Home > White Nights (White Nights #1)(8)

White Nights (White Nights #1)(8)
Author: Anna Zaires

A vegetarian since the age of thirteen, I’m used to having to explain and justify my food choices to my dates. Many omnivores, including the men I’ve dated, are uncomfortable around vegetarians, as though afraid they’ll be lectured on animal cruelty at every meal. That’s not my approach. I just quietly practice what I believe. Tony constantly argued with me, trying to convince me to change my stance on the matter, and after a while, it got exhausting. I’m glad Alex is different.

I study his unconventionally handsome face from under my lashes as he summons the waiter and converses in Russian. I listen closely to the foreign sounds, wishing I understood more of their language. Like many nurses at Coney Island Hospital, I know how to ask if a patient is in pain—bolit?—and whether they want something to drink—pit’?—but that’s the extent of my Russian vocabulary.

Once the waiter is gone, Alex returns his attention to me.

“They’ll bring us zakuski—appetizers—shortly,” he says, picking up his shot glass. “In the meantime, how about a toast to girls changing their minds?” He smiles, showing even white teeth.

I hesitate for a second before picking up my glass. Drinking on an empty stomach isn’t something I typically do, but nothing about this date is typical.

To hell with caution. For tonight, I just want to enjoy myself.

“Sure,” I say, smiling back. “And to your bodyguard’s speedy recovery.”

“And to Igor’s recovery,” Alex agrees, clinking his glass against mine.

He knocks back the shot in one smooth swallow. The strong column of his throat moves in a deliciously masculine way, and I fight a sudden urge to walk around the table and lick the side of his neck.

Oh my God, Kate. Control yourself.

Taking a deep breath, I force myself to look away and focus on my own glass of vodka. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to touch a man so badly. It’s as if my hormones have suddenly decided to come out of lifelong hibernation, and I have no idea how to rein them back in.

Lifting my glass, I drink the shot in two big gulps and pretend the liquor doesn’t burn my esophagus on the way down. From the amused look on Alex’s face, I don’t succeed.

“You’re not used to vodka,” he says as my eyes water from the strong alcohol.

“Not exactly.” I make a face. “Is it obvious?”

“No,” he deadpans. “You took that shot like a pro.”

I laugh, shaking my head. “I guess my vodka-drinking skills can’t compare to yours.”

“Well, I am Russian.” He gives me a self-deprecating smile. “If I couldn’t outdrink an American girl, I’d be a very poor representative of my people.”

I laugh again, genuinely enjoying myself. The residual warmth from the alcohol has heated my chest and stomach, and the night is taking on a pleasantly surreal glow. “So, is this your usual modus operandi?” I ask with a smile. “Do you bring all the women you’re trying to seduce to this fancy restaurant and ply them with vodka?”

He leans forward and covers my hand with his, making me draw in a startled breath. His palm is so large it engulfs mine completely, his skin warm and dry against my own.

“No,” he says softly, gently massaging the inside of my palm with his thumb. “I only do it for special ones. Like you.”

“Me?” I lift my eyebrows, trying to ignore the way my lower body tightens at his touch. He has what I’ve always considered a real man’s hand, complete with the roughness of calluses on his palm. “What’s so special about me?”

“Are you fishing for compliments, Katyusha?” His eyes are warm and amused. “Surely a woman as beautiful as you knows her worth.”

I grin. “Surely a man as attractive as you is used to beautiful women.”

A cynical note darkens his smile again. “You find me attractive?”

“Why else would I be here?” I ask, puzzled.

“Yes,” he drawls. “Why else?” Finding the tender spot near the fleshy part of my palm, he massages until I almost moan out loud from the pleasurable sensation. It’s all I can do not to glare at the waiter when he interrupts by serving our appetizers.

As I look at the spread, however, amazement drowns out my disappointment. There must be twenty different dishes, everything from pickled vegetables to delicate Russian blintzes with a filling that looks like cream cheese.

It’s enough to feed an army.

When I tell Alex that, he laughs and explains that Russians believe in having plenty of variety on the table, particularly for special occasions. He then describes each dish to me, pointing out his favorites—the beet salad he calls vinyegret and the marinated mushrooms with sour cream.

Curious, I try a bite of everything and discover that I especially like the salty flavor of the cream cheese paired with the subtle sweetness of the crepes. I also fall in love with the cheese-and-garlic salad and the homestyle potatoes fried with mushrooms.

“Wow,” I say, going for yet another serving of the potato dish. “I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on such delicious food. I’m going to kill Nadia for not taking me to a Russian restaurant sooner.”

He lifts an eyebrow. “Nadia?”

“One of my coworkers. She’s from Ukraine, and we’ve become good friends in the past year.”

His blue eyes crinkle in the corners. “Yes, she should’ve definitely introduced you to our cuisine and culture, but I’m happy to remedy her mistake.” Filling our shot glasses with more vodka, he lifts his and says softly, “To new experiences.”

“To new experiences,” I agree, clinking my glass against his and knocking back the shot. It’s easier this time, the vodka going down smoothly and leaving a pleasant warmth in its wake. I grin after I’ve caught my breath. “I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

“You might make a good Russian after all,” he says, studying me with a look of warm amusement on his face.

My breath catches. With his lips parted in a genuine smile, he looks both strikingly handsome and shockingly approachable. To my surprise, I realize I like him. It’s not just a physical attraction. I like the man himself.

“I’m glad I ran into you again,” I blurt without thinking. “I was sure I wouldn’t see you again after that first time in the hospital. I wasn’t even supposed to work today. I was called in because another nurse couldn’t make it.”

“Oh, you would’ve seen me again,” he says with conviction. “If not today, then soon.”

I give him a questioning look.

He reaches across the table again and takes my hand. This time, his touch is more familiar, less shocking, though it turns me on just as much.

“I would’ve looked for you,” he says, caressing the inside of my wrist with this thumb. “I don’t accept rejection easily, not when I really want something.”

My heart skips a beat. His words are both exciting and unnerving. “Is that right?” I manage to say, trying to keep the breathy note out of my voice.

The simple touch on my wrist alone turns me on more than anything my ex-boyfriend had ever done, and Alex knows it. He knows how to seduce a woman, and he’s fully aware of my reaction to him.

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