K.L. Kreig—the author of one of my favourite books ever, Black Swan Affair—has a brand new novel coming next week, and I have a fabulous sneak peek for you.
I sit comfortably in a worn and oversized armchair that doesn’t match any of the others around me. It wobbles and protests every time I move, and I wonder how many people have sat in it before me, enjoying the wash of smooth jazz flowing through their blood the way I am.
We’re so close to the stage, I could reach out and touch the pianist. He’s good-looking and I’m feeling so sassy in my mustard yellow dress that I might even flirt with him if he were paying me any attention. But he’s not. It’s Carmen who has his eye, though she’s doing nothing to overtly encourage him. She has her Manny and while men may fall at her feet, she does nothing to bring them to their knees. They do that all on their own.
Wendy and Yvette left us after a fabulous dinner. Wendy teaches Sunday school and has to be up at the crack of dawn and Yvette has a two-year-old at home, with another on the way. I was tired and looking forward to getting home early myself, but Carmen insisted that ten o’clock is when the party starts, not ends. Sometimes it’s easier to give in than to argue, so here we are after leaving Sambuca, at one of the best jazz clubs in Nashville in my opinion.
“What can I get you?”
I take my attention from hot piano man to the petite waitress now standing over me. Her skirt is short, and her bulb cheeks are flushed. It’s clear she is hurried and stressed. Her gaze bores into me urgently, making me feel as if I don’t order right now, I will forfeit my right to order a drink altogether.
“Water?” she repeats with no shortage of contempt.
Suddenly I feel pressured. This venue is small. She’s likely living on her paltry tips to pay her rent or perhaps her father’s medical bills, and even though I limit myself to one drink when I’m driving, a free water isn’t going to help her in the least.
“Ah…a lemon drop martini?”
“You sure?” She blinks rapidly. I know she knows she’s capitalizing on my distress.
“Do you have beer instead?”
She heaves a sigh and cocks a hip, clearly annoyed at my stupid question. “Yes, we have beer.”
“What kinds do you have?”
She rolls her eyes toward the ceiling and with an overexaggerated sigh starts reciting your standard list of domestic beers: “Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light…” None of which I am interested in. I don’t even really like beer.
“Is the martini not good?” I ask after she finishes her beer dissertation, indecision on the best cocktail weighing me down. To my right, Carmen is snickering with a shake of her head.
I do this all the time. I will agonize over a meal or a drink or a pair of sandals before I am forced to make a decision. Which may be the real reason my closet hasn’t seen an influx of new items except for my mother’s in nearly a decade.
“The martini is fine.” The waitress, sans name tag, glares down at me. She’s about over me. I don’t blame her. “Best martini in town,” she adds, unconvincingly, before throwing a glance to a table about six feet to my right. They are starting to get impatient waiting on me to make up my mind so they, too, can get their drink on, though it appears they’ve had a few too many of those already.
“You know what, just surprise me.”
Wow. You’d think I’d asked her to donate her only remaining kidney to a serial killer.
“Yes. House special is fine.”
“Okaaaay.” Without a second glance, our brusque waitress bounces off on her high heels, relieved to be rid of me. I’m slightly worried what she’ll bring back.
“What’d you go with?” Carmen asks me, voice pitched low as to not interrupt those around us.
This isn’t a traditional downtown Nashville bar. There aren’t throngs of people packed wall to wall like sardines. There is no drunk groping or girls puking in bathroom stalls. There aren’t hookups in dark corners on rooftops or dirty dancing around the stage to music so loud you’ll end up hoarse by the end of the night trying to scream over it. Rudy’s Jazz Club isn’t what I’d call classy, per se, but it is eclectic and intimate and, in my opinion, the best place in town for Louisiana-style red beans and rice and incredibly talented musicians who simply love their craft.
