Hell and damnation.
Taylor Scott never swore, but after this week—this day—she’d acquired a number of words not previously found in her vocabulary.
She hitched her five-foot-four-with-heels body onto one of the two vacant barstools. Turning sideways, she looked at herself in the mirror behind the bar. She saw a tumble of auburn hair and emerald-green eyes. The conservative navy suit and silk blouse looked only slightly the worse for wear after the day’s confrontation. The heavy gold hoops in her ears shone even in the subdued light the cocktail lounge afforded.
Not bad, she thought, critically assessing herself. Not a showstopper. Breasts too small, hips too wide, thighs a little plumper than she’d like. But she made the best use of her assets. Certainly not someone to get tossed out into the street, so to speak.
She wasn’t much of a bar sitter—not even a bar visitor, truth to tell—and she’d really wanted one of the small tables, only they were all full. But she needed a drink, something to make her forget the fact that in the short span of seven days she’d learned her entire life had been a lie. The letter from her grandmother was folded in the pocket of her jacket, a slim sheet of stationery filled with words that had destroyed everything she’d believed about her life up until now.
“What can I get for you, miss?”
Taylor snapped her head up. The bartender had placed a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of her. Now he waited patiently for her, this stocky blond with eyes that said he’d seen and heard it all and an expectant look on his face. What did one drink to get drunk? Her experience was limited to a small selection of good wines and Bloody Marys at Sunday brunches. Wait. The partners in the investment firm where she worked always drank Jack Daniel’s at corporate functions. Black, whatever that meant. She guessed it was as good a choice as any.
“Jack Daniel’s Black, please.” She tried to sound authoritative.
“Rocks or neat?”
She frowned. Why does ordering a drink have to be so complicated? “Oh, um, rocks, please.”
She was hyperaware of her surroundings. The walls of the bar were a rich, polished oak as was the paneling of the bar itself. The tables were oak planking, with chairs covered in soft-looking leather. The lighting, discreetly recessed, gave patrons the illusion of a cloak of darkness. Soft music drifted into the air from hidden speakers, an effective sound screen for couples with their heads inclined toward each other in an intimate fashion.
“Your drink, ma’am.”
The bartender placed a glass filled with deep amber liquid and ice cubes on the tiny square of napkin and set a glass of water next to it.
“In case you wanted a chaser.” He gave her a half-grin.
She picked up the glass with both hands and took a healthy swallow. The first splash of the liquor on her tongue was a sharp bite of smoky flavor, a burning sensation she was unprepared for that brought tears to her eyes and made her cough.
“I wouldn’t chug that like lemonade if I were you. Here.”
The voice was so deep and rich it sent fingers of heat skittering along her spine and tiny pulses throbbing at the heart of her sex. A strong masculine hand held out a snow-white handkerchief which she grabbed without thinking. She blotted her eyes then picked up her glass of water and drained half of it. Then she looked up to see who’d come to her rescue.
Predator. That was the first word that came to mind. An unfamiliar thrill of forbidden temptation shot through her body at the sight of the man sitting at an angle to her right. Broad shoulders and hands with long, slim fingers. A face full of sharp planes and angles with a straight nose and sensuous lips but a totally unreadable look. Eyes blacker than coal under lashes thicker than hers. Black hair worn long and tied back with a thin strip of leather.
There was something feral about him. Wild. Untamed. Dangerous. Powerful energy radiated from him and battered against her body, all of it barely tamed beneath the civilized cloak of a custom-tailored suit and silk dress shirt. An unbidden image flashed in her mind of him naked, his dark hair loose, the muscles of his bronzed body rippling in the sunshine. A panther, that was what he reminded her of. And for a brief moment she wanted to lose herself in the jungle.
He raised an eyebrow. “Panther? Is that a code word?”
Oh, God, did I say that out loud? “Pay no attention to anything that comes out of my mouth tonight.” Heat crept up her cheeks. “My mind isn’t functioning properly.”
His eyes burned into her and she shivered. Good sense told her to get as far away from this stranger as possible before she found herself in a situation beyond her control. Her lovers had been pitifully few and disappointing and none had made her blood heat and moisture pool between her legs the way one look from this stranger did. She wondered what it would be like to have hot, sweaty sex with him. Muscles deep in her body contracted.
She almost laughed. Her grandparents would turn over in their graves if they knew such a thought had even entered her mind. Good. They deserve a little grave-spinning after what they did to me.
Taylor knew she should finish her drink, go to her room and try not to think about how her life had been blown to little pieces. Or about today’s humiliating episode. But resentment had been boiling inside her for a week and what had happened today had set a match to all that growing bitterness. The ruthless discipline she’d allowed to be imposed on her all her life had all been for nothing. For a lie.
