As always, the food at Per Se was out of this world. The restaurant drew in a different class of clientele, a certain pedigree who only wanted the best. Situated in Midtown, it was elegant and intimate without being overly pretentious—crisp white linens, sparkling hardwood floors and wide, clear windows that showed off stellar views of Central Park and Columbus Circle. Tonight was a beautiful night, the city flung out before us like a perfect, twinkly Van Gogh painting.
I felt like a million bucks in my vintage Dior black cocktail dress. The deep V neckline flattered my modest chest, the fitted waist and back criss-cross straps gave it a sexy edge without being overt. And the front pleat that made the material swish when I walked was just for fun. The man sitting across from me looked like he dined in this kind of restaurant every night of his life. Which, incidentally, he pretty much did.
Marcus Tate was a thirty-two-year-old investment banker for a leading firm in the city. He was the youngest broker to have scored top figures for his clients, resulting in a hefty pay packet for himself and an arrogance that came from building yourself up and knowing you were the shit. That, and he was hung like a boss. His face was nice to look at, too.
We’d met a few months ago at the Met and had hit it off after discovering our mutual hatred for the tourists that crowded all the best displays. Tonight marked our five-month anniversary and I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of the evening would bring. Marcus was the kind of guy who liked to throw his money around. So far in our romance he’d spoiled me rotten, whisking me away for long weekends, buying me jewelry and shoes. Marcus was, without a doubt, my ultimate Prince Charming.
Once our table was cleared after dessert, Marcus shifted in his seat. He finished the rest of his wine in one gulp. “I had a specific reason for inviting you here tonight,” Marcus said as he met my eye.
“Our anniversary wasn’t enough?” I asked, giving him a playful smile.
Marcus blinked. His face took on a rosy hue and he nodded. “Our anniversary. Of course.” He blew out a breath and shifted in his chair again.
Man, he’s nervous tonight. Oh, God. Marcus was never nervous. Like, ever. So it stood to reason that whatever he was trying to say was a doozy. Oh my God… Was he—was Marcus about to propose?
“Hayley, these last few months have flown by. It feels like I’ve hardly blinked and yet here we are, five months in. You’re fun and energetic, and I love that fire you have inside you.”
Remember every second of this—don’t you dare forget!
“It’s time I got serious. I’m facing a promising career and my responsibilities are only going to increase. I’m not a stupid kid anymore and it’s time I stopped acting like it. Which is why I’m breaking up with you.”
I gasped and pressed a hand to my chest, my eyes filling. A girlish laugh lodged in my throat and—wait a second, did he say break up? Marcus was breaking up with me?
“I really care for you, Hayley, but we were never going to be serious. And it’s time that I was. I can’t dick around for another few years—I need to settle down.” Marcus gave me a kind smile that made me want to punch him in the throat. “And you’re not the kind of girl who settles down.”
“I’m sorry, I just want to check something since my brain and my ears seem to be arguing with each other—you want to break up with me because you want to settle down…just not with someone like me?” I asked. This couldn’t be happening. Marcus was perfect for me, in that lukewarm, affectionate kind of way. He was the epitome of everything I had ever wanted for myself…and now he was ending it?
“What the fuck?” I exclaimed, louder than I’d intended. A few curious stares were sent our way and I guessed this was the exact reason I wasn’t the kind to settle down with. “Are you seriously breaking up with me on our five-month anniversary?”
Marcus tapped his fingers on the table. “Come on, that isn’t even a real thing.”
“Of course it is!” I huffed. “What, so, are first kiss anniversaries not a real thing either? Or the one-month anniversary of the first time we slept together? Because I seem to remember how enthusiastically you enjoyed that one.”
All humor drained from Marcus’ face. “Hayley—”
“For chrissake, Marcus, my dad was the mayor of New Haven! My mom’s family comes from old railroad money. I’m not a goddamn nobody.” I drew in a quick breath and clenched my hands into fists to stop them shaking. Christ, had I really just said that? What an idiot. It was totally true, though—my family was extremely well respected back home. We had a comfortable life that I—most of the time, anyway—didn’t take for granted. It allowed me to do pretty much whatever I wanted here in the city.
