‘COME ON! IT’S the perfect opportunity to put Jeremy behind you.’
I send Eliza a look of impatience but can’t fight the ever-present swoop of shame that accompanies any mention of his name. ‘He is behind me.’
‘If that were true you wouldn’t have spent the past eight months wallowing!’
‘I am not wallowing,’ I deny, turning to Cassie pleadingly.
‘I can see why you think I’d back you up, but seriously, Ally, you have to get back out there.’
My stomach flops and my gaze wanders towards the man at the bar.
Ethan ‘rock star’ Ash. And so much hotter in real life than I could ever have imagined.
I shake my head. ‘No way. I’m not going to talk to him.’
‘Why not?’ Cassie throws a look over her shoulder, and when she looks back at us she has a pretty flush in her cheeks.
‘Because.’ I shoot them both a look they know better than to argue with. ‘Now, can we please talk about something else?’
I sip my drink, crossing my legs in the other direction, and most definitely not looking towards the bar again.
I listen to their responses, relieved as all hell that they’ve let the matter of the smoking hot rock god drop. At least for now...
‘Drinks are empty. It’s your turn, Ally.’
I blink, drawn back into the conversation by Eliza, who is handing her glass to me. I frown. ‘Isn’t it table service?’
‘Nah. Not on a Friday.’
I grimace. ‘Remind me why we chose this place again?’
Cassie points to the sign overhead and I know what it says without even reading it: Happy Hour—9-9!
As the only one of our little trio who can afford full-price drinks in decent bars with professional wait staff, I resist the urge to complain. Besides, the place is obviously good enough for Ethan Ash. Which begs the question: what’s he doing here? He’s alone, and has been since I got here an hour earlier. Is he waiting for someone? Has he been stood up? That doesn’t make sense. Who’d stand him up?
I’m two cocktails in, so I know I have a bit of an alcohol-confident swagger as I make my way to the bar. But I’m immune to tall, dark and handsome men now—Jeremy cured me of that habit for life—so I determinedly move past him—way past, like other-planet past—choosing to prop my elbows on a spot that’s practically in the kitchen it’s so far away from him.
Despite the fact there are at least seven people serving behind the bar, I’m kept waiting for several minutes. Slowing down is probably a good thing, so I don’t make a fuss. I pull my phone out instead, flicking through Instagram and checking my emails, humming along without realising to the song overhead. It’s only when the song begins to surround, envelop and roll over me, with an oddly perfect surround-sound quality, that I look up and realise he’s right beside me.
He of the thick brown hair and ocean-green eyes. He of the tanned skin and gazillion-pack abs. He of the torn jeans and loose grey shirt—designer dishevelled. And the way he smells—delicious. My gut twists in enthusiastic acknowledgement of all of the above and my knees tremble as if they’re conspiring to pull me closer to him.
But my face is still following orders and thankfully stays resolutely unimpressed.
A smile flicks his lips as he continues to croon—yes, he’s actually crooning—the words to a pop song, for God’s sake—and I desperately don’t want him to stop.
‘How’s it going?’
It’s so completely not what I expect he of the stubbled jaw to say that I laugh softly. ‘How’s what going?’
His grin is disarming and he obviously knows it. How could he not? His accent is huskier in real life—broad British that is more Midlands than Eton. It’s sexy AF.
‘Life. The universe. Your place in it.’
‘Ah. That sounds like a conversation more suited to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s living room.’
‘Want me to give him a call? See if he’s free?’
I roll my eyes. ‘Sure. You got him on speed dial or something?’
He lifts his phone out of his pocket. It’s an iPhone, I think, but it looks to be pure gold. Catching me looking, he seems almost embarrassed as he clarifies, ‘I get given them.’
At that moment, thank God, a waiter appears behind the bar. ‘What’ll it be?’
‘Vodka gimlet, gin and tonic and Prosecco.’
He nods and moves away, picking up where he of the smooth as caramel voice left off, singing the song softly as he mixes our drinks.
Ethan calls me back to him and he’s holding his phone so I can see the world’s most famous astrophysicist staring back at me.
‘You seriously know him?’
‘Sure. We did a charity thing together a year ago. Nice guy.’
I arch a brow. Am I really standing in a bar in SoHo talking to a veritable rock god superstar about a world-famous scientist?
‘So am I. I think you’re the first girl I’ve met in a bar who outed herself as a science nerd.’
