Wednesday, February 26th
A strip mall. Of all the high-end, over-the-top places to eat in Vegas, Saralynn Reese chose a strip mall. The same Saralynn who came to work in so many labels the designers should pay her an advertising fee. Madden sat in his Escalade and slid a hand over his jaw. It had to be a joke. She wouldn’t show. Indecision held him in place a few more seconds. His stomach growled. Date or no date, he needed dinner. He hauled himself out and beeped the car locked, feeling self conscious in a lot full of late model sedans.
The inside of Lotus of Siam looked a lot different. Rows of polished wood tables gleamed under low, warm lighting, and the dark green carpet was a little faded but clean. It had a homey feel. And seated in the back, legs crossed and foot bobbing, sat Saralynn, twirling the straw in her water. The top half of her light brown hair was scooped up away from her face and secured with red chopsticks while the back half hung in loose curls over her shoulders. She wore a sleeveless, see-through white shirt with a red tank underneath and skintight white pants that ended just past her knees. But those shoes—shiny red, strappy sandals with spike heels—caught his attention. Feet held no special fascination for him before, but those shoes had him subtly adjusting himself on the way over.
“This place is not what I was expecting.” He sat across from her at the small table for two against a mirrored wall.
She wiggled her toes painted the same red as the shoes and shook her head at him. “If you always judge things by how they look, you might miss out on something great. It took me a while to learn that one. But now I’m taking chances on new experiences.”
That observation struck deep. Most people judged him on the surface. To be fair, very few got to see underneath. The same seemed to be true for her. He weighed the pros and cons of asking if he fit into the new experiences category, but no sense pushing his luck. It was a huge surprise she’d said yes to begin with, and what the hell inspired the invitation anyway? Jacey had just finished telling him what a bad idea it would be to get too close to Saralynn, and practically the next thing he did was ask her on a date. As far as he’d come from his impulse-prone former self, apparently he still had a ways to go.
Every line in his arsenal seemed like it would fall flat with the vixen in front of him. When in doubt, compliment. “I’m all for new experiences. And I have to say, you look incredible tonight.”
She smiled then appeared to catch herself and gave him a wary stare. “Just so we’re clear, this is a thank-you dinner. Not a date.”
If that were true, what did she wear on a real date? The possibilities weren’t exactly the cold shower he needed. A server appeared and asked for their order.
“I’ll have the drunken noodle sea bass.”
Madden blinked and glanced at the menu. He’d never had Thai before and with only time to skim, half the offerings were a mystery. “Uh, that sounds good. I’ll have the same.” The server’s cheerful nod almost looked like a small bow before he left, and then they were alone again. “Okay. On this not-a-date, would it be all right to ask you about yourself?”
Saralynn leaned back in her chair and studied the man across from her. Bright blue crew neck t-shirt with an over-sized purple plaid pattern on the shoulders under a streamlined navy blazer. Not his most casual look, but bolder than his office clothes. If she weren’t mistaken, this was date Madden. As formal as he got outside of a wedding or funeral. Somehow, it still said polished. Maybe because that t-shirt was probably just under two hundred dollars.
He’d thought this was a date. Hard to deny that when she’d spent two hours getting ready after work. Her plan had been an old band tee, beat-up jeans and sneakers with a full ponytail. But God help her, she couldn’t leave the apartment like that when she imagined how good he’d look. The only compromise was putting half her hair up. Then the devil on her shoulder suggested the sexy chopsticks, and her last best intention came crumbling down.
Now here they were, dressed up on their not-a-date, and he wanted to toe the line. Well, as long as they didn’t cross it. This was a dangerous game. “I guess a few questions would be okay.”
The line of his shoulders relaxed a little, and he sipped the water she’d ordered for him. “I better make them good then. Tell me about what it was like growing up with Reese.”
She smiled reflexively then frowned at him in suspicion. That was the second time he drew one from her so fast. He was good. “By the time I was five, he was ten, and hockey took up most of his time. I only remember about four good years with him before he went with Carter to a school in Minnesota. But he was my protector even when I didn’t want him to be. I was closer to him than my sisters. Still am. I was kind of a tomboy until my teens when I…blossomed.”
“Into one hell of a rose.”
“Thanks, but…I think I’m more remembered for my thorns.”
His light blue eyes widened in a silent Do tell.
She picked at the straw wrapper on the table. “That stuff’s not important.”
“You think I’m going to judge you?”
The corner of her mouth twitched, and she flattened her hands in her lap. “Okay, fine. Things came easily to me in high school. I was cheer captain and queen of every dance. I had a big group of followers but not a single friend. Not a real one. Guys were interested but assholes. So by the time I got to college, I stopped caring if they cared. I casually dated my way through the next four years and none of them even stand out in my mind. It wasn’t until I started working for the team that I saw how different things could be. How different I could be. And I never want to go back.”
