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“I’m allergic to Valentine’s Day.” Rosie Smith stared into her second strawberry daiquiri, which had failed to make the happy hour in the crowded Soho bar remotely happy – even at two-for-one prices. “Either that or I’m suffering from PTVD.”
Her friend, Tash, spat out a mouthful of her own daiquiri. “Bloody hell, Rosie, have you been to the clinic to have it checked out?”
“It’s not a communicable disease, you muppet. It’s worse than that,” Rosie replied. “I have Post Traumatic Valentine’s Day Disorder.” She glanced around the packed bar in London’s West End, festooned with enough pink and fluffy décor to make the Sugarplump Fairy barf. “Because anything red and sparkly and/or shaped like a love-heart brings me out in hives. And those penis-shaped deely boppers are making me want to puke.”
A thirty-strong hen party had entered the bar ten minutes ago, each one shouting and laughing and proudly sporting phalluses springing from the alice bands on their heads – inadvertently making an ironic statement about how Valentine’s Day brought out the dickhead in every man, to Rosie’s way of thinking.
She sighed, gazing into the vibrant red cocktail. “And when I woke up this morning I actually missed Vince. You know we broke up a year ago today? Which means my love life has now officially sucked for twelve solid months.”
Rosie’s other bestie, Imogen – better known as Imo the Emo because of the Goth phase she’d never grown out of – sent Rosie a death stare through the eyeliner she’d OD’d on that morning. “You don’t miss Vince. Because Vince was a dick. And you’re probably just allergic to V-Day because, like every other single woman with more than two functioning brain cells to rub together, you’ve figured out it’s a corporate myth manufactured to sell greeting cards and overpriced flower arrangements.”
“Spoken like someone else who hasn’t humped anything without batteries in over a year,” Tash replied good-naturedly, laughing off Imo’s death stare. “But our resident femi-nazi is right about one thing.” She laid a consoling hand over Rosie’s on the sticky table of the booth they’d managed to secure across from the long antique bar. “Not having sex for over a year is bad for your mental health.”
“When did I say that?” Imo grumbled.
“You didn’t, because you’re a lost cause,” Tash continued. “But Rosie isn’t. Not yet.”
“Then why am I doing such a good impression of one?” Rosie asked, hating the miserable tone, but unable to shake it.
How could she possibly be missing her ex-boyfriend? Vince had been a dick. Informing her after she’d cooked them a special meal on Valentine’s Day and even worn the seedy crotchless panties he’d bought her for Christmas, that he wanted more space in their relationship. Which turned out to be code for he wanted to shag the nineteen-year-old intern at his architectural practice without fear of reprisals.
Vince hadn’t just been a dick. He’d been a dick with an appalling taste in lingerie, whom she’d been an idiot to trust. And she hadn’t thought about him in months. But this morning, when she’d woken up without a date on Valentine’s Day, or the prospect of getting one in the foreseeable future, Rosie’s neat, tidy apartment had seemed emptier than usual.
And she’d actually become a tiny bit wistful at the memory of Vince’s dirty socks lying by the washing basket, the crumbs he’d always left on the countertop and the gunk he’d never cleaned off the bathroom sink after shaving. And it had been bringing her down all day.
Why had she found it so hard to connect with anyone new in the last year? Was she on the shelf for life already, at twenty-six?
She’d gone on a few dates, during her half-hearted spree of online dating a few months ago. But she’d never managed a second date and had eventually deleted her profile, bored with the email flirting that promised much, only to deliver either an interminable half hour of arduous conversation over a caramel latte in the local Starbucks, or a request for a Snapchat of her boobs.
“You’re not a lost cause,” Tash said, interrupting Rosie’s maudlin thoughts. “But drastic action is called for or you soon will be. We don’t want your lady bits to dry up and desiccate like Imo’s.”
“Piss off, Tash. Just because my lady bits don’t have ADHD,” Imo mumbled.
“Exactly how drastic is drastic?” Rosie asked, because drastic for Tash might be a smidgen outside Rosie’s comfort zone.
“Drastic as in, we need to get your sex life fully operational again.”
“My sex life isn’t the Starship Enterprise, you know.”
“Au contraire,” Tash said, grinning. “If we could boldly get Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk to go down on you your problems would be solved.”
Rosie all but choked on her daiquiri as Imo laughed, but she couldn’t deny the definite spark of something hot and fluid.
While she and Vince hadn’t had a spectacular sex life, she had missed the flesh to flesh connection that couldn’t be provided by her top-of-the-range vibrator – or even an X-rated Trekkie fantasy.
