He’s going to kill me!
Breanna Loveland gripped the shoulder strap of her seatbelt, her knuckles turning white the harder she hung on. Through the windshield, she focused on the rain-slicked road ahead. The pelts of rain hit the glass faster than the blades could remove it, making it almost impossible to see. The blinding storm’s moisture nearly covered the streetlights and darkness surrounded the car. She silently prayed the airbag in this vehicle worked just in case her boyfriend’s reckless driving ended them in some ditch—or worse, head-on with another car.
“Tom, will you please slow down?” Fear strained her voice, and she swallowed hard.
The back-end of the car swayed to the side. She sucked in a quick breath. Tom’s foolishness would certainly cause an accident. Unless he was drunk. If he had been drinking and not told her, she’d definitely yell at him. Then again, she would hold it in. His temper frightened her.
Tom barked an eerie laugh, and the sickening sound scraped her spine. He over-corrected and the vehicle slid to the right. She squeezed her eyes shut and inwardly prayed for an end to this torture.
The car’s blaring radio and Tom’s hysterical laughter overrode any other sounds. Freeing herself from this nightmare seemed hopeless. The car hit a large bump and she released a fearful sob as the vehicle finally came to a stop. Thankfully, she didn’t hear the repelling crunch of metal.
“You can open your eyes now, Bre.” The mockery in Tom’s voice turned her stomach. “We’ve made it alive and in one piece.”
She peeled her eyes open. Parked safely in front of a bar, she let herself release a gush of air from her lungs, noisily blowing it between her tight lips. “Just barely.”
He laughed again, slapping her shoulder playfully. “Come on, you big baby. Loosen up. You said you wanted to meet my friends, so stop whining.”
Breathing deep and slow, she calmed her hammering pulse, and with shaky fingers, unbuckled her seatbelt. “I would enjoy meeting them while I’m alive...not in the afterlife.”
His piercing laughter rang out as he climbed out of the car and made his way into the bar. Before joining him, she pulled down the lighted mirror on the visor with a shaky hand and checked her appearance. Normally she didn’t care what she looked like, but tonight was different. She wanted to make an impression on his friends.
A face void of color stared back through the reflection of the mirror. Of course, she’d expected to look terrified, but her ashen face made her brown-rimmed glasses appear as if they were attached to a ghost. She pinched her cheeks to add a little color, and then she did her daily ritual of pushing her glasses back onto her nose. Running her fingers through her long hair, she settled the length back on her head and neck then climbed out of the car.
On wobbly legs, she entered the bar. Tom had already met up with his friends and held a beer in his hand—not that he needed anymore to drink tonight.
“Bre.” Tom waved his hand above his head, getting her attention. “We’re over here.”
The dimly lit room held only a dozen people, most of whom sat around the long bar against the wall. Along the front, six booths lined together. In an opened room not ten feet away, twin empty pool tables awaited players. Hopefully, Tom and his friends would meander that way soon and leave her to relax.
Taking a fortifying breath, she straightened and walked toward the table. With each step, her heart hammered. She had to enjoy herself, and prove to Tom’s friends she was a fun person. Surrounding the table, seven men sat holding a mug of beer. By the looks of their dopey, glassy-eyed expressions, they’d started partying earlier.
Tom draped his arm over her shoulders. “Bre, you remember Kevin.” He pointed to the guy on the right. “And this is Peter, Larry...”
She strained to hear the introductions as he circled the table, but the blare of hard rock-and-roll music from the overhead speakers made it impossible. She smiled and nodded, acknowledging them anyway.
“Nice to meet you,” she shouted over the noise.
The men held up their drinks in salute, then gulped them down simultaneously, foam dribbling out the corners of their mouth. She cringed from the disgusting display. For a moment, she wondered why exactly she wanted them to like her. Was it just because they were Tom’s friends? Deep down, she hoped they would become scarce after she and Tom became engaged. He hadn’t popped the question yet, but she felt it would be soon.
It surprised her how different Tom looked compared to his friends. Although Tom dressed casually in tee-shirts and jeans, they were always cleaned and never ragged. However, his friends tonight looked like they had all been living on skid row. They had dirty hair and rough beards, whereas Tom was clean and shaved daily. She’d never really thought Tom was an extremely handsome man, but tonight is red hair and brown eyes made her want to stare at him and ignore his friends. Then again, he was one-hundred percent better on her eyes than his friends.
She pulled off her gray jacket and draped it across the back of the chair before sitting. When she turned to the group, she glimpsed their wide-eyed expressions while they stared at her unflattering figure. It didn’t bother her. She was used to having people gawk.
In all of her twenty-six years, not once had she been called a sexy or pretty woman. She knew her appearance was as plain as the sixteenth-century Puritan, but this was who she’d always been. Tom loved her this way, and that was all she cared about.
Swiping a lock of hair behind an ear, she shifted in her seat as a man from across the table studied her through half-closed lids. Her heart sank to her knees. She knew his thoughts. He didn’t approve.
Absently, she tugged on her outdated brown sweater, pulling it lower over her baggy jeans. Tom had never wanted her to wear clothes that made her stand out, and she agreed.