“It’s not about status,” Marcus said, lifting his hand in a bid to get me to lower my voice. “Hell, your background is half the reason—” He stopped himself mid-sentence.
A surprising calmness settled in my blood as I pinned him with my stare. “Half the reason you what, Marcus?”
He shook his head and seemed to decide against finishing the sentence. “You’re not a serious girl, Hayley. How many nights out a week do you have? Half the time you aren’t even home before dawn. I’m sorry, but I left that behind in my twenties.”
Our waiter approached the table with his hands clasped behind his back. “Can I get you anything else this evening?”
Marcus opened his mouth to answer, but I beat him to the punch. “Actually, yes, we’ll take the Barbaresco. The 2011 Gaja, I think, will do nicely.”
“Of course. Glass or the bottle?”
I winked at Marcus. “Oh, the bottle, please. We are celebrating, after all.”
The waiter nodded. “May I ask what the occasion is?”
“It’s a double actually—our five-month anniversary, and also our breakup.” I wrinkled my nose in a ‘how cute is that’ sort of way.
He glanced between Marcus and me for a second. “Coming right up.”
Once the waiter was out of earshot, Marcus’ polite smile fell and he shot me a hard glare. “A four-hundred-dollar bottle of wine? Really?”
I shrugged and flashed him a carefree, happy, not-the-type-to-settle-down grin. “Call it a parting gift.”
And so we sat in tense silence while I drank most of that damn bottle. It was too dry for my taste, not something I’d usually choose. But it was the principle of the matter. Marcus settled the bill and walked me out of the restaurant with his hand on the small of my back.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for, Marcus,” I said, pulling my phone out of my purse.
“You too, Hayley,” Marcus said quietly before slipping away. To avoid another scene, no doubt.
Giving him a jaunty salute, I dialed Eve’s number and looked down the street for a cab with its light on.
“Hey, girl,” Eve said as she answered, a blast of club music behind her. “Aren’t you out on the super romantic not-really-an-anniversary dinner with Marcus?”
I snorted. Whatever. Five months totally qualified for an anniversary. “Yeah, during which he dumped me. In the middle of Per Se.”
Eve gasped. “Are you kidding?”
“Nope. Where are you guys tonight? I so need my girls.” I just wished my main girl was here. But no. She was living it up in Vegas with the love of her life.
Eve giggled. “We’re at Industry. Are you coming out?”
A cab pulled up at the curb in front of me and I paused with my hand on the door. “The gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen?”
“One and the same. Get your ass down here, girl. See you in a few.” Eve disconnected the call before I could even argue.
Not that I wanted to.
What was the one thing that was sure to cheer a girl up after getting her ass dumped by the guy who was so not her Prince Charming? Dancing the night away with ridiculously hot men who wanted nothing more than to compliment her fabulous vintage dress.
Hot guys. No pressure. I was so there.
* * * *
Industry was one of the hottest gay bars in the city. I’d been once before—Marley and I had ended up there one night, drunk off our asses on cocktails, and had had a blast. I think. It was mostly a blur, as was the photographic evidence.
The sidewalk bustled outside Industry as I stepped out of the cab. The music inside the bar poured onto the street. The sidewalk was crowded with bodies—people smoking, people laughing and enjoying the night. Inside, the place was packed and I pushed my way through, trying to find Beth and Eve. It shouldn’t have been hard—there was probably only a handful of women in the bar. Men, men, fit, hot men as far as the eye could…
Beth and Eve. If I were a man-loving, energetic ball of fun looking to have a good time, where would I be?
Right where I would be—in the middle of a man-sandwich on the dance floor.
Sure enough, I spotted Eve’s short blonde hair and Beth’s long, curly brunette locks among the chiseled pecs and sweaty torsos. They bumped and grinded with the best of them. Beth saw me first as I made my way toward them. Her face lit up and she reached out to grab my hand and tug me into the middle of their huddle.
