Hudson: Page 13

It has nothing to do with my past games or experiments, though the feeling of exhilaration is identical. It's perplexing and I'm not a man who's easily confused.

I tear my focus away long enough to make it to an empty seat at the far end of the bar. Then my gaze returns to her. My constant staring will likely be attributed to a thirsty customer trying to signal the wait staff, but frankly I don't care what Alayna thinks of me just as long as she thinks of me at all. I yearn for her attention with such a deep ache. Yearn for the instant that she looks at me, connects with me. I'll turn down any service that isn't from her. I need to know if I have any of the effect on her that she has on me.

As I watch her, one of the other bartenders-a man that I imagine is David Lindt, the manager of the bar-gathers the staff around him. Soon he's distributed shots and all are partaking.

If I were really here to spy on my staff, this would be the episode that might grab my attention. Drinking behind the bar is not an acceptable way to run a club. However, though I can't hear exactly what's being said from my side of the counter, the cheers and hoots seem to indicate a special occasion.

From the way everyone's focused on Alayna, I gather it's about her.

"Woo hoo!" she screams, as if to confirm my thoughts. "Goddamn, that's nice!"

She's fun, I realize. Besides being smart and responsible, she knows how to enjoy herself. It's so different from me, so foreign that it should be a complete turn-off. Instead, it intrigues me more. As if that were possible.

Once the shots are consumed, the staff disperses. Alayna stays behind the bar. I'm more relieved than I want to admit. My relief is replaced with envy as she moves to embrace a customer. Who is this man? I've had Jordan tailing Alayna for the better part of two weeks. His findings have shown she has a limited social life, her outings relating only to work, school, and exercise-namely, running. There has been no evidence of a boyfriend or even a close friend. Has Jordan missed something important?

I strain to hear the conversation between the two. Quickly, I deduce that the man is simply a regular customer. My relief returns. Though I may have to step in if he continues to stare at Alayna's br**sts the way he is.
I don't blame him. They're exceptional br**sts. I can't stop staring myself. But they should not be shared with the likes of drunk ass**les who only want a quick f**k.

Thank God I'm neither a drunk nor someone who wants a quick f**k. Slow. That's how it will go with Alayna. I'll take my time when I f**k her and it won't be just a one-time thing.

Jesus, where did that thought come from? I hadn't planned to pursue Alayna sexually. It certainly wasn't part of Celia's scheme. But now that I've thought it, I can't seem to get the idea out of my mind.

It's her damn outfit. She looks like sex on legs.

I make a mental note to speak to Alayna about her wardrobe choices for work.

I manage to stop thinking about my c**k by concentrating on the other information I've gleaned from my eavesdropping. Alayna has admitted she has no plans for her vacation. I don't like that. She should be celebrating her accomplishments. Furthermore, the hint of disappointment in her posture leads me to believe she wishes she had plans.

But I can't dwell on this. Because she's sliding down the bar toward me. Finally, her attention is mine.

"Now what can I" Her words trail as she meets my eyes. The intense grip of her gaze on mine nearly takes my breath away. It leaves her speechless as well, her jaw slack as she takes me in.

Then I know.

I know that no one has ever looked at me this way. I know that this connection is not just one-sided, that she feels it too. I know that I scare her and fascinate her as much as she scares and fascinates me. I know that sooner or later I will f**k her, that she will enjoy it. That I will enjoy it. And somehow, with certainty that exceeds every other fact that I've come to accept in this space of seconds, I know that my life will never be the same again.

Eventually, I remember I'm supposed to be placing my order. "Single-malt Scotch. Neat, please."

She shakes her head as if snapping out of a haze. "I have a 12-year-old Macallan."

"Fine." A single word and I barely manage to rasp it out. She doesn't look at me while she pours my drink and I already miss the warmth of her eyes. Then, as she hands me my glass, I purposefully let my fingers brush against hers. I had to. I needed to know how it felt to touch her.

I'm rewarded with far more than the softness of her skin and the zing of electricity that passes between us. I'm rewarded with her shiver. It's visible. I do affect her. I'm more than pleased.

She's wary of me though. She yanks her hand away and scurries to the other side of the bar.

I wonder at her thoughts as I sip from my glass. Because of her history, I might assume she reacts to many men the way she did to me. Yet, I've watched her all night and she's seemed at ease with everyone except me. She is afraid of me, but I believe that fear has to do with herself. I've done nothing to frighten her, though I haven't masked any of the lust she's sparked inside me. Is that enough to throw her?

I'm seconds away from forming a theory. And then I force my thoughts in another direction. It is there that I finalize my intent with Alayna Withers. I will lead her through the stupid game of Celia's. I will participate as I've agreed. Separately, I will seduce her, because after the brush of her hand, I can't imagine not touching every inch of her with my fingers, my mouth, my tongue.

But Alayna will not be my subject. I will not experiment with her emotions. I will not let her break. If anything, this will be a study of myself. It will be an opportunity to see if anyone can break me.

As I solidify my plans, I nurse my drink and continue to watch her. Soon, she's left to manage the bar herself. She cleans the counters with what seems to be nervous energy. Then she looks toward me. It's a ray of sun escaping heavy cloud cover when her eyes find mine again.

She sweeps toward me and nods at my near empty glass. "Another?"

"No, I'm good." I don't need any more. I'm intoxicated by her presence. I reach in my breast pocket and pull a hundred from my billfold. I don't intend to accept the change.

She rings up my order at the register and I realize our encounter is nearing an end. I feel compelled to talk to her, to soak up as much of her as I can in the last few moments of anonymity that I will share with her.

I debate for a moment an appropriate conversation starter that will neither give anything away about me nor appear creepy. I remember the toast that was shared among the staff and choose to remark on that. "Special occasion?"

Her brow creases. "Uh, yeah. My graduation. I walk tomorrow for my MBA."

I already know this, but as I'm genuinely impressed by her, it's not hard to display admiration. "Congratulations. Here's to your every success." I lift my glass to her and then shoot back the last of it.

"Thank you." Her eyes are on my mouth and I can't help myself-I lick my lips and delight as her pupils dilate in reaction.

She reaches out to give me my change.

I almost change my mind about accepting it. It would be another opportunity to touch her, and I burn for that. But I'm already stiff as it is. I don't want to encourage my desire, not tonight. So I shake my head and say, "Keep it."

"I can't."

"You can and you will." It's not the first time I've tipped so generously, but it's the first time I've really cared that it be accepted. "Consider it a graduation gift."

"Okay." She concedes, but I sense that it's difficult for her. "Thanks."

Her surrender, simple as it is, arouses me further. She's turned from me now, but I'm not ready to let her go. "Is this also a goodbye party?" She faces me again. "I don't imagine you'll be using your MBA to continue bartending." God, those eyes. Those eyes find me, every time.

She hesitates. "Actually, I'd like to move up here. I love the nightclub scene." She seems to prepare herself for my criticism.

Three weeks ago, I would have given it. Now, I say, "It makes you alive."

"Exactly." She breaks into a smile.

"It shows." When I'd first learned she'd chosen to stay at The Sky Launch rather than use her degree in a more traditional way, I'd assumed that Alayna had an affinity with the club. Having witnessed her in this environment and comparing it to her presentation at Stern, I see it's even more than that. This place is a life force for her. She's struck me with her beauty both times I've seen her. Here, though, her beauty is transcendent.

"Laynie!" It's the drunk kid down the bar. Alayna leaves me to attend to him. I eavesdrop, cringing as he gives her his number. I wonder how many times she gets hit on in an evening.

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