He was checking out the woman even before he realized she was the one in the picture. She wore a T-shirt-knit dress, red, just a bit tight over her nicely proportioned curves, and flat sandals, no nylons. She didn’t need them over her perfectly tanned legs. To John’s practiced eye, the tan was natural, not spray-on; it matched her arms and face. Invitation to skin cancer, his medical mind knew, but the rest of him just admired the way it looked on her. She had a dark complexion naturally, long black hair soft around her shoulders, beautiful dark eyes. Her mouth was small, but her lips were full and red, like a Kewpie doll.
He’d finished his physical assessment of her in the time it took her to pause in the doorway and look around. She seemed a little lost. John left his drink on the bar and went to greet her. “Lucy?”
She smiled warmly. “Are you John?”
“John Krulak,” he answered. She offered her hand, and he held it, not shaking it and not letting go. “Our table’s not ready yet. Can I get you a drink?”
Lucy nodded, and he led her back to the bar. He had to let go of her hand then. She ordered herself a Scotch, neat. As if he needed another reason to like her.
“I’m really sorry about this,” she said sincerely. “I know Nolan roped you into this at the last minute. If you had other plans—“
“I didn’t,” John assured her quickly.
“I know how Nolan can be when he wants something.”
“Relentless,” Krulak agreed. “But believe me, I’m glad to be here. Really.” He meant to leave it at that, but he heard himself add, “You broke about six hearts when you sat down with me, you know. You’re the most beautiful woman here.”
Lucy smiled, flushed, and looked down at her drink.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.” Suddenly John was babbling, and he couldn’t seem to stop. “I mean, it’s true, but I’m not hitting on you, I know you’re Nolan’s friend, I wouldn’t, you know, but it is true.”
Her smiled brightened. “I was just thinking the same thing about you. Not that you were beautiful, but that you’re Nolan’s partner, and I shouldn’t—” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Well, now neither of us can talk.”
The hostess rescued them from their silence and led them to a table in the corner. By the time they were settled with menus, John had regained some of his composure. “The steaks are excellent here.” Then alarmed, he asked, “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”
“Oh hell no,” Lucy answered firmly. “I’m a drug rep. Being a meat eater is part of the job description. And also I don’t chant, believe in reincarnation, or think that I’ve ever been abducted by aliens.” She looked at him sidelong. “You?”
“None of the above.” John laughed. “You’ve done this before.”
“The first-date tango? Oh yes. I like to get the weird stuff on the table right up front.”
“Thank you. You have no idea what a relief you are.” He wondered how take my old friend to dinner
had somehow turned so quickly into a date, but he was glad. He loved how upfront and open she was. After the bar-crawl routine, she was like a breath of clear air. “I could tell you stories,” he said ruefully.
Lucy put her menu down. “Tell me your best date-from-hell story.”
John thought about it. Usually women wanted to hear his paramedic stories—tell me your best save, tell me your worst scene. One particularly creepy young woman had wanted to hear all the details of a car crash decapitation, in excruciating detail, during sex. He hesitated a few seconds, then told Lucy all about her. She listened, and she laughed, and she sympathized.
He liked talking to Lucy.
They ordered steaks. When the waiter had gone, he said, “All right, your turn.”
She pondered for a moment. “I dated a paramedic once.”
“Anybody I know?”
“No, up in Chicago. He was a nice guy, mostly. Except he had this kink.”
“Wait, let me guess,” John said. “He wanted to tell you all the gory details of his runs during sex.”
“Worse.” Lucy leaned closer and spoke softly. “He dressed up like Elvis.”
John laughed. “I think you win.”
“Actually, it would have been okay if he’d warned me,” Lucy mused. “But he went into the bathroom and came out in this white jumpsuit and black wig…” She shuddered. “I suppose the jungle bedroom decor should have tipped me off.”
“Probably. Maybe people should come with little cue cards or something. You know, like business cards, only with all your kinks on the back, so potential partners would know what they were getting into.”
Lucy nodded. “And a fake name and phone number on the front.”
Their salads arrived, and John ordered a fresh round of drinks.
“What would yours say?” Lucy asked.
“Your card. What would it say on the back?”
John glanced at the hovering waiter and then back at her, grinning. “You’re kind of a brat, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Didn’t Nolan warn you?”
“No.” The waiter finally retreated, and John changed the subject. “How long have you known Nolan?”
Lucy sipped her drink. The look in her eyes said she knew why he’d changed the subject, but she let it go. “Since before kindergarten. We grew up next door to each other. I think we were probably six or seven before we knew we weren’t brother and sister.”
“Hmm.” Since John knew they’d later ended up in bed together, it was an interesting statement. But he didn’t know if she knew that he knew. “Has he always been so stubborn?”