Tash refilled Rosie’s daiquiri glass to the brim from the pitcher on the table. “But in the absence of Chris, we need to get your sex life back up to warp speed with what’s on offer.” She clinked her glass against Rosie’s and took a healthy sip. “Here. Tonight.”
“But I’ve already tried dating,” Rosie pointed out, not ready to jump back into that shark tank again while she was feeling vulnerable. “It was a lot of time and effort for no return.”
“We’re not talking dating. That was your first mistake with Vince, thinking you wanted to keep him. What you need right now is Hot Shag Against a Wall Guy – not Cheating Asshole Who Moves In With You Guy.” She craned her neck, to look past Rosie’s shoulder. “So let’s check out the available talent and see if we can find a willing victim.” She coughed, theatrically. “I mean a likely candidate.”
“Good luck with finding any talent in this dump,” Imogen said, but the interested gleam in her panda eyes as she craned her neck too told a different story.
Rosie sipped her daiquiri, not convinced, as Imo and Tash scanned the bar, which was packed on a Friday night with the two-for-one cocktail hour crowd, the penis-wearing hen party and assorted tourists and Valentine’s Day revelers. But as her friends began suggesting and then discarding the few likely victims on offer, the pleasant buzz of too many daiquiris had Rosie actually considering Tash’s outrageous suggestion.
Would it be so bad to cut loose just this once? She’d never had a one-night stand before, always more interested in making an emotional connection than a sexual one. But there was no law that said you always had to be looking for the long-haul? And if one hot night with a hot guy would ensure she never again got melancholy about not having shaving gunk in her sink, perhaps it was worth a shot?
Her spirits slumped. That said, Imo and Tash would have to find a likely candidate first.
“Oh-My-Fucking-God, over there at twelve o’clock.” Tash yanked Rosie’s arm hard enough to slosh daiquiri over her hand. “We’ve found him.”
“Shit, Tash, try and at least be a little subtle, or he’ll see us.” Imo hunched, being a bit disingenuous for someone who made themselves up everyday to look like Rocky Raccoon.
“There! Right behind you,” Tash said in a stage whisper, her only concession to subtle, as she pointed over Rosie’s shoulder. “This end of the bar, wearing the leather jacket and the sexy scowl. He’s abso-fricking-luscious. Check out those shoulders. And those hands. If he doesn’t have a huge willy and know exactly what to do with it, I’ll eat my tits. That guy’s not just smokin’, he’s on fire. As are my lady bits right now.”
“Well spotted,” Imogen agreed, which for her was like erecting a shrine to the guy.
Rosie swung round to take a look, ready to be unimpressed. Her standards were a good deal higher than Tash’s. But as her gaze landed on Mr. Abso-Fricking-Luscious – because it had to be him – her heartbeat slowed to a crawl, and then galloped to light speed.
He certainly had the wow factor. Because even though Rosie’s lady bits had never been as combustible as Tash’s, they were definitely doing a Snoopy dance.
Day-old stubble covered a chiseled jaw and sculpted cheekbones, complementing the thick dark hair that flowed down to touch the collar of his jacket. Rosie dug her nails into her palms, to contain the urge to run her fingers through the unkempt waves, which looked tactile and sexily disheveled instead of stiff with product. The black jeans and battered jacket completed the rough-around-the-edges look, fitting his muscular body and wide shoulders to perfection.
And every single thing about him screamed: I couldn’t give a shit about Valentine’s Day.
Rosie’s pulse jumped. Mr. Abso-Fricking-Luscious wasn’t just hot, he was a badass. No wonder he stood out from the Soho crowd – who probably thought going to a party in Peckham after dark was a walk on the wild side.
Then again, what single person wouldn’t feel surly after walking into a bar decorated in heart-shaped balloons and packed to the rafters with boozy women sporting sparkly penis-shaped deely boppers?
Rosie smiled, recognizing a fellow hostage to the loved-up party atmosphere and the warm glow of kinship combined with the heady blast of sexual awareness.
The vision of kneeling in front of him to locate the zip tab on his jeans with her teeth blasted into her brain and sent all the blood spiraling south.
James T. Kirk, eat your heart out.
“He’s even hotter than Chris Pine,” Rosie murmured.
Tash did a fist pump. “Excellent, we have a winner. Now let’s figure out how to hook you two up for the evening.”
But then the stranger lifted his fingers to attract the barman’s attention. And the barman instantly detached his gaze from the cleavage he had been chatting up most of the evening as if responding to his master’s voice.
