David had been watching the woman on the deck for almost half an hour.
Three times he started over to talk to her. Once he chickened out, reminding himself he was past the point in his life of having to find a woman in a bar. The second time he was halfway to her when her cell phone rang. The third time he went through the open door and was about to take the final few steps toward her when she pulled a book out of her bag and started writing. It was the last time, when he was just a few feet from her, that he caught a whiff of her perfume and got a look at her up close. Brown hair, smooth skin and she didn’t wear much make-up. Not that she needed it. She wasn’t flashy, but she was sexy; from her tailored slacks to the soft blue sweater that allowed just a hint of cleavage to peek out, she was a refined package. He reminded himself that women like her never went for guys like him.
This, of course, was why his buddies had issued the challenge. Assholes.
He was about to walk out of the bar and forget the whole shittin’ bet when he saw her draw a deep breath, push her sunglasses up onto her head and wipe at her eyes. She was crying. In most cases that would have been enough to scare him off, but now that she might need someone changed everything. David went to her, because if nothing else, he saw an opening he could use to his advantage. Game on.
Circling her table, he saw one empty bottle and one wine glass. The woman didn’t look drunk, but he proceeded cautiously, just in case.
Still moving slowly, David took her in. Damn, she was pretty. For the first time he could see her eyes. They were hazel—not quite green, not quite brown, large and surrounded by dark, spiky lashes. She placed her book in her bag and let out a shaky breath. Her hands were steady, her demeanor calm. Obviously upset, but definitely not drunk. When she looked up and caught his gaze, David felt like he’d been swallowed whole. There was something about this woman, about the way she looked at him, that stopped him cold. She was the one who finally broke eye contact and David regained his senses.
“Hi,” he said, willing himself to say something. “Are you all right?”
She gazed up and her lower lip quivered. Before speaking she sucked it in and composed herself. “Yes, thank you. I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine.” He circled the table in her direction.
“I am.” She stood and he saw she was a tiny thing, petite, but the body was gorgeous.
When she started to leave, he panicked and touched her arm, startling himself as much as her. The woman jerked away and David stepped back, realizing he’d crossed a line.
Again, those eyes drilled into him and the first thing that came into his head, flew out of his mouth. It wasn’t clever. It wasn’t witty. He simply got to the point. “Please don’t go.”
“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice was clear and soft; she wasn’t afraid, simply confused. Hell, he was confused. He needed a line. But instead of something smooth and charming, he was bumbling.
“David. David Burke. I’ve been watching you for a while and I only just got up the nerve to talk to you.” She stared at him blankly. David couldn’t tell if she was simply annoyed or disgusted. “You looked upset a few minutes ago. Can I help?”
“I don’t need your help.” Her jaw was set and while this woman may have seemed vulnerable, he guessed she was no push over.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “There’s no harm in telling me that.” Please tell me, he thought. Or I’m out a few thousand bucks without even getting up to bat.
Her mouth curved into half a smile. “Kate Nicholls.” She paused and chewed on her lower lip, softening. “Thanks for your concern, but I’m fine.” She started to move away and he panicked.
“Would you have dinner with me?” The question shot out before he could stop himself; he wanted a drink and some sex. Dinner would mean he’d have to have a conversation.
“Oh, I don’t think—” There was a loud crash inside the bar, a roar of laughter and a huge male body stumbled outside. Her scowl was unmistakable. “I’ll be so happy to go home tomorrow.”
“Why is that?” He tried to ask the question as innocently as possible, but based on her reaction, he pretty much knew the answer.
“With all the idiot hockey players in and out of this hotel, it’s been like living in a frat house.”
No surprise there. The guy who’d almost face-planted on the deck was one of his teammates and Kate snarled as the kid belched with enthusiasm. Perfect. With luck, the rookie wouldn’t talk to him.
“Hey, Padre.” So much for luck. “How’s it goin’ man?” Graves was an asshole. Talk about getting hosed. David was thinking he could toss the son of a bitch into the cold ocean as revenge, but the idiot was so drunk he’d sink like a stone. He turned his attention back to Kate who nailed him with those gorgeous eyes.
