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Excerpt: Matchless

Excerpt: Matchless

Book 2: The Black Brothers

I’m just about to shut my computer off and leave the office when the phone rings.  I glance at caller ID and sigh.  It’s my mom.  Not that I don’t want to talk to her; we actually have a pretty good relationship now that I live two thousand miles away.  But it’s Friday, my thirtieth birthday, and I have plans tonight.  If I can ever get out of here, that is. Taking a deep breath, I pick up the phone.

“Hi, Mom,” I say brightly.

“Milena! I’m so glad I caught you still at the office.”  I can hear the faint hint of my mother’s Russian accent, despite the fact that she’s lived in the States for thirty years.  

“Of course you caught me,” I say with a sigh.  “I’m a lawyer. I live here.”

“I know,” my mom says cheerfully.  “That’s why I sent the flowers there.  Did they arrive?”

I look at the gorgeous arrangement of orchids that arrived earlier this afternoon.  My mother hadn’t even hinted at the fact that she and my dad were sending me flowers when she called early this morning to wish me a happy birthday.

“They’re beautiful!” I say sincerely.  “I’m sorry I didn’t call to thank you when they arrived.  I was caught in a meeting until a few minutes ago.  But,” I tease, “if you learned to text, I could have texted you during the meeting.”  My sister and I are constantly trying to get her to join the twenty-first century, but so far she has resisted our attempts to teach her to text, tweet, or get a Facebook account.  

“There’s nothing wrong with actually talking to people,” she retorts.  “Are you doing something special for your birthday?”

“I’m going out with some friends tonight,” I say.

“Male friends?” she asks hopefully.

“Sure,” I say drily.  “If you count David, who’s married, and Simon, who’s gay.”  

I am now officially ready to end this telephone conversation.  My mom doesn’t seem to understand that I am perfectly happy with my life just the way it is.  I have a successful career, wonderful friends, and a condo I love in the eclectic Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego where everything is within walking distance and I can be at the beach in ten minutes.  I’m too busy focusing on my career right now to have time to devote to a relationship anyway.  While it’s fun to flirt and I date occasionally (okay, maybe it’s been awhile), I definitely have no interest in anything serious, much to my mother’s chagrin.

She sighs dramatically.  “I had an eight-year-old and a six-year-old by the time I was thirty,” she says.

Before I can respond, there’s a scuffle in the background and I hear my sister Anya say, “Leave her alone, Mom.”  She has apparently wrestled the phone away from my mom because seconds later she says breathlessly, “Happy birthday, Mila!  Don’t listen to her.  Please tell me you’re going to get outrageously drunk and have wild, jungle sex tonight.  I have to live vicariously through you.”

I laugh.  My sister is six months pregnant. 

“Anya!”  I hear my mom’s reproving voice in the background.

 “Poor baby,” I tease.  “I’ll do my best.  Listen, I’ve got to get out of here now if I’m going to go anywhere tonight!  Give my love to Mom and tell her I’ll call her tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she promises.  “Love you!”  She makes a kissing sound before hanging up.

Grateful to have dodged any further conversation with my mom about my lack of love life, I gather up some files to look at over the weekend and am stepping out the door of my office when I literally run into my boss, which is kind of like running into a brick wall.  At fifty, Marcus Dunn, the senior partner at Dunn and Wallace, is just as solid as he must have been during his previous career as a Navy SEAL.

“Sorry,” I say with a laugh, stepping back from the man who has been like a father to me since I moved to San Diego and joined Dunn and Wallace three years ago.  

“Cutting out early today?” he asks.  

I mentally roll my eyes.  Only at a law firm is leaving at five thirty on a Friday considered “cutting out early.”

“Yes.  I’m going out with some friends tonight to celebrate my birthday.  It’s the big three-oh!” 

“I remember turning thirty!” he says, smiling at me.  “Listen, I have a special intellectual property case I need you to work on for a friend of mine, but I can fill you in on Monday before he comes in.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.  I hate to blow off my boss, particularly since he seems to think I’m some sort of intellectual property genius since I won the high-profile case that landed me the job at Dunn and Wallace, but I really need to leave now if I don’t want to go out on the town in my business suit, which I most definitely do not.  It’s been months since I’ve gone out and had fun.  Tonight I’m ready to get glammed up and let loose.

