Special Interests: Opening Chapter

Since some reviewers have gotten their hands on Special Interests (and if you’re a reviewer, you can too; check NetGalley!), I thought it was only fair to post the opening chapter for non-reviewer consumption. Follow me below the fold…

Chapter 1

“Oh good, it’s not too crowded,” Alyse said over the throbbing ba-doush-doush-doush of dance music as they approached Tom Tom.

Millie Frank glared at her roommate’s back. Obviously they understood the word crowded differently. Tom Tom was packed, even by the standards of a Thursday night in Adams Morgan. Every stool around the bar had an occupant, the dance floor teemed with sweaty bodies and the tables were all full. Granted, there was just enough space between the people not to qualify as a fire hazard—that must have been what Alyse meant.

As she crossed the threshold, the completely predictable thing happened: heads clicked toward Millie in unison like some sort of bizarre theme-park ride. All they needed now was some creepy music and choreography to complete the picture. It’s a damned small world after all.

One week ago, the incident had occurred. An incident of such gargantuan proportion and humiliating potential that even by the standards of her life, it stood out. Every twenty-four-hour news network had spent the better part of an afternoon covering her.

This stuff never happened to Alyse. This stuff never happened to anyone. Millie sighed and let her head fall forward onto her chest, trying to ignore the pointing and whispering not even Europop could hide. The attention had to go away eventually.

For the moment, she was a minor celebrity. Oh, not one who had had a baby at sixteen or who had learned to ballroom dance or who had proposed to someone on network television. Not, in other words, a real celebrity. No, more like a D-lister who went to rehab or the younger sister of a socialite with a sex tape.

“Are you sure this is a good idea? This isn’t really my scene,” she shouted into Alyse’s ear as they pushed through the crowd.

“For a week you’ve only left the apartment for work and therapy. You spend twelve hours a day sleeping. You’re hibernating. Clearly we need to get you out of your scene,” Alyse shouted back. A cover-girl-pretty blonde, her roommate spent days raising money to ensure that girls in the developing world could learn to read and nights feasting on DC’s limited nightlife. In other words, Millie’s polar opposite.

She swallowed a sigh. While she’d never admit it aloud, Alyse had a point. When they reached the large table their friends had snagged, someone offered her a drink. Actually three drinks appeared and she accepted the sticky pink Cosmo.

Margot, a pale redhead who lobbied on environmental issues and who could always be counted on to wear fabulous non-leather shoes, was saying, “I had to wait for three trains before one came with any room to get on. But it was okay because it had the Barry White conductor.”

In response, the girls crowding the table squealed, “Go forth, Farragut North!”

Yeah, that guy was famous—much more appropriately than Millie. At least he had a skill. Young DC had raised complaining about the Red Line while celebrating public transportation to an art form. Only artisan varieties of infused vodka inspired more enthusiasm.

Uninterested in trading more Metro stories, Millie sipped her drink slowly and scanned the room. Crowding the club were your interns, recognizable by their inappropriate interpretations of business casual and their frat party lingo. There were your nonprofit and advocacy types, like herself, though often much crunchier. And there were your escapees from the Hill and the White House. The latter could usually be found clutching smartphones or, in the most obnoxious cases, still wearing their hard passes. Nothing spelled sexy like a guy who wanted you and everyone else to know he had access to the OEOB.

Tonight she was surrounded by lots of drunk people who wanted to change the world. Change it and manipulate it and convince voters they wanted to change it in ways other than how they actually wanted to change it and…well, it amounted to the same thing.

She took another sip out of boredom as much as anything else and felt it burn all the way down her throat. She wasn’t much of a drinker.

“How’ve you been?” Margot’s half-yelled words shattered her daydreaming.

For a moment, Millie considered telling the truth. Sleepless, despondent, frustrated: the usual. That would probably be too much.

Instead she smiled weakly and offered, “You know…pretty good.”

“Alyse mentioned you’ve started therapy.”

“Yeah, I’m seeing a crisis counselor a few times a week. I think I’m ready to cut back to the normal amount, though. I’m pretty sure that too much talking about one’s self isn’t healthy.”