When the attorney handling her grandmother’s estate had handed her the letter detailing the monstrous charade she’d been living, she’d received the shock of her life. Nothing had been the way she’d thought. She wasn’t even Taylor Scott, really. At this point she didn’t even know just who the hell she was. But she did know who she didn’t want to be.
Maybe now it was time for her to find out what life had to offer. To taste the forbidden fruit she’d always denied herself.
She handed back the fine cotton handkerchief, noticing his strong, lean fingers as she did so. The brief contact sent heat rocketing through her. “Thank you. I, um, swallowed a little more than I intended.”
He nodded toward her glass. “You need to sip that stuff slowly, not throw it down. Good whiskey is meant to be savored.”
“I know that.” She straightened her back and tossed her hair. “You think I don’t know how to drink good whiskey?”
She thought a smile ghosted across his mouth, but the hint of it disappeared at once.
“I think your drinking habits are your own business. I was just offering a little friendly advice.” He nodded at the bartender and lifted his glass.
“Well, you can keep the advice but thank you for the use of your handkerchief. I’m fine now.” Liar!
“Good. Happy to be of help.”
Taylor finished the rest of her drink in small swallows and tried to ignore the man next to her. The liquor traced fire through her blood but left untouched the cold spot sitting inside her like a block of ice. She raised her hand and motioned to the bartender.
“Sure you want another one of those?” The deep voice spiked another flash of heat.
“Yes. I’m sure. And thanks for your concern, but I don’t need someone to monitor my drinks.”
He shrugged. “Fine by me.” He lifted an eyebrow as the bartender set another full glass in front of her. “Celebrating? Or drowning your sorrows?”
“Neither. Just…” She searched for the right word but couldn’t find one. “Just drinking.”
“I hate to tell you, but you don’t look like you’re enjoying it very much.”
Taylor turned to face him and found herself captured again by the darkness of his eyes.
Eyes without a soul. Now, where did that come from? “On the contrary. I’m having a wonderful time.” She took a healthy swallow of her new drink and nearly choked again. She grabbed her water glass and drained it.
“Mm-hmm. That’s certainly pleasure I see on your face.”
He was beginning to get on her nerves. “You sure are nosy.” She had to turn away from his penetrating gaze. “I’d say it’s distressing to find out after thirty years that your life has been a lie and the one relative you seem to have left denies your existence. Take it from me. Fairy tales don’t really exist.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Sounds pretty serious.”
Anger reached up through her again. Serious was hardly the word to describe her sense of betrayal. All those years of toeing the line. Of stifling rules and the short tether. Of a life with little pleasure, striving for approval that never came. Of her mother’s deep sadness and her grandparents’ autocratic grip on her and her mother’s lives. She felt as if someone had stolen the past thirty years from her, years that were gone forever. Now, she wanted rebellion and payback.
“I’m scrubbing away my past and saying hello to the first day of the rest of my life. Creating the new me.”
Because the old me was the product of a lie and very boring.
Taylor resisted the urge to slip her hand into her jacket pocket, pull out the sheet of paper and re-read the damning words. It didn’t matter. She had them memorized.
I realize now it was a mistake to conceal this from you all these years. You must believe our intentions were nothing but the best. But you know what they say about good intentions. They certainly paved the road to hell for all of us.
The man finished his drink and signaled for a refill. “You don’t look like someone with a past they need to be rid of.”
“Shows you how much you know.” Taylor swallowed the last drops in her glass and the tension in her body eased just a little more. The whiskey was beginning to work its magic on her. The anger still simmered, though. That wouldn’t go away any time soon.
“What brings you to San Antonio?”
A bad decision. It isn’t every day I get thrown out of corporate offices like some criminal or piece of street trash.
“It’s personal.” So just shut up and leave me alone. She waved at the bartender for another refill. Maybe with enough of the liquor in her system she could forget her pain altogether.
“I take it things didn’t go well.” He picked up his fresh drink and swallowed some of it.
“You could say that. In fact, you could say not going well is a major understatement.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Sure. Too bad.” The whiskey in the glass sloshed slightly as she picked it up and licked the drops off her hand.
“Maybe you’d better make this your last one. I’d hate to see you try to drive home after one too many.”
She turned angry eyes on him. “Listen, Whoever-you-are, I’m old enough to know how much to drink. I don’t need a babysitter. And I’m staying here in the hotel, so if I pass out, I don’t have far to go.” She stared at him, then shook her head and raked her fingers through her hair. “Sorry. That was rude of me. I’m just in a rotten mood tonight.”
