Zelda clenched the steering wheel and stared out the windshield at the bar across the street. Storm clouds had gathered over the building, darkening the evening sky. She was ten minutes early—or she had been. The car clock glowed 8:29. She had one minute to gather her nerves and get out of the car.
Did she really want to do this?
More than anything.
Zelda wanted to start over. She wanted to do something more than just get by in life. Here was her chance. It may not have been much to someone else, but to her, it was a breath of life in her hollowed-out existence.
So why are you sitting here?
Her stomach tightened and churned all at once, like a tornado had blown through and turned her insides upside-down. She grabbed her keys. The clock rolled to eight thirty. She turned the car off and pulled her key from the ignition.
This is fine. You’re okay. You can do this.
Antonia was on standby in case things went south. Zelda had pepper spray in her purse and a self-defense key chain. She was dressed cute. She had on killer heels.
Everything would be fine.
Zelda dropped her head onto the steering wheel. “Breathe deeply. This might be your first date in three years, but it’s no big deal.”
Did a casual hookup count as a date? Would they have sex, or would they just talk? They should probably talk, see what they each wanted.
Did she buy her own drink? Should she expect him to pay?
Her stomach tumbled. She’d pay her own way. She didn’t want to be indebted to anyone.
Zelda lifted her head and looked at the clock on her phone. Five minutes had passed. Shit!
She grabbed her purse and climbed out of the car, locking it once she’d closed the door. She quickly shoved her keys in her purse and crossed the street to the bar. The temperature had dropped as the clouds rolled in. Dampness hung in the air; it was gearing up to rain. A breeze whistled through the trees that lined the streets, turning the leaves over.
Black curling lamps illuminated a wooden sign that read Da Vinci
. A wall of windows wrapped around the building, giving the patrons a view onto the bustling sidewalks. Zelda scanned the crowd, searching for Pytor.
When she didn’t spot him, she tugged open one of the doors and stepped inside, hitting a wall of loud music and laughter. A woman with a tray of beers walked past her. In the back, pool balls cracked, and someone laughed.
Zelda weaved through the tables, risking a glimpse at each man she saw. Eventually she found an open booth lining the wood-paneled wall. She settled onto the seat facing the door and dropped her purse beside her. Almost immediately, a waitress walked up to the table.
“My name is Cindy, and I’ll be your waitress. Menus are on the table. Kitchen is open till nine.” She pointed to where two menus were tucked against the wall, behind a small advertisement of Corona and the salt-and-pepper shakers. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Zelda wanted a beer, but should she order before he arrived? What if he didn’t come? Then she wanted to get hammered. But that didn’t answer her current question: should she get a beer now or wait?
What was appropriate?
Was there a procedure to this?
Cindy stared at her blandly, head cocked to the side. Zelda flushed. “Uh, no. I’ll wait.”
“Right. Well, I’ll check back on you in a little bit.”
She left before Zelda could reconsider. She sank down into the booth and fished her phone from her purse, checking to see if Pytor had sent her a message. Nope.
Hopefully he hadn’t stood her up.
Zelda [8:41 PM]: Here. I’m at a booth near the back.
She set her phone on the table, facedown. She tapped her fingers, resisting the urge to pick her phone up and check to see if she got a message. Seconds stretched into what felt like hours. Maybe he wouldn’t show.
Zelda closed her eyes and sank even lower into the booth. If she went much farther, she’d be under the table. Just my luck I get stood up.
Heat rose up her neck. She’d give it another ten minutes and then leave. Maybe no one would notice her slink out the door without even buying a drink.
“Excuse me, are you Zelda?”
That was definitely a male voice; a deep, melted-chocolate, send-shivers-down-her-spine, whiskey-fine male voice.
Zelda cracked an eye open and looked at Pytor. His picture hadn’t done him justice. His eyes were a cool shade of gray-blue, like budding summer storm clouds. Zelda had trouble tearing her gaze away. Long blond lashes dusted his cheeks when he blinked. A new kind of heat worked through Zelda’s body, burning through her anxieties and igniting a fire deep in her gut. She sat up in her seat and opened her other eye.
“Yes. Pytor, right?” She flashed him what she hoped was a charming smile. He returned her smile with his own brilliant, thousand-watt grin.
“I’m sorry I’m late. There was an accident on 270, and I got stuck in traffic,” Pytor explained, sliding into the seat across from her.
“Oh, it’s all right. I wasn’t waiting long,” Zelda lied. He didn’t need to know she had had a mini panic attack.
Cindy returned to the table and reintroduced herself, explaining the menus to Pytor. “What can I get you to drink?”
