I hated Valentine’s Day. And I wasn’t saying that because I was single…okay, maybe a small part of me was indifferent to the holiday, but only the part that wanted to throw up every time it saw a Zales jewelry commercial. Bitter. That’s me. Party of one. I mean, seriously it was the most perfect proposal ever with some ridiculously gorgeous man asking the woman to marry him—hell, I’d only met him for fifteen seconds and I’d say yes. And the worst part of it all was I cried. Every. Time. And then I was pissed because it was like they knew I was alone. Just rubbed it in. Then, to add insult to injury they aired a Match.com commercial like it was supposed to help. It didn’t.
But this year wasn’t as bad as I expected. I met Ian. Yes, it was a short name, not as short as one of my more recent trysts, J—yep, just J—but it was a solid name. And I had a thing about names. They were important. I tended to overanalyze things and mull them around in my head until I’d beat the thought to death and gone through every possible bad scenario that will, in fact, never happen. Because it never does.
So here was what I came up with—this was my thing. When I met a guy and before I accepted a date, I always thought about whether his name was something I could call out in the heat of passion. Don’t judge. We all have our things. This was something every single woman should try. Call out the guy’s name when you’re in your apartment alone. Besides, it’s a great way to test out how much your neighbors will put up with.
To me, this was a legit predicament. A name that couldn’t be slipped into all the moaning and heavy panting with a flawless transition could potentially be a mood breaker. Like my last boyfriend, Carter. ‘Oh, Carter’ and ‘yeah, Carter’ among other raucous almost unspeakable phrases just didn’t do it for me. Which was a big part of the reason we didn’t make it. No-spark-Carter.
So back to my semi-bitterness towards Valentine’s Day. Although I didn’t have a boyfriend or a date for said holiday, I wasn’t alone in the drinking-an-entire-bottle-of-wine-by-myself-while-wearing-a-robe sense of aloneness. I was on the cusp of relationship-dom. I had a date with Ian. And because the next weekend was Valentine’s Day weekend, we decided to skip any romantic expectations by making our first date a week later which was why I was at the bar at Rouge on Valentine’s Day with my best friend, Delia.
“How about that one?” Delia asked, her gray eyes darting to the corner of the crowded bar. For Valentine’s Day I’d thought couples would be crammed into restaurants eating overpriced prix fixe dinners and not frequenting bars late at night. Shouldn’t they be at home having unbridled sex on red satin sheets among rose petals and candles and delicious body oils? Yeah, it’s cliché. But I also cried over Zales commercials.
“Which one?” I squinted my eyes in the dim red lit room and searched through the sea of swaying bodies.
“That one,” she said and pointed to a guy in a sleek black jacket and a white button up with the collar open. I smacked her hand aside.
“Delia, geez, why don’t you draw some attention to us,” I said. She rubbed her hand and frowned.
“Um, we are in a bar. I didn’t come here to go unnoticed. We could’ve stayed at my place and drank a couple glasses of wine instead of paying fourteen dollars for a cocktail.” She shook her empty glass at me and I smiled.
True, but I was pragmatic—okay, maybe I’m not, but for this I make an exception. Meeting someone on Valentine’s Day who might be the man you marry seemed like you were setting yourself up for failure, not to mention a whole lot of pressure. What was next? Proposal on New Year’s Eve, married in a vineyard in Italy followed by 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs surrounded by a picket fence? No one lived like that; these were the things people read about in books.
“You should talk to him,” I said.
“He’s not really my type.” Delia leaned back, her elbows propped on the bar and her body faced out to the open room. “But he’s yours.”
I scowled at her, but she didn’t notice, her eyes trained on something in the crowd. I turned to see what she was looking at and open-collar-guy smiled at me. Heat rushed to my cheeks, and I whipped around to face the bar. It’s possible he was smiling at her.
“Stare much,” I said to Delia.
“Yes. Because he’s coming over.”
“What?” I hissed. I looked at her from the corner of my eye and she hadn’t moved. Delia’s long legs and torso stretched against the counter and a small smile touched her lips as she watched the man from across the bar walk toward us. I couldn’t turn around. Why was it so hot in here?
“You can thank me later,” Delia said, her eyes still on Mr.-hot-open-collar-guy.
Nothing scared her. Men, new situations, public speaking, jumping out of planes…the devil. She could face everything, everything except commitment. I don’t blame her I’d been disappointed and broken-hearted enough times that I should’ve learned my lesson by now, but I always went back for more. Delia on the other hand made it a point to never date the same man more than twice—she didn’t like to get their hopes up. And it’s not like she slept with all of them, she was actually quite selective, or at least that’s what she liked to call it. Picky and particular came more to mind.