‘Your implication being that knowing who one of the most pre-eminent astrophysicists of our time is makes me a nerd? I would think that’s kind of mainstream knowledge.’
He shrugs. ‘Not in my experience.’
‘Ah. So maybe your experience is just...limited.’
The bartender returns with our drinks, and before I can hand my credit card over Ethan Sexier-than-Thou Ash slides his own across the bar.
‘Maybe it is.’
His eyes hold mine and my tummy lurches as though I’ve just driven at speed over the crest of a hill. I’m in free fall.
‘Don’t use his card,’ I say, my voice croaky as I drag my attention to the waiter behind the bar. ‘It’s my shout.’
‘You can get the next round.’ Ethan’s voice brooks no opposition and the bartender taps his card on the machine.
‘Next round?’ I arch a brow. ‘Meaning...?’
He leans closer. He smells amazing. Like salt and sand and sunshine all rolled into one.
‘Meaning these drinks are on me.’
He pulls back just far enough to grin at me while his eyes meet mine, green versus blue, and I am losing whatever battle it is we’re waging. Then his fingers lift up and press lightly to the back of my hand. Just for a second, but it’s enough. Heat spirals up my arm spreading goosebumps on my flesh and, mortifyingly, tensing my nipples. His eyes catch the reaction and my cheeks flush bright pink.
‘It was nice to meet you...?’
His question hangs in the air but I’m flummoxed. The way my body has reacted is strange. Unexpected.
I deliberately don’t give him my name. Names are where the problems start.
I’m over Jeremy. I am.
If I ever see him again I think I could seriously find myself in a federal prison for life.
But the ghost of what we were...what he turned me into...is thick inside me. Always. I don’t remember the last time I looked in the mirror and didn’t see her. That woman. The woman he made me. The woman I came to loathe.
I fight the shudder. I’m not her any more. But it’s taken eight long months to claw my way back, and names are the beginning of forgetting that.
I lift the three drinks easily between my hands and give him one last smile without meeting his eyes before making my way back to the table.
Eliza and Cassie are staring at me, the former with a knowing smile and the latter with a dropped jaw.
‘You talked to him?’ Cassie squeaks in obvious disbelief.
‘He talked to me,’ I mumble, sliding their drinks across the table and looking guiltily towards the bar. He’s talking to someone else now. A guy. Is that who he came to meet? My heart drops. Does that mean he’ll be going soon?
‘He’s hot,’ Eliza pronounces. ‘Why the hell are you still sitting with us?’
I change the subject back to Cassie’s work situation, ignoring Eliza’s pointed stares and occasional jab beneath the table. But I drink quickly. Because I want to go back to the bar? Or because I need something to cool down my fevered blood?
Only it’s not working. My body is vibrating with a sensual need I haven’t felt in a long time. Heat is forming between my legs and I am so tempted to do something really stupid. Something I haven’t done in a long time.
Of their own accord, and definitely without my permission, my eyes shift towards him. He’s propped against the bar with glorious nonchalance, and he’s still chatting to the same guy, but his eyes are locked on me. He doesn’t try to hide it when I look up.
A thrill of something runs down my spine.
I’m so close to giving in to temptation, and that would be bad. Oh, it would be really good in some ways but...no. Bad. Definitely bad.
‘Okay, ladies,’ I murmur, pushing my almost finished drink aside and standing in one movement. ‘I’m going to head home.’
‘What?’ Eliza pulls a face. ‘Alone? Now? It’s so early!’
‘I know.’ I shrug. ‘But if I don’t go I think I’ll live to regret it.’
I wink at them, so that they can’t help but understand my meaning, and then blow each an air-kiss. There’s a slight tremble in my legs as I cut my way through the bar. Despite the fact we’re past the cut-off for free drinks it’s heaving busy now.
My body seems to be in silent rebellion of the decision I’ve made and is trying to make me change my mind. I don’t, though.
When I emerge from the bar’s air-conditioned comfort the night’s humidity crashes at me like a wave. But it’s nothing compared to the fever in my blood. I lift my hand, calling for a taxi, but it sails past.
I begin to walk further down the sidewalk, my eyes scanning the street in both directions.
Though we’ve only spoken perhaps ten lines of dialogue to one another, his voice is imprinted in my mind. I recognise it instantly, even before I turn around.
‘Oh, hey.’ My heart is determinedly hammering against my chest.
‘You’re leaving already?’
When I frown my eyebrows draw together and I get a little line between them. I feel it form now.
