Speed dating—The day they met
9 weeks earlier
Why the hell had he agreed to this? Damian drummed the Speed Ticket, a booklet they were all given in which to take notes when they got to the hotel banquet room. The whole thing was such a joke. Damian’s eyes bounced around from one desperate sap to another, all sitting there with their badge numbers on their shirts. He glanced down at his and nudged Jerry. “Hey, man. I changed my mind. I can’t do this.”
“Why?” Jerry leaned toward Damian.
“This is so stupid. Look at these losers.”
The guy with the thick glasses next to Damian sat up straight and fidgeted with his tie.
Jerry elbowed Damian and whispered, “Just give it a shot.” He frowned before reminding him, “You promised, Damian. Besides, you owe me.”
Damian sank back in his seat. The door to the waiting room opened, and the same woman who had assigned them their badges and given them their Speed Tickets walked in, once again overdoing the smile.
“Okay, guys, we’re ready for you.” She winked. “If you follow me, the ladies are anxious to meet you.”
Damian turned to Jerry as they all stood up. Jerry gave him an optimistic smile, but Damian could tell he was nervous as shit. Glancing back at the exit, he knew this was his last chance to make a mad dash out of there, but obviously knowing Damian too well, Jerry shoved him forward.
They were herded along with all the others into the large banquet room with tables set up all around. All the tables were numbered, and there was a woman sitting at each one. Damian did everything he could to avoid eye contact with any of them. So far the only one he’d glanced at looked to be in her early to mid-thirties, and her hair was shorter than his.
The hostess stood at the front of the room as they all finished filing in. “I’ll explain how this works quickly, and we’ll get started,” she began. “As you’ve noticed, I’m sure, all the tables where these lovely ladies are sitting are numbered. Gentlemen, your badges all have numbers on them. If your badge number has a number one, you will start at table number one. If it’s a two, then you sit at table two, and so on. After four minutes I will ring a bell, and you’ll be given a few minutes to take notes on your Speed Tickets.” She held one up for everyone to see, and again she was back at it with the overdone smile.
Damian easily tuned her out. He glanced around the room as she went on. None of the girls were what he considered attractive. There was something a bit odd about each of them. He took in one that might pass for cute, but just the fact that she was here, doing this, was enough to turn him off. They all looked older than he was, too. Damian was twenty-seven, but for his dating taste, they had to be at least a few years younger than he was. The older ones were just too set in their ways or carrying a load of baggage he didn’t have the patience to deal with.
His patience was already running thin, and the damn thing hadn’t even started yet. This was ridiculous. If Jerry weren’t his best friend and hadn’t helped him out of so many jams, Damian would be at J.T.’s right now, having a cold one and watching the game.
Well, being here was one thing. He didn’t have to take it seriously, and he certainly didn’t plan to. Jerry had told him to give it a chance and that he might actually meet someone worthwhile, but the more he looked around, the older each chick looked. No, thanks.
Jerry, on the other hand, liked them older. He said the younger ones were too wild and unpredictable. Damian never understood his taste in women or why he liked trying all these goofy dating things.
“C’mon,” Jerry said, snapping Damian out of his thoughts.
The hostess was done talking, and all the guys were making their way to their respective tables. Damian hadn’t even bothered looking at the number on his badge. Jerry pointed at it. “You’re number eight. Over there.” He motioned to the table with the big eight on it. The girl sitting at it was a mousy little thing. She had shoulder-length, light-brown hair that was straight and parted in the middle.
As soon as Damian sat down, he noticed two things: her big, chapped lips and her nails, which were chewed down to the raw nub.
“Okay, everyone,” the hostess announced. “Your time starts now.”
Damian glanced over to Jerry. He was sitting with a blonde two tables down from him. Damian looked back at the girl at his table, and she smiled.
“Hi,” she said sheepishly.
“Hey.” Damian tapped his Speed Ticket.
“I’m Carey Drummond.” She held out her hand.
“Damian.” He shook her hand and cleared his throat. “Damian Santiago.”
“Well, first off,” she started, “I’m thirty-two, never been married, no kids, but I have two cats. Mitzy and Mr. Grump. They’re my babies . . .”
