Chapter 1 & Chapter 2
The explosion caught Charlie by surprise. People didn’t usually blow things up in Middlesex, Connecticut, especially at four in the afternoon. But as Charlie rode his Harley down Elm Street, something exploded behind the metal door of an ordinary two-car garage.
The door was still rattling as he made a U-turn and swerved his bike into the drive, skidding on layers of snow and ice. He damned near hit the Civic Hybrid parked there.
Leaping from his bike, he ran toward the garage. “Don’t panic! I’m here!” He banged on the door. “Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
“Yes!” The voice was muffled and female. And she was coughing.
“I’m calling 911!” He reached for the cell phone clipped to his jeans pocket.
“No! Don’t do that!” More coughing.
He paused, his finger over the Send button. “Why not?”
“Because I’m fine!”
Charlie needed more information. There had been an explosion, for God’s sake. And there was this funny smell seeping out of the cracks around the garage door molding. “Can you open the door? You could be in shock or something.”
“Honestly.” She coughed again. “I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?” Charlie tried to picture himself climbing back on his bike and riding away without knowing what had caused the explosion and whether the woman in the garage was as fine as she claimed. Nope, couldn’t do it. “Open the door. I need to know you’re okay.”
After a moment of silence, the door started up. Then it quickly stopped, leaving a gap of six inches. The funny smell grew stronger.
“See there?” Charlie breathed in the fumes and the back of his throat tickled. He cleared his throat. “Now your door’s jammed.”
“No, it’s . . . uh, yeah! It must be jammed! But I’m fine, really.” She coughed twice. “Here’s my hand, in one piece.”
Charlie stared at the hand she’d stuck through the six-inch opening. He thought of Thing from The Adamms Family, except her hand was a lot prettier than Thing. She was wearing a pink sweater with the cuff turned back over a very delicate wrist.
She wiggled her fingers. “See? Everything works.” Her nails looked manicured, although she wasn’t wearing polish. No rings, either. She’d have to be lying on her back on the garage floor in order to stick her hand out like that. Maybe she’d landed on the floor after the explosion.
But that made no sense, because she’d just activated the garage door opener. Sure, she could have been holding the opener at the time of the blast, but that was highly improbable, which meant she was lying there specifically to stick her hand out and convince him she wasn’t maimed. She was hiding something in that garage.
Just his luck, that kind of behavior intrigued him. Not too many women he knew caused explosions and then tried to pretend nothing had happened. None, in fact. He dropped to one knee and took off his helmet so he could peek under the door, but the warm air coming out made his glasses fog so he couldn’t see much of anything. “What’s that smell?” Now he’d started coughing, too.
She pulled her hand back inside. “I’m . . . um . . . making something.”
“Moonshine?” Charlie had never smelled moonshine, but he’d tasted his share of cheap whiskey in his undergrad days. This garage had distillery written all over it, not that he cared, philosophically speaking. He was just damned curious.
Her laughter was interspersed with more coughing. “Are you a revenuer?”
“No, I’m an engineer.” His knee was getting cold where it rested on the icy cement. His leather chaps helped, but he decided to shift to the other knee to balance out the chill factor.
“An engineer? The choo-choo kind or the brainy kind?”
“The electrical kind.” He tried not to breathe the fumes. “I work at Middlesex Light and Power.” At least for now. Before the end of the month he’d have his new position nailed down at Hoover Dam. At that point the ML&P would have to survive without him.
“Interesting.” Her coughing fit seemed to have ended. “Are you out reading meters?”
“No. I have a desk job.” He shifted knees again.
“Then why aren’t you there? At your desk?”
“In winter I come in an hour early so I can knock off at four. Look, we’re straying from the topic here. Are you sure you’re okay? Some injuries have a delayed reaction. You can bleed to death without really knowing you’re hurt.”
“I’m not bleeding.”
“It could be internal. I’ve heard of people who had no idea they were wounded and then bam! They keel over dead.”
“That would be bad.” She didn’t sound like she was taking this seriously at all. “Are you qualified to assess internal bleeding?”
“Well, no. But I’ll bet I could tell if you were mortally wounded or not.” Besides, he wanted to know what she was hiding in there. “If this door’s jammed, you could come to the front door.” And after he’d made sure she was fine, he’d talk her into letting him into the garage.
“What happens at four that you take off from work early?”
“I like to shoot pool at the Rack and Balls before dinner. I was on my way there when I heard the explosion. Naturally I stopped.” He could still smell the noxious odor, but it was much fainter.
