Two months. Five days. Twenty-one hours.
It’s my new record although I have no sense of accomplishment. No, I’m resigned as I walk down the dark, deserted alley. The heels of my knee-high, black patent boots click against the cracked concrete in echo of my defeat. The distant sounds of the bass thuds in my ears in time to the heavy beat of my heart.
My own personal staccato of failure.
I’m not sure why it’s always a surprise. Maybe because, at first, my conviction is so strong. By now my pattern is long and established—I vow, I crave, I give in.
But, like any good addict, I always swear this time is the last.
Of course, I try. My therapist has given me “management tools” to get me through the hard times, and like a good patient, I follow her instructions to a tee—I meditate, do yoga, and write all my crappy feelings in the journal she insists I keep.
Only, it’s backfired and become part of the ritual. When the cycle starts, it’s a matter of time before I end up here.
I’m sure when John brought me to this underground club the first time, he’d never envisioned I’d be back on my own, wandering through the crowds, looking for my next fix. The club reminds me of him, and I wish I could go somewhere else so I wouldn’t be confronted with my betrayal, but I don’t have a choice. There aren’t ads for places like this. Or maybe there are and I don’t know where to look.
Swift and sudden, anger clogs my throat, and for a split second I hate him for changing me so irrevocably, and leaving me so permanently. Fast on the heels of anger, the guilt wells, so powerful it brings a sting of tears to my eyes. In the pockets of my black trench coat, my nails dig crescents into my palms.
I push away the emotions. Exhaling harshly, my breath fogs the air as I spot a hint of the red door that signals both my refuge and my hell. I hear the muffled hum of music that will crescendo once I’m inside to pump through me like a heartbeat.
My pace quickens along with my pulse.
As much as I hate giving in, I can’t deny my relief. Once I step through that door, I don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to be normal.
The tension, riding me all day, distracting me in meetings, making me wander off in the middle of conversations, ebbs. A twisted excitement slicks my thighs as the bare skin under my skirt tingles.
I haven’t bothered with panties. It makes things easier, quicker. Less about getting off and more about taking care of business.
I have on my usual club fare: short, black pleated skirt that leaves a stretch of thigh before my stockings start. A sheer, white silk blouse that’s unbuttoned low enough to show the lace of my red demi-bra. My lips are slicked with crimson and my dark chestnut hair is a tumble of shiny waves down my back.
My outfit is carefully orchestrated. I leave as little to chance as possible.
No leather or latex. I’m not into bondage. Chains and rope do nothing but leave me cold. Once upon a time I loved to be restrained by fingers wrapped tight around my wrists, digging into my skin, but now I can’t handle even a hint of being bound.
I reveal plenty of smooth ivory skin, my clue to guys into body modification or knife play to stay away. I like fear, but not that kind. I want my bruises and scars hidden away, not worn like a badge of honor for the world to see.
My wrists and neck are free of jewelry so the Masters don’t confuse me with a slave girl. I tried that scene once, thinking all their hard play and intense scenes would focus my restless energy and make me forget, but there is no longer anything submissive about me.
I don’t want to obey. I want to fight.
The scream leaves my throat, echoing on the walls of my bedroom, as I start awake. I jerk to a sitting position, sucking in great lungfuls of air. Drenched in sweat, I press my palm to my pounding heart, the beat so rapid it feels as though it might burst from my chest.
I had the dream again. Not a dream—dreams are good and full of hope—no, a nightmare. The same nightmare I’ve had over and over for the last eighteen months. An endless, gut-wrenching loop that fills my sleep and leaves my days unsettled.
I miss good dreams. Miss waking up rejuvenated. But most of all, I miss feeling safe. I’d taken those things for granted and paid the price.
Lesson learned. Too late to change my fate, but learned none the less.
On shaky legs I climb out of bed and pad down the hallway of my one bedroom, Lakeview condo and into the kitchen, my mind still filled with violent images and blood trickling like a lazy river down a concrete crack in the pavement.
I go through my morning ritual, pulling a filter and coffee from the cabinets. Carefully measuring scoops of ground espresso into the basket as tears fill my eyes.
I blink rapidly, hoping to clear the blur, but it doesn’t work, and wet tracks slide down my cheeks. But even through my fear, my ever-present grief and guilt, I can feel it. It sits heavy in my bones, familiar and undeniable.
