I always feel like Cinderella on the day after big events like the movie premiere. Sure, I put on the dress and the glass slippers and rode to the ball in the carriage, but after midnight struck, I’m just a girl in rags with a pumpkin and a long list of chores.
On the morning after my evening with Dax, the feeling was even worse. I’d spent the night in my lonely bed at the hotel tossing and turning, restless with frustration and regret. I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if I’d let Dax come back to my room with me, if I’d allowed myself to believe what he’d been saying—that the red-carpet kiss had been for real. Would my bed have been less lonely? Would he have stayed with me all night? And instead of being bleary-eyed and numb the next morning as I prepared to check out, mindlessly tossing my finery and cosmetics into my suitcase, would I have been blissfully relaxed, enjoying a sexy breakfast in bed with my super-hot lover?
Well, I reasoned with myself, we’d never know. I’d sent Dax away last night not because I wasn’t attracted to him but because I was. And, come on now, let’s get real—it wasn’t just the physical draw, although that was there in spades. It was that I honestly and genuinely liked him, and that was a dangerous proposition.
I wasn’t a prude about one-night stands. Hell, hook-ups without any strings attached were my jam, though I didn’t go around proclaiming that. Even Celeste and Sabrina were largely unaware of my assignations. Hey, I didn’t love how these things happened, but a woman has needs, after all. And since I knew that love wasn’t in the cards for me, tumbling in the sheets with random dudes was the way to go.
But I had standards. I didn’t sleep with men who I didn’t like—that was one reason Dr. Dopey hadn’t made the cut—and I also didn’t sleep with men who I liked too much. If there was even a whiff of a possibility that the situation could morph into romance, that was a deal-breaker.
I didn’t do romance. And I sure as hell wasn’t showing up for love. Been there, done that, had the ugly scars to show for it. I’d handed over my ability to love when I was eighteen years old, and I never planned to take it back. Thanks very much.
And that was why I was alone today, skulking out of the Hyatt in dark sunglasses as my rolling suitcase bumped along behind me. I smirked to myself as I waited for the YouRideIt that was going to carry me back home. I’d arrived here yesterday with so much excitement, all shiny and glowy, ready to be a temporary star. How quickly the mighty fall. If I’d done something crazy and impulsive like indulged in wild, sweaty sex with Dax the smoldering bartender, would that glow have lingered a little longer? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. It was possible that I’d feel grimy and uncomfortable.
Probably not, but it was better to think that way.
The car pulled up to the curb, and I climbed inside, smiling briefly at the driver who asked me if I was all right for him to listen to the radio on the ride to Burton.
“Oh, sure.” It was actually a relief that I wouldn’t feel pressured to make small town with a stranger when all I wanted to do was close my eyes and think about absolutely nothing for forty-five minutes.
I was doing just that when I felt a buzzing in my ass. It took me a minute to realize that my butt hadn’t fallen asleep; I’d tucked my phone in the back pocket of my jeans.
With a sigh, I tugged it out, yawning as I blinked at the screen.
TEXT FROM HOT BARTENDER DUDE
I bit back a smile. I really needed to change that entry . . . or crap, maybe I should just delete it. I’d made the decision that Dax wasn’t safe for me to be around. That meant I should take his number off my phone, and I definitely, positively shouldn’t answer this text. Hell, I shouldn’t even read this text. I should hit delete and move on.
And yet my finger hovered over the notification, and before I could second-guess myself—or should that be third-guess myself?—I’d touched it, making the message pop up.
Hot Bartender Dude: Hey, Coral. Thanks again for last night. I wanted to say I’m sorry if I was pushy at the end. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable and ruin what had been an incredible time.
Three dots appeared, indicating that he was typing. Then they vanished . . . and then reappeared. I waited to see if anything else showed up, but the dots stopped again.
After a moment, I blew out a long breath. I shouldn’t answer. Right? I should ignore it.
Coral: You didn’t make me uncomfortable. And I’m the one who should be thanking you. Again. Because you did me a huge favor, and I appreciate it. And you weren’t pushy. You were actually kind of sweet.
Hot Bartender Dude: Sweet. Yeah, that’s the vibe I’m going for.
Coral: I meant it in a very strong, masculine way.
Hot Bartender Dude: Sure you did. If you’d seen how many times I wrote and rewrote that message, you’d be thinking again.
Coral: Awww, that’s even sweeter.
Hot Bartender Dude: Awesome. Let’s start again. Hey, beautiful, what’re you doing? Are you still at the Hyatt?
Coral: No, I’m on my way home. The ball is over. Cinderella has left the building.
Hot Bartender Dude: I always thought old Cindy was a much more interesting girl when she was at home than when she was in that overgrown pumpkin. Anybody can put on fancy clothes and be someone they’re not. Singing while you clean a floor takes real balls. And you’re so much more than the person those reporters saw last night.
Coral: Oh, yeah? How do you know that? From one hour of me moping at your bar and a single movie date?
Hot Bartender Dude: I’m a good judge of character. It comes from years of bartending.
Coral: Better training than psychotherapy, huh?
Hot Bartender Dude: You know it. So when will you be home? And what are your plans for the rest of the day?
Coral: About half an hour, I think. Plans for the day include crawling into bed with a cup of tea and reading until Celeste brings me barbecue for dinner. These events always wear me out.
Hot Bartender Dude: So does that mean you’re too tired for a picnic?
