Passion & Ink #2

Chapter One

Cypress

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

I run writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron’s words of wisdom through my head like a mantra, and I clutch them like a drowning woman as I set down a pitcher of beer in the middle of a table surrounded by several more-than-halfway-to-tore-up frat boys.

There was a time I used my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting to monitor business accounts and analyze markets for expansion and acquisition opportunities. Now I’m using them to count tips and the number of times I’ve been propositioned and groped in one night.

Fuck. My. Life.

Having my ass squeezed or my breasts ogled is part of the job description in The Rabbit Hole, the dive bar in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village where I now work.  The irony of it all—after being blackballed from my former, high-five-figure-salary job for blowing the whistle on systematic sexual harassment—is not lost on me.

“Me and my boys are having a party at the frat house next week. You should come by. Pi Nu knows how to party,” Frat Boy #1 invites me with a drunken leer that I’m sure he believes makes all the girls drop their panties. Unfortunately for him, I’m not some naïve college girl, and I’ve never been that damn desperate in all my twenty-six years. “We could use a girl with your—” The leer deepened, passing annoying and steaming full-speed ahead to yuck. “Assets.”

Since he’s staring at my tits and reaching for my ass, it doesn’t take my two degrees to decipher his meaning of “assets.” What the hell? Not only is he a douche, but not even an original douche. Do they offer classes in Asshole 101 at his university? And this is a perfect example of a future asshole that will probably one day run a company like the one I quit. Making it hard for women everywhere to come to work, do their jobs, and not be harassed.

You need this job. You can’t pour beer over the customers’ heads. You need this job.

I silently repeat the reminder over and over as my lips stretch into a smile that feels so brittle, it should crack right down the middle. I manage to evade his hand, but not quickly enough that his blunt fingertips don’t glance over the upper curve. Nausea churns in my stomach, and the anger inside me threatens to spill over until I raze him, his buddies, and the city block The Rabbit Hole sits on to the ground.

That now-familiar sense of helplessness and powerlessness swirls inside me, damn near swamping me. I hate that it’s familiar. I hate that I’m giving someone the control to make me feel this way. Again.

I hate that I don’t know how to stop.

“Thanks for the invite,” I grind out, turning and heading for the bar. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“You do that,” he says as I turn away. “Look at the ass on her,” he groans.

I could give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he assumed I was out of earshot. But I stopped being that naïve around fifth grade when I discovered why Bobby Russo constantly asked Sister Mary Catherine to sing the “Pussywillow Song,” then snickered with his friends in the back of the classroom.

As I scan my tables to see if they need more alcohol, food, or clearing, my cell buzzes in my back pocket. Though Ben, my manager, frowns on the servers being on their phones while on shift, I slip it free and turn toward the bar to conceal my wrongdoing. It could be Mom. With her, it could be anything from having a “bad day” to something regarding her heart attack and surgery three months earlier. After that terrifying voicemail informing me my mother had collapsed in the middle school cafeteria where she’s worked as long as I can remember, I can’t ignore a call. Especially now that her doctor wants her to have another surgery, I’m too scared to not answer.

Cradling the phone between my hip and the bar, I glance down at the screen and glimpse the notification. The niggling worry evaporates as relief slides in, quickly followed by irritation. And resignation.

Dad.

Probably another invitation to Sunday dinner at his house. With his wife.

The woman who replaced my mother in his life all those years ago.

With a family who replaced me.

One of my customers waves a hand in my direction, and gratefulness sweeps through me like a cool, brisk breeze. Good. Any distraction that keeps me from tripping down that too-travelled, pitted road is welcome. Nothing but regrets, pain, and pointless what-if’s litter that path, and I’m too damn tired of stumbling over them.

Minutes later, with an order for drinks and food delivered, I smother a sigh and head in the direction of the back booth in my section. Twenty minutes until my break. And three and a half more hours before I can escape this place and hide in my apartment until Saturday night, since I have a rare Friday off. Hell, my roommate might be kicking me out in a week to move her boyfriend back in—the “asshat, cheating bastard who could go suck a dick” boyfriend who she would supposedly never forgive—but that’s a week from now. For tomorrow, at least, I have a place to sleep.

Forcing my lips into a smile that I hope is more “Welcome, I’m delighted to serve you,” than “Oh my God, why are you here?” I approach the curved booth with its lone occupant, flipping to a clean sheet in my order pad.

“Hi, welcome to The Rabbit Hole. My name is Ro.” I lift my head. “What can I…start…you…?”

