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Dane by Leddy Harper (1)

1

Someone bumped into my shoulder, causing my nearly full beer to tip and douse the table in front of me. The crowd gathering around the bar grew brassier and more obnoxious by the minute. I didn’t usually mind it…if they kept to themselves.

“Hey, man,” I warned as I moved to get off my stool. I immediately recognized he wasn’t a threat, just heavily intoxicated and unable to keep his balance.

“Sorry, dude.” He swayed side to side as he spoke in slurred words.

I wasn’t here to converse or get to know anyone. I didn’t care about the numerous sports teams vying for a win on the TVs. The scores didn’t influence me in the slightest. I’d only come to have a few beers and pass some time before heading home.

My eyes followed the man as he made his way toward the bar, and that’s when I saw her. My gaze met hers and I found myself unable to turn away. I offered her a lazy smile before glancing away, only to find myself staring into my half-filled glass of beer. I tipped it back to take a swig, and again, my line of sight went straight to her.

Like me, she sat alone, although she didn’t appear to be bored out of her mind. Her hair was dark red at the roots and faded into a brighter shade of the same color about halfway down to the ends. I’d seen that type of style on women before, but I assumed they’d missed a few appointments at the salon or were trying too hard to be cool. For some reason, it looked different on her. It seemed to fit her.

Taking her in further, I noticed brightly colored ink on her left arm. I’d always found tattoos on women sexy as hell. Admiring hers, I found myself entranced by the swirls of color, neat lines, and intricate detail. For reasons unknown, I longed to study it closer.

Just before I turned away, realizing I’d begun to gawk, a guy sat down at her table. He wasn’t what caught my attention; it was her reaction that kept me from turning away. Irritation marred her beautiful face. Her red-painted lips curled up in disgust—a good sign she wasn’t interested in him being there.

I was never one to involve myself in other people’s business—unless they were on the verge of hurting themselves or others. I had enough problems of my own. But the way she recoiled as he talked to her made me keep a close eye on them. Then he touched her hand, and she flinched. Instantly, I was out of my seat, my patience gone. In a few strides, I stood next to him, although I didn’t glance his way. I kept my eyes on hers as she gaped at me in surprise.

“Can I help you, bro?” he asked, irritation evident in his gruff tone.

Finally, I turned to him and stared into his beady eyes. He had to have been twice her age and half my size. “Actually, bro, you can help me by leaving my girl alone.” I winced inwardly. Here I was, inserting myself into another situation, when all I came here to do was sit by myself with a cold beer.

He turned away from me to face the woman across the table, but I didn’t stop glaring at him. I wanted him to feel the burning holes in the side of his face from the intensity of my stare. I wasn’t able to see her reaction, but after a moment, he turned back to me. This time, he seemed extremely apologetic, though he didn’t say anything. He simply put both hands up in front of him as he slid off the stool and walked away. He didn’t even offer a glimpse over his shoulder.

I didn’t wait until he was two feet from the table before I sat down on the stool he’d vacated. With my elbows on the wooden table top, I leaned in slightly and smiled at her. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, but it didn’t appear as if you cared for his company,” I said with my lips still turned up into a grin. It was unexplainable, but smiling at her came naturally. Moreover, I yearned to see her beam one at me in return.

“No. You’re fine. I thought he might’ve been my date and it grossed me out. Thank you.” Her voice was soft and smooth like satin sheets on bare skin.

My grin faltered as I tilted my head. “You don’t know what your date looks like?”

Her gaze danced around the room, focusing on anything but me, and her cheeks darkened slightly. However, the corners of her mouth lifted somewhat, expressing what I took to be bashfulness. “Not really. I mean, there are profile pictures, but you never really know if they are who they say they are.”

“Online dating?” My question came out in a higher pitch than my usual deep tone. I was in shock. She must’ve been certifiable to have to pursue online dating. This woman was downright gorgeous and probably could’ve had her pick of any guy in the place. I’d noticed many men shooting envious expressions my way as soon as I’d taken this seat.

The blush remained, but her eyes moved to mine while she lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “I’m new to town, so it’s pretty much the only way to meet people.”

I nodded, understanding the need to fill in the loneliness. “You don’t know anyone here?”

She shook her head, answering me silently.

I extended my arm across the table. “My name’s Dane. Now you know at least one person.”

When she put her palm in mine, the caress of her smooth skin caused heat to cover me from head to toe. It wasn’t much of a shake, more like simply holding hands, and that alone made my blood pressure spike. It’d been too long since I’d felt such intimacy…even if it was nothing more than a cordial greeting.

“Hi, Dane. I’m Eden.”

I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. My grin widened, sending an ache through my jaw, a burning tightness in my cheeks. Not only was she beautiful, but she had a name to match. The Garden of Eden—the first symbol of all that was pure, and the birthplace of temptation.

