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Claire Daniels glanced around Decadent's crowded dance floor, with its pulsating colored lights and equally pulsating bass beat, and wondered what the devil she was doing there.
Okay, so she didn't actually wonder. Instead, she blamed her best friend, Alyssa, for dragging her there, dateless, on New Year's Eve.
"Blow toy?" An Adonis of a guy in a tight black T-shirt with Decadent stamped across it in cracked, white ghetto-style letters held something out to her, a suggestive smile on his mouth.
"Excuse me?" Claire lifted a single eyebrow in the haughty gesture that she'd perfected at the age of eight, after spending too much time watching Star Trek reruns, and then camping out in her bathroom until she'd been able to convince her facial muscles to move in such a way.
"For midnight," the guy said, his half-smile suggesting that he knew exactly how far into the gutter her thoughts had been. "A noisemaker."
"Oh. Right. Sure. Thanks." She snatched the gizmo, gave it an experimental toot and then smiled up at the Adonis. "Great. Thanks. This'll be fun." Her words were clipped and rushed, designed to get him to go away so that she could get back to her originally scheduled misery at being alone, in a bar, on New Year's Eve. The date night to rival all date nights.
Honestly, she shouldn't have come.
Adonis-boy melted into the crowd, and Claire scanned the room, looking for Alyssa so that she could tell her friend she'd had enough and she was going to go home. At least at home she could cuddle under a blanket and get all comfy in sweatpants. At least at home, she wouldn't feel like an idiot come midnight when everyone else was locked in a passionate kiss, and she was standing around twiddling her thumbs.
Alyssa, however, was nowhere to be found. But, frankly, that wasn't terribly troubling. Because what Claire's gaze lighted upon could only be described as eye candy of the most decadent sort. Tall and lean, and decked out in Texas formal, his jeans just tight enough to give a woman a serious appreciation for the man underneath, and his starched white button-down still perfectly crisp despite the heat generated by the crush of bodies in the room.
Even from where she stood, she could tell that his eyes were blue, and at the moment, they were scoping out the club, as if he was a monarch surveying his kingdom. And, oh, yeah, he looked like royalty. From the way he held himself, to the rogue-ish, I'm-the-dude-in-charge stubble that graced his strong jawline, he was so perfect that if he were a picture Claire would swear that he'd been digitally enhanced. The man was the visual equivalent of a Ben & Jerry's overdose, rich and wonderful and utterly bad for you.
Then again, why?
The guy was hot. He was looking her way. And she was single and, at the moment, very, very available.
She took a step in his direction only to be stymied in her quest to go after what she wanted with gusto when a burly guy in a Decadent T-shirt approached Mr. Texas Royalty. They spoke for a few minutes, and then her gorgeous fantasy of a man followed the burly guy in the opposite direction, his expression stern.
Security, she assumed. Which meant that Texas Royalty was either working security, too, or he'd just been kicked out of the club.
Either way, it did her no good. If he was security, he was working. And if he was kicked out… Well, she was primed for a wild night with a hot man, but she was hoping to keep her crazy fling on the semi-responsible side. Hooking up with guys who got kicked out of dance clubs was not on her list of top ten smart things to do.
Too bad. Mr. Texas Royalty was seriously easy on the eyes. And right then, dammit, yes, she wanted a man. Wanted to get up close and personal. Wanted to work off some of the sexual frustration that had been building and building since she'd broken up with Joe. It had been months and months since she'd gotten naked with anyone other than her handheld shower-head, and she was really craving a man's touch right now.
You could have had one, Claire.
She grabbed a Jell-O shot from a passing waitress, then snarfed it back, snorting. Oh, yeah. She could have had a man, all right. Joe. Her ex. The man who'd dumped her after almost a year of dating, and then—when she'd foolishly called and suggested they have a drink, just to see if there was any way back for the two of them—he'd suddenly decided that sex was a great little reconciliation tool.
And stupid her, she'd almost—almost—fallen into bed with him. Then her self-respect had kicked in, and she'd marched out, not even bothering to slam the door behind her, leaving Joe looking baffled, his pants down around his ankles.
Yeah, well, buddy. Next time think about that before you dump me.
On the morally superior side of the equation, she was feeling pretty good about herself. On the sexually primed and then denied side of the equation, she been as taut as a wire ever since and wondering if maybe she hadn't punished herself as much as she'd punished him.
"You did the right thing." That from Alyssa, materializing beside her holding a flute of champagne, which she passed to Claire, who took it gratefully, despite being able to still taste the Jell-O from the shot she'd just downed.
"Is it that obvious what I'm thinking?"
Her friend smiled. "Only because I know you so well."
Claire sighed, then took a sip of her champagne. "It's not fair, you know. We make a Christmas pact to go after what we want—" She lifted the flute, sloshing a little as she pointed to Alyssa. "And we both know that what we wanted was men. And you end up with the man of your dreams, and I ended up with Joe, his pants around his ankles and me rushing out the door."
