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Super-sexy romance with a dash of humor

Excerpt: Truly

CHAPTER ONE

He wasn’t the kind of guy a woman wanted to pin her hopes and dreams on.

Not that May knew the man sitting all the way down at the other end of the bar. She didn’t. But she didn’t have to know him to understand that he was a bad bet. He’d walked in with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his black hoodie, taken one look at her, and planted himself on a stool as far away from her as possible.

Not very friendly.

And there were other clues. The scowl, for one. He couldn’t be out of his thirties, but his full lips turned down decisively at the corners, the lines bracketing his mouth so deeply grooved that it seemed obvious he made a habit of disapproval. His three-day stubble said he didn’t care how he looked because he’d prefer it if no one was looking.

Or maybe his stubble didn’t carry secret messages. Some guys hated to shave. He could be too busy. It was possible he had a beautiful heart, and he would light up and beam as soon as someone gave him a reason to. She’d known people like that.

May doubted it, though. When she’d tried to catch his eye, venturing a friendly smile in his direction, he’d pulled a paperback book out of his back pocket and propped an elbow on the bar between them.

Do not disturb, that elbow said.

And also, just possibly, I am a dick.

He’d ordered two beers. He was probably here to meet someone, and she was probably being oversensitive and judgmental because she was tired and mixed up, her craving for companionship outweighing her common sense.

So, fine. She’d give him his space. She wasn’t the type to impose. Well-behaved girls from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, didn’t approach men in New York City bars and ask them for help anyway—not if they had better options. If she’d somehow randomly lost half her leg on her way to the bar, she would be justified in penetrating his bubble of isolation. I’m not sure if you noticed, she would say, but I seem to have a problem with my leg.

Short of that . . . well, short of that, she sat here trying to be invisible. Which was difficult when you were five foot, eleven-and-three-quarters inches and had some meat on your bones. Difficult, but necessary.

She nursed the last inch of warm lager in her pint glass and avoided looking at the bartender. If she looked at him he might ask if she wanted another drink, and if he did that, she would have to say no.

Which would make it perfectly obvious to all three of the people in the bar that she should be moving along.

The bartender might even ask her to go, because they did that if you hung around too long in New York. In Manhattan, loitering was a real thing, as opposed to just an accusation leveled against teenagers who looked like they might be thinking about ripping off junk food and porno from the Quik Stop.

May was loitering.

She had no money.

She had nowhere else to go.

Almost.

It was true that she could retrace her path, rewalk the blocks she’d journeyed in a daze, and ask the front desk to buzz her back into Dan’s apartment. Sorry, she’d tell them. I lost my keys. But you know me, right? You’ve seen me with my boyfriend. Can you let me in?

A totally manageable series of white lies. In fact, she hadn’t lost her keys, but it was true that she didn’t have them. They’d been stolen, along with her purse and the rest of its contents.

And really Dan wasn’t her boyfriend anymore, but even Dan didn’t seem to accept that yet—although he might change his mind when he came home from his emergency strategy session and found her gone.

It wasn’t too late to take back the note she’d left. She could walk into his empty apartment and pull the paper off the fridge, stuff it in the garbage can under the sink. She could pretend when Dan returned that none of this had happened, and she could talk to him tonight—really talk to him—about what she’d done at the luncheon yesterday.

She could find something to say to him other than I don’t think this is working and I don’t want to be with you anymore and I want to go home.

Not home to Dan’s apartment nearby or his Mansion of Ostentatiousness in New Jersey, where she’d been living with him for the past six weeks. Home to Wisconsin. Home.

Dan had made it clear that he didn’t want her to leave. He believed they could still fix their relationship. The YouTube video documenting the entire public embarrassment had already drawn more than a million views, but even though his agent and his coaches and a good chunk of the sports fans in the greater New York metropolitan area hated her, Dan was willing to put it all behind them.

All May had to do was tell him what he’d done wrong and how he could fix it.

But she didn’t want to have to tell him. He should know. And the fact that he didn’t meant there was no way he could fix it.

When he’d proposed to her yesterday, everything about it had been wrong. Everything. The bright lights that made him sweat onstage in his tuxedo, the crowd of witnesses at the breast cancer luncheon where he was supposed to be giving a fund-raising speech, the fact that he’d been nervous and had braced his courage with beer—way too much beer—and worst of all the things he’d said.

Then I met May, and she changed my life.

She was different, you know? No makeup, no fancy clothes, no fancy anything. Just as plain as you see her now.

She was this nice, pure, innocent girl from Manitowoc . . . one hundred percent patient with me.

I asked her out, and she said yes, and I thought, you know, Don’t mess this up, Einarsson. When Coach met her later, he said the same thing. “She’ll keep your head screwed on straight.”

One date had turned into two, then three. He’d courted her for three months before he kissed her—because, he said, he had so much respect for her.

How amazing that had been. Ordinary May, being pursued by the Packers’ bad-boy second-string quarterback. Being respected by him. And from the very beginning, she’d kept his head screwed on straight.

Oh, she was an idiot.

A plain, unremarkable sort of idiot, standing on a stage where she didn’t belong, wearing shoes that hurt her feet and loathsome Spanx that left a red line of shame on her belly when she finally peeled herself out of them.

Unsexy. Uninteresting. Steady. That’s what Dan saw when he looked at her. He loved her for being mind-numbingly safe.

It’s been four years since I met May, he’d said. I left all my old ways behind. I quit thinking about sex and started focusing on the one thing that matters to me most.