“I appreciate your concern. I really do.”
“Anyone would have done the same. And speaking as an engineer, I’m not sure you should be breathing those fumes.”
“The Rack and Balls has a pool table?”
“Yeah.” It was common knowledge. “You must be new here.”
“I bought the house in October. I guess that’s new.”
With that, Charlie’s brain processed the data and came up with an ID. She was the New York model who’d moved to Middlesex last fall. Both his mother and his Aunt Myrtle had mentioned that a model had bought a house on Elm Street and she sometimes came into the bakery. But she’d only allow herself one cinnamon roll and then she’d make it last several days.
And what was her name, anyway? Erin? Elise? He couldn’t remember. But now he was really confused about the explosion. Fashion models and explosions only co-existed in James Bond movies.
Curiosity made him ignore the cold cement. Leaning down, he balanced on his forearm and took off his glasses so they wouldn’t fog up while he tried to get another look inside the garage. He ended up with a fuzzy view of denim overalls and lots of brown wavy hair. He couldn’t see her face and he definitely couldn’t see what was going on in the garage.
Obviously she wasn’t planning to open the door all the way. He might never find out what had caused the explosion, but at the very least he needed to make sure that she wasn’t in shock and therefore numbed to the pain of something like a piece of metal sticking in the back of her skull.
“About the pool table,” she said. “Is it full-sized or bar sized?”
“It’s an Olhausen eight-footer.”
“Really?” She sounded more than a little interested.
He knew she could be faking that interest to distract him, but somehow he didn’t think so. She’d acted as if she recognized the make of the pool table. He acted on impulse. “Want to come with me and try it out?”
In the resulting silence, he could almost see wisps of indecision curling out from under the door along with the noxious fumes. Of course she was hesitating. A New York model might not see herself playing pool with just any schmuck who happened along after an unscheduled explosion.
In point of fact, he’d never envisioned himself playing pool with a New York model, either, regardless of whether an explosion had preceded the game or not. But pool required such concentration and coordination that even one game would probably be enough to convince him that she was okay.
If she was new in town she might not have any close friends who would check on her tonight. She could lapse into unconsciousness and lie on the garage floor for hours, maybe even days before anyone noticed. She could die in there and not be discovered until she failed to show up on some runway or another.
Time to get tough. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “If you’ll come down to the Rack and Balls and play a game of pool with me, I’ll be able to see for myself that you’re not hurt. If you won’t, I’m going to call 911 right now.”
“I’d rather you didn’t call 911.”
“That’s pretty clear. Obviously whatever you’re building is top secret, but I can’t let myself leave you lying on your garage floor, when something could be seriously wrong with you.”
“I see. Well, come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a game of pool.”
He smiled with relief. “Great! We can ride over on my motorcycle. I always carry an extra helmet.”
“Thanks, but I’ll meet you there. It’s an easy walk. So you go ahead. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
He wished she’d come out right now, but she probably wanted to fix her face. Women always wanted to fix their face, and that had to go double for models. After an explosion it would be even more critical. “Okay, but if you’re not there in thirty minutes, a truck full of paramedics will arrive on your doorstep.”
She laughed. “All right, all right, I’ve got it!” Then she stuck her hand through the opening again. “Eve Dupree.”
Eve. That was it. He took off his glove, reached down and shook her hand. “Charlie Shepherd.” She had a soft hand, a firm grip and warm skin. Not everyone had a really good handshake, the kind that made you think the person was worth knowing. Eve did. Shaking hands through the bottom of a garage door without being able to see her felt sort of kinky and sexy, like making love with masks on. Not that he’d ever done that.
“Well, Charlie Shepherd, I’ll see you in twenty minutes at the Rack and Balls.”
“But not a minute later.”
“I’ll be there.” She pulled her hand back inside. “And bring your A game.”
“You bet.” Charlie’s A game was pretty good. He didn’t expect to need to perform at that level, but you never knew. A fashion model who exploded stuff in her garage might be closer to a James Bond heroine than he thought. She might be a pool shark.
* * *
As Charlie stood up and walked back to his bike, Eve scooted toward the opening in the garage door. Turning on her side, she pushed her prescription goggles tight against her face so she could get a good look at the guy she’d just agreed to play pool with, a guy with an electrical engineering degree. She couldn’t decide which was more exciting, the chance to play pool or the chance to play pool with an electrical engineer.
