Previously published as Until It's Over.
Author: Lauren Gallagher
On my way into the Pike Street Pub, I let out a groan that drowned in the noise of sports and fans. I’d let my friend Susan talk me into coming even though I really didn’t feel like it, but it wasn’t until I stepped through the door that the knot of Why the hell am I here? made itself known.
A pub I could handle. Crowds, noise, people, alcohol. All of that was fine. In fact, this was my kind of place. Baseball games on old, grainy televisions above a bar that had seen better days. At least two dozen decent beers on tap and bartenders who would sooner hit themselves over the head with a bottle of Cuervo than serve a drink with a paper umbrella in it. All it needed was sawdust on the floor and it would’ve been perfect.
In the years before Seattle’s anti-smoking laws, the air probably would have been opaque and gray, but now it was perfectly crisp and clear. Just clear enough, in fact, for me to see exactly why I wished I hadn’t come at all: Susan had spotted me and immediately sprung to life, grabbing a tall blond guy’s arm and dragging him toward me. The way she gestured and rolled her eyes told me she was persuading him to follow her. The way he gestured and rolled his eyes suggested he wasn’t particularly enthused about it.
That must be Troy. Troy Wilson, the guy Susan said I simply had to meet because he was perfect for me.
I groaned again as they wove between barstools, partygoers, and chest-high tables, closing in on me. My voice disappeared into the surrounding noise, but I didn’t have the luxury of a cloud of smoke to obscure my face, so I forced something in the vicinity of a smile.
“Hey Dani!” Susan squealed. She dragged Troy closer and gestured proudly. “This is Troy. Troy, Dani.”
“Hi.” Offering a smile that was a bit more genuine than my own, he extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” I shook his hand, and when his smile broadened, I relaxed a bit. Maybe Susan was right and this was what I needed. He deserved a chance, and maybe I could enjoy an evening out.
Troy cleared his throat and suddenly looked a little shy. “Can I, um, can I buy you a drink?”
I released a breath and with it, more of my apprehension. Though he obviously hadn’t been thrilled about being pulled away from his other conversation, there was no evidence of irritation in his expression now. He seemed like a nice guy, and hopefully Susan wouldn’t steer me wrong.
“Sure,” I said.
“What’ll you have?”
I glanced at the bar. “Mac and Jack’s if they have it.”
“Good taste in beer.” He gave a nod of approval. “I like you already.”
“I’ll just leave you two alone.” Susan grinned at us. In a loud whisper, she added, “Go easy on him.”
My face burned. “Susan!”
Troy laughed. “Get out of here, Suze.” When she was gone, he nodded toward the bar and I followed him. After he’d ordered, he said, “Sounds like you’re getting a taste for some of the local beers.”
“Blame Susan. She brought me out a few times when we met. Made me try something other than my usual.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Then thank God she showed you light.” The bartender set our pint glasses in front of Troy, who then passed one to me. Troy sipped his. “So, how do you know Susan?”
“We work together,” I said.
Something in his expression changed. Dulled. “Oh.” He didn’t even try to feign interest.
I loved my job as a dressage trainer, but it seemed to be a coma-inducer for a lot of men these days, so I quickly changed the subject. “What do you do?”
That brought him back to life. “I manage commercial properties.” He squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest. “Mostly here in Seattle, but I’m working on getting into the East Side. So it’s—” He did a double take, glancing at something over my shoulder. “Oh, damn, that was fast. Looks like the game’s back on.” His smile was just patronizing enough to set my teeth on edge. “It was nice meeting you though, Dani.”
And with that, he shook my hand again and then walked back to the other side of the room, where a few of the guys were focused on a Yankees-Cubs game. I watched, slack-jawed. This is the man who was supposed to be ‘perfect’ for me? I rolled my eyes and cursed under my breath before lifting my glass to my lips again. Oh well. At least I got a free beer out of it.
Though it didn’t do much for my ego, it was probably just as well. I was only a few short months out of a relationship that should have ended years ago, so a boyfriend was out of the question. That, and one night stands weren’t my thing. Even if they were, and if Troy was as self-centered and inconsiderate as he’d shown himself to be, that was probably a good indicator of how he was in bed. I didn’t care how highly Susan thought of him, he obviously thought even higher of himself, and I’d just spent four years of my life with a man like that.
