You look beautiful.

I know I’m not a hideous troll but it’s not easy being a natural redhead with fair skin and freckles. I hated my freckles with everything I had when I was younger but I’ve come to terms with them now. I used to hate the red hair too. I’d get mean comments from boys, especially in high school, asking if my crotch was as fiery as the hair on my head. Some asshole called Lindsay Lohan a particularly nasty name referring to her hair, ahem, down there once a long time ago and I blame him for starting that whole thing.

Fire Crotch.

Ugh.

The hostess leads us through the tiny dining area toward a small round table draped with a white tablecloth that sits next to a window. She presents our menus to us as soon as we’re in our chairs and then she buzzes off, ready to greet the next group of customers that just walked inside.

It’s crowded and warm, there’s music playing in the background and I glance to my right to find the view of the ocean breathtaking, the sun so low it looks like it’s melting into the water.

“Beautiful view,” I say as I turn to look at him, startled to find him staring at me blatantly.

Ravenously.

“Definitely,” he murmurs with a wicked smile and I feel the flush wash over me, my neck, my cheeks, oh my God even my forehead grows hot. He’s not talking about the ocean.

I think…I think he’s talking about me.

“You need to stop,” I tell him as I open the tiny menu to check out what is a rather limited selection.

“Stop what?” he asks innocently.

Glancing up, I find him watching me still, which only makes me blush harder. I silently curse my fair skin. And overly flirtatious guys. I have zero experience dealing with someone like Shep Prescott. “You’re making me nervous.”

“How?”

“With the—” I wave a hand. “—the compliments. The flirting.”

“You’ve never flirted with someone before?”

“Of course, I have,” I snap, immediately regretting my tone of voice. The man pushes me like no other. “It’s the way you flirt.”

“And how’s that?”

You’re good at it. More like, you excel in your flirtation skills. And I don’t know how to handle myself. I’m the failure, not you.

“The over the top compliments aren’t necessary either,” I say, avoiding his question.

“Afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you,” he tells me as he flips open his menu and studies it. “My compliments toward your beauty aren’t over the top.”

There he goes again, saying I’m beautiful. I don’t even know how to react. I feel like I want to laugh or tell him to stop like I’m some uncomfortable preteen who doesn’t know how to take a compliment.

More like I’m an uncomfortable nineteen year old who doesn’t know how to take one. So lame.

I guess I remain quiet for too long because he’s watching me again, his brows furrowed, his mouth, his entire expression serious. “Has no one told you you’re beautiful before?”

I shrug, mortified. “Beyond my mom? Who has to think I’m beautiful since she created me?”

He looks shocked. “What about Noel?”

Of course, he can’t get his name right. “You mean Joel? What about him?” Why are we talking about my ex on this so-called date?

“He never told you that you’re beautiful?” Now he sounds disgusted.

“No.” I want to shrink into the smallest ball possible and disappear. I keep my gaze fixed on the menu in front of me but the words are blurry. And I can feel him watching me, examining me bit by bit, feature by feature. What does he see? Or more important, does he like what he sees?

I’m almost scared to know the answer.

“Can I take your drink order?”

I almost faint with relief. Saved by our server. She reminds me of my grandma, with short graying hair and glasses, a friendly smile plastered on her face. “Just water please,” I say.

“Hey Barb, can I ask you a question?”

Oh, no. He knows our waitress by name? What in the world is he going to ask her? I stiffen my shoulders, bracing myself for what he’s about to say.

“Hit me with it, sugar.” Barb sounds amused but I can’t even look at her. Or him.

“Do you think my date is beautiful?”

“Oh my God,” I groan under my breath, holding the menu in front of my face.

“I love her hair,” Barb says sincerely. “Though I can’t see the rest of her, what with that menu hiding her face.”

“Come on, Jade. Don’t be shy,” Shep encourages.

I drop the menu onto the table, where it falls with a loud clatter, and I glare at him, wishing I could silence him with my eyes.

But it doesn’t work. He just grins at me, then looks up at Barb. “Even when she’s mad, she’s gorgeous.”

“Very pretty,” Barb agrees with a nod of approval. “Considering you don’t bring girls around here ever, I can finally say you have most excellent taste. Not that I’m surprised.”

Wait a minute. He doesn’t bring girls around here? Ever? I don’t understand.

“Thanks, Barb. And I’ll have a beer. You know what I like.”

She smiles and with a promise to be right back, scoots off. I watch her go, turning over what she said again and again. He doesn’t bring girls to this restaurant, yet he’s a frequent visitor since he knows the waitress. And she knows what type of beer he likes.

What in the world is going on?

“I always come here for lunch, usually with Gabe or my cousin Tristan,” Shep explains, like he can read my mind. “Barb owns the restaurant with her husband Jim.”

“Oh.” I nod and reopen my menu, deciding I need to get the shrimp basket and just be done with it. So it’s fried shrimp with fries. So it’ll be packed with a bazillion calories. So what. I’ll make Kelli go running with me tomorrow morning to make up for my pig out.

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” He sounds sincere. I don’t know why he’s acting like this. Being so…

Nice.

That night when he caught me signaling to Joel, he’d been such a jerk. I gave him reason to be angry, I won’t deny that, but he’d been so smug, so rude. I could handle him then. Last night and earlier this afternoon too.

But now? With him offering up compliments and behaving like a gentleman? He’s throwing me off.

“Um, it’s okay.” I lift my head but thankfully this time he’s not looking at me. Which allows me to blatantly check him out. His head is bent, his golden brown hair falling over his forehead, his eyes cast down and I see that even his eyelashes are tipped with gold. Everything about him is gold, gold, gold. He’s gorgeous and rich and the epitome of the perfect golden boy and what the hell is he doing here with me when I am the farthest thing from perfect or golden.

“I can feel you staring at me,” he says, his head still bent but I see the smile stretch across his face. Makes me want to throw my menu at him.

Okay, fine. Not really.

“I’m mad at you,” I tell him.

He lifts his head, the smile fading. “Why?”

“Because you embarrassed me.”

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