Home > The Professional (The Game Maker #1)

The Professional (The Game Maker #1)
Author: Kresley Cole

CHAPTER 1

“Mommy issues. Serial cheater. Humor void. Two-pump chump.” With each guy who entered the campus bar, I ticked off my initial impression to my drunken friends.

I had an uncanny knack for sizing up males—I was a regular “manalyst.” My secret? I always went negative, and the guys, well, they always accommodated.

The girls at the table—several of my roommate’s friends and a couple of mine—looked at me like I was a fun sideshow act, their carny pal. Drinks were perpetually free.

After the week I’d had, my dinner of salt, tequila, and lime was hitting the spot.

My best friend Jessica murmured at my ear, “You better be careful, you picky prude, or else you’ll take your hymen to your grave. Like a skin tag.”

She alone knew that I’d never given it up—and why. “Low blow, Jess,” I said without any heat. Like her, it took a lot to get me ruffled, which was one of the reasons we made such great roommates.

Other than that, we were as different as we could be. Whereas she was leggy and tan with twinkling blue eyes and cropped black hair, I was short and top-heavy, with long red hair and pale-as-a-porcelain-sink skin.

I was a workaholic studyaholic, pursuing my history PhD. After years’ worth of incompletes, Jess had finally dipped a toe into the core courses of her major—leisure studies—and decided college was “a racket” for “wretched fucks.” Though it was midsemester, she was heading out tomorrow for a tour of the Greek Isles with her wealthy family.

Another round of tequila shooters arrived, sent by a trio of frat boys a few tables away. We raised our glasses, then dutifully licked, pounded, and sucked. The tequila, not the boys.

While other women might look at these superficially attractive guys and see potential mates or even fun one-night stands, I saw impending headaches. Other girls got hot and bothered by their lines and pickups; I just got bothered.

But I hadn’t always been that way.

“Do the frat boys, Nat!” our friend Polly cried. She was a sturdy corn-fed Nebraska girl—her family’s farm was in a small town outside Lincoln, just a few miles away from ours. Well, not ours anymore, since Mom had sold out last year.

“Too easy,” I said, having already sized up the trio. The first guy had been constantly checking sports scores on TV while his leg jogged. The second was a bleary mess whose own friends rolled their eyes at his drunkenness. The third one’s grooming and clothing were fanatically perfect, and he kept checking his appearance in the mirror behind the bar.

“From left to right, then?” I said. “Inveterate gambler, habitual drunk, and—how should I put this?—the third is ill-equipped.”

I sighed. Yep, those guys were too easy to read. Where was the excitement? Here I was at the same Lincoln bar I always went to, with the same crowd I always hung around. I had an early work shift tomorrow at one restaurant, a late one at the other, and classes to take and to teach on Monday. I’d been averaging five hours of sleep a night for the last few weeks. What was I even doing here?

I guessed I could sleep when I was dead.

“I’ve chosen my quarry for the evening,” beautiful Jess said. “Ill-equipped is mine.” As per her usual, she would pick up another conquest and take him back to his place—so she could leave when finished with him. “His type,” she continued blithely, “usually make up for any shortcomings with their mouths. True story.”

I told her, “And you better be careful, Jessebel, or else you’ll collect another admirer who clings like lichen.”

“I can’t help it that this is the Bermuda Triangle”—she pointed at her crotch—“when guys venture there, they tend to stay.”

I tapped my chin. “Oh, I thought you called it that because it’s sucked in lots of seamen.”

Between guffaws, she said, “That’s a completely fair statement!”

We could laugh about it now, but I’d lived with the aftermath of her affairs: the desperate gifts, the late-night phone calls, the stalking.

What was the point of all the drama? Of all that angst? Dating, love, and sex were all overrated—as I’d repeatedly tried to explain to Jess. She would get this secretive smile and say, “You’re gonna get blindsided one day. I only hope I’m there to see it. . . .”

When the laughter died down, Polly said, “Do him,” with a wave at the door.

“Fine.” Exhaling with boredom—earn your booze, carny—I turned toward the entrance. And saw the baddest-looking man I’d ever encountered.

His eyes were a vivid gold, stark against his thick black hair. He wore it longish, the ends brushing his collar. He had a roman nose that had likely been broken and a razor-thin scar that sliced down across both lips. A fighter?

Yet that didn’t fit with his expensive clothing: a tailored black coat and dress shirt, dark gray slacks, black leather shoes and belt. Through Jess, I’d learned enough about fashion to recognize fine threads. His outfit probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.

When he stood at the bar and ordered a drink, I saw that he had three rings on one hand, a ring on his other thumb, and a wicked-looking tattoo peeking out from his starch-stiff collar. His style was a mix of privileged and street.

He was tall, with a lean, muscular build, and looked maybe twenty-nine or thirty, but his face was weary, as an older man’s would be. With those rough-hewn features, he was ruggedly handsome, yet not classically so.

There was an aura of ennui about him, but he also seemed hyper-alert. What the hell? My internal manalyzer whirred with confusion. Does not compute!

I could feel my friends staring at me, but I was at a loss. “I . . . I got nothing.” Was he a brawler or a rich playboy or both? I was also sensing top notes of European—along with strong undertones of dangerous!

He was like a history book written in a script I’d never seen. Fascinating.

Jess pinched my side, drawing my attention to her smug grin. “You can close your mouth now, hooker.” In a patronizing tone, she said, “Welcome to my world—where first meetings are always in slo-mo and the song ‘At Last’ repeats on a loop.”

No, no, her world was angsty and overwrought. So why had my gaze darted back to the man?

“That’s one hot piece of tackle—in a cage-fighter/GQ model mash-up kind of way.” Jess wasn’t going to let this go. “Probably gets more ass than a toilet seat. But he got you to look twice, which makes him a rare and wondrous creature, this bar’s very own unicorn. Requires closer investigation, don’t you think?”

I could question him, type him, then discard all thoughts of him. I was just tipsy enough to consider it. “I should go up and introduce myself?”

She nodded. “Unless you’re a twat. Now, go forth with confidence, for you look cute-iful tonight.”

Jess’s style was SEXY GLAM! Mine? See-me-love-me, motherfleckers. Yet tonight, I was wearing a hip-hugging suede skirt and a slinky red top—one of Jess’s fashion-forward, low-cut numbers. For once, my bra wasn’t a minimizer.

This outfit had come about because the clothes I’d normally wear—jeans and a turtleneck—were all in an overflowing laundry hamper. I’d worn the black knee-high boots Jess had bought me, to show appreciation in front of her.

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