Her heart had tripped then. Don’t, she’d thought, with encroaching dread. Please, please, don’t make it worse.

But he had. He’d told three hundred strangers that the one thing that mattered to him most was—wait for it—football.

And something had happened to her.

The diamond in Dan’s hand flashed under the stage lights, so bright it made her eyes hurt. So bright it set surreptitious shards of fierceness ablaze in her. Her toes had curled inside the sexy shoes she’d bought for this special occasion. Her calves had bunched beneath her silk stockings. Her stomach had tensed below its corset-by-another-name.

She’d felt so bad, it was almost good.

And that moment—those seconds—had drawn a line across her life, dividing it into Before and After.

She didn’t want to remember all the lurid details: the shouts, the camera flashes going off as Dan inspected his injured hand in shock. How placid and far away she’d felt afterward as Dan’s agent rushed them offstage and shuffled them, not to New Jersey, where they actually lived, but to Dan’s Manhattan apartment, where they were instructed to hole up and keep their mouths shut.

She was still angry, but her anger had gone underground and turned into a sort of muffled restlessness. A buried, insistent refusal that made it hard for her to sit still, to do as she was told, to listen to Dan reassuring her that she was being hasty, that it wasn’t over, that everything would work out.

He’d left for a meeting with the team’s PR people, and she’d written him a note, grabbed her purse, and ran.

Her plan was to get to Newark Airport, change her ticket, and fly home. But she hadn’t gotten that far, because the lobby had been full of flashbulbs and shouting, and a man dressed like a security guard had grabbed her by the arm, led her to a side entrance of the building, and—just when she was feeling relieved to have escaped—plucked her purse off her shoulder and run.

She’d been left in an alley with five bucks and a metro card, and the only logical thing to do was go back to the apartment.

But the before-and-after line she’d drawn had followed her into the alley. She’d sensed that if she turned around she might see it, thick and black and wet, painted across the ground directly behind her heels.

The line said You can’t go back.

She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to talk to Dan. But neither did she want to be sitting here, broke, with no purse and no friends or family within a thousand miles, and no phone to call them with.

She wanted a magical unicorn to arrive, nicker at her with gentle understanding, and fly her to her family’s cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she could take the rest of Labor Day weekend off from reality.

Too bad there were no magical unicorns in sight. Only the bartender, whose gaze she was assiduously avoiding.

And this guy.

This guy with the book and the elbow and the face that said Don’t even fucking think about it.

The trouble was, it was difficult to know what to look at when you couldn’t look at the guy or the bartender, and you’d already been sitting at the bar for two hours. She’d had plenty of time already to take in the tiered rows of liquor bottles and the decorations—the novelty cheese-wedge Christmas lights strung along the ceiling, the pristine gold and green HOLMGREN WAY street sign, the placard that advertised the availability of Old Fashioneds made with real Door County cherries.

She’d read an article about this bar, back before she moved. Pulvermacher’s had a colorful history as a Beat-scene watering hole, but these days it made its money on New York’s Wisconsin exiles. Packers fans gathered in Greenwich Village on game days to drink beer and yell at the television in the company of dozens of other people who cared as much as they did about the fate of Titletown’s team.

May’s kind of bar, and May’s kind of people.

She hadn’t come here on purpose—she’d never even been here before. She’d just been walking aimlessly, head down, mind spinning. She’d been thinking, You have to come up with a plan. But no plan had occurred to her. She’d wandered into the Village and was thinking about sitting down in the little slice of public park she’d spotted, when she saw the awning over the basement bar’s entrance.

Pulvermacher’s.

She’d recognized the name, and her feet had stopped moving of their own accord. The line had nudged at her heels, urging her inside.

It had seemed possible two hours ago, when she slid her last five bucks across the bar, that she would meet some nice Wisconsin person—some woman named Pat who was built like a tank and knew how to make football dip with two cans of Hormel, a package of Philly’s, and some sliced Muenster. Or a Steve from Oconomowoc who hunted elk just like her dad. May and her new friends would exchange names, origins, stories. Imaginary Pat or Imaginary Steve would buy her a beer, and she would carefully glide the conversation on lubricated alcohol wheels in the direction of what had happened to her.

Here, hon, Imaginary Steve would say, use my phone to call your folks.

Imaginary Pat would clap her on the shoulder. You’ve had a run of bad luck. If you want, you can sleep in my guest bed tonight. We’ll get you squared away and off to the airport tomorrow.

It was a fantasy—she knew that. Her mom always said May couldn’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but of course she could. Fantasy was what had convinced her to move here and had pulled her into this bar. It was the voice in her head that told her, Dan’s the one. You’re going to love New York. Pulvermacher’s is going to rescue you from yourself.

Reality was the thing that was always letting her down.

In reality, bars sat virtually empty between the hours of two and five, even on Fridays, and the people who came in weren’t, generally, the sort whose mercy May wanted to throw herself upon.

In reality, Imaginary Pat and Imaginary Steve didn’t live in New York.

People like this guy did.

The bartender had begun cleaning the counter with a damp rag. He shuffled closer to her, sweep by sweep, and cleared his throat.

Nervous, May lifted her beer and drained it, realizing only with the last warm swallow what she’d done.

“Can I get you another round?” he asked.

This was it, then. Time to go.

But the line was behind her, drawn across the floor, invisible but there, and she didn’t want to leave.

