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Quiet Walks the Tiger
By Heather Graham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Heather E. Graham
All rights reserved.
The band in the dinner lounge was really very good. They were versatile and had done everything from Sinatra to Blondie and managed to complacently oblige almost any request for a song from the thirties to the eighties—spacing them to please the young hard rockers and the mature dinner clientele.
Sloan Tallett had been on the dance floor, twirling beneath the lights, for the majority of the evening. She was a beautiful woman, never more regal than when on a dance floor, and with her escort being the head of the dance department from the college where she taught, she had provided the patrons of the lounge with visual entertainment as well as acoustical. Eyes riveted and stayed upon the handsome couple, which was what Jim Baskins intended. They were the best advertising he could manage for the College of Fine Arts.
The number, a breath-stealing piece from the late sixties, came to a halt. Sloan laughed gaily to Jim as they wove their way to their table, hand in hand. She was flushed as she sat, her blue eyes as radiant as sapphires. Someone stopped by to issue a compliment, and she smiled with lazy thanks, the full-lipped, seductive smile of a temptress.
She had been born to dance—her friend and escort was thinking—but she had also been born to captivate. Only someone close could ever see the hard line of reserve and pain that lurked beneath the stars in her eyes and the radiance of her smile.
"Another scotch and soda?" Jim asked.
"No!" She chuckled, but her answer was firm. She glanced at her black-banded wristwatch with a frown. "It's too close to pumpkin time, I'm afraid. I'd love a plain soda, though, with a twist of lime."
"I'd probably better order the same," Jim said with a grimace, motioning to their waitress. "You're good for me, Sloan, do you know that?" he said after putting their order in. "You keep me on the straight and narrow."
Sloan smiled at her companion. Jim Baskins was twenty years her senior, and she was sure he had traveled the straight and narrow all his life. He was her immediate supervisor, and a more gentle, understanding man couldn't be found. A confirmed bachelor, Jim had dedicated his life to two demanding mistresses—dance and teaching. Approaching fifty, he had the look of a much younger man. An inch or so over Sloan's five feet seven inches, he was thin and wiry, the touches of silver in his thick blond hair adding an air of distinguished maturity. Most people who saw them together decided there was a romantic interest between the two—which wasn't true. They were co-workers and friends who enjoyed one another's company.
"I think it's the other way around," Sloan told him. "You keep me on the straight and narrow."
"Two damn straight and narrow, if you ask me," Jim replied. "You should be dating, Sloan. You're a young woman, and it's been two years ..." His voice trailed away; he hadn't meant to remind her of the husband he had never met.
Clouds passed over the sapphire of her eyes, but Sloan kept smiling. "It's all right, Jim. It has been two years since Terry died. And I do date occasionally. When I'm interested. But society has picked up a little too much for me. Every time I date someone a second time, they seem to think I've said yes to hop into bed."
"It wouldn't kill you to have an affair," Jim advised, surveying her over his soda. "And you should consider a second marriage—"
"I don't want to marry again," Sloan interrupted softly. She had had a good marriage, and anything shallow to follow would be sacrilege. She looked at Jim to see him, miserable, before her and realized she was extending her own unhappiness to him. And she wasn't really unhappy. She had her job, she had the children. "Why would I want to marry?" she queried cheerfully. "I have enough of my own problems! I don't need someone else's!"
Jim didn't look quite so miserable. "Bad attitude, Sloan. You share the good along with the bad."
Sloan laughed easily. "Jim—it's not something I have to decide immediately. I don't exactly have a score of suitors pounding down my door. You'd have to be a rich man to contemplate marriage to a struggling thirtyish widow with three children age six and under. Come to think of it, you'd have to be a lunatic as well."
"I'd marry you, Sloan," Jim said softly.
Sloan chuckled softly and stretched slender fingers across the table to envelop his hand. "You are a lunatic," she told him with warm affection. "And I do believe you mean it." Jim was aware that her life was rough—finances were low, and her job schedule, while trying to be a good mother to three young children, was grueling. "But I love you as a very dear friend, as you love me—and like I said, I don't want to get married. I'm a very independent lady—I run my own life."
Jim shook his head sadly. "You're a beautiful woman, Sloan. Someday some man is going to come along and crumble that shell of yours—and I hope I'm around to see the day."
"Only if he has a fortune!" Sloan teased. "Come on, boss," she added, rising. "Walk me to my car. I don't like to keep Cassie waiting. She expects me home no later than ten."
Sloan's sister kept her children on Friday nights so that Sloan could have an evening out. Usually, it was dinner and dancing with Jim or the occasional date that intrigued her. Friday nights were her only fling. She needed them to remind herself that she was still shy of thirty, still young. She enjoyed her evenings with Jim and the few "real" dates she accepted, but that was as far as she would venture from the wall she had carefully built around herself after Terry's death. Life was too serious a thing for her to take the time to really unscramble her feelings on love, sex, and affairs. It was—at this point—a fight for survival.
