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Authors: Mari Madison

Just this night

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I wandered up to the bar and sat down on a stool as I ordered a Diet Coke. The closest thing to liquid courage I could consume and still be able to make the drive safely back to Pacific Beach. As the bartender filled my glass I scanned the club, a sinking reality settling in my stomach. There was no way I could do this. No way I could just walk up to a guy and say—

“Can I squeeze in here?”

I jumped at the feel of a warm hand on my bare shoulder, a husky voice in my ear. Whirling around, I found myself face to face with—

Oh. My. God . . .

He was tall. Broad shoulders that narrowed to a tapered waist. Athletic looking, but with long, lean muscles that would have made my yoga teacher weep with joy. His hair was the color of wheat, cropped short, and his eyes were a brilliant blue—the color of the sky on a cloudless day. He wore slouchy jeans, hung low on his narrow hips and a tight black T-shirt stretched across his chest in a way that practically begged me to stick my hands underneath and run my fingers down his obviously perfect six-pack.

Oh, and his hand? Still resting on my shoulder. At this point radiating so much heat I was seriously wondering if it would leave me branded for life. I also wondered if I would mind all that much if itdid.

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JUST THIS NIGHT

This book is an original publication of Penguin Random House LLC.

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Marianne Mancusi Beach.

Excerpt fromBreak of Dayby Mari Madison copyright © 2016 by Marianne Mancusi Beach.

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40878-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / March 2016

Couple photo copyright © laflor/Getty Images.

Photo of beach with palm trees copyright © gilg2006/istock.

Cover design by Alana Colucci.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

To Jacob—the most amazing husband and father.

Full disclosure:I might have stolen some of you and Avalon's daddy/daughter moments for this book . . .

I'd like to thank my awesome editor Kate Seaver who once recognized something in me and bought my very first book over eleven years ago. Ten books later and we're still going strong! And thanks to the rest of the Penguin Random House team—you've always been so great to work with and have put my stories into readers' hands around the globe.

Thank you to agent Kristin Nelson for shepherding my career, even when I've gone off on crazy tangents. We've had quite a journey together and I'm lucky to know you.

And thanks to all my TV newsroom pals from over the years. Especially my very first mentor, Hank Phillippi Ryan, who took a scared little girl wearing Hello Kitty barrettes and turned her into an Emmy award winning investigative producer. You are the real deal! (Sorry, couldn't resist.) And Mary Schwager, my favorite producer cohort who almost got me killed in an effort to expose bad backyard breeders in an undercover sting. Your passion for your job—and animals—is continually inspiring. And to all my awesome former TV news bosses—Nancy Lynch, Susan Krivelow, Charlene Bert, Desiree Miller, Mark Berryhill, Tracy Langer-Chevrier, Rebecca Millman, Marjorie Bekaert Thomas, Betty Bon Fleur, Cynthia Sucher, Wendy MacNeill and so many more.

And, of course, I must thank all the amazing photographers I've worked with in TV news over the years. You were my partners in crime and I miss our long car talks and leftover lunch radio jams. Chris Fadale, Errol Henry, Anne Marie Spaulding, Kurt Hartwell, Charles Janey, Marty Glembotzky, Mike Monroe, Rusty Reed—just to name a few.

There are so many more people I want to mention that I worked with in my TV news years that were inspirational to this book. So stay tuned for book 2 for a continued list. (See what I didthere?)

CONTENTSTitle PageCopyrightDedicationAcknowledgmentsone: JAKE “MAC” MACDONALDtwo: ELIZABETH “BETH” WHITEthree: BETHfour: MACfive: ELIZABETHsix: ELIZABETHseven: BETHeight: MACnine: BETHten: BETHeleven: MACtwelve: BETHthirteen: BETHfourteen: MACfifteen: BETHsixteen: BETHseventeen: MACeighteen: BETHnineteen: MACtwenty: BETHtwenty-one: MACtwenty-two: BETHtwenty-three: BETHtwenty-four: MACtwenty-five: BETHtwenty-six: MACtwenty-seven: BETHtwenty-eight: MACtwenty-nine: BETHthirty: MACthirty-one: BETHthirty-two: MACthirty-three: BETHthirty-four: BETHthirty-five: MACthirty-six: BETHthirty-seven: MACthirty-eight: BETHthirty-nine: MACforty: BETHforty-one: BETHforty-two: BETHforty-three: MACforty-four: BETHforty-five: MACforty-six: BETHforty-seven: MACforty-eight: BETHforty-nine: MACfifty: BETHfifty-one: BETHSpecial Excerpt fromBreak of DayAbout the Authorone

JAKE “MAC” MACDONALD

Mommy! Mommy!Mommy!”

