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Liz Davis

EROTIC ROMANCE

Siren Publishing, Inc. www.SirenPublishing.com A SIREN PUBLISHING BOOK IMPRINT: Erotic Romance TATTOO OF LOVE Copyright © 2012 by Liz Davis E-book ISBN: 1-60601-XXX-X First E-book Publication: August 2012 Cover design by Jinger Heaston All cover art and logo copyright © 2012 by Siren Publishing, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

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TATTOO OF LOVE
LIZ DAVIS
Copyright © 2012

Chapter One
As Julia walked across the threshold of the tattoo shop, a funky guitar riff flowed from the speakers, mixing with the buzz of tattoo needles. Heading toward the display case next to the cashier, she noticed a woman standing behind the counter. There was an inquisitive look in her eyes, and Julia instantly began to feel very out of place. Julia offered her a friendly smile and the woman returned it with a weak one of her own. “Can I help you?” asked the shopkeeper. Possessing a type of beauty which could be described as exotic, the woman had thick, wavy hair and bedroom eyes. Spotting a tattoo which peeked out from the off-shoulder top that the woman wore, Julia noticed it was in the shape of a geometric flower. Glancing down into the display case Julia answered, “I’m here to look at your earrings.” Specializing in Polynesian tattoos, the shop was revered for the incredibly talented tattoo artists who created traditional designs of a highly intricate nature. In addition to doing tattoos and piercings, the shop also sold a variety of unique jewelry which featured designs from various Pacific Islander countries. As her eyes roved across the various styles of jewelry, she found herself intrigued by the beautifully unique designs. “Any particular pair that you’re interested in?” questioned the shopkeeper. “No, not really. I just thought I’d have a look. I pass by this place all the time, but this is my first time coming in. “Do you have any tattoos?” “Nope. I have a very low threshold for pain.” ,“That’s too bad, because I think you’d look good with one.” “Really?” The expression on her face conveyed surprise. “I haven’t completely decided against it just yet, so who knows, maybe one day I’ll overcome my fears and go for it.”

4 Offering a look which expressed doubt, the tattooed beauty said, “Cool. Well, I’ll let you have a look at the jewelry and if you see anything you like, just give me a holler. My name is Sia.” As the shopkeeper turned around and walked away, Julia noticed that the back of the woman’s shirt was cut out, allowing for a nice view of her back tattoo. Admiring the style of it, Julia found that it was quite breathtaking. She’d always loved the way Polynesian tattoos looked, and was also fascinated by the history behind them. Turning her eyes toward a large circular mirror behind the counter, Julia caught glance of her reflection in the glass. Her shoulder-length hair, which naturally formed into tight ringlets, had a sexy sort of “just woke up and rolled out of bed” look. She usually put more effort into separating and defining her curls, but she hadn’t possessed the patience for it this morning, so she opted for a quick wash-and-go. She didn’t mind the way it looked, though. Funnily enough, some of her best hair days happened when she stopped trying to perfect her curls and just let them do their own thing. The wall behind the display case was covered with a variety of photographs which displayed tattoo designs, as well as large colorful stickers and a flag which she instantly recognized as that of Samoa. A carving which was in the shape of a giant hook hung in the middle of the wall, demanding her attention with its awesome presence. Focusing her eyes upon it, she found herself humbled by the intricate designs which were carved into the wood. Noticing a slip of paper of paper taped beneath it, she read the lettering and discovered that the beautiful piece of art she was looking at was called a Samoan fish hook. It was fashioned out of a type of wood called Vesi, and was crafted by an expert carver who went by the name of G. Fatutoa. She was astounded by the beautiful craftsmanship and found herself wondering how long it had taken to create. Lowering her eyes back to the items in the display case, she was pleased to see that one of the pairs of earrings was in the very same shape of the hook on the wall. Etched with a black Samoan tattoo design, the earrings were carved out of bone. A tag beneath it listed the price as forty dollars and although she was supposed to be on a spending diet, she was very tempted to buy them anyhow. As her eyes landed upon another pair of earrings, she saw they were in the shape of a triangle, and had a design upon them which represented spear heads and a fish. Glancing from one earring to the next, she tried to decide on which pair she wanted the most. As she took a few moments to think it over she spotted a bottle of lotion on top of the display case and grabbed it, unscrewing the cap so she could spread some over her hands. Terribly dry and cracked and due to the lack of moisture in her skin, they currently resembled the hide of a lizard. Turning the bottle upside down, Julia constricted her palm around the container and gave it a nice, hard shake. Unfortunately for her, a huge blob of lotion spilled out, covering nearly her entire palm with white cream. After turning the bottle right side up, she returned

5 it to its spot on top of the display case. Then she began rifling through her purse in search of a pack of tissues. As her hand came into contact with a plastic package she realized it was empty and uttered a sound of discontent. She was still rooting around in her bag when the sound of a deep voice suddenly came from behind her. “I think I have what you’re looking for,” the unseen person spoke to her. As she turned around to look at the speaker she came face to face with one of the most gorgeous men she had ever seen. Undeniably Polynesian, he had a well-defined jaw and a set of dark brown eyes which instantly captured her attention. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean,” she said. As his lips curled into a little smile she noticed how nice and full they were. She always did like a man with a nice set of lips, and she also noticed that he had a little patch of hair beneath his mouth, as well as a bit on his chin. Extending his hand toward her, he offered her a few napkins. “Oh, right. The lotion.” She grabbed the napkins from him with a bashful smile. “You know that’s for tattoos, right?” He motioned toward the bottle of cream that she’d used. Glancing toward it, Julia picked it up and turned it around so that the label was visible. Reading the words upon it, she saw it was indeed a cream specifically for use after receiving a tattoo. “Oh, I didn’t notice. Sorry about that, I just figured it was lotion.” “No big deal, just thought I’d let you know.” Offering a little smile, he watched her wipe the excess cream off of her hands. “So did you need any help? I noticed you checking out some of the jewelry in the display case.” Having gotten most of the lotion off, she balled up the tissue and slipped it into her purse. “Yeah, I was interested in purchasing a pair of earrings.” Walking behind the counter, he grabbed a set of keys from a drawer beneath the register and was about to open the display case when a phone mounted on the wall rang. “Excuse me for one moment,” he said as he picked up the receiver. “Tatau Samoa, this is Nolan.” He abruptly switched from English to what Julia guessed was Samoan, and she found herself listening intently to the rhythm of the language. With his attention diverted, Julia took the opportunity to check out his form. Standing over six feet tall, Nolan had a solidly built body of pure muscle. With broad shoulders and a firm chest, he had the type of physique which had been gained through an inheritance of genes, rather than hours of strenuous exercise. The lower half of a tattoo peeked out from beneath his T-shirt sleeve, and she could see that the taut bicep of his right arm was adorned in a traditional Polynesian design. She wondered what the top half of the tattoo looked like, and was also curious if he had anymore. Allowing her eyes to focus on his hair, she saw that it was cropped close to his

6 head, and noticed it had a slight wave to it. She then shifted her gaze to the area where his neck met with shoulders, and found herself unabashedly admiring the way the fabric of his t-shirt hinted at the muscled planes of his hard back. Suddenly aware that somebody was watching her, Julia’s eyes were drawn toward the other side of the store. As her gaze focused on Sia, Julia noticed that the other woman’s eyes were trained upon her. Sharing a knowing smile, Sia seemed to silently express to Julia that she understood the attraction. Julia could only guess how many women came into the store and were instantly taken by Nolan’s good looks, and she found herself wondering if Sia was his girlfriend. Filled with embarrassment, Julia returned the shopkeeper’s smile with one of her own, then directed her attention to the jewelry in the display case. Julia heard Nolan speak a few more sentences in Samoan and then he hung up, turning his attention back to his waiting customer. “Sorry about that,” he said. “No problem.” “So is there a particular piece of jewelry you’re interested in?” She pointed a finger to indicate the pair of earrings she was interested in. “The ones in the shape of a hook.” After unlocking the display case, he retrieved the jewelry from the piece of velvet they were lying on and placed them on the counter so that Julia could have a closer look at them. Picking up the plastic holder that they were hooked into, Julia held the earrings next to her ear, then picked up a hand mirror so she could get an idea of whether or not the jewelry would look good on her. “Those will look lovely on you, I can already tell. You should get them.” “You think so? I also had my eye on the spear head and fish earrings.” “Those are nice as well, but I really think these would suit you best. The fish hook brings positive energy and good luck.” “Nice. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for me to have more good fortune in my life.” Glancing at the wall where the giant fish hook carving hung she asked, “Did the craftsman who made that carving on the wall create the jewelry as well?” Nolan took a glance behind him at the wood carving which hung on display, then redirected his attention back to her. “Oh, you mean Troy Fatutoa? No, he doesn’t create jewelry. He only does larger carvings.” “Oh, okay. I just figured since it had the same fish hook design...” Her voice trailed off as she continued to study her reflection in the hand mirror. “Mind if I ask who made these earrings?” “We have craftspeople in Samoa who create all of the jewelry you see here. They only provide limited amounts of each design, so if you buy from our shop, you’ll know it’s truly unique.”

7 “They really are one of a kind.” She gazed in the mirror for a few moments, then said, “Okay, I’ve made my decision. I’ll definitely go with these.” She set the earrings on the counter, then reached into her leather messenger bag and pulled out her wallet. As Nolan called out the total, Julia handed him some bills and waited for her change. After placing the money in the register he retrieved a few coins and tore off the receipt, handing both of them to her with a smile. As Nolan wrapped her earrings in tissue paper, his eyes shifted to her overgarment, studying it with a look of interest. “That’s a nice jacket. Doesn’t look like it keeps you very warm, though.” Made out of cream-colored suede, the jacket she wore had faux white fur along the collar, as well as along the edges of the sleeves. Just as Nolan had suggested, she did indeed wear it more for looks, rather than warmth, and found herself a little embarrassed to come out and admit it. “It was an impulse buy. Guess you could say I purchased it out of pure vanity.” She gave him a little smile then said, “Just one of those things I couldn’t pass up.” “I’m like that as well. When I see something I like, I have to make it mine.” His eyes sparkled and he gave her a flirtatious smile. Her lips curved upward in response. “Is that right?” “Yes, it is.” As Nolan handed her the bag, she reached out to take it from him. Yet instead of releasing the plastic sack, he only held onto it more firmly. Julia cocked an eyebrow in response to his flirtatious behavior, then teasingly gave a tug on the handle of the bag. Finally deciding to relent, he released his grasp and allowed her to take it from his hands. His eyes then shifted downward, coming to rest on a spot near her shoulder. “So what kind of a geek are you?” he asked. Julia’s brows slightly lifted. “What?” “I was referring to the button that’s pinned to the strap of your bag.” She lowered her gaze, allowing her eyes to focus on the button which stated, ‘selfproclaimed geek.’ “Oh, right. I forgot I was wearing this.” Feeling a little awkward, she gave her answer. “I’m a comic geek, rock geek, and foreign film geek.” The smirk he gave her caused her to wonder what he was thinking and she began to feel more than a little self conscious. “What? Why are you looking at me that way?” “What way?” “You’re studying me.” “And that’s a bad thing?” “No.” Uncertain of what else to say, she simply stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

