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A nightmare. That was what this had to be. She must be dreaming. But what had she expected from a blind date?
Jill Darling was no shy innocent, but her face was blazing. She could feel it. The man was trying to Ugh, it was just too creepy to even try to name what he was doing. She couldn't really be sure unless she took a look under the table. And that would cause a scene. She couldn't do that. She knew people in this restaurant.
But was that really his foot sliding up and down her leg?
He was leaning close, talking on and on, his breath hot on her neck. Okay, maybe that was all in the game. But what the heck was that foot doing?
She tried to move away, but she was trapped, huddled right up against the edge of the planter that sat right beside their table, tickling her nose with its palm fronds. They were eating in the restaurant of the nicest hotel in this part of town. It had Irish linen tablecloths, real sterling silverware and a small combo playing for dancers on a tiny dance floor to the side.
She took a long drink from her water glass, then looked over at him. She tried to smile, but she knew it was wobbly and pretty darn unconvincing if he should happen to actually notice it.
Karl Attkins was his name. Her friend's brother. He was good looking enough, but somehow cold, as though she could have been anyone with an "available female" label stamped on her forehead. Should she ask him about the foot? And maybe warn him not to lose sight of his shoe. It wouldn't be easy to replace that here in this crowded restaurant.
Oh, Lord, he was using his toes now. She was going to have to say something. If she didn't, her nice steak dinner just might come back up. And all that wine she drank, trying to keep busy. This just wasn't cool. She took a deep breath and tried to think of a way to say it without being insulting.
But then he gave her the out she needed.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow as though he knew she must consider him quite debonair.
Dance. No, not at all. But she steeled herself to the effort. Dancing ought to give him a reason to put his shoe back on, and if so, it would all be worth it.
"Sure," she said breathlessly. "Why not?"
Well, the fact that they were playing a tango at that very moment might have been a reason to sit this one out. But it hardly mattered. At least the man was shod once more. She tried to keep the electric smile painted on her face as he led her to the proper position. And then she glanced at her watch and wondered how much longer she was going to have to endure this torture. She had to put in a good chunk of time or the friends who'd got her into this wouldn't believe she'd really tried.
Oh, Mary Ellen, she groaned silently as Karl pushed her to and fro dramatically across the dancing floor, leaving her to lunge about like a puppet with its strings cut. I love you dearly, but this is just too high a price to pay for your friendship.
"But, Jill," all her friends had counseled solemnly, "you've got to do it. You've got to get back into the swim of things. It's been over a year since Brad well, since you've been alone." The timing had helped make her receptive. Changes were making her feel vulnerable. Her sister was probably moving away, and her younger half-sister had recently died. Loneliness was looming large in her life. "Time is streaking by," another friend lectured. "Don't let it leave you behind. Don't be a coward. Get out there and fight!"
Fight? For what?
"A man, of course," said Mary Ellen. "Once you hit your age, they don't come a dime a dozen any more. You've got competition."
"But, what if I ?"
"No! You can't give up!" her friend Crystal had chimed in. "Your kids need a father figure in the home."
Mary Ellen had fixed her with a steely stare. "And you want to show old Brad, don't you?"
Show old Brad. The need to do just that surged in her. Of course she wanted to show old Brad. Sure. She would date. If he could do it, so could she. Stand back. She was ready for the challenge.
But where would she find someone to date? Mary Ellen knew just the man for her.
"My brother Karl is a real player," she said airily. "He'll get you back into the swing of things in no time. He has so many friends. You'll be dating like crazy before you know it."
Dating. She remembered dating. The way your heart raced as you waited for him to come to the door, the shy pauses, the way your eyes met his and then looked quickly away. Would he kiss you on the doorstep? Were you really going to let him?
But that was then. This was a completely different thing, seemingly from a galaxy far, far away. She was older now. She'd been married and she had two kids. She knew how things worked. She could handle it. Or so she thought.