"Okay, gorgeous," Jim said amicably, signaling for the check. "We'll get you in for curfew. It's supposed to be twelve, though—not ten," he teased, dropping a few bills on the table and rising to assist her from her chair. "But I guess it's about the same. 'Beautiful, sexy, seductive dancer goes home and turns back into household drudge!'"
"Thanks," Sloan said dryly, grinning as she accepted his arm. "Just what every woman needs. A boss with a sense of humor."
Jim guided her from the still-thriving lounge to the parking lot. Since they could shower and change in the dance department, they went out straight from work, and both had their own cars. Courteous as always, Jim saw her into her Cutlass and closed and locked the door for her.
"Beautiful night," he mused, sticking his well-kept frame, nicely suited in a double-breasted jacket, through her window. "You should be enjoying it with some nice knight in white armor."
"I had my knight!" Sloan said with a wistful smile. "They don't come charging through a life twice—there is a shortage of white horses!"
"You're a cynic, Sloan," Jim said with a shake of his head. "Grown hard as nails."
"Oh, Jim!" Sloan protested, smiling. "I'm not a complete cynic! I know the games people play, and I merely prefer to play them by my own rules. I set them down squarely first. And if I'm hard—" she shrugged, but straightened in her seat, her chin tilting a shade, her eyes glittering like blue crystals in the night—"it's because I have to be."
"Lost cause!" Jim muttered, pecking her forehead with a brotherly kiss before pulling his torso from the car. "Have a nice weekend. Give the kids a kiss for me, and I'll see you on Monday."
"Thanks, Jim," Sloan replied, twisting her key in the ignition. "Have a nice weekend yourself!"
Waving, she pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway, breathing deeply of the crisp air. It was a beautiful night—the type that made her happy she had left Boston after Terry's death and returned home to Gettysburg. Stars dotted the sky like a spray of glittering rhinestones against a sea of black velvet. She passed the gently rolling landscape of the national park and smiled to herself wryly. It was the type of night when lovers should stroll together across fields of green in the tingling, crisp coolness.
But, she wondered briefly, would she ever really love again? Sloan hadn't lied to Jim. She had dated. Nice men, good-looking men, men she had even found attractive, at first ... she had kissed them, felt their arms around her.
But remained absolutely untouched inside. Jim was the only person she saw steadily, and that was because he was a friend. He never pressured her.
Sometimes she felt as if her heart had frozen solid. She was hard, she was cold, she was cynical. She had to be a dead set realist. There were times when she still hurt too much, but she had to shelve loneliness and pain. Terry was dead. Point-blank. Fact. She had managed a life for herself, a fairly good one. She liked people, she saw people, she looked forward to the future. To a time when she could leave the survival pay of the college and work for a professional dance troupe again. Hire some help ...
"What am I worrying about?" she asked herself impatiently as she drove up to her own house. She glanced at the pretty white building with the green trim with pride. She had purchased it herself, a great deal that her brother-in-law had found for her. She had made a good down payment, and now she only had the mortgage and taxes ... and damn! A payment was due.
Sighing, Sloan decided to deal with that problem later. She walked briskly to her door and started to use her key, then thought better of the idea. Cassie startled easily. Better to knock than to scare her sister half out of her wits.
"Hi, kid!" Cassie greeted her, opening the door. "How was your night?"
Sloan shrugged as she tossed her purse onto a chair and bent in the doorway to slip off the straps of her heeled sandals and nudge them beneath the same chair. "Nice. The usual. Jim is a dear." She smiled at her older sister with resignation. "I do enjoy the evening out. Jim may not be exciting—but he is adult companionship!"
"I've got a pot of tea on," Cassie said. "Want some?"
"Naturally." Sloan laughed, following her pretty, slender sister into the kitchen. The women, only two years apart, were best friends. They shared the same tall, graceful build, but there the similarities of their appearances ended. Cassie had huge, saucer brown eyes and hair so light as to be platinum. At thirty-one, she was still looked at and asked for identification when she ordered a drink.
"Any problems?" Sloan asked as she accepted a mug of tea and curled her legs into a chair at the sunny yellow kitchen table.
"Not a one," Cassie replied, leaning her elbows on the table. "Jamie and Laura crawled into bed right after their super-hero program. And the baby, well, he's always an angel. He was sound asleep at seven."
Sloan warmed her face comfortably with the steam from her cup. "They know better than to mess with their aunt!" She chuckled. "Anything else new?"
Cassie hesitated, and Sloan watched her sister's beautiful brown eyes, puzzled. "What is it?"
"A man called for you, a Mr. Jordan."
"And?" Sloan prompted her sister casually, then held her breath as she waited for her answer. Mr. Jordan was with a professional dance company in Philadelphia.