I leaned against the bar and sipped my beer for a few minutes, then decided there was no sense wallowing in a glass of self-pity. I could do that at home, and whether I wanted to be or not, I was here.
So, I went about joining the rest of Susan’s group of friends. With time and a little alcohol, I slowly got into the groove of mingling and socializing, striking up conversations with the few people I’d met before and even some of the ones I hadn’t. My second beer eased the tension in my gut enough that I finally relaxed into the party atmosphere and forgot all about Troy being a jackass.
Before long, several people and I were engaged in a lively discussion about the Mariners, who were having a decent season for once. Beer bottles rose and fell with the wild gestures of inebriated sports fans and I narrowly missed getting an ice cold Miller Lite down the front of my shirt.
“Sorry, sorry.” The guy flashed perfect white teeth and gave me a quick, conspicuous once-over. I didn’t mind. I gave him the same look, allowing myself a moment to indulge in a few fantasies about what he was packing in those tight jeans.
We exchanged a couple flirtatious looks, then resumed the beer-swinging baseball discussion. Though I wasn’t particularly loyal to the Mariners, given that this wasn’t my hometown, I knew and loved the sport. There were worse ways to spend an evening, I decided, than drinking beer over stats and scores. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. At least I was out of the house.
Cheering on the opposite side of the room drew everyone’s attention. Our heads turned as one to see what the commotion was about.
And that’s when I saw him.
He was a few feet away, far enough that had the anti-smoking laws not been passed, he probably would have disappeared in the thick gray cloud. Without the exhaled tobacco, though, I had an unobstructed view, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
His attention had followed everyone else’s to the loud celebration at the other end of the bar. When the noise died down, he returned his focus to a conversation with the group in which he stood. Though everyone else spoke loudly and gestured wildly with hands and drinks, he wasn’t nearly as animated and didn’t say much. He seemed out of place here for some reason. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but soon realized it was because he was quiet. Subdued. Reserved. When the others laughed uproariously, only the faintest hint of a grin curled his lips, his amusement subtle but unmistakable. When he listened, lines of concentration appeared between his eyebrows as if he hung on every word. And when he spoke, even though he said little, every head in the group turned.
He wasn’t a wallflower by any means. Though he listened more than he spoke, he was as engaged in the conversation as anyone else. He was interested, but seemed content to merely observe and only occasionally offer a comment.
As soon as I saw him, he fascinated me, and I wasn’t entirely sure why. Maybe he just stood out because he was understated and calm in a sea of drunk and disorderly.
It was that magnetic quietude that caught my eye, but once I’d grown accustomed to his strangely intense presence, another fact about him made itself known: He was gorgeous.
He was probably a head taller than me and built slim and lean. Not a body builder, not skin and bones, but fit. Fit with just the right broadness of shoulders and narrowness of hips to make my mouth water. He held a pint glass in one hand while the other thumb hooked in the pocket of his jeans. Casual, but somehow dignified. Even standing perfectly still, he carried himself with a kind of masculine grace.
A tiny hint of rebellion glinted on his left earlobe, though I couldn’t tell from a distance if it was a stud or a hoop. He was clean cut except for the faint shadow of stubble, which drew my attention to his pronounced cheekbones. When I caught myself wondering what it would be like to trace the angle of his jaw with my fingertip, I quickly looked away, clearing my throat and sipping my beer. I tried to concentrate on the discussion going on around me, which had moved on to last year’s World Series. All I could think about, though, was that quiet presence nearby.
As soon as I was fairly sure my face wasn’t glowing brighter than the neon Budweiser sign in the window, I chanced another look.
He raised his beer to take a drink, pausing with his glass nearly to his lips.
His eyes shifted.
And met mine.
Maybe it was just the dim, warm light of the pub, but never in my life had I seen such vivid blue eyes. He lowered his glass, and for a moment we held each other’s gazes. Then a hint of a smile pulled at his lips and crinkled the corners of his eyes.
A second later, his attention returned to his conversation and I was left with trembling knees and a beer that suddenly wasn’t nearly cold enough.
