She breathed a genuine laugh and held my gaze. Everything about her was pink; her drink, her hair, the bright halo of glimmering dust that surrounded her.
Kindness, compassion, charity. Those were the feelings I associated with pink.
I hadn’t seen it this strong in anyone in a long time.
Fiona clinked her glass to my bottle. “Thanks for taking care of my over-eager dance partner, Nik. And for the drink.”
She sipped her Cosmo. “Not much of a talker, are you?” Her eyes were impossibly bright, her smile showing a broad mouth and full lips.
“Club’s not a great place for talk,” I said.
“True,” she said, “but here we are.”
Here we are…
A short silence fell.
“Nik,” Fiona mused. “Nik, Nik,” she said again, in a light, sing-song manner. “Short for Nicholas?”
“Nikolai,” I said.
“Oh, I like that.” Her colors warmed and sweetened, like an invitation, drawing me closer. “Are you Russian? You don’t have an accent.”
“My mother is.”
“Do you speak it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I picked some up.”
She scooted closer on her seat. “Say something in Russian.”
“I’m not picky. I can’t speak a word so anything is going to sound good.”
I thought for a second and then spoke aloud the only thought I had in my head.
“Ti samaya krasivaya devushka na svete.”
Fiona’s smile widened and the bright wisps of her happiness wrapped around me. I wanted to take in more of it. Which made no sense at all. With other women, their scents were so often cloying and unwanted like the air wasn’t mine to breathe.
What the fuck is wrong with you? Get a grip.
I sucked down a long swig of beer. Fiona watched me, her eyebrows raised, then she laughed. “Um, Nik? You realize you’re supposed to tell me what you said, right?”
I shrugged and my lips twitched. “Don’t remember.”
Fiona laughed again. “Liar.”
We both took a sip from our drinks and let a little silence fall between us. A nice silence.
“That was lovely, your Russian,” Fiona said eventually. “Whatever you said, it sounded…sexy.”
My gaze swung to her eyes. “Yeah?”
She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Yeah. I was going to say something harmless like ‘unique’ or ‘exotic’, but I’d rather be honest with you, Nikolai. I don’t like playing games.” Her brow furrowed slightly. “I don’t like it at all.”
I sensed a shadow starting to creep over her. Something old and full of pain. Driving it away suddenly became my only goddamn purpose in life.
“I guess you’re not going to like me much then,” I said. “I play games constantly. Every day.”
A smile crept over her lips. “Is that so?”
“Sure,” I said. “Omaha, Texas Hold’em, stud, draw, lowball, high-low split…”
She laughed, flaring pink again, and the shadow around her retreated. “A joke and a smile too. I was beginning to wonder if you ever smiled.”
I shrugged. “It happens.”
“And those games, they’re all poker, right? You play poker every day?”
“Not every day. Most days.”
“For a living?”
“No, I’m a…” I coughed. “I’m a salesman. Motorcycle parts. I travel a lot for the job, and finding poker games in each city is sort of my hobby.”
My standard lie, though I hated laying it on her. I knew plenty of grinders who lived off their poker winnings, but that was for the love of the game. I played because thanks to the ken it was easy to win, and I’d never cared that it was cheating. It was the only way to put my strange ability to use that I knew of, and it allowed me to give a big fuck you to the universe for cursing me with it in the first place.
But lying to Fiona felt dirty. Even when haunted by bad memories she was luminous, while I was tatted and stained, as if the ink on my hands would bleed out and onto the white of her dress if I touched her.
She cocked her head at me, wearing a perplexed little smile. “You don’t look like a salesman.” Her eyes drifted over my tattooed arms and neck, to the talons piercing my ears. “When I think of ‘traveling salesman’ I picture a middle-aged guy in a suit with a suitcase full of encyclopedias.”
“No suitcase,” I said. “Catalogues and order forms.”
“And you travel a lot?”
“That sounds lonely.”
“You do something long enough, you get used to it.”
“I know what you mean,” Fiona said, a tinge of darkness around her words—that shadow started to creep back until she buried it. “But the poker makes it fun?”
“Breaks up the monotony of the road.”
“Do you make a lot of money?” she said, then laughed, beautiful in her self-consciousness. “Sorry, I’m not asking for your bank balance, I just meant, are you any good at it?”
“I’m really fucking good at it,” I said.
Her eyebrows shot up and she nudged my arm with a laugh. “If you don’t say so yourself.”
“Maybe I feel like being honest with you too.” I could feel where she touched me, a tingling heat that was slow to fade.
“I like that.” She swirled her cherry around in her drink by its stem. “So are you in town, selling motorcycle parts, for very long?”
“Couple of days.”
“I hope the storm doesn’t put a damper on your business.”
“You’re lucky. At my job, we’ve been given the next few days off.”
“You sound bummed about that.”
“Every penny counts.” She met my eye. “I’m moving out of the country very soon and want to save up.”
I took a sip of my beer. I’d known Fiona for five minutes, but the idea of her moving any further away than her seat at the bar filled me with inexplicable dread.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
But it wasn’t what was wrong with me, anymore. It was what was right. The girl exuded a calm that danced along my skin, and when I inhaled, it was like breathing in the scent of something delicious but far away. The thrumming life all around me grew quiet. For the first time, I felt close to peace, and I wanted more.
If I touched her…
“Nikolai?” Her blush matched the color of her drink. She rested her chin in her hand. “Not to sound cheesy but you’re undressing me with your eyes.”
I felt heat creep along my neck and a bumbling apology rose to my mouth. Instead, I held her gaze, leaned closer to her. “You want to know what I said to you in Russian?”
Her eyes were bright and I could feel her draw closer to me. “Yes. Tell me.”
“I said that you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
The deep pink of her darkened to red. Not the ugly red of hate or anger, but the heated red of intense want. Hers matched mine. I wanted that strange sense of peace she exuded, but I wanted to touch her too. To take her hard and lose myself in her completely.
Fiona held my gaze. “I don’t think that’s true, but the way you look at me…I can almost believe it. Like how you watched me on the dance floor. I liked you watching me, Nikolai. It was as if I could feel your eyes on me before I found you.”
You found me…