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ONE Rafael Dunlap was running late.
He didn’t need to check his watch again to know he should have been at Fontaine fifteen minutes ago, which fortunately wouldn’t present a problem for the men waiting for him. They were off duty and reportedly in one of the best- stocked restaurant bars in Myrtle Beach.
Rafael would see for himself . . . if he could ever find a parking space. Coming off a grueling workweek, they were all entitled to relax and have a little fun.
All except Rafael.
As a hostage negotiator with SORT, the Special Operations Response Team for the Myrtle Beach Police Department, he never knew when he might be needed. Unfortunately, unlike in the movies and on television, a negotiator couldn’t go on for hours on end.
The emotional and mental strain was too much.
On occasion, he had remained as the sole negotiator when necessary, but he’d always known backup was there if it was needed. He had days off , but ever since he had taken the position five years ago, he accepted that he was never completely off duty, except for those rare times he visited his family in Charleston or went on vacation.
Rafael saw a parking space and whipped his vintage black Mustang into the spot. Parking was at a premium after five on any night, but especially on a Friday at the popular seafood restaurant near the Atlantic Ocean, which was one of the reasons Rafael had only been there a couple of times. While he didn’t mind waiting for a table at a good restaurant, waiting for a table and a place to park as well was a bit much, especially when he was on a date.
Getting out of the car, Rafael slipped the keys into the pocket of his gray slacks. As he started up the gentle incline and smelled the fragrance of roses, camellias, and honeysuckle edging the wooden walk, the sweet perfume kept his mind on women.
He hadn’t been on many dates lately. Work and family took up most of his time. A slow smile curved his mouth upward as he thought of his four brothers.
The Dunlap clan was about to get bigger. His brother Alec was heading for the altar, and his other brother Patrick was about to become a father for the first time. Both of his brothers and the women they loved couldn’t wait for the happy events. Sam and Simon were already married. Although he was extremely happy for them, Rafael couldn’t see himself as a married man or a father.
The boisterous laughter of a group of women ahead caught his attention. Bits of the conversation drifted back to him.
“Girl, that man is hot.”
“But he kisses like a fish.”
Rafael’s smile widened. Get a group of women together for over fifteen minutes and the conversation usually turned to men. Not that men were any different.
The conversation between him and his male friends might start with work, but as the evening lengthened and the alcohol content increased, the topic of women always came up.
“Allow me,” Rafael said, stepping past twin four- foot flowerpots filled with blooming pink camellias, trailing petunia, and ivy to open the half- glass door leading into the seafood restaurant.
The women turned, and their frowns morphed into interested smiles.
“Thank you,” they chorused sweetly, giving him a slow onceover they didn’t try to hide.
“My pleasure,” he said, still holding the door.
The women traded naughty looks. Rafael could just imagine what they were thinking. A slow flirtatious grin spread across his face as he followed the women inside, where the hum of conversation, tinkling glasses, and Cajun music greeted him. The main dining room was a bustle of activity with the waitstaff in white shirts, black pants, black vests, and white aprons hurrying to and from the full tables.
Gas lanterns flickered on the large square posts throughout the dining room. Three- foot brass chandeliers hung from the recessed wooden ceilings in the area up front. In the back, the chandeliers were crystal. A bragging- rights string of mounted fish hung on a post. Beneath the fish were photographs of men in fishing gear wearing big smiles as they showed off their catch for the day.
He noticed that while some of the diners were dressed casually, others wore dressier clothes. Clearly, the restaurant was more about food than fashion. While waiting to be seated, a few of the women kept throwing interested looks at him. He looked back. Perhaps it was time to end his solitary existence.
“Rafael, over here!”
Shrugging his broad shoulders in regret, Rafael turned toward the bar area off the main dining room. He spotted the six men he was meeting immediately. Sitting almost shoulder to shoulder, they had two high square tables grouped together. Rafael pulled out the lone empty red leather chair and took his seat.
“I see you’re all way ahead of me.” Each of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage. Tomorrow they’d all be back at work, but they obviously planned to enjoy to night to the fullest. They were all on S.O.R.T.’s thirteen- member team with him, and all good men.