8 Releasing a little chuckle, he said, “I’m only staring because I find you interesting, and I think you have a nice looking face. Is that okay?” “Of course.” Their eyes remained locked for a few more moments before Julia finally averted her gaze. “Well I guess I’ll be going now. Thanks for helping me decide on the earrings.” He turned his head to watch her leave. “My pleasure. Come back and visit us again, okay?” “Sure thing.” Before exiting the tattoo shop she flashed a smile, then pulled the door open and headed outside, where she was greeted by a crisp fall breeze. Lifting her gaze toward the sky, she saw that thick clouds were beginning to form. A sure sign that rain was on its way, she picked up the pace in hopes that she’d reach her destination before the streets grew wet. Continuing along her familiar route toward home, she began to recall Nolan’s eyes, thinking about the way they had locked gazes. She also thought about the way he’d flirted with her, pulling the bag away as she tried to accept it from him. Then her thoughts turned to his body and she began to wonder how he’d look without his shirt on. She couldn’t help noticing his nicely toned physique, and imagined what it would feel like to have those nice, strong arms wrapped around her body. Pulling herself out of the fantasy, Julia slipped her hands into her pockets and continued along her path. The last thing she needed right now was to indulge herself in thoughts of a guy, especially one whom she’d just barely met. It was far too easy to lose herself in daydreams, and she knew that once she got started, it usually grew into something which wasn’t easily stopped. As the delicious smell of baked goods flooded her nostrils she turned her head toward the building which was the source of it. Mimi’s Bakery was the best spot in town to purchase all sorts of mouthwatering creations, and as she passed by her place of employment, Julia saw Mimi herself at work behind the counter. Their eyes met for a brief moment and Julia waved. Mouthing a hello from behind the glass of the shop window, Julia’s boss gave her a smile and then directed her attention back toward a customer. Veering onto a small road which led to her house, Julia’s thoughts turned to her family. Her sister Sage had a birthday coming up in the next few weeks, and Julia was still unsure of what she should get her. Julia had been pestering her sibling for the past week, trying to get some sort of idea as to what type of gift she would prefer, but as usual, Sage had refused to give her any hints at all. She figured her sibling’s reasoning behind it was that she preferred to be surprised by whatever gifts were bought for her, but Julia couldn’t help wishing that Sage would help her out just this once. As the Craftsman style home where she resided came into view, Julia found herself anticipating the piece of cake which was waiting for her in the fridge. Sinfully delicious, Chocolate Gateaux Deluxe was a new addition to the menu of the bakery where she

9 worked, and had been receiving rave reviews from every customer who had sampled it. Julia was always pleased to find that people enjoyed her creations, and she couldn’t think of a more perfect job in the world. Getting paid to bake all day was like a dream come true for her, especially since Mimi had hired her without any formal training. Julia had known Mimi since high school, and they’d managed to keep in touch during the years that Julia had been living in Los Angeles. The two women had always shared a special sibling-like friendship, and it seemed that the years they’d spent apart had barely affected their relationship at all. Almost all of the baking knowledge Julia had came from Mimi’s patient teachings, and Julia knew she was fortunate to have landed a job at such a top-notch bakery. As she reached the stairs which led to her attic apartment, she was greeted by the sound of a loud meow. Glancing over her shoulder she saw her cat Samantha following closely on her heel. She could tell from the sound of the animal’s cry that she was hungry, and as the cat raced up the stairs she nearly sent Julia tumbling backward. Obviously eager to enter the apartment, Samantha impatiently called out to Julia, pawing and scratching at the door with her claws. “Hold your horses furball, I’ll be there in a minute,” she teasingly said. Once she reached the door she slipped the key into the lock and opened it, following behind Samantha as she trotted into the apartment. After closing the door behind her she took off her jacket and hung it on the hook by the door. Then she slipped out of her boots and headed for the bathroom. After empting her bladder, she strolled into the kitchen and headed for the fridge, where she retrieved the piece of chocolate cake she’d been craving, as well as a carton of milk,. After pouring a glass of the dairy product, she retrieved a fork from the drawer, then took her snack into the living area. A spacious room with large half moon windows, the living room had an elevated area which served as a sleeping loft. Since she had a bedroom of her own, Erica hadn’t ever had a reason to use the loft area herself, but she figured it would come in handy if company were to ever sleep over. The attic itself was located in a large Craftsman style home, which was owned by a seventy-three year old widow named Marla. Possessing a sweet disposition, the elderly woman kept the rent ridiculously affordable, charging Julia nearly half of what the charming attic apartment was actually worth. In Julia’s opinion, there wasn’t a more perfect space in town, and barring any unforeseeable disasters that would forcibly uproot her from the living space, she didn’t see herself moving out anytime in the foreseeable future. After setting her food down on the coffee table, she switched on the TV and began to eat. Rather than savoring the rich dessert, she chose to inhale it, and after taking her last bite, she chased it down with the remainder of her milk. Now that her craving had been filled she felt completely content, and flopped back against the couch with a little sigh.

10 Looking at the TV but not really watching it, she found that her mind was focused on something else. Unable to resist the urge, she pleasantly indulged in the memory of her experience at the tattoo shop. Besides his gorgeous face and jaw dropping physique, Nolan seemed to have quite a pleasant disposition about him. He was also quite the flirt, and as she recalled the way he’d interacted with her, she felt her lips curve into a little smile. Spotting the shopping bag which held the jewelry she’d purchased, she leaned over to grab it from off the floor, then retrieved the earrings from inside. After removing the tissue paper, she held the earrings up in front of her face, gazing admiringly at them. According to Nolan, they were supposed to bring positive energy and good luck. Whether or not they actually would remained to be seen, but even if they didn’t, she already had a strong feeling that they would become one of her favorite pieces of jewelry. **** As the sound of a car horn came from outside her apartment, Julia took one last glance at reflection in the mirror next to the entryway. Her hair was styled into a pretty updo and a vintage pearl hairclip adorned her shiny curls. The dress she wore was made of a shimmering material covered by a lacy floral pattern, and the bodice featured a sweetheart neckline. After grabbing her beaded evening purse from the table next to the door, she headed outside and made her way down the flight of stairs. Not used to wearing heels, Julia took her time walking down the stairway, and once she reached ground level she headed for Mimi’s car. Her breath clouded in the cold evening air, and as soon as she reached the vehicle she quickly opened the door and got inside. “You look stunning,” Mimi said to Julia as she entered the car. “Thanks, you look great yourself.” Noticing that Mimi’s hair had been cut into a fashionable shag bob Julia said, “And I love your new haircut.” “Well, thank you, honey. I figured it was time for something new and I’ve never had my hair cut this short before, so I’m glad you like it.” “Yeah, it really suits you.” As Julia slipped on her seatbelt Mimi took off, backing out of the driveway and onto the road. “Thanks again for coming with me,” said Mimi. “I didn’t want to attend this wedding reception alone. It’s kind of depressing seeing your cousin, who’s six years your senior, getting married to the man of her dreams. Yet here I am just a few days shy of my thirtyfifth birthday and I’m still waiting for that right one to come along.” “Hey, no problem, I needed to get out of the house anyways. I love Samantha and all, but when you spend your evenings surfing cat forums, you know it’s time to get out and meet some people.”

11 Mimi let loose a snort. “You hang out on cat forums?” She shook her head lightly in disbelief. “I never took you for one of those people.” “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Her voice was laced with mock hurt. “I didn’t mean anything by it sweetie, I just figured you’d spend your time looking up video clips of those cute, messy-haired rockers you seem to favor so much. Hey, speaking of, whatever happened to that guy you were going out with?” “Oh, you mean Digby? We’re done. I dumped him weeks ago.” “I figured as much, but what happened?” “He was an egotistical pig. It seemed he was more interested in spending time with his groupies than he was with me. Guess I should have known better than to date a musician.” “I hear you on that one. I’ve dated a few myself, and it always turned out to be a disaster.” “That’s exactly what it was. A complete and utter disaster.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, then emitted a little sigh. “I’m about ready to just stop dating altogether. So far it’s been noting more than a waste of time.” “Don’t give up, Julia. You’ll find a wonderful man soon, I can feel it.” “Hmmm, I think I’ve heard you say that before and yet I’m still single. So just what exactly are you feeling, Mimi?” She said it in a playful way so as not to offend her boss. “Okay, so maybe he’s taking a little longer to enter your life than I expected, but I know he’s out there. He’s just waiting to meet you and sweep you off your feet.” “Right, and I’m sure he’ll gallop into my life on a white horse while wearing his suit of shining armor.” Mimi tsked lightly at Julia’s sarcastic reply. “You’re quite the cynical little thing, aren’t aren’t you?” “I like to call myself a realist. I’m pushing thirty and I still haven’t met him.” “Wait a minute, there’s nothing wrong with being thirty. You’re still plenty young, so there’s nothing to be worried about.” “Oh I know, I’m only joking. Believe it or not I actually enjoy being single. I have the freedom to just be myself and not worry about always being made up. I don’t have to worry about taking birth control and I can spend my weekends slobbing around in my pajamas. I also don’t have to worry about having my heart broken or losing myself in a guy. I love just being me, gloriously alone and without any restraints.” “You’ve made some very good points there, Julia, but you can’t tell me you don’t miss the feeling of waking up to a warm body next to you in bed.” “That’s what I have Samantha for, isn’t it?” Her lips curled into a little smile. “Now listen, honey, I love my cat just as much you do, but nothing can replace the feel of a man’s body next to your own. I’d much prefer waking up petting a man, rather than a cat.”

12 “Yeah okay, I guess you got a point there. So maybe I do miss having a man around for my physical needs.” They were both quiet for a few moments, then Julia suddenly blurted out a statement. “Maybe I should just buy a vibrator.” “Wait, you mean you don’t already have one?” Her brows lifted in surprise. “Nope, I’ve been meaning to pick one up for a while, but I just never really got around to it.” “That just means we’ll have to go shopping for one then, won’t we?” “Guess so. I’m kind of embarrassed to go shopping for one, but if you tag along with me I suppose it’ll be okay.” “Yeah, It’ll be fun. You’ll see.” When their exit came up, Mimi pulled off the highway, then turned right and drove a few blocks further. Once they reached a fancy looking hotel, the car pulled into the parking lot. They spotted a space not too far from the entrance and Mimi quickly angled her car into it. Then they both got out and made their way toward the hotel’s entrance. After passing through the automatic doors, they entered a plush lobby. Warm and inviting, the interior of the and the air around them was filled with the sound of soft jazz music flowing from the speakers. As they approached the concierge desk a woman with a blonde bob and perfect makeup looked up from the computer screen and gave them a pleasant smile. “How may I help you ladies?” she asked. “We’re here for the Denmoore wedding,” Mimi said. “Go straight past the water fountain, and right before you get to the elevators, make a right. That path will lead you straight to the grand ballroom.” After thanking the concierge, the two women made their way toward the ballroom, and upon reaching their destination, were greeted by the sounds of a live band, as well as amiable chatting and laughter. Breaking into a sexy strut Mimi excitedly said, “All right, girl, let’s go have some fun.” Feeling a bit nervous, Julia trailed behind Mimi. A grand archway greeted their arrival, and as they entered the ballroom they saw that the whole room had a white-and-lavender theme to it. Chandeliers with candles in them filled the room with soft, glowing light, and as they made their way through the rows of guests, they saw there were mini lamps with glass shades placed on each table. As they approached the head table, Julia noticed a woman in an elaborately designed wedding dress rise from her seat and walk over to greet them. Her lips peeled back into a wide smile at the sight of them, and Mimi called out to her cousin excitedly. “Well, hello there, Mrs. Denmoore. How’s married life treating you so far?” Expelling a little chuckle, Mimi’s cousin replied, “Just great. Couldn’t be better.” As the two women embraced, Julia cast an admiring glance at the bride’s gown. It was a fancy princess-style dress, and had a train which stretched well out behind her. She also

