"Let me guess," Joey yelled into his phone over the heavy-bass house music. "You're driving a client's car."
"How'd you know?" I asked.
"Suddenly, people are looking out the front windows instead of gawking at the girls on the dance floor," Joey said.
I laughed and pulled the Ferrari Pininfarina Sergio up to the valet stand. At least six valets came running and then collided in a tangled shoving match outside my driver's side door. I let them fight it out before I shifted the sleek sports car into park.
"He said to take it out, have some fun, start some rumors that he's still in town," I told Joey. "And don't worry about possible scratches. You're painting it in the morning anyway."
"I'm painting it? What about—"
I hung up on my friend and colleague, knowing he was waiting for me inside. The valets finally stopped their scuffle and one opened the door, expecting to see the blockbuster action hero who owned the car.
"Sorry, boys, it's just me," I said as I slid out of the soft leather interior.
"Mr. Wylde!" The valet holding the car door jumped forward and pumped my hand in an eager handshake. "I'm a huge fan!"
"Car nerd, huh?" I gave the young man a hefty tip. "Then you'll know how much this one costs and how much I'll take out of your hide if anything happens to it."
"Who's he?" One of the other valets whispered behind my back.
"He's the guy who did the customization on the latest James Bond car! He created the custom fenders on The Rock's classic ride. Remember?"
"Hey, I'm just a mechanic who likes expensive cars and landed a couple of big clients," I said. "And I started off as a valet."
The young men straightened their uniform coats and gave me proud nods. Then they each turned and watched with mouths open as the Ferrari slipped into gear and purred away to their most protected parking spot. I laughed. My client's car was in good hands.
There were already a dozen people with their phones out taking pictures of the impressive vehicle, and I knew my client would be happy. He didn't like his precious baby to sit ignored in a garage when he was on location.
Just one of the perks of my job. Another perk appeared as I strolled up to the velvet rope and didn't even have to break my stride. The mountainous bouncer opened it up and nodded as I went past and into the crowded club.
"Was that your car?" A leggy brunette stopped me a few feet inside the door. "Wanna take me for a ride?"
"Maybe later, sweetheart. I just got here," I said.
She offered to have a drink with me, but I shook my head and pushed my way into the crowd. Unlike the rest of the men prowling through the pulsating crowd, I was not there to pick up women. I'd lost a bet to Joey and had to concede to be his wingman for the night.
With that in mind, I headed straight for the bar. Joey was my best friend and the best car mechanic I had ever worked with but he had a weakness for flashy shirts and bad pick-up lines. It was going to be a long night.
"Hi. I'm Amber and this is Alyssa," a devilish redhead with heavy eye makeup purred in my ear. "What's your name?"
"Thirsty," I said.
She didn't get the joke and gave me an owlish look as she and her attractive friend moved on, looking for free drinks.
"Amateurs." The diminutive blonde on the barstool at my elbow gave me a wink and then hoisted herself up against the bar. "Tibby! We need a whiskey down here. Neat."
"Good guess on my drink," I said.
"Jasmine," the pretty petite woman introduced herself as she plunked back down on her bar stool. She shrugged as my drink arrived in record time. "I used to work here."
"Thanks, Jasmine." I slipped a twenty onto the bar under her elbow.
She swiveled toward me and smiled as she slipped the twenty inside her near-bursting bra. "I'm taking your money, so you don't think I'm shameless."
"Flirting with me, huh?" I asked.
"That depends on you," she said.
I took a sip of my whiskey and nodded. She was petite but curvy, her hair bottle-blond but pretty, and I liked her take-it-or-leave-it kind of confidence.
"Too bad it depends on my friend tonight," I told her.
"You're the wingman?" She was shocked. "Guess I better meet your friend."
"I wouldn't wish that on you. You're too sweet. Have a good night, Jasmine." I toasted her, finished my whiskey, and turned toward the packed dance floor.
She might have trailed soft fingers against the back of my arm to stop me but the crowd jostled me away from the bar.
Then I spotted Joey over in the VIP lounge. The reflective buttons on his bold shirt shone almost as brightly as his balding head under the bright strobing lights. He was entertaining a tight bevy of girls with a wild story that included a lot of graphic hand gestures and free pours from the bottle he'd ordered. I sighed and made my way over to my outrageous friend.
"Now there's the man who learned Italian just to make a premium deal on a rusted-out Ferrari shell," Joey said.
The ladies glanced at me and their smiles brightened. Suddenly, I was pulled into their circle, three sets of arms reaching out to hook around my waist.
"He left out the part where we lived and starved in a shitty Italian apartment for three years until finally getting jobs in a quality auto shop," I said.
"So, you're Italian?" One of the women blinked long lashes up at me as she popped open the top button on my dress shirt.
"No, honey. But we do have premium deals to discuss. If you'd excuse us?" I asked.
Joey chuckled but shooed the women away and gestured to the booth he'd been holding. "Don't worry, that bottle's on me not the company. Not that you need me to buy you a drink."
