Saturday, October 25, 2008

Illicit Attraction by Zena Wynn

Catrina sat on the backless, oversized, and padded barstool at the hotel bar, sipping a wine spritzer. Behind her was a steady flow of traffic into the steak restaurant next door, even though it was about nine in the evening, a little late to be eating, no matter how delicious the food. Those not going into the restaurant, headed for the Registration desk, checking in for the night.

She’d been in the bar for about an hour, enjoying the jazz trio playing in the lounge around the corner to the right, as they performed one jazz instrumental after another. They were one of the best jazz groups she’d heard in awhile. The hotel lounge was starting to fill, even though it was still early for a Friday night, and while the band was excellent, she doubted the crowd would grow much larger than it was now.

The mellow music was working wonders, and she’d finally begun to relax. The mouthwatering New York Strip she’d consumed earlier followed by a slice of heavenly key lime pie didn’t hurt, either. While being stood up disappointed her, the shower, meal, wine, and music combined to alleviate the stress of the heavy weekend traffic she’d driven in to get here.

Cat noticed the bar and the sign announcing tonight’s performers when she walked through the hotel lobby two hours earlier to check in. After eating her quiet, solitary meal, she decided it was too early to return to her room for the night. The bar come lounge seemed like the perfect solution. She’d have a drink or two and enjoy the music before returning to her room to settle down for a good night’s sleep. She was doing just that when she found her peace interrupted.

A large male body, smelling of Brut—her favorite—crowded into her personal space as he squeezed into the narrow alley between her stool and the one next to it. A deep, commanding voice spoke. “A rum and coke on the rocks—light on the rum—and give the lady here another one of whatever she’s drinking.”

Cat sighed and held up her left hand, displaying the two-and-a-half-carat diamond and gold wedding band set she was wearing. This was the fifth time this night, at least. Why did men assume a woman alone was easy prey? She’d come in here in hopes of some down time, not to be approached by every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanting to test their skills as a Player. After the second wanna-be, she’d discovered the hard way that looking at or talking to the men only seemed to encourage them, so she didn’t even bother glancing at this newest, unwelcome disturbance to her hard earned tranquility.

She flinched when a masculine hand entered her field of vision, mere inches from her face, complete with its own well-aged, worn-looking wedding band. She trailed the arm back to its owner until her gaze connected with a tall, well-built man with black, wavy hair and a piercing set of dark blue eyes. This one was going to be harder to run off than the rest. She could feel it in her bones. “Does your wife know you’re here, in a bar, trying to pick up women?”

The young, male bartender quickly smothered a grin at the evident scorn in her voice before walking off to fill the order. Cat wasn’t amused, annoyed and frustrated, but not amused. Was she going to have to retreat to her room just to get a little peace and quiet?

He grinned, a dazzling slash of straight, white teeth in a well-tanned face, and held his hands out in front of him. “Whoa, you’ve got the wrong idea. I saw you shoot down those last four guys and figured we could help each other. Maybe if we act like we’re together, the men will stop hitting on you and the ladies will leave me alone.”

Cat arched her brow in disbelief, looking around the bar. There were several hungry-looking women giving the ruggedly handsome man at her side the eye, but still… “Is this some sort of new pick up line?”

He shook his head. “No ulterior motives, I swear. I really thought we could assist each other but if you’re not interested…” He picked up his drink and turned away from the bar with an obviously disappointed sigh.

If she could believe him, it could be the answer to her problem.

“Wait!” She laid a hand on his arm. Mmm, nice muscle tone. She resisted the urge to squeeze. “You can’t blame a woman for being cautious. If you’re really serious, that might be nice. The come-ons were starting to annoy me.”

He turned back to her with an engaging grin and held out his hand, “Darius Cornelio, at your service.”

She laid her hand in his and shook it firmly. “Catrina Jackson. My friends call me Cat.”

“Is that an invitation?” He arched his left brow inquiringly, and his blue eyes seemed to sparkle.

