Mr. Right Now has always been more important than Mr. Right for Veronica Barnes. It isn't like she needs a man for emotional support, she has friends for that.
Her personal shopping business is booming so when client Derek Zahn catches her eye she figures a fling might be a perfect idea. It seems he has a terrible hurt in his past and other ideas though.
“Everything okay, Veronica?”
It was great to be known at the stores she favored and Kate was always sure to let Veronica know when a new shipment was coming in.
As a personal shopper, Veronica didn’t worry about things going on sale, she was more interested in finding the perfect pieces for her clients, and for herself.
“Great, thank you.” It was close to the truth. Her professional life was great; it was the personal one that seemed a bit lacking. If she was honest with herself, she would have to admit that the party girl lifestyle might be getting old. Up until a month ago, when Jayla got engaged, that thought would never have crossed Veronica Barnes’ mind. But now that reality was staring her in the face. Luckily, she was pretty good at ignoring the voice of her inner conscience. She shook her head. No reason to change a good thing. Anyway, the thrill of the first time you were with someone was part of the fun.
Why would she want to tie herself to one man? Her best friend, Jayla, had been in love with Josh for as long as anyone could remember, so her new-found commitment worked for her. No such man existed in Veronica’s life; nobody even came close.
Yes, Franklin was constantly vying for her attention. They had been dating for the last several months, but that was due to his persistence rather than her interest. Dating may have been a skosh too heavy of a label to put on what they had. He called constantly and sent flowers and gifts regularly, but she couldn’t muster enough interest to get worked up about him. Even his good looks were nothing special. Franklin was a bit shy of six foot with brown hair and brown eyes—normal, really.
Hell, the only time she called him was when she was leaving a club drunk and alone. While he was good in bed, she was bored to tears when she had to talk to him. There was no reason to subject herself to that kind of torture when she could simply have fun with a new guy instead. Franklin was constantly trying to convince her into a committed relationship that would never happen.
“You should consider ordering some asymmetrical pieces, they’ll be coming back in full force this season,” Veronica said as she ran her hand along a three-quarter length skirt and tried to picture it as part of a full wardrobe.
It was easier to focus on work since she had lost Jayla to the noose of engagement and Madeline to pining over her breakup with the model she had been seeing. Without her partners in crime she went out less frequently. She seemed to spend more time than she cared to admit hanging out as a third wheel with Josh and Jayla, pretending to plan a wedding. Since Jayla planned weddings for a living, Veronica usually ended up sipping wine and watching the lovebirds coo at each other. Yep, she was the third wheel for sure, but it was better than being alone. No need to consult a shrink to figure that one out.
Veronica weighed her options for the evening and decided that she was going out tonight, no matter what. She waved goodbye to Kate and entered the sidewalk where the city bustled around her. The smell of Chicago swirled over her—there was the aroma of packed-together people, coupled with pizza and beer, a scent she had grown to savor.
There was just one more stop on her agenda and then she would head home to get ready. Before she could talk herself out of it, she dialed her phone.
“Hey, what are you doing?” she asked as soon as Madeline answered.
“I’m doing some laundry and going to read a book—life of the truly glamorous.”
“Who are you and what have you done with my best friend?” she teased. Having been friends for the last five years, Veronica knew Madeline was generally on some sporting field somewhere, surrounded by hot men in scant clothing.
“I know, right?” but there wasn’t laughter in her voice, only resolve. This boring life did not have to be in her friend’s future.
“Put on your party shoes and let’s go out!” Veronica implored. “I need to blow off some steam.”
“Nothing,” Veronica fibbed. “Just figured that since Franklin keeps reminding me that I’m not a good girlfriend, then I should prove him right. I would hate for him to get the idea that I’m at home waiting on his call. So are you up for making a little trouble with me?”
“Nah, I really want to see if Darren ends up with Margo or if he ditches her for Shaylynn.”
“Are you seriously reading a romance novel?” Veronica asked dryly.
“Yep, figured I’m assured a happy ending that way,” Madeline said with melancholy clear in her voice. “I gotta go.” Did her voice crack?
“Hey, wait,” she hedged, “are you okay? Wanna just get a glass of wine or something low key?”
“I’m okay. Have fun tonight and text me if you need me to come get you.” The false bravado was clear, but Veronica let her friend hang on to the pretense and ended the call.
A couple walked by on the opposite side of the street. They looked happy, holding hands and smiling, but Veronica knew the secret they were hiding from the world. Deep down, he resented the way his girlfriend watched reality television, and she hated how he chewed his food. Couples might seem like everything was fine, but the truth was always hidden deep down, just waiting for the day it would explode.
Veronica ducked into a little shop specializing in men’s apparel and waved at the owner.
“I was just going to text you,” Claudia said. “We have some new things coming in on Monday.”
This made Veronica brighten a bit; textiles were one thing she understood. Most of her clients were women, but she loved being able to buy for the few men on list, and she picked out a few items before heading home.
When she arrived back at her apartment, feeling desperate, Veronica dialed Jayla but, true to form, she was out with Josh. Ugh.
Now she had to decide whether to call some sort-of friend—she really did need to branch out—or stay in even though she’d feel cooped up. Or return Franklin’s call, even though it would only be a diversion and one that would certainly cost her in the end. She could already feel her eyes rolling back in her head from sheer boredom and the sex wasn’t that great.
Well, her party girl image couldn’t take the hit, so she donned her best red high heels and traipsed around the apartment looking for a dress that would assure her some action, grabbing a bottle of water along the way. Party girl Rule Number One was to stay hydrated when drinking alcohol and she planned on having a few, maybe even too many.
