In the smoky gloom of the bar, she glowed like a piece of jewelry displayed on black velvet. Something white-gold and emerald, delicately wrought and priceless.
James sat at a table with a half-finished beer in front of him, unable to look away. He supposed she was conscious of his stare, but did it matter to her? A woman like that ... why, she was probably used to it. God knew, he wasn't the only one watching her.
If she noticed, if she cared, she gave no sign. Her posture was somehow both perfect and languid as she sat on the high leather stool. The line of her spine – from here, it was the best angle James could see – was a supple curve that flowed from the nape of her neck to her slim but shapely behind.
Her legs were exquisitely long, tapering into sparkling green open-toed shoes with four-inch stiletto heels and gold mesh straps around the ankles. No stockings, no pantyhose. Bare-legged ... and if the seamless fit of her dress was any indication, bare-everything-else as well. It was a strapless, backless, thigh-high sheath that hugged her like a coat of paint. The color was a shifting, iridescent green-black, the belt a thin gold chain.
What she lacked in cleavage and voluptuousness, she made up for in grace. And, when she turned her head so that James got a better glimpse, a face that would have made Helen of Troy seethe with envy. Flawless features. Fair, unblemished skin. White-blond hair cut short and slicked back, making the large green eyes all the more striking. No make-up except for a hint of lip gloss.
She looked fragile and vulnerable, but the way she held herself gave the impression of confidence and inner strength. No ducking her head to avoid accidental eye contact. No nervousness. She ordered another drink from the bartender with cool, forthright assurance.
Idly rolling the bottom of his glass around the wet rings of condensation on the tabletop, James wondered if she might be a hooker. That would account for the fact that she seemed so fearless, one of only a few women in a dark room full of drinking men, and in a not-so-nice part of town.
But she didn't act the way he thought, from his limited knowledge drawn mainly from books and movies, a hooker was supposed to act. Nor did she seem like she was waiting for someone, a giant thug of a boyfriend who would show up to escort her and the collection of apparently expensive jewelry she was wearing.
Her drink arrived. It was something frothy and pale green in a tall glass with a straw. Her long fingers – the nails were done in a rich emerald polish – wrapped around the glass and lifted it. James was sure he wasn't the only man in the bar to catch his breath as her tongue parted her lips, slicked them, and then drew the straw into her mouth.
The way her eyelids slid dreamily shut as she sucked made James have to blot his palms on his pantlegs. He rolled his beer over his forehead, grateful for the damp chill on his suddenly feverish brow.
He had to look away. When his gaze roamed the rest of the tables, he confirmed that he wasn't alone in his fascination. No one was drooling outright, but the lust in the air was as palpable as the pall of cigarette smoke.
Of the few other female patrons, most were directing hateful looks that went as unnoticed by the woman in green as did the slack-jawed ogling of the men. One, a petite brunette with a buxom body crammed into a red satin bustier – and an attitude that, at least in James' media-succored mind, suggested that she was the hooker of the bunch – seemed to take the very presence of the slender blonde as a challenge.
She made much of tossing her masses of jet-black curls and laughing a throaty, whiskey-roughened laugh, and inhaling in a way meant to draw the attention to herself. Compared to the blonde's smooth elegance, her performance was crass and abrasive and about as sexy as roadkill, as far as James was concerned.
He turned back toward the bar, and an electric jolt shot through him. The woman in green had swiveled on her stool and was looking at James over the rim of her drink, the straw still encircled by her glossy lips.
Even through the haze, her eyes riveted him. They seemed to shine with secrets and promises, seemed to strip away his defenses and peer into his very innermost soul.
James couldn't have broken that connection even if he'd wanted to. He had no idea why she would single him out, of every other man in the place – if anything, he was the misfit here. Most of these men were blue-collar types, manly and tough and rugged, the sort of men who ran jackhammers during the week and went deer-hunting on weekends and could crack walnuts in the crooks of their brawny arms when they weren't crushing beer cans on their foreheads.
Maybe, he thought, that wasn't her type. Maybe he was. So what if he couldn't carry a pickup truck on his shoulders. So what if he was pale from a life spent mostly indoors, either at his easel or his desk, struggling in both venues to create art and passion from nothingness. Maybe she went for the starving-artist / computer geek sort. Stranger things had happened. Christie Brinkley had once married Billy Joel, after all.
