The bartender’s voice drifted to her above the sounds of ice clinking in glasses, muted conversations and soft rock in the background. Charlotte regarded her empty wineglass on the gleaming bar top. She wanted another but she knew how Pinot Noir affected her on an empty stomach, so she shook her head. Not a good idea to be tipsy when her blind date finally arrived. She glanced at her watch again and frowned. Was he standing her up? Wouldn’t that beat all? She’d been dragged into this arrangement kicking and screaming only agreeing after her supposed-best friend pulled out the “you owe me” card.
“Sorry I’m late.”
She knew that deep, rich voice. No! This wasn’t happening, couldn’t be happening. She swiveled in the seat. Oh, but it was. At least the bar stool gave her enough height so she didn’t have to crane her neck to look him in the eyes. Those polished steel gray eyes that melted her heart the first time she’d gazed into them. Those same gray eyes that shredded her heart into a million strips the last time she saw them. Luke Pallas.
“And don’t go blaming Lizzie, she doesn’t know.”
The blood rushing in her ears blocked out all background noise. It was as if they were alone in the lounge area of the upscale restaurant. “How…how…?”
“I assume those flaming daggers aren’t just for me.” He reached over to rest his hand against the bar, effectively blocking a quick exit. “Lizzie’s innocent. The blind date was real. I–” He cleared his throat. “I dispatched him.”
“Dispatched him? For heaven’s sakes, Luke, who talks like that?” She huffed out a breath and shook her head. “And what did you do? Flash your gun and badge at him?”
He didn’t need to respond, the flush of color high on those chiseled cheeks answered for him.
“Wouldn’t the FBI frown on using your official capacity to scare off my dates?”
“If they—dates, as in plural? Exactly how many have you had?” He narrowed his eyes as he studied her.
“I haven’t—hey, it’s none of your business. Did you think after we broke up I spent my nights lying in a fetal position crying my eyes out?”She prayed the miserable truth didn’t show on her face.
“Why not, that’s what I did.”
She made a derisive sound with her tongue and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
“Got drunk and passed out every night.” He shrugged as his generous lips lifted in a wry smile. “It’s the guy version.”
A passing couple jostled him and he leaned closer. She got a whiff of soap and spicy aftershave. Swallowing hard, she tried to dislodge the lump in her throat. She was so not doing this. She started to rise but he stopped her with his hand on her arm.
“Stay and have dinner with me. I noticed you checking your watch. I figure you must be hungry.”
“You were watching me? Why didn’t you come over sooner?”
“I was waiting for you to finish your wine.”
He grinned lopsidedly. “I didn’t fancy wearing Pinot Noir. This is a new suit.”
“Did you just say fancy?” Laughter bubbled up. Only Luke could make her feel like this. Angry one minute and amused the next. “You can’t tell me the other agents don’t razz you for saying stuff like that.”
“I doubt amusing you is what my father meant when he assured me spending my formative years overseas would be beneficial.”
She knew Luke didn’t readily open up, but he had confided in her about his lonely childhood with his diplomat father. “I’m sorry…that…that was rude and I—”
“Don’t apologize.” His slender, tanned fingers squeezed her arm. “I missed your laugh, Chuck.”
“Don’t call me that
Because that nickname just tore off another piece of my heart, that’s why. “I don’t like it.”
“That’s not what you said when I was—”
“Don’t you dare!” She yanked her arm away. Her lungs felt as if they’d been pushed up and squeezed into her throat. When she spoke her voice sounded low and husky even to herself. “Our relationship is over. You don’t get to say things like that to me anymore.”
“You decided we were over. I don’t recall participating in that decision.”
“You barely participated in our relationship.”
“And for that I apologize.” His gray eyes darkened like storm clouds. He reached out and flicked the little hoop dangling from her ear, his fingers lingering to caress the sensitive skin on her neck. He cleared his throat before saying, “We men are wretched things.”
She swatted his hand away. “What do you want? You chased away my date. You owe me an explanation.”
“I wanted to tell you that I’ve given up undercover work. You’re looking at the newest member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team.”
“But…you loved undercover.”
“I discovered I loved something—someone—even more.”
“Luke, please, don’t—”
He held up his hands, palms out. “All I’m asking for is dinner. So how about it? You must be desperate if you agreed to a blind date.”
“You know how I feel about blind dates?”
He laughed. “Bushmen in the Kalahari know how you feel about blind dates.”
The deep-throated laugh sent erotic quivers down her spine. “I should say no. That was high-handed of you to dispatch my date.”
“Believe me, he wasn’t for you.”
“And just how do you know that?”
“He was clueless when I informed him you were ‘disinclined to acquiesce to his request’ of a date. C’mon, I couldn’t let you have dinner with someone like that. So, will you have dinner with me instead, Charlotte?”
“Well…where else am I going to find a man who uses ‘fancy’ as a verb, quotes Homer as easily as Pirates of the Caribbean and carries a Glock?”
He wiggled his eyebrows and sent her a smile that had her pulse racing. “And those aren’t even my best talents.”