Tess knew guilt. As a former Catholic schoolgirl, sometimes she felt like she had a sign on her back that read “Guilt trips work here.” What else would explain why she’d let Holly talk her into coming here tonight? When Holly had found out her boyfriend, Wade, had invited his bro Jay out for New Year’s Eve, she’d begged, “Tess, I’m going to end up being the third wheel. Please come out with us. Save me.”
Blind dates sucked, and this one wasn’t going to be any different.
Flashing strobe lights distorted the movements on the dance floor, while a pulsing beat rattled the glasses on the tall table in front of Tess and reverberated through her chest.
The Mood on New Year’s Eve. Big whoop.
Tess adjusted her position on the stool and scanned the dim interior of the club. She should have told Holly she was busy. Her imaginary cat, Arty, needed his toenails polished.
The DJ bobbed his head and shuffled back and forth, his eyes closed, consumed by the music. Of course, this might have been fun with Matt by her side. She would have liked to see his awkward dance again. The one where he swayed from foot to foot and punched his arms out in wild directions. She’d always needed to duck and cover whenever they danced together.
Matt. The one she was supposed to grow old with. That dull, empty ache gnawed at her stomach again. Good going, Tess.
She downed the last of her champagne and set the flute on the table, then turned from the dance floor to the seating behind her. Couches and plush chairs were grouped together toward the back of the club, each seating arrangement dimly lit by hanging cone-shaped lamps. A group of five women sat huddled together, deep in conversation. They whispered and chatted before twisting in their chairs to ogle someone seated along the opposite wall. Tess followed their stares to an ungodly handsome man—gorgeous in a model-meets-biker sort of way. His wavy, dark hair brushed the tops of his shoulders, framing his angular jaw and piercing eyes. A black leather jacket hugged his broad shoulders, while snug jeans emphasized his lean build.
He drained the last of his beer and set the empty on the table. His arms resting on his knees, he focused on the beer bottle as if willing it to refill, then pinched the bridge of his nose. His hand was covered by a black leather glove.
Was wearing one glove coming back into style? Man, she hoped not.
He surveyed the room, his eyes blazing with intensity. Tess could almost hear the collective sigh from the women eyeing him.
His gaze edged her way before darting past toward the door, a wistful expression on his face. He stiffened and flexed his gloved hand.
The need to escape. Tess knew the feeling. But what was stopping him? She gave a short laugh. He’d probably promised someone he’d stay until midnight, like she had.
Not that she cared. She had her own problems. Tess studied the crowd, but her attention was drawn back to him. She was such a sucker for sad, needy people.
A cute brunette waitress approached him, and he sat up. She smiled and ran her fingers through her pixie cut as she crouched beside him. He tossed back the shot she handed him and returned the empty glass.
The waitress laughed and touched his arm, her over-the-top flirting painful to watch. The biker shook his head and took the fresh beer she offered. A slight frown marred the woman’s face as she rose and left, swaying her hips. No doubt the motion usually attracted loads of attention, like the hypnotic flashing lights at a railroad crossing. He barely noticed. His stare veered away from the spectacle and toward Tess. This time their eyes met and held.
Her heart jumped, then skipped in a circle. Without thinking, she smoothed her dress. Everything seemed to be in order—no toilet paper hanging, all the important parts covered. His look captivated, mesmerized. Her skin tingled as if he’d touched her, like the brush of his fingertip along her thigh. An intoxicating thrill raced through her body, something that hadn’t happened in a very long time. She’d been so consumed with being sad and lonely, she hadn’t noticed how much she’d missed the sensation until this moment.
What would she do if Mr. Biker came over? The way she was feeling right now, she’d probably jump his bones. Pfft. She giggled. The champagne must be going to her head. Jump his bones. Like she’d ever have the nerve to go through with a one-night stand, although for the first time ever, the idea was tempting. Extremely tempting. Would a one-night stand really be so bad? What she wouldn’t give to feel alive again even if only for tonight.
