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Brian twisted the ring on his finger a few times before finally giving in to reality, sliding it off and dropping it on the bar top. It was one of those places where the polished wood has been varnished so many times and had so many drinks spilled on it that it never gets fully smooth, and it always feels somewhat sticky, like the varnish never quite dried or the booze never quite got fully cleaned off.

His half-empty beer — life hadn’t given him any reason to be an optimist lately, so it definitely wasn’t half-full — sat beside the ring, casting a slight distorted shadow from one of the dim lights that made his ring, once a symbol of utmost happiness and a promising future, a dull sheen that flashed the last embers of a dying relationship.

“Well, you look like you’re having a bad day,” came a sultry feminine voice from the seat next to him, a seat Brian had barely registered as having a person in it.

“Yep,” was all he said, not looking up.

“Finish that beer and let me buy you another,” came the voice. “I’d ask what the story is, but I’m pretty sure I have it figured out.”

“Thanks, but I’m good,” he said, tipping the glass and swirling the amber liquid inside.

“Did she cheat on you, or did you cheat on her?” asked the woman.

Brian threw his shoulders back and angrily shouted, “Alright, what the hell…” but he trailed off as he regarded her. She wore a shiny black dress that was just short of being business-appropriate thanks to the bare shoulders and neckline that plunged a little farther than modesty allowed. That, coupled with a lacy hem that rode high on her thigh, was meant to entice, and it worked. Golden hair fell about her face down to her shoulders, framing blue eyes and the sort of skin that had a nice, naturally rich luster.

“I’m just saying, you look like you’re carrying the weight of the world, and it makes me sad to see such a cute guy looking so down.”

Brian knew he attracted looks from women, but he’d only ever gone out with Jamie, and since they’d married so young, he’d always just ignored the looks and not really thought much about them. As soon as he’d discovered Jamie wasn’t so good at ignoring attention from the opposite sex, he’d spent pretty much every day in the gym working out the frustration, anxiety and rage. While always keeping fit, he was now more toned than he’d ever been, and he knew he filled out a suit pretty damn well. His dark hair hadn’t even shown a hint of thinning or being flecked with gray yet. To top it off, he knew his green eyes could, in the right light, drive Jamie mad with desire, so presumably they had the effect on other women as well.

“Thanks, but now’s probably not the best time,” he replied, knocking back the beer and draining the last half in one long pull.

“I’m Carla,” the woman said, holding a hand out.

He didn’t want to be rude. “Brian,” he said, taking her hand, feeling his wrap around her dainty fingers as he gave a firm but light squeeze.

“I’m guessing she cheated on you, and that fucking sucks. But you can slap me if I’m wrong,” Carla said.

Brian gave a short laugh. If he was ever going to physically harm a woman, it would have been when Jamie tried to play off her affair as if it was normal, acceptable, and he was the problem in their relationship for having taken issue with it. But he’d never even considered raising his hand to her, so he didn’t see that ever happening with anyone else, least of all someone he’d just met.

“There’s a smile,” Carla said, leaning closer and dropping her head to try to draw Brian’s gaze up from the empty beer glass.

It worked. He sat up straighter and half-turned to face her. At that time, the bartender, a woman Brian had seen without really paying much attention to, came up and dropped off two beers. It struck Brian that this raven-haired, olive-skinned beauty behind the bar could probably have been successful on runways in Milan, Paris or Los Angeles if she’d been eight or 10 inches taller.

“This one’s on me,” Carla said, drawing his attention back to her.

“Married for 12 years,” Brian said. “Dated for three before that. Since we were sophomores in high school. I never thought I’d be sitting here looking at divorce. Well, divorced. And I don’t even want to think about what it’s going to be like to be dating. I turn 30 in two days, and I feel like the best girls I know are all married or in serious relationships.”

“Plenty of girls out there,” Carla said with a grin and a flash of her eyes that stirred something deep within him. “And happy birthday, for what it’s worth.” With that, she reached over and gave his shoulder a squeeze, letting her hand linger a few seconds before taking it back.

It felt good. But Brian knew this was a doomed interaction at best. His headspace was totally fucked at the moment.

“Look, Carla,” he said. “You’re going to have to excuse me for…I don’t know…being the way I am right now.”

