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Authors: Autumn Markus

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Cocktails & Dreams

BOOK: Cocktails & Dreams
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Cocktails & Dreams

...

Autumn Markus

...

 

Omnific Publishing

Dallas

Copyright Information

Cocktails & Dreams, Copyright © 2012 by Autumn Markus

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

...

Omnific Publishing

10000 North Central Expressway, Dallas, TX 75231

www.omnificpublishing.com

...

First Omnific eBook edition, July 2012

First Omnific trade paperback edition, July 2012

...

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

...

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

...

Markus, Autumn.

Cocktails & Dreams / Autumn Markus – 1st ed

ISBN: 978-1-62342-902-7

1. Contemporary Romance—Fiction. 2. Young Urban Professionals—Fiction. 3. Family—Romance. 4. Love—Fiction. I. Title

...

Cover Design by Micha Stone and Amy Brokaw
Interior Book Design by Coreen Montagna

Dedication

To M., who helped me believe
that real love is more than a theoretical possibility.

Prologue

N
ICHOLAS
S
TUMBLED
A
S
H
E
R
EACHED
the bar, grabbing for the padded edge with the same hand that had just pushed his sweaty hair back from his forehead. Pulsing lights flashed in unison with the throbbing techno beat coming from the dance floor, and Nick swore both were timed to match the thumping of his heart.

“Another Jäger!” he shouted at the harassed bartender as she tried to keep up with the New Year’s Eve crowd’s thirst for booze. Nick felt a nudge on his shoulder and smiled brilliantly up at his roommate before reaching across the bar and tapping the barmaid on the shoulder. “Make that two Jägers.”

Nick stepped back hastily as the burly man that had been standing next to her, massive arms crossed as he closely watched the crowd, knocked his hand away from the startled woman’s shoulder. With an expression of bored contempt, he started to climb over the bar. Nick tried to focus his attention on the face that appeared to be somehow related to the beefy hand descending on his shoulder, but instead he found himself grinning at the woman a couple of barstools away, who kept looking at him. Damn, she was pretty, even if he couldn’t really see her in the gloom. She smiled back, turning her seat so she could lean back against the bar. She ran her hand carefully through a mass of heavily sprayed hair and crossed her legs, causing her already short red dress to rise to thrilling new heights. Mr. ScaryFatHands was forgotten.

Nick had just decided to slide on over next to her and have a chat when a lanky figure, clad in a black T-shirt, blocked his view.

“C’mon, man,” he heard his roommate say, holding his hands palms up placatingly, as if hoping the club’s bouncer was in the mood to listen. “He didn’t mean anything. He just wanted to order a drink and got a little enthusiastic. We’re from out of town.”

The bouncer grunted and appeared to be considering whether to toss them out or kill them. He rubbed his hands over his shaved, bullet-shaped head before crossing his arms again, one huge hand clasping his even larger bicep.

“Mr. ScaryFatHands,” Nick whispered to himself, snickering.

Conor stomped on Nick’s foot and smiled ingratiatingly before repeating, “C’mon. Guests in beautiful San Francisco. That’s gotta mean something.”

ScaryFatHands grunted. “No shit. Most of the people in here are.” He studied the tall man in front of him, sizing him up with a stern expression that turned into a reluctant smile when his original prey peeked over Black T-Shirt’s shoulder with a winning, if slightly inebriated, grin.

“Shit. All right. Tell you what: I’ll forget that he broke the number one rule of this establishment—” he pointed at the hand lettered sign behind the bar that clearly stated:
Our Bartenders Are Not For Sale. Keep Your Hands To Yourself
“—if you agree that he’s your responsibility. Keep him under control or you’re both out of here.”

The intriguing woman at the bar recrossed her legs, changing Nick’s view of one dangling sky-high heel for another, and he barely registered the agreement and handshake that took place before ScaryFatHands vaulted lithely back over the bar to resume his post. Mostly Naked Girl—Nick decided he liked this new way of identifying people—caught the path of Nick’s gaze as it traveled up one of her very long legs, and she laughed while adjusting her breasts to better show off her cleavage. Taking that as a sign of encouragement, Nick tried to shuffle around the black T-shirt in front of him to get to her, but the T-shirt refused to move.

A face topped with cropped red hair swam into his line of view. “Hey, yo. Dickolas. Don’t I get a thanks for saving your skinny white ass?”

