Tough Enough(4)

By: M. Leighton


Mona recovers first. I hear her clear her throat just before she steps around me. “Hi! I’m Mona. Mona Clark,” she says in her friendly way.

My best friend strikes out across the room toward Rogan. As I watch her, I’m a little deflated. I could never measure up to a woman like Mona. And I don’t just mean her California looks, surgically enhanced figure and her loose-hipped swagger, the one she’s using right now. No, it’s something more than that. It’s her outgoing personality, too. Mona’s just the whole package.

And I am not.

I can see her from the side when she stops and sticks out her hand for Rogan to take. She smiles and I think to myself that there aren’t many men who can resist Mona, least of all men like this one. But when I swing my gaze back to his face, I’m more than a little surprised (and even more disconcerted) to find that he’s not looking at Mona—Mona the beautiful, Mona the charming, Mona who’s standing right in front of him offering her hand. No, Kiefer Rogan is still looking at me.

Instantly, my tongue goes dry, dry like a damp cotton ball that’s been left out under a hot sun all day. Only this hot sun is a hot man with a curious gaze.

With my breath coming in odd little bursts, I’m forced to admit that I’m feeling a little starstruck, which is totally unlike me. Yes, Rogan is probably the most attractive person I’ve ever seen, but that shouldn’t matter. It’s no longer in my DNA to care about things like that. About men at all. I’m the classic “once bitten, twice shy.” Things like this don’t happen to me.

Ever.

Or at least not anymore.

I frown, confused by his attention. My confusion seems only to make him smile bigger, though. I want to look away. I really do, but I can’t. I feel like a fly trapped on flypaper, glued to this spot by his penetrating stare. Stuck until he decides to let me go.

Just a heartbeat before his disregard of Mona would be considered rude, Kiefer Rogan finally shifts his focus to my friend and takes her hand, grinning up at her. “So, Mona, are you the one who’s supposed to cover up all my imperfections?”

“No, that’s Katie. And don’t get me wrong, I love her and she’s one of the best artists in the biz, but I don’t think God Himself could improve anything on you,” she gushes with her most winsome, wholesome smile. I can tell she’s about ten seconds from stripping and throwing herself in his lap, but I doubt he can see it. She’s all calm confidence and cool beauty.

God, she’s good!

I envy my friend’s ability to be flirty and natural and unflustered in situations like these, whether she feels it or not. I used to be that way—poised and outgoing—but that girl, that version of Kathryn Rydale, got burned up in a fire a long time ago.

“I appreciate that, Mona,” he replies in a surprisingly genuine manner, “but I think the hi-def cameras might disagree. Apparently, scars are a bad thing.”

I cringe a little on the inside, even though I know it doesn’t show on the outside. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s how to hide. Emotions, insecurity, myself—hiding is the one defense mechanism that I’ve mastered.

“Why? Scars make a man . . . a man,” Mona assures him with a cute wink. That’s something else I could never pull off—cute. It would look clumsy and ridiculous on me. I don’t know what I can pull off, but I have a feeling it would be more in the neighborhood of awkward or weird.

“Oh, I’m a man, all right. All man,” he teases, shifting his eyes back to me. The instant they connect with mine, I’m unable to move or speak.

Again with the flypaper thing, I think in exasperation.

I want to avert my eyes, to hide from scrutiny like I’ve done for so long, but I can’t. It’s like I literally can’t look away. Even though it makes me distinctly uncomfortable in my own skin, I can’t look away. Maybe that’s because it also makes me feel breathless and warm and nervous and . . . fluttery.

In some way, the bizarre apprehension I’ve carried all morning makes perfect sense now. My gut told me he would be trouble. I just never expected him to be this kind of trouble. No one affects me this way anymore. No one. It’s been safer for me that no one has. And I liked it that way. Because this isn’t safe.

I work to hide my unhappiness with this situation. After all this time, why am I reacting to Kiefer Rogan? Of all people, why him? Is it his looks? His attention? The position of the moon or a random twist of fate? And why did I know, deep down, that he was going to be a problem? I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that my life is much less complicated when men aren’t a part of it. And Rogan is not just any man. He’s danger on two legs. And danger is something I don’t need. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime.