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She was going to marry him?
Kitty Hemmings stared at the cell phone and tried to process the words she'd just heard on her voice mail. Surely her mother hadn't said marry. No matter how low the woman's self-esteem had plummeted, no matter how desperately she needed a Y chromosome by her side, she wouldn'tshe couldn'tactually marry Jim Oliphant.
The beachside bar speakers launched into a steel drum version of "Red, Red Wine," and the breeze, always warm here in the Bahamas even in November, gusted gently across her hot cheeks. Suddenly Kitty's hands began to shake. She gripped the handle of the beer spigot for balance.
Lucinda Hemmings had pulled some pathetic stunts in her time. But marrying that bastard would top them all. Jim was a dozen years younger than her mother. He was slick and charming, but stone-broke, of course, just another barnacle trying to attach his empty wallet to Lucinda's bank account.
He'd hung around more than eight years, a record for any of her mother's boyfriends. Kitty had been hoping, any day, to hear that he'd given up and gone away. She'd even dreamed about Lochaven last night, about the Virginia oaks covered in Spanish moss, and the red tile roof, and her own bedroom, where her poster of Johnny Depp still hung on the door. For the first time in eight years, she'd let herself imagine what it might be like to live in a real house again, and not a crummy efficiency apartment or service-industry dorm.
But now with Oliphant permanently installed
Her mother had sounded so happy. Kitty bit down on her lower lip, remembering the lilt in the voice, and the subtle slur that said Lucinda hadn't declined an extra flute of champagne with dinner. Of course not. Jim Oliphant didn't drink alone. "I know you don't like him, sweetheart, but."
Like him? Kitty's lunch rose briefly into her throat, an acidic reminder of the mandarin oranges she'd wolfed down between shifts. Like him? Who could like Jim Oliphant? He might be square-jawed and handsome on the outside, but on the inside he was what her father called ame de boue. Soul of mud.
Kitty swallowed hard, forcing herself to release her death grip on the spigot. She couldn't dwell on this now. She was on the clock another ten minutes, that was all. Just until midnight. Then she'd go back to the dorm and, since her roommate, Jill, was working till two, she'd have a little alone time.
Maybe she'd bake something sweet, something from her childhood. Comfort food.
And then, when she let herself think again, maybe her mother's news wouldn't hurt so much.
"Hello? Earth to barmaid? Two Slim Spiffies? Heavy on the cherries?"
She looked up, trying to compose herself. She'd seen this guy before. The bartenders had a nickname for every customer. They called this one Mr. Sleazy. She suddenly realized he could have been Oliphant's older brother. The too-bronze tan, the overly highlighted hair and the sucked-gut vanity that begged you to believe he was twenty-five instead of forty.
"Sure." She slid the cell phone under the bar and smiled. "What's in a Slim Spiffy besides cherries?"
Mr. Sleazy leaned in, and she got a whiff of his breath. Oh. So that was a Slim Spiffy. Gin, cranberry juice, orange slices and the guarantee that, before the night was over, he'd puke his guts out into the sand.
Her smile stiffened. His eyes probably weren't nice on his best day, and this was definitely not his best day. Tiny red spiders crawled across the whites, and the pupils didn't quite track. She felt her hand begin to tremble again. She hated mean drunks. Jim Oliphant had been a very, very mean drunk.
"Just cherries," he said, then flicked his tongue over his lower lip. "That's all I'm interested in. The boys and I made a little bet over there. About whether you've still got one."
Kitty considered pretending she didn't understand. That was usually her first resort. But she could already feel her blood in her ears. It sounded like the incoming tide. He couldn't imagine what a really bad time he'd picked to get nasty. She needed this job, but she was inches from either bursting into tears or breaking his ugly nose.
They'd both get her disciplined, but the nose option would at least feel good. She hadn't cried in eight years, and, by God, she didn't intend to start tonight.
She scanned the tables, the dance floor, even the artificially lit beach, looking for Jill. Jill actually thought this guy was cute. And Jill owed herKitty had covered for her about half a dozen times lately, when Jill wanted to slip out with some hunky customer she'd just met.
