Disclaimer: The characters and events in this story are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events is coincidental and not intended. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form without permission of the author.
Shooting From the Hip
She fell in love with him the minute she saw him.
No. That wasn't true.
She hated him the instant he opened his mouth.
That, at least, might have been a little more accurate. For the most part, anyway...
She couldn't deny that she found him attractive. In fact, she had been startled into staring the first time she saw him...maybe the second and third time, as well. There always seemed to be something new about him that she discovered pleased her on a purely aesthetic level...
Because there was something mysterious about his eyes – a shade of brown so dark they might as well be called black – and the long, thick lashes edging them. Or maybe it was the graceful curve of his cheekbones, which fell pleasantly short of being too high, too prominent. It could have been the strong jaw, which had a tendency to be stubbornly set...or the way his mouth seemed to have been painstakingly carved to perfection by an expert sculptor...
Or perhaps it was the smooth, crushed velvet tones of his voice, which had nearly disarmed her the first time she talked to him.
It certainly wasn't his manners...
The thinly veiled command only made Sera's frown deepen. She covered the expression by raising a delicate crystal flute of champagne to her lips and taking a large swallow.
"You know I hate these things," she muttered.
"Everyone hates these things," was the gruff reply. "But they at least try to act like they're enjoying themselves."
Currently, Sera was trying not to glower at the tall rake of a man next to her. Chadwick – never Chad – Yates enjoyed exactly three things in life: wealth, winning, and women. He chuckled when he announced this to people, a self-congratulatory sound over his clever alliteration. Despite being in his late fifties – or maybe because of it – Chadwick looked dashing in his black tuxedo. His hair, cut short and styled in a slightly haphazard way, was the same steely gray as his eyes – eyes that calculated the worth of everything they fell on. When he spoke, his voice was as refined as his silk ties, words as crisp as his starched collars. He liked using his hands when he talked, making vague, unnecessary gestures, as though this somehow helped emphasize a point.
When he talked to women, he used his hands in a much more intimate way; a brief touch on the back of their wrist to get their attention, a nonchalant brush along their arm as they shared a joke. A light press against their lower back when he introduced them to someone...
And women fell for him; fell over themselves to keep his attention. It revolted Sera to watch it happen. Especially with someone like Chadwick Yates, who usually didn't garner much of her respect or admiration. There was no denying he was a brilliant man, but that was mostly because he was a brilliant manipulator – which made him one of the most successful and sought after corporate lawyers in town.
Sera didn't like Chadwick very much, but she loved him – she couldn't help it.
With a small sigh, Sera Yates attempted a smile for her father. It felt a little stiff, but Chadwick didn't seem to notice. With a curt nod of approval, he walked away from her, his own wide grin flashing with practiced ease as he caught sight of someone across the room. Sera held onto her strained expression for a few more seconds before letting it fall away. She kept a careful eye on her father as she skirted around the parquet dance floor, where people gyrated with varying degrees of success, and toward the other side of the large ballroom.
Weddings, Sera believed, were ridiculous affairs, whose sole purpose was to inflict as much emotional and financial torture on family and friends as possible within a, thankfully, limited time span. The bride was related to Sera through one of her father's cousins – a tenuous connection, to be sure. But the groom's family had business ties that attracted her father like a shark to blood.
"You will go to this, Sera," he had said when he'd called her three weeks ago. It was the first time she'd heard from him in months.
She had agreed only on the stipulation Chadwick buy her dress and any other accessories she deemed necessary. And she had smiled smugly – an expression that matched her father's so perfectly there was no doubt which parent she'd inherited it from – while listing her demands, thinking he would never concede. Chadwick Yates hated being extorted, especially by his daughter. But much to her amazement and chagrin, he had agreed without hesitation.
So, that was how Sera found herself bullied into a charcoal gray Jovani silk dress. Sleeveless and with a plunging vee neckline, the top was covered in small, glittering black beads and stones that trickled down onto the full, ankle length skirt. As soon as she put it on, Sera had felt like Grace Kelly.
