“I don’t want a lap dance. I just want to talk.”
Ah, one of those. I almost rolled my eyes. But something inside made me pause. I couldn’t say what it was. He was handsome, sure. Pretty, even, with that thick brown hair curling up at his collar and classic masculine bone structure. But I’d known a few handsome men in my time. Each one had a mean streak three miles wide. Handsome got you a big fat nowhere in the end. In fact, sometimes worse off. In my experience, the handsome ones thought they were God’s gift to womankind, and that it was their moral duty to spread themselves far and wide.
No, it was something other than that. It was his eyes. His eyes held some sort of innocence I hadn’t seen before. Gentleness I certainly wasn’t used to. His expression was hopeful, but not desperate, and I didn’t detect lust in his eyes. He looked … sincere. Maybe he really did just want to talk. “It’s okay, Anthony.”
Anthony lowered the hand that had been about to clamp down on the man’s arm and stepped back. “You sure?”
“Yeah.” I looked at the man. “Ten minutes.” I held the keys up, one stuck through my fingers. “And don’t make me use these. I don’t want to but if you force the issue, you’ll exit this room blind, sugar.”
“Gabriel,” he said, a small smile lighting his face. “My name is Gabriel.” Like the angel? No wonder I’d thought he didn’t belong here.
“All right.” I stood aside, and he moved past me into the room. I nodded once at Anthony and then pushed the door so it still stood halfway open. I knew Anthony would stay close by.
“So what brings a nice guy like you to this den of sin, sugar?”
“Gabriel. And you’re Crystal?”
“Around here I am.”
He looked at me steadily, and it was disconcerting. After a moment he nodded as if he understood something I didn’t. “I see.”
At his words, his knowing look, a small burst of flustered anger ricocheted through my belly like the ball in a pinball machine. I smiled suggestively and took a seat on the small, dirty gold settee, reclining, and then crossing my legs. I used my hands to play idly with the knotted material between my breasts. I watched his eyes follow my movement and flare slightly before he looked away. Ah, there it was—lust. Just like every other man. Familiar. I took a breath, satisfaction and calm moving through me. “So what is it you want to talk about?”
He cleared his throat and put his hands in his pockets, tilting his head slightly so his hair fell across his forehead. His posture, the way he squinted slightly as he looked at me, triggered my memory, and I suddenly realized how I knew him. Lost boy. The words moved through my mind as if someone had scribbled them there. His name was Gabriel Dalton, and he’d gone missing when he was a kid. It was a big-time national news story when he escaped his kidnapper and came home. I was only a pre-teen at the time, but I’d still heard about it here and there. Of course, right about the time Gabriel had come home, my world was—yet again—falling apart.
The last time I saw his picture on the news had been a while ago, but I knew for certain who he was now. “You shouldn’t be in a place like this. If someone recognizes you, I imagine they’ll be real eager to take your picture.”
He froze for a portion of a second before relaxing again. He took a seat in the metal chair across from where I sat and looked at me expectantly, like one of the men waiting for a lap dance. Only … different somehow. I wished I could pinpoint what it was that looked so wrong about him sitting there. Maybe it was that he looked nice. And I couldn’t ever remember thinking that about anyone who walked through the door of this club. He blew a breath out slowly and ran a hand through his hair, moving it off his forehead. “I guess it’s good you recognized me. Might make this a little easier.” He seemed to be talking more to himself and so I didn’t respond. He looked straight at me. “I probably should have thought this out a little more instead of just showing up.” He rubbed his palms on his thighs as if his hands were sweating.
“Are you going to get to what you want, or am I supposed to guess?”
He shook his head. “No, no, I’m sorry. I don’t want to waste your time.” He paused again. “The thing is, Crys—” He cleared his throat. “The thing is, because of my history, which it sounds like you know a little bit about, I, uh, find it difficult to tolerate … closeness.” Two pink spots appeared on his cheekbones. Was he blushing? God, I didn’t even know men could blush. As if my opinion of him mattered somehow. Something small and warm moved through me, something I had little idea how to identify.