“Go!  Have fun!  Enjoy being young!” he says.  “But be ready to work Monday morning.  This one’s going to be tough.”

By the time my friend Olivia picks me up at eight, I have successfully made the transition from respectable lawyer to sexy siren.  I’ve traded my conservative, tailored, black Ann Taylor suit for a short, backless, navy lace dress and strappy heels.  My dark hair has been liberated from the messy bun I put in it for work and it falls halfway down my back in a riot of curls that I spent close to an hour perfecting, the shadow accentuating my dark blue eyes is smoky, and my discreet diamond studs have been replaced by long, silver chandelier earrings.  I seriously doubt any of my colleagues would recognize me.

“Oh my god!” Olivia squeals as I open the door. “You look fantastic! If I were a guy, I would totally fuck you.”

I laugh.  “You don’t look so bad yourself.” 

Olivia looks great in a body-hugging red dress, her blond hair pulled into an elegant ponytail that perfectly reveals her delicate bone structure and huge blue eyes that I have personally watched men drown in.  One year younger than me, a successful marketing professional, and also happily unattached, she’s my closest friend in San Diego.  

Fifteen minutes later, we join the rest of our friends at Café Bleu in nearby Mission Hills for dinner and wine.  The restaurant is small, dark, and intimate, and I smile at the chorus of “Happy Birthdays” that greets me as we arrive at the table in the back where my friends have assembled to celebrate with me.  There’s Brooklyn, my roommate from law school, and her husband David; Simon, whom I affectionately refer to as my gay best friend; and Jenna, a paralegal at my firm and the newest addition to our group.  My heart swells as I look at the faces of the people I love most in this city who have gathered to celebrate with me.  There’s no one else I’d rather spend my birthday with.  Exactly why does my mother think I need a man?    

It’s almost ten o’clock by the time we’re finishing off the bottles of wine we’ve ordered.  

“Where should we go now?” Brooklyn asks, twining her fingers with David’s.

“I vote for McP’s,” Simon says.

I groan.  “No!  That’s a total Navy hangout.”

“Exactly!” Simon says dreamily.

“It’s San Diego,” Jenna interjects.  “Navy guys are everywhere.  What’s your aversion to them anyway?  All the Navy guys I’ve met have been totally hot.”

“Yeah, they’re hot,” I agree.  “But they’re also arrogant, cocky, and used to women throwing themselves at them.  I’ll take a civilian any day.”

“Your boss is a former Navy SEAL,” Jenna points out.

“He’s also arrogant and cocky,” I laugh, “but in a loveable way.  That doesn’t mean I’d want to date him,” I shoot back.

“I’d totally date him,” Jenna says with a dreamy sigh.

“Jenna!” I say, totally shocked at her confession. Marcus is almost old enough to be her father.

“You just haven’t met the right Navy guy,” Brooklyn interjects.  “They’re totally your type.”

“What’s my type?” I ask, indignant.

“Alpha male!”  Brooklyn, Olivia, and Simon chant in unison.

“Okay,” I concede with a laugh. “But I’ll take my alpha male without the extra dash of asshole.  I’m sure he’s out there somewhere.”  

Actually, I’m fairly certain he doesn’t exist at all.  Most of the guys I’ve dated have either been completely boring, passive, and constantly in need of reassurance, or they think being macho means treating women like crap.  Just another reason my time is better spent building my career instead of looking for love.

“Please?”  Simon is giving me his puppy dog eyes.  

Olivia punches him lightly.  “It’s Mila’s birthday.  She gets to decide.   Stop giving her a guilt trip.  We’ll all go prostitute ourselves out to Navy guys on your birthday.”

“Promise?” Simon says hopefully, and we all laugh.