My group of strangers eventually dispersed, but the guy who’d nearly dumped his beer on me earlier lingered.
“You’re Dani, aren’t you?” he asked.
“The Dani that works with Susan, right?”
“Yeah, I’ve worked with her for a few months. I’m—”
His eyes started to glaze. I wondered how much Susan had gabbed about our line of work if every man in the room was instantly bored when it came into a conversation.
So I changed the subject. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Oh, right, sorry.” He extended his hand. “I’m Kyle. Susan’s my sister.” I shook his hand, noting with some amusement how that simple movement made his balance waver.
He leaned casually against the bar, probably trying to keep himself upright. “So can I buy you a drink?”
I tried not to groan. Just what I needed: Knocked back by Mr. Perfect, hit on by Mr. Drunk. I gestured with my glass, which was still half full. “I think I’m good for now. In fact I—”
“Well, when you finish that one.” He winked.
“I, um, I think this is enough for me for tonight,” I said. “Still have to, you know, get home.”
“Don’t worry about that.” He grinned. “There’s always taxis.”
“I’d rather not leave my car in town. Thanks, though.” I smiled, then sipped my beer to get the taste of this conversation out of my mouth. The truth was I had every intention of taking a taxi home. A taxi that didn’t contain Susan’s drunk, persistent brother.
“Well, if you change your mind—”
“You know, I’m probably going to take off after this one.” I started to take a step back.
“But it’s still early.” He clapped my shoulder playfully, then held on, walking the very fine line between persistent and creepy. “Party’s just getting started. You can’t leave yet.”
“Well, no, I—”
“So, how long have you been here? In Seattle, I mean. Not the bar. I saw you walk in.” He laughed heartily, like he was certain he was the funniest man alive.
I laughed, but didn’t put a lot of effort into it, concentrating more on casually freeing my shoulder from his hand. “I’ve been here a few months. Anyway, I need to—”
“Oh, so you’re really new to town,” he slurred. “You know, I could show you around the city one of these days.”
“Oh, I’m…” I cleared my throat. “I’m learning it okay on my own. I’ll manage.”
“You sure? It can get pretty confusing.”
I gritted my teeth, forcing myself to keep smiling. “I’m okay. In fact—”
“Well, if you’re sure.” He gestured toward the beer taps. “So can I buy you a drink?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Dude, you are plowed, aren’t you? Taking a deep breath and surreptitiously looking for Susan or any other convenient method of escape, I said, “I’m okay, thanks.”
“Aw, come on, just one beer. Really, I insist.”
I started to speak, but movement beside me caught my eye. I turned, expecting to step aside for a moment to let someone get to the bar.
I wasn’t expecting him.
Nor was I expecting him to stop and look Kyle right in the eye.
“Can I help you?” Kyle growled.
“You know the definition of insanity, don’t you?” The newcomer’s lips curled into that hint of a grin and when his eyes darted toward me, he winked.
Kyle narrowed his eyes. “Um, no, I—”
“It’s defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” He raised his beer to his lips, casually taking a sip while his eyes once again darted to me, then back to Kyle.
Kyle sucked in a breath that was made of pure indignation. He opened his mouth to protest, hesitated, then cursed into his drink and stalked off, leaving me alone with… him.
I laughed and shook my head, watching Kyle disappear. “Damn, I’ve been trying to get rid of him since he started talking to me. And you just…” I gestured toward the empty space Susan’s brother had occupied.
“Guess he just…” The quiet stranger glanced in Kyle’s direction. When he turned his head, the earring—a diamond stud—caught my eye again. “Well, anyway, you looked like you could use some help.”
He switched his drink to his left hand and extended his right. “Connor Graham.”
His palm was cool from holding his beer, but all that registered was heat. When I made eye contact with him again, his eyes were even bluer up close than they’d been from across the room.
He cocked his head. “Either I’ve been completely oblivious, or you’re new to this group.”
I started to speak, then realized he hadn’t yet released my hand. We both looked down and at the same moment, pulled our hands away. Avoiding each other’s eyes for a second, we sought refuge in our drinks.
Then I shifted my weight. “Yeah, I’m… Susan and I work together, but I’m still fairly new to the area.”
