Authors: Christine Hartmann
WILD AT HEART SERIES, BOOK TWO
BY CHRISTINE HARTMANN
Copyright © 2016 by Christine W. Hartmann.
All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: September 2016
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
To Antje, my romance guru.
Table of Contents
The word conjured ratty, stuffed wildebeests in a natural history museum’s savanna exhibit, with bald spots worn from countless curious children’s fingers reaching past the sign reading
Do Not Touch’
. Ellie retreated against the backrest of the basement restaurant’s cushioned leather bench and camouflaged her dropping jaw with a sip of wine. The man in tweed with a two-day growth of thin facial hair leaned across the narrow table that separated them.
“You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t even know what taxidermy is.” He glanced around the small, crowded, and dimly lit room. “Even here. Where we’re all supposed to be…” He raised long, hooked fingers in the shape of bent quotation marks, exposing untidy nails, “
looking for dates.” He lifted his bottle of IPA.
Ellie jumped gratefully into the ensuing pause. “Professions. That’s a good speed dating subject. I cat sit.” She laughed and pushed errant strands of hair from her face. “But it’s not my life’s goal. I’m in grad school. It pays the bills.”
“I have a cat.” Her companion groped through one jacket pocket and another, laying on the table an assortment of strangely shaped metal instruments Ellie didn’t examine too closely. He finally stood and clutched intimately at his pants. “Ah.” He extracted a gray flip phone from his front pocket, scrolled, and turned it toward her.
Ellie squinted at the tiny screen. “I can’t really make out what your cat is doing.”
“He’s got a mouse in his mouth. Quite a trick. Getting the critter to fit in there.” He flicked the phone shut with a click. “Small animals are hard to dissect.”
The table between them felt suddenly disturbingly narrow. Ellie peeked at the smart phone in her lap. “Gee, time’s almost up. And I’ve got one last burning question.” She rubbed her nose to suppress a grin. “Do you generally have luck with speed dating?”
The shrill switch-partners tweet reverberating in the low ceilinged room obscured his response. His spindly hand hovered in the air like a bedraggled bird wing, waiting for Ellie to shake it. A sudden coughing fit seized her. She held her napkin to her mouth and shrugged. He sniffed, rubbed his nose on the sleeve of his herringbone jacket, and turned away.
Ellie circled “no” with thick black marks next to Mr. Taxidermy’s number and looked to Celine, who was sitting a few tables down. Ellie mouthed, “Watch out” and raised her eyebrows in the taxidermist’s direction. Celine pointed a stealthy pinky at the retreating back of the man who’d just left her own table and rolled her eyes in crazy loops. Ellie smiled.
“Seems like you’re having fun, number sixteen.”
A tall, dark haired man of about thirty slid into the seat opposite Ellie.
She grinned and dropped the scorecard into her lap. “I’m learning that what they say is true.”
“What’s that?” He shifted his martini glass to the edge of the table and rested his hands where she could see them. Ellie examined the close-cut nails, the strong fingers, and the dark hair on the knuckles, neither sparse nor Neanderthal. She sensed rather than observed him scanning her and felt a soft blush warm her cheeks.
“That you learn more in five minutes face-to-face than you do in five hours of emails.” She met his dark eyes, a grin still playing at the corner of her mouth.
He nodded, his expression open, welcoming. “I’m a believer. My company swears by performance-based interviewing.”
Ellie cocked her head and gave him her best smile. “So tell me what you do.”
The man opposite rattled off a distilled resume: CEO, mountaineer, and soup kitchen worker. His general demeanor matched his hands, manly yet approachable, tough yet seemingly warm. Ellie couldn’t believe her luck. A gorgeous, approachable stranger, one fit for speed dating website advertisements.
Play this one right, Ellie,
She admired his career high points, skimmed over her own, and segued the conversation easily into hobbies and weekend activities. Her fingers played absently with her wine glass, watching his hands slowly fold and unfold, like wings on a giant butterfly.
The vibration of an incoming call in her lap made her jump. Her hands twitched and, before she could catch it, her glass toppled, spilling red wine across the table in a widening sea that threatened to engulf the CEO and his expensive-looking slacks.
Her date ricocheted out of his chair as though ejected. He stood far away, rubbing frantically with his fingers at a stain located embarrassingly near his zipper. Ellie leaned forward on her bench and shot him an apologetic look as she dabbed her cocktail napkin at the corners of the expansive puddle with one hand and waved frantically with the other for help.
“I’m sorry.” She offered him a second tiny napkin, handed to her from the neighboring table. “I’m a klutz. Not a good thing for you to learn about in person.”
She peeked at him to check for a smile. He took the proffered napkin without his eyes leaving the widening blotch. She sighed and concentrated on cleaning up the mess.
Minutes later, the time’s up whistle echoed in her ears. She watched Mr. CEO draw large, repeated circles around the “no” next to her number before he moved with a grateful smile to his next table.
Celine winked at her. Ellie bit her lip and shrugged.
“Do I need a wet suit?”
Ellie looked up at an Asian man with inviting eyes.
“You’re safe. I’m not drinking for the rest of the evening.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m number fifty-two.” He surveyed the room. “Although how I got that high a number, I’m not sure.”
“Maybe a lot of registrants didn’t show up.”
“Glad you showed up.” He crossed his arms and leaned back.
She stole a glance at the CEO, whose current date had sacrificed her sparkling water for the sake of a continued attack on the wine spot. “I don’t think everyone shares your opinion.”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s a frequent flyer.”
She stared at her new date. “He comes often? But he must be flooded with matches after one of these things.”
The man chuckled. “I don’t know what he’s doing wrong, but this is the third event I’ve seen him at.”
