Two years ago, 6:49 P.M.
"Come up to my room with me..."
The stranger beside me delivers the invitation in a deep, gravelly baritone that slices through the buzz of music, conversation and laughter animating the crowded, neon-lit bar.
I misheard him. I’m absolutely positive about that.
Because we haven’t exchanged names. Actually, I haven’t even scraped up the energy to lift my eyes from the empty martini glass in front of me and look in his direction.
The only interaction we’ve had up to this point was him, asking if the seat beside me was taken and me, releasing a low-pitched howl of anguish as I listlessly flung my bouquet of wilting freesias from the barstool to make room for him.
So, no. He’s not inviting me to his hotel room. Especially not when I’m sitting here with tear-stained cheeks and a dirty wedding gown. People don’t do that kind of thing.
I misheard him.
Still, I can feel his energy pulsing on my periphery and his gaze lingering on me. As if he’s waiting for an answer.
Slowly, I shift my face away from the fistful of satin-trimmed lace I’ve been sobbing into and give him my full attention.
My fuzzy, martini-infused thoughts snap into focus when my eyes land hard on his face. Oh my…Oh. A rush of goosebumps whips over me and the gauzy, white veil slips from my fingers to the grimy floor.
They say you should never look directly at the sun. It does screwy things to your vision. That same warning should apply to this man. Because he’s kinda magnificent-looking.
His hair is nearly black and cropped close to the scalp. Dark stubble adorns his square jaw and frames his supple, smiling lips.
Even his ears are bizarrely attractive.
But it’s his eyes that really spool me in. Dark and brilliantly intense irises aimed squarely on me. There’s nothing subtle or indirect about his stare. And for a fraction of a second, I’m completely distracted from the hurt and humiliation of standing in the dressing room of that awful, gaudy chapel for nearly two hours, waiting for my asshole would-be-groom who never bothered to show up.
The bartender appears out of nowhere and snatches my empty glass from the sticky countertop. He replaces it with my third top-up of the night. The thud of the glass landing heavily on the enameled bar top is what snaps me from my trance.
I shake my head slightly to loosen the grips of the striking attraction. "E-excuse me?" I manage to hiccup.
His smile widens and a pair of dimples pop up on his cheeks as he repeats his offer with unflinching confidence. "I just invited you to my room.” His teeth bite playfully into his bottom lip. Like he’s aware of how outrageous this whole thing is but he’s doing it anyway. He arches his brow expectantly. Still waiting for my answer.
The nerve of this guy…
Confronted by his unapologetic boldness, I give him a thorough top-to-bottom. He’s wearing the hell out of the black suit jacket spreading flush across his broad shoulders and the swatch of tanned skin at the unbuttoned collar of his white shirt looks good enough to lick. I can see his necktie stuffed carelessly into his pants pocket.
But his hands are rough. They’re not the hands of a guy who wears suits all that often. And for some reason, I like that. Very much. Especially after being dumped in the most epically douchey way by Illinois's most pretentious suit-and-tie fanatic.
A burst of niggling guilt slams me, anyway. There’s a socially-required period of wallowing when you’ve been stood up at the altar, isn't there? I can’t just follow this stranger out of here within minutes of becoming a jilted bride. The women in my mother’s pilates league would be scandalized!
“Sorry. Not interested,” I tell him and angle my body toward the bar, expecting that to put an end to the conversation.
He’s not done, though. From the corner of my eye, I see his grin grow wider. As if my rejection is amusing. Nothing more than a challenge. “I’m curious—why not?” The ice cubes in his drink clank against the sides of his tumbler when he swirls his wrist. He observes me from under his strong brow.
I laugh humorlessly. "You do realize that this—" I pinch the fabric of my A-line Vera Wang gown. "—isn't a costume.”
He nods without even blinking.
I continue. “I’m not an actress in a Las Vegas production of…of Mama Mia or something.”
He simply brings his tumbler to his sinful mouth again. Completely unaffected. “Uh-huh.”
I wrinkle my brows at him. How is he not understanding that hitting on me right now is inappropriate? Weird, even? “This is my wedding dress…” My voice cracks. I grip the edge of the counter for stability so the pain of saying the words out loud doesn't bring me to my knees. “This is my wedding day…"
He smoothly shrugs his suit jacket off and drapes it over the back of his chair. Then he rolls the long sleeves of his shirt back to his elbows. “You’re at a bar and there’s no groom in sight, so I’m assuming that didn’t go as planned.” There’s no malice in his tone when he says it. In fact, he sounds sort of sympathetic.
“No, it didn’t go as planned, for your information.” My chin trembles with the admission. I’m sad—I’ll admit that—but it’s the anger that’s overpowering. How could Josh do this to me?
The playfulness in the man’s eyes dims just enough for him to seem genuine when he says, “Do you…wanna talk about it?”
