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Miranda Sinclair tossed the tequila popper to the back of her throat, relishing the burn as the liquor warmed her in all the right places, loosening up the tension in her shoulders from a craptastic day in the field and an even crappier anniversary.
"Keep 'em comin'." She motioned to Russ, a hardbitten man with cheeks made ruddy by countless years spent in the harsh Alaskan air, who owned and bartended The Rusty Anchor. She offered a grim smile as he slid the shooter across to her in a practiced move, and after she'd dispatched it in the same efficient manner, she swiv-eled on her barstool to survey the prospects for the night.
That was righttonight she was going to take home one lucky SOB, ride him as if the world was going to end tomorrow, and then when the first tender rays of light hit the windowsill, she'd send him on his way with a cup of coffee and a boot print on his hindquarters.
It was a helluva plan.
"Killing yourself with booze and bad choices isn't going to bring her back," Russ said.
Miranda scowled. "Play bartender psychologist with someone else, Russ. I'm not interested in your counsel right now."
Russ shook his head. "Always so filled with piss and vinegar. Girl, someday you're going to have to rein in that acid tongue of yours."
"So they say," Miranda quipped. She had plenty of people telling her she needed to try tact once in a while; she didn't need her bartender to join the chorus, too. "But not tonight. Come on, Russ. Stop crashing on my buzz. I need this." Besides, contrary to Russ's opinion, Miranda thought her plan of action was far better than the alternativecurling up in her worn recliner, nursing a bottle of Jack. "Today has to be up there as one of my worst days in a long time."
"Yeah? What made it so bad?" Russ asked, polishing a glass, his dark eyes serious. Russ knew about the anniversaryfor God's sake, the whole town knew and never let her forget, seeing as it was everyone's favorite go-to gossip topicbut he was asking about the less-obvious reason she wanted to blot out her brain with booze. She almost waved off his question, not sure she wanted to share, but she did anyway.
"I didn't get the job," she answered, her chest tightening again as bitterness followed. "Apparently, I'm not management material." She tapped the bar with the shot glass for another round. "So, whatever."
"Did they say why not?"
"Nope. I was just thanked for my interest in the position and politely informed that the department had chosen to go in another direction." She looked pointedly at Russ and waggled her glass at him. He sighed and refilled it. Yep. This was a much better plan.
Done talking, she swiveled her chair away from Russ and surveyed the bar. Slim pickings to be sure. The bar was filled with the usual nightlife but the place stank of fish, which meant the men probably had wet socks and frozen toes because they were all in port from their commercial fishing outfits scattered throughout Alaska.
She recognized a few familiar faces, Johnny, Macho, Heffall working on the halibut fishing boat The Arctic Maidenand certainly not contenders for her purposes tonight. Miranda scanned the room and found a decided lack of options. So much for cutting up and losing herself in a night of debauchery she'd likely regret when she sobered up. For a briefnanosecond-briefmoment she considered Luke Prather, but the last time she'd taken him to bed for a one-nighter he'd fallen head over heels in love with her and it'd been no fun whatsoever trying to scrape him off her doorstep for weeks afterward. That had been awkward and irritating. No, thanks. Her personal brand of misery did not include ducking the lovelorn. She mentally crossed Luke from her list.
What happened to all the raw, randy men built like cedar trees with big, beefy hands that were worn and tough like old shoe leather from working hard since the day they were big enough to swing an ax or cast a line? Too bad the AnnaMarie wasn't in port this month. The AnnaMarie's captain was always down for some unattached wild times.
Well, maybe getting laid wasn't on the agenda tonight but getting stone-cold drunk certainly was. She turned to Russ with a morose sigh. "And it just keeps getting better and better," she murmured in frustration. "Another round and stop skimping on the tequila."
"You've got that look in your eye, kid," Russ said with knowing. "Maybe you ought to just go home and watch television."
"I don't have a television," Miranda said, motioning for her fourth round, which Russ plainly ignored. She made a face. The last thing she needed was Russ passing judgment on her choices. She had her mother for that. "Come on. Are we going to play that game? I'm no kid and I've earned the right to get snot-faced drunk if I please."
"Go home," Russ said, bracketing the bar on either side of her.
"Are you saying my money's no good here? Last I heard you needed the cash. Am I wrong?"