Much as she hated to admit it, she could really use an engineer right now. But she had to evaluate this guy’s character before saying anything about her project. She wasn’t spilling the beans to anybody who happened along.
Then she caught her first glimpse of Charlie’s jeans-covered ass framed in black motorcycle chaps and character became a secondary issue. Her reaction to seeing that great butt was a shock. Ever since she’d run screaming from Lyle’s proposal in September, her libido had been in time out.
No longer, apparently. Maybe Charlie’s white-knight rescue attempt had started the sap flowing through her dormant sexual equipment. Whatever the cause, she found herself getting turned on by those excellent buns. Then there was the added attraction of his black leather jacket. Nothing made a guy’s shoulders look broader or his hips leaner than a black motorcycle jacket. She’d fallen for the Fonz as a kid and had never gotten over that crush.
But Fonzie hadn’t been much of a student. Charlie was a brainy guy decked out in a Fonzie outfit. Eve couldn’t imagine a better combination than that. Fortunately, Charlie didn’t have Fonzie hair, either. Brown and ungelled, it looked thick enough for a girl to bury her fingers in and wavy enough to make that experience sensual.
She wondered if he had a girlfriend. Not likely. A guy who had a girlfriend wouldn’t be so quick to invite a woman to play pool with him.
Okay, so she was interested. Still, she might have a hard time flirting with him unless she told him what she was inventing in her garage. He obviously wanted to know about that.
When he turned around so he could sling one of his long legs over his macho motorcycle, she pushed back from the door. No point in taking a chance that he’d glance down and see her face wedged in the opening as she checked him out. Besides, she needed to get going if she expected to make herself presentable so she could arrive at the Rack and Balls before Charlie sent the paramedics to her door.
Getting to her feet, she assessed the damage in the garage. The rotary engine on her workbench was trashed, as was a chunk of the bench itself. The veggie fuel was way more volatile than she’d expected. Maybe she’d added too much broccoli.
She’d hit the deck fast enough to avoid flying metal, but she’d singed her hair. That wouldn’t be popular when she went into the city tomorrow to shoot the toothpaste ad, but they could airbrush the frizzy parts. She probably should have waited to test her newest version of the fuel, but now that she had space for her experiments, she hated putting things off. Thanks to her impatience, she’d have to buy a new engine.
At least the hovercraft was okay. She glanced at the purple disc-shaped object that took up more than half the garage. Thank goodness no metal fragments had lodged in the fiberglass hull of the hovercraft. The day she’d found the flying saucer mockup on eBay had been a glorious one, indeed. She’d never get that lucky again, and she loved how her purple paint job made the hovercraft stand out.
But there would be no more progress on the project tonight, so she might as well find out how Charlie Shepherd handled a cue stick and whether he had a decent screw-shot. You could tell a lot about a guy from the way he played pool.
* * *
Charlie fought the urge to wait outside the Rack and Balls for Eve to show up. But hanging around outside the tavern wouldn’t get her there any faster and it would make him look dorky. So he pushed open the heavy oak door and walked in. If she didn’t arrive in fifteen minutes, he’d retrace his path to her house, in case she’d collapsed on the way.
The interior of the Rack and Balls smelled comfortingly familiar – a combination of cedar smoke from the log-burning fireplace in the corner, the aroma of clam chowder on the stove in the back, and the acrid scent of beer on tap at the bar.
A huge set of elk antlers hung on the wall behind the bar. On one side a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan hung suspended by a piece of basketball netting, and on the other side hung a football signed by every member of Middlesex High’s 1992 state championship team.
The antlers and sports memorabilia were one socially acceptable explanation for the tavern’s name. The pool table that took center stage was another. Either explanation could be used when kids were around.
But everyone in town knew that the tavern’s owner, Archie Townsend, appreciated stacked women and good sex, so he’d most likely named the Rack and Balls with no thought to sports or pool equipment. A burly guy with a thick black beard, Archie had tried monogamy and had found it too confining.
He was behind the bar washing glasses when Charlie walked in. “Hey, Charlie, how’re they hanging?”
“Just fine, Archie.” Charlie took off his jacket and chaps and left them on a peg by the door before taking a seat on one of the vinyl-cushioned bar stools.
“Not yet, thanks.”
Archie gazed at him with the kind of scrutiny that time and mutual affection allowed. “Expecting somebody?”
“Uh . . . yeah.”
“A woman, judging from the look in your eye.” Archie flipped his towel over his shoulder and leaned against the scarred oak bar. “Not Mariah, I hope.”
