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By Rosemary Clement-Moore, Shannon Godwin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Rosemary Clement
All rights reserved.
Eight years ago, Alex Drake broke Kiara Fredericks' heart. Now here he was, walking into the Regis Pub like he owned it.
The pub, not her heart.
Though there was that, too. She hadn't realized he still had a lien on even a small bit of cardiac real estate until she saw him across the crowded bar and felt the peculiar, particular pinch and twist under her left collarbone, the specter of young love rattling the chains of her heart.
This was not a promising start to the evening. For a lot of reasons, not least of which was the fact that Kiara was there to meet someone else.
A blind date, but still a date, handpicked for her by the husband and wife tag team of her friends and patrons of the symphony. Her date was a supporter of the local arts, hot shot of the Port Calypso local business community, and his name was ... What the hell was his name?
Elliott. That was it. And if that perhaps conjured images of a nice young man with wire rim glasses and an MBA, then fine. At least it didn't call to mind a guy who'd been doing a keg stand when she first laid eyes on him.
It was kind of embarrassing to think she'd fallen for him in spite of that. But only because when he'd righted himself with a flourish — and not so much as a belch — he'd looked right at her and shot her a devilish grin that said, Go ahead and laugh. I know the mating dance of the twenty-year-old male is ridiculous. But admit you were a little impressed by my handstand, right?
She had been, a little. But she'd been more impressed with his ability to laugh at himself, and a bunch of other things that she'd managed to mostly forget until she saw him standing at the entrance to the busy downstairs bar, where everyone and their uncle was waiting for a table in the busier restaurant upstairs.
Alex Drake. He looked a long way from doing keg stands now. His dark brown hair was shorter than the current fashion, but he'd never followed trends. He wore a tailored dress shirt and trousers, tastefully casual, sleeves rolled up, hands in his pockets. No tie.
No grin, but the devil in him lit his gaze when it found her. She felt it like the liquid rush of an espresso shot. He'd always had a look that could melt a girl like a chocolate bar on a pickup truck dashboard in the middle of July.
She couldn't be sure, but it seemed as if there was an infinitesimal pause while he decided what to do. Then he started toward her.
This was a disaster. She didn't want to see the guy whose very memory was enough to make her skin prickle and her stomach flutter. She was there to meet nice, polite Elliott, whose sure-we-should-listen-to-our- friends-and-meet-somewhere emails were safely charming. Elliott, for whom she'd worn her just-in-case-sparks-fly date-underwear. She should be thinking about him, not about Alex-freaking-Drake who would never, ever be allowed to see her panties again, even if he was the last man on earth.
Except that when she crossed her legs and he followed the movement with that look, she felt it like a hand slipping up her thigh and under her skirt.
No. No. No. She wasn't there for a college reunion and an encore rendition of The Guy My Mother Warned Me About.
But there he was, stopping in front of her barstool, the same devilish glint in his eyes, the same knowing tilt of his head, the same undercurrent of self-aware self-mockery with which he'd once taken that post-keg-stand bow.
"Hey, Kansas," he said, in the same disreputable voice she remembered. "Fancy seeing you here."
She tried to think of something equally banal, something socially appropriate for two acquaintances meeting for the first time in eight years, something that said, "I have long since forgotten that you ripped out my heart and flushed it down the frat house toilet."
But what came out of her mouth was, "I'm meeting someone."
She didn't even manage the cool subtext of "Don't worry, it's not you." Instead there was a cringe-worthy note of "So don't think I'm desperate and lonely or anything."
A slow smile curved his mouth. "I understand that's what people do in bars. Meet up with other people."
Right there. That was the smile that had been her downfall, the smile that hinted at things he knew that the boys in her hometown didn't, and maybe never would. Which maybe said more about Podunk, Kansas, than about Alex Drake. But she'd learned that the smile didn't lie, and she doubted he'd regressed any in eight years.
Geez, Kiara.Stop thinking about that. She did not need to be thinking about that mouth and the places it had gone, where no man had ever gone before. Because the more she thought about it, the more she knew it showed in her face, the more indecent humor showed in his. Which could only mean that he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"I mean," she said, more flustered than frosty, "I have a date."
"Lucky guy," said Alex and, to her horror, sat on the barstool next to hers. "You look amazing. But you always looked great in anything. Or out of it."
"Oh my God." She grappled with the cold-hot-hotter rush of shock, then outrage, then something she refused to name. "What is wrong with you? Who says that kind of thing?"
"Well, I wouldn't say it to just anyone," he said, leaning an elbow on the bar. "We have history."
"Ancient history," she hissed, with a glance to assure herself that it only felt like everyone was staring. No one in the busy bar was actually paying attention.
