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Late april was off-season at the beach, but no one seemed to notice. The hour was late, but no one seemed to care. Flynn's Bar was teeming with merrymakers, and it was time to party.
The music blared, vibrating the walls. The locals rocked elbow to elbow on the large dance floor with the spectacular backdrop of the Atlantic ocean beyond.
From the balcony that circled the main floor, a cocktail napkin twirled and spiraled downward over the heads of the sprightly crowd below. It fluttered and drifted slightly to the right, floating briefly on an air current before it skimmed across Hannah Alexander's table and landed on the floor beside her.
Hannah had watched the napkin's descent and automatically looked up to see if a cocktail would follow. One glass stood out from the rest. It dangled between the long, slim fingers of a man who was leaning casually over the guardrail ... watching Hannah.
His gaze met and held hers. It was as if he'd been waiting for her to notice him. Now that she had, she was hard put to notice anything else.
His face was familiar, though she knew she'd never met the man. As faces went, his wasn't the most handsome she'd ever seen. His coloring was dark—black hair with sun-weathered skin. Strong angular features were saved from being harsh by a touch of humor, a sort of supersensitive understanding of nature, that lurked about the edges of his eyes. He had a moustache, too, she noticed. It lent him the air of a scamp.
She liked his body posture. She made a living exploring shapes, forms, and angles, and his were very interesting. He looked strong and healthy from what she could see. But there was something in the way he held himself, in the tilt of his head and the loose curve of his shoulders, that declared his power to be in his brain, not in his brawn.
Out of necessity, Hannah had spent a great deal of her life developing a keen intuition about people. She had an eye for seeing through the front that protected or disguised the real person underneath. This man was easier to read than most. He didn't appear to be hiding anything about himself. His attitude said, "If you like me, I'll try to like you back. If you don't, it's no skin off my nose."
Judging by the festivities on the upper tier, he didn't seem to have a problem making friends. He was surrounded by people and obviously controlled a large part of the focus of attention. Still, he casually waved off one person after another during the long moments that his gaze remained firmly fixed on Hannah.
"You're not celebrating," Trevor McKinnon muttered near his brother's ear as they bent over the banister, shoulder to shoulder, on the upper level of Flynn's.
"Sure I am," Colt said. They'd just signed a new sponsor for next year's Winston Cup Races, which was truly something to celebrate, but his gaze didn't waver from the woman below. "I'm celebrating in silence. I'm as drunk as a skunk, and I've hardly touched this," he said, indicating the drink in his hand.
"Ah-ha. The radar's up, and we're fixed on target zero, I see." He flung a lazy arm across his older brother's shoulder and followed the track of Colt's gaze with his own. "Which one is it? The brunette?"
Colt nodded once. He'd been watching her for quite a while. She was quick and sharp. She hadn't missed anything that had happened at the crowded nightclub, including his trick with the napkin, since she'd arrived. She seemed very aware of everything going on around her, but she wasn't joining in; she wasn't a part of it. Why not? Why wasn't she dancing? Why wasn't she beating men off with a stick? Lord, what a beauty she was.
"Hmm. Nice," Trevor commented from a connoisseur's point of view. "But her friend looks like a drag. Sorry. You're on your own with this one, pal."
Colt nodded again, more to shut Trevor up than for any other reason. In blood and spirit, they were brothers. Professionally, they were partners. There were a hundred things they depended on each other for, but attracting women wasn't one of them, and they both knew it.
He wanted to be alone. He wanted the band to stop playing. He wanted everyone to leave ... except the woman below. And all he wanted from her was to be allowed to simply look at her. He'd never seen anything like her.
Hannah held his stare. She didn't have any other choice. He commanded it. That alone was an odd sensation. Usually, she wasn't very good at taking orders. But somehow this one was different. It was more like a soft, persistent calling with a gentle "please" on the end. Too compelling to refuse.
At long last he smiled at her, and Flynn's seemed to come to life with a new brightness and cheer. He had a huge, engaging grin with deep, glee-filled dimples in both cheeks.
His eyes lit up with an excitement that almost took her breath away. The quick switch from sober-thoughtful to happy-playful stunned her and made the room begin to spin.
He pointed downward in her direction as if he were trying to tell her something.
Hannah looked around her. No one else had noticed the man on the balcony. But just to make sure that he was indeed trying to communicate with her, she placed her hand over her heart and looked back at him in question.