“But wasn’t it, you know, traumatic?”

Seven faces turned toward her, wide-eyed and expectant. Faces that both wanted her to share her secret pain and were terrified that she would. It was amazing how many of them worked to help victims of various traumas but how few would be willing to admit any weakness themselves.

Millie rolled her eyes. “The hostage taker was not frightening. The chicken suit pretty much took care of that. I mean, once we realized he had a Nerf gun, it started to move into theater of the absurd. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t scary.”

Her therapist, Dr. John, told her that she was numb about what had happened, but she thought she was handling it well, all things considered. She took another swig of the Cosmo to buy herself a minute. Her friends waited, anticipating more details. She decided that playing into stereotype was the quickest way to end the interrogation.

She bit her lip. “I’d prefer not to talk about it.”

Everyone nodded understandingly and turned to the ongoing budget negotiations. The incident aside, it wasn’t like she was all that open with them anyway. Still waters run deep, her grandmother used to say—a cliché as reassuring as a Thomas Kinkade painting. But fading into the background, her typical strategy for deflecting the attention she hated and hiding her lack of confidence, didn’t seem to be working very well the past week.

The buzz of conversation poured past her. No one really seemed to know how things were progressing on the Hill and whether a deal would get done over the upcoming Congressional recess, but that didn’t stop anyone from speculating.

A half hour ticked by. She nursed her Cosmo, attempting to avoid the eyes of her friends who were loudly not watching her. She watched the second hand on her watch tick round and round and round.

The wallflower act was how she’d gotten through this day and every time she had to renew her driver’s license and her father’s endless lectures about the proper way to do everything, not to mention her entire adolescence.

As far as she could tell, the main problem with being a wallflower was when one hadn’t chosen the role. She’d chosen it, embraced it and reveled in it until a stupid, disgruntled man with a surprisingly realistic-looking toy gun had made it untenable. She’d always suspected that one day the dam would burst and the waters would be…not still any longer, but she’d always hoped she would get a choice about that too.

Having finished her drink and without anything to add to the meaningless budget negotiation speculation, she announced to no one in particular, “I’m going to the bar.” She pushed her way out of booth and back into the crowd.

The best part about having one of the most identifiable faces in the country, at least for the moment, was that you didn’t wait to put in an order. Millie couldn’t remember when she’d had a bartender respond more quickly. Or when she’d received more smiles from strangers.

She straightened her dress in the mirror over the bar and fluffed her brown hair. She looked…fine. Her ensemble had Alyse’s stamp of approval, as did the smoky eye makeup, and what else was there, really? Looking or feeling like herself, perhaps, which she hadn’t in a week. Whatever herself even meant anymore.

She shoved a generous tip into the jar and turned on her heel, right into a be-pin-striped chest.

“Sorry!” She stepped back quickly, then clutched her glass with both hands, impressed she’d avoided spilling.

The guy she’d bumped into towered over her. She glanced up at him and half-grimaced, half-smiled in apology. It was an honest reaction, but good God, did it help cover her astonishment. He bore more than surpassing resemblance to the underwear model she had absolutely not been ogling in the window of H&M that afternoon. Except for the suit, of course. She assumed the suit covered a body as lovely as what was revealed: wavy brown hair, devastating dark eyes and absolutely perfect teeth.

He smiled and her knees buckled. He had to know the effect that might have on women and yet he did it anyway. Without warning, even. The jerk.

He leaned down to speak in her ear. “Most of the time I’m too tall to get stepped on, but I don’t meet that many famous people.” Straightening back up to his full height, he gave her another smile, the reverberations from which she could feel in all her soft places.

Men who knew how good-looking they were pissed her off, especially when they had a sense of humor. “Yeah, that’s totally it. We celebrities don’t even notice the little people around us,” she shot back.

“I think you owe me then.” The guy offered his proposition with a lazy smile. Somehow, he wore a three-piece suit without looking stuffy. Maybe it was the combination of features straight out of a toothpaste commercial. Cataloguing him made her stomach quiver and then tense.

