elen sat with two of her best librarian friends, contemplating the exemplary specimen of manhood displayed before them at the bar. The same specimen she'd admired from a distance for decades now. The same specimen who'd never spared her a moment of his attention.
Well, other than that one time. That one, smelly time.
“Go on,” Angie urged, nudging Helen in his direction. “Talk to him.”
“I don't know,” Helen said. “I don't think I'm his type. We sat in the same classrooms for years, and he never noticed me. In middle school, he actually got the flu and threw up all over my backpack. And he
didn't remember my name afterward. Kept calling me Tiffani, for some reason. As in, âTiffani, sorry for horking all over your backpack. Hope it comes off in the wash. Now I must resume my regularly scheduled program of ignoring you completely.'”
Sarah's face scrunched up in disgust. “Ew.”
Angie, completely unfazed, rolled her eyes. “That wasâwhat? Twenty years ago?”
“More or less,” Helen said. Twenty-four years ago, actually. Not that she was counting or anything.
“Things change. Things like puberty. And boobs.” Angie slanted a pointed stare at Helen's cleavage. “Amazing, gargantuan boobs.”
The remaining inch of Helen's strawberry daiquiri looked lonely, so she slurped it up through the oversized straw. “Eyes up here, Burrowes,” she said, pointing a finger in the appropriate area. “Shit. Smudged my glasses.”
“Well, clean them off and go talk to the mayor. As far as I can tell, he didn't come with anyone. So he's free to take in the full magnificence of Helen Murphy at long last.” Angie indicated Helen with a sweep of her beer bottle.
Removing her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her knit dress, Helen squinted at the bar. Even with her glasses, seeing Wesley Ramirez would have proven difficult. Dance, Drink, and ShootâNice County's only combination bar, dance club, and pool hallâalways attracted large crowds on the weekend, and this Saturday was no exception. Without her glasses, she could make out part of a man-shaped blur in the vicinity where she'd last seen him, but that was all.
She popped her frames back on her nose and took another look. Yup. There he sat, his back to her table, slumped over the bar. All short-cropped dark hair, broad shoulders, and slim hips. Mayor Wes Ramirez, the star of her adolescent daydreams. Hell, the star of some of her adult daydreams too.
adult. Although she found it difficult to pursue those daydreams to their natural conclusion while living in her parents' house. Not when she was lying in a twin bed two doors down the hall from her mom and dad, staring at the rainbow wallpaper she'd never gotten around to replacing. Touching herself under those circumstances . . . well, it made her want to call
To Catch a Predator
and report herself to Chris Hansen.
“I'm thinking about it. But what would we even talk about?” Helen asked her friends. “I'm a geeky part-time librarian living with her parents. He's Niceville's hot-as-hell mayor, for Christ's sake.”
“Doesn't matter what you talk about.” Angie waved a dismissive hand. “The point is to start a conversation, let him gawk at your stupendous rack, and see where it leads. And it's not like you two don't have anything in common. You could mention his plans for a job center at the library.”
“Yes, Angie. What a great idea,” Helen said. “Nothing says romance like talk of budgetary constraints and unemployment statistics.”
“Then tell him what you told us,” Sarah said, popping open another soda. “That you want to squeeze his ass like a ripe peach at the supermarket. Before we all die of anticipation. And boredom. Because you've been talking about the guy for years, but haven't ever made a move. Get on with it, lady. Squeeze the produce.”
Angie started a chant. “Squeeze that peach! Squeeze that peach!
Squeeze that peach!
Sarah joined in, to Helen's eternal humiliation.
She shouldn't be surprised. Of all her friends, these two were probably the loudest. Sarah, despite her status as a respectable elementary school art teacher and part-time librarian, lived for drama and busting chops. Angieâmanager of the Battlefield Library and proud lover of all things smuttyârarely attempted to filter herself. And once you added alcohol to the mix . . .
