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 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 blond 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 blond 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 up a spoon in mid air. 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 cross-town 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 blond. 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 seem 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 half-full 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 US 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 had fate paid any attention to what he wanted on any given day?
He turned on the bar stool and surveyed the situation. The blond 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 make-up 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 blond 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 oblige 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 like she was in one of those Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies her dad liked so much. She half expected to see the dark hair 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 nothing. 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 swear words woven into the design. 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 slide onto his stool. She followed.
"Thank you for rescuing me," she said hovering beside him.
"Make a fuss," he said, reaching for his beer.
She sat down 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 betters." She scooted a little closer and lowered her voice. "Do you know that until two days ago I'd never been in a bar before?"
Her rescuer stared at her in disbelief.
"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 out 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 US Marshals cap, then rang 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 swear word startled her. He's 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 causally 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.
"Nice to meet you, Kevin."
He grunted and turned back to the television.
Haley shifted slightly on her stool and took in the ambiance 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 incredibly large bosoms 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 bartended 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. 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."
"Well..." She took another long sip. "I'm driving to Hawaii."
Kevin wished he'd changed the order 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 of 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 incredulously. "For real?"
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. "Eat up."
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 travelers 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 barstool, 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. "Bad?"
"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 making sure no one was listening. "This is only my third time in a bar."
"You're kidding," he said, more because he was hoping rather than because he didn't believe.
"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."
The bartender finished blending the margarita and set it in front of her. "Want to run a tab?" he asked.
Haley pressed her lips together for a couple of seconds. "Maybe," she said at last.
"Yes," Kevin said. "Run her a tab. You want your own order of fries? "
"Okay. Extra salt, please."
The bartender muttered something under his breath, then wrote on his small pad.
"A tab," Kevin said when they were alone, "means they keep a list of what you've ordered. You pay once at the end of the evening instead of paying each time."
Haley's blue-hazel eyes widened. "That's so cool."
He had a feeling the world was going to be one constant amazement for her after the other.
He studied her pale skin, her wide smile and trusting eyes. This was not a woman who should be let out on her own.
"You need to think about heading back to Ohio."
"No way." She took a long drink of her margarita. "I've spent my entire life doing what everyone else has told me to do. Now I'm only doing what I what. No matter what."
Her expression turned fierce. "You can't know what it's like," she continued. "I never get to voice my opinion. If I even try, I get ignored. No one cares what I think or what I want."
"That's why you're running away?"
"Exactly." She picked up a French fry, then put it back on the plate.
"How did you know I was running away?"
"You not the kind of woman to come to a place like this on purpose."
She glanced around at the seedy clientele, then shrugged. "I want new experiences."
"Like little umbrellas in your drinks?"
She smiled. He had to admit she had a great smile. Her whole face lit up. He would guess her age to be mid-twenties, but in some ways she was more like an awkward teenager than a grown woman. No doubt being the daughter of a single father minister had something to do with it.
He thought about suggesting that next time she find her new experience at a more upscale bar, but then he reminded himself he wasn't getting involved. He had enough problems of his own, without adding her to the list.
"It's not that I don't like the piano," she said.
"The piano. I play. It was expected. I can also play the organ, but only a few hymns and not very well."
"Okay." He started eating his burger.
"The music is great. But I wanted to be a teacher."
"Your father objected?" he asked before he could stop himself.
She sighed. "He would never come out and tell me no. That's not his way. But there was subtle pressure. In a way that's a whole lot harder to resist. I mean a direct statement can be argued but hints and nudges kind of sweep you along until you suddenly wake up and find yourself in a place you don't want to be."
She took another long drink of her margarita. The bartender appeared with a plate of fries. Haley smiled her thanks.
Kevin finished his burger and thought about making his escape.
"You want me to replace what I took?" she asked, motioning to the empty place on his plate where his burger had been.
She shrugged, then munched on another fry. "So you're a US Marshal. What do you?"
"I just delivered a prisoner to the federal penitentiary up the road."
Her eyes widened. "There's a prison here? "
"Didn't you see the signs about not picking up hitchhikers?"
"Sure, but I thought it was some kind of joke. You know, a local gag on tourists."
"This isn't a real tourist haven. Most of the folks are passing through or here to visit relatives."
She glanced over her shoulder, then leaned close and lowered her voice.
"People here know men in prison?"
He groaned. "Haley, have you ever been outside of your home town before?"
"Of course. I spent four years at the Southern Baptist College for Young Women."
Just perfect. "And after your college experience?"
"I went back home where I got my master's in music and finished up the courses I needed for my teaching credential. I graduated with honors."
She reached for her glass. Her hand missed the stem by about three inches. She stretched out her fingers, then curled them into her palm.
"My skin feels funny," she said. "My cheeks tingle."
Kevin swore silently. He glanced at the nearly finished second drink, then turned his attention to the bartender drying glasses with a dirty towel.
"Doubles?" he asked.
The old man grinned. "Thought you might want to get lucky."
Perfect. Just perfect. In less than forty minutes the non-drinking preacher's daughter had just consumed the equivalent of four shots of tequila. The full effect of the alcohol wasn't going to hit for about twenty more minutes. He would bet a week's salary that she would be on her butt about thirty seconds after that.
He slapped some money on the bar and stood up. "Come on, Haley. I'm going to get you out of here while you can still walk. Have you got a hotel room?"
She blinked at him. "I can walk."
"Sure you can. Why don't you try?"
She wore the ugliest beige shoes he'd ever seen, but at least the heel wasn't too high. When she slid off the stool, she stood straight just long enough to give him hope. Maybe he'd over- reacted. Maybe-
She swayed so far to the left, she nearly toppled over.
"Am I drunk?" she asked, sounding delighted as she managed to stand straight. "The room is spinning. Wow. This is so cool."
Yeah, everything was cool to her. "Do you have a motel room?" he repeated, speaking slowly and deliberately.
"Yeah. The pink one. I liked the color. It's over there."
She pointed to the door and nearly fell on her face. Kevin gritted his teeth.
"Put your arm around my shoulders," he instructed, as he wrapped an arm around her waist.
His first impression was of heat, his second of slender curves that got his body's attention in a big way.
Instead of following orders, Haley simply sagged against him. "You smell good," she said as he half carried her toward her door.
He would get her to her motel and leave, he told himself. She would probably pass out in a matter of seconds and wake up with a hangover big enough to cure her of ever wanting another margarita. She'd made it this far without him, she would get to where ever she was going without his assistant.
Kevin knew he was trying to convince himself that he wasn't responsible for Haley. Unfortunately he wasn't doing a very good job.
They stepped into the sultry evening air. Haley sucked in a deep breath, then turned to look at him. As she was leaning against him, her face rested on his shoulder. Her mouth was inches from his. One of her wisps of blond hair brushed against his cheek.
"So," Haley said, licking her lips. "Is this where you take advantage of me?"
She blinked slowly, then smiled. "I don't think I'd mind."
Haley Foster had lived her entire life in a box. Guided by her preacher father and the residents of her tiny hometown as to what to do, what to wear and even who to marry, she'd lost herself along the way. But no more. Now she was going to live on her own terms and do all the things good preachers' daughters didn't do. Starting with Kevin Harmon.
The injured U.S. Marshal needed a ride from Kansas to his home in Texas. Haley had a car. She figured she owed him a favor. And he knew a lot more about being bad than she did. A few days, just the two of them, in her tiny convertible and intimate hotel rooms…It would be fun, it would be passionate, it would be an experience.
At least, that was her plan. He just didn't know it yet.
COPYRIGHT © 2016-17 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.