She frowned, and the pouty face managed to be gorgeous even at that. “I’m enjoying abidinpaşa escort this well enough,” she said. “No need to apologize.”

Brian grinned.

“See, now I know you have dimples,” she said, smiling. “It’s cute. So tell me what you like to do. For fun.”

Brian took a drink of his beer, held it up between them and said, “For now, this.”

She giggled. “There must be something else, you know, the rest of the time.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. The usual 20-something, well, 30-something in a few days, I guess, stuff. Hiking, wine tasting, running, reading, snowboarding, whatever.”

“Yeah, pretty much the usual white dude online dating profile,” she said.

“So what are you into?” he asked.

“Well, I like dancing, wine tasting, going out, and chatting up cute sad boys at bars sometimes,” she added with a laugh.

Brian frowned. He’d forgotten for about half a second why he was here, and he glanced back at the discarded ring and felt his shoulders slump again.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Carla said. “I didn’t mean to make a joke out of…this. It’s shitty of me.”

“No, it’s ok,” Brian said, sighing. “I think it’s just something I’m going to have to get used to. I hear it’s a process. My friends all say things like, ‘Oh yeah, you know how it is. It just hurts but eventually it hurts less and less and then life goes on.’ The thing is, I don’t know how it is. The last time I went on a first date, I was 14.”

“Want my advice?”

Brian shrugged.

“Don’t overthink it. Just accept it’s going to be awkward as fuck, and it’s not going to work out with the first girl. But when you’re ready to go out, just go out to have fun, and don’t have any expectations.”

“That sounds exhausting,” he said. “That’s the thing. I lost the person I can talk to about anything, and so now I’m sitting here talking about life to a stranger I just met in a bar. I don’t have the person I need most now, and I’m sure this is coming off attractive as hell.”

Carla smiled and put a hand on his, gave it a slight squeeze and looked him directly in the eyes. “Look, if you need to talk to someone, you can talk to me, ok? Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger. I’ve been there. I was in a three-year relationship, and it just…died. Suddenly we just didn’t love each other, and that was really tough, because we both kept trying. But it was never going to work. I guess three years is nothing compared to what you’re overcoming, but it felt like a lot to me at the time. Besides, I was only 26, so those are pretty big years.”

“When was that?” Brian asked, feeling a tingle as he glanced at their hands, hers still on his, the warmth radiating out from the touch.

“Are you trying to figure out my age?” she asked with a grin.

Brian shrugged and flashed her a smile.

“It was last year. I’m 27 now. You’re going to have to work on not being so obvious, you know?”

He looked up, happy to see she was still smiling and not offended or anything.

“I thought girls liked a guy who can’t hide anything from them.”

Carla shrugged. “Every type has its fans. Look, I need to use the restroom. You’ll still be here when I come back?”

Brian gave a half smile and nodded. “Not sure where I’d go.”

Carla gave his hand another quick squeeze, then grabbed her purse and headed toward the restroom.

“Another?” It was the bartender.

“Uh, I don’t know. Not just yet,” he said. “Well, yeah, actually. Let’s do two more. One for me and one for her.”

The bartender leaned forward, and Brian was enchanted by her closeness.

“It’s none of my business,” she said, “but this probably isn’t what you want right now.”

Brian sat back, angry. “You don’t know what I want.”

“I guess not, but I’ve seen you coming in here for the last three days, and I can tell you’re hurting bad. I see a lot in here. And you seem nice, so, well, like I said, it’s none of my business, but the quick turnaround stuff just leads to more pain.”

“Thanks, I didn’t realize I was in therapy,” Brian said.

The bartender — her name tag read Alexis — held up both hands, palms out in apology and shrugged before heading off to pull two more pints.

Carla came back as the beers came down on the bartop, and Brian handed over a wad of cash. Generous tip to show there were no hard feelings.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, handing a glass to Carla.

“Not at all,” she said, smiling at him and then glancing at the retreating bartender. “Want to go over there?” she gestured to a secluded corner booth with a wraparound bench.

“Sure.”

He let her lead, pocketing his wedding ring on the way, and slid in on the opposite side of the booth from her after she’d seated herself. They continued their conversation, but the topics were more mundane. Favorite hiking trails, comparisons on different wineries in the region, day job stuff. It was nice to just chat, Brian thought.

