Tension gathered along my spine as I watched the man of my dreams, my one true love, enter the restaurant and make his way through the other diners to the empty chair right beside me. I kept my gaze on him, willing him to look at me. I mean really look at me. See beyond my short, red highlighted hair, grey eyes and tan skin to me, my soul, who I was beneath it all.
We’d been operating out of the same building – sometimes the same room – for the last six weeks and he hadn’t spared me more than a passing glance unless he was speaking to me on a business matter. If it weren’t for those brief conversations, I’d think he wasn’t aware of my existence, let alone my presence.
As he sat down beside me and gestured for the waitress I forced myself to move my chair just a little closer to the man on my other side to keep myself from accidentally molesting the boss. The rest of us had been here nearly an hour already and I’d taken his absence as a sign that I could relax and enjoy myself rather than having to be on guard. Now, in my slightly intoxicated state, I was having a hard time resisting the man’s allure.
Tank, who had his arm draped casually across the back of my chair, glanced down at me when my movement disrupted his comfort. With his beer glass held mid way between the table and his mouth, like he’d been about to take a sip, he asked, “You alright, Kit?”
I opened my mouth to assure him I was fine, despite the invisible vice tightening around my chest, but all that came out was a half choked squeak that managed to catch the attention of Lester and Hal across the table. There must have been a panicked expression on my face when my eyes darted toward them because they immediately jumped into action.
“The lady needs another!” Hal announced, topping up my glass.
At the same time, Lester exclaimed, “Shots! It’s time for shots, right Kitten?”
“I... uh... hu... he...fa?” I stammered. I wasn’t sure putting more alcohol into my system was the right solution to my problem, but trying to argue with the guys as they thrust various glasses of liquid in my direction was too daunting a task to pull off in my current condition.
With a fleeting look over my shoulder to where Ranger was pouring himself a glass of what appeared to be soda water from the jug the waitress had just set down before him, I let out a small puff of air. I wasn’t going to let his presence ruin my night. I came here to drink and have fun with my friends and co-workers, so that’s what I was going to do.
This charade had gone on long enough as it was and the stress was getting to me. I was more than willing to leave the events of the night in the hands of the alcohol I’d been offered.
Que sera sera, as they say.
So I took the shot and downed it at the same time as the rest of the table’s occupants. Almost immediately there was another in my hand, and I wasted no time in making it disappear. I imagined each tiny glass emptied as one small part of my worries leaving me, disappearing into the thin air.
I did shots various kinds, including green fairy and tequila and was feeling extremely happy an hour later when I managed to eyeball the number glasses on the table. There were three each in front of the men surrounding me. I stared down at the shot glasses in my own space, counting them several times. Six. There were definitely six there. And I’d lost count of how many times my beer glass had been refilled. Was I asking for the extras?
“You might want to slow down,” Tank suggested, his speech slurring just slightly. “At this rate I’ll have to carry you up the stairs when we get home. And I’m not sure I can get up them myself right now.”
“Am I doing this?” I asked him in a loud whisper as I waved my hand haphazardly in the direction of the offending shot glasses.
Tank counted the glasses just as I had done, his finger moving to point to each one in turn as he clearly struggled to focus on them. He moved around the table, stopping when he reached Ranger. I followed his furrowed gaze to the empty space in front of the man. No shot glasses. No beer glass. Just his soda water.
He was deep in conversation with Vince, discussing something that sounded quite serious in comparison to the joyous mood that occupied the rest of the table. Tank and I were afforded a full minute of inspection without Ranger’s notice before we were distracted by Lester’s enthusiastic shout.
“Bar maid! Fourteen more shots for me and my friends!” he cried. I didn’t even question it. There were fourteen of us at the table. Fourteen shots was the perfect number. I accepted mine, gulping it down, but when I’d finished shaking my head at the light burn down my throat I looked down at the glass in my hand to find it full again. Thinking that I’d somehow imagined the liquid sliding down my throat, that in my drunken state I’d somehow taken to hallucinating, I shrugged and downed it again. Slamming it down with the –one, two, three, four, five, six – seven other mini glasses on my section of the table.
