No more blind dates. Catrina sent the text message and then slipped her phone back into her purse. She’d said the exact same thing last month after the disastrous date with Kelsey’s coworker, but this time, she meant it. Vincent had a good excuse, but she still found herself seated at the bar alone drinking a hard cider on a Saturday night while her car sat in the garage waiting to be fixed. She’d much rather be with one of her friends or sitting on her own comfortable couch.
Yep, no more arranged dates no matter how much her friends pestered her. The next time she saw Kelsey or Ella, she’d let them know that.
“Do you need anything else?” the bartender asked after setting a sandwich in front of another customer.
Cat’s stomach picked that moment to rumble. She was already out; maybe she should eat. “Can I see a menu?”
The bartender slid a menu across the bar. “Let me know when you’re ready,” she said before walking away.
Cat eyed the choices and ignored the customers around her. From the corner of her eye, she saw someone take the seat next to her, but didn’t glance up. If she were sitting at the bar inside Masterson’s, she’d look over, fully expecting to see someone she knew. You couldn’t sit inside the popular restaurant in North Salem and not see someone you knew. O’Leary’s, the busy downtown pub she sat in now, was a different story. Located at the heart of the city, she never bumped into anyone she knew from her hometown.
“Hey, Cat. I thought that was you,” a male voice said.
Cat looked away from her menu and to her new neighbor, surprised to see Tony Bates seated next to her. “Hi, Tony. How’s it going?”
A few years older than her, she’d known Tony all her life, although she hadn’t seen him all that often since she’d moved out of North Salem.
“Good. You?” Tony gave her his trademark smile. The one she suspected had melted more than one woman’s heart.
Cat had to admit she wasn’t 100 percent immune to his smile. Tony Bates was one handsome devil, and he knew it.
“Hangin’ in there. Are you meeting someone?”
“No, I stop in here occasionally on my way home,” Tony answered.
“Long time no see, Tony,” the bartender said, stopping near them. “What can I get you?”
“Hi, Cora. How about a beer? Whatever you have on tap tonight.”
Cora gave him a smile and walked away.
“What about you? I’ve never seen you in here.”
Tony turned his full attention toward her again, his intense gaze exciting her.
“I was supposed to meet a date at the Scarlet Letter. He canceled at the last minute, so I stopped in here.”
“Jerk. It’s his loss. What did he give for a reason?”
Tony gave her a look of disbelief. “That’s an original one.”
“Ella’s cousin is a doctor, so it’s possible.”
“Still his loss.”
Cora returned with Tony’s beer and looked in Cat’s direction. “Have you decided on anything?”
“No, sorry, not yet,” Cat answered.
“What about you, Tony? Can I get you anything else?” Cora leaned forward with a calculating smile, and Cat wondered just how well the two knew each other.
“All set for now, Cora. Thanks.”
The pretty bartender pulled back, her smile gone. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
Cat glanced at the menu again as her stomach rumbled.
“Since we’re both alone, what do you say we finish these drinks and find a better place for dinner? Other than the buffalo wings, there’s not much decent on the menu here.”
“Saturday night and Tony Bates doesn’t have a date? Is the world coming to an end?”
Over the years, Tony had become known as North Salem’s resident playboy.
“Even I need a break from time to time. What do you say?”
Tony reached for his beer mug, the movement drawing her eyes to his long, tanned fingers and the scar that ran across the top of his right hand. She’d seen Tony more times than she could count and had never noticed it.
“Sure, why not.” Cat put down the menu, and right away, Cora came back over.
“Did you decide?” Cora asked in a less friendly tone than the one she’d used when Cat sat alone.
“I’m going to pass tonight, thanks.”
Cora shrugged and turned her gaze back to Tony. “What about you, Tony? Change your mind about eating?” The bartender’s curt tone softened as she spoke to him.
“Not tonight, Cora.” Tony handed the bartender the money for his beer.
Cat and Tony made idle chitchat as they finished their drinks, and Cat couldn’t help but notice the looks the bartender kept sending in Tony’s direction. She figured the two had either gone out a time or two, or Cora hoped he would ask her out. She wouldn’t be surprised if the first was true. Cora looked like Tony’s type. She was pretty and had a knock-out body, something Cat couldn’t help but notice thanks to the sprayed on jeans and tight black O’Leary’s Pub T-shirt Cora wore.