Is he flirting with me? Cat was suddenly aware that her hand still enfolded his, and she abruptly pulled free. “More a statement of fact, but you can call me Cat, if you like,” she said a bit brusquely.

“Thank you. So Cat, why don’t we go into the lounge and snag one of the tables before they’re all gone? There’ll be a lot less traffic near the stage, and less chance of interruptions.” His manner was so genuinely nice that Cat was confused. Maybe he hadn’t been flirting earlier. Still, she hesitated.

“Your drinks, sir.”

Darius turned and handed the bartender the money. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks.” The bartender flashed another grin and walked off to serve the three other customers that approached while she debated.

The bar wasn’t that large but well lit. There was only seating for six, and two of the stools beside her own were already taken. With the addition of Darius and the newcomers, it was getting crowded fast. Also, with no wait staff serving the lounge, the foot traffic was extremely heavy as more and more people stopped by.

“Shall we?” Darius took his drink in hand and motioned toward the darkened lounge, while sliding the other drink towards her.

The woman behind her elbowed Cat in the shoulder as she turned to exit. “Sorry,” she muttered before joining the rest of her party, drink in hand.

That decided the matter. “Sounds good to me.” She drained her glass and picked up the fresh drink he’d purchased for her, no sense letting it go to waste. She hopped off the barstool and motioned with her free hand. “Lead on.”

He placed his hand on the skin of her bare back and guided her through the increasingly congested walkway to the room the band was playing in. He paused in the entryway to let their eyes adjust to the darkened interior before leading her to a small, round table in the center of the room, near the stage.

Cat looked around with interest. The center tables were barely large enough for two, the chairs close together for cozy conversations, and there were booths along the side with seating for four. Most of those were already full. The dim lighting increased the feeling of intimacy. The only real illumination came from the entrance where the bar was located, the raised, rounded platform that formed the stage, and the small wooden dance floor in front of the stage. Everywhere else in between was dark.

As they settled, she told him, “I really appreciate your doing this. I thought I was going to have to go to my room.”

Darius smiled. “My pleasure, besides, this helps me as much as it does you. With you by my side, I avoid temptation and stay out of trouble,” he finished with a laugh.

Cat joined in and then sighed. “I don’t understand why I kept getting approached. Doesn’t a wedding ring mean anything these days? It’s not like I was hiding it or anything.” She played with her wedding ring, spinning it round and round on her finger.

He paused with his drink inches from his mouth. “You’re kidding, right?” The look on his face said, you can’t be that stupid.

“No, actually, I’m not. I realize I don’t get out much, but as far as I know, I wasn’t putting out any hey, look at me vibes. I wasn’t doing anything to indicate that I’d welcome their attention.” She sighed again. “I just don’t get it.” Not to mention that she was older than half the men who’d come on to her, but she kept that bit to herself.

He looked her straight in the eye. “Cat, you’re a very attractive, sexy woman. The bare, smooth skin of your back, coupled with the luscious swell of your behind as you sat on that barstool, was enough to get any man’s attention. It certainly got mine, and I’m not hunting.”

She felt her face flush with pleasure at the compliment, which was delivered in such a matter of fact way, she couldn’t mistake it as a come-on. Darius was simply calling it as he saw it. Slightly embarrassed, she muttered, “Thank you,” and took a sip of her drink.

Around and behind, she could hear muted conversations and the occasional burst of muffled laughter from others. It didn’t detract from the music skillfully played by the trio on the stage. The group looked like college students. There was an African-American male on sax, his male Caucasian counterpart on trumpet, and a young Asian-looking woman playing the keyboard. They neither sang nor spoke, just flowed from one instrumental straight into the next.

Cat searched her mind for a topic of conversation. He’d been so nice; the least she could do was try to keep the conversation going. Besides, they were supposed to be creating the illusion they were a couple. Finally, she settled on, “This group’s really good.”

He nodded in agreement. “You like jazz?”

