Title: Rules of Engagement
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Format(s): eBook, paperback
THE bartender leaned down to pull a bottle of Bud Light from the refrigerator beneath the bar. As she did, the front of her shirt fell forward, giving me an eyeful of her ample cleavage. Glancing up, she gave me a grin that almost made my heart stop.
"Bud Light," she said. As I took the bottle, I deliberately brushed my fingers across the back of her hand. Her eyes darted to our hands, then back to me. I winked, and she returned it.
A moment later, she was gone, tending to other patrons, and I smiled to myself as I leaned against the bar and looked around the club. All of the bartenders in this place flirted with their customers. It was just some harmless, playful fun, and usually more than enough to get me spun up and horny. Not that I needed a lot of help with that these days.
Before I realized what I was doing, I thumbed the place where my wedding ring used to be, and that familiar knot of guilt sank deep into my gut, pulling my good mood down with it and dulling the excitement from my brief exchange with the bartender. I had no reason to feel guilty; the divorce wasn't final, but the marriage was long since over, even if I wasn't over it.
I sighed into my beer bottle before taking a long drink. Maybe tonight wasn't a good night to be out on the prowl. At least nights like this were getting fewer and farther between, but they still happened, and it was happening now.
Oh well. I was already out for the evening. I might as well have a good time instead of going home and drinking the wife away.
Some cheering and shouting caught my attention, and I craned my neck to look at the pool tables on the opposite end of the room. A guy in a cowboy hat stared slack-jawed at the pool table, his shoulders slumping and head shaking as if in disbelief. His opponent - a cocky-looking bastard in a half-buttoned denim shirt over a white T-shirt - held his cue in one hand and reached across the table to shake hands. With a smirk on his face, he said something to the cowboy, who then rolled his eyes, slammed his cue onto the rack, and stormed off.
The winner picked the ante up off of the corner of the table and pocketed it. He lifted his eyebrows and spoke to the onlookers, asking a question by the looks of it. Judging by the way most of them avoided eye contact and even backed away, he was looking for another victim. He smirked and ran a hand through his dark hair, which fell to just above his collar. Even the way his hair was kept seemed cocky: perfectly trimmed and managed, but just long enough to say "I don't give a fuck what you think of it."
A girl in a blue tank top shimmied out of the crowd and plucked a cue off the wall. She grinned at the pool shark, wiggling her shoulders just enough to jiggle her breasts. I - and damn near every man in the bar - immediately took a drink. The pool shark, though, didn't seem fazed. He put some chalk on his cue and grinned at her, saying something that brought a little extra color to her cheeks.
He tossed his head to get a stray strand of hair out of his face and looked up at her as he took a shot. When he grinned, the devilish sparkle in his clear blue eyes was visible even from across the room.
From where I stood, I couldn't hear anything, but there must have been some serious shit-talking, if their expressions were to be believed. Satisfied that this would be more entertaining than wallowing in self-pity, I moved closer to watch the game.
"Go easy on him, Josie," one of the guys said to the girl.
"Nah," the pool shark said, leaning over to take a shot. "Give me all you've got, girl. I can take it." The light above the pool table added a soft shadow below his prominent cheekbones and illuminated his hair, picking out hints of copper that made me wonder if he'd had his hair highlighted. Since when do I notice these things? I pulled my attention away from him and tried to focus on the game.
"Maybe he should go easy on her," someone else said. "Have you lost a game tonight?"
The pool shark snorted as he took a shot and pocketed the six. "I haven't lost a game all week."
"That's going to change tonight," Josie said. Though she sounded cocky, the crease between her eyebrows betrayed her lack of confidence as she watched him drop the three.
"Maybe tonight." He lined up a shot. "But not this game." As if to emphasize his point, he hit the cue ball and pocketed the one and four in a combo that could only be described as a thing of beauty.
"Distract him," one of the guys said to Josie. "Show 'im your tits."
"That won't work." The shark looked over his shoulder at the guy who had made the suggestion. "Might trip me up if you show me yours, though." Laughing as he turned back towards the table, he caught my eye, and we exchanged the briefest glance.
"You know, if you'd let her play, she might beat you," someone said.
"I will," the shark said. "As soon as I miss a shot, the table is all hers." He leaned over the table.
I chuckled. "Spoken like a man who always hits where he's aiming."
His eyebrows lifted, as did the corner of his mouth. "When there's a possibility of being beaten by a girl, you'd better believe I do." His eyes shifted to the cue ball.
"I could think of worse things than being beaten by a woman."
He looked at me again. "Oh?"
Shrugging, I lifted my beer to my lips. "Like losing to someone who actually knows how to play." I sensed Josie glaring at me from the sidelines, but my eyes were locked on her opponent.