Actually, Cora seemed like her brother’s type too. Striker didn’t go for conservative women either. He’d never admit it, but in many ways, Striker and Tony were a lot alike. Both were carefree bachelors who based their dating decisions on the way a woman looked rather than her personality.
“All set?” Tony asked as he put his empty beer mug down.
She’d finished her drink five minutes ago. “Ready.” Cat hopped off the stool and waited as the bartender spoke to Tony again.
“Cora seems to like you,” Cat said as they walked toward the exit.
Tony pushed open the door and held it for her. “We went out a few times in the spring. Tonight’s the first time I’ve seen her since June.”
Judging by Cora’s behavior, she wanted to see more of Tony. “I think she’d like you to take her out again.”
Tony shrugged as they stepped outside. “It’s a nice night. We could walk to the Seaside Steak House,” Tony said, referring to a restaurant about a block over.
“I don’t like red meat. Never have.”
“Are you serious?” Tony looked at her as if she’d admitted she worshiped the devil. “Okay, how about Turin? It’s just down the street.”
“Perfect, I get takeout from there all the time. They have the best eggplant parm.”
“I’ve never tried it, but their homemade pasta is good,” Tony said as they crossed the street.
“Do you work nearby?” Cat asked as they entered the restaurant. At some point, her brother or father may have mentioned where the gym Tony owned was located, but she couldn’t recall, and it seemed like a good question. In all honesty, she didn’t have a lot of experience starting up conversation with men that didn’t involve whatever current project she worked on.
“Boston, but I stop in O’Leary’s once in awhile. Sometimes it’s nice to walk into a place where you don’t recognize every single face.”
“I know the feeling. That’s why Zack and I originally got a place in Salem instead of moving back to town.”
“Since you were meeting some doctor tonight, I’m assuming you’re not with Zack anymore.”
Cat figured everyone in North Salem knew she and Zachary Cummings, her high school sweetheart, had split after almost ten years together.
“No. We haven’t been together since Valentine’s Day. I’m surprised Pop didn’t say something. I think he was more upset than me.”
Tony laughed. “That’s not the kind of thing he’d mention at practice.” For a moment, Tony looked confused. “Didn’t they go deep-sea fishing together a few weeks ago?”
“Yep. I know, weird, right? Zack looks at Pop as almost a father. Even before we got together our senior year, he saw my dad as more than just a football coach. He’d come over and talk whenever he needed a man’s opinion. They even go hunting together.”
“The football players have always loved your dad. I think that’s why we’ve always had such a great team. No one wants to let him down.”
She agreed. Pop had a way with the guys on the high school football team. They gave 100 percent because they wanted to, not because it was expected of them.
“Pop says the players love you.” Well, those weren’t his exact words. It had been more along the lines of idolize. According to her father, half the guys on the team wanted a life like Tony’s someday. A successful small business owner who had a different attractive female on his arm every other month and a new Corvette parked next to a Harley in his garage.
“He’s glad you came back this year as an assistant coach.”
“This might be my last season. I already told him that.”
Cat waited until a waitress took their orders before she spoke again.
“And has he already started trying to change your mind?” She knew her dad well. Pop had had many assistant coaches over the years, but Tony and her older brother Striker were his favorites.
“How’d you guess?”
Tony smiled at her, a dimple appearing in his cheek, and Cat wished she had a fan handy. Wow, was she suddenly warm.
“I suggested he talk to Sean if I don’t come back.”
She could picture Sean O’Brien, Tony’s BFF, as Pop’s coach. At one time, Sean had been North Salem’s star quarterback. Even now after all these years, Pop mentioned what a shame it was that Sean hadn’t played in college. Pop strongly believed if Sean had, he would’ve made it to the NFL.
“Doesn’t he work at MIT’s Lincoln Lab now?”
She’d overheard a conversation at Peggy Sue’s one morning about how Sean had secretly graduated from MIT and landed a job at the well-known laboratory in Lexington. She probably wouldn’t have remembered if it hadn’t surprised her, as well as the entire town, so much. While she’d never considered Sean stupid, she hadn’t pictured him the academic type. Evidently, she’d underestimated him because he’d earned a master’s degree in physics from MIT.