13 noticed that the woman’s ears were adorned with large diamond earrings, which sparkled as they caught the light. As Mimi and her cousin pulled back from the hug, the newly married woman turned her attention toward Julia, then extended a hand in a welcoming gesture. “I’m Lois. It’s very nice to meet you.” Lois had a brilliant white smile, and as Julia clasped hands with her, she found herself astonished by the size of the bride’s wedding ring. “It’s nice to meet you, Lois. Thanks for inviting me.” “My pleasure. Mimi tells me you work with her at the bakery, and were in charge in of creating the wonderful desserts we’ll be serving after dinner.” With a modest shrug of her shoulders, Julia stated, “I couldn’t have done it without Mimi’s help. She is an expert baker, after all.” “It looks like you’ve quite a talent as well. I saw the desserts and they look absolutely delicious. They’re almost too beautiful to eat, in my opinion.” Julia glanced fondly at Mimi. “Hey, I learned from the best.” “She’s being far too humble,” Mimi said to her cousin. “All I did was give a few tips, and she did all the rest.” “It sounds like you two make a great team.” Lois’s peach-colored lips pulled back into a smile.“Now what do you say we join the party, ladies?” Guiding them through the rows of tables, Lois halted at a small circular table and motioned for them to sit down. “Take a seat and a waiter will come by to pour you some champagne. Dinner won’t be served for a bit, but we have some wonderful appetizers in the meantime. So sit back, relax, and have fun!” Normally a chipper attitude such as Lois’s would have annoyed Julia to no end, but she couldn’t dislike a woman who had complimented her on her baking skills. And besides, Lois seemed nice and she was also Mimi’s cousin. Mimi was like a sister to her, so anyone associated with Mimi was definitely okay in her book. The ballroom was teeming with energy from all of the different people around them, and as Mimi and Julia sipped champagne, they curiously gazed around them. They made comments to each other about the nice dresses the other women were wearing, and also pointed out the good looking men. Nibbling on a crab cake, Julia found herself focusing on the dance floor. Perhaps noticing where her friend’s attention was directed, Mimi leaned toward Julia and posed a question. “Are you just gonna watch, or do you wanna get out there and show everyone what you got?” “What I’ve got is nada. I’m rhythmically challenged, and you know it.” Mimi playfully rolled her eyes. “You are not that bad, Julia.” “Yes, I am. Embarrassingly so. So don’t even bother trying to convince me.”

14 “Oh come on. You can’t let me go out on that dance floor all by myself. Besides, if you’re really that self conscious about your dancing, then we can slip into the middle of the crowd, that way nobody sitting at the tables will be able to spot us.” Julia really was reluctant to put herself on display, but since Mimi had been nice enough to invite her out, she figured the least she could do was accompany her friend and dance with her. Setting her champagne glass on the table Julia got onto her feet, then reached for Mimi’s hand. “Okay, let’s go. I’ve got three words for you, though. Embarassment by association.” Mimi’s lips tugged into a smile, “I think I’m willing to take that chance.” As they walked onto the dance floor they saw some of the men glance in their direction. Mimi threw flirtatious looks to the ones she favored the most, and as she held onto Julia’s hand she gently pulled her along. As soon as they were in the core of the crowd, the two women began moving to the music. Some time had passed since Julia last danced in public, so her moves felt a bit stiff and unnatural. She found, however, that as she got into the beat of music her inhibitions quickly disappeared. As they continued to dance, Julia and Mimi realized that a few of the men who were giving them interested looks gradually seemed to be moving closer and closer. The one who had his eyes on Mimi appeared to be no older than twenty-one, and as he gave her a wink Mimi shook her head and released a laugh. Talking loudly over the music, Julia offered her friend an amused smirk. “Looks like you have an admirer there. You should go over and dance with him.” “Are you kidding? He’s nearly an infant. And besides, I’m not about to abandon you on the dance floor, especially since you didn’t even want to come in the first place.” “I don’t care, go ahead. You deserve to enjoy yourself. He may be young, but he is quite cute.” As Mimi glanced toward him, Julia watched her give the young man a friendly smile and then a little wave. As soon as she did this he instantly made his way toward her, as if pulled in by the string of an invisible fishing rod. “Have fun,” Julia whispered into Mimi’s ear, then turned and made her way off the dance floor. She was halfway to the table when she suddenly felt a hand touch her shoulder. Turning to face the unseen person, her eyes fell on a man with hazel eyes and spiky hair with blond tips. “Hey there, would you like to dance?” Julia opened her mouth to say no and then suddenly realized there wasn’t any reason for her to turn him down. She didn’t want to spend the whole evening just sitting around watching everyone else have fun, so she figured she may as well join in and take advantage of the festivities.

15 Nodding her head, she followed him back onto the dance floor and began moving to the rhythm. She was surprised to find that he could dance pretty well, and it didn’t take long for her to fall into a companionable rhythm with him. Once the song ended he gestured her off the dance floor so that they could talk a bit more. As a waiter approached them they helped themselves to some hors d’oeurves, as well as a glass of champagne. Standing at the edge of the dance floor, they began making pleasant conversation. “Thanks for the dance.”. “No problem, I had fun.” “I’m Walter, by the way. And you are?” “Julia.” “Lovely name for a lovely woman. Do you have a boyfriend, Julia?” “Nope, I’m single.” “Would you like one?” His lips pulled into a flirtatious smile. “That depends.” “On what?” His eyes gave a little twinkle. “I’ve been single for quite some time now, so it would take a certain type of man to persuade me to give up my freedom.” Walter lightly chuckled. “Who says you have to give up your freedom?” “What do you mean?” Although she had an idea of what he was hinting at, she wanted to hear the answer he would provide. He leaned in a little closer. “I’m not opposed to one-night stands. How about you?” The smile on her face lessened. “I don’t do one-night stands.” “Are you sure about that?” His eyes roved lasciviously over the neckline of her dress. “Without a doubt.” “That’s too bad, because I’d definitely love to take you home with me.” Unsure of how to respond to such a forward statement, Julia tipped the champagne glass toward her lips and took a sip. Unwilling to accept no for an answer, he continued to try and persuade her. “What do I have to do to get you to change your mind?” “There’s nothing you can say, really. I don’t casually sleep around and that’s all there is to it.” “Come on,” he urged. “It’s just sex, what’s the big deal?” Releasing a sound of annoyance, Julia turned her back to him and began to walk away, but Walter still refused to give up. “Wait, where are you going? I’m not finished talking to you yet.” He grabbed her roughly by the arm in attempt to halt her movement. Unwilling to put up with his brutish behavior, she turned on her heel so they were face to face, then prepared to let loose a few words that would effectively convey her displeasure. Yet before

16 she could tell him to buzz off, she was stunned into silence by the sudden presence of another man. As Julia’s eyes focused on a point beyond Walter’s shoulder, he turned his head to follow her gaze. Tall and impressively built, the person who had captured Erica’s attention was none other than Nolan, and as her attention came to rest on him, her eyes softened, body posture instantly growing less tense. With a serious look in his eyes, Nolan questioned Walter. “Is there a problem here?” “I don’t know, is there?” Not fazed in the slightest by Walter’s edgy response, he said, “Seems to me you’re bothering her. You have no right putting your hands on a lady unless she consents.” “Look, I don’t know who you are, but this heroic act you’re putting on isn’t getting you into her pants. She’s one of those frigid broads, so save yourself the trouble and don’t even waste your time.” “Just leave her alone and don’t bother her again, got it?” “Yeah, whatever buddy.” Throwing a glance Julia’s way, he sneered at her and said, “Later, tease.” As he was leaving he purposely bumped his shoulder against Nolan’s, then made a beeline for a busty redhead. As soon as he was gone Nolan said, “Sorry you had to deal with that jerk.” “It’s okay.” “No it isn’t. He was disrespecting you and that wasn’t cool.” “Yeah, I know. He wasn’t worth my time, and that’s why I blew him off.” She gave him a little smile, then offered some more words. “By the way, thanks for getting him off my back. I really appreciate it.” “No problem, I was glad to do it.” A moment of silence passed between them as they each took a moment to silently admire the other, their eyes perfectly communicating the strong attraction they felt for each other. Then Nolan’s voice broke the stillness. “Guess I should properly introduce myself. I’m Nolan,” extending a hand toward her, he lightly shook her hand, holding it more by the fingers than by the palm. There was a tenderness to the way he held her hand in his, and Julia found herself very taken by his presence. He wore a pair of black trousers and a matching suit jacket, but instead of wearing a dress shirt beneath it, he’d chosen instead to don a gray T-shirt. This gave his outfit an unconventional look, causing him to look effortlessly stylish. “I’m Julia, and it’s very nice to meet you…again.” “The pleasure is all mine.” He took a brief glance around them, then said, “Funny us meeting here, of all places.. Did you fly solo, or come with someone else?” “I’m here with a friend. She’s the cousin of the bride.” “Cool. Lois is a very nice lady, so I imagine your friend must be as well.” “Yeah, Mimi’s awesome. So who are you here with?”

17 “I came alone.” Nolan held up the camera that hung from the strap which was attached to his shoulder. “I’m the wedding photographer.” “Nice. So is this your side job?” “It’s my main gig. I work limited hours at the tattoo shop, mostly just to help my brother manage the place.” “Cool. So is wedding photography your speciality?” “Nope, I do mostly portraits, but dabble in other fields as well. “Well, judging from this fancy reception, I’m guessing you must be getting paid well from this gig..” “I’m being well compensated. When I found out her husband was a big shot lawyer, I decided to raise my fee. I figured with money like his, he can afford to pay me more than my usual clients.” After the last word passed his lips, he gave a sheepish smile. “That probably sounds bad, but I figured why not? He’s got money to burn.” “I think it sounds smart, and I’m sure you’re very talented, so every penny they paid will be well worth it.” “That’s kind of you to say. I appreciate that.” She shrugged. “I’m only saying it because I’m sure it’s the truth. You’ve gotta be good if they hired you to photograph a lavish event like this.” Her eyes were hopelessly drawn to his sexy lips as he pulled them into a broad grin, and she began to imagine what it would be like to press her mouth against his. His lips looked nice and soft, and although she didn’t have a clue as to what his tongue looked like, she could only imagine the skill it must possess. As Nolan’s voice sliced through her thoughts, she was instantly brought back to the present moment. “You flatter me too much. If anyone should be offering compliments, it’s me. Here I am in the company of a beautiful woman and she’s the one making me feel good. I knew there would be perks to working this gig, but I didn’t know you would be one of them.” Feeling her cheeks heat up from his compliment, she took a light sip of champagne and matched his gaze with a deep one of her own. Brushing a strand of hair away from her eye, she asked, “Are you flirting with me?” “I don’t know. What do you think?” “ I’d have to say you are.” “You’d be right in making that assumption.” He took a moment to simply stare at her, then said, “You’re looking very deeply into my eyes. Can I ask what you’re thinking?” How glad I am that I decided to attend this wedding with my friend. Running into you is definitely a nice coincidence.” “I agree that it’s nice seeing one another, but do you really think this was just a coincidence?” “What, us meeting here?” She thought over his words for a few moments, then warily replied, “Sure, why not? Wait, you’re not saying you planned this or something, are you?”