After about 15 minutes, a band started doing sound checks akay escort on the stage in the opposite corner of the restaurant. Brian and Carla couldn’t see them, but found themselves talking louder over the noise.

Finally, Brian slid around to the adjacent side of the booth and into the corner next to Carla. About a foot and a half separated them, and he leaned in to hear her.

“So that’s how I ended up with Monday off,” she said, finishing up the story.

“Always nice to have a Monday off,” Brian said, having had a tough time hearing her and so not really understanding.

She leaned in to hear and slid over, closer, as the band leader started working the crowd. They were now only inches away, and her bare knee brushed against his thigh before she turned slightly, but even that contact was tantalizing.

“So can I ask a personal question?” Brian asked.

Carla shrugged. “Why not?”

“Are you single?”

She didn’t react at first, and just stared at him, running a finger around the lip of her mostly empty beer glass.

The silence made him uncomfortable, but Brian fought the urge to break it and let it hang as things got more and more awkward. He was hyper aware of her presence. The faint vanilla scent emanating from her. The way her hair splayed on her bare collarbone. How the neckline of her dress gleamed ever so subtly in the dim light of the bar and beckoned his eyes lower to the swelling of the top of her breasts.

She leaned closer. Brian froze, his heart racing. He’d never been so close to a woman who wasn’t Jamie. Not like this. He felt the slight tickling of her breath on the side of his neck as she softly spoke to him.

“I am.”

Brian swallowed and turned toward her, almost brushing her nose with the tip of his. She was inches away and looking deep into his eyes, unblinking. He leaned closer, but she pulled back, keeping close, but not letting him close the distance between them.

“How?” he asked, not believing someone so beautiful and enchanting could be unattached.

Carla let her eyes rove downward, taking all of Brian in as her lips formed the slightest hint of a smile.

“I just don’t know how to answer that,” she said. “Maybe I meet people at the wrong time. Or maybe people meet me at the wrong time.”

Another silence hung in the air between them. Brian dared not lean in again, but her presence so close was intoxicating. He reached out a hand and brushed a stray strand of golden hair off her collarbone, running the backs of his fingers across her bare skin as he dragged his hand back across her shoulder.

She shuddered with a sharp intake of breath, and he saw the faintest hint of goosebumps on her arm as she flushed slightly.

“But maybe there’s never really a good time,” she said, and Brian had no idea what that meant.

She brought her eyes up again, facing him squarely, and cocked her head slightly to one side.

Brian knew he was out of his depth. He’d been so used to reading signs in Jamie that he didn’t need to think about it, and here he was totally unprepared with someone different.

The last time he’d kissed a girl for the first time, it had been Jamie. One of those awkward high school encounters between two totally inexperienced people. It should be easier now. But it wasn’t.

He shifted in his seat and their knees bumped together. He pulled back slightly, then felt her foot brush against his calf. Summoning all the courage he could muster, he slowly reached his hand up, took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and coaxed her forward as he cocked his own head and leaned in.

Their lips met, and he felt the electric fire course through his body as she pressed against him and then pulled back, leaving him entranced and still feeling like he was doing something he shouldn’t be doing. Habits of marriage lingering despite the fact that it was over.

He let go of her chin and pulled back, opening eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed.

“I wasn’t planning on letting that happen,” she said, but smiling to show it was ok that it had.

“Well, I was planning on getting really drunk tonight and waking up tomorrow hating myself,” Brian said, “so I’m glad you did let that happen.”

“I’m glad, too,” she said. “Unfortunately, I should get going. It’s getting to be past my bedtime.”

Brian nodded once, looked at his watch, and saw that it was only about 10:30 p.m. The band was just getting started. This seemed like an excuse, but he didn’t fault her for it.

“How are you getting home?” he asked.

“I’m good to drive. You, however, had better not be driving anywhere tonight,” she admonished, holding up a finger, and Brian wasn’t about to argue with her.

“Can I walk you to your car?”

She smiled and nodded as she stood, then preceded him on the way out, stopping to grab a light jacket off a coat rack by the front door. It resembled a short trench coat and completely covered her cocktail dress despite the fact that it only came down to the lower ankara escort third of her thighs. It had the tantalizing look of hinting that it was all she had on.

