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New Year's Eve
His eyes were the bluest Natalia Serrano had ever seen.
Of course, she was a fair distance away and it could have been just a trick of the light. Still, he was a magnificent specimen in his black tux; tall with a lean, muscular build and a classically handsome face. A lock of dark hair tumbled to his forehead and he impatiently pushed it back.
He was older than her twenty-five yearsshe'd guess early thirties. His self-assured and confident stance told her he was used to giving orders, not taking them.
Although she would guess they had little in common, in that moment she knew there was one thing they did share and that was loneliness. Their gazes met, and her lips lifted in a tentative smile. The connection she felt was so strong that she expected him to cross the room and say hello, or at least return her smile. Instead he frowned, turned and disappeared into the hallway.
A loud cheer rose from the crowd and Natalia returned her attention to the revelers on the dance club floor, all ready to usher in a new year with kisses, hugs and a champagne toast. They looked so happy, so in the moment.
The band, a popular one from nearby San Antonio, had quickly gotten the crowd pumped up and now kept them at a fevered pitch. The waitstaff, easily identifiable by their black pants and cream-colored Western shirts with black longhorns monogrammed above the hotel moniker, kept the alcohol flowing.
La Casa Paloma, an elegant hotel in downtown Red Rock, Texas, had gone all out to make this a New Year's Eve to remember. Linen-clad tables, complete with noise-makers and party hats, formed a U shape around a large dance floor. The entire ballroom ceiling was covered with a glittery silver netting. Captured in it were hundreds of balloons, which would be released at midnight.
Midnight. Natalia glanced at her watch face surrounded by multicolored glass beads and emitted a groan. Still ninety minutes to go.
Across the mass of gyrating bodies she saw her best friend pressed up against a guy Natalia didn't recognize. Though she and Selina had come together, there was no expectation they'd leave together. Which was good considering Natalia was ready to call it an evening. For Selina the night appeared to be just getting started.
"Hey, beautiful. Want to dance?"
Natalia turned and gazed into the blurry eyes of a cowboy who'd already had too much to drink. His baby face and youthful features reminded her of her brother Eric around the time he'd turned twenty-one and had been into hell-raising.
"I'm sorry." She softened the refusal with a smile. "I'm here with someone."
Until recently that would have been the truth. She and David Francisco had been together for almost a year. But a couple months ago, whatever fabric had held them together had begun to unravel. Last month they'd split for good.
The cowboy blinked and looked first to her left and then to her right. Confusion blanketed his face. "I don't see anyone."
"He's in the restroom."
"Oh." The cowboy's lips hitched up in a crooked grin even as he listed slightly to the left. "I'm headed there now myself. I'll tell him where you are."
Natalia hid a smile. Since she hadn't described who she was supposedly with, that might prove a bit difficult but she appreciated the offer. "Thanks."
When he disappeared into the crowd, she stepped out the closest door into the large, well-manicured courtyard that ran the entire length of the rear of the hotel.
The gray-haired guard looked up from where he was seated. "You'll need your hand stamped if you plan to go back inside."
"Not necessary." Natalia shook her head, sending long black hair cascading down her back. "I'm headed home."
Surprise lit the older man's eyes. "You're not staying for the balloon drop?"
"I'm afraid not." She gently tapped one temple. "I'm getting a headache."
It wasn't a lie. Natalia had been fighting a sinus infection for over a week. Once she'd started on an antibiotic, she'd felt a thousand times better. Still, the loud music and the potent perfume in the air had brought a twinge of pain back.
"Well, I hope you feel better soon." He patted her on the shoulder. "Happy New Year."
The kindness in his voice was nearly her undoing. Natalia had never known her father. He'd left when she was small.
"Thank you." Impulsively she gave him a hug. "Happy New Year to you, too."
Redness traveled up his neck.
"If you change your mind, come back," he sputtered as the blush reached his weathered face. "I'll let you in."
Natalia returned his smile and gave a wave before sauntering off. Since she didn't have anywhere to goexcept home to an empty apartmentshe took time to enjoy the beauty of the deserted courtyard festooned with white lights.
She wandered down the flagstone walkway, admiring the shiny green foliage lining the path. When she reached the elaborate decorative gate that led to the street, Natalia returned to a wrought iron bench she'd passed moments before and took a seat.
The Manolo Blahnik slingbacks she'd picked up at a consignment store in San Antonio were superstylish but a half size too small. Natalia knew she was playing with fire when she unhooked each buckle and slipped them off. Getting them back on might not be all that easy.