She had to choose. Dan’s apartment or this bar. Before or After.

“Maybe,” she said. “Do you have a wine list?”

“I think we’ve got one somewhere in the back.” His disapproving tone made it clear that no one ever asked for a wine list here. Which, yes—she might not know Manhattan, but she knew bars—this was not the sort of place where you asked for a wine list.

“Can you look for me?”

“Sure.” He put his rag down and walked toward a door marked PRIVATE. She saw him roll his eyes as he passed the guy.

The guy didn’t look up. He wasn’t interested in the bartender any more than he was interested in her. But his companion wasn’t here yet, and maybe wasn’t coming. He could talk to her for a few minutes, buy her a drink. It wouldn’t kill him.

May hopped off her stool, sucked in her stomach, and approached. “What are you reading?” she asked.

The guy canted the book so she could see the cover, but his hand covered most of the title. All she could read was the word Dying.

Awesome.

“Any good?”

He didn’t look at her. He was a bent, dark head, an ear, a declaratory elbow. When she heard a low voice, it took her a second to understand that it belonged to him. “They’ve got their mother’s corpse in a coffin in the back of this wagon, and they’re taking her into town to bury her. The youngest kid thinks the dead mother is a fish, but he also thinks she can’t breathe, so he bores holes into the coffin and right into her face.”

The bridge of her nose wrinkled. A totally involuntary response.

“One of the two older sons is going insane,” he added. “The other one’s broken leg is starting to rot, and the sister’s knocked up.”

A few beats passed. She tried to think of some kind of segue into normal conversation. The best she could do was “Yeah, but is it any good?”

“It’s super.” He injected the maximum amount of sarcasm into the word.

Sarcasm didn’t scare her. Her sister, Allie, had spent her freshman and sophomore years of high school dripping it all over everyone.

“I’m May.” She extended her hand.

He looked away from the book then, though not at her face. At her hand first. Then down at her shoes, which made him frown. She allowed him some leeway there, because she was wearing dark green leather flats with the bows on the toes, and she didn’t like them much, either.

When he lifted his gaze, it got stuck on her breasts for an uncomfortable period of twelve to fifteen years. “Ben,” he told them.

This offense was harder to forgive. Men had been addressing her breasts since she was thirteen. Her breasts had yet to respond to this treatment.

I’m up here.

She didn’t say it aloud, but his head lifted, and he finally looked right at her.

He had sort of sleepy eyelids that went with his broad-planed face, his full mouth—a face that made her think of bear-taming and those male dancers in the tall black boots and flouncy white shirts who crossed their arms and stuck their legs out.

Slavic, that was it.

His eyes were brown, lighter than they should have been in the middle and rimmed with black. Weird eyes.

Weirder still, he didn’t seem embarrassed to have been caught boob-ogling, and he didn’t take her hand. She had to retrieve it from the air in between them and find a place to stow it along the seam of her pants.

“What’s with the jersey?” he asked.

“Hmm?”

“Season doesn’t start until next week.”

Oh. Oh. The stupid jersey. Not her breasts.

“Believe me, I know.”

“Plus, Einarsson is a douche.”

Right. That.

Even back home, she sometimes got flack about continuing to wear the old jersey of a quarterback who’d abandoned the Packers for the Jets, only to lead his new team to a Superbowl victory against the old one. She might as well be sporting a pin that read, I support Benedict Arnold!

Still, douche seemed a little harsh.

Ben sat up straighter, his eyes refocusing on something over her right shoulder. He slid off his bar stool and raised a hand. May turned just as another man came off the last basement step and into the bar. A blond, good-looking man who actually knew how to smile.

“How’s it going?” Ben asked.

“Good,” the other man said. “Sorry I’m late. Erin’s been texting me about some crisis, and I lost track of the time.”

“Don’t worry about it. Got you a PBR for old times’ sake.”

“Classic. But you’ll have to drink it—I can’t stay long, and I’m in training anyway.”

“You’re always in training.”

“Tell me about it. Let’s go in the back.”

Ben pushed the spare beer a few inches in her direction. “You want this one?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

He took the other, and the two men walked past the pinball machine and disappeared into the back room.

May allowed herself a small, self-pitying sigh.

She’d hoped to throw herself on the mercy of some kind Midwesterner, and instead the universe gave her Ben. An intimidating stranger who liked to read books about corpses and who’d called her boyfriend—her ex-boyfriend—a douche.

This whole Pulvermacher’s fantasy was a lost cause.

But at least he’d given her another beer. Now she had until the bottom of this glass to come up with a better plan.

CHAPTER TWO

Ben Hausman took a deep breath, quieting his body and his mind.

He thought of the farm. The view of Lake Superior from the roof of the chicken house, flat and deep blue, stretching away until it fell off the end of the world.

Calm.

Lifting his arm, he bent it and directed all his energy toward the target on the wall. On an exhale, he cocked and flung the dart.

It hit the outermost ring of the target at an angle, bounced, and fell to the floor.

“Dude, you suck at darts,” Connor said from his perch on the arm of the bar’s ratty couch. “Give up. I’ll play you at pinball.”

“Bite me.”

Connor shook his head with a grin. “It’s Tron.”

“What’s Tron?”

“The pinball. They changed it. Didn’t you see? It’s Tron now.”

“Tempting, but I’ll pass.”

“What are you so worked up about?”

“I’m not worked up.”

“Your neck just disappeared.”