I jerked up in bed, swinging around, my feet hitting the floorboards before my mind had a chance to process the movement. For a split second, fighting the fog of deep sleep, I didn't know where I was. What time it was. Why I was here.

“Mommy? Where are you, Mommy?”

But I knew that voice. And the rest didn't matter.

“I'm coming, Ashley!”

Bolting from the bedroom, I dashed down the hall, bursting into her room like some kind of superman on steroids. Ashley was sitting up in bed, hugging her grubby stuffed lion—the one I'd bought her from the hospital gift shop the day she was born, four years ago last month. Tears streamed down her chubby little cheeks and her thumb was firmly lodged in her mouth.

Dropping to my knees I pulled her into a fierce hug, forcing myself to be gentle and not squeeze too hard as my heart thumped wildly in my chest, working overtime to rid my body of the excess adrenaline her cries had unleashed.

She was fine. She was safe. She was okay.

“Shh,” I whispered. “Daddy's here, baby. Are you all right? Did you have a bad dream?” I could feel the sweat dripping down her back, soaking through her thin princess nightgown as she snuggled closer, pushing her head against my chest as if she was literally trying to crawl inside of me and hide. My heart squeezed. Poor little thing. Was she actually shaking?

“I was scared,” she whimpered. “I woke up and I didn't know where Mommy was.”

I could feel her head lift off my chest and realized she was looking around the darkened bedroom. As if her mother might magically appear out of thin air at any moment.

Sorry, kid. No magic in the world was that strong.

“We talked about this, sweetheart,” I reminded her gently, the bile churning in my stomach now. “Mommy has an important job to do far, far away. She can't be with us right now.”

“I don't want her to do her important job,” Ashley sobbed, dropping her head to my chest again. “I want her here, with us.”

Closing my eyes, I forced myself to draw in a heavy breath. “I know, baby, I know. You and me both.” I stroked her hair, leaning in to kiss the top of her head. “Now why don't you lie down and I'll use the magic pixie dust on you, okay? So you can fall back asleep.”

Ashley whimpered. “What if I have another dream?”

“If you do, it'll be a good one,” I assured her with a confidence I didn't feel. “That's the great thing about pixie dust.” I reached for the tub of glitter-infused baby powder sitting on her nightstand. “It only allows for happy dreams about princesses and puppy dogs and hungry little caterpillars . . .” I turned the tub upside down and squeezed, releasing a puff of powder. The glitter dusted her skin and she smiled, snuggling against her stuffed lion again and looking up at me with wide brown eyes. Her mother's eyes. Which was so unfair.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, baby girl,” I managed to say, my emotions swelling. I leaned down to kiss her cheek. “More than anything ever.”

“Anything ever . . .” she repeated sleepily, her eyesfluttering closed. “Hey! I think the magic pixie dust is . . .” She trailed off, drifting back into sleep.

For a few moments, I didn't move. I just sat there, watching her. She looked so tiny in the giant king-sized bed that took up most of my sister's guest room. So sweet and fragile and precious. How could anyone willingly walk away from this little girl? Hell, I would rather die a thousand times over than leave her for just one night. But her mother. Her own goddamned mother . . .

I realized I was clenching the sheets with white-knuckled fists. Forcing myself to release them, I rose to my feet, the churning anger making me sick to my stomach. I stormed from the room, shutting the door behind me a little too hard and I paused for a moment, listening, making sure I hadn't woken her. But the magic pixie dust had done its job and the room remained silent. My princess was asleep.

“Is she okay?”

I looked up. Lost in my tortured thoughts I hadn't seen my sister, Sadie, hovering at the landing, dressed in an oversized Padres jersey and boxer shorts. Her long brown hair hung down her back in a tangle of curls and her face was washed clean of all makeup.

