There was something to be said for working nights. They say the night belongs to the poets and the madmen, but Danielle Rowland had long since learned that’s not always the case. In the four years since she had got a job at the Wooden Horse Public House, she had seen her fair share of poets, madmen, and other specimen. If anything, the variety of people was a welcome distraction from what Danielle felt was somewhat of a dull life.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Ojai. It was just that, despite its many vibrant qualities, Ojai was still a quiet town—and Danielle was done with quiet. She longed for fulfillment and excitement, for a sense of purpose that she hadn’t got to experience as she struggled to find her way while everybody else went ahead and left her behind.
She knew she wouldn’t find any of that in her hometown—not because it was Ojai, but because it was her hometown. People were meant to explore the world and step out of their comfort zone. Danielle had never even stepped out of the Californian border. She longed for a change of scenery, and the sooner that happened the better.
Which was why she had taken up a nighttime/weekend job while she also put herself through nursing school. The extra money would help her put Ojai in her rearview mirror sooner rather than later.
While she worked to bring her life finally to its starting point, Danielle appreciated the diversity that admittedly stopped by the Wooden Horse, where both the regulars and the newcomers would occasionally make for an interesting night.
And yet, for all of the people that she had seen, she strongly suspected no poet or madman could ever be as interesting as the man who had stepped through the doors of the pub about half an hour earlier. She had noticed him immediately; it was impossible not to. Danielle wasn’t usually one to notice physical beauty in men, mostly because she knew that the last thing she needed in order to leave Ojai was to fall in love with someone from Ojai. But it was very hard not to do a double take with this man.
He wore his blond hair short and cropped, which made the flawless quality of his features appear even more striking. He had high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw that belonged on the cover of a magazine. Even though he was sitting at a far table from the bar, it was hard not to notice the proud, almost regal way in which he carried himself. He sat with his back straight and his shoulders squared, as if he were ready to take on anything life might decide to throw in his direction. He looked fierce and confident and absurdly handsome, and Danielle was captivated.
She spent most of her shift that night throwing looks at the table where the man sat. Their eyes met a couple of times, and then Danielle would quickly look away and feel herself flush scarlet.
“Yep, I noticed him too,” Jack eventually informed her as he passed her by with a box of imported draughts hauled over his shoulder.
Danielle suddenly pretended to be extremely busy making a mojito, even though by that time of night the pub had half‑emptied and no one had asked for a refill.
“Who?” she asked casually.
She could almost hear Jack rolling his eyes behind her. “Come on, Dany, spare me the charade. I’ve seen you looking at him.” Next thing Danielle knew, Jack’s voice was very close to her ear as he added, “And it’s all right, you know? You’re allowed to ogle.”
Danielle pulled away sharply and turned her head to look at her friend in outrage. “I wasn’t ‘ogling’ anyone!”
Jack arched a dark eyebrow. “Really?” There was a satisfied smirk on his lips, as if finally catching her in the very human activity of flirting (and oh God, is that what she had been doing?) had made his night.
Which probably was exactly the case. A few years older than her and having worked at the pub since his teenage years, Jack had ended up taking Danielle under his wing. They had bonded immediately, and soon enough the man had become a sort of surrogate for the older brother Danielle had never had. He was constantly trying to fix her up with somebody, convinced as he was that resurrecting her love life (or at the very least, her sex life) would work wonders for her.
“Yes, really,” Danielle said, even though she knew she wasn’t fooling either of them. “Are you sure you’re not interested?”
Jack and Danielle understood each other in a way that she had never experienced before meeting him. He could have been the perfect man for her…if only he wasn’t gay.
“Oh, believe you me, I’m very interested,” Jack said, glancing momentarily in the direction of the stranger’s table. “But it’s not me that he’s been eyeing all night.”
Danielle blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“He wants you, Dany.”
“He does not!”
“Really? Then why is he coming over here?”
Danielle turned around and sure enough, the blond‑haired stranger was walking up to the counter. For some inexplicable reason, her mouth went dry. She hated herself a little for it; she should be getting a grip. After all, it wasn’t like she had never seen a handsome man before.
Except that, in a way, she hadn’t—she certainly had never seen anyone this handsome.
If Danielle had noticed his bearing before, now that she had a full‑figure view she could also appreciate the man’s body. He was tall and walked with a stride that oozed confidence and relaxation. He was dressed simply, with blue jeans and a black T‑shirt that hugged his torso in all the right places. Even through the thin fabric of the cotton, Danielle could tell that he was lithe but muscular.
She swallowed hard and tried to get some control back over her inexplicably racing heart.
