By: Jade Chandler

With a laugh, she moved around the table, but I didn’t hear the other orders because my heart beat too loud in my own ears. Mouth dry, I glanced around but none of the guys stared at me like I had a third eye or some other strange deformity. Good, the first time was always the hardest for me.

I never drank liquor, or any kind of alcohol to be precise, at least not since I was eighteen. Booze and I were a bad combination, and I’d seen firsthand what it could do if I embraced its tempting numbness. My no-drinking policy had been a sticky point for some in my past, but not even Tony, who tried for months to get me to drink, had succeeded. It was one area he couldn’t control and I’m sure that’s why he’d tried so hard.

The guys took turns telling stories of stupid clients, and Rock turned to Dare.

“Bro, you have the worst story, tell it.”

Dare hesitated and then smiled wide. “Saved by the food.”

As if on cue, Rachel brought food out and slapped down my burger and fries first. The heavenly scent of greasy beef and thick wavy fries made my stomach sound off again. She handed out burgers all around, and as soon as the last plate was down, I bit into my burger.

Oh yeah, this burger was orgasmic, so good, better than an orgasm, at least an orgasm from my vibrator. I dug into the food, enjoying each bite. After the first three or four bites, I began to feel human again. I looked up to find the others eating just like me; probably nobody had eaten today.

The food and company were good. It helped me become part of the group, like friends, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out without someone owning me. It was damn nice to be a free agent who would go home alone and sleep like the dead.

I popped the last fry in my mouth and finished off my sweet tea. “This has been fun,” I told the guys. “But I’m out. I need to recover for day three.” I said a quick round of goodbyes and moved toward the door.

“Wait,” Dare called, and caught up to me in a second. “I’ll walk you home.”

“It’s feet away, really—”

He gave me his flat stare.

“Love to have the company,” I muttered.

He should’ve been named Brick instead of Dare—the man was stubborn.

The sun had given way to night and stars shone overhead. I loved how I could see stars in Barden, even Texarkana had too much street light to see them in town. “Thanks for dinner.” I had to say something because the silence was heading toward awkward.

“Yeah, anytime. You’re fun, and you get shit done without lots of drama. That’s a talent.”

Had he just complimented my skill? I think yes, he had. That was new for me. Realizing I’d stayed silent, I hurried to say, “Thanks. Every day gets easier. Another couple, and I’ll be reigning queen of Marked Man.”

Stupid. Why did I say that?

“Red, you’re funny.” He snorted then punched the code to the outer door. His hand brushed mine on the way down to his side.

Like every time our skin touched, heat shot through me. I’d been so aware of him in the bar, despite my efforts to ignore my attraction. Tension, which was obviously two-sided, ran through me.

“You need help getting your door?”

Dare earned extra points for smooth. The words were so mild but he’d moved closer and his expression had softened. All I had to do was kiss those lips or nod my head. He’d be in my bed faster than I could say condom.

“I got it. Thanks though.” I hurried through the door and up the steps before I changed my mind. My self-control wouldn’t last long, so I needed to be locked on the other side of my door before it burst, leaving me a puddle of yes, please. I refused to look back as I unlocked my door and hurried inside, afraid if I saw him there behind me, my will would break.

* * *

It was a long night of tossing and turning amid X-rated dreams of Dare, and when I woke the next morning I was more tired than I’d been since starting. Thankfully, I’d opened alone and had a precious two hours of quiet so far.

The phone rang. “Marked Man... Oh hey, Fred, yeah we can get you in for more work.” I fumbled for the book I hadn’t retrieved from under the counter yet.

The door jingled and Dare strode in, making an impatient gesture for me to hang up.

I ignored him, looking for a date that’d work for Zayn and Fred.

“Red, I need numbers, now.” Dare spoke into my ear.

I tamped down the spike of pleasure his rumbled words created inside me. “Busy with a client,” I whispered while holding my hand over the phone.

“Gonna be late to the club.” His tone lacked playful flirting.

“On my desk, in the office.” I spoke low and shooed him toward it.

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