Author:H.M. Ward

chapter 2

I’ve never been in this restaurant before. When I came in, I thought I’d circled the entire floor, and seen every table, but I hadn’t. This section is behind the wall that connects to the bar. I didn’t realize there were tables over here, and apparently this is where Mille and the guys have been sitting.

Millie has been talking, but I’m so mortified that I’m not really listening. She finally stops at a booth on the other side of the fireplace and scoots in next to Brent. My date pats the spot beside him. Oh God. He looks like my ex. My nerves are frayed as it is, and the similarities between the two men are so striking that I flinch. Old memories flash behind my eyes. The memories feel fresh, as though they just happened. I don’t want to sit down. I want to run. My fingers graze the scar hidden under my necklace. I’m frantic, and maybe a little terrified.

Stop it! I scold myself. This guy didn’t hurt you. Sit down. I chant sit down over and over again inside my head. I can’t let fear rule my life. It’s held me back long enough. I’m getting over it—tonight. There have been too many times that I’ve let my past crush me. I managed talking to hot guy a few moments ago. I can figure this out. I can be the girl I was before. I swallow hard and sit down. Millie spares me and doesn’t mention that she found me at a random table, chatting up a hot guy.

I try to shake off what just happened so I can focus on my real date. When I see him, dread tries to crawl up my throat.

Millie introduces us after I sit down. “Sydney, this is Brent and his friend, Dusty.”

Dusty’s a pretty cowboy. He’s got his hair slicked back and parted on the side. He’s wearing a starched white Western shirt. I bet he’s got fancy cowboy boots under the table, too—the kind that cost more than my car.

I sigh and say, “Hello.” I try not to think that tonight just got a million times worse, but I can’t help it. I’ve been on this date before – at least I think I have. The choking sensation returns. My spine stiffens. Being this close to him has me on edge. Mentally, I scold myself to calm down, but it doesn’t work. I can’t. Every muscle in my arms and legs is corded tight, ready to run.

Nervously, I smile at him again and take my napkin off the table. I spread it across my lap. The little black dress I’m wearing has a scoop neck that dips low in front. The bodice clings to my curves and the skirt flares at the waist. I feel pretty, but the way his eyes rove over me makes me feel nervous.

I shift in my seat and glance at Millie. She’s already gushing, batting her eyelashes at Brent. It’s amazing that she can sit so close to me and be in her own little world. Brent is wrapped up in her, too.

“So,” Dusty says—his eyes overtly drifting to my breasts before reluctantly returning to my face—like I’m good enough, “it’s a good thing it’s not raining tonight.”

“And why’s that?”

He grins at me and says, “Because sugar melts in the rain.” Dusty pours on the country accent and smiles at me with a wolfish grin.

My eyebrows lift. I feel them inch up my face until they disappear under my bangs. I smile and laugh, nervously, not able to say anything that Millie won’t kill me over later. A sudden urge to run screaming from the table shoots through my body. Maybe the kitchen will catch fire and I can leave. I glance in that direction, hopeful.

Millie and Brent are talking. They’re both leaning into one another, as if they can’t get enough of each other. Millie giggles at something Brent says, and then looks at me. I smile at her for a second, before her attention returns to Brent.

I press my back into the seat, wishing I was somewhere else. But I’m here. I’m here for Millie. I’m here for me. Taking a deep breath, I try to reign in my nerves before they get the better of me.

I feel Dusty’s eyes on the side of my face. They dip too low and I know he’s looking at my chest, again. I wiggle in my seat, scooting away from him and closer to the edge of the booth.

Dusty leans back in the seat and asks, “So, what’s your major?”

Nerves are flopping through my stomach like drunken bats. I’d give anything to trade them for butterflies right now. I’m so nervous. I feel so sick, but I refuse to leave. I have to do this. I have to have a normal date, get through a normal night. If I can do that, I can get on with my life. Just eat dinner, kiss the guy, have sex, and go home. That’s what my friends do. I can do that. I can. The bear raises his head and gives me a look. Fucking bear.

I take too long to answer. Dusty lightly touches the back of my hand. He traces his finger in a circle and says, “It’s okay if you’re undecided. I was just starting with the basics.”

Don’t yank your hand away. My heart pounds harder. My ribs are going to crack. I find my fake smile and giggle nervously. “I’m not undecided. I’m an English major. What’s your major?”

“Business.” Dusty tries to gaze into my eyes, but whenever I look at him, the pit of my stomach turns to ice. God, I’m a wreck. It was easier to talk to that other guy.

I force my gaze up and smile at him again, even though I’d rather bang my head on a rock. “So, do you want to start a business?”

“Something like that. Maybe open a shop or manage one of my dad’s stores. I don’t really know yet. After I finish this, I have to do graduate work, so it’s still a ‘ways off.” He lifts his arms and slips it behind me.

