A drunk woman fell into Evan’s lap about two hours into the wedding reception. He’d seen her coming from across the dance floor. She’d been glancing his way for the better part of an hour, so he wasn’t surprised when she made her way on unsteady legs in his direction. The part where she exaggerated a stumble so she ended up on top of his thighs was an added touch. Not a very original one, though, he thought.
“Oh!” she gasped as she pressed against his chest to steady herself. “I’m sorry. I might have had a little too much to drink.”
Easing her away from him and off his lap, he met her glassy gaze without comment. Whatever she saw in his expression had her smile fading.
“Hey there, Tanya,” came a male voice. “Everly was just asking about you. I think she’s hoping you can show her how to do this line dance.”
Evan and the woman—Tanya, apparently—looked over as his friend Cole Parker stopped a few feet away. Cole gave Tanya a good-natured smile and reached out to steady her when she swayed. She looked relieved over having been rescued from a potentially embarrassing scene.
“I’m sure she’s doin’ fine,” Tanya said with a slow wink. She reached out to hug him. “Congratulations, Cole. I’m so happy for you and Everly.”
He patted her between the shoulders. “Thanks, Tanya. Now be a sweetheart and go help my wife look like a dance champion. This is being recorded for posterity, after all.”
She laughed and waved, wobbling back to the dance floor. Evan wondered if she’d make it through the dance without breaking her ankles in her four-inch heels.
Cole took the empty seat next to him. Evan was sitting at one of the round tables in the back of the large ballroom, trying to stay away from the action on the thriving dance floor. At the moment, he was the only one sitting at the table.
“Don’t mind Tanya,” Cole said. “She’s harmless.”
“Friend of your wife’s?”
Cole nodded. “Damn, that sounds weird. I have a wife now.”
“You sure do.” Evan shook his head. “Tied down at barely twenty-six.”
Cole grinned and shoved his shoulder. They sat together for a couple of minutes, watching the crowd. The bride was holding her own with the line dance, laughing in the middle of the energetic floor. Her long red hair, worn mostly down for the mid-November wedding, bounced around her shoulders as she moved. Cole had sure married a looker. Judging by the way his friend stared at her, he was only too aware of that. He looked just as happy as his new wife did.
The wedding had been entertaining enough so far, Evan admitted to himself. Although he didn’t generally enjoy these kinds of spectacles, the couple hadn’t gone over the top in extravagance to a point that felt pretentious or uncomfortable. Considering Cole’s status as one of the best pitchers in the Major Leagues, that was really saying something. They’d been married in the bride’s church, then hosted the cocktail hour and reception at a country club in town. Soft lighting, tasteful floral, and touches of elegant décor gave the venue a romantic, welcoming feel. He supposed if he was going to attend the wedding of one of his closest friends, this one was all right.
“I appreciate you coming, Dorsey,” Cole said at last. His hazel gaze reflected his serious tone. “I know it’s a long way from L.A., but it wouldn’t have been the same without you.”
Evan shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
“You and I both know that isn’t true.”
Not responding, Evan focused on the dance floor. He’d been friends with Cole since he was thirteen and Cole was fifteen. They’d lived down the street from each other and played together on their high school baseball team until Cole was drafted by Atlanta. Although Evan had also hoped to play for Atlanta once he graduated, that hadn’t been in the cards. He’d ended up getting drafted by St. Louis and had bounced around since then.
Still, he and Cole had remained friends, getting together whenever their teams played against each other. Prior to this, they’d last seen each other two months ago. The memory had Evan’s jaw clenching and releasing.
“Thanks for coming to the funeral,” he said at last. “I didn’t think to say anything at the time.”
“Of course.” After another moment, Cole reached over and picked up Evan’s untouched beer, taking a swig. “So, are you going to talk to Wayne about getting the hell out of L.A.?”
Evan shrugged. He still had a year left on his existing contract, though the team could option to trade him. In fact, rumors indicated they would. He was the first to admit that he hadn’t been playing at his best toward the end of last season. He hadn’t yet talked with his and Cole’s agent, Wayne Shelton, about what lay ahead. His career had been the last thing on his mind over the past few months.
Not wanting to spoil his friend’s wedding day, he offered, “I do need to talk to Wayne.”
Cole seemed to sense that he didn’t want to talk. Smiling, he got to his feet. “Don’t suppose you’ve had enough beer for me to talk you into hitting the dance floor?”
“Not nearly enough, mate. Go on. Dance with your gorgeous wife.”
Clapping him on the back, Cole headed into the crowd. Evan watched him stride onto the floor and say something to Javier Rios, one of Cole’s teammates and Everly’s current dance partner. Javy gave a dramatic show of disappointment over the cut-in before kissing the back of the bride’s hand and turning to dance with someone else.