The usual spiel dries up on my tongue like all the moisture in my mouth. My eyes widen—I can freaking feel them grow round—and I try to swallow past a throat as tight as Kris Jenner’s face after a Botox session.  The thud of my heart echoes in my head like thunder across a threatening, dark sky, and prickles of heat sting my face, throat, and chest.

Holy shit.

He’s…beautiful.

Angel-appearing-to-shepherds-with-tidings-of-joy beautiful.

Dark blond hair the shade of muddied gold just dug up from the earth frames his face in short chunks of curls while longer strands fall over his forehead and brush his cheekbones. And good God, those cheekbones. Slashing blades under tawny skin, they appear sharp enough to cut open the flesh of my thumbs if I brushed a caress over them.

My impatient, hungry gaze skips down to a mouth that has my thighs tightening. As if I can already feel those soft-but-almost-cruel lips with the slightly fuller bottom curve between my legs, rubbing over my pussy, latching onto my clit. Sucking… A shiver works its way through me.

It’s been a long time—over a year—since a man has been inside me, and staring at the wide shoulders and broad chest covered in a black, long-sleeved shirt, I’m viscerally aware of every month and day of my sexual deprivation. It’s dim in the bar, and even darker in this corner of the room, but, Jesus, I can still make out the hard, thick muscles that his Henley can’t begin to conceal.

I drag in a breath through my suddenly unrestricted throat. Funny how my abstinence didn’t seem important until this moment. Until a man with the body of a god and the face of an…

Had I said angel?

Scratch that. Archangel.

Because no mere angel whose sole purpose is announcing immaculate births and guarding people could possess eyes so hot, so knowing, so…fierce.

Green fire. A blazing emerald fire that could consume anything—or anyone—in its path.

God, yes. Only a battle-scarred warrior angel has eyes like that.

My mouth again finds a smile. Albeit a shaky one. “What can I start you off with?”

“A Hopsurd and a shot of Jameson,” he says in a low rumble of a voice that is black velvet laid over churned-up gravel. “You’re new.”

Scribbling down the IPA beer and the whiskey, I stare down at my pad with focused concentration like the Ten Commandments suddenly appeared on them.

“Not really,” I reply briskly. “I’ve been here about two months.”

He flicks a glance down my body and then back up to my face, but instead of making me feel the need to loofah with rock salt and cement like with the frat boys, the quick survey has me fighting the urge to stroke my hand over every place his scrutiny touched. To capture and massage the sensual tingling into my skin. To wonder if those lips would be soft, or firm and demanding as they slid over my breast and closed around my nipple. With that slightly cruel slant to that beautiful mouth, I vote for demanding…

Oh for God’s sake. Get. It. Together.

“I’ll go put this in and be right back.”

I don’t run from the booth, because that would be undignified.

But I damn sure power walk.

Minutes later, I head back to his table with his IPA and whiskey, and a disquieting sense of being watched scurries through me. Without even looking up, I know his gaze is on me.

In my uniform of painted on black skinny jeans, boots, and a tight T-shirt with the bar’s name blazoned across my breasts, I’m well-accustomed to eyes resting on me, stripping me down. Yet his scrutiny is as different from the others as a fingerprint. It’s unique. His. Mainly because of how it causes my stomach to twist in a sweet but gnawing ache. How it causes my pussy to clench, spasming in emptiness. How it reminds me of how long it’s been since I gave another person permission to touch me. How I miss it.

Approaching his booth as carefully as if I’m balancing on a suspended tight rope above a gasping crowd, I keep my eyes on the drinks and floor, bracing myself for the impact of facing him again.

A useless effort.

As soon as I set the beer bottle and glass in front of him and lift my head, I’m ensnared. Helplessly. Powerlessly. Fucking willingly.

“Thanks.” He picks up the beer and twists the cap off, and damn if I don’t find the sight of that big, strong hand with its long, surprisingly elegant fingers wrapped around the bottle. No doubt he could be both gentle and rough with those hands.

Unbidden, images of him being both with me—in me—flash through my head in vivid, technicolor, HD clarity. He could fill me with those fingers. Two of them could probably stretch me, make my neglected flesh burn. God, I want to burn.

“If you don’t need anything else—”

“What’s your name again?” he interrupts, lifting the beer to his lips, taking a sip, and waiting for my answer while I wrestle with my jealousy of a bottle getting some up-close-and-personal action with those lips.

It’s official. I need help. The kind of help that comes with a dick and orgasm.

“Ro,” I eventually shove out. Jesus, the effect he has on me. There’s no other explanation that justifies why I almost uttered “Cypress Winters.” Giving any customer in this dump my real name is on my top list of no-nos. Right under fucking one of them. It’s another barrier I can place between me and them. And as silly as it may seem, it’s less of myself I have to give away. Ro is a costume, a mask I slip into when I enter this place.