“No.” Charlie noticed he felt no twinge of regret when Mariah was mentioned. It had taken a few months, but he was definitely over her.
“That’s good. She wasn’t right for you.”
Charlie didn’t think so, either, mostly because Mariah had labeled his proposed relocation to Nevada a stupid idea. “Maybe I wasn’t right for her. Did you ever think of it that way, Archie?”
“Well, no, on account of any woman would be lucky to hook up with you.” Archie used the towel to polish a section of the bar. “If I had a daughter, I’d advise her to chase your ass all the way to Hoover Dam.”
Charlie laughed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Good old Archie. He’d come to mean even more to Charlie now that his dad was gone. Hard to believe it had been fourteen months since the funeral. Fortunately, his mom had perked up in the past couple of months. Helping Aunt Myrtle in the bakery was taking her mind off widowhood.
“You get that interview set up yet?” Archie asked.
“I heard from them this morning. I fly out to Vegas a week from next Wednesday.” Thanks to Aunt Myrtle and the bakery, Charlie didn’t feel so guilty about the new job prospect.
“Good.” Archie nodded. “That’s good. I was afraid you’d hang around here forever, thinking you could bring the ML&P into the new millennium.”
“God knows you tried. Those old fossils in charge have shit for brains.”
Privately, Charlie thought so, too, but he’d never say so out loud. No point in creating bad feelings. “Ah, you can’t blame them. They still think of me as Rose and Henry’s nerdy little kid, the one who flooded the cafeteria with his science experiment. Nobody’s a hero in his own home town.”
“Like I said, shit for brains. Anyway, their loss.”
“I might not get the job.”
“You’ll get it.” Archie flipped the towel back over his shoulder. “So who’s the lucky lady who’s causing you to delay your Sam Adams purchase?”
Charlie glanced at his watch. Three minutes to go. “This isn’t exactly a date.”
“She’s meeting you here, right?”
“Then voila, it’s a date. Two people happen to run into each other somewhere, that’s not a date. Two people agree to run into each other somewhere at a stated time, then it’s a date. And from the way you keep looking at your watch, you absolutely have a stated time.”
“Archie, that’s faulty logic. Two people could have a business meeting at a stated time. That’s not a date.”
“Is this a business meeting?”
“Not exactly.” Charlie had already decided not to tell anybody about the explosion, provided Eve showed up and he didn’t have to call 911.
Archie smiled. “Then it’s a date.”
Archie blew out a breath. “You sound like a rental car commercial. Are you going to tell me who it is or what?”
“Eve Dupree.” Archie squinted as if trying to place the name. “Isn’t she the New York model who moved here last fall?”
“Yeah. So now you can see why it’s not exactly a date.”
“Why can I see that?”
“Hey, I’m an engineering geek. You don’t catch successful New York models going out with – ”
“That’s what you say. She just walked in the door.”
Adrenalin shot through Charlie’s system, but he turned the bar stool seat slowly because he wanted to play this cool. He was aware of Archie watching the proceedings with great delight. Naturally the seat creaked like the hinges in a horror flick.
“I’m here,” she said. “Right on time.”
“That’s – ” He had to stop and clear his throat. “That’s good.” He’d prepared himself to be knocked out by her glamorous beauty. He’d figured on makeup and some designer outfit.
Instead she stood there in a bulky green jacket and fuzzy white earmuffs. Her mop of brown wavy hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she had on a pair of large-framed glasses. If she had on makeup, he couldn’t see any evidence of it. She might be wearing a little bit of lipstick.
She’d obviously taken no pains with her appearance, so why couldn’t he stop looking at her? Critically speaking, her nose was a little too prominent and her forehead a tad bit high. But something kept his attention riveted on her face.
It was her mouth, he decided at last. Her mouth was wide and her lips full in a way that made him think of kissing and . . . yeah, to be completely honest, oral sex.
But surely other women had great mouths and he hadn’t been this fixated. Maybe it was her eyes. Even partly obscured by the lenses of her glasses, they were very blue. And besides being beautiful, they shone with a kind of creative intelligence that he found extremely seductive. No telling what was going on in her head, and he loved that. Predictable women drove him nuts. Give him a creative woman anytime.
Apparently the combination of her eyes and her mouth fit his idea of perfection. Or maybe the big draw was the secret she had refused to tell him. He’d always loved puzzles, and she’d presented him with one by having a mysterious explosion in her garage. No matter what the reason, he wanted her. He wanted her bad.
