He has a beer lifted halfway to his mouth, but his jaw is slack, and he’s staring at me. No, “stare” does not quite do justice to the look he’s giving me. His eyes raze me, and when I lift my hand to touch my neck, subconsciously covering my all-too-visible cleavage, I’m surprised my skin doesn’t flake away into ashes from the fire in his gaze.
Adrenaline surges through me, and for a moment it feels like a fight-or-flight impulse, and I wonder why my brain still reads his presence as dangerous. But then I stop and think. It’s not quite the same sensation. Fight or flight generally makes me either panic or freeze up. It’s about fear. This is different. When seconds pass and he still hasn’t taken his eyes off of me, I recognize the extra sensation riding on the adrenaline’s heels.
He makes me feel powerful.
I drop my eyes, overwhelmed by the rush of pleasure I feel at that idea, and am faced instead with his costume, which I hadn’t noticed before. Or more correctly, his near lack of a costume. His chest is bare, and I can’t help but measure him with my eyes. His chest is broad, hewn in muscles that couldn’t be more defined if an artist sculpted them. His skin is a warm bronze, and it looks so smooth to the touch. Everywhere. Except for the small line of dark hair disappearing beneath a strange, leatherlike cloth.
God. A loincloth. He’s wearing nothing but a loincloth.
Then he’s moving toward me, and I don’t know where to look. His dangerous gaze. His naked chest. That cloth that hides only . . . oh, mercy.
“Girl genius,” he says, and I can hear the smirk in his voice without even looking away from the suddenly interesting spot on the floor. Then he shifts, and something changes in his voice when he says, “Nell.”
A part of me likes hearing him say my name entirely too much. And that part . . . is a fool.
“Still ignoring my request that you stay away?” I ask stiffly.
“If you wanted me to stay away, you definitely shouldn’t have worn that.”
A furious blush steals across my cheeks and down my neck. “Dylan insisted I wear a costume, and this was all that was left at the store.”
“Thank God for Dylan, then. And for procrastination. Can you do me a favor and say, ‘Hit me, baby, one more time?’ Pretty please?”
Rather than answering, I actually hit him. But when my palm makes contact with the hard muscle of his shoulder, I wish I hadn’t. Because now that I know what his bare skin feels like, I’m not sure I’ll be able to forget the sensation. My brain is already cataloging the feel, comparing it to all the other people I’ve touched, and coming up empty for comparison. Is it normal for him to feel so warm?
It’s the alcohol, I decide. It must be. I read something once about it dilating blood vessels and bringing warmer blood closer to the surface of the skin.
Yes, that’s absolutely it.
Dylan comes back to me then, and I’m so grateful I latch on to her arm like she’s my port in a storm. And frankly, “storm” seems too tame a word for the overwhelming atmosphere of this place and the guy standing across from me.
Silas joins her, and then I notice a few more familiar faces in the group. Stella, dressed in a stunning Greek goddess costume. Ryan stands just behind her shoulder in a suit with a martini glass in his hand. I’m guessing he’s the dude from that “shaken, not stirred” movie that I can’t seem to remember the name of.
“Here’s my question, Teo,” Stella says, stepping up beside Torres to close off our little circle. “Your normal tendency at parties is to lose articles of clothing as the night wears on. Dare I hope that you’re working backward tonight and will put clothes on as you drink?”
“Maybe tonight I’ll focus on helping other people lose their clothes, for a change. We can call it Strip Halloween. It will be a huge hit. I promise. Take this little Grecian sheet dress of yours. One good pull, and you could start the game.”
Ryan shoulders his way into the circle then, and Stella stiffens beside him. It’s Torres who says something: “For God’s sake, man. I was joking. Loosen up. This is a party.”
Those words don’t seem to assure his friend. “I know.”
Stella rolls her eyes and walks away, over toward the kitchen counter. “And on that note, I’m getting a drink. Anyone else need one?”
Several of the college bucket lists I consulted online had “do a keg stand” listed among the tasks. Along with “play beer pong” and other alcohol-related festivities. After a little more Internet research, I learned what exactly a keg stand and beer pong were. And considering the only alcohol I’ve ever had was the wine during Communion at church, I figure I need to start small. Which is why “drink alcohol” is number six on my list.
“I do,” I say, leaving the group to follow her. Standing at the counter, I survey all the options, and even without looking in the ice chests by my feet, I’m overwhelmed. Stella opens one of the chests and grabs a bottle of beer. I decide my safest bet is to copy her, so I grab one, too.
After she opens hers, she reaches out a hand for mine and opens it for me using a complicated-looking little gadget that reminds me of an oversize Swiss Army knife.
“Thanks.” How horrifying would it have been for a girl who prides herself on her intelligence above all else to have been stumped over how to open a bottle of beer?
“No problem. I have a feeling I’m going to need a lot of these tonight.”
I want to ask her about Ryan, about the obvious tension, not just between them, but among the whole group where Stella is concerned. But I remember Dylan’s warning to be understanding with her. And I know myself well enough to know that sometimes I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth, and whatever is going on, I don’t want to cause trouble by prying where I shouldn’t. So, I follow her lead and take a big gulp of the beer in my hand.