All dolled up, with her brown hair tucked behind her ears, and the glitteriest eye shadow ever made swept across her eyelids, she was ready to roll. Veronica called a cab because Rule Number Two was never to drive home after said drinks. Plus, if she went home with someone, then it was better not to be bothered with the car shuffle in the morning. The walk of shame was one thing; having to make awkward chitchat as you crossed the city to get to your car was quite another.
Waiting for her ride, she checked the contents of her purse, then sent a group text to forty-five friends to let them know where she would be in case they wanted to meet up at Lincoln’s Tirade, the hottest new club on the north side of town. Maybe some of them would show up by closing time.
Even though she was closest to Madeline and Jayla, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t have fun with some of the other people in her circle. True, some of the other women were intimidated by her, but that was their problem.
One last text to Derek, the club manager, so he could get her on the list, and off she went. Veronica refused to let herself think too long about Derek, even though he was deliciously tall, and had amazing green eyes. She had long ago put him on the unavailable list since he was a client, but that didn’t mean the fantasy wasn’t fun. And hot. And delicious.
* * * * *
“Name?” the bouncer asked at the door.
“Ah,” he said with a wink. “Derek said you were coming. I’m supposed to tell you your drinks are on the house tonight.”
While it wasn’t unusual to skip the line, the free drinks made her feel like a celebrity. Veronica made a note on her phone to make sure and get him some great new wardrobe pieces as a thank you. She loved shopping for Derek, there was something special about him. It probably had a lot to do with how amazing everything looked when he put it on.
She relished the vibe of the bar. The place was set up with ornate balconies in a circle above them, three floors high. The balconies were outside the VIP rooms. Most of them had the curtains open, and the inhabitants used them for dancing, though some closed them off and used them for privacy. The main bar rounded three quarters of the room and at least half a dozen bartenders were desperately mixing drinks. The bar was made from ornate styled mahogany and the dark wood gave the club a very old world feel, certainly different to any other bar in the city. She snapped a selfie and posted it to Instagram.
The female employees dressed in fitted corsets and revealed sufficient cleavage for there to be little left to the imagination, while the male counterparts wore what could only be described as breeches and something like a peasant top crossed with frills. The combination resembled something that should have been on the cover of one of those trashy novels Madeline read.
She felt the music thump in her stomach. It was comforting, somehow, the equivalent of talking to a friend. The club’s energy was frenetic and the dance floor was expansive, yet still packed with writhing bodies. Obviously, the owner was doing well.
She waved at Derek from across the room but wasn’t sure he saw her. She paused for a split second of contemplation. Should she walk across to him? But she hesitated long enough and saw that he was making his way over to her, so she stood still, waiting for his arrival. There were butterflies in her stomach. It had to be the music playing tricks with her pulse.
Veronica had always thought he was a good-looking guy. His dark brown hair made his light green eyes stand out. Muscular and tall, she knew he was constantly getting hit on at the club. The best thing was that he was an amazing club manager, but fashion was not his thing. That was where Veronica came in. For Derek she was more of a personal stylist than a personal shopper, since there was no area of his life he didn’t trust to her. She had even decorated his house, though that wasn’t her area of expertise. They seemed to have grown closer in the last couple of months. It was so comfortable to talk to him. In addition, he seemed to appreciate her take on things. As far as platonic relationships went, this one was pretty good.
Veronica smiled to herself, watching him walk up in the black slacks and grey button-down she had brought him a few days ago. One thing was sure, he wore them well. It was difficult to find things to fit his athletic frame and broad shoulders, but seeing the completed package made it well worth the extra effort.
“Hi there, hot stuff,” he whispered, his lips close to her ear to be heard over the music.
Wow, was that a new nickname? It was sexy and it sent tingles up and down her spine. “I could say the same to you. I really like the new threads.”
“Well, I would hope so, you picked them out,” he retorted with a wink.
The back and forth flirting felt good. It occurred to her that they had always had a bit of harmless banter between them. She had felt an immediate attraction to him, but had kept her hands to herself when he became her client. Why was that again? She could easily break rules that she had made herself; it was one of the perks of being your own boss.
“Let me introduce you to the bartender. Did Sean tell you that your drinks were on the house?” He grabbed her hand and walked her across to the bar in the far right corner, but stayed near enough to hear her response. The grasp was giant and felt warm on her delicate fingers.
“Thank you so much.” It wasn’t unusual for men to buy her drinks, but there was something scintillating about Derek doing it.
He gazed deeply into her eyes, “It’s my pleasure.” Shit, her insides clenched. It hardly seemed fair that he should have this power over her reactions.
Derek motioned to a dark-haired girl who wore her long tresses in low pigtail braids. Her lips were the deepest shade of scarlet and she had big brown eyes.
“This is Ashli. She’ll get your drinks tonight, whatever you want. It’s easier if you come to her rather than having you carry some card or having all the bartenders try to remember your face.”
Veronica looked around again and realized there were at least a dozen drink ordering stations, way more than she had thought there were.
She nodded her understanding and shook the girl’s hand, while Derek introduced them.
“I have to check on a few things and make sure the club isn’t falling down around us,” he said with a sly grin. “I’ll come see how much trouble you are getting into a bit later.”
Veronica couldn’t help but admire the view as he walked away. He must have played football once upon a time because he was certainly built for it. At six foot six inches, he towered over her small frame. While she was no expert when it came to football, the phrase tight end certainly rang true.
“What’ll it be?” Ashli asked above the crowd noise, recapturing Veronica’s attention.
“Can I have a Sea Breeze?”
The bartender finished the drink without any delay and handed it over, obviously not having time to chat.