The instant the leggy beauty entered the bar, the urge arose to leap from his chair and hustle her to safety, away from the prying eyes and itchy palms of the other tops.
The woman scanned the interior, turning her head to reveal a perfect feminine profile, her short hair crackling like an auburn flame. She clutched her handbag under her arm as if expecting to be mugged but threw back her shoulders in defiance. Defensive and aggressive. She wore a man’s white shirt and had unbuttoned the collar and rolled the sleeves to her elbows, then muted the masculine effect by cinching it with a wide leather belt to reveal an hourglass figure. A loop of gold chain rested against her generous breasts, while a heavy cuff bracelet manacled her left wrist. Blue jeans hugged her from hips to feet, which were encased in black motorcycle boots, styled for ass-kicking in addition to comfort.
She nibbled on her lower lip but then lifted her chin in a show of bravado. Her charming nervousness eased his.
Otis’s wife had nailed it. Strong but vulnerable. Gutsy but feminine. She was his type. Her discomfort called out to his protective side, to reassure her she didn’t need to put up a front with him.
Mark stood up, and she spotted him, hesitated a fraction, then strode to the corner table he’d snagged out of the traffic.
“I’m Mark DeLuca,” he said right off.
“Stephanie Gordon. It’s nice to meet you.” Up close her facial features were delicate, her voice even more girlish in person than it had sounded on the phone. She gripped his hand, her too-firm shake shorter than he would have liked but long enough to note the softness of her skin, the slenderness of her fingers—and that her nails were nibbled to the quick. The tiny chink in her armor sent the blood rushing south, finishing off the job that had begun the moment she’d entered.
She lifted her chin, and consternation flickered in her blue eyes. “You’re taller than I expected.” She studied the toes of her flat boots, then met his eyes again. She worried her kissable lower lip with her teeth, and his groin tightened.
At six feet six, he towered over most people, men included. He estimated her height at five ten. He liked a tall woman he didn’t fear crushing, wouldn’t lose in bed, who stood up to him. But he still topped her by several inches. He liked that too. “Don’t most women want a man to be taller?” he asked.
“Most do.” An unspoken but clung to the end of her answer.
“You don’t?” he asked and pulled out her chair.
Surprise flashed in her gaze at what was for him an automatic gesture, making him wonder what kind of men she’d dated in the past. Then she narrowed her eyes and hesitated. “Thank you,” she said, a hint of feminist resentment scoring her polite words. His lips twitched with humor. A woman needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle. No doubt Stephanie would purport to ascribe to the 1970s feminist slogan. But only those who felt insecure erected a shield to protect themselves. Her emotions were easy to read.
She sat, and he assumed his seat, noticing a decrease in her shoulder tension now that they met eye to eye. That he unnerved her bespoke of her awareness of him. She was attracted but didn’t want to be. The gauntlet had been thrown. The only thing he enjoyed more than the company of a lovely woman was a lovely one who challenged him. He wanted to break through her defenses, put her at ease, then put her on edge.
“I’m not used to it.” She sniffed, revealing to Mark that she lorded her height over the males who orbited her. Yet she’d worn flats when heels would have given her a greater advantage. He hadn’t told her how tall he was and doubted Liz had, yet she had downplayed her height to avoid topping her date. Did she realize the contradiction?
A waitress set a basket of popcorn and another of peanuts on the table. “What can I get you?” she asked Stephanie.
“I’ll have bourbon. On the rocks. A splash—and I mean a splash—of water,” she said.
“Got it.” The waitress glanced at Mark.
“Beer, please. The local microbrew on tap.” He met Stephanie’s eyes. “Would you like something to eat? Hot wings? Potato skins? Deep-fried onion?”
She gave a little shudder. “No, thank you.”
“Just the drinks, please.” He nodded at the server.
The waitress had taken a few steps, then turned to Stephanie with a hopeful expression. “Could I offer a suggestion? Our drink special is the Bottom Burner. It’s our most popular cocktail, and it comes now in a new signature keepsake glass. The drink has a nice little kick. If you try it and don’t like it, I’ll bring you the bourbon.”
“It doesn’t have an umbrella, does it?” Stephanie asked.
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Great!” The waitress beamed and departed.
Mark raised his eyebrows. “You have something against umbrellas?”
“Not in the rain, but I don’t know why people assume all women are into frilly froufrou crap.” She mimicked that which she disparaged with a graceful twirl of her wrist.
“You’re not, I take it?”
“No. So how do you know Elizabeth Alexander?”
“Who?” He blinked. “Oh, Liz Davenport.” In her public life as a family law attorney, Otis’s wife used her maiden name. In private and around the Rod and Cane Society, she went by his surname. “Her husband and I belong to the same organization. Liz is an ancillary member as well.” Rod and Cane was a men’s club primarily, but members’ wives were strongly encouraged to join its Auxiliary. Liz had arranged the date between him and Stephanie.
“She’ll challenge you. And you’re exactly what she needs. Get together for coffee or drinks. Don’t call it a date. Just a midweek meet and greet. If I’m wrong about the two of you—but I’m not—you can go your separate ways,” Liz had said after cornering him at the mansion headquarters.
He’d appealed to Otis for help, but the older man had only shrugged. “Sometimes it’s best not to fight.” Affection in his gaze, Otis had glanced at his wife. “Unfortunately matchmaking is not a spankable offense.”