18 He lightly chuckled. “I’m an admirer, Julia, not a stalker. I just meant that I don’t believe in chance meetings. I think that fate brings people together for certain reasons.” “So why do you think we were brought together?” “I’m not certain just yet, and neither of us are entirely sure of what we have to give each other, but if we get to know one another then surely we’ll find out.” “Is this your way of asking me out?” His lips tilted into a crooked smile. “It’s my way of saying that I really enjoy being around you, and would love to see you again.” Julia was just about to give her response when she spotted Mimi approaching them. Offering Nolan a smile, Mimi said, “Hello.” Then she glanced at Julia, sending a signal with her eyes that she wished to be introduced. “Mimi, this is Nolan. Nolan, I’d like you to meet my boss, who also happens to be a very good friend of mine.” Nolan gave a nod of acknowledgment. “It’s nice to meet you, Mimi.” “Likewise.” Turning his attention back to Julia, he said, “Guess I’d better get back to work. It was great seeing you again and I hope we can chat some more later on. You know where to find me, so don’t be a stranger.” He gave her a wink, then politely excused himself. As soon as he was out of earshot Mimi excitedly said, “He’s gorgeous. Was he one of the guys you were dancing with?” “Nope, I only danced with one guy and he was a complete jerk.” “Sorry to hear. What happened?” “He tried to get me to go home with him, but when I told him I wasn’t interested in having a one-night stand he got really aggressive. Then when I tried to walk away he made a grab for me, and that’s where Nolan came in.” “Wow, he really does sound like an asshole. I’m glad Nolan was there to sort him out.” “Yeah, so am I.” “So did you give Nolan your phone number?” Mimi’s eyes lit up with hope. “No, he didn’t ask for it.” “You should have given it to him anyhow. I glanced at you two a few times while I was on the dance floor, and it looked like you had some pretty serious eye contact going on.” As Julia’s lips curled into a smile, Mimi took her by the hand and led her to a table so they could discuss things in private. Once they were seated Mimi asked, “Okay, so what are his stats? He’s single, right?” She pulled her shoulders into a shrug. “Not sure, I didn’t ask.” “So what do you know about him, then?” “He’s taking pictures for this wedding, so I know he’s a photographer.” “Really?” Mimi glanced around the ballroom in search of Nolan, wanting to see him in action.

19 “Yep, and I figure he must be pretty darn good if he got booked for a ritzy gig like this.” “You got that right, because Lois has been very particular about this wedding.” Finally spotting Nolan, Mimi saw that he was taking photos of the band on stage. Julia’s eyes followed her gaze, and she watched as Nolan took shots of the performers from a variety of angles. “He looks quite professional, doesn’t he?” Julia couldn’t help but admire him, watching as he kneeled and leaned back to get an interesting shot of the band. “Yeah, and watch the way he handles that camera. You know what they say about men who work with their hands, don’t you?” Giving her a sly smile, Mimi waited for her friend’s reaction. “Oh come on, that is such a cliché.” “Maybe so, but it’s still the truth.” Julia took a sip of her drink and as the song the band was playing began to taper off, she watched Nolan make his way to the other side of the room. “You have to give him your number before we leave,” Mimi said. “Only if he asks.” A small sigh of frustration passed her lips. “Come on, Julia, snap him up before some other woman does. Besides, if you really like him then how are you supposed to see him again?” “I know where he works, so I can stop by there anytime I like.” “Wait, you didn’t tell me that. So you know where his photography studio is?” “No, but he has another job besides being a photographer. You know that Polynesian tattoo shop that’s located on Monroe?” “Sure, I pass by it all the time on the way to the bakery. It’s only a few blocks down the way.” “That’s where he works. I went in there the other day and that’s when we first met each other.” “Interesting. I’ve never been in there myself, but it catches my eye everytime I pass by it. So I guess you’ll be making regular visits over there, huh?” A grin spread across her face. “I might stop by every now and again, but I’m not going to be overly obvious about it. The last thing I want is to come across as desperate..” A male server approached their table with a tray of food in hand, and after placing their dinner down on the table in front of them, he flashed a smile, then wished them an enjoyable meal. As he retreated from their table, Julia couldn’t help noticing that Mimi’s eyes were firmly glued to his backside. “Enjoying the view?” Julia asked. Breaking out of her daze, Mimi offered a sheepish grin. “I wasn’t staring that hard, was I?”

20 “If you’d kept your eyes on his butt any longer, you’d have burned holes into it.” She lightly chuckled. “The man does have a nice ass. I don’t make it a habit of dating guys under thirty, but I’d be more than willing to make an exception for him. He was a total hottie.” “I’ve gotta agree with you on that. He’s got sort of a James Dean look going on there, doesn’t he?” “A dead ringer if I ever saw one.” As they dug into their food, they fell into silence, contentedly munching away on their chicken alfredo dinners. Curious as to where Nolan was located, Julia’s eyes scanned the room, and as she caught sight of him, she noticed he was chatting to one of the waiters. She guessed they were having a conversation about photography, because Nolan was holding the camera up for the waiter to see, pointing out the various buttons and controls on it. Focusing her attention on the cut of his suit, she noticed how well it fit him, and began to wonder if it was custom made. Even with the barrier of fabric covering his body, it was clear to see it wasn’t just toned, but rock hard. This led her to imagine what he looked like in the nude, and the image that her imagination conjured was quite spectacular. “Handsome, isn’t he?” As Mimi’s voice cut through her thoughts, Julia was snapped out of her daze, and she admiringly said, “Once you start looking at him, it’s kind of hard to stop.”. ”I know what you mean. I took one quick glance at him, then went back for seconds, and I haven’t stopped looking since.” Turning her gaze on Mimi, she lifted an eyebrow and light heartedly said, “Back off, woman. I saw him first, so hands off.” “Listen to you, getting all territorial. Guess I’d better focus my attention instead on the James Dean lookalike.” “Might be a wise decision.” “Message received, Miss Feisty.” She jokingly jabbed Mimi with her elbow. “Hey, I’m only playing around. We’re probably only two of many women who have noticed the appeal of Nolan.” “Truer words were never spoken. Speaking of other women, check out those chicks a few tables over from us.” “Where? Point them out to me.” Smiling a little at Julia’s interest in the competition, Mimi gestured toward a table a few feet away from them. There were four women sitting at it and they were engaged in an animated conversation. Their attention was keenly directed at Nolan, and it was obvious he was their person of interest, because as he turned around and began to walk through the rows of tables, all four of the women’s eyes intently followed his progress. Julia was surprised by the pang of jealousy she felt, and as she watched Nolan weave his way among the seated guests, she noticed that his eyes were darting across the full

21 room. It seemed he was searching for someone and she began to hope it was her. As she watched him continue along his path Nolan’s eyes suddenly found hers and his lips widened into a smile. Giving her a wink, he altered his course and made his way toward her. From out of the corner of her eye Julia could see the four women at the other table watching her, and she couldn’t help feeling a sense of triumph.. As Nolan reached her table she glanced up at him and offered a flirtatious smile. “Hey, you,” he said to her. “Hey there yourself,” she responded. His eyes were focused mostly on Julia, but not wanting to appear rude he offered Mimi a nod of acknowledgment. “I hope you ladies are enjoying your dinner.” Answering in unison the two women responded, “We are.” Julia and Mimi gave each other funny little glances and they gave each other a look of amusement.” Nolan lightly chuckled. “Good. Just thought I’d stop by and say hello. They’ll be opening up the dance floor again in the next half hour, so I do hope you’ll save me a dance,” He said to Julia. “Of course. I’m already looking forward to it.” “Great. Enjoy the rest of your meal ladies, and I’ll be seeing you later, Julia.” “Yep, see you.” As soon as he was gone Mimi gave Julia an excited grin. “He really likes you. Not only is he gorgeous, but he also seems like such a nice guy.” “Yeah, he really is.” The adoration she felt for him came through clearly in her voice. “You think he’s single?” “I imagine he is. I know a player when I see one, and Nolan isn’t the type.” “He seems like such great boyfriend material. How can he possibly be unattached?” “I don’t know. Maybe he recently got out of a relationship. Or maybe he’s been single for awhile, but just hasn’t found the right one yet.” “Yeah, maybe,” she thoughtfully said. But even if he is single, I’m sure he must be dating. He probably has all sorts of women throwing themselves at him.” She tilted her head in the direction of the women who sat at the table a few feet away from them. “Speaking of competition, did you see the way those women were eyeing Nolan?” Mimi popped a mushroom into her mouth. “I sure did. You probably didn’t notice, but they were giving you the evil eye the entire time Nolan was talking to you.” “Yeah, I saw them out of the corner of my eye. I’m guessing they weren’t too happy about it.” “Obviously not, but don’t even worry about it. They won’t be able to get near him tonight.” “You’re a good friend, Mimi, and I appreciate your concern, but if one of those women really wants to get with him, there isn’t anything that either you or I can do to stop them.”

22 “Are you kidding me? Of course there is. If any of them try to get too close to him, I’ll just run interference to keep them away.” “Oh yeah, and just how exactly will you accomplish that?” Julia picked up her water glass to take a sip. “You’ve heard of a tackle before, right? All you have to do is say the word and I’ll go for it.” Releasing a snort, Julia quickly grabbed her napkin and covered her mouth with it to keep from spitting out the water. “You’re crazy, Mimi. But that’s why I love you.” “Right back at you, babe.” Once dinner was finished and the plates had been cleared away, the waiters brought out trays of desserts and began serving them to the guests. Once they received their own plates of lavender lemon cheesecake they savored it, enjoying the rich taste and unique texture of it. After they were finished eating they sat back in their chairs and gave sighs of contentment. “You outdid yourself with that dessert, Julia. It was wonderful.” “Couldn’t have done it without you.” As their full stomachs settled they made casual conversation, sipping on their coffee as they observed the other people in the room. They’d only been talking a few minutes when a man at the front of the room picked up a microphone and began to speak into it. As his voice came over the speakers the guests in the ballroom began to quiet, and listened to what he had to say. “Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come to welcome our newlyweds to the dance floor, so everyone get onto your feet and put your hands together for Mr. and Mrs. Denmoore.” The lights in the ballroom dimmed and a spotlight illuminated the middle of the dance floor. As the newlyweds made their appearance, all of the guests stood up and clapped their hands. There were even a few cheers and whistles, but as the sound of a piano filled the air everyone grew quiet. Frank Sinatra’s As Time Goes By was the choice of song for the wedding dance, and as the couple began to move to the music everyone gathered around to watch them. Julia was impressed by the way the couple moved so seamlessly together, and she couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the moment. As the flash of a camera filled the darkened room, Julia turned her head toward it and saw Nolan photographing the couple. He took various shots from different angles, and as he moved around the edge of the dance floor her eyes remained faithfully trained on him. She enjoyed seeing him at work, and was impressed by the fact that he could remain so in the moment, despite the large group of people all around him. As the newlyweds’ wedding dance came to an end, all of the guests were invited onto the floor as well. People who were already paired up as couples made their way forward,