“Padre?” she inquired. “You’re a priest?”
“No.” He heard his answer come out on a growl. “Padre is a nickname.”
“Nickname? Let me guess. You’re a hockey player?”
His eyes settled on his teammate who was examining the deck closely for some reason, and then David looked back at Kate. He had nothing to lose at this point. “Will you have dinner with me anyway?”
“You’re very nice to ask, but no.”
“Please?” He smiled. “I promise I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“I don’t even know you.” A grin teased the corners of her mouth and she nodded toward his teammate who was easing his way off the deck. “You could be insane, like your friend over there.”
He laughed. “We’ll tell the desk clerk that we’re leaving together. If anything happens to you they’ll come looking for me.”
She glanced away, but he waited patiently and almost willed her to look at him. David wanted her to believe he wasn’t like his teammates, so he asked again. “Don’t make me hang out with that bunch. I’ll be scarred for life.”
A smile played on her lips and in her eyes. “Okay, dinner.” Pausing for a moment to consider him, she took out the notebook and wrote something down.
“What was that?” he asked.
Kate grinned again and looked at him. “A note,” she began. “So I remember to find myself a good psychiatrist.”
They ended up on Highway 1, heading toward Santa Monica. There might have been quicker ways to get there, but the winding drive along the ocean was, by far, the prettiest. Kate had rented a sporty convertible to help her deal with her birthday depression, but she happily handed the keys over to David. She may not have felt drunk, but she’d consumed an entire bottle of wine by herself and she was fairly sure she shouldn’t get behind the wheel.
What the hell had happened? Her afternoon had started simply enough. She’d decided to spend her birthday on the hotel deck with a bottle of Merlot and her divorce papers. Her intention was to get drunk, but that hadn’t worked out so well. Then again, the alcohol must have done something, because she was sitting in a car with a strange man heading to points unknown. It wasn’t like her in the least.
Which made Kate feel better, because she realized the wine must have done its job after all.
David told her about a great restaurant on the beach and after the initial burst of small talk, they settled in for the drive. That gave Kate the opportunity to take him in and convince herself that she hadn’t fallen into some alcohol induced, mid-life delusion. This was too good. She was depressed and alone on her fortieth birthday, a landmark in any woman’s life, and out of nowhere comes a gorgeous man to whisk her away for dinner on the beach. If she’d written a story like this her editor would tell her the scenario was just too perfect and her readers wouldn’t buy it. She would have been right. Kate wasn’t sure she bought it herself, but for now she was going to slip happily into the delusion and enjoy it.
David concentrated on the road, keeping one hand on the wheel and the other hand on the stick shift between them. He looked so young. Damn. Couldn’t she focus on something else? She turned a little in the bucket seat and gazed at him. His hair was dark brown, almost black and wavy, the ends of it curling over the collar of his shirt. His eyes, which were now covered by a pair of Ray-Ban aviators, were the same deep brown. At first glance he looked like he could be on the cover of a magazine, but then Kate noticed the remnants of battle. His nose had a bump, probably from being broken, and his face was etched with tiny scars. There was one long, thin scar that ran from his ear to his chin along his jaw line. She hadn’t noticed earlier, but his cheek sported a bruise. This man who could have passed for an executive was, in fact, a warrior and it surprised Kate that that fact thrilled her more than a little.
He glanced at her and smiled when he caught her staring. “What are you looking at?”
She felt the heat rise in her face. “Just enjoying the view.”
He grinned and reddened. She’d embarrassed him? That was a surprise.
“Why were you crying earlier?”
The question was direct and it took a moment to think of an answer, even a meaningless one. “It was nothing.”
“A hotel bar isn’t the place for a good cry. It must have been something,” he said.
Was there a bad place to cry? She didn’t think so, but crying showed weakness and if her divorce taught her anything it was that she couldn’t ever appear weak.