But she recognized his type. She’d put down even money he was an asshole corporate lobbyist trying to get lucky with the most pseudo-famous person in the room.

She narrowed her eyes and scowled. “Really? What is it I owe you?”

“Get me a drink.”

Her jaw clenched in surprise. Ballsy. “You want me to buy you a drink?” she clarified slowly.

“No. I want you to order me a drink.”

She turned around and could see his point. Where had the swarm of people come from?

“What do you want?”

“Vodka gimlet,” he said against her ear. His voice was low and melodic. He was leaning over her shoulder now, which made her tingle all over—a ridiculous and apparently unavoidable response in his presence. She needed to end their interaction as quickly as possible before she got too discombobulated to remember she didn’t like or trust hot guys.

Millie pushed up toward the front as much to get away from him as anything else and immediately both bartenders moved over to her. She gave his order with a smile to the impossibly skinny one.

Feeling the thirsty interns’ glares on her back, she made a little small talk. “Is it always this slow?”

The woman laughed as she shook the martini shaker and poured the gorgeous stranger’s drink into a glass. As she pushed it across the bar, he slapped some money down.

“Thanks,” he said as they elbowed their way through the crowd. “I would’ve been dehydrated all night if it hadn’t been for you. Now I guess I owe you something.” He dropped a hand on her lower back to direct her away from the bar.

Millie scuttled out of reach. “I’m glad I could use my powers for good.” She hoped he could feel her disdain rather than her attraction.

“I’m Parker, by the way. Parker Beckett.”

He stood there, hand extended, looking like a Ken doll just out of the box. Like apparently every part of him, it was beautiful. At least he was annoying as compensation. Not a fair trade for humanity, but it was something.

Was there a way out of this conversation?

“Millie Frank,” she finally replied before taking his hand. There was a slight rush at the skin-to-skin touch, but that was probably the firm grip and rigorous shake.

“Isn’t it Amelia?”

“Technically. You can’t even begin to know how much I hate that everyone knows that now.”

He laughed, slipped a hand around her elbow and steered her out of the main thoroughfare and into a corner. From anyone else, it would have been gallant, but he seemed to be trying to find any excuse for physical contact. It was too practiced and sleazy. At least it was quieter a little farther from the bar.

“Where do you work?” He sipped his drink, regarding her over the rim with frank appraisal.

She rolled her eyes. “No. Let’s not have that conversation.”

“What conversation?”

“The typical Washington, DC, bullshit. We’re world-weary people.”

“Cynical to the core, we are. Okay, then, if I’m not asking the usual questions, where do you live?” When she narrowed her eyes and glared without answering, he said with a laugh, “It’s not like I don’t have any information about you. You’re from Iowa, right?”

Millie wanted to contradict him. She wanted to issue some perfect witty burn and sashay back to her table, but she didn’t have anything witty to say and she’d never sashayed in her life.

She gave him another for-good-measure glare but answered his question. “Yes.”

“You studied philosophy at school?”

“Yes.”

“You work at an advocacy organization, on labor issues or something.”

“Yes.”

“You ate tuna fish sandwiches for lunch every day in middle school.”

“Ugh. Absolutely not. I’m not sure how this horrifying lie got started, but I’ve never eaten tuna fish in my life.”

He beamed, eyes crinkling at the corners. The ghosts of the hearts he’d broken were almost visible stretching toward the door.

“Wow, you sure were paying attention,” she said, spooning the sugar onto her voice and hoping to piss him off. She was starting to enjoy this conversation more than she should.

He looked a little embarrassed. “Swear to God I wasn’t. I watch a lot of news, and around here at least, you’re the big story.” He swept his hands for emphasis, talking with his whole body, which was exasperating and endearing.

She waved her hands right back. “Technically, I’m not. I was present for the big story. I am not the story.”

“I’m an expert on the media, and I can say with certainty that if you’d just done the sit-and-cry on The View that everyone wanted, the attention would have gone away sooner.” He said it as if it were an absolute certainty. He was arrogant and some sort of professional political operative. Well, the two went together, didn’t they?

