Lips covered hers—hot lips, firm and pliant at the same time, that fit perfectly against her own and stifled any words of protest that might try to escape. He let out a breath in her mouth, and she tasted alcohol and tobacco before losing herself in the kiss. He didn’t waste time with gentle probing before invading her mouth with his tongue. His hold on her hair tightened and loosened.
She sucked on his tongue and felt more than heard the moan that rose up his throat. She wanted to touch his face, trace it with her fingertips, but her hands refused to do anything more than bunch his shirt in their grip and hold onto it as if onto life itself.
She pulled back to catch her breath, and he let go, brushing his stubbled chin against her cheek for a moment. Blindly, she sought out his lips again, but they were nowhere to be found.
The lights came back on, and everything was as it had been before the blackout. She sat alone, avoiding the gazes of her ex boyfriend and his friends at the next table, while waiting for Alan to get back with their drinks.
And she had no clue who kissed her.
* * * *
Eliza and Alan had flirted for weeks, before he finally asked her out. They smiled every time they passed each other in the hallways, and he winked at her once, for letting him cut in front of her in the queue at the campus cafeteria. That was when he asked her name.
Eliza, on the other hand, made sure to never slouch when he was around and to have on fresh lip-gloss whenever she smiled at him.
He was the quiet type, always ready to talk about poetry, but at the same time edgy enough to keep a girl on her toes. His big, dark eyes and pouty lips helped his case, of course, but it was the air of mystery he exuded that made girls swoon. Nobody knew where he spent the previous years of his studies or where he lived before that. Eliza, college sophomore, with only one relationship in her past—a miserably failed one, to boot—wouldn’t be the one to resist him. When he asked her out, she said yes and meant yes please, with a cherry on top.
She didn’t take forever to get ready; she knew what she wanted to wear. Her low-slung jeans made her ass look perky, and her backless hanky-hem top left enough flesh uncovered to keep a man’s imagination active. At least that was what Krista said, and she was way more experienced than Eliza in that department.
Eliza’s phone blipped with a new text.
I’m outside. Take your time.
She squealed. “He’s here early. How do I look?”
Krista made a show of taking in Eliza’s appearance, from her pulled-back blonde hair to the pink nail polish that adorned her toes. “Like the best thing to ever happen to this guy. Go dazzle him.”
Eliza couldn’t hold back a grin. She threw open the door and blew Krista a kiss. “Don’t wait up.” She had no intention of sleeping with the guy, but she wouldn’t mind a long make-out session.
“You look beautiful.” Alan gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek, and Eliza didn’t resist a sniff of his cologne. He smelled amazing. Lemony and dark and yummy.
“Thank you. You clean up well yourself,” she said.
He reached out a hand, and Eliza took it, feeling the heat of his touch travel up her arm. Their palms fit well together, their fingers interlacing as if they were meant to be linked.
She had to stop with the hopelessly romantic thoughts. She barely knew Alan, dreamy though he was.
Troy had been dreamy once too, and she was still trying to forget how he became her nightmare.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Don’t you want to be surprised?” Alan winked, and she zoomed in on his long eyelashes. The boy was too pretty, damn it.
“I don’t really like surprises.” She adjusted her grip, like her hold would keep him from changing to a jackass if things progressed between them.
“Okay. We’re going to The Zoo. Do you know it?”
“Of course.” Everyone knew it. Within walking distance from campus, the bar was practically the college hangout, complete with cheap beer and indie bands. Truth be told, she’d hoped for dinner and a movie, but this wasn’t all bad. Not when she was with him. And he had to be into her, if he was taking her someplace they were bound to bump into people they knew. She beamed a smile his way.
He pulled her to a stop and gave her high, strappy sandals a meaningful look. “I thought you might want to avoid walking, so I’ll drive us. I promise not to drink.”
He tilted his head to something over her shoulder, and she glanced behind her, to see an old convertible. The classic yet timeless style fit him perfectly.
He led her to it with a palm on the small of her back, and got the door for her.
Eliza slid inside. “What a gentleman.”
He tipped an imaginary hat and rounded the car to get to his seat.
The date started off perfect, and Eliza let herself hope it would continue that way.
The short drive was promising too, with her making small talk, and him sending those mysterious smiles of his her way. He opened doors for her and held her hand while they meandered around tables inside the bar. The place wasn’t packed yet, but it would be; a local band was performing, and people would soon be streaming in. When they found a spot close to the stage, Eliza thought her luck was holding up.
She reconsidered once they made themselves as comfortable as the old wooden chairs would allow. Her ex-boyfriend and his buddies sat at the table to her right. She didn’t notice them when she first sat down, because Alan had been saying something incredibly profound. She couldn’t remember what, but his eyes shone, his brow was furrowed, and he seemed sad. When she saw the guys at the next table, it was too late to do anything but turn her chair sideways, to keep them at her back, and focus all her attention on her date.
