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An Excerpt: Opening Scene
Gina hopped off the barstool. Perfect perpetually tanned legs, a teasing smile, dark eyes that lit up beneath long dark lashes. That was Gina. She not only turned heads, she stopped men in their tracks and left them drooling and speechless. "Let's dance," she said.
Carrie slipped off her stool. Short tousled bleached blonde hair, big blue eyes. Part hippie, part techno geek. She grabbed Lauren's hand. "C'mon," she said. "This is a great song."
"Not yet," Lauren said. "You guys go ahead."
Gina sighed. "Sometimes you're so uptight."
Lauren picked at her nail polish as her two friends disappeared onto the crowded dance floor. The DJ kept the crowd moving with a contagious dance beat. Carrie's platinum hair glowed under the flashing lights. More than a few men's heads turned in their direction. Lauren looked away. Gina was right. Sometimes she was too uptight.
Around her, sexy young women in tiny skirts were inundated with attention by hopeful young men. They were all so at ease. Would she ever feel that way?
Lauren silently chastised herself. One of these days she'd throw caution to the wind and do something wild and crazy. She rolled her eyes. That would happen right about the time flying monkeys took over the world.
The guy two stools over was slowly leaning closer to her. The heavy scent of his spicy cologne stung her nostrils. She sensed his come-on before he spoke.
"Hello," he said. "How are you this evening?"
Lauren mustered a smile. "I'm fine thanks. You?"
"Doing great," he replied through a toothy grin. "Even better since you got here."
Nothing original about this guy. He had short sandy hair and pale blue eyes. He wore a baggy designer t-shirt and baggy faded jeans. His line was dull. His look was dull. Lauren turned toward the dance floor in search of her friends.
"Can I buy you a drink?" the guy asked. His eyes remained fixed on her breasts.
"I'm all set," Lauren replied. "Thanks anyway."
He motioned to the empty spot on the bar in front of her. "You aren't drinking?"
"I'm driving," she said. She wasn't, though he didn't need to know that.
"But the night is young. One drink won't hurt you."
His voice had a cocky edge. Lauren shook her head. "No, I'd rather not."
He shrugged. "My name's Dean."
"I'm Lauren." She averted her eyes, picked at her nail polish. Were Gina and Carrie ever coming back or was she destined to spend the entire evening with Dean leering over her shoulder?
"Want to go someplace quiet?" Dean asked.
Lauren would have laughed had she not had polite etiquette programmed into her since birth. The guy offers to buy her a drink and now thinks she should be so flattered that she'll fall right into bed with him? A few women probably did, though she couldn't imagine why.
Lauren said, "I'm here with friends."
"Yeah? Where are they?"
"On the dance floor."
"Want to join them?"
Dean shrugged again. "Your loss."
Lauren ignored his sarcasm, as well as his look of disdain. She turned her attention to the music and the people dancing. The DJ had switched to hip hop, though the beat hadn't changed much. Lauren spotted Gina gyrating around two guys whose tongues practically hung to the floor. No sign of Carrie.
Dean cast a sideways glance, got up, and walked away. He repositioned himself toward the end of the bar, beside a blonde with silicon boobs jutting out of her lacy top. Lauren was glad to be rid of him.
Maybe she should swallow her nerves and get up on the dance floor with Gina and Carrie. It wasn't as if she couldn't dance. She did it all the time in her bedroom, when no one was watching. But it took her awhile to work up the nerve to dance in public. The night was young. People weren't drunk enough yet.
She turned away from the dance floor and surveyed the crowd. She spotted him instantly. He was leaning casually against a pole, his black leather jacket the only rigid part of him. He was tall and muscular and unbelievably sexy. And he was staring right at her.
Lauren quickly looked away. Her breath caught in her throat and heat rose to her cheeks. She tried to concentrate on the music but, even with her back to him, she felt his eyes burning into her. He was by far the sexiest man she'd ever seen. Why had he been staring? Was he still? Why did she want that answer to be yes?
She turned her head a bit and easily caught a glimpse. He was still by the pole, still staring. His face was without expression, his stance casual. He made no move toward her, yet she was overpowered by his presence.
Lauren rubbed at the goose bumps on her arms and got the bartender's attention. "Could I have a shot of tequila please?"
The two minutes the bartender took to pour her drink could have been an eternity. Lauren shifted her weight on the barstool, afraid to turn back toward the man in the black leather jacket. Was it the fact that he'd been looking at her that was making her uncomfortable? Or was it the thought that he may turn away? Maybe a little of both.
