It was the handsome stranger, her pipe-dream knight in shining armor. Standing in front of her. Right in front of her.
Oh, hell, Irina thought, blinking furiously. He was so close she could have reached out and touched him.
Close enough to see that I’m ten seconds away from bawling my eyes out. God, how embarrassing.
“Sorry,” she muttered, trying to dodge around him, but he laid a gentle hand on her elbow.
“Is everything all right?” His voice was low, quiet enough that no one could hear him but her.
“Oh, sure, fine,” Irina blurted automatically.
“Are you sure about that? Most people aren’t fine after an encounter with Frankie.”
Irina had been about to push past him, but at that, she paused. The man was looking down at her, concern in his green eyes.
“I’m fine. Really,” Irina insisted. She even managed to hoist a smile onto her face, although her mind felt like it was flying in a thousand directions at once. Frankie? “Do you know her? Because if you’re worried about Ms. Delacourt terrorizing the guests, it’s a bit late for me. You should probably go head her off before she picks her next victim.”
Oh, good job, she thought bitterly. Bitch about his friend right in front of him. You’re so goddamn smooth.
“The only person I’m worried about is you.”
He sounded sincere. And he looked sincere, too, with no hint of sarcasm in his green eyes. Irina turned to face him in spite of herself. There was no way she was sticking around here to sob in the corner, but something about this man...
Maybe he had been smiling at her, after all. It hardly seemed possible, but—
He must have brushed right past Francine to come over here, she realized, and the thought filled her with a sort of fierce glee. Anyone brushing off Francine Delacourt to speak to her instead would have been a miracle, but a man as good-looking as this?
It hardly seemed possible.
He was waiting for her to speak, his vivid green eyes on her. She remembered the careful catalogue she had been making of his various attributes before he caught her staring, and almost blushed before she considered what he must be seeing now.
Let’s break it down, she thought, swallowing hard. Wild hair, probably three-fourths fallen down by now. A dress that probably cost less than one of his designer socks. And no amount of foundation in the world can hide how blotchy I get when I’m about to cry…
Now that he could see her up close, he was probably regretting coming within ten feet of her.
“Well, that’s very sweet of you,” she said at last. She held up the two sad, half-empty wineglasses and attempted another grin. Let’s both get out of this with as much of our dignity intact as we can manage. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to…”
...Got to ditch these, slink out the back door, and spend the rest of the evening eating chocolate ice-cream in my PJs, waiting for Clare to come back to the apartment and put me on a guilt trip for running away.
Talk about pathetic. But what was the alternative? Hang around here until closing time, hoping Francine Delacourt didn’t swing by for round two?
“Well, I can help you with that, at the very least,” the man murmured with a smile that made long dimples appear in the corners of his mouth, putting deeper shadows in his dark stubble. Before Irina knew what was happening, he lifted the glasses from her hands. His fingertips just brushed against hers, so softly she thought she might have imagined it.
Her surprise turned into indignation as a waiter almost immediately appeared and whisked the glasses away.
“Oh, seriously?” she burst out. “I was standing here holding those for how long, and you turn up and—pow!”
The man’s mouth quirked. “Call it a knack.”
“I work in hospitality. If there was a knack to catching a waiter’s attention, you’d think I would know it,” Irina grumbled. She knew she couldn’t blame the waiter, though. If there was a knack, it probably involved more “looking around for a nearby waiter” than “staring at your toes and sulking.”
Not that this guy had been looking at anyone.
In fact, he hadn’t taken his eyes off her since he walked up to her. He’d been concerned and gentle; in fact, he had quietly and simply taken the stupid glasses away from her—and he hadn’t once taken his eyes off her.
He had smiled at her. And he was smiling at her now, too.
Irina felt suddenly breathless. She smoothed her hands down her dress, trying to pull herself together.
“All right, Mr. Waitstaff-Magician,” she said, hoping her face didn’t betray her battling emotions. “I’m Irina. And what should I call you?”
His eyes widened slightly in surprise. “I—oh. Yes. Grant Diaz.”
Irina held out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Grant Diaz. And your magical wineglass-disappearing powers.” And your Francine Delacourt-vanquishing powers.
Grant took her hand in his. His hand dwarfed hers, but he didn’t wring the bones of her hand together like some men did when shaking hands. His grip was firm but careful, and when he pulled his hand away, his fingertips brushed against hers and lingered.
“The pleasure is all mine.”
Irina felt unmoored, drifting in unfamiliar waters. Her mind was in a million places at once, and in its absence, her body took charge. She found herself reaching out, her fingers tangling with his, and sank into the green depths of Grant’s eyes.
Had she really left those two half-glasses of wine undrunk? It usually took at least two glasses to make her feel this floaty.
“So, what brings you here tonight?”
Irina came back to Earth with a jolt and snatched her hand back. What are you doing? she berated herself, blushing furiously. Grant looked…
Oh, don’t start getting ideas. Remember where that gets you.
Irina shook her head, which was full of images of lush jungles and deep mountain lakes reflecting the dark green of the trees.
“Apart from the opportunity to act as Francine Delacourt’s drinks table?” she joked, nodding over her shoulder to the paintings on the wall. “These, um, these are mine. My friend Clare knows the owner of this gallery and did me a favor. She must have thought they would fit in the, uh. The space available. On the walls.”
She winced, but Grant didn’t seem to notice that she was babbling.