And what an idiot he was! As he’d taken great care to assure Archie, this wasn’t a date. She’d come because he’d threatened to call 911 and expose her garage accident. She wasn’t here because she thought he was wonderful, so the fact that he found her wildly attractive made no difference. Besides, he was leaving town.
He swallowed and attempted to curb his lust. “Want a beer?”
“Sure.” She took off her coat and hat.
“Sam Adams would be great.”
Charlie almost groaned out loud. She was sexy, she was smart, and she drank his brand of beer. Just his luck, he was not in the market.
Twenty minutes, which had to include the walk to the tavern, hadn’t given Eve time for more than washing her hands, putting her hair in a ponytail and swiping on her favorite mocha lipstick. Just as well, she’d thought. From now on, any guy she took a shine to would start out with the real Eve Dupree, not the airbrushed version. That way she’d never be worried that they were attracted to glitz. In spite of her career, glitz was so not her.
Charlie might have expected some glitz, though, because he was staring at her as if he’d never seen a woman without makeup before. Or even one wearing glasses. Oh, well. Great tush or not, he might not work out.
Too bad, too. She certainly admired what she saw – sexy brown eyes, nicely squared-off jaw. She also liked the thin-framed, black-rimmed glasses. The guys she’d dated in the city were into contacts. Personally she didn’t care for them and only used them when she had to on the job. There was something honest and refreshing about just wearing the glasses.
Under his black leather jacket Charlie had on a white dress shirt with no tie and the sleeves rolled back. When paired with the jeans, it gave him a casual, almost wholesome look. But she’d seen how the black leather chaps outlined his butt and his package. She didn’t think Charlie was all that wholesome.
As she approached the bar, Charlie stood and introduced her to the tavern owner, Archie Shepherd. As if Eve needed another reason to be attracted, she discovered that Charlie was a good five inches taller than she was. Although she would have loved to be evolved enough to date shorter guys, she wasn’t there yet.
She exchanged niceties with Archie, but all the while she was aware of Charlie’s intensity of focus. There was definitely energy pulsing between them. Whether it was sexual energy or not, she wasn’t sure.
Maybe his stare had been complimentary. He might like his women nerdy. If so, that boded well for the future, because she was and always had been a nerd in a model’s body. No one ever believed that of her, but here was a guy who might.
Finally she picked up her beer, which she’d asked Archie to leave in the bottle, and turned to Charlie. “Ready for that game of pool you promised me?”
“Whoa, there, Nellie,” Archie said. “Did this guy give you a handicap?”
Eve looked Charlie in the eye. Oh, yeah. Sparks. Maybe there was sexual chemistry. “Do I need a handicap?” she asked.
He met her gaze, and his was starting to smolder. “I don’t know. Do you?”
No doubt about it, now. This connection had potential. “That depends.” She paused for emphasis. “How good are you?”
“Nobody in town can beat him,” Archie said.
Eve lifted her eyebrows. “Is that true, Charlie?”
“Well, then.” She brought the bottle to her lips and tipped it slightly to take a sip. “Let’s see if it’s still true, shall we?” Then she winked and walked over to the cue rack. She used her runway walk on purpose.
“Let’s make it interesting,” Charlie called after her.
She already thought it was plenty interesting, but she glanced over her shoulder as she reached the rack. “By doing what?”
Instead of answering right away, he walked up beside her and lowered his voice. “If I win, you’ll tell me what happened in your garage today.”
His whole manner indicated that he hadn’t told Archie about the incident. She appreciated that. “And if I win?”
He smiled, which had quite an effect on her already supercharged libido. “You can tell me whatever you feel is appropriate, given my efforts to make sure you came through it safe and sound.”
Standing almost near enough to touch him while they had their own private conversation felt delicious. Now she was certain he didn’t have a girlfriend. Either that, or he was a louse, and she didn’t want to believe that.
“Fair enough.” She studied the cue sticks and reached for one that was quite obviously better quality than the rest. The shaft looked straight and the handle was inlaid with onyx and mother-of-pearl in an intricate diamond pattern.
She paused, her hand on the smooth shaft. Unconsciously she stroked it. The wood was incredible. She glanced over at him. “Yours? Really?”
“Yeah. I keep it here instead of carting it back and forth on my bike.” He paused. “But you can use it.”