I was no mathematician, but I was pretty sure six plus one did not equal eight. Maybe I had selective double vision.
Over the course of the evening my chair somehow managed to drift further and further away from Tank until I was almost touching Ranger. I’d obviously lost my determination to keep the distance between us and had even taken to teasing him about his refusal to drink alongside Lester, who seemed to be enjoying the disarray his fellow men had fallen into in their alcohol induced states. Slowly, the men began to drift out the door in groups of two and three, sharing cab fares as no one was sober enough to drive.
“Come on, Ranger,” Lester was urging, holding a full beer glass in one hand and a shot of tequila in the other. “One drink.” He waved each glass under the boss’s nose eliciting a single raised eyebrow from the man. “It’s not fair to the rest of us if you leave this restaurant sober as a bird and able to remember every horrible, embarrassing thing we’ve done.”
I leaned across Ranger and wrapped my hand around the beer glass Lester was holding, drawing it to my own lips and taking a long sip. “Mmm,” I moaned, licking the foam from my upper lip. “Cool and refreshing.” Next, I picked up Ranger’s glass of soda water, attempting to raise my eyebrow at the man in challenge.
“What are you up to Kit?” Tank asked, plopping into his seat as he returned with yet another pitcher of beer. I was surprised he was still able to walk, having surpassed my own consumption levels in the last few hours. I myself wasn’t even sure I still had legs, let alone ones that would support my weight and walk around. “Isn’t that the boss’s soda water?”
“Mmhmm,” I murmured. “I’ve confiscated it. If he’s thirsty he’ll have to take beer or a shot.”
Tank easily slipped the glass from my hand and set it at the far end of the table. “He’s sneaky,” he explained, wrapping his arms around me and lifting me up to sit on the edge of the table with my feet propped on his lap as he took up residence in the chair I’d just been forced to vacate. “Better to move it far out of reach or he could take a sip without any of us noticing.”
I picked up my half empty beer, dipping my finger into the amber liquid before drawing said finger between my lips and sucking gently.
“Oh, Kitten,” Lester enthused.
I dipped my finger in again, this time extending my hand in Ranger’s direction. An offering. He once again raised an eyebrow.
“Do you really want to do that, Kit?” he asked, his voice an octave lower than usual.
A small growl left my throat at hearing him call me Kit. Why couldn’t he look at me a little closer? Why couldn’t he see me for who I really was? I swiped my finger across his lips before sticking it back in my own mouth to clean it off.
“You know I haven’t slept with anyone since the last time we were together?” I announced, frustration colouring my tone with a bitter edge.
There was a short, almost stunned silence during which all three men stared at me. Two in disbelief, one with his patented blank expression. After a long moment Lester let out a short bark of laughter and Ranger’s lips twitched up like he was thinking about smiling.
“Kit Danger, I do believe you are drunk,” Ranger informed me, licking his lips to get rid of the beer residue I’d left there.
I’d leaned forward to tell him more about what I’d done and hadn’t done since our last bedroom encounter when Tank suddenly slammed his fist down on the table beside me. “For shit’s sake, Ranger,” he exclaimed in that booming voice of his. “She’s Stephanie Plum. Can’t you see that?”
I looked from Tank’s glaring eyes to Lester’s slightly confused expression and finally to Ranger. He just sat there, leant right back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, staring at me with a challenge in his eyes. The tension I’d felt when I saw him weaving through tables when he arrived all those hours ago was suddenly back. It gripped my shoulders, forming knots in my muscles that I was sure no regular masseuse could ever get out. They would have to be the Norse God of Massage to ease that stress. The silence stretched on, hanging heavily in the air until finally raised that one eye brow yet again and laid down the challenge his expression had promised.
“Is that so?” he asked, almost menacingly.
I should probably step back and explain a little...