one—to push open the door to the outside deck and held it for me. The patio area wrapped around three sides of the building, although windows only flanked the wall that faced the water.
The air was balmy and humid, a striking contrast to the air-conditioned interior. Now I was overheated for an entirely different reason. The noise of the restaurant and bar was muffled. The sun was setting, the sky thick and hazy with the heat, yet a beautiful mixture of pink and orange. The lights of the buildings on the harbor were coming on, setting the water to sparkle even more.
Couples and small groups chatted by the railing and around small arrangements of chairs, so he pointed with his drink-filled hand around the corner. There, it was quiet, and I moved to sit in one of two chairs that looked out over the harbor. Small boats cut through the water and in the distance, tourists rode in simple paddle boats shaped like swans.
Since Christy was in love, she wanted everyone around her to have the same, but guys like Bob/Bill weren’t making me eager to change my Facebook status to In A Relationship. Regardless, she and Paul had tried to get me back out there now that Chris was away at college, but using this guy—holy hell. My life had been about raising Chris for so long, I didn’t know how to be just me, the woman, not the mom. And now, it was just me and this insanely good looking guy and I didn’t know what to do! It was one thing to talk to Bob/Bill, but I was flustered and tongue tied and overwhelmed by this man.
“Would you mind if I sit with you?” His voice was deep, cool and calm, patient.