Ben blew out a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. Fuck. The whole point of playing darts was to practice not being tense. He refocused on his technique.

Right as he was about to send the shot, Connor said, “You didn’t used to be this hostile.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Yeah, okay, maybe. But you were good at darts.”

Ben had been good at a lot of things.

“I read this article about Tiger Woods,” he said, aiming. “Early in his career, he had some problem with his drive, so his coach made him take the whole thing apart and build it up from the ground level. He spent more than a year playing like complete garbage. None of the different parts of the swing were working in concert like they were supposed to. But then he pulled all the elements back together again, and it was magic. There was this click. The swing came back. He became Tiger Woods, you know? But even better.”

“Your point?”

“It’s a process,” Ben explained. “I’m evolving into the Tiger Woods of darts.”

“You don’t want to be Tiger Woods. Everybody hates him.”

“What, because of the adultery thing?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s still a great golfer.”

“Doesn’t matter. You need a better role model.”

“Fine. I’ll be the Jack Nicklaus of darts.”

Connor smiled. “That barely even makes sense.”

“That’s what you get for messing with my analogies.”

The analogy didn’t matter. The point wasn’t for Ben to get good at darts, it was for him to get better at life. To break his personality down to the raw elements and then recombine them for a less disastrous result.

“You going to shoot that thing or not?”

Ben threw it without aiming or thinking. The dart hit the very edge of the board and dropped to the floor. Connor shook his head, amazed. “Who was that blonde you were talking to?”

“What, at the bar?”

“Yeah.”

May. Her name was May. “She asked me about my book.”

“She looked kind of . . .”

Like a dairy maid in jeans. Brown eyes with golden lashes like wheat stubble. Milky skin. Freckles on her nose. “Kind of what?”

“Like she was having a bad day.”

She had. Uncomfortable, nervous, a little sad—way too pliable. She reminded him of three-quarters of the girls he’d gone to high school with, and she interested him not at all.

Except that when he’d told her Einarsson was a douche, the sour shape of her mouth had chastised him with all the force of a whip, and his heart had kicked in his chest, hard.

Then she’d blinked and turned innocuous again.

“Not my type.”

“No shit. She’s all soft. You spend a week filling in for Sam in the kitchen, and you look like you’re ready to take somebody’s head off. I’m surprised she even had the courage to talk to you.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“You’re worse. I bet you couldn’t be nice if you tried.”

Ben exhaled and threw another dart. When it lodged, quivering, in the floorboard, he felt like ripping it out and stepping on it, but he didn’t do it.

Progress. Even if it looked like failure.

He used to bulldoze his way through his days fueled by tension and aimless hostility. He’d wanted to be the best chef in New York. He hadn’t had a lot of time for darts, but on the rare occasion that he’d played, every missile had flown straight and true from his fingertips, like a bolt of sheared-off fury.

And that was great, except he’d also been a miserable bastard with stress-induced hypertension, insomnia, and a tendency to fly into unprovoked rages. He’d screamed at his kitchen staff and fought with his wife so much, they’d practically made an Olympic sport of it.

He didn’t blame Sandy for leaving him for greener pastures eighteen months ago. Hell, he would have left him, too, if he’d been able to figure out how. She’d done him a favor, delivering that wake-up call. Hey, Ben? You’ve turned into an unbearable asshole.

These days, he was learning how to keep a cool head. Even if it was hell on his dart game.

Ben inhaled, squinted, cocked, and let another dart fly. It hit the drywall to the left of the target.

Connor snorted. “When’s Alec back?”

“I’ve got a week.”

“You find another place to live yet?”

“No.”

“You even look?”

“Sure.”

Connor raised an eyebrow.

“Some.” If glancing at Craigslist for five minutes a week ago counted as looking.

Ben went through his whole routine—deep breath, focal point, directing his energy—and threw the last dart. This time, he managed to hit the target.

“Two points,” Connor said. “You’re setting the world on fire.”

“I have to savor the small victories.”

“You know it’s supposed to be a big deal, right?”

“What, two points?”

“Finding an apartment in New York. You’re not supposed to be this casual about it.”

“Something will work out. Alec will let me sleep on the couch for a while if I have to.”

This was true, because Alec was a pushover. It was also a bad idea. Ben’s former pastry chef was bringing his new bride home from Spain. Ben crashing on the couch would put a real cramp in the honeymoon.

“You can always come stay with us,” Connor said. “Erin and Bridget can bunk together, and you can have Erin’s room.”

“Yeah, that’d be really cozy. Right up until your sisters killed me in my sleep.”

“They wouldn’t mind sharing if it was for you. They like you.”

“Thanks, but I have to stick close to the bees.” Connor lived way the hell out in Queens.

“You and those bees.”

Ben gathered all the darts and positioned himself for another shot. The dart died on the way to the board and buried itself in a crack between the floorboards. Connor checked his watch. “Shoot.” He grabbed his jacket off the arm of the couch and stood. “I have to head out. I told Erin I’d take her for her driving test in an hour.”

“You’re going to be late.”

“Don’t say that. She’ll whine if I’m late.”

Connor came up behind him, clapped one hand on his shoulder, and raised Ben’s dart-clenching fingers with the other. He cocked Ben’s arm like a puppet limb, aimed, and shot.

Forty points.

“You should really stick to pinball.”

“Check back again in six months. Tiger Woods of darts.”

