The neon sign outside had said "Joe’s". She wondered which of the two males serving drinks and an occasional meal might be Joe. Not that she really cared, but generally she preferred conferring with the owner, rather than staff.
"Can I stand you a drink?" An intruder already. Just great. God, she wished she had a hotel mini-bar at her disposal. She turned her head to face the man. Hazel eyes regarded her from above a charming smile. She wasn’t in the mood for charming.
"On one condition," she glared. "Surprise me, and if you fail to please, I’ll kick your ass."
Despite her aggressive glare, the broad-shouldered man smiled. He seemed genuinely amused. Dumb ass. "If I do, you’re free to try." He turned to the bartender. "Joe! Two of the usual." So that was Joe. The limping one with the salt-and-pepper hair.
"The usual" turned out to be Glenmorangie. Pricey taste, this guy. The bottle remained with them. "Not a bad choice", Miss Parker conceded and downed hers in one gulp.
"They’re all bad." Her voice sounded tired, she couldn’t stop it from showing through.
"Then you’re leading the wrong life." He stared ahead of him for just a thoughtful second, then shot back his scotch, too.
He refilled their glasses, while she stared at him. Nobody ever dared tell her anything like that. It was true, of course, but normally people were afraid to speak up at all in her vicinity. And when they did, she made them regret it. Normally.
This one wasn’t so timid, if the drink was anything to go by. The scotch warmed her belly and allowed her to relax just a tiny bit further. To be a little mellower than usual. Felt good.
She gave the stranger her trademark alligator smile and replied, "Yeah, maybe. Family business, what can you do?"
He sighed and nodded. No contradiction. That suggested first-hand experience.
Better not ask. She was tired of the topic. No, actually, she wanted to get the hell away from it. She emptied the second glass and set it down sharply. Enough. "Let’s talk about something else."
"Any suggestions?" The hazel eyes searched her and asked another question. She couldn’t pinpoint it, though.
"Why does a sexy stranger like you frequent a place like this? With your expensive taste, you should be in a downtown bar."
He gave something halfway between a sneer and a laugh. "No. There’s a difference between expensive taste and an appreciation for the finer things in life. Joe’s has those in abundance."
She looked around and took in the smoky air, the faded décor, worn-down edges on pieces of furniture. Not one of the patrons wore a business suit, save herself. Not one really expensive dress. A few pretty ones here and there, but generally speaking, the audience was all casual wear, denims and flannel shirts, cotton dresses. "Not my world."
"Not the world you live the wrong life in?" There was humour in his baritone voice that took the edge off the question, but he was serious enough. For the second time he had challenged her. What was wrong with this guy?
"If you aren’t careful, I’ll have to kick your ass after all," she threatened mildly.
He seemed even more amused. "I already told you: Feel free to try."
"In here?" she snorted. "You’re nuts, right?"
Now that he realised she was beginning to mean that threat, his amusement died a sudden death. His hazel eyes reflected no anger, though. Only concern. "You clearly need to take your frustration out somewhere. I’ve got a few sandbags to offer for that."
Miss Parker envied the man for his steady calm. Maybe releasing this simmering targetless anger was a good idea, after all. Her eyes narrowed. "I’ll take you up on that offer. But those sandbags better exist."
Her words were met with another calm smile. Either he was too dense to realise she was serious, or he thought he could handle her. Or he simply did have the sandbags. He’d better.
With a sinking heart, Joe watched MacLeod leave. Standing not far from Duncan and his new acquaintance he had heard most of their conversation. Oddly, they hadn’t even introduced themselves before leaving together. He didn’t really like the look of this.
Ah, no, he really didn’t, even though he was quite sure the woman was a mortal. The truth was, he didn’t fear for Duncan’s head, but for his heart. And maybe his wallet. The attractive young lady had an air of aggression that might be fun in bed, but hardly at the breakfast table. And for all that he’d been through, when it came to women Duncan seemed unable to guard his heart.
Well, he’d live. And who knew, maybe Duncan just knew how to handle her. She had seemed on the verge of exploding a couple of times, after all, and yet she’d come along with Mac meekly enough. The famous MacLeod charm was a mighty fine talent.
Either way, it was no good standing around here, pondering MacLeod’s fate. Tomorrow he’d learn more, and for now, his mind needed to be on tending the bar.
