Eric Bryant leaned back and sighed, the quiet ambiance of Charleston, his favorite restaurant, failing to jerk him out of his melancholy. “I’m telling you, man. You were smart to take yourself off the meat market.”
His best friend from childhood, Lucas Whiting shook his head. “I don’t think it was a completely conscious decision. Took one look at Caitlyn and that was it for me. Believe me, up until I met her, I thought I was happy feasting on the banquet of beautiful women here in Baltimore.”
Until an injury had sidelined him, Eric had been a running back in the NFL for two brief, glorious years. In retirement, he had put his college degree to work for him, focusing his time and energy on building a successful career in engineering.
Eric took a sip of his drink. “Yeah, well, I think it’s time for me to push away from the feast. I’ve hit my limit.”
Lucas laughed. “Jesus. Are we going to talk in metaphors all night? What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve only been in Baltimore a year. You can’t have already worked your way through all the available women our fine city has to offer.”
“Woke up this morning with a gorgeous blonde in my bed. Naked and stacked with tits out to here.” Eric held his hands a foot away from his chest.
“I’m struggling to find a problem in any of this,” Lucas joked.
“Didn’t know her name. Couldn’t have told you what it was if my life depended on it.”
“Don’t try to tell me you haven’t been there, done that.”
Lucas gave him a rueful grin. “Might have happened to me once or twice, back in college. And I used to cut the hell out of there quick when it happened.”
“That would have worked except for one little problem.”
Eric didn’t bother to reply. He figured his face said it all.
“Eric. You broke the cardinal rule. Always leave yourself an escape route.”
Eric raised his hand. “Preaching to the choir, buddy. You don’t have to tell me that. I know it.”
Lucas tilted his head, one eyebrow raised. “Well, apparently you forgot.”
“Hair of the dog might be a better idea,” Lucas suggested.
“No thanks. I’m giving my liver the night off.”
He’d called Lucas shortly after he’d managed to extract what’s her name from his house around noon, feeling the need for some male companionship and someone to commiserate with. “Lucas, I’ve brought you here tonight to take an oath. I need a witness for this one.”
“I don’t like the sound of this. Promises made while hungover never tend to last long.”
Ordinarily Eric would be inclined to agree with his friend, but this time was different. “I came back to Baltimore for a fresh start. As you know, the move allowed me to make partner in my engineering firm two years ahead of schedule. Now, I’ve got a great condo overlooking the harbor and a chance to reconnect with old pals from my school days. The only thing I didn’t think about changing with this move was my…” Eric paused, searching for the word.
“Sex life?” Lucas supplied helpfully.
Lucas took a sip of his beer. “So one night with a woman whose name you can’t remember and that plan has changed?”
Eric wasn’t sure he could explain it to his friend. Eric and Lucas had played football together their senior year of high school. However, unlike Eric, who’d been drafted into the NFL after graduating from Virginia Tech, Lucas’s football career had ended with high school. Not that Lucas had any real aspirations of going on to play ball in college. Lucas had always known his end game—taking over his father’s real estate business.
Eric had always had the NFL dream, but he was also wise enough to know it wasn’t a great idea to call that a lifetime plan. So, he’d studied hard in school, while playing with the team, then put his degree in engineering to good use, joining a lucrative firm in New York and working his ass off until he transferred to the Baltimore office and made partner. Upon his return, he’d looked up his old friend expecting the two of them could cut a swath through all the single ladies in the city together. What he’d found was a head-over-heels-in-love friend.
He didn’t admit it to Lucas, but seeing him so happy with Caitlyn had cracked open something in Eric he didn’t realize was there. He’d discovered a desire to fall in love—real love, not the make-believe midnight-to-six a.m. type that ended with him slipping out of some bedroom at dawn with his shoes in his hands.
He was tired of coming home to an empty place, fed up with eating most of his meals alone. What he’d considered the good life for years—a bachelor’s paradise—had turned into a desolate, quiet, lonely existence.