I paused, my thumb over the keyboard. A picnic? What was he talking about?
Coral: I didn’t see a picnic on my schedule for today. Might be tough to do that from my bed.
Hot Bartender Dude: If you haven’t had a bed picnic, darlin’, you’re missing out. But I was talking about eating lunch outside. It’s a pretty day for October. The sun is warm, and I have the day off.
Coral: But you’re in Savannah.
Hot Bartender Dude: So were you a few minutes ago. See, there’s this thing called driving, and turns out I can be in your neck of the woods with lunch in hand by one.
Coral: But why? Last night was wonderful, so much fun. Maybe we should just leave it at that.
Hot Bartender Dude: Or we could go for a picnic and see what happens next.
I let my head fall back against the seat, closing my eyes. I was so tempted. So very tempted. Dax made me wanted to believe that unreachable dreams were possible. And a picnic . . . it was a beautiful day. I’d been inside for too many weeks, working hard to meet my last deadline, and the idea of sitting in the sunshine with a man like Dax . . .
Hot Bartender Dude: Are you still there? What do you say, gorgeous? There’s this sandwich shop right on the way outside of town, and I promise, my picnic won’t disappoint. Tell me where to meet you, and I’ll be there.
I bit the side of my lip. This was dangerous. Dax himself was a huge threat to my fenced-off heart, and if I let myself relax, I might be in danger.
Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself sternly. There’s no risk because you’ve already gone through the worst day in your life. This is a damn picnic. What’re you afraid of?
Picking up my phone again, I typed out a response.
Coral: There’s a place I know. It’s by a lake on a farm—I know the owners. Sending you the directions now. See you there at one.
Tucking my cell away again, I exhaled a long breath and gripped the edge of the vinyl seat, hoping I wasn’t making a horrible mistake.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Fourteen is coming next Friday, December 3rd!
Naked men have never really been my thing. I know what you’re probably thinking—Coral, maybe you DID hit your head too hard! And that’s possible. But the few men I’ve seen without their clothes never set my world—or any part of my body—on fire.
And I couldn’t imagine that anyone naked, no matter how gorgeous he might be, was hotter than Dax Turner in a tux.
Because Oh. My. God. What that man did for a simple black and white suit must’ve been illegal in forty states.
And normally, meaning on any given day of my life, the sight of him would’ve sent me into Babble Land, where it was impossible to form a coherent sentence and were I to attempt it, I’d probably accidentally end up talking about something idiotic like the number of planks on the bottom of a standard pirate ship in the eighteenth century.
Because, of course, I have shit like that rolling around my brain on the regular.
But tonight was different because for the past five hours, I’d been immersed in a deep pool of woman-power-generated confidence, surrounded not only by my two besties but also by an amazing team of makeup and hair professionals, all of whom were the best ego-boosters in the world. They’d made me feel . . . special. Beautiful. Exciting. Strong, powerful and able to take on the whole fucking universe.
Or at least that was what Nia, my hair wizard, had said. And right now, I needed to believe her.
So instead of melting in a puddle of babbling goo, I greeted Dax with a smile that said I was a gorgeous badass. Judging by the flare of surprised heat in his eyes, I was pretty sure he’d gotten the message.
“Holy shit,” he murmured. “Coral, you’re a fucking knockout.”
I was vaguely aware that Celeste sighed and Sabrina muttered something along the lines of you better believe she is. But for a long and blissful moment, it was only Dax and me existing in a world of our own, a world where I really was a fucking knockout and where I could actually believe that the two of us were fated for each other.
And then Sherell, my publicist, breezed into the suite and interrupted my fantasy.
“You’re looking good, kiddo,” she greeted me, her shrewd gaze taking me in from head to toe. “This is absolutely perfect. You on the arm of this hunk of man-candy is going to get all the rags talking.” She held up her hands as though building headlines. “Sexy romance author brings the heat. With all this free publicity, we’re going to pulverize the publishing company when we negotiate the terms for your next contract.”
I blinked as Sherell effectively brought me back to earth. Oh, that’s right. I wasn’t all dressed up and looking fine to woo Dax Turner to my bed. This wasn’t real. It was just a fairy tale where I happened to playing a temporary role. Once midnight struck? I’d not only lose the glass slippers but the prince. He wasn’t mine to keep.
“Thanks.” I managed to give my publicist a tight smile. “Dax, this is Sherell Winters, my publicist. Sherell, this is Dax Turner, my . . . date.”
Sherell turned the bright glare of her professional grin to the man in question. “Dax. So good to meet you.” She shook his hand and then leaned toward me, saying in an aside that was clearly meant to be heard by the whole room, “I don’t know where you found this one, but he’s the hottest fake boyfriend I’ve seen in a long time.”
I didn’t miss the expression on Dax’s face—the frown of irritation and cloud of confusion. I also didn’t appreciate Sherell spouting off my personal business to the entire room. Sure, Celeste and Sabrina knew the deal with my date, but the hair and makeup team were still here, and they weren’t privy to the details. I’d be mortified if it leaked that I’d had to find a man to pretend to like me for the evening.
Celeste must have picked up on my concern because she grabbed Sherell’s elbow and steered her away from me, muttering something that had the publicist grimacing and nodding. I took the opportunity to step closer to Dax and speak to him quietly.
“Thank you for being here tonight—for doing this.” I lifted one hand and dared to brush it along his lapel. “And for looking so good doing it.” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “Did you have to rent this? I’m sorry, I didn’t even think of it. I’d be happy to reimburse you for the cost.”