Nick smiled back and punched his roommate on the shoulder. “That was great, Conor. Thanks a lot.” His eyes wandered back to the hottie, and he tried to go left around Conor, who mirrored his motion. “I mean it, really.”

Nick jagged right, but Conor moved with him. Hoping to fake out his roommate and thereby reach his goal, Mostly Naked Girl, Nick shifted casually left again, picking up his drink from the bar and tossing it back before jumping right and forward.

He staggered back from his solid collision with Conor’s hard frame.

“What’s your hurry, cupcake?” Conor asked, grinning broadly.

Nick leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered loudly, “That girl behind you. I want to ask her to dance.” His feet tangled together as he tried to step back, and Conor steadied him, laughing.

“Easy, Baryshnikov. Swear to God, I wish I had a camcorder for this. The guys at the station will never believe that EMT Cooper finally let loose and partied.” His eyebrows drew down as he inspected Nicholas critically. “Of course, I’d have to get a shot of you dancing, since you sound totally normal. Well, if
normal
included ordering more shots of Jäger than any one human should consume. The dancing, though…yeah, they’d know you were fucked up.”

He turned as a hand slid over his shoulder and down his arm.

“Oh, I don’t know…” MNG drawled, walking around Conor and winking at him. “I like to watch him dance. He’s got great rhythm. Makes a girl wonder…”

Conor stared for a second, his eyes sweeping up and down her body in bold inspection. His insane self-confidence, clearly not justified by his skinny frame and plain face, seemed to set her back for a minute before a tiny smile began to play upon her bee-stung lips. Conor chuckled, unsurprised when her eyes stayed firmly fixed on him. In fact, she preened a little. He dropped his hands from Nick’s arms and lounged against the bar, the better to exhibit his shoulders in his tight T-shirt.

“See here’s the thing: if a girl has to wonder, something’s not quite right.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep. Do you wonder about me?”

“Not at all.”

Conor and MNG stared, slow smiles spreading across both their faces as they sized each other up. MNG nodded, her mind apparently made up.

“I’ll get my purse.”

Nick watched open-mouthed as she sauntered toward the end of the bar, hips swaying. She spoke briefly to a tight knot of people who all looked up as one at him and Conor, grinning. One of them passed her a tiny beaded bag, and she waved at Conor before disappearing into the ladies’ room.

“How do you
do
that?” Nicholas demanded, rounding on his large, smug-faced friend. “I was going to ask her to dance. You just jacked my Mostly Naked Girl. I hate you.”

Conor smiled dismissively, his eyes still on the door behind which his future hook-up had vanished. “This one’s way out of your league, my friend. She’d suck you up and leave nothing but your bones.”

“That was the idea,” Nick muttered, reaching for Conor’s untouched shot.

Conor snagged the glass off the bar and tossed it back, grimacing. “You owe me one, man. I fucking hate licorice.” He scanned the writhing mass of scantily clad bimbos at the edge of the dance floor, seeming to disregard them without a thought, before his eyes stopped and his look sharpened into focused concentration. Nodding once, he turned Nicholas back toward the dance floor and pointed. “That one. The laughing girl, with the hair and the boots. That’s your girl, Nick. Trust me.”

Nicholas followed the sight line of Conor’s pointing finger, trying to make out her features in the gloom. His attention stalled on her tall male companion, noting the way the other men around Conor’s chosen woman were watching the guy warily, perhaps intimidated by his athletic frame and the way he was obviously sizing each of them up. Running a hand through his hair as he grinned at something the woman was saying, her companion pointed unobtrusively at one stumbling drunk, who immediately backed off.

Nick’s lips twisted into a wry smile, and he mumbled, “Taken.” He started to turn back toward the bar, already anticipating his next drink, when he felt Conor’s iron grip tighten.

“Trust me, Cooper,” he insisted, grinning as Boot Girl slapped her companion’s arm; he tugged her long dark hair and lifted his chin toward a statuesque brunette that was gyrating at the center of the floor before making a beeline toward her. “They’re just friends.”

Nick strained his eyes again, trying to get a good look at the girl. He started to shake his head when he could see no more than a vague shape…but then he stopped. There was something familiar about the set of her pale shoulders and the way she moved gracefully to sit down at a table near her and pick up her drink. He caught a flash of her smile as she shook her head at the first adventurer bold enough to approach her, and he had a moment of total sense memory.