“Yeah, but I think he’s got some flexibility with his hours. He’d be good at it too.”
Their waitress returned with their meals, and Cat didn’t miss the quick glance the waitress threw over her shoulder as she walked away. Looking back at Tony, Cat was about to tell him the waitress seemed interested in him, but the words never made it past her lips.
She wished she could capture Tony’s expression in a picture and pull it out whenever her ego needed a little boosting. Men gave her the once-over on a somewhat regular basis. As a computer engineer, she worked in a predominately male field, but, until now, she’d never had a man eye her as if she were his favorite sports car and dream swimsuit model all rolled into one.
Unable to hold his gaze, she looked at the eggplant Parmesan on her plate, a bizarre combination of embarrassment and excitement washing over her.
He’d stopped at O’Leary’s Pub for a drink–– nothing else. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t walk into every place with the intent of leaving with a woman. Sure it happened, but he did often stop somewhere for a drink or meal and leave alone. That had been his plan tonight.
Even when he’d recognized Catrina Striker at the bar, the idea of leaving with her hadn’t occurred to him. A former resident of North Salem, he’d never looked at her as anything but his buddy’s kid sister. Tonight though, when she’d sounded rather down because her date bailed on her, he’d felt like he should do something.
Now, as he watched Cat walk back to their table after a trip to the ladies’ room, he found himself noticing, for the second time that night, things he’d never noticed before. She might not have on skintight jeans like Cora at the pub, but her outfit highlighted all her curves. Tony didn’t know what her day-to-day routine was like, but he suspected she didn’t sit in a chair all day eating cookies. No one got a body like that from sitting in a chair.
“Our waitress stopped by. She asked if we wanted dessert.” Tony watched as Cat brushed her long, dark blonde hair over her shoulder again, and he wondered if it was as soft as it looked.
“I’m not interested in dessert, but go ahead if you want something.”
He wanted something, but it wasn’t dessert. Unless by dessert she meant some whipped cream and her naked body. Since he doubted that was on the menu, he pulled his wallet out. “All set.”
His body definitely had the desire for something it shouldn’t want, considering who sat across from him. Cat was Striker’s kid sister. While he didn’t consider the guy his closest friend or anything, they were friends. They hung out from time to time and coached football together. That alone made Cat off limits.
He also coached with her father. Starting late in the summer and continuing until at least Thanksgiving, he saw her father five or six days a week on the football field. He liked and respected Edward Striker, which meant he shouldn’t be thinking about how the guy’s daughter would look naked with nothing but her long hair covering her breasts.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the thought out of his stupid head.
Tony placed enough cash to cover the bill and a tip inside the folder containing the guest receipt. “Lets go.”
“Wait. What’s my half of the bill?” Cat pulled a wallet from her shoulder bag.
Pushing back his chair, Tony had no intentions of answering. Dinner had been his idea, and in hindsight, it had been a bad one. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Tony, come on.” She reached for the folder, but he pulled it away.
“Next spring you can buy me a burger or something at a block party.”
Cat grabbed the folder from his hands. “I don’t think so.” Without looking at the total, she pulled out one of the twenties he put inside and slipped in two tens.
“Now we can go.” She shoved the twenty she’d removed into his front pocket.
Of course, the head residing south of his belt took notice and decided now was the time for a full and proper hello. Tony mentally cursed.
“You’re bossy, aren’t you?”
Cat smiled and nodded, her hair brushing against his arm.
Yeah, just as soft as it looks.
Tony followed her outside without further argument. It seemed the wisest decision.
“I’ll walk with you back to O’Leary’s.” Since they’d met inside the pub, he assumed her car remained in O’Leary’s parking lot, and it was getting dark.
“No need. I walked there tonight. My car died on my way home and got towed to R&M Garage, but I only live on Curtis Street. I can walk.”
He didn’t know where Curtis Street was, but he wasn’t going to let her walk home alone. Maybe if they were in North Salem he would. The worst thing that happened there was a yard got covered in toilet paper during homecoming week. The city of Salem was a different story.
“Then I’ll drive you home.” He anticipated an argument, but unlike a few minutes ago, he wouldn’t give in this time.
