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All Kevin Harmon wanted was a beer, a burger and a bed, in that order. He'd had the kind of day designed to make a man rethink his career choices. He'd been bit, he was stuck in the middle of Kansas on a night that was practically guaranteed to produce twisters, and he'd just been offered a promotion. Not one thing was going right with his life. For once he wasn't looking for trouble, so of course trouble came looking for him.
He'd been around long enough to know that when a pretty, wide-eyed blonde walked into a seedy roadside bar, somewhere, somehow, there was going to be hell to pay. Kevin was determined to stay out of the way. No matter what.
He turned his attention from the petite blonde back to the bartender. "Burger," he said, pushing the plastic menu back at the man. "Extra fries."
The bartender nodded and wrote something on a pad of paper, then set a frosty mug down on a once-white coaster advertising the local grange.
Kevin took a long drink. He'd just spent the better part of the day transporting a convicted felon across state lines. The process had not gone smoothly, which explained the bite on his arm. The skin hadn't been broken, but he really hated when there was trouble on the road. If he hadn't drawn the short straw, he would be down in Florida, helping with a drug raid. But no, he was stuck in Kansas where the air was so thick you could practically stand a spoon up in midair. The pressure was rising-or maybe falling-he could never remember which one caused storms to spin out of control and become tornados.
He'd grown up with twisters, back when he'd lived in Texas, and he'd never liked them. They always seemed to show up right when he was supposed to be whipping the crosstown rival at a baseball game.
Kevin thought about tornados and Texas. He even tried to remember if he needed to buy milk when he flew home the next day. Anything to keep from turning to watch the progress of the blonde. It wasn't that she was so attractive that he couldn't resist her. Far from it. Sure, she was pretty enough, but pretty was a dime a dozen.
Instead, what made him determined to stay out of it was the nervousness he'd seen lurking in her eyes, and the hesitation in her step. She belonged in this bar as much as a dog with mange belonged in church.
The bartender flipped on a small television. Instantly the sound of a ball game blasted into the halffull room. Kevin continued to drink his beer, while he stared determinedly at the screen. He ignored everything else, even the half sly, half defiant male laughter behind him.
Bullies moving in for the kill.
He swore under his breath as he set his mug on the bar and pulled off his cap. The one with U.S. Marshals embroidered on the front. He was hot, he was tired, he was hungry. The last thing he wanted tonight was a fight.
Since when did fate pay any attention to what he wanted?
He turned on the bar stool and surveyed the situation. The blonde stood between two big guys with more tattoos than sense. A third, smaller man, had his hand on her arm.
She was of medium height, maybe five-four or five-five, with short hair and big eyes, more blue than hazel. There wasn't a speck of makeup on her face, but she was still attractive, with full lips and a stubborn-looking chin.
Her clothing choices made him wince. The shapeless short-sleeved dress she wore fell nearly to her ankles. It looked ugly enough to be embarrassed to be a dust cloth- with a white lace collar and some god-awful flower print. What was it about women and clothes with plants on them?
Kevin approached the quartet. The blonde struggled to break free of the little guy's hold. When she looked up and saw him, relief filled her eyes.
"You with them?" he asked, getting more tired by the second.
She shook her head.
Kevin turned his full attention on the man holding her arm. "Then, son, you'd best let the lady go."
One of the big guys took a step toward him. Kevin flexed his hands.
"I've had a bad day, gentlemen. I'm hungry, tired, and not in the mood. So you can walk away right now, or we can move it outside. I feel obliged to warn you that if we take this to the next level, the only one walking away will be me."
Haley couldn't believe it. She felt as if she was in one of those Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies her dad liked so much. She half expected to see the dark-haired man pull out a .357 Magnum and ask someone to make his day.
Instead, the skinny man with rabbit teeth who'd been holding her arm let go. He took a step back, holding up his hands and trying to smile.
"We didn't mean nothin'. Just thought the lady would like some company."
His two friends nodded. They were big. Bigger than her rescuer. A couple of their tattoos had interesting swearwords woven into the designs. She'd been trying to read them when Mr. Rabbit Teeth had grabbed her.
The three of them threw some bills on their table and left. Haley breathed a sigh of relief.
"That was something," she said earnestly. "I didn't know what to do. I mean, when he wouldn't let go. I thought about screaming, but it's kind of embarrassing to have to do that. I didn't want to make a fuss."
The man who had come to her assistance didn't say anything. Instead, he headed back toward the bar and slid onto his stool. She followed.