“No more rounds for you, Angie,” Helen said, but she slid off the bar stool. “All right. Wish me luck, ladies. I'm going to need it. I feel like the Millennium Falcon going up against the Death Star.”
“That doesn't make any sense,” Angie said. “I mean, I know the Death Star had a hole and everything, but I don't think the Millennium Falcon was trying to fuck it.”
“It's a simile, Angie,” Helen said. “Just go with it.”
Angie grinned. “Good luck, honey.”
Helen made her way to the bar and caught the attention of the bartender. “Diet Coke, please,” she said.
“You got it,” the man said, grabbing a glass.
Helen took a surreptitious glance to her left. As usual, Wes didn't acknowledge her presence. Instead, he stared into the depths of his beer, frowning as if it had somehow displeased him. As if everything displeased him at that moment.
He'd clearly come straight from the pool to the bar. The familiar scent of chlorine drifted from his athletic body, and now that she stood so close, Helen could see that his hair looked damp. Maybe swimming could serve as a good topic of conversation. Like him, she'd grown up attending practices and meets. Of course, they'd swum on competing teams each summer. And while he'd become a star and gone to college on a swimming scholarship, she'd settled for participation ribbons and sportsmanship awards.
The contrast between the two of them unnerved her. Always had. Probably always would.
She tried to soothe her jitters with deep, calming breaths. Unfortunately, the first one she took almost made her breasts topple out of her low-cut top. She tugged the fabric upward. Then, after a moment's thought, she yanked it back down. Maybe her mountainous cleavage would accomplish what the rest of her hadn't been able to achieve in over thirty-five years: namely, catching the interest of a hot, available man.
Oh, sure, library patrons sometimes propositioned her. Usually moments after sending their wives to get the latest season of
The Walking Dead
on DVD. Or shortly before passing out in front of the public computers, leaving their Craigslist pleas for anonymous hand jobs half-completed. No one she actually wanted, though. No one she hoped to see naked. No one like Wes.
Tonight, she planned to change all that.
Tonight, she refused to let her own lingering insecuritiesâabout her plus-sized body, about her distinct lack of accomplishmentsâcheat her out of her own life. No more self-deprecation. No more hanging around in the background and waiting to be noticed. She was in her mid-thirties, for God's sake. How much longer could she wait before grabbing control of her life and finally becoming an adult woman? Before going after what she wanted without letting fear hold her back?
She wanted Wes. Had ever since she was a nerdy teenager in a training bra.
Tonight, she intended to find out if she could have him.
The bartender placed the Diet Coke in front of her. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to her left and steeled her nerves.
“Mayor Ramirez?” she said.
He didn't hear her. Or maybe he was ignoring her. Either way, he didn't move.
“Wes?” she said more loudly.
At that, he turned his head and regarded the bar in front of her with brows drawn together, either in confusion or annoyance. She couldn't tell, honestly.
“Yes?” he asked the sticky wood.
“You probably don't remember me,” she began, “but we went to school together.”
He swiveled on the bar stool, facing her fully and meeting her gaze for the first time. He gave her a small smile, and the golden glints in his warm brown eyes reflected the light. She caught her breath at the sight, as she so often had in their youth. Tiger's-eyes. The man had eyes that looked like freakin' tiger's-eye stones, her favorite of the rocks she'd collected as a child. The ones she'd gaze at for hours, marveling at their beauty.
“Yeah,” he said. “I remember that bright red hair of yours. Tiffani, right?”
Helen sighed. “No. Not Tiffani. Helen.”
He frowned again. “How did I get Tiffani from Helen?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you how much we librarians”âshe pointed to the table with her friends, trying to ignore how Sarah caught her eye and mimed squeezing a piece of fruitâ“appreciate your advocacy of the library, as well as your call for increased funding.”
She nodded to herself in satisfaction and took a celebratory sip of her soda. Despite her nervousness and her long-standing crush on the man, she'd maintained her dignity and managed not to make a fool of herself.