Tom’s voice made her jump and she smiled at him. “Yes?”
“What would you like to drink?”
“I’d like rootbeer.”
Tom bit his lip as he glanced around the table at his friends, then they laughed together. “Bre, this ain’t no soda bar.”
Heat rushed to her face, and she tried to grin through the humiliation. His friends seemed to like it and joined in with their snide remarks.
She ignored them. “I realize that, but I’d just like a soda. Someone needs to be the designated driver.”
His brows drew together in a scowl. “Can’t you loosen up for once in your life?”
Although uncomfortable from his judgmental scrutiny, she stayed with her decision. “Just a Rootbeer, please.”
He rolled his eyes and then turned to retrieve her drink from the bartender. Inwardly she sighed with relief that Tom didn’t make a bigger scene. It wasn’t very often he took her out in public, and usually when he did, something would upset him. He’d never thought twice about embarrassing her.
For the next hour, she forced herself to listen to obscene jokes, drunken laughter, and the sickening smell of alcohol combined with tobacco and body sweat. When the men left the table to play pool, she relaxed a little, but not much. A headache expanded and throbbed in her forehead, making the evening worse than it already was. Her stomach lurched, threatening to empty at any moment. She should hurry to the nearest toilet, except she didn’t dare enter this establishment’s facility.
Her gaze stayed on Tom while he played pool with his friends, and when he finally looked her way, she motioned for him to come back to the table. He scowled and stomped over to her.
“Tom, can we please go? I’ve got to get up early tomorrow morning for work. There’s a project that’s due, and I don’t want to let them down.”
Anger lines creased his forehead and around his eyes. His dark brows drew together. She held her breath and waited for his verbal onslaught.
“Can’t you think about somebody else besides yourself?” he snapped.
She pasted on a smile. “Tom, I’m sorry, but I have got a terrible headache and I want to go home.”
He yanked her jacket off the back of her chair and threw it at her. “Fine, go home, but you’ll have to call a cab because I’m not leaving.”
Obediently, she nodded and pulled out her cell to call information. While waiting for the number to connect, she gritted her teeth. When Tom acted this way, there was no reasoning with him. His temper stemmed from drinking too much, so she’d talk to him tomorrow when he was sober.
She glanced back at him. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but since he was the first man to take a serious interest in her, she wasn’t about to lose the chance of getting married. Besides, he’d change after they were married. She’d make sure of that.
After she called for a ride, she slipped on her jacket and hurried outside to wait. The night’s crisp air surrounded her and she breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the refreshing, non-polluted air. It surprised her what the change did to lighten her pounding head.
The clear sky and gentle wind gave evidence the storm had passed. The rain on the road had left a little river, which of course, wouldn’t be easy to drive on. In Tom’s condition, he shouldn’t be driving at all. But she wouldn’t be the one to tell him. Hopefully, the bartender would take Tom’s keys away.
The cool air slipped through the opening of her jacket and she shivered. She pulled the heavy garment together to keep the warmth inside. It was a quiet night, and only a few vehicles traveled on the weathered road. The silence helped to calm her nerves.
The slush of a car’s tires drew her attention up the street. Headlights from a yellow cab moved toward her, and she sighed heavily. As she stepped toward the curb to wait for its arrival, out of the corner of her eyes, two men from another building walked out. She didn’t keep her attention on them but instead awaited her ride.
The men came to the curb just as the cab stopped, and they made their way to the door. When she reached out to take the handle, she collided with one of them.
She quickly withdrew and looked up into the man’s shadowed face. “I’m sorry.”
“Is this your cab?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I did call for a ride.”
He smiled. “So did we.”
The cabbie rolled down his window. “Due to the weather, the cabs are running behind. I don’t think one will come this way for at least another hour.”
She groaned. No way did she want to stay here another hour.
“Where are you headed?” the man beside her asked.
He glanced over his shoulder at his friend, and then rested his gaze on her. “So are we. Do you want to share a ride?”
She hesitated, only because she’d have to ride with total strangers. The street wasn’t lighted very well, which made it hard to see him, but from what she observed, these particular men didn’t look dangerous. They all wore expensively tailored three-piece-suits and leather shoes. Certainly well-to-do men. Perhaps they were harmless. Besides, if these men tried anything on her, the cab driver would protect her. At least she hoped.
“I have no other choice if I don’t want to wait for the next cab,” she answered.
The man glanced at his friend. “Guess we’re taking this lady with us. Okay?”
The other man mumbled a positive response and walked around the cab to climb in. The man she’d been conversing with smiled at her as he opened the door. “You’ll probably have to sit on my lap. The backseat isn’t very big.”
Her heart skipped just thinking about the closeness she’d share with a stranger, but what other choice did she have?
She shrugged. “I can adjust, but you’re the one who’ll regret it.”
He laughed and slid in and sat beside his friend. Once he was situated, he patted his lap. “Come on in, sweetie.”
Sweetie? Why did he call her that? She crawled into the cab and perched herself on his lap as gracefully as possible. His arms circled her waist, comfortably, which surprised her. When warmth spread through her body, she questioned this awkward and foreign reaction.