Except I'm definitely not a Lisa Fremont. Maybe more like a Fanny Price, Sera ruefully admitted, fingers sliding along the smooth silk. Just here to gawk and enjoy the open bar...
Draining the last of her drink, Sera made her way as quickly as possible toward the beckoning glow of the black lacquered bar set up in the back of the ballroom.
"Another glass of champagne, ma'am?" the bartender asked with an affected smile. He looked as excited to be here as Sera.
Crystal clinked softly against the hard surface of the bar.
"Yeah, a bullet to the head," Sera muttered.
The bartender's smile suddenly became genuine and his eyes sparkled with amusement. Sera considered him over the rim of her champagne glass. He had a shadow of stubble along his jaw, sandy blond hair that looked like he continually ran his fingers through it. He was a little shorter than she normally liked, but he was at least easy on the eyes.
Ah, the irony. Here I am in a room full of some of the city's most eligible bachelors and I'm checking out the bartender...
With an answering smile, Sera turned away and let her gaze roam over the expansive room. The bride's parents had certainly spared no expense for their daughter's big day. Soft, pale blue lights made the white satiny material draping the walls look like waterfalls. White lilies and orchids sprayed up from mounds of blue hydrangeas in the center of the tables. The bride and groom sat in the middle of the long table at the front of the room reserved for the wedding party. They smiled lovingly at each other, laughing as they fed each other, as they shared long, intense kisses.
Sera jerked her attention away from the happy couple, hoping to find something more interesting and a little less...saccharine.
That was when she saw him.
Standing behind a striking woman who nearly eclipsed every other person in the room. He was like her shadow – tall and dark, following wherever she went. And quiet, only speaking when spoken to. As Sera watched, he became a drink holder, an armrest, a strong post to lean against as a problem strap was dealt with on the woman's sparkling high heel. A pang of sympathy went through Sera as she realized what he was. Not a relative or a boyfriend. Not even a business associate. In fact, Sera was willing to bet his station in the woman's life didn't rank much higher than her favorite handbag or shoes.
He was simply an accessory.
Another glass of champagne, served with a laugh by the attentive bartender. Sera counted on one hand how many times the darkly handsome man across the room smiled. Even from where she stood, she could see how rigidly straight his spine remained. And, unconsciously, she found herself admiring the cut of his black tux, how well it fit his wide shoulders and lean frame...how exotic he looked with that dusky skin and the strip of glossy black hair confined to a thick ponytail.
The woman breezed away to a cluster of people, laughing as she approached them. Her shadow remained behind, standing alone and nearly disappearing in the dim edges of the room.
Sera drained the last of her drink, smiled her thanks to the bartender as he placed another glass in front of her, and then threaded her way through the crowd.
"Lovely party, isn't it?"
Dark eyes flickered toward Sera, took her in with a quick glance before he looked away. Was it her imagination, or did the line of his mouth pull a little tighter, twist down slightly at the corners?
She tried again. "You don't look like you're having much fun."
This time, when he looked at her, he held her gaze – a dangerous thing to do, she realized belatedly. Because a girl could seriously lose herself in that bottomless darkness.
"Is there a reason you're speaking to me?" he asked.
Sera blinked, startled. Because his voice was low and deep, slid through the air like the finest cashmere. A bedroom voice to go with those bedroom eyes.
"I just thought..." She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous under the scrutiny of that dark gaze...and what she eventually recognized as a soft burr of hostility coloring his tone. "I mean, I saw you standing here and thought maybe you could use some company." She paused and, when he didn't say anything, kept talking. "I'm Sera Yates."
She held her hand out. He ignored the extremity and let his gaze roam the ballroom. Sera had the distinct impression he took in the entire room and each one of its occupants before looking at her again. Something that might have been a smile flickered over his lips.
"Company?" he repeated, his voice heavy with wry humor. He leaned toward her slightly, forcing her to drop her hand, and his eyes narrowed on her face. "In a room full of people, you think I need company?"