"You're as stubborn as your old man and just as mean," Russ said, setting up her drink. "Why do you do this to yourself, girl? It ain't gonna bring her back, and before you start spouting off about some desk job you're plainly not suited for, there ain't a person in Homer who don't know why you drown yourself in booze every year on this night. Ain't it time to start a new tradition?"
Miranda stilled, the subtle tilt of her lips freezing as her heart rate stumbled beneath the shelter of her breastbone. "Not allowed, Russ," she warned him quietly. "Not allowed." Today was the anniversary of her sister's death. And no one was allowed to bring up Simone's name. Not today. This, Miranda thought as she stared at the refilled shot glass, was how she chose to cope with Simone's death and no one was going to convince her otherwise.
What did they know anyway? They didn't know of the bone-crushing guilt that Miranda carried every day or the pain of regret and loss that dogged her nights and chased her days. And they certainly didn't know of the recrimination Miranda saw in her mother's eyes for a falling-out over a damn sweater that had kept Miranda from picking up her sister that night in a fit of pissed-off ire. Nobody knew. Nobody understood. And that was just fine. Miranda wasn't inviting anyone in to take a look and offer their opinion.
Russ heaved a sigh and shook his head. "One of these days you're going to realize this isn't helping."
"Maybe. But not today," she muttered as she tossed the shot down her throat, her vision swimming nicely as the alcohol began to do its job. The sudden blast of arctic air chilled the closed-in heat of The Anchor, chasing away the stale smell of fish, beer and good times, and Miranda gave a cursory glance at who had walked through the front door.
And suddenly her mood took a turn for the better.
Hello, stranger. A smile settled on her mouth as she appraised the newcomer. The liquor coursing through her system unhindered by anything resembling food made her feel loose and wild, and that broad-shouldered specimen shaking off the snow from his jacket and stamping his booted feet was going to serve her needs perfectly.
"Hey, Russ who's he?" she asked.
Russ glanced up but shrugged after a speculative look-see. "Never seen him before. Looks too soft to be a fisherman. By the looks of him, probably a tourist who got lost on his way to Anchorage."
A tourist? Here today, gone tomorrow. "He'll do," she murmured.
Jeremiah Burke entered the raucous din of The Rusty Anchor, practically the only place in Homer, Alaska, to get a drink at this hour, and headed straight for the bar. He was well and truly screwed and looking at spending the night stuffed inside a storage closet if he was lucky, and his mood wasn't what one would call warm and fuzzy.
Maybe if he drank enough he'd forget the fact that his hotel had somehow given away his room for the night and none of the other hotels had any vacancies. His options were slim seeing as he didn't know a soul in his new zip code and he was looking at bedding down at his new office, on the old, lumpy couch that looked as if it'd been salvaged from a trash heap after spending a few nights in the elements. Hell, he'd been tempted to try his luck in his rental truck after taking one look at the couch. No telling what vermin had made their residence in its old springs.
He sidled up to the bar and signaled for the bartender.
"What's your poison?" the man asked.
"Whatever's on tap," he answered just as his gaze found the leggy brunette regarding him with open interest. Talk about bold. He couldn't say he wasn't flattered but he was surprised to feel equal interest spark to life. "Would you be offended if I said you looked out of place in this bar?" he said, accepting his beer from the bartender.
"Depends on why you're saying it," she countered, swiveling around to give him a full measured stare, a slight smile playing on her lips. "Tread carefully. I was born in this town."
He chuckled, enjoying the husky timbre of her voice. "And by making that statement, I just cemented your assumption that I'm not from around here, right?"
She laughed, her green eyes lighting with amusement. "Honey, I knew that before you opened your mouth but I won't hold it against you."
"Thanks. I'd hate to think I've already made a bad impression."
At first glance, she had indeed appeared out of place in the rough bar with her long hair tucked into a ponytail and a warm woolen scarf wrapped loosely around her neck, but upon a closer look he realized that beyond that pretty face was a woman who could probably take care of herself. There was something hard as glacial ice about her even though her curves were soft. Her tight jeans left nothing to the imagination, something his own mind immediately jumped on with all kinds of scenarios, but it was her eyes that knocked him back for a second.
Green as summer moss with flecks of brown that reminded him of a Wyoming meadow in the spring, her eyes were framed by long, black lashes that dusted her cheekbones, and he had to remember not to stare. Hell, she was gorgeous.