Once the door was shut, the man instructed the cabbie where to take them. The vehicle jerked into motion as it pulled out on the road.
Up this close, the man’s nearness caused a crazy pound inside her chest. His masculine scent of aftershave surrounded her and created little flutters in her belly. Tom didn’t wear cologne, and she suddenly realized she liked the manly smell.
“Were you leaving a party at the bar?” the stranger asked.
She looked at him. “No, not really. I was just meeting my boyfriend’s buddies.”
His eyes widened. “You left your boyfriend there?”
“Yes. I really wasn’t having a good time. Tom didn’t want to leave until later, and I have an early day at work tomorrow.”
He nodded. “Makes sense.”
She turned her face toward the window when his friend began chatting. It was hard not to listen, but what else could she do? From the conversation, she gathered the man whose lap she perched upon hadn’t seen his friend in quite some time.
“Hey, Montgomery,” the other men asked, “how long are you going to stay home this time?”
The man called Montgomery laughed, and his body vibrated from the movement. “Not sure. Until I’m bored, I guess. You know how I am.”
She sneaked a peek at him. Once in a while, they’d pass under a streetlight, and she glimpsed at his features. His shoulder length black hair was pulled back with a leather tie, and his groomed goatee was slightly darker in color. The only other thing she noticed about him was his heart-warming smile.
Before she could avert her gaze, he turned and caught her looking at him. Her heart hammered at being caught. She managed a smile, regardless.
“You see,” he explained, “I haven’t planted my feet in one place, yet. I wander all over.”
She nodded. “Oh.” She paused, and then asked, “All over where?”
“All over the world.”
She blinked with wide eyes. “What do you do for a living?” She didn’t quite understand why his friend chose that moment to laugh, but she kept her attention centered on the man with the great smile.
He chuckled. “A little of this, a little of that, but in my spare time, I model.”
Suddenly the man’s leg muscles beneath her hardened and her imagination ran wild. Men who modeled had tight, perfect bodies. What did he look like underneath his expensive tailored coat? Quickly, she stopped her train of thought. It didn’t matter what he looked like. It was inside a man that counted.
“Is that why you travel?” she asked.
“No, I travel because I can’t stay in one place for very long.”
She nodded, not impressed at all. Why did he look wealthy when it was obvious he didn’t have a steady job? “Is your family here in New York?”
“Yes. I was born and raised in this great state. How about you?”
“Where were you born?”
She turned her head and looked out the window. “Texas.”
“Really? You don’t have an accent.”
She shrugged, keeping her gaze out the window. “When I was eight, my parents were killed in an automobile accident. Eventually, my brother and I came here to live.”
“I’m sorry. Did you live with your relatives after the accident?” He stroked her leg in a tender gesture. His warm hand nearly melted her jeans.
She looked at him, and then just as quickly, dropped her gaze to her fingers as she absently toyed with the zipper of her jacket. “No. For two years after my parents died, my brother and I were shipped from relative to relative until we ran out of family members. Finally, the state put us with a foster family, and that’s where we grew up.”
A stretch of awkward silence spread between them. Mentally, she kicked herself in the butt for giving away so much information. What made her do it when she’d never been so open before? Was it because she actually enjoyed talking with him, and especially sitting this close to such an attractive man?
“Hey.” The man’s finger touched her chin and lifted her face so she could look at him. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Tell me what I can do to bring back your pretty smile.”
My pretty smile? Surprise washed over her from his comment and she almost laughed out loud from the hilarity of it all. Nobody had ever told her she had a lovely smile. Obviously, this man couldn’t see very well. Without being able to control it, the corners of her lips stretched upward. Her cheeks burned and she knew they shone inside the cab like beacon lights.
“There it is,” he cheered.
She chuckled and turned her face to the window. Her heart raced. It’d been quite a while since she experienced this kind of unsettling emotion. It reminded her of when she was in school and had a crush on a boy. So why did she have it now?
The man named Montgomery turned to his friend, and for the remainder of the ride she was content to listen to his soothing, deep baritone voice. When he laughed, flutters bounced in her stomach. He shifted her on his lap a couple different times, but his arms remained around her. By the end of her journey, she’d relaxed against him. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind.
The cab driver dropped her off first. Montgomery opened the door for her and helped her out. He followed.
“Hey, thanks for the exciting ride, sweetie.”
There’s that name again! Although she loathed cutesy nicknames, her cheeks warmed. “Thank you for letting me share your ride. How much do I owe the cabbie?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it taken care of.”
He grinned. “Because I like you.”
The temperature in her face shot up.
“Well, have a good life,” he told her.
She smiled. “You, too.”
“Maybe I’ll see you around some time.”
She shrugged. “Manhattan is very large.”
“You never know, though.” He gave her a wink before climbing back into the cab.
She kept her eyes on the back of the cab until it disappeared down the street. Strange that her body would react in such an odd way to a total stranger. She’d been with Tom for over five years, but during the past hour, as she sat on a stranger’s lap, she was more relaxed than she ever had been with Tom.
Shaking her head, she cleared the confusing thoughts. It was a good thing she wasn’t going to see that man again. Her heart might be in big trouble.