"Who says it had to be a Christmas pact? This is still the holiday season, right? You've still got time." Her grin was pure mischief.
"Easy for you to say. You're now firmly entrenched in coupledom."
"Is that what you want?"
Claire shrugged. Wasn't that the question of the hour? "Maybe not tonight," she admitted. "Tonight, I'd be happy for third base in the backseat of a car."
Alyssa laughed. "Been a while?"
"It's my own fault. I didn't have to walk out on Joe."
"Yeah," Alyssa said. "You did."
"You're right." The truth was, Claire never should have called Joe in the first place. Yes, she'd told everyone she'd been devastated by the breakup, but she'd been more devastated by the fact that her plans for a family and a future had been so rudely shattered than by the departure of that particular man. Because it was the family—the roots— that she wanted. She'd bought a house. She chaired two Dallas charity organizations. And her career was solidly on track.
She'd spent the past two years working for Judge Doris Monroe of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and she'd recently accepted a position in the prestigious appellate law section of Thatcher and Dain. The job was bittersweet, actually, because she couldn't imagine a better boss than Judge Monroe. The woman was not only a brilliant lawyer, she was a savvy woman, and Claire respected the hell out of her. Hard to believe that in July, she'd be leaving the judge and entering the private sector.
Her father, a Texas state senator, had wanted her to join the firm that he'd helped found before he'd entered politics back when she was a little girl, but Claire was determined to make her mark on her own. If she joined a firm where her name was already on the door, it would be after she'd argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, been profiled in the American Bar Journal and the Dallas Morning News, and could walk through the front door knowing that she deserved to be there for what she'd accomplished, not because of who her dad was.
All in all, Claire was settled in her world. She just wanted someone to share it with. Joe, however, wasn't that guy, no matter how much she'd tried to pretend otherwise.
Still, hearth and home was nice, but right then—on New Year's Eve—she'd be happy with a slow dance and a hot kiss. And she'd be even happier with more.
She sighed and swallowed the rest of the champagne in her flute. "Where's Chris?" she asked Alyssa, referring to Alyssa's best-friend-turned-boyfriend-turned-man-of-her-dreams.
"He bumped into a friend. I should probably go find him, though. Only fifteen minutes to midnight."
Claire frowned. "I think I'll just go."
"Don't you dare. Just have fun. Kiss the bartender. Dance. Drink champagne."
"Oh, believe me," Claire said. "I'm all over that champagne plan." She didn't usually drink much, but between boredom and nerves, she'd drunk at least three glasses—not counting the tasty Jell-O shots—and she was feeling it, too.
"I shouldn't even be here," Claire continued. "My mother begged me to drive down to Austin and go to the celebration at the Governor's Mansion. I could be mingling with judges. Making contacts. Networking." She sighed. "Seriously. I should just go home."
"What about our pact? You need to step to it, girl. Go after what you want."
"Maybe what I want is to get in bed with a glass of wine and watch When Harry Met Sally."
Alyssa's expression turned stern. "For one thing," she said, with a nod to the champagne flute, "you do not need to be driving right now. For another, it's New Year's Eve!"
"Hello? Midnight on New Year's without a date is no fun. Neither was Christmas," she added, though she wasn't bitter. Really she wasn't. She was thrilled Alyssa and Chris had finally gotten together. Claire just wished their pre-Christmas take-control-of-your-love-life holiday pact had worked out as well for herself.
"I'd let you kiss Chris, but I'd just end up being jealous," Alyssa said with a wink. "Can't have that."
Claire gave her friend a small shove in the direction of the bar. "Go. Find him. I'll be fine. Maybe I'll accost some poor, helpless man and make him be my sex slave for the evening," she added, thinking of Mr. Texas Royalty, aka The One That Got Away.
"There you go. That's the spirit." She gave Claire a quick hug, then disappeared into the throng, leaving Claire feeling like a bit of an idiot standing there all alone with the clock about ready to start counting down.
"Damn," Claire said, wondering if Alyssa would notice if she went out and sat in her car. She could pretend like she needed something, wait in the car while the clock tolled midnight, then come back in after the kissing was over. That, at least, would save her from the intense depression associated with chronic datelessness.
Armed with a plan, she stepped out of a nearby door and found herself not in front of the club but on a flagstone back patio. Moreover, the inside music was not pumped outside. Instead, there was a nice classical thing going on that gave the little oasis a "kick back and regroup" kind of feel that Claire appreciated.
As far as she could tell, though, there was no way to move from the patio to the parking lot, and she was about to turn and go back inside when she caught another glimpse of Mr. Sin-and-Sex. This time, though, he was chatting with a cluster of gorgeous women. Figures. She sighed, and was debating whether she should go over and count herself among the groupies, when the cluster of women broke apart and started moving off in various directions, their parting creating a straight line of sight between her and Texas—and he was staring right at her, the heat in his eyes positively unmistakeable.