Snapping back to reality, I removed my hand from hers and glanced around the bar. “Well, I’m sure your real date will be here soon. I’d hate for him to misinterpret this and leave.”

“You can stay. I’m pretty sure he’s not coming.”

“Then he’s an idiot.” The sentiment was true, although I didn’t mean to voice the actual words. I had no right to say such things. And I certainly didn’t have the right to stay—although it didn’t stop the desire.

She lowered her chin, hiding herself from me. I didn’t know what it meant at first, but then she glanced up again, and I noticed the blush in her cheeks deepening. Her dark eyes met mine, and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t tell what color they were in the dim lighting, but I knew they weren’t brown. Some other shade of dark. They captured me, detaining me from the life around us.

“Are you here by yourself?” Her voice softened, almost sounding timid, in complete contrast to her bold tattoo and bright hair.

“Yeah.” I nodded and then tugged on the collar of my white button-down. “Stopped here on my way home from work.”

“Bad day at the office?” Her words were laced with intimacy, as if I’d come home and found her in the kitchen making dinner. “Bad day at the office, dear?” And it sent a pang of guilt-ridden desire through my chest.

“I guess you could say that.” But I didn’t care to talk about me. I didn’t want to offer her any room to ask questions I couldn’t answer, so I cleared my throat and changed the subject. “So, tell me, Eden…where are you from?”

“Originally from California, but I came here from New York.”

My eyes widened, my tongue heavy with intrigue. “Why the drastic moves?”

“Well, I left home to go to school, and now I’m here for a job.”

“Where did you go to school?” I itched for the beer I’d left behind when I came to her defense. But I had no desire to get up and fetch it. That would mean I’d leave Eden, and that thought didn’t sit well with me. It’d been a long time since I found myself in easy company, and I wasn’t ready to give it up quite yet.

“NYU. I studied accounting and finance.”

My eyebrows raised, my interest surely showing on my expression. “Wow. That’s impressive. NYU is a really good school. I went there.”

“You did?” Her excitement punctuated her question with a lilt.

A small rumble, but a rumble nonetheless, started in the base of my sternum and rolled its way up until the whispers of a laugh filtered past my lips. “No. I didn’t. But it sounded good, right?”

What she did next stole the breath from my lungs. She parted her lips, tilted her head back, and the most contagious giggle I’d ever heard erupted from her. It wasn’t contagious in the sense it made me join her. No. It made me want to do everything in my power to encourage her to keep laughing so I could sit and listen to the melody of her happiness all night. It was deep and throaty, almost raspy. It ran over me, scoring my skin as it settled.

“So where did you go?” she asked after catching her breath.

I didn’t care to talk about me. I didn’t want her humor to die. I wanted to listen to her talk and hear her laugh. To watch her pouty, red lips turn up at the corners and see her dark eyes sparkle with mirth. But I couldn’t be selfish—I wouldn’t even know how to be. So I answered her question, hoping I could turn it around on her. “I studied business at Florida State. Clearly not as interesting as you. I mean, you’re the one who got a job all the way here from New York. Someone must really want you.”

She glanced down again and fought against the unwavering grin. But it didn’t last long before she met my gaze once more. “I don’t have the job…yet. I actually interview for it tomorrow morning.”

I had so many questions bouncing around in my mind I didn’t know which one to start with. “So you’re only visiting here until you get the job?”

“Nope. I moved here.”

“Without getting a job first…” It wasn’t a question, more of an open-ended statement, waiting for her to finish with the details. It didn’t make any sense to me why someone would move thousands of miles away without any guarantee of income.

“It’s my dream job. So if I don’t get it, I’ll simply keep trying.”

Determination. I loved that in a person. I didn’t come across too many with that quality anymore. Most assumed they were entitled; they went to school, earned a degree or diploma, and expected to be handed a job. They also expected a paycheck simply because they showed up to work. Life didn’t work that way.

“Well, you should probably limit those,” I said, pointing to the drink in her hand. “You wouldn’t want to be unprepared for your big interview.”

She lifted the glass and smiled. “It’s vodka-water. The water keeps me hydrated while the vodka settles my nerves.”

“What do you have to be nervous about?”

“Oh, gee…I don’t know, Dane. I was supposed to be meeting a stranger, some guy who kept me waiting for a very long time—who probably had no intention of showing up. To top it all off, I have an interview tomorrow for my dream job. And if I blow it, I’ll have to flip burgers at a fast-food place until I can try again.” The lines next to her eyes deepened with her soft, easy grin.

“That guy is clearly a moron, but it worked out in your favor.” I wagged my brows at her. “I do a lot of interviews. Want my advice?”

Her shoulders lifted eagerly as she said, “Sure.”