23 but everyone else who was single just hung around the tables and watched. Eventually most of the unattached women were asked to dance, and soon the marble floor was filled with wedding guests. As she watched the guests engage in a slow dance, Julia noticed a man of medium height standing next to the floor taking photos. He had equipment which was similar to Nolan’s, and it was obvious he was a professional because of the way he moved and angled the camera. “I wonder where Nolan is?” she asked Mimi. “Isn’t he supposed to be the wedding photographer?” “It’s probably his assistant. Some photographers bring another person along to help them out on certain jobs.” “Oh, well, if his assistant is the one taking pictures, then what’s he doing?” Julia glanced around the room to see if she could find him. “I don’t know, honey. He’s probably on a break. It didn’t seem like he had anything to eat at dinner, so I’m sure he’s just having a quick bite.” “You’re probably right. I guess I should stop wondering where he is. I’m getting sort of pathetic, aren’t I?” “No, you’re just curious is all. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure he’ll be by any moment to ask you for that dance.” Mimi gave her a reassuring smile. She gave little shrug.“Yeah, and even if he doesn’t it’s no big deal.” Realizing she was getting too wrapped up in Nolan, Julia began to eye the various groups of men who were standing around the room. Most of them were checking out the women who remained sitting at the tables alone, and as her eyes fell on a man in the corner, he offered her a little smile. He was older than her, most likely in his later thirties to early forties and wore his hair in a military crew cut style. She held his gaze for a few seconds but then quickly averted her eyes, not wanting to give him the idea that she was interested. Remembering the last guy she had danced with, she wasn’t too keen on the idea of attracting the attention of anyone else. The experience with that prick Walter had left her feeling apprehensive about the whole thing, and the last thing she wanted was to end up with another jerk like him. Her wish to be left alone, however, seemed to be ignored because the man whom she’d just been looking at was on his way over to where she stood. “Oh no, please don’t come over here,” she softly whispered under her breath. Following Julia’s gaze, Mimi asked, “What’s wrong with him? He looks pretty good to me. Oooh, and he has one of those military haircuts! I just love men who wear uniforms. Honey, if you don’t want him, I’ll take him off your hands for you.” “Be my guest, because I’m not interested.” As the man came closer he offered both Julia and Mimi a friendly smile. “Hello there, pretty ladies. My name is Ronald. How are you two doing this evening?” “Doing okay,” Julia answered in a polite, yet curt, tone. “I’m very well, and you?” Mimi gave him a look which clearly expressed her interest.

24 “I’ve been having a pretty good time so far, but it’s getting a little lonely just standing next to the wall watching all those other couples have fun. I’m surprised you two haven’t been asked to dance yet.” “I’m not the best dancer anyhow, so I don’t really mind,” said Julia. “I’m not that great either, but I’d be more than willing to give it a try if you’re up for it.”His eyes were filled with hope. Taking a quick glance to her right, Julia spotted Nolan strolling toward her. As their eyes met he gave her a small wave, and Julia returned it with one of her own. As Ronald saw who she was waving at a look of disappointment crossed his face. “Sorry, but I’m going to have to pass on that dance. I’m sort of waiting on a friend.” “Oh, okay. No problem.” He started to back away but then glanced at Mimi and asked, “How about you? Care to have a dance with me?” “I’d love to.” Mimi walked toward him, then hooked her arm into his and they strolled off together. Turning her head back in Nolan’s direction, she was dismayed to find that his progress toward her had been halted. Standing in front of him was a woman with a long, straight ponytail and a red dress, and although Julia couldn’t see her face, she knew exactly who the woman was. It was one of the four ladies who’d been eyeing him from their table, and as Julia watched them engage in conversation she began to feel very jealous. She silently willed Nolan to end the conversation and come over to where she stood, but to her utmost frustration he remained planted where he was. Julia wanted to know what they were talking about and began to wonder if he even remembered that she existed. It was almost as if the woman in the red dress had some sort of power over him, because he was leaning forward toward her and seemed to be intently interested in what she had to say. He hadn’t even taken one glance in her direction to signal that he was still on his way. Nolan knew that she was expecting him, so why didn’t he just excuse himself and come over and ask her to dance? She already knew the answer to this question, of course. She’d been upstaged by another woman, and now Nolan was more interested in this other chick than he was in her. Julia watched as the woman threw her head back and released a loud giggle, and couldn’t help noticing that Nolan’s lips were pulled back into an amused grin. Having seen more than she could handle, Julia turned her back to them and headed over to the bar. If Nolan would rather talk to somebody then that was his business. She’d wasn’t wasting any more of her time on him, and refused to pay him any more attention. Taking a seat on one of the barstools, she ordered a virgin piña colada. As the bartender busied himself with preparing it, Julia glanced at the dance floor and saw Mimi and Ronald dancing. As she watched them sway back and forth to a classic love song, Julia wished she hadn’t been so quick to blow Ronald off. He really was a pretty cute guy, and if she hadn’t been so fixated on Nolan, she could have been dancing and enjoying herself right now.

25 Once the bartender was finished fixing her drink, he brought over her piña colada and sat it down on the counter in front of her. She thanked him and then took a few light sips. She wasn’t really in the mood for a drink right now, but she’d felt awkward just standing there watching Nolan and that woman talk. She knew it was silly feeling this way because she’d just met him a day ago, but she still didn’t like seeing him talking with other women. She didn’t know why it bothered her so much, but it did. Realizing she’d read too much into his flirting, she urged herself to get a grip and stop acting so ridiculous. If he wanted to chat other women up, why should that matter to her? He wasn’t her boyfriend, so what concern of hers was it if he wished to speak to someone else? Despite Julia’s attempts to pep herself up she still felt pretty lousy so she wrapped her lips around the straw and took a large sip, hoping to drown her disappointments in the sugary drink. She became so lost in her thoughts that as she felt a tap on her shoulder she gave a startled jump. Swiveling around on the stool, she came face to face with Nolan and saw him give her one of his charming smiles. Under normal circumstances Julia would have melted, but since she was upset with him his grin had little effect on her. “Hey there, sorry to have startled you. What are you doing sitting here at the bar all by yourself?” She couldn’t believe he was asking her such a question and was annoyed that he seemed so clueless. Couldn’t he feel her disappointment? Surely he’d noticed that she’d been watching him and that other woman speak. Not wanting to seem bitchy, she made up an excuse. “Just felt like getting a drink.” “Okay. Sorry I took so long to make my way over to you. That woman I was talking to is interested in having some professional photos taken, so I was just giving her a bit of information. Sorry if I came across as rude to you, I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I just wanted to see if she was serious about becoming a client.” “It’s okay, I didn’t mind.” As the lie slipped from her tongue she averted her gaze from his and used her straw to stir the crushed ice which had settled at the bottom of her glass. “So, how about that dance now? That is if you’re not too upset with me.” “I’m not upset, but I’m not really in the mood for dancing anymore.” Dissapointment etched onto his features. “Oh, i’m sorry to hear that. I was really looking forward it.” Turning her eyes back on him, she said, “Yeah, so was I.” Then she set her drink down and got up off the stool. She didn’t even bother to look back at him as she walked away. As she was heading past the dance floor she saw Mimi walking toward her, with a look of happiness on her face. As Mimi reached Julia she asked, “So how’s it going with Nolan? I saw you talking with him at the bar. Aren’t you two going to dance?”

26 “Nope.” “Why not?” “I just don’t feel like it anymore.” A look of seriousness came into her eyes. “Okay, what happened?” “Remember that table of women who were staring at him as he stopped by our table to talk to me?” “Yeah.” “I saw him chatting with one of them. The thing was, he was on his way to come over and ask me to dance, but instead of excusing himself he just stood there and had a conversation with her. A long one.” “So he was taking with someone else. Doesn’t mean anything serious was going on. Did you see her slip him her number?” “No, not that I could tell. Anyways, I just found it a bit rude so it sort of turned me off.” “I can understand you feeling upset, but I still don’t think you should give up on him. This other woman is competing with you, can’t you see that?” “Of course.” “So what, you’re going to just give up and let her snag him? Come on, Julia. That doesn’t sound like you.” “I’m not in the mood for playing games.” “I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, Julia. Did he explain why he took so long to reach you?” “Yeah, he said she was interested in having some pictures taken. He made it sound like it was only business, but she was doing some serious flirting with him.” “Of course she was, the man looks good. But hey, I think you should take his word for it. If that’s what he says happened, then believe him.” Glancing toward the bar, Mimi saw Nolan sitting on a stool with a drink in hand. His back was to the bar, so they could see his face from where they stood. “Look at him, Julia. He looks so sad sitting there all alone. Go back over and talk to him.” As Julia turned her gaze on Nolan their eyes locked and she saw him give her a little smile. She tried to offer him one as well, yet found that her lips just wouldn’t budge. Still feeling a bit miffed, Julia turned away from him and stared out at the dance floor. “So that’s it? You’re seriously giving up?” Mimi’s voice held a mixture of annoyance and disappointment. “I didn’t say that.” “Okay, so what are you waiting for?” “If he really wants me then I’ll let him come to me, but I am not going back over there.”

27 Shaking her head in disbelief, Mimi replied, “All right, have it your way. The funny thing is you said you’re not in the mood for games, but don’t you realize that’s exactly what you’re doing right now?” “No I’m not.” “Yes you are. You’re jealous and upset and you’re expressing this to him by playing hard to get. You want to see just how far he’s willing to go to smooth things over with you. Now does that sound about right?” With a reluctant nod of her head, Julia answered, “Yeah, okay. I guess I am acting pretty lame, aren’t I?” “Yes. So please stop acting silly and go over and talk to him. You always say how hard it is to meet decent guys, don’t you? Well, there’s one right there, just waiting for you. Take your chance girl, before it’s too late.” Releasing a sigh, Julia tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and glanced at Mimi for reassurance. “Go for it,” urged Mimi. As Julia headed toward the bar she saw that Nolan’s back was now facing her. She guessed that he’d turned around when she failed to smile at him, and now he was under the impression that she was no longer interested. Mimi was right, she’d been playing a game, and a very stupid one at that. She’d let her jealousy get in the way and now she had to work things out. How often did she meet guys like Nolan? The answer to that was never. She was only a few feet away from reaching him when suddenly the woman in the red dress walked up beside him and placed her hand upon his shoulder. Halting her steps, Julia watched as Nolan turned his head to give the woman a smile. Julia also noticed that the woman’s hand was sliding across the left sleeve of his suit jacket, admiring his biceps beneath the fabric. Noticing their silent observer, the woman in the red dress directed her attention at Julia and gave her rival a triumphant smile. Her eyes seemed to silently express that the game was over. As the woman grabbed Nolan’s hand to guide him away from the bar, Julia quickly turned on her heels and headed back toward Mimi. Seeing the hurt and defeat on her friend’s face, she offered a few words of support. “Don’t give up, Julia. Do not let her win.” Waving her hand dismissively she answered, “I could care less. If that woman wants him so badly then you know what? Let her have him. I am not about to fight over a man.” The sigh of disappointment Mimi expelled told Julia that she was unhappy with the outcome of the situation between her and Nolan. Mimi was a natural born competitor, and Julia could see the frustration growing in her eyes. “Well, since you’ve decided to give up on Nolan, why don’t you come onto the dance floor with me and Ronald?” “No thanks, I don’t want to be the third wheel.”