Dax’s brows drew together like thunder. “I would never expect you to do that—this is a date, Coral, no matter what your publicity person says.” He spit out the words with undisguised distaste. “And for the record, no, this isn’t a rental. I bought a tux not long after I got the job at the Gwynn. I work a lot of high-end fancy parties, and I hated throwing money away on renting clothes for them, so I saved up and got my own.”
“So you’re saying that you’re both sexy and savvy?” I heard the words coming out of my mouth and wondered how I’d managed to think of such a thing—and to actually say it.
But it must’ve been the right thing because Dax’s annoyance disappeared, replaced by a cheeky grin.
“You know it, baby.” He brushed the backs of his fingers over my cheeks. “I’ve got layers you haven’t begun to uncover yet.”
Those cheeks were blazing red now, I was sure. I wished suddenly that we were alone so I could begin the process of—what had he said? Uncovering his layers. That sounded like fun.
“The car’s out front,” Sherell announced. “It’s time for us to go. C’mon people. Let’s move.”
Dax crooked his arm, offering me his elbow. “Shall we?” His smile was warm and intimate, meant only for me.
I slid my hand into his arm and held on tight.
The limo was large enough for all of us—Celeste and Sabrina, who’d declared that they were each other’s dates for the evening—Sherell, who was solo since she was only here on business, and of course, Dax and me. Still, with five of us in the backseat, I was forced to press up against Dax, whose solid thigh was alongside mine, separated only by the thin material of his pants and my dress. His hand rested just above his knee, and I found myself wishing that it might stray over to caress the skin revealed by the slit in my skirt.
“So, Celeste, Sabrina. . . neither of you brought dates?” Sherell might have been a killer publicity agent, but she wasn’t known for her tact. I winced, feeling sorry for both of my friends.
“No,” Celeste responded breezily. “I’m single and happy to be that way. I’m focused on my business—I own a lingerie shop, you know. It’s very successful and takes up a lot of my time.”
“Oh, in that little town where you and Coral live, right?” Sherell’s tone was slightly patronizing. “That’s sweet.”
“You’re single now,” I jumped in, trying to steer us away from any potential conflict. “But just wait’ll December, when the hottie from your past comes back to town. I know you two are going to fall in love all over again. It’s just got to happen.”
Celeste rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at me. “Stop, Coral. We’re not all leads in your romances. We live in the real world.”
“So true,” Sabrina added. “And there’s no way Celeste is going to let Ty reel her in again. He broke her heart once. She’s not going to let it happen again, are you?”
Celeste frowned. “Well, I’m not sure it’s fair to say Ty broke my heart back then. We were kids. We both agreed that we weren’t in a place to be together. He didn’t do anything wrong . . . exactly.”
Sabrina opened her mouth to argue, but I interrupted, raising my voice. “And Sabrina’s on her own tonight because she had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reconnect with her childhood sweetheart . . . and she didn’t just let him get away. She ran like hell in the opposite direction, and she’s been dodging his calls ever since.” I tilted my head, giving her a saccharine smile. “Isn’t that right, sweetie?”
My friend’s face flushed pink. “I made the decision that we weren’t cut out for each other. That’s not the same thing at all. I was smart, not scared.”
“Hmmm, sounds like the same thing to me,” I observed.
“Saved by the bell!” Sherell announced. “Or rather by the timely arrival at the theatre.” She pointed to Celeste and Sabrina. “You two stay back with me. Dax, you’ll get out first, and then you’ll give Coral your hand to help her out of the limo. Once you two are in the middle of the red carpet, being blinded by flashbulbs, the rest of us will climb out and make our way inside. We’ll see you there.”
“What, no red-carpet photos for us?” teased Celeste.
Sherell silenced her with a glare, and then suddenly the car had stopped and the door was opening. Dax hesitated only a moment before he stepped out smoothly, and seconds later, his hand was reaching for mine.
All the nerves I hadn’t had earlier rose to the surface, and I felt dizzy. What the hell was I doing? This was crazy. People were going to see through this ruse, and then everyone would make fun of me—
“Coral. GO,” Sherell hissed.
Acting on instinct—I almost always did what I was told—I slipped my hand into Dax’s and allowed him to guide me out until I stood next to him. I thought he’d let go of my hand and offer me his arm again, as he’d done at the hotel, but instead, he threaded his fingers through mine and squeezed my hand.
“You’re beautiful. And more than that, you’re a fucking best-selling author who wrote the words that made this movie—this night—possible. None of these people would be here if it wasn’t for you. So let’s go slay this thing, here and now. Together.”
It was as if strength flowed through his touch and his words. Without even thinking about it, I curved my lips into a smile and glanced up into his eyes, hoping he felt my gratitude as we walked hand-in-hand into the melee.
“Coral Jennings! Look here!”
“Hey, Coral! How does it feel to be here tonight, at the premiere of a movie you wrote?”
“Coral! Who’s your date?”
I ignored the first questions shouted out and chose to answer the last.
“This is Dax Turner. My boyfriend.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Thirteen is coming next Friday, November 19th!
“Thanks for taking my shift tonight, Marc.” I tossed the bar towel I’d been using into the bin under the counter and slapped my co-worker on the back. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem, dude. I’m never gonna turn down a Saturday night gig—the tips alone make it worth the trouble.” He cocked his head. “But I don’t remember you ever missing sweet hours like these. Must be some hot chick, huh?”