No. This was a nightmare.
At least her dress was pretty, and she didn't get many chances to wear something like this anymore. A sleek shift dress in teal-blue, it was covered with sequins and glistened as she walked, making her feel sexy and pretty and nice. Too bad she was wasting that on a man who spent more time looking at himself in the mirror than she did.
The tango was over. She turned back toward the table in relief, but Karl grabbed her free hand and twirled her around to face him. The band was playing a cha cha. He grinned. "Hey mambo!" he cried out and began to sway. He seemed to consider himself quite the ballroom dancer, even if he couldn't tell one Latin dance from another.
Jill had a decision to make. Would she rather dance, or go back to playing footsie? She wasn't sure she knew how to cha cha. But she knew she didn't want to feel that foot on her leg again.
What the hell.
"Everybody loves to cha-cha-cha," she murmured as she let him twirl her again.
And then she looked up and saw Connor McNair staring at her in horror.
Her blood ran cold. She was still moving, but no one could accuse her of dancing at this point. The music didn't mean a thing.
Connor. Oh, no.
First, it appalled her to think that anyone she knew might see her here like this. But close on that thought came the shock question—was Brad with him?
No. She glanced around quickly and didn't see any sign of her ex-husband at all. Thank heaven for small blessings. Connor must have come to town and was staying here at the hotel—alone. But still, it was Connor, Brad's best friend, the one person most likely to report to him. She could hardly stand it.
He was mouthing something to her. She squinted, trying to make it out. What was he trying to say?
She couldn't tell, but he was coming out onto the dance f loor. Why? She looked around, feeling wild, wanting to run. What was he going to do?
"May I cut in?" he asked Karl.
He was polite, but unsmiling, and Karl didn't seem to be in a friendly mood.
"What? No. Go get your own girl," Karl told him, frowning fiercely. And just to prove his point, he grabbed Jill and pulled her close.
She looked over his shoulder at Connor. He offered a safe harbor of sorts, but there was danger there, too. She didn't want to talk to Connor. She didn't want to have anyone close to Brad anywhere near. The pain of Brad's desertion still ached inside her like an open wound and she didn't want anyone from his side of the rift to see her like this—much less talk to her.
So she glared at Connor. Let him know she didn't need him or his rescue. She was doing fine. She was here enjoying herself. Sort of.
She got back to dancing, swaying her hips, making her sequins sparkle, and trying hard to smile at Karl. Let Connor see that she was having the time of her life. Let him take that bit of news back to Brad, if that was what he was after.
"Mambo!" she cried out, echoing Karl. Why the heck not?
Connor gave her a look of disbelief as he stepped back to the sidelines, but he didn't leave. The next dance was a simple two-step, but that meant Karl's arms around her again, and she couldn't disguise the shudder that gave her.
And there was Connor, taking in every nuance. She glowered at him. He was very handsome in his crisp white shirt with the dark slacks that looked tailor-made. But that was beside the point. Didn't he have a table to go to? What gave him the right to stand there and watch her? Biting her lip, she tried to keep him out of her line of vision and blot him out of her head.
But then he was back, right at Karl's elbow again, stopping them in their tracks.
"Excuse me," he said, looking very serious. "Listen, do you have a silver BMW in the parking lot?"
Karl blinked. His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he couldn't resist the question. "Why, yes I do. What about it?"
Connor's brows came together in a look of sorrow. "I'm afraid your car's on fire."
Karl dropped Jill like a hot potato and whirled to face Connor. "What?" he cried, anguish contorting his face.
Connor was all sympathy. "I think they've called the fire department, but you might want to get out there and."
No more words were necessary. He was already gone.
Connor took Jill by the arm, looking annoyed when she balked and tried to pull away.
"Come on," he said impatiently. "I know a back way out."
Jill shook her head, not sure what he thought he was doing here. "But I can't just leave."