“Listen, Eric, I really think you should reconsider whatever it is you’re about to say. One misstep—”
Lucas leaned back in his seat and waved his hand, inviting Eric to continue. “Okay, but I’ll warn you now. If you persist, I’m going to hold you to this vow of yours…and I’m going to make it hurt if you break it.”
That was one reason he’d invited Lucas to dinner. Speaking the words aloud would help him remain true to them. Plus, Lucas was the devil when it came to teasing. If Eric went back on his word, Lucas would give him shit from now until the end of time.
“I’m going to marry the next woman I sleep with.”
Lucas didn’t even pretend to take him seriously. He burst out laughing, the sound so loud, several diners sitting around them stopped talking to look.
“I mean it, Lucas. No more one-night stands. I’m not sleeping with another woman unless she’s the one. I’ve taken every part of my life seriously except for my relationships. It’s game over on Bachelor Roulette. The next woman I take to my bed will be the one I marry.”
Lucas shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Eric shrugged, refusing to be swayed from his plans. When he made up his mind about something, he usually managed to take stubbornness to a whole new level. And he’d never been more sincere about anything in his life. “I’m serious. The next one will be the one, the last,” he repeated, his tone leaving no room for doubt.
When Lucas continued to chuckle, Eric narrowed his eyes. “It’s clear you don’t think I have what it takes to follow through on this.”
Eric frowned. He didn’t like where this was going. “Three months.”
Lucas started to laugh again, but stopped when Eric’s scowl grew. “Sorry, but damn man, that’s not really a great track record.”
Eric knew that. He also knew Lucas had found happiness and lasting love with Caitlyn. “Tell me what to do, Lucas.”
“Stop thinking with your dick.”
Lucas paused and Eric appreciated that his friend seemed to be taking his request for help seriously. Finally, Lucas said, “Honesty. A sense of humor. Selflessness. And a healthy dose of lust.”
Eric considered the answer, then nodded. “I can do that.”
Eric had counted on this. He’d lost count of the wagers he and Lucas had made during their friendship, but he suspected they were well into the double digits. “Name your price.”
“You go back on this and it’s going to cost you. Ten thousand dollars.”
“And what do I get from you when I carry through with it?”
Lucas grinned. “I’ll be best man at your wedding and throw you one hell of a bachelor party. Vegas, strippers, the whole nine yards.”
Eric laughed. “Deal.”
“I see my party,” she replied as she breezed by the woman without a second glance. Luckily there was a fairly long line of patrons waiting for tables, so the hostess let her go without question.
She never took her eyes off the man she’d come to see. He looked incredibly handsome tonight, his face freshly shaved, his hair combed neatly. He wore the royal-blue sweater she’d given him for Christmas, the one that brought out the rich cobalt in his gorgeous eyes.
Two-timing eyes that were wholly and completely focused on the willowy brunette sitting across from him.
Jeff, her boyfriend—the man she was living with, the guy who’d just two weeks ago mentioned the “M” word in passing and who’d had Joni anticipating an engagement ring on her birthday—had obviously forgotten said birthday was today.
And now the asshole was spending what should have been her romantic evening with someone else.
So far, thirty sucked.
After all, she’d been blindsided when her best friend, Erika, had texted her to say she wanted all the details about her romantic dinner at Charleston tomorrow. When Joni had replied with a simple question mark, Erika admitted seeing Jeff’s car in the parking lot of the swanky restaurant—one neither she nor Erika could afford to dine in. Obviously her best friend had jumped to the conclusion that Jeff had taken Joni out for a special birthday dinner to pop the question.
Furious to realize Jeff’s earlier text of “Have to work late—sorry” was a lie, she’d hopped in her car without considering her actions. When Joni pulled into the parking lot, she’d glanced through a window and spotted Jeff. She’d watched him take the brunette’s hand in his, kissing her palm. Then the son of a bitch had actually sucked one of the woman’s fingers into his mouth. In three years of dating, he’d never engaged in such a flagrant act of PDA with her. Damn him.
She was only a few steps from the table when Jeff’s gaze drifted to hers. His eyes widened with the briefest glimpse of surprise before dimming with the realization he’d been busted.