When his eyes came up this time, there was something unreadable in his expression, something that lodged the breath in my throat. An instant later, he focused on the game again. He took his shot, and the two narrowly missed the corner pocket. Cursing, he stepped back from the table to let Josie take her shot.
"About damned time," she said. "Now let me show you what it feels like to be beaten by a girl." She leaned over the table, straining the seams of her painted-on jeans. She had damn near every man in the bar mesmerized, myself included. When she lined up a shot and paused to adjust her grip on the cue, I went for my beer.
As I tilted the bottle back, I glanced at the pool shark.
He was looking right at me.
There was an intriguing look on his face, something that appeared to be a combination of amusement and cockiness. He seemed to be reading me. Sizing me up. Mentally scrutinizing me, as if trying to decide whether or not to challenge me.
I rolled a sip of beer around in my mouth for a second, and as I swallowed it, I swore he was watching my throat. Then he met my eyes again, and I got the feeling he'd made his decision of whether or not to challenge me.
I knew in that moment that, once he finished with Josie, I would be playing the next game.
Josie managed to drop four balls before she missed a shot. Her - and soon to be my - opponent soundly trampled her after that, knocking in every remaining solid ball before sinking the eight.
"Good game," he said, extending his hand across the table.
She shook it and smiled, but her smile was thin-lipped with annoyance, and her grip on his hand looked stiff and forced. They exchanged terse pleasantries, and she left.
He looked at me and gestured at the table. "I've got plenty left. You game?"
I smirked and took a cue off of the wall. "You're on. What's the ante?"
Picking up his beer, he said, "Fifty."
Fishing the money out of my wallet, I eyed him. "So how long has it been since you lost a game?"
He chuckled as he racked the balls. "A few days. But I have been known to lose on occasion."
"Good," I said. "Then at least I know you're used to it."
His grin widened and his eyes narrowed. "Confidence. I like that."
I set my beer down and put chalk on my cue. "I hope you like losing too."
"You'll have to tell me what it's like."
I looked at him to make a smartass retort, but he wasn't looking at me. He was looking at the chalk. At my fingers holding the chalk. I turned it slowly on the end of the cue and watched as his eyes followed when I set the chalk down.
He cleared his throat and picked up the chalk. "Your break."
I nodded. An unfamiliar tension crept into my gut as I set the cue ball on the table. Lining up my shot, I struggled to focus, forcing myself not to follow the muffled grinding sound of my opponent putting chalk on his cue. Swallowing hard, I furrowed my brow and stared the cue ball down.
I broke, and the twelve dropped. On my next shot, the ten went into the side pocket.
"Looks like you're stripes." He didn't sound in the least bit nervous. As far as he was concerned, he had this game in the bag. We'll see about that.
"So I am," I said, eyeing the table and sizing up the available shots. Then I glanced at him. "Don't worry. I'll get mine out of the way for you in just a second."
He snorted as he lifted his beer to his lips. "How considerate."
The cocky side of me wanted to go for a fancy combo shot to impress the gathered crowd, but the competitive side of me knew better than to risk it. Against someone like him, it was best to stick to the simple, straightforward shots. The final score was all that mattered, and the two fifty dollar bills on the end of the table didn't care how it happened.
I avoided his eyes as I lined up my next shot. In spite of my confidence, he made me nervous. It wasn't just that he was an incredible player; there was something else in the way he looked at me that unsettled me. Something that said he was still sizing me up and not just as an opponent.
Focus. He's just trying to intimidate you. I took a deep breath and made my shot, knocking the fourteen in. As I moved around the table toward the cue ball, I chanced a look at him. Our eyes met briefly, but it was enough to make it difficult to breathe.
Maybe it was just some sort of technique he used to psych out an opponent, but I had never seen anything like it. When his eyes locked on mine for that instant, he startled as much as I did. I wondered if his pulse jumped the way mine did.
If he was trying to make me nervous, it was working.
Blood pounding in my ears, I leaned over the table. Just as I took my shot, someone bumped into me from behind, and the cue ball whizzed past the nine with room to spare. I cursed under my breath.
The pool shark caught the cue. "I'll let you shoot that one again."
"How kind," I muttered, looking over my shoulder to glare at the intruder while I reached out to take the cue ball.
The ball landed gently in my palm, and the soft warmth of his thumb grazed the side of my hand. I looked at our hands and then at him, and I instantly knew that it was deliberate. I shivered and closed my fingers around the cue ball, exhaling as we broke contact.
He swallowed, eyes still locked on me as if daring me to look away first. "Your shot."
"Thanks." I almost choked on that single word. Clearing my throat, I set the cue ball back in its place on the table. Glancing behind me to make sure no one was going to bump into me this time, I set up my shot.