Eve threw her arms around my shoulders, screaming something I couldn’t quite make out. I hugged her back and laughed at how excited she and Beth were.
“Why have we never been here before?” Beth asked with a giggle.
A tall, ripped dude with a shaved head strutted past us in a pair of jeans that left nothing to the imagination. “I have no idea,” I said, my eyes glued to his ass.
“Girl, that dress is hot,” Eve said, shaking her hips to the music. “Where’d you find that one?”
Beth held up a hand before I could answer. “When will you learn? I don’t want to hear about how she rifled through some dead old lady’s closet.”
I threw my head back with a laugh. “My God, you make it sound so seedy! It is what I was hired for, you know. I don’t just stalk the obits and go knocking on their door.”
We danced for the next few songs, loving the attention we got from guys who actually wanted to dance with us and loving even more that we didn’t have to worry about unwanted hands.
By the end of the third song, I was a hot mess. I signaled to the girls that I was going to the bar and they nodded. It took some time to push my way through the throng of bodies. I found a prime spot of bar real estate and prepared myself for a hefty wait.
My usual feminine wiles wouldn’t work in my favor here.
Yes, it being a gay bar, I expected good-looking guys to be served faster than me. But fifteen minutes was a joke. The diva behind the bar was getting a seriously crappy tip. When the guy beside me—who had just appeared only seconds ago—got served, I huffed and popped a hip, fully intent on running my mouth.
“Whatever you’re about to say, I advise you—don’t.”
At the sound of the masculine voice with the deep New York accent, I turned to the body on the other side of me.
And Holy Hot Guy, Batman.
Was it Superhero night or something? Because I was pretty sure Thor was in front of me right now. Looking at me with clear, pale blue eyes and a quirky, amused smile on full, luscious lips. He was tall—clearing six foot and then some, with dirty blond hair that was styled back off his face. And Jesus Christ, was he built. Broad, muscular shoulders, strong, thick arms and a narrow waist. His thighs strained against the denim of his jeans and I’d bet my favorite pair of Manolos that I could grate cheese on the abs hidden beneath the crisp white shirt that accentuated his golden tan.
His smile widened and I was surprised he didn’t hand me a napkin to wipe the drool I was sure had gathered on my chin.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, trying to shake away the hot-guy fog that clouded my brain and cognitive functions.
Hot Guy jerked his head toward the bartender. “That one doesn’t take kindly to threats. Or angry women.”
I cut a glance to the bartender, who was still actively not looking in my direction. So much so that he had completely overlooked the freaking God beside me. Ha. Served him right.
“What are you drinking?” the guy asked me. “I’ll order for you. Turn around and pretend you don’t know me.”
A laugh bubbled in my throat. “I don’t know you. For all I know you could be a predator.”
He grinned. “And if I were, I’d pick my venues a little differently, don’t you think?”
Well, he had a point. Any man looking to stalk innocent women wouldn’t do it in a gay bar, for chrissakes. I smiled at him. “Thanks. I’ll take a cosmo.” I reached into my purse for some cash but he stopped me with a hand on my arm.
“I got it. Now turn around and put that cute little pissed-off frown back on,” he said with a wink.
I did as I was told and the second my back was turned, a sharp whistle sounded from behind me. The bitchy bartender glared in my direction, but his face soon smoothed over when he saw who was actually doing the whistling.
The bartender didn’t spare a glance my way as he sauntered toward us. He leaned an elbow on the bar and drank up my gallant hero with his eyes. “What can I get you?”
“Cosmo and a Heineken. And whatever you’re drinking.”
Well. That just took him down a notch or two in my estimations. He clearly had terrible taste in men, if his type was bartender on a power trip.
They bantered back and forth for a minute and when my best friend had our drinks he picked them up and gave me an imperceptible nod to follow him. And like the grownup I was, I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at the bartender before I left.
I followed him through the bar, made easier by the fact that he cut a clear path through the bodies with his huge frame. He took a seat on a low couch and patted the spot beside him. No one else paid us a speck of attention as I squeezed in next to him. It was a good thing I was small—he took up more room than the average person.