“Closeness?” I frowned, uncomfortable with the softness in my tone.
He pressed his lips together, the color in his cheeks increasing. “I find it difficult to get physically close to people. Or rather, I find it emotionally distressing. Uh …” He laughed softly, an embarrassed sound. “God, this didn’t sound so pitiful in my head.” He looked somewhere behind me. “Or maybe it did. Maybe it’s just worse hearing it out loud.”
“What is it I can do for you exactly, sugar?” My voice still sounded soft. Helplessly, my heart squeezed, and I felt a shiver of compassion run through me for the way Gabriel was struggling in front of me. The unfamiliar emotion unbalanced me, and I drew myself up straighter.
“Gabriel,” he corrected.
“Okay, what is it I can do for you, Gabe?” He didn’t smile with his mouth, but his eyes squinted slightly as if he was. But then the lines around his eyes smoothed out, and I wondered if that had been a sort of smile, or just my imagination.
“You can help me practice being touched by a woman. Getting comfortable with someone in my personal space.”
I blinked at him as he looked down at his hands in his lap. “You want me to help you with that?”
His gaze met mine and I saw that gentleness there again—hope—and something about that expression aimed right at me made me feel good and … needed. For the bare glimmer of a moment, it made me feel as if he saw more in me than just the piece of ass all the other men who came to this club viewed me as.
“I’ll pay you, obviously. It would be an after-hours job, nothing more. You wouldn’t even have to take your clothes off.”
You wouldn’t even have to take your clothes off.
His words brought me up cold, snapping me back to reality, reminding me that he saw me exactly as other men did, in fact exactly as I was. With my defenses firmly back in place, I stood, picking up the keys next to me on the settee, tossing them his way. He caught them with one hand. “Listen, as much as I hate to turn down a paying gig, I’m no therapist, okay? You want to learn how to touch someone, get a girlfriend. You’re a good-looking guy. I’m sure there are plenty of sweet, wholesome girls who wouldn’t mind you practicing on them for free.”
He stood, too. “I’ve insulted you.”
I laughed. “Sugar, I can’t be insulted.”
“Everyone can be insulted.” Regret laced his tone. He put his hands in his pockets and tilted his head in that way of his, his hair falling over his forehead again. My fingers twitched to smooth it away from his eyes. What is wrong with me?
I felt my skin prickling with unease. Everything about Gabriel made me feel uneasy. I needed him to leave. “You don’t know me, Gabe. Thanks for the job offer, but I’m going to decline. I do wish you luck with your little problem. Ten minutes is up.”
He sighed, not moving. “I really am sorry. God, this didn’t go the way I meant it to.”
“I’m sure it didn’t.” I held the door open.
Outside, Anthony was sitting in a chair, wrapping a bandage around his injured hand. “Things kosher?”
I nodded jerkily as Gabriel moved past me. He stopped when he crossed the threshold and turned back to me. “I really am sorry,” he said.
I crossed my arms over my chest, my eyes meeting his. Standing this close, I could see that his eyes were hazel with striations of copper. His lashes were thick and lush, curled up slightly—lashes any girl would kill for.
I took a small step back, putting even more distance between us, and blew out a breath. “It’s fine. Really. Good luck again.”
He started to turn away but then looked back. “Can I just ask one more question?”
I moved from one leg to the other. “Sure.”
“What were you thinking when you looked at me from the stage? When our eyes met.”
I frowned slightly, about to deny I’d been thinking anything at all but deciding it didn’t matter at that point. I’d never see him again. “I was thinking you didn’t belong here.” And I’d been right.
He paused, his expression enigmatic as his eyes moved over my face. “Huh. Funny,” he finally murmured. “I was thinking the very same thing about you.”
I laughed, a short huff of sound. “Well, you were wrong there. This is the one place I do belong, sugar.”
“Gabriel.” His lips tipped up slightly, his eyes lingering on me for a heartbeat too long, before he turned and walked away.