“You’re not from here, are you?”

“No.” I shake my head. “California.” At least for the last ten years. But he doesn’t need to know my life story when this is the last time we’re going to talk unless he wants another round. “If you need anything—”

“You.”

I blink. Then blink again. The blunt, rough answer rocks through me, a sucker punch that threatens to lay me out if I don’t shake it off. But God, I’m having a hard time shoving past the automatic flare of lust that blazes inside me, licking at my nipples, my clit. Self-preservation has me backpedaling a step before I catch myself. I’ve vowed to never be weak again, especially in front of a man. And though there’s no predatory glitter in that steady, unwavering gaze, it still makes me feel vulnerable. Like prey exposing its throat.

“What?” I rasp. And wince. Outrage. There should’ve been outrage in that question instead of hoarse shock and, goddammit, need. “Look, you might not have noticed, but I’m working, so…” I trail off, again taking a step away from the temptation that is him.

“Wait. I’m sorry. I’m fucking this up.” He shakes his head, more of those longer strands of hair falling into his eyes before he shoves them back. “I get it,” he murmurs, and yet I have no problem hearing him above the music, chatter, and raucous laughter in the bar. Maybe because, in spite of my internal alarm blaring like a tornado warning, I move closer until the edge of the table presses into my thighs. “You’re used to random strangers dropping some line on you, and that’s probably how I’m coming across. But to tell you the truth, I’ve had a shitty day. Scratch that, a shitty week. Which is why I came here in the first place—to drink and forget about it for a little while.” He leans forward, resting his forearms on the table and pinning me in place with that mesmerizing stare. I set my tray on the table in silent invitation for him to continue and sink my teeth into the flesh behind my bottom lip to prevent myself from asking what happened to make his day—no, week—so horrible. “Then I saw you. Gorgeous, so close, but untouchable. And the most attractive thing you have going on? I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I could be brutally honest with you or lie my ass off, and you wouldn’t know the difference. You ever want that, Ro? To be someone else just for a little while?”

About every other hour. I briefly close my eyes, the part of me I thought had been successfully atrophied by disillusionment, betrayal, and pain stirs, troubled by that…something in his voice. Longing, need, a quiet desperation. The same things that reverberate and rattle inside of me every night when the noise stops and there’s nothing left to distract me from my thoughts, my memories. From me.

I loathe and fear those hours.

And a part of me resents him for making me acknowledge it.

Why couldn’t he just proposition me for a quick screw like every other man—and the occasional woman—in this place? I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a stranger to one-night stands. Relationships have never been my thing, but sex has been. Not that I’ve gone there with anyone at The Rabbit Hole, but a few hours of pleasure where two people are up front about what they want, with no messy feelings and broken promises of commitment and fidelity muddying up the works, are my specialty.

But something warns me that this man wouldn’t be an uncomplicated get in, get me off, and get out. He reeks of “complicated.” Oh, I have zero doubts he could more than handle the get-me-off part, but the rest? I’m not certain him leaving would be a simple thing. Especially since I might not want him to go as soon as the orgasm fades. Considering how my body lights up like the fireworks over Disneyland at just the sight of him, that’s entirely too possible for my comfort.

And emotional security.

Jesus. I part my lips to say…hell if I know, but before I can say anything, he curses and, reaching into his pocket, removes a cell phone.

“Goddamn it,” he growls, scanning the screen. His full lips flatten into a grim line. He flicks a glance up at me, and the raw lust there mixed with such turmoil sends me reeling, even though I don’t move. Once more, I’m battling the urge to ask him what put that vulnerability there. “I’m sorry,” he says to me for the second time in the last few minutes. “Never mind. I have to…” He frowns, sliding out of the booth and standing to his full height. I’m not a small chick, yet he towers over me. Thrusting a hand into his pocket, he withdraws his wallet and several bills. “Thank you for the drink, Ro,” he murmurs.

Numbly, I take the money, and with one more bruised glance, he stalks away, headed in the direction of the bathrooms and the alley that runs alongside the bar.

Good. This is good. He walked away before I could do something incredibly stupid like ask him what’s wrong. Leave myself open for him to dig in my life.

It all worked out the way it was supposed to.

And minutes later, when I shrug into my coat and trace the same path he took, it’s because I’m taking my last break of the night. Not to find out if he’s out there.

Maybe I would be able to believe my own lies if anticipation wasn’t speeding through my veins at just the thought of seeing him again.