After a lengthy debate, we decide to go to The Tipsy Crow, which is a combination bar, dance club, and pool hall, and one of the most popular places to go in San Diego. I’m feeling uncharacteristically but pleasantly buzzed as Olivia, Jenna, and I share a taxi the short distance to the bar housed in a historic building in the Gaslamp Quarter.   It’s a beautiful building, built over a hundred years ago, with three different levels.  The main level, with its long, mahogany bar and cozy booths, is great for hanging out, but there’s also a lounge upstairs with pool tables, a fireplace, and rich leather chairs that give it the sumptuous feel of an old law library, as well as a brick-walled dance club in the basement where live bands usually play. 

We have just walked in and are scanning the crowded bar area for the rest of our friends when I see him.  He’s sitting at the bar, and when our eyes meet across the room, time stops.  He is, by far, the most beautiful man I have ever seen.  His dark blond hair is thick and just long and unruly enough to reassure me that he’s no military man, although he certainly has the physique; I can see the definition of his broad shoulders and biceps under the t-shirt he’s wearing.  He has smooth, tanned skin and clear hazel eyes with generous dark lashes accentuated by thick, dark brows.  But it’s his lips that I can’t tear my gaze from.  They are slightly upturned at the corners and full and sensuous—lips that were made for kissing.  I watch, mesmerized, as those lips curve upward, revealing straight, white teeth as he grins at me, a slightly lopsided, wide grin he flashes like lightening illuminating a dark night. 

Dammit. I realize that I have been totally busted staring at this guy.  He’s clearly used to it, which makes me all the more determined to ignore him.  

I tear my gaze away from him and turn to Olivia, who is somehow oblivious to the gorgeous man at the bar and has luckily just found Brooklyn, David, and Simon.  We make our way across the bar to the table they have managed to snag, and I can feel Cute Guy’s eyes on me with every step I take.  Good.  Let him look, because that’s as far as this is going to go.  He may be gorgeous, but he clearly knows it, and I refuse to stroke his ego any further by acting interested.  

We spend the first hour playing Jenga at our table and drinking responsibly—craft beers from the bar for David and Simon and Orange Crush cocktails for the girls.  Then Olivia tells our waiter it’s my birthday, which results in a Birthday Cake shot on the house for me, followed by several more rounds of the five dollar shot special that David insists on buying for everyone.  We’re all feeling a little giddy, which is how we end up playing “What are the Odds,” a game from our college days where someone thinks up a crazy dare for someone else.  That person then picks the “odds,” a number range that’s usually between one and ten, and on the count of three both the darer and the dared say a number.  If it’s the same, the person who’s been dared has to do the dare.  It’s kind of like truth or dare for grown-ups, and it unquestionably gets more fun after you’ve had a few drinks.

I successfully avoid having to sing “I’m a Little Tea Pot” and taking a shot of tequila, but Simon has to do the Macarena, Jenna has to ask our waitress if she’s pregnant, and Olivia has to dance on the bar, which she does enthusiastically to a chorus of wolf calls.  When she returns to our table, flushed and out of breath, I’m conscious of Cute Guy’s eyes on our table.  I dart a furtive glance to where he’s sitting at the bar with several of his buddies, expecting to find him staring at Olivia, but instead his gaze is leveled intensely at me.  Our eyes meet for a brief second before I quickly look away.

“I have one for the birthday girl,” Olivia says, sliding into the booth next to me.  “What are the odds that you ask that cute guy at the bar who’s been watching you all night to dance?”

I flush.  “What guy?” I ask nonchalantly.

“You know exactly what guy!” she says.  “He can’t take his eyes off of you, and you’ve been trying not to stare at him all night.  So….what are the odds?” She smiles smugly.  

I’ve dodged all the dares so far but I’m not taking any chances with this one.  “One and twenty,” I say, choosing the largest gap to increase my chances that we won’t pick the same number.  

The whole table counts, “One, two, three.”

“Fifteen,” Olivia and I say in unison.

I stare at her, dumbfounded.  She smiles sweetly at me.

“Off you go,” she says blithely.

I so don’t want to give Cute Guy the satisfaction of approaching him first and asking him to dance, but I’ve had a few drinks, I’m feeling a little reckless, and I can’t turn down a dare.  I’d never live it down.  Besides, it’s my birthday and he is gorgeous.  It’s just one dance.  

“Fine!” I say, shooting daggers at Olivia.  

I get up and make my way across the bar to where Cute Guy is sitting.  He watches me, his gaze unwavering, as I approach the bar.