David must have seen how deeply she had fallen into her own thoughts, because he cleared his throat before speaking again. “Want to talk about it? I’m the perfect person. Who am I gonna tell?”
“Are you sure you want to hear it?”
He nodded. “Why the tears?”
She drew a deep breath, preparing herself to face the truth she tried to drown in the red wine. “Today’s my birthday, and it’s a little depressing because five days ago my divorce became final and tomorrow my ex-husband leaves for Europe with his fiancée.”
“Oh, man—“ He reached over and took her hand with the one he’d had on the shifter. “I’m sorry, Kate.”
“He left me ten months ago and it had been bad long before that.” She shrugged. “You’d think I’d have adjusted by now.”
“Were you married long?”
“Since I was twenty. Too young.”
He didn’t say anything, but let the silence between them comfort her. She appreciated that he didn’t offer any trite platitudes or silly advice about ‘moving on.’ She’d had enough of that from almost everyone she knew.
“It’s your birthday?”
“Yes,” she said. “But I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me which one it is?”
“It’s not polite to ask a lady her age.” Kate felt the smile pull across her face and she hoped no new wrinkles popped up.
“Sorry. I’ll assume it’s a crisis birthday then.”
“A crisis birthday?”
“Yeah, you know a big one. Twenty-five or thirty. A birthday that confirms you not a kid anymore.”
“Well, I’ll give you that. I’m no kid.” That’s for sure. She wondered if he really thought she was that young. “How old are you?”
Why did she ask that? She didn’t want to know.
“I’ll be thirty in December.” He said it proudly, as if he were trying to make a point to her that age was no big deal. Kate felt guilty for deceiving him, but why? They had no relationship. She’d never see him again and lots of women lied about their age. He’d picked her up in a bar, what did he expect?
Kate sucked in a breath.
Shit! She’d never been picked up in a bar and she had no idea what he expected. He’d been a gentleman so far, but a wave of panic flashed through Kate. She was totally unequipped for an encounter like this.
Her eyes went back to David. So taken with his face, she hadn’t really paid attention to anything else. She knew he was tall, probably about six-three and taking a good look she could see that every inch of him was lean muscle. Her eyes were drawn to the hand that held hers. His fingers were long and tapered and the skin was roughened from constant battering and use. But there was a gentleness in the way he touched her, in the way his thumb played lightly over her knuckles. Kate felt a curl of heat in her abdomen as she started to imagine how it would feel to have him touch her in more intimate places. When he moved his hand to change gears, she snapped back to reality. This was bad.
David slowed the car as he turned off the freeway and found a place to park near the pier. Kate was fidgeting in her seat as he threw the car into gear, pressed the brake and turned off the engine. He wondered what she was thinking about. He’d certainly gotten points with the sensitive male routine in the car, but he was having an attack of conscience. He felt bad. She was a nice woman, and times had been tough. But then he thought maybe what she needed was a night out and some great sex. It was her birthday, he’d pay her some attention, take her to bed and she’d feel like a million bucks in the morning. The rationale made perfect sense to him and then Kate made him feel like a total shit.
“I really want to see the carousel,” she said with a smile. “It’s supposed to be beautiful. I’ve made so many trips to California, and I’ve never been here.”
He smiled in response. But only because she was the most sincere person he’d ever met. Her joy was completely genuine and he was the scum of the earth. Once upon a time David had been a nice guy. Life intruded, things changed and he’d lost track of that person somewhere along the road. But watching the happiness spread across her face, knowing he was responsible for it, was a sort of personal epiphany. The bet no longer mattered. Kate offered him redemption, even if it was only temporary.
Looking at her again, there was no indication her birthday made her feel older; she was a big kid, eager and enthusiastic. “Let’s eat first, and then we’ll walk around and check things out.”
She agreed and they made a short walk to the restaurant. It was an informal place, almost a shack and not much to look at. But even the rough tables, the votive candles held in shot glasses and the paper placemats couldn’t take away from the romantic evening that was developing. The soft piano music playing in the background gave the place a hip ambiance that David liked. Kate took her menu, asked him what was good and he marveled that it never occurred to her to snub her nose at the place.