He nodded once, and again motioned downward in her direction. She frowned, unable to grasp his message. When he lightly patted the bottom of his glass, she recalled the cocktail napkin which had first caught her attention. It was the only thing she could think of that was farther down on the floor than she was.
Her gaze followed the path the napkin had taken, and she found it resting beside the leg of her chair. She picked it up and looked back at the man. He was smiling in the most charming manner, as if what she'd done had pleased him.
Hannah continued to frown. Surely he didn't expect her to return his napkin to him? She turned the napkin over in her fingers to see if there was anything about it that made it special.
On the back, in dark, bold print, it read: "You are very beautiful."
She looked up in amazement, and the man smiled back benevolently. Again she had the feeling that she knew the man, but at the same time was positive she didn't.
With the uneasy feeling that she'd intercepted a message meant for someone else, she looked at the women seated at the tables near her. None of them were looking at the man on the balcony.
Feeling more than a little self-conscious, she looked back at the man. There was an appreciation for her discomfort in his eyes, but no sympathy in his smile. He nodded his head at her in a sincere and reaffirming way and mouthed the word "beautiful."
It wasn't until after a warm flush of feeling washed up into her cheeks that Hannah's own sense of humor kicked in. What a ninny, she chastised herself. He was most likely the biggest flirt in the northern hemisphere. She suspected that he dropped flattering notes into crowds everywhere and wooed any woman dumb enough to pick them up.
Well, Hannah had been walked around the block a couple of times before, and clever though his was, she didn't fall for every line that was dangled in front of her. She let her expression tell him that she recognized the sport he was playing and that she wasn't about to get hooked by it. With a polite nod of her head, she thanked him for the incidental compliment, then dismissed him, turning her attention back to her companion for the evening.
Not that Willie was much of a companion at the moment. She was lost in a world of her own. Worse yet, Willie was in love. Not that there was anything wrong with being in love, in general. It was Willie in love that she found slightly tedious.
One of the things Hannah had always liked best about Willie was that it was innately impossible for her to do anything the same way other people did it. If directions indicated one course, she took another and stuck with it single-mindedly until it came out the way she wanted. It was a trait that she had no doubt inherited from her mother, though Willie would rather step on her own tongue than admit it.
However, it was this same idiosyncrasy that Hannah found annoying when Willie chanced to fall in love—which was about twice a month.
She presently sat in a semicomatose state of pure, unadulterated rapture, mesmerized by every nuance of movement, every gesture and expression, every particle of air disturbed by the drummer in the band.
If only he knew, Hannah thought, glancing from Willie's sweet, freckled face to the drummer, who, in a world of his own, had no notion of the love and adoration being bestowed on him from afar. On the other hand, maybe he did, she speculated as she watched him wink at someone on the dance floor.
In any event, he wasn't and hadn't been aware of Willie in the two days she'd been mooning over him, and in all honesty, Hannah was growing a little impatient with the situation. She'd come to the beach before the summer crowds gathered for a well-deserved weekend of rest and relaxation, not to nurse a love-sick friend.
Her heart sighed unhappily for the young woman beside her. The early twenties were such a rotten time in a person's life, she commiserated, remembering her own passage into adulthood. And as Hannah had, Willie seemed determined to hold fast to her right to make her own mistakes and to muddle through her life her own way.
As sympathetic as she was to Willie's plight, she couldn't figure out how she'd gotten embroiled in Willie's ill-fated love affair.
Well, that wasn't quite true. She did know. And how could Hannah have refused to accompany Willie, when the girl thought she was doing her a favor by letting her tag along? She laughed softly at the silliness of it. But then, that was Willie too, a little silly.
Nine years earlier Hannah had moved into the little house next door to the one shared by little Willie Willis and her mother, Dawn. It wasn't long before the twelve-year-old Willie had worn a path in the grass between the two back doors, coming and going in both houses as if she were the one paying the mortgages. Hannah had watched Willie grow into a lanky, wire-toothed teenager who was constantly at odds with her mother, and had seen her pass slowly into an extroverted, slightly off-the-wall young adult who had dreams and aspirations—to marry someone rich and exciting.
Yet, despite Hannah's reluctance to seize with enthusiasm the notion that marital bliss could be found on the road to rock 'n' roll stardom with a long-haired youth by the name of Randy Rendezvous, there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for Willie.
In her mind's eye, Willie would always be the little girl who had so readily and unpretentiously accepted Hannah into her heart with inordinate kindness and respect. No questions asked. No ifs, ands, or buts. To Willie, Hannah was simply Hannah. And for that reason alone, no favor was too great.