Rosie gulped down another mouthful of daiquiri – with a hefty dose of reality. “I’m not approaching him.” She was a booty call virgin, for goodness sake. Running before she could walk would risk getting a slap-down that could flatten her ego for good. And she really didn’t need to feel any more inadequate. Tonight of all nights.
“Don’t be daft, why not?” Tash asked. “He’s perfect. You said so yourself.”
“No I didn’t. I said he was hot. But there’s hot, and there’s too hot.” She gave Tash her best ‘duh’ look. “I don’t want to get burned. I should start with someone less intimidating…” She nodded towards a thin bespectacled guy playing on one of the bar’s vintage pinball machines, who she vaguely recalled Tash and Imo discarding earlier. “How about Bill Gates over there?”
“Bill is out.” Tash was adamant. “He’s probably more interested in getting onto the leader board than scoring a touchdown with you. And those glasses have definite nurture-me vibes. Too hot is what you want, or you’ll only get hooked into his nerd drama and go into share and discuss mode. That’s how you ended up letting Vince the Dick move in with you, remember? When he told you that sob story about his mother which wasn’t even true.”
Rosie’s gaze landed back on Mr. Too Hot. “But what if I get hooked into this guy’s drama? He looks sort of lonely don’t you think?” The surly look had to have a cause? She wondered what it could be? Had he been dumped on Valentine’s Day too?
“Rosie, focus.” Tash snapped her fingers in front of Rosie’s nose. “You won’t get hooked into anything as long as you follow the three golden rules of booty call engagements.” Her friend held up her fingers to count them down, as if instructing the pottery class at the art college where all three of them worked on how to make the perfect throw down. “No surnames. No personal questions and under no circumstances are you to consider keeping him. Remember this is a use-him-then-lose-him deal. No relationship agendas allowed. Or you could end up getting hurt again. And that is not what this is about.” Tash’s gaze locked back on her prey. “But I don’t think you need to worry. I can spot a bad boy at thirty paces. If that guy ever had a mother, he’s not looking for another.”
“Right,” Rosie said.
Could she crush her curiosity about him? Ignore that blast of kinship? Put her desire to nurture on lockdown? Could one night of anonymous sex really cure her V-Day allergy and re-boot her love life?
She shot back the last of the chilly daiquiri to ease the dryness in her throat and refilled her glass. Then asked herself the toughest question of all.
Could she hook up with a complete stranger to find out?
Her pulse raced, as she listened with half an ear to her friends composing the ‘perfect chat-up line’, the hum of excitement surprising her.
An exceptionally hot complete stranger…
But then she saw the hot stranger’s brows draw down as he spoke to the barman, making the surly frown even hotter. And her anticipation raced straight back into that brick wall called reality.
Forget perfect. This chat-up line is going to have to be super-human if it’s going to get a badass like him to want to hook up with me.
“Give me a glass of whatever beer you’ve got on tap,” Caleb Landry shouted above the collective shrieking of the party of women behind him wearing bouncing pink dicks on their heads.
“Sorry, mate, the taps are out,” the barman replied. “We’ve got bottles of cherry-flavored lager or strawberry cocktails left and that’s about it.”
Cal scowled at the guy, who looked about seventeen. Son of a bitch, who did he have to kill to get a drink that wasn’t fucking pink tonight? “Guinness?”
Baby-face nodded. “Bottled, yeah. Although I can’t guarantee it’s cold.”
“Not a problem, I’ll take one.” Cal had worked for six months in a pub in Temple Bar eleven years ago, back when he’d first arrived in Europe, age eighteen, looking for anonymity, adventure and a chance to take his photography to the next level. The pictures he’d taken in Dublin’s tourist mecca had mostly been of gullible tourists and hammered rugby fans, but while there he’d discovered the smooth, rich, restorative qualities of Ireland’s favorite stout. And smooth was what he needed tonight, to blunt the jagged edges after six days spent handling his old man’s affairs and dealing with the ghosts of his childhood, and twenty-four hours spent traveling back to London from the no-hope small town near Buffalo in Upstate New York where he’d grown up.
Drinking alone tonight would be bad, because of all the stuff he didn’t want to think about after burying his father – not to mention the nightmare that had accosted him at the funeral. So he’d jumped off the subway from Heathrow at Leicester Square and headed into Soho. Forgetting tonight was Valentine’s Day had been his second mistake. But he was stuck in the eye of the hurricane now until he got hammered enough to be able to face his empty apartment alone. Drinking anything pink, though, was out, because he did not need another reminder that every guy in this place was liable to get lucky tonight except him.