I sighed. “She's fine. She just had a bad dream.”

Sadie gave me a sympathetic look. “Poor kid. Moving can be tough. And then being in a strange house . . . I'm sure she's going to feel a lot more adjusted once you guys get all unpacked and settled in your new place.”

“Yeah,” I stared down at my feet. “Probably so.”

I could feel her peering closely at me. “What about you? Are you okay?”

“I'm fine,” I said quickly. Probably too quickly.

Sure enough, Sadie raised an eyebrow. “No offense, bro. But you don't look so fine from here.”

I sighed. She was always too perceptive, my sister. “I'm just . . . frustrated, I guess,” I admitted. “I mean, I want to be a good dad, you know. But no matter what I do I can't give her what she really wants. And it makes me feel so fucking helpless.”

My voice broke and Sadie moved to wrap her arms around me. But I shrugged her off. I didn't need her pity. It was already bad enough I was practically a charity case, moving cross-country to San Diego to take advantage of her offer of free babysitting while I was at work. I'd offered to pay her, of course, but she had argued that she was already staying home with two kids—how hard could one more be? And like the pathetic broke bastard I was, I allowed myself to believe it to be true.

Sadie, to her credit, didn't try to press me. Instead, she smiled. “I'm going to go make myself a sandwich. You want one?”

“Sure,” I reluctantly agreed. It wasn't as if I was going to get back to sleep anytime soon anyway. Then I looked down at my current getup. I'd been in such a rush to reach Ashley's side I'd forgotten I was bare-chested, only wearing a pair of ratty boxer shorts. Not exactly good houseguest attire. “Let me grab a shirt and some pants and I'll meet you down there.”

By the time I reached the kitchen a few minutes later, Sadie had already gotten out all the sandwich supplies and was currently spreading a thick layer of mayo on my ham and cheese. I sat down at the breakfast bar, scrubbing my face with my hands, trying to banish the memory of Ashley's frightened eyes from my mind. Her cries for “Mommy” that would never be answered.

God, I hated lying to her. But what else could I say? The truth?

The bitch left us, baby girl. She's not coming back. But trust me—we're much better off without her.

“Is this some kind of brother and sister secret powwow or does a poor, hungry husband stand a chance at scoring a sandwich, too?”

I looked up, stifling a groan as Sadie's husband, Joe, stepped into the kitchen wearing a black Batman bathrobe and bare feet. Great. Ashley must have woken the whole house with her screams.

“What, are your hands broken? You can't make your own?” Sadie shot back with mock grumpiness. But I caughtthe adoring looks they exchanged when they thought I wasn't looking.

“Hey! I'm just saving my strength for that extra-long back massage I plan to give you once we're back in bed,” Joe said with a sly wink. My sister laughed.

“Oh, fine. Just this once. But it better be a damned good massage.” She grabbed two more slices of bread from the bag and tossed them on the counter. Then she caught my look and her smile faded. “Are you sure you're okay, Mac?” she asked worriedly.

Joe turned to look at me for the first time. “Yeah, man. You look like hell. No offense.”

I groaned. “Why thank you. I'll be here all week.”

To my annoyance, he continued to study me. “You know what this guy needs?” he asked, turning to Sadie. “To get out of the house. A night on the town. That would fix him right up.”

“Uh, no,” I interjected before my sister could answer. “I'm good. Really.”

Joe turned back to me. “When's the last time you went out?” he demanded. Before I could reply he added, “And, no, Chuck E. Cheese does not count.”

“Joe . . .” Sadie said warningly.

“What?” Joe asked, holding up his hands in mock innocence. “I'm just saying. A man needs a night out with grown-ups every once in a while.” He grinned wickedly. “Think about it, Mac. Endless lines of tequila shots, pretty girls, maybe some sexy, sexy times?”

“Joe!” Sadie's voice rose.

“Okay, okay! Jesus.” Joe snorted. Then he turned back to me, lowering his voice. “You know I'm right though. Right?”

I sighed. I had to admit, the idea did sound pretty awesome. I hadn't had a night away from Ashley sincethatnight. And that night was pretty much a lifetime ago at this point. Just the idea of sitting at a bar, having an adult beverage as I people watched. It sounded like a little slice of heaven.