He handed me the cocktail, his fingers brushing mine as I accepted it. “So. What’s your name and what brings you here tonight?”
I laughed at his candor. “I’m Hayley. And my charming boyfriend dumped me over dinner, so I called my girlfriends. They were already here having a girls’ night out, so I joined them. You?”
He blinked. “You got dumped? What the hell for? He has seen you, right? I mean, he’s not blind or anything?”
Man, he was sweet. Gorgeous, sweet and considerate enough to look out for a stranger at a bar. Why were all the best ones gay? “Nope, not blind. Just serious about his future,” I said, rolling my eyes. “And apparently, I’m not the kind of girl you get serious about.”
“What a jackass.” He raked me over with a gaze that left me feeling naked and well and truly sized up. When his eyes met mine again, they were as serious as Marcus claimed I wasn’t. “An absolute, clueless jackass.”
Seriously—why were all the best ones gay? “So, are you ever going to tell me your name?”
His smile widened, flashing straight, white teeth. Man, he had a gorgeous smile. “Colton. Colton Deluca.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Just Colt is fine. And I’m here with my friend. These kind of places make him nervous, so I’m here for moral support.”
Add extra sweet and thoughtful to the list of reasons why I wished he were straight. “That’s sweet of you.”
Colt’s smile turned modest. “He’d do the same for me. So, tell me about yourself, Hayley…”
“St. Clair,” I supplied. “Do you come here often?”
He leaned a fraction closer, his delicious, masculine cologne teasing my senses as I drowned in his piercing gaze. “Are you hitting on me?”
A blush warmed my cheeks. Jeez, I’m such an idiot. “No—God no, could you imagine?” I let out a nervous laugh and shifted away from him, turning my head so I could swallow half my cocktail in one without him noticing and giving him the impression I had a drinking problem along with a thinking problem.
I tipped my head back to drain the rest of my glass. Colt startled me by prying it out of my hand when I was done. He rose from his seat and touched my shoulder, a wide, friendly smile stretching across his gorgeous face. “Relax, St. Clair. I’ve got you.”
Colt pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the bar again. I watched his backside, marveling at how I’d suddenly become an ass woman. He glanced over his shoulder, grinning when he caught me staring. A full-body blush tore through me and I lowered my gaze.
He turned back around when the bartender approached him in record time.
“Who’s the beefcake?”
I almost jumped a foot in the air as Beth and Eve dropped themselves onto the couch beside me. Releasing a long breath, I smiled at the uncanny sixth sense my two friends had when it came to a hot guy in their vicinity. “Colton Deluca. He saved me at the bar when I couldn’t get served.”
Eve snorted, disgruntled. “Only downside of partying here. My boobs don’t work.”
Beth nodded sympathetically. “Why did we even decide to come here?”
At that moment, three ripped, beautiful guys with sharp haircuts walked past the table.
“That’s why,” Eve murmured. “This place is amazing. It’s like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet and knowing you can eat whatever you want with no risk of calories.”
“Or heartbreak, in our case,” I said.
Beth squeezed my knee. “Sweetie, he’s an ass. We never liked him anyway.”
This made me sit up straighter. “What? You said last Tuesday that you thought he was perfect for me.”
Beth scrunched her face up. “Because that’s what you say to friends.”
Wrong…that’s what you say to casual acquaintances. You tell friends the truth. Man, I miss my girl.
“Are you bumming out my new friend?”
We all twisted around as Colt reclaimed his seat beside me. He handed me my fresh cocktail and winked before turning his sharp gaze to Beth and Eve.
“We were talking about her most recent ex, so, yeah. Sort of,” Beth said with a wide grin.
One of Eve’s favorite songs came on and she grabbed Beth’s hand. “You coming, Hayles?”
I glanced at Colt and shook my head. “I’m going to miss this one out.”
Neither of them argued, and they stormed the dance floor once again.
“Are you okay?” Colt asked quietly.
