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SEXT by Penny Wylder (1)

1

I take a deep breath and study myself in the mirror behind the bar. Okay, so he’s 30 minutes late already. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. The MTA has been a shitshow lately. Maybe his train got stuck. Maybe he got held up at work. Maybe…

Maybe he’s not like every other asshole you’ve been out with this week?

I sigh and pull out my phone to scroll through his profile again.

“Rich, aka Dick,” I read, scrolling through his photos. There’s the obligatory bathroom mirror selfie, complete with chiseled abs (albeit a really bad choice since you can see the tile mold on the wall behind him from this angle), one of him and some friends, who all have the same buzz cut, so it’s honestly pretty hard to tell which one is even him, and then the usual headshot. In that one, he’s holding a pint of beer and grinning slyly at the camera, like he wants to fuck it.

The profile itself isn’t exactly a winner. Gym, tan, and pay for someone else to do my laundry, it reads, with a little winking face.

So, okay, maybe I only swiped right because of that grin. Sue me. This new app has been bringing in the same undateable guys as all the others I’ve tried—despite the fact that at least four of my coworkers raved about how different this one was, how the guys were such high quality. I figured if I had to go on another bad date, at least it could be with a hottie.

But now karma’s being a bitch, and it looks like I’m about to get stood up. Again.

I slide my drink across the bar and sigh at my reflection as the bartender refills my glass. I look smoking hot tonight. All that effort for nothing.

I review my recent candidates. There was the programmer last month who told me in great detail about how he “games the game.” In this case, what he meant was he hacked the codes behind the app and programmed it to send him pictures of only the most popular chicks. I guess I should be flattered that I was included, but I was mostly creeped out by his obsession with algorithms and finding the hottest (mathematically proven, of course) girlfriend. “It’s why I always end up dating chicks way out of my league,” he explained with a wink. Then he proceeded to show me photos of his most recent ex.

“She is very hot,” I agreed, silently adding, and how on earth did she decide to sleep with you?

After that date, there was the professional body-builder who spent most of the date trying to sell me into his protein-smoothie pyramid scheme. Did I mention said date was a happy hour for his protein-smoothie business? Then came the insurance salesman who got a little too detailed talking about life insurance schemes—Double Indemnity red flags, much?

There was the finance bro who bought me one drink, then invited me back to his place… And when I declined, he complained so loudly about the expense of the drink he’d bought me that I frog-marched him to the nearest ATM, took out cash, and threw a twenty in his face. I mean, first of all, do I look like a hooker? And second of all, if I were a hooker, I would cost a lot more than one crappy martini at a Wall Street after-work bar.

Which brings me here. Tonight. Waiting on yet another guy who will…

“Miss?”

I look up to find the bartender returning my card. “What’s wrong, was it declined?” Shit. I paid this one off last month. It definitely still has room on the balance.

“No, miss. It’s just that the gentleman on the far end has covered your tab.”

I glance down the bar to find Mr. Shirtless Bathroom Selfie himself lifting a glass in my direction.

Okay, so maybe he’s not the worst. There could still be hope.

I pick up my drink and head down the bar to meet him. “Rich?”

He leans in for the cheek kiss/one-armed hug and I awkwardly shuffle my drink to avoid spilling it down his shirt front. “It’s Dick, actually. Rich was my dad’s name.”

Probably should have stuck with it anyway, I think unfairly, as I take the bar stool beside him. “Dick. I’m Clove.” Not like I have room to talk anyway.

“Also a family name?” He stays standing beside me, leaning against the counter. His knee brushes mine, in a not entirely unpleasant way. At least, at first.

“Nope, one and only.” I lift my glass in a mocking toast.

He taps his to mine, eyes sharp and zeroed in on me. “Oh, I can see that.”

“Should we get a table or…?”

He shrugs and leans on the back of my stool. He’s so up in my personal space that if I try to lean backward, I’ll land in the lap of the woman beside me. It’s hard to even lift my drink to take another sip because his chest is pressed against my whole right side. I switch hands and lean on the bar instead, trying to put some breathing room between us. His knee, meanwhile, is nearly crushing my leg.

“I’m good here,” he says. He glances over my head at the selection. “Besides, not like we’ll be here long.”

You could say that again. I clear my throat, resist the urge to bolt off of this stool here and now. There is no man hot enough to make up for the way his breath smells either, like stale beer and sour cream and onion potato chips. “Busy day at the office?” I ask, following his gaze mostly so I can turn away from him.