It was also impossible. I wasn't that guy anymore. I mean,I probably was, deep down, but I had other priorities now. My life was not my own.

“Dude!” Joe cried, slamming his fist against the counter, as if something had just occurred to him. Though I had a pretty good idea he'd been working up to this from the moment he'd started in on me. “I've got a great idea!”

I could see my sister shooting him another disapproving look, but he ignored her, rushing in before she could interrupt. “I'm supposed to check out this new club for my company's Christmas party tomorrow night. You could totally come with me. They say it's a hot spot for reporters—News 9 is right down the street. So it'd be perfect.” Joe nodded enthusiastically, as if he'd already gotten me to agree. “We'll have some drinks, take in the sights . . .” He waggled his eyebrows. “Maybe even find you a little hotness for the ride home.”

I rolled my eyes, waiting for my sister to jump in and save me again. Instead, to my surprise, I found her nodding slowly. “You know, that's not a terrible idea,” she said. “I could watch Ashley while you were out.”

“No, thank you.” I shook my head firmly. “No way am I just going to go and take off and leave Ashley to go clubbing.”

Sadie frowned. “Uh, Mac, you do realize you're going to be forced to quote ‘take off' on her every day once you start your new job, right? Consider this a trial run—not to mention a good lesson for the both of you. Like, you learn it's still possible to have a life in addition to being a good father and Ashley learns that when Daddy goes away, he always comes back. It's kind of perfect, actually.”

“It's completely perfect,” Joe agreed. “In fact, you'd be a terrible father to stay home and deny your daughter this all-important life lesson. And I know you don't wantthat.”

I sighed, looking from one expectant face to the other. They weren't going to drop this, I realized. And I was sick of arguing.

“Fine,” I said. “I'll go. But,” I added before they could break into celebration, “don't expect me to bring home anything buta hangover.” I'd go to their club, I'd have some drinks, but when it came to picking up women? That was off the table.

Joe snorted. “No problem. I'm sure Sadie can hold off picking out china patterns a few more days.” He paused, his playful face fading. “But seriously, bro, keep your options open. I mean, no pressure or anything—just see what's out there. After all, it's not fair to write off the entire female race just because of what happened with Victoria.”

I cringed. And there it was. The name that, spoken aloud, still had the power to send a cannonball of hurt straight through my gut. Hell, they might as well have put my balls in a vise and started cranking the handle.

“Look, I said I'd do this nightclub thing,” I ground out, forcing the lump back down my throat. “But we have to make a rule right now. From this point on no one ever, ever mentions that bitch's name in my presence again.” I paused, then added, “Ever.”

I pushed back on my stool as I rose from my seat, the force of the movement causing it to crash to the floor. As I turned to pick it up I could feel my sister and Joe's pitying stares burning into my back. Which, if I was being honest, was worse than their teasing.

I wanted to turn around and tell them I was just fine. That Ashley and I did awesome on our own and I didn't need some stupid female to complete me. But I knew if I even started down that rabbit hole, I'd look like I was protesting too much. And in the end, it was better to just drop the whole thing all together.

The bitch was gone. I was still here. And evidently I was going clubbing.

It's just one night,I told myself.What could happen in just one night?

two

ELIZABETH “BETH” WHITE

Don't even think I don't know what you're doing under those covers.”

I guiltily peeked my head out from under my comforter. My roommate, Stephanie, stood in my bedroom doorway, looking at me disapprovingly, arms crossed over her chest. She must have just gotten off work because she was still wearing a red pencil skirt and silky white blouse, paired with sensible black pumps. Very reporter chic. Her midnight black hair, however, had been freed from its day job constraints and fell in cascades of curls down her back. As if to say “ready to party” which Stephanie assumedly was.

She always was.

I looked down at my ratty University of Illinois sweatshirt and threadbare black yoga pants and wondered what they, along with my bedhead hair, said about me. Besides “should have done laundry five days ago,” that is.

“I'm not doing anything,” I muttered, involuntarily glancing down at my phone as yet another Facebook alert chimed. The wedding posts had been popping up approximately every five seconds, it seemed like, for the last hour or so. So manythat I half-felt like I was attending the event myself at this point, instead of being a thousand miles away.

