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     “Excuse me, sir. I’m going to need you to remove your hands from the lady.”
     The voice was deep, very nearly right in my ear, and loud enough that I could hear it over the music, so I knew that the guy who’d just firmly planted his hands on my ass could hear it too. He’d been tailing me for the last half hour, trying to buy me a drink, following me to the ladies’ room, rejecting my fairly polite rebuffs, and now he was trying to grind up on me and cop a feel on the dance floor.
     The man standing in front of me, speaking in a very authoritative tone of voice despite the thumping music, was wet-your-pants hot. I mean, five-alarm fire all the way: a fitted henley that was molded to every inch of perfection, jeans that showed off strong thighs on some long legs, arms folded over his chest in a stance that told me he was a committed cop even when he was off-duty.
     Yummy, I was up for a little police brutality from this one.
     Dipshit behind me didn’t seem to be getting the memo and I could hear the smirk over my shoulder as he eyed up his confronter with what was sure to be a leer similar to the one he’d been giving me all night. I was pretty sure he didn’t have any other expressions in his muscle memory repertoire.
     “If you can’t understand,” the cop continued, his face stony, “I can use smaller words. Hands…off.”
     “Whatever,” the jerk smirked over my shoulder and as much as I wanted to watch the cop take the guy apart, I was suddenly far more interested in seeing whether he would play my game.
     “Baby!” I threw my arms around his neck and his whole body tensed in surprise when the front of my body pressed into the front of his. The forward momentum was enough that it put the necessary inches between me and my stalker, and the man’s arms went up around me immediately, reflexively. I was surrounded by muscle and heat and glowering protection. 
     “I’ve been waiting for you,” I purred into his ear, which wasn’t untrue. I’d been waiting for a man like him for the better part of a decade, and the fact he was someone I could very much envision with his hands on my ass made me want to see what it would take to get them there.
     For a second–a second–I felt the big man melt into me. His arms squeezed me tighter and he pressed me to his chest like I was someone precious to him. I could feel it. I could feel what a woman could mean to this man and in that split-second insight, I saw my future and my children with the dark-haired man with the crystal-blue eyes that saw right through me.
     That made a cold shock of adrenaline run through my body.
     To be fair, I don’t think he had the same flash of vision or inspiration–or maybe hallucination–I had. Then again, I was four drinks deep and I’d always been a lightweight–fortunate for Mr. Grabby, who seemed to have disappeared, because when I was sober I was feisty, according to some. 
     My best friend Eve always joked, “Your Palestinian is showing,” and I’d just give her the finger, even though it was true. I was easy to rile and thanks to growing up with six siblings, I was also quick to violence. (Especially effective, I’ll have you know, if you have a good ground game.)
     I must have blacked out on my feet, because I don’t know how long I stared up into the man’s eyes before he shook himself quickly and asked, “You ok? I can put you in a cab.”
     Pfft, no way in hell I was getting in a cab this early at night, especially without Mr. Officer’s phone number, thank you. Not when I could ride him instead.
     “Think I need another drink,” I announced, and one of his sharp eyebrows hitched up on his forehead.
     “Think the last thing you need is another drink, gorgeous.”
     I preened a little at that because I knew it, but I liked to hear it. 
     “You’re not so bad yourself.” I leaned up so I could deliver the words directly into his ear, and I’d have had my hands all over his chest in a hot second if he hadn’t suddenly stepped back and the look on his face changed entirely.
     Holding up my hands in mock surrender, I waited until he turned to walk away and I followed, hot on his tail. 
     His very fine tail, thank the gods. Those jeans were doing him heart-stopping justice in the front, so you can imagine what they were doing for the back and I bounced along behind him like a giddy little school girl. 
     Please take me to the precinct; I can be a very, very bad girl.
     The crowd parted as the man moved through the crush of bodies and I hurried along in his wake so as not to lose him. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be following him, or whether he knew I was, but I was not ready to conclude our interaction.
     Stopping outside a door only slightly recessed into and painted the same dark color as the wall, he punched a series of numbers into a keypad and there were several clicks before he swung it open. I slipped in right behind him, the door heavily weighted and sealing with a loud thunk.
     Four other pairs of eyes raised to look past him and I held up one hand nervously, because clearly I hadn’t thought this through. Most of the men in the room looked like they could snap me with a sneeze and when he realized no one was looking at him, the man spun to find me only inches from being fused to his delightful backside. 
     That was when one of the giant men sitting behind the counter grinned at me, because he’d caught me staring at the man’s ass like I wanted to take a bite–and I did. 
     “Can I help you, principessa?”
     Oh, this was a different man than the one who’d saved me from a mauling on the dancefloor. This one didn’t seem particularly pleased that I’d followed him into what was probably the inner sanctum.
     Words never failed me, but they were failing me right now as those beautiful blue eyes stared through me. So I did what any rational woman would do: I used the element of surprise to my advantage. I pushed up even higher on my high heels, grabbed his face with both hands and kissed those incredible lips. Hard. They were even softer than they looked, but his whole body went rigid when I did it, which was obviously not the response I’d been hoping to get.
     There were whoops and laughter and applause by the time I dropped back down, and he stood there with his mouth slightly open, staring at me like I’d just told him I would have his love child. I was saving that doozy for later, because you’d better believe the thought had already run through my fevered little brain.
     “I wanted to thank you, Officer…” I cast a look at the man sitting nearest, who quickly offered, “Antolini.”
     “Officer Antolini.” My mouth watered as I said it, because I’d always had a thing for Italian men. Hot-blooded, argumentative, passionate…really damn good hair.
     “Alex,” the big guy behind him offered, and I shot him a grateful smile.
     “How’d you know I was a cop?” His eyes had already narrowed suspiciously.
     How would I not have known he was a cop? The guy had confidence and swagger–something I’d have called “Big Dick Syndrome” if Eve had been there, because it was easy to make my best friend blush almost the same shade as her hair and that never got old.