I grinned. “Something like that . . . but then again, not exactly.” I paused. “I mean, yeah, I’m going to be with a woman tonight, and sure, she’s beautiful, but it’s not, like, a date. We’re just going somewhere together.”
“Uh-huh.” Marc folded his arms over his chest. “I saw a tux hanging in the back. It’s yours, isn’t it? Guy doesn’t usually put on a monkey suit for a casual evening out with a friend.”
“I guess it’s a little more than that,” I conceded. Marc was a decent sort and a hard worker, but even so, I considered my next words carefully. I knew Coral had downplayed the importance of her role at the event tonight, but I didn’t want to say anything that I shouldn’t. What if I told Marc I was only pretending to be her romantic interest, and somehow, he mentioned it to someone else . . . and some reporter got hold of the story? Coral would be mortified.
And that idea made me very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, except that for the most part, I was generally a decent man. Or at least I thought I was. At any rate, I wasn’t going to risk saying anything that might put her in a bad position.
“She’s . . . someone new in my life, and I haven’t said much to anyone.” Well, that part was undeniably true. “And tonight, she has something important to go to—a big deal, you know? She asked me to go with her.” I rolled one shoulder. “That’s why I’m going to wear the tux.”
“Hey, man.” Marc grinned at me. “That’s good stuff. I’m happy for you.”
I shook my head. “Don’t start planning my bachelor party, buddy. It’s not that serious. For now, it’s just . . . fun.”
“Oh, yeah?” He waggled his eyebrows. “Where I come from, a man doesn’t put on clothes like that for fun.”
I sighed. “Marc, my man, you’ve got a lot to learn. Unfortunately for you, I don’t have time to teach it tonight. I’ve got a lady waiting on me.”
The Hyatt was only a few blocks from the Gwynn, and on another evening, I might have walked. It was a beautiful night for early autumn in Savannah; the air was cool but not cold, and the stars were just popping out as I exited the hotel where I worked and walked to my truck in the employees lot.
But I didn’t want to hoof it ten blocks in my fancy clothes and dress shoes. Not that they were that uncomfortable, but I wanted to make sure I looked good for Coral.
Why did that matter? Hell if I knew. I’d never done anything like this before. When I went out with a woman, it was because I was attracted to her. Because I wanted to know her better—or maybe just because I wanted to see her naked. I didn’t overthink it. I spent time with a lot of different women, and we always had a pretty good time before we parted on friendly terms. More than once, one of my former lovers would stop by the bar for a drink, just to say hello.
But the woman who’d run smack into me and then knocked her head on the floor and passed out . . . she wasn’t like any of them. I couldn’t put my finger on it. She was pretty in a genuine and fresh sort of way. Even all dolled up to meet her would-be date—Dr. Dopey, I chuckled—she had something that shone through everything else. Not to mention, I was pretty sure she was rocking a sexy bod. I’d done my level best to keep my eyes on her face, but yeah, I’d snuck a peek.
It was more than that, though, more than just her looks. She was funny. And then there was her . . . what had she called it? An unfortunate tendency to babble. Well, yeah, she did talk a lot. Fast and furious, my gramps might have said. And she blushed, too. Matter of fact, watching those full cheeks slowly turn red had been kind of sexy. Made me wonder how far down the color went . . .
I gave my head a little shake. Tonight wasn’t about putting the moves on another willing woman. Tonight was all about Coral, about making sure she had a guy on her arm who she could trust. I wanted her to end the night feeling good about her big night.
She’d texted me her room number earlier, so it didn’t take me long to make my way through the lobby and to the elevator. When I stood outside her room, I felt a weird kind of nervousness, like someone picking up his date for the prom. I fiddled with my sleeves and smoothed the front of my jacket before I knocked on the door.
From within, I could hear what sounded like a bunch of female voices. And my knuckles had no sooner touched the smooth wood of the door that those voices rose to what some might call a squeal.
The door whooshed open, and before me stood a gorgeous woman with golden hair done up in some fancy ‘do. She was wearing a dark blue dress that showed off a killer body, and her wide eyes—huge and brown—were alight with curiosity.
“Ohhhhh.” She grinned, and those eyes danced. “Oh, yes, you’ll do. You’ll do very well.”
I cocked my head. “Okay. Umm . . .” Craning my neck, I tried to see beyond her into the room, looking for Coral. “Maybe I’m not in the right place.”
Goldie stepped back a little, giving me space to come inside. “You’re Sexy Bartender Dude, right? Coral’s date?”
“Oh. Yeah.” I wasn’t sure whether or not I was relieved that this was the place. The woman standing next to me was still drinking me in like I was an icy Coke and she’d been hiking in the Sahara. For a minute, I’d wondered if she’d thought I was a stripper-gram. “Is she . . . here?”
“She’s still in the bedroom with the hair and makeup people. She told me to let you and tell you to sit down, make yourself comfortable.”
“Uh, thanks.” I glanced around what I now saw was the living room of a large and sumptuous suite, the kind that a guy like me couldn’t afford in a million years. I’d seen the inside of something similar at the Gwynn, but only when I happened to be running a tray of cocktails up to a private party.
“I’m Sabrina, by the way.” The blonde smiled. “Coral’s one of my best friends.”
“You’re the doctor.” I pointed at her. “The one who picked her up at the hotel the other night.”