Or, more likely, she wasn't interested in him at all. She was probably thinking that he was gay.
She finished her drink and swung up from the stool in a fluid motion that made his heartbeat accelerate. The tip of her tongue ran a slow course over her lips. She set the glass down, picked up a small green snakeskin-patterned clutch bag from the stool next to her, and walked toward him.
He felt like he had a sliver of chicken bone stuck in his throat. He told himself not to get his hopes – or anything else – up; that she was only on her way to the ladies' room. His table was between the bar and the short hall that led to the restrooms and the pay phone. Anyone would have to walk past.
And as a consolation prize, when she did he might be able to smell her perfume, and hear the subtle whisper of cloth on skin as she moved within her tight dress, the click of her stiletto heels on the floor.
As she came closer, he did hear those things, and did catch a whiff of perfume that carried the heady scent of flowers that bloomed in the tropical depths of the rain forest.
But instead of passing, she stopped and smiled down at him as he sat there in the dim shadows. "May I join you?" she asked, in a voice soft as the rustle of leaves.
James nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak, sure that if he tried he would blurt out something so astoundingly stupid that his head would explode. His mind raced, but in a spinning, tractionless way. The only coherent thoughts to surface were a primal "Yes!" and the dour certainty that he'd been wrong, that she was a hooker. Why else would she approach him?
The woman sank into the other chair, making the simple act look like a dance move. "My name is Nadia." She offered her hand across the table, not for a usual handshake but with the fingertips angled down, the way a lady of old might have done if she were expecting a swain's kiss on the hand.
He was peripherally aware of fuming glares directed his way from other corners of the bar, and decided right then and there that whatever she charged would be reasonable. He could live on peanut butter sandwiches for a few weeks.
Her fingers still floated there, and her head tilted to the side in a quizzical way. James cleared his throat. He wiped his hand on his pants again and hoped that it wouldn't tremble. It did, but only a little.
"I'm James," he said, in what was almost his normal tone. He'd been braced for it to be the mortifying adolescent squeak that had plagued him around pretty girls through all of high school and college.
"James," she said. Tasting his name. Savoring it. Letting it melt in her mouth like chocolate.
He was pretty sure that there was small talk then, and that he was contributing to it though he hadn't the slightest idea what he was saying. His mind kept bouncing back and forth between the two ideas, one that a woman like this was flirting with him, the other wondering if he had enough cash in his wallet. Every now and then, another idea would try to surface, and be swiftly batted back down.
She could have some awful disease (she looked healthy, and besides, he'd wear a condom, he might not be sure about cash but he knew he had a condom in his wallet).
That giant thug of a boyfriend he'd earlier envisioned could be waiting outside in the alley to rob him and beat the shit out of him (if that was what she was after, she wouldn't have picked a bar in this part of town).
Maybe she's really a man (oh, for crying out loud, look at her!)
James knew that rationales such as these had led many a better man than him straight into neck-deep trouble, and now he understood why. Having this beautiful woman sitting across from him, feeling the occasional – and probably not accidental – brush of her foot against his shin as she crossed her legs, drowning in the luminous green of her eyes, he didn't care about the consequences.
He suspected that his reaction wouldn't have changed if he'd been engaged, married, or a monk. All good sense was left by the wayside at the slightest touch of her hand, the slightest smile in response to one of his lame attempts at a joke.
When they had both finished their drinks, her still drawing on the straw in a way that made him dizzy, she leaned toward him and beckoned with a come-hither curl of an emerald-tipped finger.
"Let's get out of here, what do you say?" she whispered. A playful light was in her eyes, daring him.
To his horror, James heard himself blurt, "Okay, but look, I don't have a lot of cash on me. If we could stop by an ATM –"
He snapped his mouth shut and winced for oh, so many reasons. If she was out to rob him, yes, sure, why not walk up to the ATM and punch in his numbers with her standing at his back? And if she really wasn't a hooker, he'd just gone and put his foot in it, and she would blow up at him, slap his face, call him a bastard in high, ringing tones, and march out of his life forever.
