It used to be a warehouse, but now it was an underground dance club dubbed Bar-Mart. The only part that was truly underground was the music, but even that was questionable. The music seemed focused on remixes of popular dance anthems. The expensive drinks and strategic lighting reminded Rory of every other club in the Strip. The interior of bare brick walls and graffiti art made it look exactly like a simulated back alley. Remembering the clubs that she and Selina had once frequented, Rory felt a sense of disappointment. This was nothing more than a rehash of what was once avant-garde.
Alex had chosen Bar-Mart deliberately, knowing that a number of his associates liked to frequent the place. Tonight, he was going to show her off.
“Isn’t this a little loud?” She asked when they walked in and were hit with the sound of Lady Gaga. “I thought that this would be a bit more sedate on a weeknight. That’s what Maggie said she heard, anyway.” Glancing at the dance floor, she hoped he didn’t intend to dance. What the hell was I thinking? Compared to the thought of fending off his hands on the dance floor, the opera and the local paparazzi were a much more attractive choice.
“I think there’s a little dining area in the back that’s quieter. We’ll get a seat there in a minute. You look incredible, do you know that? Go get a drink, my cell phone just buzzed. I’ll meet you at the bar,” he pressed a twenty in her palm and promised he’d only be gone a few minutes.
As Rory walked away, Alex smiled, anticipating the rest of the evening. Men wanted her. He watched several turn to stare as she passed them. She has no idea how amazing she looks in that little thing. The thought pleased him. She probably didn’t even know that they were watching. He watched her look around, searching the crowd for him.
She wants me with her. He smiled broadly as she accepted her drink from the bartender. A man approached her and was dismissed. Perfect.
Scanning the crowd again, he saw North Byers and several other associates from the firm come in. I couldn’t have planned it better.
Alex signaled a waitress and ordered a Bueno, a tequila concoction he’d acquired a taste for during his travels south of the border. He’d lied when he said he wanted to find out if they were compatible. They were, he already knew. Tonight, he would reveal his love for her. Perhaps he might even take her to bed.
When the waitress delivered his drink, he made his way to North and his friends. Thinking about their reaction to learning that he and Rory were together made him quicken his step. By tomorrow morning, everyone would know that he was dating her.
North and his friends was impressed when he pointed her out to them. “Damn, you are one lucky man. She is gorgeous. How did you two meet?”
“She interviewed me regarding Julie. The truth is, though, we grew up together. We lost touch over the years, went our own ways, but when I saw her and how she’d changed… well, what can I say?” Alex smiled, everything was perfect.
Cade was bored. He had stopped in at Bar-Mart to catch up with a friend who currently worked as a bartender at night and who knew some of Charles’ associates. However, the place was so busy that his friend had no more time than to pour him a complimentary drink and motion to a seat. “I’ll be with you as soon as this thins out,” he promised. That was thirty minutes ago.
From his seat in the dark corner, Cade surveyed the crowd and ignored the ladies who slid up to him. He didn’t like it when the chase wasn’t there. Not that he was interested in chasing anyone but Rory, even if she did seem rather oblivious to it at times.
Cade shook his head ruefully. I’ll get it right one of these days. At least yesterday was a start. He finished his drink and settled back to watch the crowd for a while longer. Yesterday at the restaurant he had felt more on balance with her, perhaps it was because they weren’t separated by a table for once.
Always a table. A desk, a table, a barrier. He imagined kissing her, putting his hands on her waist and lifting her up. Placing her on the table and turning it from a barrier into an altar. The image of her on the table, staring up at him with both wonder and desire heated his blood and turned his thoughts from tables to bed, wondering what it would be like to make love to her, to discover her body and kiss every inch of it, to hear her coming-cries and know he was the reason for her pleasure. A woman in a cream-colored dress walked by, taking no notice of him. For Cade, it was impossible not to notice her legs or the unexpectedly familiar roll of her hips. Cade shifted slightly as she walked up to the bar for a better look. She reminded him of Rory, but wasn’t she supposed to be at that opera?
The woman’s profile was silhouetted in the lights, and she was at an angle where he couldn’t see enough of her face to be sure, but he knew that walk of hers.
Cade watched her toy with her straw , twirling it in her drink, using it to sink ice cubes. She sipped occasionally, but it seemed more of a prop to occupy her hands. A man walked up and spoke to her, and Cade watched her shake her head no. A moment later he walked away, and she glanced around the club as if looking for someone.
It was her.