No one touched me, but my hands were still unsteady from that unnerving exchange, and in spite of lining up the perfect shot, the nine bounced off of the side and came to rest in the middle of the table. Sighing, I stood and looked at my opponent.
"Your shot," I said.
He nodded, smirking. Cocky bastard. I couldn't believe he'd managed to psych me out, that I'd fallen for his head games and let myself get too rattled to take such a simple shot.
His eyes flicked around the table, looking for just the right shot, probably calculating every possible outcome from every possible angle, analyzing the game the way a chess player did. As he did, his fingers drummed the side of the table, and I'll be damned if there wasn't just a hint of unsteadiness in his hand. I furrowed my brow, focused on his hand, trying to decide whether or not it was just my imagination.
The drumming stopped.
The trembling didn't.
And when I looked up, he was looking at me.
This time, when I swallowed hard, I was sure his eyes followed the ripple down the front of my throat. The tip of his tongue swept across his lips, and he quickly looked away, focusing on the game. I stood back from the table, turning my eyes towards the scattered balls but not actually looking at them.
Whatever he was doing, it wasn't a game. It wasn't an attempt to psych me out. If anything, he was struggling as much as I was to stay focused.
"You're up." His voice startled me.
Looked around the table, I mentally tallied the score. Four stripes left, three solids, and the eight ball. Christ, he'd managed to drop four while I wasn't even looking. Maybe he wasn't as distracted as he let on.
I knocked two in before I scratched. Then he dropped one before missing. Then I got one more. All the while, we avoided each other's eyes, focusing on the game.
The crowd around us had thickened. From some of the murmurs, people seemed impressed that I was giving the nameless pool shark a run for his money, but others noticed - as I did - that his technique was faltering. He wasn't playing the way he usually did, the way he had when he stomped Josie and her cowboy predecessor.
I wondered if any of them felt the puzzling tension that didn't seem to have anything to do with the game at hand.
"Fuck," he muttered as the cue ball followed the two into a corner pocket. He fished it out and handed it to me.
This time, I let my fingertips brush the heel of his palm, and he sucked in a breath. In spite of how stuffy and hot it was in the club at that point, I was secretly glad I'd chosen to wear a long-sleeved shirt. Any less, and everyone in the club would have seen the goose bumps he raised on my arms.
I pocketed the eleven, and the score was even: we each had one left besides the eight ball.
Then he missed.
Cursing under my breath, I took my next turn. Neither of us were playing nearly as well as we could, but why? What the hell was going on?
I focused on the cue ball, but movement at the opposite end of the table caught my eye. My breath caught in my throat as I looked up just in time to see him take the chalk away from his cue and blow the excess off.
Fucking hell, what is the matter with me?
Forcing myself to concentrate, I knocked the thirteen in. He pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. The eight ball was sitting in front of the side pocket. It was an easy shot. He knew he was toast.
Assuming I could convince my hands to work, that is. I tried to shoot him a smug look, was just about to talk some shit, when the tip of his tongue swept across the inside of his upper lip. Without thinking about it, I did the same, and he looked at me just as I did. The nervous ripple that ran down the front of his throat turned my knees to water, and the sudden ache below my belt told me exactly what this tension was all about.
I tried to breathe. Tried to focus on my shot. Tried to comprehend that it was a man having this effect on me.
"Eight ball, side pocket." My mouth was dry. I concentrated on the cue ball, focused on it, tried to think of anything other than the pool shark and the hard-on he was giving me. Thank God I'd not only worn a long-sleeved shirt to cover up the goose bumps, but I'd left it untucked, which I hoped was enough to save me some embarrassment.
I took the shot, and the eight ball dropped.
The crowd around us broke into cheers, applauding me for beating the pool shark and ribbing him for allowing his streak to be broken. He shook his head in disbelief and picked up the money from the end of the table.
"Good game," he said. "Fucking good game." He handed me my winnings and then extended his other hand. "Brandon Stewart."
"Dustin Walker." I shook his hand. In the same instant that I let my thumb run across the back of his hand, he did the same to mine. We both tensed and then released each other's hands and cleared our throats.
"Anytime you're up for a rematch," he said, holding my gaze with what seemed like an unusual amount of effort for someone who was usually so cocky. "You know where to find me."
I swallowed. "I may take you up on that."
He gestured at the table. "Ready when you are."
"Actually, I'd better get going," I said. "But I come here a lot. If I see you again, I'll gladly take you up on another chance to wipe the floor with you."
He smirked and winked. "Anytime. Any place."
We shook hands again. Then I finished my beer and headed for the door, trying to figure out what the fuck had just happened.