First Chapter: Ash to Steele by Karen-Anne Stewart
Title: Ash to Steele
Author: Karen-Anne Stewart
Publisher: Karen-Anne Stewart
Genre: New Adult Romance
Purchase at AMAZON
Who I am and all I believe is marred with just one glance into angry, steel blue eyes. He seems to control my air, my ability to breathe. He makes me crave everything I know is a sin. Pure becomes tainted and lines are blurred. It’s my fault; I’m the one who isn’t strong enough. I’ve been damaged…broken. Breck’s words haunt me…’There’s a consequence for every choice you make.’
I’ve had so many women I can’t even remember over half of their names, but none of them are mine; I make damn sure of that. I take what I desire and never look back. I don’t need or want anyone, ever…not until I met Emma. Those eyes bore into what’s left of my soul and her touch sears me, weakens me. I want to hate her for that. She is my ruin…my sweetest hell.
“I don’t understand why you have to leave?” The raw emotion in Dad’s voice cuts through me, feeding my already choking guilt.
Taking a deep breath, I blink the tears away, forcing myself to turn towards my father, “We’ve talked about this.”
He clears his throat, swallowing hard as he shifts my bag from one hand to the other. “It’s cold there in the winter.”
I suppress a chuckle at his practical tactic to get me to stay, “I know, Dad.”
One quick nod is his response. He’s usually my rock, has been since mom died when I was eleven. Dad has always been so strong, but now that strength has been broken…by me.
“You know you freeze in the winter.”
“I packed a heavy coat.”
“Justin loves you, Em. I’m not saying to marry the boy right away, just stay. Give him a chance. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he has a great job; he’d provide you with a good life, honey.”
Dad’s words ring in my ears, doing nothing to ease my guilt. Letting out a soft sigh, I gaze out at the cornfield, watching the tops of the stalks blowing gently in the summer night breeze. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss Dad. God, I’m going to miss Dad.
“I know I would have a good life here, but I want more than you do.” Turning back around, I give him a pleading look, “I like Justin, but I’m not in love with him. I don’t want to settle. I want to fall head over heels in love.”
“That’s only an expression, Em. Just words.”
“I don’t believe that. Neither do you. I want what you and mom had.”
The sad look in his eyes renders my resolve not to cry pathetically useless. The back of my throat burns as tears escape, warming my cheeks and tickling my chin as they roll down my face.
“And you don’t think you can find that here?” His own tears well before he has time to blink them away, and my heart bleeds.
I look into his eyes, searching his, begging him to understand, “I can’t stay. I need more. I need passion!”
Dad shakes his head, giving me that smile he always gives me when he thinks that I’m clueless.
Rolling my eyes, I manage to cause him at least a miniscule smile.
“Hon, what do you know about passion?”
“Nothing, Dad, that’s the whole point,” I whisper.
Pulling me into his strong arms, I sink into his embrace, into his shelter, inhaling his unique scent of hay, leather, and Old Spice. Another lump forms in my throat when I think of how much I’m going to miss that, too.
“My daughter wants passion,” he chuckles. “Heaven help me, what would the congregation say?”
Loving my father immensely right know, I laugh, realizing that he just granted me his blessing, “I didn’t say that kind of passion, Dad.”
“Alright, Em, you go out into the world looking for what you think you need. I pray you find what you’re looking for, honey.” Sorrow dims his eyes, weakening my resolve.
“I will,” I tell him more forcefully than intended.
Unbearable silence fills the air. Dad cocks his head, giving me a chuck under my chin, “You are just like your mother, so stubborn, so independent.”
The words are meant as encouragement, his way of telling me it’s okay; he understands. I never knew guilt could cause physical pain until this moment.
Hoisting my duffle bag over his shoulder, he starts towards his old sedan, which is now mine, and slowly tosses the bag inside. His shoulders rise with deep breaths as he holds onto the doorframe. “I want you to know that, sometimes, what you think you want ends up biting you in the butt, Em. People have left since the beginning of time, spending their whole life moving from place to place looking for something they could’ve found in their own backyard. You always have a home here, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, Dad, I know,” I assure him, pushing back the tears and trying to suck it up as I throw my purse in the front seat before turning back to my father. “Like you always told me, I have to find out for myself. I love you, Dad.”