Of course, she'd also managed to make him turn back to his beer.
He raised his glass and took a long drink. “Yeah,” he said again. “Well, if you've been reading the paper, you know it's probably not going to happen. So congratulations to both of us.” He tipped his beer in a mocking salute to the two of them before taking another gulp.
Good work, Hel. That's how you snag a man: by reminding him of his professional failures. Not by, say, flirting or anything.
But God help her, she'd never learned to flirt. All she knew about the topic she'd learned from pop culture. Pickup lines from various books she'd read and movies she'd seen over the years ran through her head, but none of them seemed appropriate.
Me Helen. You hot Mayor.
No, too primitive.
You had me at “Hello, Tiffani.”
No, too cutesy. Plus, she wanted him to remember her actual name for the first time in her life.
I'm just a nerdy librarian, standing in front of an uninterested man, asking him to remember her fucking name and maybe take her virginity
. No, too much information.
Don't make me horny. You wouldn't like me when I'm horny
. No, no, no. She shook her head in disgust. That was the opposite of what she wanted to say.
“Are you here alone?” she asked, settling for trite over crazy.
He glanced around himself in confusion. “Um . . . yeah.”
“Do you want to be?”
Slowly, he looked up. That glint had returned to his eyes, the one she'd never seen directed her way before tonight. At other girls, yes. But never her.
“As a matter of fact,” he drawled. “No. No, I don't.”
“Okay, then.” She took a deep breath and settled into the bar stool next to his. “Let's start over. I'm Helen Murphy. Nice to see you again after all these years.”
He didn't shake her outstretched hand. Instead, he enclosed it in his own warm, broad hands and began playing with her fingers. “Wes Ramirez,” he said. “But I guess you already knew that.”
His eyes fixed on their intertwined fingers, he watched as his thumb stroked the palm of her hand. Her belly quivered at the slight tickle and the friction of his skin against hers. She wanted to jerk her hand away and rub its growing dampness against the soft knit of her skirt, but she made herself stay still.
Let this happen, Hel
, she reminded herself.
Act like handsome men fondle your fingers all the time
“Helen?” His voice was low. Intimately low.
The sound of her nameâher
nameâon his lips almost made her gasp in shocked pleasure. Especially because he'd said it
“How much have you had to drink?” he asked.
She tilted her head, trying to read the meaning behind his question. Did she seem drunk? Or was he preparing to offer to buy her another drink? Either way, the answer remained the same.
“One strawberry daiquiri, that's all,” she said.
“So you know what you're doing?” His fingers rubbed over her knuckles with slow deliberation.
Her brows drew together. What in the world? “Yes.”
“This is my first beer,” he said. “And I've only finished half of it. So I'm safe to drive you home.”
She slid her hand from his and stared at the bar, disappointed at encountering yet another man who saw her only as a friend. Someone to be taken care of and driven home to her parents' empty house and her empty twin bed. Not someone to take to
bed. Not an adult woman with adult desires and needs.
“Oh, I have a ride to my house,” she said. “One of my friends is our designated driver. No worries. Thanks for the offer, though.”
He leaned in closer, whispering in her ear. “No, Helen. I want to drive you home. Not to your home. To
His warm breath made the fine hair by her ear flutter, and the faint tickle only added to the shiver she felt building in her spine. He waited for an answer patiently, without moving. Not a single square inch of their bodies touched, but she still felt his presence like water rushing over her. Drowning her.
This is it
, she thought.
This is what I wanted. Sure, it's all happening very fast. Sure, he didn't even know my name five minutes ago. But I've lusted after him forever, and he's offering himself to me. How can I turn that down? I can't. I just . . . can't.
As she turned her head toward him, he didn't move away. His wide mouth hovered a millimeter away from her lips, and she couldn't help herself. She covered that last tiny distance, brushing her mouth against his.