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"I really need to get laid," Hayden Houston said with a sigh. She reached for the glass on the smooth mahogany tabletop and took a sip of red wine. The slightly bitter liquid eased her thirst but did nothing to soothe her frustration.
The pictures staring at her from the walls of the Ice House Bar didn't help, either. Action shots of hockey players mid slap shot, framed rookie cards, team photos of the Chicago Warriorsit seemed as if the sport haunted her everywhere she went. Sure, she was a team owner's daughter, but occasionally it would be nice to focus on something other than hockey. Like sex, perhaps.
Across from her, Darcy White grinned. "We haven't seen each other in two years and that's all you've got to say? Come on, Professor, no anecdotes about life in Berkeley? No insightful lectures about Impressionist art?"
"I save the insightful lectures for my students. And as for anecdotes, none of them involve sex so let's not waste time with those."
She ran her hand through her hair and discovered that all the bounce she'd tried to inject into it before heading to the Ice House Bar had deflated. Volume-enhancing mousse? Yeah, right. Apparently nothing could make her stick-straight brown hair look anything other than stick-straight.
"Okay, I'll bite," Darcy said. "Why do you have sex on the brain?"
"Because I'm not getting any."
Darcy sipped her strawberry daiquiri, a drink she'd confessed she hated but drank anyway, claiming men found it sexy. "Aren't you seeing someone back in California? Dan? Drake?"
"Doug," Hayden corrected.
"How long have you been together?"
"And you still haven't done the mattress mambo?"
"You're kidding, right? He's not down with getting it on?" Darcy paused, looking thoughtful. "Or should I say, he's not up with it?"
"Oh, he's up. He just wants, and I quote, 'to get to know each other fully before we cross the intimacy bridge.'"
Her friend hooted. "The intimacy bridge? Girl, he sounds like a total loser. Dump him. Now. Before he brings up the intimacy bridge again."
"We're actually on a break right now," Hayden admitted. "Before I left I told him I needed some space."
"Space? Uh-uh. I think what you need is a new boyfriend."
God, that was the last thing she wanted. Toss her line in the dating pool and start fishing again? No, thank you. After three failed relationships in five years, Hayden had decided to quit falling for bad boys and focus on the good ones. And Doug Lloyd was definitely a good one. He taught a Renaissance course at Berkeley, he was intelligent and witty, and he valued love and commitment as much as she did. Having grown up with a single father, Hayden longed for a partner she could build a home and grow old with.
Her mom had died in a car accident when Hayden was a baby, and her dad had given up on finding love again, opting instead to spend more than twenty years focusing on his hockey-coaching career. He'd finally remarried three years ago, but she suspected loneliness, rather than love, had driven him to do so. Why else would he have proposed to a woman after four months of dating? A woman who was twenty-nine years his junior. A woman he was in the process of divorcing, no less.
Well, she had no intention of following her dad's example. She wasn't going to spend decades alone and then jump into marriage with someone totally unsuitable.
Doug held the same mind-set. He was a traditionalist through and through, a believer that marriage should be valued and not rushed into. Besides, he had a rock-hard body that made her mouth water. He'd even let her touch it once. They'd been kissing on the couch in the living room of her San Francisco town house and she'd slid her hands underneath his button-down shirt. Running her fingers over his rippled chest, she'd murmured, "Let's move this into the bedroom."
That's when he'd dropped the no-intimacy bomb on her. He'd assured her he was unbelievably attracted to her, but that, like marriage, he didn't believe sex should be rushed. He wanted the first time to be special.
And no amount of chest rubbing could persuade him to let go of his chivalrous intentions.
And therein lay the problem. Doug was simply too nice. At first she'd thought his views on making love were really very sweet. But two months, coupled with eight months of celibacy prior to meeting Doug, added up to extreme sexual frustration on her part.
She loved that Doug was a gentleman but, darn it, sometimes a girl just needed a man.
"Seriously, this Damian guy seems like a wimp," Darcy said, jerking her from her thoughts.
"Whatever." Darcy waved a dismissive hand and tossed her long red hair over her shoulder. "Screw intimacy. If Dustin won't have sex with you, find someone who will."
"Believe me, I'm tempted."