Connor chuckled. “See you next week for the game?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

He and Connor usually got together on game days. In college at UW, they’d been roommates, first by luck of the draw, then by choice. The Badgers and the Packers became their religion. The church had been forced to close its doors when Ben was in Europe, but after he came back and started working in New York he’d connected with Connor again. It didn’t take them long to figure out that Pulvermacher’s was a better venue than Connor’s place. His sisters didn’t treat the Packers with sufficient gravity, and Ben liked to say things to the refs that weren’t fit for the ears of teenage girls. At Pulvermacher’s, everybody took the Packers seriously, and bitching at the refs was a communal activity.

As Connor headed out, Ben threw again. Missed by a mile.

Son of a bitch.

He gave up and stuck all the darts in the board. Flopping onto the back room’s couch, he pulled his book from his pocket, intending to finish his beer before he took off.

There was a lull in the music, and from the main room he heard the friendly murmur of Connor’s voice followed by a woman’s laugh—a deep, throaty, way-too-loud bray that echoed in his head after the jukebox started playing again.

Without thinking, Ben rose and walked to the pinball machine, curious to pinpoint the source of that sound.

There were a few other people in the front room now, but they were all engaged in conversation or fondling their cell phones. Connor was backing toward the exit, beaming his trademark ear-to-ear grin, and May was still at the bar, smiling back.

It had to be her who had laughed.

Some laugh.

Connor jogged up the steps. His torso disappeared from sight, then his legs, then his feet. May’s smile faded along with him.

She blew out a breath, her unfocused gaze falling on the liquor bottles.

I bet you couldn’t be nice if you tried, Connor had said.

It wasn’t true. Probably.

Niceness wasn’t a prized commodity in restaurant kitchens, and the divorce had amplified Ben’s bad temper. In the first year after he and Sandy broke it off, he’d felt fucking scary. Pissed off and clenched, like he might strike out any second if he’d been able to find anything to strike out at. He’d started getting headaches in the season before she took the restaurant, Sardo, and in the months after his ears were ringing all the time. His doctor had doubled his blood-pressure medication and warned him to chill out before he had a stroke.

It had taken Ben another half a year to back away from that ledge. He’d tried everything anybody suggested—prescription drugs, yoga, meditation, even an anger therapy group. None of it had done any good, but the bees helped. So did all the hours he’d put in on the rooftop at Figs, getting his hands dirty pulling weeds, digging holes, and spreading cow shit. Making things grow.

He was getting better, but he had a long way to go before he’d be any good at polite chitchat with brown-eyed dairy maids.

He should go back to the couch. The woman radiated fragility. She was like that assignment in high school where you had to carry around an egg for a week and pretend it was your baby. If he was too much of an asshole, she’d crack open. Spill all over the place, and then he’d have to deal with the mess.

But it was strange. That laugh—so loud and unapologetic. It didn’t fit.

It didn’t fit that she’d tried to pick him up, either. She’d been far from oblivious to the signal he was putting out. Busy here. Fuck off.

Ben had already burned through the obligatory post-divorce phase of sleeping with any passably attractive woman who was into it. He’d landed in the ashes on the other side—tired, bleary-eyed, flat-out not interested.

He wasn’t interested now. This wasn’t interest. It was something else. An opportunity.

Because how was he supposed to learn how not to be a dick, except by talking to someone who actually seemed to notice when he was one?

The logic probably wouldn’t survive scrutiny. Ben didn’t stop to scrutinize it. He moved.

“You want to play darts?” he asked her.

She gave him a skeptical look. “No.”

“What, did Connor warn you off?”

“He said you were sorrier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

That explained the laughter. They’d been mocking him.

“What, you’re some kind of master?”

“I’m all right.”

“Play me either way. I’ll buy you a drink.”

After a moment, she nodded. “Okay to the drink.”

“Not the darts?”

“Not the darts.”

He could live with that. “What do you want?”

She scanned the selections behind the bar. “Glenlivet, if you’re buying. And a Red Hook.”

“That bad, huh?”

She did that thing with her mouth, that whip-frown, and his heart kicked his ribs again.

Those weren’t a milkmaid’s eyes. They were sharp and intelligent, full of a feeling he knew far too well.

“You have no idea,” she said.

But he did. He knew repressed fury when he saw it.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

When Ben came through to the back room from the bar carrying four drinks, May wiped her hand over her mouth. It had settled into a sort of battle rigor. She forced herself to smile.

Maybe he’s not so bad.

He set the drinks down and sucked spilled beer off the flat space beside his thumb. His hands were big, his knuckles covered with dozens of tiny scars.

He took a seat on the opposite end of the couch. “So. May.”

Then silence. He seemed to have nothing more to say.

May took the initiative. “Ben. Are you from around here?”

Small talk. Bright and cheerful. Just what her mother would have prescribed for such a situation. Not that her mother would ever find herself in this situation, because who moved in with her boyfriend, attacked him, slunk out of his apartment, got purse-snatched by a paparazzo, and ended up drinking with a hostile stranger?

Only May.

“I live in Hell’s Kitchen,” Ben said. “Ninth and Fiftieth.”

“I’m staying in the Meatpacking District.”

Ben nodded but didn’t comment.

It was as if he didn’t know how small talk worked. Or he hated her.

So why had he bought her a drink? Pity?

“Have you always lived there?” He seemed like the sort of man Hell’s Kitchen might have spawned.

“I grew up in Ashland.”

“Ashland where?”

“Wisconsin.”