Alex gave an innocent shrug. "If you're going to sit there all ice maiden, I'm going to remind you that I know you're not."
She blushed even deeper, feeling gauche and young again, feeling — heaven help her — the ghost of arousals past. "By reminding me you're a Neanderthal?"
He laughed. Of course he did. He was Alexander Drake. It was a delighted laugh, not cruel, but charmed and surprised, the way he'd laughed the night they'd met. "That's the girl I remember."
"Which one?" she asked, grabbing onto a shred of dignity. "The one that's pissed or the one that's appalled?"
"The one that's so cute when she's angry."
"Cute when I'm angry?" she echoed, incredulous, before she caught the teasing glint in his eye. She narrowed hers, then made an exaggerated search of the bar for hidden cameras. "What, are you competing for most condescending chauvinist on a reality show?"
The glint became a grin. "Nah. All this charm is just for you." He signaled the bartender. "Besides, you're not really mad."
Kiara realized that she wasn't. At least, not about his outrageous teasing. She was a little annoyed at herself for being so affected by him and a lot confused that he was there, flirting with her, like she'd wandered into some sort of time slip where the past and present existed at once.
"But if I'm not angry, does that mean I'm not cute?" she asked, before she remembered that she was a twenty-six-year- old professional woman. She shouldn't want to be cute.
Alex Drake read her chagrin and pounced on it like a cat on a mouse. "I wouldn't call anyone wearing those do-me heels 'cute.'" He leaned in close to study her face. "You still have freckles, though. You'll have to resign yourself that those will always be adorable."
She leaned back, but not before getting an intoxicating whiff of laundry starch, herbal soap and ... spearmint? His look said "after work," but he'd freshened up recently for somebody. Some woman.
"Do you still drink White Russians?" Alex asked, turning to the bartender.
"What?" she asked, because she'd been distracted wondering who she was, the woman who'd rated his very successful efforts at being effortlessly sexy.
"White Russians," he repeated. "If I'd just met you, I'd say you were a bourbon sort of woman, but maybe you want one for old time's sake?"
"Yes ... no ..." She shook her head, trying to shake her senses into order. "How do you know I drink bourbon?" And why would he remember her favorite drink from back then? And why did he think he had the right to be charming when he'd been such an ass in college? Well, charming, then an ass, then charming to everyone but her. Would the real Alex Drake please stand up.
"It's a gift," he said, answering the question she'd actually voiced and maybe all the others, too. Then he turned again to the bartender and ordered a White Russian for her and an Old Fashioned for himself, like he was Don freaking Draper.
"Why are you buying me a drink when I'm on a date with someone else?" she asked, like this was the most important question of the moment and not, What would she do when Elliott showed up? Or, What would her date do if he arrived and found her talking to another man? Or What would she want him to do?
"Technically," said Alex, swiveling back to face her, "it's on the house. Though I guess I'm paying for it in the long run, since I own the bar."
Somehow this surprised her. "You own this place?" she echoed, gesturing around them at the urban pub décor — exposed beams and distressed brick and polished copper. It was part of the revitalized Waterfront District that had become the new trendy place for shopping and eating. The pub was packed, and she knew the restaurant upstairs was, too.
She did the math, accounted for his birthday, and realized it was a good business for someone not quite thirty. "I guess those keg parties paid off."
He laughed. "Good to know my college education wasn't wasted." The bartender put two drinks in front of him, and Alex handed one to her. She took it automatically. "So what have you been doing for the last eight years?"
"Oh, you know," she said, stirring her drink. "Studying. Working. Dating. Which I mention because I'm meeting mine here."
"Yeah, you said that." He stirred his drink, mirroring her movement. "Blind date, right?"
Kiara arched a questioning brow. "Is that another bar owner's mindreading trick?"
"Kind of. You were looking at your phone to double check the details, watching the people coming in to see if anyone was searching for you."
She realized with a guilty start that she hadn't checked the time, her messages, or the door in ages. Well, minutes, really, but time was malleable with Alex around. It always had been. A kiss could last a blissful eon. Hours in the back seat of his Mazda felt like minutes.
"When he gets here," she said, not sure why she said it, not sure what else he would do, "you have to clear out."
Alex cleared his throat. "Yeah, that's going to be difficult."
"Because I'm your date."
"I'm not joking."
Once she stopped rolling her eyes she noticed that he was not, in fact, joking. Either that or he was a damned good poker player. She leaned in close, narrow-eyed, like he'd done to look at her nearly-invisible freckles, but Alex didn't crack.
Which was not to say he didn't react. His gaze dropped, just for a second, to her mouth, maybe lower, before he jerked his eyes back up to hers like he was snatching his hand away from a temptation he'd been trying to avoid. Only then did he look ... abashed? Was that a word she'd ever have used for him at twenty-one?