The ceremony was amazing!

The cake is beautiful!

The bride is stunning!

And I was about to throw up.

“That's it. I'm calling for an intervention.” Stephanie dashed across the room. In one swift motion she swooped in, grabbed my phone and pulled it out of reach. I cried in protest, but she only shook her head, holding the phone behind her back. “This is for your own good,” she scolded. “I can't believe you're even looking to begin with.”

I groaned. She was right. It was the stupidest thing I could possibly be doing. But still, I was only human. And it was my own family who was posting the photos. I couldn't just block them all, right?

“Come on, Beth. You knew this day was coming. And you knew when it did it would suck balls. But now, it's over, right? It's done,” my roommate pointed out. “The two of them are man and wife and you're finally, finally free. Now all that's left to do is brush your hair, lose the sweatpants, and move on with your life.” Her eyes twinkled merrily. “I mean, really. Don't let that bastard keep you from being the sexy, sexy slut you know you can be.”

I sighed. I knew she was trying her best to cheer me up, but she just didn't understand. After all, her relationships had an average lifespan of three weeks—so of course she'd bounce back after a few pints of Ben and Jerry's and a new pair of Louboutins. But Ryan was different. Ryan was supposed to be the One. He was supposed to move out to San Diego. He was supposed to propose to me. We were supposed to get married and have babies and a freaking house with a freaking white picket fence for God's sake.

He was the One. The only one. The only one I'd dated since freshman year in high school. The only guy I'd ever loved. And I'd thought he'd loved me too. Sure, it'd been rough when I scored the reporter job in San Diego and he had had to stay behind in Illinois until his dad could hire areplacement at the lumber store. But he'd promised it was only temporary. That he'd be here before I knew it and we'd be together forever.

He promised. And he kept promising. Until a month ago when, out of the blue, he called and told me he was getting married.

Not to me. Not to some random girl he met at a bar either. That would have been ugly but somewhat understandable.

But no. He was getting married to my younger sister.

Got married,I reminded myself, my stomach twisting painfully as my phone binged another alert from behind Stephanie's back.As of one hour thirty-three minutes ago they are officially man and wife.

I let out a small moan.

“Stop thinking about it!” Stephanie scolded, catching my face. “He doesn't deserve even a microsecond of your thoughts. He's an asshole. You're a sexy, sexy bitch. You need to get out of bed and out of the house and show him you don't give a fuck.” Her eyes locked on me. “Face it, Beth. You need to get laid.”

“Eww,” I protested, boxing my ears with my hands. “Seriously, do you have to put it like that?”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she said, her mouth quirking as she glanced over at the tower of well-worn historical romance novels stacked on my nightstand. “Let me rephrase. You, Miss Elizabeth White, must go forth and find a strikingly handsome fellow to thrust his throbbing love lance into your delicate—yet also throbbing—silken love cave.” She smirked. “Is that better?”

I grabbed a nearby pillow and flung it in her direction.

“So I'll take that as a yes?” she returned, without missing a beat.

I glanced longingly at my cell phone, which she'd set on the dresser. She gave me a scolding look.

“Look, you have tomorrow morning off, correct? Why don't you come out with me tonight? We'll grab dinner at that awesome new tapas place downtown and then hit Club Rain afterward. That place is crawling with hot men.”

“And even hotter STDs.”

She groaned. “Comeon, Beth! You're twenty-six years old. Who knows how many hot years you have left? Are you going to waste them all in bed?Alonein bed?” She shook her head. “Look. It'll be fun. I promise. And if you don't want to hook up, you don't have to. But I'm telling you, the best cure for a doomed romance is a good old one-night bonk fest. No strings attached.”

I opened my mouth to argue. But at that moment my phone dinged again. From where I was sitting I could just make out Ryan and my sister having their first dance as man and wife. I couldn't see the expressions on their faces, but my imagination did a pretty good job at filling in the fuzzy parts. The two of them looking into each other's eyes. . . . Whispering naughty innuendos about their wedding night to come. . . .

So much hell.

