A Taste After Dark: Chapter 1 Preview

CHAPTER 1: Millie
Millie opened a compact from her purse, checking her appearance. She was supposed to be a modern Marilyn Monroe, but she felt like a clown school reject. To top it off, her fake mole looked more like a pimple than a glamorous beauty mark. Might as well make it a smiley face, she thought. She looked down the bar, eyeing the burly man with a beer in each hand. Double fisting on a Friday, Millie thought, That should make it easy. Burly Fists had four henchmen surrounding him, sneering and grunting in agreement, one of them eagerly telling a vulgar story. Burly Fists slammed the beers down and hackled a laugh. 
“—a rack like a damn produce stand. I swear you could eat her like a cantaloupe!”
Millie stared into her glass of soda water, garnished with a lime wedge. On nights like this, she wished she drank alcohol. Not that she had ever had much of a desire to drink before becoming her brother’s sole guardian, but she assumed the drink would make her goals easier to achieve; it was called liquid courage.
And her goal? Get Burly Fists too drunk to function, kindly take him home, tuck him in bed, then empty his wallet, Millie thought.
Or, in the case of Burly Fists, find his personal stash, take everything, and sell it. If he was who she thought he was—and Millie trusted her gut instincts on this one—the man owned a dispensary on East 11th Street in the downtown area of Rosswood, and was widely known for having a side business on the harder side throughout the Sacramento area. At least, that’s what Millie had heard from Rachel, who was still trying to figure out if she should tell the cops. To Rachel, it was only high school gossip her students whispered in the back of the classroom, but to Millie, it was all she needed.
Think of it as evidence, Millie told herself. It isn’t stealing if he was a criminal in the first place.
At least, that was what Millie told herself. She was as straight-laced as you could be in the modern age: she never drank, never smoked, didn’t eat meat, even attempted veganism when she could, and hardly ever went out, unless it was with her little brother. She liked to curse, but only when her brother wasn’t around, which meant that stealing was her only vice, be it a new one. When the perfect situation landed in her lap after she had gotten their first late payment warning in the mail, it had been a stranger who was alone and had been a jerk to her coworkers. It was the only other time she had done anything like that. So, after Rachel mentioned Burly Fists, Millie knew Burly Fists would be worth the steal. That is, if Millie was patient and waited until he was hammered and alone like the last one. But she wasn’t good with that virtue. Her little brother was probably passed out next to the toilet, and she wanted to get him into bed sooner, rather than later, with a clean bucket by his side. 
Millie glanced around. The bartender was idly drying highballs, and there was a man by himself in the corner booth. A black leather jacket sat on his shoulders with a tight black shirt underneath it. His short hair was faded on the sides and messy on top. And though she could only see the back of his head, Millie decided he was not a cop. And if he was a cop, he was too disinterested in their surroundings to bother. She slid in the booth. 
Immediately, the man’s dark eyes held her, like he was a predator intimidating his prey. His eyes were nearly black, unlike she had ever seen before. Millie held her breath for the slightest second. A trick of the lighting, she told herself. His shoulders and arms were toned; his facial hair was neatly trimmed over his strong jaw. He was handsome, to say the least, in the dark, mysterious sort of way. At least it will be fun to seduce him, Millie thought.
“Mind if I join you?” Millie asked.
“You already have,” the man said.
Millie tensed. The dark-eyed man looked away, anywhere but her face, as if he was waiting for someone.
“I’m looking for fun—”
“I am not,” he said. 
Millie raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re at a bar, alone, mind you, and you’re going to tell me you’re not looking for action?”
He faced her, his eyes gleaming as they held her. The dark pupils, unwavering, made Millie’s breath catch in her throat. He seemed violent, as if his lips would peel back at any moment and reveal sharp daggers for teeth. 
“I have nothing of value for you,” he said. 
“How do you know what I value?” Millie asked.
The silence thickened between them as each of them stared back at the other. Arrogant jerk, Millie thought. 
“I do not,” he said. “But you will not find whatever it is you are seeking here.” He gestured between them. “Go home.”