     The man turned away from me to snatch a clipboard off the wall and I watched his eyes skim some sort of list before he pulled a pen out of the clip and made several quick notations.
     “Can I buy you a drink?” I asked hopefully, and one corner of his mouth pulled up just a little.
     “They don’t serve what I drink here.”
     Oh. My face probably turned down in a disappointed frown, because there was a chuckle from somewhere in the peanut gallery.
     “Then let me take you someplace they do.” 
     Oh crap, that was me–I was still talking.
     “Thanks.” The man’s beautiful face went tight. “I have a shift to finish and my brother wouldn’t take kindly to me cutting out for a chick.”
     Brother? I scanned the monitors quickly, then turned to look through the huge panel of blacked out glass that lined most of the wall and overlooked the dance floor. There was definitely no one half as hot as this guy out there.
     His lips twitched, like he knew exactly what I was doing. “You’ll find him in the business office. For running a club, the guy’s not a whole lot of fun. All work and no play. When he does play, it’s behind closed doors.” He smiled just a little at the mention of his brother and I wondered if it meant they were close.
     The big man who’d been watching us the whole time grinned at me and offered over Alex’s shoulder, “Hey, if Antolini doesn’t want to have a drink with you, I will. I’ll even pay.”
     Maybe it was just me, but I felt Alex’s whole posture change when the man said that. He was probably teasing, that was my guess, but Alex suddenly looked like he could shoot daggers from his eyeballs and the guy quickly held up his hands as Alex turned to face him.
     “Just sayin’, man. Shame to let a pretty girl go to waste.”
     “Pffft.” I blew out a breath at him. “Pretty? Why did I even bother leaving my house tonight?”
     The man in front of me looked amused. “What’s your preferred description then, little one?”
     “Sex bomb,” I offered with a cheeky grin and I saw more than one set of shoulders start to shake with silent laughter, like they knew what I was going to say next. 
     I looked right at Alex when I said it: “When I go off, you’ll be the one seeing stars and glitter.”
     The room exploded and the big man behind Alex reached over his shoulder to high-five me, which I did with enthusiasm. I had to jump a little, because I was still a lot shorter than him.
     “Think I’ve seen you before.” The big guy was still trying to talk to me. “Like a few times. You had a redhead with you once.”
     Yeah, Eve got everyone’s attention. The only reason I couldn’t be jealous of her was that she had zero interest in meeting new guys, since she was married. Getting her to come out with me was like pulling teeth. It was virtually impossible since her husband was on perpetual deployment and she was raising a child.
     Every once in a blue moon I talked Eve into putting a tight dress on that killer body of hers, setting her hair in some loose curls and slicking on a little gloss. Guys went ape for her, so I was sort of using her as bait, except that I was pretty confident in myself and the fact I could hold my own.
     I wasn’t nearly as tall as Eve, and in her heels she was runway-worthy. I almost cleared 5’4” on a good day, but in a decent pair of heels I was almost the height of a normal person. So what I didn’t have in height, I made up for in T&A. My boobs were great, thank you, and I wasn’t at all shy about showing them off. I’d also been told my ass could make grown men weep, so when occasion called for it I made sure to display it.
     For his part, Mr. Officer looked like some of my parts had finally snagged his attention, because for the first time his eyes weren’t on my face. They were decidedly pointed in the direction of the low-cut, deep-V sequined neckline of my short dress. Because what you haven’t got, you make up for in flaunt, and what you have got…well obviously, you flaunt that too.
     “Using your imagination?” I teased, and even in the low light of the room I could see his cheeks turn an immediate pink. Considering the lovely olive tone of his skin, it made him look like a sweet little boy and that kind of twisted at my heart. Which was weird. Usually I felt that twinge to attractive men much further south.
     “You here hunting for a boyfriend?” one of the guys teased, and I made a face.
     “Please. The last thing I’m looking for when I come here is a boyfriend.” 
     It sounded suggestive–I realized it as soon as I said it and though suggestive was my typical M.O., this time I really hadn’t meant it that way. It changed something in Alex’s expression and it was something I didn’t like, which was also weird.
     “So, how about it?” I pressed Alex, feeling a little rebuffed but not dispirited. 
     “You’re wasting your time with that one,” someone called and I didn’t see who it was. They were all suddenly, intensely interested in the monitors or the paperwork in front of them and Alex bristled visibly.
     “I can’t while I’m on duty,” he said shortly, as if that was going to be the end of it.
     “He’s off in thirty minutes,” someone else called and his eyes did a half-roll, like he’d just been given up.
     “Oh, good!” I brightened. “I was planning to leave in like half an hour, so I’ll just go with you.”
     There was a barely-controlled collective snort in the room and it probably should have embarrassed me, but I was feeling pretty damn victorious. I’d backed the man into a corner and I wasn’t going to let him out. I never had to work this hard to get a guy to agree to anything and this was just a drink.
     “Well.” I smoothed my hands down the sides of my dress, then flipped my hair back. “I guess you can come find me when your shift is over. I’m gonna get in a little more dancing.” 
     His eyebrows raised when I said it, like he questioned just how great an idea that really was, but I flashed him a huge grin. The one that my father said made me all teeth. 
     When he said it, it probably wasn’t much of a compliment, to be honest.
     The heavy bass was a full-body jolt when I opened the door and stepped back out into the humidity of the club. Pulsating lights and gyrating bodies: the smell of sweat and perfume and desperation. Some of the people showed up every weekend, looking for someone to fill their bed. 
     But the darkened hallway would do. 
     Or a bathroom stall. 
     Whatever they could get. 
     I recognized the desperation when I smelled it. I was a flirt and a hopeless tease but I wasn’t easy, thank you, and I’d never dragged someone into the back hallways, the bathrooms or the alley out back. 
