Most of the stores were closed. Only a few kept their signs illuminated. Every twenty feet or so a green wrought-iron streetlamp tossed light downward, creating a lacy, scalloped pattern along the darkened boardwalk.
Meghann settled her shoulder strap in place, clamped her elbow tightly against her purse, and started for the tavern. She didn’t falter when she reached the open door, just turned and walked in.
It was like a hundred other taverns she’d been in. Smoke collected along the acoustical tile ceiling, trailing like ghostly sleeves below the inset lighting. The bar ran the length of the room on the right side, a huge mahogany piece that had to be a hundred years old. The mirror behind it was at least six feet long, veined in strands of gold and aged to a tarnished silver. In it, the patrons looked taller and thinner, a fun-house mirror for people too drunk to notice.
She saw the people clustered along the bar, seated on wooden stools. The pitchers outnumbered the people, and there was a lit cigarette in every hand.
Those were the hardcore drinkers, the folks who found their bar stools at 10:00 A.M. and climbed aboard.
Scatted throughout the left side of the room were round tables; most of them were full. In the smoky background, she saw the faded outline of a pool table, heard the clackety-thump of a game in progress. An old Springsteen song played on the jukebox. “Glory Days.”
Perfect. It had probably been chosen by the guy sitting at the bar who wore a red-and-white letterman’s jacket. He’d long ago lost all his hair.
She moved into the haze. Her heart beat faster: Smoke and anticipation made her eyes water. She walked to the closest empty space on the bar, where a tired-looking man was busily wiping up a spill. At her arrival, he sighed and looked up. If he was surprised by her—after all, women like her didn’t show up alone in seedy taverns every day—he hid it well.
“Whaddaya want?” He threw down the rag and grabbed his cigarette from an ashtray.
She smiled. “Dirty martini.”
“This is a tavern, lady. We don’t have an H license.”
“It was a joke. I’ll take a glass of white wine. Vouvray, if you have it.”
“We have Inglenook and Gallo.”
He turned and headed down the other way. In a moment, he returned with a glass of wine.
She slapped her Platinum credit card on the bar. “Open a tab.”
The jukebox clicked, then buzzed. An old Aerosmith song came on. She had a sudden flashback to her youth—standing front and center in the Kingdome, screaming out her love for Steven Tyler.
She took her card back from the bartender, slipped it in her bag, and headed toward the nearest table, where three men sat, talking loudly.
Normally, she’d find an empty table, sit down, and wait to see who came on to her, but she felt jittery tonight, nervous. She was tired of being alone.
“Hey, boys,” she said, gliding into an empty space between two of the men.
Their conversation stopped. The sudden silence made her teeth ache. That was when she noticed that they each wore a wedding ring.
She kept her smile in place. It wasn’t easy.
“Hi,” one of the men said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
“Hi.” The others followed suit. None of them made eye contact.
“I have to run, guys,” the first one said, pushing back from the table.
And just like that, they were gone.
Meghann waved at their backs, said brightly, “See you again, soon. Drive safely.” Just in case anyone had witnessed her humiliation.
She counted silently to five, then turned around. There was another table, not too far away. This one had only one man seated at it. He was writing on a yellow legal pad, obviously taking notes from an open textbook. He was staring so intently at the work that he hadn’t seen her debacle at the table.
She walked over to him. “May I join you?”
When he looked up, she saw that he was young. Maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. His eyes were unguarded, filled with the kind of open-ended hope that came with youth. She felt drawn to that optimism, warmed by it. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. What did you say?”
“Call me Meg.”
He frowned. “You look familiar. Are you a friend of my mother’s? Sada Carlyle.”
She felt like the old lady from Titanic. “No. I don’t know her. And I . . . thought I knew you, but I was mistaken. Sorry.”
She tightened her grip on the wineglass. Desperation came for her, tapped her on the shoulder.
Get a grip.
She headed toward another table. As she came within range, a woman slipped into the empty chair and leaned in to kiss the man.
Meghann spun to her left and ran into a shaggy, derelict-looking guy who was obviously on his way back from the bar. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have signaled before I made a turn like that.”
“No harm done.”
He went back to his table and sat down. She saw that he was slightly unsteady on his feet.
She stood there, alone in the midst of the crowded bar. There were three men back at the pool table. Two of them looked dangerous, dressed as they were in black leather and chains. The third man had so many tattoos on his bald head that it looked like earth as seen from space.
She felt the press of desperation, but it was useless. This wasn’t going to be her night. She’d have to return to Claire’s homey, comfortable guest room, climb into bed alone, and spend the night tossing and turning and wanting. Wanting, most of all.