The expression on his face was of annoyance and disgust, as if Millie was the first flea landing on his bed. It, as if Millie was an it, like everything she wanted was an it. If it weren’t for the fact that Millie was wearing her best black dress and a full face of makeup, she might have been offended. Dark Eyes might have been sexy, but any sort of initial attraction she had had to him was rapidly disappearing from his standoffish vibes. She didn’t have time for that. The man’s gaze traveled down to her neck, then to her breasts. She smiled. Yeah, even Dark Eyes wasn’t completely invincible to it
And what she wanted? That it was to go home and not have to worry about Victor’s next doctor’s appointment or another treatment invoice. There was no way he could’ve guessed that. Dark Eyes’s it was wiping her off the bottom of his boots.
“Babycakes, come over here! Papa will take care of you,” one of the henchmen said. He slapped Burly Fist’s shoulder, cackling as he did, and Burly Fists laughed. 
“Yeah, sugar tits, come on over. Papa’s waiting,” Burly Fists said.
Millie’s eyes floated over to the men and she smiled her brightest, cheesiest smile. It seemed like she’d have more luck with a group than she would with Mr. Know-It-All Dark Eyes.
“Wait,” Dark Eyes said. “The leader is worth the trouble, but not with the followers.”
“The more the merrier,” Millie said. 
“Do not attempt it,” he said.
Millie studied him. “A minute ago you told me to go home. Why do you suddenly care about what happens with those men?”
He stared at her intently, as if reading her calculated appearance. She waited impatiently, wanting to give him the chance to change her mind. She was on the fence already anyway. 
“You do not deserve that kind of savagery,” he said finally. “I will not let anyone else harm you.”
“Savagery?” Millie asked. “Is that a promise?” She laughed. “Harm me? You don’t know what I’m capable of.” 
She said it like she believed it, but it was a lie she wanted to convince herself of. She looked at him, thinking over his words in her head: I will not let anyone else harm you. There was something off about the declaration, as if he meant no one but himself. He said nothing, only waiting for her answer. Millie stood. 
“Last chance to change my mind, lover boy.”
He looked away. Millie toyed with the cocktail straw in her mouth and swallowed a deep breath. Here goes nothing, she thought.
Millie sauntered over to the men, swaying her hips, aware of Dark Eyes watching her ass sway, knowing that the group was watching her too. She had the advantage of being the only woman in the bar. Though this was the second time she had done something like this, she didn’t feel any more prepared or any less ridiculous. She attempted to smile like a beauty pageant queen but felt like an overeager actress in a B-list horror film. 
“Who wants to buy me a drink?” she asked.
Burly Fists set down both glasses and turned his heads towards Millie. The four henchmen hushed. 
“Who’s asking?”
“Do we have to bother with names?” Millie planted herself between Burly Fists’s legs, resisting the urge to gag at the harsh smell of his beer breath. “I’m all alone. All I want is some fun to forget the awful things I’ve been through. Can you help me out?”
Millie gently rested her hand on Burly Fists’s oily neck, making sure that the gesture pressed her breasts together for ample cleavage. 
“That your boyfriend?” Burly Fists asked.
She shook her head. “Just some asshole who wouldn’t take pity on little ol’ me.”
“What’ll it be, another—”
“Yes, I’ll have another,” Millie said to the bartender, lifting her drink. She didn’t want another accidental wine like last time. “Now, let’s get back to tonight,” she said, turning to Burly Fists. Burly Fists locked eyes with Millie, staring hard, as if his pupils had a hard time concentrating. Was he the kind of entrepreneur to partake in his side product? The number of beers he had consumed, with his size, shouldn’t have made it that hard to see.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re that chick that stole six hundred bucks from Billy.”
Billy? Millie wondered. Oh, crap, was that the random loner’s name? 
“And his megaphone,” one of the others said.
Right, Billy, she thought. Because that megaphone was literally insane. It was bright green with white writing on the side, signed in permanent marker in some illegible signature. She had meant to sell it on the internet, saying it was some famous director’s, because hey, it might have been, but she had forgotten about it. 
“Do I really look like someone who would do that?” Millie asked. She smiled. “A megaphone? Like cheerleaders use?”
Burly Fists stood up, putting his hand on Millie’s lower back, pulling her in closer. “Do I look like a man who would fuck a whore?”
