Cindy could sense him behind her. Without seeing him, she knew he was much more than an average man. The heat on her back testified to that fact with each minute she stood on line. Fanning her face with an advertisement, she changed her mind from a regular latte to an iced latte.
She needed a cold drink, and she needed it fast.
The yummy smelling man was making her dizzy. She had to battle the desire to turn and bury her face in his chest--Damn, she closed her eyes, hoping he was tall and handsome with a big, muscular chest. Otherwise, he didn't deserve to smell so freaking delicious.
"My treat," he said as the barista handed her the iced-latte. With the intent to refuse, she turned, and unable to speak, stared up into his dark eyes. "Do me the honor of sharing a table with me and we're even." Cocking his head towards the only available seats, he gave her a wicked grin and winked.
Oh, yes. He did deserve to smell so good. A freaking gorgeous mouth smiled down at her, doing more than encouraging her to accept. All she could think about was kissing him.
Within seconds, he left his imprint over every inch of her being, and his fresh manly scent quickly replaced the smell of coffee as her favorite. She turned to face the cashier and took a step back into his solid chest. The strength of his body against her shoulders embedded itself in her psyche, and the heat of his fingers on her waist as he steadied her stoked a sexual flame hidden deep inside her simply outfitted body.
It was as if someone else had possessed her body, because she was like a deer in headlights. Stunned and awed, she just stared. She should've told him she had to report to work, but she couldn't find the might to refuse him. Unlike her initial instinct to run, she wanted to stay, wanted to get to know him, and her rational fled on its own, leaving the rest of her behind.
"Please. I got this," he insisted. Without waiting for her decision, he closed his fingers over hers and lifted the plastic cup from her grasp. "You get our seats."
She had planned on taking her drink to go, but she managed a nod. There was something about the control he had over her that made her too flustered to think. Self-assured, bordering on arrogant, he dominated the café. But, damn, he held the ace on sexy.
Moving on autopilot, she claimed the table near the window and sat with her back to the counter. She needed a moment to compose herself, to try to think of something other than his searing sex appeal. There was no way a sane woman would turn down the chance to actually speak with him, but she could reserve a bit of modesty. She could even act confident and insist that he wait for her answer before making his next move. Maybe, she could even pretend that this sort of encounter happened to girls like her.
The need for an afternoon caffeine fix had turned into a fantasy, and Cindy watched the buses float down the busy avenue. Suddenly her world took on a fluff and sugar taste, and she didn't want to blink in case she missed a thing.
When he pulled the chair around the table and sat beside her, it took all her sensibility not to jump into his lap, snuggle up against him and purr like a stray kitten being scratched behind the ears. He was the ideal portrait of a real man, a man who knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to get it. The thought of him being interested in her, no matter what the reason, had her stomach in knots.
Resting his arm across the back of her chair, he ran his fingers over her hair and didn't try to hide his attraction to her. With a visual caress and the brush of his thick thigh against hers, he turned the blood in her veins to molten lava. The man captured her heart and immobilized her body with an iced latte. Shit, she was easy.
"You are beautiful," he said. "Thank you for being here."
Never before had she been so physically attracted to a man, never before had she felt the need to touch a stranger, but Latte-Romeo had more charm than any other man she'd ever met. She couldn't stop the world from spinning around him, and frankly, she didn't want to. They talked, and talked, and talked. The conversation went from how busy the café was to spending the summer out of the city and on a sandy beach. Relaxing on a Saturday afternoon was not an easy thing for her, but with him, she did relax and enjoyed discussing dreams and making plans. He made it easy, he made it real.
"Bella, I can't explain this mystical hold you have over me, but I'm so glad I came out for coffee," he said. "I haven't done that in years."
"You haven't had coffee in years?"
He shook his head, his dark hair falling across his forehead like warm waves washing ashore under a midnight moon. "I haven't needed to get my own coffee, and I haven't stepped into a café like this since I finished grad school."
"Glad I could be here to soften the culture shock," she teased, squeezing his hand as if to say that it was all right for him to rule her world because he'd missed out on so many café runs. Every cell in her body sizzled under his appreciative gaze, and she allowed him to claim her hand in return. This man could have anything from her, if only he asked.
Crossing his ankle over his knee, he drew their joined hands into his lap. "So beautiful, tell me more about you."
"Like what?" From the first moment he'd spoken to her, she'd had no clue how to react, but she didn't want their time together to end. She would talk about ant farms if it meant staying with him.
"Well, you've told me that you're in the city for classes three times a week, so I know you're a student. I gather you love animals by the way you looked at that stray and took it milk." He guided her straw to her mouth and placed it between her lips.
Cindy tried to sip in a dainty manner, especially since his thumb caressed her cheek, but he kept stroking, making her forget her own name. Why did he think he had a right to do this to her? And, why didn't she want to tell him to stop?
The straw found air and the latte tickled her nose.
He laughed. "I know that I enjoy looking at you drink your iced latte."
Cindy laughed louder and slurped on purpose. Unusually comfortable with him, considering his social status, Latte-Romeo climbed to the top of her hottie-meter with a fun personality and an even better laugh. But, that didn't put him in her league. It was clear from his shoes that a daily café run was nothing more than spare change to him. On her budget, a latte or two were planned weekly expenses.
"Hello?" He waved his hand in front of her nose till she smiled. "What flavor ice cream?"