I sniff hard and straighten my back. “Nope.” I pronounce the fuck out of that ‘p’, making a popping sound with my lips.
He observes me for a second longer then gives a little shrug and turns to face the bar. “Fair enough.” He casually plants his elbows on the counter. “I’ll just sit here.” And he adds under his breath. “Since you’re about to change your mind anyway.”
Rolling my eyes at that asshole, I swipe my martini off the tabletop and take a big sip.
He’s so damn sure of himself. It’s almost funny. Almost. Because he can’t possibly be serious.
We’re quiet for a while, both sitting side by side, eyes straight ahead, pretty much ignoring each other.
Well, I'm trying to ignore him. But my body is strung tight, bristling. I strain hard, employing all my self-control against my attraction to him. After all, that socially-imposed period of wallowing is still in effect.
I fail miserably.
I whirl my barstool in his direction. “You know, he didn’t even have the decency to end things with me himself. He sent his friends to do it, to announce to a church full of our family and friends that he changed his mind about marrying me. Asshole.”
The man doesn’t say anything. He just swirls the ice cubes in his glass.
“I dropped out of school to plan our wedding. I was going to become an English teacher. I was studying early childhood education—which I loved, by the way—and I gave it up to marry him.” My tone mounts with sarcasm. “Because that’s what’s expected, of course. The wives of Davies men are too posh for menial tasks like, y’know, having careers, earning a living, actually contributing to society. I’m paraphrasing his mother.”
He takes another silent gulp of his drink. But the look on his face tells me he’s listening intently. Absorbing my every word, my every emotion.
Shaking my head with disgust, I ramble on.
“He didn’t lift a finger to help me. He didn’t give his input on anything. Aside from insisting that we get married in the tackiest city on the planet. A Vegas wedding. That should have been my warning sign that he wasn’t serious. Because nobody actually plans to get married in Vegas.”
I glance down and mindlessly tug on the beading at the front of my dress. I once again lose the battle against my tears.
The stranger’s rough finger settles on my chin and lifts my face. When I look up, our faces are so close. Way too intimate. "He doesn’t deserve your tears."
Our eyes lock with a raw magnetism that draws the air out of my lungs.
“It’s obvious that you’re a good woman. And life is too short to be with someone who only loves you halfway.”
My eyes scan him again. He doesn’t look like the type of man who does anything halfway. He looks like the kind of man who goes all in. God knows that’s exactly what my body is craving right now.
A series of tiny firecrackers erupt in my belly but a guilt-fueled wave quickly sweeps in to extinguish the flames. That’s just crazy, Sophia.
I glance around self-consciously to see if anyone is paying attention.
No matter the circumstances, it’s poor form for a woman in a wedding dress to flirt with a man who isn’t her groom. It’s crazy, crazy, crazy. I shouldn’t be entertaining this. It’s complete insanity. So why am I still sitting here?
My words come out a bit shaky and lilted with curiosity. “What exactly would we be doing if we went to your hotel room?”
“Sex,” he tells me unequivocally. Without missing a beat. “All the sex.”
Taken off-guard by his frankness, I bark out a laugh. The sound is loud and unbridled. My fingers fly to my mouth to keep it under control.
He smiles and pulls my hand away from my lips. “I guess you’re probably gonna wanna talk too, at some point. And we can do that…But there’s gonna have to be a lot of sex.”
“Wow…” I swing my gaze away from his as my cheeks blaze. “You know it’s kind of crazy for you to hit on a girl in a wedding dress. What kind of guy does that?”
When I ask the question, his playful expression slips so fast it causes me to shiver. I see a flash of something dark strike right beneath the surface. There's something he's not telling me.
He leans in and sniffs at the curve of my neck. "Has anybody ever told you that you smell like wildflowers?”
I swat him away with my hand. “Answer the question, weirdo.”
The man heaves a sigh. “Why does it matter what you’re wearing, Daisy? A dress is just a dress.”
My eyes fan over his ruggedly gorgeous features again. “It matters because I sort of think that maybe I should have sex with you. Maybe." I straighten my spine and inch away as I give voice to my doubt. "But at the same time, I think you might be a fucking psycho. And I don’t have sex with psychos.”
He reaches out and twirls a tendril of my messy hair around his finger. His gaze trips down the length of my dress. “I don’t think you’ve got a lot of credibility in terms of your partner-choosing skillzzz right now.”
Laughing, I dig the olive out of my cocktail and fling it at him. “Jerk.”
His dimples make another appearance as the olive rolls down his chest and lands on the floor. “You definitely wanna have sex with me." He adjusts his collar exaggeratedly, making a big show. "I’m the perfect rebound.”
The corner of my lip curls up into a tiny, wayward smile. “Oh, really? What makes you such a good rebound?”