The craving that grows stronger each and every day I resist. That the dream does nothing to abate the desire sickens me.
I know what Dr. Sorenson would say: I need to disassociate. That the events of the past, and my emotions aren’t connected, but she can’t possibly understand. Throat clogged, I brush away the tears, and angrily stab the button to start the automatic drip.
My phone rings a short, electronic burst of sound, signaling an incoming text. I’m so grateful for the distraction from my turbulent thoughts I snatch up the device, clutching it tight as though it might run away from me.
I open the text. It’s from my boss, Frank Moretti. CFO is leaving to “pursue other opportunities”. Need to meet 1st thing this AM to discuss.
I sigh in relief. As the communications manager at one of Chicago’s boutique software companies this ensures a crazy day I desperately need. Frank will have me running around like a mad woman. I take a deep breath and wipe away the last of the tears on my face.
Salvation. I won’t have time to think. Won’t have time to ponder what I’m going to do tonight. I type out my agreement and hit send, hoping against hope I’ll be too exhausted this evening to do anything but fall into a bed, dreamless.
Too tired to give in to my drug of choice.
My morning is filled with back-to-back meetings and I don’t sit at my desk until eleven. On autopilot, I make my way through voice mails, jotting down the calls I need to return. All the while the all too familiar ache has only grown more insistent.
The morning’s pace has done nothing to ease the tightness in my chest, or curb the craving. Other than momentary periods of respite, it’s distracting me.
Reminding me in countless little ways I can’t resist.
My sister’s voice comes over the line, ripping me away from my thoughts. Tone light and happy, she tells me she’s looking forward to our lunch at noon. I dart a quick glance at the clock on my computer and groan.
April is the last person I want to see.
Not that I don’t love my sister, I do. She’s great. It’s just that being around her reminds me of all I’ve lost and how I’ll never be the person I was again. Today, I can’t bear to witness that look of expectation my family gives me, like they’re waiting for the Layla Hunter I used to be to show up. I hate the disappointment, the loss, shinning in their eyes when they search and don’t find her.
I don’t know how to tell them I miss that girl as much as they do.
This is not a good day to remember. Not when I miss John so much it’s a physical hurt. If he hadn’t died, I’d have been married a year and a half now, living the younger woman’s version of April’s life. Despite our dirty little secret, John and I were like every other couple we’d known in our late twenties, living in the city, having as much fun as we could before I got pregnant and we moved out to the suburbs to claim our white picket fence, four bedroom, and two and a half bath dreams.
Unlike me, my sister’s path didn’t deviate, falling perfectly into place as she’d planned all along. Her successful executive husband adores her; my twin nieces are right out of a stock photo they’re so cute. Beautiful, golden-haired angels that break my heart every time I see them they’re so precious. April even has my dog, the Golden Retriever John and I said we’d get the second we moved out of the city and had a yard.
His memory is close today, and with April’s call, I can see it—that charmed, blessed life I’d believed I was entitled too. A life where the evils of the world were so out of my hemisphere I’d never dreamed they’d happen to me.
Obviously, I was wrong.
Panic fills my chest, breathless in its intensity. I look down to realize I’m clicking the button on the top of my pen over and over. Stilling my restless fingers, I take a deep calming breath. Counting to twenty as Dr. Sorenson has taught me.
I can’t go to lunch with April. Not today of all days when I need so badly what John used to give me that it’s a dull, persistent ache.
I dart a quick glance at the clock and pick up the phone. I might be able to catch her. But then I recall I canceled on her two times before. My sister might be a happy little homemaker, but she’s no pushover, if I cancel again, she’ll come drag me to lunch by my hair.
I swallow all of my turbulent emotions threatening to bubble over and drop the receiver back into its cradle. Resigned.
I spot April already waiting for me in the little French bistro two blocks away from my work. She wears a worried, uneasy expression as her gaze darts around the room. As soon as she spots me she beams, flashing her trademark, million-dollar smile.
My stomach tightens as I walk toward her. She looks gorgeous and the sight of her makes me feel like a poor carbon copy of my former self.
While we have the same clear, sky-blue eyes, she’s a California blonde to my brunette. Today she’s wearing a casual dress the exact color of red autumn leaves falling to the ground outside. The simple cut, and jersey fabric, skims her body kept toned by walks and grueling sessions of hot yoga. It highlights golden skin, sun-kissed from her recent four-day jaunt to Naples, Florida, for a little alone time with her husband, Derrick. She radiates good health.