He leans harder against my leg. My toes tingle, starting to go numb. “Huh? No, I had the day off. Just got back from the beach. Hey, bartender?” He snaps his fingers. Actually snaps them, until the bartender glances back at us and, with an apologetic glance in my direction, heads our way.

“One more scotch on the rocks,” Dick says, and now I can see why he prefers this version of his name. It really suits him.

That task done with, he turns to me and brushes my hair back over my shoulder. “So, Clove…”

Realizing that I can’t keep staring at the bar forever, I turn to face him, trying on a smile.

“Damn you’re gorgeous. You get that often?”

“I, uh… Thanks, I guess.”

“How about we get out of here, huh? Enough small talk for one night, am I right?” He winks at me.

Enough small talk being what, all five sentences we’ve exchanged? I suck in a deep breath. Mm, l’eau onions. “Listen, Dick, you seem really nice and all…”

“Of course, so let’s skip the boring part and head straight to my place.” He downs the second scotch he ordered in one large gulp, then catches my arm.

“It’s been a really long day for me, actually—lot going on at work. I’m just going to head home.”

“That’s cool, we can go to yours.” He leans in, brushes my hair back from my forehead, and we’re suddenly way too close, only inches between us.

I execute a tricky side twist off the barstool to grab my purse. “I think I’m just going to head back alone. Thanks for the drink.”

“Seriously?” His expression shifts now. I don’t know if it’s the drink or the rejection that’s injuring his frail masculine ego, but either way, I don’t like the look in his eye. “Wait, wait, wait, Clove.” He catches my hand in his. His grip is strong. Too strong. “We got off on the wrong foot. Let me make it up to you.” With a single tug, he pulls me closer and leans over me, eyes intent on my face. “It’s just, I didn’t expect you to be so… You know. Hot. From your profile, you sounded like a book nerd, so—”

I wrench my hand from his with effort. “Dick, I have to be honest, I’m starting to understand why you prefer that nickname.” I shoulder my purse. “I’m leaving.”

“Don’t be like that! Come on, we can have some fun.”

“Goodbye, Dick.” I stride past him, out of the bar.

Of course he jogs after me.

“At least let me call you a cab,” he insists.

“I’m fine on my own, seriously.” But he ignores this and jogs ahead of me to the corner. He flags down a tax, and I watch him lean in the window talking to the guy. God only knows what he’s saying.

He opens the back door of the cab for me, but I hesitate, looking over my shoulder.

“You take this one, I’ll call another,” I say. But a glance up and down the street shows there won’t be another cab for quite a while—Wall Street tends to be dead at this hour.

“I insist.” Dick holds the door open a little wider.

With a sigh, I climb in.

He keeps the door open, blocking it with his thigh. “You know, if we go to mine, I can fuck you properly, Clove. It’s been a long time since anyone’s bent you over, hasn’t it?” He smirks.

It has, actually, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Thanks for the offer.” I yank on the door handle, trying to close it. That proves futile with him in the way, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

“You aren’t gonna get a better one.” He leans down and I get another strong whiff of onion breath. “A girl like you should be jumping at the chance to let a guy like me bone her.”

I cast a glance at the front of the taxi, but the driver is studiously ignoring this conversation, deeply concentrating on the one in his own wireless headset. “Again, I said thank you but no thank you.” I tug on the door, hoping against hope that Dick will finally let this drop.

Behind us, another taxi pulls up, and to my immense relief, Dick waves at it. It pulls over and he casts me one last long, dark look.

“You’ll regret this,” he says as he steps away from the door.

Regret what? Missing out on a total creepiest? I don’t think so.

I slam the door closed between us without responding. I’ve learned by now that as fun as snappy retorts are, sometimes it’s better not to antagonize the crazy people.

I lean up to tell the taxi driver my address, then collapse against the seat with a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh.

Well. That was another unqualified disaster. I close my eyes for a minute, then pull out my phone to text my coworker.

Halfway through typing a message about how she was so very wrong about this new app being better than the others, my phone begins to buzz.

Crap. It’s Dick.

I hit ignore, wait for it to go to voicemail, then keep typing.

And now, on top of the last 5 disasters, I’ve got this creepy guy who told me I’d “regret” not going home with him, who’s trying to call me.

I hit send and my phone buzzes once more. Dick. Again.

I hit ignore again, then, on second thought, shut my phone off completely. I’ll deal with figuring out how to block his number in the morning. Not like I haven’t already done that a few times for other creeps in the last couple years I’ve been trying this online dating crap.