"Carefulyou keep staring like that I might get the wrong impression about you," she teased.
"And what impression would that be?" He didn't know how to play this game anymore and he'd never been particularly good at it in the first place. He was already out of his elementnew place, new jobwhy not chat up the prettiest woman in the bar and see where it took him?
She responded with another throaty laugh and his groin tightened, warming in places he'd nearly forgotten about in the past year, but she switched gears, saying, "So, I'm guessing you're not a fisherman . What brings you to Homer of all places?"
Jeremiah hesitated, not quite sure how much he wanted to share about his personal life. He smiled, going for a variation of the truth. "A change in scenery," he answered, taking a swig of his beer. "What about you? What's kept you in Homer?"
Her smile faltered the tiniest bit but she recovered within a blink, returning to her previously bold assessment of him without being the least bit coy. "Are you married?" she asked. He lifted his left hand, showing her his ringless finger, and she scoffed. "That doesn't mean anything. Half the men in this town don't wear ringsthat doesn't mean someone isn't waiting for them to come home at night."
"No one is waiting for me," he said. No one at all. He shook off the pull of sad memories and focused on the woman smiling at him. "And how about you? Beautiful woman in a small town? I find it hard to believe someone hasn't laid claim to you already."
"I don't like to be tied down unless I'm the one in charge of the rope."
Another flush of arousal heated his groin at her suggestive answer and he nearly choked on his beer. He'd always found couples who claimed they'd felt an instant chemistry with one another to be exaggerating. How could you be instantly, insanely attracted to someone you'd only just met? Seemed the stuff of fairy tales and rom-com movies that he usually avoided, and yet, his blood was moving at a fine clip with just one look from this beautiful stranger. How did a woman like her get stuck in a fishing village like Homer without getting snagged by a local? He tipped his beer back, intrigued. "So, what's your name?" he asked.
"Where are you from?" she countered.
"Wyoming." He grinned. "Your turn. Name?"
Her smile deepened and she leaned forward far enough for him to get a nice whiff of her perfume. "Are names really necessary?" she asked. "Here's the thing . I think you're pretty easy on the eyes and I'm ready to get out of here. Catch my drift?"
"Are you asking me to go home with you?"
"I am." She swigged her beer like a woman who was used to playing poker with the guys and taking all their cash at the end of the night. There was something about her that pulsed like a live wiredangerous and hot.
And he wanted to feel the burn. Desperately.
"No names. No personal details. Should I be worried?"
"You should be very worried," she said with a mock-solemn nod that only served to make his heart rate triple. "Didn't your mama ever warn you not to pick up strange women in bars?"
"She might've missed that one," he said, sliding his tongue along his bottom lip, mimicking her own subconscious gesture. He knew a little about human nature. He'd taken a course in college on body language when he'd been considering a career in law enforcement. He hadn't become a cop but he'd found the course had been beneficial nonetheless. And right now, she was throwing off major "come and get me" signals from the way she was angling her hips toward his and the tiny dart of her tongue along the seam of her lips, teasing him with the slow, wet slide, practically sending out a gilded invitation to throw her down on the dirty floor. It was hard to remember that he wasn't a randy college kid but a grown man with responsibilities, especially when he was looking at ending a yearlong celibate streak.
"My place is just around the corner," she said, reading his mind. "Interested?"
He wanted to shout hell yes but a sliver of reserve had him counter, "Not that I'm not interested but how about you? Didn't your father ever warn you about taking off with strange men from bars? I could be a pervert or a serial killer."
She slid from her barstool and graced him with a dazzling smile that was just a bit menacing as she said, "My daddy taught me to shoot a gun, gut a fish and break a kneecap if need be. Strange men in bars don't scare me." She slung her pack onto her back and headed for the door. She graced him with a single questioning look, then kept walking. The message was clear: come or stay, it doesn't matter to me.
He grinned ruefully and tossed a few bucks on the scarred wooden bar. Either he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life or he was going to have a heart attack from the wildest night of sex ever imagined.
He hoped it was the latter.
At least he'd die happy.
And he didn't have to worry about where he was going to spend the night.
Things were looking up already.
Perhaps this gig in Homer was going to work out just fine.