The stool next to Tess squawked against the floor, and she almost leapt from her seat.
“Your drink,” Jay shouted over the noise, taking a seat next to her.
Tess inhaled a steadying breath and studied the bruise shadowing her date’s left eye—a hockey injury he’d said. Judging by his scraped knuckles, the “hockey” injury had nothing to do with actually playing the game.
He set a glass in front of her. “Sorry it took me so long. The bartender had no idea how to make a Wisconsin Old Fashioned. He had to look it up.”
“Thanks.” Tess glanced over her shoulder. The biker still stared. Who was this guy? Did he ever blink? A delicious shiver rolled down her spine. She turned to study the amber liquid in her glass. A brandy Old Fashioned sweet. Just like Grandma used to make. The old lush.
Tess tried to forget the guy beside her by taking a super-sized gulp of the Old Fashioned and swallowing hard, forcing the nasty brew down. Yuck. Too strong. Her body reacted with something between a cough and a hiccup. Fizzing soda traveled up her nose, and she grimaced against the sting. Didn’t taste as good as Gram’s. Then again, nothing tasted as good as it used to.
Plucking the cherry that bobbed on top of the ice cubes, she popped it into her mouth, snapping off the stem. The syrupy sweetness of the fruit dulled the bitter aftertaste of the drink.
“May I?” Jay asked, nodding toward her glass. Without waiting for a reply, he swilled half the glass before setting it down. “Pretty good.”
Tess glared at her grabby table-mate.
He didn’t notice as he downed a quarter of his beer, then leaned close, so close she could smell peanuts on his breath. “Then again, I’m not too picky when it comes to alcohol,” he said. “As long as it gives me a buzz, I’m happy.”
She wrinkled her nose and turned away to peek over her shoulder again. The biker was gone. The couch he’d been sitting on was now overrun by the women who’d been ogling him.
Jay’s hand brushed over her back, and she straightened, half tempted to wriggle her shoulders until she shook him off.
Instead, she faced him with a smile. “Where’d you get the nuts?”
He lifted his hand and smelled his breath, then laughed. “Could be worse.” He pointed across the room. “They had bowls of peanuts on the bar.”
Maybe she should send him on a peanut run just to get rid of him for a while. The words were practically hanging off her tongue when she noticed the packed bar. Its lines were four people deep all around. That would be kind of mean, wouldn’t it? Besides, then she’d have to eat the peanuts he brought back or be a jerk and ignore them. Well, crap.
Jay grinned, his teeth straight and glaringly white. “Dinner was great. I’ve never eaten Cuban food before.”
“Yeah, it’s one of my favorite restaurants. Matt . . .” Tess cleared her throat. “I used to—”
“Although if you ask me, Chinese is the best food on the planet. Maybe next time I’ll take you to Chow’s. They make a mean sweet and sour chicken.” His hand continued to roam over her back as if searching for something he might find more easily on her front.
She took his hand and set it on the table. There would be no next date. He most definitely wasn’t her type. “Look, Jay, you seem like a nice guy, but I’m not feeling the chemistry here.”
Annoyance flashed in his eyes, but he smiled anyway. “Fair enough.” He turned toward the bar, or more precisely, he turned toward a breathtaking woman just off to the side of the bar. He recovered quickly.
The beat changed as a new song started up. Thankfully, a little quieter. Holly and Wade stepped from the dance floor with their hands linked. Holly was her usual stunning self, although her black leather pants had to be hot as hell. Ah, the price of beauty.
Wade’s blond hair jutted in every direction, while the rest of him was polished perfection in a suave metro-casual kind of style Tess had never seen back home in rural Wisconsin.
What a beautiful couple. They belonged on a freaking runway. Sleek. Stylish. Tess grabbed her drink, took a healthy swallow, and gagged. She peered down at the teal wrap dress she’d borrowed from Holly. Somehow it didn’t look as good on her as it did on her best friend.
