“Come on, Eliza,” her friend Bethany Bancroft chided her, “don’t you ever want to cut loose? Where is the wild girl who used to be the life of the party? The one who made me seem like a wallflower?” Bethany laughed and turned back to survey the busy crowd inside the bar. “Look at all those men. Gorgeous. Sexy. Just waiting to be selected as our lucky partners for the night. They are out there hoping we will make their dreams come true.”
“I don’t know that they’re waiting for that.” Eliza swiveled slightly on her barstool. The place was packed. Super loud. And way too dimly lit.
“They are. Trust me.” Bethany tossed her red hair over her shoulder. “Why else would they be in this place? They’re ready for a hookup, and so am I.”
“Um…” I am not ready. So not.
Bethany glanced back at her. “You are, too, ready. Don’t even try denying it. That’s why you’re here. You’re going to stop being a nun, right?”
“I’m not a nun.” Eliza’s shoulders stiffened because the accusation hit a little too close to home. So she didn’t date a lot. Her life was extremely busy. Hardly her fault that there just wasn’t time for a relationship.
Lie. Lie. Lie.
A satisfied smile curved Bethany’s lips. “Then prove it. Find a man. Dance with him. Now.”
“Is that a dare?” She tried to make her voice sound light. Casual. Like this was something fun.
It wasn’t. Being at the bar was hell, and she’d really like to leave, ASAP.
“Yep, just like in our college days. Only then, you would have been the one already dancing on the bar top by now, and I’d be the one you were trying to talk into doing something crazy.” Bethany caught Eliza’s hand. Gave it a squeeze. “Come on. For the first time in ages, you don’t have one of those annoying guards dodging your steps. You are free tonight. Time to live a little bit.”
Those annoying guards. Yes, Eliza had thought that she’d managed to get out without a guard following her. Or, at least, that was what she’d believed until about five minutes ago.
Until she’d seen him. The man with the dark hair. Stony features. An attitude that promised trouble. And a laser-like gaze that he’d locked on her the minute he’d walked into the bar. The guy had muscles for days and days—muscles that bulged the short sleeves and the chest of his black t-shirt. An aura of danger surrounded him, and Eliza knew he was the kind of man with whom one just did not fuck.
He was also probably the best-looking man she’d ever seen in her life. If you went for that type. The whole bad boy, devil-may-care, I-give-screaming-orgasms-to-my-partners type.
She fanned herself a little because the place was hot. Too many people inside.
Her gaze darted to him, almost helplessly, as he sat in his booth.
He was still watching her. He didn’t smile. Didn’t incline his head. Didn’t do anything but stare.
He hadn’t approached her, though. The guards rarely did. They knew their orders, after all. They were to watch from a distance. To trail her. To make sure that she was never hurt. That she was always safe.
And always trapped in her prison.
Eliza forced a smile for her friend. “I don’t really see any guys here who interest me.”
Bethany rolled her eyes. “Wake up that libido, girl, and get moving.” She turned to survey the crowd again, and as she did, a tall, sandy-haired man in a Polo and gray pants pulled away from a group of guys in the corner. His head tilted as his gaze swept toward the bar—toward Bethany and Eliza. His stare lingered on Eliza.
And started forward.
“Ooh, look at that,” Bethany began, voice humming with excitement. “We have a live one. Closing in fast. Dance with him, and I won’t ask for anything else the rest of the night.”
Eliza’s hands clamped around the edges of her barstool. He was closing in. A friendly grin curved his lips, and his eyes seemed to sparkle as—
A big, powerful figure stepped into the approaching man’s path. The figure of the badass who’d been sitting in the booth just moments before. For someone so big, he’d sure moved fast.
He said something to guy in the Polo, and Eliza’s would-be dance partner turned away. He headed back to his circle of friends.
“What just happened?” Bethany squeaked.
The badass glanced over his shoulder at Eliza. His head moved in a slow, negative motion.
“Oh.” Bethany sucked in a breath. “Hello, hotness. Well, okay, Eliza, you can trade up for him—”
He went back to his booth. Sat down. Tapped his fingers on the tabletop.
Eliza felt heat stain her cheeks. “I don’t think he’s interested in dancing with me.”
“Then what is he doing, other than cock-blocking—”
Eliza pushed off the stool. Lightly touched her friend’s shoulder. “I don’t think I escaped the guards tonight.” Apologetic.
Sympathy flashed on Bethany’s face as understanding dawned.
“I really enjoyed hanging out with you,” Eliza continued gamely. “Thank you for inviting me. But I think I should go home.” She mustered up a smile. “Want to ride with me?”
Bethany shook her head. “No, I’m gonna stay a while. Got some other people who were planning to meet up here later.” Her stare swept over Eliza. She nodded with sudden intent. “I have a different dare for you.”
“Excuse me?” Her stomach seemed to twist.
“Forget the dancing. I want you to walk over to that gorgeous guy in the booth—and I want you to tell him…” Bethany leaned toward Eliza’s ear and whispered, “Fuck off.”
Eliza’s gaze instantly darted to the man in question.
Bethany hugged her. Tight. Then pulled back. “They can’t send guards after you forever. It’s been years, and you can’t live your life by being afraid.”
Bethany was one of the few people who knew all of Eliza’s secrets.
“Go tell him,” Bethany urged. “A big, proud ‘Fuck off.’ Say it like you mean it, and I guarantee you will feel so good that you’ll think you just had an orgasm.”