Damian despised cats. He spent what seemed like an eternity nodding and trying not to stare at the dry skin on her lips.
The bell finally rang, and the hostess asked everyone to take a moment and make a few notes about the date. Everyone started writing furiously, Carey included. She looked up for a moment and smiled, stretching the cracks in her lips so far, Damian thought they would bleed.
He smiled back and brought the notepad to his leg where she couldn’t see. There was a whole section marked Date Number One. He wrote two words. Hell no!
Several agonizing tables later, it was break time. He headed straight to Jerry.
“Can we get out of here?”
“What?” Jerry took a quick look around and gestured for Damian to lower his voice. “We’re not done yet.”
Damian let his head fall back and took a deep breath. “How can you stand this?”
“Give it a chance, will you? I met two very nice ladies so far.”
Damian’s jaw dropped open. “Are you kidding me? Ray Charles would flinch at this bunch!”
Well, the ones Damian had met so far, anyway. But he’d seen what was coming up at the next table.
Jerry shook his head. “It’s not all about looks, Damian. You gotta give their personalities a chance.”
“It’s four minutes. How do you get to know someone in that short a time?”
Damian started to walk away, but Jerry grabbed hold of his arm. “Dude, please. We’re almost done. I’d do it for you.”
Damn him. Yeah, he would. He’d pretty much do anything short of murder for Damian—if he asked real nice. With his shoulders slumping, he grudgingly conceded. “All right.”
“It’s not so bad; there are a few cute ones in there. Did you see the one coming up next table?”
“Yeah, you mean the one with the big fucking bow on her head and all the gaudy makeup?”
“Well . . . yeah,” Jerry gestured for Damian to lower his voice again and whispered, “but she’s cute.”
The bell rang, and they all walked back into the room.
Damian trudged over to the table. The girl wasn’t back yet. For a moment he hoped she’d felt the same as he did and decided to leave. Jerry was looking at him from his table with a worried expression. Damian smirked, giving him the thumbs up, and pointed at the empty seat across from him.
“Did you make a connection already?” The girl in the bow asked, then glanced over at Jerry before taking the seat in front of Damian and smiling.
Her fragrance and the slight accent were the only things subtle about her. Most people probably wouldn’t have picked up on the accent, it was so faint, but since it was his job to make note of the tiniest of details in people, he hadn’t just picked up on it, his trained ear could even pinpoint what kind of accent—a Hispanic accent. She was also a bit younger than the others. Her eyes might actually be pretty. They were big, and darker than any he’d ever seen. But they were lost under the heavy glittery turquoise eye shadow she wore just on the lids. It matched the bow on her head and her oversized dangling earrings. She wore a fresh coat of heavy gloss on what could’ve been attractive pouty lips.
“No, uh, that’s my friend.”
“Oh, how nice, you two decided to do this together.” Her dark eyes brightened.
Damian tried but couldn’t hold back a sarcastic chuckle. “Actually, this is all his idea. He wanted me to come with him. I’m not really into this kind of shit.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And what kind of shit is this?”
“Okay, everyone,” the hostess announced, “your time begins now.”
He glanced at the clock and smiled. “I just mean, you know, this isn’t really for me.”
“Dating?” Her bracelets jingled as she placed her hands on the table and leaned forward, revealing a perfectly manicured set of clear polished nails—a complete contrast to the rest of her loud outfit and makeup.
“Well, no. I’m into dating. Just not like this.” He leaned over to her and lowered his voice. “This is kind of stupid. Don’t you think? How are you supposed to get to know anyone in just four minutes?”
There was something sexy about the way her lips curved up slowly into a smile. “I think I know a lot about you already.”
Damian choked back a laugh, but before he could say anything, their eyes locked. Her heavy eyelashes narrowed in around her charcoal eyes, wiping the smirk off his face instantly and making him gulp in reaction.
“You’re in your mid- to late twenties, you’ve never been married, possibly never even been in a serious relationship.” She turned slightly in Jerry’s direction. “That’s probably one of your last single friends,” she paused, “and you’re hoping he doesn’t meet anyone tonight.”
She sat back in her seat, never once breaking eye contact.
Shaking off what her eyes had done to him, Damian feigned a weak laugh. “You’re way off!”