"He said the job was yours," Cassie told her with troubled eyes. Then Sloan began to understand her hesitance.
"The salary?" she asked, holding her features in composure.
Cassie named a figure, and Sloan's heart sank. She couldn't accept the job. She sighed as she realized she would probably be with the college dance department for years to come—she couldn't afford to quit. Not that she didn't like her job; she did. It was just that she so dearly longed to dance professionally again!
"Well then," Sloan said briskly with a forced smile. "That's that, I guess."
Cassie looked as if she were about to cry. "If only you hadn't had so many children!" she exclaimed miserably. Then she hastily added, "Oh, Sloan! I didn't mean that. I love the kids. But it's so hard for you alone."
"Well," Sloan said wryly, curling her lips a shade so that Cassie would know her words had been understood. "When Terry and I planned the children, we didn't intend that one of us would be raising them alone."
Terry had been a dreamer, and she had dreamed right along with him. They seemed perfectly mated, a dancer and an artist. In their first years they had struggled. Then, while Terry had been making his name as a painter, Sloan had gotten a terrific job with an ensemble in Boston. Luck followed the dreamers. When Sloan became pregnant with Jamie, Terry's oils caught on with the flurry of a storm. They lived happily. Terry was established; Sloan was able to combine her professional dancing with motherhood. They planned Laura and the baby, Terence, for his father.
But Terry didn't live to see his namesake. He was killed when his flight home from Knoxville in a friend's small Cessna failed to clear the Blue Ridge Mountains. It took searchers three weeks to find his body, and when they did, Sloan was in the hospital, in labor two months early due to shock.
Dreamers never think to buy life insurance, and artists have no benefits. Sloan was snapped out of her grief by desperation—she had to support herself and her family. The baby, so premature, ate up any savings as he clung to life in his incubator. Terry's last pieces drew large sums as their value increased, ironically, with his death, but even that money did little but help Sloan return home to Gettysburg where her only comfort, Cassie, awaited.
Sloan buried the young dreamer she had been along with Terry's mutilated remains. In the first year she had mourned her happy-go-lucky husband with a yearning sickness that left her awake long nights in her lonely bed. She had gone through all the normal courses of grief, including anger. How could he have died and left her like he did? Resignation and bitter sadness followed her anger, and now she lived day to day, finding happiness in simple things. But she had closed in. The vivacious and beautiful woman whom people met was a cloak that concealed her true personality. She had toughened, and reality and necessity were the codes she lived by. She was friendly, sometimes flirtatious, but when anyone looked beyond those bounds, he would find a door slammed immediately in his face.
"Lord, I almost forgot to tell you!" Cassie exclaimed suddenly, sensing her sister's depression and trying to cheerfully dispel her gloom. "Guess who is in Gettysburg?"
Sloan chuckled. "You've got me. Who?"
"Who?" Sloan frowned her puzzlement. The name was vaguely familiar, but she couldn't picture a face.
"Wesley Adams! The quiet quarterback, remember? He's a couple of years older than I am, but the whole town knew him. He graduated from Penn State after high school, then went on to play professional ball. About four years ago he retired because of a knee injury and disappeared from public view." Cassie gave Sloan a wistful smile as she curled a strand of blond hair around her fingers. "I was secretly in love with him for years! And he asked you out! I think it was the one time in my life I absolutely hated you!"
Sloan frowned again. "I went out with Wes Adams?"
Cassie groaned with exasperation and threw her hands in the air. "She doesn't even remember! Yes, you went out with Wes Adams. He had just finished at Penn State, and you were eighteen, about to leave for Boston and your first year as a Fine Arts major. It was the summer before you met Terry. I set up the date—by accident, I assure you!"
Sloan laughed along with her sister. Cassie could easily talk about her memories; she was married to one of the most marvelous men in the world. George Harrington loved his wife and extended that love to encompass his sister-in-law. It was George who insisted he care for his own two boys on Friday nights so that Cassie could allow Sloan her evening out.
"I remember him now," Sloan said, wrinkling her nose slightly. "He reminded me of Clark Kent. Beautiful body, face enough to kill. But quiet! And studious! Our date was a disaster."
"Hmmph!" Cassie sniffed. "He was simply bright as all hell. And you, young lady, your head was permanently twisted in the clouds. You didn't like anyone who wasn't a Fine Arts major!"
Sloan quirked her brows indifferently. "Maybe. I was eleven years younger then than I am now. We all change." She rubbed sore feet. "Brother! I feel like my soles are toe-to-heel blisters. I must have been spinning half the day!"
"You're losing your appreciation for your art," Cassie warned with teasing consolation. "I seem to remember a comment you made once as a kid that you 'could dance forever and forever, into eternity!'"
Excerpted from Quiet Walks the Tiger by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1983 Heather E. Graham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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