Grinning, Cade signaled the waitress. “Another one for me, please. And send her,” he motioned to Rory, whose glass was still close to full, “one as well, on me.” It was cliché, he knew, but he did it anyway.
She protested that she hadn’t ordered another drink, particularly a beer, but the waitress told her that it was from the gentleman over there and to please enjoy. Rory accepted the bottle and looked over to see just who the gentleman was. Their eyes caught and she smiled, lifting the bottle in slight salute and thanking God he couldn’t see her blush. For a moment, no one else was there. As she watched him begin to make his way to her, an undeniable sense of excitement washed over her.
She ruined it.
Dumbfounded, Alex watched as Rory began talking to a man who sidled up next to her. She faced him, smiled, and laughedas they clinked their bottles together. Bottles! Like some uncultured… it didn’t take much to drag her down, did it? Alex watched as the man touched her arm, and she didn’t step away or reprimand him. Instead, she smiled again. The same smile that he’d received in the car when he suggested skipping the opera. This was absolutely unacceptable. It became even less tolerable when he realized that the man was Cayden Ransome. When his drink arrived, Alex downed it quickly, then ordered a second. He needed to think this through.
“No opera tonight?”
“He said he wasn’t in the mood. It was just another version of Faust, anyway.”
“Ahhh, the man who sold his soul to the Devil. Always an interesting tale.”
“I guess so,” she said, placing her bottle on the on the bar. He signaled for the waitress to bring her another one and moved closer, leaning against the bar with his elbow and wanting to touch her. Instead he settled instead for conversation.
“So you ditched the stuffed shirt?”
“Alex is around somewhere,” she said, trying not to laugh. “He suggested this place instead of the opera, and I agreed. Maggie called this place a supper club. I didn’t know that it was going to be this loud or this busy. I don’t think he expected it either. He got a call as we came in and told me to meet him here. What about you?”
“I’m actually here on business,” he said simply, not wanting to mention Charles or Julie or his suspicion that Alex had known exactly what sort of place this was when he suggested it. “I’m trying to catch up with one of the bartenders here. I thought that Wednesday nights would be quiet, too.” Leaning with both elbows on the bar and making himself more comfortable, he shrugged, an amused grin on his face. “But that’s really no big deal. How was your day?”
“Busy. I thought I’d get to the office to see you, but the interviews dragged on until it was too late, and then Alex showed up and it was time to leave.”
“Well, busy is good. Job security,” he said, wanting to keep it light. “Here’s to you, Rory, may things only get better.” They tapped their drinks together again. Cade watched her as she drank, wondering why she sent him so far off balance that half the time he spoke in clichés and sounded like the teenager she accused him of being. Every single time she turned those eyes on him, he forgot what he wanted to say.
“I like to think that life will get better and not worse,” she quipped, trying to keep up her end of the conversation.
“You’re too talented for anything less.”
“Thank you,” she said simply. “That means a lot coming from you.”
It took all of his effort not to touch her, to pull her into his arms and kiss her then and there. He liked this side of her best, the unguarded and honest Rory who didn’t fight him or run from him, who was just herself. Then again, he relished sparring with her just as much. He looked at her. “It means a lot that you accept it.”
Rory could feel her cheeks heating up again and glanced down, surprised at how shy she suddenly felt.
“You know, Cade, I’ve thought about—”
A hand clamped down on her arm and spun her around. “What do you think you’re doing?” Alex hissed, squeezing her arm tightly.
Rory yanked herself free, her glare matching his. She turned back to Cade, who pushed away from the bar and looked ready should Alex want to cause a scene. Even in the dime light, her face was bright red as she made introductions. “Cade, this is Alex Webster. Alex, this is Cade Ransome. He works with me at the magazine. You two met before.”
“I remember,” Alex said shortly.
“Nice to see you again, Mr. Webster.” Cade’s deliberate formality carried a chill.
“Rory, we’re leaving,” Alex announced, taking the bottle from her and placing it on the bar.
“I’m not finished with my drink.” Defiantly, she picked it up and took another swallow.
“Yes, you are.” He didn’t bother to hide his anger this time. Ignoring Cade’s presence, and the stares of the other patrons, he removed the bottle from her hand again and slammed it on the bar. “I will not have you acting like this in public.”
The fury that she never spent on Paul rose up in her. Another man was trying to dictate her life. What had she been thinking? Rory lifted her chin and stared down at him. “You can leave. I’m staying.”
“You’re coming with me.”
“Don’t make me cause a scene, Alex. Think of the press it would bring.” She watched him consider it, then she removed the bracelet. “I don’t think we should see each other again.” She dropped the bracelet on the bar. “It’s over, Alex.”