Not a single comment against his idea materialized. Instead, Cat turned the corner and walked toward O’Leary’s.
Tony followed Cat’s directions to Curtis Street, and in a few minutes, he pulled over in front of an old Victorian mansion.
“Thanks for the ride and the company tonight.”
The hair she’d pushed over her shoulder half a dozen times that night fell forward when she turned to look at him. Without thinking, he reached out to push it back.
He leaned forward, his lips intent on making contact with hers. Whatever arguments his brain voiced during dinner got drowned out by the more primal arguments the rest of his body was making now.
He could tell by her expression that she realized his intention, but she didn’t back away or make an attempt to stop him. Instead, Cat ran her tongue over her bottom lip before leaning toward him, meeting him half way.
He pressed his lips against hers, and then teased them apart as he pulled her closer. When she parted her lips, he didn’t hesitate. Tony deepened the kiss as desire and lust took hold.
Put on the brakes, the last firing neuron in his head screamed. His hand ignored it and reached under her shirt, sliding up her back and coming to a screeching halt when Cat pulled away.
He braced himself for a slap or a few angry words, both of which he deserved.
“Do you want to come upstairs, Tony?”
He opened his mouth, prepared to apologize, but snapped it shut. She’d invited him upstairs.
Hell yes, he wanted to go upstairs. First though, he had to ask. Later he might regret it, but he still had to ask anyway. “Are you sure, Cat?”
He’d be the first to admit he’d earned his reputation as a man-whore, as his friend Steve called him. However, he wasn’t an asshole. He didn’t intentionally hurt women’s feelings. He was always honest with them upfront, and if he suspected a woman might want more from him than some fun, he stayed far away.
Cat must know that.
He didn’t have a degree from MIT or Harvard, but he wasn’t stupid. When a beautiful woman invited him up to her apartment, he didn’t say no.
Tony followed her up the stairs inside the converted Victorian to the third floor. With each step up, he expected Cat to change her mind and tell him to leave.
She never did.
When they reached her apartment door, she leaned in to kiss him, her mouth coming down on his hard and hot. Before he got the opportunity to really enjoy it, she pulled away and grabbed the keys from her bag.
Wall lights cast them both in shadows, but he still noticed how her hand shook as she unlocked the door. He considered asking her again if this was what she really wanted, but before he could, Cat pushed the door open and tugged him in behind her.
He didn’t need any further encouragement. Tony closed the door and reached for her at the same time.
She tugged his shirt from his waistband then reached for the top button as he kissed her.
When she managed to unbutton his whole shirt, he moved his mouth away from her hers. “Maybe we should find a more comfortable place.”
“Good idea.” Her voice came out in a breathless whisper as she pushed the shirt off his shoulders.
She didn’t bother with any lights as she led him toward one of the closed doors. Before she turned the knob, he reached around and opened it.
A large wrought iron bed bathed in moonlight took up most of the bedroom. Grabbing the back of his undershirt, he pulled it over his head. Then he reached for Cat’s top.
“I’ve been thinking about taking this off you since dinner.” At that point, he figured there was no point in not being honest.
He tossed the top over his shoulder. “This too.” Tony slid down the side zipper on Cat’s skirt.
Her hands had been on his back, but as his mouth came down on hers, they moved. The material covering her breasts slipped away as she undid her bra and naked flesh pressed against his chest.
He laid her on the bed then took a step back and removed the rest of his clothes. The moon provided ample light, so he could clearly see Cat stretched out in nothing but low rise panties. Her blonde hair fanned out across her pillow, and her chest rose and fell rapidly. The sight was more than he could handle as he came down on the bed next to her.
“Beautiful,” he whispered before kissing her mouth and sliding a hand inside her panties so he could touch her.
When he did, she moaned and moved against him.
“Did you like that?” he asked, kissing her neck.
Cat nodded as she reached for him.
He captured her hand before she touched him. “Not yet. I’m not done with you.” He moved his fingers against her again and smiled when she moaned for a second time.
Yeah, tonight was turning out so much better than he’d expected.
2 Months Later
Going out with Kelsey. Are we still on for tonight?
Tony read the text message and typed out a reply as he watched Striker walk toward him Saturday afternoon. Less than a minute remained in the game. North Salem was up by three touchdowns, and at this point, it was almost painful to watch the field. The team from Beverly High had played like crap all day, and North Salem had walked all over them.