     I’d never taken anyone home either, not from the club, because eww. I knew no one was here looking for someone to bring home to mom, I didn’t delude myself, and I wasn’t about to throw myself away on cheap guys.
     For me, an evening out dancing was a break after a long week spent in classes and on the floor in the hospital. Graduation was coming up in two months and I’d soon trade all-nighters with a textbook for all-nighters in the Critical Care unit, as I’d accepted a job offer the week before.
     I’d been interested in nursing since I was nine years old. I could remember the specific inspiration, too: my older brother, Dalil. He’d spent some time in Critical Care after the Incident of Which My Parents Did Not Speak, which was what the rest of us called it. 
     Dalil was older than me by nine years, and when one has a very traditional Muslim Palestinian family, it’s not a widely accepted thing for men to date men. Our Sunni beliefs had harsh and unyielding things to say about it, and when one of our other brothers caught Dalil in a compromising situation with a boy he’d presented to our parents as a study partner, a nuclear bomb went off in our house. 
     A nuclear bomb would have undoubtedly been less devastating.
     Dalil spent two weeks in Critical Care with thick bandages on his wrists before he was shipped back to my grandparents in the Levant. 
     Alab, as I called my father, had paced the house for weeks after, late at night, muttering that he should never have moved his family from the homeland. The influence of the west, he was sure, had infiltrated the minds of his children like a fast-spreading rot. 
     It was Alab’s hope that with proper influence and training, his second-oldest son would become a respected teacher, but he could not have pegged Dalil more incorrectly, nor could he have been less forgiving. 
     My brother disappeared from our lives and from our memories, as we were not allowed to keep photographs of him in the house. Anything that had been his was put into storage while my parents struggled with what they would not allow their son to embrace, and I hoped my father begged forgiveness five times a day when he faced Mecca on his prayer rug and spoke with the creator of his universe.
     I moved out of my parents’ home the instant I qualified for a scholarship allowing me to obtain my BSN and I went straight for it, balls to the wall, which was how I operated my life in general. I refused to depend upon the permission of my patriarch to make my own decisions in life and the day I announced I was moving out was the day my parents lost a second child.
     Eve had been my salvation. She sat next to me that first morning, in my very first general class and though we were probably a pretty unlikely pairing, oil and water, I’d never had a better friend.
     Tonight Eve hadn’t been able to come out with me. Jared had been running a low-grade fever the past couple days and while her babysitter was great, now she could spend the weekend nursing her little guy back to health. 
     I thought about returning to the dance floor, watching the swirling crush of sweaty bodies swaying in the thumping music. I had no doubt I’d find a willing dance partner, or four, as I surveyed the teeming mass somewhat critically. 
     Because there wasn’t a single face or body that spoke to me out on that floor and I sighed in irritation. No idea what was going on with that, but it could be fixed with time I was hopeful. I just had to get over whatever it was that had thrown me off.
     One of the huge bouncers made his way over to me, his tight black t-shirt with the club’s logo straining to contain all the muscles he’d packed into it. 
     I’d always thought he’d look particularly good in my bed, but I’d never tested the theory. 
     “Going back out there?” he shouted over the music and I lifted my shoulders in a dramatic shrug. “Meh…thought so, but kinda lost my interest.”
     He nodded but didn’t say anything more and the longer he stood there, I began to understand that I’d been assigned a babysitter. I wasn’t a particularly submissive girl, so the gesture annoyed me. It meant someone thought I wasn’t capable of protecting myself–or maybe he was protecting his property–and I had no doubt who’d sent the big guy after me. 
     Didn’t matter where I went for the next half hour, the guy was practically stapled to my hip. I could hardly even use the ladies room by myself, so clearly he took his directive very seriously.
     It was thirty-two very long minutes later when Alex finally made his way through the crowded club, to where I sat with my new appendage. 
     Alex nodded to the enormous human, who grinned at me as he pushed up from his seat. 
     I hadn’t exactly tried to converse with Tony, or be at all engaging once I figured out what was going on, and he gave me a small salute before disappearing into the mass of bodies.
     Alex held out a hand to help me up. It was a hand I pointedly ignored as I stood and I glared at him. It made him grin and I shot him a look that clearly indicated he was an asshole, without any need to use the word itself. I’d learned how to speak an entire language of pointed looks and intense glances as a child, living in a house where it was clear I should be seen and not heard. Little of the first and even less of the second.
     I followed him, stewing to myself, ready to really let him have it once we were outside and he could hear every word of the tirade I planned to unleash.
     The instant the heavy door shut behind me and we stepped out into the cool night air I wound up with, “I can’t believe you…” 
     The words were stopped up immediately when he spun around, backed me up against the wall of the building and proceeded to give me the hottest kiss of my life. I mean, my underwear melted right the hell off, it was so good. He was all timing and pressure and gentle suction and after he returned my tongue and stepped back, I couldn’t remember my own name, much less why I’d been so mad at him.
     “The hell was that?” I asked him dazedly, lifting one hand to my tingling lips. There were other places tingling too, as a man who kissed like that was surely nothing short of a delight in bed, and for just a second I considered breaking my rule and taking him home. Technically it wouldn’t be breaking my rule, not really, because he wasn’t a club rat. He was clearly gainfully employed, seriously hot, and a hell of a lot older than I’d initially pegged him for. 
     Because kissing like that took a hell of a lot of practice. There was no one my age who could pull off what he had in just a handful of earth-shattering seconds.
     “Water,” he answered with a lazy grin, holding out a hand to me.
     “Water?” My thought process was so fuzzy, I might have blacked out on my feet for a second.
     “Yeah, I could see the smoke pouring out of your ears and thought I’d beat you to the fire.”
     “Started another one,” I grumbled, and his grin stretched wider.
