To Kristin, my eerily perceptive travel buddy.
Remember that time we were stuck in a train station overnight?
And taking a cab from Germany to the Netherlands?
And that microwave I ruined in Spain before I almost died?
Thanks for being there for all of that and more.
EVERYONE DESERVES ONE grand adventure, that one time in life that we always get to point back to and say, “Then … then I was really living.”
Adventures don’t happen when you’re worried about the future or tied down by the past. They only exist in the now. And they always, always come at the most unexpected time, in the least likely of packages. An adventure is an open window; and an adventurer is the person willing to crawl out on the ledge and leap.
I told my parents I was going to Europe to see the world and grow as a person (not that Dad listened beyond the second or third word, which is when I slipped in that I was also going to spend his money and piss him off as much as possible. He didn’t notice). I told my professors that I was going to collect experiences to make me a better actor. I told my friends I was going to party.
In reality, it was a little of all of those things. Or maybe none of them.
Sometimes, I just got that strange niggling sensation at the back of my mind, like the insistent buzz of a mosquito, that I was missing something.
I wanted to experience something extraordinary, something more. I refused to believe that my best years were all behind me now that I’d graduated from college. And if adventures only existed in the now, that was the only place I wanted to exist, too.
After nearly two weeks of backpacking around Eastern Europe, I was becoming an expert at just that.
I trekked down the dark city street, my stiletto heels sticking in between the cobblestones. I kept a tight hold on the two Hungarian men that I’d met earlier in the evening, and we followed the other two in our group. I guess, technically, I had met them last night, since we were now into the early hours of morning.
For the life of me, I couldn’t keep their names straight. And I wasn’t even drunk yet.
Okay … so maybe I was a little drunk.
I kept calling Tamás, István. Or was that András? Oh well. They were all hot with dark hair and eyes, and they knew four words in English as far as I could tell.
American. Beautiful. Drink. Dance.
As far as I was concerned, those were the only words they needed to know. At least I remembered Katalin’s name. I’d met her a few days ago, and we’d hung out almost every night since. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. She showed me around Budapest, and I charged most of our fun on Daddy’s credit card. Not like he would notice or care. And if he did, he’d always said that if money didn’t buy happiness, then people were spending it wrong.
Thanks for the life lessons, Daddy.
“Kelsey,” Katalin said, her accent thick and exotic. Damn, why couldn’t I have one of those? I’d had a slight Texas twang when I was younger, but my years in theatre had all but beat that out of me. She said, “Welcome to the ruin bars.”
I paused in ruffling István’s hair (or the one I called István anyway) to take in where we were. We stood on an empty street filled with dilapidated buildings. I knew the whole don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing; but in the dark, this place was straight out of a zombie apocalypse. I wondered how to say brains in Hungarian.
The old Jewish quarter. That’s where Katalin said we were going.
It sure as hell didn’t look to me like there were any bars around here. I took in the sketchy neighborhood, and thought at least I’d gotten laid last night. If I was going to get chopped into tiny pieces, at least I’d go out with a bang. Literally.
I laughed and almost recounted my thoughts to my companions, but I was pretty sure it would get lost in translation. Especially because I was starting to question even Katalin’s grip on the English language, if this was what “bar” meant to her.
I pointed to a grungy building devoid of any signs or address and said, “Drink?” Then mimed the action just to be safe.
One of the guys said, “Igen. Drink.” The word sounded like ee-gan, and I’d picked up just enough to know it meant yes.
Whoo-hoo. I was practically fluent already.
I followed Katalin and András (I was seventy-five percent sure that her guy was András). They stepped into the dark-end doorway of one derelict building that gave me the heebiest of jeebies. The taller of my Hungarian hotties slipped an arm around my shoulders. I took a guess and said, “Tamás?” His teeth were pearly white when he smiled. I would take that as a yes. Tamás equaled tall. And drop-dead sexy. Noted.
One of his hands came up and brushed back the blond hair from my face. I tilted my head back to look at him, and excitement sparked in my belly. What did language matter when dark eyes locked on mine, strong hands pressed into my skin, and heat filled the space between us?