“What will you have?”
Rafael looked up to see a full- figured waitress with curly red hair dressed in a collarless white blouse, black slacks, and white apron. Her pretty round freckled face beamed a welcoming smile.
Her eyebrows lifted over arresting green eyes. “Straight?”
He laughed. “Yes, to both.”
Catching the double meaning, her laughter joined his. “Got it. Be back shortly.”
“Is there a woman you can’t charm?” asked Charlie Gibbs, the entry man. At six feet two, he had a massive chest and the muscled arms that could get the team through a barricaded door in seconds. He had saved their butts numerous times.
Rafael grabbed a handful of beer nuts. “I’m sure there is.”
Douglas Hayes, who worked entry as well, grunted. At forty- three, with traces of gray at his temples, he was the oldest member of the team. He had a droll sense of humor. “Modest, isn’t he?”
“Here you are.” The waitress placed the large glass on the table.
“Your next order of appetizers will be out shortly. Anything else?”
“No, thanks, Clarice.” Ronald Diaz, the sniper of the unit, picked up his Jack and Coke, giving Clarice a lazy once- over as he did. There was nothing lazy about him when he picked up his rifle, though. Then he was steady, patient.
“Yell if you need me.”
Rafael grabbed his tea. “How much time do you guys spend here?”
Tim Henderson shotgun and breach man, picked up a shrimp and swirled it in cocktail sauce. He was the jokester of the bunch.
“Not much for the rest of us, but Gibbs and Diaz are regulars. They were trying to catch the owner’s attention, for all the good it did them.”
“Struck out, did you?” Rafael said, a smile curving his mouth.
“They never got to first base,” said Tim gleefully.
Diaz scowled, sipped his drink. “When I tell women I’m the sniper for the unit, they melt. With her I didn’t even get up to bat.”
Rafael looked at Diaz, who dated almost as much as he did. He had the easygoing manner and charm women went for. “Both of you?”
“And every man that we know of, but, man, that is one hot woman,” Gibbs confirmed, reaching for his bourbon.
“Hot doesn’t even come close to describing her,” Al Barron, the other sniper on the team, pointed out. At five feet eleven, he had the lean build of a runner, and the gray, unblinking gaze of a cat.
“Barron, you’re married,” Rafael teased, although he knew Barron doted on his wife and their two young children and wouldn’t dream of cheating.
“I know it, but it doesn’t keep me from giving props to a fine woman when I see one,” Barron said with a Western twang, an impish grin on his broad face.
“It would if Wanda was anywhere nearby to hear you,” Gibbs told him.
The men laughed. Barron looked a bit sheepish as he glanced around, as if expecting his wife to appear and chastise him. The men laughed harder.
“You’d think a woman that sexy would be tired of sleeping alone after three years,” lamented Diaz, clearly still wishing the owner had gone out with him.
Rafael sipped his tea. “How do you know she is?”
“Because I asked Clarice,” Gibbs said. “Not if she was sleeping with anyone, but if she ever dated.” He shoved his hand though his sandy hair, his disappointment obvious. “Seems she didn’t date before she married Martin Fontaine either. Story is, he had to work hard to get her to go out with him. She saved his life after he had a heart attack and stopped breathing.”
“You think if I fell over, she’d rush over and give me mouth- to-mouth?” Willie Stubbs asked, a dopey grin on his long, freckled face. He handled transportation for the unit.
The men at the table rolled their eyes. “Be sensible.”
“I am.” Stubbs picked up his beer and took a long swallow. “I haven’t been out on a date in months. You’re the only people I drive around. A man’s gotta have hope.”
“She’s out of your league, man.” Henderson slapped Stubbs on the back and said in his usual joking manner, “But don’t feel bad. I bet lover boy here couldn’t get to first base either.”
The men around the table stared at Rafael. He casually picked up more nuts. “She’s probably not my type.”
“She’s every breathing man’s type,” Gibbs commented. “But she turned us down flat. That’s one door I won’t be getting through.”
