Vivian hooked the heels of her shoes on the rung of the tall stool, leaned against the high table, and let her gaze wander around the bar area of the restaurant. She’d thought about going home to change after work, before heading here, but if she walked into her condo, she wouldn’t want to leave again. Tonight, she was determined to enjoy a night out, to prove to herself she still knew how to have fun, even if her two closest friends were getting married and had their own lives now.
Which, when she thought about it, was sad. Not that they were engaged—she wished Jared and Tate nothing but the best of luck and adored their fiancées. What struck her as a little pathetic was that the only people she called true friends were her two executive counterparts from work. People she didn’t even know until five or six years ago.
She tucked the journey into poor-me-ville aside, and took another sip of her cranberry and vodka. Her career was as important to her as not surrendering her individuality to someone else. Of course her colleagues were her best friends. Which meant she missed their company, as much as she tried to deny it.
If Jared were here… He’d probably have Mikki with him, who would be showing him how to play some game with saltshakers or something. Vivian couldn’t even begin to predict what that woman was thinking half the time. There was Tate, who wouldn’t be here without Jared—or rather, these days, without Alyssia, who was about eight months pregnant and looking every bit like a glowing mother to be. Vivian never thought she’d see the day when Tate fell into fatherhood, but she could tell he was going to be awesome at it.
Maybe heading out tonight was a bad idea. She downed the rest of her drink in a single gulp, eyes watering as the liquor burned down her throat. She’d get dinner to go, find a movie at home to watch, and not let herself sink into self-pity.
The familiar voice dug something from deep inside her and twisted her insides in on themselves. Not because she’d know that voice anywhere, and not because hearing him still sent chills through her, after all these years—which it didn’t at all—but because he was supposed to be on the other side of the country, in his hometown. If Damon was here, it could only mean trouble.
She summoned a smile and turned toward him. “Counselor, we didn’t expect you in town for this.” Through the pleasant formality, her mind worked overtime to figure out how much disruption his presence was going to cause tomorrow, in the office.
He raised an eyebrow. How was it fair he pulled off gorgeous after all this time? Mid-thirties, and he still looked like he did when they were in college. Brown hair trimmed close. Captivating eyes. The biggest difference from back then was a button-down shirt hugged his broad shoulders now instead of a T-shirt, and slacks covered a sexy ass, as opposed to the jeans he’d preferred back then.
“Counselor? Really?” Amusement lined his tone. “That’s the best I get?”
She wasn’t going to fall into flirting with him, as much as part of her itched to. Even though she knew better, every time they’d run into each other in the last couple of years, there had been flirting. It wasn’t professional, and not starting was the best way to keep it from happening. “You’d prefer…?”
He slid out the stool next to her, and took a seat at her table. “My name would be nice. Are you alone tonight, or are your boys around here somewhere?”
A short laugh slipped out before she could stop it, and she tried to cover it with cool irritation she didn’t feel. “My what?” She knew exactly who he was talking about.
“I apologize. Your colleagues. Not that you need the clarification.”
“They’re home. They have other lives now.”
His smile grew, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Then it’s my lucky night twice over. Running into you. Alone. I don’t think they like me very much.”
She reached for her drink, more to give her hands something to do, than because she was thirsty. Right. She’d finished it. She twitched her fingers against the glass. “You’re Head Legal Counsel for the company that spends entirely too much of their money and time trying to rip us off. Can you blame Jared and Tate for not liking you?”
“That’s not it. I think they just don’t like me.” Damon’s tone was teasing, with no hint of malice. He waved down a waitress. “Guinness for me, and another cranberry and vodka for my friend.”
The girl nodded and scurried toward the bar.
Vivian wanted to protest the assumption, but it warmed her that he knew her preferred drink. She shook aside her buzz of appreciation for his attention. Maybe she should have had something to eat, along with the two drinks she’d already polished off.
Damon squeezed her fingers, his touch sending a pleasant shock through her. “It’s good to see you, Vivian.”
The simple compliment clenched in her gut and dragged up her earlier loneliness. She squelched the reaction. She wasn’t opposed to picking up a random guy in a bar—no strings was her preferred lifestyle—but Damon wasn’t random. “Same here.” She kept her words neutral.
“I mean it.”
How was she supposed to respond to that? Change the subject. “I’m surprised you’re in town. I thought you’d leave something tedious like discovery depositions to someone else.”
He drew a finger along the back of her hand and up her arm, gaze locked on hers. “I thought I’d be a little more hands-on this time.”
Heat jolted through her, filling her veins and tingling in her skin. Don’t react. He’s testing your limits. Telling her body to calm down didn’t have as much of an impact as the searching look he gave her. “We’re talking about the depositions still. Right?” She forced herself to sound calm, but didn’t pull away from his touch.
He nodded at the waitress, when she set their drinks in front of them, but never pulled his attention from Vivian. “The thing is, if we talk about the depositions or work, or anything professional, we have to take almost all of it off the table, to avoid any kind of conflict-of-interest issues. Which means we run out of things to talk about in an instant. So I was hoping we could shelve that and be old friends catching up on everything except work.”