“Whew. You should get out there.” Holly winked and snatched up her club soda.
Tess watched the writhing bodies on the dance floor. “Maybe later.” From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the signal. A head jerk from Holly to Wade.
“Hey, man, let’s get another round,” Wade said, before guzzling his beer.
“But I just—”
“C’mon.” Wade walked away, giving Jay no chance to argue.
Jay shrugged and slipped off his stool, following Wade, with his half-full beer bottle in his hand.
“I’m sorry. You don’t look like you’re having a good time.” Holly stared at Tess as if reading her mind. “It’s Jay, isn’t it? I knew he wasn’t your type, but I was desperate.”
“No, this is great. I’m having fun.” Tess grabbed a headband from the table—one with pink fuzzy stars suspended on springs. A free New Year’s Eve goodie, courtesy of The Mood. She slipped it on and wiggled her head to get the most bobble for her buck.
Holly frowned. “Liar. You look like you’ve just eaten cat food.”
“Cat food? What the hell does that mean?”
Holly screwed up her face for an instant and somehow still radiated cool. Maybe it was her red hair, perfectly chic in a layered bob. “So, are you saying you like Jay? I knew it was a long shot, but you never can tell exactly who someone will click with.”
What could she say about Wade’s friend? “He’s nice.”
“He’s hot too.”
She glanced toward the bar where Jay stood in line, now seven deep. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Who are you, my mother? I’m sorry. Your instincts were right. I don’t feel a connection.”
“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Holly reached out and rubbed Tess’s arm. “It’s been, what, nine months? It’s okay to move on.”
The gesture seemed so Oprah, it annoyed her. “Hey, I’m here, aren’t I? I could be at home reading a good book.”
“Wearing Matt’s shirt.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. You’re getting too comfortable being alone.”
Not true. She hated being alone. “Well, I’m not too comfortable now.” Tears misted her eyes. A quick blink kept them from falling. She could be strong, at least until she reached the bathroom. “I’ll be back.”
“It’s almost midnight.”
Holly sighed. The sympathy in her eyes only made things worse. “Do you want me to go with you?”
“I think I can find the bathroom on my own.” She and Matt had been together for three years, engaged for one. Nine months wasn’t enough time to get over losing him, not for her.
Now, where the hell was the bathroom? She waded through the drunken mob. Maybe she could find a window in there. Everyone in the movies escaped through restroom windows when they wanted to make a break for it. No reason why she couldn’t too.
She picked a person at random, a man about her height, with curly brown hair. “Do you know where . . . ?”
The guy, no, the pervert, smiled what he must have thought was a sexy smile, his bloodshot eyes studying her from chest to . . . chest.
“Never mind.” She turned away and stopped cold.
The biker stood not more than ten feet away. He stared at her so intently goose bumps rose along her arms. Even at a distance, something like static electricity arced between them, a current that should have made her hair float up around her head in a perfect sphere.
His eyes bored into hers. At first glance, they appeared dark, midnight blue. As he drew closer, brushstrokes of ultramarine violet and a hint of turquoise came through. He peered into her soul, with compassion and sadness, then held out a trembling hand. A black tattoo of a dragon covered his palm. “Come.”
She shook herself and almost laughed out loud. This couldn’t be happening.
His dark-blue eyes changed to a shimmering, deep green.
Nice trick. Did they make remote control contacts? She liked the blue better, but the more she saw of the green, the more they grew on her.
He leaned in and whispered low, “Come.”
The command echoed inside her head as if it were her own thought brought to life. Her body warmed, and she had the overwhelming desire to be with him, to touch him.
She stared into his green eyes and felt that dark thrill of eating a second piece of cake, of drinking a third glass of wine, knowing somewhere deep inside she’d regret it later. Tess placed her hand on his warm palm and let him lead her away, her mind focused with absolute clarity on one thing: she had to have him. Now.