"Thank you for rescuing me," she said.
"Make a fuss," he said, reaching for his beer.
She sat next to him. "What?"
He took a long swallow, then stared at her over the mug. "Next time you get in trouble, make a fuss. Better yet, next time stay out of bars."
Haley reached out to tug on a strand of her hair, only to remember too late that she'd cut it all off the previous afternoon. Instead of a long braid nearly to her waist, she had short bits of fluff flying around her head.
She smoothed what was left of her bangs, then nodded. Stay out of bars. It was probably good advice. "I just can't," she said with a sigh. "Not yet."
The man stared at her. "You have a death wish?"
She laughed. "I'm not going to get killed. I just need to handle things better." She scooted a little closer and lowered her voice. "Can you believe that until two days ago I'd never been in a bar before?"
Her rescuer stared at her in shock.
"I know," she said. "I've led a very sheltered life. It's pathetic. I mean, I'm twenty-five years old and I've been living like a nun." She shrugged. "Not that I'm Catholic. We're Baptists. My dad's a minister at our church."
The man didn't say anything. He turned his attention to the baseball game on the television. Haley studied his strong profile. He was handsome, in a rugged, cigarette-advertisement sort of way. There was an air of strength about him. He looked people in the eye when he spoke and she liked that. He wore his dark hair short.
She reached over and picked up his U.S. Marshals cap, then ran her fingers along the stitching. "So you're like a cop?"
"I'll bet you're a good one."
He turned his attention back to her. She noticed he had brown eyes the color of chocolate, and while he'd yet to smile at her, she liked the shape of his mouth.
"How the hell would you know that?" he asked, sounding gruff and annoyed.
His tone made her spine stiffen just a little, while the swearword startled her. He'd said the H-word. Just like that. She would bet that he hadn't even planned it. The word had just come out.
One day she was going to swear, too. She would casually drop the H-word or the D-word into conversation. But that was all. Swearing was one thing, but really bad words were just ugly.
He waved a hand in front of her face. "Are you still in there?"
"Oh. Sorry. What was the question?"
She put his hat back on the bar. "I'm Haley Foster." She held out her hand.
He stared at it for a long time before taking it in his and shaking. "Kevin Harmon."
"Nice to meet you, Kevin."
He grunted and turned back to the television.
Haley shifted slightly on her stool and took in the ambience of the location. There were several posters of various sports, some advertisements for alcoholic beverages. The floor was dirty, and some of the tables looked as if they hadn't been wiped off in a while. Except for a woman with an incredibly large bosom in the corner, she seemed to be the only female in the place.
She glanced at her watch. It was nearly eight. "Why aren't there more women here?" she asked.
Kevin never took his gaze off the game. "It's not that kind of place."
"What kind of place?"
"This isn't the kind of bar where you bring a date." There were different kinds of bars? "How do you know that?"
"I just know."
A not very helpful answer.
The bartender walked over. "What can I get you?"
Haley eyed Kevin's beer. Yesterday she'd had her first glass of white wine ever. To be honest, she hadn't really liked it.
"A margarita," she said.
"Frozen or on the rocks?"
The only liquor question she knew the answer to was James Bond's, "Shaken, not stirred." Okay, rocks were ice. On the rocks would mean over ice, which wasn't how she pictured margaritas.
"Frozen," she said. "Oh. Do you have any of those little umbrellas to put in the glass?"
The bartender stared at her. "No."
"Too bad." She'd always wanted a drink with a little umbrella.
She watched as the man poured various liquids into a blender. He added a scoop of ice, then set the whole thing to whirling and crunching. When he finally put a glass in front of her, the light green concoction looked more like a slushy drink than anything else.
She took a sip from the tiny straw the bartender had dropped into her glass.
The first thing she noticed was the cold. The second was the flavor. Not sweet, but not bitter, either. Kind of lime, kind of something else.
"It's good," she said in surprise. It was sure better than that wine she'd had the previous night. She turned her attention back to Kevin.
"So why are you here?"
He turned slowly until his dark gaze rested on her face. He was really very handsome. She found herself wishing she hadn't been quite so quick to cut off all her hair. Allan had always said it was her best feature.
Allan. She took a long drink of her margarita. She did not want to think about him. Not now. Not ever.
"Are you asking my spiritual purpose in the universe?" Kevin asked.
"Only if you want to tell me. I was thinking more of, do you live around here? What are you doing in the bar? That sort of thing."