His hot breath with those words made Millie flinch. The four henchmen straightened and drew closer, and Millie’s red flags started to scream their alarms. No, this wasn’t good. Her lack of patience and impulsive behavior was going to cost her again. 
“Can’t we work this out, gentlemen?” Millie said. “Not that I have the megaphone you speak of, but say, for instance, I did. Couldn’t I give you the megaphone,” she was almost positive it was on top of her little brother’s bookshelf, “and you let me walk out of this bar with my dignity intact?” 
“Thought you said there was no microphone,” one of the henchmen said.
“Megaphone,” Millie corrected. “If you need a microphone, I’m—”
“Fuck the megaphone,” Burly Fists said. “Come on, whore.”
Millie ran over the possible scenarios as they walked towards the exit. One, she could do as they said, and likely get raped and beat up in the process, and not get any product or money. Two, she could do as they said, but somehow convince them to party more, and hope that they all passed out eventually, and since it was a life or death situation, Millie could make an exception to her clean streak. Burly Fists had to have some sort of drugs on him. Or three, she could kick one of them in the nuts and run like her life depended on it, because it did, and hope the bartender called the cops. She glanced around, trying to figure a way out of the mess, but there weren’t any clues. All that was left was an empty bar. Even the bartender was ignoring them.
“Gentlemen,” a deep voice called from behind. “I am here to escort the girl home.”
Dark Eyes stared straight at the men, his arms at his side. I am twenty-four years old, Millie thought, Asshole. She appreciated that he was trying to help her, but she hated the condescension. It’s not like he was that much older than her; he might have been thirty-five at most, and that was pushing it. He was taller than Millie had expected from their interaction in the booth and seemed to tower over the group of men by six inches.
“Thought you said this wasn’t your boyfriend,” said Burly Fists.
     “He’s not,” Millie said.
“I take it you fine gentlemen want to flourish with the girl, but give her to me, and you will walk away freely.”
Give her to me? Does he think I’m a piece of property? Double asshole, she thought.
“You threatening us?” asked one of the henchmen. 
“We are taking the girl with us,” said Burly Fists. “She needs to be taught a lesson.”
“I’m not a girl,” Millie said under her breath.
“What was that, cunt?” Burly Fists asked.
“All this for a stolen microphone?” Dark Eyes interrupted.
“Megaphone,” a henchman corrected. 
“For the last time, I will let you walk away if you let her go,” Dark Eyes said.
“Who do you think you are? Some kind of hotshot, tree boy? Shut the fuck up,” Burly Fists said. He walked past Dark Eyes, his shoulder knocking into Dark Eye’s side, though Dark Eyes didn’t move. Burly Fists gripped Millie’s arm in his hand.
Dark Eyes tilted his head to the side. “As you wish,” he said.
A quick sharp shadow passed in front of the group.
“Hell was that?” one of the henchmen asked.
Millie turned around, looking for Dark Eyes. He was gone.
Head still tilted to the side, standing in front of them this time, Dark Eyes cracked his knuckles and smiled, his grin wide and full of ghostly white teeth. He punched Burly Fists, knocking all three hundred and fifty pounds of him straight down. The four henchmen came at Dark Eyes at once and the elbows and arms flew, each one kicking at the next. Millie whipped around frantically. She cursed Dark Eyes under her breath and thought: Knight on a fucking white horse.
Dark Eyes had Burly Fists in a headlock, and as he passed out from the lack of oxygen, one of the men ran towards Dark Eyes. Millie tackled the man, simply trying to get him away from Dark Eyes while he took down the biggest one, but they both fell to the ground. He was about to put Millie in a headlock himself when she kneed him in the nuts as hard as she could, grunting as she did.
“Little bitch,” one of the others said. He started running towards her, and Dark Eyes, having incapacitated Burly Fists, ran towards the man.
Millie screamed and aimed her palm upwards towards the man’s face, crushing his nose.
Dark Eyes took a step back, an expression of shock crossing over and quickly disappearing from his face. The henchman held his bleeding nose.
“What the fuck, man?” he asked. Blood covered his hands.
“Woman,” Millie corrected.
“Come on,” Dark Eyes said. He grabbed Millie’s arm the same way Burly Fists had, pulling her to the side.