“First, don’t be nervous. You went to a great school, got a degree, and you’re more determined than half the people I work with. You’ll do fine. Second, speak with confidence. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer—never let them know that. And last…you are the only person for the job. They could have a hundred applicants, but when you leave the room, the only person they need to remember is you. As far as they’re concerned, you are the person for the job.”

She nodded and toyed with her bottom lip between her teeth, taking in every word. “Okay. I think I can do that—no. I can…I know I can do that.”

“See? Already a quick learner.” I winked at her and watched as her cheeks darkened yet again. “Now, you also have to dress the part. This is one of the rules I probably hate the most. I personally like individuality, but not everyone does.”

She blinked and nodded, waiting for me to continue.

I pointed to the vibrant flowers on her arm. “Your half-sleeve. As hot as it is, maybe wear a sweater. You never know, they may not care about it, but in the event they’re conservative, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

“Yeah, I planned to cover it up.”

“The diamond in your nose is probably okay; it’s tiny enough. But the Monroe”—I pointed to the silver ball in her smile line—“could be frowned upon. And please, Eden…” I reached across the table and covered her hand with mine, not thinking twice about it until the warmth of her skin met mine. My chest grew tight, my stomach coiled, and heat from an invisible fire licked up the sides of my neck. I snatched my hand away, realizing how inappropriate it all was. “Don’t be offended by my suggestions. If you worked for me, I’d tell you to keep them all in. They’re incredibly sexy on you.”

She slipped her hand off the table into the safety of her lap and tucked her chin, ogling the wooden table top between us. Her shoulders rose and fell with each breath. If I were a betting man, I’d say she was in the midst of calming herself.

Because I was in the midst of doing the very same thing.

“Why do you do that?” My voice was low, barely a whisper, but it was enough to catch her attention.

Her almond-shaped eyes met mine, and I could literally feel her stare through my entire body. It touched everything. Like it physically reached inside me and caressed every part of my being. My heart raced and my throat closed. All from one stare.

“Why do you look away like that? Like you’re insecure.” My God, this woman had nothing to be insecure about. I had no right to take notice, but it was impossible not to.

“I don’t know…I guess I get shy. Sometimes I don’t know how to react to compliments. I don’t know what to say to someone who comments about my appearance. It’s not insecurity; it’s more like feeling nervous, I guess.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be shy or nervous. It’s just a compliment. I’m sure you get them a lot. You should be used to them by now, and if not, then you’ve been around the wrong people.” I hadn’t meant for my words to come across as flirtatious, but they did so anyhow.

“Thank you.” Her gaze never left mine as her eyes sparked—no, flared—widening slightly. The taut corners of her mouth twitched and the light in her eyes brightened, but it wasn’t until the tension in my expression loosened, my own lips turning up, that I saw hers do the same. I couldn’t remember the last time I had the ability to trigger someone else’s happiness.

“That’s better.” I couldn’t take my eyes off hers, no matter how hard I tried. I’m sure it made her uncomfortable, but she never turned away, either.

She twirled her straw around in her cup, shifting around the ice at the bottom. “Well, it’s getting late and I’m finished with my drink. Do you have any more advice before I leave?”

The notion of her leaving weighed heavily around me like a dense fog of despair. I didn’t like it. I shouldn’t have wanted her to stay, but thinking of her walking away left me teetering on the cusp of misery. As if my happiness had been tethered to her. I didn’t want her to go. I longed to bathe in her presence for a little while longer. But I knew she couldn’t stay. And I shouldn’t want her to stay.

“Just be you,” was all I had to offer her.

“Thank you, Dane. I really enjoyed your company tonight.”

“Anytime, Eden.” I wanted to tell her how much I’d enjoyed hers as well, but I didn’t. The words wouldn’t leave my tongue. I knew they’d sound desperate and pathetic, giving away the sorrow deeply embedded within me. She’d been so easy to talk to, and I only wanted to live in that moment with her for a little while longer.

To forget for a little bit more.

As she walked away, leaving me alone at the table, I knew I’d be left thinking about her for days. Maybe not her, but the feelings she’d brought to the surface. She’d offered me a sense of normalcy for the first time in eons. And she’d made me smile. I’d been convinced I no longer had the ability to do anything other than scowl. But for thirty minutes, I was able to remember how it felt to enjoy life, to be carefree. I was able to recognize that piece of me hadn’t fully died.

I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it had to.

I sat on the stool for a little bit longer until I knew I had to leave. I had to go home. I didn’t want to, but I had no other choice. At least I knew there was hope for me yet. I wasn’t sentenced to a life of sadness, surrounded by tears and heartache. Enjoying Eden’s company may have been wrong, but at least it proved to me there was still something worth fighting for.

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