Her dry chuckle confirmed she knew he was full of it. He glanced at the bow on her head, reminding himself how gaudy he had thought it—she—was just moments ago.
“So you’re not single?” she pressed.
“Are you in your mid-twenties?”
He smiled, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he was beginning to feel. “Twenty-seven.”
“Is that your last single friend?”
That’s where she was way off. Most of his friends were single, but Jerry was his closest friend. Unlike most of Damian’s other friends, Jerry was a bit old-fashioned, and, just three years older than Damian, he was already showing signs of panicking about his single status. Damian wasn’t panicking about it. In fact, he was in no hurry at all to get sucked into that again. He had plenty of time to sow his wild oats and too many things to accomplish before thinking about settling down.
“Actually, no, I have lots of other single friends.”
She smiled, this time showing a perfect set of white teeth, and the corners of her eyes crinkled. She shifted her weight from one arm of the chair to the other. Her blouse moved slightly, allowing just a glimpse of the top of her breast.
Damian’s eyes darted back to her face. “So . . .”
The bell rang, and the hostess reminded everyone to make notes. Damian glanced down at his Speed Ticket. All his dates so far had the same two words on them. He realized then he hadn’t even gotten her name.
Glancing up quickly, he noticed she wasn’t writing anything down. “Oh, hey, I didn’t even get your name.”
A lazy smile spread across her lips. The dark lashes that seemed to slow down midblink had his unwavering full attention. “You won’t need it.”
“All right, please make your way to the next table, gentlemen,” the hostess said.
Damian sat there stunned for a few moments before realizing he had to move over to the next table. The following tables were an annoying blur. He caught himself continually glancing at her table. Having had a closer look at her now, he knew she had to be in her early twenties, but that eighties garbage she was wearing didn’t do a thing for her. It irritated him, the way she sat there talking and laughing, then jotting things down on her Speed Ticket after every date. He couldn’t get her words out of his head. You’ve never been married, possibly never even been in a serious relationship. What did she know anyway? Of course he’d had some serious relationships. He’d been in a very serious one just last year, and he had plenty of others that had come close.
It was beginning to drizzle as they got out of Jerry’s car and walked toward J.T.’s. Damian needed a beer bad. His thoughts were still on the eighties chick. You won’t need it. He knew what she needed! He’d thought about going up to her after it was all over, but she was busy chatting with some fat loser. Damian wondered if she’d end up with him or any of those losers. What did it matter anyway? At least he’d never have to see her again.
He came back to earth when Jerry punched his arm. “What?”
“I said thanks for doing this for me.”
“Oh, yeah, that wasn’t too bad.”
“I told you it wouldn’t be. I got a few email addresses out of it. Some of those girls were real characters. Janis was shy but cute, and Lydia was funny, but I think Bethany was the one I found most intriguing. Not to mention the hottest.”
Damian refrained from rolling his eyes. Not one of the chicks there was what he would consider hot. Okay, maybe one was . . . memorable, but her taste in clothes and makeup was hideous. Jerry’s taste in women had always been way out there. They went inside and sat down at the bar. Jerry bought the first round. Out of curiosity, Damian asked, “Which one was Bethany?”
Damian had ribbed Jerry enough over the years about his taste in women. He was sure Jerry knew what he was thinking.
Jerry took a swig of his beer and shrugged. “The one with the big fucking bow on her head.”
Between running from her past, working three jobs, and worrying about her family, the only thing that could further complicate singer Bethany Amaya’s life is falling in love. But after serendipitously attending a speed dating event and meeting the intense and sexy detective Damian Santiago, that’s exactly what happens. In the blink of an eye, Bethany is caught up in a passionate affair with the most irresistible man she’s ever met.
As their romance heats up, Damian’s skills of detecting and reading body language begin to raise his suspicions. Bethany is keeping something from him. But Bethany refuses to get Damian caught up in her troubles. She feels that some things are better left unsaid. With everything suddenly working against her, the race is on to fix her life before the truth is revealed and Damian finds out it’s even worse than he imagines.
Steamy and addictive, Desert Heat is the story of a fiery whirlwind romance threatened at every turn by a dark secret.