“Yes. Always. When Nolan was six, his dad bought him a two-wheel bike, and he was determined to learn to ride it that day. He was out there for eleven hours. My mom timed him. Eleven hours. He couldn’t even walk, his legs were so shaky. But he learned to ride that damn bike in one day.”
John smiled. He knew his partner. He could see it all too well in his mind. “We were out on a run this time…” he began.
They talked through dinner, first trading stories about Nolan, then about themselves. She was a good talker, intelligent and witty, and she was a good listener. They talked through dessert and coffee. Eventually, the conversation turned back to Nolan. “How did his parents take it when they found out he was gay?”
“They didn’t,” Lucy answered simply.
“They don’t know?” John was surprised. His partner had always been completely open about his sexual orientation. But then, he was hundreds of miles from his home town.
“His father died the summer before Nolan started college, before he came out. He told his mother, but she just doesn’t believe it. She’s not upset or angry; she just refuses to believe it’s anything but a stage.”
“Even after he lived with Kevin all those years?”
Lucy snarled. “That asshole. I never liked him.”
“I know. And I smiled and was pleasant every time I saw him. But I always knew he was an asshole. And by the way, thank you for taking care of Nolan when they split. He told me you really went all out to be there for him.”
John blushed. “I tried, but I don’t think I was really much help.”
“You were there. That’s the best help there is for a broken heart.”
Krulak stared at the candle in the center of the table. In a weird way, his heart had broken too, for his friend’s grief. He wished he could have done more. He wished there were bandages for broken hearts. Nolan was such a good man, a giving man, and to have Kevin cheat on him like that…
He felt the heat rising in his cheeks again, this time in anger. He shook his head. Lucy would not understand. John barely understood himself.
He changed the subject again. “So his mom thinks he’s going to wake up one morning and decide he really likes girls?”
Lucy nodded, graciously allowing him to steer the conversation away from the painful topics. “She thinks he’ll end up with me. Of course, she also thinks I’m still a virgin.”
With a little jolt, John realized that he’d been so involved in having an actual conversation with the woman that he’d forgotten to flirt with her. But her last statement seemed like an open invitation. “You mean you’re not?” he teased with wide-eyed shock.
She bit her lower lip and shook her head solemnly. “But sometimes I pretend to be.”
John grinned. She was flirting with him. He liked it. He doubted it would go anywhere—in his mind, she still had PROPERTY OF NOLAN stamped on her forehead—but it was pleasant anyhow. The evening had turned out so much better than he’d expected, and he didn’t want it to be over.
Lucy folded her napkin beside her plate. “I know you worked all day. I should let you get home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” he answered quickly. “Let’s go dancing.”
* * * *
The club was called Old School, and it was just up the street. The crowd on a weeknight was small. John and Lucy settled at a table next to the dance floor, ordered a round of Scotch, and hit the floor. They generally played oldies and classics, but the first song was something new, techno rap with a skull-shattering bass line.
“This sucks,” Lucy pronounced. “Be right back.”
She crossed the floor and climbed the iron spiral staircase to the DJ’s nest. She had, John reflected as he watched her, exceptional legs. Swimmer’s legs, probably, trim and strong without being bulky. For one moment he imagined those legs wrapped around his waist, holding him deep inside while he—
He felt a stirring in his groin and made himself stop thinking in that direction. He drifted back to their table and took a long pull on his drink. Nolan’s oldest friend, he told himself firmly. Don’t forget it.
When he looked back, Lucy was leaning against the control board, chatting with the DJ. She was smiling. He was nodding and gazing openly at her breasts. They reached some agreement. The DJ reached for a new disc, and Lucy came back down the steps.
If he’d been standing there, John thought ruefully, he could have looked right up her dress.
She joined him at the table and downed her Scotch in one shot. The rap faded, and the opening beats of Bob Seger’s “Her Strut” began. The small crowd applauded. Lucy took John’s hand and dragged him back out on the floor.
John was usually a little—okay, a lot—self-conscious about his dancing. But the minute he saw her move, he knew nobody was going to be watching him. She gave herself to the music, shaking, grinding, circling him. Was she coming on to him? The stirring between his legs refused to subside. Maybe he was imagining things. A girl could dance, couldn’t she, without it being an invitation?
Seger faded. John sighed. Maybe he could sit down now, catch his breath, get his hormones under control. But Seger was replaced by ZZ Top’s “Legs,” and he knew they weren’t going anywhere.
His arousal grew, watching her move, and she seemed to be dancing closer, brushing against him more often. You’re imagining things, he told himself. She moved in, brushed against his thigh.
Then, for one beat, she pressed against his groin.
Nolan’s friend, Nolan’s friend, Nolan’s friend, he chanted desperately to himself. The chanting had no effect.