When they’d both placed their orders for beer, Cindy left. Zelda sat there, mind blank. What now? She’d been so worried about getting to the date and him coming that she hadn’t thought about what she’d actually say, what they’d talk about.
“Can I confess something?”
She looked at his hands clasped in front of him on the table. His knuckles were slightly scuffed up. Zelda nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak.
“I’ve actually never done this whole online dating thing before. I mostly tried it because a friend suggested it—so I’m not really sure of the procedure.”
Cindy slid their beers onto the table, asked if they needed anything else, and then vanished into the swelling crowd of patrons. The noise doubled within seconds, a mixture of raucous chatter and background music.
“Neither am I,” Zelda confessed, rubbing the back of her neck. “I signed up because my best friend said it would be good for me.”
“What a pair we make, right?” Pytor laughed.
His laughter was so rich it shot straight to her clitoris.
Zelda took a sip of beer to distract herself. She set the perspiring bottle back down and picked at the label. “Well, I think our situation is a bit nontraditional.”
On every level.
He took a swig of beer, his full lips wrapping around the mouth of the bottle and his Adam’s apple bobbing with each swallow. Zelda tore a small piece of damp label off and dropped it on the tabletop.
“I guess the best thing to do is decide what we’re both looking for. I know we talked a little bit about sexual history and tests,” Zelda said, turning her mind to a more analytical thought process. “Like I told you earlier, I’ve only been with one person for the last three years. I did get tested recently, just to err on the safe side.”
Derek never came out and said he’d been sleeping around, but Zelda didn’t put too much stock in his questionable fidelity. Zelda wouldn’t risk her health on the possibility that Derek hadn’t been screwing another woman while they’d been on their six-month dry spell.
Pytor set his bottle down. “I’m sorry, by the way.”
Zelda waved him off. So was she.
“My schedule doesn’t really allow for a serious relationship, and to be honest, I don’t know if I want one. I don’t think it would be fair to my partner,” Pytor said. “My work is hard and demanding, and every day my life is on the line. Tying someone to that just isn’t right.”
Zelda didn’t tell him that she’d been tied to it for three years. She wanted to separate Derek from this as much as possible.
“Right now, I’m just looking for something fun. No strings attached,” Zelda said. “But I’m not the greatest at one-night stands, and there’s too much of a risk of catching some kind of disease.”
“Then we’re agreed? We both consent to a no-strings attached, sexual relationship,” Pytor said.
Zelda glanced down at her beer bottle and turned it slowly with her fingers. Condensation rolled over her fingertips. Did she agree?
“Yeah,” Zelda finally consented. Excitement shot through her. This was happening. She was really doing this. “All I ask is that if you do sleep with someone else, you tell me.”
A brief lull settled over them, punctuated by the ebbing awkwardness of their arrangement. Zelda didn’t know where things progressed from here. It wasn’t like she set up this type of a relationship on a daily basis. Zelda took a sip of her beer, trying her hardest to keep her gaze from drifting to Pytor. Every time she looked at him, a hot hunger ran through her that left a tingling trail from her nipples down to her womb.
“Do you want to get out of here? Go back to my place?”
The noise of the bar seemed to swell suddenly beyond imagination. Zelda couldn’t even hear her own thoughts anymore. This was why she hated bars. “God, yes,” Zelda said with a sigh of relief. She flushed when she realized how it might sound. “I mean, it’s just—”
Pytor laughed. She liked the sound, the deep resonance that echoed in his chest. It was infectious, and she covered her mouth to hide her own laugh.
“I understand,” Pytor said, mirth still sparkling in his cobalt eyes. “I hate bars too. It was a bad suggestion for a meeting place, but I figured it was a well-populated area without the pomp and circumstance of a restaurant.”
Pytor waved Cindy over. Zelda insisted on covering her own tab. When their drinks were paid for, Zelda followed Pytor out of the bar.
“Would you like to follow me, or should I drive?” Pytor asked, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his tight dark-washed jeans.
“I’ll follow,” Zelda said.
He nodded and, after a moment of hesitation, leaned in to brush his pouty mouth across hers. A shudder ran through Zelda. She reached up, clutched Pytor’s button-down shirt in her hand, and held him in place. His mouth twitched upward.
Zelda returned his kiss, savoring the oaky flavor of beer that lingered on his tongue. Reluctantly, Zelda let him go and stepped back. He reached up and grazed the tips of his fingers across her cheekbone.
“I’ll see you soon.”
“Yeah,” Zelda whispered breathlessly—how was she even breathless? The kiss hadn’t been deep, but it had felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs, leaving her light-headed.