–ten years ago
A fifth of a second.
Apparently that’s all it takes to fall in love with someone, according to some overpaid researchers.
I don’t buy it, even though my professor failed to appreciate my skepticism. I considered asking why she was still single if that was true, but I need to maintain a good GPA to keep my scholarships, so I kept my mouth shut.
Four hours later and working at a bar near UCLA, I still don’t buy the bullshit. I’d bet the night’s tip ninety-nine percent of the young couples in the bar knew each other for a while before deciding to hook up, unless it’s a one-night-stand deal.
I wipe the counter in front of me, picking up crumpled bills. A fair number of undergraduate and graduate students drink at the bar, and most tip decently. I like working here because the owner’s cool and flexible.
“I have a kid of my own in college,” he said. “Berkeley.” He beamed proudly. “I’m treating you kids the way I want mine treated.”
The door to the bar opens, and a green-eyed brunette walks in. She’s pretty, but nothing extraordinary. This is L.A. Girls that cute are a dime a dozen, no matter how expertly she flips her hair over her shoulder. The only thing that stands out about her is the expensive designer clothes and shoes.
Another girl follows—obviously the brunette’s friend. Now she’s gorgeous—bright red hair and sharp eyes set in a classically beautiful face. A skintight black dress hugs her, and knee-high boots with stiletto heels elongate her legs.
If the researchers were right, I would fall in love. Like, this instant.
But I feel nothing except male appreciation for a fine-looking female. Would it be nice to get to know her a bit, maybe buy her a drink? Sure. Things might progress from there.
But that isn’t love. No.
The brunette mutters something to someone for a moment, and then, before the door shuts, pulls a blonde in, causing her lustrous golden hair to tumble over her face and shoulders in big, loose waves.
Sudden heat lances through me. I suck in a breath, as though the fresh air could cool the flame.
The blonde has the kind of body that could resuscitate a medieval saint. A fitted red shirt stretches across full breasts, then stops an inch above a yellow belt, showing a bit of her taut stomach and a sweet little belly button I’d love to lick on my way south. A dark leather skirt molds to her gently flaring hips and rounded ass, and her long, shapely legs end in a pair of strappy silver sandals.
Saying something to the brunette I can’t make out from this distance, the blonde shoves a hand into her hair, pushing it back from her face.
Jesus. God must’ve been in love when he made her.
She has a face to match the body. Clear, flawless skin covers delicately carved cheekbones and a small, straight nose. Her lips are soft and full, as lusciously red as a bing cherry. Then she turns her head and looks me straight in the eyes.
My brain quits. The air inside my lungs stills. Time seems to stop, then stretch, like a slow-mo segment from a movie.
Her gaze is mesmerizing, elevating her from gorgeous to irresistible. Long, thick lashes frame her large eyes, which are the color of a winter storm. There’s a sharp intellect and a hint of steel behind them. The makeup around them is in the style my younger sister calls “smoky.” On some it looks ridiculous, like the woman’s face got too greasy or sweaty. But on her it’s electric hot, turning her eyes so dark and enthralling that I feel like I could dive into her soul through them.
If I were the poetic type, I’d call her an angel. Not the type that hands out warm and fuzzy stuff to people, but the type that makes Lucifer piss himself.
I finally acknowledge it. The researchers are right.
A fifth of a second is all it takes.
* * *
I run my gaze over the bar. It’s near UCLA, so it’s probably nice enough and clean enough, but not the kind of place I would’ve chosen.
Marcella, however, was adamant we go to this particular bar today. She also insisted we dress nice, but not too expensive.
“We want to blend in. Otherwise we may not be able to get any martinis.”
I don’t know how that’s relevant to being able to buy drinks. That’s what fake IDs are for. But since Vanessa didn’t object, I went along with the venue and the clothes. My cousin and I can humor Marcella for a night…even if I’m rapidly coming to regret that decision.
“So when are you leaving for Italy?” Marcella says as she opens the door to the bar. Her dark hair glints as the light from inside hits her.