Her brain stalled. She was used to small talk at business gatherings, but that had never been her relationship with Damon. Even after they broke up, whenever work brought them back together, the conversation got intense fast. Not necessarily because of flirting, but more because they tended to delve into every topic under the sun when they had time. Tonight, as much as she wanted company, she knew falling into that kind of familiarity with him was a bad idea. “Like… what you’re doing here?” There. That was small-talky.
He looked around in an exaggerated motion, before turning back to her. “I’m in the restaurant, because it’s near my hotel and I wanted dinner. I’m sitting with you, because who am I to laugh in the face of whatever fate stuck us in the same place, on the same night?” He covered her hand with his, and traced tiny circles with his thumb. “If I talk about why I’m in town, it’ll lead to work, and… You already know the answer, anyway.”
She wouldn’t be dissuaded that easily. If he stayed, they’d make small talk. You could always leave. Except, despite the mental reminder, she didn’t want to. It was an irrational response. Not as if anything beyond chatter was going to happen with Damon. But knowing this didn’t motivate her to pull away. Maybe the alcohol was fuzzing her senses; she did feel a little lightheaded. Then again, maybe she didn’t care. “How’s your brother?”
Amusement danced in his eyes. “Fighting the good fight, I suppose. Social justice warrior through and through.”
Vivian could do this. She didn’t know why she’d been flustered. It was a normal, vanilla conversation. “I’ve been following this new project of yours. The legal-defense fund, to help those discriminated against in the workplace.” She wasn’t keeping track of it because Damon was involved—and that wasn’t denial. It was because she fully supported the idea of helping people take a stand, especially in technology, against the kind of issues that kept a lot of women and minorities out of the business, or at least from speaking up when they were treated wrong.
“Ethan’s girlfriend came up with the idea. She reminds me of you.” Damon dragged his gaze over her, and friction rose in its wake. “Intelligent. Witty. But she doesn’t have to pretend she enjoys the life she’s built for herself. She means it,” he said.
Irritation flitted into Vivian’s thoughts. There it was. If Damon couldn’t immediately find a way to chink someone’s armor, he kept poking from different angles until he figured it out. It made him a fantastic attorney, but it also made him dangerous, as far as Vivian was concerned. She wasn’t interested in having her walls broken down. Not by him. Not again. It took her far too long to rebuild, after they broke up. When she left home right after high school, only seventeen years old, she swore to never make the same mistakes as her mother. Never let herself get so lost in loneliness, she clung to any man who paid attention to her, regardless of how abusive or neglectful they were. Never surrender her identity to another human being.
She pulled her hand from Damon’s, secured her glass, and gave him a fake smile, not caring if the phoniness showed. “They sound like a perfect match.”
“Come on.” Damon leaned back with a chuckle. “I don’t even get an eye twitch for that?”
Bonus points for being honest about what he’s trying to do. “Nope.”
“Fine.” He leaned back in his seat and took a drag off his beer. “You already know what I’m up to. What are you working on?”
She had to be misunderstanding the question. She rolled it over in her head but couldn’t figure out why he’d ask after insisting they not talk about the office. “Well, we’re involved in this lawsuit—”
He shook his head. “I mean at home. You haven’t given up dancing, have you?”
A new kind of heat flooded her. Pleased that he remembered, and not a physical reaction to his presence. She danced in her free time. Jazz, ballet, modern, or whatever mood struck her. She’d never been good enough to do so professionally—well, not the kind of professional that went on a resume—but she enjoyed moving to the music. It helped her find her center, when nothing else could. “I haven’t given up, no. I found a new remix a few weeks ago that inspires me every time I hear it. It’s nice to unwind to at night.”
He shifted in his seat and rested his knee against her leg. “I’d love to see your interpretation sometime.”
“I’m not sure anyone else would appreciate me dancing in the deposition room.”
“Who cares what they think? If they have any taste, they’ll be grateful for the break from the norm.” He loosened her fingers from her glass and intertwined them with his own. “Or, if you’d prefer, I don’t have any other plans this evening.”
Vivian struggled with her response. Which was irrational, because she already knew the answer, and didn’t know why she was debating with himself. His offer wasn’t tempting. Maybe if he weren’t head of Legal for the NetSafe Systems, the company her employer, Skriddie Bust Media was suing. And maybe if she hadn’t almost lost herself in him when they dated. And maybe—
She benched the string of thoughts. None of them mattered, because she wasn’t seriously considering his offer, even if he was only testing her defenses again. She pulled away from his touch and couldn’t ignore the disappointment that raced through her. “You’ve probably got paperwork to review before tomorrow. I know I do.” She stood and dropped her money on the table. It was more difficult than she expected to put her cool mask back in place. You’re lonely, so you’re looking for someone to fill the void. You know it’s not him. You know what he does to you. She repeated the mental reminder, until it was stuck on a loop in her head. “Good night, Counselor.”
“Vivian.” A frown creased his brow, and a hint of request leaked into his voice.
“I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.” She turned on her toe, and cut a straight line for the door. It took the last of her restraint not to look back at Damon. Not to go back and join him. Not to invite him back to her place, for a private performance.
Seriously, what was wrong with her tonight?