I shrug in response to Carmen’s question. She smiles that engaging smile of hers before fishing her phone out of her clutch. By the way her entire being lights up, it has to be Manny. Her fingers fly across the lit screen, clearly replying to a text, and as she easily slips the phone back into her purse, she swings her eyes to me.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing, chica. Everything is fine.”
She taps her fingers in a quick rhythm against her leg. I know that particular fidget. And I generally don’t like what follows it.
I squeeze my eyebrows together, my forehead bunching up as I scrutinize her. “What are you up to?”
“Why do you always think I’m up to something?”
“Because you always are,” is on its way out of my mouth, but there is a lull in the music at the tail end of Carmen’s reply as the band ends one song and starts up another, and Carmen’s high-pitched “something” echoes off the walls in those few empty seconds. I sense eyes from the entire room fall upon us in judgment. Someone whispers a rather uncalled for, “Shut up, bitch,” and Carmen slowly turns around in the general direction our little scolding came from.
This is the thing about Carmen. She grew up in the one of the roughest parts of Miami referred to by the locals as “down south.” Her father was killed in a bar fight when she was eight years old. Her three older brothers are all currently doing prison time. One for drug running, his fifth count. One for domestic assault. And one for first-degree murder and attempted robbery. Carmen’s mother was chronically ill, but she still worked odd jobs in an attempt to bridge the gap of what the government couldn’t provide and the basics of what was needed for her family to survive. Though Mrs. Morales was not about to let her only daughter travel down the same path as her three older brothers, no one escapes that type of environment unscathed. Carmen was molded straight from that Miami neighborhood where she grew up and when she feels attacked in any way, shape, or form, she quickly morphs back into the girl who ultimately won every street fight she was in and has the scars to prove it.
But while Carmen could absolutely hold her own, I would just as soon avoid getting the snot beaten out of me in some alley after we leave. Reaching across the space that separates us, I grab Carmen’s hand, attempting a not-so-sly diversion.
“Hey, where do you think our drinks are?”
The band has been playing on, but a quick sweep of the room shows that we have now become everyone’s entertainment, instead of the best jazz and R&B in all of Nashville.
“It’s been a good fifteen minutes, I’m sure of it,” I blather on. It hasn’t. It’s been a good fifteen seconds. Still, I pretend I’m searching for our waitress, but instead I make eye contact with the table of girls who stared me down earlier for taking too long to order and mouth, “I’m sorry.” Luckily, all but the one with pencil-thin lips and a bride-to-be sash seem to be aligned with me in avoiding an all-out catfight. Three sets of hands land on the woman who told Carmen to zip it—she’s half Carmen’s size. What was she thinking? As they yank her back down, I jerk on Carmen’s arm until she rips her attention back toward me, a string of Spanish expletives rolling fluidly off her tongue.
Suddenly I’m grateful for my earlier indecisiveness. I could use that “house special” about now. I scan around and lament, “Where is she…” but my voice fades into nothingness when I spot an insanely magnetic man with the most intense smoldering stare, I’ve ever seen.
And he’s watching…me?
Why would he be watching me?
Everyone is watching you, Laurel. You’re nothing special; you’re a spectacle. That’s all.
Self-conscious, I ignore him, turning my attention back to the band. But try as I might, I sense his eyes on me. Assessing. And I begin to fidget like I have fire ants nesting in my granny panties. I smooth down my skirt. I cross my legs. I uncross and cross them the opposite way.
Those eyes. Wow.
I twist a chunk of hair into a corkscrew. I shake my foot and lick my lips.
Don’t look. Don’t. Look.
I don’t. But I do pick at my peeling nail polish. I do chew off a hangnail on my left ring finger. And I do resist the urge to validate that the gorgeous man has moved on to someone else.
Because why wouldn’t he?
Nooo. It can’t be. He’s not. Don’t be ridiculous, Laurel.
I scratch a nonexistent itch on my knee.
I pluck out an eyelash and blow it to the ground.
