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"Hey, chica. Wanna come over, sit on my lap and see what pops up?"
Dr. Vanessa Rodriquez settled onto the bar stool, tugged down the hem of her flirty red dancing dress so as not to expose too much leg and bit back the scathing retort aching to spark off her tongue after her exceptionally disturbing day. At the same time, her mind was gauging how quickly she could get to the pepper spray clipped to the key chain at the bottom of her purse, in case things turned ugly.
The urge to seek refuge from the chic, white-bread world of Confidential Rejuvenations, the VIP boutique hospital where she worked as a resident in plastic surgery, had driven Vanessa to Emilio's, a neighborhood bar in a mostly Hispanic section of Austin, Texas, on this sultry evening in early August.
Lately, the staff of Confidential Rejuvenations had been left reeling from a series of odd occurrences and circumstances that was chipping away at the hospital's once impeccable reputation as a soothing oasis for the rich and pampered with very private health issues. The stress was starting to take a toll on the employees; Vanessa wasn't immune.
No matter how rough her childhood had been or how far she'd risen from that El Paso barrio, sometimes she simply had to sate her cravings for the culture she'd left behind.
She was feeling fragile, but was determined not to show it. She came to Emilio's whenever she felt out of step with her environment. Seeking to wash away the blues with top-shelf tequila, chicken flautas and mariachi bands. Unfortunately, along with the food, drink and music came masculine attention. She was in no mood to fend off unwanted admirers, innocuous or otherwise.
All she wanted for thenight was a place where she could lower her guard, let down her hair and blow off some steam. A place where, if she so desired, she could let her true personality shine through. If the people she worked with at Confidential Rejuvenations knew the real Vanessa, they'd be thoroughly shocked at the bad-girl essence she struggled so hard to conceal.
At Emilio's she was free to express herself. Maybe even take a wild turn on the apron-sized dance floor if the spirit moved her. Just not with the overweight, middle-aged man sporting a gold wedding band on his left ring finger and a sprinkling of tattoos on his Popeye forearms who was leering at her from the other side of the bar. It had been a long time since she'd had to live by her wits, but she still knew how to deal with the likes of this loser.
Vanessa batted her lashes and retorted, "What, Cabron? And waste all your Viagra on something you'll never have?"
"She nailed you there," his buddy snickered in Spanish and elbowed him in the ribs.
The man scowled darkly.
She ignored the guy, raised two fingers and motioned for Julio, the bartender. "Tequila shot straight up, best you've got, lime and lots of salt," Vanessa ordered from the handsome, muscular man making his way over to her.
The corner of Julio's mouth tilted upward. He had a white bar towel thrown over one shoulder. "Bad day?"
Now that was a serious understatement.
"I've had better," Vanessa said evenly, hoping he wouldn't fall into bartender-as-therapist mode. Julio was a nice guy, but she wasn't interested in talking about her miserable day.
She was here to drink.
And to dance.
Julio, who had the dreamy face of a poet and the solid body of a heavyweight prizefighter, slapped a shot glass down on the scarred mahogany bar, poured in three fingers of Clase Azul Reposado, then put down a saucer of fresh cut lime wedges and a shaker of Marguerita salt in front of her.
He murmured an old Spanish axiom that roughly translated into, "May the burn soon sear away your troubles."
Vanessa dipped two fingers between the cleavage of her bra, extracted a folded twenty-dollar bill, warm from her body heat, and slid it across the bar to him. "Take me as far as this will go."
He nodded. The twenty would just cover two shots of the expensive tequila and his tip.
"And when the band comes back from their break, how about requesting something upbeat and danceworthy?"
"You got it," Julio said, polishing the chrome fixtures with the bar towel until they gleamed. The air smelled of lemon oil, cocktail peanuts and beer.
Vanessa licked the area between her thumb and index finger on the back of her left hand, and then shook a dusting of the Marguerita salt onto her dampened skin. Fully aware that the men across the bar were practically drooling over her, she picked up a lime wedge with the fingers of her salt-crusted hand and raised the shot glass of tequila with the other.
With a flick of her tongue, she licked the salt from her hand, swallowed back the tequila and then bit on the wedge of lime. The tart burst of green citrus rode her throat down after the velvet smooth fire of the high-quality liquor.
Instantly the world brightened and her belly filled with bittersweet, nostalgic warmth. Ah, it had been a very long time since she had done this.