More than tempted, actually. The next couple months were bound to be pure hell. She'd come home after final exams to support her father through his messy divorce, to be the good daughter, but that didn't mean she had to like the situation.
Her stepmother was determined to squeeze Hayden's dad for every dime he had. And, boy, did he have a lot of dimes. Though he'd spent most of his life coaching, Presley had always dreamed of owning a team, a goal he'd finally reached seven years ago. Thanks to the substantial insurance settlement he'd received after her mom's accident, and his wise investment in a pharmaceutical company that had made him millions, he'd been able to purchase the Chicago Warriors franchise. Over the years he'd continued investing and building his fortune, but his main priority was the team. It was all he ever thought about, and that's what made coming home so difficult.
Her childhood had been chaotic, to say the least. Traveling with her dad across the country for away games, living in Florida for two years when he'd coached the Aces to a championship victory, five years in Texas, three in Oregon. It had been tough, but Hayden's close relationship with her dad had made the constant upheaval bearable. Her father had always shown an interest in her life. He'd listened while she babbled about her favorite artists, and taken her to countless museums over the years.
Now that she was an adult and he was busy with the team, he no longer seemed to care about making time to connect with her outside of the hockey arena. She knew other team owners didn't get as involved as her father did, but his background as a coach seemed to influence his new position; he had his hand in every aspect of the Warriors, from drafting players to marketing, and he thrived on it, no matter how time-consuming the work was.
That's why three years ago she'd decided to accept the full-time position Berkeley had offered her, even though it meant relocating to the West Coast. She'd figured the old absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder cliché might kick in and make her father realize there was more to life than hockey. It hadn't.
So she'd come back to see him through the divorce in hopes that they could reconnect.
"Have you become a nymphomaniac since you left town?" Darcy was asking. "You never mentioned it in your e-mails."
Hayden forced herself to focus on her best friend and not dwell on her issues with her dad. "I haven't become a nymphomaniac. I'm just stressed-out and I need to unwind. Do you blame me?"
"Not really. The evil stepmother is throwing poison apples all over the place, huh?"
"You saw the morning paper, too?"
"Oh, yeah. Pretty crappy."
Hayden raked her fingers through her hair. "Crappy? It's a disaster."
"Any truth to it?" Darcy asked carefully.
"Of course not! Dad would never do the things she's accusing him of." She tried to control the frustration in her tone. "Let's not talk about this. Tonight I just want to forget about my dad and Sheila and the whole messy business."
"All right. Wanna talk about sex again?"
Hayden grinned. "No. I'd rather have sex instead."
"Then do it. There are tons of men in this place. Pick one and go home with him."
"You mean a one-night stand?" she asked warily.
"I don't know. It seems kind of sleazy, hopping into bed with someone and never seeing them again."
"How is that sleazy? I do it all the time."
Hayden burst out laughing. "Of course you do. You're commitment-phobic."
Darcy went through men like socks, and some of the details she shared in her e-mails made Hayden gape. She certainly couldn't remember ever experiencing seven orgasms in one night, or indulging in a ménage à trois with two firefighters she'd metfigure this one outat an illegal bonfire in Chicago's Lincoln Park.
Darcy raised her eyebrows, blue eyes flashing with challenge. "Well, let me ask you thiswhat sounds more fun, having a few screaming orgasms with a man you may or may not see again, or hiking across the intimacy bridge with Don?"
Darcy shrugged. "I think we both know my way is better than the highway. Or should I say the bridge?" She fluttered her hand as if waving a white flag. "Sorry, I promise to refrain from any further bridge comments for the rest of the evening."
Hayden didn't answer. Instead, she mulled over Darcy's suggestion. She'd never had a one-night stand in her life. For her, sex came with other things, relationship things, like going to dinner, spending a cozy night in, saying I love you for the first time.
But why did sex always have to be about love? Couldn't it just be purely for pleasure? No dinner, no I-love-you's, no expectations?
"I don't know," she said slowly. "Falling into bed with a man when last week I was still with Doug?"
"You asked for space for a reason," Darcy said. "Might as well take advantage of it."
"By going to bed with someone else." She sipped her wine, thoughtful and hesitant at the same time.
"Why not?" Darcy said. "Look, you've spent years searching for a guy to build a life withmaybe you should try looking for one who jump-starts your libido instead. The way I see it, it's time for you to have some fun, Hayden. I think you need fun."