I squared my shoulders, firming my resolve. Stephanie was right. By holing up in my bedroom like this, I was only punishing myself. Not him. It was clear he couldn't care less where I was or what I was doing.

It was time for me to do the same.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I'll do it. I'll go to the bar and hook up with the first throbbing love lance I see. And maybe I'll even take a selfie and sext it to the bastard mid dirty deed.”

“Whoo-hoo!” Stephanie cheered. “That's my bitch!” Her eyes flashed with excitement. “Ooh and I've got the perfect outfit for getting your slut on, too. You're going to love it! Be right back.”

She turned and ran to her room, all victorious and gleeful. I shook my head, wondering what I'd just gotten myself into.

Just one night,I reminded myself.What could happen in just one night?

three

BETH

God, this had to be the worst club ever. The poor excuse for a DJ had the iTunes collection of a fourteen-year-old girl (no offense to fourteen-year-old girls) and the air conditioner couldn't be belting out more than 5,000 BTUs. And if one more nasty meathead wiped his stank on me as he pushed past (without even saying excuse me, of course), I was seriously going to hurl. What had I been thinking, agreeing to come here in the first place? I could be home, binge watchingDoctor Who. Or an engrossing series on the history of toilet paper for that matter. Even that would have been more enjoyable than this place.

But no. I was here, gross and sweaty and waiting for Stephanie to show her face again. After all, she was the one who had forced me to come to this hell on earth in the first place. Girls' night out my ass. Three seconds after we'd arrived, she'd taken off, with the first 'roid head who'd smiled in her direction. So much for sister solidarity.

In any other circumstance I would have gone home, but I couldn't ditch her, in the remote possibility she failed to find a stranger's bed to crash in and needed a ride home.Yes, in addition to being talked into going out in the first place, I'd volunteered to be the DD.

Yes, I really was that lame.

Okay, to be honest, the nighthadstarted out kind of fun. We got to walk past the ridiculously long line and go through the VIP entrance while everyone still waiting outside seethed with jealousy. Also, I had actually gotten to utter the wordsI'm on the listlike you always hear people do in the movies. Of course, technically I was onStephanie'slist. As star TV newsgirl and practically professional partyer, Steph was probably VIP at every club in town.

Me, on the other hand? The girl who did the morning newscast that even the earliest commuters slept through? I was not on any lists.

I looked around with a sigh. When I had first come to San Diego, two years ago, places like this had seemed magical. The glitz, the glamour, the silicone. About as far away as you could get from my hometown in Illinois where the nightlife started and ended with Pete's Pub and the local Denny's. In fact, ever since graduating from college, journalism degree in hand, I'd been dying to pick up and move away and come to a place like this. Where opportunity lay around every corner. Where I could actually make something of myself.

Of course all I'd managed to make so far was really strong middle-of-the-night coffee.

Okay stop it, Beth. This pity party was not helping matters. I was at a hot club, I reminded myself. I needed to at least try to have a good time. After all, how else was I supposed to find that throbbing love lance I was supposedly looking for? Thatwasthe whole reason I'd agreed to come to this hellhole in the first place, right? To find a guy willing to help me get over the fact that my ex-boyfriend was now my brother-in-law? And the sooner I found him, the sooner I could leave.

Of course that was easier said than done. In fact, what had seemed like a semi-logical plan back in the comfort of my bedroom now seemed a completely ridiculous indecent proposal here at the packed club. I mean, seriously, how didone even go about getting a strange man to agree to take one home and plow one into forgetting one's ex? I'd only slept with one guy in my entire life and we'd dated for a year before we had the sex discussion. How was I supposed to condense all that precoital courting into just one conversation? If only Stephanie were here. She had one-night stands down to a science.

Frustrated, I wandered up to the bar and sat down on a stool as I ordered a Diet Coke. The closest thing to liquid courage I could consume and still be able to make the drive safely back to Pacific Beach. As the bartender filled my glass I scanned the club, a sinking reality settling in my stomach. There was no way I could do this. No way I could just walk up to a guy and say—

“Can I squeeze in here?”

I jumped at the feel of a warm hand on my bare shoulder, a husky voice in my ear. Whirling around, I found myself face to face with—

Oh. My. God.