But as her fingers massaged her instep, she decided it was worth the risk. For the first time all evening she found herself relaxing. The band sounded better from a distance and she could once again feel her toes.
Life would be practically perfect if she'd thought to bring a wrap. Though the temperature was in the upper fortieswhich was nice for a late-December eveningher one-shouldered minidress in a thin jersey fabric wasn't nearly warm enough.
Natalia hugged her arms around herself, not yet ready to head to the front of the hotel to catch a cab. Though her early departure from the party might not show it, Natalia loved this time of year. Loved the hope of a new beginning. Loved the promise of a new year stretched out before her.
Footsteps sounded on the flagstone and Natalia looked up just in time to see the handsome stranger from the party round the corner of a tall sculptured bush. For one crazy second she thought he'd come looking for her, until she saw the surprise on his face.
It was a silly thought anyway. They'd never spoken or even been introduced. Though she swore their eyes had met and connected, for all Natalia knew he could have been looking at one of the other women around her.
"I didn't realize anyone else was out here." His voice was deep, with a hint of a Southern accent.
"If you were headed to this bench" despite a thousand hummingbird wings fluttering in her chest, Natalia's voice came out cool and offhand "there's plenty of room. Anyway, I was just about to leave."
"Don't rush off on my account." He sat beside her, leaving a respectable distance between them. "Besides, it's not midnight. Who leaves a New Year's Eve party before midnight?"
"Well, I did. And it looks like you did." She smiled. "That makes two of us."
He didn't comment on her observation. Instead his gaze had dropped to her bare feet and to the shoes sitting in front of her.
Natalia resisted the urge to wiggle her toes and to ask him what he thought about her deep purple toenail polish. Personally she thought it went perfectly with her orchid-colored minidress.
"Shoes hurting your feet?"
Natalia sighed. "They're half a size too small."
A look of puzzlement crossed his face. "Why did you buy them?"
"They were a bargain." She stopped short of telling him she'd gotten them secondhand. The cut of his tux was too perfect to be a rental. That told her this was a man who'd probably never set foot into a thrift store or consignment shop in his life. He'd never understand the thrill of getting for two hundred dollars a pair of shoes that retailed for eight hundred dollars.
An amused smile lifted his lips. "That explains it."
"I bet most of the women were wearing these at your bash."
His expression stilled. A shutter dropped over his eyes.
Natalia rolled her eyes, not bothering to hide her reaction to his ridiculous response. "You're wearing a tux," she pointed out. "Way too fancy for the party inside."
The corners of his eyes crinkled, softening the hard planes of his elegant features. "You don't like the way I'm dressed?"
"I never said that." Natalia responded to his teasing tone with a lighthearted lilt. "But you don't fit in. So, where did you come from?"
"Georgia," he said with a disarming smile.
"That's not what I meant."
He lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. "Is it important?"
Natalia resisted the urge to sigh, suddenly weary of the game. She grabbed her shoes and stood. "I need to go."
"Please stay." Those incredible blue eyes met hers and she found it hard to deny him anything.
Or maybe it wasn't the eyes but the expensive cologne that teased her nostrils. It wasn't the department store Polo that David had worn or any of her brothers' favorites. It was a scent she couldn't identify, but found extremely enticing.
He guided her back into her seat. "You smell good," she said, not feeling the need to play games.
"Thank you." His lips twitched. "So do you."
Natalia sighed. "Go ahead."
"Go ahead what?"
"Tell me I smell like your mother."
Confusion contorted his face. "Why would I say that?"
"It's Chanel. Every guy I've dated has had a mother or a grandmother who wears this scent." She lifted her chin. "I don't care. I like it."
"Well, just to be clear, I like it, too. And neither my mother nor my grandmothers have ever smelled as good as you."
"They've also never looked as good as you, either." He reached over and before she could stop him, his hand slid up her thigh, his fingers slipping just inside the bottom hem of her dress.
A feeling of heat shot up her thigh to pool between her legs. She slapped his hand. "What are you doing?"
"It looked stretchy," he said, the top of his ears turning red. "I thought I'd check it out."
"How would you like it if I slid my hand inside your pants?"
The minute the words left Natalia's mouth she realized they'd come out all wrong.
Unexpectedly he grinned. "I'd like it just fine. Go ahead."