He rested his hip against the bar and his eyebrows lifted slightly. “You work together?”
Inwardly I cringed. Twice tonight I’d managed to make guys’ eyes glaze over by mentioning my job. This time, I shrugged dismissively. “Yeah, nothing too exciting.”
“Come on, now.” He grinned and turned my knees to water. “It’s got to be more interesting than pushing a desk all day long.”
“I’m sure Susan’s told you everything about it.”
“Not really, no.” Even as he took another drink, his eyes were fixed on me, the slight tilt of his head bidding me to continue.
I fidgeted a little, pretending to just casually shift my weight again. “Well, like I said, it’s nothing too exciting. We train dressage horses and jumpers. Give lessons to kids and adults. Break young horses. Things like that.”
“Sounds pretty interesting to me,” he said. “My sister’s got a couple of horses. Hell if I know a thing about them, but I wouldn’t mind learning.”
Like old friends, we fell easily into conversation. No matter what we talked about—my job, people we knew, the baseball games on the screen—he hung on my every word. It was the same way he’d interacted with the others when he didn’t know I was watching, so I had no illusion that this was specially for me, but it was still refreshing after Troy and Kyle. Even some commotion behind me warranted nothing more than a brief flick of his eyes before his attention returned to me. Otherwise, he stayed focused on and interested in our conversation. Focused on me. I was surprised it didn’t make me uncomfortable, but then again there was no rational reason it should have. He wasn’t scrutinizing, just interested.
“So anyway,” I said after explaining some of the finer points of my job, “that’s what I do for a living.”
He smiled. “Sounds like you’re doing what you love.” Raising his glass, he added, “More people should.”
I wondered when he’d moved closer to me. Or I’d moved closer to him. I could have sworn we were standing farther apart but somehow, perhaps through a series of motions so minute I hadn’t noticed, we’d narrowed that space. He was near enough to touch, and touching him was oh so tempting.
When our eyes met, the hint of a grin and the sparkle of mischievousness in his eyes dared me to do it. Instead, I muffled a cough behind my hand and said, “So, what do you do?”
Setting his beer on the bar, he rested his elbow beside it. “At the moment, I’m a desk jockey, but that’s just to pay bills until I graduate.”
“What are you studying?”
“I’m finishing my master’s in linguistics.”
“Linguistics?” I couldn’t help but grin. “So that would make you a cun—”
“A cunning linguist, yes.” He rolled his eyes and laughed.
“Can’t say I’ve ever met a linguist before.”
He grinned. “Not even a cunning one?”
“Especially not a cunning one.”
He lifted his beer again, his eyes narrowing and his lips curling into a smile that made my knees tremble. “What a pity.”
Lost in conversation with Connor, I didn’t realize just how late it was until I noticed that the pub was getting progressively quieter. People migrated toward the door. The bartenders spent more time cleaning than pouring. The baseball games on TV were long since over.
Connor glanced at his cell phone. “Wow, it’s almost one.”
“Already?” I said. “Time flies, I guess.”
He smiled. “So it does.”
“I should probably go.” But damn, I don’t want to.
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “Another hour and they’ll throw us out anyway.”
Connor chuckled. “Probably just as well. Or we might end up here all night.”
It took me a second to realize why that would be in any way undesirable. I could think of no place I’d rather be, but the night had to end sooner or later. We couldn’t stay here all night, so it was, as Connor said, just as well.
He looked at the door, then at me. “Do you mind if I walk you back to your car?”
“I took a taxi.” I gestured at my empty glass. “I was planning to have a few more of those than I did.”
The smile on his lips was caught somewhere between devilish and shy. For a moment, he avoided my eyes. “If it’s not too forward of me…” A pause, possibly gauging my reaction before he’d fully asked the question. “Could I give you a lift home?”
Had it been anyone else, I’d have balked at the offer. After all, he was a complete stranger. Did I really want to get into his car and show him where I lived? But Susan knew him, and even if she knew such impolite cretins as Troy and Kyle, I doubted she associated with psychos.
“You don’t mind?”
The shyness faded. “Not in the least.”
“What if I said I lived a few hours away? Like, say, Bellingham?”