Whoa. Kiara sat back, a hot, stinging flush spreading up from her chest to her neck to her cheeks and ears. What the hell is going on here?
Alex didn't say anything smarmy, or remark that she was cute when she blushed, or anything else. He just sat there waiting for her next move — which was to grab her drink and down a big gulp.
"You can't be my date," she said, when the burn of vodka had abated. "My date is a very nice guy named Elliott. Local business owner. Patron of the arts."
"I am a local business owner." He took a sip of his own drink, maybe not as calm as he looked. Kiara bet he was a damn good poker player. "Though 'patron' is maybe an exaggeration. I donate money to the symphony's music in the schools program. That's how I know Mr. Benwick, who is married to your friend Mrs. Benwick ... "
He made an "and so on" gesture, which explained some things but not all. Like ...
"Elliott?" she demanded.
"My middle name. I use it when I do things I don't want associated with the bar. Like donate to elementary education programs." He held up a hand as if swearing his innocence. "The Benwicks know my real name. I'm not sure why Mrs. Benwick can't remember it, but it's easier not to contradict her."
Lydia Benwick was an amiable seventy-year-old gin-soaked millionaire's wife who thought she was a society matron of 1950's Manhattan. She'd called Kiara nothing but "Katya, darling" since they'd met, and she fancied herself a great matchmaker — but she was obviously as good at that as she was remembering people's names.
"Good lord," Kiara said, lapsing into the Midwestern drawl she'd brought with her from the farm and kept for mind-blowingly awkward occasions like this one. "What a farce."
She reached for her phone to check the few emails they'd exchanged. How had she missed his name in his email address? Had he signed his proper name? If she'd addressed him as "Elliott" she would have remembered him correcting her. Something wasn't quite adding up here, but before she could investigate, Alex covered her hand with his.
"Don't go." He held Kiara's gaze and she tried to keep still, despite the electric thrill racing up her arm to the ticklish spot below her ear. When had he angled himself on the barstool so that his knees brushed the outside of hers? Or had she done that?
He looked everything and nothing like the young man who'd stolen her naïve farm girl heart. There was a leaner maturity to his face, crinkles beside his eyes — evidence of his love of the lake and a face that smiled more than it frowned. But his eyes performed some sort of time and space magic so they were two adults sitting in that crowded, festive bar and at the same time they were two kids tangled up in the back seat of a car parked behind one of the waterfront bars, before it was renovated, before it had become chic, before she'd known what hit her.
"Don't go," he repeated, letting go of her hand, as if worried she'd think he was manhandling her — or just maybe dizzied by the same memories. "How do you like being back in Port Calypso after seeing the world?"
Kiara moved her hand from her phone to her drink, proud that it didn't tremble. "I think it's funny that I thought this was a freaking metropolis when I first came here for college."
He raised a brow, kind of cute when he got defensive about his town. "It's not exactly the back of beyond. It's got a lake, and public transport, good schools, low crime rate ... "
She raised a matching brow. "I know. The symphony board gave me the Chamber of Commerce literature along with their contract offer. I understand they're even putting in Mr. Edison's electric lights downtown."
That made him laugh, more than her feeble joke deserved. At her inquiring look, he explained. "Sorry. Irony. You would not believe the city council fight over putting those fake gaslight streetlamps in the Waterfront District ..."
Ho-lee-crap. Somehow Kiara managed not to say it out loud. "Alexander Drake," she said, when the look on her face made him trail off. "On the city council."
He choked on his drink. "Good lord. I'm not on it."
"But you must have gone to the meeting."
He looked as embarrassed as if she'd accused him of going to a strip club. Only the Alex she'd known in college wouldn't have been embarrassed about going to a strip club. "The pub is in the Waterfront District. I have a stake in the renovations here."
"So it's just self-interest," Kiara said, "not good citizenship."
She hadn't meant to banter with him, hadn't meant to spark that devilish light in his eyes. But it was there all the same. "You seem to have forgotten that I was on the executive board of my fraternity."
Kiara gave an unladylike snort. She hadn't snorted in a long time. "You were the Chairman of the Booze."
He drew himself up with all the hauteur of an offended society matron. "I was Vice President of Social Events." Then the glint in his eyes betrayed him. "Keg procurement was merely part of my duties."
"I guess the recruitment spiel is right," she said. "Greek life does prepare you for career success."
"Is that what they tell you in sorority rush?" Alex asked. "They just told us it was a great way to meet chicks."
Excerpted from Passionate Persuasion by Rosemary Clement-Moore, Shannon Godwin. Copyright © 2013 Rosemary Clement. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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