“What the fuck?” Millie asked.
Dark Eyes picked her up like a damsel in distress and carried her across the street, into a shadowed alleyway.
“Hey, now, you listen—”
But before she could finish her sentence, a rush of wind interrupted her, and they were in a secluded garden next to a park. As soon as Millie’s eyes focused and she realized where she was, she thrashed. “Put me down, damn it!” she shouted. Dark Eyes dropped her on the gravel path.
“Ouch,” she said, rubbing her bottom before standing. “You could’ve set me down like a normal person.”
Dark Eyes was already briskly walking away, heading towards the back of the garden that led to the woods harboring the sides of the American River. It was the favored landmark of Rosswood, famous for the gold rush. Millie ran after him.
“Where are you going?” Millie called. 
“Nowhere,” he said.
“That doesn’t look like nowhere,” she said. “How’d you get us to the park in seconds?” 
“I ran,” he said. 
“Ran?” she laughed. “Are you like a gold medal sprinter or something?”
“Something,” he said.
“I could’ve taken care of them myself,” Millie said. “If you hadn’t acted all high and mighty, like an—” 
“I said I would not let anyone harm you,” he hissed. Dark Eyes turned to face her. “You tried to steal from a group of men by seducing them. Protecting you was inevitable.” 
“Who said anything about stealing?” Millie said. 
“Right. You wanted fun.” 
He stepped over a bush, coming closer to Millie. She stepped back, but he narrowed their proximity. He held her hand, and the touch created an involuntary shudder that rippled through him. He closed his eyes, sucking in deeply, his nostrils flaring as he brought in the smell of everything around them, then looked straight into Millie with his piercing black eyes. It was a pure animalistic reaction that made Millie hold her breath. She bit the inside of her lip, waiting.
“Remind me,” he rubbed the top of her hand in small circles with his thumb, “to wait until they begin torturing you next time,” he said. 
Dark Eyes resumed his march towards the woods. Millie gulped down a breath, unsure of why those simple words had made her hesitate.
“They wouldn’t have gotten that far,” she said. “If you had—” Millie tripped over a root and staggered forward. A branch tangled in her hair. “Like I said,” she pulled the dried leaves from her hair, “if you had waited, I would’ve gotten out of it.”
When she looked around, no one was there. There was only the rippling of the river.
Her hands were worn: a blood splatter on her wrist, indentations from being dropped on the ground, sap from one of the trees. And she still didn’t have any money for the newest late bill notice. Tomorrow night, she thought, I’ll try again after work. While she was annoyed that Dark Eyes had interfered, the probability of her making it out of the lion’s den with cash or product in hand and without anything disturbing happening to her, was slim at best once the group had decided to take her together. She would’ve had to call Rachel, which she hated doing. But Dark Eyes had stepped in, swooping her up, like the patronizing, arrogant, asshole that he obviously was, and had saved the day. I will not let anyone else harm you, he had said, staring into her eyes like he could see her soul. Savior of the night, Millie thought sarcastically. The white knight of the fucking night. 
And yet something pulled at Millie’s stomach, telling her the whole thing wasn’t that bad. He had saved her, and it felt good to have someone looking after her for once. It was always Millie caring for her brother, making sure he did his homework, that the bullies left him alone, that they managed without debt collectors hounding them, that he made it to his treatments. Her mind relaxed for a moment, thinking of the way Dark Eyes had held her hand, sucking in his breath, as if he was breathing in her specifically, as if he enjoyed her scent. As if there was something more to their interaction than a patronizing jerk saving a person he thought was in trouble. Remind me to wait until they begin torturing you, he had said. Thinking of those words, like ice on his tongue, gave her chills.
The man is a walking contradiction, Millie thought, You can’t get turned on by torturing someone and want to protect them.
And Millie was conflicted with herself. She could feel her desire pull towards him like an uncontrollable magnetic field, and yet she hated that he had interfered, how he had assumed he knew better than her.
And yet it felt good to relax for once, didn’t it? she thought.
But that was hardly relaxing.
Millie looked around one last time, taking in the dried trees, the brown bushes, the blue moon casting down into the woods. There wasn’t even the sound of the man’s footsteps traveling through the brush. He had disappeared completely.