Had she been more like Carrie or Gina, she would have ordered a second drink and had it sent to the guy. Or boldly walked over and introduced herself. But she was not like them. For many reasons, she lacked that kind of confidence. Not to mention the minor issue of her total lack of trust where men were concerned.
Lauren swallowed the shot in one gulp. Her throat burned. Good. Maybe it would relax her. Maybe it would give her some courage.
She sensed his closeness before she turned. His erotic scent filled the air. Her palms began to sweat and her cheeks flushed. She took a deep breath and glanced to her right.
His vivid brown eyes caught her off guard. Such a deep shade of brown, they were almost black. He met her eyes, didn't blink. But she was not as skilled as he and she had to look away.
'I'm sorry for staring," he said. "Well, no, I'm really not. I'm just sorry for being so blatant about it."
Lauren chuckled at his honesty. His voice was every bit as erotic as he. He smiled an easy, relaxed smile. He radiated a confidence that somehow managed to lack arrogance. Lauren's skin grew warmer. She silently cursed the blush she couldn't control.
"Are you waiting for someone?" he asked.
"No." Lauren gestured to the dance floor. "I'm here with some friends."
He touched the stool beside her. "Then can I sit here and buy you a drink?"
Lauren hesitated, her voice lost somewhere deep in his eyes. He grinned and said, "One drink? Then if you want me to get lost, I promise I will."
Lauren couldn't help but smile. "You've got a deal."
He slid onto the stool. "My name's Jesse Ryder."
"He's my father. Why?"
"I've been doing some work for him."
Lauren's stomach churned. She looked down at her hands and picked at her nail polish. It would figure. The first man she'd been tempted to let her guard down with and he worked for her father. He was probably a hit man or something. She should tell him to get lost. She should make up some excuse. She looked up and got lost in his eyes.
The bartender approached and said, "Can I get you two something?"
Jesse held Lauren's eyes. "What are you drinking?"
"And a rum and Coke, please."
As the bartender walked away, Lauren tried to summon the courage to speak. He worked for her father. Was there any justice in this world?
"You don't look anything like your father," Jesse said.
"I take after my mom," Lauren replied. She refrained from adding a thank God to that sentence. "So what kind of work do you do for him?"
"Mostly research, digging stuff out of the buried past. Nothing all that exciting." Jesse pulled a twenty from his pocket and placed it on the bar. "I'm a private investigator."
"Really? That must be interesting work."
"Sometimes. Other times it's boring as hell."
Lauren chuckled. "I guess all jobs can be that way."
The bartender returned, placing the drinks in front of them. Jesse pushed the twenty toward him, which he took and moved toward the register.
"Beware," Lauren said. "Here come my lunatic friends now."
Gina collapsed onto the stool on the other side of Jesse. "Well hello," she said.
Jesse smiled. "Hi."
"And you are?" Gina asked.
Gina's ruby red lips gave a dazzling smile. "I'm Gina. And you are stunning."
Jesse simply smiled. Carrie rolled her eyes as she slipped onto the stool beside Lauren. "Hi,"she said. "I'm Carrie."
"Hi Carrie," Jesse said. "It's nice to meet you both."
"Great club," Gina said. "We've never been here before. I love the atmosphere."
Gina twirled her long dark hair. Lauren chewed her lip, suddenly feeling more than a little inadequate.
Jesse nodded. "Yeah, it's not a bad place." He turned his attention to Lauren, locking his eyes with hers. "And I'm definitely liking the atmosphere."
Lauren grew warm all over. She sipped her drink, not trusting herself to speak.
"Are you here alone?" Gina asked.
His eyes still locked on Lauren, Jesse said, "I was. But I hope I'm not anymore." He grinned and added, "I'm on probation till Lauren finishes her drink."
Lauren laughed, relaxing despite herself. "Probation period is over."
Jesse gave her a boyish grin. "And I'm allowed to stay?"
"Yes," Lauren replied, grinning as well.
Jesse ordered a round for all of them and, despite protests from the girls, paid for them all. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm not trying to get you all drunk so that I can take advantage of all of you. I'm man enough to admit there's no way in hell I could handle that."
"Unbelievable!" Carrie said. "A man that actually admits to his limitations."
Lauren said, "A rarity indeed."
Jesse leaned close to Lauren, his mouth just inches from her ear. "Dance with me," he murmured.