“All the way up north?”

He nodded.

“I’m from Manitowoc.”

Another nod, and now he looked bored, probably because this conversation was lame even for small talk. Whereas May was kind of stunned. She’d never in a million years have guessed he was from back home. He was so armored.

He passed her one of the short glasses of whiskey.

“How long have you lived here?” she asked.

“Six years.”

“I’ve been here six weeks.”

And then more nothing.

She wished he would say something. Anything.

Part of her wondered if this was some kind of elaborate setup, like this morning. That guy who’d stolen her purse must have planned it. He must have wanted access to her phone, hoping for juicy details to feed the media’s fascination with Dan. Or not with Dan, really, but with Dan’s celebrity. Fans called him “Thor” for his longish blond hair, his build, his Scandinavian roots. In his uniform, she could see it. He looked like a Viking quarterback god.

But he wasn’t what he looked like. People often weren’t. If the thief had looked like a thief, rather than a runty guy in a uniform with a baseball hat shading his eyes, May might have told him not to bother. There were no juicy details on her phone, because there were no juicy details, period. Her personal life was ordinary. Drama-free.

Or it had been until yesterday.

The funny thing was, Ben looked more like a thief than the runty guy had. She could easily imagine him being sent to snatch purses. But to coax the truth out of a troubled woman? Not his style.

There was something intense about him, something really physical and active that made her think he didn’t sit much, normally. He didn’t chat much. He was looking toward the dartboard, leaning forward, rolling the whiskey glass between his palms.

“Do you like New York?” she asked.

He gave her a sharp, startled look, as though he’d forgotten she was there. “Sure.”

The silence settled again, but this time he kept his eyes on her. Those strange, dark-rimmed eyes. He watched her over the top of his glass as he took a sip of warmed whiskey, and his steady, quiet focus created all this pressure in her lungs. She wanted to blurt out the whole story and get it over with. To cut herself open and spread every messy detail on the ground in front of him, then watch his face to see if he felt anything but annoyance.

Maybe it was the leftover adrenaline in her system, tango-dancing with this latest infusion of alcohol. Her purse had been taken hours ago, but her hands still felt shaky, her armpits damp.

Ben watched her, waiting for something.

The pressure built.

Phantom pressure. Ghost biology. There was no reason for her to open her mouth.

No reason, except that he didn’t open his, and somebody had to.

“What brings you to New York, May?” she asked.

He cocked an eyebrow.

“Oh, how kind of you to ask,” she told herself. “I moved here to be with my boyfriend, Dan.”

Ben turned toward her and settled one shoulder against the couch cushion. Making himself comfortable. After he’d gotten settled, he lifted his free hand of his lap and made a rolling circular motion. Go on, the gesture said. I want to hear this.

“So why aren’t you at home with Dan,” she continued, “instead of bothering a strange man at a Packers bar?”

He didn’t smile exactly, but his mouth did something that was less of a scowl than it had been. Something soft that made her notice he had lips, and they were capable of looking ways other than foreboding.

“Well, Ben, the thing is, Dan’s not just some ordinary schmo. He used to play for the Packers.” She plucked at the number on her jersey.

The brackets at the corners of his mouth deepened.

“Thor,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Thor.”

He lifted his drink to his lips, then took it away without drinking. “I think I know how this story goes. I heard about it from Connor. That was you?”

“That was me.”

“Stabbed Thor Einarsson in the hand with a shrimp fork. I’d have paid good money to see that.”

“You can see it now for free. It’s on YouTube.” Thankfully, it was a grainy, shaky video taken from afar, and May was little more than a tall blond blob in a black dress. Unrecognizable unless you knew who you were looking at.

“Nah. I don’t watch that kind of stuff.”

“Viral forkings?”

“People’s private lives turned into public entertainment.”

“Ah. Classy of you.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” He considered her for a moment. The corners of his mouth hitched up a notch. He leaned in and clinked his glass against hers. “Cheers, then. I can’t fucking stand Einarsson.”

May smiled and looked away.

She shouldn’t be smiling.

“What do you have against Dan?” she asked.

“I’m a Packers fan.”

“So am I.”

“You’re a football girlfriend.”

“I was a football girlfriend. I’ve been a Packers fan since birth. Plus, I worked for the team even before I met Dan, so don’t question my loyalty.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

He said it so smug, though.

“It’s not fair to hate the quarterback for taking a better deal,” May pointed out. “It’s a career decision. This is his job. He couldn’t afford to play favorites, even if he wanted to stay in Green Bay.”

Another quirk of his lips. “What he’s getting paid now, though, he can afford whatever the fuck he wants.”

Her opinion of this statement must have shown on her face, because he lifted his hands, palms out. “Hey, I never said I’m fair. I’m loyal, though.”

“Not to Dan.”

“To the team.”

May took a drink. She liked the way the whiskey warmed her in slow increments, sip by sip.

She liked how it felt to argue with this stranger.

She didn’t argue, normally. It wasn’t polite. But Ben obviously liked being argued with a lot more than he liked being asked what he was reading.

“You’ve had a rough time of it.” He spoke the words gently. Too gently. Perversely, she wanted more sniping. More testing.

“Oh, but there’s more,” she said.

“Do tell.”

“I was supposed to be staying in the apartment and not attracting any undue attention until Dan came back from a meeting. We’d planned to fly to Wisconsin tomorrow and then drive up to Michigan to stay at my family’s cabin for Labor Day, only Dan and his agent put that on hold until after they talked to the PR people for the Jets. But instead I waited for them to leave for a meeting and then snuck out.”