Giving my head a quick shake to shed my sudden drop in mood, I smiled my fullest, even if it didn’t feel completely genuine. “I’m fine. Just a little sting.”
Colt nodded in understanding. “Tomorrow it will feel better.”
“Nothing a night with my favorite man and a bottle of wine…maybe some raw cookie dough, too, won’t cure.”
“And who is your favorite man?”
Colt blinked. “Warren Beatty?”
I lifted one eyebrow. “Is there something wrong with Warren Beatty?”
“Is he even still alive?”
Unable to hold back my huff, I folded my arms. “Of course he is. I like his movies, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Colt said. He sipped his beer, his lips curving into a smile.
Sighing, I waved my hand at him. “Make fun of me, it’s fine. I’m used to it.”
Colt’s lips twitched. “Can’t imagine why.”
“I like old movies.”
“So I can tell.” Colt rubbed his jaw. “Okay, what I’m about to tell you is confidential. Do you understand?”
I nodded, completely curious about what he could have to say.
“I don’t admit this to anyone, but I’m feeling the need to even things up between us.” He leaned a degree closer and the gentle tease of his enticing aftershave wreaked havoc on my nervous system. “I like Disney movies.”
“What?” I asked.
Colt shook his head. “Actually, make that love Disney movies. Mostly animated, but I have a soft spot for the likes of Eight Below and Homeward Bound.”
For a second, I couldn’t even process what he had told me. Was he messing with me? This man…this man man—a man so much more of a man than I had ever really seen before—liked the softest brand of movies ever made? “Are you joking?”
He smiled. “Wish I were. Sadly, my Netflix recommendations can attest to my taste in movies.”
A startled laugh bubbled in my throat. “Oh my God…you’re totally serious, aren’t you?”
“I could take you home with me to prove it, if you’d like.” Colt nudged me with his shoulder. “We could have a sleepover and watch all the movies from your childhood.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Thanks, but I’ll pass. There is nothing more depressing than a Disney flick.”
“What? You think Disney is depressing?”
“Of course!” I cried. “A parent dies, a kid gets lost, a robot is alone on Earth…they’re all the same.”
He perused me with those clear, blue eyes. He gave his head a soft shake, as if he had been disappointed. “Woman, you have no idea. Do you even watch them to the end?”
“No,” I admitted as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“Then maybe you need a re-education,” Colt murmured.
My cheeks warmed from the flush of attention that came from the keen gaze of an attractive man, and I had to remind myself both where I was and, more importantly, where he was. This Disney debate was not a come on…granted, in a different situation it would have been weird then, too.
“Besides, let me ask you this—you like Warren Beatty?” Colt grinned. “What’s your favorite movie?”
Colt’s smile widened. “Tell me.”
I took a breath and resigned myself to my fate. “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“And that isn’t depressing?”
“It’s flawed bullshit. There is nothing romantic about being shot to death by the police after ripping off a bunch of banks.” Colt shook his head and took a drink from his beer bottle. “Besides, Bonnie only ran off with Clyde because she was bored.”
“She did not,” I protested. “She ran away with him because she finally met someone who spoke to her soul, who—you know what? I’m so not doing this.”
Colt’s eyebrows shot up. “Doing what?”
“Everyone makes fun of me for liking old movies and being a romantic at heart. I really don’t feel like having someone else tell me how stupid I am.” I finished my cocktail in one and set the empty glass down on the table in front of me.
“Hayley, we’re having a debate about movies. No more, no less.” A soft smile touched Colt’s lips. “Actually, that’s not true. I’m taking your mind off of other stuff. Right?”
I blinked. He was right. For the first time that night, Marcus wasn’t present in my thoughts. Not even his shadow.
Colt’s smile widened. “Told you.”
Man, this guy was amazing. What a goddamn waste that I couldn’t have him. But whatever. Life was full of unfairness. At least tonight I could enjoy him however he let himself be enjoyed. Wow, way to sound creepy, Hayley. I laughed under my breath. “Want to do some shots with me?”