But Jill was nowhere to be seen. As usual. That meant the bouncer, one of Jill's lovers this week, was also MIA.
"Look, the bar always has plenty of cherries," Kitty said, though her teeth would hardly open to let the words through. "Let that be enough, okay? Just play nice, and tell me what's"
"No, no, not the bar." He winked. "See, honey, we're thinking you can't be more than, what.maybe nineteen? We think that green hair, that eyebrow ring they're just for show, to cover up that baby face. Come on, baby face. We think maybe you've still got a cherry."
She was twenty-six years old, and felt every year of it, so the "nineteen" comment was pure hogwash. And "baby face" was what Jim Oliphant had loved to call her.
She leaned closer, lowering her voice. "Well, let's see, honey. What I've got I've got a low tolerance for butt-ugly morons and a big, fat can of pepper spray." She glanced at his crotch. "Any of that make you feel spiffy, Slim?"
His bloodshot eyes hardened as he processed the insult. "What the" He reached out, as if to grab her arm. "I'll have your job, you little"
Technically, this wasn't a problem. She'd been a bartender less than a year, working her way up from waitress. The first thing you learned, though, was how to handle a drunk. But as she saw his meaty hand move toward her, something snapped and she found it hard to breathe. She inhaled, but choked on the tears she'd been trying to hold back. Suddenly all she could see were sparkling crystals, fracturing the colored lights strung between the poles that held up the bar tent.
Oh, God. She was losing it. Where was the bouncer? Fumbling with her apron, she turned, made an inarticulate sound and started to head for the beach.
She glanced over her shoulderhe was coming around the bar, head lowered like a bull. An icy feeling spread between her shoulder blades.
And then, out of nowhere, another man was standing in his path.
"Steady, now," she heard the other man say as he put a palm against the charging bull's chest. "I think the lady needs"
She didn't hear the end of the sentence. She saw her chance, and she took it. She walked fast, and then faster, until she was running. She ran beyond the party lights, through the bright landscape spots that turned the incoming tide to a frothy milkshake, and finally into the darkness of the natural night.
Even when she'd left the noisy bar far behind, she didn't stop. The Sugarwater Resort was built on a crescent-shaped spit of beach, and she blindly traced its eastern curve. When the soft piles of sand got too thick, she kicked off her sandals and continued to run.
Though her lungs burned, she kept going until she found herself where no lowly bartender should be, out at the very tip, beside the luxury cottages that were rented only by the month, only to people who never asked "How much?"
She finally ran out of steam, and beach, at the last stand of palm trees. She looked around, as if she thought there might be another way out, but of course there wasn't. The ocean was just a yard or two from her toes. Its dull, scraping sweep was louder than the blood that roared in her ears. She tried to focus on the sound. She tried to find something steady, something to hang on to.
But it was hopeless. She'd run as far as she could, as far as there was, and she hadn't outrun the memories or the fury. Without her permission, hot liquid began to stream down her cheeks. She pushed her fingers against her eyes, as if she could force the tears back.
No, no. She wasn't this weak. She was tough, and in control of her life, her body, even her tears. She wasn't afraid of Mr. Sleazy. She wasn't afraid of any man. She wasn't afraid of anything.
But damn Jim Oliphant. Damn him for exiling her from the home she loved, the home that held the memories of her father, who would never have let anyone treat her like.
With a strangled sound, she dropped to her knees. The sand gave under her weight, and then, at the last minute, something sharp bit into her skin. Heat flashed up her leg like lightning. She rocked back on one heel, shocked by the pain, and lifted the other shin.
She must have landed on a sharp shell. Or a broken bottle. Bloodit had to be blood, though it looked black in the moonlightseeped from a curved gash along the fleshy edge of her shin. And it hurt. It hurt like hell.
"Are you okay?"
She looked up, glaring, furious with herself that she hadn't heard the man approaching her along the beach. What if it had been that sleazy jerk, arriving for another round? Men like that were gluttons for punishment.
