Out Of The Dark

Celia, left on the dance floor, took the chance for a break. She scanned the room for Dana's difficult-to-miss blinking red penis necklace, but didn't see her. She did catch another tasty glimpse of the table in the back corner of the bar, though, the one occupied by a group of men men as out of place here as Lisa and her friends. They all wore jeans and boots, a couple of them wore ball caps and one wore a flannel shirt -- but it was clear they were not part of the regular Frog's Hollow crowd either.

One in particular had caught Celia's eye. A couple inches taller than his friends, no hat to cover his short dark hair or obscure his equally dark eyes. His western-style shirt sleeves had been rolled to show off a set of truly bitable forearms, and the snap front had been left open to reveal a plain white cotton t-shirt underneath.

Yum.

She had to pass right by their table to get to the bar, and there was no doubt she turned heads. Also no doubt that it had been awhile since Celia had felt this giddy from male attention. This...free. She took her time with the once-over she gave the table, too, lingering with a grin on the mother-of-pearl snaps on the front of that dude's shirt before giving him a wink he returned with a smile of his own. She'd have done more than let her gaze linger, but she really needed to get a drink of water to soothe her parched throat. And eventually use the restroom. And find Dana. Oh yeah, and maybe find a place to sit and get the pressure off her aching toes.

A lap would do nicely, she thought with a laugh as she made her way to the bar. Preferably the one belonging to Snap-Front Shirt Guy.  She ordered a water and sipped it, relishing the spread of the liquid down her throat as it spread coolness through her overheated bloodstream. She nodded her thanks toward the bartender and turned to walk smack right into a Western-style, snap-front shirt. Her water spilled, all over him, all over her, and Celia was too surprised at the frigid shock of ice cubes slipping down the front of her dress to do anything but gasp.

Well, gasp and let out a hearty "MOTHERFUCKER!"

Mr. Western Snaps blinked and took a step back. Then he laughed. Damn, that laugh was amazingly sexy. So was the way his eyes crinkled up, revealing more lines in the corners than she'd have thought would be there. It was impossible to tell in the bar's reddish neon lighting, but she thought his face might even have flushed.

"I'm sorry." He held up both hands. "I'm an idiot."

Celia looked at the front of her dress, now molded to her breasts. Her chin dripped. "A soaking wet idiot."

His fingertips brushed his chest and he looked down, as if just noticing. When he looked back up at her, that twinkling gaze was still there, though his grin had pulled down into a semblance of remorse. "Agreed. Can I buy you another drink if I promise not to spill it all over you?"

Celia held up her empty glass, ice cubes rattling. "I'm just drinking water, but sure. You can get me another."

"Only water?" He raised a hand toward the bartender, who was already passing him a fresh glass. "Don't tell me you're a teetotaler."

Her brows lifted at the old-fashioned term. "Nope. Just the designated driver tonight."

He glanced to the dance floor, where Lisa had convinced a group to form a conga line. "Looks like they really need one."

"Bachelorette party," she explained, and watched him nod. "My cousin Lisa's getting married next week."

"Lisa. The blonde?"

"Yeah." She laughed. "Why do guys always like the blondes?"

His gaze swept over her dark auburn hair, piled on top of her head in a messy up-do that had looked a little more pulled together when the night began. A few tendrils had escaped during the wild dancing. Some clung, tickling, to her cheeks. He twined one around his finger lightly before his hand away.

"Not all guys."

She didn't have to tip her head too far to look up into his face. The shoes helped. "Sweet talker. What's your name?"

"Luke. Gaines." He held out his hand.

She took it. "Celia Henry. What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?"

"I could ask you the same thing." He drank from his bottle of beer, then slid his tongue over his bottom lip.

"I told you --"

"Right, right. Bachelorette party."

From the dance floor came some loud cheering. Someone had settled Lisa into a chair, and four rednecks were lifting her up and down while she squealed and the rest of the crowd cheered her on. Celia put a hand over her eyes to peek through her fingers.

"Oh, God. If they don't drop her on her ass, she's totally going to puke on someone's head."

