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.”
Just as dressage trainer Dani Blake decides the best kind of relationship is no relationship at all, along comes Connor Graham, and he's the perfect Mr. Right Now. Like Dani, he's newly single and not looking for any type of attachment…and the icing on the cake? He’s smoking hot in bed.
Best of all, he’s moving out of state in a few months, so there’s no pressure for – and no chance of – a long-term relationship. Even if Dani hadn’t already made the mistake of moving to another state for a man in the all too recent past, a mistake she’s not keen on repeating, she’s stuck in Seattle because she can’t afford to move her beloved horses again.
So she and Connor will just take advantage of the time they have and enjoy it until it’s over. It’s just enough time to have some fun, and not nearly enough time to fall in love with him.
NOTE: This 83,000 word novel was previously published as Until It’s Over.