Connor looked down at her and suddenly grinned, startling her. She'd forgotten how endearing he could be and she stared up at him. It was like finding a beloved forgotten toy in the attic. Affection for him trembled on the edge of her mood, but she batted it back.
"Why not?" he said. "Do you want to spend the next two hours with the guy?"
She tried to appear stern. She wanted to deny what he was implying. How could she go? What would she say to her friends? What would she tell Mary Ellen?
But in the end, his familiar grin did her in. "I'd rather eat dirt," she admitted, crumbling before him.
"There you go." He led her gently across the dance floor, only hesitating while she scooped up her sparkly little purse. They headed for the exit and he winked at a waiter who was holding the door for them, obviously primed to help with the escape. He paused only long enough to hand the man some folded money and then they were out the door.
"But what about his car?" Jill asked, worrying a bit. She knew the sense of guilt would linger long after the evening was gone. "He loves that car."
"Don't give it a second thought," he advised, steering her toward his own souped-up, twenty-year-old Camaro, a car she remembered from the past, and pulling open the passenger door.
"His car isn't really on fire, is it?" she asked as she plunked down into the leather seat.
"No." He sank into the driver's seat and grinned at her again. "Look, I'll do a lot for an old friend, but setting a guy's car on fire no, that's a step too far."
She watched him start the engine and turn toward the back exit.
"But you will lie to him about it," she noted.
She sighed and settled back into the seat. All in all, at least she didn't have a naked foot exploring her leg at the moment. That alone was worth its weight in gold.
"Rickey's on the Bay?" he asked in the shorthand they both remembered from earlier years.
"Of course," she responded without thinking. That was where everyone always went when the night was still young enough to make the last ferry to the island. She turned and looked at the lights of Seattle in the distance. If only you could go back in time as easily as you could go back to the places where you hung out in your youth.
"I can't believe I'm letting you do this," she said with a sigh.
"I can't believe you needed me to do it."
She laughed. "Touche," she muttered. So much for the great date that was supposed to bring her out of her shell and into the social whirl.
She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and checked it.
"What are you doing?" Connor asked with just a hint of suspicion in his tone.
She glanced up at him and smiled impishly. "Waiting for Karl to call. I've got to explain this to him somehow."
He shuddered. "Is Karl the mambo king?" he asked.
She gave him a baleful look.
"Don't worry. I gave the waiter a little money to tell old Karl what the score was."
She raised an eyebrow. "And just what is the score, pray tell?"
He hesitated, then shrugged. "I told him to tell Karl I was a made guy from the mob and we didn't take kindly to outsiders poaching on our women."
He looked a little embarrassed. "Yeah, I know. Definitely corny. But it was the best I could think of on the spur of the moment."
She had to hold back her laughter. He didn't deserve it.
"I didn't even know you were Italian."
"There are a lot of things you don't know about me." He gave her a mocking wink. "A lot of things you don't want to know."
She frowned, thinking the situation over. "So now you've single-handedly destroyed my chances of dating anyone ever again in this town. Thanks a lot."
"I'm just looking out for you, sweetheart."
She rolled her eyes, but she was biting back a grin.
Rickey's was as flamboyant as a fifties retro diner should be, with bright turquoise upholstery and jukeboxes at every table. They walked in as though they ought to see a lot of old friends there, but no one looked the least bit familiar.
"We're old," he whispered in her ear as he led her to a booth along the side with windows on the marina. "Everyone we used to hang out with is gone."
"So why are we still here?" she asked, a bit grumpy about it. This was where so much of her life had played out in the old days. And now, the waitresses didn't know her and the faces all looked unfamiliar.
"Lost souls, searching for the meaning of life," he said, smiling at her across the linoleum-covered table. His smile looked wistful this time, unlike the cheerful grin from before.
"The meaning of life is clear enough," she protested. After all, hadn't everyone been lecturing her on it for months? "Get on with things. Make the world a better place. Face reality and deal with it. Or something along those lines."