She shifted in her seat. “Meeting Rick for a quick drink to clear my head.”
Disapproval shot from his eyes. “He’s a meathead.”
She couldn’t help the laugh that burst from her chest. “No, he’s not. He’s just a bit obsessed with lifting weights.”
“You think? How can you stand the way he talks?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s got a high, shrieky voice. Sounds like Mickey Mouse.”
This time, she mashed her hand against her mouth to keep from snorting. “Stop! You don’t judge my date, and I won’t judge yours.”
“Fine. Same signal if we need to bail?” Back in college they’d created a way to ask for help from the other if a date was in a crash-and-burn situation.
Taylor gave him a look. “Don’t you think that’s juvenile? We’re adults now.”
His sea-green eyes suddenly filled with intensity. “I will always be your wingman, Taylz.”
Pleasure flowed through her. “Back atcha. Fine. Let’s hope we don’t need to spontaneously erupt into a coughing fit and ruin our chances at a good time. Now, hit the road. Rick is here.”
He drifted away and rejoined Finance Girl, who seemed thrilled to have regained his attention.
Taylor smiled as Rick greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. “Hey, pretty lady. I’m really glad you called. Was wondering when I’d see you again.” He was dressed in a tight T-shirt that was lovingly molded to each impressive muscle. His arms were tree trunks, but he was on the short side, so she could pretty much stare him right in the eye. His head was smoothly shaved.
“Been busy,” she said. “It’s the height of wedding season.”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s right. How’s the true-love business?”
“Same. How’s the personal-training business?”
He lit up. “Got a few more clients and thinking of starting my own protein-shake company.”
“Ambitious. I like it. Tell me everything.”
He ordered a drink and filled her in on his plans. She listened with genuine interest, always happy when someone decided to take their business to the next level and seemed passionate about their work.
They—mostly he—talked for a while, and by the end of his beer, he’d moved close and had his arms wrapped casually around her waist. His touch felt good. She leaned into it, hopeful that she could satisfy the restless ache in her gut that seemed to be stuck there. She craved to lose herself in a man’s arms and connect, at least until dawn.
The bartender asked if she wanted a refill, but before she could answer, Rick waved him away. He whispered against her ear. “Why don’t we have a drink at my place?”
She knew it was more than a drink invitation. His hands were warm over her thin shirt and spanned her stomach. His dark gaze met hers, and she took a moment to probe and search, looking for a nameless thing to guide her and confirm that this was what she wanted. In his eyes, she found hot male eagerness and a flare of lust. That had never been a problem. She recognized what most men wanted when they weren’t involved in a relationship, and she’d made peace with what was enough for her long ago. No, it was the lack of other emotion that made her pause. An emptiness inside that told her she was just a body to him. He’d enjoy her and what they did, but when he walked away, there’d be nothing to remember.
Slowly, she moved his arms away. “Sorry, not tonight,” she said easily, softening the rejection with a smile. “I have a bitch of a day tomorrow.”
“I can make it better. Come on, Taylor, don’t break my heart. I want to spend more time with you.”
The false words confirmed her decision. “I’m flattered, but I’m sure your heart is safe. I’ll have one more drink with you here, though.”
His easygoing manner frayed, and his face tightened. “You really going to play this?” he asked quietly. “I thought you were different.”
She cocked her head. “Excuse me?”
His eyes turned a shade colder. “I didn’t think you were a game player. This is our third date, and it’s obvious what you’ve been putting out. I’m not stupid. You like to tease? Rev a poor guy up and leave him hanging?”
Fury shook through her, but she forced herself to pretend she was taking his feedback to heart. “Oh God, I’m sorry! You’re right—you took some precious time telling me all about your business and shakes and clients and dreams. Of course that entitles you to sex! I’m such a bitch, Rick. I forced you on three whole dates and gave you nothing. How can you forgive me?”
Confusion skittered over his features. He took a step back and frowned. “That’s messed up. I didn’t mean it like that. I just thought we were connecting, and I was looking forward to spending some quiet time with you.”
The fight drained out of her. She’d been silly to think she’d find what she needed in Rick’s arms. She’d be better off in her workroom, throwing all her emotions onto the canvas. At this point, she only wanted to retreat. “Forget it. Let’s just call it a night.”
“No, come on, let’s have another drink together. Talk a bit. Settle down.”
Damn, he was in the fix-it mindset, actually thinking he might still have a chance. She really had no choice.
Taylor took a deep breath and began to cough.
She bent over, hacking away, feeling the dryness in her lungs while Rick stared at her with unease.
In seconds, Pierce was at her side. “That bad, huh?” he murmured under his breath, patting her on the back.
She didn’t even bother to answer.
“You okay?” Pierce asked her, stepping in front of Rick.
She grabbed her purse and moved away so she’d have a clear escape path through the crowd. “Yep, I’m fine. Rick, this is my friend, Pierce. Sorry, but I’m not feeling too well. I’d better get out of here.”
“I can walk you!” Rick started, but Pierce blocked him with his arm, allowing her to hurry through the crowd until she’d made it out the front door. She knew Pierce would delay him and give her the time to be halfway home.
Hell, she hadn’t even gotten to order the crab fritters! At least she’d stuck the jerk with the bar bill.
She turned down a side street, enjoying the cover of darkness as she walked. The salty ocean air teased her nostrils. Away from the chatter and crowds, she let her mind drift, wondering why she felt unbalanced. She’d always embraced sex and the freedom to choose, refusing to get caught up in the hurtful terms that kept women from their power. She liked who she was and how she looked, and she chose men to share her body with who attracted her. But lately, she’d been looking for more.