“Nice.”

“I left a note on the fridge breaking up with him.”

“Ouch. After he proposed?”

“I know.”

“How long were you two a thing?”

“Four years.”

He winced.

“But this whole last year was long-distance. And even before that, we never lived together because he was in Green Bay and I was in Manitowoc.”

“Isn’t Manitowoc, like, thirty minutes from Green Bay?”

“Yeah. We saw each other a lot.”

“But you couldn’t rent a place together or something?”

May shrugged. They could have. They hadn’t. And it wasn’t this man’s business, but she kept blurting anyway, needing him to know she wasn’t as heartless as she might seem. “I tried breaking up with him a bunch of times yesterday, but he didn’t want to have the conversation. He would just be, like, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’ But today his agent was around all morning, and we didn’t talk about it. So I thought, ‘Forget it, I’m going home.’ I was on my way to Newark airport.”

“Why Newark?”

“We live in Jersey usually. That’s where Dan’s house is, in Florham Park.”

“So what’s in the Meatpacking District?”

“His apartment.”

Ben cast his eyes at the ceiling, making it clear what he thought of turncoat quarterbacks who used their ill-gotten loot to purchase both a house and an apartment.

“So anyway, I was going to fly out of Newark.”

“Never fly out of Newark.”

“I didn’t even get that far. I only got to the lobby of the apartment building, and there were all these paparazzi around the elevator. One of them grabbed me by the arm and led me outside. I thought he was a security guard who was trying to help me avoid the mob, but, in fact, he was just taking me into an alley away from all the other ones so he could steal my purse.”

Both eyebrows lifted. “You got yourself robbed?”

“Well, it’s not like I asked him to rob me.”

“You went with some strange guy.”

“I thought he was security.”

“What made you think that?”

“He had a black polyester jacket on.”

Ben let out a judgmental huff of air. She found herself smiling again.

Her situation had not improved, and now he thought she was a moron. But for some reason, being subjected to Ben’s scorn made her feel more cheerful than she’d been all day.

He put some terrible drug in your drink from a secret vial in his jacket. It makes you confess all this personal stuff and pass out, and then he’s going to carry you back to his apartment and have his wicked way with you.

Of course, he couldn’t outweigh her by more than a few pounds. In order to carry her off and ravish her, he’d have to get a helper. Or a dolly.

“He steal your suitcase, too?”

“What? Oh. No. I don’t have one. We went straight from the site of the forking to Dan’s apartment. I’ve only been there a couple times. I didn’t have anything to pack.” Or many options for what to wear. Which was why she was wearing her old jersey and these terrible shoes. “I figured I’d get whatever I needed back home before I drove up to Michigan,” she said with a shrug.

“Did you report it?”

“Report what?”

“The theft.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t see the point.”

It seemed so unlikely that the police would be able to do anything, and if she’d gone back into the building to call 9-1-1, the cameramen would have followed her. They’d have yelled questions at her, taken her picture as she waited for the police to arrive.

THOR’S GIRLFRIEND FLEES LOVE NEST!!!

FORKING FIANCÉE IS VICTIM OF HATE CRIME!!!

“You don’t have faith in the NYPD?”

“I figured there wasn’t much hope of getting my purse back. A few days ago, I sat by a policeman on the PATH train, and he was telling me about budget cuts and how their resources are stretched really thin.”

“Thought you’d save him the time, huh?”

“That’s right.”

Ben didn’t respond, but he emanated unspoken opinion.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“No, you have to say,” she insisted.

“You make friends with everybody you sit next to on the train?”

“No. Sometimes. This guy was really nice. He gave me his card.”

“How old was he?”

“I don’t know. Your age?”

“How old do you think I am?”

She welcomed the opportunity to study his face. Hard to tell, under all that stubble and grouchiness. She aimed high, adding a decade to test his reaction. “Forty-five?”

He cut her a killing look.

“You have a little gray in your hair,” she pointed out.

“Not much.”

“And crow’s feet around your eyes.”

The depression between his eyebrows deepened into a deep black V-shape.

May smiled. He was so easy to rile. “Well, how old are you?”

“None of your business.”

He growled it. Her sister would get a kick out of this guy. He was so feral. Allie loved dogs with behavioral issues. “What are you so testy about? Afraid you’re losing your looks?”

“I’m not testy,” Ben said. Testily.

“All right.”

“It’s just that I didn’t have you figured for one of those women.”

“What’s that mean?”

“The type who plays games.”

“Okay, fine. I don’t really think you’re forty-five.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I meant, I didn’t figure you for the kind of woman who pretends not to get it when a guy tries to pick her up.”

“So you’re saying . . . what? You’re trying to pick me up?”

“No, not me, genius, the cop.

For a second, she thought Ben meant that he was trying to pick up the cop, which confused her further, because he hadn’t even been there. But then she figured it out. “He wasn’t.”

“He tell you to call him?”

“If I ever needed anything.”

“And I bet he wrote down his personal cell number on the back of the card.”

He had, but that didn’t mean . . . “He knew I had a boyfriend. He was just being nice.”

“You call him sometime,” Ben said. “I bet you ten bucks he asks you out.”

“Nah. I would notice if someone was trying to ask me out.”

“Clearly you wouldn’t, because you didn’t. One of NYPD’s finest put the moves on you, and you thought he was being nice.”