Ellie peered at the person across from her, wondering why he’d admit to being here so often himself. “So you’re a veteran?”
His head jerked up and spine straightened. “Navy. Five years. Surveillance. Still in that line of work.”
Ellie blinked. “Surveillance?”
“Yes, ma’am. Work in a spy store. Do you know you can put a camera on someone that’s so small, they won’t even know it’s there?” He pointed at the CEO. “I was thinking I could put one on him, to find out what he’s doing wrong. Learn from his mistakes.”
He smirked. “Depends on who’s doing it.”
Ellie pulled her hands slowly from the table, tucked her legs underneath the bench she was sitting on, and scrutinized his face. She wondered whether she’d mistaken the invitation in his eyes and decided she didn’t want to find out. In her lap, she quietly removed the score card and pen from under her skirt and, as he prattled on about recorders, cameras, and under water listening devices, unobtrusively circled “no,” making her number of rejections an even dozen.
The rooftop restaurant afforded intermittent views of glimmering boat lights in the dark San Francisco Bay. Ellie snuggled into her sweater, grateful for the large silver heat lamp towering over a cluster of tables.
“Girl, that was the most fun I’ve had in months.” Celine’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “A spy, a survivalist, and a wanna-be sommelier who gargled my wine and spit it back into my glass. Can you believe it? You can’t make this stuff up.”
Ellie laughed. “You forgot the taxidermist.”
“I didn’t forget him, honey.” Celine shook her head. “I was saving the best for last.” She stabbed her salad. “You’ve got to love someone who’s so enamored with his hobby that he can’t see he’s freaking people out.”
“How many yeses do you think he got?”
Celine squinted at miniature bulbs strung in sparkling rows across their table in the pattern of a grape arbor. “That girl with the pigtails. She was chatting him up afterward. So maybe one?”
Ellie chuckled. “That’s probably one more than I got.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Not too many of us twenty-somethings at these things. The spy shop guy was all about you.”
“All over me, you mean.” Ellie ran her fingers through her long hair and brushed down her sweater. “He probably planted cameras. Although I tried to stay out of arm’s reach.”
Celine chewed thoughtfully. “At least you got yourself out there.”
A waitress stopped at their table and refilled their water glasses. Ellie studied the offices in nearby buildings, bright rectangles showcasing empty desks and the occasional hunched figure working late hours.
“I don’t know if it counts if nobody picks me out of the crowd.” Ellie twirled spaghetti around her fork.
“It counts. You’re back in the running. Next time will be easier.”
“Pretty much guaranteed to be less weird.” She winked at Celine.
The waitress returned with two glasses on a tray. “Excuse me.” She placed the goblets on the table. “These are from the gentlemen over there.”
Ellie stared at the two businessmen looking in their direction while Celine raised her glass in a toast and flashed them a wide smile. Celine then turned to the waitress, her expression dropping immediately back to neutral. “Tell them we appreciate the thought. But we just finished a speed dating event. We’re dated out for tonight.”
The waitress nodded, turned to leave, and hesitated. “Did you really just speed date?”
Celine laughed. “Don’t we look worn out?”
The waitress surveyed Celine’s smooth, bright face, her short afro, her hot pink blouse. “I can’t tell.”
“We did. And we
The young woman leaned over the table and lowered her voice. “I’m only asking because I’ve wanted to try it.”
“Seriously?” Celine backed her chair from the table so she could look the waitress in the face. “Isn’t that what you do for a living already? When I was a waitress, I thought the entire job
Ellie shook her head. “That’s because you’re confident and gorgeous, Celine. For us normal people…” She glanced at the waitress. The young woman smiled. “For us normal people, we need outside help.”
The waitress straightened the tablecloth and wiped a few crumbs into her hand. She glanced in the direction of the bar and whispered. “Do you have any tips?”
Celine pointed at Ellie. “This woman can give you some.”
Ellie thought. “Don’t go with high expectations, keep your phone out of your lap, and don’t let anyone touch you.”
The waitress grinned. “I’ll let those guys over there know they’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“You do that.” After she moved away, Celine focused on Ellie. “Now. What’s the next plan?”
Ellie concentrated on her food. “No plan.”
“I thought you said you’d do this again?”
The cheese on Ellie’s pasta broke into long strings as she pushed the noodles around her plate. “I just said it would be less weird the second time.”
“You still thinking about Alberto? Really? You dumped him years ago.”
The smile faded from Ellie’s lips. “Eleven and a half months ago. But who’s counting? And he’s the one who broke up with me.”
Celine dismissed the distinction with a wave of her hand. “Only because you didn’t beat him to it.”
“Still nothing. A breakup doesn’t mean you take yourself out of the running. Tonight ended your self-imposed monastic lifestyle.” She lifted the complimentary glass of wine and clinked Ellie’s glass. “Here’s to new love.”
Ellie left hers on the table without taking a sip. “I’ll drink to friendship. Even lust. But not love.”
“Oh, girl. Don’t tell me you don’t have serious FOMO.”
“Nope.” Ellie hoisted a forkful of pasta and stuffed it into her mouth. A loose noodle dangled and she shielded her face from Celine’s eyes as she struggled with the vagrant strand. She laughed. “That’s why you get the drinks, Celine. You aren’t clumsy or messy like the rest of us.”
“Don’t try to change the subject.” Celine’s eyes reflected her serious tone. “I thought we had you back in the game tonight.”
Ellie pushed the half-finished plate from her. “I’m in a new game. I’m done with serious dating.”
“Because of Alberto? He’s not worth it.”
“Because of Alberto. And Elliot. It’s too painful to break up with someone you love. I moved across the country for Elliot. I switched careers for Alberto. I’m done with all that.”