The words beat a staccato in his brain. Was she insane? Breaking up with him? Who did she think she was?
“Come on, Rory.”
Ransome’s voice. Ransome, some no-name writer whose filthy hands were on her, leading her away from him and to the dance floor where she’d let him grope her. Pocketing the bracelet, Alex took the nearest barstool and ordered another drink, still watching.
It was a slow song, not that either Rory or Cade noticed. She was trying to figure out how to apologize for Alex’s behavior, and Cade was focused on holding her as close as he could. Just as he’d thought, even with heels on she was still small enough to rest her head on his shoulder.
“I’ve never seen him like that. Ever,” she finally said. “I think he had too much to drink.”
“I’m sure,” Cade said, though he hardly cared. Alex could drink whatever he wanted so long as he wasn’t with Rory. “But I’m glad you won’t be going home with him.”
Boldly resting her head on his shoulder again, she told herself to worry later. Right now, though, she wanted to enjoy the dance.
“Do you know how I feel? Do you know what I see?” She heard Cade whisper the lyrics to her and closed her eyes, drowning in his touch and moving with him. “I’ll be there when you need me. I’ll be there when you call. I mean it, Rory. I want to be with you.”
He felt her nod. Then heard her soft reply, “I want you, too, Cade.”
The stupid bitch was pawing him right back. What the hell was she trying to prove, anyway? By now, Alex had switched to beer. Three empty bottles sat in front of him. The fourth was half-empty, and he began to have fantasies about breaking it over Ransome’s head and dragging Julie home. Julie? No, he would drag Rory home. Confusing the women was easy enough, both were beautiful, vivacious, and skillful flirts. Mercenary little whores. No wonder Richard had been so insane about her. She’d crawled under Alex’s own skin in just a few months! Wearing that lacy little number to the interview was quite the come-on. He wondered if she knew that he’d seen. Probably.
Probably planned the whole thing. A little pseudo-reporter who wanted to talk to someone important about Julie’s murder, no doubt hoping to make something of herself. Which she has. Alex signaled for his fifth beer. Conniving little slut. How dare she capitalize on Julie’s death. Julie could have been his perfect mate, the woman who should be with him today, building a happy little home. Instead, he was here, being publicly humiliated by Pittsburgh’s flavor of the month.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tonight was supposed to be his night. Tonight was supposed to make up for what Julie did to him. He was going to do it right this time. Tonight he was supposed to take her to bed, God damn it! They were going to finally talk about a relationship. He was going to tell her that he wanted more than friendship. And she, the slim little widow who didn’t have a dime compared to him, would agree.
His mother might fuss a bit because Rory wasn’t running the Haverly empire, but she had fussed about Julie, too. In the end, though, she wanted her boy to be happy, and she would accept Rory with the same grace she accepted everything else that life threw at her.
The way Rory had stood with him at Julie’s funeral, warmed him still. The way she worried about his feelings, not wanting to hurt him, told him that she cared. To him, she was elusive and mercurial and untamed. She’d balance him and his seriousness. He needed that. If only she’d detach herself from that bastard. The music had since changed, and the two were working up quite a sweat. His fury returning, Alex decided that it was time to act like a man and defend his territory.
She was bold tonight. Reckless. With three drinks on an empty stomach, and all the emotions of the past hour, Rory found it easy to lose herself in the moment. Cade’s hands were on her hips as he pulled her against him, and she twined her fingers in his hair, letting her eyes hold his as her body moved with his. His dress shirt’s top button was open and he had loosened his tie, and she wished she were bold enough to open the next button on his shirt.
He pulled her closer and lowered his eyes to her lips, wanting to taste her, to touch her. He brushed his lips over hers, hoping she wouldn’t push away. “I never did thank you properly for your present,” he murmured, softly kissing her ear.
“You are now,” she breathed.
The pleasure lasted only a moment more. As she tilted her head up for another kiss, his hold tightened protectively. “He’s coming this way.”
She turned in time to see Alex bearing down on them. First Richard, then Paul. Now Alex. She reminded herself that he wasn’t Paul, and then looked up at Cade. “He probably wants me to leave with him.” She shrugged, wanting to convince Cade that she wasn’t worried. “He can hit the pavement. I’m going home alone.”
Watching Alex weave through the crowd, Cade frowned. “But would he hit you?” She shook her head. “Let me handle this, Rory.” He moved to stand before her, but she refused his gallantry, wanting to face Alex on her own.