     “Come on.” He led me deeper into the lot, clicking a key fob and I heard something roar to life in the distance. The sharp bark idled down to a low, throaty purr and I looked at him with narrowed eyes. I was suspicious of men with cars that sounded like that. In my experience it meant there was an overcompensation taking place. After a series of particularly dissatisfying encounters with an ex-boyfriend who owned a loud, heavily-modified Charger, I called the flashy ones “Eensy pee pee cars.” I said it as often as possible too, because it always made Eve laugh an embarrassed little laugh.
     “Don’t look at my baby like that,” he chuckled.
     How was I looking at his car?
     “You’re looking at it like my mother. She pulls that same face every time she sees it–tells me I should be spending my money on raising children, not buying loud toys. She says it reminds her too much of my Uncle Gio.” He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound, and he pulled open my door for me. “Too much flash and not enough substance.” 
     He waited until I was settled before gently closing the door gently behind me.
     I would never admit to it out loud, but from what I could see the car was beautiful. It was pristine, even more so on the inside, the dash glossy and the floors spotless. It spoke of his attention to detail, or maybe an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hard to tell at this point.
     “So, no kids then?” I asked when he dropped into the car, and he paused in the middle of clipping his seatbelt to look over at me.
     “Uh, no. No kids.” He clicked a few buttons and turned a dial or two and soft, soothing music filled the car. It made my eyebrows raise in surprise because I’d been expecting classic rock or metal, not Sting. 
     There was a rich leather smell and I leaned back against the headrest as he drove, one wrist hooked casually, confidently over the wheel while the other hand rested on his leg. I watched him out of the side of my eye, trying to learn more about him through quiet observation as he drove. 
     “You?” he asked finally, and such a long time had passed since we’d said anything that I didn’t remember the topic.
     “Me what?”
     I laughed shortly, more a sound of disbelief than amusement, and he turned his head slightly to give me a quick look.
     “No,” I said finally. “I’m not old enough to have kids.”
     His eyebrow raised a little but he didn’t say anything.
     The truth of it was that I hadn’t found anyone who made me want to have kids, and that was heresy in the eyes of my parents. I was supposed to want a marriage to a good man who would provide for me and the nine thousand children expected of me, but nothing could have been further from my mind. I’d grown up with six brothers and one sister and had decided that if I did have kids, my cutoff was two.
     It was pretty late. The clock on the dash said it was 12:43 and the city streets were largely deserted. Stop lights blinked red and Alex flicked on the wipers as a light rain started to sprinkle the windshield.
     He pulled the car to the curb and turned off the engine and I looked out the window to see a long line of darkened shop windows. We were parked right outside a little Italian restaurant, one I’d heard great things about, but my student’s budget couldn’t even pretend to handle those prices. No fancy hand-rolled pasta or seventeen-dollar rustic bread with fresh-churned butter for me.
     “Stay,” he demanded, and my mouth dropped open as he got out of the car. Because oh no, he sure as hell had not just spoken to me like I was his dog. 
     I threw my seatbelt back and popped the door open, swiveling my legs to step out when he appeared with an umbrella in his hand. The look on his face told me he wasn’t used to being defied and maybe he didn’t exactly appreciate it, because he shook his head at me. “Would it have killed you to give me a full five seconds to get around the car?”
     Oh. He meant he wanted to be a gentleman. Well, didn’t that just make me an ass?
     He held out a hand to help me to my feet, holding the umbrella over my head as I slid out of my seat and I scanned the dark row of shops as I tried to figure out why he’d brought me here.
     With one hand on my shoulder he led me toward the darkened restaurant and for a second, just a heartbeat really, I felt a flash of something uncomfortable in my gut. Something like fear, because we weren’t going to a crowded bar filled with noise and people and the safety of numbers. 
     “I think everything’s closed,” I said softly as we neared the door and he made a sound in the back of his throat before producing a small ring of keys from his pocket and fitting one to the lock.
     Stepping cautiously into the vestibule, I waited as he snapped the umbrella shut and leaned it against the wall, locking the door behind us. Then he turned with a bright smile and a look of expectation on his face, calling over my shoulder, “Mama?”
     My heart plummeted to the soles of my feet. 
     “Mama?” I asked weakly, looking down quickly at my obvious slut wear. All I was missing was a pair of acrylic heels, if I was being really honest with myself, and maybe some pasties. Everything else screamed pole dancer.
     There was a scraping sound from the back of the very dark room and I heard a door swing open. Low lights snapped on and a beautiful woman appeared, her face all smiles: “My boy.”
     There was no way the woman was his mother. She looked like an older sister, and I was aware I was staring. Her hair was dark and thick, scooped up into a pile of curls on her head and she was tall and slim, with a pretty enviable pair of legs on her from what I could see.
     Alex leaned in to kiss the woman’s cheek and she pushed up to put her arms around him, giving him a tight squeeze. 
     “Come, come.” She hadn’t even lowered back down to the soles of her feet before she had his hand and was pulling him toward one of the booths.
     “Mama.” His voice was gentle and she paused, turning, and for the first time she seemed to realize I was there too.
     “Ah, forgive me!” Another easy smile split her face. “I have eyes only for my son.” She dropped his hand and leaned toward me, bending down and giving me a quick series of kisses on each cheek. Not the reception I’d expected, but I liked it.
     “Mama, this is Lauren. She offered to buy me a drink and I told her we would have to go somewhere that served what I liked.”
     Well, that was most of the truth, I thought as I waited for my outfit to sink into the woman’s consciousness. I hoped she didn’t ask me to sit, almost certain I’d flash her a stunning view of my cherry-patterned underwear. I’d thought them hilarious when I put them on five hours ago, but now I wasn’t feeling so confident in my choice of…well, anything about this outfit.
     The sneaky bitch read my mind and I swear a devious smile crossed her face. 
     “Sit, sit,” she cooed, waving a hand toward the intimate little booth to my right, probably because she wished to witness my humiliation.