“You’re not supposed to use my own words against me.” He gives me a soft smile, the light in his eyes dimming further.
I watch as he stands there, looking at me, his headstrong twenty-two year old daughter getting ready to move to Boston, which might as well be across the world according to Dad, and the ache in my heart is profound. When his hazel eyes mist, I can’t take it any longer and I throw myself into his arms, giving him one last long hug before wiping my own eyes and slipping into my beat-up maroon sedan and drive away.
The katydids sing loudly as dust rises on the way down the long dirt road, serenading my good-bye and sending a shot of nostalgia punching me hard in the gut. Memories cling to me as I pass the pond I learned to swim in when I was five years old, the old willow tree my mother took me for picnics, and the large barn where Nick pushed me against the wall in the back when I was nine and gave me my first kiss; that memory makes me smile through my tears.
The summer breeze blows through the rolled down windows, causing my long chestnut hair to billow freely in the wind, and some of the guilt and sadness eases, replaced with a tingling anticipation. A part of me still wants to slam on the brakes and run back home, but most of me wants to leave, needs to leave, this small town that slowly suffocated me through high school. The thought of staying, always wondering ‘what if’ nearly chokes the life out of me, so I push harder on the gas pedal, sending more dust flying through the air as the tires roll over the gravel and dirt until I’m on the two lane, on my way to a life that doesn’t know me as simply Emma Michelle Jones, John Jones’ daughter, Justin’s girlfriend. No, I won’t be that girl, not anymore. I get to be whoever I want; now, I just have to figure out exactly who that is.
Don’t look back, Emma, don’t you dare look back, I demand, refusing to even glance in the rearview mirror. This town gave me a good life. I was protected, sheltered, loved. That security is just as deceptive as it is comforting. If I allowed myself, I would follow the path most do and never move further than fifty miles from where I was raised; that’s the thing about small towns, we take care of our own, and we do a good job at it; there’s no need to leave. I guess I’m different. I don’t have that peace letting me know I’m where I’m supposed to be.
Despite my best attempt not to, I glance towards my old high school where I spent all four years being Justin’s girl, his shadow. All of the girls were jealous; they wanted to be me while I wanted to be anywhere else. I was hated, adored, revered, and secretly torn down, being the girlfriend of the star quarterback who was the hottest boy in school. I wasn’t the most popular, but I wasn’t the least popular either; I was just there. I was the shy girl. The invisible girl. That changed when I started dating Justin.
Images of Justin attack me and I desperately try to push them away. I know he doesn’t deserve my leaving this way, deserting him when he always treated me like I was the most special person in the world. I don’t know of any other guy who would stay with a girl through high school, then college, when she didn’t have sex with him. That painful guilt slams into me again as I think of how he would ask but never pressure me, and how he would just pull me into his strong, reassuring arms when I would slowly shake my head and tell him I was sorry. His words sting as they race through my mind…It’s alright, Em, you’re worth waiting for. He waited all those years for nothing.
The tears pour as I’m assaulted by the look in his eyes last night. He was so broken, so blindsided, when I told him I was leaving. Anger surges through the guilt. How could he not know? How could he not realize what I was feeling if he really knew me that well? I told him so many times that I needed to experience more, but he talked me out of going away to college, and I let him.
The twenty-one mile commute to Furman every day further suffocated me. I loved the university, and I felt alive while I was there; I could taste the freedom. But that sweet taste was stripped away every day as I climbed back into my car and headed back towards home. I know I should be grateful for what I have, for all Dad has done for me, and I am, but I need more…so much more. I guess that’s selfish, but should it be? That’s the question that has plagued me since making the decision to finally break the shackles and run like hell. Selfish or not, it’s what I have to do. I dry my tears, throw my hair into a ponytail, and laugh as I crank up the radio when I hear Tim and Taylor crooning “Highway Don’t Care.” Fitting. Refusing to take the song as any kind of divine sign, I speed down the highway to finally find who I know I’m supposed to be.
Three months later.
Fast, pulsating, endorphin inducing music blares, even through the closed door, as I round the corner. The line of people is longer than I imagined; it wraps completely around the opposite side of the building. I hesitate. Nerves, excitement, and a twinge of desperation seep through my body. Shivering, I blame it on the crisp November night air instead of the fact that this is my first night out to a bar since leaving Pickens…leaving Justin.