“I’d be honored.” She really should buy herself a pool cue. She’d considered it, but she’d never owned a table, and walking into a pool hall with your own stick advertised either your ability, your arrogance or both. During her years of playing in the city, she hadn’t wanted to broadcast anything. But this cue of Charlie’s was a pleasure to hold and inspired all varieties of lust, including the sexual kind.
Setting her beer on a nearby table, she wiped her hand on her overalls so she wouldn’t get any moisture from the bottle on Charlie’s stick. Then she sighted down the shaft. Perfectly straight. She didn’t want to read too much into a guy’s choice of pool cue, but so far, she was impressed with everything related to Charlie Shepherd.
If he played a clean game of pool and didn’t throw a tantrum when he missed a shot or happened to lose, then she thought she should tell him about her invention. Fate seemed to have thrown him in her path. He could be just the guy she needed, in more ways than one.
* * *
Charlie had never let anyone use his thousand-dollar pool cue. The locals knew it was his and avoided it. During tourist season Archie put it in the back. But this wasn’t tourist season, so Archie had left it on the rack, easily accessible when Charlie came in to practice.
When Eve had wrapped her fingers around it, he’d felt a sexual charge as if she’d taken hold of his dick. Then, to compound matters, she’d started stroking the shaft. Charlie had never seen pool as a sexual game, but he was seeing it now. And Eve could hold his cue stick for as long as she wanted.
Meanwhile his brain, what few cells he still had working, kept repeating a message like a blinking traffic sign: You’re leaving. Don’t get started. But he was already started and didn’t know how to stop. She hadn’t even told him what the explosion was all about, but he had a gut feeling that would only enslave him more.
He studied the remaining cues, reaching for and rejecting three before he finally settled on one. Sheesh. It was just a game, for chrissake, not the national billiards championship. But he didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of her and he would love to win and have her tell him about the explosion.
Finally he settled for the best of Archie’s house cues and turned to discover Eve had picked up a tray of balls and was racking them. She knew how to handle balls, too, cupping them gently in each hand as she positioned them in the wooden triangle.
Charlie broke out in a fine sweat. He’d played tired, he’d played sick and he’d played drunk, and he’d still been able to make the shots. But he’d never played aroused, and he had a feeling that could destroy his game.
She positioned the balls precisely, sliding her fingers between the bottom row of balls and the rack to keep the triangle tight. She had the sexiest fingers he’d ever seen in his life. He wanted to suck on them.
Lifting the rack, she glanced at him. “Got a quarter?”
“Yeah, but there’s no jukebox here. Archie decided that – ”
“We need a quarter to toss so we can see who breaks.”
“Oh.” He was losing it fast. He’d been worried that she’d been affected by the explosion, but obviously she was functioning just fine. He was the one acting as if he’d taken a blow to the head. At this rate he’d be lucky to remember which end of the cue stick to use.
“Yeah, I have a quarter,” he said. Digging in his pocket, he produced one and held it over the table as he bounced it in his palm. With the way his reflexes felt, he didn’t trust himself to catch it, so he’d let it land on the table. “Your call.”
The quarter dropped tail-side up on the green felt. “Tails. Your break.”
“Okey-doke.” She leaned his stick carefully against the cue rack and pulled out a house cue for the break.
Could this woman be any more perfect? On top of her X-rated mouth, intelligent eyes and sexy fingers, she understood that you didn’t use a custom cue for the break. He had to hope that she wasn’t interested in him, because if she had even a smidgen of attraction going on, his plan to move to Nevada was in serious jeopardy.
As she lined up for the break, he stood at the opposite end of the table staring like a love-struck fool. She handled that stick like a pro, but it was the wiggle in her butt as she concentrated on the cue ball that made his equipment twitch. The break came fast and furious, scattering balls to every corner of the table and dropping two solids.
“Nice break,” he said. He would call it a spectacular break, but she might think he was patronizing her.
“Thanks.” She retrieved his cue, adjusted her glasses and lined up for another shot.
It was a fairly easy one, so he wasn’t too worried when she made it. But when she executed a complicated combination, he began to wonder if he’d fall without firing a shot. She could run the table.
If he’d thought he’d beat her and get the answer to his explosion question, he had another think coming. He was more likely to get his ass whipped. Reaching for his beer, he took a couple of fortifying swallows. In the process he happened to glance over at the bar and noticed Archie leaning on it watching with a big smile on his face.
Suddenly Charlie had a horrible thought. Archie was old enough to be Eve’s father, but he’d never let little details like that stop him. As much as Charlie loved Archie, he didn’t love the idea of Archie putting the moves on Eve. Charlie had seen her first, dammit. But Charlie was going to Nevada. Wasn’t he?