     Alex rolled his eyes. “The kitchen closed hours ago. I can mix our drinks and you and Papa can go home. I am capable of cleaning up after myself at this age, you know.”
     “Nonsense.” The woman smiled benevolently. Then, with incredible lung power she bellowed, “Terenzio, come meet Alessio’s girlfriend.”
     Oh, hell no. My eyebrows shot straight into my hair. “I’m not…”
     Alex held up a hand like I needed to zip it, and I killed the sentence, but the look I gave him…
     A huge man burst out of the kitchen and immediately I understood which parent Alex really favored. His father was just as tall and broad, the smattering of gray in his dark hair also showing up in the two- or three-day growth he had on his face.
     If I had a daddy complex…hello, Daddy.
     Some of that thought must have played out on my face, because I swear the man smirked when he saw me. But then I remembered what I was wearing and I figured out why.
     “Bella.” He leaned down the considerable distance and gave me the same kiss-kiss his wife had, holding my shoulders gently.
     “Papa, this is Lauren.” Alex sounded a little grumpy, like the guy was moving in on me or something.
     “Sit.” The man gestured to the booth and I swear to God Alex’s mother had to smother a smirk, because she turned toward the kitchen so suddenly, her neck probably needed icing.
     “In a minute,” Alex said smoothly. “I’m going to pour a few drinks first, then we’ll settle in.”
     The man nodded at his son and some kind of silent communication seemed to pass between them as Terenzio clapped Alex’s shoulder.
     Alex motioned me to follow him and his father disappeared into the back once more. 
     “I love that dress,” he said quietly as I followed him toward the small polished bar up toward the front of the space. “When you sit there will be nothing in the way.”
     My eyes probably went wide, because he grinned wickedly over his shoulder at me.
     “In the way of what, exactly?” I finally found my voice and when I did, he licked his lips suggestively. It was an action I could feel all the way down to my toes and I might have whimpered a little, because it had been a very long time and none of the guys my age seemed to know what to do. It was the reason I’d pretty much given up trying. 
     I had no doubt Alex knew exactly what to do.
     He moved easily, smoothly behind the bar, placing a distinctively-shaped bottle on the polished countertop with sure hands. It reminded me of the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle that lived in the inner door of my parents’ fridge. 
     Personal research led me to conclude the bottle in my parents’ fridge was older than me, given the three times during my childhood my mother actually made pancakes.
     I watched his hands as he went through the process of unscrewing the cap, putting ice cubes in glasses and gripping the bottle to pour. He had strong, perfectly sexy hands with neat, square nails and solid knuckles. He had fingers I could imagine skating up my thighs or wrapping around my breasts and I grabbed the glass he nudged in my direction to take a deep chug after that delightful display of hand porn.
     The flavor was unlike anything I’d had before, and I raised my eyes from my glass just as he took a sip from his. 
     He smiled a closed-mouth smile as he swallowed, coming back around the bar and trailing his fingers down one of my arms as he passed, walking toward the booth in the back. It made me go all tingly and I followed like he had a leash around my neck.
     There was something I didn’t like about this, the thought nagged at the very edges of my consciousness. I was always the one in control. I was the one men panted after and chased. I certainly didn’t chase them, and it felt very much like I was chasing this one.
     He averted his eyes while I slid into the booth and immediately I covered my lap with the heavy cloth napkin. It was telling that there was more fabric to the napkin than there was to the entire lower half of my dress.
     I’m burning this dress when I get home.
     Like it wasn’t past one in the morning, his mother bustled out of the kitchen with a linen-covered basket in one hand and the scent of garlic and butter rose to meet me as Alex pulled the linen aside. It made my stomach roar and it was everything I could do to keep from diving headfirst into the piles of delicious bread. 
     I had never been shy when it came to food, not ever.
     Terenzio wasn’t far behind, two steaming dishes in his hands and when he slid the huge portion of creamy, cheesy pasta in front of me, Alex chuckled. “You look like you’ve just seen the face of God.”
     “I have,” I sighed, twirling my fork through the garlic and parsley-flecked sauce and noodles. “I have an Italian soul in a Palestinian body.”
     He grinned at me and I knew I’d just answered a question he hadn’t asked. It explained to him the color of my hair and my skin, the angle of my nose and the reason I was short and curvy.
     I ate ravenously, hardly caring that the gorgeous man across from me was watching me like I was the actress in a porno, groaning with each delicious mouthful, my eyes rolling back in my head from the incredible flavors. It may have had something to do with the fact that I never ate so well. I could cook, but I was on a tight budget so most nights dinner was a Cup O’ Noodles.
     It was well after two by the time his parents drifted back out from the kitchen, their smiles bright, and when I noticed Terenzio’s shirt was off by a button I understood why they hadn’t checked on us once during our meal. It made me bite down on a grin and I kept a crack about the Health Department to myself.
     Both of them tried to press dessert on us but I’d eaten my weight in bread and pasta, filling in the cracks with whatever crazy drink it was that Alex kept refreshing for me. If I took another bite it was a distinct possibility that sequins would start to pop off the front of my dress like shrapnel. 
     The last thing I wanted to do was put out one of those beautiful blue eyes with a boob bullet.
     There were more kisses for each of us when we finally rose to leave, and each of his parents each folded him into an extended hug that made me just slightly jealous. I couldn’t recall a single time either of my parents had touched me with such loving intent, and when his mother let go of him she moved right over to me. 
     Then his father did the same.
     I was dressed like I was ready to work the pole and the people hugged me like I was their long-lost daughter, bless them.
     “I can’t feel my feet,” Alex groaned as we closed the door behind us and he brought the beast to life with a few clicks of his key fob.
     For the record, I couldn’t feel my feet either but there was something I could feel, and after the last hour and-a-half spent absorbing his lingering looks, his carefully chosen words and the incredible love and closeness I could feel from his family, I wanted to do something about it. 
     I wanted to bask in that kind of attention, even if I could have it for only a few moments.
