“Mommy issues. Serial cheater. Humor void. Two-pump chump.” With each guy who entered the campus bar, I ticked off my initial impression to my drunken friends.
I had an uncanny knack for sizing up males—I was a regular “manalyst.” My secret? I always went negative, and the guys, well, they always accommodated.
The girls at the table—several of my roommate’s friends and a couple of mine—looked at me like I was a fun sideshow act, their carny pal. Drinks were perpetually free.
After the week I’d had, my dinner of salt, tequila, and lime was hitting the spot.
My best friend Jessica murmured at my ear, “You better be careful, you picky prude, or else you’ll take your hymen to your grave. Like a skin tag.”
She alone knew that I’d never given it up—and why. “Low blow, Jess,” I said without any heat. Like her, it took a lot to get me ruffled, which was one of the reasons we made such great roommates.
Other than that, we were as different as we could be. Whereas she was leggy and tan with twinkling blue eyes and cropped black hair, I was short and top-heavy, with long red hair and pale-as-a-porcelain-sink skin.
I was a workaholic studyaholic, pursuing my history PhD. After years’ worth of incompletes, Jess had finally dipped a toe into the core courses of her major—leisure studies—and decided college was “a racket” for “wretched fucks.” Though it was midsemester, she was heading out tomorrow for a tour of the Greek Isles with her wealthy family.
Another round of tequila shooters arrived, sent by a trio of frat boys a few tables away. We raised our glasses, then dutifully licked, pounded, and sucked. The tequila, not the boys.
While other women might look at these superficially attractive guys and see potential mates or even fun one-night stands, I saw impending headaches. Other girls got hot and bothered by their lines and pickups; I just got bothered.
But I hadn’t always been that way.
“Do the frat boys, Nat!” our friend Polly cried. She was a sturdy corn-fed Nebraska girl—her family’s farm was in a small town outside Lincoln, just a few miles away from ours. Well, not ours anymore, since Mom had sold out last year.
“Too easy,” I said, having already sized up the trio. The first guy had been constantly checking sports scores on TV while his leg jogged. The second was a bleary mess whose own friends rolled their eyes at his drunkenness. The third one’s grooming and clothing were fanatically perfect, and he kept checking his appearance in the mirror behind the bar.
“From left to right, then?” I said. “Inveterate gambler, habitual drunk, and—how should I put this?—the third is ill-equipped.”
I sighed. Yep, those guys were too easy to read. Where was the excitement? Here I was at the same Lincoln bar I always went to, with the same crowd I always hung around. I had an early work shift tomorrow at one restaurant, a late one at the other, and classes to take and to teach on Monday. I’d been averaging five hours of sleep a night for the last few weeks. What was I even doing here?
I guessed I could sleep when I was dead.
“I’ve chosen my quarry for the evening,” beautiful Jess said. “Ill-equipped is mine.” As per her usual, she would pick up another conquest and take him back to his place—so she could leave when finished with him. “His type,” she continued blithely, “usually make up for any shortcomings with their mouths. True story.”
I told her, “And you better be careful, Jessebel, or else you’ll collect another admirer who clings like lichen.”
“I can’t help it that this is the Bermuda Triangle”—she pointed at her crotch—“when guys venture there, they tend to stay.”
I tapped my chin. “Oh, I thought you called it that because it’s sucked in lots of seamen.”
Between guffaws, she said, “That’s a completely fair statement!”
We could laugh about it now, but I’d lived with the aftermath of her affairs: the desperate gifts, the late-night phone calls, the stalking.
What was the point of all the drama? Of all that angst? Dating, love, and sex were all overrated—as I’d repeatedly tried to explain to Jess. She would get this secretive smile and say, “You’re gonna get blindsided one day. I only hope I’m there to see it. . . .”
When the laughter died down, Polly said, “Do him,” with a wave at the door.
“Fine.” Exhaling with boredom—earn your booze, carny—I turned toward the entrance. And saw the baddest-looking man I’d ever encountered.
His eyes were a vivid gold, stark against his thick black hair. He wore it longish, the ends brushing his collar. He had a roman nose that had likely been broken and a razor-thin scar that sliced down across both lips. A fighter?
Yet that didn’t fit with his expensive clothing: a tailored black coat and dress shirt, dark gray slacks, black leather shoes and belt. Through Jess, I’d learned enough about fashion to recognize fine threads. His outfit probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.
When he stood at the bar and ordered a drink, I saw that he had three rings on one hand, a ring on his other thumb, and a wicked-looking tattoo peeking out from his starch-stiff collar. His style was a mix of privileged and street.
He was tall, with a lean, muscular build, and looked maybe twenty-nine or thirty, but his face was weary, as an older man’s would be. With those rough-hewn features, he was ruggedly handsome, yet not classically so.