“Firstly, I have incredible upper body strength," he brags. "That’ll come in handy for all that sex we’re gonna have. Y’know, when I’m tossing you around the room and stuff.”
I laugh some more.
His eyes smolder when they focus on the swell of my breasts. His expression tells me he wants to rip through the lace and beading of my wedding dress with his teeth. "Plus, I'll make sure it's good for you, Daisy." He brings his lips to my ear and his breath tickles my cheek. "I won't stop until I'm sure you've had the hardest orgasms of your life.”
I shiver. I think hardest just became my favorite adjective of all time. And it hasn't slipped my attention that he used the plural form of the noun orgasm.
When his gaze moves back to my face, he smiles. “But most importantly, I’m really, really digging your laugh. And I’ll do whatever it takes to keep hearing it all night.”
At that, my heart does a gymnastic routine that would score gold at the Olympics.
I blink through my foggy vision again. Who the hell is this man? Because he seems to have me all figured out.
The strobe lights play on his face—blue then yellow then green—teasing at the sharp angles and defined features. Just as I’m falling under his spell, I snap out of it and I self-consciously check around the room for spectators again.
"I know what you're thinking,” he tells me. “You're thinking it's wrong. It's against the rules to leave a bar with a stranger on a night like tonight. Even though your body's clearly telling you to."
A slight smile curves my lips around the rim of my martini glass. "Stranger danger."
He laughs. Deep. Rich. Sexy. "Stranger danger. Right.” He shifts his stool closer and lowers his face. The manly scent of his cologne fills my belly as his voice fills my ear. “But something tells me you've followed the rules and look where that's gotten you...”
He’s so very right about that. I’ve been the good girl. I’ve obeyed the guidelines in the country club rulebook, I’ve honored the obligations in my mother’s social calendar, I’ve followed those pre-wedding diets with painful accuracy. And my wedding day turned out like this.
"I don't even know your name,” I whisper past the fear gripping my vocal chords.
The corners of his eyes crinkle. His perfect teeth glisten in the strobe lights. "Pick one."
"Pick a name. What are you gonna call me tonight? What's my story?"
I smile at his playfulness and some of my tension dissipates. "You're Antonio. Tony for short.”
He grins. “And what do I do for a living?”
“You’re a hardworking mechanic, by day,” I say.
“And by night?” He nibbles back a smile.
“By night, you’re a musician—"
“Well, I can’t sing for shit, sweetheart,” he confesses, eyes twinkling.
I like his silliness. It’s charming. It makes me forget that I’m 99% about to go to a hotel room with a man I just met.
“Okay, you’re a sculptor, by night.” My glossy fingernails tap against the countertop. “And also, you volunteer as an art instructor at a community center.”
“Because I love kids, of course.” His voice quirks with sarcasm.
He runs his fingers along his stubble. “What else?”
I think for a while. “You have a cute studio apartment on the artsy side of town and on the weekends, you run errands for the sweet, old lady who lives downstairs.”
“You forgot to mention that I like long walks in the park.”
My cheeks swell with a smile. “Right. You’re basically every woman’s dream…”
He nods solemnly. “Fine. I can live with that story.” He looks deep into my eyes. “And what’s your story?”
I bite my lip and shrug a shoulder. “You can just keep calling me Daisy. I’m…I’m just the girl who got left at the altar, I guess.” A little part of me dies as this new piece of my identity settles into place. I’m Sophia Gallo, jilted bride.
He edges even closer to me. “Oh, Daisy. You’re so much more than that. And I’m dying to show you.” He lays his hand down on the counter, callused palm facing up. “Be bad tonight. Come up to my room with me...And be bad."
I glance around for my friends. Nova is at the other end of the bar, curly hair flying and long arms flailing animatedly as she argues with Charlie about whose fault it is that my wedding day went belly up. As for Reese, she’s on the terrace, wearing an impatient expression while her ex-boyfriend appears to be trying to win her back. The rest of my bridal party is lost in the crowd, dancing the way they would have been at my wedding reception.
The man's finger touches my chin, lifting my face to his. "You don't need anybody's approval, Daisy. Not tonight.”
I don't want to turn him away and spend the night here alone, wallowing in pain and drowning in booze.
I want to say yes.
My desire is bigger than my guilt, bigger than my conscience, bigger than the misguided sense of loyalty I feel toward the man who left me standing solo at the altar a few hours ago.
Crazy or not, I’m doing this. Because all I know is, before this stranger took the seat next to me and invaded my personal space with his chiseled features, his gorgeous scent and his insufferable bravado, I felt like I was on my way to a complete meltdown. But within minutes, he has me laughing and my heart is fluttering, forgetting to be broken.
I let go of my cocktail glass. I let go of my fear. Sliding from my stool, I put my hand in his.
And that one word changes everything.