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes, I think it’d be better to just continue my life without a guy in it. After all, everything else is going great for me. I just got another promotion at work—I’m only 29 and I’m a marketing manager with five people working below me. I work at publishing house where I’ve been since I graduated college and landed my dream job. I love my team, my boss, my coworkers. I love my job, promoting great literature to avid readers. I love that I get to travel, go to conferences where I meet cool authors whose books I love, and I get to help them make those books even more successful.

Plus, I have my friends. They keep me going through it all.

No, on the whole, my life is pretty great.

So why does it still feel like something is missing?

I shake my head. Ignore it. I don’t need a guy, especially not a guy like Dick. If it’s the choice between him and staying single forever, I’ll take the latter happily.

The taxi pulls up outside my building and I pay the driver, then push the door open. For a second, I just lean back to gaze at my building.

I was lucky as hell to score this place a couple years ago during a slow season and a market down-turn. I got it hella cheap; rent control, too. It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to afford a one-bedroom apartment by myself, and in a building with a doorman, no less.

This is how I know I’m finally moving up in the world. Finally making something of myself. I love this building and everything that it stands for—the progress I’ve made in my life, the goals I’m achieving.

I smile as I take a step toward the doors. Then I freeze, because I hear the most unwelcome sound possible behind me.

“Clove!”

You have got to be kidding me.

I turn around slowly, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, my muscles tensed.

Dick stands on the curb, beside his taxi, which he clearly just asked to follow me all the way here. “Look, I know I came across a little strong earlier. I just wanted to say sorry and also that maybe we can try again…” He takes a step toward me, staggering a little.

I underestimated how drunk he was. Or maybe he showed up to the bar a few drinks in and that whiskey pushed him over the edge. “Dick, listen, I’m just going to go inside now…”

Wait,” he says, and it comes out more of a growl than a plea. Before I can react, he launches himself across the pavement at me. I have just enough time to take a few steps backward toward my door before he catches me, one hand wrapped around my wrist, the other on my shoulder. I try to wrench myself free, go for my phone in my purse, but I can’t. His grip is too strong.

He pushes me against the glass beside the door of my building, his breath hot on my face. “You don’t have to be a bitch, Clove. You can be nice about this.”

I grit my teeth and throw myself sideways. It’s not enough. He keeps his hold on my shoulder, slams me against the glass wall harder.

“Don’t move while I’m talking. I’m talking to you bitch, you hear?”

“Dick, please let go, you’re hurting me.”

“I’ll let go when I know you’re going to take me seriously. I’m a fucking catch, you don’t just walk away from a fucking catch.”

I cast a wild-eyed glance over his shoulder. But at this hour, my neighborhood is pretty quiet. That’s what I like about it. Liked, anyway. Right now, it’s working against me. There’s nobody in sight.

“Get off of me,” I say, very slowly.

He smirks. “Make me.”

That’s when a heavy weight collides with us.

I stagger against the glass, barely managing to keep myself upright by bracing on the window with both palms. I hear grunting, shouts, but all I register is the fact that there’s no one grabbing me anymore.

I push myself upright. There’s a bruise already forming around my wrist, and from the ache in my shoulder, I’ll have another handprint-shaped bruise there too.

When I look up, I see two figures in front of me: Dick and the back of a uniformed man. I recognize the uniform, of course. I see it every single day, at least twice a day, as I leave and come back to this building.

My doorman.

He throws a punch now, a mean right hook that connects squarely with Dick’s jaw. But Dick is so drunk, that even though I hear that punch land with a smack, it doesn’t slow him down. His brain probably doesn’t even register the pain.

Dick roars and shoves the doorman with both hands. My heart leaps into my throat. From this angle, I can’t tell which doorman it is—hopefully not Paul, the sweet little old guy who always tries to carry my groceries for me. Dick is huge, big enough to break him in half.

The doorman twists out of Dick’s grip and knees him in the gut, which momentarily slows Dick down, winding him. On his way down, he pulls the doorman sideways, knocking his hat askew.

The blond hair tells me all I need to know.

Zayne.

I try to remember what I know about him aside from his name and the way he always remembers mine. Not much. He’s worked here the entire time I’ve been living here, but aside from leaving hefty tips at Christmas and exchanging pleasantries about the weather, I don’t normally pay too much attention to the guys at the door. Zayne is younger than the other doormen, I know that much.

Thankfully, it looks like he’s built from stronger stuff, too.

Dick twists out of his grip and goes for one last punch, but Zayne is on top of this. He dodges the swing easily and fells Dick with a single hit to the temple. I wince as Dick collapses to his knees, holding his head.