Beside her, Jack snorted. “Yeah, and you’re not ogling.” He gave her a pat on the shoulder and subtly disappeared to the back of the pub.
Danielle didn’t have much time to panic over whether the stranger had heard the exchange, because next thing she knew the man was leaning against the counter and addressing her directly.
“Hi,” he said.
Even his voice was smooth.
Danielle cleared her throat. “Hi,” she said, and then she was suddenly struck with inspiration as she finally remembered her role. “What can I get you?”
“Another pint would be good,” the man said, placing an empty glass on the counter. “Please, don’t bother with a fresh glass. This one will be fine.”
Danielle eyed him curiously. “All right,” she said, uncertain. It was a bit of an odd request, but she complied anyway. “What were you drinking?”
Danielle nodded and set out to draw the perfect stout. The Wooden Horse prided itself in its genuine Irish origins and in being the only pub in town that served actual pints, imported draughts from Europe, and ales from local breweries.
“Thanks,” the man said when Danielle set the refilled glass in front of him.
She would have expected him to go back to the table from where he had appeared to be people watching for the night, but instead the man settled himself on a stool at the counter.
“Do you mind if I hang out here?” he asked, probably having caught her surprised look. “It was starting to get a bit lonely back there.”
“Sure,” Danielle said, as casually as she could. “Make yourself comfortable.”
The man toasted her with his glass and took a hearty swig. “You draw a very good pint.”
Danielle smiled, pleased. It had not been an easy thing to learn and she was particularly proud of how good she had gotten at it. “Thank you.”
For the next half hour, she tried to think of something, anything to say to this beautiful stranger. As she worked, she tried to come up with conversation topics in her head, or even just opening lines that would not sound awkward, dorky, or downright creepy. But nothing came to mind.
On his part, the man didn’t seem to mind and appeared perfectly content to just sit in silence, enjoy his impeccably draught beer, and soak in the ambiance and the people. He would continue to look around, sometimes becoming so engrossed in someone that he would blatantly run his gaze over the whole length of their figure.
Danielle couldn’t tell who this man was really interested in, if women or men—he seemed equally fascinated by both sexes.
“So?” Jack asked when she appeared in the back, having left another of their co‑workers to man the bar for a while. “Have you chatted him up yet?”
Danielle shrugged. “Not really.”
Jack looked up from the newly arrived shipment of wines he was sorting through. “What do you mean, not really?”
Danielle looked away briefly, embarrassed. “I don’t know what to say to him.”
“For Christ’s sake, Dany,” Jack cried in exasperation. “Just say anything. Ask him where he’s from, what he does…anything. Chances are he’s not interested in conversation anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s the other thing,” Danielle said. She chose to ignore the fact that she felt like an idiot for not having come up herself with such simple, casual questions as those Jack had just suggested. What was it about this guy that short‑circuited her brain, anyway? “He seems to be looking for something…uh…someone.”
Jack frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he just…he has checked out a few people here and there.”
“So?” Jack was watching her in confusion, and Danielle knew then that her friend didn’t get it.
“So, he’s probably looking for a one‑night stand.”
Danielle rolled his eyes. “I’m not interested.”
“Oh, come on!” Jack laughed. “You never were such a prude.”
“It’s not about that,” Danielle said. “It’s just that he was looking around as if he was in a meat shop or something…”
“And you’re not just a piece of meat?” Jack guessed.
It made her uncomfortable, the way the man had been studying a few of the people in the pub that night. He wasn’t necessarily doing it in a creepy way, but he also appeared to be looking for something—something specific. Danielle couldn’t put her finger on it, but it made her uneasy.
On the other hand, she also felt drawn to this stranger in a way that she had not felt drawn to anybody in a very long time.
“I guess there’s no harm in at least talking to him…” she heard herself say, thinking out loud.
Jack lit up instantly. “Good girl!” he said. “Maybe you’ll at least get an interesting conversation out of it. And if he turns out to be an asshole, you can always kick him out.”
Danielle smiled uncertainly. They both knew she wasn’t the “kicking out” type; she couldn’t even send back soup in restaurants.
“All right then,” she said after a moment. “I’m going back out there.”
“You do that,” Jack said. “And remember, keep it simple. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What do you do?’.”
Danielle nodded, once again wondering why she hadn’t thought of those easy conversation starters before.
But when she went back to the bar, she was disappointed to find that the man had left. The glass was empty, and there was a bill stuck under it. Danielle looked around and tried to tell whether anyone else was missing that had been in the pub before. She shook her head at herself as soon as she realized what she was doing. Why did she care who this man went home with? Why did the thought of him in bed with someone make her feel so uncomfortable?
