Milly yanked on the polished brass door handle of Gerbert’s just as someone was leaving and nearly fell backward into the azaleas. The man thrust his hands out as if to catch her, but she managed to stay upright on her kitten heels and wave him off.
“Pardon me,” she tittered. “I’m fine. Fine.”
“Ma’am.” He tipped his chin in her direction and continued to usher his tall, thin female companion down the walkway. Her long blond hair swung across her tight black dress.
She knew she should have worn black. Everyone she’d ever seen going in or out of Gerbert’s wore the color—or non-color. Little black dresses. Black suits. Black server uniforms. Well, midnight blue, the color of her simple sheath, was close enough.
She hitched her purse strap higher on her shoulder and headed inside to knock out phase three of her therapist’s program.
This week, she was to take herself on a date, starting with going someplace in public and having a drink and food alone. Which basically made it like every other night over the last four months except for witnesses.
Her chosen spot, Gerbert’s, was a place she’d always wanted to go, but her ex was too cheap to take her to the upscale restaurant. She’d sit at the bar and have a drink by herself. Women did it all the time—at least she thought they did. It didn’t make her a desperate, recently divorced, seeking-a-hook-up sad case at all. Her therapist had said it meant she was an independent, strong woman who merely rewarded herself when the mood struck.
Well, the mood most definitely struck. The divorce papers were signed this morning, and she was going to celebrate.
“May I help you?” The maitre d’’s lips inched up.
“Just going to the bar.”
He stepped in front of her. “Anyone I should be looking out for who might be meeting you?”
“No, it’s just me.”
“I see.” He nodded once and let her pass.
She slipped behind the long black curtain and stepped into a low hum of crystal clinking and muffled conversations. Women in their smart black dresses, their hair twisted into chignons, and men wearing honest-to-God ties sat at the little tables, their hands curled around wine glasses. So, some men really did still wear suits. Thank God. A well-cut suit was her kind of porn.
Her cheap skate ex-husband had worn nothing other than a polo shirt and khakis as his job as a home inspector since their wedding. “It’s like wearin’ a noose around my neck,” he’d called a formal tie.
One lone couple sat at the end of the long bar, polished to a gleam that nearly reflected their wine glasses on its surface. A single older gentleman sat in the middle.
She slid her butt across the tall chair near the end and secured her bag on the purse hook under the bar. The bartender scooted over.
“Madame, what may I get you?” He laid a white napkin with a black G embossed across it before her.
“Gin martini with a twist. Bone dry.”
He turned to make her drink, and she glanced at the expansive restaurant shining at her in the mirror behind the liquor bottles. It was nice here. “Prissy,” is how he would have called it.
The drink was placed before her. “Meeting someone?” the bartender asked.
She blinked up at him. “What? No.”
A presence loomed near her shoulder. The older man from the center of the bar had risen from his seat and moved closer to her. Her radar was up instantly.
“It’s so rare to find anyone who drinks gin anymore.” He raised his own glass in a toast to her. “Meeting someone?”
“Why does everyone here keep asking me that?” She took a sip of her drink.
He glanced over at the bartender who was polishing a glass but keeping a keen eye on them. “They think you’re a prostitute.”
She nearly spit her martini across the French oak. She dabbed a napkin to her lips. “A what?”
“Beautiful woman. Alone. Just going to the bar.” He drew air quotes around the just going.
A giggle rose in her throat. “How absurd.” She wiggled a little on the stool. “Just for that I’m having a second martini and sit here all night.”
His face broke into a huge grin. “Good for you, and I apologize for their assumption. Horace, put her drink on me.” He lifted his glass toward the man.
“Oh, no, you don’t need to do that. Besides, I have to pay for it.”
“I’m not trying to pick you up.”
“Good. Being slung over a shoulder and carried to a man cave just doesn’t have the appeal it once did.”
He laughed. “John Smith.” He held to his hand.
“Is that your real name?” She returned his handshake.
“Yes, and why does everyone ask me that? And, why do you need to buy your own drinks?”
“Ah.” He took the seat next to her. “Newly divorced?”