In essence, my complete opposite.
She throws her arms out in greeting and I begrudgingly step into her embrace.
“You look wonderful,” she says, squeezing me tight.
Liar. I look horrible. Lifeless and flat in the light of her glowing, earth goddess warmth.
“So do you,” I mummer back, except I mean it. I suck in her scent. She smells like flowers and sunshine. Achingly familiar, so reminiscent of a time hovering out of my reach, I want to stay in her embrace forever.
But, of course, I don’t. I break away and step back. Her lightly raspberry-stained mouth tucks down at the corners, her hands still resting on my arms as though she means to pull me in for another hug.
I tug away, retreating to the safety of my seat.
Her lips press together, but then she flashes me another brilliant smile, and settles into the chair across from me. She lays her crisp, white linen napkin daintily across her lap before looking at me. And I catch it, the hope shining in her eyes.
I pick up the menu resting across my plate and stare at the words without reading. An awkward silence, which never existed between us before, fills the empty space.
April clears her throat. “How are you?”
“Good.” Another lie. Today, I am drowning. “Work’s crazy.”
“I’m glad you were able to get away, you need a break, Layla.”
I put down the menu. “I’m fine.”
I want to reassure her. If we have a good lunch, she’ll be able to report back to my mother that I’m making progress. Peace might elude me, but I want it for them.
The frown makes another appearance, but before April can say anything, our waiter comes over and places a big bottle of sparkling water down on the table. Young, with a mess of golden-streaked hair, and the chiseled bone structure of a model, he’s all fresh-faced innocence. “Can I get you something to drink?”
My sister orders a glass of white wine.
I shake my head and he disappears into the lunchtime crowd, leaving us alone with our uncomfortable silence.
I manage a smile and settle on the safest possible subject, one guaranteed to make my sister forget her worry. “How are the girls?”
Her whole face lights up. “Their dance recital is in a couple of weeks and they love their costumes so much I can’t get them to take them off.” She picks up her phone and swipes over the screen before holding it out to me.
I take it and the image of my two nieces, Sasha and Sonya, fill the screen. As soon as I see their precious little faces, decked out in lavender leotards with matching tutus accented by pale green bows, I realize I’m longing for information about them. They’re so adorable it brings a sting of tears to my eyes that I blink away.
Technically, when I find myself on the verge of uncontrollably crying throughout the day, I’m supposed to call Dr. Sorenson for an emergency session, since it’s a trigger for my unhealthy behavior.
But I already know I’m not going to do that.
I’m ready to fall. Crave it in that way nobody could talk me out of.
I straighten in my chair and hand the phone back to April. “Text me the picture.”
“I will.” She drops the cell onto the table and places her hands in her lap. “They’d love it if their Aunt Layla came to their dance.”
An image of sitting in the audience fills my head. My parents, April and Derrick, and me, sitting next to some stranger where my husband is supposed to be. It’s a selfish thought and I immediately dislike myself for it. This isn’t about me. It’s about my nieces.
I nod. I will not disappoint April, not in this. “Of course, I’d love to come.”
She clasps her hands together in a gesture of prayer. “Thank you so much, they’ll be so excited.”
I’m sad she views this as a major accomplishment, and I renew my vow to spend the rest of lunch being a good sister.
Thirty minutes later, April has filled me in on every aspect of her life—from the petty women in the PTA, to her vacation with Derrick. I’ve done a good job, made all the right noises and gestures, laughing in all the right places. She’s satisfied. Relaxed.
The waiter walks away with our empty plates and April puts her elbows on the table and leans forward. “I want to ask you something.”
Spine stiffening, I’m immediately on high alert.
“I don’t want you to say no right away.” April’s gaze looks just past me and she nibbles on her bottom lip.
All my good intentions fly out the window and I say in a hard voice, “No.”
April sighs, folds her hands on the table, her two and a half carat ring glitters in the sunlight streaming in through the window. “You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”
I shake my head, one hundred percent certain I don’t want to hear it. “I don’t have to.”
Her blue eyes fill with a shiny brightness. “Please, won’t you please hear me out?”
Do I want to ruin her whole lunch? I grit my teeth and nod.
