The entire room reeked of peanuts, smoke and beer. It should’ve been repellent but for some reason it held a strange, laid-back appeal. Scuffs and scrapes marred the ancient hardwood floor and the lighting was poor, but the Owl’s Roost Bar and Grill managed to make the battered appearance feel homey as opposed to trashy. Of course that feeling could have been from the familiar sound of bluegrass playing in the background and the friendly laughter echoing from the bar.
Nora sat at an empty table strategically set in the back and watched how the one thirty-something waitress worked the small crowd. The black-haired woman zipped around, managing to take care of all the customers. But she could use some help to keep up with the crowd. If all went well and Nora decided to stay in town, maybe she could get a job here. It seemed like a good, respectful clientele with mostly older, working-class types, and the staff got along well.
But she wasn’t scoping out a new job tonight. That was just a distraction. Checking the bar as a possible place of employment wasn’t fooling the butterflies zooming around in her stomach. Her flight instinct was in full swing, making it difficult to stay seated in this strange place. Tonight Nora was on the lookout for her match. Renee had called and set up a time and place for a first date. Nora agreed to meet him in his town, a small dot on the map of northern Nevada. But Renee required a public meeting, for safety’s sake. Not that Nora didn’t agree with her precaution.
Nora reached down to fiddle with the brass cuff encasing her wrist, sending it spinning around her thin arm. Completely unadorned save for the intricate DI scrolling across it, Renee FedEx’d her the cuff as a way for her match to identify her, as his would help her find him. It shouldn’t be difficult to find. How many guys in a good ol’ boy bar wore three-inch wide brass bracelets?
Stirring more Splenda into her iced tea, Nora looked away from the bar as the overall feeling in the room shifted with anticipation. The noise seemed to lessen and all the female eyes flowed to the door when the tiny bell situated above it started to clamor. The waitress fluttered over before the brass bell could stop ringing as two men walked in.
Oh my god and goddess.
Men like that were proof of a divinity. No way was the existence of two blond Adonis replicas out in the middle of the desert an accident. Exactly the same height and build, if they weren’t twins the government must’ve instituted a secret cloning program at Area 51. The only differences she could see between them were the length of their hair and the way they dressed. The one dressed in a T-shirt and well-worn jeans fixed his hair in a layered, windswept surfer cut. The other, dressed in dark slacks and a white, long-sleeved, button-down shirt, had a long mane pulled back in a low tail, looking almost short from the front.
Damn nice eye candy to appreciate while I wait for my date.
It wasn’t until the shorter-haired one raised his hand to wave at someone sitting at the bar that Nora caught a glint of bronze at his wrist. Her breath caught in her throat, and she felt the blood pool away from her face. No way. No way is that my date.
Her mouth went dry, and she was on her feet before she thought about it, her flight instinct finally winning out against her conscious drive to stay. This place was too open, too many people. She needed a safer place. Why did she have to sit so damned far from the door?
She kept her eyes glued to the man as she threw enough money to cover her drink on the table and started inching her way out. This has to be a cosmic joke. A man looking like that would never want someone like me, at least not for anything past a one-night stand. Surely Divine Intervention can give me a refund or another match. This has to be a mistake.
The other twin nudged his brother and gestured to her. She looked down and saw her cuff peeking out of her sleeve.
The man who seemed to be her match locked eyes with her and smiled, wide. Oh wow. He couldn’t be that happy to see someone like me.
Her feet froze to the floor as he kept his eyes fixed on her. He glided across the room before she had a chance to measure the distance to the door and escape.
“Hi.” He reached out, his fingers grazing the bronze cuff at her wrist while his eyes sparkled with hope and expectation. “I hope this means you were waiting for me.”
Nora’s knees felt weak. It just wasn’t fair. Someone who looked as delicious as he did should never be allowed to have a dead sexy voice to go with it. He should have a high-pitch squeak, a lisp, a stutter or something. He shouldn’t have a deep, almost musical voice.
“Should I take that as a yes?” A boyish grin spread across his face, revealing a cute, lickable dimple on his right cheek.
Nora nodded, her own voice escaping her.
His grin widened to a full-out smile that made the dim room seem somehow brighter. Nora could swear she even heard women sighing on the other side of the bar. “Great!” He took her by the elbow and led her back to her table. “I hope you weren’t waiting long. I should’ve realized you might get here early. If I had to come to a town I didn’t know too well, I’d definitely get there early to stake out the place, make sure everything was kosher with no unpleasant surprises. Some habits are hard to break, right?”
Nora looked back at him, dazed and a little puzzled. It sounded like he was talking about the wars, like he’d been in them, but they’d been over since she was so young she could barely remember. He didn’t smell like shifter, but he only looked to be in his early thirties like her.
he was mortal.