Whoa. None of that was supposed to spill out, but once the leak sprouted, she couldn’t stop. She pressed her lips together and studied the silverware.
“I can’t say I know exactly how you feel. My experience was a little different. But I think the keynotes are the same.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise given the last few days, but somehow it was. Most people couldn’t relate to her “charmed” life. Most people didn’t know the curse of it. Hell, neither did she—not really—until recently. For the first time, she met a date’s gaze and actually wanted to hear what he had to say.
His eyes widened slightly, clearly surprised by the opening, and she bit the inside of her lip to hold back another smile. Madden took another a sip of his water. “Oh, okay. Well, I wasn’t enough of a joiner to be prom king, but I had my share of dates in high school. I got serious with a girl in college, but it turned out she wasn’t that serious about me. And I guess you now know everything there is to know about the Linden thing.”
Saralynn did her best not to flinch. The Linden thing. She’d done some google stalking. Being fully informed was part of her job, and she couldn’t manage his media situation without knowing all the facts. “Yeah, what’s up with that? What did you see in her? Not that I’m qualified to throw rocks, but she sounded kind of evil from what I read.”
He looked down, tilted his head to one side and chewed on his lower lip. She beat down the crazy urge to hurdle the table and kiss it better. She’d hit a sore spot, but to his credit, he didn’t withdraw. When he met her eyes again, that trademark twinkle was tempered by regret, embarrassment, and just a little pain.
“That’s a good question. I’ve asked myself that a lot. Definitely not one of my proudest achievements. I don’t know. At first, I guess I was swayed by appearance and attitude. She didn’t back down, and she went after what she wanted. And she really seemed to be into me. I thought we were starting something, but then she used me to get dirt on my sister. She apologized, but it didn’t mean anything. I thought about her from time to time, but I was finally letting go. And then I saw the wedding announcement.”
The server returned with their order. After assuring him they didn’t need anything else, he left them alone again. Saralynn dug in to her dish, eating the greens off the top first. Some kind of reassurance seemed appropriate after his story, but that had never been one of her strong points. Best to let the moment pass. And she would have. If she didn’t glimpse him pushing around his noodles not out of distaste but discontent.
“You know, she’s not the one that got away. She’s a bullet you were lucky to dodge. Seriously. And this is coming from a former hollow point.”
His sad expression broke and crumbled away with a laugh and a grin that dropped her guard. “I don’t think you’re as bad as you think you are. Maybe we should give a real date a shot.”
It felt so good to hear him say that. Too good. Was this what she wanted? Validation that she wasn’t as bas as she used to be? That she might be capable of something more? It didn’t take Allie’s psych degrees to know those things couldn’t come from another person. She shook her head and played it off with a smile. “You don’t want to get involved with me. I’m…‘Relationship napalm’ according to my brother.”
“Reese said that? Not very nice.”
“No, it’s not. But it is accurate. Or it was. I’m a work in progress.”
Madden spread his arms in a Hello, me too gesture.
“Okay, yeah, but that’s why we can’t date. Ever hear of the blind leading the blind?”
“Or maybe we could encourage each other. Come on, who else fits this specific support group?” He was tenacious, she’d give him that. And exasperating. Before she could come up with a response, he poked again at is food. “So where are the noodles?”
Avoiding rejection with a change of topic. Her mouth dropped open in a mix of amusement and admiration. When he looked at her innocently, brows up, she sighed. “The slimy things on the bottom that look like squid? Those are noodles.”
“Man.” He made a face like a little kid looking at a plate of wilted broccoli. “You should write the menu description.”
“They’re good. Try them.” As encouragement, she took a spoonful from her plate and licked her lips. “Mmmm.”
He watched her mouth, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “You’re giving me other ideas.”
She pointed her spoon at him. “Eat.” But now that he brought it up, those other ideas danced around her head too. Maybe it was the forbidden aspect, or maybe there really was something about him, but she couldn’t remember wanting someone the way she wanted Madden Vaughn. It just wasn’t going to happen.
His shoulders drooped dramatically, and he pouted, which only made him cuter, damnit. But he picked up his spoon and tried a bite. Then another. “Hey, you’re right. This is good.”
“Yeah. I come here once a week. Not just for the food but atmosphere.”
“I can see that. This place isn’t so…Vegas.”
“Exactly.” She ate some sea bass and watched him wrestle a piece of his out from between the greens and the noodles. Adorable. She was in so much trouble.