Chapter OneHe was the handsomest man in the bar, and he couldn't keep his eyes off her.
It was all Erin MacNamera could do to keep her own coffee-brown eyes trained away from him. He sat on the bar stool, his back to the multitiered display of ornamental liquor bottles. His elbows were braced against the polished mahogany counter, and he nonchalantly held a bottle of imported German beer in his hand.
Against her will, Erin's gaze meandered back to him. He seemed to be waiting for her attention, and he smiled, his mouth lifting sensuously at the edges. Erin quickly looked away and tried to concentrate on what her friend was saying.
"... Steve and me."
Erin hadn't a clue as to what she'd missed. Aimee was in the habit of talking nonstop, especially when she was upset. The reason Erin and her co-worker were meeting was that Aimee wanted to discuss the problems she was having in her ten-year marriage.
Marriage was something Erin fully intended to avoid, at least for a good long while. She was focusing her energies on her career and on teaching a class titled Women in Transition two evenings a week at South Seattle Community College. With a master's degree clutched in her hot little hand, and her ideals and enthusiasm high, Erin had applied to and been accepted by the King County Community Action Program as an employment counselor, working mainly with displaced women. Ninety percent of those she worked with were on public assistance.
Her dream was to give hope and support to those who had lost both. A friend to the friendless. An encourager to the disheartened. Erin's real love, however, was the Women In Transition course. In the past few years she'd watched several women undergo the metamorphosis from lost and confused individuals to purpose-filled adults holding on tight to a second chance at life.
Erin knew better than to take the credit or the blame for the transformation she saw in these women's lives. She was just part of the Ways and Means Committee.
Her father enjoyed teasing her, claiming his eldest daughter was destined to become the next Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa all rolled into one tenacious, determined, confident female.
Casey MacNamera was only partially right. Erin certainly didn't see herself as any crusader, fighting against the injustices of life.
Nor was Erin fooling herself about finances. She didn't intend to become wealthy, at least not monetarily. Nobody went into social work for the money. The hours were long and the rewards sporadic, but when she saw people's lives turned around for good she couldn't help being uplifted.
Helping others through a time of painful transition was what Erin had been born to do. It had been her dream from early in her college career and had followed her through graduate school and her first job.
"Erin," Aimee said, her voice dipping to a whisper, "there's a man at the bar staring at us."
Erin pretended not to have noticed. "Oh?"
Aimee stirred the swizzle stick in her strawberry daiquiri, then licked the end as she stared across the room, her eyes studying the good-looking man with the imported ale. Her smile was slow and deliberate, but it didn't last long. She sighed and said, "It's you who interests him."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I'm married."
"He doesn't know that," Erin argued.
"Sure he does." Aimee uncrossed her long legs and leaned across the minuscule table. "Married women give off vibes, and single men pick them up like sonar. I tried to send him a signal, but it didn't work. He knew immediately. You, on the other hand, are giving off single vibes, and he's zeroing in on that like a bee does pollen."
"I'm sure you're wrong."
"Maybe," Aimee agreed in a thin whisper, "but I doubt it." She took one last sip of her drink and stood hurriedly. "I'm leaving now, and we'll test my theory and see what happens. My guess is that the minute I'm out of here he's going to make a beeline for you." She paused, smiled at her own wit, then added, "The pun was an accident, clever but unintentional."
"Aimee, I thought you wanted to talk...." Erin, however, wasn't quick enough to convince her friend to stay. Before she'd finished, Aimee had reached for her purse. "We'll talk some other time." With a natural flair, she draped the strap of her imitation-snakeskin handbag over her shoulder and winked suggestively. "Good luck."
"Ah ..." Erin was at a loss as to what to do. She was twenty-seven, but for the majority of her adult life she'd avoided romantic relationships. Not by design. It had just worked out that way.
She met men frequently, but she dated only occasionally. Not once had she met a man in a bar. Cocktail lounges weren't her scene. In her entire life she'd probably been inside one only a couple of times.
Her social life had been sadly neglected from the time she was in junior high and fell in love for the first time. Howie Riverside had asked her to the Valentine's Day dance, and her tender young heart had been all aflutter.
Then it had happened. The way it always had. Her father, a career navy man, had been transferred, and they'd moved three days before the dance.
Somehow Erin had never quite regained her stride with the opposite sex. Of course, three moves in the next four years - unusual even for the navy - hadn't been exactly conducive to a thriving relationship. They'd been shuffled from Alaska to Guam to Pensacola and back again.
College could have, and probably should have, been the opportunity to make up for lost time, but by then Erin had felt like a social pygmy when it came to dealing with men. She hadn't known how to meet them, how to flirt with them or how to make small talk. Nor had she acquired a number of the other necessary graces.