She twists her ring, a sure sign she’s nervous, and my stomach sinks. “There’s a man, he works with Derrick—”
“Absolutely not!” I’m unable to hide the shriek in my tone. How could she even suggest it?
She holds up her hand. “Layla, wait, just listen. He’s a great guy. His name is Chad and he’s an IT Manager.”
“Stop.” My voice shakes. “How could you?”
She runs a hand through her golden hair, and the waves rustle before falling perfectly into place at her shoulders. “I only want what’s best for you. Tell us how to help you.”
“And you think going on a blind date would be helpful?” The words are filled with scorn. I’m unable to hide my sense of betrayal.
“Layla, it’s been eighteen months,” April says, her voice soft.
I look down at the table, staring at the leftover basket of half-eaten artisan breads, as I swallow my tears. Why does everyone keep saying that? Is eighteen months really that long? Is there an expiration date on grief? On fear?
“We all loved John, you know that,” my sister continues without mercy. “But you’re still young with your whole life in front of you. He’s gone. It’s time to move on and put your life back together. I don’t think he’d want you suffering like this.”
I put my hands in my lap and clench them tightly, so tight my nails dig into my skin. So brittle I might break, I look at my sister. My beautiful, thirty-five-year-old sister, who’s never even had a bad hair day.
“Someday,” I say, my voice cracking. “I’m going to ask you if you think eighteen months is a long time, and we’ll see what your answer is.”
She pales and reaches across the table, making me jerk back. She slides away. “I don’t mean it like that.”
“You do.” A cold, almost deadly calm fills my stomach. “You keep waiting for the girl I was before to show up, and that’s never going to happen.”
She presses her lips together, and tears fill her eyes, turning them luminous. “I miss you.”
“I miss me too.” And it’s the truth. All pretense of faking falls away. It’s impossible to maintain the mask, not with my emotions so close to the surface. So raw.
April picks up her white linen napkin and blots under her lashes. “I can’t pretend to know what you are going through. And with,” she clears her throat and her chin trembles, “what happened…” She trails off and looks beyond me, over my shoulder.
A smug, selfish satisfaction wells in my chest.
“Look at you,” my tone filled with an ugly meanness I want to control but can’t. “It’s been eighteen months, April, and you can’t even say it.”
Emotions flash across her face—worry, sadness, and lastly guilt. “I’m sorry.”
Remorse weaves a fine crack through my heart, but it doesn’t break me, because I’ve spoken the truth. None of them can even bring themselves to mention that night. They avoid it. Pretend only John’s death is the issue. I can’t say I blame them. Where we live, bad things happen to other people. They’re ill prepared for tragedy.
I abruptly stand. I need to get out of here. Escape. I glance at the large clock hanging on the wall. Ten hours. It seems like an eternity until I can go to that one place where I’m free to be as fucked up as I want and don’t have to apologize. I grab my purse, slip out two twenties, and throw them on the table. “I need to get back to work.”
There will be no good progress reports today.
“Wait, please.” April’s tone is pleading. “Don’t go.”
“Text me the details about the twins recital.” My voice is as cold as I feel.
“Layla.” A big fat tear rolls down my sister’s cheek.
I turn to leave before I confess my biggest secret, not to cleanse my soul, but out of spite. I’ve shielded my family from the worst of that night, the true extent of what happened and how it damaged me. Not because of some misguided notion of protecting them, but because, in truth, I’m no better. I also want to pretend.
Only, my nightmares won’t let me.
This long, dreadful day is finally over and I’ve ended up exactly where I predicted. I didn’t stand a chance.
Every person in my family has called today—the news of my lunch with April having made the rounds—but I’ve ignored them all. Instead, I plowed through work, staying late as not to face a dinner alone in my condo. After my boss finally hustled me out the door, I ate takeout and wandered restlessly until it was time.
Tonight, unlike others when I’m in full denial mode, I ignore everything in my real life with the ease of shedding my trench coat that I hand to a girl behind the counter.
A Goth girl with black lipstick, equally dark hair, and tattooed sleeves running the length of her thin arms, left bare by a black leather bustier. Once upon a time this girl would have seemed like an alien she was so far outside the realm of my white picket fence life, but now, she’s as familiar as my own reflection.
She juts her chin toward the long, narrow stairway leading to the underground club. “Good crowd for a Thursday.”
