When my old life died, it didn’t go quietly. It detonated.
But to be fair, I’d been the one to pull the pin. In just one week I rented out my house, sold my car, and left my philandering boyfriend. And though I’d promised my overprotective parents that I’d be careful, it wasn’t until I was actually at the airport that I called ahead to let my best friend know I was moving her way.
That’s when it all seemed to sink in, in one perfectly clear moment.
I was ready to start over.
“Chloe? It’s me,” I said, voice shaking as I looked around the terminal. “I’m coming to New York. I hope the job’s still mine.”
She screamed, dropped the phone, and reassured someone in the background that she was fine.
“Sara’s coming,” I heard her explain, and my heart squeezed just thinking about being there with them at the beginning of this new adventure. “She changed her mind, Bennett!”
I heard a sound of celebration, a clap, and he said something I couldn’t quite make out.
“He asked if Andy was coming with you.”
“No.” I paused to fight back the sick feeling creeping up into my throat. I’d been with Andy for six years and no matter how glad I was to be done with him, the dramatic turn in my life still felt surreal. “I left him.”
“Better than okay.” And I was. I don’t think I realized exactly how okay I was until that moment.
“I think it’s the best decision you ever made,” she told me and then paused, listening as Bennett spoke in the background. “Bennett says you’re going to shoot across the country like a comet.”
I bit my lip, holding back a grin. “Not too far off, actually. I’m at the airport.”
Chloe screeched some unintelligible sounds and then promised to pick me up at LaGuardia.
I smiled, hung up, and handed the counter attendant my ticket, thinking a comet was too directed, too driven. I was really more like an old star, out of fuel, my own gravity pulling me inward, crushing me. I ran out of energy for my too-perfect life, my too-predictable job, my loveless relationship—exhausted at only twenty-seven. Like a star, my life in Chicago collapsed under the force of its own weight, so I was leaving. Massive stars leave behind black holes. Small stars leave behind white dwarfs. I was barely leaving behind a shadow. All of my light was coming with me.
I was ready to start over as a comet: refuel, reignite, and burn across the sky.
“You’re wearing the silver dress or I’m stabbing you,” Julia called from the kitchen zone, as I’d begun calling it. It certainly wasn’t big enough to be labeled a full-fledged kitchen.
I’d gone from an echoing, rambling Victorian in the Chicago suburbs to an adorable East Village apartment roughly the size of my former living room. It felt even smaller once I’d unpacked, put everything in its place, and had my two closest friends come over. The living room/dining room/kitchen area was framed by giant bay windows, but the effect was less palatial and more fishbowl. Julia was only visiting for the weekend, for this night of celebration, but she’d already asked me at least ten times why I’d chosen such a tiny place.
The truth was, I chose it because it was different from anything I’d ever known before. And because tiny apartments were pretty much what you were going to find in New York when you moved there without first securing a place to live.
In the bedroom, I tugged on the hem of the miniature, sequined dress and stared at the extreme amount of blindingly pale leg I was offering up tonight. I hated that my first instinct was to wonder if Andy would think it was too revealing, while my second instinct was to realize I loved it. I’d have to delete all of those old Andy programs, immediately.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t wear this.”
“Can’t think of one.” Chloe walked into the bedroom wearing a deep blue number that flowed around her like some kind of aura. She looked, as usual, unbelievable. “We’re drinking and dancing, so showing some skin is requisite.”
“I don’t know how much skin I want to show,” I said. “I’m dedicated to my freshly minted single-girl card.”
“Well, some of the women there will be showing bare ass, so you won’t stand out if that’s what you’re worried about. Besides,” she said, pointing to the street below, “it’s too late to change. The limo’s here.”
“You should be showing bare ass. You’re the one who’s been na**d-sunbathing and day-drunk in a French villa for the past three weeks,” I said.
Chloe gave a little secret smile and tugged my arm. “Let’s go, gorgeous. I’ve spent the past few weeks with the BB. I’m ready for a night out with the girls.”
We piled into the waiting car and Julia popped the champagne. With just one tingling, bubbling gulp, the entire world around me seemed to evaporate until we were just three young friends in a limo barreling down the street to celebrate a new life.
And this night we weren’t just celebrating my arrival: Chloe Mills was getting hitched, Julia was visiting, and the newly single Sara had some living to do.
The club was dark, deafening, and filled with writhing bodies: on the dance floor, in the halls, against the bar. A DJ spun music from a small stage, and flyers plastered all across the front promised that she was the newest and hottest DJ Chelsea had to offer.
Julia and Chloe seemed entirely in their element. I felt like I’d spent most of my childhood and adult life so far at quiet, formal events; here it was as if I’d stepped out of the pages of my quiet Chicago story and into the quintessential New York tale instead.
I shoved my way up to the bar—cheeks flushed, hair damp, and legs feeling like they hadn’t been properly used like this in years.
“Excuse me!” I shouted, trying to get the bartender’s attention. Though I had no idea what any of it actually meant, I’d already ordered slippery nipples, cement mixers, and purple hooters. At this point, with the club at maximum density and the music so loud it shook my bones, he wouldn’t even look up at me. Admittedly, he was slammed and making such a small number of tedious shots was annoying. But I had an intoxicated, newly affianced friend burning a hole in the dance floor, and said girlfriend wanted more shots.
“Sure is doing his best to ignore you, in’t he?”
I blinked up—and up—at the man pressed close to me at the crowded bar. He was roughly the size of a redwood, and nodded toward the bartender to indicate his meaning. “You never yell at a bartender, Petal. Especially not with what you’re going to order: Pete hates making girly drinks.”
