AfterMidnight final coverAfter Midnight

The clock is ticking down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and all Nora Hart and Miles Shephard can think about is kissing each other—even though they met just minutes before. Then, as fast as Miles enters Nora’s life, he’s gone . . . and she never even gets the name of the man she thinks might just be “the one.” One year later, Nora and Miles are reunited. The chemistry between them is just as strong as they remember. But Miles broke her heart once before—and this time around, Nora’s not sure whether she can give love a second chance.

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Excerpt from After Midnight

Copyright © 2013 Serena Bell
All rights reserved — Loveswept Contemporary Romance

Chapter 1

December 31

11:41.
11:42.
11:43.

At this rate, it would never be midnight, and Miles Shepard would never say a permanent good night to this sadistic son-of-a-bitch year.

He stuck his phone back in his pocket and let his eyes wander over the party. They were in someone’s twenty-second-floor condo, all brushed nickel and rice-paper lamps and screens and edgy modern furniture. Well-dressed Bostonians—they’d left their Uggs and Pats jerseys and twenty-year-old Sox caps home tonight—monitored TVs tuned to network coverage of New Year’s events in various U.S. and world cities. The collective effect of an apartment bedecked with garlands of black and white streamers and metallic silver balloons, full of women in cocktail dresses and sparkly tops and ass-hugging jeans, was—well, if it hadn’t quite carved through the numbness that had been Miles’s constant companion for the last few weeks, it had at least chipped into it.

His childhood friend Owen was talking to a tall blonde in high-heeled boots, skin-tight silver pants, and a black velvet tunic. She towered over him, but it didn’t appear to intimidate Owen in the slightest. Owen grinned and told the blonde something, with his usual complement of hand gestures, and she smiled back and dipped her head.

Owen was one of those guys with mysterious appeal—he was thin to the point of near scrawniness, with a head of hair that was as unruly as a yellow dandelion, but women found him easy to talk to. Miles guessed that a month ago you could have said the same about him. These days, Miles wasn’t talking much, so if anyone was saying anything about him tonight, it was, “What’s up with the block of stone in the corner?”

The thing was, Miles knew Owen had his back. If anyone trash-talked Miles, Owen would be ready with a slap-down. When Miles had called him last week to say he needed to get the hell out of Cleveland and had no place to go, Owen had picked him up at Logan Airport, opened his condo to Miles, taken Miles to his sister’s house in Newton for Christmas, and otherwise tried to convince Miles his world hadn’t ended. As if maybe it was in some kind of weird suspended animation and at some point they’d unfreeze Miles and let him have another chance at it.

So for Owen, Miles would endure this party, even if it stayed 11:44 forever, like some punishment straight from the hyper-imaginative Greek gods.

A shriek cut through the hectic bounce of “Come On Eileen,” and he looked up to see a woman dancing her heart out. He definitely wasn’t completely numb, because his gaze fastened on the jiggle of her breasts under her shiny black tank top. Blood didn’t exactly rush south—it moved thickly through his bloodstream—but at least it was moving. Those were some awesome breasts, and he didn’t only mean awesome-cool: He meant awesome in its original awe-inspiring sense. They were the size and firmness that typically had to be purchased, but he knew real when it danced, and those were one hundred percent real.

His eyes traveled upward and—whoops!—met hers. She’d been watching him stare at her breasts as if he were an eleven-year-old unschooled horny boy. He made a wry apologetic face, and she laughed. Man, she was pretty, and not in a cover-of-a-magazine standard-issue way. She had strawberry-blond hair cropped pixie short, an adorable, mobile face, elfin ears, and a long, skinny nose. He didn’t usually go for short hair, but it worked on her, probably because the rest of her was so indubitably female.

And now she was dancing and holding his gaze, and his face heated as his blood picked up pace and got serious about things. His gut clenched, his dick was heavy, and she was moving for him. Still holding his gaze. The way she danced—it wasn’t sexual, not really. It was just uninhibited. Kind of . . . joyful. She had this grin on her face that was nine-tenths of what made her so pretty. Most people never looked that happy about what they were doing.

He wanted to cross the floor and—

And what? And proposition some woman he’d never met before in a city that wasn’t his when his life was in knots?

Yeah. Brilliant idea.

He broke the connection, turned away. He headed for the food table, which must have been catered, because this was no half-assed assortment of stuff people had scavenged from their pantries. There was a ham whose smoky flavor was addictive—Miles had eaten way more than his fair share an hour ago—and a cheese assortment that had probably cost several hundred dollars by itself. The dip-and-veggies setup was a work of art, not a grocery-store plastic-tray affair. Between the platters, bouquets of Mylar balloons urged him to have a Happy New Year. He frowned at them.