She might have a throbbing headache in the morning, but she didn't care. Tomorrow was her day off and she wasn't on call. She possessed a critical need for mindless distraction, and the tequila was merely a jump start. Reaching up, she massaged her temple with the flat of her thumb.
"You want to talk about it?" Julio asked.
"No." She shook her head.
"Bad day, huh?"
"You're too perceptive."
He shrugged. "I'm a bartender."
"There's only two reasons people come into a barto celebrate or to drown their sorrows. In spite of that killer red dress, you don't look like you're celebrating."
"Have you heard from your cousin in Mexico?" Vanessa asked, changing the subject as she nibbled on the lime wedge. Six months ago, Vanessa had traveled to El Salvador as part of the group Surgeons Without Boundaries. Julio's sixteen-year-old cousin, Pilar, had been one of Vanessa's patients. She'd repaired the girl's cleft-palate malformation.
Julio's caramel-colored face beamed. "I just heard from Tia Giselle that Pilar is doing great. Healing well. She has her first boyfriend and she smiles all the time. Thanks to you."
"That's wonderful news. Thank you for referring her," Vanessa said. "It was my honor to help Pilar."
A chuff of pride filled her chest. Most of the time her work at Confidential Rejuvenations consisted of nipping and tucking wealthy clients as they chased the fountain of youth. Not that she disliked her job at the exclusive hospital, but it didn't give her the same sense of altruism, satisfaction and accomplishment that volunteering for Surgeons Without Boundaries did. The world of the rich and famous was galaxies away from what she'd experienced in the harsh but beautiful El Salvadorian landscape. It was nice having that balance in her life. For a moment, she wished she were there, performing surgery, changing lives.
Hiding out from Carlo Vega?
"You ready for another?" The bartender nodded at her empty shot glass.
"Just let me know when," Julio said, and then turned to a young couple who'd sidled up to the bar, arms around each other, giggling and pecking kisses at each other's necks.
After reaching for another lime wedge, Vanessa brought it to her mouth and spun on the bar stool, enjoying the hazy glow settling over her. At first glance, she realized she didn't know anyone in the bar, but then she hadn't really expected to, since she hadn't been in Emilio's in a long time. Mainly she came here whenever she felt the constraints of her job squeezing in on her. Working for Confidential Rejuvenations meant you had to maintain the utmost sense of decorum and discretion. She'd signed a confidentiality agreement to that effect.
Whispers. Secrets. Mysteries. She was tired of subterfuge.
Suddenly, she felt exceedingly lonely and wished she'd called her best friends Julie Demarco and Elle Kingston to come drinking with her. But Elle had a hot new fiancé in Dr. Dante Nash, and Julie was studying to get board certification as a counselor specializing in sexual dysfunction.
In all honesty she'd needed to be alone. Her friends didn't know about her hostile past and she simply couldn't bring herself to tell them. Vanessa couldn't bear to see the disappointment, disbelief and shock in their eyes if they found out the truth.
No. Getting out of the house all by herself was the only way she could exorcise the demon plaguing her. She refused to stay home and cower under the covers simply because she'd gotten the news she'd spent fourteen years dreading. Come what may, she was going to live her life.
Drink. Dance. Forget.
Determinedly she motioned at her empty glass for another shot of tequila, and Julio returned to give her a refill. She swallowed it back with a tight-lipped grimace, this time forgoing the salt and lime.
What she needed to forget wasn't pretty and her method of forgetting shouldn't be pretty, either. It would take something raw and primal and elemental to blot out the past on a day like today.
But the tequila wasn't working.
In spite of the delicious heat searing straight to her brain, she remembered all too well that ugly night a little over fourteen years ago.
The night she'd witnessed a murder.
Vanessa shuddered and shoved away the memory.
Today had begun like any other weekday morning. Up at 4:00 a.m. to get dressed and head over to Confidential Rejuvenations. Grab a breakfast protein bar to eat in the car on the way. Prepare for her surgeries that usually started at six-thirty. The governor's wife's face-lift had gone splendidly, as had the nose job on an up-and-coming young Austin celebutante. Lunch had been an uneventful Cobb salad with low-fat raspberry vinaigrette, rye crisps, a fruit bowl for dessert and a bottle of Evian in the hospital cafeteria. Her follow-up appointments in the clinic had been run-of-the-mill.
