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It was at the point her bar pickup started whispering the naughty things he wanted to do to her that Jocelyn Swann realized that, while she was drunk, she wasn't drunk enough.
Rubbing the tickle out of her ear, she planted an encouraging kiss on Tony-the-Corporate-High-Flyer's sexy mouth and said, "Hold that thought, hotshot." Wriggling seductively out of the circular booth, she threaded past the ladies' room and doubled back to the dimly lit bar.
One more shooter should do it—silence the disapproving voice that kept whining, "This is not a good idea."
"Shut up," she muttered. The bartender, a student who looked as out of place in the hotel's funky bar as she felt, looked up. "Not you…Sorry, Phil." Leaning over, she patted his scrawny shoulder.
His bespectacled gaze instinctively dropped to the girls, nicely displayed by Jo's push-up bra and low-cut chiffon top. She froze on a sudden upwelling of grief, then laughed and shimmied them. "Pretty good, huh? One of my best features, I'm told."
Phil averted his gaze. "Um…yeah, sure…What would you like?"
"A sublime sexual experience that I'll remember the rest of my life," she confided. "But right now, another Jagerbomb will do."
"Okaaay," said Phil slowly. "On your room tab again, Ms. Swann? Eight oh One, wasn't it?"
"Thanks, mate." He filled a tumbler with Red Bull, then dropped in a shot glass of Jagermeister. Jo watched the red-brown liqueur billow into the gold and told herself it didn't look like a blood spill because that would be morbid and tonight was all about having fun with a capital F.
"Got the time?" she asked. "Hard to tell in this place." Plush and windowless with pods of circular white booths, Bar None was an artful contrast of shadows and soft blue spotlights that spilled nowhere useful. Jo had to squint to sign for her drink.
"Guess this better be my last." Picking up her cocktail, Jo knocked it back with a grimace. The anise flavor wasn't as nice as it had been two shots ago. "Nothing by mouth after midnight," she commented. "But you're the med student, Phil. A couple of buffer hours would be sensible, right?"
His eyes bugged. "You're drinking…the night before surgery?" He snatched her glass. "You shouldn't touch alcohol for at least forty-eight hours before."
Does the joy never end? Then the Jagerbomb dropped its alcohol load, the song changed to Ben Harper's version of "Sexual Healing" and Jo started to laugh. "I should care but I don't. No, don't nag, Phil, your future patients won't like it."
Riding the buzz, Jo danced back to her prey. He was engrossed in a call—how cutely corporate—cell to one ear, hand over the other. As Jo did a last hip swivel she heard "I love you, too," and stopped mid twist. Please let that be his mother.
Tony glanced up, caught sight of her and his face said it all. Married.
Her stomach plummeted. "You despicable, lying worm, you told me you were single."
Cutting off the call, he pocketed his cell. "Jo, I—"
"Forget it. I've just wasted two precious hours on you…hours I'll never ever get back." Her voice shook. "I haven't even got the time to make you suffer…now get out!"
Tony didn't need to be told twice. When he'd gone, Jo sank into the booth, rested her elbows on the table and cradled her spinning head until her nausea subsided. Married! Thank God she'd found out before she slept with him. There was a jug of water on the table. She slopped some into Tony's empty glass, wiped the rim with a cocktail napkin and drank it, desperately scanning the bar for new prospects. Too old, too young, too thin, too slick.
Dammit, the alcohol wasn't just for Dutch courage—it was supposed to be lowering her standards.
An hour later, Jo was having her neck nuzzled by Brad-the-Banker. "You're gorgeous," he murmured. "I can't believe my luck meeting you tonight."
Jo closed her eyes, the better to assess his skills—not bad—then quickly opened them again. The dizziness receded, replaced by handsome blondness.
Brad's knuckles brushed the outside of her breast. "And you're so sexy, I—" Ribald male laughter burst from an adjacent table. He frowned. "Yobos."
"Who cares?" Jo planted his palm against her curves. "Tell me I'm sexy again."
Brad's brown eyes darkened and he smiled, spreading his fingers to encompass her breast. Leaning closer, he opened his mouth to speak.
Jo jerked her head around to see who the deep, masculine drawl belonged to. "Dan!"