I pull at a stray thread in my hem, not realizing it’s a bad idea until it’s too late.
Finally, I can’t take it any longer. I have to know if he’s still there. Still watching.
When I turn my head his way, I am surprised to find he is. He absorbs my confusion.
Of course, there is doubt, gorgeous stranger. I am wearing mustard and you look like a ketchup kinda guy.
A slight smile upturns the corners of his plump lips. They resemble delicious ballpark franks. Almost makes me rethink my aversion to hot dogs.
I want to smile back, but he can’t be flirting with me. Can he? Though who else would it be? It’s definitely not Carmen this time.
Because of the way this room is narrowly shaped, Carmen sits at a forty-five-degree angle to my right, facing the stage. If she kicked out her foot, she’d almost kick mine. And I face the bar with the stage to my left. I face the stranger. There is no one behind me. I know this because my seat is flat against a brick wall that my long hair keeps getting stuck to.
Still, I have to weed out all other possibilities, so I glance to my left knowing very well the only one there is the hot pianist, and while hot pianist is quite attractive, I’m pretty sure he’s not this man’s bailiwick. Carmen’s to my right, and as we’ve already established, she is out of the question for once. Out of stupidity or insecurity, or both, I turn around and stare at the wall behind me. Still brick. I slowly return to the stranger. He’s laughing as he tips his half-empty glass of beer in my direction.
A mock “cheers.”
My face burns hotter than the engine of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race car after five hundred laps at the Daytona 500. Instinctively, I reach for a drink that I still don’t have yet.
“Where’s that waitress?” My taste buds water wildly. I am so thirsty my mouth hurts.
My beautiful stranger—my, as though I’ve claimed him already—stands up from his place at the bar and begins walking in my direction.
Crap. Crap. Crap. Seriously?
I start chewing on a nail.
What is he doing? What am I going to say? Why am I so nervous?
I wince when I take out a chunk of flesh with nerves still very much attached. I shake my hand before twining all ten fingers together, clenching so hard my knuckles cry out.
Why are you acting like a zit-faced schoolgirl, Laurel? Get a grip.
I’m so busy practicing hellos and how do you do’s and who, me? in my mind, that it’s not until he’s nearly upon me that I notice Manny is right behind him.
I deflate faster than a sliced balloon.
“Senorita.” Carmen’s boyfriend greets me with a quick kiss to the back of my hand as he always does. He doesn’t look contrite in the least, and neither does Carmen.
This is a setup. I should have known.
Gorgeous stranger isn’t into me at all.
I am angry. Humiliated. My breaths are shallow. I feel like I’ve run a marathon and fell just short of the finish line, unable to cross.
“What are you doing here?” I spit.
I direct my irate question to Manny, but the stranger’s gaze hasn’t let me go yet. It’s warm and inviting and…unnerving how much I like it, even if he was forced to be here.
Stranger waves to my seat but doesn’t wait for a reply before he proceeds to turn his body and bend his long legs until he’s perched in the chair with me. With me. I am now squashed between his warm, firm thigh and the arm of a chair that’s roomy enough for one but is definitely not made for two.
He pitches an arm around the back of our chair—around me—and wedges his muscular self in a bit further until he’s nice and comfortable. As if we are lovers or it’s date night. As if we’ve known each other our whole lives and haven’t just met.
And what can I do? We’ve already garnered enough attention that I’m worried we may be asked to leave, so there I sit. Fuming. Flustered. My face on fire and my body quickly catching up.
“I’m Ross,” stranger says, leaning over to whisper in my ear.
Ross. Stranger’s name is Ross. I had a great uncle named Ross. He would tap me on the patootie whenever I walked by.
“This is the part where you tell me your name,” he jibes.
“Uuuhhh…” Hot as you are, I can’t date someone with the same name as my creepy great-uncle Ross. Sorry.
He waits, expectantly. Damn, you smell a-freaking-mazing, Ross.