Not a whole hell of a lot.
We followed the rest of the group into the building, and I felt the low thrum of techno music vibrating the floor beneath my feet.
We traveled deeper into the building and came out into a large room. Walls had been knocked down, and no one had bothered to move the pieces of concrete. Christmas lights and lanterns lit the space. Mismatched furniture was scattered around the bar. There was even an old car that had been repurposed into a dining booth. It was easily the weirdest, most confusing place I’d ever been in.
“You like?” Katalin asked.
I pressed myself closer to Tamás and said, “I love.”
He led me to the bar where drinks were dirt cheap. I pulled out a two thousand forint note. For less than the equivalent of ten U.S. dollars, I bought all five of us shots.
Amazing. Maybe I should stay in Eastern Europe forever.
And I would totally consider it … except there was one downside to Europe. For some reason that made no sense to me, they gave lemon slices with tequila instead of lime. The bartenders always looked at me like I’d just ordered elephant sweat in a glass. They just didn’t understand the magical properties of my favorite drink. If my accent didn’t give me away as a tourist, my drink of choice always did.
Lime or not, tequila is my bestie, so I took it eagerly.
Next, Tamás bought me a gin bitter lemon, a drink I’d been introduced to a few weeks ago. It almost made the absence of margaritas in this part of the world bearable. I downed it like it was lemonade on a blistering Texas day. His eyes went wide, and I licked my lips. István bought me another, and the acidity and sweetness rolled across my tongue.
Tamás gestured for me to down it again. It wasn’t really that kind of drink, but who was I to deny him? I threw it back to a round of applause.
God, I love when people love me.
I took hold of Tamás’s and István’s arms and pulled them away from the bar. There was a room that had one wall knocked out in lieu of a door, and it overflowed with dancing bodies.
That was where I wanted to be.
I tugged my boys in that direction, and Katalin and András followed close behind. We had to step over a small pile of concrete rubble if we wanted to get into the room. I took one look at my turquoise heels, and knew there was no way in hell I was managing that with my sex appeal intact. I turned to István and Tamás—sizing them up. István was the beefier of the two, so I put an arm around his neck. We didn’t need to speak the same language for him to understand what I wanted. He swept an arm underneath my legs and pulled me up to his chest. It was a good thing I wore skinny jeans instead of a skirt.
“Köszönöm,” I said, ev
en though he probably should have been thanking me, based on the way he was openly ogling my chest.
Ah well. I didn’t mind ogling. I was still pleasantly warm from the alcohol, and the music drowned out the world. My shitty parents and uncertain future were thousands of miles away across an ocean. My problems might as well have been drowning at the bottom of said ocean for how much they mattered to me in that moment.
The only expectations here were ones that I had encouraged and I was all too willing to follow through on. So, maybe, my new “friends” only wanted me for money and sex. It was better than not being wanted at all. Besides … everyone wants something from someone else. I just preferred to be up front about it.
István’s arms flexed around me, and I melted into him. My father liked to talk, or yell rather, about how I didn’t appreciate anything. But the male body was one thing I had no issue appreciating. István played soccer, and he was all hard muscles and angles beneath my hands. And those girls were definitely a-wandering.
By the time he’d set my feet on the dance floor, my hands had found those delicious muscles that angled down from his hips. I bit my lip and met his gaze from beneath lowered lashes. If his expression was any indication, I had found Boardwalk and had the all clear to proceed to Go and collect my two hundred dollars.
Or forint. Whatever.
Tamás pressed his chest against my back, and I gave myself up to the alcohol and the music and the sensation of being stuck between two gorgeous specimens of man.
Time started to disappear between frenzied hands and drips of sweat. There were more drinks and more dances. Each song faded into the next. Colors danced behind my closed eyes. And it was almost enough.
For a while, I got to be blank. A brand-new canvas. Untouched snow.
I’d checked my baggage at the door, and just was.
And it was perfect.
There was no room for unhappiness when squeezed between two sets of washboard abs.