Then Zayne turns to face me, running a hand through his short-cut blond hair.

Oh.

Oh.

How did I never notice his face before?

“Are you all right, Ms. Walker?” Zayne is asking, his expression all concern.

I am now, I think stupidly. But outwardly, I just nod.

“Go inside, Ms. Walker. I’ll handle this.”

I just keep staring at him, confused. Between the chiseled jawline, the sharp cheekbones, the intense blue eyes, I can’t figure out how I never noticed him. Never really looked beneath the wide brim of his uniform hat.

His uniform is unbuttoned at the top now, disheveled from the fight. It reveals just a hint of his chest beneath, but from the shape of it, not to mention the way he just took out that brick house of a stalker, it’s clear he’s ripped.

I watch his head bob as he hauls Dick to his feet and half-walks, half-frog-marches him to the curb, where he hails another taxi. The muscles along his back ripple as he lifts his arm, and when he turns back to check on me, I can see a faint 5 o’clock shadow along his jawline, barely visible since it’s blond, too. He could be the poster boy for Swiss-Germany, though from his thick accent, he clearly grew up around here.

What is wrong with me? I think, shaking my head. I don’t hit on my doormen. This is ridiculous. I’m just amped up from the adrenaline, the fear of that attack, and the relief of being saved.

Finally, a taxi pulls up, and Zayne unceremoniously deposits Dick in the backseat. I watch him pay the driver extra for taking the bleeding drunk guy. When he turns back to me, his blue eyes are piercing. “Ms. Walker, please, you’ve had a shock. You should go upstairs and relax. I can handle this.”

“Clove,” I say.

His brow furrows slightly. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Clove, not Ms. Walker.” I push off the glass wall and take a few shaky steps toward him. Clearly my body hasn’t yet received the message that the coast is clear.

“Whoa, careful now.” He catches my arms to steady me. I try to ignore how warm and reassuring his large hands feel, wrapped gently around my biceps. “You’re still running on adrenaline. You should sit down.”

“Thank you,” I tell him as he guides me toward the double doors. He keeps one hand wrapped around my waist as he opens the door and aims for the settee just inside. I always wondered what this chair was for. It’s not like anybody hangs out in the lobby much.

“It was nothing,” he waves it off, but I shake my head.

“You saved me.”

“Just doing my job, Ms...” He pauses. Catches my eye and holds it for a long moment, as he gently lowers me onto the seat. I collapse onto it, trying to hide my relief as I finally let my legs relax. They did not want to keep holding me upright, not after all that. “Clove,” he amends, gaze still fixed on me.

I fight the urge to shiver. His voice is a deep baritone, the New York accent sexy on him.

“Your job shouldn’t have to involve fending off crazy attackers,” I reply with a sigh. “Sorry about him.”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” he says, nearly cutting me off. He looks dead serious as he glances over my head, and I know he’s looking back through the glass windows at where Dick was a moment ago. “I see shitheads like him all the time—drunk stockbroker trust fund kids who think they deserve whatever they want.” He glances back at me. “Or whoever.”

I grimace and bite the inside of my lip. “The worst part is, I’m not even sure that was the worst first date I’ve ever been on.”

I expect him to laugh, but instead, he only looks angrier. He takes a seat next to me on the settee, shaking his head.

“Men in this city can be absolute scum. They don’t know how to treat a real woman.”

I swallow hard. Suddenly, with him so close beside me, it’s getting difficult to focus. My blood is still pumping hard, the adrenaline making my hands quivery, my feet feel numb and a little shaky. Though, it might not all be adrenaline from Dick’s attack anymore. It’s hard to tell, what with the way my hormones are reacting to the heat pouring off of Zayne’s body and the proximity of his strong arms, his biceps visible through his uniform shirt.

I force myself to shrug, playing it nonchalant. “There are assholes everywhere, I guess.”

“Not like here,” he scowls. “And you shouldn’t have to deal with them, anyway. You don’t deserve that.” He casts a sideways glance at me, our eyes locking once more. “You deserve a man who treats you right. Someone who understands your value. Who knows what a woman like you needs.”

“And what’s that?” I ask. Somehow, my voice has dropped to a whisper. I don’t remember giving it permission to do that. Then again, I don’t remember leaning toward Zayne either, and I don’t remember giving myself permission to stare at his lips, just inches away from mine, slightly parted as though he’s about to say something else—or maybe just close the gap between us and crush his lips against mine, kiss me until I forget about tonight.