“Uummm…” I swallow, hard and awkwardly loud. Maybe Ross wouldn’t mind being called by his middle name? Unless his middle name is Johnny. Or Ace. Or Wallace. Like you have so many men lined up you have a right to be picky, Laurel.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy Carmen watching me, once again shaking her head in pity, as I search for appropriate words to string together that won’t me look a) like an idiot, or b) desperate. But when I remember the circumstances of why Ross is practically sitting on top of me those words are misplaced, along with my manners, because I don’t offer my name. No. Instead, I turn my back to him in favor of piano man, who now has his gaze squarely fixed on me.
The edges of my mouth turn up wryly.
His turn up in amusement.
Stranger—Ross—shifts beside me, reminding me he hasn’t gone anywhere, like he isn’t aware the waft of his subtle, spicy cologne hasn’t already hypnotized me.
“Tonight is a night for lovers, old and new,” piano man says to me, fingers caressing his keyboard as lightly as if he’s running them down the spine of a woman’s back.
I choke on the lake of spit now pooling in my mouth.
Ross slaps me on the back a few times as the crowd whoops and whistles. He genuinely seems concerned.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I assure him, my voice wheezy. I wave him off, but when I lean back, it’s right into his open arms. I fit as if I belong there. His palm curls around my shoulder and gently squeezes before retreating. I stiffen and manage another look at piano man. He winks. I’m sure he’s playing me now, or perhaps he’s playing Ross.
“Hardin, why don’t you turn the house lights down for this next one.”
No. Please no.
The lights go low, the music kicks up, and piano man starts crooning about the heavens and a rare night for romancing, but when he sings the title of the song, “Mind if I Make Love to You,” I feel like I’ve been inserted into an episode of Friends.
And Ross and I are in the spotlight in this one.
There is a wall sconce smack over our heads, which seems not to have dimmed in the slightest. Heat from the lightbulb is singeing the crown of my head. Half of my hem is hanging loose, and my thumb is now bleeding from where it’s chewed to the quick.
I am a hot, bloody, unkempt mess.
As if Ross is only now understanding the horrible predicament he’s let himself be talked into, he starts chuckling. And as the song goes on, with the day of our meeting and how time is fleeting, circling back around to the main lyric about making love, his body shakes with suppressed laughter.
I use the span of my right hand to cover my face in shame, hiding myself from Ross. But he’s not having it. He peels my hand back and says lowly, “Your virtue is safe with me.”
See? This is where I should have taken two seconds to interpret what he meant, which really was, “I’m a nice guy, not a dick who will try to get into your pants on a first date,” but nooo…I went all exorcist on him instead.
I whip my head toward him, my wrath as pungent as spewed vomit. “Why? You don’t find this attractive?” I swipe down the length of me, lingering on the frayed edges, which in truth felt like every inch of me. I detest mustard. “Ketchup more to your liking?”
“What?” he says on a barked laugh, his brows furrowing in wary confusion…or perhaps fear.
“Ketchup? Do you like ketchup?”
My chest puffs out, my eyes feel bugged, and my jaw is clenched tight. I’m quite sure I resemble eleven shades of crazy.
He opens his mouth, then closes it again. He scratches the stubble lining his jaw, clearly contemplating his options. Save yourself, I think. But he doesn’t flee like a sensible man would. He starts to say something, only he’s interrupted by the waitress finally handing me my cocktail. She holds out a small goblet with a mint leaf floating in tannish liquid. It looks as if it came from the bottom of a well. I take it and sniff. It smells like the bottom of a well too.
“What is this?” I ask, turning my nose up.
“The house special,” she answers me with a slight snap, but when she notices Ross, she becomes sweeter than rock candy. “It’s called the Maiden Voyage.”
I am in the middle of taking a sip when she announces this. Unfortunately for me several things happen in quick succession, none of them good.