Unfortunately. Some matchmakers deserved to be spanked for their woeful lack of attention to compatibility. In truth, most of the women well-meaning friends had fixed him up with had been nice enough, but he’d experienced no deep connection or even real chemistry. Since his friends were not in the domestic discipline lifestyle, no thought had been given to fulfilling his real requirement: a partner who was amenable to being spanked. But Liz herself was a spanked wife and had a reputation for reading people. And forty loomed on the horizon, reminding him that time was running out to find that special someone, a woman who would love him for better and for worse, a woman who got him, who would stand at his side as his true partner. So he agreed to the blind date, doubtful yet hopeful that this time he would meet the one. “How do you know Liz?” he asked Stephanie.
“She’s a board member of WAN.”
“Women Act Now. It’s a women’s support organization I founded and direct.”
He nodded. “Liz told me you ran a feminist nonprofit.”
“What else did she tell you about me?”
Liz had described her as a lioness in need of a mate, but he suspected Stephanie would not appreciate the comparison. He shrugged. “The basics. She said you were thirty-five. Divorced two years. No kids.”
“Those stats were enough to convince you?” Genuine amusement curled her lips into a beautiful smile, and her eyes sparkled, transforming her from lovely to knockout.
Conversation at a nearby table ceased as the three men seated there noticed also. His hackles rose. Fuck off. She’s mine. The reflexive surge of possessiveness surprised him. Never had he had such a strong reaction to a woman. Yet never had he met one who’d instantly and so intensely attracted him the way Stephanie did. Not even Ronnie. Especially not Ronnie.
The waitress delivered their drinks. Mark drew on his beer as Stephanie hesitantly tasted her Bottom Burner. “What do you think?” he asked.
She tried it again. “A hint of sweetness. A little tartness…and, oh Gloria!” Her eyes widened, and she plunked the drink onto a napkin and fanned her face. “The waitress wasn’t kidding about the kick. What’s in this thing?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never tried it. Would you like bourbon instead?”
“Not yet.” She took another sip, then licked her lips, and his cock reacted. “It’s different, but it grows on you. Taste?” She held out her glass.
He placed his lips where hers had been. Liquid—part sweet, part tart, like she’d described—filled his mouth. Then came the after burn. He made a face. She giggled, the cutest sound he’d ever heard, and heat not caused by alcohol engulfed him. Fuck, everything she did went straight to his dick. You’d think he hadn’t been laid in…well, it had been a while, but the wood he was going to lug out of this joint had nothing to do with the length of time since his last sexual encounter and everything to do with her.
“What did Liz tell you about me?” he asked.
“She said you were divorced too. Brown hair, brown eyes.” She scanned his face as if verifying the information she’d been given was correct. “That you were in law enforcement. Are you a cop? A detective?”
“I’m the deputy chief of police.”
She formed a sexy oh with her lips. “Impressive.”
She was impressive, but if he told her so, she would assume he was hitting on her. She wouldn’t be far from wrong. He wanted to hit on her—in all the good ways. “I like to think I make a difference, but some days it’s a desk job.” He shrugged. “Tell me more about you. You said you founded…WAN, is it?”
She nodded. “Yes. I started the organization out of my apartment with one assertiveness training course. A friend from college joined me early on, and for a long time it was only us two. But now we’re incorporated as a nonprofit association and are located in the old city hall building downtown. We offer dozens of classes, rape and violence counseling, and support groups.”
Pride rang out in her voice, but then she twisted her mouth. “The downside is I now report to a board of directors. They all have good community connections, but I think some of them see it not as service but as a stepping-stone to further their careers or political aspirations. When I butt heads with certain members, I remind myself it’s about the women, not my ego. Elizabeth—Liz is one of the good ones.”
Mark chuckled. “I know what you mean. The chief usually deals with the police commission, but I’ve faced off on a few occasions.”
She folded a corner of her napkin. “Sorry for the long dissertation about my job. I’m sure you’re not interested in a women’s organization.”
He studied her face, taking in the arch of her brows, clear blue eyes, and a blush in her cheeks that caused him to imagine spanking her ass to the same hue, then having her stand in the corner with her glowing butt on display for his enjoyment. He shifted in his chair to ease his ache. “Why, because I’m a guy? You don’t think a man can support women’s initiatives?”
Color flooded her face, but she jutted her chin, and her gaze collided with his. “Most don’t.”
Who hurt you, kitten? Someone had taken a razor to her heart, and she’d been protecting herself behind a shield of militancy ever since. He did support women’s rights, would have no qualms about voting for a woman president. Men and women were equals. But they were different. No amount of posturing, no carefully worded rhetoric, no shouted slogans would change that.
“I’m not most men.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” she conceded politely, but her expression remained skeptical and cemented his hunch she’d been hurt. He wanted to hold her and soothe her fears. Then spank her to teach her submission didn’t mean losing control but gaining strength. She raised her glass for another sip, then set it down and traced the edge with her finger. Awkwardness circled like a faint breeze.
“Interesting glass,” she mused.
“Signature keepsake,” he parroted. Its somewhat narrow rim flared to a rounded base dimpled in the center, the bifurcation forming two halves.
She drew her eyebrows together. “It almost resembles a butt.”
“It is a butt.”
Her startled gaze flew to his. The moment of truth. The conversation would take a needed turn, but it was occurring sooner than he would have liked. He’d intended to get to her know better—let her trust him. When he said what he needed to say, would it be too much information too soon?