     It was nearing three when he pulled up outside the tiny apartment I called home, and I tried to remember whether there was dirty laundry on my bedroom floor when I purred, “If you’d like to come up, Officer Antolini…”
     That changed him suddenly. 
     “I’m an old-fashioned Italian boy, Lauren–or that’s what my mother will tell you.” 
     He shut right down: no more seductive glances or slow lip licks. He gripped the steering wheel hard and stared out at the road with a hard set to his jaw.
     I wasn’t sure what had just happened. There was clearly more to the explanation than he’d given, and I unclipped my seatbelt slowly, a little concerned that I’d just blown what I’d thought was a sure thing. 
     This guy…this was a totally different guy from the confident, swaggering, self-assured man who’d been downright seductive during the course of a delicious dinner served by his own parents.
     “Ok, well…” I released the belt and the buckle pinged off the window, making me wince. “I guess that’s goodnight, then. Thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a wonderful meal and as far as company went, you weren’t so bad.” I gave him a small smile.
     He gave me a tight smile in return and he looked genuinely uncomfortable. “I’m sorry about my parents. They’re…well, they have opinions about my life.”
     Whatever the hell that meant.
     “Sounds familiar,” I said, wrapping my hands around my knees and squeezing. “The difference between you and me would be that your parents actually seem to love you. You’re lucky, my friend. You should be thankful for that.”
     With that I threw open my door and bolted from the car. I slammed the door shut and launched a quick wave over my shoulder as I hurtled toward the building. 
     I needed to get away from the most destructive force I’d met in a long time, because he was threatening: His very presence threatened all my preconceived notions about dominant men and their place in my life.
     Real frickin’ smooth, man. You just chased off the hottest piece of tail you’ve seen since…well, maybe ever.
     I sat watching as Lauren bombed up the sidewalk and disappeared into her building. I’d clearly pushed the wrong button when I’d failed at an immediate response to her invitation, and by now it seemed far too late to fill her in on the fact my brain had ground to a halt when she’d all but offered herself to me on a platter.
     Had I wanted to take her up on the offer? 
     Consultation with Small Brain concluded the answer was a painfully resounding Yes. 
     But…consultation with Big Brain resulted in annoyingly sensible things like This woman’s going to be trouble and you are way too old for her, my friend.
     That last part was true. She didn’t look a day over twenty and my thirty-sixth birthday was barreling down on me fast and hard, almost at the same speed Gabby’s divorce lawyer presented new demands: 
  1. Mr. Antolini shall support Ms. Pelini with alimony equivalent to what she came to expect during the course of their marriage.
  2. Mr. Antolini shall not disparage the public reputation of Ms. Pelini.
  3. Mr. Antolini shall keep a low profile for the duration of the divorce proceedings, as the livelihood of Ms. Pelini depends upon a certain level of discretion.
     Okay, so for one: I didn’t make tremendous money as a cop. My real money was an inheritance that came from old vineyard money. It was money made in the Old World, where most of the family still lived.
     Gabby’s father hadn’t exactly done his due diligence when he insisted Gabby and I sign a prenup. He’d thought he was protecting his daughter and his fortune at the time. His assumption was that I was a money-grabbing peasant and the contract drafted made it clear that what was hers was hers, and what was mine was mine. It was just that neither of them realized I wasn’t destitute but, in fact, sitting on what could be a fortune with proper investment and good timing.
     It seemed Gabby wanted to change the rules now–well, the whole game really.
     My second point: Any damage to her reputation was her own damn fault.
     My hopefully soon-to-be-ex was what most people would have considered a rising YouTube personality. At best her reputation existed on largely social media, though I found her chosen career laughable. 
     My wife demonstrated makeup tutorials to her adoring public, most of whom I rightly concluded were twelve-year-olds looking for a little guidance. 
     Gabriella was all flash and no substance, as my mother would say. The advertising was great, but there was nothing to the product. And while I’d known that for years–since the day I first met her in fifth period–a part of me had always thought, or maybe foolishly hoped, that she’d grow up with me.
     Lastly, was she fucking high? Because if Gabby was demanding discretion, she was doing herself in. Gossip blogs had photos of her out two or three nights a week with different men, some of whom were subsequently photographed leaving her apartment the next morning. 
     Now that she’d left me, apparently she required a great deal of variety to make up for lost time. Then again, coming up on thirty-six just like me, she was at the wrong edge of relevance in her market. My guess was that she was desperate to gain the spotlight any way she could, there being no such thing as bad publicity as far as she was concerned.
     There was the interesting fact that her family had a great deal of money. Her family wasn’t fake Italian (see the last name), but her father was the equivalent of a mafia don in industry, running a thriving petroleum-based business. He could absolutely, one hundred percent afford to take care of her in my clearly-inconsequential absence. 
     Gabby’s daddy had never actually stopped taking care of her, despite the fact that at some point–an ever-moving mark, apparently–she was supposed to come into a trust fund. 
     Daddy’s allowance was the only explanation for the labels on her clothes and the red-soled shoes on her feet, because if she’d bought a single pair of seven hundred dollar shoes on my salary, we wouldn’t have made our mortgage payment that month.
     But…whatever it was, Gabby was holding onto a grudge that she couldn’t let go. Maybe it was because she’d finally found out about my inheritance, something I’d never seen fit to disclose to the woman I’d initially thought would be my forever. On some level it was a reptilian instinct, a level of self-preservation that was unconscious, because we had been married for almost fourteen years and Gabby had never bothered to show up for any of it.
     If my wife wanted the divorce concluded quickly, she wasn’t getting out of her own way. She was argumentative and petty and by now the legal fees were becoming absurd with each addendum and revision. 
     Gabby may have been a simple woman when it came to her mental processes, as I’d come to realize, but none of her demands were. She was a flat-out diva, and she made sure everyone knew it. She wanted more, more, more, and it didn’t seem to bother her that it often hurt others. 