He nodded. “Sure. Then after that, how about you dance with the best-looking guy in here?”
I giggled. Like I was ten years old again. “Absolutely.”
Colt accepted the money I insisted on giving him for the next round, and he returned shortly with another beer for him, a cosmo for me and a couple of shots. I didn’t ask what they were, and I would bet any money that they were a lethal cocktail of high percentage alcohol the bar had concocted.
The minute our drinks were finished, Colt grasped my hand and pulled me to my feet. He led us through the crowd to the dance floor and glanced at me over his shoulder, a half-grin pulling at his lips.
Music pulsed through me, fast and hard. We were surrounded by a mass of sweaty, writhing bodies as the crowd took on an almost animalistic tribal dance. Colt cleared a space with his large frame. With a hand on my hip, he drew me into his body and— Oh holy hell…the man could move.
Not to buy into a crappy stereotype or anything, but Colt had moves like I’d never seen before. For a big guy, he had a kind of grace, similar to the muscular litheness of a lion. Colt moved his hips and I was hypnotized. My head swam with him, every nerve ending hyperaware of every inch of Colt.
And if I hadn’t met him in a gay bar, I’d be taking him home with me tonight.
I caught sight of Beth and Eve, who both grinned and nodded their appreciation of Colt and his undisputed hotness. My friends weren’t the only ones who stared. Countless eyes were on us but I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Colt lowered his head so he could murmur in my ear. “Do you see how many people are staring at you right now?” His breath was warm and sent a shiver down my spine.
“Yeah. They’re out for my blood because I’m monopolizing the best-looking guy in here,” I said, parroting his earlier words.
He laughed low in his throat and I felt it rumble in his chest. “Maybe. But I’ll protect you, don’t worry.”
“You’d better. These guys would eat me alive.”
Colt chuckled again. He tugged me closer to him, wrapping his arm around my lower back. “You’re tiny.”
I felt small and petite and absolutely feminine in his presence. Colt crowded me with his body in a way that made me dizzy. It wasn’t surprising that he found me tiny. I doubted I was his regular body-type of choice. “You’re huge.”
“I like you, St. Clair,” Colt commented. “I’m really glad my friend is such a wimp.”
“Me too,” I said, peering up into his clear blue eyes. “Thanks to him, my night went from sucking ass to pretty decent.”
He pulled back a little, frowning as though he were offended. “Pretty decent? That’s all I am to you?”
I pretended. “Maybe.”
For another few hours I lost myself in Colt’s company. He was attentive and focused all his attention on me. We danced and drank and I forgot all about why I was in a crappy mood to begin with.
Beth and Eve left. Whether they’d gone home, or to another bar, I had no idea.
“Just you and me, St. Clair,” Colt said as he placed his empty beer bottle on the table.
“Another drink?” I asked.
He shook his head softly. “I’ve hit my limit. Any more and I’ll go from cheerfully drunk to crying outside in my underwear.”
A laugh bubbled in my throat. “Why does that make me want to buy you another?”
“Because you’re a sadist?” he asked, chuckling. “Come on, St. Clair. I’ll get you a cab.”
I wanted to argue, to come up with some other reason for us to stay. But when I rose to my feet I swayed and would have done a spectacular face-plant had Colt not had a firm grip of my elbow. “Yeah, okay. But I’ll warn you—my limit was around three shots ago.”
The crisp night air hit me square in the face when we stepped outside. The city was still alive with bustle and noise, proving once again that it didn’t sleep. At the edge of the curb, Colt held his hand out to flag down a cab.
He curled an arm around my waist to keep me close to him and I appreciated the anchor. As well as the masculine scent of him. The large bulk of his frame. Screw it—I appreciated everything.
Colt had given me the best night I’d had since Marley had uprooted her life here in Manhattan and crossed the country to Vegas. And I didn’t want it to end. At all.
He swung his cool, pale blue eyes to meet my gaze.
My heart stuttered and I prepared myself for rejection, but I didn’t care. I had to ask. “Come home with me?”