28 “He has a friend.” As Mimi pointed him out to Julia, a man standing next to Ronald gave her a smile, then headed over to where she stood. ,Julia noted he had a military haircut just like Ronald did. He was of medium height with a slim build, and he had a boyish face which made it difficult to determine his age. As he reached Julia he introduced himself, “Hey there, I’m Tim. Would you like to dance?” “Sure, why not.” Grabbing hold of his palm, she followed him onto the dance floor. As they joined hands and began to sway to the music, she found herself scanning the couples that were on the dance floor. It didn’t take long before her eyes landed on the strappy red dress of her adversary, and as her eyes focused on Nolan she felt a strong pang of regret sweep through her. Nolan’s hands rested on the woman’s hips, and the lady he was dancing with had her arms firmly locked around his neck. Since she was tall, her eyes were nearly level with Nolan’s, and from where Julia stood she could clearly see that the woman’s eyes were intensely focused on Nolan’s. As she swayed with her own dance partner, Julia couldn’t help wishing that she was with Nolan instead. The man she was with seemed nice enough, but he wasn’t the one whom she’d been hoping to share her first slow dance with. Filled to the brim with wishes of an alternate outcome, she willed Nolan’s eyes to meet her own. She needed to receive some indication that he was still interested in her. All she needed was one brief glance from him to let her know that he still wanted her, because she very much wanted him. Apparently her thoughts and energy were focused on Nolan a little too much, because the sound of an annoyed voice suddenly sliced through the air. “Hello, Julia? Are you still with me?” Coming out of her daze, Julia uttered an apology. “Sorry, guess my mind wandered for a bit. Were you saying something?” “I was asking if you’d like to go bowling sometime. Your friend Mimi says she knows of a brand new alley that just opened.” “I don’t know, maybe.” “Only a maybe? Why not a yes?” Not wishing to lead him on, Julia responded as politely as she could. “Look, Tim, you seem like a really nice guy, but I’m not quite sure if I’m ready to date.” “I understand, but we can always just go as friends. It doesn’t have to be a serious outing, or anything.” Only halfway paying attention to what he said, Julia muttered an uninterested, “Yeah, I guess.” Her eyes were concentrated on Nolan’s back, and she was thinking about what it would feel like to have her palms placed against his shoulders. She also imagined what his hands would feel like wrapped around her waist, and began to visualize herself in the place of the

29 woman in red. As the powers of her imagination went into overdrive, Julia unconsciously held Tim closer to her. Nolan’s body type completely differed from Tim’s of course, but Julia didn’t let that stop her from visualizing the preferred situation. With her gaze still focused on Nolan, she closely observed the way that he moved. She noticed that he danced with a grace and skill she hadn’t quite expected, and as his eyes finally met hers, she felt her heartbeat quicken Certain he was no longer interested, she waited for the moment for him to avert his eyes. As they swayed in a circle with their respective dance partners, they found themselves caught in the continuing pattern of turning their backs to one another, then once again facing each other. Each time her back was turned to Nolan, Julia anticipated the moment when their eyes would re-lock. It seemed that they moved in a synchronization of sorts, because without fail, each time that they made a full circle their eyes would meet. Julia was pleasantly surprised that the timing was just right, because looking into Nolan’s eyes as she was dancing with Tim helped her to imagine more clearly what it would be like if she were with Nolan instead. As she swayed into another full turn with her dance partner, Julia anxiously awaited the moment when Nolan would come into her line of vision. Yet as she once again faced him, she was dismayed to find that her eyes met with those of his partner instead. As her eyes met with those of her rival, she realized that her competitor was throwing mental daggers. Obviously territorial of Nolan, this woman was making it clear that Julia was treading into unwelcome territory. Julia, however, was definitely not intimidated by this other woman’s stare. In fact, she was spurred on by it. As a burst of adrenaline coursed through her, she realized that Mimi’s competitive spirit must have rubbed off on her, because she was beginning to think up all sorts of different ways to steal Nolan’s attention. She knew he was still interested in her because they’d had some moments of heavy eye contact, but she wouldn’t be fully satisfied until she was the woman in his arms. Once the song came to an end, the two women continued to engage in a heated stare down. Julia didn’t want to avert her eyes, but since the song had ended it was only natural for her to direct her attention back at Tim. “Thanks for the dance,” he said. “Hope it wasn’t too boring for you.” “Of course not, why would you say that?” “For one, you barely answered any of the questions I asked you. And two, your eyes were planted on some other guy across the room.” Feeling her cheeks grow hot, Julia shamefully gave a response. “I’m sorry, that was so rude of me. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I just spotted someone I knew and we sort of made eye contact.” “Hey, it’s okay, no need to apologize. I can’t say I don’t wish that I was the one you were staring at instead, but oh well. Whoever that guy is, he’s really lucky to have a lady like you so interested in him.”

30 “Thanks, that’s sweet of you to say.” She felt bad about her inability to keep her attention focused on Tim, but was pleased that he didn’t seem too upset by it. “Anyways, it looks like your friend is on his way over here so I guess I’ll let you go. Have fun.” Tim gave her a weak smile, then turned and headed toward another part of the dance floor. “Bye,” she called after him. Turning her head to look behind her, she saw that Nolan was indeed coming her way. As he reached her, she offered a greeting. “Hello.” “Hi there. I take it you’re not mad at me anymore.” Feeling silly about the way she’d acted, Julia gave a bashful smile. “I wasn’t mad. Just a little annoyed.” “Seems I have a knack for making you feel that way, huh?” His lips tugged upward. “Anyways, I’m here for that dance now, and this time I won’t take no for an answer. So how about it?” “I’d love to.” As the guitar chords to Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” played over the speakers, Nolan wrapped a hand around Julia’s waist and brought her closer to him. Bringing one hand up to rest against his shoulder, she allowed her right hand to clasp with Nolan’s left. In no time at all they fell into a perfect rhythm, swaying so gracefully together that it appeared as if they’d put in hours of practice. They gazed deep into each others eyes as they danced, and Julia was surprised by just how sensual the moment was becoming. As they moved in time to the music she lost herself in the fragrance of his cologne, deeply breathing in it’s alluring scent. She studied his face, admiring everything from the shape of his eyebrows to his nice, strong jawline. There wasn’t a feature on him that she didn’t find attractive, and as she stared into his face Nolan’s eyes steadily watched her. For the time being words weren’t of very much importance. They easily conveyed how they felt about each other through the strength of their gaze and the movement of their bodies. Lost within Nolan’s eyes, she experienced a fluttering in her chest. She could feel Nolan’s strong attraction to her and was certain he was receiving the same vibes from her. She couldn’t remember having ever felt such a sudden and strong lure toward any man before, and she realized that this must be what people meant when they spoke about love at first sight. Of course she knew that she wasn’t in love with Nolan right at this moment, but she could already tell that falling for him wouldn’t be very hard to do. He had this presence about him that intrigued her, and she hoped they would have many more opportunities to spend time with one another. They gazed admiringly at each for a few more moments and then Nolan began to speak. “You’re quite a passionate person, aren’t you?” “Why do you say that?” Her voice was laced with curiosity. “You seemed quite upset when I was speaking with Rachel.”

31 She began to ask him who Rachel was, but then suddenly it dawned on her that it was the woman in the red dress. Feeling a bit uncomfortable from the memory of it she said, “Yeah I know, I totally overreacted. Now that I think back to it, it was pretty embarrassing. I don’t know why it even bothered me.” “Yes you do.” Julia blinked in response, feeling a bit surprised by his statement. “What?” “Of course you know why you were upset. So share with me. I’m interested in hearing the reason.” “Okay, I was jealous. Which I know is completely lame because we only just met each other yesterday.” “I don’t think it’s lame. I think it’s very cute.” “Really?” “Yeah, and it doesn’t matter if we’d only known each other for a few hours. There aren’t any rules about that kind of thing. You shouldn’t feel weird about having feelings toward someone.” “I don’t feel weird about it. I guess I’m just not used to it.” “Surely you’ve had a crush before.” “Of course, but this feels different.” “How so?” Giving a slight shrug she replied, “I don’t know, exactly. It’s hard to put into words. Crushes are fleeting, temporary things. I’ve experienced enough of them to know that this is more than that.” “So what you’re saying is, you think we’ll get serious.” His eyes were inquisitive. “Oh gosh, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not trying to rush things here, I just meant that I feel things for you a little differently than I’m used to. I wasn’t trying to imply that we would have a relationship.” “Why not? Are you not interested in having one?” “Well, I’m certainly not against it, I just think we’d have to feel each other out a bit more before we become certain of whether or not we wish to enter one. I mean we don’t even really know one another.” “Not yet we don’t. I’d really like to spend more time with you, though. Do you think that would be possible?” “Sure, why not? I’d like the chance to get to know you better as well.” A pleased expression crossed his face. “Good, I look forward to it.” As they continued to sway back and forth their bodies moved even closer. Both of Nolan’s arms were now encircled around her waist and Julia was holding onto his shoulders. She could feel heat radiating off his body, and as he leaned down to speak into her ear there was the wonderful sensation of his breath tickling against her skin.

32 Not understanding the words he’d spoken Julia questioned, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “I was speaking Samoan. Translation is, you’re beautiful.” “Thank you.” Her eyes remained locked into his deep brown ones, not wanting to look away for even one second. As they continued to dance Julia realized that her body was getting very warm. It wasn’t an uncomfortable sensation, but rather quite an enjoyable one. She was intoxicated by his presence and the subtle intimacy between them was slowly building to another level. Placing her head against his shoulder, she fully immersed herself in the moment. With one palm placed against the back of his neck, she lightly trailed the tips of her fingers along the edge of his hairline. As her skin made contact with his, she heard a barely audible sigh pass his lips. Julia felt the warmth of his breath against her curly locks, followed by an intake of breath and she knew he was indulging himself in the fragrance of her hair. One of Nolan’s hands rested on the small of her back, and he tenderly stroked the small indentation there. As his finger moved back and forth across the spot she felt a slight shiver go up her spine. It wasn’t an area of her body she’d ever given much thought to, but now that Nolan was paying attention to it, she realized how intimate it was to have someone touch her in that place. As the song they were dancing to came to an end, they remained in a close embrace. Neither was ready to let the other one go just yet, so they continued to sway as a jazzy, slow paced tune floated through the air. Nolan’s hands had tightened around her waist and although he didn’t say a word, she sensed that he wanted her to look up at him. Lifting her head up off his shoulder, Julia peered into his eyes and found him giving her a very deep and thoughtful look. As he bent his face down closer toward her, she noticed the thickness of his lashes and saw there was a small scar right above his left eyebrow. As her gaze moved downward she focused on his lips and noticed that they were moving closer to her face. Feeling as if she were on the receiving end of a magnet, she lowered her eyelids and became lost in a daze. The music, the dim lighting, and his presence were intoxicating her and she found herself unable to resist him. Stroking a finger against her jawbone, he placed his lips to her cheek in a tender kiss. There was such a gentleness in the way that he did it, that she couldn’t help melting beneath his touch, and the way he held her in his arms made her feel like a prized jewel. As the music began to taper off, Julia realized that the second song they were dancing to was reaching its end. Gradually their bodies began to still and then they were just standing there, still holding each other in the middle of the dance floor. Many of the couples around them left and began to walk back toward their tables, but Nolan and Julia remained in place. As reality filtered in and they came out of their own little world they finally released each other.