     I didn’t keep an eye on Gabriella’s activities anymore, but my sister did. Alessandra hated her, and while I think she always had, it made me feel a little better to think that she hated her on account of what Gabriella had done to me.
      I sighed as I stared at the building Lauren had disappeared into. 
     If I wanted to grovel a little, I could park in the lot and find her name on the security panel. With enough of the right words, maybe she’d buzz me in and help me take my mind off things. 
     No, I wasn’t that guy and despite her completely absurd choice of outfits that night, something told me she wasn’t really that kind of girl.
     Reluctantly, I put the car back into gear and drove slowly away from the curb. 
     It would have been nice to crawl into bed with a warm, willing woman, but there were a few things to consider: she was too young, clearly. 
     Also, there was no way she’d be able to keep up. I could be demanding–something Gabby hadn’t particularly liked, since she’d always liked to call the shots–and I’d wondered often if I’d married someone who didn’t like sex or just didn’t like having it with me.
     Cash was waiting for me, sitting in the front window when I pulled the car into the driveway. 
     The stupid dog wasn’t allowed to sit in the wide bay window, but that didn’t stop his one hundred sixty-five pound ass from hoisting up there every chance he got–scared the hell out of delivery people, to look over and see the monster watching them. To his credit though, he didn’t sit there and slobber up the window and bark like a maniac. Nope, he saved that for the people brave enough to knock on the door. Then it was like someone had unleashed the hounds of hell.
     My estranged wife had not been an animal lover–said she couldn’t stand the thought of all that fur getting on her stuff, or her shoes being chewed. So when she left, the first thing I did was adopt a Cane Corso, the kind of dog I’d wanted since I was a kid. Sure, it wasn’t the Afghan Kuchi I’d gotten used to during my time overseas, but it was easier to get my hands on a Corso than a Kuchi, so my feelings weren’t hurt.
     Letting myself in through the back door, Cash greeted me with far more enthusiasm than Gabby ever had, and I quickly let him out into the yard to do his business. He was good about waiting for me and not once had he made a mess in the house, despite the long hours I sometimes kept.
     When the dog came back in I unlaced the heavy boots I always wore and kicked them off, grabbed a drink of water and then led the way up the stairs to bed.
     Should I have let the dog sleep in the bed? I mean, no…but there was no one else there to complain about it, so when Cash hopped right up into Gabby’s old spot, I let him. 
     I knew I’d continue to let him, waking often to nudge him when he started to snore.
      The old house creaked and groaned a few times as I lay there, staring up at the ceiling. I wanted to sleep–I needed to, especially since I’d been up since four-thirty. But as Cash began to snore, all I could think of was what had come roaring to life when I’d backed that woman up against the wall outside the club and poured fuel on the fire she probably forgot she’d started earlier.
     She was that kind of girl: dried tinder, with matches in her hand, ready to burn down the world. She was combustible, especially when she was backed into a corner, and she gave as good as she got. 
     Better, maybe.
     The way she kissed me back, I suspected she’d be a real hellcat in bed. It was something I was pretty interested in finding out, especially if those cheeky cherry-patterned underwear were any indication. She’d probably have been humiliated if she knew I’d seen them, but that dress was so damn short that when I’d helped her out of the car I’d gotten the full view.
     My little girl has a sense of humor. 
     I groaned, slapping a hand over my eyes and Cash, not to be outdone, responded by rolling over on my other arm so that I had an approximately eight-inch strip of the bed to myself. I nudged him back, seriously close to rolling right off the bed, and I considered taking a hot shower to deal with what was going to keep me up for a while yet.
     The way Lauren ate had been something to behold, her sounds of delight and her blissful expressions enough to make me painfully hard under the table. 
     More than once I wondered if she’d make those sounds if I reached across the small space and let my fingers trail over the little cherry cluster that decorated what I knew was a sweet spot. Her underwear were a damn treasure map, whether or not she knew it: X marked the spot and I desperately wanted to go exploring.
     I gave up after another fifteen minutes of trying to talk myself down, because it was four in the damn morning and I wasn’t going to get any sleep with that woman on my mind. So I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and cranked the dial on the shower, giving my poor neglected dick all the action it was going to see for a long while yet. 
     While the hot water ran over my shoulders, I imagined that little spitfire on her knees, her mouth wrapped around me and those sexy moans drifting from her throat. It was enough to get me there–fast–and I shuddered as my vision went black and my body finally relaxed.
     Cash gave me the most mournful, accusatory look when I crawled back into bed. He forgave me the sins indulged in by a weak human, I was pretty sure, and I finally fell into an exhausted, bone-weary sleep.
     My stupid brother’s club was perpetually short-staffed because he had zero people skills. He’d hire a bartender or a bouncer just as he got on the last nerve of one of the other employees, making the place a revolving door. There was always somebody new coming in while two or three stepped out for the last time.
     Need you on shift again next weekend. Guys can’t seem to manage without you.
     I rolled my eyes at my phone, because Giancarlo’s lack of planning was not my problem, but I had yet to convince him of that. Besides, I had plans for next weekend. I’d actually put in for a couple days of vacation in order to make some repairs around the house before winter set in again. 
     Also, I needed to put some distance between myself and that place for a while, or I’d risk running into Lauren again and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to resist her for very long if she put her mind to it. 
     Something about that little firecracker made me needy and uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t control. 
     As a firm rule, I did not bring club girls home, and I certainly didn’t take them to meet my parents. Only God knew what had come over me that night. Hormones, probably, considering I had very few outlets in my life.
     Where she’d come from, I had no idea. I was usually at Giancarlo’s club at least once a week to fill a staffing hole and I felt sure I’d have noticed her before, especially since men were clearly drawn to her. The creep I’d had to peel off her only hours earlier had been all but licking her, despite her attempts to shove him away.