Could one even be jealous of a stranger?
The rest of the night passed by incredibly slow. Danielle couldn’t explain it. Even on slow nights, she usually enjoyed working at the pub enough that time would pass quickly. Tonight, the two hours separating her from the end of her shift felt like two days.
She just couldn’t get the blond stranger out of her head, and that was in itself extremely weird. Men rarely caught her interest these days, and even those who did, did so for a few fleeting moments. This man seemed to be sticking. Already he was getting into Danielle’s thoughts and under her skin alarmingly fast. There had been something about him. Sure, he was gorgeous, but it was more than that. Again, Danielle couldn’t put her finger on it, but whatever it was it must be something good, for this guy to still be on her mind.
The more Danielle tried to tell herself that it had just been another brief encounter with a random patron, the more she found herself unable to really believe it. She wasn’t sure whether she would ever see that man again, but she knew deep down that meeting him had not been an ordinary occurrence.
Jack tried to make her talk about it a couple of times, but to her friend’s credit, he quickly desisted—and that worried Danielle more than anything. How out of it must she look for Jack to relent so uncharacteristically?
When two o’clock finally struck and the pub finally closed, Danielle set out to perform her clean‑up duties with renewed purpose. The faster she tidied up the place, the sooner she could get out of there. Perhaps a change of setting was all she needed to get the stranger out of her mind.
Forty minutes later, after she had said goodnight to Jack and walked out of the back door, her thoughts had not changed course. They were still on that man who had looked so dazzling and so extraordinary, and so out of this world that Danielle still couldn’t wrap her mind around it.
She was still thinking about him when the voice spoke.
Danielle started and nearly jumped out of her skin, almost dropping the keys to her car in the process. She whirled around, deeply wishing that she had taken her girlfriends’ advice and started carrying pepper spray in her purse.
She relaxed when she saw the stranger who had stolen her thoughts walking towards her—which, on second thought, was just as baffling as anything else that concerned the guy. Why would she relax upon seeing him? She didn’t know the man. Who was to say that he wasn’t setting out to attack her?
But something in the pit of her stomach told her that she had nothing to fear, and for once Danielle decided not to question it and just relish the relief brought on by the realization that she wasn’t about to be attacked by some maniac in a parking lot.
“It’s Danielle, right?” the man asked as he caught up with her. “I’ve heard your friend call you.”
Danielle watched him curiously. “Uh…yes,” she said, confused. “Can I help you? What are you doing here? Did you forget something inside?”
“No,” the man replied. “I mean, yes. In a way.”
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you all night.”
Danielle arched an eyebrow. “And you decided to do it now, in an empty parking lot at the end of my shift?”
The man cringed and chuckled nervously. “Doesn’t look good, does it?”
“No,” Danielle said, as coolly as she could even though she found herself fighting off an amused grin. “It doesn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” the man offered. “I swear I mean no harm. I just couldn’t work up the nerve until now.”
Danielle stared at him. Did the most gloriously attractive man she had ever seen just admit that he couldn’t work up the nerve to talk to her?
“Are you making fun of me?” she blurted out before she could stop herself. The situation just seemed too absurd.
The man looked crestfallen. “What? No,” he said quickly. “It’s the truth. Admittedly, I could’ve just come back tomorrow, but I knew that if I didn’t talk to you tonight I would regret it.”
Danielle watched him warily. “What do you want to talk about?”
The stranger shrugged. “Believe it or not, I haven’t been able to come up with a topic of conversation. I just know I’d like to get to know you.” He sighed and ran a hand nervously through his short blond hair. “Shit,” he said, exhaling a frustrated breath. “Look, I know I must sound crazy to you, or creepy, or both.” He paused, maybe to allow Danielle to jump in and deny it, but Danielle wasn’t about to…not just yet. “But I’ve been noticing you all night. I don’t normally notice people, I’m…a bit of a loner. It’s been ages since anyone struck my interest.”
In spite of her better judgment, Danielle found herself smiling. “I think I know how you feel,” she admitted.
The man looked surprised. “Really?”
Danielle shrugged. “I don’t usually notice people either,” she said. “Or rather, I usually don’t allow myself to notice them.”
The stranger cocked his head slightly to the side, appraising her curiously. “But you’ve noticed me?”
Danielle let out a snort before she could stop herself. “It’s kind of hard not to,” she said. “Have you looked in a mirror recently?”
Something darted across the man’s handsome features, a strange look that was gone in a flash. “Not recently, no.”
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