Check out this teaser from my newest small-town contemporary romance, Kiss Me. Coming March 31st!
I went into the bar looking for trouble.
That’s what I told myself later, when my head cleared and I’d gotten my clothes free of the smell of cigarette smoke. When those wee hours of the morning came and I questioned why I felt the need to go out, to capture a man’s attention, to bring him home.
To send him packing in the morning.
When I remembered the past and hated what I’d been through. Hated what I’d done. Otherwise, why go to the Tooth? It was the only bar in town and reeked of alcohol and fry oil and regret. There were peanut shells on the floor, racing posters on the wall, the quintessential pool table where people spent their weekend nights in a haze.
Why did I go?
Because I did my best hunting on a full moon. With the holidays looming, I needed a pick me up. Not the normal kind in the form of chocolate or candy or an entire pint of ice cream. Nah, I liked mine tall, dark, handsome man, never mind the cliché.
That was me.
Nell Quade. The perpetual prowler.
November came before I was ready and I didn’t feel equipped to handle Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the holiday traffic. Most of the out-of-towners rolled into my neck of the woods in autumn, when the trees began to turn and flood the mountains with a riotous display of colors. Visitors flocked to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for a taste of country air and small-town living.
They found Heartwood County’s single stoplight charming.
My shift ended at the hospital and I put on my skinniest jeans and my tightest fitting sweater. A layer of tinted lip gloss went on while I preened in the mirror at brown eyes, a peaches-and-cream mask. At slashing cheekbones, a full pink mouth. The hair wasn’t perfect but I’d live with it as long as the rest held up.
The Tooth was busy on a normal day. Not only for the drinkers and pool players, but for the old couples needing time away from their own kitchen tables. Say what you will; the place had a dreadful smell and a delicious burger.
I crunched over discarded peanut shells and wiggled my fingers at the bartender, squinting through the surroundings at the guy who looked like he’d been on a swim team since birth.
The bar was a dive by a landslide. Trails of smoke danced in the air and the walls were grimy to the point where no one touched them. I sent a glare across the way to the random chick plopped down in my seat, sending her scrambling. Oh god, I had a seat in the damn place now? I had to get out more, and not to the Tooth.
“Nell.” Fenton greeted me the moment I sat. “I got your drinks the way you like ‘em.”
“You sure know how to please a girl.” I grabbed the first and slugged it down. Whisky scorched a trail down my throat and settled warmly in my gut. The second fell by way of the first until I was faced with a duo of empty glasses.
“Damn, I’ve never seen a woman take a hit like you.”
“Try to go easy before you break yourself,” he said.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“You’re too small for frenzied drinking.”
I pointed at him before turning to my reflection in the mirrored backsplash. “It’s called petite, and I’m going to take it as a compliment. After the day I had, I’m prepared to hoard every kind word I get.”
“Had another patient remove their IV by themselves?”
“No, think bedpans. I don’t want to get into the details, but I need something to get the stench out of my nose.”
There were good days and bad days in nursing, the same as any other profession. The good days were when you had patients willing to give you the details of their ailments without prompting. A bad day involved blood, guts, and other bodily waste.
Fenton leaned against the shelves and shook a row of beer bottles with his weight. “Girl. How can you work a sixteen-hour day and still have the energy to come to the bar?”
“Maybe I wanted to see you. Or maybe I can’t stand my own company.”
I slugged back the second round he set before me.
“The pickings are slim tonight.” He spared a look around at the crowd.
“Maybe I’ll have good luck.”
Fenton was quiet, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say next.
I didn’t want to think about the reality of his statement. It meant I spent way too much time trying to flirt. I say try because I wasn’t always successful. Fenton knew my proclivities better than most. He and I went back years, to an evening when I’d had another terrible, horrible day. We’d ended up snuggling for half the night before I came to my senses.
He was decent looking, an average Joe with a wide grin and dirty-blond hair. We remained friends for his mean Mojitos and unparalleled ability to tolerate my bullshit.
“I’ll sit and see if things change,” I said. “It sure beats a TV dinner and reruns.”
Contrary to what my coworkers believed, I was not a slut. I didn’t open my legs to everyone, and despite prowling, I’d slept with less men than I could count on one and a half hands. I enjoyed sex, and saw myself as a sexual creature with a normal, healthy appetite. My best friend called it being passionate. I considered it a form of self-expression, creativity, a way to outrun my past.
Fenton opened his mouth to comment before a whistle distracted him. Attention fragmented, he held up a finger telling me to pause while he went off to help the other bar patrons.
There I was, left to my own devices.
The person I saw in the mirror almost appeared out of place. Whenever I saw my reflection I pictured the professional side, the one who looked more at home wearing hospital scrubs in a slimy shade of green.
Now a woman with chestnut hair stared at me, one with minimum makeup and a megawatt smile. Dark oversized eyes, body slender and slim, shoulders curled up on themselves, a baby bear yanked sharply from its den.