He must have read her look. He leaned down, quite a ways since he had to be around a foot taller than her five foot two inches. But he didn’t seem to mind as he whispered, “Warlock, if you’re wondering. I was told you were shifter but not what flavor.”
“Fox,” she managed to reply. Way to go. One whole word.
He chuckled, reaching out to flick one of her long auburn curls behind her shoulder. “It fits. I bet you get called one foxy lady way too often.”
Nora felt a blush rising and fought not to lower her gaze. He wasn’t a shifter. There was no need for her to play the dominance games. He probably wouldn’t even understand her impulsive submissive mannerisms. “Not really.”
The warlock shook his head in mock disbelief. “Man, you can't be traveling in the right circles then. There are obviously too many vision impaired or the walking self-centered in your peer group.”
Her lips twitched as a quick image of her last ex, a lupin the size of a linebacker even in his human form, flashed though her mind. Self-absorbed was putting it kindly. Overly macho with a dash of overbearing was more like it. But he’d made her feel safe and cared for, at least in the beginning.
She blinked as her date tapped her lightly on the nose. “Ah, I knew if I tried hard enough I’d get a grin. Before you know it I'll sneak a full-fledge smile out of you.” He pulled out her chair with a flourish and gently guided her back down. “By the way, my name is Lex. Lex Dimorus.”
“Nora.” He rolled her name in his mouth, almost as though he was tasting it, before he slid into the opposite chair. “A nice, wholesome name. Original. If memory serves me, it means ‘light’. Not something you hear often these days but cheery. So, Nora, why were you running for the door? Hopefully I’m not that scary.”
She blinked, overwhelmed by his torrent of words and shocked that he’d noticed her sneaking out. “I wasn’t running. I was walking slowly.”
He tilted his head, clicking his tongue. “Same difference from my position. What set you off?”
Nora picked up her napkin and folded and refolded it, needing something to occupy her hands. “Nerves, why else? I’ve never done this before. I guess I let it get the best of me.”
“I know what you mean.” He rolled his eyes as he put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “It’s a first on this end too.”
No surprise there. The shocking thing is him doing it now.
She peeked up at him, still not getting it. Someone like him resorting to a dating service—what was the catch? “Is that why you brought your brother along, to hold your hand?”
“Not exactly.” His eyes darted away for a split second, his tightening body language screaming evasion “I don’t look like that much of a chicken, do I?”
She snickered at his look of mock horror and let the change of subject pass. “A chicken doesn’t exactly spring to mind.”
He gave a long sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. I’m doing my best to make a good impression. I don’t want you running back home yet, not until I get a chance with you.”
“Oh yeah?” Nora couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. “I’m sure all the women run screaming in the other direction from their first look at you.”
He chuckled but didn't answer as the waitress hurried forward to take their drink orders. “I’m glad you have a sense of humor. If what Renee said is true, you’re going to need it.”
What little calm that had spread through her as she spoke to him vanished immediately. She felt herself shrinking in her chair as she let her hair fall forward to block her expression. “Why? What did Renee say to you?”
“It’s not so much what she said to me as what she didn’t say to you.” His smile faded as he watched her closely. “I don’t know why you went to Divine Intervention. A shifter really shouldn't have much of a problem finding a mate, at least not one as cute as you. But I’ll leave that alone for now. Why do you think I went to the service?”
Nora shook her hair away from her face to get a better look at him. The question shouldn't have surprised her, but it did. She'd been so wrapped up in keeping her own secrets it never occurred to her that he might have a deeper story than just a lonely guy looking for a date. She’d been a little curious but hadn’t thought there’d be any sinister reasons behind his need for a matchmaker. While she didn't have much room to be judgmental, she hoped it wasn't too bad.
They didn't need two broken people in this relationship.
He waved at someone behind her. She looked back to see his twin coming forward. Women’s gazes followed his walk to their table only to stop at her, questioningly. He stood above her, frowning over her head at his brother. “Have you told her yet?”
Lex shook his head. “I’m getting to it.”
His twin snorted but took a seat at their table. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I told you this was a stupid idea.”
“And you had a better one?”
Pursed lips and a silent glare were his only answer.
“You’ll have to excuse Mr. Serious here.” Lex waved toward his twin, “I got the sense of humor out of the deal.”
Nora didn't know what to think. “Sure.”
Lex gave her a weak grin, not quite as devastating as his smile but knee-melting all the same. “This is Xander, by the way.”
Nora held out her hand automatically. Xander stared at it for a moment, long enough for her to wonder if he didn’t want to touch her. Finally he shook it, the small contact sending a shock of electrical awareness up her arm. She would've gasped if something else hadn’t frozen any sound on her tongue. His shirtsleeve pulled back slightly.
Just enough to reveal the bronze cuff around his wrist.
“I guess there’s a few things we need to discuss,” Lex murmured.