New life motto, right there.
I gave István a couple notes and sent him to get more drinks. In the meantime, I turned to face Tamás. He’d been pressed against my back for God knows how long, and I’d forgotten how tall he was. I leaned back to meet his gaze, and his hands smoothed down my back to my ass.
I smirked and said, “Someone is happy to have me all to himself.”
He pulled my hips into his, his arousal pressing low against my stomach, and said, “Beautiful American.”
Right. No point expending energy on cheeky banter that he couldn’t even understand. I had a pretty good idea how to better use my energy. I slipped my arms around his neck and tilted my head in the universal sign of “kiss me.”
We were both pretty drunk. Maybe he didn’t realize that he was in danger of engaging my gag reflex with his Guinness record-worthy tongue. I eased back and his tongue assault ended, only for his teeth to clamp down on my bottom lip.
I was all for a little biting, but he pulled my lip out until I had one half of a fish mouth. And he stood there, sucking on my bottom lip for so long that I actually started counting to see how long it would last.
When I got to fifteen (FIFTEEN!) seconds, my eyes settled on a guy across the bar watching my dilemma with a huge smile. Was shit-eating grin in the dictionary? If not, I should snap a picture for Merriam-Webster.
I braced myself and pulled my poor, abused lip from Tamás’s teeth with a pop. My mouth felt like it had been stuck in a vacuum cleaner. While I pressed my fingers to my numb lip, Tamás started placing sloppy kisses from the corner of my lips across my cheek to my jaw.
His tongue slithered over my skin like a snail, and all the blissful alcohol-induced haze that I’d worked so hard for disappeared.
I was painfully aware that I was standing in an abandoned-building-turned-bar with a trail of drool across my cheek, and that a guy across the room was now openly laughing at me.
And he was fucking gorgeous, which made it so much worse.
Sometimes … the now sucked.
MY AMUSED STALKER had olive-toned skin, dark eyes, and hair cut close to his head. He had that muscled, military look about him, which sparked half a dozen dirty puns in my head about him invading my territories. Plus, he was tall with a permanent smolder that would have made Tyra Banks stop the crazy train and stare.
Unfortunately, the only staring happening was on his part. Why did it have to be someone so hot who witnessed my face sucking of shame? And as if he could read my thoughts through my gaze, he laughed harder.
I tore myself away from Tamás and put my hand up to keep him from following me.
“Bathroom!” I blurted.
The word meant nothing to him, so he reached for me again.
“Eh-eh!” I gave him the Heisman and tried, “Toilet?”
His brow furrowed, and he held a hand to his ear. So I yelled louder, “Toilet!”
The volume didn’t help, but it did make a dozen or so people around us who obviously spoke English stop and gawk at me. And my traitorous eyes found the guy across the room. If he laughed any harder, he was going to pop a lung.
I guessed he didn’t have any issues understanding my English.
I turned and fled, probably only exponentially increasing the size of the scene I’d just made, but I was only focused on washing away the embarrassment with another drink.
I tried to walk over the rubble pile that led back to the bar, but the ground kept moving, and I felt a million miles tall in these heels. Tipsier than I realized, I blinked, trying to bring the world back into focus. I had to bend and balance my hand on a chunk of concrete to keep from toppling over.
“What? No more locals around to carry you?”
I turned my head to the side, and my worst fears came true.
Soldier Smolder. He was even more gorgeous up close, which was only magnified by his deep voice. And from the sound of it, he was American, too. The look on his face was part teasing–part condescending, but his eyes still had my organs doing somersaults.
Or … that could have been the alcohol.
Both. Let’s go with both.
“I don’t need anyone to carry me. I’m perfectly—whoa.”
I tried to straighten up, but my ankle twisted and the world went a little topsy-turvy. In what seemed like fast-forward, I went from standing to sitting on the rubble in the blink of an eye, the heels of my hands scraped raw from the rough concrete. I was still trying to figure out if I was moving at lightning speed, or if the world was moving really slowly, when suddenly—I was flying.