I saw glimpses of the old spitfire. Enough to have me straightening my shoulders before turning to peruse the crowd.
Tonight Fenton was right. I saw the same farmers coming in from their rigorous rounds, the same swindlers with their pool cues, and the random assortment of couples out for late night bonding. Alas, there was no one to pique my interest
Fenton swaggered back to me and grabbed the whiskey bottle on the way. “The way you’re staring, I think you could use another one of these,” he commented.
Both hands gestured for him to ‘bring it.’ “Liquor me up, friend. I’m in the mood to forget.”
“You’re in a bad position.” He spared me a wink. “I know your type.”
I scoffed. Yeah, he knew my type pretty well, considering I’d almost had him between my sheets.
“You were never my type, Fenton,” I replied, drawing an air circle around his face. The first of the new round of shots slid toward me and I took one, downing it with zest. “Receding hairlines don’t do it for me anymore.”
He touched his forehead and sent me a nasty glare. “My hairline isn’t receding.”
I hissed when the whiskey burned a trail of acid down my throat. If this didn’t give me a much-needed pick me up, I wasn’t sure what would. “Whatever you have to tell yourself to sleep at night.”
“You’re a peach, Nell. A peach.” He dipped his head, moving away when I ended our banter.
The third finger of whiskey was heady and smooth. This time I crossed my legs and sipped instead of slurped. Thanksgiving was only four days away, practically right around the corner, which meant I’d be stuck with no privacy and no opportunities to run away when I felt like committing matricide.
My flamboyant brother Nolan would be arriving home from college tomorrow after almost a year, with his roommate in tow. I say flamboyant in a nice way given the direction his sexual preferences swung. Nothing pleased me more than the prospect of seeing him. We’d always been friends, confidants, unlike other members of my tidy nuclear unit.
I’d promised him on the phone that I’d be good. No tantrums. No outbursts. No stupid mind games with mother.
But I needed a little fun before the festivities. Dealing with family was a harrowing experience. Especially Mom. Her name sent a shiver of dread down my spine.
Thessaly Quade. There was a reason we lived in the same town and only saw each other on holidays.
Ugh, I didn’t want to think about her tonight.
I’d wanted to clear my head. Sweep away the cobwebs lurking on the edges. Alcohol and a fine pair of biceps, that’s what I needed. I never wanted to be one of those people who ran from their problems. I preferred to think I stood one step ahead of the masses.
During next ten minutes my desires and needs played cat and mouse, mind willing but body exhausted. Then he walked into the bar.
I wasn’t one for romance. True love was a product of a chemical reaction the weak willed spent their lives searching for. Serotonin and dopamine, oh my. I’d come to the realization after Peter, when I wasted years losing myself to the nonsense and the hype. I would never lose myself again. Period. Give me a good old fashioned nap over any day of the week and I was content.
The man heading into the bar had my nerves shooting to attention with a ‘meow.’ The quick slap of lust tied knots in my belly, the kind reserved for lovers and few others. At once I was prepared to do anything he wanted. Everything he wanted.
Wherever he wanted.
I sat taller on the stool and leaned to the side while I sipped my whiskey. There was a certain angle to his strides, an energy rolling off the wide shoulders that demanded he be seen. A natural, unhindered cockiness.
Tall and lanky, the guy was out of place at the Tooth. Where the official slogan of the ‘the drinks have bite’ was a lie. Tonight, I was the only thing in this place with a bite.
The glint of his silver earring caught my eye and I knew my prowl would not go to waste. He looked lost, standing stoic, before shuffling over with hands deep in his pocket. Peering at him from the corner of my eye, I feigned nonchalance as he strove to capture Fenton’s attention.
Stranger wore a brown bomber jacket over a stretchy V-neck shirt and low cut skinny jeans. Too hip for my tastes but the rest of him made up for it. He wore his hair in a short style with longer spiked pieces in the front. A hint of muscle played beneath the jacket stretched across solid shoulders.
And the face. I’d never been one for a longer nose but on him it worked. The hawkish feature complimented his striking cheekbones and hazel eyes darting back and forth across the space. Strong bones and plump lips relaxed in an effortless smile. The dark hair could have used a cut. Add to it a long, lanky body and artist’s fingers, and he was a package.
Seeing him did not set me up for a strike. The timing was essential: fast, effective, and apt.
A Christmas present come early after expecting coal. Watching him try to order a drink was delightful. This was not his scene, obviously, and his feeble attempts to fit in were better than a pick-up line for me. Compelling.
About as out of place as an ostrich playing a banjo.
The last of the liquor drained down my throat and I slapped the glass down on the scarred bar top. With a growl to motivate me, I slung my hair back, crossing the space and sidling up beside the stranger.
Fenton, bless him, understood the rules. The instant he caught my movement from the corner of his eye, he waited for the signal. I held up my index and middle fingers.
“Two beers, please.” I glanced up and up at the stranger. “Care to join me?”