“Yes.” She sighed, dropping into a chair. “What a mess that was. I totally misread the hematologist. I thought he and Coral would hit it off, but apparently, I’m not cut out to be a matchmaker.”
“Hey, it all worked out.” Gingerly, I sank onto the sofa and tried not to be drowned by the pillows that covered it. “She met me and ended up with a much better date for tonight.”
“Good looks and humble, too,” Sabrina quipped. “But I have to agree. At least for now. I don’t know you, and neither does Coral—not really. So tonight, you better remember to be on your best behavior. She’s . . .” Her voice trailed off as she stared beyond me. “Coral is a sweetheart, in case you didn’t pick that up yet. She’s a hopeless romantic—for everyone else, that is. I’ve known her since we were nineteen, and during all that time, she’s ducked love and relationships and even casual flings. She pushes Celeste and me into dating people, but she doesn’t even look at guys for herself.”
“Oh.” There was no way I could’ve known any of that, but still, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Coral definitely gave off a vibe of vulnerability and . . . innocence? That wasn’t quite the right word. But she didn’t seem to be naïve, either. She was tough, as evidenced by the way she’d stood up to Dr. Dopey when he’d insulted her career.
“I’m not saying you’re not a good guy, Bartender Dude,” Sabrina added. “Just that I don’t know for sure that you are, and Coral means a lot to me.”
“To us.” The door to what I assumed was the bedroom opened, and another woman in a fancy dress came out. She was a looker, too, with light brown hair that hung in waves around her bared shoulders. She perched on the arm of Sabrina’s chair and crossed her arms. “I’m Celeste. You must be Bartender Dude.”
“Usually people just call me Dax.” I shot Celeste a smolder, but it didn’t seem to faze her. She only blinked once as she stared me down.
“Whatever Sabrina was saying about how you need to treat Coral—that goes double for me. Coral is the best person I know.” She patted Sabrina’s shoulder. “No offense, sweetie. I love you, too.”
“None taken. I’d have said the same thing.” Sabrina studied me. “So, Dax, the bartender dude, do you think you’re up for tonight? You know you have to be a gentleman, but at the same time, you need to make it clear to the world that you’re absolutely besotted with Coral. You need to touch her, but not in a creepy way. You need to, like, stare at her when you think no one else is watching, because there are going to be cameras there and reporters—”
“And her publicist needs tonight to go perfectly because it could impact the negotiation of her next contract,” Celeste finished. “Can you do this? Can you be the man of Coral’s dreams for the whole world to see without making her uncomfortable?”
I opened my mouth to respond—and what I was going to say was anyone’s guess, because these two women were making me nervous on a scale I’d never experienced.
But before I could say a word, the bedroom door opened again, and this time, I recognized the woman who sauntered out. But only barely, because even the dressed-up version of Coral Jennings that I’d met the other night wasn’t anything like the vision who now stood before me.
She was wearing a long body-skimming gown made of some kind of shimmery silver material. A slit in the skirt revealed one tanned leg, and the neckline hugged her tits like a pair of loving hands. Her short dark hair was tousled in a way I bet had taken a long time just to make it seem effortless.
But it was the eyes that got me. It had been those eyes that pulled me in when we’d first met, and now they were accentuated in some way that made them seem even bigger and deeper, gray like the ocean in the middle of wild storm. Those eyes made it impossible for me to speak for a moment . . . hard to even breathe for several seconds.
This version of Coral was anything but vulnerable. Her gaze wandered over me and then returned to my face with a slight smile before she spoke.
“All right, ladies. The pre-date grilling of Dax the bartender dude is officially over. You’ve had your fun . . . and now it’s my turn.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Twelve is coming next Friday, November 12th!
(Ooooh, how is that for synchronicity!)
And we’ll find out what happens at the movie premiere!
A long time ago, I’d realized that when I miraculously beat breast cancer at the age of nineteen, I’d used up all of my good fortune and lucky breaks. From there on out, I never complained when things didn’t go my way because I knew I had to be grateful to be alive at all.
Sure, I’d landed a sweet publishing deal at the age of twenty-one, but in my mind, that too was linked to my cancer. I’d started writing romance as a way to escape during chemo and radiation treatments, in the aftermath of surgeries and during hospital stays. My agent didn’t exactly exploit my disease to help land my first contract, but she was savvy enough to know that stories sell, and playing up the fact that I was a young cancer survivor definitely didn’t hurt.
Even my best friends came into my life because of my breast cancer diagnosis. We all met at a volunteer rally for Young Survival Coalition, and we’ve been joined at the hip ever since. I love Celeste and Sabrina. They’re the sisters I never knew I needed.
But there are a lot of other things that haven’t gone my way. For instance, I have a chronic case of the talkies, as Sabrina calls it—I go off on long and involved rambles, babbling while the people around me blink and try to find an excuse to get away. Also, when I’m with anyone outside of my closest friends and family, I’m the most awkward person on Planet Earth. Maybe in the Milky Way.
So was I surprised that this evening had gone the way it had? That instead of enjoying a promising meet-cute date with the hematologist, I was sitting at a bar, pouring out my troubles to a bartender whose name I didn’t even know?
Nope. That sounded about right.
He was cute, though. The bartender was, I mean. His hair was long, which was something I didn’t usually like in a guy. It was a light brown, and he had it tied back now as he moved around behind the bar. His eyes were a rich, deep chocolate, and I didn’t miss how steady they were on my face as I spoke. He wasn’t looking over my shoulder or even dipping his attention to check out my body. That was a nice change.