A waiter showed up at my side with another whiskey neat. Across the bar, the diminutive blonde knelt on her bar stool and waved at me. I toasted to her before I sipped but did not invite her over.
Joey sighed. "You keep swatting them away. When are you going to let one stick?"
"You make it sound so great," I said.
"It can be." Joey had that dreamy, romantic gleam in his eye again.
I cleared my throat sharply. "So, any progress on getting us a new mechanic?"
Joey rolled his eyes but nodded. "I know you're not keen on total strangers, so I asked around in my family. My littlest sister's got a boy who just turned twenty. Grew up out of state so I didn't see much of him growing up, but he seems like a good guy. He's got skills and wants to learn."
"Tell him he's hired." I took a long sip of whiskey and leaned back in the booth. "Who knew setting up shop in the US again would be so easy?"
"Bunch of rubes. Think living over in Europe made us all fancy," Joey said.
I laughed. "All those years overseas and you haven't changed one bit. Didn't you have that shirt in high school?"
"Ouch." Joey clutched his heart then got distracted and waved at another pretty woman.
When my friend's eyes stayed hooked, I had to turn and glance at the girl myself. My heart stumbled a beat.
"I think I know her," I said. My jaw worked a few times before I could get more words out. "She looks familiar."
"Bullshit. Nice try, though," Joey said. "Does that approach ever work?"
"We'll see," I said.
I slid out of the booth, stood up, and tried not to look as unsteady as I felt. Joey was right. Still, there was something about her eyes and the puckered corner of her mouth when she smiled that tugged on a few of my fondest memories.
She was slender and sheathed in a dove-gray dress as if she'd just shed a matching suit coat on her way from a high-rise office. But it was her dark brown eyes, widening a little as I studied her face, that reminded me of a girl I once knew.
I was standing in front of her before I realized I'd taken a step. "Hi. I'm Dylan."
"Hi." Her head tipped to the side, and her long auburn hair swept over her bare shoulder.
She wasn't used to flirting or picking up guys at nightclubs. The beautiful woman gave me another shy smile and then started to turn away.
"Do you want me to guess your name?" I asked.
"Bethany." She laughed. "My name is Bethany."
The floor seemed to jump under my feet, and it had nothing to do with the bass-pumping club music. "Pretty name," I said. "I knew a girl named that once."
She nodded, her eyes drifting away from me to the front doors. "There are a lot of Beths in the world."
A bouncy head of blond curls pushed between us. "You're not escaping on me tonight. Our party's over there, Bethany. Daniel's big promotion, remember?"
"Nice to meet you, Dylan." Bethany let her friend lead her away to a clump of shirt-sleeved and tied office-dwellers.
I stood there and watched her go, unable to turn my feet in any other direction but her. Finally, I dragged myself back to Joey and our booth.
The waitress was perching on the bench next to Joey and completely entangled in his story of our adventures along the Amalfi Coast. When she saw me, she popped up and straightened her tight little apron.
"What can I get you?" she asked.
"Whiskey. Neat. Make it a double," I said.
The waitress laid a lingering hand on Joey's shoulder and then sauntered back to the bar. I could feel when his eyes left her behind and settled on me. Instead of meeting his curious gaze, all I could do was dodge my eyes around the VIP lounge crowd and try to get another glimpse of Bethany.
Did she have a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose? I spotted her again as her party sat down at another VIP booth. Everyone seemed ready to celebrate, one suited man wearing an off-kilter paper hat, but she seemed out of place. Co-workers trying to coax her out of workaholism?
I watched as she smiled politely at a man I hoped was a co-worker. She had a puckered little curve to the corner of her mouth when she smiled.
I rubbed my chest and wondered if I could still feel jet-lag despite having flown back to the United States months before.
Joey whistled, a low and knowing sound. "So, who's the knock-out?"
I knocked back half the whiskey the waitress brought and leaned back. "I don't know. Her name's Bethany."
"Sexy name," Joey said. "Didn't you tell me your first kiss was with a girl named Beth? Betty? Bessie?"
"I don't remember," I lied, sloshing the ice around my low-ball glass. It was hard to see that far back, past my many mistakes.
"Gorgeous women do have a way of tying up men's tongues but I never imagined it happened to you." Joey gave Bethany an appraising look. "Though, you know, I can see it with her."
"Wonder what her first kiss was like?" I said. "Bet she knocked some poor pre-teen kid out with nothing but an innocent little peck."
A memory stirred in my brain, one of those pleasant interludes before I turned on my father and made a mess of my life. I didn't deserve to remember stuff from that time, not anymore.
"Here's to out-growing adolescent hormones." Joey clinked his glass against mine. "Now, speaking of hormones, you're here strictly as my wingman, are you not?"
I laughed. "Yes. You won the bet. Who are we talking up first?"
Joey had a wide scope of possible women and spotted new possibilities every minute. Soon our booth was humming again, and I had more than half a dozen distractions within reach.
I couldn't recall what a single one of them looked like. All I knew was Bethany's smile felt familiar, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.