“No.” Alex reached them before Cade could argue further. Rory refused to flinch. Nothing could match the rage of the man she’d just buried.
“You and I have to talk. Now.”
To Rory, he sounded worried that she’d tell him no again. He reminded her of a wounded little boy, particularly since a lock of hair had fallen over his left eye. Poor man, she thought as she studied him, remembering that the last time he saw Julie was at a dance club. What have I done to him? “Alex, please. You’ve had too much to drink. It’s over.”
“I want to talk to you now. I don’t want to wait until tomorrow. I’m not drunk.”
“She’s not going anywhere, sport,” Cade snapped. He was ready, all he needed was for Alex to touch her again. Or try to.
“Rory, you don’t know what you’re doing. He’s using you!”
“Ridiculous. I’m done talking to you tonight, Alex. I’m not getting in a car with you in that condition. Now leave me alone.”
“Yes, you are.”
He took a step toward her but was stopped by Cade’s threat. “Try it. Just try it. Give me one good reason not to lay you out cold, Webster.”
Alex deliberately gave Rory the same disdainful once-over he’d often given her in her youth. “Fight over a woman? Are you kidding me? She’s not worth the effort.”
Cade’s fist smashed into Alex’s jaw, sending the man staggering backwards – and into the bouncers standing nearby, who’d been waiting to see if they were needed.
Fifteen minutes later, Alex was gone and Cade had Rory to himself in a corner booth.
“Good thing your friend works here,” she remarked as the server brought them fresh drinks. “Or I suppose we would have been thrown out as well.”
“It pays to have connections,” he said. “I’m sorry about tonight, by the way.”
“You’re sorry you hit him?
“Hell no,” Cade grinned. “I wanted to do that from the first day I met the son of a bitch.”
“So what are you sorry about then?”
He shrugged and feigned interest in the crowd , taking a deep breath. Now or never. “Not many women I know want their nights out to end in fights.”
“So you’re sorry you sent me a drink and sorry you talked to me and sorry you danced with me?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Then what?” When he didn’t answer right away, she asked again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask you out first. Sooner. On a date, not just a quick dinner. A real date. I’ve been holding back because I didn’t want people to talk if you started dating right away. You always accuse me of acting like a teenage boy around you, and I,” he paused and then smiled. “I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m not going to wait any longer.”
Her silence spoke volumes. He was saying words she’d never thought she’d hear. He was saying words that meant, to her, a beginning. But now that she heard them, she didn’t know what to do. “I think, Cade, I need to go home. Tonight… tonight has been… I just need to go.”
He convinced her to wait at the front door and let him bring his car around. She agreed.
Cade never saw it coming. As he made his way to his car, his mind on the taste of her lips and on the way she felt in his arms on the dance floor, someone grabbed him from behind, shoved him into the nearest car, and landed a solid blow to his midsection. Doubled-over, trying to pull air back into his lungs, Cade felt a hand take his wallet from his back pocket. As a final insult, a swift backhand to the side of the head sent him off balance enough for the attacker to get away. Cade could hear the sound of running, but didn’t bother to give chase. There wasn’t a thing in his wallet that couldn’t be replaced.
Righting himself, once again able to breathe, he looked around but saw no one.
Cade didn’t mention the incident to Rory when he brought his car around, not wanting to worry her. He wondered if she could feel the tension between them as clearly as he could. He took her hand and she curled her fingers around his. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her smile as she studied their hands. When he squeezed, she squeezed back. “I had a good time tonight,” he said.
“Really?” She was teasing him, he could tell. “You really loved punching him out, didn’t you?”
“Among other things.”
“The drinks weren’t too bad either.”
He brought her hand to his lips. “Among other things.” They rode in silence then, Cade hearing everything he wasn’t daring to say yet. When he’d suggested driving her home, she originally said she’d take a cab, then caught herself and changed her mind. Why she was still skittish, he wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t going to scare her away, by God.
“Here we are.” He pulled up in front of her house, reluctantly letting go of her hand and opening his door. “I’ll walk you up. Those four steps are fraught with danger.” Again, he took her hand as they walked to the front door, wondering if anyone ever actually courted her and took the time to learn her. Had Paul? Or Richard? Alex wasn’t courting her, just annoying her.
Rory unlocked the front door and pushed it open. “Well,” she faltered.
“I think this is where you invite me in,” he teased. “Or you kick me off your porch.” When she paused, he kissed her forehead. “It’s up to you, Roar. No pressure.”