Sera wasn't sure what to do with that question. She knew it was rhetorical; he wasn't expecting her to answer, she could tell by the way he looked away from her, instantly dismissing her. It made a frown tug at the corners of her mouth, though. Because not only was he being unnecessarily rude, she had the distinct impression he was making fun of her.
"Is this why no one has talked to you all night?" she asked.
His mouth hardened as his eyes slid back toward her. "Excuse me?"
"No, excuse me." She kept her voice low and even. Tried not to sneer at him. "I was just looking for a decent conversation." She glared into his suddenly blank expression. "It was my mistake to think you'd be able to provide it."
"Maybe I don't have a problem talking to the other people here," he said, returning her glare with a mockingly amused grin. "Maybe it's just...you."
Sera's jaw locked with terrible tightness, making her teeth ache. With a barely contained snarl, she turned and walked away from him, the tulle of her skirts swirling with a furious hiss that echoed her anger. She kept thinking she should stay – because leaving seemed to be exactly what he wanted – but she had the feeling if she did, she'd make a scene.
Cool air washed over the heated skin of her face and throat as Sera walked out onto the large stone balcony. She took a deep breath and stepped toward the wide stone railing, leaning against it. Shimmering lights spread out below her like an artificial reflection of the stars she rarely saw in the city. A cool breeze swirled around her, making her wish she'd had the presence of mind to grab her wrap as she stormed out of the ballroom. The day had been bright and sunny, warm with the recent spring weather. But the night still held an icy reminder that winter hadn't ended too long ago.
Sera closed her eyes for a moment, took another deep breath. Tried to calm herself. There was no reason to let a complete stranger get under her skin this way. It was a waste of time to even dwell on it...
But she couldn't believe the way that man had spoken to her! Bluntly telling her he had no interest in even being in her presence, never mind holding a civil conversation with her. She hadn't even tried to hit on him, had simply wanted to commiserate with someone who looked as though they had as little desire to be here as she did. Indignation lanced through Sera. How dare he? Who did he think he was? From what she'd seen, he wasn't even important, so where did he get off treating her as though she was a waste of his time?
Another deep breath and Sera let that train of thought flow away with a low, self-deprecating chuckle. And just who did she think she was? Certainly not a part of this crowd. In fact, she was more like –
Sera straightened at the sound of the voice behind her and turned around quickly. The handsome bartender strolled onto the balcony, a charming grin touching his lips.
"Not enjoying the ball?"
One side of Sera's mouth hitched up in a wry smile at the question. "Not really," she replied, turning back toward the railing. She watched as the bartender settled next to her. "I seemed to have misplaced my prince."
"Terrible thing to let happen," he tsked, shaking his head with mock disapproval. He looked at her from the corner of his eyes and, if it was possible, his grin became even more charming. "Lucky for you, I just happen to be one."
Sera cocked a disbelieving eyebrow. "Oh, yeah?"
He shrugged carelessly. "Nothing big, you know," he told her. "My territory covers mostly places like this." He gestured back to the party. "And I deal in cocktails, swizzle sticks, and highballs instead of multi-million dollar investments." He adjusted his black tie, smoothed the front of his white pleated shirt.
"Prince of Bartenders," Sera murmured with a laugh.
He gave her a sweeping bow from the waist. "Brant, at your service, ma'am." His eyes twinkled as he straightened. "May I get you anything? Another glass of champagne, perhaps? Or would my lady like something...stronger?"
Sera eyed him. And then she pushed away from the railing, leaving her crystal flute perched precariously on the edge.
"You can get me out of here," she said.
His eyes flickered and Sera could see the thoughts moving behind them. Was she serious? Did he want to take the chance that she wasn't? And then he looked her up and down, making a quick calculation. How much was she worth? How gullible was she? Could he possibly convince her in one night that he was worth blowing her entire fortune on? Because she had to be an heiress to something substantial if she was related to these people...right?
Sera fought the urge to smirk at him. Gold diggers, she thought to herself. They don't just come in the shape of women anymore.