Her instinctive delight at seeing her oldest friend subsided into embarrassment as he took in her slutty top, the scarlet lipstick and Brad's intimate caress. Grabbing her pickup's fingers, she tried to act casual. "What are you doing here?" She enunciated her words carefully so Dan wouldn't know how drunk she was. "Weren't you on a surf trip down south?"
Amused, he lifted his teal-blue eyes from her pushed-up cleavage. "No swell…When I heard you were on your own in the Big Smoke, I figured you could use some company." Dan grinned, shrugging his wide shoulders. "Guess I figured wrong." Turning to Brad, he held out a hand. "Dan Jansen.I grew up with Jo in Beacon Bay."
Brad tried to disentangle from Jo's restraining grip. "Brad Wilson. I met her tonight."
"Rea-a-ally?" Dan drawled and she felt the beginning of a blush. "Relax, Swannie," he added. "What happens in Auckland stays in Auckland."
The two men shook hands and Jo squirmed as she watched Brad deliver a bone-crusher. Dan responded by stroking the other man's knuckle with his thumb. Brad couldn't release fast enough. Her best friend looked at her. You can't be serious.
"Brad is an investment banker," she said desperately.
"Impressive," said Dan.
Brad studied Dan, who was wearing a polo shirt over dress jeans, then he leaned back, crossed his legs in their expensive suit pants and flung an arm across Jo's shoulders. "And what do you do when you're not surfing?"
"I'm a soldier."
"Really?" Brad's eyebrows rose in surprise. Dan might be one of the world's most lethal combatants, but projecting a self-effacing mildness was a crucial part of their skill set. The guy looked at his disheveled brown hair. "I thought all you guys had crew cuts."
"I've been on a month's leave."
"Nice for some," said Brad, unaware that Dan had earned it after a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. He smiled down at Jo. "I can't remember the last time I took a break."
Why did corporates think being a workaholic was a turn-on?
"Yeah," Dan said sympathetically, "rebuilding credibility must involve really long hours."
Brad frowned. "The credit crisis wasn't a picnic for the banking industry, either." Jo began to fidget. This guy was really pompous. She had to get him out of here and into bed before her friend put her off him completely.
Dan sat with the air of a man prepared to enjoy himself. "I'd love to hear your take on that."
Jo nudged her pickup. "Except we were about to leave."
Brad looked down her cleavage. "Whatever you say."
"Is this the part where I ask your intentions, Bradley?"
Dan was still smiling but not with his eyes. Brad removed his arm from Jo's shoulders.
She put it back. "Relax, Jansen. I know who I'm doing."
"Yeah? How much have you had to drink?"
Jo turned to Brad with a flirtatious smile. "I need a quick word with my overprotective friend. Don't go anywhere."
"She's been this bossy since first grade," Dan confided. "Hope you enjoy being the girl."
"Such a kidder." Jo dragged Dan out of the booth and out of earshot. "Look, I know you're worried that I'm drunk and being taken advantage of, but trust me it's the other way around."
Dan looked skeptical, and impatiently Jo jiggled her up-thrust cleavage. "Isn't it obvious I dressed to get laid?"
"Can you quit bouncing those things in front of me?" He sounded irritated. "You're making me feel like a pervert."
"That's because all guys are shallow."
"Yeah, and you're only interested in Brad's personality."
"My point is," she said, sticking doggedly to it, "quit with the third degree. I'm not chasing blue-chip investment here. Bad—I mean, Brad and I are all about mutual-asset stripping and quick returns."
"You wouldn't have sex with him if you weren't drunk though, would you?"
"Tracy," said Jo. "Mandy. Shall I go on? Angie."
He held up his hands. "Fine, you've made your point, I'll say goodbye and disappear."
"Thank you." They returned to the booth. It was empty. Jo resisted the urge to check under the table. "You've scared him off."
"He could be in the men's room."
"You're not serious."
She gave him a panicky push. "Go check."
But he came out alone, shrugging his broad shoulders. Jo swallowed hard. That was it then, her last chance gone. And Dan thought it was funny, she could tell.
"No, you're not." To her horror she could feel her eyes welling.
Dan's jaw dropped. "Jo?"
Scowling, she blinked, but that only sent two tears trickling down her cheek.
"Hell, I'm sorry. I didn't realize this mattered." Dan wiped her tears away with his thumb. "I'll hunt him down for you."
Her laugh was half sob. "Because that'll rekindle the romance."