He finished his beer and pushed the glass across the bar. "Another," he called before turning his attention back to her. "What are you doing here? In this bar. Today."
" She took another long sip. "I'm driving to Hawaii."
Kevin wished he'd changed the order of his wants back when life had still been sane. If he'd wanted a bed, a beer and a burger, he would now be in some hotel, ordering room service and watching the game in peace. Instead, he was having a conversation with a woman who had left the functioning part of her brain back in her car.
Haley beamed at him. "Okay, so I know you can't really drive to Hawaii, but I'm going to get as close as possible."
"That would be California."
"Right. I'll figure out the rest of it when I get there."
"Where are you driving from?"
"Western Ohio. I'm-"
But whatever she'd been about to confess was cut off by the arrival of his dinner. Haley stared at the large plate containing a burger on a bun-the top of the bun covered with lettuce, tomatoes and onion-along with a mound of fries that threatened to fall onto the counter.
"You can get food in a bar?" she asked, incredulous.
He remembered walking to school years ago and seeing a starving dog. The dirty brown-and-white fur ball had been hiding in an alley. Kevin had taken one look at its shivering, skinny self, then he'd handed over his sandwich. He'd gone without lunch for two days before finally taking the dog home.
"You're broke," he said flatly, wondering when his luck had gotten so bad. He pushed the plate toward her.
She took another drink of her margarita. "Broke?" She swallowed. "No. I have money."
She put the glass on the bar, then pulled a small purse that had been dangling off one shoulder onto her lap and opened it. Inside was a wad of bills.
"I cleaned out my savings account," she said, then lowered her voice. "I have the rest of it in traveler's checks. It's really much safer that way." The purse closed with a snap.
She took another drink, then gasped and slapped her hands over her face.
"Ouch. Oh, yuck. It hurts. It hurts." She shimmied on the bar stool, alternately cupping her nose and mouth and waving her hand back and forth.
Kevin pulled his plate in front of him, then nodded at the bartender. "Could we have a glass of water?"
The bartender filled a glass and passed it over to Haley. She gulped some down. After a couple of swallows, she sighed.
"Much better." She put the glass down. "I had one of those flash ice headaches."
"We all knew that."
She half stood, stretched over the bar and snagged a small plate. "Want to share your fries?"
She scooped several onto her plate and crunched the first one.
He was in hell, he decided, watching her. Somewhere in his day, he'd died and this was God's way of punishing him for all the screwing up he'd done in his life.
"So I'm from Ohio," she said with a smile. "Western Ohio. A little town you've never heard of. Have you been to Ohio?"
"It's nice, huh?"
"A wonderful place."
She nodded, not coming close to catching the sarcasm in his voice.
Why him? That's what he wanted to know. There were probably twenty other guys in the bar. Why had he been the one to come to her rescue? Why hadn't someone else stepped in?
"Like I said, my dad's a minister." She ate another French fry, then drank more of her margarita. "My mom died when I was born, so I don't remember her. The thing is, when you're the preacher's kid, everybody feels responsible for keeping you on the straight and narrow. I didn't have one mother-I had fifty. I couldn't even think something bad before it was being reported to my dad."
Kevin turned back to the game and tried not to listen.
"So that's why I don't know the bar thing."
"What bar thing?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"That this isn't a bar people bring their dates to. I'm practicing being bad."
That got his attention. He swung back to face her.
"You bet." She finished her margarita and pushed her glass to the edge of the counter. "I'd like another one, please," she said, then beamed at the bartender. "It was great."
She turned back to Kevin. "I just wish I could have a little umbrella."
He didn't care about that. "Tell me about being bad."
"I haven't been. Ever. So that's what I'm doing on my drive to Hawaii." She glanced around as if to make sure no one was listening. "This is only my third time in a bar."
"You're kidding," he said, more because he was hoping she wasn't telling the truth than because he didn't believe her.
"When I left home three days ago, I'd never even had anything alcoholic to drink. So that first night, when I stopped, I went into a bar." She bit into another fry and wrinkled her nose. Humor crinkled the corners of her eyes.
"It was horrible," she said when she'd swallowed. "I felt so out of place and when a man smiled at me, I ran out the door. Yesterday was better."
He gave up. There was no point in avoiding what was obviously his fate. "Your second time in a bar?"
She nodded. "I had white wine, but I have to tell you I didn't like it at all. But I did almost speak to someone."