He became so absorbed in thinking about leaving town right when he’d discovered the perfect woman that he didn’t notice that Eve had stopped shooting. And wonder of wonders, she still had one ball on the table. It wasn’t all over.
“Your turn,” she said, walking over to retrieve her beer.
Brushing away the unwelcome thought that she might have missed on purpose to make him feel better, he put down his beer and evaluated the situation to see if he could still save himself. He might have a chance if he planned his shots carefully and didn’t look at her while she sipped from that Sam Adams bottle.
Her mouth should come with a warning label. One glance and several suggestive thoughts popped into his head. Worse yet, those knowing eyes of hers seemed to be reading his mind. No doubt she could easily spot the lust in his expression after years of having men drool over her.
But because he was interested in her brain, not to mention her ability to play pool, he liked to think his interest was different, more intellectual, more discerning. Yeah, right. That’s why he was gazing at her mouth and dreaming about blow jobs. He was the soul of subtle.
With great effort he focused on the balls on the table and told the ones in his pants to cool down so he could concentrate. Nothing good could come from muffing his first shot. A guy with his own pool cue and a habit of practicing every afternoon after work had better come up with the goods.
Fortunately he managed to knock something in, and the technique wasn’t half-bad, either. He’d put a satisfying amount of backspin on the cue ball so that it lined up perfectly for his next move.
“Nice screw shot,” she said.
“Thanks.” He should have guessed she’d know what to call it. Now if only that particular word coming out of her mouth hadn’t given him a boner, everything would be ducky.
“You’re good,” she said. “You have a nice steady rhythm.”
Oh, man. Since when had everything turned into a sexual reference? “Thanks,” he said again and swallowed a groan of frustration.
“I can see why Archie thought I should get a handicap.”
“I’m the one who needs the handicap.” And he had a doozy pressing against the fly of his jeans.
“Nah. You’re doing great.”
“I will be if I don’t give you any more shots.” He pictured how deflated he’d feel if he lost, and that helped his buddy deflate some, too. He knocked in one ball, then managed to sink another. Finally he had a groove going, until he hit a ball too hard because he was showing off. Instead of sliding into the pocket, the ball bounced off the rail. Well, at least he’d blocked her shot.
She put down her beer and wiped her hands on her overalls before she picked up his cue stick. He really liked that she was so careful with it. Then she did the stroking thing, caressing the shaft of his stick, and he was in trouble again.
“I really love your stick,” she said.
He almost choked. He managed to say thanks, although he sounded like the Godfather.
“However, I’m not going to use your stick for this one.” She walked over to the wall rack and leaned his pool cue carefully against one of the prongs.
Her walk was getting to him, too, he realized. Made sense. She walked for a living, prowling down runways while wearing the latest fashion. She was paid to look sexy doing it, and by now her walk was probably ingrained and unconscious. But he was extremely conscious . . . of every sway of her hips, every nonchalant shrug of her shoulders.
She wasn’t particularly chesty, or at least she didn’t seem to be. Hard to tell in the bulky pink sweater and overalls. But chances were she wasn’t hugely endowed because most models weren’t. That should mean Archie wasn’t interested, yet he was still leaning on the bar looking quite interested.
As for Charlie, he didn’t care whether a woman was stacked or not. He was intrigued with how they moved, which might have something to do with his engineering background. Eve moved with smooth precision, all parts synchronized. That worked for Charlie.
“I’ll try this one.” Eve took down the jump cue.
Charlie’s eyes widened. Was she seriously expecting to go over or around his ball? He’d practiced both the swerve and the jump, but he didn’t feel confident about either of those shots. If she did . . . then she was way out of his league.
Sure enough, she lifted the butt end of that jump cue and came down on the cue ball with the stroke of an expert.
Charlie let out a low whistle as the cue ball traced a semi-circle around his ball, hit her ball and drove it into the side pocket. “Where the hell did you learn how to play pool like that?”
“From my dad. He was a hot-shot bar player back in the seventies.”
“I’ll just bet he was.” Charlie watched as the inevitable happened and Eve dropped the eight ball neatly into the corner pocket. He didn’t like losing, but at least he’d lost to a worthy opponent. “Congratulations.”
She smiled at him as she returned his custom cue to the rack. “Thanks.”
He hung onto the house stick. “So much for me getting that explanation, though. How about best two out of three?”