One smile, and Nicholas could sm
ell the metallic tang of lake water and hear the muted
plonk
of oars dropping perfectly into it. An instant later, he was seeing the same smile from the side, blurred trees passing by the bus window against which she was leaning, as he tried to catch her eye through a curtain of that same hair. He remembered the faint blush that colored her cheek when she’d noticed he was looking at her, and the guilty way he’d peeked at the tight muscles of her legs and stomach, watched the steady rise and fall of her chest, and how he’d listened to her rapid, shallow breathing at the end of a race and knew he’d pull out all those memories when he was alone that night, fantasizing about her…

“Jena,” he murmured.

“What?” Conor shouted as the music began to boom again.

“I know her!” Nicholas yelled back. “From college! I know her!” He looked back at Jena and frowned, disturbed that another bozo had taken the seat across from her even though her smile faded and she was shaking her head again. “I’m going to talk to her.”

Conor appeared to have lost interest in the conversation as soon as he saw Mostly Naked Girl exit the restroom and stalk toward him, hair swaying with the motion of her body and a dangerous smile on her perfect lips.

“Sure. Whatever.” He slapped Nick on the shoulder after another glance at the woman he’d pointed out. “She’s really something, if you like that type. Knock her dead, tiger.”

Chapter One

T
HE
G
RIN
O
N
J
ENA’S
F
ACE
felt massive as she slowly rose from sleep, savoring the dream. They grew more vivid the older she got.

Stretching lazily, she ran her hand down her chest, and froze when it brushed silky hair resting on her abdomen. A low sigh and a brush of lips on Jena’s skin caused her eyes to spring open, and she stared at the sleeping face of the man whose head was settling more comfortably on her body while his arm tightened briefly across her hips.

She closed her eyes tightly, praying it was a hallucination, but she knew that her imagination could never make up a face like that. Even that brief glimpse had burned his features into her brain—not that she hadn’t fantasized about him plenty of times before. That pale skin, stretched over sharp cheekbones, and that jet hair belonged to none other than Nicholas Cooper.

Holy shit.

Jena carefully placed her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes. She remembered going to the New Year’s party at a hotel with her roommate, Travis. She remembered dancing and drinking. She even remembered seeing Nicholas from across the room and being simply unable to stop staring at him until he caught her eye with a grin, came over to wrap his arms around her, and exclaimed how long it had been since the last time they’d seen each other. After a few celebratory drinks, Jena remembered Travis asking if she was
sure
that she wanted to leave with Nicholas and laughing his ass off when she said, “Fuck, yes!” Things got a little fuzzy after that.

Okay, a lot fuzzy.

Steeling herself, she lifted her head slightly to look at the face that rested on her stomach again. Yep, still Nicholas, recognizable even with his eyes closed.

Nicholas shifted again, dropping his head onto the mattress and snuggling it into the curve of Jena’s waist. The movement caused his hand to shift as well, until it rested on the soft skin between her navel and neverland.

Holy shit.

She had to get out of there. Like,
now.

Moving as gently as if his hand were a time bomb, Jena slowly maneuvered it to rest beside his chest. She scooted over and off the edge of the bed, trying not to jiggle the mattress, and quietly gathered up the jeans, tank, and silk shirt she’d worn the night before. Where were her underwear and bra? Jena was very sure that she’d started the evening with both, but they were nowhere to be found now.
Too damn bad
, she thought, quietly shutting herself in the bathroom and beginning to panic. No matter how she’d gotten to Nick’s hotel room or what had happened there, she was ready to leave.

Throwing on her shirt, Jena dialed her roommate’s cell number, and after an unnerving number of rings, he finally picked up.

“It’s six a.m. on New Year’s Day,” Travis grumbled. “This had damned well better be an emergency.”

“Trav, please,
please
come get me,” Jena whispered, pulling up her jeans and frantically trying to remember where her boots had been shed.

“Oh,
now
you want my help,” Travis said lazily. “Why the change of heart? Last night you seemed to be pretty sure you wanted to go upstairs.” He chuckled. “Did you even make it out of the elevator? Or did you make it
in
the elevator?”

Jena sat on the toilet lid and thumped her head on the vanity in frustration. Maybe she’d give herself a concussion and could claim brain injury made her end up in Nick’s room.