His expression was all devilishness now, and my knees shook when he said, “Then I guess we’d be in for a long drive together, wouldn’t we?”
I suddenly wished I lived in Bellingham.
“Let me take care of my tab and we can go,” he said.
I nodded and he disappeared into the thinning crowd.
Out of nowhere, Susan was suddenly by my side giving me a good-natured glare. “Dani Blake, if I didn’t know any better, I’d be sure you were just flirting with Connor.”
“Define ‘flirting.’” I batted my eyes.
She rolled hers. “After all the trouble I went to setting you up with Troy.”
I snorted. “Please. I don’t think he was interested, considering how quickly he made his escape as soon as you were out of earshot.”
Susan blinked. “What? Oh, I’m going to kill him, that—”
“No, no.” I put a hand up and shook my head. “Trust me, it’s for the better.”
Her eyes flicked toward the bar and she smiled. “Well, if Connor’s a suitable consolation prize, don’t let me get in your way.”
“Consolation prize?” I glanced at Connor. “You won’t hear me complaining. Besides, he’s just taking me home.”
“Taking you home?” Her eyes widened. “Doesn’t that—”
“As in driving me back to my apartment, Susan.” I eyed her. “So I don’t have to pay for a cab. Nothing like that.”
She laughed. “And I suppose you have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell me while you’re at it?”
Though I tried to laugh it off, I could only half-heartedly deny what my intentions were. One night stands weren’t for me, but I hoped the next half hour or so would at least warrant a “can I see you again?”
Connor’s voice came from behind me: “Susan, you’d better not be filling her head with lies about me.”
Susan put her hands up defensively. “No lies. None at all.”
“Or truth, for that matter,” he said. I turned to see him giving her a look that might have been intimidating had it not been for the mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
After some playful ribbing, we said our goodbyes to Susan and headed out of the pub. It was a warm night, considering it was only early spring, but the occasional gust of cold wind off Puget Sound made me wish I’d brought a jacket. Or a shirt that served as a somewhat better defense than this thin blouse. At least I was wearing jeans. Susan would be miserable when she stepped outside in her super short skirt.
About three blocks from the pub, Connor indicated a black parallel-parked Jeep. He unlocked it and opened the passenger door to let me in before going around to the driver’s side.
He slid into the driver’s seat. “So do you really live in Bellingham?”
I wish. “No, my apartment is in the U-district.”
“Not far at all then,” he said quietly.
“You sound disappointed.”
He shrugged and buckled his seatbelt. “I have to admit, I was hoping for a longer drive.”
My heart skipped. That was probably the least subtle thing he’d said all night, and I so, so hoped he wasn’t just saying it. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted from him, what I wanted out of this, but whatever it was, I hoped he wanted it too.
Connor shifted gears and pulled out onto Pike Street, following it in the direction I indicated. While he drove, he said, “You mentioned that you’re not from this area. Where are you from?”
“Wyoming. Moved here about seven months ago.”
“What brought you out here? Work?”
Before I could think twice, I said, “Boyfriend.”
He glanced at me, eyes wide.
I laughed. “Ex-boyfriend now.” The momentary panic faded from his expression, but unasked questions hid in the furrows between his eyebrows, so I continued, “He wanted a change of scenery, so he moved. About four months after we got here, he decided to change all the scenery.”
Connor shot me an incredulous look. “Are you serious?”
I shrugged. “Eh, he was a jackass. It’s better this way.”
“Still,” he said. “I can’t imagine packing up your life, moving halfway across the country, then having someone turn around and pull a stunt like that.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” I said dryly. “But, it’s done. I’m here.”
At that, Connor smiled, but said nothing.
“What about you?” I asked. “Are you from this area?”
He nodded. “Born and raised.”
“Seems like a lot of people who are born here, stay here.”
“It’s a great place to live,” he said. “Well, I might be biased. All I know is that no matter where I go, this city will always be home.”
I could have sworn my apartment was further from the Pike Street Pub, and I cursed every green light that whisked us closer to the our destination. I wasn’t ready for this night to be over. There had to be some unscheduled middle-of-the-night road construction somewhere. Or a fender bender. A damned red light. A riot. Something. Anything.
