Flirting With Death
By Regina Riley
After five lonely years grieving for her dead husband, Anna Baker goes out for a night on the town. In a quiet pub she meets the handsome and mysterious Todd Sterben. After some light conversation Anna finds that she is both very comfortable with and highly aroused by Todd. She ends up back at Todd’s hotel room, then in his bed, happy to feel passion again.
Some time later, Anna can't help but be hurt by how quickly it appears Todd has moved on with his life, but when Todd reveals a dark secret to her, Anna can't help but wonder if her own life is in danger. Can she trust Todd enough to accept him for who he is?
Anna turned her head and yawned into the back of her hand as discreetly as she could. But she knew Trish could tell. Trish can always tell, she thought. She eased her head back and found Trish glaring at her. Of course. Anna gave a weak smile to her friend as she ran a finger around the lip of her narrow-mouthed glass, slowly tracing the curve. Some forgettable tune drifted across the barroom, fading into the easygoing conversation of the other patrons around her.
“What was the name of this place again?” she asked.
“O’Malley’s,” Trish said. “And don’t trash-talk it. I like it here.”
“It’s…” Anna paused and weighed her assessment of the bar against the likelihood that Trish would really force her to walk home. For a bar, the place wasn’t too bad; it was small but crowded, run down but clean, very busy but still very quiet. But most importantly, it was the exact opposite of that horrible nightmare of a techno dance club she just escaped from. She could still feel the steel stool shocking her spine at the loud rhythm of the club’s music, while she squirmed under the awkward stares from kids at least half her age. Anna smiled at the wonderful difference of the pub’s ambiance and finally settled on, “Nice.”
“Damn straight it’s nice,” Trish said as she folded her arms across her chest. “Nice and boring. Since that’s all you can handle lately.”
“Trish, please don’t start in on me again,” Anna sighed and pushed a stray strand of auburn hair away from her eyes.
“I paid nearly forty dollars to get us in that club,” Trish said as she poked her own chest with a well manicured finger.
“And I told you I don’t like dance clubs. I never did, even when Ben and I were dating—”
“Again with Ben!” Trish snapped. “I told you, no Ben tonight.”
Anna fell quiet and hung her head. Five years ago, an outburst like that from her best friend would have set off a chain reaction of whimpers and waterworks in the ever delicate Anna. But these days she didn’t cry much anymore. Five years of weeping had dried up most of her reasons for crying, as well as most of her tears.
Trish leaned in closely and whispered, “I’m sorry, girlfriend, but you promised. No Ben. No weeping widow. No sadness. Remember?”
“Just you and me and a night on the town,” Trish continued. “So you need to get into a good mood, pronto. Got it?”
“Sure,” Anna said. She tried to mean it, but her voice betrayed her with an undeniable hint of sorrow.
Trish reached under the table and clasped one of Anna’s hands into her own. . “I love you, woman,” Trish said. “And I know you love Ben. I must’ve told you like a bajillion times how jealous I was of you kids.”
The music paused, and as it shifted between songs a woman laughed. In the absence of the music, the woman’s carefree laughter was loud and harsh. Unknowingly mocking. Anna’s eyes prickled and burned as she clung tightly to Trish’s hand.
“And I know you miss him like hell,” Trish said. “You’re not the only one. He was like a brother to me, Anna. But he’s been gone for five years, honey. That’s a long time to grieve. A long time for anyone to be alone. Too long.”
Anna nodded again. She knew Trish was only trying to help, but she couldn’t wait for this night to be over with.
“So no more Ben until this date’s over,” Trish said. She patted Anna’s hand one last time before she finally let go. “Now sit up and look pretty. And you better start flirting. Either with one of these guys or with me.”
Anna lifted her head and eyed Trish with a wary gaze.
“’Cause Momma Trish is getting laid tonight,” Trish added. “One way or the other.”
A bubble of a giggle worked its way up Anna’s chest and before she knew it she was laughing. She sat back and let the laughter take her. It felt good. Trish always knew how to make her feel better. But even so, Anna seemed to laugh about as much as she cried these days.
“What are you laughing at?” Trish asked with a grin.
“I just can’t imagine spending the night with you,” Anna said.
Trish cut her eyes at Anna. “And just why the hell not?”
“Because,” Anna said between sighs and giggles, “as commanding as you are of your friends, I can’t imagine being your lover.”
“I’ll have you know I’ve been told that I’m very gentle in the sack.”
“I don’t buy that. I bet you’re a drill sergeant. I bet it’s like sleeping with one of those… oh, what are they called?
“Don’t knock it till you try it, sweetie,” Trish said and waggled her eyebrows.