“The line’s over there. Go or get out of the way.” The voice of a stunning blonde with perfectly straight hair and flashy manicured nails snaps me back to the moment.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
Giving a smug smirk, the look in her eyes tells me she couldn’t care less if I’m sorry or not; she just wants to get her coveted spot in line before the bar reaches its capacity and the unlucky ones are sent home after hours of fruitless waiting.
“Go ahead,” I offer, stepping out of the way, wondering if I will be mobbed by an angry crowd when I walk straight to the front of the line. The girl gives me a haughty glance filled with distaste as she walks by me, being sure to rudely brush against my arm on the way.
Taking a deep breath, I steady my nerves and make my way to the large bouncer whose eyes roam over me, filled with anything but distaste. Self-consciously, I tug on my dress, well, Jess’ dress, and berate myself for letting her talk me into wearing the sapphire blue one-shouldered mini contraption. The clingy material that I bravely thought I could pull off after Jess’ pushy encouragement now squeezes me too tightly and I pull at the hem, thankful for the sweater I threw on in a moment of self-insecurity.
The bouncer glances at the crowd then back at me, “Are you trying to get your fine ass kicked into a bloody mess?”
His British accent is sophisticated, matching his sleek clothing, but there’s an air of danger, and something I can’t place, lurking in his dark eyes. His black hair is cut short on the sides, but longer on top, and slicked back into a cultivated style that suits his large, muscular frame. I feel like a kindergartener standing in front of the principal after cutting in the lunch room line, except I can smell the threat of blood in the air with this crowd instead of the threat of silly names being thrown by five-year-olds. Shifting nervously from one foot to the other, I wish I didn’t have on these ridiculous knee high four-inch heeled boots that Jess threatened to maim me if I didn’t wear.
The man stares at me with humor as my words tumble out, “I’m Emma, Jess’ friend. She told me to just come straight to you, but I can go to the back of the line if I need to. I mean, I don’t want to be unfair or -”
“You’re Emma? Jess told me to let you in.” He gives me a quick wink, mercifully saving me from my rambling. “You better get inside before you hear all the ugly words that are getting ready to be thrown my way.”
I give him an apologetic smile, and he lets out a hearty laugh. “Jess told me you aren’t from around here. Go on inside, sweetheart; the bar is in the back.”
My words seem to elicit another laugh from him as he steps to the side and nods his head for me to enter before grabbing my arm as I start to pass. “If anyone gives you a hard time just mention my name and they’ll leave you alone. I’m Gavin, and nobody wants to fuck with me.” Amusement lights his dark brown eyes as he winks at me again, “At least not in a fight.”
From the looks of him, and the power in his grip while he’s effortlessly holding me in place, I imagine he’s right. “Thanks, Gavin. I’ll remember that.”
Gavin pushes open the heavy metal door and I step inside, immediately regretting my decision as the door slams closed. Flashing strobe lights blind me. The noise is deafening as my eyes finally adjust to the dim lighting mixed with colorful flashes streaking vivaciously through the large room. It’s impossible to walk through the bar without touching someone with every step. Parts of people’s bodies touch various parts of mine, making me feel uneasy, as I try to maneuver through the rowdy crowd. I’m about to give up and leave when I see Jess standing at the end of a hallway yelling at someone inside a room I can’t see. Quickly, I push through the crowd, giving up saying ‘excuse me’ after about the tenth time; it doesn’t do a bit of good anyway. I can’t help but laugh when I’m almost to Jess and hear her severely scolding the unseen person.
“You know where the mop is. I suggest you grab it and clean up your mess before I kick your ass.” Jess points inside, “And don’t forget to take out your trash!”
She smiles at a response I can’t hear and shakes her head, her long blonde hair bouncing as she walks, the jet black tips at the bottom of her natural blonde locks starkly standing out against her snug white short-sleeve shirt. Jess looks great in anything; she’s model-type beautiful from the second she wakes up until the time she goes to bed. It’s annoyingly unfair, but I love her. She may look like a princess, but she’s as fierce as a cornered tiger, and just as lethal if she doesn’t like you; luckily, she loves me, too.