“I might beat you again.”
He certainly believed that. “Then we can move on to best three out of five. Who knows, I could get lucky.” Then he heard himself. “At pool. Lucky at pool.”
“I knew that’s what you meant.” She gazed at him. “But it might not work, you know.”
His hopes faded. “And you don’t feel like hanging around.”
“Well, yes, I do. But you don’t have to beat me at pool to get an explanation. I –”
The front door of the tavern opened with a loud bang and three men came in, laughing and joking as they stomped snow off their shoes.
At first Charlie was irritated by the intrusion. Talk about your lousy timing. Then he took a closer look at the men. No. Couldn’t be. But it was. In the lead was none other than his cousin Rick, who was supposed to be in LA.
Charlie hadn’t seen Rick in more than a year, but he hadn’t changed much. He was still tanned and fit, his brown hair streaked either by the sun or a hairdresser. Rick would never say which. In any case, the sun was beginning to trace crow’s feet around Rick’s lady-killer brown eyes. Still, the guy looked good. He always had.
“Surprise!” Rick grabbed Charlie’s hand, pulled him into a quick hug and turned him loose. “Bet you didn’t expect to see me walk through that door, today, cuz!”
“Nope, sure didn’t. I pictured you lying on the beach at Malibu next to Heidi Klum.” Charlie battled the conflicting emotions he always felt when Rick was around. Charlie was only two months older, so they’d grown up like brothers, alternating between loyal friendship and bitter rivalry. Back when they were teenagers, Rick always got the girls and Charlie always got the grades.
“Lying on the beach?” Rick laughed. “Don’t I wish! Instead I have to scout out a location for a winter fashion spread.”
“Does anyone know you’re in town?” Charlie was aware of Eve standing back by the pool table. Soon common courtesy would dictate that he bring her into the conversation, and he didn’t want to. Rick would change the dynamic.
“I stopped at the bakery,” Rick said. “Mom and Aunt Rose told me you’d be over here. Listen, we have to talk about that bakery, man. But first, let me introduce you to my assistants. This here’s Manny Flores and the short dude is Kyle Harrington.”
Charlie shook hands with each of them. Manny was tall and rangy, a mix of Hispanic and Anglo, while Kyle was short and compact, a Doug Flutie type who looked as if he would be quick on his feet. Rick must be doing well if he had two assistants trailing him around.
And now Charlie was obliged to introduce Eve. “This is Eve Dupree,” he said. “Eve, this is my cousin, Rick Bannister.”
As Eve came forward, Rick flashed his very white smile. “Eve? I thought it looked like you! We did that Chico’s shoot together at Dana Point about four, maybe five years ago. Yeah, I think it was five, come to think of it. Time flies, and all that.”
Charlie sighed. It figured that Rick would know her, which gave him an even bigger advantage. Charlie took some comfort in the fact that Eve’s face didn’t light up right away, though.
Instead she gazed thoughtfully at Rick as if trying to pin down the occasion. “Was that the time we got rained out and all ended up in a little bar drinking wine for two hours?”
“That’s it.” Rick stepped forward and held out his hand. “It’s great to see you again. Small world, huh?”
“Sure is.” Eve shook his hand. Then Rick repeated the introduction of his two assistants, and Eve shook their hands, too.
Obviously Rick was damned proud of those assistants, since he kept introducing them every five minutes. Charlie had to admit it was impressive, traveling with a retinue. Strangely enough, Eve didn’t seem all that impressed. She acted hesitant, almost wary of Rick.
Charlie hoped that wasn’t because they’d had a thing going on during that Dana Point shoot. Rick was famous for getting horizontal with the models. Charlie didn’t want to believe Eve had been one of Rick’s conquests.
“You know what I remember from that time we spent in the bar?” Rick said.
Charlie didn’t think he wanted to hear this.
“Heaven knows.” Eve laughed nervously. “After two glasses of wine, no telling what I might have said.”
Now Charlie really didn’t want to hear it.
“You got very serious,” Rick said. “And then you told me that you felt as if modeling was a waste of your life. You said if you ever had the time and the space, you’d create a laboratory and invent a manned hovercraft that ran on veggie scraps. I never forgot that. What a concept.”
Charlie stared at Eve. Judging from her red face, he knew what had caused the explosion in her garage. So Rick had heard all about it five years ago. Charlie’s jaw clenched. Some things never changed. When it came to women, Rick was ahead of the game every damned time. And Charlie was sick of playing second fiddle.