“Joni.” Jeff started to rise, but she pressed on his shoulder.
“No. Don’t bother. I won’t be long.”
Jeff sank back down into his seat. Joni felt the other woman’s eyes on her, but she didn’t even glance in that direction. What she had to say had to be said to the cheating bastard.
“Joni…” Jeff looked around at the other diners. He hated scenes and it only occurred to Joni when she spotted his uncomfortable expression that she’d spoken too loudly. A hush fell as people from the tables close to them suddenly became silent.
“Three years, Jeff. I supported you for three years. Worked my ass off while you went to school for your degree.” He’d graduated the previous month and landed an amazing job at the hospital as a physical therapist. After years of scraping to get by as a couple, Joni had actually been looking forward to a future where they’d have two decent incomes to live on instead of her mediocre one.
“I didn’t want you to find out this way,” Jeff started.
Joni laughed. It was a bitter sound, but a laugh just the same. “Oh yeah. Because there’s always a better way to find out your boyfriend is cheating on you.”
She turned on the woman. “Ex-boyfriend. And you are?”
The woman fell silent, clearly uncertain if she should give her name to the raving lunatic Joni must appear to be.
After an awkward moment of silence, Jeff lifted his hand. “Joni, this is Heidi.”
Joni narrowed her eyes at him. Did he really just introduce her to the woman he was cheating on her with?
Joni searched her memories of the past three years, trying to figure out if Jeff had always been such a tool, but she was sure there had been no clues that indicated such. Or maybe love really was as blind as folks liked to say.
“Well, Heidi. I hope you and Jeff have a wonderful night and future. Because he’s all yours now.”
“Please, Joni. Let me explain.”
She shook her head. “No. I’d rather Heidi explain. Are you here with Jeff on a date?”
Heidi looked around the now-silent dining room, then nodded slowly.
“And have you been out with him prior to tonight?”
Heidi nodded again. “I didn’t know he had a girlfriend.”
Joni raised her hand. “Don’t worry, Heidi. I don’t blame you.” Joni was careful to make her voice as kind as possible when she asked, “And have the two of you consummated this relationship?”
Heidi frowned and for a second, Joni wondered if the woman knew what the word consummate meant.
Joni stiffened her spine, working overtime to keep the tears at bay. She wanted to rail, to call Jeff every horrible name she could think of, but the breath would be wasted. The damage was done.
“You’ll find your things outside tomorrow morning. Don’t come by until then.”
Jeff winced. “God, Joni. You gotta let me—”
With that, she spun on her heel and headed back to the door. The hostess looked equal parts horrified and impressed. Joni latched on to the impressed part and let that tiny spark of appreciation carry her out of the restaurant and all the way to her car.
She still felt eyes on her, so she started the car and put it in drive. Unfortunately, the tears she’d tried to hold at bay came, blinding her. Her foot pressed firmly on the brake. She couldn’t see the steering wheel, let alone the road.
Rather than let her tears fall, she simply sat, frozen, as she concentrated on her breathing. One breath in, one out. Three times she repeated the in and the out. Then, she closed her eyes, sucking in more air.
It occurred to her after several minutes of the quiet inhalations and exhalations, her tears weren’t ones of sorrow.
They were angry tears. Raging, furious, fiery tears. Tears she refused to shed. A brash sense of recklessness washed through her. She’d wasted years of her life in a relationship with a faithless, ungrateful man. Joni had always been the quiet, reliable woman, but no more.
She was overwhelmed by the desire to do something crazy, wicked, completely out of character.
She had about as much adventure in her as a brick wall. Then she considered how much that description fit. She was sturdy, steady, immovable. Once she’d made a serious commitment to Jeff, she never considered anything else.
Now, her mind raced with the need to move. Fast. Heedless. Jeff had torn down her wall and left her exposed. But somehow that didn’t seem as frightening as much as it felt freeing.
She could do anything now. Be anyone. No…better than that…she could finally be herself.
In one blinding flash of brilliant white light, Joni’s blinders fell away. She could see.