“Insatiable bastard,” Jess’ lips curve into a knowing smile with her words, and I slip my arm through hers, thankful to be close to someone I know.
“What’s going on?” I ask, confused and curious by my recent best friend’s reaction to whatever just happened.
“Oh, just Breck slummin’ in the supply room. He knows better than to bang his whores in my place.”
Her strong words are in discordance with her soft voice, and I glance over my shoulder to see a pretty brunette walk out of the room, smoothing her dress before flashing her sated smile and leaning in close to a tall, broad shouldered man who steps out next to her. She whispers something in his ear, and he takes a casual step backwards. My eyes seem to disconnect from my mind as they slowly drink in long legs covered in a dark material that I don’t recognize but can tell is expensive and looks amazing on the fine masculine specimen sporting them. Where the hell did that thought come from?
I vaguely feel my feet moving forward as I continue to glance over my shoulder at a lean waist in a thin gray dress shirt that shows just enough to prove he has toned muscles beneath. My breath hitches when the man turns around. Dusty brown hair is tussled into sexy, disheveled perfection. Strong, masculine features frame his tan face; a firm jaw is speckled with dark stubble that makes him look recklessly handsome instead of in need of a shave. Something about his presence is imposing, demanding my attention. His eyes scan the room before he slowly blinks, then lands his gaze on mine. The need to turn away hits me, but I can’t. I’m frozen. Paralyzed. My pulse quickens and I can’t breathe when he walks towards us. Jess pulls on my arm when my body stops. I want to follow, but my entire body is rioting against my brain at the moment. Move!
Finally, my treacherous dexterity finds reason and I turn away, but not before witnessing the most captivating steel blue eyes bore straight through me. This strange tingling sensation takes over, sending an electric current sizzling through my body, causing me to feel shockingly energized.
“C’mon, Emma, there’s going to be another fight if I don’t get to the bar and provide these heathens with their liquid tolerance, and I don’t feel like patching Jason up after another brawl tonight.”
Shaking my head to clear the buzzing that is turning my brain into mush, I blindly follow Jess until we reach the bar. The seat is welcoming as I sink into it, trying not to think of what just happened.
Jess puts a glass of water in front of me before giving me a quizzical look, “You alright?”
Distractedly, I take a sip. “Yeah,” I respond, not exactly sure I’m telling her the truth. Before I have the chance to question my integrity any further, I feel him behind me. I’m fully aware that I don’t know how I know it’s him; I just do, then he touches my arm.
“That’s Jess’ dress, but you are definitely not her.”
His voice is better than I imagined, powerful, sure, smooth, and so flippin’ sexy, as it does terrifyingly enticing things to me. Despite my best intention not to, I blush.
Plopping down next to me, he orders a beer before glancing my way, giving the dress another look, “It doesn’t suit you.”
I spin towards him. Bad choice. His mouth is flush to my face, and I’m struck motionless again as I watch how the smooth skin of his neck moves when he swallows. His lips curve when I try to rip my gaze away from them. His scent, that’s what does me in; it’s an intoxicating mixture of a clean summer breeze, a hauntingly elusive spice, and pure masculinity. The thought of burying my nose between the soft spot of his neck and his chiseled chest and inhaling until I can place that decadent aroma alarms me. I’ve never reacted to any man like this; I’m not liking it at all! Well, maybe just a little. His earlier words reclaim my sanity and I scowl, “You were not in my thoughts when I put it on, so your comment, which was rather rude, by the way, means nothing to me.”
The way he tilts his head back slightly when he laughs affects me more than I want. “That’s only because you hadn’t met me yet.” His voice is cocky, pissing me off.
Rolling my eyes, I give him my best disinterested glance. The eyes staring back at me are the most amazing I’ve ever seen, so bright, but distant, guarded. Their exact color alludes me. They search me, so I search back. My gaze penetrates his, matching his intensity, and I see a flash of admiration before his gaze turns harsh. Inhaling sharply at the sudden anger in them, my gaze falls.
“I have no desire to meet you,” I snap, fairly sure I’m not lying. Cringing at how my voice is a little shaky from the strength behind what I saw, I’m pissed off even more.