Only silence followed in the wake of his blunder. He had his eyes squeezed shut, but now squinted through one, still flinching in expectation of the slap.
But Nadia's smile was genuine and amused. "Is that what you think this is about?"
"I ... well ... uh ..."
She laid her hand on his arm. "I'm not a prostitute."
"Why me, then?" his idiot mouth said, and he could have kicked himself.
"I like the looks of you," she said, lifting one white shoulder in a half-shrug and tipping her head the other way. "Is that so wrong?"
"No," James said. "No, I'm sorry, that was a dumb thing to say."
"Come on." She got up, smoothing her snug skirt down over her hips.
"Where to?" He thought of his apartment, shabby furniture and wall-to-wall mess, and winced again. Dirty laundry heaped in the bedroom. Dishes and trash dominating the kitchen.
"My place," she said. "It's not far."
"Your place. Sounds good." He rose, praying that the dim shadows kept his erection from being too noticeable. The act of standing, coupled with the fact that most of his blood supply was already occupied elsewhere, made his head swim. He had to hold onto the back of his chair until he regained his equilibrium. Maybe he could blame it on the beer.
The other men scowled upon seeing them head for the door together. This emboldened James enough that he set his hand in the small of Nadia's back and guided her around the tables. She did not shy away from him or whirl and knee him in the groin, only gave him a sidelong smile that nearly made him trip over his own feet.
The temperature dropped sharply as they stepped out of the bar's smoky environs and into the crisp night air. Nadia, in her thin dress, shivered.
"Want this?" James had a flannel shirt on over his paint-spotted tee, and made a gesture as if to remove it.
"No, that's all right. It's only a few minutes."
It was more like twenty, and she led him at a brisk pace down unfamiliar streets. Her building was an older one, brick and decorative stonework, a wide set of front steps flanked by a statue and a half of regal lions. She told him in a hushed voice that most of her neighbors were senior citizens who turned in early, so it was best if they kept things quiet.
"Sure," James said. Whatever she wanted was fine with him; he still couldn't believe he was here. Beer and anticipation buzzed in his head.
He followed her up three flights of stairs, hanging back a few steps because the view of her legs would have stopped traffic. By the time they reached the landing, he was more certain than ever that she was bare underneath.
She fished in her bag and got out her keys. "I keep it pretty warm," she said. "I hope you don't mind."
At this point, James didn't think he would have minded if she'd told him she kept the corpse of her desiccated mother in a wheelchair. He bobbed his head. "Uh-huh."
"You're sweet, James." Nadia rested her fingertips on his shoulders and put a quick, flickering kiss to his lips. He reached, but she had already moved away to open the door.
Humid heat washed over him. He felt like his eyeballs had fogged up. He blinked to clear them, and looked around.
Nadia had a studio apartment, but it was a roomy corner one. The walls were painted a rich tropical green, the floor covered in rattan mats. The spacious single room was bathed in a warm and mellow light from several stainless-steel lamps that arched like something out of War of the Worlds over a jungle of potted plants. He guessed that the bulbs, which had a pinkish-orange hue, were full-spectrum. Steamy moisture hung in the air as a not-quite-visible mist.
"You weren't kidding," he said, shedding the flannel shirt before he'd even crossed the threshold. "Whew."
"I like it this way," she said, tossing her purse aside and closing the door behind them. She did up the locks and affixed the security chain. "It reminds me of home."
"With a name like Nadia, I thought you might be Russian," James said. "But this is more like Brazil or someplace."
"Or someplace," she agreed. That light was back in her eyes, secretive, playful, daring. "You'd be more comfortable if you got rid of those clothes."
He uttered a nervous laugh. "Wish I'd brought my swimsuit."
"Think you'll need one?"
She didn't have much in the way of furniture. A low futon, bare of linens but piled with cushions. A small table and chairs by a kitchenette that didn't look like it saw a lot of home cooking. The most striking fixtures were an artificial tree branch stretching along one green wall, and a kids' wading pool that had been set up in a sandbox to give the effect of a pond with a sandy beach.
"This is ... neat," James said, at something of a loss for words. The humidity was getting to him, adding to the effects of the beers.