At the door, Brian cocked an elbow out, and she slipped her hand through it without hesitation. They walked in silence, and Brian enjoyed her closeness, the feel of her arm intertwined with his as they headed toward the corner of the parking lot, shadowed and vaguely forbidding.

“I appreciate you walking me out and being a gentleman,” she said. “It wouldn’t feel like the safest spot for me to be walking alone.”

“I’m glad you trust me,” he replied.

“I can tell you’re a kind soul. That’s why I’m so torn right now.”

The remark caught him off guard. “What?”

She sighed as they stopped next to a late-model Honda. She turned toward him, pulling her arm back.

“You seem great. And that kiss was really nice. I actually like you a lot so far, but I know we’re at different places.”

Brian didn’t argue. He couldn’t. But he felt his heart sinking, and disappointment loomed large.

“Look, Carla,” he said. “I get it. I don’t know what the future holds. I just know that today I finalized my divorce, and I’m really glad you were here. This is the best night I’ve had in months. Maybe a year. It’s been a long process with the whole,” he waved his hand in a few circles, “bullshit, I guess.”

She laughed. “That’s probably a good word for it. So the divorce is final, then?”

He nodded, and the only sound was the muffled beat of the band inside the bar.

“Well, I should let you go,” Brian said, “but I have to ask,” and he pulled out his phone and held it up.

Carla looked down, but she was smiling, and when she looked up, her eyes seemed to bore into his soul as she contemplated, biting her lower lip.

“It’s Carla with a C,” she said at last, then read out her number as he dutifully typed it in. “You’d better call me now so I know you wrote it down right and didn’t miss anything by typing so nervously.”

“Is it that obvious?” Brian asked as he hit the call button. “I’ve never gotten a number at a bar before.”

“I don’t know how I feel about that, to be honest,” she said as a buzzing sounded in her purse. “But now you know I didn’t give you a fake number, and I’ve got yours.”

She reached into her purse, pulled out her car keys and thumbed the unlock button.

“I, um,” she started. “Well, I should really be going. I’ve got an early day tomorrow with driving out to my parents’ farm for the day, but I’m free Sunday, which I believe is your birthday, yes?”

Brian nodded.

“Well, if you’ve got plans, that’s great, but if you don’t, and you don’t want to spend it alone…” she shrugged.

“I’d really like that,” he said. “Can I take you out to dinner?”

“Don’t be a dumbass,” she said. “It’s your birthday. I’m asking you out.”

Brian laughed. He’d never been asked out by a woman before.

She opened her door and stood there a few seconds before taking a deep breath. “This is the part where you kiss me goodnight,” she said. “Didn’t I just tell you not to be a dumbass?”

She was smiling as he leaned forward and kissed her, their lips meeting in what felt like a perfect fit. He put his arms around her and pulled her close, and she pressed her body against him as he kissed her again, hugging him tight. He felt his cock hardening, and when she shifted her weight against him, inadvertently rubbing her thigh against it, it felt like heaven. Or had that been purposeful?

Then the kiss was over, and she was stepping into her car. He held the top of the door while she slid her feet inside, and was about to close the door when she said, “Do you need me to give you a ride home?”

He grinned. “I’d love that, but I don’t want to impose on you. This has been a perfect end to my last date in my twenties, if we can call it a date?”

She smiled back at him. “It was a pretty good first date.”

————————————————————————————

The brisk evening air was fast clearing Brian’s head as he walked home and contemplated whether he’d made the right move by declining the ride home. His mind wandered, and he fantasized about how else the night might have ended. Him inviting her in for a drink, one thing leading to another…

But no. He knew that wouldn’t have worked, and he wasn’t even sure it was what he wanted. Physically, of course, it was, but he hadn’t been lying when he’d said he was in a fucked-up headspace.

The reality was he’d only ever kissed a handful of girls, and Carla was the only one he’d gone there with for the first time in his adult life. On the one hand, he’d always felt confident, mature and accomplished by being married, successful at work and just on the cusp of starting a family. But now so much of that seemed for naught, and he felt like he was paddling upstream from way behind. What did people do these days? Where did singles go? How did you get from a casual acquaintance to sitting on the couch on a Friday night watching Netflix and not giving a shit about the pomp and circumstance of a night out? At what point was it normal to just, be, around someone? When was it ok to fart in front of them?

He chuckled to himself at the last thought, but it was a legitimate question.

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