She glared at him. “For the fourth time, I wasn’t the stupid story. I didn’t want to give them any ammo by granting interviews. It’s dying down now anyway. If we weren’t in pre-recess summer lull, it would be over entirely.”

He shrugged and glanced around the bar.

“Am I keeping you?” Millie asked, irritated that he was evidently looking for someone else to go…bother.

“Absolutely not,” he said, turning his full attention back to her. “I don’t usually do Adams Morgan on a Thursday. I don’t really do it at all, actually. I’m remembering why now. One doesn’t normally meet very interesting people.”

He reached up, brushing her hair over her shoulder in yet another unnecessary touch. But this time, Millie couldn’t muster much annoyance. She wanted to dislike him, but with every passing minute, that was getting more difficult. He wore his superciliousness well. He wore everything well, it seemed. And whether she wanted to admit it, they were flirting.

She wasn’t sure that pre-incident Millie would have engaged in banter in a bar with a total stranger, particularly not one as good-looking as Parker. Pre-incident Millie’d been more of a let-shy-awkward-guys-approach-from-across-the-coffee-shop kind of girl. A let-me-set-you-up-with-my-brother kind of girl. Those strategies had gotten her into a string of long-term relationships with boring guys. This, this was sort of fun. As long as she remembered he was probably an asshole, she could do this.

“Okay, it’s my turn,” she said, taking a big sip and feeling braced by the booze. “I’m going to tell you all about you.”

He pursed his lips. “You’re just going to guess?”

“How hard could it be? Everyone in DC has the same story.” She studied him, not worried now about being subtle. He was wearing a very expensive suit; that much was obvious. He had an absurdly perfect body; that much she presumed.

“You’re a lawyer?”

“I went to law school.”

So probably not a lobbyist then. “You’re on the Hill?”

“Yes.”

“Who do you work for?”

“Someone whose name you know,” he replied with a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders as he glanced around again.

Most people in Washington didn’t play it coy. He seemed a little uncomfortable talking about himself, which surprised her.

“On a committee staff?”

“No, personal.”

“On foreign affairs?”

“No, domestic policy. You’re not doing very well, Amelia,” he said with a grin. Every time he did that, flashed a hint of dimple and crinkled his eyes, her stomach lurched. If this conversation continued for much longer, she might actually start panting.

It’s just a physical reaction to a very fine specimen.

She swallowed and said, “How about this, then, you tell me something and I’ll guess whether it’s true or false.”

“Okay. But only if we can take turns.”

She agreed with a nonchalant nod. At least she hoped it was nonchalant. His tongue had darted out and swept across his bottom lip, which was far more unnerving than it should have been.

He considered for a minute before saying, “Hmm, I haven’t been to a bar in months. I’d have come sooner if I knew you were here.” He quirked a brow.

With those words, he’d become so much less interesting. Millie resisted throwing her drink in his face, tempting as it was, and instead shook her head. “Nope. I don’t accept that entry. Untrue and ridiculous. Try again.”

For a minute, she wasn’t sure whether he was going to answer or leave to find someone else to drop his lines on. Then he said, “I find all of this an annoying burden.”

“Oh yes. It’s so hard to be a powerful guy in Washington. The horror. That’s obviously true.” It was. He gave a sheepish shrug.

But that meant it was her turn. After a moment, she said, “I hate attention. I wish everyone would go back to being obsessed with Katy Perry.”

“Also obviously true,” he said with a chuckle. “We’re no good at this. Let’s see…I remember when I was idealistic and hoped to have a positive impact on American politics and I wish I still felt like that.”

Millie studied Parker’s face closely. There was a layer underneath the beauty. Beyond the perfect features, the sexy smile and the appealing brown eyes. Setting aside the voice and the scent and the charm. Yes, past all of that there was something vulnerable about him. Or was he playing her?

“True?” She wasn’t sure.

“I miss it, my idealism. Isn’t that depressing?” For the first time, the mask was totally gone. His question was utterly sincere.

She nodded empathetically before she’d really thought it through. The shared moment of exposure was damn revealing. She glanced at the floor in self-defense and tapped one toe on the worn tiles.