My vision filled with a strong jaw that gave way to soft, full lips. And then eyes so piercing, they reminded me of growing up in church and feeling certain that somewhere out there was a God that was watching, and could see everything I didn’t want him to see.
“You remind me of God,” I mumbled, then immediately wished I could suck those words back into my mouth.
He laughed. “Well, that’s a new one for me.”
“I meant …” I don’t know what I meant. God, I was drunk. “Let me down. I don’t need anyone to carry me.”
He spoke, and I felt his low voice vibrate from his chest into mine. “I don’t care what you think you need.”
Story of my life. I loved men as much as the next girl, but why was it that they always seemed to think they knew better?
I rolled my eyes and said, “Fine, carry me all night. Works for me.”
I leaned my head on his shoulder and snuggled up against his chest to get comfortable. I was just curling my hand around the back of his neck when he plopped my feet down on the ground, on the other side of the rubble. I winced, pain jolting up from my ankles to my knees from the hard landing.
Sigh. I should have kept my smart mouth shut. I pr
etended like I wasn’t disappointed, shrugged, and turned toward the bar. He appeared in front of me so fast, and my reflexes were so slow, that I barely managed to keep from face-planting into his pecs.
Wait … Why was I trying to keep from doing that?
He said, “What? No thank-you?”
I leveled him with a stare, feeling more sober than I had a few moments ago. “I’m not in the habit of thanking people who do things to me against my will. So, if you don’t mind—”
I pushed past him and flagged down the bartender, who thankfully spoke English. I asked for tequila and took a seat on a barstool.
“Give her a water, too,” my stalker added, sitting down beside me.
I eyed him. Hot, he was definitely hot. But I’d never met a guy in a bar who tried to get me less drunk. That somehow made it harder to trust him.
Twisted, I know. But I had learned a long time ago that if you didn’t figure out what people wanted from you at the beginning, it would come back to bite you in the ass later. Plus, if I was reading the tension in his jaw correctly, he was angry, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he was sitting there beside me if I annoyed him so much.
I said, “You’re awfully pushy, stranger.”
And kind of dangerous. Who knew stranger-danger could be so hot?
“You’re awfully drunk, princess.”
I laughed. “Honey, I’m barely getting started. When I start talking about how I can’t feel my cheeks and get a little touchy-feely, then you’ll know I’m awfully drunk.”
His eyebrow raised when I said touchy-feely, but he didn’t comment. My shot arrived, along with a cup of water. I glared at the latter, pushing it away from me, then grabbed my shot.
This trip was about adventure, about living life with no baggage and no strings and no thought. Only now. It definitely wasn’t about drinking water.
I tipped back the shot.
For a few seconds, the warmth settled in my middle, grounding me. I was beginning to get used to the lemon slices, sweeter than limes, but the sour taste still gave a tiny jolt on my tongue. I signaled for another, but my tagalong’s deep voice sliced through the lovely haze I was building.
“If you’re trying to drink away the memory of that kiss on the dance floor, I doubt it will work. That’s the kind of kiss that sticks with you.”
Cringing, I said, “You don’t have to tell me that.”
I wiped at my cheek again even though the slobber was long gone.
The cup of water slid back in front of me, pushed by his forefinger. I squinted up at him. His dark eyes were steel gray, hardened. But there was a hint of a smile in his gaze that was nowhere to be found on his mouth.
And a fascinating mouth it was.
I said, “You know, you could always help me find another way to erase the memory of that bad kiss.” He turned and leaned his back against the bar. His arm brushed mine, and I shivered. So, he was a bit on the aggravating side, but he was also big and warm and masculine, and, hell, I didn’t need to list anything else. I was already sold. My body didn’t so much care about what kind of tension was between us. Tension was tension.
He kept his eyes fixed coolly on the dance floor across the room. With that strong, stubbled jaw and those delicious muscles, he was the epitome of tall, dark, and dangerous.
My vocabulary narrowed to one word: yum.
He said, “I could do that …,” glancing sideways at me.
Oh, please. Let’s please do that.