“It wasn’t meant to be, I guess. At the time I thought it was true love, but I was alone in that.” Right. His last relationship. She sensed a lot of repressed feelings there, and felt honored she was the one he chose to open up to about it.
She smiled encouragingly, but he stopped talking and took her hand in both of his. “Enough about me,” he said. “I want to know all about you.”
She was flattered by his interest. “Well, there’s not much to tell.” She lowered her gaze to the table, wondering where to start. “I’m a second year, as you kn—”
“Actually, can you hold that thought?” He looked somewhere behind her and let go of her hand with a disarming smile. “I’ll get us something to drink.”
By the time it took Eliza to decide whether she should be offended by his apparent lack of interest, he was leaving the table. “I’ll have a diet Coke,” she said to his back. If he weren’t that cute, she’d probably write him off. Super shallow and all, but she could forego her better judgment in favor of hotness once in a while.
The moment Alan was out of sight, an annoyingly familiar voice reached Eliza’ ears. “Well, look at that, Troy. The guy dropped her faster than you did.”
Oh yay. The jerks had seen her.
To his credit, Troy said nothing, but Nate Briggs—best friend to the ass formerly known as her boyfriend—went on. “I mean, this one didn’t even get a kiss.”
“Cut it out, Nate,” Troy said flatly. The voice that used to make her shiver with lust now left her cold.
“Ah, come on. Let a man have some fun, will you?” Nate wasn’t the type to give up easily.
Eliza glared at him. In all honesty, every time Nate made fun of her, she wished the earth would open and swallow her whole. But she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of backing down. “What exactly is your problem?” She hoped she sounded disinterested enough.
“Don’t have one.” He sounded as cool as she wanted to seem. “Don’t need one. I don’t like you.” Eyes sparkling, he high-fived Ethan Something, who obviously found Nate’s comeback inspired.
Nope. He sure didn’t like her, and it was a pity. He was gorgeous—a real-life Adonis, with his green eyes, angelic face, and sculpted body. The eye-candy effect was ruined by the scorn he always directed toward her. He’d disliked her since he first met her, when she and Troy were still together. Eliza wanted to attribute it to the way she’d turned down his lewd efforts to pick her up, but she didn’t really believe that was the case. Some people didn’t need a reason to be assholes.
“Well, there you go then.” She waved a hand dismissively. “That’s your problem. Deal with it.” She inwardly prayed she’d heard the end of it.
Bill, the most decent of the group, chuckled. He was always nice to her, and now she graced him with a thankful smile.
He winked, then turned to Nate. “Man, you’re like a dog with a bone. Leave it alone, already. She and Troy don’t see a reason to be mean to each other.”
He was wrong, of course. Boy, did Eliza see a reason to be mean toward Troy. But she’d chosen the high road, and he seemed to respect that. Her ex hadn’t always been so magnanimous. Not when he told The Guys how useless she was in bed, after he took her virginity.
Not when Nate mocked her for weeks afterward, for being dumped, while Troy smirked.
She never found out what made Troy change his tune. He appeared at her house one day and apologized for everything. She hadn’t believed him, but for the year and a half since, he’d been more than civil.
It was more than could be said for Nate, who now leered at her. “Maybe I want her to be mean back. Nasty, even.” He waggled his tongue at her. “Come on. I bet you’ve learned a few tricks since Care Bear here.”
She wanted to hurt him. Severely. He had no right to rub her face in her past mistakes or to use her old pet name for Troy, stupid though it was. She was glad the room was dimly lit. Maybe he couldn’t see her blush.
The moment the thought crossed her mind, there was a loud puff, and the lights went out. If Nate said anything else, it was lost in the protests of the crowd, who were afraid the musicians wouldn’t be able to perform without electricity.
Eliza was too grateful for the reprieve the blackout gave her, to join in the protests. Alan wouldn’t find their table until the lights were back on, and by the time they did, Nate might have something else to keep him occupied.
There was a shift in the air around her, as though someone invaded her personal space. At first she thought they were trying to make their way around her table, but then fingers brushed her naked arms on their way up to her neck. She was too stunned to react when they got tangled in her hair and a warm breath caressed her cheek.
And then he kissed her.
That kiss… It was everything a kiss should be, full of yearning and promise.
The lights came on. Alan was approaching their table, drinks in hand. No way was he the one who kissed her in the dark. He’d been too far away.
She worried her lower lip with her teeth, as she tucked wayward locks back into her ponytail. She was sure she looked the way she felt.
Eliza tried to get the kiss out of her mind the rest of the evening. She really did.