There was an aura of ennui about him, but he also seemed hyper-alert. What the hell? My internal manalyzer whirred with confusion. Does not compute!
I could feel my friends staring at me, but I was at a loss. “I . . . I got nothing.” Was he a brawler or a rich playboy or both? I was also sensing top notes of European—along with strong undertones of dangerous!
He was like a history book written in a script I’d never seen. Fascinating.
Jess pinched my side, drawing my attention to her smug grin. “You can close your mouth now, hooker.” In a patronizing tone,
she said, “Welcome to my world—where first meetings are always in slo-mo and the song ‘At Last’ repeats on a loop.”
No, no, her world was angsty and overwrought. So why had my gaze darted back to the man?
“That’s one hot piece of tackle—in a cage-fighter/GQ model mash-up kind of way.” Jess wasn’t going to let this go. “Probably gets more ass than a toilet seat. But he got you to look twice, which makes him a rare and wondrous creature, this bar’s very own unicorn. Requires closer investigation, don’t you think?”
I could question him, type him, then discard all thoughts of him. I was just tipsy enough to consider it. “I should go up and introduce myself?”
She nodded. “Unless you’re a twat. Now, go forth with confidence, for you look cute-iful tonight.”
Jess’s style was SEXY GLAM! Mine? See-me-love-me, motherfleckers. Yet tonight, I was wearing a hip-hugging suede skirt and a slinky red top—one of Jess’s fashion-forward, low-cut numbers. For once, my bra wasn’t a minimizer.
This outfit had come about because the clothes I’d normally wear—jeans and a turtleneck—were all in an overflowing laundry hamper. I’d worn the black knee-high boots Jess had bought me, to show appreciation in front of her.
I rose, smoothed my wavy hair over my shoulder, then tugged down my skirt, prompting Jess to give me a loud slap on the ass for encouragement. As I passed their table, Ill-Equipped and Habitual Drunk raised their glasses to me, which didn’t hurt my confidence.
Once I was halfway over to Badass, his eyes locked on me. His gaze grew heated, and immediately the area felt smaller, warmer. I squelched the urge to fan myself. For the first time in my life, I was a little . . . giddy.
When I sidled up to him at the bar, he turned fully to me. Up close, he was even more intimidating, even more attractive. Taller than I’d thought.
His spellbinding eyes were the color of amber, irises ringed with black.
As I noted additional details—scarred knuckles, tattoos on his fingers under those rings, chiseled jawline clean-shaven—I perceived the heat coming off his big body. Then I got my first mind-numbing hit of his scent.
Crisp, masculine, intoxicating.
Speak, Nat. I had to look up to face him. “Uh, hi, I’m Natalie.” I offered him my hand to shake. He didn’t take it. Okay . . . I swallowed. “Can I buy you a drink?” Was that a vodka rocks he’d ordered? He didn’t look like a 7&7 type of guy.
He canted his head, studying my face—the same way I studied men’s expressions. Still he said nothing. Maybe he didn’t speak the language. UNL had a lot of overseas students. “Drink?” I pointed to his untouched glass and mimed a shot.
His expression gave away so little, it was like I was talking to a wall.
As my cheeks flushed, I muttered, “Sooo, this went well. Good talk, buddy.” With a mortified smile, I turned around—
A callused palm closed around my elbow, his rings cool compared to his skin. The contact was so electric, I shivered.
“Wait,” he said. Had there been a subtle v sound to that w?
My heart leapt—maybe he was . . . Russian. I turned around, a genuine smile on my face now. “Are you from Russia?” I added, “Zdrav-stvooi-tee.” ?Hello.
He still cupped my elbow. How could his hand be so hot? I
stifled imaginings of him cupping other parts of me, those hands spreading heat in their wake. . . .
“You speak my language, then?”
Bingo, a Russian! “A bit,” I said with delight. I could grill him about the country, learning more about my birthplace! “I took a class or two.” Or five. My master’s had required fluency in a second language, and I’d chosen Russian.
He swept his glance around, his stance alert, as if someone might throw a punch at any second. Then he met my gaze once more. “Of all the men in this bar, you choose me to approach?” His English was very good, though heavily accented. “Are you looking for trouble?”
With a confidence I didn’t feel, I teasingly said, “Maybe I am.” I sounded breathy—I still hadn’t caught my breath since he’d first touched me. “Have I found it?”
He glanced down, seeming surprised that he was still holding my arm. He abruptly released me, growing angrier by the second. “No, little girl. You have not.” With a disgusted look, he turned away and stalked out.
I stared at the door, battling my bewilderment. What just happened? I’d seen interest in his gaze, hadn’t I?
Yet then he’d acted like a vampire who’d discovered I was a fucking sunbeam.