“Setting up a booty call for the night?” Striker stopped alongside him, his arms crossed.
Tony shoved the smartphone into his back pocket. The last two people he wanted seeing the message was Striker and Striker’s father. So far, his involvement with Cat––he couldn’t bring himself to label it a relationship—had gone unnoticed by everyone.
He liked it that way. He suspected Cat did too since she never suggested they meet at his place or anywhere else in North Salem. Sure, they occasionally arranged to be in the same place at the same time, but they never arrived or left together.
“You know me.” Tony watched the field as he answered.
Next to him, Striker shook his head as George Dalton leaped at the last minute, intercepted the ball, and then ran for thirty yards.
“Damn, I wish Dalton wasn’t graduating this year. The team won’t be the same without him.”
Tony agreed. George was one of the best players on their defense. “Frank’s almost as good,” he said, referring to George’s younger brother. “Some extra work during the off season and he’ll carry George’s position with no problem.”
On the scoreboard, the clock ran out and both benches cleared as players congratulated each other on a well-played game.
“So, who is it tonight? Anyone I know?”
“Someone I met in Boston.” Tony watched the players rather than face his friend and fellow coach.
“Does she have a sister or a friend?”
Tony took a deep breath as he walked with Striker and the players up to the high school. If Striker ever knew just who he spent his free time with these days, he’d plant his fist in his face.
“No sister.” At least that wasn’t a lie. “Aren’t you seeing Nicole anyway?”
“Nah. I haven’t seen her in over a month.”
“Sorry, can’t help you, buddy. I’m sure you’ll survive.” Striker never lacked for female companionship. He’d find himself a new girlfriend soon enough.
“Easy for you to say. While you’re getting laid tonight, I’ll be hanging around Sean’s place.”
Tony cringed and readjusted his baseball cap. Sean had invited him over as well. When he’d said he had other plans, Sean only gave him a knowing smile. If Sean knew whom his plans were with, he’d probably punch out a few of his teeth in an attempt to knock some sense into him. Perhaps that was why he’d avoided his best friend as much as possible for the past month.
“Have fun this weekend. See you at practice on Monday, Striker.” Before Striker could make any other comments about Tony’s sex life or plans for the weekend, he left the locker room and headed for his car.
Lemon exploded in his mouth as he bit into the lemon poppy seed muffin a short while later. No one made lemon muffins better than Peggy Sue’s Café. Reaching for his coffee, Tony took a gulp and watched the front door. His mother should arrive any minute, yet it wasn’t his mother he saw walk through the entrance.
Cat had told him she planned to go shopping with her friend for an outfit for Mrs. O’Brien’s wedding, so he hadn’t expected to see her until much later that night.
But there she stood.
He watched her walk toward the counter. Every few tables she’d stop and say hello to someone else. So far, she hadn’t noticed him, and, unfortunately, he couldn’t call out to her without someone noticing.
While no one would question him and Cat talking in such a public place, he saw no need to draw extra attention to them. All he needed was one person to suspect they were dating, and soon the whole town would be gossiping.
Not that they were really dating. They rarely went anywhere together. Much of their time they spent naked and in her bed.
Theirs was a physical relationship. The type he preferred.
The image of them talking and cuddling on her couch over the weekend took shape.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t only a physical relationship. Still, if he had any intelligence, he’d end this thing with her before anyone found out. Secrets often found their way out.
Sure the sex was fantastic, but every time they got together, he risked his friendships with both Cat’s brother and her father.
He’d reminded himself of that numerous times since the first time they slept together. Once, he’d even convinced himself to tell her they’d had fun, but their time together had come to an end.
His resolve had lasted right up until she opened her apartment door. The minute she smiled at him and asked him about his day, he’d changed his mind and kissed her. Since that day, he hadn’t entertained the idea again.
Across the café, Cat stopped to speak with Sue Adams, and she looked in his direction. She gave him the tiniest of nods and then said something to Sue before joining the line at the counter.
Thanks to the location of his table, Tony could watch her as she waited in line without anyone the wiser. While she waited, she spoke with the other customers in line, and he couldn’t look away.