When she didn’t reply right away, he nodded and moved to leave.
Before she could think, before she could talk herself out of what she did next, she grabbed his collar, pulled him to her, and planted her lips on his.
“Don’t leave me,” she whispered.
Come morning, Rory would blush at the memory, amazed at her own boldness. At the moment, however, shy was beyond her. There was nothing hesitant, nothing tentative, as her lips parted and her tongue touched his. His response met her equally, deepening the kiss and sending a shiver through her. She knew she could acquiesce, let him lead the way because he wanted as much as she wanted. She could be passive and enjoy. Nothing would be asked or demanded in return.
But his second kiss, punctuated by the slam of the door as he pushed it shut behind them, when they were inside and away from the neighbors’ eyes, made passivity impossible. “Not down here. Upstairs,” she breathed, unwilling to let him pace them. It had to be upstairs, together in her new bed. It had to be now, not later. “Absolutely,” she heard him reply. How they got upstairs, she would only vaguely remember. Half walking, half carried, their mouths locked together, her arms around his neck…
In her room, when he looked at her, desire obvious in his eyes, she reached back to unzip her dress. “Wait,” Cade said, moving to stop her. “That’s my job.” Gently he turned her, and she felt his lips on her neck. “Your job is to enjoy.” She surrendered, giving herself over to the sensation of warm lips trailing down her spine, of her dress falling to the floor and the rush of cool air washing over her. “Beautiful.” She could hear his murmured words, feel them against her skin. “Beautiful.” He was kneeling behind her, his hands on her hips, kissing the very base of her spine. His fingers moved deftly, unhooking her bra, rolling down her stockings. So slow, so sensual, his hands moving down her legs, taking time to kiss her behind her knees. Then standing, turning her to him, and taking her in his arms. “It’s going to be a long night, Rory,” he whispered in her ear as he nipped it, “I hope you’re up to it.”
She laughed and nipped his ear in return. “Check the top drawer of my nightstand.” His surprised look made her laugh once more. Keeping one arm around her and keeping her pressed against him, he reached down and opened the drawer.
“My, my, my, aren’t you the girl scout,” he said, picking up the unopened box of condoms. “Always prepared.”
“You told me once that you were never a boy scout. I thought I’d help you out a little.”
“Really.” Rory looked at him, her eyes telling him exactly what she wanted next. She unbuttoned his shirt, pulling it free, and letting it land on the floor next to her dress. Then his slacks. “I’m not a girl anymore, Cade,” she said as she pulled him to the bed and he lowered himself on top on her.
“No, you aren’t,” he said, lowering his mouth to her breast. And just as once she felt she'd shattered – with Richard, with Paul – now she felt she was coming together, pieces forming into a whole, becoming more powerful because this was on her terms as well as his. His mouth was all over her body, his hands as well. Rory arched beneath him and allowed herself the luxury of a man wanting her, opening her legs to his touch, feeling his fingers learn her intimately, feeling the heat of his breath and the tip of his tongue as he tasted her. Hearing her moans echo in the room. Soon she was writhing beneath him, desperate to feel him in her.
“Now!” Her cry, her plea, her demand, issued without hesitation. Then his heat, filling her completely as she wrapped her legs around him. When she came, he came. Their shouts mingling, marrying into a single cry of pleasure.
“Rory,” he whispered afterwards as they lay together, a sheet pulled over them against the chill of the spring night.
“Was it good for you?”
“Incredible,” she whispered, turning to kiss his neck, her hands beginning to explore. It was her turn. She wanted to, needed to. His groan of pleasure encouraged her. When Cade began to reciprocate, she put her lips to his and gently pushed his hands away. “Shhh, this is my job,” she declared, trailing her mouth down his neck and to his chest.
“God, you’re amazing,” he said, his hands tracing the shape of her as she hovered above him and ran her hands over his chest, her fingers playing with the dark hair that covered him, enjoying the coarseness against her smooth skin. She kissed his stomach, feeling him shift under her, knowing what he hoped for and marveling that she wanted the same. Never had she so willingly… but now she found herself kissing him again, her fingers teasing him as he’d teased her, lightly trailing along his legs and inside his thighs. Her lips moving slowly downwards, and – unbidden – she took him into her mouth.
“Rory.” And when he was hard again, she climbed on top, lowering herself onto him. She watched him watch her, amazed at the sensation of what it felt like to choose the position and to move as she needed to move. When she came, she laughed, delighted with such freedom.
When he took her in his arms to sleep, she didn’t feel the need to move away.