She ordered Pellegrino with lime, folded her arms on the table and grinned at him. “Okay, David, I bared my soul now it’s your turn.”
“What do you want to know?” He tore off a piece of bread and dipped it in olive oil.
“Tell me about hockey. How long have you been playing?”
“Professionally? This is my eighth season.”
“And before that?”
“I played at Boston College, which is where I picked up my nickname.” He could see by her expression she wanted more of a story. “My freshman year I kind of kept to myself, didn’t go out much, and my teammates teased me for acting like a priest.”
“Ahhh.” Kate smiled, and nodded her understanding. “My dad went to B-C,” she said. “It’s where I should have gone.”
“Where did you go?”
“Harvard.” She smirked and broke off a piece of bread for herself. “Dad wasn’t happy.”
He chuckled. Only a person who went to school in Boston, and who understood the rivalries, could comprehend why a parent would be disappointed that his child had chosen Harvard. “My father didn’t want me to go at all. He wanted me to play in Juniors in Canada. If I’d gone that route I’d have jumped to the NHL two seasons sooner, but my mother wanted me to get an education.”
“She must be proud of you.”
“I hope so. She died when I was sixteen.” Where the hell had that come from? He never talked about his mother, ever. But something about Kate, about the sudden softness in her expression, told him she’d understand.
“That had to be difficult for you.”
“It was. We were close and she was sick for a long time.”
“Did you get your looks from your mother?”
“I did.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“Burke is an Irish name, and you don’t look Irish.”
He grinned, thinking that was the kind of observation that would have been lost on most women. “She was Italian.”
“Where did you grow up?” She stared at him with those amazing cat eyes. He was convinced she could probably see in the dark.
“Outside Calgary.” He took a sip of his beer. “You never told me what you do.”
“I’m a teacher and…a writer.” She fiddled with her fork, almost as if she were embarrassed by the fact.
“What do you teach?” he asked.
“High school English. I’m here for a conference.”
“And what do you write?”
She paused considering the question. “Um…I guess you could call them crime novels, suspense.”
That surprised him. She seemed so down to earth and he always thought of novelists as either pretentious or eccentric. “Would I have read anything you’ve written?”
“Maybe.” She grinned and her tongue played over her lips.
“I am literate,” he teased.
Her eyes twinkled and she nodded. “I know.”
It made him wonder about her. She seemed like a mystery, too. David wanted to know what was cooking underneath Kate’s cool exterior. “How many have you written?”
“A few, but you changed the subject. I want to know about the NHL.”
Again, David felt himself smile. It was a nice change to be with a woman who wasn’t talking about the best personal trainer or the newest, hottest club. She wanted to talk about him, about his life and that was kind of a shocker. So, he told her about his games and what it was like playing pro. How the travel got to him, about his teammates and injuries. He hadn’t opened up like this to anyone in a while, but Kate made it easy. She asked him questions, but her undemanding manner made him comfortable, and David was never comfortable. Something wiggled inside him, something that told him this was the way it was supposed to be with a woman.
They ordered different pasta dishes and he fed her a bite of his. She closed her eyes, savoring the taste and then she looked in his eyes, not a coy glance—she went deep, probing. Unexpectedly, her hand came up and grazed over the bruise on his face. David felt a rush go through his body. The touch was innocent, but it upset his balance; the part of him that kept his emotions in check and his actions controlled spun and collided with a physical response that was so sudden, he felt weak.
David grasped her fingers, “Jesus,” he whispered, unable to express it.
“What happened?” she asked.
Realizing she was talking about the bruise, he answered, “High stick last night in San Jose.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not really.” He laced his fingers with hers and drew a deep, painful breath. The air felt thick in his lungs. “Are you finished? We could take that walk now.”
She acknowledged him without a word. David paid the check and led her out toward the beach.