It took him seconds to make up his mind, minutes to sneak them both unnoticed out of the party and down onto the street. From there, he escorted her to his favorite watering hole – a dive bar where she stood out like a twinkling star in her evening wear. But his friends made her laugh and Brant insisted on buying her drinks.
And then they were back at his place and her dress lay crumpled on the floor like a wilted black dahlia next to his pants, turned inside out in his haste to be out of them. And Sera was fairly certain he still had his socks on – a minor oversight that somehow annoyed her. But his lips were fumbling over hers and his hands were spreading her legs, fingers searching for the one place he just knew would make all his dreams come true.
"You know I'm only sleeping with you because of your money."
He hooked his hands beneath her knees, jerked her down the bed and settled between her thighs. She twisted her fingers through his hair and leaned up. Let her tongue swipe at the edge of his ear before whispering, "I know."
And she smiled as he concentrated on thrusting himself inside the wet heat between her legs, as he tried whole-heartedly to make love to her.
Because Seraphina Yates didn't have a penny to her name.
Cool fluorescent light filtered between broken slats of a worn Venetian blind and only seemed to make the shadows pooling around the bed thicker. A siren wailed faintly in the distance, but otherwise the city was amazingly quiet, hush with the tenuous expectation of the coming morning. That time of night when most of the city had finally fallen asleep, that time when even the silence felt tired...
Time to go.
Holding her breath, Sera slid out of the bed, trying not to wake its other occupant. As her feet hit the rough carpet, she leaned forward, hand seeking blindly for clothes she knew were there – should be there, since she was always very careful to keep track of them. It was hard enough sneaking out of a strange place in the middle of the night without turning any lights on; it was doubly so without any clothes on. Everything seemed to be in the general area she remembered tossing it...except, maybe, her underwear.
Well, she certainly wasn't going to crawl around on her hands and knees to find them. She shimmied into the expensive, now slightly wrinkled dress. Did her best impression of a contortionist as she tried to zip the back, holding in her curses and eventually giving up. She recalled kicking her shoes off at the front door, dropping her purse somewhere near the couch in the living room –
Sheets whispered softly against bare skin, finally dry from the recent exertion, and Sera froze. She hated when they woke up, when they realized she was leaving. The first few times she'd been caught sneaking out, she thought it would be a relief she was taking the initiative, that she wasn't making the night anything more than it was meant to be. Sometimes they didn't say anything, merely blinked sleepily at her before rolling back over. But sometimes...sometimes they looked almost...offended, which always confused Sera.
This one would definitely be offended...maybe even a little angry.
As Brant settled and began to snore, Sera let out a small sigh. She gave up the search for her underwear – it wouldn't be the first time she'd life them behind. Without a backward glance, she tiptoed out the door, muscles tense as she made her way down the short hall toward the living room. She kind of had to pee, but she didn't dare take the time.
A small squeak of terror escaped Sera's throat as she whirled around toward the sound of the voice. A lanky man with chin length blond curls stood at the end of the hall, the light from the bathroom spilling around him. Sera resisted the urge to scowl. If there was anything she hated more than her sleeping partners waking up in the middle of her leaving, it was roommates who caught her in the act.
Sera flashed a quick smile, turning back around to find her shoes. "Yeah," she said, targeting the black strappy heels and slipping them on. "Early day tomorrow."
"Today, you mean."
Sera glanced at the roommate, toward the living room window and saw the sky paling with the first blush of morning.
"Right," she muttered, snatching her purse from the couch.
"You need a zip?"
She did scowl at that. "What?"
The blond made a vague gesture in her direction. "The back of your dress," he clarified. "Do you want me to zip it the rest of the way up for you?"
She eyed him for a minute. He was cute...maybe cuter than Brant. His lips were a little on the thin side, but they curved up in a lazy grin and his eyes were still heavy with sleep. In her bare feet, he would have been taller; with her heels on, he was just a bit shorter.
"Yeah, thanks," she finally said.
