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I’d been on edge all night wondering if Neal Drake was going to turn up at The Loft, and cursed myself mentally for acting like I expected Kellan himself to make an appearance. But there was no helping that constant low simmer of dread in my stomach, and I wasn’t doing myself any favors by torturing myself with frequent furtive glances over at Eric.
Something had happened at the bar after I’d left, I could tell; he’d been as carefree as ever earlier, completely in his element with his skilled hands on the keys and a sexy half-smirk on his lips that I could pretend was meant for me. But since he’d arrived at the club tension had been on him like a heavy winter coat, and his tight smiles and stiff posture only added to my own unease. I’d fully expected him to take the opportunity to work out that tension by immersing himself in his other natural element, finding some willing sub to tie up and have his way with. But Eric was in total dungeon monitor-mode tonight, his rope bag sitting neglected in the corner as he observed the room with quiet seriousness and made surprisingly little small talk. Relief coursed through me briefly when I saw him turn down one of the girls who I figured was one of his regular play partners, only for a healthy dose of guilt to get sprinkled in with the roiling stew of dread.
I let out a short sigh and dug my teeth into my lower lip. There you go again, making it all about you when he clearly has something on his mind and all your problems are the same old news as always, I scolded myself. Eric looked over at me before I could hide my grimace, and I felt my cheeks heat as something subtle about his already-perturbed face changed that I couldn’t quite read.
Should I go talk to him? I gnawed at my lip as I debated whether or not to breach my self-imposed “no deep, personal conversations at play parties” policy, realizing belatedly that I’d been staring blankly in Eric’s direction and smearing lipstick all over my teeth for at least a good thirty seconds. I snapped myself out of it and quickly scrubbed my tongue over my teeth behind pursed lips. No, better to save any questions about his sudden brooding for a quick text tomorrow after we’d both gotten plenty of sleep and were safely removed from the sexually-charged atmosphere of the club.
The rest of the night went by almost agonizingly slowly, my gut churning with anxiety more and more as the hours ticked by, until I almost felt physically queasy. By the time we closed the doors to new patrons at 1:00 Mr. Drake still hadn’t shown up, but the reassurance that I wouldn’t be seeing him that night did little to calm my nerves.
The last stragglers cleared out fairly quickly after 2:00, and clean-up took hardly any time at all. The group of us—minus Megan, who was working the night shift at the hospital—all walked to the nearby parking garage together. I hesitated as I said goodbye to Eric as I got off the elevator on the floor where I’d parked, wanting to hold him back just a minute longer to ask what was on his mind. But I held back, telling myself that a real friend would just let him go home and go to bed.
I let out the same mixed sigh of relief and heartache that I always did at the end of another night at the club deprived of what only Eric could give me, and rummaged around in my coat pockets for my keys and parking ticket. Shit, where was my ticket?
“Motherfucker,” I cursed under my breath as annoyance flashed through me and threatened to dredge up my earlier anxiety once again. I allowed myself an exaggerated growl of frustration knowing that no one was around to hear me and hurried back to the elevator. I scanned the ground as I hurried back in the direction of The Loft, searching futilely for my lost ticket. There was still a chance it had fallen out of my pocket somewhere in the club, though.
By the time I made it back to The Loft, my anxiety had morphed into general grouchiness, aggravated by the fact that the wind had picked up, rendering my skirt and thigh-high socks all but useless at protecting my legs against the biting cold. Thank God my parking ticket was on the floor of the office; at least the trip had been worth the trouble. I looked around the main dungeon one last time before leaving again, feeling like I was forgetting something else. Eric’s gear bag in the corner by the snack bar caught my eye. I frowned as I took out my phone to text him that I’d found it. Eric of all people would never neglect his rope like that; he must’ve had more on his mind than I’d thought. As I hoisted the heavy bag onto my shoulder, I noticed that a full trash bag had somehow been forgotten as well. Good lord, how distracted had I been that I’d overlooked so much myself?
With a groan, I picked up the trash and headed back down to the first floor and out the back door to the narrow alley where the dumpster was. I had to set the massive duffle bag on the ground to lift the lid of the dumpster enough to dump the trash in. I let the lid fall again with a loud, rattling crash and crouched to pick up the bag, determined to get out of the creepy alley and back to my car as quickly as possible, only to stumble and fall flat on my ass at the sight of a pair of feet on the other side of Eric’s bag that hadn’t been there before.
I was on my own feet again in a second, my heart fluttering erratically as I heaved the bag onto my shoulder and got a look at the guy who’d managed to sneak up on me. He was a young, scrawny guy, probably younger than me, with lank blondish hair and wearing a stained gray hoodie.
He snickered. “What’s in the bag, sweetheart?” he taunted softly.