Okay, okay, so I know everyone's always like, “hottest guy ever” when they see someone good-looking and obviously not every one of these “hottest guys ever” can actuallybethe hottest because, you know, there can be only one and all that. But seriously, if you looked upBeth's perfect dream guyin the dictionary,guaranteedthis dude would have a full two-page spread.

He was tall. Broad shoulders that narrowed to a tapered waist. Athletic looking, but with long, lean muscles that would have made my yoga teacher weep with joy. His hair was the color of wheat, cropped short, and his eyes were a brilliant blue—the color of the sky on a cloudless day. He wore slouchy jeans, hung low on his narrow hips and a tight black T-shirt stretched across his chest in a way that practically begged me to stick my hands underneath and run my fingers down his obviously perfect six pack.

Oh and his hand? Still resting on my shoulder. At this point radiating so much heat I was seriously wondering ifit would leave me branded for life. I also wondered if I would mind all that much if it did.

“Sorry,” he said, quickly pulling his hand away. His mouth quirked at the corners, causing my pulse to race like it had just entered the Kentucky Derby. “I didn't mean to startle you.”

Yeah, well, I didn't mean to continue to gawk at you speechlessly as I imagined you fathering my children.We all have our problems.

He had a strong face, Roman nose, square jaw. High cheekbones cut of glass. And his lips—oh God. Full, firm. The kind of lips a girl could kiss for days and days and never get tired of.

Suddenly I found myself wondering about his love lance.

“No, I'm sorry,” I managed to stammer at last, scooting over my stool to give him room. “It's all yours.”

And so am I.

He smiled, dipping his head in thanks before moving in, his thigh inadvertently brushing against mine as he sidled up to the bar, sending a fiery torch of heat straight to my belly . . . and other places. Holy crap. It didn't help that I could smell him now—his clean, soapy scent—so masculine and so unlike the cloying body sprays the rest of the male population here must have bathed in before going out tonight.

I bit my lower lip, suddenly scanning the room for some random female type waiting for a drink from her man. Because this guy had to have come here with someone, right? Guys that looked like him—that smelled as good as him—should not be allowed out of the house without a properly possessive chaperone of the opposite sex.

But there was no one else. Just him. And me.

Oh sweet baby Jesus, hold me now in my time of need.

I watched, as if in a dream, as the bartender floated over and I knew I was running out of time. The bartender would take his drink order. Then he'd leave to make the drink. Which gave me about thirty seconds to one minute—depending on the complexity of the drink in question—to make my movebefore this guy wandered back into the techno soup and I remained a one-guy girl for the rest of my sad and pathetic—and probably cat-infested—life.

I forced myself to lean in slightly, hoping to catch the exchange between him and the bartender over the din of the club. Maybe that would give me an opening.

Bartender: “What kind of tequila?”

Mr. Potential Love Lance: “I don't know, what d'ya got?”

Uh, oh.

Now you gotta understand, in any other bar in any other city, this would be a normal question, right? After all, outside SoCal and Texas everyone just assumes tequila is simply another alcoholic beverage for frat boys to do shots of and puke up the next morning. Here, however, it was a freaking lifestyle, with restaurants holding tastings and, according to my Yelp research, this particular tequila bar even offering a free paid trip to Cabo if you were able to complete a punch card by sampling all their brands. (Thankfully not in one sitting or see: Puking up the next morning, above.)

In other words, they took their tequila seriously. And could smell a tourist a mile away.

Sure enough, the bartender huffed loudly, rolling his eyes in the way hipster bartenders have down to a science when dealing with someone “too mainstream.” As if to make absolutely certain the person knew just how much they were bothering them by having the nerve to ask them to do their freaking job.

“We have seventy-five different types, sir,” the bartender replied, motioning to the rows of fancy bottles displayed in a gold-trimmed cabinet about him. “Would you like me to list them alphabetically? Or by region? Or . . .” His gaze roved over his customer's casual attire. “Perhaps . . .price?”

He was practically salivating now, waiting for this guy to say something unimaginative like Patron or, even worse, something plebeian like Cuervo so he could have the opportunity to give a derisive snort and bathe in his tequila-tasting superiority when he went home to jerk off tonight.

Yeah. Sorry, asshole. Not this time.

