Damaged

By: H.M. Ward

\CHAPTER 1

Nerves shoot through my veins, filling my body with this spastic idea that it wants to run. Working hard to keep from fidgeting, I walk into the swank restaurant alone. Millie, my best friend, gave me some sob story this morning after we left the dorm room. Apparently, she met a hot new guy that wants to double-date tonight. My initial response was Hell no.

Last time she tried to set me up, I ended up on a date with a twitchy klepto. Let’s just say things didn’t go well. He picked up everything, except the check. The time before that was equally horrifying. I missed some verbal cue and my date ended the night with a face full of pepper spray.

Okay, maybe that was my fault. Maybe I’m too jumpy, too untrusting. The thing is, once something bad happens, there’s no way to undo it. There’s no erase button on life. I can’t just click the delete key and start over. No matter how many guys I date, my brain is stuck on that night from long ago. Most days, my past follows me around like a thousand pound-bear on a piece of pink string, looming close enough to cast a shadow over everything I touch. But, once in a while, that beast rears up and mauls me. He slams me back to that horrible night and it’s all I can do to not scream.

Dating provokes my past. It’s almost as if I can hear the bear’s claws clicking on the pavement behind me. My heart is beating too fast. My palms are damp with sweat. I want to get past this. I need to. It’s been too long. My life is living me. I feel like I’m the one with a pink string around my neck. One mistake brought me to my knees. That’s why I’ve shown up tonight. That’s why I try. If I don’t move forward, then I slide back, and I’m sick of reliving the past. I’m tired of the bear-sized baggage.

I want to move on with my life. I want to get over the fear that’s choking me whenever I talk to a guy.

Determined to be different, I stand in front of the restaurant and try to work up more nerve and a fake smile along with it. The smile is lodged somewhere deep inside. I yank it out and plaster it across my face. It feels like plastic, stiff from misuse. I hate being fake. I hate this. My pulse pounds harder. I reach for the handle and finally look at the doors. They are made of hammered copper, with big wrought iron pulls. The metal feels cold in my hand. I yank the massive door open and step inside.

A wood carved hostess station is in front of me, with a beaming blonde behind it. She smiles at me. There are a few people waiting on padded benches, but it’s not too busy right now.

I step forward and say, “I’m meeting up with someone. Can I see if they’re already here?”

She nods and I walk past. The lighting is dim. The plaster walls are washed in rich warm colors. Dark drapes hang from oversized doorways, and a massive fireplace is in the center of the room. It has a stone chimney that stretches high into the copper ceiling.

I haven’t been to this place before. Millie said she’d get there after me, but that Brent’s friend, Dustin—my date—would be here first. I look for a lone guy sitting at a table for four that’s about my age. I walk slowly around the room and no one fits the bill. I stand there for a moment, not knowing if I’ve been stood up, when I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Someone is looking at me. I feel their gaze on my back. I turn slowly and scan the room. A set of eyes, as blue as gemstones, gleam back at me. My stomach flutters. Oh, holy hell, he’s hot. I walk slowly toward his table, barely breathing.

His eyes slowly slide over my body and he drinks me in. The way he does it is so sexual, so carnal, that my stomach twists. Butterflies fill me and careen inside my stomach, growing swiftly to bat-sized with every step I take. The closer I get, the more nervous I feel. Is it possible that Millie set me up with someone this hot? I can’t believe it. A soft smile lines my lips. It’s not fake anymore. Our eyes are locked and I can’t look away. My heels click in time with my heartbeat and suddenly I’m standing in front of him at the table.

“Hey,” I manage to say, still looking into his eyes. They’re so vibrant. It’s as if someone painted him. He’s perfect. If his voice matches his looks, I’ll melt into a puddle on the floor. Dustin’s quite the looker.

The corner of his mouth lifts and I’m treated to a swoon-worthy smile. “Hey, yourself.” Oh, his voice. It’s hotter than I thought. There’s a richness to the tone. Add in the smirk and the dimple and it feels as though my knees are going to give out. I know I can’t do anything with him—maybe—but he’s the most delicious eye candy I’ve had in a long time. The way he looks at me is making me hot. I place my hands on the chair opposite him and slide it out. His eyes remain on me, watching me as I sit down across from him.

I don’t know what to say, so I smile back at him and resort to clichés. “So, you come here often?”

“You know it,” he says, still looking at me. It’s as if he can’t believe that I’m sitting in front of him. The intense gaze makes my stomach twist. This guy is beyond beautiful. Dark locks of perfectly messy brown hair sweep across his face, with a few longer pieces by his eyes. An insane urge to lean forward and feel how smooth and silky his hair is between my fingers shoots through me. I shove the sensation back down. The man sitting in front of me isn’t one of those Texas boys that’s all talk. This guy has hardly said anything and I’m enthralled.