As I reach him, he smiles that lazy, killer smile and drawls, “Lose a bet?”

I quickly realize I’ve got to keep the upper hand here.  He’s the kind of guy that eats shy, sweet girls for breakfast.  I’m not too worried, though.  I can definitely hold my own.

I smile back.  “I wouldn’t say I lost,” I say flirtatiously.  “Do you want to dance?”

He slowly unfolds his long limbs from the bar stool and I am immediately aware of his powerful body.  He is easily several inches taller than me, and I’m five seven without the four-inch heels I’m wearing.  The hard expanse of his chest makes me feel small and vulnerable.

He smiles. “I’m Griffin.”

“Mila,” I say.  

“Mila.”  It rolls off his tongue like a caress.  “Beautiful, just like you.”

It should sound like a corny pick-up line, but the way he says it makes my stomach drop two feet.

He looks over at the table where my friends are sitting and then back at me.  “Your friends are watching to see if you’re actually going to go through on the dare.”  He quirks an eyebrow at me.  “Are we going to dance?”

“Um, sure,” I say, caught off balance.  

He rests his hand on the small of my back as we make our way toward the stairs that lead down to the dance club, and I feel a jolt of electricity at his touch.  I try to focus on making it down the stairs in my heels without tripping and embarrassing myself beyond comprehension, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult given the way his muscular arm is curving around my waist to steady me. 

When we reach the bottom of the stairs, he releases my waist and grabs my hand, pulling me out onto the dance floor.  It’s quickly apparent that besides being blessed with extraordinary good looks, the man has got some serious dance moves.  There is nothing hotter than a guy who can dance.  And Griffin can really dance! He’s comfortable in his own skin in a way that few men are.

I love to dance.  I took formal dance classes for years when I was younger, so it doesn’t take long for me to give myself over to the music and enjoy dancing with a guy who knows how to move.  We start out facing each other as we move to the beat of the music, but before long his hands are on me, resting on my hips or occasionally skimming over my butt as we dance together.  His arm goes around my waist, pulling me against him so our bodies are pressed together, and we shimmy in unison as we snake down towards the ground and then back up again.  Our foreheads touch, and his face is so close to mine I can see the golden flecks in his hazel eyes as he smiles at me—a  lazy, sexy smile that is as contagious as it is brilliant.  He grabs my hand and spins me, expertly draping my arm around his neck as I complete the rotation and face him again.  I let my fingers trail slowly down his chest as he watches, his eyes hooded, before I pull away.  

We dance, our bodies communicating on some primitive level as we move together and then apart, his hands constantly touching some part of my body, igniting my skin.  My head is spinning, but I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or Griffin, who’s just as intoxicating.  He grasps both of my hands and turns me so my back is to his chest, his arms wrapping around my waist before moving his hands to my hips as we gyrate in time with each other.  He takes my hand and wraps it around his neck, holding it captive there with a firm grip as we grind together in a slow circle.  It’s erotic as hell, feeling the hardness of him against me.   I feel a distinctly feminine satisfaction knowing I’m the cause of it. He spins me again, bringing me back to face him as our bodies press together again, but this time his hand rests at the back of my neck, the pressure of his fingers forcing me to look up at him.  

My eyes widen at the unexpected intensity of his touch, but before I can react his mouth is on mine.  My lids flutter closed.   His lips are soft and warm, and I can’t help but kiss him back.  He lightly licks my lips and they part involuntarily, giving him the access he clearly wants.  He slips his tongue into my mouth and I can taste the alcohol on it like metallic sparks.   In some distant part of my somewhat fuzzy brain I’m aware of his fingers tangling in my hair, holding me still as he ravages my mouth.  I’m a willing participant and I kiss him back hungrily, my tongue tangling with his as I feel my stomach drop the rest of the way to my toes.

His tongue slides out of my mouth but he keeps his lips pressed to mine, completely still for a moment, as though he’s memorizing the imprint of my lips against his.   I pull away and out of his embrace.  The song is over and my heart is beating fast.

“Thanks for the dance,” I say breathlessly and walk away, leaving him standing alone on the dance floor.