Cat radiated friendliness. She had this sunny personality that called people to her. A person couldn’t be around her and remain in a bad mood. Even people she didn’t know well appeared at ease and happy around her.
He told himself that was one of the reasons he couldn’t stay away from her. He simple liked the way he felt around her.
Brendan Michaels, another lifelong North Salem resident, joined the line behind her. Right away, he placed a hand on her shoulder and started up a conversation. As Tony watched her shake her head at whatever Brendan said, he forced himself to remain seated rather than bolt across the room and rip Brendan’s arm off. Although many people wouldn’t mind seeing Brendan put in his place, residents would wonder why Tony had intervened because, by the looks of it, Brendan and Cat were only talking.
Tony ground his teeth together as she said something in response to Brendan’s statement. What was taking so long anyway? How hard was it for Skye to make Cat a cup of coffee? From behind the counter, Skye handed Cat her order. Cat stopped two more times before reaching him.
“Hi, Tony. How did the game go?” She made no move to sit. Instead, she sipped her coffee.
“We won by three touchdowns. It was like Beverly sent their JV team to play today.”
His hands itched to reach out and pull her close. Since that was out of the question, he wrapped his hands around his coffee mug.
“Big plans for the afternoon?” he asked.
“I’m meeting Kelsey here. What about you?”
“Waiting for my mom. She asked me to meet her. Why don’t you sit and keep me company until Kelsey gets here.”
She took the seat next to him, her knee bumping into his leg.
“So what kind of trouble are you and Miss Bancroft planning to get into today?”
She scooted her chair a little closer to him. “Shopping. She needs something for Mrs. O’Brien’s wedding.”
No one would ever call him a saint. Tony released his coffee mug and reached under the table. “A Saturday night at the mall, where’s the fun in that?”
He caressed her thigh, wishing she had on a skirt instead of jeans.
“Shopping can be fun, especially when you plan to get a few new things for yourself. Ella told me about the two new stores that opened last week. I can’t wait to check them out.”
He’d gotten an earful from his mother after her last trip to the mall about one of the new stores. She’d gone on for a good thirty minutes about how inappropriate the outfits on the mannequins were and how the store shouldn’t be allowed to hang photos in the windows. He loved his mom, but sometimes she could be a bit of a prude.
“Besides, it won’t take all day. I told Kelsey I need to be home by seven because I have other things to do.”
Under the table, Cat ran her fingertips over his hand, and it reminded him of the way she’d caressed his chest earlier that week.
“How does that sound?” she whispered, her voice almost inaudible.
Visions of her in some new lacy outfits formed, and his heart rate accelerated.
“Four sounds better,” he answered, grateful for the noise in the café.
“Kelsey loves to shop. If I’m lucky, I’ll get her out of the mall by five.”
“I’ll be at your place by six then.” An hour should be enough time for her to get home. “Text me if you get home earlier,” he whispered.
Under the table, she squeezed his hand. “Your mom just walked in.”
Tony looked up as his mom walked toward them. Right away, Cat released his hand and reached for her coffee.
“Catrina, how are you?” His mom joined them at the table.
“Great, Mrs. Bates, and you?”
“Fabulous. I love being retired. Right after Maureen’s wedding, I’m off on a cruise with my sister for a week.”
He shifted in his seat as his mother and secret lover discussed Maureen O’Brien’s upcoming wedding, an event the entire town was talking about.
“Do you want a coffee or anything, Mom?” Anything to get him away from the table.
His mom looked in his direction. “That would be lovely. I’ll have a blueberry turnover too,” she answered as he stood.
By the time Tony returned with the coffee and turnover, Cat had left and his mom had out her pocket calendar.
“Catrina asked me to say bye to you.”
Tony set the coffee and pastry down without a comment.
“She’s such a sweet girl. I wish you’d date someone more like her.”
Not again. His mom routinely lectured him on his choice of women. She wanted him settled like his older sister and younger brother.
“Actually, she’s single now. Jane told me her and Zachary broke up. I was shocked. I assumed they’d get married.” His mom paused long enough to take a sip of coffee. “Maybe you should ask her out one night. I think you’d have fun together.”
Oh, they had fun together all right. Just not the kind his mother had in mind, and he was looking forward to having more tonight.