I give her a small smile and begin my descent.
Cool air hits my bare thighs as someone comes in behind me. The night air brushes my overheated skin, reminding me of the near desperate anticipation riding me hard. Now that I’m committed to my perversion, I’m anxious to get the show on the road. Once I take care of business I’ll be filled with conviction to start anew and the process will begin again.
But for those first few weeks, I’ll have peace. Or as much peace as my life allows. And I crave that as much as I crave the release I get from my seedy activities.
I follow the sounds of bass; pounding so loud the lyrics to the music are indecipherable. Lights flash varying degrees of bright as I step into the main room filled with nameless, faceless strangers. Eleven o’clock is still early by club standards but the crowd is electric. The room pulses with energy, it sucks me into its world, and the Layla Hunter everyone knows disappears.
I slide up to an empty spot against the wall, seeping into the shadows to survey the landscape. People litter the small dance floor occupying the center of the room, gyrating to a pulsing techno metal, but they don’t interest me. I don’t like exhibitionists. I’m interested in the men lining the interior, watching and waiting for someone just like me.
My thighs clench as my skin heats. I’m too on edge, too anxious and filled with impatience. Tonight, all I want is to take care of my itch and get the hell out of here. I know from experience this is not a good place to be. No matter how subtle, people pick up on desperation and it’s never attractive. This is the downside of too much self-denial but I’ll forget this lesson as soon as I get what I came for.
I always do.
I scan the mill of bodies, littering the main room in the flash of bright lights, accompanied by moments of darkness. The area is small, giving the illusion of throngs of people, when really there can’t be more than a hundred or so. The gathering area looks like any other club or bar in Chicago. It’s the getting to know your neighbor’s kink place. The real action happens in the specialty rooms—the private playgrounds, the voyeur’s paradise, the dungeons, and medical examination rooms—the places you go when you’ve met your perverted match.
But I don’t go into those rooms anymore. Not since John.
No, I stay right here. This suits me just fine with its dark nooks and crannies. I don’t need the intimacy of those places. The reminder. All I need is rough, mean sex, and a lot of filthy language to create the illusion I’m getting what I need, all while remaining safe. In control. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough to tide me over. Besides, I won’t allow anything else.
Against the wall, arms crossed, I scan the crowd. A man on the dance floor, not too far away, attempts to catch my attention. Hips swaying, he crooks his finger and motions me close.
He’s handsome, slick, and all wrong.
I shake my head. His jaw hardens and he motions me more firmly.
Absolutely not. I turn away, knowing that will be the end of it. Guys like that want their women compliant, to abide by the rules they set. Not a game I play.
No, I set my own rules and don’t break them for anyone.
My gaze skips over a submissive guy with a dog collar around his neck and bare chest.
I dismiss the man in latex.
The guy with a Mohawk and too many piercings.
The man with broad shoulders and wife beater T-shirt.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. They are all wrong.
My stomach turns heavy as I scan a group of men dressed in business suits but none of them suit me, besides they’re window shoppers and probably half of them are married.
There are a few clean-cut types, in jeans and polo shirts I don’t even consider. They remind me too much of John. He was that type. All American, boy-next-door good looks, so nice and considerate everyone thought he was an angel. And, he was, unless he was fucking.
Then, a different John came out.
Of course, I didn’t know that when we’d met. Our relationship hadn’t started out deviant. We’d just become that way over time. Slowly but surely John instilled cravings in me I hadn’t even imagine existed, although he claimed I’d had them all along.
And who knows, maybe he’d been right. Remembering the first time John and I had sex way back on his narrow dorm bed, the signs had been there, I just hadn’t recognized them.
When we’d met my sexual experiences had consisted of a few clumsy attempts at sex that left me wondering what the fuss had been about. Our relationship started like any other college romance. Downright normal. We’d met at a party through mutual friends. Flirted, drank too much, made out in the corner like the kids we were.
But from the beginning, John wasn’t like other boys.