He reached out to lay a hand on her forearm and even through the layers of fabric his fingers felt like branding irons on her skin. A tiny jolt of electricity sparked its way through her body.
He narrowed his gaze. She saw that he felt it, too. They stared at each other for a long moment. He broke the eye contact first. “Maybe talking to someone will help.”
Yes. Talk to me so I can find out what’s really going on in that pretty head of yours.
He tilted his glass and took another swallow of his club soda. No alcohol for him tonight. He had a mission and he couldn’t afford to have his senses dulled. If he wished for anything, it was that she’d been ugly and abrasive. Someone he could easily dislike. Why does she have to be such an appealing package?
He was already regretting his decision to come here. There were other ways to accomplish the same thing. He should have taken them. Women like her were dangerous to him. Too soft. Too appealing. Too easy to let in under the barriers. And therein lay disaster.
He’d already been through it once. That was enough for him. No, he needed to keep his walls securely in place and sitting here with this woman wasn’t the way to make sure that happened.
Finish your drink and go away, he wanted to tell her. Leave this bar, this hotel, this city. Hide yourself away from me and don’t ever come back.
For the first time in years, he craved a real drink.
She took another swallow of her whiskey. “You can’t do anything about the years I’ve lost. Or make my own flesh and blood accept me.”
“So, this is about family problems?”
She gave a short, bitter laugh. “It would be if I had any family.” She downed the rest of her drink and signaled for yet another one. They were going down more easily now.
“I know I’m just a stranger in a bar,” he went on, “and no one you should take orders from, so consider this a suggestion. I think you should make this next drink your last.”
“Thanks, but I’ll decide when I’ve had enough.” And that might be sooner rather than later.
Taylor concentrated on finishing the drink, the letter still burning a hole in her pocket. The man just watched her with those deep black eyes. Finally, she swallowed the last of the whiskey and gestured toward the bartender for her check. She had no problem signing it, but when she tried to move off her stool she nearly dumped herself on the floor.
Strong hands caught and lifted her. “How about if I walk you to the elevator? Just to make sure you get through the lobby all right.”
“I’m not drunk,” she insisted. “Just a little…weak in the knees.” And she wanted him to keep those hands on her, to touch her, to bring back that electric spark.
The ghost of a smile whispered over his mouth again. “Understandable if you’ve had a bad day. Come on. Let me prove that chivalry isn’t dead.”
He took her arm and led her out of the bar, his impressive height making her feel secure for some reason. They walked to the elevator with his arm around her, steadying her. Taylor leaned in to him and caught his scent, spice mixed with a maleness that somehow reminded her of jungles. Or what she thought jungles would smell like. Panther. She felt the taut muscles of his body through their clothing and wondered what he’d be like naked.
As fast as the thought hit her, she tried to brush it away. Taylor Scott didn’t entertain images of naked men. She even had sex with all the lights out.
If you can call the few fumbling and embarrassing attempts sex.
“Hmm?” She raised heavy-lidded eyes to him.
“Floor. Where your room is. I want to make sure you get inside okay.”
“Five. I’m on the fifth floor.” His nearness overwhelmed her, the masculine heat of his body wrapping around her like a cloak. He was everything she’d denied herself all her life. Everything she’d been taught to avoid. Protect herself from. Now that life was in shreds and she wanted what she’d missed. Wanted him.
And why not? I’ll never see him again. One night. What could it possibly hurt?
On the walk to her room, he held her braced against him. At the door, she opened her purse to take out her key card and fumbled trying to slot it in the lock.
“Here. Let me.” He removed it deftly from her fingers, swiped it and opened the door. Inside, he flicked the light switch and a lamp came on. “Well, you got to your room safely. I think you can take it from here.”
Taylor drew in a breath and for the space of a heartbeat tried to reach for all the inhibitions the whiskey had let loose. In thirty years, she had never done one impulsive thing. Did that make her disciplined or repressed? And if she gave in now, who was there left to give a damn, anyway? Her body was shimmering with unfamiliar sensations and a need she could barely identify was clawing its way up from her core.
Tomorrow, she’d be gone, back to whatever waited for her now in her fractured life. Tonight, she wanted something for herself. Something dangerous, something wicked.
The man stood there, looking down at her, assessing her as if trying to reassure himself that it was safe to leave her. With something close to desperation, she grabbed the collar of his suit jacket and pulled him toward her.
One minute, she glimpsed his startled face. The next, she was pressing her mouth to his and wishing he would open it so she could drown herself inside.