"What sort of bachelorette party would it be if someone didn't get dropped on their ass?" Luke laughed and pointed toward Lisa with his beer bottle.

"You didn't answer my question."

He looked at her. "We ended up here completely by accident. Me and my buddies, we're heading out tomorrow for a...well..."

He rubbed his hand over his hair to cup the back of his head as he gave her another of those charming "aw shucks, ma'am" looks. "I guess you could call it an expedition."

"Oh, yeah? What kind of expedition could you be doing around here?" Though the mountains of Lebanon County weren't more than five minute's drive away, they were hardly big enough for more than a few hours' hike. Certainly nothing that could be called an expedition.

He looked hesitant. "I shouldn't really say."

That tickled her interest further, not that she needed any encouragement. "Oooh. Is it something naughty?"

That laugh again, God. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He was a purdy, purdy man.

"Umm..."

"C'mon." Celia touched his forearm lightly. Warm skin. The soft brush of hair on her fingertips. She kept her eyes on his. "You can tell me. I promise not to turn you in."

"Okay. But it's not something you'd ever guess. We're going...spelunking." Luke tipped his beer again, letting her get a good, long look at the column of his throat as he swallowed.

Another big word, and again with the tongue on his lips. So fucking sexy. Celia mimicked the action, tasting the salt of her sweat. Luke's gaze snagged the motion and flared with an interest she was definitely returning.

"Caving," he added.

"I know what it means." Celia finished her water and put the empty glass on the bar. She leaned back against it. She tried to think of what she knew about caves, which was just about zilch. "Around here?"

"Yep." He tipped his bottle toward the front doors. "New cave some farmer just discovered. Well, not a new cave. I mean, caves are millions of years old. And it's probably just a part of bigger cave that someone found a long time ago, maybe even one of the big tourist ones."

"Crystal Cave?" She'd been there once, a long time ago. With Jeremy, as a matter of fact, now that she thought about it. They'd stopped once on their way to New Hampshire to visit his parents. Involuntarily, her lip curled.

"Could be." Luke's smile twisted. "You don't like caves?"

She turned her grimace into a grin. "Nothing against caves. So...how do you and your friends get to be part of this brand-new cave exploration?"

"Oh. I'm a geologist and so's Pete. Adam's a speleologist. Terry and Jeff are biologists." Luke shrugged, pointing with his bottle toward his buddies.

"Wait, what? Really?" Wow. No wonder he used those sexy big words. She swept him up and down again with her gaze. "You don't look like a geologist."

Luke snorted laughter. "I left my pocket protector at home, sorry."

"So why does it have to be so secret, this trip?" Celia motioned to the bartender and ordered a Coke.

Luke pulled out his wallet before she could stop him, and slid a five across the bar. He shook his head when she tried to protest. "Nope, I owed you a drink. It's not a secret, exactly. I work for a company that surveys and assesses the value of indigenous resources."

Celia had no idea what that meant, and it must've shown, because Luke laughed. "Rocks. Minerals. Veins of natural gas or coal, petroleum. That sort of thing. We got word of this new find, which I have to tell you is always exciting and pretty rare. I mean, people find new rooms in known caves and stuff all the time, but to discover a new, unexplored cave...that's a pretty big deal. And the farmer who found it thinks there might be some valuable minerals in it, but he also wants to get bids from our competitor. My boss convinced him to wait until we'd had a chance to check it out, give us the first shot, but that's why we're trying to keep it quiet."

"You're afraid I might be your competition?" Celia wiggled her brows at him.

Luke looked serious. "It wouldn't be the first time they've tried some unorthodox methods to get the jump on us. Once I had to outrun a pack of Dobermans they'd released at a site."

"Wow. So, what...you're kind of like the Indiana Jones of the geology world?"

"You could say that." He winked. "I have the hat, anyway."

"What about the whip?"

He snapped his fingers with a look of exaggerated regret. "Left it with the pocket protector, darn."

A killer smile, big vocabulary and a sense of humor. Twenty minutes into this conversation, and Celia already knew she was a goner.

 

 

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