No response is given, providing me with a shot of relief as I take a long, slow breath. Assuming he took the hint and left, I hope that he did and didn’t at the same time, but I refuse to look.
Jess steps in front of me, a worried expression on her face as she glances at me, then next to me, and I get a sinking feeling, realizing he’s still there.
“I think I hurt your friend’s feelings, Jess,” he scoffs.
A heavy, strong warmth seeps into my lower back. His touch mesmerizes and infuriates me. Spinning in my chair, I break the connection. The anger is gone when I force myself to look at him again, and he smiles, his eyes crinkling at the sides with the genuine action.
“I wasn’t suggesting that you don’t look good in her dress. You do. Amazing, actually.” The steel blue darkens, turning carnal.
I feel breathless, slightly lightheaded, imagining what he’s thinking.
“You just look lost. Fake. Like you’re pretending.”
Apparently his thoughts are nowhere close to mine. I want to yell at him, but his words weren’t accusatory, just matter of fact. He’s right, and that causes me to really want him to go away now.
“Leave her alone, Breck.” Jess shoots him a scathing glare, making me want to hug her.
Ignoring Jess, he flashes a titillating smile, not attempting to hide his intentions. “What’s your name?”
I’m seriously tempted to give him the finger, but my southern upbringing wins. “Emma.”
His anger returns, appearing stronger than before, spilling into his words after he takes a long swig of his beer before glaring at me, “The preacher’s daughter?”
Stiffly nodding, I’m at a loss of saying or doing anything else.
Just as quickly as it came, the anger vanishes and he leans close to me. His breath is soft, mesmerizing, as it warms my lips, “You don’t like me?”
I shake my head in confirmation.
“That’s a wise decision.”
His lips are so close to mine, if I hiccupped, our mouths would collide. I swallow hard when his fingers find a strand of my hair and he slowly wraps the chestnut lock around them. “But, you want me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Leave her the hell alone, Breck!” Jess yells, the warning evident in her voice.
It’s obvious something’s happening that I don’t understand, more going on than just what’s being said, but I don’t seem to have privileged knowledge.
Sliding my hair through his fingers, his eyes never leave mine. I see the soft rise and fall of his chest as his breath continues to warm my lips, “I will be inside of you, Emma, doing all sorts of forbidden things that you have never even heard of, and you will be the one begging me to….you just don’t know it yet.”
The shock of his words slam into me. I open my mouth to shoot back an angry rebuttal, to quench his arrogant attitude, but no words come out. Slapping his hand away, my hair falls back against my shoulder.
A soft chuckle tumbles from his mouth as he leans closer, brushing his lips against my ear, sending shivers spiraling through me. His touch burns as his fingers skim down my arm, then, the warmth is gone, leaving me cold, rattled.
My cheeks flame, and I stare, trembling, with my mouth gaped open, before I have sense enough to snap it shut. As I try to come up with something to say to get him to leave, he slowly steps backwards, giving me one last look of undiluted anger before walking away.
My breathing is erratic as I again try to process what just happened, but, within seconds, his attention is focused on a beautiful redhead who stops him, giggling when she leans in too close and her breasts rub against his arm. Disgust joins my conflicting emotions. His arrogance and sheer inappropriateness makes me furious, but it’s the small stab of jealousy that makes me want to smack myself.
“Just ignore him. He can be such an asshole,” Jess encourages, her eyes searching me cautiously.
Relief that he’s gone comforts and refreshes me with the knowledge that I am still sane, despite my momentary lapse. The unwelcome new sensations overtaking my body aren’t so quick to reassure me.
Jess takes my water, giving me a disapproving look. “Now, that’s enough of that bland shit. You need something stronger.”
Handing me one of her mystery drinks, I take a small sip first, having learned my lesson about her creations the day I met her, which was a mere two days after I moved to Boston. I’m her taste tester. She believes that my virgin palette, as she calls it, provides better judgment; she seems to pay no attention that my palette is no longer a virgin. All of her ‘experiments’ are delicious, but this fruity concoction is one of the best I’ve tasted. I still sip slowly, knowing she’s heavier on the alcohol than the flavor.
As I take my next sip, Jess nudges me and nods at the man I’m leaning heavily towards disliking at the moment, “He’s really not so bad, once you get to know him.”