"So you didn’t lie. This explains a lot." It did. The guy had a dojo of his own. Probably fancied himself a good fighter. No wonder he had taken her earlier aggression lightly. Sure, her micro-miniskirt was short enough to allow her long legs free movement. All the same, thin and on high heels, she didn’t look much of a threat to a man as well-knit as he was, if he knew what he was doing.
While she was gazing at him, sizing him up, he told her, "Of course I didn’t lie. What would be the point?"
It was at that moment that over his shoulder she caught sight of something behind him. Was that...
Yes, it was a fencing mask. Not one of those she was used to, since actually it was a Kendo mask. She side-stepped the man obstructing her sight and came up face-to-face with a complete Kendo outfit adorning the wall. She went closer and saw it wasn’t fixed there, just a simple hanger hung from the nail holding the mask up. Clearly the kendo gear only hung here when it wasn’t used.
Suddenly her mind was full of images from the months she had spent with friends in Japan after her mother had died.
Her fingers slid over the mask tenderly, but the face she wished they might touch was far away, not part of her life anymore. "Tommy" Tanaka. She still knew the man it belonged to, but he had changed. He had come to the states and had become a Yakuza like his father. He was no longer the cheerful boy that had always made her giggle and forget her sorrow.
"I guessed you were more into the European type of fencing." The baritone yanked her back out of her reverie. He was standing right behind her now, and his hand slipped around her waist. The hard muscles of his abdomen actually felt quite nice against her back.
"I am," she retorted, but even to herself her voice sounded distant. "Decent fencing partners are hard to find, though."
"Want to try me?"
Turning around to face him, she felt the predatory smile return to her lips and chuckled, "Of course. I promised to kick your ass, didn’t I?" She laughed throatily. "Bet I can make you sweat some."
Surely her smile had left him in no doubt as to her intentions, but he didn’t take his cue. "Tomorrow morning?"
Still no kiss, no hand moving to explore her buttocks or her bosom. Instead, he said, "I don’t even know your name."
She shook her head. "No names. Just some fun, that’s all."
He stepped back, his jaw hardening. "You don’t even want to know my name. Is that so you can’t give me a call should you want to see me again? Are you married?"
She broke into laughter. The thought seemed so absurd it would never have occurred to her. "Married to my job maybe. And trust me, if I need to find you, I will, name or not." The Centre could find anyone, anywhere.
He nodded, acceptance in his pursed lips. "Then what are you afraid of?"
"Afraid?" She rolled her eyes. "Seen through me, Dr. Freud, have you?" Arrogant prick!
Quietly but sternly he inquired, "Then why it is that you will not give away so much as your first name?"
Her smile was meant to be sarcastic, but somehow a shade of sadness managed to steal into it. How did he do that? Nobody ever got her perfect mask to slip!
"Only my father knows my first name. To everyone else, I’m just Miss Parker." Well, that wasn’t quite true. Jarod knew, damn him.
At last his face slowly neared hers, readying for a kiss. A large hand settled on her arm, another stroked her hair, caressed her jaw. His tenderness took her strength and left her feeling powerless. The one thing she never wanted to feel again. The way he cupped her chin, made tears rise from the bottom of her belly. It took a great effort and all her practise to suppress them.
"Don’t be so gentle." It sounded like an order, but she knew that in truth she was begging. Worst of all, this hunk quite possibly saw through the charade and recognised the request for what it was. She wished she’d picked some horny idiot who didn’t care a fig who he was getting laid with. And anyway, what was it with this guy that stopped her from looking down on him? Why couldn’t she just either sneer or succumb? Whatever the reason, she couldn’t deal with his caresses. Not like this.
"I need it rough."
He stopped moving in for the kiss, kissed her forehead instead. "Then I think we’d better just fence." He turned her his back and walked a few steps before he turned to look at her. "Tomorrow." God, how much more frustrating could this day get?
"What?" Irritation had made her ask the wrong question. "Why?" Did she seriously want to know?
"You wanted me for being in the right place at the right time." The hazel eyes pierced her, dared her to contradict. She had no contradiction to offer. "That’s not enough. You’ll have to accept me as I am. I come as is, and I won’t pretend to be someone else."
No pretender, huh? Maybe she was the one who needed to pretend. To be someone else.
But not tonight. Tonight it was too late to try. She had lost the battle.
Yes, she had lost the battle, but not the war. Retreat, regroup, attack from the flank. "I’m not free tomorrow. But I’ll call you next time I come to Seacouver. Maybe then we can fence."
Maybe then we can...