“All right,” he was saying now in response to my confession of social ineptitude. “So you’re this famous author, and you need a date to a movie premiere, and . . . what happened next?”
I wanted to throw myself onto the bar and bury my face in my arms, but that felt a little too far over the drama line. Instead, I shifted the ice I was holding to the back of my head and shivered as a droplet of water snaked down my neck.
“My friend Sabrina is a doctor here in Savannah. She works at the hospital in the oncology department, helping with clinical trials and treatments for breast cancer.” I bit my lip and took another deep breath. “She offered to set me up with this guy who just moved to Savannah. He’s a hematologist. She said he was super nice. I was all excited, thinking he might work out to be the perfect date. I had it pictured in my head . . . you know, he’d be all gentlemanly and kind, and I’d be comfortable enough not to be so very . . . me.” I grimaced. “And at first, it was fine. It was wonderful! He chose an amazing restaurant in this beautiful hotel, and he was at the table waiting for me. I made it to my seat without tripping or landing on my ass. All good.”
“You set the bar kind of low, you know.” Bartender Dude interrupted my flow. “If a great start to a date is getting to the table on your feet.”
“You don’t know my life,” I replied darkly. “The stories I could tell you . . .” I gave my head a small shake and winced again. It really did hurt every time I moved my head. Or my eyes. Ugh. “Anyway, then we ordered appetizers—or rather, he did—and right after the waiter walked away, Dr. Dopey made his pirate remark. He said—” I closed my eyes. “He told me that he’d looked me up and saw that I wrote pirate romance. And he kind of chuckled like—you know, isn’t that cute? So fucking patronizing.”
I felt the same fury rise in me that I’d experienced at the table. Dr. Dopey wasn’t the first person to sneer at my romances, but my tolerance for that kind of condescending shit was just about at an end.
“He sounds like his name should be Dr. Dick.” Bartender Dude scowled. “I mean, what the actual hell? You’re a published author who has fucking movies made out of your books. The asshole is probably just jealous of you.”
I managed a smile. “That’s really sweet, but he didn’t come across like he was insecure at all. He started pretending to talk like a pirate. He asked me if I wrote stories with peg-leg kink, or if the parrots could talk in my books. I tried to explain to him nicely that he was way off, that real, historical pirates weren’t anything like what we know from movies, but he just kept on going and going . . .” I gulped. “Until finally, I let go. I basically word vomited all of my research, and even when he tried to interrupt, I just ran right over him. I ended up by telling him that his attitude toward my work and my craft was insulting. I said, um . . .” I hunched my shoulders forward and dropped the melting ice pack on the bar. “I told him that he was a misogynistic literary snob, the worst kind of human to ever walk the earth.”
“Huh.” Bartender Dude smirked. “Sounds like he got a little of what he deserved.”
“But he didn’t even react. It was like what I said didn’t bother him one bit. The risotto he’d ordered arrived, and he started eating it. So then of course I felt guilty, and I tried to apologize, to explain, and he ignored me. That was when I knew I had to get out of there. So I told him my sister was broken down on a country road. And I don’t even have a sister. Not that he’d know that. Or care.”
“Why the hell did you feel guilty?” Bartender Dude looked aggravated. “You didn’t do anything wrong. He did.”
“Well, maybe,” I hedged. “But still. I was there to basically ask him to do me a favor, to go to this premiere with me. I was hoping we’d get along well enough that he’d seem as though he liked me on the big night. And then I threw that chance out the window, and now I’m back to square one.” Sighing again, I nudged the sopping mess of ice across the bar. “I’m done with this, thanks. And thanks for listening. I’m going to call my friend Sabrina and see if she can come pick me up. I can crash at her house tonight.”
“Hold on a sec.” He put one of his large hands over mine. “Let’s think about this. You really need someone to be your date on Saturday at this important event, right?” He rolled one shoulder. “I could do it.”
“What?” I stared at him stupidly. “What do you—I mean, why? You don’t know me. I don’t even know your real name, Bartender Dude.”
“Bartender Dude?” He raised one eyebrow.
“Sorry. It’s the storyteller in me. I have to call everyone something, and if I don’t know the actual name, I come up with one as a placeholder. That’s yours.”
“Oh, okay. Got it.” He stretched his arm toward me, holding out his hand. “I’m Dax Turner. Also known as Bartender Dude, I guess. And yeah, I don’t know you, but you seem like a nice person, and you need this one favor. I knocked you over. This is the least I can do to make amends.”
“You don’t have to make amends . . . Dax.” I tried his name on my tongue and found I liked it. “It was an accident, and like I said, it was just as much my fault. You don’t have to go out of your way to do this.”
“But maybe I want to.” He studied me now, his close perusal making my face go hot again. “I’m an adventurous guy. I like to try new things. And I’ve never been to a movie premiere before. Sounds like a blast. Just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll be your date.”
I blinked. “I can’t believe this. Maybe I actually hit my head harder than I thought. This could be a, like . . . a coma fantasy. I’m really laying in a hospital bed, and none of this is real.”
Dax chuckled. “If that’s what’s happening, what do you have to lose? Just say yes.”
I tried to think through all of this rationally, tried to come up with a reason I shouldn’t do this. “How do I know you’re not a serial killer, or a kidnapper, or . . .” My eyes widened. “A vampire?”