“Shows she has taste,” Rafael said.
The men traded looks. Diaz turned in his seat to face Rafael. A slow smile bloomed on his olive- hued face. He and Rafael had a friendly rivalry where women were concerned. “Then I suppose you could do better?”
Rafael shrugged. It was well known that he could have a date every night if he wanted one. Lately he hadn’t been very interested.
The satisfaction of being with a beautiful woman had lost its thrill. There was no challenge, no surprise. Or perhaps it was simply that with the weddings of his niece and then his two older brothers and the engagement of another, there hadn’t been much time for dating.
“I hate to bet on this, since my mother raised me better, but I’m sure she’ll understand.” Gibbs pulled out his billfold. “Ten dollars says you can’t do any better.”
More money hit the table. “Since Simon’s basketball team needs new equipment, I’ll take those bets,” Rafael said, pulling out his wallet to cover the money on the table.
“You’ll lose,” Gibbs told him. “You can’t do any better than Diaz and I could. Like I said, she hasn’t been out with a man since her husband died three years ago.”
Rafael grinned slow and easy. “Then I say she’s overdue. If she’s not dog ugly.”
Diaz looked over his shoulder. Longing stole over his handsome face. “You can see for yourself.”
Rafael glanced around. Air stalled in his lungs. The woman standing there was stunning, with flawless skin the color of cinnamon.
A white blouse with the collar turned up framed an exquisite face with alluring dark chocolate eyes, high cheekbones, a pert nose, and a pouting lower lip that begged to be kissed. Often. Her slim- fitting black skirt stopped just above her incredible knees. Her legs were shapely and endless.
She stopped at the curved fifty- foot rosewood bar to speak with the bald- headed bartender who had the shoulders of a linebacker.
She laughed softly. Even with the noise of the crowded bar Rafael heard the alluring sound. He decided then and there he’d hear it again . . . while they were in bed.
Leaving the bar, she stopped at the tables and booths in the bar area, greeting customers. Each time she moved away, the wistful gazes of most of the men followed. Finally, she stopped at their table.
“Welcome to Fontaine, gentlemen.” She met the stare of each man with a polite smile. “Is the food and the service to your satisfaction?”
The men chorused their agreement. Clearly, they were smitten.
“I have a problem,” Rafael said, waiting for her to face him. When she did, the impact was lethal. His pulse hammered, but nothing showed on his face. He wasn’t a cop for nothing.
She took two steps to bring her closer. She stopped inches away. Her fragrance, something exotic and sensual, drifted to him, tugged at him. “Yes?”
Standing, Rafael held out his hand. “My name’s Rafael Dunlap.” After only the briefest hesitation, she took his hand. The contact was barely the touch of their palms. Still, Rafael felt his heart rate increase. He studied her incredible face for a reaction, and was disappointed to see none. “Go out with me and we can discuss it.”
Not one luscious black lash moved. Her expression remained polite. Rafael couldn’t recall a woman being totally unresponsive to him. He wasn’t sure he liked it.
“Please excuse me for a moment.” Leaving their table, she went to the hostess station several feet away. Rafael watched her every step. He admired the erect posture, the way the black material hugged her perfectly shaped hips. Without conceit, he told himself that he’d be doing the same before the week was over.
Selecting a menu from the stack at the hostess station, she returned and handed it to him, a smile curving her sensual lips. “As you will see, I’m not on the menu,” she said sweetly. “Gentlemen. Please come again.”
She hadn’t taken two steps away before the men at the table burst out laughing. Gibbs and Diaz, overjoyed that she’d rebuffed Rafael as well, got up from their seats to slap Rafael on the back, joyfully ribbing him about finally striking out and being glad they were there to see it as they raked up the bills on the table. Rafael wasn’t bothered by their teasing or by losing the bet. She might not know it, but she had just issued a challenge he wasn’t about to refuse. Before long, she’d purr his name. Excerpted from If You Were My Man by Francis Ray.
Copyright © 2010 by Francis Ray.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
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