Other boys hadn’t cared about my pleasure, and I’d thought that’s how it was supposed to be. But John had cared. Back then I was shy, and since I hadn’t responded to anyone else, I was sure it would be the same with him. So when we fooled around, I’d focused all the attention on him. Other guys ate it up like a hot fudge sundae, but John wouldn’t have it. He kept trying to touch me, and when he did, I’d struggle. Resist. Endlessly I attempted to divert him by turning the tables. He never fell for it, and I couldn’t seem to stop trying to control the experience. This went on for weeks, until the struggle became part of our foreplay. The first time he made me come, he forced a screaming orgasm out of me as he held a viselike arm over my belly so I couldn’t move.
It had been like crack for both of us. Although, I’d learned later he’d always been drawn to more sadistic acts. When other teenage boys had been watching choreographed porn of blonde girls with overly plump, glossy lips and blow-up tits, give messy blowjobs, he’d been watching girl’s getting tied up and spanked until they bruised.
Back then none of this concerned me because I believed we’d be together forever, and it was such a gradual process I never thought it was wrong. John and I loved each other. We were great together. We wanted the same things out of life, had the same values, work ethic, and desires. And we were lucky enough to burn up the sheets. Who cared if it was a little perverted? Certainly not us. We loved our secret.
I remembered how we’d go to parties: that sly, smug look he’d give me from across the room. Sometimes we couldn’t wai—
With a violent shove, I slam the door shut to the past. If I slip into my memories of him, it will be impossible to ignore that this little ritual I’ve created pales in comparison to what we had.
My nights alone are for my memories. Tonight is to get my fix and be on my way.
I force my attention back to the present and methodically start making my way around the room, mentally trying on each man before dismissing them.
I will not think about John.
I catalog each man as frustration grows like a knot of thorns. I want to scream. None of them have that feel I’m looking for. That click of recognition.
Just as it starts to feel hopeless, my attention stops on a biker type in heavy leather.
I pause, consider, some of the tension unraveling enough for me to think. He’s not my normal type, but something about him snags my interest. He’s big and bald with arms the size of my thighs.
Nothing like John, he’d leave no room for confusion.
The man’s already engaged in a conversation with a blonde woman in a red corset and little else. She’s pretty and petite with full breasts, a minuscule waist and toned legs. He runs a finger over the curve of her smooth, pale cheek. As attractive as she is, she doesn’t concern me.
In a place like this, talking means nothing.
I continue to watch him. He’s wearing a black vest, no shirt, leather pants and motorcycle shit-kicker boots. He could work. He looks mean enough.
I drop my arms and undo another button on my blouse, letting it gape open and expose the swell of my cleavage in my red bra. I wait. My gaze direct and heavy, I will him to look in my direction. At some point he’ll sense my heavy attention.
I bide my time and focus.
At long last, he lifts his head as though he’s scented something in the air. Distracted now from the woman he’s been talking to, he slowly cranes his neck and catches my stare.
My breath stalls.
From across the room our eyes lock.
My heart gives a loud thump against my ribs.
He gives me a long, slow once over, followed by an appreciative nod.
I slowly expel the air from my lungs. Deflated.
It’s wrong. I don’t know how I know, I just do.
The moment fades like a mirage.
He turns back to the woman he’d been talking too, and I move on.
Fifteen frustrating minutes later, when I feel like I’ve checked out every man in the room, I make my way to the bar for my first drink. The ache between my thighs a constant reminder I might not find what I need. That I’ll go home alone and be forced to try again another night.
That’s not an option.
I take a deep breath, reminding myself to stay calm. It’s early. There’s time. I haven’t been here long and there’s still people coming down the stairs. I have to be patient. Not my strong suit at the moment.
Throat dry, I sidle up to the bar and pull a twenty from the inside pocket of my skirt.
I wave the bartender over. He nods and thirty seconds later he’s in front of me, grinning his boyish, got-to-love-me grin. He’s young and cute, with mussed brown hair, and dancing blue eyes. He reminds me of one of those Abercrombie and Fitch models with a finely built body and jeans slung so low on his hips you can see the cut of bone. He looks like he’s never had a complicated thought in his life.
“How’s my girl tonight?” he asks, gaze sweeping over me with obvious appreciation.
Inwardly I cringe at the “my girl” reference. It was a favorite of John’s and he’s already on my mind far too much. So close I have to resist the urge to turn and look for him.
I nod as way of greeting and say, “Good, thanks, I’ll have a Grey Goose and cranberry.”
A girly drink, but it’s quick and it gets the job done. Besides, I don’t like the taste of alcohol.