She turned her back and listened to him quietly cross the room. Tried not to shiver as his cool fingers brushed against the warm skin of her back.
"There you go."
Sera took a step forward before turning around to face him, since he didn't seem inclined to move away – a prolonged intrusion into her personal space that annoyed her. With her purse clutched in one hand, she flashed another quick smile and moved toward the front door.
"Have a good one."
"Yeah, you too."
She hurriedly made her way out of the apartment, down the long, narrow, stark white hall. Shoved her way through the security door and out into the dewy air of early morning. She paused to take a deep breath and then turned to make her way down the sidewalk –
– only to run headlong into what felt like a brick wall. A harsh oof! broke through her lips. Her purse flew from her hand and skittered across the sidewalk, spraying its contents all over the concrete. Her fingers immediately clutched at the soft cotton beneath them as she attempted to correct her balance. She looked up, an angry scowl already beginning to pull her eyebrows together, a scathing snarl already forming on her lips.
But the scowl froze mid-crease. And the snarl sucked itself back into her mouth as her gaze locked with almond-shaped eyes the color of melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate. Black eyebrows swept like unfurled raven wings over those exotic eyes. His skin, a deep tawny color that spoke of either much time outdoors or non-European ancestry – or both – stretched over high cheekbones.
Sera blinked. Became aware of warm, strong fingers wrapped around her arms, holding her upright and saving her from the brutal machineries of gravity. She licked her lips and gave herself a fierce mental shake. What was wrong with her? Struck speechless by a pretty face like she'd never seen it before?
What are the odds...?
"Are you okay?" He paused. Sera watched as recognition filled his eyes. "Oh, it's you."
Her teeth ground against each other at the way his voice changed. It wasn't...unfriendly, exactly, but aloof and colorless. Surprised with a touch of...something else, which he wisely kept buried behind the tightness of his lips.
Sera jerked away from him, pulling herself back together as he bent to retrieve her purse from the sidewalk. He swept the scattered contents back inside the clutch and then held it out to her, his expression not even remotely interested in the fact that he had just picked up several condoms along with her lip gloss and chewing gum.
"I was just fine until you mistook me for part of the sidewalk," she finally managed to snap, snatching her purse from him.
She brushed past him, ignoring the way his brow slowly began to pull together, the way those exquisite lips pulled down at the corners. She raised her hand to hail a cab, trying not to notice the way the sun created blue highlights in his sable-colored hair.
Because you are not in even the slightest way attracted to him...because you are done dealing with men who are conceited assholes...
A yellow car jerked across the street at her summons – something that always made Sera feel somewhat regal.
"Now, wait just a minute – "
"I would, but I'm late enough as it is," Sera said, tossing her brightest smile over her shoulder as she stepped off the curb. "No thanks to you," she added, in what she thought would be a parting jab.
But as she reached for the handle of the taxi, as she pulled the door open, a large, tanned hand slammed against it, effectively keeping it shut. Sera ground her teeth together and looked up, hoping her glare was hot enough to make him burst into flames.
"Get out of my way," she snarled.
"Apologize," he said.
Sera felt her mouth drop open. "What?"
"For running into me," he added.
She sucked in an indignant breath. "You're the one who wasn't watching where he was going," she said, resisting the urge to poke him forcefully in the chest with her finger. She'd already had a hint of what lay beneath that slightly dampened shirt – her hands still tingled with the sensation of hard muscle – so she wasn't going to risk giving into the temptation to run her hands over his chest. "So, if anyone should be apologizing, it's you."
"This guy botherin' you, lady?"
Sera glanced down and saw the cab driver leaning across the front seat of the car, peering out at them. She shook her head and yanked at the door again, only slightly surprised when it swung open.
"No," Sera said. She looked back into those narrowed eyes. "No, we're just having a difference of opinion."
As she slipped into the taxi, she looked up one more time. Irritation had faded away to a faint shimmer in his too dark eyes. And, as the car pulled away from the curb, Sera was sure she caught the beginnings of a smile gracing his lips.