I inhale a mouthful of the Maiden Voyage, which is made almost entirely of gin and ginger beer, neither of which I care for. I choke for the second time, and between my sputters and attempts to expel this sludge from my lungs, I faintly register the groan of the chair Ross and I are squeezed into. The groan turns into a creak, which morphs into the echo of wood splintering under too much pressure.
The legs beneath us give way and we crash hard onto the floor before we tumble in a heap of flailing arms and legs.
The music stops cold.
A hush comes over the crowd.
Once again, we are the center of unwanted attention.
“Are you okay?” Ross asks, running his hands over my hair, my face.
There is commotion all around us. Strangers rush over. Concerns rain down on us. Several drops of liquid roll from my hairline down into my ear. I smell of pine and humiliation.
“Christ, are you hurt anywhere?” Ross pushes himself up on his forearms and washes a frantic gaze over me.
“Talk to me,” Ross demands when I don’t finish.
I can’t. I’m still gasping for air, but it’s no longer because I’m choking, it’s because Ross is squarely on top of me. And the man is thick, solid muscle.
Over Ross’s shoulder I spot Carmen and Manny. Carmen appears slightly alarmed. Manny, however, is laughing his butt off, though he’s trying to cover it up with his drink.
“Chica, you hurt?” Carmen asks.
“I’m fine,” I rasp. I set my hands to Ross’s chest to push him off of me, but holeeey cow. He is built like a brick wall or a linebacker in training.
“You sure you’re okay?”
I nod, my palms still stuck securely to his pecs. They are unreal. Warm. Firm. Wow.
“You can move now,” I tell him, licking my lips.
“You’re sure?” With a grin and a wag of his brows, he flexes first one pec, then the other. I gasp, pretending to be affronted. We both know I’m not. More than moderately turned on, I squeeze my eyes shut.
Lord, take me home now. I’m ready. Please, I’m begging you. Open your pearly gates and let me on in.
Ross laughs before standing up with ease. He holds out a hand to help me up but just as I’m noticing the cool air on certain lady parts, Ross’s gaze zeros in on my utilitarian, white, pee-stained underwear.
Sweet baby Jesus in a cradle. Why me? Perfect way to round out a first fake date.
He bends down and covers me back up, like I am his to care for. The move is so tender, so gentle that I can’t breathe. My eyes sting. Why would he do that? He didn’t laugh. He didn’t make fun of me. He didn’t seem appalled by my lack of lace or a string splitting my butt cheeks. As I let him help me up from the floor, he tries to catch my eye, but I refuse to acknowledge him.
By this time the manager has rushed to our side and is babbling about drinks on the house for a year, apologizing profusely as they clean up the mess we made. Ross assures him we are fine. He says something to the band, which I don’t catch, and they begin playing “September.”
Ross brushes off some stray wood splinters from the front of his cabernet-colored button-down. I take the time he’s using to right himself to really look at him. I would put him at well over six feet. He’s handsome, but not as handsome as he is beautiful. And there is definitely a difference. His sandy brown hair is short but stylish, curling a drop below his ears. His jaw is square and rugged, and his hazel eyes are lined with bushy, manly brows that are neatly trimmed. His nose might be a tad big for his face, but the longer I stare, the more I decide it’s perfect too. He is the perfect specimen of a perfect man and I am…well I’m bumbly and awkward and insecure. And to top it off, I’ve no doubt given him the impression that a thirty-day “vacation” in a hospital that specializes in the unstable would be well worth my while. I’m sure he will chalk this up to a bad attempt at a blind date and carry on his merry way.
Mi amado, my ass.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” he asks one more time.
“Just my pride,” I answer quietly, gazing around the room. Most people avert their eyes, some to where my undies are now hidden. “I need to go.”
I swipe my purse from Carmen’s hand and without so much as a goodbye to anyone, I head down the ramp that leads to the front door. The door attendant asks if I’m okay and I stall long enough to assure her that I am. Then I shove my way out.