He spread some Brie on a cracker and leaned against the wall beside the food table. He told himself he wasn’t going to look for her again, but his eyes found her, anyway. She danced in a larger group now, her body language open, welcoming, her hands beckoning, her smile inviting. When new dancers approached, she opened the circle wider to include them.
The song ended and she broke away from the crowd. He watched her move through the room, her smile coming and going. She stopped beside a seated elderly woman—all wrong here, curved in on herself, decades displaced. The pixie-haired dancer knelt and shook the other woman’s hand. Leaned to speak in her ear, offered her own ear to the other woman. Rubbed the older woman’s arm. The older woman smiled hesitantly, and then, when the younger woman said something else, more broadly. Miles found himself smiling, too, an unfamiliar sensation that stretched the stuck muscles in his face and made his chest feel oddly, almost disturbingly, light.

His smile shriveled as soon as he noted it.

She caught him staring again, but this time he couldn’t hold her gaze. He pretended he’d been looking for someone else, scanning the crowd purposefully. He buttered another cracker with Brie and focused all his attention on it. He’d have to stop with the staring. Not so long ago, he’d been the guy who talked to everyone. The guy who spread smiles, like a wave at a baseball game. Now he’d forgotten how to be normal.

“Amazing, huh?”

She stood next to him. He froze with his hand on a carrot stick, the end still plunged into some sort of hot spinach dip.

She was even prettier this close, her hair damp from sweat at her temples, a smattering of light freckles across her nose, full lips, gorgeous cheekbones. She still breathed heavily from her athletics on the dance floor, making her chest rise and fall, which he knew only peripherally, because he was not allowing himself to look. He was afraid if he did he’d never look up again, and her eyes were not the sort of thing you wanted to miss. Pale blue, rimmed with long, thick lashes, and weirdly penetrating, as if she knew all the things about him that he didn’t want anyone to know.

“Can you believe this spread? Can you believe this party? Can you believe that fucking view?”

It was a weird thing about Miles that he was a sucker for women with foul mouths. He couldn’t explain it. It was those words in, well, that mouth. It made him want to kiss her like nobody’s business. Plant one on that luscious mouth and slide his tongue across hers. As if he could lick the taste of the word “fuck” right off her lips.

Instead, he said, “Great view.”

Awesome, Miles. Scintillating.

Of course, he’d been too busy admiring the interior view to give Boston-through-the-enormous-plate-glass-windows its due. The condo was down near the Charles on the Cambridge side—supposedly one of the best views of the Boston skyline in the whole greater-Boston area. He couldn’t contest that—it was spectacular. The buildings cast reflections in the Charles, dots of light and columns of color. He couldn’t see the famous Citgo sign from where they were, although maybe that was the top edge of it there, casting a reddish light over the lower buildings to the right of his field of vision?

But she didn’t seem to mind his vapid response. “Have you had this one?” She pointed to one of the cheeses.

He shook his head.

“Oh, God, you have to.” She cut him a slice. “Here.”

He reached for it, then realized she was intending to feed it to him. Holy shit.

She put it in his mouth, but not in a porn-star, fingers-lingering-so-he-could-suck-them sort of way. Just matter-of-fact. Which possibly made it worse, because he wanted to nip her fingers, and the craving was hotter than anything overt she could have done.

Then he realized that the piece of cheese was the most amazing thing he’d ever tasted, which distracted him enough from his previous train of thought so he could chew and swallow and say, “Mother of God.”

“I know, right?” She smiled at him.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know. I wish they’d left the labels out, but they didn’t. I’ll try to find out, though. The hostess is my older sister’s college roommate’s friend, so I have an in.”

He laughed, the sound unfamiliar in his ears.

“What’s your connection?”

“I’m visiting my friend Owen.” He pointed. “He got the Facebook invitation from a friend of a friend of a friend.”

“I’m surprised there aren’t more of those. Like this place isn’t packed to the gills. Who wouldn’t want to ring in the New Year up here, with this food? I’m going to angle to get invited every year. Find out if they do a Fourth of July party, too.”

“I’m sure they must, right?”

They stared out at the view for a moment.

“So, you’re visiting? You don’t live in Boston?”

“Cleveland.” Oh. Right. The problem with this scenario was that food talk would lead to more general small talk and then to warm-up conversation and then to real conversation. Real conversation was not his friend these days. “Hey. I’d better go check on Owen.”

“He looks like a happy man to me. I think things are going his way.” And she gave him a sideways smile that was full of flirt. Like, Things could be going your way, too, hon.

Her top was halter style, and she had great shoulders, strong and round. She wore a gray tweedy skirt and smooth black knee-high boots, and his unruly mind served up an image of her, naked except for those slick boots.

Jesus.

It wouldn’t go away, that picture of her. It wasn’t the flotsam and jetsam of his brain. It was a fully formed idea.

He seriously considered the possibility of it.

Maybe the year didn’t have to slink out in shame. Maybe he could put a more emphatic end on it.