Eric noticed the curvy woman the second she walked into the restaurant. The way she stormed toward their table would have sent his hackles up and had him warning Lucas that danger was approaching, except she wasn’t looking at them. Instead, all her focus was solely on the occupant of the table next to theirs.
While the brunette seated there was almost a cliché as far as attractiveness went, the storming invader was the more interesting of the two females. God. She was gorgeous. Fire incarnate with her long, curly strawberry-blonde hair, the embers of it catching the muted light, with each step revealing another shade, flickering, wild, untamed. Beautiful.
Eric had spent the majority of his free time surrounded by traditional beauties. Women who had achieved what society deemed the standard in prettiness. The woman marching across the restaurant didn’t fit that mold in any way, shape or form, and yet she was…spectacular. From her curvy, over-endowed-in-all-the-right-places figure to her sharp chin and large eyes. Nothing about her spoke of the classic looks men were trained to think of as perfection thanks to television and magazine ads. But it didn’t matter. On her, everything came together and worked.
Eric was so taken by her, he didn’t even realize she’d spoken until Lucas turned to look.
Ordinarily, Eric would have found enjoyment in such a spectacle, but there was something about this woman’s face, her taut expression, that had him clenching his fists beneath the table, fighting not to stand up and teach the prick who’d hurt her a lesson he’d never forget.
As she spoke, he was impressed by the strength in her voice. How many women would walk into a public place and face down the man who’d betrayed their trust? He found himself admiring her more and more with each word she spoke.
The man was obviously an idiot. Who would let go of such a passionate woman? Eric glanced at the brunette who apparently didn’t realize she was with a man who’d been spoken for. He couldn’t help but notice the lack of fire, of personality. The woman interested him as much as the décor in his doctor’s office.
Once she’d spoken her peace, the spitfire turned on her heel and left the restaurant. The moment she was gone, Eric recognized the almost unbearable tightness in his pants and he was forced to discreetly adjust the hard-on the spirited woman had produced.
Eric nodded numbly, his gaze drifting out the window. The woman was in her car. She’d started it, but she hadn’t driven away yet. “Lucas. I have to go.”
Lucas followed his line of sight and chuckled. “Thought you were marrying the next woman you slept with?”
“This one’s on me. Figure I’ll get the money back with interest tomorrow.”
“I’m not losing,” Eric insisted.
Lucas lifted his glass to him. “Good luck, my friend. I’m dying to see how this ends.”
Eric ignored Lucas’s laughter as he rushed toward the entrance. He had to catch the woman before she got away.
He’d heard the cheating boyfriend say her name several times. It was one name Eric definitely wouldn’t be forgetting anytime soon. He’d never seen such courage. The woman had faced the man who’d hurt her head-on, without tears or pleading. She’d been incredible.
He was nearly to the vehicle when he stopped completely.
What the heck was he supposed to do? He couldn’t very well swing open her passenger-side door and climb in the car. He’d scare the hell out of her.
He paused just a few steps in front of her car and looked at her. That was when her eyes opened and landed on him.
Eric held her gaze for several moments, trying to read the look on Joni’s face. She didn’t lower her eyes or seek to look away. Instead, she tilted her head slowly, studying him. Then, fortunately, she shifted her car back into park.
He was shocked when she lifted her hand and, with a crook of her finger, beckoned him closer.
Eric walked to her side of the car as she lowered the window.
He grinned. “Didn’t look like you were trying to go anywhere.”
“Do I know you?”
He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Do you want something?”
Eric nodded. “Yeah. I want to take you out for a drink.”
Joni narrowed her eyes and he tried hard to look like a normal, sane guy instead of some weirdo who tries to pick up freshly jilted women in parking lots. Jesus. No wonder she was looking at him as if he were a perv.
“I heard what happened back there in the restaurant.” He hastened to explain before she put the car in gear and pealed tires in her attempt to escape. “That guy—”
“My ex,” she interjected.
“The asshole,” he corrected. She nodded her head in a silent touché. “He did a really crappy thing. I admire the way you stood up to him. The way you walked into that place and called him out for it. That took guts. And I thought I’d like to buy you a beer.”