“I hate you,” I said which made her smile more. She knew I rarely hit on men. It made my flirtation with Ian out of character, but I preferred these rites of dating to happen organically. I wanted to meet a man at a party held by mutual friends, a work networking event or even the gym, not that I went to one. To me the bar scene held only one expectation, the hook-up.
I drained my martini, placed my glass on the bar and rested my hands on the glassy surface. The mirrored exterior fogged around my hand and I pulled them away watching the outline of my fingers disappear. Great, ten more minutes in this place and I’ll be sweating. I shouldn’t be nervous, but I was. My heart pounded so hard I could hear it pulse in my ears, and the alcohol coursing through my system was taking its sweet time to tell my muscles to relax.
“Hello,” a deep voice came broke through the sound of chatter and clinking glasses around us. It was heavy and rich and I thought I picked up a hint of an accent, but it was hard to tell with all the bar noise.
“I’m Delia and this is…” Delia grabbed my arm and pulled me around. “This is Mary Jane.”
I looked straight up into a pair of deep, dark eyes and let out a slow breath. Oh man, he is tall. Tall in a good way. Mr.-hot-open-collar-guy smiled at me and extended his hand and somehow through my heart jumping out of my chest, the husky sound of his voice heavy on my ear and his broad frame filling the space around me, I took his hand. And his touch was delicious. I blushed, thankful the lights around us were already red.
“Gabriel,” Mr.-hot-open-collar-guy said. “Let me buy you a drink.” His eyes went to Delia, but he still hand my hand in his. Sirens blared in the back of my mind warning me this guy was against the rules. But my body wasn’t cooperating, it taunted me with a list of inappropriate things I should do with this man—at the bar. No, get a grip, MJ. No man this sexy could lead to anything except heartache. And it was Valentine’s Day. Double trouble. Rules were set in place for a reason, for my safety. Delia would disagree. She thought they were there to be broken.
Gabriel released my hand and called the bartender to order drinks. I sucked in a deep breath as all my sense came back. Delia smiled at me, a smug look on her face. Okay, you win. Until the drinks came Delia chatted with Gabriel trying hard to keep me in the conversation, but I couldn’t trust myself to say anything that wasn’t coherent speech. It didn’t help when my stomach knotted every time Gabriel glanced at me and smiled.
The bartender set the drinks on the bar and Gabriel paid. We thanked him and without a second more Delia asked, “Will you excuse me a moment?” My smile slipped from my face as she picked up her martini and disappeared into the crowd. I hate her.
If I could shoot laser beams out of my head at her like Cyclops I would. She did this on purpose, I knew it. But my hostility disappeared in an instant when I looked up and a pair of dark brown eyes was watching me. Gabriel smiled at me and my eyes drifted to his mouth. The part of my body which didn’t listen to my brain urged me to lean in to feel his full lips against mine.
“I’m glad your friend couldn’t stay,” Gabriel said, pulling my gaze back to his eyes. I bit my lip. Had he caught me staring?
“She doesn’t like to be tied down,” I said. A curious expression crossed his face. I didn’t know why I’d chosen those specific words to describe Delia’s non-committal tendencies, but I regretted it. It brought to mind some racy and thrilling thoughts I’d normally disapprove of, and in this moment it made my insides hum to life. I took a drink of my martini to clear my mind and the tingle in my body.
Then a man in a burgundy button-down and red hair pulled into a stubby ponytail clapped his hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Hey, Gabe, ready man?”
“Yes, of course,” Gabe said, his eyes never leaving mine. The other man winked at me in passing then left us alone. I should’ve been relieved I’d gotten off so easy, no awkward conversation, no more flip-flops of my stomach every time Gabriel’s eyes settled on mine. But I wasn’t. This guy made me want to write off my rules, and now he was leaving.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” I said and lifted my drink in a weak cheers. “Thanks again.”
Gabriel still had his eyes on mine like he was trying hard to see into me. I wished he’d say something already, my heart couldn’t take all the rapid beating.
“I’m sorry. I do have to go,” he said at last. I think my heart just stopped. “I’m glad we met,” he continued.
I forced a smile and nodded, but he didn’t leave. Had he changed his mind? I think someone has restarted my heart.
“I don’t usually do this,” Gabriel said and reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, producing a business card. He grinned and my stomach knotted again. “I think Valentine’s Day is a desperate holiday for the single, leaving us more aware than usual of our status. I’d like to take you out under less dire circumstances.” I couldn’t agree more. Maybe he had seen something inside me. Read my thoughts. Or my exuberant list of rules.
I took his card and watched him leave, the buzz of his presence still around me. This would never have happened if it weren’t for Delia, but I was mad at her nonetheless—in the way only friends could be. I’d accepted a date from a man without hearing his name pass my lips. She’d forced me to break another rule. And I had a feeling this man would cause me to break a whole lot more.