“You just called him a butt.”
Smirking at my watered down version of her terminology, she laughs, “No. I said that he can be an asshole. Don’t let him fool you, he’s the one acting.” She nudges me again, giving a sympathetic smile.
“Like I said before, I have no desire to get to know him. Besides, looks like too many have already known him.” I loathe myself for stealing another glance his way, my jaw dropping slightly when the redhead slides her hand down his chest, to his waist, before graciously stepping in front of him as her hand goes even lower. I want to look away, but the fiery expression in Breck’s eyes seizes me, holding me prisoner, and now I know that I dislike him.
The heat of his penetrating gaze flames my cheeks as he looks over the wanton woman’s shoulder, staring straight at me while he grabs her hand, slowly moving it away from coveted territory.
“If you want to go with me, then there will be no exchanging of numbers, no second trysts, and no looking each other up,” he tells her nonchalantly.
I watch in complete astonishment as he flashes her a cocky, panty-dropping smile while his eyes remain locked on mine.
“If you want a great night, one that I promise you will remember for a long, long time, then those are the rules. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.” His voice is cold, detached, but, somehow, the room is suddenly too warm.
“Your place or mine?” the debased redhead replies quickly.
“Huh uh, neutral setting, and you follow me.” His words sicken me, but it’s his eyes that burn me like the second circle of hell.
“I’m ready when you are.” With a flick of her hair over her perfectly tanned shoulder, his new conquest is overly eager.
“And there goes another one,” Jason, Jess’ boyfriend and co-owner of the Dark Hole, states, shaking his head in a mixture of awe, amusement, and jealousy. “How does he get them to do that?”
Jess leans her elbows on the counter, a reminiscent smile on her lips, “It’s all about the confidence, and Breck’s drenched in it.”
My attention quickly reverts to Jess.
Giving a wink, she places her finger over her lips, nodding her head towards Jason.
Before I have a chance to pull her aside for interrogation, a finger taps my shoulder.
“Do you want to dance?” A brown-haired, green-eyed hunk who appears to be fresh out of college flashes a flirtatious smile, causing me to blush again.
“Go!” Jess pushes, flashing a wide grin and raising her eyebrow appreciatively at the hot stranger next to me.
Too many emotions are rioting inside of me, making me unsure of doing anything other than being a permanent fixture on my current seat at the bar for the remainder of the night.
Holding up her indigo tipped finger, she hoists herself on the bar top and slides across. “Give me a sec with my girl here,” she coos to the man still holding his hand out for me to take.
“Um, sure, okay,” he responds, recoiling his hand while his eyes roam over the rarely exposed peek of flesh at the top of my chest before quickly relocating to the tight jean covered backside of Jess, proving that men are so infuriatingly predictable.
“Honey,” Jess grabs my shoulders, giving me her best exasperated glare when she plunks down in front of me, “you have turned down a number of chances to hook up since I’ve met you. This guy is a tasty morsel of decadence! If you turn him down, I’m going to hurt you.”
“I don’t want to hook up with anyone, Jess,” I pout.
“Fine, don’t hook up then; just dance. Have fun. Forget about Justin for one night. I swear, for someone you didn’t love, you sure pine over the boy like you did.” Her hazel eyes lock on mine, not giving me any room to opt out.
“I don’t pine over him, Jess!” I reply a little too defensively, “I just feel bad.” I do. It’s crazy and I know it, but I still feel like I’m cheating if I go out on a date.
“If you dance with this one, I’ll stop calling you a nun,” she proposes in her sing-song voice, flashing a wide smile and cocking her eyebrow.
Dashing her finger quickly back and forth across her chest, she holds it up and kisses it, “On my honor.”
“Deal,” I laugh, relieved to leave that nickname behind.
She grabs my hands and does a little happy jump, causing every man within visual distance to be ecstatic from the exuberant dance making her breasts bounce provocatively in their snug covering. “Fantastic! Now, get out there and shake that cute ass until you can’t dance anymore.”
The grin on the expectant man matches Jess’, and I inwardly groan. Giving a polite smile, I take his hand, “I’m Emma.”
“He’s hot and he’s French!” Jess squeals, wiggling her brows as she shoves me towards him.