The band went on, and for a while she managed to enjoy the music and the company. Alan obviously sensed something had shifted in her view of him—maybe it was that she no longer hung on his every word—and was his most charming self.
“I love your eyes,” he said. “What do you call that color?”
He was unfazed by her flat response. “No. Brown doesn’t describe the golden flecks in their depths.” He clasped her hand and leaned closer.
“Hazel.” He smiled as if she’d revealed the secret to happiness. Eliza didn’t share a fraction of his glee, or of the elation she’d felt when he asked her out. He was the same man she went out with, but he’d somehow lost his shine.
“And your hair—”
“Blonde,” she said.
“Oh, I know. But it looks like so much more. Like”—Dear Lord, he was going to say spun gold—“spun gold.”
“Right. That’s so nice of you to say.” She pulled away, pretending to need both hands to lift her cola.
“And this top…”
The man wouldn’t give up. And he shouldn’t have to. She agreed to go out with him and until moments ago flirted back. Unless she told him she’d changed her mind, he had no way of knowing she was no longer interested.
“You know, I noticed you the very first day of classes,” he said. “You were gorgeous in that short pink dress.”
Eliza hadn’t owned a short pink dress since she was six, and she hadn’t attended the first day of classes because of the flu. Still, she appreciated the effort. She nodded and smiled. How on earth didn’t she notice sooner that the man was full of crap?
They never had an actual conversation before, but she should have realized everything about him was rehearsed. His smile was the right amount of sad and promising, he had the puppy-eyed look down pat, and while he supposedly paid attention to what she was saying, he covertly scanned the crowd.
Alan Mayfield, the guy she pined over for weeks, was a player, and she never would have found out if it weren’t for her mysterious kisser.
She sighed at the memory of the most perfect kiss she ever shared with someone outside her imagination. Having no clue who she shared it with made her want to scream.
“You have such graceful fingers. Like a pianist.” Alan reached across the table, to caress her wrist with his thumb. “I play a little guitar, you know.”
Of course he did. Eliza tuned him out, letting him enjoy the sound of his own voice. She had more important things to focus on. Only the men within a ten-foot radius had time to kiss her and get back to their seats before the lights went on, and there were three tables that matched that description.
“Would you like another one?” Alan pointed to her half-finished Cola.
“Sure. Thank you.” She smiled. Without meaning to, he gave her time to evaluate her options. And he gauzed his, judging by his smile when he approached a brunette at the bar.
Eh. Eliza couldn’t begrudge him for trying his luck elsewhere, when she mentally walked out on him more than half an hour ago.
She stretched her neck and took in the cute, well-built guys at the table to her left. She recognized them. The one in the middle was a teaching assistant, and the other two were from his dorm. Their usually clean-cut, what-you-see-is-what-you-get faces sported stubble tonight, and Eliza remembered hearing the TA—Sam or Sal or something—whining about an assignment that wouldn’t let him get any rest.
She smiled, and they all smiled back. Oh well. She wouldn’t mind if her mystery kisser was any of the three. They were all handsome and well built.
It could also be either of the guys sitting right opposite her, though she hoped that wasn’t the case. One was dressed like a biker, the leather pants and Harley jacket clashing with the thin wire frame of his spectacles and the glass of white wine in front of him. The other was too flashy for her tastes. She never went for guys wearing more color than she did, and his turquoise jacket would be deemed more, even if she’d had the entire rainbow on her.
She shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but she wrote off the two men and focused on the third table of possible kissers.
Her first instinct was to rule them out. They were The Guys. Troy’s buddies. With the exception of Bill, they wouldn’t bother being polite to her, let alone be interested in kissing her.
For the sake of thoroughness, she had to consider them on an individual basis. She’d know if it were Troy. His lips were always dry, and he made a sound when he kissed her—a combination between heavy breathing and a moan. It once made her hot, but now the thought of it raised her hackles. No way was it Ethan, either. Ethan would have stuck his hand up her skirt or grabbed her boobs, plus he was clean shaven.
Nate was out of the question, plain and simple.
That left Bill, who gave her an adorably goofy grin.
Nate noticed and smacked the back of Bill’s head with a dramatic roll of his eyes. God. Since the first time they laid eyes on each other, he never failed to get on Eliza’s nerves. And he obviously enjoyed it.
Eliza was half an hour early at the coffee shop, but she didn’t mind. It gave her enough time to compose herself to perfection. She’d look her best for her Troy.
They’d had been dating for nine weeks, but Troy kept her at a distance emotionally. She supposed that was part of his charm. He was the tall, dark, and handsome type. The guy who didn’t need to talk much, but whose words carried substance when he did. Public displays of affection were out of the question, and she was fine with it. A couple years her senior, he said he was over the teenage-drama love scene, and she could do without it, herself.