“Let me refill your drink,” he said, reaching for the empty martini glass in her hand.

She gave him a big, genuine grin. “I’ve got a better idea.”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s dance. I love dancing. I love this music.”

She didn’t say it in a vampy way, but it shorted out something in his brain. It seemed like sexiness was something that happened to her accidentally while she was having more fun than the average woman could wring out of a New Year’s party. That was what made her so hot, he realized. She wasn’t trying particularly hard. She was just more here than most people were. More present, more vivid. And so she’d penetrated the fog he’d been wearing, like rifle fire through body armor.

Here was the thing. Numb had felt good. Numb had felt safe. Numb was what you were supposed to feel in his situation, when you were falsely suspected of embezzling more than three hundred thousand dollars from the nonprofit organization you’d helped found and when your fiancée told you adios, she didn’t think she was the stand-by-your-man type. You were supposed to lick your wounds and hide out for weeks, months, years. You were supposed to have as much life in you as a glacial boulder. You weren’t supposed to go to a New Year’s Eve party and spot some hot elf–witch chick with joie de vivre busting out all over and get all hot and bothered.

Numb had felt good. This—alive, buzzing, raw, wide open—felt dangerous.

“Hey, I get it,” she said. “I’m not your type.”

He shook his head. So far from the truth, it couldn’t find it with a lie detector.

“Is that a ‘No, you’re not my type’ or a ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong’?”

“You’ve got that part dead wrong,” he said, with some heat.

Her smile began at the corners of her mouth. “You like ’em younger.”

Shake.

“Prettier?”

Shake.

“Less busty?”

They were grinning at each other now, and it felt good, something shaken loose inside. Freed.

“Less bossy. You’re not in the market. You’re married. You’re gay.”

He laughed out loud at that, and he knew he’d dance with her. And probably not stop there. He’d think about the consequences, how they fit with his broke-ass life, later. After midnight. Next year.

“Okay, you’re not gay. Good, then, come on.” And she grabbed his hand and tugged him toward the dance floor.

There was some kind of eighties’ theme going on with the music, and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” was playing. Well, that kind of erased all subtlety from the situation, didn’t it? And maybe that was for the best, because his body had also decided to bypass subtlety and go for broke, and by the time she got her arms around his neck and slid against him, he was hard. Like really hard, so the shimmy of her hip against his crotch found him, no problem. She did it again, and he wanted to simultaneously ask her to stop and beg her to keep doing it. Maybe it was something about the lyrics, which had always done it for him, even though he wasn’t quite old enough to have bumped and ground to this song at middle school dances.

Her breasts pressed to his chest, her thighs moved across his uncomfortably engorged dick, and she tilted her pelvis to grind on him. Okay, that wasn’t accidentally sexy, that was overtly take-what-you-want, go-for-broke sexy, and it notched his own arousal up about six levels. She smelled unbelievably good, her hair strawberry-scented to match the color. He knew because he had his nose in it, and somehow his hands had found her ass and were guiding her movements against him. The friction there was the epicenter of something disturbingly fast-building, and he had to pull away a little from her, take it down a notch, because she was too much energy in his arms, too much pure, raw temptation.

He tried to think whether he’d ever wanted a total stranger like this, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t. He could blame the song, he could blame the speed with which she’d thawed his numbness, he could blame the evening, the anonymity, the unfamiliar city, the beautiful scenery, the holiday with all its “Auld Lang Syne” bonhomie, but at the bottom and the center of all the thinking and explaining there was just the feel of wanting her.

The music stopped, and he stepped back. The pressure that had been building in his dick waned enough for him to have a semi-coherent thought in his head, and it was this: I like this girl. A lot. Fuck.

“Okay, people, we’re turning on the big TV! Five minutes to go!” Someone had stood on a chair to make that announcement, and now one wall of the room lit up with Times Square, a split screen between the crowd and the suspended ball.

She stood next to him. He didn’t look at her but he could feel the distance between them, exactly how far he’d have to lean to jostle her with his arm, his hip, his shoulder. Exactly how far he’d have to turn to press himself against her.

The countdown was at −4:06. All around them, people shifted and jockeyed for position, an unsubtle effort to end up near the person they’d least hate the idea of getting kissed by at midnight. Owen was still beside the tall blonde. Go, Owen. If Miles couldn’t get him a medal for his acts of friendship this week, standing back while Owen got laid would be a good consolation prize.

Miles was feeling a lot better now about having chosen to stick this party out. Partially on Owen’s behalf, but also on his own. Because the woman next to him wasn’t the person he’d least hate the idea of getting kissed by at midnight. Not at all. Despite the fact that it wasn’t what he was supposed to feel, despite the fact that it made no sense and scared the hell out of him, she was the person he most wanted to kiss at midnight.

At that moment, he realized he’d never asked her name.

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