I gripped the edge of the counter, suddenly dizzy as I rested my half-full bottle back on the top. It was then, while I was trying to come to terms with way too many disturbing memories, that I saw him. A man who stood at the other end of the bar, nursing a clear drink, leaning casually on the shiny beer-stained surface. Just another guy, I told myself.
I didn’t listen.
He was as tall as I was, dressed in similar black jeans, though they were better fitted than my low-slung style, and snug around his compact arse. His shirt was long-sleeved, tucked into his jeans and buttoned to halfway up his chest. It was pale, perhaps a cream or a gold colour—I couldn’t decide which under the dim lighting. I could see the shadows of a well-developed chest under the fabric, wide shoulders, and skin that was darker than mine. Mediterranean, maybe. It was a look I always liked.
Of course, I didn’t ogle men, not nowadays. I kept my head down and my needs tight inside. Had done since… well, since I came back to Brighton, according to my would-be matchmaking friends. I’d be lying if I laughed off what Jack said earlier: I knew I got plenty of come-on looks when I was out. And I had dated—well, now and then. I just didn’t let it go any further than casual. It was the safest strategy I could think of. That rush of lust and excitement and carelessness had led me into trouble all my adult life. I was determined to control it now.
But tonight I gazed at him. I don’t think I could have said exactly what caught my attention, but I was suddenly, startlingly hooked. His face was in profile, but I could see slightly more than half, and he was very striking. Way beyond striking. His eyes were shadowed by heavy lids, and he had a strong jaw and a slightly hooked nose. He wasn’t one of the cute twink dancers or muscled beach boys that clustered in here over the summer months; his features were more mature than that. I wondered how much older than me he was—probably only a couple of years. He had night-black hair cut very close to a well-shaped head, a neat mustache, and a trimmed beard framing his jaw line.
As I watched, he sipped at his drink. Slowly and deliberately, like he wasn’t particularly thirsty but wanted to be doing something with it. His mouth was wide, though the lips were pursed together. Even at this distance and under the fitful light, I could see them glistening with the liquid. I found myself wondering what they’d taste like: how rich they’d be, how responsive. I recognised the feeling, of course, deep in the pit of my stomach, perhaps a little lower. Long time no see. But I was just as sure that it wasn’t going to get a hold of me, not like it used to.
And then he turned his head and looked straight at me.
His eyes glittered; he blinked slowly. I told myself he couldn’t have known for definite I’d been watching him. It was too dark and busy at the counter, and we were too far apart for that. Bartenders darted back and forth, sweating and grinning and shouting out orders; beer bottles chinked together and shot glasses lined up, sparkling with weird layered concoctions. But the man’s eyes stayed on me—wide and deep coloured, reflecting the glint from the optics on the wall and absorbing it at the same time. The effect was hypnotic. Things stood like that for all of ten, maybe twenty seconds. Then he lifted his glass very gently, saluting me, and his mouth twisted into a slow, encouraging smile.
No, I thought.
His head inclined a little, as if he were calling me over. He didn’t say anything, though there was no way we could have heard any words over that din.
No, I thought again. I knew that game too well to want to play it, right? But my feet moved instinctively. A group of men in matching leather shorts, braces, and firemen helmets had just arrived at the bar beside me. They were shouting and laughing as they handed out bottled beers among their group. I pushed right past them, and walked over to the mystery man.
I stopped close enough so no one else would force their way between us but far enough apart that we wouldn’t touch accidentally. His eyes were still on me, but he’d put the glass back down on the bar. I don’t know whether it was the fact I’d been drinking or the astonishing glow in those fabulous eyes, but an aura sparked off him like electricity. I didn’t even have to touch him to feel it. I felt the current through my whole body.
I knew this was a really bad idea. I didn’t have the time or appetite for strange fascinations or lustful hookups, not even with a man whose grip around a plain glass made my nerves shudder with the anticipation of feeling that grip on me. No, I wasn’t into the party and club life anymore; I didn’t want to catch anyone’s attention. I wanted to keep myself to myself and try to get things straight in my life. Definitely.
So what the hell was the matter with me tonight? I was staring quite openly at him. Bloody rude of me. Maybe he reminded me of Stewart. The same shade of black hair, the same lean face, maybe a similar determined look in his eye. By the time I got closer to him, I saw they actually looked nothing alike. But perhaps that was why I was drawn to him, who knows? It wasn’t enough to explain the thrill inside me.
I was struggling to speak—my throat was as tight as a fist. My nerves were strung as tightly as a guitar string and hummed excitement about as tunefully. Inside my jeans, I felt my balls shift and lift with physical need.
A really bad idea.
It was still difficult to make out speech, but I got the word from the movement of his lips. He was watching my mouth, maybe for my reply, maybe just for the hell of it. All I knew was, it was very arousing. His eyelids slid down over dark-bright eyes and back up again. It was as if he wanted to take full measure of me in those brief moments.
I shook my head.
He frowned. “You look like you could use—”
“I’ve had enough tonight—”
We spoke together, then both laughed. I’d tuned into his voice, or maybe we were both speaking louder to be heard over the music.
“I look like I need a drink?” I asked.
“Like you need something,” he said, his voice deep. He leaned into me and I smelled him—slight sweat from the damp skin around his throat, the tantalising trail of an unknown but probably expensive cologne. It wrapped itself around me as strongly as a real and irresistible binding.
“You were watching me,” he said.
I blinked hard, trying to think of something cool to say. “Just watching. That’s all.”
“It’s okay. It’s good.” His eyes were still on me, a smile teasing the edges of his mouth. “I was watching too.”
“Me? I didn’t notice.”
He nodded and shrugged. “You weren’t meant to.”
He frowned again. “Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Because I wasn’t….” He never finished the sentence.
“You didn’t want me to notice?”
His shrug was almost imperceptible. “I said it doesn’t matter.”
“Maybe it does.” I didn’t know what had got into me, challenging him like this. It felt weird and confusing, and I wasn’t in any mood for stupid pickup games. But something warm and irresistible crept along my veins, and I knew the seductive feeling had nothing to do with the mass of bodies around us. “Tell me.”
He frowned as if puzzled. “I’m not here for anything in particular. For anyone.”
“Me neither.” We both stared each other down for a few more seconds, our concentration giving that whole exchange the lie.
“Okay.” His smile was slow, and I felt stupidly pleased to take it as the first climbdown. “I know somewhere we can go. Want to come with me?”
Did I? Hell, yeah.