"James," Nadia said, and slid into his arms.
She kissed him, no light flicker this time but a deep and probing kiss, all wet open mouths and slippery tongue, and while she was kissing him she untucked his tee shirt and her hands roamed up his back.
"Hey, wow," he said weakly, when he had gotten his breath back. "We don't have to ... you know ... hurry."
"We don't have to wait, either," she said. Quick as a magician, she undid the front of his jeans and pushed them partway down his hips.
"Nadia, wait," he said, even as most of his brain screamed at him to shut the hell up and go for it, enjoy it, don't say the wrong thing and screw it all up!
She paused and pouted inquisitively. "What?"
"Um ... let me get my shoes off first," he said, that screaming majority of brain winning out over any vestige of caution.
"All right." She lowered herself onto the futon and coiled her legs beneath her, propped on her elbows. "Undress for me, then, James."
The sight of her like that, surrounded by her tropical jungle and waiting for him, made James reel. She looked like some strange queen or goddess, reclining on her pillows.
He fumbled out of his shoes and jeans and tee shirt, and stood there in his shorts as a sudden flush of embarrassment took hold. But her gaze skimmed over his chest and legs without any hint of disappointment. On the contrary, she regarded him with a simmering hunger that left him weak in the knees. He quit worrying about whether he looked silly with his erection poking out the front of his shorts, quit worrying about everything.
Nadia curled up and leaned forward with an amazing flexibility and hooked her fingers into the elastic of his waistband. She tugged him toward her. His knees hit the edge of the futon and he pinwheeled his arms, but she did not relent, and the next thing he knew he was falling, twisting onto his side, landing heavily beside her on the cushions.
She laughed and rolled atop him. In contrast to the swelter of the room, her skin felt cool and dry. They kissed again. This time, when James reached for her, she did not dance teasingly away but writhed and murmured at his ever-more-confident caresses.
The feel of her was all sinuous and sensual, rubbing along his body as her tongue traced a path of quick, darting little kisses from ear to jaw to neck to collarbone, and so on down over his chest. She whisked the shorts off before he could either help or object, and with the same supple motion he'd seen them use on a tall glass, her fingers curled readily around his cock.
James flung his head back and groaned. The emerald nails of her other hand tickled through his pubic hair to toy with his balls. He felt the puff of her breath, and raised his head in time to see that talented tongue flick out.
Her eyes were closed, and he saw her face contort with pleasure as she ran her tongue up and down his shaft, linger at the tip, probe at the slit there to coax urgent droplets of pre-cum from him. He was tense as a wire from head to toe, capable only of low, strangled sounds.
Abandoning her delightful licking torture, she suddenly took his entire length into her mouth. He bucked on the futon, scattering pillows in all directions as his legs gave an involuntary kick. His hands sank into the mattress as if he feared he might just fly up and hit the ceiling from the sheer ecstasy of it.
Nadia gave him no time to get used to the sensation of being engulfed, but commenced bobbing her head up and down, suction and wet slurping and taking him deep, so deep, and it was as if her throat opened to receive him and then closed in a wonderful constriction.
He tried to beg her to slow down, tell her that he was too close, couldn't hold back. If she understood his gasping words, she didn't care, and only redoubled her efforts. She cupped and cradled his balls as they gathered tight in impending release.
At the last moment, he dimly remembered her warning about the early-to-bed senior citizens, and he was able to muffle his outcry by biting a pillow. His orgasm surged forth, a dam breaking and all of him pouring out in a torrent. Nadia's throat worked, milking him, every drop.
Dazed, quivering, James sprawled on the futon in the spreadeagled form of an X. His chest rose and fell in heaves as he panted for breath.
She stretched out beside him, up on one elbow. He blinked blearily up at her. She was smiling a contented, beatific smile. He could feel her bare breasts, small but firm, against his upper arm. He wasn't sure when she had shimmied out of that dress – he'd missed the show! Or maybe in her wriggling around, she'd fallen out of the dress and it was bunched around her waist.
His arm went around her, his hand sliding from her shoulderblades down her back. Still only that dry, cool skin. Rougher than he remembered, but that could be because his senses were almost painfully acute in the wake of his explosive climax.