“Respect,” he replies. His eyes dip down a little too, glancing at my mouth, then back to my eyes. I lick my lips and his eyes flicker again. “Care. Whatever you desire, honestly.”

My throat feels tight, my mouth dry. I suck in a deep breath of air and turn my head a little, glance around the lobby, mostly for an excuse to break the tension between us. But dammit, his scent follows me. He smells amazing—like pine needles and crisp fall air, and something else under it all, something heady and masculine and entirely him.

“Yeah. Well,” I say, eyes still on the empty lobby. “Guys like that are in short supply.”

“Depends where you look,” he says, and I can still feel his eyes on me, burning into me, even without looking at him. It’s a physical sensation, as if he’s touching me, caressing me with his gaze.

“Definitely not where I met him,” I say with a half-laugh. “Stupid dating app.”

Zayne laughs. Damn him, even his laugh is sexy, full-throated, and deep. “Which app are you using?” he asks.

I tell him, and in response, he pulls out his phone and unlocks the screen. Shows me the same app on his background.

This time, I laugh too. “Had any better luck with the ladies on there than I have with the guys?”

He smirks. “Well, I can’t say any women have stalked me home after dates,” he admits. Then shakes his head. “But no, I haven’t exactly met a lot of decent matches lately.”

“Do share. Maybe it’ll help me feel better about my abysmal luck.”

He laughs and leans back on the settee. “Oh god, where to start. There was the girl who asked me to sign an NDA before we could start dating—she brought triplicate copies to the bar.”

I burst out laughing.

His grin widens as he thinks back. “Hmm, and then there was the woman wearing a wedding ring. When I called her out on it, she insisted it was a fake diamond, that she just wears it to fend off guys hounding her. Sure, lady. And then one girl spent the whole date showing me photos of her five cats…”

By the time he’s finished recounting his dating stories, and I’ve shared a few of my own, we’re both laughing so hard my sides hurt. He’s halfway through another story, one about one of his friends whose date wet the bed on him, when a sharply-cleared throat interrupts us.

We glance up, and Zayne is on his feet in a heartbeat, before I even realize what’s happening. But then I recognize Mrs. Sharpe from the 7th floor, the one with the tiny purse dog and the husband who’s almost as tiny. She has her mouth pursed now, an angry frown wrinkling her forehead as she raps her fingers on the counter behind which Zayne normally works.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Sharpe,” he’s saying now, whipping his hat back onto his head as he skids behind the counter. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m expecting a package.”

“Of course, let me check on that.” He darts into the back, and I rise, surprised to find that my legs are no longer shaky. In fact, I feel about a million times better. Maybe all the laughter and bad date stories helped relax me after all.

I sidle up to the counter and lean against it. Mrs. Sharpe glares at me. “Zayne just helped me out with a creepy date,” I explain. “The guy followed me home, tried to attack me…”

That softens her up. The crease in her forehead disappears, and Mrs. Sharpe pats my arm instead. “Take my advice, honey,” she says. Zayne returns with her package, and she accepts it with a smile, tucking it under her arm before she turns to me once more. “Find a good man, not a nice guy,” she finishes. Then she’s off toward the elevator and I can feel my cheeks heating as I peek at Zayne.

“Good advice,” he says, leaning on the counter with a grin. If he’s bothered at all by the fact that Mrs. Sharpe discovered him away from his desk, it doesn’t show.

What are you doing, Clove? I can’t flirt with him while he’s working. I shouldn’t be flirting with him at all, anyway. He’s my doorman. He works here. I’ve walked past him every day for the last two years, and with any luck, I’ll walk past him every day for the next two as well, because I love this apartment. It’s my home. I can’t do anything to jeopardize that.

“I’ll quit distracting you,” I say, my tone apologetic. “Thanks again, for everything.”

“Anytime,” he replies, then stops himself, shaking his head. “Although, of course, I hope you never have to deal with a piece of shit like that guy ever again.”

I laugh. “Here’s hoping.”

“Yes,” he agrees, eyes suddenly sincere again, locked on me. “Here’s hoping.”

With that, I leave him to his front desk duties. I wipe my palms on my jeans as I go. Ignore the fresh sparking in my nerve endings. This time, I definitely can’t blame it on adrenaline or fear. This time, I know exactly what’s causing it.

But that’s the worst possible idea. If I hooked up with Zayne and things went sour, they’d go really sour.

So, I push my floor in the elevator, let the doors close behind me, and try not to think about the insanely hot man I just discovered hiding behind my doorman’s uniform.