They didn’t go out much; clubs were outside his comfort zone. They didn’t see each other all that often, to be honest. Eliza found it weird at first, but he explained that a personality like his felt repressed when he had to adhere to societal norms such as seeing his girlfriend every day or having to talk with her over the phone, so she stopped pressuring him. She was proud of how much she’d grown and overcome her insecurities since she started going out with him.
Being with Troy made her strive to be the best she could.
She straightened her skirt for the millionth time, and brought her compact out of her purse to make sure her lip gloss was as shiny as before she took a sip from her coke.
It was in the small round mirror that she first saw the man who’d be the bane of her existence for a long time to come.
He wore a white shirt and faded jeans, and he might as well be holding up a sign that read “DANGER.” It wasn’t his tussled hair and scuffed boots, or the Zippo he flicked, as much as his eyes. His gaze was intense, piercing, even under the poor lighting. A shiver ran down her spine when it met hers in the mirror. He smirked, and Eliza held her breath, instinctively knowing it would be perilous to smile back.
She put the compact back in her purse and tried to concentrate on her drink, but her thoughts returned to the guy. She couldn’t say why. It wasn’t like he was her type. He wasn’t tall or buff enough. Or handsome.
Well… maybe he was handsome, if you went for the bad-boy type. Where Troy emanated calm power, this guy seemed like a bundle of nerves. On edge. Someone she’d never feel safe around. Not that she’d want to be around him or think of him any longer. She’d only seen him for a split second, for crying out loud.
Someone pulled out the seat across the table from her, and she found herself looking at a white-clad chest. She raised her gaze to see what she knew she would—the smirk and green eyes that had unsettled her so.
She gulped but managed to force a smile. “That seat is taken.”
“It is now. By me.” His voice, rough and velvety at the same time, it felt like a caress.
She scoffed anyway. “No. By my boyfriend, who’ll be here any minute now.”
“Sucks to be him. I’m not going anywhere unless you have a drink with me.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at her challengingly.
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. It’s your butt on the line.”
He tapped his fingers on the table. Eliza liked men who took care of their hands, but the ink smudges on his index finger and his short, ragged nails fit his image. “I don’t think my butt is in any danger,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Yours might be, if we hit it off and you asked nicely. For now, I’ll settle for that drink.”
She flinched, disturbed at how his voice and words made her body react. Her skin flushed and her temperature rose, and not in an unpleasant way. It took a heavy kissing session with Troy to achieve that result.
“Not in this lifetime. Now leave me alone.” She was relieved her voice didn’t shake.
“Or what?” He uttered the words slowly, his tone and the quirk of his lips turning the straightforward question into a dirty suggestion.
Despite his persistence, nothing about him made her feel physically threatened. He didn’t crowd her, and while lewd, his pickup routine wasn’t intimidating. It might be the laugh dancing in his eyes.
Holding his gaze, she tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean or what? I told you—my boyfriend will beat you senseless if you don’t stop harassing me.”
He clenched his jaw. Relaxed it. Clenched again. “Not that I wouldn’t like to see him try, Eliza, but your precious Troy isn’t coming. He’ll call you when he’s home tonight.”
It took a few moments for his words to sink in, but he was out of his seat before she could ask how he knew her or Troy. She followed him to the bar. “How… Who are you?”
“Nate.” He sounded bored. “Troy knew I’d be here, and asked me to let you know he wouldn’t make it.” He whispered something to the buxom blonde sitting to his left, obviously done with the conversation.
Eliza wouldn’t leave the matter alone. “If Troy sent you, why were you such a jerk to me?”
He looked at her over his shoulder, one hand planted higher up the other blonde’s thigh than propriety allowed. “I felt like it. Wanted you to know you have options. I know the kind of girl your boyfriend goes for.” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Personally, I like my ladies more experienced.”
The woman next to him let out a throaty laugh. She covered his hand with hers and pulled it higher still.
Eliza felt the blood drain from her head. Troy wouldn’t have told this guy something so personal. “Did he—”
“Tell me you’re a virgin? He didn’t have to. I can smell it all over you. You better get going. Now.” He turned away, but not before she saw his eyes darken with something like anger.
Why the hell was he angry? He’d hurt and insulted her, and he didn’t even know her. “You’re a pig,” she said. Yes, it was a lame insult, but she was too shaken up to bother finding a better one.
“And yet I’m your boyfriend’s best buddy. Doesn’t that make you wonder what he’s really like?” He caught her eye before facing the other way again. His expression held no hostility, but it didn’t make her feel better.
Eliza turned on her heel and left, but not before seeing him stick his tongue down the other blonde’s throat.
She’d never admit it out loud, but Nate was the reason she slept with Troy a week later.