He turned those delectable green and brown eyes in my direction. My introduction had the intended effect. I watched him shift to face me fully. “I’ll take one if you’re offering. How did you get his attention? I’ve been wanting to order and the more I tried, the harder I was ignored.”
I winked, cheered by the possibilities. “Everyone in this town knows each other and Fenton is a friend of mine.” I thrust out my hand. “Nell.”
He rubbed his hand on his pants once before grasping the offered appendage, the force of the gesture had me quivering. He was slim with legs up to his elbows, the length of them only accentuated by the careless cut of his jeans. Accompanied by the rough baritone nearly out of place on a man with his body type, I was ready to shrug off my jacket and give him directions to my apartment.
I was in a bad way. What would my mom think about me? No, scratch that. She’d be thrilled.
How long had it been since my last sexual encounter? A month? Two?
“How about you let me buy these drinks?” I offered. “Consider it a welcome offering. I haven’t seen you around here before and it’s a small town. We all know each other. You stand out in the crowd.”
Kai chuckled low in his throat. “Damn, I must stand out. You can tell I’m from out of town.” It was a statement instead of a question and I appreciated the hum of his voice.
“I can. You still have the yuppy vibe all over you.”
“A week here and it will be gone.” I looked him up and down. “I like it, though. You’re different from the rest of them.”
“You like the yuppy vibe?” He was skeptical and took hold of his lapels. “Is it the jacket? Probably the earring. The Mohawk throws people off from time to time.”
“The whole look gives you away.”
“Trust me, it’s not a bad thing.”
I swiveled around with my back to the bar, mimicking Kai’s body posture. We stood next to each other surveying the crowd. I wrapped my hand around the cold neck of the beer and took a healthy swig.
“And here I was trying to fit in.”
“I thought the flannel would be a good idea. Guess I failed.”
“I’m glad you failed. After all, you wouldn’t want to look like Ma and Pa Mabel.”
I used my chin to gesture toward an elderly couple gathered in their outerwear. They slapped a measly dollar tip down on the table, a reward for timely drink refills and hot appetizers, and pushed out the door with a whisper of winter cold slipping in behind them.
“Or the duo at the pool table,” Kai quipped.
I followed his gaze to the men, a single molar between them, fighting over whether the other was cheating at pool. Both of them had been into the hospital to see me, one for stitches and the other for an ear infection.
“Rusty and Uriel are definitely lacking in fashion sense.” I nodded in one quick, decisive move. “Every time I see them, they’re wearing the same outfits and rehashing the same stories. Tell me, Kai, what brought you to the Tooth?”
Our eyes locked and my lady business came alive with a fiery zip of energy shot. Ooh boy.
“I came to Heartwood with a friend. Since I don’t have anywhere else to be for Thanksgiving. I accepted the invitation.” Kai shrugged. “It’s not a bad place from what I’ve seen. I got in earlier today and booked a room at Hotel Heartwood for the night.”
He was here with someone? I crossed my fingers it wasn’t another woman, although friend worked both ways. “And where are you from?”
“Portland.” Kai drained half his beer before continuing. “There are countless tourists all the time. You’d think the rain would keep them away but they come for the scenery and coffee. We do have damn good restaurants if you can manage to get inside the door. I think they come for the donuts.”
“I bet. Mississippi is the farthest I’ve traveled west.”
“It’s a different way of life. There are things I’ll never understand about the east coast. I’ve been here for about six years and it seems like I always have to play catch up.” Kai shook his head, nursing the rest of his drink with tiny sips, the liquid diminishing.
My exhaustion was gone. I gave it a fleeting thought when our eyes met, the bad day I’d had dissipating. Funny, how a good guy could help chase away all the negativity. Sure, I had a routine. I would go out, find a date, take him home and see where we went from there. I didn’t do relationships, having too often been burned.
I chased him from my mind and focused on Kai. “Having never been to Portland or anywhere near, I can only go on what I’ve heard. And I’ve been told it rains nonstop,” I said. “You’re right.”
“It’s wet, for sure, but I like it that way.”
I loved the way his lips formed the vowels, and grabbed onto his terminology.
“Some do like it…wetter.”
I let the word hang in the air between us and smoothly changed the subject. My tongue trailed along the mouth of the beer bottle before I asked, “What do you do for a living, Kai?”
His grin started small, widening until it dominated the lower half of his face. Nothing open or necessarily cheerful about it, but disarming. A quirk accompanied by narrowed eye and an unvoiced agreement. He knew what I’d meant.
“Computer programming,” he drawled. “It’s something I can do where I don’t have to go out and face the public. I design software, write and maintain source code, and work with a number of clients developing programs and prototypes.”
“Wow. You must keep pretty busy.”
“I do. Although right now I’m back in school taking classes.”
A red warning light flashed in my head and I knew I’d have to bring up the question of age. Damn, I knew he was too good to be true. But there was no sense in continuing our dance if he was underage. I rested a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t have anything against jail bait, Kai, but how old are you?”
Back again was the shit-eating grin so fitting for his features. “Worried, Nell?”