“Ask for the Chinaco Anejo,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. During a rare dayside shift a few weeks back, I'd covered a charity event that included a tasting of the stuff. According to the experts I'd interviewed, it was a smooth, complex tequila. Had won some major awards last year and was fast gaining popularity with aficionados, yet remained esoteric enough to sound cool to lame hipster bartenders like this one.

Also, I'd read on Yelp they didn't stock it here, a fact that had knocked a few stars off their overall rating by tequila tasters.

So, you know, the perfect request.

The guy leveled his gaze on the bartender. “I don't suppose you serve Chinaco Anejo here,” he said smoothly, with just the right hint of skepticism. I could have hugged him I was so proud.

Sure enough the bartender's smug smile faded at the edges. “Um, no, sorry,” he stammered. “We don't actually carry that here.”

“Oh really? That's such a shame,” my new best friend/throbbing love lance replied, shaking his head as if he felt sorry for anyone who would be forced to work in a place that didn't stock an ample supply of the best stuff on earth. “How about . . .”

“Don Fulano,” I whispered.

“Don Fulano,” he finished without missing a beat.

Now the bartender's face was turning a peculiar shade of purple. “Yeah, sorry. I don't think we stock that one, either.”

“Really?” The guy looked up, meeting the bartender's eyes with clear disbelief. Beside him, I stifled a giggle. “Wow. And here I had heard such good things about this place.” He gave an overexaggerated shrug. “Okay, well then how about . . .” He glanced over at me with a raised eyebrow.

Shit. Those were the two I'd read about.

I had nothing.

But I couldn't leave him hanging.

“Anejo . . . Banjo Tolito,” I blurted out. That sounded like a tequila brand, right?

The guy gave me aduhlook before turning back to the bartender. “Well, yes, ofcoursetheymusthave Anejo Banjo Tolito,” he assured me.

The bartender couldn't have looked more upset if the guy had punched him in the throat. I could practically see smoke coming from his ears as he attempted to spin a lie to save his bar's reputation. “Uh, I . . . think we're fresh out of that,” he stammered. “I mean, it's a really popular brand, of course. Hell, I order it all the time when I'm out . . .”

Now it was me who was probably turning purple as I attempted not to burst out laughing.

“Okay, well, why don't you surprise me, then,” the guy said, offering up the same condescending smile that had been given to him mere minutes before. “With whatever swill youdohave left lying around the bar.” He waved his hand, effectively dismissing him, and the bartender scurried off like a scolded child to go make his drink.

Once he was gone, I burst out laughing. My new partner in crime regarded me with an amused look. “Anejo Banjo Tolito?” he repeated, his eyes dancing.

“What?” I asked, holding up my hands in mock innocence. “It's supposedly very popular!” I cracked up again, not able to help myself.

He laughed. A warm, rich laugh that had my stomach doing flip-flops. Then he nodded respectfully. “Well played,” he said. “Very well played.”

I beamed. God, he was cute. Those eyes. The slight hint of stubble whispering across his cheeks. And was that some kind of tattoo snaking just beneath his T-shirt sleeve?

I sucked in a breath.Come on, Beth. This is your big chance.Your one and only opportunity to say something witty and smart that will make him want to continue the conversation instead of riding off into the tequila sunrise once the bartender returned.

Frustrated, I combed my fingers through my hair, a vain attempt to disentangle blond curls as I searched my suddenlyempty mind for even a semi-engaging follow-up. Out of the corner of my eyes I watched the bartender finishing up the drink. Which left me little time.

“So where are you from?” I blurted out. Which was admittedly slightly better than “What's your sign?” or “Come here often?” though not by much.

He chuckled. “That obvious huh?”

“Sorry,” I said, feeling my face heat. “I didn't mean to—”

But he shook his head. “Boston,” he said. “Just moved out here last week.”

“Oh, nice. I love Boston. I'm actually from Illinois myself,” I told him. “I've been here two years working over at—”

“Here you go,” the bartender interrupted, handing the guy his drink. He looked at him eagerly, as if waiting for him to take a sip. “I hope you like what I picked out. It's another anejo, maybe not quite to the caliber of the Anejo Banjo but . . .”

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