Anna rolled her eyes and shook her head. She could have guessed that Trish would be into that kind of thing. Nothing Trish did ever shocked her. Anna looked out across the pub again. “So, how did a wild woman like you end up in a quiet place like this?”
“My friend, Bob,” Trish said. She poked a long finger into her glass and swirled the dregs of tomato juice along the bottom. “I need another drink.”
“Who’s Bob?” Anna asked.
“You know. That couple that lives under me? Bob and Gary? Bob owns this place.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah,” Trish stood and nodded at the bar. “You want another Collins?”
“Sure. But let me buy this time.” Anna reached for her purse.
Trish waved a finger at Anna. “Nope. It’s on me.”
Anna narrowed her eyes at her friend. “Bob lets you drink for free. Doesn’t he?”
“Why else would I allow myself to be seen in a dump like this?” she said with a laugh. “Now pay attention, sweetie. I know it’s been a few years, so let me show you how it’s done.” She pursed her lips in a mock kiss to Anna, turned and sauntered away, towards the bar.
Anna smirked as she sat back and watched Trish work her magic.
The tall blonde walked through the bar like an Amazon huntress, flaunting and flirting the whole way, seeking her prey for the evening’s fun. She stepped lightly across the floor; moving along with expert ease in a pair of stilettos so high and narrow that they would have left a lesser woman sprawled on the floor. Her tight red dress clung to her wide hips and narrow waist like a hungry lover, leaving little to the onlookers’ imaginations.
Compared to Trish, Anna always felt plain. Where Trish was tall and lithe, Anna was short and stocky. Where Trish had a head full of long, golden tresses, the only way Anna’s short auburn hair had ever been described as was just hair, and nothing more. Anna knew she wasn’t an ugly woman; she was blessed with a full bust and had been told more than once that she had very sexy eyes. But eyes and boobs aside, watching Trish strut across the pub put the whole evening, as well as the last five years, into a harsh perspective. Trish is right, she thought, I am horribly out of practice. I wouldn’t know the first thing to say to a guy.
She watched as Trish smooth talked the bartender, placed her order, and then immediately set to flirting with both the man to her left and right. I wonder if she would notice if I slipped away. I wonder if anyone would notice.
“Excuse me?” a gentle voice suddenly asked.
Anna snapped out of her self-pity to see a man standing beside of her. The first thing to strike her was the fact that he seemed a little over dressed; he wore a three-piece charcoal suit, complete with black tie and silver cufflinks. She eyed him, up and down, which was no easy task because he was so tall. And lanky. His skin was pale, like alabaster dusted with baby powder. His hair was so black that it seemed to suck in the low light of the room. His eyes were the color of burnt coffee, dark and mischievous. His smile was a crooked mouthful of clean but untamed teeth, which somehow came off as charming. Hopeful.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked.
That was when Anna noticed the man was holding a chair. He had brought a chair with him to her table; a table already full of empty chairs. He wiggled the chair gently towards her and smiled wider. Anna looked at it as though she had never seen one before. Like she didn’t know what a chair was for.
“You’re kidding right?” she asked
The man lowered the chair, his eyes, and his smile. “I know. It’s a horrible pickup line. Isn’t it?”
Anna nodded. “It’s pretty bad.”
The man nodded in return. “I’m sorry. I’ll let you get back to your…” he paused a moment as he spied the empty glass between her palms. His face lit with another hopeful smile. “Can I get you another—”
“My friend is handling that for me,” Anna interrupted him.
He cocked his head. “Your friend?”
“Yes,” Anna said flatly. She looked up and caught a glimpse of Trish in a deep, passionate kiss with a young man at the bar. The blonde broke her lip-lock and then turned and kissed the young man standing on the opposite side of her. Anna rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help feeling jealous at the same time. As well as horny. She pushed the feelings away and turned back to the stranger.
“Thanks anyways,” Anna added.
“I didn’t realize you were here with someone,” the man said. He picked up his chair, gave Anna a curt bow and dipped his head. “I’m very sorry then. I just saw you sitting here all alone and I thought…”
“No problem,” she cut him off again.
“I guess I should have known better,” the man finished. He smiled again and added, “Why would such a beautiful woman be sitting alone?”
Anna’s breath hitched in her throat. It had been years since anyone had called her beautiful. Since anyone had held her. Touched her. Kissed her. As she watched the man carry his chair back to his table, she realized how cold she had been towards him. He was only trying to flirt, she thought. Why did I have to be so hard? But she knew she couldn’t seem to help it. She could practically hear her emotional armor rattle around her. She watched the man replace the chair and slowly slump into it. He pulled a small watch from his vest, clicked it open, eyed it for a moment, and then closed and pocketed it again. He sighed and hung his head, letting his dark hair tumble into his pale face.
And he suddenly seemed just as sad as she felt.