Cry Uncle(5)

By: Judith Arnold

The Shipwreck, she recalled, glancing away from Joe long enough to remind herself of where she was. It was an apt name for the place. The rowdy, motley customers might well have washed ashore from some disaster.

In a very real sense, so had Pamela.

He continued to hold out the wine glass. If she took it, she might be tempted to consume its contents in one gulp—assuming the glass didn’t slip from her hand and shatter on the floor. That was a strong possibility, given how slick with sweat her palms were.

His smile widened. It really was a charming smile, despite his rumpled appearance. Either that or she was rationalizing, trying to find a way to like this man.

She didn’t have much choice. He was offering her exactly what she needed: some wine and a new identity. She might as well make the best of it.

“Hello,” she said, discreetly wiping her hands on her dress.

He shot a quick look over his shoulder, then shrugged. “It’s kind of crowded in here. If you’d like, we could go into my office to talk, or I could drag a couple of chairs outside. There’s a little yard behind the building.”

“It might be more pleasant outside.” She wasn’t sure she was ready to shut herself up inside an office with him.

He reached out and took her hand. Forget about being shut up with him in an office—she wasn’t ready to be touched by him. Yet she couldn’t very well make a fuss simply because he wanted to hold hands with his future wife.

Besides, there was nothing threatening in his touch. His hand was as dry as hers was clammy, and his grip was warm and strong. If only he were barbered and well-tailored and didn’t have a silver hoop linked through his earlobe—and if only her life weren’t completely out of kilter—she might have responded positively to the smooth, leathery surface of his palm, the thick bones of his fingers. She might have liked the deft way he navigated through the crowd, smiling innocuously at people who greeted him, ignoring one creep who gave him a salacious wink.

Pamela wished she could ignore the creep, too, but she couldn’t. She was too tense, too conscious of how ludicrous this whole idea seemed.

Joe ushered her to the rear of the barroom and down a hall, past the men’s and ladies’ rooms to a door crowned by a glowing red “exit” sign. He released her hand so he could grab two chairs from a nearby stack. Then he jammed his hip against the door, and it swung open.

The outdoor air was nearly as dense and hot as the indoor air, but at least it wasn’t stagnant. Instead of the acrid aromas of cigarettes and beer, it smelled of the ocean, rich and briny. Gravel and crushed sea shells crunched beneath her sandals as she followed Joe into a small lot bounded by a ramshackle fence that backed onto the buildings in the next block. A bright spotlight fastened to the rear wall of the bar glared down upon the yard, brighter than the moon.

She filled her lungs with the salty air, then attempted a smile for Joe, who was positioning the chairs he’d dragged outside so they faced each other a safe distance apart. He gestured toward one of the chairs and she lowered herself to sit. Settling into the other chair, he handed her the wine.

For a man dressed as disreputably as he, he had good manners, at least. And that smile, and those amazing blue eyes...

And that earring. She took a long sip of chardonnay and lowered the glass. And zeroed in once more on the earring. She wondered if it was genuine sterling silver. She wondered how he’d felt marching into a jewelry store and standing in line for ear-piercing with a bunch of prepubescent girls. Maybe he hadn’t gone to a jeweler. Maybe he’d done it himself—plunged a needle into the heart of a flame and then into his own flesh.

Maybe a former lover had done it. Maybe a present lover had. This evening’s discussion was about marriage, not about lovers past and present, or monogamy, or fidelity, or anything like that.

All right, so Joe had an earring and, for all Pamela knew, hundreds of girlfriends. So he dressed like a bum. So he wasn’t her style. Nothing about this encounter was her style. For that matter, nothing about the recent progression of her life was her style.

Things had gotten out of control. She didn’t have many options left. The essential thing was to stay alive. If marrying a man with devastating blue eyes and a dimple and an earring would provide the protection she needed, she’d be a fool not to give his offer a fair hearing.

“So,” he said, his smile flagging slightly as he studied her in the pool of white light.

It occurred to Pamela that he could be judging her as harshly as she’d judged him. Perhaps he found her wanting. Kitty had said he was desperate for a wife, but she hadn’t said he was desperate enough to settle for a skinny, panic-stricken architect from Seattle.

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