Anton wraps his hand around my waist, sliding it to my lower back and pulling me towards him, already staking claim.
Jess licks her lips, giving a salacious wink.
Behave, I mouth to her as I’m led to the middle of the dance floor.
“Hell no! You know what they say about well-behaved women!” she calls after me, sliding back over the counter.
Yeah, apparently they call us nuns.
“What part of the south are you from, Emma?” Anton asks, slipping his hand a little lower as he pulls me flush to his body.
Taking a step back, I give a shy smile, “South Carolina.”
“Sexy accent for a sexy lady,” he smiles coyly, his fingertips now dangerously close to being intimately familiar.
Reaching back, I raise his hand a couple of inches, “Thank you.” Guilt seeps in at my lukewarm reply but I shrug it away, too tired of dealing with pushy men tonight.
“I’ve been watching and waiting for you to direct that sweet smile my way since you walked in.”
Repressing the desire to roll my eyes at the false assumption that it’s a prerequisite for men to use cheesy pickup lines at bars, my gaze shifts towards the door, wishing I could just go home. I find Breck staring at me while the redhead wraps her jacket around her shoulders. My pulse quickens. Something in his eyes unnerves me, filling me with dread and sending a pulsating jolt of excitement that sears me straight to the bone.
“You should come to my place when the bar closes.”
I vaguely hear Anton making his not so smooth move, but my attention is still diverted to the enigma standing on the threshold. Carnal thoughts wage with futile attempts to break the vexing connection enslaving my failing senses. Heat simmers through my veins to places low in my belly and my lips part in resentful shock from the intensity of emotions raging inside of me. His gaze is full of hate, punishing even, and chills spill down my spine. Need to know why he affects me this way conquers all my internal alarms blaring for me to just stay away.
The redhead follows his gaze and the warning in her eyes is clear. Disregarding the seething look, I pull away from Anton. Breck’s lips curve slightly as his eyes gleam dominantly, daring, showing his intentions to play. Standing my ground, I refuse to break the silent challenge. I don’t understand the rules, or the game, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to lose. The music stops; people push their way through the crowd towards the bar, but neither of us moves. Anton is calling me. I ignore him. Flashes of light ignite the room in angry hues as the band begins the next song. Breck’s date pulls on his arm, and it’s me who smiles this time.
Several accosting seconds tick by before he gives me a slight nod, admitting his defeat, but it’s the toxic mix of admiration and animosity in his eyes that strips me of air, making my knees weak. With one last look, he’s gone, but I know whatever this is that he’s started is far from over. Slowly, the tension gripping me begins to ease. Dread and desire hit me like a sledgehammer. I don’t want to play his game. Good or bad, I don’t want to feel anything for him…not him. Shaking my head, I blame Jess’ drink. Feeling discombobulated and foreign in my own skin, I breathe a rushed apology to Anton and walk shakily to the bar.
“That was quick. What happened to Pierre?” Jess asks, her voice strained for having to yell over the band.
“His name is Anton,” I correct her.
“Who cares? He’s cute and French; that’s all you need to know.”
A little envy breaks through the fog, clouding my brain, and my lips curve into a wistful smile, wishing I could be more like Jess. She’s fearless; I’m not. Just once, it would be nice to do something without over-rationalizing it, to do something out of the ordinary from my predictable life. Jess lives in the moment, never worrying about what people think. I worry way too much about what people think. Unwelcome thoughts of Breck and how I’m sure he could obliterate all semblance of any predictability in my life flash through my mind. I push them away. “I could use another drink.”
“Well, well, looks like Frenchy might be doing you some good,” she teases while mixing a margarita.
“What’s up with you and Breck?” I ask, hating myself for it.
Jess places the margarita down, taking a few seconds to look at me before answering, “Why do you want to know?”
“He’s the ultimate one-night stand, Casanova to every woman and an absolute god to every man.” Jess grabs my margarita and takes a long sip, studying me the whole time. “If you want to get Justin out of your head, and make sure Breck never comes near you again, sleep with him.”
“Sure. Let me just give a complete stranger my virginity so he’ll leave me alone,” I laugh.
“You’re serious!” I stare at Jess incredulously.
“It’s the perfect solution to your Justin problem. You will forget all about him once you’ve been with Breck.”