Of course. It would be just my luck to meet a gorgeous man just days after swearing off men forever. A man with a British accent to boot. The universe was a hilarious bitch.
“How do you know what I was going to order?” My grin grew wider, hopefully matching his, but most likely looking a lot tipsier. I was grateful for the drinks I’d already had, because sober Sara would give him monosyllables and an awkward nod and be done with it. “Maybe I was going to get a pint of Guinness. You never know.”
“Unlikely. I’ve seen you ordering tiny purple drinks all night.”
He’d been watching me all night? I couldn’t decide if that was fantastic, or a little creepy.
I shifted on my feet and he followed my movements. He had angled features with a sharp jaw and a carved hollow beneath his cheekbones, eyes that seemed backlit and heavy, dark brows, a deep dimple on his left cheek when the grin spread down to his lips. This man had to be well over six feet, with a torso it would take my hands many moons to explore.
The bartender returned, then looked at the man beside me expectantly. My beautiful stranger barely raised his voice, but it was so deep it carried without effort: “Three fingers of Macallan’s, Pete, and whatever this lady is having. She’s been waiting a spell, yeah?” He turned to me, wearing a smile that made something dormant warm deep in my belly. “How many fingers would you like?”
His words exploded in my brain and my veins filled with adrenaline. “What did you just say?”
Innocence. He tried it on, smoothing it over his features. Somehow he made it work, but I could see from the way his eyes narrowed that there wasn’t an innocent cell in his body.
“Did you really just offer me three fingers?” I asked.
He laughed, spreading out the biggest hand I’d ever seen on the bar just between us. His fingers were the kind that could curl around a basketball and dwarf it. “Petal, you’d best start with two.”
I looked more closely at him. Friendly eyes, standing not too close, but close enough that I knew he had come to this part of the bar specifically to talk to me. “You give good innuendo.”
The bartender rapped the bar with his knuckles and asked for my order. I cleared my throat, steeling myself. “Three bl*w j*bs.” I ignored his irritated huff and turned back to my stranger.
“You don’t sound like a New Yorker,” he said, grin fading slightly but never leaving his constantly smiling eyes.
“Touché. Born in Leeds, worked in London, and moved here six years ago.”
“Five days,” I admitted, pointing to my chest. “From Chicago. The company I used to work for opened an office here and brought me back on to head up Finance.”
Whoa, Sara. Too much information. Way to enable stalkers.
It had been so long since I’d even looked at another man. Clearly Andy had been a master in this kind of situation, but unfortunately I had no idea how to flirt anymore. I glanced back to where I expected to see Julia and Chloe dancing, but I couldn’t find them in the tangle of bodies on the floor. I was so rusty in this ritual I was practically revirginized.
“Finance? I’m a numbers man myself,” he said, and waited until I looked back at him before turning the smile up a few notches. “Nice to see women doing it. Too many grouchy men in trousers having meetings just to hear themselves say the same thing over and over.”
Smiling, I said, “I’m grouchy sometimes. I also wear trousers sometimes, too.”
I narrowed my eyes. “That means something else in British, doesn’t it? Are you giving me innuendo again?”
His laugh spread warm across my skin. “Pants are what you Americans so blandly call ‘underwear.’ ” When he said this, the “un” sounded like a noise he might make during sex, and something inside me melted. While I gaped at him, my stranger tilted his head, looking me over. “You’re rather sweet. You don’t look like you come to these kinds of establishments very often.”
He was right, but was it that obvious? “I’m really not sure how to take that.”
“Take it as a compliment. You’re the freshest thing in this place.” He cleared his throat and looked to where Pete was returning with my shots. “Why are you carrying all these sticky drinks out to the dance floor?”
“My friend just got engaged. We’re doing the girls’ night out thing.”
“So then you’re unlikely to leave here with me.”
I blinked, and then blinked again, hard. With this frank suggestion, I was officially out of my depth. Way out of my depth. “I . . . what? No.”
“You’re serious? You just met me.”
“And already I have a strong urge to devour you.” His words were delivered slowly, almost a whisper, but they rang through my head like a cymbal crash. It was obvious he wasn’t new to this kind of interaction—the proposition of no-strings-attached sex—and although I was, when he looked at me like that I knew I was bound to follow him anywhere.
Every shot I’d had seemed to hit me all at once and I weaved a little in front of him. He steadied me with his hand on my elbow, grinning down at me.
I blinked back into awareness, feeling my head clear slightly. “Okay, when you smile at me like that, I want to climb you. And God knows it’s been forever since I’ve been properly manhandled.” I looked him up and down, all pretense of polite society apparently gone. “And something tells me you could more than do the job—I mean, holy hell, look at you.”
And I did. Again. I took a steadying breath and was met with his amused grin. “But I’ve never just randomly hooked up with some stranger at a bar, and I’m here with friends, celebrating the awesome marriage they’re going to have, and so”—I gathered up my shots—“we’re going to do these.”
He nodded once, slowly, his smile turning a little brighter, as if he’d just accepted a challenge. “Okay.”
I found Chloe and Julia at the table, collapsed and sweaty, and slid the shots down in front of them. Julia put one in front of Chloe and held her own aloft.
“May all of your bl*w j*bs go down so easily.” She wrapped her mouth around the rim, held both hands up in the air, and tipped her head back, swallowing the entire shot without blinking.
“Holy balls,” I mumbled, staring at her in awe, as Chloe broke into laughter beside me. “Is that how I’m supposed to do it?” I lowered my voice, looking around. “Like an actual bl*w j*b?”