The bartender pulls a glass from under the counter and free pours the vodka a third of the way before filling the rest with Ocean Spray. “Good crowd tonight.”
“Yeah.” My gaze darts up and down the bar, searching for the one guy that pings me the right way, only to come up empty. I blow out a hard breath.
“Tough day?” He slides the drink in front of me.
I stare at the pink liquid and tiny ice cubes bobbing in the glass. I share nothing about my personal life here. I push the twenty toward him. “I’m good.”
The bartender winks and flashes his killer smile. “It’s on the house.”
We’ve fucked before. One time about six months ago on another night I couldn’t find the right person. The way he’s practically undressing me with his eyes, he’s more than agreeable to another round. I find myself mildly tempted—not because I want him—but because he’s easy. Uncomplicated. Quick.
Only, if I hook up with him, I’ll break my one-night rule. While he’s hardly a threat to my emotional health, he doesn’t really satisfy my needs. Oh, he knows all the right words and actions, but lacks the pure menace that really flips my switch. Merely, he’d be a temporary fix.
I take a sip of the pink liquid and push the twenty back. “No, really, I insist.”
He takes the money, eyes still twinkling with mischief, as though I hadn’t rejected him at all. A few moments later he’s back with my change, which he slips next to my palm before rubbing a thumb over the back of my hand.
I pull away.
He gives me a nonchalant shrug. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” Another sly smile flirts over his lips and he disappears to the other end of the bar.
If only things could be that easy.
Out of nowhere loneliness wells inside me. A pang of longing clogs my throat and tightens my chest with an almost unbearable ache.
I scoop my drink up and turn away, taking a long gulp. The tang of cranberry bursts over my tongue and some of the god-awful weight pressing against my ribs eases. With sudden clarity, I know I’m going to go home tonight empty-handed. I’m in the wrong state of mind. My emotions are too raw. My need too prickly.
No one will do because, tonight, I miss John. I want him. I miss the connection, and I can’t find that in a seedy, underground club with a random, nameless stranger.
I take another sip, forcing myself to swallow past the lump in my throat, before putting the glass down on the bar.
It’s time to go home and call this night for the disaster it is.
A shift of movement catches my eye and I peer past a group of men who look like they’ve just come from a board meeting. Past a woman gyrating her hips over the lust-dazed guy sitting underneath her, and a couple making out.
And, then, I see him.
My heart slams into my chest, my pulse kicks up, and something akin to panic rushes across my skin.
He’s staring right at me.
My throat dries up like the Sierra and every cell in my body knows he’s the one.
He’s tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a strong chest that fills out a tight black T-shirt before tapering down to a narrowed waist. He’s wearing a pair of jeans that hug lean hips and encase powerful thighs. And while his body is spectacular, his face is something altogether different.
Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
From the distance, I can’t see the color of his eyes but his gaze is so hot on me, so intensely focused, I flush with desire. With short brown hair, an angular jaw, and full sensual lips, his features are strong. Powerful. Masculine. He’s not exactly good looking, in fact, he wouldn’t be called handsome on his best day, but there is something about him that is downright sinful. Pure, evil wickedness. Sex appeal pours off him in waves, lapping at me like a touch.
I shiver as my blood quickens and I respond to him like he’s my own personal homing device.
I want him. More than I’ve wanted anyone in a long time.
I swallow, my thighs instinctively clutching together, I can already feel the slickness between my legs, the beading of my nipples. My skin pulls tight, warms. I clench my hands into fists as my breath comes a little faster.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a visceral response to a man, not even Joh— I stop the treacherous thought, unable to believe it even crossed my mind. The thin threads of anxiety weave an intricate pattern through my case of instant lust.
I turn away from his magnetic presence.
Fear coats the back of my throat. No. He’s not for me. He’s too intense. My body’s response is too strong. In that one look I know he will give me exactly what I’ve been craving, but the price is too high. This is not a man that will abide by my rules.
I stare down at the gleaming dark wood of the bar, reaching for my drink with shaky fingers.
I feel the pull of his gaze. The weight of his stare. His desire at my back, crowding me from across the room. The lace of my bra becomes an irritant, and I suddenly wish I had panties on. I need any protection I can get.
Goose bumps pop along my skin and the compulsion to look back gnaws in my stomach.