But it wasn't. Instead, it was the man who had stood in his way, giving her a chance to get free. Now that she was thinking clearly, she realized she knew himall the female bartenders did. Their nickname for this guy was Gorgeous.
Blond. Blue-eyed. Six-one, with the body of a god, and an endearing way of seeming unaware of any of that.
His real name was David Gerard, and for the past few weeks he'd been renting one of the premium cottages, the best of the best, right here on the tip of the crescent. She'd processed his room card a dozen times or more at the bar, but he'd never hit on her. Oddly, he never hit on anybody. She'd seen about a dozen different big-breasted blondes try their darnedest to snag him, if only for one night, but he always brushed them off gracefully and left the bar alone.
It was kind of fascinating, actually. He ate dinner at the beachside bar every night, as if he were looking for someone, but he never hooked up. He nursed a couple of beers for hours, and spent the rest of the night throwing darts with the oldest, loneliest regular in the place.
They all wondered what his story was. Kitty said he acted like a guy with a broken heart. Jill disagreed. Any woman lucky enough to get her hands on that heart, she said, putting a wry stress on the word heart, would be careful not to let it slip away.
Kitty wondered why he'd followed her out here.
"I'm fine," she said now, and pulled herself to her feet. Grimacing, she brushed the bloody sand from her leg, then wished she'd dealt with her face first. She lifted her chin, daring him to mention the tears. "It's just my shin. I think I fell on something."
He bent down and took her calf between his hands. He didn't seem alarmed, but his grip was firm. "Let's get into the light. My cottage is right behind us. Can you walk?"
"Of course," she said, but the first weight she put on the leg made it sting. "It's no big deal. I should just go back to"
"No. My place is right here. So is my car. If you need stitches, I can drive you to the E.R."
She glanced back toward the hotel, registering how far away the service dorms really were. "Fine. I mean yeah, okay. Thanks."
She saw him smile as he lifted her arm and put it over his shoulder. She knew she sounded edgy and ungrateful, but, damn it, she felt like such a fool. There she'd been, ranting about how tough and independent she was.
Sugarwater's luxury cottages were impressive, but luckily she'd seen the interiors before, so she didn't embarrass herself by gasping or gawking. He flicked on the living room light switchshe noticed it was set to the recessed mood lighting, which didn't compete with the view of the ocean through the big picture window.
He deposited her on the wide leather sofa, then fiddled a few minutes in the wet bar behind her. When he returned, he had a plain brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide, some gauze and a bandage.
She stared. "You keep a first aid kit in the bar?"
He laughed, but he was already down on one knee in front of her, gently cleaning off the cut. "Yeah, well, I put a gash in my own leg the first week I was here. Apparently I still can't surf worth a darn." He smiled up at her. "Ten stitches. Just came out a week or so ago."
She smiled in spite of herself. He didn't seem clumsy. His hands felt sure. And kind.
He went through several pieces of gauze, all of which came away bloody and crumpled. He used the peroxide liberally, and thin, pink blood inched down her calf in dotted lines. He wiped it clean, with light strokes that made her feel strangely warm and tingly.
God. Just how weak was she tonight? Was she actually letting this Boy Scout routine turn her on?
It took a while, as he was clearly conscientious. But it wasn't all vaguely erotic TLC. Some of it was pure, sensible first aid business. She flinched as he scrubbed away a few last grains of sand.
"Sorry," he said. He bent closer and probed with careful fingers. Then he dabbed one last time and started peeling the plastic backing from a large square bandage.
"It's not as bad as it looked. No need for stitches, probably. But you're going to want to get a tetanus shot."
"I had one a few months ago," she said. Her voice sounded husky, and she cleared her throat. "When you work around here, you don't take risks."
He nodded. "Good." He wadded up the used gauze and got up to put it in the trash can behind the bar. Then he ran water to wash his hands.
"How about you?"
He was pointing to the military lineup of booze along the glass wall. The standard new-guest stock that came with the cottage. It didn't seem to have been touched, though David had been here several weeks. "Want something to take the edge off?"