Lauren was suddenly aware of the slow pulsating beat of the music. A lump formed in her throat. His words had been more a gentle command than a question. Of course, she could still say no. His breath was hot against her neck. She swallowed the lump and managed to say,"Okay."
They found a spot on the far end of the dance floor. Lauren put her hands loosely on Jesse's shoulders. She was sure she looked as awkward as she felt.
Jesse's hands wrapped around her waist and pulled her close. She wanted to melt into him. She wanted to run from him. The warmth of his hands created an intense fire on her skin that burned slowly within her.
Panic set in. What was wrong with her? Why did she feel this way about a total stranger? Why did she find it impossibly hard to resist the urge to nestle against his shoulder, kiss his neck?
They swayed slowly, their bodies close. She didn't trust her voice enough to speak. She didn't dare look up into his eyes.
Finally the slow sensual beat was replaced by more raging techno. Lauren tilted her head up and was struck by how close Jesse's lips were to her own. She backed up a step, hoping her complete lack of ease didn't show. Jesse winked at her, then took her hand and led the way back to their seats.
Gina leaned in close to Jesse. "You two looked like you've done that before," she said.
"I must confess," Jesse said. "I have danced before."
Gina's lips glistened with her smile. "I meant together."
Jesse gazed at Lauren, meeting her eyes and holding them. "Maybe we were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in our last life."
Lauren smiled, despite the storm raging inside her. She was much too attracted to Jesse. And he worked for her father. Of all people.
Jesse's eyes narrowed, his attention focused somewhere behind Lauren's shoulder. She turned to find Dean less than a foot away. She turned back, groaning. Jesse cocked his head. "Friend?"
"No," Lauren replied. "An earlier aggravation."
"I see," Jesse said. "So he didn't pass the probation period."
"No," Lauren said with a laugh. "He didn't."
Dean stepped closer. His voice was low and worked on being menacing. He said to Lauren, "I thought you weren't drinking."
"Changed my mind," Lauren said.
"Changed your mind about dancing too?"
"Good. Then let's you and me dance."
Dean put a hand on Lauren's arm. As she jerked away from his touch, Jesse stood. He took a slow step toward Dean, towering at least four inches above him. For a moment Jesse simply stared at Dean, his expression indiscernible. Then, his voice quiet and controlled, he said, "You touch her again and I'll break every bone in both your hands. Do you have any idea how many bones that is?"
Dean glared defiantly, though he staggered back a step. When he didn't reply, Jesse said, "Each hand contains 27 bones. I'll break each slowly, give you plenty of time to count."
Dean muttered a few curses as he spun away. Gina's eyes were wide with excitement. "Wow," she said. "That was a huge turn-on."
Lauren shot her friend a look of irritation. To Jesse she said, "Thank you. But I don't want you risking a fight because of me."
"I'm willing to take risks for a good cause," Jesse said. "Besides, there wasn't much risk involved with that."
Carrie said, "You were so convincing. Would you really have broken his hands?"
"Absolutely," Jesse said without hesitation.
"Damn," Carrie muttered. "My last boyfriend would've let the guy maul me. The most I could've hoped for was that he'd call 911 after running away."
Everyone laughed. Lauren heard herself talking, being part of the conversation, despite her growing need to protect herself by withdrawing. Jesse would have to be kept at arm's length. If she could even be around him at all. She couldn't explain it. But she felt it. He was one of those people who liked to be connected to whoever he was with. And that thought scared her more than anything.
Lauren searched her mind for a plausible escape. A good lie to get her out of this. "I have to make a call," she said. "Excuse me a minute." Before anyone could question her, she slipped off the stool and made her way toward the bathrooms.
A few minutes later she walked back to the bar. Her legs were weak. Jesse watched her. She tried to avoid looking in his eyes. "I have to go," she said. "My brother's got a house full of people. I promised my mom I'd keep an eye on him, so I have to get everyone out before my parents get home."
"I'll drive you," Carrie said.
"No," Lauren quickly replied. "Stay here and have fun. I'll catch a cab."
"I can drive you," Jesse offered. "No need for you to get a cab."
Lauren slipped her jacket on. "No, really, I'm fine. You guys enjoy the rest of the night." She briefly met Jesse's intense, questioning gaze. Guilt and sadness swept through her. She said, "Thanks for the drinks. I had fun."
Before Jesse had a chance to reply, Lauren was weaving her way out through the crowd.