Dax leaned forward and rested his forearms—his very muscled, very sexy forearms if we’re being specific—on the bar. “You don’t, but since we’re going to be together in a public place at the premiere, I think you’ll be safe from all of those dangers.” His eyes were filled with amusement as he straightened and reached to his back pocket. “And here’s my ID, just to prove I’m who I say I am. You can always call the hotel and confirm that, too.” He slid a card over to me. “Here’s the number.”
“Hmmm, okay, well, it all seems in order.” I was so flustered, so completely out of my depth. I just needed to get back to someplace familiar and comfortable and process this whole crazy evening. “Uh, I’m staying at the Hyatt on Saturday. Checking in that day, and the hair and makeup people are coming there to make me look presentable. You should—I mean, you could come over there. The limo will pick us up at the hotel at seven and take us to the theater.”
“All right. Sounds good.” Dax nodded. “You should give me your cell number, too, and I’ll give you mine. Just in case anything changes and you need to get in touch.”
“Yeah, sure.” I reached for my phone. “I need to call Sabrina, anyway.” I recited my digits to him and then carefully added his number to my list of contacts.
“How did you put me in there?” He was smirking again, and the expression on his face shot something hot and unsettling straight to my core.
“I’m sorry?” My finger hovered over Sabrina’s name as I prepared to call her.
“I want to know if I’m in your phone as Dax or Bartender Dude.”
I was aware that my face was flaming red as the tip of my tongue darted out to run over my dry lips. It was as if he knew what I’d typed into my contact info next to his phone number.
“That’s definitely for me to know—and you to never find out.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Elevn is coming next Friday, November 5th!
And we’ll find out what happens between Coral and Dax . . .
I love my job. Seriously, I do. I don’t have any grand ambitions to do something else with my life, which is pretty unusual. You know, a lot of bartenders are just doing this until something better comes along. They want to be lawyers, or actors, or musicians . . . that whole deal. But not me.
I’ve been a bartender since I was twenty-one—officially, that is. Before that, I worked at my grandfather’s place in a tiny little map dot in North Carolina. My job description was waiter, but I took my share of shifts behind the bar, too. I knew enough to watch out for the kind of people who might be tempted to turn us in, and the locals didn’t care how old I was as long as I kept pouring beer and whiskey.
When Gramps had a heart attack and sold the bar to my uncle, he offered to let me stay on, but I’d decided that it was time to move on. I left North Carolina and headed south, mostly because I’d heard that the theme parks in central Florida were always looking for bartenders. But when I stopped for dinner in Savannah, I met a girl . . .
All the best stories start that way, don’t they?
Anyway, I ended up staying in Savannah and finding a job. The job lasted longer than the girl did, sadly. One bartending gig led to another and another until I realized I’d been in Savannah for twelve years. By then, I’d scored a prime role here at the Gwynn Regal, climbing the ladder to a spot where I could pretty much choose my own shifts, was known to the best customers and had the freedom to change the drink menu whenever I felt the urge.
Which brings me to why I was strutting through the lobby of the Gwynn at seven on a Thursday evening, my mind a thousand miles away. I’d just finished working on the specialty cocktails for the upcoming weekend and was heading toward the office of the food and bev manager to drop it off. But I wasn’t sure about the last entry on the list; I’d decided to add a caramel apple mule as a nod to the change of season. But maybe that was the safe choice. I frowned at the paper in my hand.
And then—whoomph! Something hit me—and I realized it wasn’t a thing but a someone. All I saw was a blur of arms and legs flailing. Realizing it was a woman, I dropped the paper I’d been reading and tried to grab her before she fell.
But it was too late. I missed her arm, and then her legs went out from beneath her, and she hit the marble floor.
“Oh, fuck.” I dropped down to kneel next to her, frowning as I stared into her eyes which were huge and scarily unfocused. “Are you all right? Hey, uh, miss! Can you hear me? Can you see me?” I snapped my fingers. “Hey, are you hurt?”
Her forehead wrinkled, and I felt a little bit of relief since this seemed to be a reasonable reaction. Then she spoke, and my relief evaporated.
“Hey there, hot stuff. What’re you doing Saturday night?”
“I’m fine. Seriously, I’m really all right.”
The woman I’d accidentally bowled over was sitting on a stool at my bar, holding a bag of ice wrapped in a thin white towel against her head. She lowered her eyes, and a tinge of pink colored her otherwise pale face. She was clearly mortified by having fallen. Despite my repeated requests that she allow me to call an ambulance—which was backed up with even more insistence by the hotel’s legal team, who saw a lawsuit under every rock—she’d even refused to see the house physician.
“I just bumped my head,” she muttered now. “It’s no big deal, aside from me being embarrassed.”
“No reason you should be.” I shrugged. “I’m the one who bumped into you and knocked you over. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“I stopped walking and turned around without any warning,” she countered. “Even you had been watching, I would’ve run headfirst into your—um, you.” She closed her eyes. “Crap. This night has been a disaster from the moment I got out of the car.”
“Uh, okay.” I didn’t know what to do with that. I was aware that a woman in a situation like this probably needed some consoling, a shoulder to cry on, but I didn’t have the first fucking clue how to comfort. My experience with women was only in working with them or fucking them. Aside from that, females as a species were foreign to me.
So I did what I knew how to do: I turned around, picked up a glass, filled it with ice and then added soda water and a twist of lime.