I can’t breathe. It’s as though he knocked me in the back with a two-by-four. When his arm settles over me, it’s even worse. Damn it. Why can’t I sit here? Why does every touch have to make me so crazy? I’m getting better, I swear to God I am.

Then why are you still acting like this? That little voice in the back of my head is a total bitch. She’s in cahoots with the bear.

Brent nods, and continues talking to Millie about a class they had earlier today. Millie laughs.

Dusty rubs his fingers on the edge of my shoulder, touching my bare skin. The dress is sleeveless. Suddenly, I’m somewhere else, lost in a memory. I feel my ex’s hands on me. The past and the present crash together. I stiffen more. “Relax. I won’t bite. And Brent can vouch for me. I’m not a total ass—”

“His ass-o-meter rating is around a two. No worries there, Sidney.” Brent smirks at me. His eyes slip over his friend’s arm around my shoulders. “Me, on the other hand—”

Millie slaps his chest and laughs, “You’re perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.” She leans in and kisses him. My face flushes and I look away. Mistake. When I do it, Dusty is watching. Our eyes lock, but it’s not a good feeling. It evokes everything I want to forget.

The waiter saves me, and Millie stops sucking face long enough to order. We share an appetizer. Dusty talks more about his family and home. He pops a piece of shrimp into his mouth. “What about you? Did your family support you coming down here?” Somehow Dusty has closed the gap between us. We’re shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. There’s no way to scoot away from him, either. One more wiggle and I’ll fall on the floor.

When he mentions my family, I feel my hackles raise. It’s a common enough question, so I try to sound normal. “Yeah, of course. Whose family wouldn’t want them to go to college? And this school’s great.” I’m distracted. I lie. My stupid family doesn’t even know where I am.

Dusty leans in close to me. He takes a curl between his fingers. I glance at him and twist so the curl drops. “You look so hot tonight.” My eyes instantly avert their gaze. Even though I’m no longer looking at him, I can feel Dusty’s eyes on my skin. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. He leans in toward me and places his hand on my knee, slowly. Very slowly. I won’t react. I can do this. I can. It’s a normal touch.

It’s normal. I want to be normal. I want it so badly, but my eyes sting. My pulse is pounding like someone is chasing me with an axe. I smile at him again, forcing myself to stay put. Dusty takes my smile the wrong way. His hand slips under the hem of my dress and halfway up my thigh—skin to skin—and squeezes. He grabs me and my world shifts. I’m here, but my mind is lost in the past, reliving memories that I want to forget.

My muscles react without my consent. Shooting out of my seat, I jump up, banging into the table, shaking all the silverware. It makes a loud noise. I hold out my hands, ready to make up some excuse, when I whirl around and slam into a waiter. He’s holding a tray of food—our food—high over his head. When I slap into him, the tray topples to the side. Every entrée slips to the side in slow motion, and slides off the side of the tray. There’s a loud crash when the plates hit the floor.

For a second, I stand there paralyzed. Dusty gives me a what the hell look. Millie and Brent follow suit. I feel their stares and can’t explain. They don’t know. My mouth dangles open, but I don’t know what to say.

I bolt. Before the night can get any worse, before I can make a bigger an ass out of myself, I leave. I walk swiftly toward the exit, ready to scream or cry—maybe both. What the hell is wrong with me? I wanted this. I’m the one who let him do it. It’s like last time. The images flash through my mind, but tears are blinding me. I push through the massive doors, and nearly trip over the curb.

When the night air hits my face, I slow down. No one is chasing me. None of them want me to come back. I inhale deeply. The last half an hour has been an emotional rollercoaster. First, I humiliate myself, and then I get grabbed. I cringe inwardly. I’m so stupid.

As I dig through my purse for my keys, standing under the portico, I glance up and my heart lurches. It’s the hot guy. He’s in the parking lot with his hands on his hips, in front of a black car. The way he stands draws attention to his broad shoulders and trim waist. I drink him in before I notice that the hood is up. Why was I able to talk to him? That guy didn’t make me panic at all. I felt like the old me and not the lunatic that I’ve become. I miss who I was. I miss the old me. I know she’s still inside somewhere, locked away.

He must sense eyes on him, because he turns and sees me. Raising his voice so that I can hear him, he says, “I take it that neither of us is having a good night?”

I stare at him for a moment. My heart is still pounding. I’m in danger of stroking out. Before I can think about what I’m doing, I nod and walk toward him. Stopping next to Hot Guy, I say, “It was total suckage.” Some of the tension leaves my shoulders. This guy—whoever he is—has that old friend feeling. I don’t understand it. It feels as if I’ve known him for years even though I don’t know his name. It’s weird.

I sigh and look at his engine. “Car trouble?”