"C'mon, mate." He put an arm around her. "You know he's not worth this."
"I'm not crying for him." Suddenly exhausted, she leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm crying for…" Jo straightened, forced a smile. "Hell, I don't know why I'm crying. Must be the alcohol."
He searched her face. "You only get drunk when you're in trouble."
Jo closed her eyes. "I feel sick."
"Oh, God, hang on." It worked. He steered her toward the ladies' room. She'd thrown up on him before—at her sixth birthday party when they'd been jumping on the trampoline after Jo had eaten too many candies.
"I think I can make it to my room. On my own."
"I'll walk you."
Not safe from interrogation yet, then. But she was glad of his support as they walked across the foyer. The black-and-white checked tiles kept moving. The hotel receptionist darted a curious glance at Dan as Jo asked for her key. "We're just friends," she clarified.
"Of course," the girl answered in disbelief, her tone envious. She passed the key over.
Certainly Dan was a looker; even knowing him forever, Jo could appreciate that. But she also knew all that warm, sexy charm was a mask. Behind it, he held himself separate. Like Jo did. Even now he was clearly thinking about something else.
"I expected the hotel to be full of delegates," he said and Jo dropped her key. "Doesn't your publishers' conference start tomorrow?"
"Conference?" said the receptionist.
"This isn't the venue." Hastily Jo bent to pick up her key and nearly fell over. "I wanted a quieter hotel." She steered Dan away from reception. "Why are you in Auckland? I thought you were back in Beacon Bay."
"I've been recalled. We're going over the hill within the next few days."
SAS speak for overseas deployment. Only Dan knew whether it was an exercise or for real. But Jo was a journalist, she kept an eye on the news feeds. And it was no secret that the United States had formally asked for New Zealand's SAS to be sent to Afghanistan. "The Middle East?"
His face shuttered. "I can't tell you that."
Jo was torn between anxiety for his safety and a sense of reprieve. She didn't enjoy lying to him. "What did Maxine say?" His girlfriend didn't cope well with his job.
"Let's just say I got more than one set of marching orders today."
Jo stopped halfway to the elevators. "Dan, I'm sorry."
He laughed, propelling her forward. "It's okay, mate, I'm not heartbroken."
"You should be. Maxine was a keeper."
"What a shame that I'm already engaged—to you."
She snorted. Four years earlier when Jo had broken up with Chris, a guy she'd hoped was the One, and was fretting that she'd never get the large family she wanted, Dan had promised to marry her if they were both still single at thirty-three. They'd signed the contract on a beer mat. "You only use that as an excuse with other women."
"And very useful it's been, too."
They reached the elevator and he pushed the call button. The shiny chrome doors reflected a redheaded bimbo in a filmy, low-cut top clinging to him. It took Jo a moment to recognize herself. On the other hand she'd been having out-of-body experiences for ten days—ever since she'd heard the news from her doctor. Releasing Dan, Jo hugged herself.
He glanced at her. "You feeling sick again?"
"I'm all right," she said numbly.
The elevator's doors swished open and its two occupants sprang guiltily apart. A bride and groom in their early twenties, still dotted with confetti.
"It's okay," Dan reminded them, "you're married now."
The bride giggled. "Hey, that's right." She shifted her veil to make room for them, but they still had to skirt her Cinderella dress.
"Congratulations," said Jo, pressing the button for her floor.
"Thanks," replied the groom as he turned an adoring gaze on his bride. The elevator started with a jolt. Jo fell back against Dan and he steadied her. The groom murmured into the bride's ear. "Dare you…" And laughing, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him passionately.
Jo fanned out her top and stared at the numbers flashing on the panel, 2…3…4. She'd wanted that so badly tonight. Not love—at thirty-one she'd lost faith in that—but lust. She would have settled for lust. Brad might have been an arrogant ass but he knew what a woman wanted to hear—that she was desirable—and he could have made her forget.
The elevator stopped at six. The happy couple disembarked, leaving behind their heat and their pheromones. Jo gazed after them wistfully.
Dan leaned over her shoulder to jab the door-close button, and his warm breath stirred her hair. Slowly turning her head, Jo stared at him as he moved to her right, giving her more room. He and Maxine had broken up. Maybe it was a sign?
She dragged her eyes to the flashing panel.