“Here you go. Try this.” Another thought occurred to me, and I reached under the bar to find the small first aid kit we kept there. “And don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, but take this ibuprofen. You’re going to have a hell of a headache.”
“Thanks.” She held out one small hand, and I dropped the pills into her palm, watching silently as she popped the meds into her mouth and gulped the soda water. “This is perfect. Seltzer with lime is my favorite non-boozy drink.”
I grinned. “Happy to help.” I swiped a towel over the already pristine bar top to kill time for a moment before I spoke again. “Do you have . . . a husband? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Roommate?”
She squinted at me, and I wondered if the dim lights of the bar were hurting her eyes. “Um, I share a house with a friend. Why?”
“Because I don’t want you to go home to bed by yourself.” I realized how that sounded. “I mean, you shouldn’t. You probably have a concussion. Someone needs to watch you.”
“Great. Just what I needed.” She sounded defeated, and for some reason, I found myself feeling like I wanted to fix that.
“I can call you a cab to get you home. Courtesy of the Gwynn. You shouldn’t be driving.”
“Since I don’t have a car—or a license, for that matter, you’re probably right,” she returned. “But I can’t take a cab home. I live in Burton. It’s like fifty miles away from here.”
“Okay.” I crossed my arms over my chest, regarding the woman before me again. She was what my Gramps would’ve called a pretty little thing, short and slim, but now that she wasn’t lying prone on the floor, passed out, I noticed the swell of her breasts under the rust-colored dress she wore. It was tighter at the waist and then had one of those little skirt deals. I couldn’t tell right now, but I wondered if she had a decent ass to go with the rack.
Her black hair was short, and the front of it was just now sticking up in the air as she’d run her fingers through it more than once. Her skin was still a little pale; even the slight blush from moments ago had disappeared. Huge eyes that were the most interesting shade of gray-blue dominated her face, and their expression was bleak.
“Okay,” I repeated. “So tell me to mind my own business, but why are you here at this hotel without a car? You already said you’re not staying here.”
“No, I said I hadn’t checked in. Yet.” She held up on finger. “I was just about to do that when I wound up on the ground.”
“Oh, right.” I nodded. “Are you in town on business?”
She sighed. “Not really. I was meeting someone.”
My eyes narrowed. “You were? So is whoever you were meeting wondering where you are now?”
“No. I did meet—him.” She shifted a little and began to wrap the ice pack more securely in the towel.
I began to suspect where this was going. “So you met a guy, and you were on your way to get a room, huh? For the . . . two of you?” I raked my gaze over her again. Could she be a pro? It didn’t seem like she was, but then again, every now and then, we got high-priced call girls—escorts—here at the Gwynn. It was policy not to encourage such things, but at the same time, we didn’t make a big deal about it, either.
“No, not for the two of us. God, no.” She wrinkled her nose. “He wasn’t interested in me. I was walking away from him when I bumped into you.” She gnawed at the corner of her lip. “I ruined it tonight. It was my one chance, and I completely screwed it up. If only he hadn’t brought up pirates.”
I began to wonder if maybe I should have pushed harder for this chick to get checked out by a doctor. “Uh, well, yeah, that would be . . . weird, I guess. Right?”
“He thought he was bringing up a topic I’d find interesting.” She gingerly positioned the ice on her head again. “But I have an unfortunate tendency to . . . babble. Especially when the topic is related to my work.”
“You work with pirates?” This wasn’t so odd as it might sound to someone from any place but Savannah.
“No, not exactly.” Her eyes darted up to me for a moment. “I write about them. Not all of the time, but my most recent series involves them.”
“For real? You’re a writer?” I leaned on the bar, interested. “What’s your name? Would I have heard of you?”
For the first time since we’d crashed into each other, she smiled. “Unless you read historical romances—the kinds of books with covers that feature shirtless men and women with heaving—uh, bosoms—probably not. Although you might have seen ads for a movie made from one of my books.” She paused before adding, “My name’s Coral Jennings.”
It didn’t ring a bell. But then, I didn’t go to the movies very much, and when I did, it was always to see sci fi or fantasy films.
I shook my head. “Sorry. I’m not a big romance fan, though.”
“Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Coral waved her hand. “Most of my earlier books were made into series on TV, but I’ve had three that were films.” She lifted one shoulder. “My fourth one opens on Saturday night. The premiere is here in Savannah. Which is why I was at the restaurant tonight, meeting Dr. Dopey.”
“Okay, that needs more explanation.” I rested my elbows on the edge of the bar. “Who is Dr. Dopey, and why does he have anything to do with your movie?”
Coral rolled her eyes and then winced. “Ouch. That hurts. Remind me not to do it again.”
“Will do.” I waved my hand. “Come on. Start talking.”
“Fine.” Her chest rose and fell on a long exhale. “My agent and my publicist said that I have to have a date for this movie premiere. They’re negotiating my next book contract with the publishing house, and if I can sell myself as more than just your run-of-the-mill romance author, they have better standing to get me a sweet deal. Or so they tell me. My publicist is feeding the local media this story about my big romantic life. Which is a huge joke, because I’m boring, awkward, and hopelessly single.”
I couldn’t help chuckling. “Aw, it can’t be that bad.”
Coral snorted. “Trust me. It’s worse.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Ten is coming next Friday, October 29th!
And we’ll find out what happened on her disastrous date.