“Please, Travis. I’ll do anything. Just bring my stuff from our room and let’s go home.” What the hell—maybe abject pleading would work.

Trav sighed. “All right, Jen, but you owe me one. A
big
one. It will probably involve cash or abject humiliation. Deal?”

Jena heard the hallway door open and shut and a TV go on outside the bedroom door.
Shit. How much worse can this get?
Then from the bedroom, Nicholas mumbled something in his sleep, and she realized that, yes, it certainly could get worse if he was awakening.

“Deal! Just get your ass over here ASAP! I’m begging you. I’ll meet you in the lobby.” She relaxed once Travis agreed.

Stuffing her phone in her pocket as she rose to her feet, she tried to smooth the wrinkled silk shirt while hunching her shoulders forward, hoping that would disguise her lack of a bra. She glanced at herself in the mirror and froze.

“What the hell were you thinking, Jena Baker?” she whispered, searching her own eyes in the mirror and trying to find some semblance of the erotically charged woman of the night before, so unlike her usual self. All she saw was the same face that she’d been looking at for years, though the hair was wild and the eyes frantic.

After a final glance at Nicholas lying on the bed, Jena stealthily opened the door between the bedroom and the sitting area, hoping the door to the hall was nearby so she could slip out. No luck. The outside door could only be reached by passing right next to the sofa, over the back of which she could see a pair of broad shoulders and closely trimmed hair. Bracing herself for the walk of shame, Jena nearly jumped out of her skin when the head started talking without turning around.

“Trying to sneak out, sweetheart?”

She stepped back into the bedroom and almost closed the door when the stranger started to turn his head. His baritone laugh filled the room when he realized what she’d done. Jena looked frantically back at Nicholas, hoping the noise wouldn’t jar him awake. He just rolled over on his stomach and hugged the pillow on which she had been lying. Of course, that pulled the sheet off of him entirely.
Oh my.
Jena felt her jaw drop as she took in the view.

Oh my
.

“Hey? You still there?”

The voice made its way through Jena’s lust-addled brain, and she knew she should answer him before he came looking for her. “Yeah,” she answered in a raspy voice.

“Would you feel better if I went into my room until you got out the door?”

Relief rushed through her. “Yeah. Thanks.”

The head sighed. “Okay, give me a minute, and then you’ll be clear.” Jena heard him rise from the couch. “Never would have taken you for a shy one after last night,” he muttered to himself.

“Oh, God…” she moaned, and heard him laugh again before a door on the other side of the suite closed quietly.

Almost running, Jena stopped only to push her feet into her boots—thankfully shed right beside the doorjamb—and to grab her jacket off the arm of the couch before shutting the door noiselessly behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief and tried to remember which way they had come from the elevators. With a sense of horror, Jena realized that she hadn’t seen anything at all.

Good Lord. How many people had witnessed Nicholas carrying her down the hall with her legs wrapped around his waist and her face practically attached to his? Jena briefly considered throwing herself out a window, but discarded the idea because Travis was already on his way.

Finally managing to find the elevators to the lobby, Jena peeked at the mirrored wall in the back and was relieved to recognize that she had survived the night basically unscathed. For once, she was grateful that she didn’t wear much makeup. A little smeared mascara, but that was easily remedied. Jena searched her jacket pocket and slicked on the tinted lip-gloss she kept there. The sex hair would have to stay until she could get to her bag because, as usual, she hadn’t taken a purse to the festivities. Purses tended to get lost on her watch, and Jena had seen no reason to take the risk in a club full of people when she could just shove her money and ID in a pocket and travel light. Combing her fingers through her tangles, Jena groaned. She could really use the brush that most girls carried right about then.

Collapsing in the lobby chair with the best view of the doors, she closed her eyes and tried to reconstruct how she’d gotten in her current position: stranded and sex-worn in a hotel in San Francisco. She groaned at that thought and thanked God that at least Nicholas wasn’t a
complete
stranger—now
that
would have been throw-yourself-out-a-window worthy.