33 “That was very nice,” said Julia. “The kiss or the dance?” “Both.” “I think it was more than nice, it was wonderful.” “Yes, it was.” “I’d love to see you again. Would you mind if I gave you a call sometime?” “That’d be nice, I’d like that.” Nolan retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and pushed a few buttons so he could access his cell phone address book. As she gave him the digits he quickly typed them in, then slipped his phone back into his pocket. Realizing they were one of the few couples left on the dance floor, they began to walk back toward her table. “I really enjoyed dancing with you. We have quite the connection, don’t you think?” “Most definitely.” “Maybe next time we see each other we can further explore our attraction to each other.” “Yeah, maybe.” She wasn’t certain if he was hinting at something sexual, but it was her hope that his interest in her lay beyond only that. He seemed to sense a slight shift in her energy, and added, “I truly want to get to know you, Julia. As you saw from tonight, intimacy can be experienced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t always have to be about sex.” “No, it doesn’t.” They held each other’s gaze for a few moments before the moment they were sharing was suddenly intruded upon. Averting her gaze from Nolan’s, Julia noticed a man with wire-rimmed glasses and a shaven head heading their way. Upon reaching the couple, the man directed his attention to Nolan. “Hey, Nolan, sorry to interrupt but I’m having some issues with the flash on this camera. Think you can give me hand?” “Sure. Just give me a minute and I’ll be right over, okay?” Nolan’s assistant gave a nod in reply, then headed back toward the other side of the room. Turning his attention back on Julia, Nolan said, “Well, I guess I’d better get back to work now. It was really nice talking to you, and I hope we’ll see each other again soon.” “Yeah, me too. See you later.” Nolan gave a wink, then walked away. She watched him for few moments and then saw a familiar form approaching from her right. “Ready to go?” asked Mimi. “Yep. Hey, where’s your cousin at? I haven’t seen her or the groom since they had their wedding dance.”

34 “Oh, they cut out early. They’re going to Bali for their honeymoon, so it’s no surprise they ditched the reception. Lois told me to give you her best regards, though. She loved the dessert you made, and was really glad to have met you.” “Good to know she enjoyed the cheesecake, and I’m glad to have met her as well.” As they headed for the exit Julia saw Mimi gave a wave to one of the servers. As her eyes fell on him, Julia realized it was the same waiter who had brought them their meals. The waiter flashed Mimi a smile, intently watching as she headed for the exit. They’d nearly reached the door when Mimi asked, “Is he still watching me?” Turning her head slowly, Julia glanced behind her and saw that the waiter’s eyes were indeed still pinned on Mimi. “Oh yeah, he’s getting a nice, long look.” Mimi’s lips curled into a pleased smile. “Good.” “He seems very interested in you. Did you get his number?” “Of course.” “How old is he?” “Twenty-seven.” “So I guess this means you’re breaking your no younger men rule, huh?” “Heck yeah. The man is gorgeous. Plus he has a great ass.” A light chuckle passed Julia’s lips. “I’m happy for you. It’s good that you met someone.” “And what about you and Nolan, huh? I know you two only recently met, but I can already tell you’ll make a really cute couple.” “That’s nice of you to say. I’m not quite sure what will become of us just yet, but he really is a very sweet guy.” “Not bad to look at, either.” “He smells really good, too.” The smile on Mimi’s face became a grin. “Yep, there were definitely some serious sparks happening between you two. I noticed when you were dancing with him, the way he was holding you in his arms. It was quite intimate. ” “So you were watching us, huh?” “Kind of hard not to, with the energy you two were giving off.” Now walking through the lobby of the hotel, the two women continued to make small talk. As the automatic doors parted, they made their way out into the parking lot and headed for Mimi’s car. “So did you give him your phone number?” Mimi asked. , “Yep.” “Good. I’m glad to hear.” Despite her uncertainties about embarking on a new relationship, Julia couldn’t deny that something inside of her had strongly reacted to being around Nolan; and now that it had been awakened she had a feeling that her life was about to take an interesting turn.

35

Chapter Two
The scent of freshly baked goods filled the air of the bakery, and as Julia rushed back and forth between the cash register and the kitchen, she began to wonder if the endless stream of customers would ever slow down. She was happy that business was good, but since she was working alone it was all becoming quite overwhelming. As another patron walked through the doors she acknowledged them with a nod of the head and a friendly hello, then walked over to answer the ringing phone on the wall. “Mimi’s Bakery, how may I help you?” “Hey, Julia, how’s business?” As the husky sounding voice emitted from the receiver, Julia instantly recognized it as one of the bakery’s regular customers. “Hey there, Angela. We’re busy as usual. What can I do for you?” “I need a cake in the shape of a penis. You guys do that type of thing there?” “A phallic shaped cake? Sure, I don’t see why not. What’s the occasion?”

36 “It’s for my bachelorette party. Which by the way, I wanted to ask if you and Mimi would like to attend.” “I’d love to. Mimi’s not here right now so I can’t ask her, but I’ll be sure to tell her you gave her an invite.” “That’d be great. So how much would a cake like that cost?” “Before I can give you a quote, I’ll need to get a few more details.” She grabbed a small notepad from next to the register and then picked up a pen. “First off, what flavor did you want the cake to be?” “Vanilla buttercream would be nice.” “Allright, and how many people are you expecting?” “Fourteen. Think you could have it ready by Saturday?” “I don’t see why not. I can’t give you a price quote just yet, but once Mimi comes in I’ll consult with her, then we’ll give you a call back and let you know.” “Sounds good. Thanks so much for your help, Julia.” “No problem. Have a nice day, and I’ll be in touch.” “Later.” “Bye,.” After hanging up the phone she tore the piece of paper off the pad and placed it in the stack of orders to be processed. Then she headed toward the back of the bakery where there was a freshly baked cake sitting next to a large pastry bag. As she was icing the cake, her thoughts inevitably turned to Nolan. It didn’t take long before she was recalling the way his hands felt around her waist and she fondly remembered the sensation of his lips pressing against her cheek. It had been a soft, sweet kiss; almost innocent in a way. She couldn’t remember the last time a guy had kissed her on the cheek, but she’d liked that Nolan had done it. It left her wanting more, and now she was wondering what it’d feel like to have his lips pressed against other parts of her body. If he was that gentle and tender all the time, she could only imagine how pleasurable an evening of intimacy with him would be. Gripping the pastry bag tighter, she became so lost in her thoughts that the icing rose she was creating turned out looking flat, rather than rounded. The sound of a tinkling bell suddenly filled the air, signaling Julia that she had another customer. Turning her head to look over her shoulder, she was relieved to see that Mimi had arrived. “Thank goodness you’re here. We have an order for fifty cherry cupcakes and they’re due by tomorrow afternoon. The ladies’ Garden Club also contacted us, and they need twenty-five almond teacakes for their Wednesday luncheon. Oh yeah, and Angela wants us to make a penis-shaped cake for her bachelorette party.” A smile crossed her lips as she waited for Mimi’s reaction. Taking the wool scarf from around her neck, Mimi tossed it beneath the counter and walked over to the sink to wash her hands. “Penis-shaped cake, huh? That’s a new one. Anything else I need to know about?”

37 “Nope. So what happened to you this morning? It’s not like you to show up so late in the afternoon.” “I had to go to my sister’s house to watch the baby for a few hours. The sitter was a noshow, so she had to call around and find someone else to fill in. Sorry to leave you all alone. I hope you’ve been managing okay without me.” “Well, there was the usual morning rush and that was kind of hectic, but other than that things have been pretty okay.” After drying her hands off, Mimi grabbed a damp towel and began wiping down the stainless steel table where they prepared the food. “So did you speak to Nolan last night? “Nope.” “Really? I’m surprised he didn’t call. She gave a little shrug. “There’s no hurry. We just met last night, so we have plenty of time to get to know one another.” “Yeah I guess, but aren’t you eager to hear from him? That moment you two had on the dance floor seemed pretty special.” “It was, but I don’t want to start getting all excited over him until I’m sure that things will work out. I’ve felt this way about guys before and it didn’t pan out to be much of anything.” “Afraid of getting your heart broken, huh?” Mimi pulled a trash can over to the table, then began wiping the crumbs she’d collected from the table into it. “I don’t think Nolan’s the type of guy who plays games. He seems more like the straightforward type.” Setting the pastry bag down so she could refill it, Julia said, “Yeah, I get the same feeling, but I’m not about to let him preoccupy my mind. I’ve done that with enough guys in the past, so I don’t want to end up in that same boat again. Whatever happens, happens, you know?” Nodding her head Mimi said, “Yeah, I hear you.” Glancing at the clock she saw it was nearly half past twelve. “What do you say we take an early lunch? I’ll treat you to a slice at that new pizza place that opened up on 5th and Main.” “Sounds great.” “Oh, and I wanna take you somewhere else along the way, so I hope you won’t mind delaying lunch for a bit.” Julia untied her apron, then hung it on a hook next to the stove. “Okay. Let’s not stay too long though, cause I’m starving.” “It’ll be a quick trip, I promise.” As they headed for the door, she found herself curious as to where Mimi was taking her. “So where are we going, anyhow? I hope it’s someplace interesting.” “Most definitely. And they’ve got something there you’ve been needing for quite a long time.”

38 **** “Hey, Julia, what do you think of this one?” Holding a hot-pink jelly vibrator in her hands Mimi waved it in front of Julia’s face, causing it to wobble obscenely. She scrunched her nose up. “I think it’s way too bright. Plus I hate pink.” “Who cares what color it is. This is like the Rolls Royce of vibrators. You get one of these babies and you’ll wonder how you ever managed to live without it.” “It’s really that good, huh?” Julia’s eyebrows lifted in renewed interest. “Oh yeah, I have two at home.” “Why two? Is one not good enough?” “Sure, but I like to have different sizes. Variety is always a good thing.” Spotting a package on a shelf next to her, she picked it up and studied the contents of the box through the see-through window. “How about this one?” she asked while holding it up for Mimi to see. “That one’s okay, but it’s not as good as Mr. Pink, here.” “Well, what’s wrong with it? According to the writing on the front of this box it’s ‘certain to massage and titillate your clitoris.’ Sounds pretty good to me.” “I used to have that model and it’s not all that great. The vibration isn’t very strong, and it felt really uncomfortable inside of me. I think you should get one that’s made out of jelly. Those are the best ones, in my opinion.” Placing the package back on the shelf she walked over to a table where there were a number of testers sitting out. Mimi followed her and once they reached the table they both began to try out a number of the vibrators. Going for the largest one on the table, Julia picked it up and turned the dial, causing it to vibrate wildly in her hand. Amused by the look of surprise on Julia’s face, Mimi expelled a laugh and watched as her friend turned a control on the base of the sex toy. This caused the head of the vibrator to move around in circles. Julia looked on in fascination as the beads inside of the toy began to move around, twisting and turning with the rhythm of the tip. “Looks like fun, huh?” Julia’s lips tugged into a smile. “I don’t think it’s vibrating hard enough. I think it needs more power.” Smirking at Mimi’s sarcastic statement, she gave a chuckle. Turning the dial so that the vibration was no longer on, she set it down and eyed the other toys. Grabbing hold of a light-purple vibrator, Mimi held it out for her friend to see. “I think you’ll like what this one does.” As her eyes fell upon it, a small snort came from Julia’s nose. “Glitter and sparkles? You have got to be kidding me.” Mimi rolling her eyes at Julia’s response. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like. The only thing you should be concerned with is how it performs.”