     That part had been baffling: My eyes had been drawn to her the instant she walked into the club, some kind of magnetic pull that made me unable to look away. Other guys obviously felt it too, because heads snapped up, eyes darted over shoulders and I saw a few lick their lips. 
     That was when I’d left the dark room filled with monitors and men, to keep an eye on her from the perimeter of the dance floor. The woman attracted trouble and she didn’t even know it.
     I didn’t respond to Giancarlo right away, mostly because I liked to make him sweat for a while, even though I’d end up telling him no. He was a shitty boss and didn’t pay me half of what I was worth, considering I unofficially managed his security team. I kept his “boys,” as he called them, in line, and in the six years I’d worked part-time for him, the club had grown substantially and was generating a very tidy profit. 
     My parents didn’t appreciate my brother’s line of work, but his announcement that he was going to buy a club with his inheritance was better received than Alessandra’s announcement she was moving to Hollywood to be an actress. 
     That hadn’t exactly gone the way she planned, and she’d done a couple B-level movies that were skating the edge of bad porn in my opinion, before she met some high-and-mighty producer and married the guy. 
     The marriage had been short-lived and my mother breathed a sigh of relief when Ali announced her divorce, but she should have known better than to think Ali wasn’t going to upgrade.
     Mama just about had a stroke when Ali brought home Serge, who looked like a member of the Russian mob. The guy turned out to be steady and decent, a high-powered lawyer in Seattle, and he won major points with my parents when he was able to lure my sister away from Hollywood for a time and knock her up with the only two grandchildren in the family.
     That obviously made me the failure of the bunch. 
     I didn’t have a high-visibility job like Ali, who wrote screenplays these days, and I didn’t pull in tons of cash, like Giancarlo. 
     Still, I liked my job–more than my parents did, anyway. I knew they worried about me on a personal and professional level. They were only slightly less worried now than they’d been during the four years I spent overseas with the Army. 
     Now that Gabby was gone, they worried even more. Mama called me every couple days and tried to twist my arm into coming down to the restaurant so she could “fatten me up.” They worried that I’d starve to death living by myself and every time Mama showed up at my door with pans of food, I knew she was amazed to find that I could actually keep house. Each time I think she expected to walk into the house and spend hours washing my dishes and collecting dirty laundry from the floor, like she had when I was a teenager. 
     I’d gotten my shit together real fast when I pledged my eternal soul to the bank and signed the twenty-six copies of mortgage papers for the house Gabby just had to have.
     I could have used my inheritance to purchase the house outright, but I didn’t do that. I left that sitting in the bank, taking advantage of record-low interest rates instead, buying an old house that had been falling down around me since the day the keys were put into my hand.
     Now I lived alone in that big old house with a dog who thought he controlled my life.
     Cash sat patiently near his empty bowl as I popped the ring on six cans of dog food and scraped them into his bowl with a fork. Sunday mornings were for wet food and I’ll be damned if that dog didn’t spend the whole week looking forward to Sunday. Every Sunday morning he was out of bed like a shot, waiting patiently by his bowl, his butt wiggling with anticipation before I could even stumble down the stairs to make coffee.
     Maybe Cash knew it and maybe he didn’t, but that dog was what kept me sane. He gave me a reason to come home each day and if I was completely honest with myself, I kind of treated the dog like he was my kid because by now it seemed pretty obvious that was as good as it was going to get. 
     Yeah, I’d hoped to have a couple little ankle-biters one day, but Gabby had always wanted to put it off “just a little longer,” and by now I’d learned to be thankful we hadn’t reproduced. There was no way she’d have done anything but use kids as pawns. 
     I knew my parents were still holding onto hope I would give them a couple more grandbabies, even if the window closed a little more with each passing day.
     Giancarlo was perpetually single, which was not to say that his bed was ever empty, but our parents knew better than to expect anything from him that wasn’t accidental and wildly expensive.
     To hear my parents tell it, two grandchildren from my sister was insufficient and I was still on the hook. They’d clarified after I joked about the “quota” one Christmas, that they expected at least two apiece. 
     I sighed and dragged the phone back out of my pocket to compose a response to Giancarlo before I forgot. He was just about the least patient person I knew, and he’d blow up my phone all day until I answered him.
     I spent the rest of the week trying not to think of the beautiful woman who’d stirred something deep inside that I couldn’t begin to control. 
     That night had been the first time I’d allowed myself to feel interest in months, and cracking open that door could make me a dangerously unfocused mess. 
     I hadn’t let myself go there for a long time and despite myself, I found myself spinning out pretty fantasies in my head, most of them involving my bed but a few involving the floor. All of them involved wrapping that curvy little body around mine.
     I took an awful lot of extra showers that week because truthfully, I had nowhere else to hide from Cash. The dog followed me around like he was stapled to my ass.
     It took some effort on my part to avoid the club the next few weeks and I hoped that with time my interest in the little brunette bombshell would wane. Instead, the tales my fevered brain presented me with nearly every waking moment were starting to take over my life. 
     I blamed it on her and myself: It was her fault for pulling the ripcord when she kissed me like that, but it was my fault for going back in.
     There was only one cure for it, obviously: get back to the club, track down the woman who’d made me stupid, and get inside her. Then maybe I could get past the groove being worn into my brain and just maybe I could stop with the punishingly hot showers every night. 
     It was unsettling, the way she’d turned me into a thirteen-year-old boy, tortured by constant lascivious thoughts.
     Finally, three weeks after I’d first met the woman who lit my brain on fire, I told Giancarlo I’d come in. I gave him strict instructions to keep me off the official schedule that Friday night, but I didn’t tell him why: I was going to find the woman. I would take her home and spend hours showing her why I was a bad idea, preferably on every available surface in my house. Then, finally, she would slap me and say horrible things and storm out and I could return to my regularly-scheduled life.
     That was not at all how it happened.
Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald
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