A hand lands on my shoulder.
My heart knocks against my ribs, and I whirl to face my attacker. There are a lot of people who might have followed me in here. The guy whose wallet I stole. Or just some random asshole who wants to take what I won't give him. I'm prepared for a fight.
I'm not prepared for West.
His dark skin blends into the shadows, highlighting his eyes and the white of his teeth when he speaks. "What the fuck, Bianca?"
His shock mirrors mine. How did he follow me without me noticing? He must have kept pace from the club. I'm losing my touch, and at the worst possible time. "Can I help you?" I say coolly, stalling for time.
He rolls his eyes and reaches for me. I have a second's panic as his hand comes closer—is he going to hurt me? Is he going to touch me? Then his long fingers pluck the thin wad of cash from my bustier. He holds it up to the faint light. Somehow he managed to do that almost without touching my skin.
That can't be disappointment I feel, can it?
"Stealing," he says flatly.
I hate the judgment in his tone, the censure. "What's it to you?"
"Why do you need this?" he counters. "I know what dancers make at the Grand. And I know where you live. You can afford better than that."
My eyes narrow. "How the hell do you know where I live?"
"I've read the security profiles on all employees at the Grand," he answers smoothly. Which isn't a bad excuse, since the security company does pretty intense workups. He ruins the innocent act by adding, "I've also followed you home a couple times."
It bothers me that he followed me home, but it bothers me way more that I didn't notice. "Looking for a little side action? I didn't know you were into that, Boy Scout."
West is a bouncer at the Grand, the club where I work. The girls call him Boy Scout because he never looks at us wrong, never asks for a private dance. He's a total gentleman, and exactly the kind of trouble I don't need.
"I'm worried about you," he says, his voice strangely honest, the kind of earnest I almost didn't know existed until I met him. He's naive, right? Way too gullible. I just hate how it makes my heart tug.
"Don't be," I tell him, snatching the wad of cash from his hand. "I can take care of myself."
He leans back just a fraction, and I get the feeling he's inspecting me. Whatever he sees, I doubt he's impressed. He works for Candy, who owns the Grand after Ivan gave it to her, and she has a gorgeous body. Hell, all the dancers have gorgeous bodies.
Meanwhile I'm too tired, too thin. Months of ramen noodles will do that to a girl. I can keep dancing, though, keep moving—muscle memory and all that. The same way I stole that wallet.
"Let me take you to dinner," he says.
My heart gives another kick, and I know this time it isn't from fear. I nod toward the blue-glow horizon, skyscrapers like snow-capped mountains. It's already morning. "A little late for that."
"I'm still hungry," he says, his voice low—and seductive? I'm not sure what makes me think that, except that I'm feeling a little seduced. The wetness in dark places has nothing to do with windswept rain.
And that makes him dangerous. "No, thanks."
He pauses, not seeming particularly let down. He seems thoughtful instead—as if I'm a puzzle he's trying to figure out. "I know this great little Italian place. They stay open late as long as there's customers. And there's always customers."
Italian, huh? I bet they have lots of things that are cheesy and hot and—
Damn it, no.
"They bring you a basket of garlic bread to start," he continues like a goddamn sex-phone operator, and I'm paying by the minute. And why shouldn't I listen? I put on a show every night. "Fresh from the oven, with the butter browned around the crust. Sometimes I can get full just off the bread, but that's a shame."
My mouth is completely dry. "It is?"
"It is, because the fried calamari is the best I've ever had. Crispy and salty. You'll be licking your fingers afterward. I know I will."
A sound escapes me, something like a moan. I'm too damn hungry to be embarrassed about it. "Then what?"
"Well, that's just the appetizer. For the main course there's so much to choose from. I've been there so many times but I don't think I've tried them all. There's the lasagna with the filling that's so creamy one forkful will fill you up. Then there's the Tuscan filet, cooked to order. But I think the best dish I've had there—"
My mouth isn't dry anymore. It's watering. I'm literally salivating at what he's describing, and he knows it. How does he know this about me? Why does he care? The cash slips from my fingers and falls to the damp alley ground, and I don't even care. I don't want the cash. I don't want to be a thief. I just want him to take me on a date to this place and never let it end.