Not that the invitation to go would-be-superstar-and-potential-husband-gazing had been posed to Hannah as a favor, mind you. Willie was far too independent to need that kind of support. But she had been willing to let Hannah come along because she knew how much she loved to dance, and somewhere in the back of Willie's mind there was a synapse that had connected the loud, booming music at Flynn's with dancing.
From Hannah's point of view, however, it was a little more complicated.
It was one thing to dance in public with a male friend, and, while she might turn the volume of Willie's stereo up to a glass-shattering high and dance alone in private, it didn't mean the two forms of dance were interchangeable. She wouldn't think of dancing alone in public.
That left her with the options of dancing with Willie, an unlikely event in Willie's present state of mind, or dancing with a stranger, an idea that wasn't repugnant to her, merely implausible.
Hannah didn't feel ... equipped, emotionally or otherwise, to strike up spur-of-the-moment conversations with strangers. She wasn't at her best with people she didn't know well, and therefore had a tendency to avoid personal contact with strangers whenever possible.
She did like people, though. They fascinated her. And she took every opportunity that came her way to throw herself into a happy horde of them. But a party animal? No. If Hannah were to classify herself as any type of social animal at all, it would have to be as an observer. The common garden variety, better known as a people-watcher.
She surveyed the mingling throng. There were men who were obviously looking for women; women looking for men; people who came simply to be with other people. Small groups celebrated being among friends. Solitary souls came to hide themselves in the crowd, while others came to stand out among the masses. There were those drinking to forget, and some sharing a night to remember. There were other people-watchers, waiters, and individuals like Hannah, who couldn't hold their feet still from the rhythm of the music.
She reached over and placed her palm on the metal railing that divided the table groupings from the dance floor. She could feel the beat of the music in the vibrations rising up into the metal through the floorboards. It was a light, fast-paced tempo that automatically made her ache to dance. She looked over at Willie and sighed, wishing the girl were a male rendition of her name, a William or a Bill.
A glance at her watch told her she had another half hour to endure the itch to dance without a partner, before Flynn's closed. She fought a momentary impulse to look back up at the man on the balcony and looked out in the opposite direction instead.
Hannah's gaze lifted slightly, passing over the heads of the bouncing mob to view the tranquillity of the ocean beyond. It was dark. The reflection of a full moon skipped across the water, became part of its eternal movement, and created a slow, sensual ballet of light in motion. Nothing in the immeasurable imagination of man could equal it.
But as beautiful as it was, Hannah couldn't appreciate it fully. Nighttime made her uncomfortable. She preferred daytime hours and well-lit places. Light was something she depended on to function. Friends teased her about being a solar unit, but the fact remained, darkness was not her friend. She never ventured into it unless someone was with her.
A hand came to rest on Hannah's shoulder. It was a calm, innocuous touch, but it startled her nonetheless. She turned in her seat and followed the trail from hand to face with her eyes.
The man from the balcony—definitely tall and infinitely better looking at close range—stood at her elbow. A small gasp stuck in her throat. Her heart lurched and sank slowly in her chest. It was her conclusion that there were strangers in one's life, and then there were strangers. Her stomach turned and was suddenly queasy. What she was feeling was not severe shyness, but a bad case of chronic caution.
She encountered many people in her career, and frequently made them friends. But there were those few newcomers in her life whom she very much wanted to meet and to make friends with, but who represented an enormous personal risk, and so much pain and humiliation that she was reluctant to approach them.
Such was the man from the balcony. She'd have given anything to be able to smile and flirt with him. The wide grin, the look of welcome in his eyes, and the lean, muscular body were all very tempting, but ...
"Hi," he said, shouting to be heard over the music.
Hannah lifted her hand in greeting and watched his face intently, her smile uncertain. He glanced at Willie, who hadn't noticed him yet, and asked, "Is she dead or alive?" Hannah couldn't help it; she laughed.
"I've been watching, and I don't think she knows you're here," he said, exaggerating his words so she could read his lips.
She nodded and conveyed that she agreed with that possibility.
"Would she miss you if I stole you away for a dance?"
Hannah frowned at him.
"Dance?" he bellowed.
His moustache made reading his lips difficult, but he was motioning toward the dance floor, and had a polite inquiry in his expression which helped Hannah to understand.
Excerpted from To Give a Heart Wings by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1991 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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