She shook her head. Between the intoxicating scent of his cologne and the testosterone rolling off him in waves, Natalia felt a bit tipsy. But not drunk enough to act on her outrageous comment.
Still, she couldn't help wondering what she'd find there.
She knew it wasn't size that mattered, but what a man could do with ithow he treated a woman. Unfortunately, David cared more for his own pleasure than hers.
Would this guy be like David? Or would he
She stopped the speculation before it could fully form. In his parting remarks, David had told her she was a cold fish and that was why he had to look elsewhere. But right now she didn't feel cold; she felt hot. Just thinking of this man touching her, really, truly touching her, made her shiver with desire.
"You're cold." Before Natalia realized what was happening, Mr. Blue Eyes removed his jacket and settled it around her shoulders.
The garment retained the heat of his body and that wonderful delicious smell. She snuggled into it, suddenly feeling very warm indeed.
"If I'm going to wear your jacket, I should at least know your name," she said in a light, teasing tone.
So it was to be first names only. That suited her just fine. They could talk, perhaps flirt a little then go their separate ways.
"I'm Lia." Though Natalia was what everyone knew her by, Lia was what her family called her.
"Le-ah," he said in a husky voice that made her blood feel like warm honey sliding through her veins. "A beautiful name for a beautiful woman."
She gazed up at him through lowered lashes, not able to hide her smile. "Does that line really work for you?"
"Sometimes." Shane chuckled, a low, pleasant rumbling sound. "But you are beautiful. The moonlight shimmers in your dark hair like diamonds on silk."
He lightly touched one long curl. When she didn't pull away, he let his hand linger, his fingers sliding deeper.
His gaze dropped to her lips. When he looked up, she knew what he wanted.
A kiss. No big deal. It was New Year's Eve. Lots of people kissed strangers when the clock struck twelve. Of course, it wasn't yet midnight but she wasn't going to quibble over an hour.
"Do you believe in love?"
Lia reined in her lascivious thoughts and met his gaze. "I love my mother. And my brother."
"I'm not talking about that kind of love," he said in a voice that reminded her of smooth, rich bourbon. "I'm talking about true love. The love between a man and a woman."
Lia stiffened, for a second worried he was about to give her that "love at first sight" line. She'd fallen for it once. She wouldn't be that stupid again. But when she looked in his eyes, there was no I-fell-for-you-the-second-I-saw-you nonsense that David had laid on her, which she'd naively taken as gospel.
"I'd like to believe it exists, but I'm not so sure it does," she said honestly.
"It doesn't," he said and a shutter dropped over his eyes. "I used to believe it did, but not anymore."
She surreptitiously glanced at his ring finger. Of course, some men didn't wear a ring. "Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No to both questions." He frowned. "If I had a wife or a girlfriend, I wouldn't be here talking with you."
"Ever been married?"
He made a sound of irritation low in his throat and shook his head.
"Ever come close?"
"Not really." His gaze turned sharp and assessing.
"What about you?"
"No husband. No boyfriend." Lia kept her tone calm and matter-of-fact. "As far as coming close."
She remembered David and all his plans for "their" future. Now she realized their relationship had been simply a house of cards. He'd spun his lies. She'd become suspicious but hadn't trusted her gut.
"My boyfriend and I recently broke up," she said finally. "How can you love someone you can't trust? You know what I mean?"
He nodded, his lips pulled together in a grim semblance of a smile. "You're preaching to the choir on that one, darlin'."
So she wasn't the only one who'd been dumped on. Though it made no sense, somehow it made her feel better. Impulsively she reached over and took his hand. "We don't need liars and cheats," she said fervently. "All we need is ourselves."
"Amen." He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss into her palm.
A smoldering heat flared through her, a sensation she didn't bother to fight.
"But sometimes it's nice to hold someone close. To feel their skin against yours. To simply go with the moment." His voice had become a husky caress. And his eyesshe'd never seen such beautiful blue eyes. Eyes that tempted her to venture from the firm shore of what she'd always known to a place where she could be over her head in seconds. "Interested?"
Time seemed to stretch and extend.
After a moment, Lia cocked her head. "Are you asking if I'd be interested in a one-night stand?"
"Darn if you aren't a direct one." The tiny lines around his eyes crinkled when he laughed, making him look boyish and years younger. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm asking."
Just say no, the tiny voice in her head that was her moral compass cried out. Get up and walk away.
Lia hadn't had many loversDavid was her secondand she'd never made love outside of a committed relationship. Never considered making love with a stranger.