Hell, probably even Barman Baby Face.
What he wouldn’t give to have a warm body to take home and slide up against tonight. A body which was soft and round in all the right places and smelled of perfume and sin and could help take the emptiness away, no questions asked. But that wasn’t going to happen, because women always had questions, even when it came to one-night hook-ups. And anything resembling conversation was off the agenda after a week spent talking to funeral directors and lawyers and IRS bureaucrats … And that bastard, Decker.
We need to talk, son.
The strained words spoken by West Daley County’s chief of police at the crematorium echoed in his head from two days before.
Who the hell did the guy think he was? Trying to dump that crap on him at his old man’s funeral? Dan Landry had been the only father he wanted, the only father that meant anything. He didn’t want to know what had happened between Decker and his mother. Not now. Not ever.
His fingers clenched into a fist, all the fury and confusion that had burst out when he was a kid – and he’d seen the suspicious looks, heard the whispered comments, endured the taunts of the other kids – came flooding back. His knuckles throbbed with the familiar urge to hit out instead of holding back.
Don’t believe a word of it, kid, your Mom was a good woman. Whatever they said you’ve got to turn the other cheek, because you’re the only one who’s getting hurt.
The memory of his father’s weary faith in a woman who had never deserved it had Cal’s fingers releasing. He flexed his hand, and waited for the urge to pass. The way he’d finally learned to do back then, by using his camera lens to separate himself and his life from the endless gossip and name-calling and small-mindedness of the good people of West Daley – who all seemed to think that someone else’s business was theirs to own.
Shake it off. You don’t have to punch Decker. You just have to forget him.
He’d torn up Decker’s card, and he wasn’t ever going to contact the guy. So that was the end of it. No harm, no foul.
Even so, when the barman returned with his Guinness, Cal stared into the dark liquid and knew it was going to take a lot more than one bottle to get hammered enough to go home alone tonight. He took a long drag, and let the rich malty taste start to take some of the bitterness away.
But as he threw a ten-pound note on to the bar, slim fingers touched his forearm. He turned and tensed, the sight of the heart-shaped face beaming at him making him feel as if he’d just taken a sucker punch to the gut.
The woman’s apple cheeks glowed in the muted lighting from the bar. The dusky pink of her skin contrasting with the fluorescent cocktail she had in her hand.
He sucked in a careful breath, getting his bearings back.
She wasn’t what you’d call conventionally pretty. Her mouth a little too wide, the red-brown curls rioting round her face a mess, her eyes slanted at the edges to give them a sleepy quality. But she was striking – the high cheekbones, the delicate line of her throat, the pulse fluttering in her collarbone and those come-to-bed eyes. His fingers itched again, but this time for the Leica that was packed in the bag at his feet – the desire to take some shots of her instant and unstoppable.
But then her small white teeth dug into her bottom lip and professional interest was obliterated by the yank of lust.
Her lush mouth curved up and the crooked half-smile looked so hot, he began to wonder if she was actually real. Was he hammered already? After one sip? He had to be more stressed than he thought.
“Hello…” She cleared her throat, the single word coming out on a husk of breath and relief spun through his system. She was real all right. And not just a figment of his desperation to get laid. Good to know.
“Hi.” He noticed the sparkle of interest in her eyes and hoped like hell it was the result of her appreciation, and not inebriation.
She lifted her fingers from his arm, and he missed the light pressure through his jacket immediately.
“I have a favor to ask you,” she said, the smoky English accent speaking directly to his cock. And making him totally forget why he wasn’t in the mood for small talk tonight.
“Yeah?” Whatever the favor was, her cheeks were glowing redder than the cocktail now.
“My friends, who are over there…” She pointed across the bar and he clocked a couple of women in the booth opposite waving. “Have come up with what they think is the perfect chat-up line and dared me to use it on you. So if you could just pretend I’m doing that for a couple of minutes I’d appreciate it or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
She climbed onto the stool beside him and veered to one side.
He grabbed her arm to stop her toppling any further. She gave a squeak of distress, her skin soft and warm under his fingers, before her fluorescent drink splattered his T-shirt.
“Oh shit.” Dumping the glass, she grabbed napkins from the dispenser on the bar. “I knew this would be a disaster.”
“Was that part of the pick-up plan?” he asked, enjoying the feel of her fingers dabbing frantically at his pec. And then feeling kind of pathetic. Exactly how long had it been since a beautiful woman had touched him?
She met his gaze, those slanted eyes going round with confusion.