Running his fingers through his hair, he says, “It appears that way. It won’t start and it isn’t from lack of trying.”

Folding my arms across my chest, I watch the way he’s looking at the car and can tell that he doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Neither do I, really, but I know a little. I walk to the driver’s side door, pull it open, and sit in the seat.

He watches me as I try to crank the engine. It doesn’t start. I look at the little gauges and notice the battery. He’s standing next to me now. “So, you’re a mechanic?”

I shake my head, “I just pretend to be. It makes for more interesting evenings.” I grin at him, not sure what’s come over me. I never talk random guys, but it’s not like he’s random anymore, right? Hot Guy’s face falls and I realize that he believes me. I laugh, “I’m just kidding. I know a little about cars. For instance, I know this one isn’t going anywhere tonight.”

“And why’s that?”

“It seems like your alternator’s dead. Either that or you shoved a hamster up the tailpipe—” My face falls. I wonder if he did something stupid. College guys do all sorts of stupid things to talk to girls. I get out of his car and slam the door. Then, I tilt my head and cross my arms over my chest. “Tell me that that isn’t the reason the car won’t start.”

He laughs and presses a hand to his chest, shocked that I’d say such a thing. “No, I didn’t do anything like that! And correct me if I’m wrong, but you were the one who came onto me first. I didn’t get here early and sabotage my own car, just so I could meet a girl I didn’t know was coming.” The way he smiles is contagious. He runs his hands through his dark hair, like he wishes he could say more, but he doesn’t. The corners of his mouth curve and he gives me a look that makes tingles crawl across my skin.

I step toward him, smiling too wide. “I did not come onto you!”

“You did. Right back in there.” He points toward the restaurant. His face is serious, all smooth features and big blue eyes. “You sat at my table and made me very uncomfortable. I haven’t had such a beautiful woman overtly hit on me like that before. It was quite embarrassing.”

My smile is making it hard for my mouth to hang open in shock. It keeps opening and then my grin snaps my lips shut. “I did not!” I know he’s teasing me, but I can’t stop. I don’t want it to stop, and I realize that I’m actually laughing.

His arms are folded over his chest. He taps a finger to his lip, as if he’s remembering. “You did. You ordered wine and just assumed that I’d put out. Really, Sidney, you’ll have to learn to control yourself a little better in the future.” He looks at me from the corner of his eye, as he glances at his car.

I know he’s baiting me, but I can’t ignore him. I can’t walk away and I don’t want to. He smiles at me with those wicked lips. It makes me want to kiss him, hard. I change tactics. I want to throw him so far off balance that he falls over. I step in front of him and look up at him from under my lashes. “Okay, you caught me. I like you. I want you. I can’t keep my hands off of you. But tell me this, beautiful man; why should I bother controlling myself when I can tell that you want me just as much?” Slowly, I step closer to him. Our bodies are a breath apart as I look up into his eyes.

Smiling, he manages to say, “You shouldn’t.” He watches me, waiting to see what I’ll do. I feel my heart pounding. His eyes drift to my lips and back to my eyes. Every inch of my body flickers to life. I want to feel his hands on me. I want his lips on my mouth. From the look in his eye, I know he wants it too.

I lean in closer, teasing him. I feel his breath on my lips. His scent fills my head and I breath him in. “Are you always this irresistible?”

“Are you always this coy? Do you just flirt, leaving your lips way too close to a man that desperately wants to kiss you?”

My hands drift to his hair as he speaks. I touch him gently and hear his breath hitch. It sends a thrill through me, making me brave. There’s little space between us. The tension is so strong that I can’t stand it another second. I lean in slowly and brush my lips to his. Beautiful Man stands there. He seems surprised. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t kiss me back. Disappointment floods me. I look down, breaking the kiss. I can’t hide how hard I’m breathing, how much he turns me on.

Rejection doesn’t look good on me. “I’m sorry,” I breathe. I’m about to turn away when I feel his fingers tilt my chin up. I look him in the eye, and see something there that I didn’t expect.

He’s smiling softly. “Don’t be. I just like to be on a first name basis with the random girls that I suck face with in swank parking lots.”

I smile. “I didn’t realize the parking lot was swank, too.”

“It is. And Miss Sidney, if you’d be so kind as to divulge your last name?”

“Who talks like that?” I laugh.

“I believe that I do.”

“Sidney Colleli.” I bit my bottom lip and look up at him.

“Peter Granz.” His voice is deep and rich. The way he says his name makes my insides melt, and the way he kisses is even better. Gently, Peter pulls my lips back to his, and he kisses me lightly. It sends a charge through my body and makes my toes curl. I lean into him, loving the way he feels. Every part of me is tingling, wanting more. The kiss is so light, so brief. When Peter pulls away, I can barely breathe.

In a breathy voice, I say, “It’s nice to meet you.”