Home > Seduced(2)

Author: Lili Valente

I would feel bad for the instructor, but what kind of chef books a kitchen without access to a bathroom? Sure, there’s a handwashing station, but the class is three hours long. Most humans need to hit a toilet at least once every three hours, and that doesn’t include the travel time to reach this dreary corner of the East Village. The closest subway station is eight blocks away.

“The tacos were brutal,” I agree. “Way too many spiky bug legs in one tiny corn tortilla.”

“So many. So, so many.” The woman’s face pales until I can count every freckle on her adorable little nose. Even kneeling on the floor by a bucket of sick, this woman is so cute it should be illegal.

I have to know her name and her favorite recipe and when she got hooked on cooking and if that hint of a dimple I spotted on her right cheek pops when she smiles. Which means we need to bail. I can already tell smiles aren’t going to be forthcoming as long as she’s surrounded by bins full of crickets and the mealworms drying on the counter behind us for the next class.

I nod toward the door. “Want to get out of here? There’s a tiki bar a couple blocks over that has great mai tais.”

Relief sags her shoulders. “That would be amazing. Yes. Thank you.”

“I’m Cameron,” I say, extending a hand.

“Natalie.” She reaches for my fingers only to halt before we touch and snatch her hand back to her chest. “I may have wiped my mouth with this hand. I don’t remember. It’s all a blur of legs and crunchy bodies and my head in a bucket. I’m so sorry.”

I laugh. “No worries. You can clean up in the bar bathroom. They actually have one, and if I remember correctly, it’s not totally gross.”

“Thank you,” she says, as I help her to her feet. “And thank you for being so quick with the bucket. When I realized that door was a closet, not a toilet, I froze for a second.”

“My pleasure.”

She arches a wry brow. “Really? Got a vomit fetish I should know about?”

I shake my head. “Nope. But I’m pretty into dimples, so...”

She smiles and that shy dimple comes out to play, making me ridiculously happy. “Oh. Good. I happen to have one of those. And you are insanely cute, so…” She blinks faster, shaking her head as her cheeks flush pink. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. I’m obviously still suffering from cricket-related trauma. I don’t usually hit on strangers a few minutes after nearly vomiting on them. Or hit on them at all, really. I haven’t dated in years.” She winces and adds with a laugh, “Shit. I didn’t mean to say that, either. It’s fine if you want to cancel. I’m…a lot right now.”

“I don’t want to cancel,” I assure her.

“I talk a lot too, though. And you’ll have to walk me to a subway station after drinks and tell me how to get home,” she hurries on, “because I just moved here, and despite my allegedly high IQ, I can’t seem to get uptown without getting lost at least three times.” She lifts worried eyes to mine. “And I probably shouldn’t have told you that, either. What if you’re a predator with a vomit fetish who plans on getting me drunk, giving me the wrong directions, and then snatching me off the street when I emerge in the wrong part of town—lost and confused and wondering if moving to New York is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done?”

“I’ll call you a car and put you in it right outside the bar,” I say. “And we’ll only have one drink. And if it makes you feel better, you can call my roommates on the walk over. I live with three women who can vouch for the fact that I’m completely harmless.”

She holds my gaze for a long beat. “I’m not so sure about that, Cameron. Harmless is subjective, after all.”

Before I can ask her what she means or figure out why her words make heat creep up my spine, she claps her hands together and nods. “But that all sounds good. Let’s bail. Drinks are on me.”

Fifteen minutes later, we’ve made our excuses to the instructor—a lean hippie in her sixties with stringy blond-gray hair who is clearly relieved to see us go—shrugged on our coats and trudged through the winter slush to Cursed Kahuna Tiki, the best tiki bar in town and the only reason to travel this far east in lower Manhattan.

I order drinks while Natalie hits the restroom, emerging with a big grin that makes my stomach flip and my heart do weird things in my chest. “I had a toothbrush and toothpaste in my backpack,” she says, bouncing onto the stool beside mine at the nearly abandoned bar. Aside from two women knitting at the table by the window and an older man reading the paper at the opposite end of the bar, we have the place to ourselves.

“Awesome,” I say. “Feel better?”

“So much better,” she says with a sigh. “So good I’m not even going to ask how old you are.”

I slide her drink over on a coaster. “I’m twenty—”

“Shh!” She presses a finger to my lips that sends electricity crackling across my skin. Her lips part and her pupils dilate as she adds in a breathy voice, “I told you I didn’t want to know.”

“No, you said you weren’t going to ask,” I murmur, loving the feel of my lips moving against her skin. “And does it really matter?”

Her brows furrow but her finger remains pressed to my mouth. “It matters. But you’re right, I did say that. I’m thirty-four.”

My brows shoot up and she laughs.

“Yeah,” she says, abandoning my lips to grasp her straw, making me jealous of the swirly pink plastic. “If that makes you want to head for the hills, I totally get it. No hard feelings.”

“No, not at all,” I say. “I’m just surprised. You don’t look thirty-four.”

She points to the middle of her face. “It’s the pug nose. And the freckles.”

“It’s the whole package,” I say, swirling my straw through the spiced-rum and pineapple-scented drink. “And I’m twenty-four, completely legal and flirting approved.”

Her lips hook up on one side. “Yeah? So, you plan on flirting with me?”

“I’ve been flirting with you,” I say. “Or trying to, anyway. Maybe I need to up my game?”

She nods seriously. “Maybe. I wouldn’t know. Like I said, it’s been years, and the last time I flirted with someone, he turned out to be gay.”

I laugh. “Sorry about that.”

She shrugs and takes a sip of her drink. “Don’t be. It was fine. And we ended up becoming best friends. Henri actually moved to New York when I did so we could keep bestie-ing together.”

“Nice. So, you’re not totally alone in the city, then.”

She shakes her head. “No. And I’m grateful for that. I really am. It’s so hard to meet people here. Everyone’s so guarded and suspicious. I keep trying to be friendly in the park and at the museums I’ve visited, but strangers act like I’m assaulting them with my banter. That’s why I signed up for the cricket class. I thought maybe I’d meet some fellow foodies who would want to be friends.”

“Then mission accomplished. I’m a foodie, and I’d love to be your friend.”

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