“I don’t have a ‘Justin problem’.”
“Fine, whatever,” she rolls her eyes. “It looks like Breck has taken an interest in you and he won’t stop until he gets you in bed, so save yourself the time and trouble and let him give you best night of your life.”
Taking a large gulp of my margarita, I decide to go ahead and put an end to her devil’s advocate, “If I sleep with him then it will be something amazing.”
“I’m not seeing the problem, hon.”
“The problem is that it will be unforgettable to me, but I will be completely forgettable to him. I don’t want my first time to be that way.”
She sighs, nodding her head in understanding, “You’re right; no one’s first time should be like that.”
“No one’s anytime should be like that.”
“Besides, if Breck is your first, you’ll be ruined. No other man will ever live up to your expectations after that,” Jess states, her lips curving into a knowing smile.
“He can’t be that good,” I proclaim, frustrated by how every woman seems to fall at his feet.
Jess nods her head at a nice looking twenty-something man who just stepped up to the bar. She begins to grab the liquor of choice as she continues, “You know the expression, ‘it’ll knock your socks off’?” Jess pours the mixed concoction into a glass, grabbing a lime wedge and squeezing it in as she winks at the man who is taking his time paying her. “Well, after one time with Breck, the next time he just walks by you, your panties will shimmy down your legs on their own accord.”
I spit out the sip of margarita I just took so I don’t choke at Jess’ brazen words said in front of a man who looks like he wants to crawl over the bar and shimmy Jess out of hers right now. “Jess!” I hiss.
Giving the needy, gorgeous man one last wink, she flashes me her mischievous smile, “It’s the truth, girl.”
Watching as Jess turns down yet another request for her number with her uncanny skill of leaving the poor man feeling like he is still walking away after the best night of his life instead of being publicly rejected, I ask, “How come you two are still friends if you have personal experience? From what you told me, he has a woman once, then never looks back.”
Jess grabs four bottles of beer, dangling them in the air just out of reach from two questionably aged patrons, “IDs boys, and they better be real or Jason over there is going to personally throw you out the door on your asses.”
One of them hesitates before reaching for his wallet, and Jess zones in, “Nope, no need. Out now, or I call Jason in two seconds.”
It takes half that time for them to head towards the door.
Turning her attention back to me, she gives a slight shrug, “We have history before our history, so I guess I’m the lucky one, or the unlucky one. Depends on which way you look at it.”
Another group hovers at the bar and Jess mixes their drinks while I finish mine. Feeling slightly buzzed, I decide it’s time to go home and get a few hours of sleep before I have to be at my first job. I catch Jess’ attention and wave. She gives me her puppy dog eyes look which normally suckers me to do what she wants, but I’m immune tonight. “I’m tired,” I call over the noisy crowd.
“You have no idea how to party. I’m a complete failure of a friend for not rubbing my live it up lifestyle off on you yet!”
“I won’t hold it against you,” I tease, steadying myself when I stand up too quickly.
“Damn lightweight,” she laughs, “I’ve got to work on that, too.”
“Another night,” I yell to her before pushing my way towards the door. The cold night air slams into me, and I wrap my sweater tighter around my shoulders.
“Going home already?” Gavin asks.
Before I have time to answer, a fight breaks out in line.
“Break it up!” Gavin yells, stepping in between the two men and grabbing them both by the collars of their shirt, giving a vicious shake. “You two shake hands now and play nice, or I’ll kick both your asses before sending you home.”
The noisy crowd becomes silent while all eyes are fixated on the two antagonists being helplessly manhandled at Gavin’s will. The man in Gavin’s left fist swallows his pride first, giving a small nod, and his opponent follows his lead.
Easing his grip, Gavin releases the men. “Shake!” he demands.
The men immediately comply.
Turning his attention back to me, Gavin grins, “Let me call you a cab.”
“I’m alright,” I assure him, “I only live a couple of blocks down.”
“Damn, woman, you really aren’t from here are you?” he scolds, pulling his cell phone out and making arrangements for a cab to be sent to the bar. “Stay put, it’ll be here in a few.”
I’m a little leery of arguing with him after what I just witnessed, so I thank him instead and silently wait for the cab to take me home so I can shed this dress, fall into bed, and forget this night ever happened.