"What do you do?"
"I design shoes, but at the moment, I work as a barmaid at a club in Queens."
"Married?" His thumb played over her ring finger.
"Any special man in your life?"
"Thank you," he breathed, looking up at the ceiling. "So, tell me about your shoes."
"I'll show you," she said, pulling her sketches from her bag. Delighted by his interest in the one thing of her life that mattered most to her, she shared each drawing in her portfolio with him, giddy with excitement as he listened to every detail.
"Have you developed prototypes?" he asked.
"Sort of, but not really. The collection isn't complete yet. Once The Perfect Fit is ready, I have a friend who has a connection in shoe manufacturing. I might approach them to produce about half a dozen samples. Especially since my so-called prototype took me two months to make, and I had to buy ten pairs of shoes, take them apart, then hand-stitch them back together."
"Dedication," he said, raising his broad shoulders and winking. "It will payoff."
"Actually, I've made a little money off designing logos for a couple of places." Three to be exact, but he wasn't asking her to be exact. "It might be small, but it's a start."
"Only a start," he drawled. "Your talent and shoes are amazing, but not half as amazing as you are." Flipping the book shut, he raised her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles. "Have dinner with me."
Dinner? Shoot, she should've been halfway to Queens. She had work she couldn't afford to miss. Bills she couldn't afford to be late on. There was a real world beyond the café.
Her cell phone rang. She flipped the pink cover, and her stepmother's high-pitch shattered any temporary escape from the daily drudgery. "Cindy, I'm putting Shadow on the auction block. I can't afford his upkeep and the--"
"No, no," Cindy interrupted. "I was just placing the check for his boarding in the mail. I'm on my way to post it as we speak."
"It won't be enough. You owe two months and how do you expect me to find the money for August?"
"The check is cut to cover his expenses through September," she lied, pulling her checkbook out of her purse and filling out the monetary amount for more than her account actually had. Working on her day off, and depositing every single cent, might make it. If she got lucky, the mail would be slow and she'd have one more day's pay to add. That should cover it.
A tirade of grumbling about the expense of maintaining the estate and how difficult it was to raise three girls as a single parent followed. Cindy had heard it all before, so she just held the phone at arm's length and nodded. She could never understand how her father was so blind-sided to leave his home to the step-monster. Dear stepmom never appreciated him while he was alive, what made him believe she'd appreciate him dead? And as for his daughter, well, stepmom tolerated Cindy because she had to--well, she had to if she wanted to receive the monthly household expense allowance set by her father's trust. Much good that little planning had done Cindy when almost every dime went to frivolous and luxurious expenses to keep her stepsisters in a lifestyle they were accustomed to.
Eight years ago, on a miserable November night, Cindy's dad had died of a sudden heart attack. Step-monster wasted no time and had laid down the law, explaining that the stepdaughter had to earn her keep before the sun had gone up. 'No free ride for the orphan.' With part-time jobs, Cindy had paid for her childhood bedroom and her food.
The day she'd graduated from high school, Cindy had taken what tiny savings she'd collected and moved to a small apartment in Queens. Even working two jobs, living over a garage was all she could afford, allowing for tuition and the expense of keeping Shadow at the riding stables on the Island. Between her contribution and permitting the barn to use him for riding lessons, she had been able to see him once a week. If Cindy was to assure that her horse wasn't sold or mistreated, she had to endure whatever the woman who had blinded her father wanted her to do. And that wasn't limited to paying bills. The beating her self-esteem took far outweighed any financial hardship.
"Yes, ma'am. I understand. Thank you for your patience," she added, searching for a stamp. "The check should arrive no later than Tuesday."
She placed the phone back in her purse and let out a long breath, tucking her hair behind her ear and collapsing against the seat. Yanked into the responsibilities that occupied her daily life, she wondered why the magnificent male specimen was still sitting there. Why had he bothered to speak to her, an extremely ordinary and plain woman, with more than her share of baggage in the first place?
She shook her head.
"Can I be of any help?" Latte-Romeo asked, reaching for her hand and stroking her wrist with his thumb.
"Um, not really, but thanks for offering," she replied, momentarily disregarding the negativity which was growing inside her and enjoying his touch.
"Sorry." She stood and he politely rose to his feet. "I'm working tonight." Collecting her sketchbook, she grabbed what was left of her drink, and holding her breath, looked around the place. What could it hurt? I'll never see him again, and I'll regret it forever if I don't do it. Cindy went up on her toes and sealed her mouth over his.
He must have sensed her hesitation, for his hands encircled her waist and entrapped her against his muscular body. His tongue swept through her mouth, hot lips branding her soul, and the earth's axis shifted as her world went up in flames. Never before had she lost herself in a man--in all honesty, it was her first real kiss--but from the first delectable taste, she was an absolute and total goner. Latte-Romeo confirmed his hottie status and sealed it with undeniable charisma. She was an immediate addict of his presence. She didn't want to go.
"What time do you get off?"
The question threw her back into reality. She glanced out the window and saw the bus down the block--and her escape.
"I have to go," she said, running out of the café. He tried to stop her, tried to talk to her, but she pulled out of his hold and shook her head, pleading for him to understand. Appearing to be struggling against insisting, he watched as she mounted the steps and the bus pulled away from the curb.
Latte-Romeo mouthed something she couldn't understand and then faded in the distance.