“To cover me in cocktail?” he elaborated, wondering why any woman who had that striking face, and eyes that arresting shade of blue-green would need a pick-up line.
“Oh no, not at all, that was an accident…”
“Then let’s have it.”
“Have what?” She stopped dabbing, and her teeth sunk back into that pouty bottom lip. She’d chewed off any lipstick, leaving the skin naturally reddened. His crotch twitched at the thought of nipping the plump curve and then licking it better. “The perfect pick-up line?” he coaxed. “What is it?”
She shook her head, making the red-brown curls bounce on her shoulders. “I’m not telling you. It’s awful.”
His first genuine smile in over a week began to work its way loose from his chest. “That bad, huh?”
“Worse,” she said with feeling. “It’s so bad it could get me arrested. For crimes against flirting. They think they’re being helpful because I have an allergy to Valentine’s Day.”
Her wide mouth tipped up at the edges, and his head began to spin. No doubt from his jet lag.
“If they don’t, they should have,” she said, her enthusiastic agreement making him wonder what her gripe could be? Because she looked like the type who would usually buy into all the hearts-and-flowers bullshit. Her open face and blue-green eyes guileless enough to give Bambi a run for his money.
“I promise not to have you arrested,” he said, hoping the line was dirty. Something dirty coming out of that lush mouth would be almost as erotic as watching her chew her lip.
“It’s hopelessly cheesy,” she countered. Then glared at her friends, who were still watching their every move as if they had stakes in this game.
“Pick-up lines usually are.” Not that he had a lot in his arsenal. He generally preferred straight talking when it came to sex. But he was intrigued now. As well as being seriously turned on.
She licked her top lip, her tongue touching the dip in the center. He felt the phantom stroke right across the head of his cock.
Damn, that mouth was killing him.
“Do you absolutely promise not to have me arrested?” she said.
“I swear.” He crossed a finger over the sticky patch on his chest. “Now quit stalling and let’s have it.”
“All right, but remember you asked for it.” She took a deep breath, which made the top button on her shirt strain. The hint of cleavage was coy enough to leave far too much to his sex-starved imagination.
She blew the breath back out. “I’m supposed to tell you, I’m giving out free hugs for Valentine’s Day and that you look like you need one.” Her blush shot back into the red zone. “You see what I mean? So cheesy it hurts.”
And nowhere near as filthy as he’d hoped.
He frowned. “What makes you think I need a free hug?” he asked, annoyed that the dumb line had tapped straight into the empty space inside him. The space that had opened up a week ago, when he’d gotten the two am call from the Sheriff’s Department to say his father had died from a heart condition he’d known nothing about.
“Because you looked so pissed off…” she answered, sounding apologetic.
He tried to dial down on the frown. Don’t scare her off, you dick.
“Which is perfectly understandable given all the plastic penises on display here tonight…” She qualified quickly. But then she tilted her head to one side, considering. “And because you look sort of sad too.”
He stared, not sure what the hell to say. He didn’t spill his guts to women, especially not ones he’d only just met. And he wasn’t about to start talking about his recent bereavement, or the shit storm Decker had tried to unload on him, to anyone. But that didn’t stop her easy understanding from unsettling him. Was it that obvious?
You need to work harder, Landry.
But before he could think of what to say, to deflect her concern and cover his crappy mood, she climbed off the stool.
“All of which is none of my business. I should go.”
“Hey, wait up.” He snagged her wrist before she could get away, determined to shift the conversation back where it belonged. He could still salvage this seduction, which had the potential to provide exactly the distraction he needed tonight. All he had to do was locate the man he’d been a week ago, before he’d gotten that phone call.
The man who could travel the globe taking pictures of other people’s pain without letting it get to him. The man who never had to deal with his own drama, because he’d become an expert at ignoring it. The man who had never had a problem talking a beautiful woman into mutually assured orgasms and knew how to deliver satisfaction, guaranteed.
That guy would have knocked this pick-up out of the park already.
“I don’t need a free hug,” he said. Just to be clear.
She nodded, but she didn’t look as if she believed him, those enchanting sea-green eyes still seeing much more than he wanted them to see.
Time to play hard ball.
“But a free kiss…” He leaned towards her to whisper in her ear, and felt her shudder of response as he got a lungful of her scent – fresh and sexy and so full of potential his cock strangled in his jeans. “A free kiss I could definitely use.”
Her teeth grazed her bottom lip again. And the smile he’d been holding hostage for what felt like a month worked itself loose.
Hell yeah, the man is back.
End of Excerpt