“Your turn, babe,” he prompted.

Her composure recovered, she looked back up into his face and answered his moment of honesty with one of her own. “Um, everyone wants me to be a quivering mass of fear about what happened and all I can muster is ennui.”

Even as the words were out of her mouth, Millie wasn’t sure what the right answer was. She glanced down waiting for his answer.

“True,” he said after a long pause.

Why she’d raised this subject with him, she wasn’t sure. He’d earned it, somehow.

Still speaking to the floor, she said, “You know, I think we’re going to need a judge’s ruling. I just…don’t know. Ennui didn’t quite capture it, though quivering mass of fear wasn’t right either. A numb muddle where once there had been an ambitious, albeit shy, girl might be closest.”

Millie found that she couldn’t look him in the eye. She hadn’t said this much to anyone. Not Alyse. Not Dr. John. Not her mother. Now she’d stripped naked in front of a near stranger. An excellent life choice. Maybe now they could talk about Katy Perry. Or perhaps it was time for the sashaying.

Parker reached under her chin and tipped her head up. “Do I still win the point?” he asked.

A laugh gurgled out of Millie’s mouth, which surprised her. “Um, yeah, I guess,” she said.

Dropping his hand, Parker said, “Oh, good. Because I’m very competitive. Hmm, I once ran away from home.”

“Nice try, everyone does. Obviously true.”

“Errt,” he made a loud siren noise. “Nope. But I wish I had.”

“No running away? No major rebellion?” Millie was surprised. Arrogance and rebellion were a natural combo.

“Not even a little.” Okay, the half smile and contemplation through heavy-lidded eyes made him look sleepy and…interested.

During the exchange, they shifted toward each other, or maybe she moved toward him. The distance between them wouldn’t pass muster at a Catholic high school dance. She could have counted the points of beard growth on his cheeks. Without moving her feet, she could have leaned in and kissed him. If she wanted to, that was.

Millie took a sip from her drink before replying. “Fascinating. Okay…I have never been assigned detention.”

“That’s clearly true. You don’t have a rebellious bone in your body.” He smiled fully now, hitting her with the full wattage of his good looks for the first time since she’d run into him.

Right, he looked like an underwear model and was surprisingly deep. A girl doesn’t come across one of those every day.

How long had it been since she’d broken up with Bryan? Nine months? Ten? That was a long time to go without being kissed. She missed the intimacy of being in bed with a man. The sweaty, groping, fullness of sex. Maybe it was exactly what she needed to banish the demons that had been haunting her since the incident.

Parker wasn’t exactly what he appeared, but he was a type. His interest, his no doubt very short-term interest, was, well, pretty clear. So what if he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d call in the morning? He was cute and charming. He’d do as well as anyone else for this little experiment.

She leaned forward and rested her fingertips on the crisp linen of his shirt and the warm, milled silk of his tie. “Say, you wouldn’t want to get out of here, would you?”

She followed this up with her best siren’s smile, not something that she practiced a lot. She hadn’t picked up a guy in years. Maybe ever. How hard could it be?

He set his hand over hers and squeezed it. Then his smile dimmed. When he spoke, a practiced detachment had clicked into his voice. “Millie, you don’t want this. You don’t want me. I don’t have anything good for you.”

Had she run into a wall at full speed? Was he turning her down? She said, voice catching in her throat, “Pardon?”

“Babe, I can’t, not knowing…I just can’t.” He squeezed her wrist and let it go, with a firm but apologetic shake of his head.

He was turning her down. The bar had grown warmer, if that was even possible. She had to get out of here. Now. “Well, then, I should find my friends…”

“Millie—”

She whipped her head up and looked at him one last time. “Goodbye, Parker Beckett.” His name lodged in her throat and came out half-croak. Her glass slammed on the bar with a hollow ring as she lurched back to her friends.

The whole thing will be out April 7. In the meantime, you can add Special Interests to your Goodreads shelves or preorder it via AmazonB&NCarinaKobo or All Romance.

© Emma Barry, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Emma Barry with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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