So, um, Eliza doubted that it would feel that good. But the idea of going over there…of standing up for herself…
“Now, my darling, while you handle your dare, I’m off to find a dance partner. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll try my luck with your blond. I like the preppy ones.” With that, she sashayed away, heading for the man in the Polo.
Eliza put some money down on top of the bar. She inclined her head to the bartender, squared her shoulders, and then strode for the door. As she made her way for the exit, she remained hyper-aware of the man in the booth.
When she was halfway to the door, he started to rise.
Because, of course, he will follow me. I’m sure his job is to make certain I get home without any incidents tonight. Nothing that could possibly embarrass the family.
He sat back down.
Eliza turned abruptly on her heel and advanced toward him. The music drummed and had her temples throbbing.
The man in the booth leaned back, tilted his head, and studied her approach with a wry grin on his face. On his ridiculously handsome face. Eliza figured he probably used that grin to get all sorts of things that he wanted in this world. He probably smiled like that and plenty of women dropped at his feet.
I’m not going to drop.
She stopped at the edge of his table. Noted that he had a beer bottle in front of him. Open, but it didn’t appear that he’d actually had any of the beer to drink. That would go along with his cover. Her bodyguards didn’t get to drink while on the clock, but he would want to blend in.
You’re failing in that regard. You stick out far too brightly. A man like him would always stick out.
Up close, he was even more attractive. Sculpted cheekbones. Hard jaw. Straight blade of a nose. Lips that were pure sensuality.
“Hey, there, princess,” he drawled. It was a low, deep voice, one that rumbled and held the faintest hint of the south.
“I’m not a princess.” In contrast, her voice came out sounding too prim. Too stilted. Too controlled.
“No?” His dark brows rose. “My mistake.” He smiled.
She didn’t smile back. “I know who you are.”
“Really?” He blinked. “That is impressive.”
He was mocking her? If possible, her cheeks burned hotter.
“But, hey, good for you, and if knowing who I am speeds the process along for us…” He motioned between them. “Then good for me, too, am I right?”
What he was…It was an asshole. “Your services are not needed.”
His eyes narrowed. “But you haven’t even heard the full list of the services I offer.” His pose remained casual. Almost careless. “Pretty damn extensive list, if I do say so myself.”
“I am not impressed.”
He smiled again. A slow, wicked, sexy-as-hell grin that made her heart lurch hard in her chest.
Do not let him see your reaction. He’s playing you. He wouldn’t be the first guard who’d thought that if he acted interested in her, he might be able to worm his way into her family. Or rather, into getting hold of her family’s money.
“I can see that you’re not,” he told her. “And got to say, it hurts.” His hand moved to his chest. Rested over his heart. “Right in here.”
“You’re laughing at me?”
“Nope. Though I will tell you, I am finding you pretty damn charming. Did not expect that.” He winked.
Winked. Like this was all some big joke. Like her life was a joke and he got to watch her, mock her, and isolate her. The guards always isolated her. No one ever got close when they were near. She stayed locked away from the world. And it was—
“Enough.” Her hands slapped down on the table. His beer bottle rocked a little.
A faint furrow appeared between his brows, and he slowly leaned toward her.
“I saw what you did,” she gritted out. “You stopped that man from approaching me.”
He fired a glance to the right. Smirked. “Like you would have been happy with a boring asshat like him.” His gaze returned to her. “Not you.”
He could not be serious. “You know nothing about me.”
“Of course, I do. I always believe in being thorough on a case. Insulting of you to suggest otherwise.”
On a case. “So you read a file,” Eliza snapped and heard the anger vibrating in her voice. “Big deal. That doesn’t mean you know me.” She wasn’t sure anyone knew who she really was. How could they? She had to pretend all the time, with everyone. Sometimes, I don’t even know who I am anymore.
His gaze—a deep, bold green—never left her face. “I know you can have a lot more fun tonight if you don’t waste your time with some former frat boy who is just looking for a fast hookup.”
She sucked in a breath.
“Besides, he’s already settled in with your redheaded friend. Anyone who moves on from you that quickly definitely belongs in the dumbass category.” He arched a brow. “I assure you, I am not a dumbass.”
This was unbelievable. “So…what? You’re offering to hook up with me in his place?” Wait, no, she had not meant to say—
His gaze dipped over her. Lingered. Warmed. Rose back to trap hers. “That is a bonus I did not anticipate.”
A bonus? Sex with her was a bonus? Like a perk that just came along with the guard job? Anger shook her body. She leaned even closer to him.
He inched forward a bit more, too, as if he expected she was going to eagerly accept his offer or—or kiss him.
Instead, she very softly, very sweetly, told him… “Fuck off.” Then she took that bottle of beer, and she poured it on him.
His lips parted. His green eyes widened. “My God.” Beer dripped down his shirtfront. The wet shirt clung lovingly to his muscles.
She shoved back from the table.
He laughed. “I think I might be in love,” he added, seeming somewhat dazed.
“And I think you might be insane.” Her chin jerked up. “Consider yourself fired.” With that, she whirled and stormed for the door. This time, she didn’t stop. This time, she sailed out of the bar with all the grace and dignity she could manage.
Under the circumstances, it wasn’t a whole lot of grace…and she feared it was with even less dignity.
And, for the record, she would have to remember to tell Bethany that she’d been wrong. No way, no day had that felt even remotely like an orgasm.