She had met Nicholas in her freshman year at the University of Oregon. From the first time she saw him, all lean muscle and dazzling grin, while waiting for the rowing team bus to take them to the reservoir, Jena had been hooked. Right before he stepped onto the bus, Mr. Beautiful had caught her eye and smiled. Jena remembered looking around to see who he could be smiling at, like she was in some stupid teen movie. His eyes had crinkled up a little more, and he shook his head and boarded the bus. Jena had frozen in place, jaw dropped, until someone had jostled her arm and asked her if she was getting on the bus
.
And she’d apparently never stopped being floored by him.

The quiet ding of the elevator door as it opened yanked Jena from her reverie and made her cringe; she slouched down and looked around furtively, knowing the likelihood that Nicholas would exit was low but bracing for it anyway. A woman and two children, all dressed for the pool, passed in front of her, and she mentally shook herself. She was being ridiculous, she decided, straightening up in her chair and checking her watch. Travis should be walking through the door any time. Ignoring the hissing whispers from the desk girls that she recognized from the night before, she ran a quick hand through her hair again, trying to tame the waves. She wished she could remember exactly what she and Nicholas had done to make it so insane; a hazy recollection of a shower sent her scurrying back to the safer, more distant past, but even that wasn’t safe. She shook her head, remembering the way she’d always been so carefully casual with Nicholas, never revealing an inkling of the uproar being around him created in her body.

Her pretense that he didn’t affect her was blown away now, she thought ruefully.

“Are you ready to go, sugar?”

So deeply was she immersed in her thoughts that Jena was startled by Travis’s voice. Gasping, she grabbed her chest. “Jesus, Trav! You scared me to death!”

“Sorry.” Jena’s roommate took her hand and pulled her up from the chair. Glancing at her sideways, he added with a wicked smile, “Love the hair.”

“Oh, shut the hell up,” Jena muttered. She heard giggles and whispered conversation coming from the front desk, as the end-of-shift night clerks checked out Travis and talked a mile a minute. Jena took a quick assessment of him and grimaced; she and Travis had been good friends and co-workers for such a long time that she often forgot how good-looking he was. She shook her head at the girls and walked toward the door.

“Good taste, honey,” the sassier of the two clerks called out. “Can I have the one from last night?”

Travis burst into laughter as Jena waved an expressive finger in the clerk’s direction. “So ladylike, Jena,” he said, looking back at the clerks and flashing the panty-dropping smile for which he was known around the campus of UC Davis, their home away from respective homes.

Jena elbowed him in the ribs. “Don’t encourage them,” she hissed.

Running his fingers through his wavy hair not only led to another spate of whispers; it also allowed Travis the opportunity to nudge Jena in the head with his elbow. Lovingly, of course. “Just making sure they remember me. I might be looking for female companionship if I come back some day,” he murmured back. “We can’t all count on being taken to bed by a total stranger.”

“Shut it, Walker,” Jena warned. He laughed and led the way out the door, tossing his keys and whistling a satisfied-sounding tune.

“Yes, boss. At least until we get home.”

 

The ride from San Francisco to Davis was quiet. Jena knew Travis was just waiting for the best time to pounce, so she had only until then to come up with a plausible explanation for her out-of-character behavior. Extremely delayed lust was the honest answer, but that was just too embarrassing to contemplate saying aloud. Various other excuses passed through her mind, but Jena discarded them one by one, fully aware that Travis knew her too well to accept any of them. Her eyes drifted closed somewhere between
He must have slipped me a roofie
and
I slept in the bathtub, really
. It was the sound of Travis’s door clunking closed and the trunk opening that dragged her eyes open again.

Jena and Travis both breathed a sigh of relief as they flopped down on the couch in their comfortable apartment. After a few minutes, though, Jena felt Travis looking at her.

“So?” He grinned and raised an expressive eyebrow. “Spill it, girl. What the hell happened last night?” Jena’s eyes widened in horror, and Travis laughed. “Not the gory details, spaz. I don’t want to have
nightmares
about that. I’ve just never seen you take off with a guy like that. And don’t even try to pull the ‘I was so drunk I didn’t know what was going on’ thing either, because I’ve seen you so twisted that you can’t see or walk, and you still have willpower of steel. Or actually, ‘won’t power.’”

Jena abandoned all hope of excusing herself. “Travis, I really don’t want to talk about it,” she moaned. He just crossed his arms. “Okay, okay! I know Nicholas from my college rowing team, all right? I haven’t seen him since my freshman year, and I guess I had a little crush then that’s carried over.”

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