“He was.

“Men are nice to old ladies for no reason. You’ve got blond hair and nine-mile-long legs. If a strange man is nice to you, he wants to get in your pants. If a cop gives you his cell number, he’s hoping you’ll use it.”

“Yeah, but—”

“And,” he interrupted, vehement now, “if a guy grabs you by the arm and starts dragging you into an alley, you’re supposed to kick and scream, not go with him and give him your fucking purse.”

“I thought he was security.

“Next time? Check.”

May took a breath. Her face felt hot, the skin beneath her bra strap damp and itchy.

It was exciting, talking to Ben. Bickering with him. She never bickered.

“So what’d you do?” he asked.

“Hmm?”

“After you got your purse stolen.”

“I just started walking,” she said. “And now I’m here.”

Ben cupped his chin in his hand, scraping his fingers over his stubble. “Six weeks, you said you’ve been in New York?”

“Mmm-hmm. Well, in New Jersey, mostly.”

“You know anybody in the city besides Thor? Or over in Jersey?”

May shook her head. In the year Dan had been playing for the Jets, she’d established casual friendships with a few of the other players’ wives and girlfriends, but no one she’d want to call right now.

“And your family’s all back in Wisconsin.”

“Yeah. On the way to Michigan.”

“So you’ve got nobody to take you in.”

“Right. Except Dan.”

“Who you dumped with a note.”

“Yeah. Although he probably hasn’t read it yet.”

Ben knocked back the rest of his whiskey in two quick swallows and addressed his next comment to the ceiling. “You’re having a really shitty couple days.”

May nodded.

“You have anything else on your agenda? Now that you’ve committed assault, dropped your asshole boyfriend, and gotten mugged?”

“Not really.”

Surely there was a way to sort things out and still fly home, even on a holiday weekend, but she couldn’t imagine it would be easy. Bare minimum, she needed access to the Internet, because she didn’t know anybody’s phone number except her parents’, her sister’s, Matt’s, and Dan’s—and none of those were any use to her now. Her family and Matt would be headed up north to the cabin on the lake.

If she could get online, she’d be able to find someone to call. Beth and Anya were both in her Gmail address book. Or she could go back to the apartment and wait for Dan to come home, then tell him what had happened.

But there was that imaginary line across the floor behind her.

Ben scrutinized her. “You sure you don’t want to play darts?”

“There’s always pinball.”

One corner of his mouth hitched up. It wasn’t a smile, but it was definitely amusement. He set his glass on the table next to the couch. Slowly, he rose, stretching his arms behind his back. He was broader through the shoulders than she’d realized. Flat across the stomach. Nicely put together.

But she only registered that in the most distant, uninterested sort of way, because the bulk of her brain was preoccupied with trying to figure out what to make of the fact that he was moving around like he planned to leave soon.

“Get up,” he said.

Confused, she lifted her chin and collided with his eyes again. The black corona around the edges reminded her of the rings around a lemur’s tail, which was yet another crazy thing to think, but that didn’t make it any less true.

They were ordinary brown eyes. There was no reason they should be so . . . so crackling.

He extended his hand, and when she took it, his fingers wrapped around hers, and he hauled her to standing.

She stopped moving before her head did, which suggested she maybe shouldn’t have had whiskey on top of the beers at the bar on top of no lunch and a public robbing. Normally, she had the alcohol tolerance of a moose. Right now, though, she had to be a little tipsy and a lot hungry, or she wouldn’t feel this impulse to rub her face against Ben’s neck.

His hand was really warm.

“You all right?”

She nodded, afraid to speak before she’d relocated her brain.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you some dinner.”

She was so relieved, she nearly collapsed. Which didn’t make sense because, one, she barely knew the guy, and two, she didn’t much like him. Plus, three, he wasn’t following her friendship-development script at all.

Still, she felt a sort of any-port-in-a-storm relief. Ben was far from her ideal shelter, but he was sturdy, and he was offering food.

Except . . . why?

Her eyes cut to his face the instant after the unpleasant possibility struck her. He didn’t think—

He wouldn’t expect her to—

Would he?

“What?”

“Nothing.”

She took a step back and wiped her tingling palm on her hip.

“Don’t bullshit me. You’re looking at me like someone slipped you a copy of my prison record.”

“You have a prison record?” Her voice rose to a panicked whine.

“No. Christ, it was a joke.” His eyes narrowed. “What do you think this is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“Dinner.”

“Just dinner, and not . . .”

But how could she say it when she could barely even think it? She was an infant. She didn’t belong in New York. She belonged in Manitowoc, where she knew all the rules and where nothing ever happened to her that caused her to wonder whether she might accidentally be stumbling into the exchange of dinner for sexual favors.

“Just dinner,” Ben said. “And not some kind of perverted thing where I clock you on the head when your back is turned and sell you into white slavery.” The rogue side of his mouth curved all the way up into a close-lipped smile.

He looked safer when he smiled. Almost normal. Not remotely like a man who would be so crass as to think she’d be selling herself for dinner.

And really, who was she kidding? She wasn’t the type to inspire that kind of offer.

“Are there still white slavers lurking around the streets of New York?”

“In Manhattan, they have everything.” Ben shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his hoodie. “You like tacos?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s get some tacos, and we’ll see if we can’t find a way to get you sorted out.”

May nodded her assent and let Ben lead her from the bar.

Maybe he wasn’t a dick, after all.

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