But, after mere minutes, Connor pulled his Jeep into one of the vacant guest spaces at the foot of my building. For the first time since he’d shooed Kyle away at the bar, an awkward silence hung between us.
“Listen, without resorting to some clichéd pick-up line,” he said, “I’d like to see you again.”
I smiled. “Well then, without resorting to some clichéd response, why don’t I just give you my number?”
“I like the sound of that.” He pulled out his phone. I recited my number and he entered it, showing me the screen to make sure it was correct.
With my number securely in his phone, we could safely call it a night. Go our separate ways knowing we’d cross paths again and soon. Still, neither of us moved, nor did we speak.
He scratched the back of his neck, resting his other arm on the steering wheel. “I know I should let you go, but to be honest…” He paused, a shy smile pulling at his lips. “I don’t want to.”
I glanced around the parking lot. “Well, it’s not like they’re going to kick us out of here.”
He laughed. “True.” He set the parking brake and sent my pulse into overdrive. My heart pounded over the purr of the engine, but the tiny world inside the Jeep was otherwise silent. Though conversation had come easily all night, I couldn’t think of what to say now. Everything that came to mind would either sound stupidly awkward or be rife with double entendre.
Connor took a breath and started to speak, then hesitated. He rested his elbow on the steering wheel and rubbed the side of his jaw with the backs his fingers, the muffled scratch of skin on stubble making my fingertips tingle. I wanted to touch him. Good God, I wanted to touch him.
We just met. I barely know anything about him, How can I want him this badly? This can’t—
My mouth went dry when the tip of his tongue traced a quick arc across the inside of his lower lip. Then his body shifted and the seatbelt snapped back as he freed his arm from the shoulder strap. When he turned to me, I wanted to let his beautiful eyes mesmerize me, but all I could do was stare at his lips when he spoke.
Leaning across the console, he reached for my face and said, “I’m sorry for the way you ended up moving to Seattle”—his fingertips met my skin and he drew me closer to him—“but I have to say, I’m really glad you’re here.”
His hand moved into my hair and he kissed me.
Just like everything about him tonight, his kiss was the very epitome of quiet intensity. Neither gentle nor rough, aggressive nor passive, but somewhere in between, with all the electricity of a first kiss and such familiarity it was as if he’d known all along just how I’d like it.
My fingers sought his face and finally satisfied the craving to feel him, to memorize the contours of his jaw and trace his five o’clock shadow. His tongue parted my lips and when his jaw moved and his cheek hollowed beneath my palm, I had the space of a single heartbeat to shiver, knowing he was deepening this already spine-melting kiss.
The tip of his tongue slid beneath mine and neither invited nor demanded, simply assumed I’d allow him to draw it into his mouth. Even the way his mouth moved was subtle, like he wanted to make sure I felt every place our lips met and tasted every touch of his tongue against mine. I was hyperaware of everything he did, of every way we made and broke contact. His breathing slowed and I couldn’t help but mirror it, inhaling deeply when he did, releasing when his warm breath brushed across my skin.
My finger grazed the surface of his earring before combing through his thick hair. When my fingertips ran down the back of his neck, a shudder pushed him closer to me.
He looked at me and sucked his lower lip into his mouth as if to get one last taste of our first kiss. “I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” he whispered.
Do it again and I swear to God, I’ll be your slave for the rest of the night. I wasn’t quite brazen enough to say it, though. Besides, speaking was out of the question at this point. My mouth knew how to do one thing and one thing only.
My fingers tightened in his hair and he offered no resistance when I pulled him into another kiss. When we separated this time, we stayed close, just looking at each other. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite grasp the fact that we’d been strangers just hours ago. Nameless faces in a crowd.
But now we knew each other’s names, and I desperately wanted to hear him say mine over and over again.
With the taste of his kiss on my tongue, speech was still nearly impossible, but the only alternative was going out of my mind, so I swallowed hard. “Do you—”This wasn’t like me at all. One night stands weren’t my thing, but they sure were tonight. “Do you want to…” My eyes darted toward my apartment, then back to him, and I lifted my eyebrows.
Connor unbuckled his seatbelt.