She sighed. "I think so, too."
Darcy's grin widened. "You're seriously considering it, aren't you?"
"If I see a guy I like, I just might."
Her own words surprised her, but they made sense. What was so wrong with hooking up with a stranger in a bar? People did wild things like that all the time, and maybe right now she needed to be a little wild.
Darcy twirled the straw around in her daiquiri glass, looking pensive. "What's your pseudonym going to be?"
"My pseudonym?" she echoed.
"Yeah. If you're going to do this right, you need total anonymity. Be someone else for the night. Like Yolanda."
"No way," she objected with a laugh. "I'd rather just be myself."
"Fine." Darcy's shoulders drooped.
"We're getting ahead of ourselves, Darce. Shouldn't I pick the guy first?"
Darcy's enthusiasm returned. "Good point. Let's spin the man wheel and see who it lands on."
Stifling a laugh, Hayden followed her friend's lead and swept her eyes around the crowded bar. Everywhere she looked, she saw men. Tall ones, short ones, cute ones, bald ones. None of them sparked her interest.
And then she saw him.
Standing at the counter with his back turned to them was the lucky winner of the man wheel. All she could see was a head of dark brown hair, a broad back clad in a navy-blue sweater and long legs encased in denim. Oh, and the butt. Hard not to notice that tight little butt.
"Excellent selection," Darcy teased, following her gaze.
"I can't see his face," she complained, trying not to crane her neck.
Holding her breath, Hayden watched the man drop a few bills on the sleek mahogany counter and accept a tall glass of beer from the bartender. When he turned around, she sucked in an impressed gasp. The guy had the face of a Greek god, chiseled, rugged, with intense blue eyes that caused her heart to pound and sensual lips that made her mouth tingle. And he was huge. With his back turned he hadn't seemed this big, but now, face-to-face, she realized he stood well over six feet and had the kind of chest a woman wanted to rest her head on. She could see the muscular planes of his chest even through his sweater.
"Wow," she muttered, more to herself than Darcy.
A shiver of anticipation danced through her as she imagined spending the night with him.
Beer in hand, the man strode toward one of the pool tables at the far end of the bar, and headed for the cue rack. Setting his glass on the small ledge along the wall, he grabbed a cue and proceeded to rack the balls on the green felt table. A second later, a tall, lanky college-age kid approached and they exchanged a few words. The kid snatched up a cue and joined Mr. Delicious at the table.
Hayden turned back to Darcy and saw her friend rolling her eyes. "What?" she said, feeling a bit defensive.
"What are you waiting for?" Darcy prompted.
She glanced at the dark-haired sex god again. "I should go over there?"
"If you're serious about doing the nasty tonight, then, yeah, go over there."
"And do what?"
"Shoot some pool. Talk. Flirt. You know, look under the hood before you commit to buying the car."
"He's not a car, Darce."
"Yeah, but if he was, he'd be something dangerously hot, like a Hummer."
Hayden burst out laughing. If there was one thing to be said about Darcy, it was that she truly was one of a kind.
"Come on, go over there," Darcy repeated.
She swallowed. "Now?"
"No, next week."
Her mouth grew even drier, prompting her to down the rest of her wine.
"You're seriously nervous about this, aren't you?" Darcy said, blue eyes widening in wonder. "When did you become so shy? You give lectures to classes of hundreds. He's just one man, Hayden."
Her eyes drifted back in the guy's direction. She noticed how his back muscles bunched together as he rested his elbows on the pool table, how his taut backside looked practically edible in those faded jeans.
He'sjust one man, she said to herself, shaking off her nerves. Right. Just one tall, sexy, oozing-with-raw-masculinity man.
This would be a piece of cake.
Brody Croft circled the pool table, his eyes sharp as a hawk's as he examined his options. With a quick nod, he pointed and said, "Thirteen, side pocket."
His young companion, wearing a bright red Hawaiian T-shirt that made Brody's eyes hurt, raised his eyebrows. "Really? Tough shot, man."
"I can handle it."
And handle it he did. The ball slid cleanly into the pocket, making the kid beside him groan.
"Nice, man. Nice."
"Thanks." He moved to line up his next shot when he noticed his opponent staring at him. "Something wrong?"