And then her cell phone had rung and she'd heard a voice she hadn't heard in years. A voice she'd prayed never to hear again. A voice that had shaken her to the core.
Even now the memory of the phone call had her hand trembling and her heart racing.
It's not finished, a man had said. You owe me fourteen years of my life.
Drink. Dance. Forget.
The mariachi band trooped past her as they returned to the stage from the side door after their smoke break. They smelled of tobacco and marijuana and alcohol. Grinning knowingly at each other, they picked up their instruments and began to play a familiar dance tune with sexually suggestive lyrics.
It was the perfect song for her mood. Fast and hot. Vanessa smiled and licked her lips. Now all she needed was a dance partner.
She scanned the room for possibilities.
A minute later, she spotted him sitting in a darkened corner nursing a beer. Light skin, blond hair. His Nordic ethnicity stood out starkly in a roomful of Latinos. Not to mention that he was jaw-droppingly handsome.
For a brief, startling moment, his eyes drilled into hers.
Delicious bedroom eyes. Brilliant, blue and yet strangely brooding. Sultry, enigmatic eyes that both roused her curiosity and inspired her lust.
She studied him through the smoky haze. He possessed rugged masculine features that would make other men think twice about crossing him and he looked like a person who planned everything. She imagined he laid out the clothes he would wear in the morning the night before, hooking a wooden coat hanger laden with his pressed chinos and starched chambray shirt on the bedroom doorknob. Crisp new boxer shorts and rolled up socks stuffed inside his shoes.
Vanessa tilted her head. No, she decided. He wore briefs.
He just seemed the tighty-whities type. Straight and narrow. Traditional. A good boy lurking behind that hard-ass mask.
The pulse at the hollow of her throat fluttered, and Vanessa's fingertips itched to trace the lines of his unyielding chin. To run her fingers through that thick shock of blond hair. To test his lips to see if they were as hard as they looked.
The thought sent her imagination soaring. In spite of her miserable day, Vanessa smiled. She hadn't had sex in months, and he was looking more and more like an ideal candidate to help her forget.
He was different from the other men in the bar. He didn't stare at her the way they did, but he was paying attention. It sounded illogical and maybe she was fooling herself, but he looked like a man she could trust.
Stupid, that thought.
But the expression in his eyes wasn't one of lust so much as concern. As if he somehow knew exactly what she needed and was more than willing to provide it. Scary.
Drink. Dance. Forget.
Then he quickly glanced away, dropping her gaze as if it was a hot lava rock. As if he had something to hide and he was afraid that if she looked too long into his eyes, she would figure out what it was.
Odd, this strange, inexplicable tugging that pulled her toward him.
Intrigued, Vanessa decided this was a man she simply had to know better. He looked like her ticket to oblivion.
And she intended to seduce him.
She was definitely the woman he was looking for.
Tanner Doyle didn't even need to consult the photograph he carried in the pocket of his jacket. Her beautiful face wasn't one a man easily forgot. And her slight resemblance to his dead wife made her doubly memorable.
Not to mention that today was the fourth anniversary of Maria's death.
Tanner strummed the pad of his thumb along the back of his bare ring finger. God, how he missed her.
Briefly he closed his eyes, tamped down the grief he couldn't seem to shake. Maria wouldn't want him to grieve this hard, this long. She'd want him to let her go, get on with his life. But that was easier said than done.
He swallowed back the remains of the beer he'd ordered from the cocktail waitress after he'd followed the woman into Emilio's. His drink had gone warm in the meantime and tasted darkly bitter. Tanner didn't even like beer, but Maria had been a Dos Equis fan, which was why he'd ordered it.
Don't think about Maria, do your work.
Even though it entailed shadowing a woman who looked like Maria.
She doesn't look that much like Maria, he argued with himself.
Sure, they were both tanned, black-haired beauties with deep brown eyes and wide, generous mouths, but Maria had been petite, just over five feet. This woman was statuesque. At least five-eleven even without those stilettos. With them, they would probably stand eye to eye.
Maria had possessed a small chin, heart-shaped face and button nose. Vanessa Rodriquez had a strong jaw, oval face and regal nose that lent her a queenly air.
He'd seen the drunk at the bar mouth off to her with some smart-assed sexual comment, and Tanner had also noticed how quickly and effectively she'd shut him down with one stern look and a barb from her sharp tongue.