“The day after tomorrow,” Vanessa answers for me as she follows Marcella in. Her freshly dyed hair looks startling against her black dress. Like arterial blood—or an apple, the magic kind that could make anybody hungry at first sight. Vanessa is an exact replica of her mother, who’s still one of the most beautiful women ever.
“The day after tomorrow!” Marcella whines.
I frown. What’s she upset about? I’m the one who should be annoyed. I have to spend my eighteenth birthday tomorrow in L.A. because my overbearing grandmother insisted. If I had it my way, I’d be on a plane to Tuscany already.
“Don’t tell me Ryder’s leaving too.”
My brother is too pretty even to my eyes, and has an army of girls stalking him and generally making nuisances of themselves. Their shameless fawning has only made him more insufferable, but what can I say? He hit the genetic jackpot.
And Marcella’s one of the worst. She has a major crush on Ryder. I can deal with that, as long as she doesn’t go the TMI route and tell me what she wants to do to him. He is my brother, after all.
“Then I won’t, and for your information, we’ve been here for three endless weeks.” I find myself hesitating at the door. Maybe I’m being silly, but I don’t want to go through the threshold and into the bar. “Come on. Let’s hit some other place.”
“Where?” Vanessa says, at the same time Marcella says, “No other place has a bartender as hot as this one.”
“I thought you liked Ryder…”
“I do, but he keeps avoiding me. Come on.” Marcella tugs at my wrist. When I don’t budge, she pulls hard.
I almost lose my balance and stumble inside, my hair spilling forward to cover my vision. I push it back roughly. “Hey! You don’t have to get physical.”
“You weren’t moving,” Marcella says, as though that’s a valid defense.
I look at Vanessa, hoping my aspiring attorney cousin will tell Marcella that that won’t pass muster in court, but she merely gives me that “hey, she’s your friend” shrug.
Sighing, I glance around. “Let’s find a table.”
“Counter,” Marcella almost yells in her excitement.
Vanessa starts to say something. I lose the track of their conversation as the fine hair at my nape bristles—not unpleasantly—and my gaze lands on the sole bartender on the other side of the counter.
Everything fades away except him.
I’ve met handsome men, hot men, aristocratic men, charming men on both sides of the Atlantic. My family alone has four brothers and four cousins who make women stupid with their looks. Having grown up around such male beauty, I’ve always considered myself immune—able to appreciate it without turning into some kind of infatuated drooler.
But the bartender…
Everything about him is absurd.
The absurd perfection of his bone structure. The absurd blue of his eyes. The absurd firmness of his lips. The absurd muscularity of his big, strong body.
When our gazes collide, I feel like every cell in my body is waking up after a lifetime of slumber. My heart beats a little bit faster, a little bit harder. Blood flows a little quicker, a little hotter.
Is this sexual attraction?
I shake my head inwardly. I’ve felt attraction to guys before. But nothing like this. This man shines like a brilliant gemstone, like the heavens opened up and a halo appeared around him.
Then I remember what Grandpa used to say.
“When I first met your grandmother, I knew she was the one.”
“How?” I asked. An exceptional artist, Grandpa has a propensity for exaggeration and dramatic flair.
“Because she made me forget where I was. Every time I laid eyes on her, nothing else mattered. Colors were brighter, food tasted better, and the air felt cleaner. All because I met her.”
I laughed. “That’s just infatuation, Grandpa.”
He shook his head. “No, no, my little angel. It’s called love. My soul recognized hers.”
I tried not to laugh at such a ridiculous story. On the other hand, Grandpa’s first marriage lasted until the death of his wife in a sailing accident. And by all accounts, they adored each other.
Suddenly Vanessa taps my elbow. “Earth to Elizabeth. Come on.” She tilts her shiny red head toward the bar. “We’re sitting at the counter.”
Apparently the decision has been made. “Okay.” I park my butt across from the bartender, Grandpa’s words about soul mates circling in my head.
Because if this bartender’s mine, he’s popped up at the most inconvenient time and the most inconvenient location.