I want him. Want what I know he can give me. No man, in the year I’ve been coming here, has ever come close, but somehow I know the man across the room is the one. The one I’ve been both desperately searching for, and terrified I’d find.
I imagine his gaze skimming over the lines of my back, the curve of my hips, the length of my bare thighs.
He is not safe.
The bartender walks past me, delivering another knowing wink on his way to service another customer, and suddenly his safety and simplicity doesn’t seem so bad. My one-night rule isn’t for men like him. He’s not a risk.
I bite the inside of my cheek. I want to look back. At him.
I take a deep breath, hating the thought that’s taken root in my mind—that the man across the room wouldn’t be a substitute for the man I love—he’d never let another man overshadow him. In that distant, logical part of my brain I understand I’m attributing traits to him I can’t possibly know, but the logic doesn’t stop the certainty. Or the panic.
There is only one, viable option. I need to leave. I will allow myself to look one time, then I will go up those stairs leading to the outside world, and climb into a taxi. Once I’m back in the safety of my own home, I will change into sweats, wash my face, put my hair in a ponytail, and cry until there are no tears left.
It calms me. Settles my ragged nerves.
One look, then I run. Hopefully, I’ll never see him again.
Slowly, as casually as I can muster, I crane my neck and peer over my shoulder, searching out the space along the wall he occupies.
My stomach drops like a lead weight.
I swing around, searching the perimeter of the club, but he’s nowhere to be found. Desperation churns inside me, and I pick up my drink. Raising it to my lips, I down the last of it in one long gulp, appalled at my disappointment.
It’s for the best. I’m sure it’s for the best. I replay the mantra in my head over and over, hoping I’ll believe it.
He is the most dangerous kind of man—one that can make me forget. It’s for the best he’s gone. Moved on.
I put the empty glass on the bar. It’s time to go home. I shouldn’t have come. Like today, everything about tonight is all wrong.
I turn around and slam right into him.
On a quick intake of breath, I sway on the heels of my knee-high boots.
Strong hands clasp my hips, his fingers a tight hold that makes a shiver run down my spine, even while he settles me. I don’t know whether I’m relieved or in full-blown panic mode. I look up, and up, into a pair of darkly amused hazel eyes.
I attempt to pull out of his grasp but his grip tightens, his fingers on my hips digging into me. Pure electricity jolts through me. A normal woman would be disgusted by the blatant display of arrogance, slap him or fling her drink in his face, but, I’m not normal. And his handling of me excites me to an almost dangerous level of lust.
Irises of green, mixed with gold, meet mine. The smug knowledge and blatant challenge clear in his gaze. He will give me exactly what I need. I haven’t had what I’ve truly needed for a long, long time.
It scares me.
I want to flee. I want to stay. The sane, rational Layla whispers in my ear that he’s a threat, and not in that good way we like. We need to run.
Places like this are for ignoring sanity.
My tongue darts nervously out to wet parched flesh. I take a deep breath and say as calmly as I can, “What do you think you’re doing?”
That wicked mouth quirks into a grin that does nothing but increase the pure sex and menace pouring off him. I respond like I’ve just taken a hit of crack. “Please let me go.” My voice quavers, betraying me.
His gaze drops to my lips, before rising to meet my eyes. “You didn’t think I was going to let you run, did you?”
Series: Undone #1
Release Date: June 1, 2015
Average rating on Goodreads: 4.17 stars
Number of Reviews: 161 (on Goodreads)Order: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|iTunes|Google Play
I vow. I crave. I give in.
I used to be a nice, normal girl. I had dreams. Good, happy dreams of a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a fairytale love that lasts forever. Nobody ever warned me that sometimes, the prince dies three weeks before the wedding.
Like any addict, I swear this time is the last….
Now, I go through my days, a shadow of my former self. I pretend I’m okay, and the people in my life pretend to believe me. But, sometimes, when I can no longer stand the craving, I roam an underground sex club looking for my next hit. It’s dirty and wrong, but I can’t stop, and my only line of defense between them and me, is the rules I’ve designed to keep me safe. The men always abide by my rules. Until I meet him.
And, like any addict, I’m wrong.
I don’t question the instincts that tell me to run. One look at him, standing there, power radiating off him in waves, tells me all I need to know. He will make me crave those happy dreams I’ve left behind. And that is not an option.
I cannot wait to see what you think of Michael and Layla.