The waiter comes and asks if I want to order. I ask for a glass of wine. When the waiter leaves, a moment passes in steamy silence. My eyes keep drifting to his broad chest and those full, beautiful, lips. It concerns me. I mean, this affect he has on me is like magic. I’m turning into a hot mess and he’s barely said two words. I break the silence and look up at him as I put my napkin on my lap. “You know, you’re nothing like I thought you’d be.”

“Really?” he asks, now grinning at me.

I nod shyly, and the waiter returns with the glass of wine. I take a sip as he says, “So, tell me what you think now.”

A coy smile lines my lips. I feel girlish, but the wine makes me brave. I shrug and look at him from under my lashes. “I think tonight is going to be a good night.”

“It’s going to be interesting, to say the least.” He carries himself so differently than most of the guys around here. He’s self-assured. There’s a slant to his shoulders that tells me he’s confident, erring on cocky. He leans back in his side of the booth, watching me. His dazzling eyes remain on my face, and his eyebrow twitches once in a while as I speak.

I’m so nervous that I can’t shut up. “Yeah, it is. This is the first time I’ve been in here. I never come over to this side of town. Everything is so far away. There’d be four towns crammed into this space back home, but I suppose that’s what makes Texas, Texas—the sprawling land.”

He nods. “Texas can be like that. Do I detect a slight accent from you—uh, I’m sorry, what was your name?”

I laugh. A slight accent is an understatement. I’m all accent. “Sydney.”

He leans forward with a quizzical look in his eyes. “You’re from Australia? No way.” A smile spreads across his face and I know he’s teasing. “I thought they only talked that way in Jersey.” He winks and grins at me.

I laugh. He’s caught me off guard. I expected my date tonight to be disastrous, but this guy seems perfect. In the back of my mind, I wonder where Millie is and I’m glad she’s late. I’m having fun smiling and flirting with him. The tension eases out of me the longer I sit with him. It’s amazing. He’s peeling back the layers and drawing out the girl I used to be. “My name is Sydney. I’m from Cherry Hill in New Jersey, wise ass.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Sidney. You brightened an otherwise dreadfully dreary night.” He raises his glass and nods before taking a drink. It’s a flattering, here’s-to-you movement that makes me want to know more about him. I mean, who does that? He’s different and I admire that.

I glance at him for a second. I like the way he looks at me. I like the way he says my name. I like him. “Glad I could be of service. I’m all about the chivalry.” My fingers pull my silverware toward me and I unfold it and put the napkin on my lap.

He laughs. “I can see that.”

Millie’s voice rings out behind me. “Sidney? There you are! We’re all sitting on the other side of the restaurant. I’ve been calling you.” Millie is wearing a cute little dress with a swishy skirt. She gives me a look and stands there with her hands on her hips, as if I’ve been bad.

I smile at my date and then back at Millie, not getting it. I look up at her, wondering why she doesn’t slip into the booth next to me. “I turned my phone off when I came in. I couldn’t have it ringing while I was talking to this fine man, could I? Come on, Millie. Sit down. I’m sure Brent will be here any second.” I look past her to see if he’s here yet.

Mille shakes her head. She has a smile of disbelief on her face. She leans closer to me. “Brent’s already here, you lunatic. Now come away and leave this nice man alone.” She looks up at him and then back at me.

The smile fades from my lips. I look at Millie, pulse pounding, and then back at the beautiful man across the booth. Horror slips over me like a cold sheet and I go rigid. I look at his shoulder. I can’t meet his eyes. “You’re not my date, are you?” He shakes his head, still smiling at me. My face flames red at the same time that my eyes elegantly bug out of my head. For some reason, he offends me. I mean, I was sitting here with him for how long and he didn’t bother to say that I had him mistaken for someone else?

I get louder and squeak as I scold him. “When were you going to tell me?”

He shrugs, seemingly amused, and rubs the dusting of stubble on his beautiful jaw. “I thought you were trying to pick me up.” My mouth forms an O and I stare at him for a second, unable to blink. My hands quickly cover my face and I chant, oh my god, oh my god, to myself under my breath. I hear his voice and see his smile when I look up. “You were doing a pretty good job. I would have been happy to buy you dinner.”

That doesn’t make things better.

Millie’s looking at me like I’m nuts. I feel her hand around my wrist, pulling me up. I stand and follow her away from the table. I can’t stop blushing. I can’t get rid of the stupid feeling that’s choking me. I want to crawl under a table and hide. I feel Hot Guy’s eyes on me as I walk away. I don’t look over my shoulder. I can’t, but God, I want to. He’s so perfect. Why does this stuff happen to me?

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