‘Um... I’ve left, technically.’
‘Right. Where are you headed?’
‘Home,’ I say firmly, but my body rolls with the potential there. ‘Alone.’
It’s a defiant stop-sign and he laughs.
‘How about one last drink?’
One last drink. With Ethan all-your-dreams-come-true Ash. And then what? I’m already in serious danger of begging him to come home with me. And I suspect he would be incredible in bed. A good lover is one thing, but chemistry can’t be faked—and right now the chemistry bubbling between us is practically giving me an orgasm on the spot.
And don’t I want that?
Don’t I deserve that?
There’s been no one since Jeremy and I ache for what I think Ethan Ash could do to me. But then what? Am I really ready? How do you know when you are?
I shake my head slowly, not quite meeting his eyes. ‘I think that would be a bad idea.’ The words are thick, as though my mouth is coated in honey.
‘Go on. Live dangerously.’
His wink is the last word in delicious desire.
‘Are you dangerous?’ I ask.
‘I think I could be around you.’
There are cars zipping past and people moving quickly around us, and yet it is just him and me, and the air around us seems to throb with awareness and the heaviness of need.
A shiver runs down my spine, but it’s not a shiver of darkness or danger so much as one of anticipation. Oh, God. I’m done for.
‘Isn’t that a good reason to stay away?’ I say. My brain makes a valiant last-ditch effort to keep my decision in place.
He moves infinitesimally closer and I breathe in deeply, tasting his masculine fragrance and letting it roll through my blood.
And then he does it again. Just the lightest touch on the back of my hand, but for longer this time, so that I have time to register the contact and enjoy the sensation of desire that resonates through my body.
‘On whether you like to live dangerously.’
‘Not generally,’ I respond quickly, my lips flicking with a tight smile.
‘That surprises me.’
‘Why? You don’t know anything about me.’
He drops his hand away. The absence of touch leaves me feeling bereft.
‘How could you? We just met.’
God, just that single throaty sound of acknowledgement sends a riot tumbling through my veins.
‘I know you have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen.’
I’ve heard that line before. Why do men feel the need to compliment hair? Mine is striking more than beautiful, but I’ve long ago given up feeling self-conscious about the thick rust-coloured mane that was the bane of my middle school existence, when my white skin, freckled nose and fire-engine-red hair led to almost daily teasing.
Yes, I’ve heard the line before, but it’s never made my stomach flip like this. I’ve never believed the line.
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Christina Hendricks, right around the time I was hitting college, I made a kind of peace with my peaches and cream complexion, voluptuous figure and rusty hair, but I still never bought the pick-up lines. The guys who told me they loved my curves and dimples.
How easy it is to ignore flattery! But there’s something in his eyes, his face and his voice that renders me incapable of being dismissive now.
‘I know that your eyes show me everything you’re feeling and that your skin is like salt-water pearls.’
My laugh is a hoarse sound in the swirling atmosphere of need. ‘That’s all very cheesy.’
It’s not. It’s really not. Maybe it’s the fact he writes and sings some of the most famous love songs of all time, but he can totally pull this off. This guy, and this guy alone, can make those lines sound like they’re being spoken for the first time ever.
His laugh answers mine, and I’m smiling even as I want to acquiesce to his flirtation and do as he bids—live dangerously.
‘Even if it’s true?’
My breath catches in my throat and I look away—straight into the curious eyes of a woman a few feet away. She’s studying us and her cell phone is in her hand.
Strange how quickly I have forgotten that Ethan Ash is a celebrity. Heat spreads through my cheeks and he follows my gaze, quickly assessing the reason for it. Now he touches me with more urgency, placing a hand in the small of my back and leading me further down the street.
I toss a look over my shoulder. The woman is still there, cell phone still in hand. Busybody! I guess this is par for the course for him, but I can’t imagine that. Being watched and observed all the time. Having people think they have a right to pry into your life, crack the lid off it whenever it suits them. No thanks.
‘Want to take a walk on the wild side?’
‘I...’ My footing stumbles a little as my eyes skid to his and all sense of gravity and order tips off balance. ‘I’m not sure.’
I look away.
‘How about we start with your name and you can make your mind up over a quiet drink?’
I’m struck dumb. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me in my whole life. Acknowledging that brings a smile to my face.
‘I think I’d like that.’
His smile shines bright light and heat into every microscopic corner of my world.
‘Then let’s get going.’