She looked at the derelict. His shoulders were broad; his black T-shirt stretched taut along the top of his back. The waistband of his worn, faded Levi’s veed out, as if he’d lost weight and hadn’t bothered to buy jeans that fit.
It was him . . . or loneliness.
She went to his table, stood beside him. “May I sit down?”
He didn’t look up from his beer. “What am I, your lucky fifth choice?”
“It isn’t hard, lady. You’re clearing out the place faster than a cop at a frat party.”
She pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. The song “Lookin’ for Love” came on the jukebox. In all the wrong places . . .
Finally, he looked up. Beneath the silvery fringe of hair that must have been trimmed with a pocket knife, a pair of blue eyes stared at her. With a start, she realized that he wasn’t much older than she was, and he was almost handsome, in a Sam Elliott stranger-in-town kind of way. He looked like the kind of man who’d walked down a few dark alleys in his time.
“Whatever you’re looking for,” he said, “you won’t find it here.”
She started to flirt, to say something funny and impersonal, but before her tongue had even formed the first word, she paused. There was something about him. . . .
“Have we met?” she asked, frowning. She prided herself on her memory. Faces, she rarely forgot. Unless they belonged to the men she sometimes picked up; those she forgot immediately. Please God, tell me I haven’t screwed him already.
“People say that all the time.” He sighed. “Just an ordinary face, I guess.”
No, that wasn’t it. She was sure she’d seen him before, but it didn’t matter, really. Besides, anonymity was her goal here, not making friends. “It’s far from ordinary. Are you from around here?”
“I am now.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Do I look like I make a living? I get by, that’s all.”
“That’s all any of us do, really.”
“Meghann. Friends call me Meg.”
“Meghann. I’m not going to take you home. Is that clear enough for you?”
That made her smile. “I don’t remember asking to be taken home. I asked if I could sit down. You’re making quite an assumption.”
He pulled back a little, looked uncomfortable. “Sorry. I’ve been . . . alone for a while. Makes a man poor company.”
Poor company. It had the ring of education to it.
She leaned closer, studying him. Though the light was dim in here, and the air clogged with cigarette smoke, she liked his face. Enough for one night, at least.
“What if I did want to go home with you?”
When he looked up again, she would have sworn that he’d gone pale. His eyes were swimming-pool blue.
It was an eternity before he answered. “I’d say it wouldn’t mean anything.” His voice sounded tight. He looked scared.
She frowned. “The sex?”
She felt it suddenly, the thrill of the chase, the revving up of her heart. She reached out, pressed her forefinger along the back of his hand. “What if I said that was okay? That I didn’t want it to mean anything?”
“I’d say that was sad.”
She pulled her hand back, stung by the observation. She felt transparent suddenly, as if those blue eyes could see straight into her. “Do you want to get laid or not? No strings. No future. Just tonight. A little time together.” She heard her voice spike; it was a small, desperate kind of sound, and it shamed her into sudden silence.
Another eternity passed. Finally, he spoke. “I don’t know if I’d be any good at it.”
“I am.” She pressed her lips together to keep from saying something stupid. It was ridiculous, really, but she was nervous. She wanted him to want her, wanted it more than she understood. He was nothing, just another link in the chain of unavailable, ultimately forgettable men she’d slept with since her divorce. As far as she could tell, he had nothing to recommend him, nothing that would account for the odd fluttering in her chest. But she was afraid he’d turn her down. “Maybe we could just get each other through this one night.”
He stood up so quickly the chair wobbled and almost fell. “I live down the street.”
She didn’t touch him, didn’t take his hand or otherwise lay claim to him. None of the usual pretense of affection. “I’ll follow you” was all she said.
Joe felt her beside him, the warmth of her body, the way her hand brushed accidentally against his every now and then.
Stop this now, he thought. Just turn to her and say, “I made a mistake, I’m sorry.” But he kept walking forward, putting one foot in front of the other.
He could smell her perfume. Something musty and sweet and sexy; it reminded him of summer in the deep South. Of fragrant blossoms and hot, dark nights.
He was losing his grip. Must be drunker than he’d thought.
He couldn’t do this. Didn’t even remember how. (Not the sex part—that he remembered; it was the rest of it that eluded him, the talking, the touching, the being with another person.)
Suddenly he was standing in front of his cabin. Three blocks they’d walked, and he hadn’t managed a single word of conversation. Neither had she, and he didn’t know if he was thankful or not. If she’d chattered ridiculously on about nothing, perhaps he would have had the strength to turn away from her, to make his excuses. Her silence was his undoing.