Cry Uncle(4)

By: Judith Arnold


Not desperate, though. He wasn’t going to let on—to Kitty or anyone else—that he was close to desperation.

“A white-wine sipper, huh?” he murmured, sliding a goblet from the overhead rack and standing it on Kitty’s tray. “Where is she?”

“Over near the front door. In case she wants to make a quick escape, I guess.”

He peered through the mob of bodies in the dimly lit room, but he couldn’t tell which one she might be. “I’ll bring her drink to her. What’s she wearing?”

“A white dress.”

“What’s her name again?”

“Pamela.”

“Pamela what?”

“How the hell should I know? I asked her if she’d consider marrying you, not what her last name was.”

“Okay. Brick? Give me ten,” he called to his assistant once he’d poured a hefty dose of wine into the goblet.

Brick grunted.

Joe managed a smile of thanks for Kitty, although he was feeling uncharacteristically nervous. It wasn’t like him to get twisted in knots over a woman—or over anything, for that matter. Crises came and went, and when they were truly awful, he indulged in some intense moping. But then he got over it. Rolling with the punches was his preferred modus operandi.

But this was different. This was wife-hunting. Joe had never proposed to a woman before, and here he was, about to propose to a total stranger.

Not really propose, he reassured himself, sauntering around the end of the bar and working his way through the throng, barely pausing to acknowledge the greetings the regulars hurled at him. What he was offering the woman was less a proposal than a proposition.

Scratch that. If she was a white-wine sipper in a white dress—already dressed for her wedding, apparently—she wasn’t the sort to be propositioned. He had to approach her in a classy way.

And he didn’t even know her last name, damn it.

“Hey, Joey!” a burly voice reached him from behind. He smiled and waved vaguely, but his gaze was riveted toward the screened front door that opened onto Southard Street. Standing next to it, looking incredibly out of place, was a woman in a white dress.

Not bad, he thought, one set of apprehensions fading and another set kicking in. The white dress she had on resembled a tank shirt that fell to mid-calf, the hem notched a few inches on the side seams. The way the cotton cloth draped her body indicated that she was somewhat lacking in the curves department. Her arms were slim, her shoulders bony. Her feet were strapped into flat leather sandals. Her long, graceful neck was framed in ash-blond hair that fell to her shoulders with barely a ripple. Gold button earrings glinted through the silky locks. A matching gold bangle circled one slender wrist.

Her face was as angular as the rest of her, her nose and chin narrow, her cheeks hollow. Her eyes were a pale silver gray. In fact, all of her had a pale, silver-gray quality. Obviously she was a recent arrival on the island. No one who’d been on Key West for any length of time could stay that pale.

A little washed-out, but definitely an interesting face. Not quite pretty, but intriguing. It was the sort of face a man could look at for a long time without growing tired of it.

Her expression was cautious. Maybe a touch skeptical. Haunted. Those eyes, so large and pale, seemed troubled.

The notion of marriage troubled him more than a little, too. But the alternative—losing Lizard—was far worse.

He took a step closer to her, and another step. In her search of the room, she stared at him, past him, and then at him again. Noticing the wine glass in his hand, she straightened up and eyed him warily. She bit her lip. Her teeth were as white as her dress.

“Hi,” he said, sounding a hell of a lot more confident than he felt. “You must be Pamela. I’m the guy who wants to marry you.”

***

OH, GOD. He looked like a bum.

The door-frame dug into her spine as she backed away from him. Okay, she consoled herself, things could be worse. She hadn’t agreed to anything yet. She’d made no commitments, no promises. And honestly, any danger this man posed couldn’t be as bad as what she’d left behind when she’d escaped to Key West.

As bums went, she had to admit, the guy extending the glass of wine toward her was actually kind of handsome. Unfortunately, he was also scruffy and grungy, with a stubble of beard and hair that clearly hadn’t had a close encounter with a scissors in some time, and a shapeless shirt, and jeans faded to a powdery blue, the fabric split like a fraying grin across one knee. And that earring...oh, God. An earring.

She ordered herself to remain calm. Experience had taught her that just because a man was impeccably dressed didn’t mean he was safe. And really, this man—Joe, her neighbor Kitty had told her... Beneath the baggy shirt and the decrepit jeans she discerned a lithe, lean body. Behind the stubble of whisker and the shaggy auburn hair he had a lively face, his smile producing a dimple on one side, his nose long and straight and his eyes as blue as a summer sky, two lovely spots of light in the gloom of his low-rent bar.

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