Her smile grew as he spoke before the tiniest bit of disbelief entered her pretty brown eyes. “You really thought that?”
“Yeah. I did.”
Joni turned, looking at the restaurant she’d just left, giving him the chance to study her profile. She was quite beautiful. And even more appealing was the fact she appeared to have no idea how attractive she was. He’d spent way too many days…and nights…with gorgeous women who used their looks to further their agendas—whether it involved getting into his bed or his bank account. Joni didn’t fit that mold, didn’t feel like someone whose motives he’d constantly have to question.
The silence grew uncomfortable and Eric feared he was losing her. That she was going to leave. “Come on,” he prodded. “Take a chance. For one night, go wild. You already started in the restaurant. Keep going.”
“I’ll take you up on that drink invitation on two conditions.”
He heard himself say, “Anything,” before he could even think through his reply. Then he realized the response would be the same regardless. He’d do anything to spend the evening with her.
“First of all, I don’t want beer. I want tequila.”
He tried not to wince as he recalled what tequila had done to him last night. It didn’t matter. Alcohol wasn’t going to make any decisions for him tonight. He’d already made them. “You got it. And the second?”
He frowned. “What?”
She gestured to the restaurant. “I just spent the last three years of my life with a lying, cheating son of a bitch. I’ve been fed so much bullshit lately, I’m choking on it. If we go out for a drink, I want one night of no games, no deception, no playboy pick-up lines. Just you and me. No pretense and no attempts to impress each other with stuff that isn’t real. You up for that?”
He never missed a beat. “Absolutely.”
“I can.” After years of lying through his teeth—and being lied to—to get laid, he had to admit there was something refreshingly inviting about the idea of complete honesty. Then he recalled Lucas’s advice. Honesty had been the top of the list.
Besides, this woman had done something no one had done lately. Captured his attention. Held it. Intrigued him.
“Where to?” she asked.
Eric didn’t even attempt to hide his too-pleased grin. He lifted his hand and pointed just down the street. “How about Pat’s Pub? You can leave your car here and we can walk together. If you decide you hate me, you’ve got an easy out.”
He didn’t want to give her any opportunity to reconsider and hightail it out of here. Walking a short distance to a pub seemed like the safest way to keep her on the hook. If they separated, even to drive somewhere else, what was to keep her from getting halfway there, then coming to her senses and taking off?
Joni considered his suggestion, then rolled up her window, turned the car off and got out. Once again, he was taken in by her courage. “Okay. I’m in. One wild night.”
She took his proffered hand. “Joni Allen.”
He threaded his fingers through hers, holding tight as he led her to the bar. Joni accepted his grip in stride.
“I’m trying to decide if this whole thing you have going on is more arrogance or self-confidence.”
“I assume one is better than the other?”
She shrugged. “I can deal with confidence. Arrogant men make me see red.”
“Good information to have.”
She followed him into Pat’s Pub. His previous career as a running back had caused a bit of a stir the first time he entered Pat’s Pub with Lucas a few months earlier. Apparently Caitlyn’s family, who owned and operated the establishment, were sports fanatics, and while he didn’t play for their beloved Ravens, they “were willing to make an exception,” according to Patrick Collins, in welcoming him to the pub since he and Lucas were friends.
“And I promised you the same, so I think it’s a fifty-fifty split on confidence and arrogance.”
“Hmmm. Well, you’re cutting it close, but I’ll let it ride for now.”
He chuckled, then looked around the pub, pleasantly surprised to discover it relatively quiet. They had their choice of seats. “Bar or table?”
Padraig gave him a friendly smile. “Good to see you again, Eric.”
Eric introduced Joni to the kind bartender, then said, “Two shots of Patron Silver.” Eric recalled Joni’s first request. Padraig set them up with two tall shot glasses, which he filled to the brim, then left to take another order.
Joni lifted her glass and Eric followed suit.
“To new beginnings,” Joni said.
Eric considered the toast, then added, “And happy endings.”