Evan’s gaze settled on Javy’s new partner. The young woman with the chin-length, curly blonde hair had caught his attention a few times throughout the evening. She had an infectious dimpled smile that made it impossible not to feel a little more cheerful just seeing it. Her deep green gown had a flowing skirt and a high waist accented by a band of glittering stones just beneath her breasts. The style suited her. Something about the way she moved kept his gaze returning to her time and again.
Just as he was about to make his excuses so he could leave, she abandoned the dance floor and started walking in his direction. Bare feet accented by dark toenail polish and a silver toe ring peeped out from the bottom of her gown. Intrigued despite himself, he rose and waited until she stood in front of him. His eyebrow lifted as he spied her small diamond nose stud and a couple of purple curls framing her pretty face. He hadn’t noticed those details from a distance.
She tipped her head back to look up at him once she stopped. Judging by where the top of her head met his chest, she couldn’t be more than five-six.
Her direct approach didn’t surprise him. Many people knew who he was thanks to his baseball career.
“Good evening,” he said.
He expected a comment on his Australian accent. Most women were compelled to say something once they heard him speak. Although he’d lived in the States since he was thirteen, this reminder of his heritage lingered.
“Would you come with me for a moment?” she asked instead, reaching out and taking his hand. “I could use a break, and you look like you could, too.”
Her eyes were the same shade of green as sea glass, he realized. She wore makeup that enhanced them, making it hard to look away. Though he had no idea why, he found himself nodding.
She gifted him with her impish smile and tugged on his hand. He gazed down at her as they wove through the tables toward a side door. He noticed a tattoo at the base of her neck and another on the inside of her wrist above where her hand connected with his. The lighting didn’t allow him to make out the details of either.
They passed through the side door into a large hallway lit by crystal chandeliers. She kept walking until they reached the glass double doors directly across the hall and then pushed through those, too. The doors led out onto a quiet outdoor terrace surrounded by lush greenery. A few landscaping lights softened the enveloping darkness. Because the temperature had dropped, no one else stood out under the clear night sky.
When they reached the center of the terrace, they stopped walking. She turned to face him, smiling again.
She took a deep breath and slowly released it. “I love being outside, don’t you?”
He studied her for a moment, then looked around. For the first time, he noticed the bite of autumn that tinted the air, the promise of the winter to come. As he inhaled, the cool air burned his lungs. The stars stood out more distinctly against the inky sky.
“There’s something invigorating about autumn in Atlanta,” she said. She shared the same southern accent as Cole, he realized. “It represents promise.”
“Promise for what?”
She shrugged. “Endless possibilities.”
He frowned. What the hell did that mean?
Once again, she took his hand. Her hand was dwarfed by his, but he couldn’t deny that the contact felt nice.
“You looked lost in there, Evan Dorsey. I thought maybe I could do something to help guide you on your way.”
Pulling his hand from hers, he said, “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I don’t need to.” She tilted her head to the side and looked at him with her compelling eyes. “Have you been sick?”
The question made him glance away. He supposed she hadn’t done her research before making this approach. Still, she was closer to the truth than made him comfortable.
Her voice was quiet when she continued, “I ask because your suit looks tailored, but it’s loose on you right now, as though you’ve lost weight. There are dark circles under your eyes, making me think you aren’t sleeping well and probably haven’t been eating right. And your hair is short, like it’s just growing back. Since your scalp is pale, I assume you don’t normally wear your hair that way.”
Jesus, she was observant. Shaking his head, he turned to walk back into the reception.
“I see,” she said. Her tone made him hesitate. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Evan.”
When her slender arms went around him from behind, he didn’t know what to do. No one had ever offered him such a pure gesture of comfort. Everyone who attended the funeral had been too emotionally involved to do so, not that it would have been welcome.
But this hug from a stranger was about to undo him.
He stood frozen in place as she walked around him to face him again. His gaze moved down to her bare feet and noted that her nails were the same shade of purple as the streaks in her hair. Belatedly, he considered how cold she must be.
“I can see that you’re in a dark place,” she said, touching the side of his face. It was just the whisper of a caress, but it made his throat tighten. “It’s good that you honor the memory of this person you loved. But don’t be afraid to live now. What you’ve gone through, it will bring you where you need to be. Even the stars can’t shine without darkness.”
Mesmerized, he didn’t resist when she pulled him down. He closed his eyes when her lips touched his. She kissed him, an expression of comfort more than passion. The taste of sweet champagne lingered when they parted. She smiled again, her dimples teasing him, then turned and walked back inside.
After a moment, he followed her. This woman whose name he didn’t even know had given him more to think about in their few minutes together than anyone had in a long time. For someone who appeared no older than her early twenties, she had incredible insight.
She’d given him a glimpse of light that he hadn’t even known he craved. He supposed the least he could do was thank her.
Returning to the reception, he went looking for her. He figured she’d return to the dance floor, so he started there. After twenty minutes, he had to give up.
She was gone.