Nicole Burnham
Nicole Burnham

Fit for a Queen


Daniela closed her eyes for a moment, imagining how she’d have designed the bar if she’d owned it. The place made its money on volume, which explained the management’s desire to draw in a capacity-busting number of patrons. Daniela’s dream location would have all the dancing, all the excitement, but with half the crowd so people had room to move, to enjoy their food and drinks without spilling, and to hear each other talk. She’d lengthen the bar and round it on the ends so the bartenders would be able to work within the same amount of space, but with better flow for guests as they approached, purchased their drinks, then returned to the dance floor or one of the high-topped tables that ran along the perimeter.

When she caught herself mentally planning the menu, she sighed and straightened. Owning a bar wasn’t her dream in any way, shape, or form. But when she witnessed a shop or restaurant working at less than peak efficiency—or worse, entered one that was messy—it was her habit to mentally organize it.

It didn’t take a psychologist to tell her the trait was a knee-jerk reaction to being raised in a house that was anything but organized.

The thought of her childhood home was pierced by a deep—and deeply pissed-off—male voice coming from her right. “For the last time, it’s called a gap year because it’s a gap in my career trajectory. A planned gap. I have the rest of my life to work, which I plan to do in exactly five months.”

Daniela didn’t dare look, but the smack of feet against pavement indicated he was moving her way, escaping the noise of the bar as she had. “If it makes you feel better, think of it as a sabbatical. It’s not as if I’m spending this year sitting around doing nothing. I’m just not doing what you wanted me to do.”

There was silence, then, “I answered your phone call, didn’t I?” followed by more silence, a huff, and, “Cancun, Mexico. A group of us drove here for a long weekend. We’ll be back in Guatemala tomorrow night. And yes, before you ask, I’m perfectly safe. It’s loud because we had a late dinner and now I’m standing on a street with restaurants and dance clubs.”

Daniela heard more pacing as the guy listened to whomever was on the other end of the phone. She didn’t need to see him to feel the frustration that rolled off him. She wanted to disappear into the bench and give him privacy…not that anyone could find privacy in this district.

A moment later, in a calmer voice, he said, “I am. I promise, I’m not doing anything that’ll come back to haunt me.” There was a slight pause before he added, “Tell Mom not to worry. I’ll call Monday morning before I go to the field. Will you be available then?”

Daniela lost the end of what he said as a pack of at least a dozen girls in wispy, spaghetti-strapped dresses walked in front of her. Several had their arms linked. All spoke at a volume more appropriate for shouting over music than strolling down a city street in the early hours of the morning. A bus rolled to a stop nearby and the horde giggled before scurrying to catch it, wedging their bodies into what little space remained once the doors accordioned open to admit them.

She’d observed earlier in the week that the buses tended to run one behind the other, so she glanced in the direction from where the bus had come to see if another was in sight. When only taxis and a single motorcycle with a pizza carrier on its back appeared, Daniela figured it was just as well. Another minute or two in the cool air would help wash the remnants of sweaty dance bar from her sinuses before she boarded the bus for the suffocating ride to the hotel.

With the beach less than a five-minute walk from the dance club, it seemed a shame not to stay outdoors and enjoy the warm night air and the scent of the ocean while she could.

She decided she’d walk a stop or two, then board. Her hotel was at the opposite end of the long tourist strip. If she walked beyond this cluster of bars and restaurants to the nearest of the major hotels, enough people should hop off to make room for her.

She rose from the bench and dodged a group of roughhousing guys to check the printed chart attached to the post for the exact location of the stop.

One kilometer south on the boulevard. Perfect.

“That was the last one.”

The familiar male voice came from behind her, so close she caught the lightest whiff of his cologne. Or maybe it was his laundry detergent. Whatever it was didn’t assault her senses the same way the mix of scents had while she’d danced in the club.

Slowly, she looked over her shoulder, then up. Her forehead was square with the center of his chest. He wore a casual yet well-fitted gray T-shirt. His face was clean shaven, but the highest part of his cheekbones appeared slightly darker than the rest of his face, as if he’d spent time in the sun sporting both a hat and light facial hair, and the sun had caught the exposed area. The color wasn’t edged in pink, as with most other guys prowling the bar area, which spoke to months spent outdoors rather than a few days.

“I don’t mean to be intrusive,” he said, raking a hand through his wavy, sun-kissed brown hair, “but I don’t want you stuck waiting for a bus that isn’t coming.”

“That’s kind of you, but I was looking at the stops, not the times.” And he was wrong. Her glance at the schedule indicated there were at least two more buses.

“Stops are every half-kilometer, but that won’t help you unless you’re going downtown, in which case you need to be on the other side of the road.”

“I’m not.”

“Good, because you’d have to run to catch that one.” His dark eyes went to the opposite side of the wide street, where a near-empty bus slowed to a stop. The only people on board appeared to be hotel employees and restaurant workers heading out of the tourist zone after a long day, most with headphones in their ears and half-asleep expressions on their faces. “If you want to split a taxi or ride share, I’ll call one. What kilometer is your hotel? I’m near the end, so it’s no problem to let you out at yours.”

She swallowed. He didn’t say anything, but she knew he’d seen the involuntary movement. “Thanks for the offer, but it feels so nice out, I think I’ll walk to the stop at kilometer eleven and catch a ride there.”

A ride on a bus.

The edge of his mouth quirked as if he’d read her mind. He held a slip of paper in his hand that looked like a charge receipt from the bar. He wadded it, looked at a garbage can three bench lengths away, then fired it into the top as if making the shot were no big deal.

“I’m Royce. Royce Dekker.”

He extended his now-empty hand. Large, masculine, and attached to what she now realized was an arm with a rather firm bicep, one that suited the athletic chest.

Royce Dekker was extremely fit. Smiling at her. And waiting.