“Takes one to recognize one. Six months for me. It’s terrible.”
It was. She held out her hand. “Milly Mason, I mean, Milly Jackson.”
He moved to get up. “Well, Milly Jackson, thank you for letting me bother you for a bit.”
“You weren’t bothering me.” She’d never just chat up a stranger at a bar, so why not? New beginnings, right?
He eased himself back down and nodded once. “So, what’s phase four? Take up pole dancing?”
“How ever did you know?” It was more like do something she’d never thought of doing before, but spinning around a steel pole would fit the list.
He raised his glass. “To new beginnings and dancing.”
They clinked glasses. Dancing was yet another thing he never did with her. One day her mind would stop thinking of what her ex-husband did or did not do together, right?
He took a sip of his drink. “So what was phase one?”
“Beat the ever lovin’ crap out of a pillow with a pool noodle imagining my ex’s face. She said when the noodle was dead, I should agree to let go.” Rage relief, Brenda had called it. She was to keep up the ritual until the pool noodle disintegrated. It took four days.
“Your therapist sounds a lot more fun than mine. I just got forgive. Let go.” He held up his hands. “So, phase two? Just so I’m all caught up.”
“Get rid of his stuff.” She took a sip of her drink. The cool wet felt good going down her throat.
“You didn’t load up a Mercedes with all this clothes and set it on fire like in that movie?”
“Oh, I wish.” Instead, she’d boxed them up and had them delivered, via taxicab, to the doorman at Delores’ swanky apartment building where he now resided. The fact he now had a doorman was enough for her to go out and buy a few more pool noodles.
She turned to face him. “I’m impressed you know Waiting to Exhale.”
“My ex hated that movie. Called it the man-hating film.”
“If men only knew the secrets to women lay in movies and books.” He shook his head.
“And suits.” John Smith—if that indeed was his real name—wore a nice charcoal gray one.
He tugged on the lapel of his suit coat. “Thanks for the tip. I might die in this jacket now.”
His comment pulled another laugh out of her.
She lifted her glass to her lips and caught a familiar face glaring at her in the mirror behind the bar. If a heart could stop beating, hers just did.
Tonight, apparently, would not be the night her mind would stop the big think-of-your-ex game. Her ex-husband was right behind her—and he wasn’t alone.
Milly spun on her stool, just as he placed his hand on the small of a woman’s back. She had long caramel hair pulled to one side, and could have been his daughter’s age—if he’d had one. She also wasn’t Delores, the woman he’d moved in with.
And he wore a tie.
“That. Mother. Fucker,” she said under her breath.
Her gaze followed them as the maitre d’ led them to a table.
She snapped her lips closed because they’d begun to hang open and jerked her head back to face the bar.
“He would never come here.” She stared at her martini, hard, like it was an oracle or something? “He never once took me here.”
“Who?” He glanced around. “See someone you know?”
John spun on his stool and made no effort to hide he was searching for the man. He pointed his index finger, the other four holding his glass, toward her ex and his hottie of the night. “That guy?”
He laughed heartily and spun to face her again. “He’s in here a lot. Though usually with a blond.”
Delores. And a lot? “So, I guess you come here often?” Her voice was pure ice.
“You could say that. You should be glad you’re rid of him.” He waved his glass toward the bartender for another. “And, make Millie’s next one a double.”
He then slid off this stool and held out his hand. “May I have this dance?”
“I’m guessing phase four is do something you’d never otherwise do.”
“There’s no dance floor and how do you know I’ve never danced.” Her chin nearly went to the ceiling with his accusation.
“Lucky guess. Let’s live a little.” His hand remained out, palm up, in invitation.
She hadn’t touched a man other than her ex-husband in… how many years? Her hand rose of its own accord, and she placed it in his. It was warm… and strong.
“Did my therapist plant you?”
“No, but I want her number. I haven’t had this much fun in five years.”
“Hold my drink for me, Horace.” She slid off the stool and let John lead her to the center of the restaurant.
His fingers had curled around hers with such delicious surety something woke up inside her.
Between three full tables, he grasped her around her waist and yanked her into a full-body hold. Oh, very strong. She shouldn’t be allowing this full body takeover, should she?
But it felt nice, her body whined. Now she knew what all those romance novels meant when the guy seized a woman, yanked her close so she stumbled a little on kitten heels in front of strangers in a high-end restaurant. How they’d allow it. Enjoy it. Downright sink into the stranger’s arms.
Touch was so underrated. She at least had the willpower to stifle a moan that wanted out.
John swayed to the piped-in music. He didn’t say anything and his silence was brittle.
“They’re going to stop us soon, aren’t they?”
“Nah.” He peered down at her. “It’s considered poor form to ask the restaurant owner to do anything in his own establishment.”
She jerked herself backward. “You… you’re… But you’re not a Gerbert.”
He didn’t let go of her waist. “Would you come to a restaurant named John Smith’s?”
A silly giggle popped from her mouth. He had her there. He also had her back in his arms in no time. They moved in lazy circles around the tables.
His fingers re-adjusted on the small of her back and this time, the moan was not so easily tamped down. Was she that easy? At that moment, yes. She could do it. Fall into his hazel eyes. His scent. His arms.
“So, um…” she swallowed. How did she phrase this next part? “Is this part of the service? Dance with lonely older women who destroy pool noodles?”
“That’s on Saturdays. Fridays are reserved for dancing with women so beautiful my staff wouldn’t understand why she’d be alone.”
Her eyes welled a little. “You don’t have to say that.”
“I know.” His eyes glittered in the light-designed-to-flatter.
She should have come here years ago.
He moved them around to a section that had a bit more room. “Tell you, what?” he asked. “Why don’t we meet back here next Friday? I have a feeling your ex might not be coming here anymore.”
Her eyes drifted to the corner table where her ex and his date of the evening sat. Funny, she’d had a full five minutes of not thinking about them—at all.
“You shouldn’t kick him out for me.”
“I don’t think I’ll have to. They’ll move operations as soon as they’re caught in a lie. Men like that always do.”
“Is that what you would do?” Someone this charming couldn’t be for real.
“I would never be in the position to have to.” His voice had hardened a bit.
“I’m sorry. That was a terrible assumption to make. We don’t know each other.”
“But I’d like to.”
“You know what, John? You made my night. But I don’t think so.” She dropped her arms, stopped the spellbinding swaying. That’s what he was doing—mesmerizing her, luring her to… something she wasn’t ready for.
He dipped his chin. “Of course. Thank you for making my night.”
She made his night? “Thank you. It’s been a pleasure, but I really must go.”
She went back to the bar, retrieved her purse—having abandoned it without a second thought, yet another thing she’d have never done before tonight. She’d had a good time, done some things she’d never thought she’d do, and had a man’s attention that she didn’t ask for.
Maybe she had knocked out phase four already.
Horace placed his hands on the bar. “Your drink is on the house.”
Before she turned away, Horace’s voice stopped her. “He never dances.”
She gave a quick glance John’s way. He was chatting up a table, laughing about something someone said. “Is that right?”
“Not even once.” Horace pushed off the bar with a smile. “Never saw him do that before.”
She had to leave anyway. Her last relationship, though didn’t include dancing, had been a whirlwind—and one dictated by her ex. She couldn’t do that again.
As soon as she slipped through the black curtains, something stopped her. Phase four was doing something she’d never even think of doing before.
She spun and headed back inside. John was back at the bar.
“About next Friday. How about meeting me at Martin’s on U street for lunch? Check out the competition?”
Little crinkles formed around his eyes as he smiled. “I could do that. Sure.” He winked at her. “Let’s see if their dance floor is as good as mine.”
“And it’s on me. As friends.”
He nodded once. “Okay.” But then he moved closer. “I shall endeavor to never be the cause of you killing a pillow with a pool noodle.”
More laughter shook her. It felt good. He made her feel good.
There—something she’d never thought of doing before. Getting together with a man because he was fun. The fact he looked great in a suit? Well, that was a delightful bonus.