“Love it. What about you?”

“Yeah, it is one of my favorite types of music. Name some of your favorite artist.” He settled back in his chair, cradling his drink.

“Let me see.” She brought her index finger to her lip and nibbled on the tip. She began to tick names off on her fingers. “Najee, Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, and Yanni. I know he’s not really a jazz artist, but I love his music.”

“Ah, you’re a sax girl. You left out Kenny G.”

“Well, duh! Who doesn’t like Kenny G?” She laughed at him.

“What about Ravi Coltrane?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table.

“Never heard of him,” she confessed, relieved to have found a subject of interest on which they could both converse.

“You ought to give him a try sometime. Who’s your favorite Jazz group?”

“Spyro Gyro,” was her immediate answer. “I like Take 6 too but that’s vocals—another category altogether.”

“They’re good,” he agreed. “Great harmony. I prefer the Yellow Jackets myself, but Spyro Gyro’s okay. What got you interested in Jazz?”

“A course I took in college. It was about music that originated here in the States, specifically the blues and jazz. Because my professor was also a musician in the local symphony orchestra, she introduced us to some American classical compositions as well. It really broadened my horizons where music is concerned. Before then, I mostly listened to R & B and soft rock.”

They got into an intense discussion over the different types of jazz, artists, and composers. Cat enjoyed every moment of it. Not only was it intellectually stimulating, it was nice to talk with someone as knowledgeable as he was. Time seemed to fly. Everything faded into the background as they laughed, argued, and debated their viewpoints.

When the conversation finally lagged, Darius laid an arm on the back of her chair and leaned close. “So, does your husband know you’re here alone, dressed like that?”

She drew back in surprise and looked down. “That” was a low-cut, halter-styled dress in electric blue that came to mid-thigh and left her back completely bare. The color complimented her golden brown skin tone. “Is there something wrong with the way I’m dressed?”

He examined her from head-to-toe. “I like it. You look hot. It’s just a little too sexy for a woman claiming not to be on the prowl for her next lay.”

Cat frowned at him. “I didn’t dress this way for any man. I did it for me. I spend so much time being a mom that it’s nice to get out occasionally and dress as a woman.”

Her tone came out sharper than intended, and he drew back at her vehemence. “You don’t look like anyone’s mother, that’s for sure.” He took a sip of his drink, still studying her like a bug under a microscope.

Despite the way he was looking at her, Cat felt a flush of genuine pleasure go through her body. “Six months ago you wouldn’t have said that. I was severely out of shape and ragged looking, a total wreck.” Now she looked good and knew it. She’d worked hard to achieve the shape she had today. While she’d never be a size six, the size fourteen she’d whittled her way down to from a size twenty was very pleasing, with curves in all the right places and muscle tone.

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating.” He examined her from her hair down to where her body disappeared beneath the table, and the expression on his face said there was no way she could have ever looked as bad as she claimed.

“Believe me, I’m not.” She shuddered when she remembered how much she’d let herself go.

“What does your husband think about your new look?”

Cat shrugged her shoulders. “He doesn’t know. He’s in the Navy, out to sea. I haven’t seen him for the last six months.”

Darius whistled between his teeth. “Six months? Man, that must be rough. If what you say is true then he’s in for quite a shock.”

She bit her bottom lip. “I just hope it’s a good one.”

He looked puzzled. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Navy men are a suspicious lot. They’re gone so much and the divorce rate among sailors is so high, he might think there’s another man in the picture.”

“Is there?” Though his voice was bland, the look in his eye was intent.

She shook her head. “I love my husband. I would never betray him.”

“Do I hear a but…?”

Cat turned to the stage, debating her next words. The dark somehow made the confession easier. “We’ve been married six years. Out of the six, he’s only been home three. Sometimes, it seems like he’s gone more than he’s home. There are times when I’m lonely, times when it would be so easy…” She cast a quick glance in his direction to see what he thought of her confession.