39 “Yeah I know, but it’s kind of silly looking.” Grabbing a light purple toy with textured swirls on it, Julia flicked her thumb against the switch to turn it on. As it purred to life, the shaft was illuminated with a light and it began to move clockwise. Her finger then pressed the adjuster ring, and the strength of the vibration increased, releasing a steady hum. She gave it a pleased look and then switched the toy off. “I made my decision. I’m getting this one.” “Good choice. I’ve heard great things about it,” said Mimi. After grabbing a new one that was packaged in a box, the two women made their way to the cash register. As the saleswoman rung up Julia’s purchase, Mimi grabbed a few packs of batteries off of a small shelf next to the cash register, then set them on the counter. “Always make sure you have more than enough batteries.” “Guess I should always have a few for back up, huh?” She gave her friend a smile. “Definitely.” After paying for her purchase, Julia thanked the saleswoman and grabbed her bag. After exiting the store they made their way down the sidewalk, heading in the direction of the pizza place. They were a few steps from reaching it when Julia spotted a familiar figure approaching them from the opposite end of the walkway. The person was half a block away, but even from a distance she could tell it was Nolan. “Oh great,” she muttered beneath her breath. Following her friend’s line of vision, Mimi realized that Nolan was coming toward them, and offered him a small wave and a friendly smile. “Mimi, stop. I don’t want him to see us.” There was a nervousness in her voice. “Why not?” She gestured to the shopping bag, then cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah, and so what? It’s not like he has x-ray vision or anything.” “He doesn’t have to know what’s inside in order to tell I’ve been shopping at the local sex toy shop. I think the words ‘The Love Chest’ printed in bold red letters will clue him in as to what I’ve just purchased.” “So you bought a vibrator, big deal. Everyone pleasures themselves in some form or fashion. So what’s there to be embarrassed about?” “It’s a private thing, okay? Of course masturbation is natural, but that still doesn’t mean that I want Nolan to see what I’ve bought. I just barely met the guy a few days ago.” “Chill out, Julia. If you’re that nervous about it, why don’t you just roll the bag down to cover the name of the store? Then he won’t be able to tell where you’ve been.” Following Mimi’s suggestion, she rolled the top of the bag down so that the red letters were obscured from sight. Glancing down at the bag, Mimi said, “You see? He won’t even be able to tell. Looks like he’s spotted us now, so just be cool and stop worrying, okay?” As he reached them Nolan offered a smile. “Hello, ladies. Nice to see you both again.”

40 “It’s good to see you, too.” Only a day had passed since Julia had last seen Nolan, but somehow it seemed as if he’d grown even more handsome. “So, where are you two headed?” “To get some pizza. How about you?”. “Heading to lunch myself, but instead of Italian, I’m getting Mexican. You two ever been to the Burrito Hut?” “Can’t say I have,” said Mimi. “I’ve heard good things about the place, but I’ve yet to try it,” came Julia’s reply. “I’d love to have you two join me. My treat, of course.” Before Julia even had a chance to answer, Mimi spoke up. “I really have my mouth set for pizza, so I won’t be able to tag along. I’m sure Julia would love to, though.” Throwing her friend a sideways glance, she did her best to express her displeasure with Mimi’s choice to speak on her behalf. On any other day she would have been thrilled to go to lunch with Nolan, but she was more than a little worried that he would somehow be able to work out the contents of her shopping bag. “How about it, Julia?” asked Nolan. “Sure, why not?” “Great.” A pleased look crossed Mimi’s face. “Have a good lunch, you two.” Then directing her attention at Julia, she said, “See you in half an hour.” A light smirk played at her lips, then she turned away from them and headed for the pizza place. “Looks like it’s just you and me.” He said with a pleased look on his face. “I guess so,” She offered a little smile, and they began to walk down the street. “Funny us bumping into each again. You work in this area, or just hanging out?” “My workplace is a few blocks from here. A little place called Mimi’s bakery.” “Oh yeah, I know where that is. Never been in there myself, but I’ve heard good things. How long you been working there?” “Seven months.” “Did you go to culinary school or were you trained on the job?” “I learned on the job, which was a really lucky thing, because those fancy culinary schools were way out of my budget.” “So do you like being a baker?” “I love it. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” “That’s good. It makes all the difference, having a job you enjoy.” Having reached the restaurant, Nolan pulled the door open for Julia, allowing her to enter first. “Thank you.” The rich scent of spices and the sound of food sizzling on the grill filled the air, enticing them with the promise of a delicious meal. After giving their orders to the cashier, they headed for the soda fountain. As Nolan pushed the button on the machine, brown

41 liquid flowed into his cup. Yet before he had filled it even halfway, he suddenly released the button and moved his finger to another selection. Pressing his finger over the Sprite logo, he filled his cup with a few splashes of the soda, then switched to a different flavor. Watching with curious interest, Julia began to wonder just how many flavors he was going to mix together. “Having a hard time deciding, huh?” “I’m making a suicide soda. You never had one before?” “Unfortunately, yes. I think they taste awful.” “Yeah, if you don’t know how to mix them right. The key is to add all of the different sodas in just the right proportion.” Finally pleased with the mixture, he placed a plastic cover over the Styrofoam cup and punched a straw through the hole. Nolan held the cup out to her. “Here, take a sip.” “Naw, I think I’ll pass.” “Come on, just try it. I have quite the talent for mixing these sort of drinks, so I really think you’ll like it.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Since when is making a suicide soda considered a talent?” “Ouch,” he said in a mock hurt tone. “Besides, orange soda doesn’t go with root beer and Pepsi.” “Have you actually tried orange soda mixed with root beer and Pepsi, or are you just guessing that it tastes awful?” “I’m guessing, but I don’t like orange soda anyways, so I already know I’m not going to like it.” “You don’t like orange soda?” He shook his head in mock disappointment, then said, “Maybe we aren’t meant to be, after all.” She gave him a playful slap on the arm. “Don’t say that.” A smile tugged at his lips. “I’m only kidding of course.” Deciding to have a taste, she took the drink from his hands. “I guess one sip won’t hurt.” Then she positioned the straw next to her lips. He watched her with eager eyes as she sampled the drink. Once she’d finished tasting it she gave him the cup back. “Okay, so it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of tasty.” “See, I told you. Let this be a lesson to never underestimate me.” “Yeah, okay,” she said with a smirk. Nolan chuckled and then nodded toward the counter where their food was waiting. “Looks like our order’s ready.” Once they retrieved their trays, they headed out to the patio and took a seat at a brightly painted table with a desert scene carved into it. “So how did you get into photography?” Julia asked as she sliced a knife through her enchilada.

42 “Well, I’ve always been fascinated by cameras. Ever since I was a kid I’d go around the neighborhood taking photos of random things. Over the years I steadily improved, and once I reached high school I decided to enter this photography contest. I ended up winning first prize.” “Nice, so what was the prize?” “$200 and a Nikon camera. That was when I felt like I’d finally reached the point of being a professional.” Taking a bite of his steak burrito, Nolan glanced off into the distance, as if recalling past moments. Intrigued by his passion for photography, she decided to ask more about his profession. “So did you take classes, or are you self taught?” “I apprenticed under my uncle. He’s an amazing photographer and without him I never would have been able to go pro. It wasn’t easy learning from him, though. He’s a staunch perfectionist, so if I took one bad frame he’d have me analyze it until I figured out what I did wrong. Then he’d make me retake the picture until I got it right. Once I had to retake a photo twenty times before he approved it and allowed me to move on to another project.” “Wow, sounds like he was quite the perfectionist.” She picked up a tortilla chip, then dipped it into some salsa. “Yeah, but it really helped me advance and truly become a professional. To this day, I basically follow that same principle. It’s my job to make the client look good, so I have to make sure that I hold up my end of the deal.” “You must have great attention to detail. I guess that’s how you landed that great gig for Lois’s wedding.” “Yeah, that was a nice event. She was definitely one of the most generous clients I’ve ever had.” They ate in silence for a few moments, enjoying the taste and texture of the food. Then suddenly Julia realized that Nolan was looking intently at her, so she raisedher eyes to meet his gaze. “What, do I have food on my face or something?” Grabbing a napkin, she began to dab at her mouth. “No, I was just studying your features. I hope you don’t mind me staring at you, but I think you have a lovely face.” She felt her cheeks grow warm from his compliment. “Thanks, that’s sweet of you to say.” “I’m only speaking the truth. I bet you take great photos.” “Well, actually I always thought of myself as fairly unphotogenic.” “That’s hard to believe. A face like yours would be a pleasure to photograph. You should stop by my studio sometime.” “Only if you promise to cut me a discount.” Her tone of voice implied that she was joking. “I’d do it for free.”

43 “Really? What’s the catch?” “No catch, I just want to have the chance to photograph you. I could take some really nice portraits of you.” “Yeah?” “Yep. So what do you think?” “I’d love to.” “Great, I’m already looking forward to it. Just give me a call whenever you’re ready, and I’ll book you for a photo shoot.” “Lovely, I can’t wait.” “Neither can I.” His eyes met hers in a prolonged gaze and Julia found herself hopelessly mesmerized by him. As she stared into his orbs she suddenly recalled something he’d said to her at the wedding. She remembered him mentioning something along the lines of experiencing intimacy in a variety of ways besides the physical act, and she realized they were currently experiencing one of those moments right now. Lowering her eyes to rest on his lips, she began to fantasize about kissing them. Right now she wanted nothing more than to lean across the table and kiss those nice full lips of his, but there was no way she was going to make the first move, especially not here in public. “What are you thinking?” His deep voice sliced through her lustful thoughts. Allowing her eyes to once again meet his, she gave him a sheepish look.. “Nothing.” “That’s impossible, you have to be thinking of something. So what is it?” “Well, if you really want to know, I was checking out your lips.” “What about them?” “I think they’re nice.” “And?” “I was thinking about kissing you.” “So why not change that thought into an action? I’d be more than willing.” “I can’t make the first move.” “Can’t or won’t?” She took a moment to think about it. “Won’t.” “You’re very shy, aren’t you?” “Not at all.” “Then you’re waiting for me to make the first move.” “Even if you did I’d still be a bit uncomfortable with it. We’re in public.” “So?” “I’m not really into public displays of affection. Besides, this isn’t the way I imagined our first kiss to be.” “So you’ve actually thought this out, have you?” Nolan’s eyes sparkled and he gave a little smirk. “The thought has crossed my mind once or twice.”

44 “I’m glad to hear it. Good to know I’m not the only one.” Nolan’s eyes stared deeply into her own and it seemed that each was willing the other to move a little closer. As the tension grew between them, their meals were forgotten and their hunger for food was replaced with a burning desire to feel each other’s lips. Reaching across the table, Nolan grabbed her hand and held it within his, lightly stroking the back of it with his thumb. “I like you, Julia. A lot.” “I like you, too. I really enjoy hanging out with you.” “Likewise. Which is why I’m hoping you’ll let me take you out. I want us to go on a proper date, though. Not to another fast food restaurant.” “That’d be nice.” “Good. Something to look forward to, then.” “Definitely.” She gave him a warm smile. Nolan released her hand so they could resume eating, then posed a question. “Have you ever eaten Samoan food?” “Nope. Always been curious to try it, though. I always pass by that one place, I think it’s called A Taste of Samoa, but I’ve never gone inside. You’ve been there before, I’m sure.” “Oh yeah, my aunt’s husband owns the place. They’ve got great food there. I’d love to take you, if you’re up for it.” “Definitely. Sounds good, I can’t wait.” Julia dipped a tortilla chip into guacamole, then scooped up a generous helping of salsa. As she was munching, she noticed that Nolan’s attention was focused on her mouth, leading her to wonder what he was thinking. Yet before she could even ask, he offered a few words. “You’ve got a bit of guacamole smeared next to your lips.” Grabbing hold of a napkin Julia brushed it against the corner of her mouth but entirely missed the spot where the food was actually located. “It’s still there.” Julia gave it another try but Nolan’s amused smile told her that she’d failed once again. “I’ll get it for you.” He reached across the table, and as his thumb made contact with the edge of her lips, Julia felt her pulse quicken a beat. He touched her in a very tender way, and as he started to pull his hand away, she suddenly grabbed hold of his hand, and laced her fingers through his. Nolan’s brows lifted in surprise and as their palms pressed together, he stared deep into her eyes.

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