Vendors strolled the street, selling their wares to children who danced in and out of the waiting crowd like court jesters.
Hannah was amused by their antics when little managed to cheer her those days. She was so caught up in the activities going on around her that she wasn’t watching where she was walking. Before she realized what she was doing, she stumbled headlong into a solid male chest. For an instant she assumed she’d blundered into a brick wall. The pair of strong hands that caught her shoulders convinced her otherwise. His grip tightened to keep her from stumbling backward.
"I’m sorry," she mumbled, once she’d found her voice. He was a sailor. One tall and muscular sailor. As nonsensical as it seemed, he had the look of a pirate about him – bold and daring. His hair was as dark as his eyes. He wasn’t strikingly handsome; his features were too sharp, too craggy for that. Then his finely shaped mouth curved into a faint smile, flashing white, even teeth.
"I’m… sorry," she stammered again, staring up at him, embarrassed at the way she’d been openly appraising him. She couldn’t help being curious. He seemed so aloof, so withdrawn that she felt forced to embellish. "I wasn’t watching where I was going." She offered him a feeble smile, and when he dropped his hands, she blushed and looked away.
"You weren’t hurt?"
"No… no, I’m fine. What about you?"
"No problem." His gaze swept over her, and he moved on without saying another word.
Following the brief encounter, Hannah decided it would be best if she stood in one place. She selected a vantage point that offered her a good view of the parade, which was just beginning.
With mild interest she viewed the mayor and several other public officials as they rode by, sitting atop polished convertibles. She lost count of the number of bands and performing drill teams that passed. A fire-flashing baton twirler was followed by a variety of enchanting floats.
Enthralled almost against her will, Hannah stayed until the very end, when it was well past dark. The crowds had started to disperse, and hoping the station wagon was no longer blocked, she headed down the steep hills toward the Mission House. Since there were still people about, she didn’t think there’d be a problem of being alone in a bad section of town. But as she neared the Mission House, she discovered there were only a few cars left parked in the area. Soon there was no one else in sight.
When she first noticed the twin shadows following her she was pleased, naively thinking there was safety in numbers. But when she turned and noted the way the two were closing in on her, with menacing looks and walks, she knew she was in trouble.
As she approached the street on which the Mission House was located, she noted that the pair was still advancing. Quickening her pace, she clenched her purse to her side. An eerie sensation ran up and down her spine, and the taste of dread mingled with a growing sense of alarm filled her mouth.
Although she was moving as fast as she could without breaking into a run, the pair was gaining. She’d been a fool to separate herself from the crowds. She hadn’t been thinking right. Again and again her father had warned her about such foolishness. Maybe she had a death wish. But if that were the case, then why was she so terribly afraid? She trembled, her heart was pounding like a storm trooper’s.
The instant she saw the lights of a waterfront bar, Hannah breathed a little easier. She rushed forward and slipped inside grimacing as she walked straight into a thick wall of cigarette smoke.
Men lined the bar, and it seemed that every one of them had turned to stare at her. Beer bottles were clenched in their hands, some raised halfway to their mouths, frozen in motion. A pool table at the back of the room captured her attention, as did the handful of men dressed in black leather who stood around it holding on to cue sticks. One glance told Hannah they were probably members of a motorcycle gang.
Wonderful. She’d leaped out of the frying pan directly into the roaring flames. Hannah sucked in her breath and tried to behave naturally, as though she often wandered into waterfront bars. It seemed, however, that she’d become the center of attention.
It was then that she saw him – the sailor she’d bumped into earlier that evening. He was sitting at a table, nursing a drink, his gaze centered on the glass. He seemed to be the only one in the room unaware of her.
Where she found the courage to approach him, Hannah never questioned. Squaring her shoulders, she moved across the room and placed her hand on the chair opposite him. "Is this seat taken?"
He looked up, and his eyes lit with surprise before a frown darkened his piratical features. The only thing that made him less threatening than the others in the room was the fact he wore a sailor’s uniform.
Not waiting for his reply, Hannah pulled out the chair and promptly sat down. Her knees were shaking so badly she didn’t know if she could stand upright much longer.
"Two men were following me," she explained. Her hands continued to tremble, and she pushed the hair away from her face. "I don’t mean to be rude, but it made sense to scoot in here." She hesitated and looked around her, noting once again the menacing-looking men at the bar. "At least it did at the time."
"Why’d you choose to sit with me?" He seemed to find the fact somewhat amusing. The corner of his mouth lifted in a half smile, but she wasn’t sure it was one of welcome.
Why had she chosen him? "You were the only one not wearing leather and spikes," she said, but in retrospect she’d wondered what it was that had caused her to approach him. The fact she recognized him from earlier in the evening was part of the answer, she was convinced of that. Yet there was something more. He was so intense, so compelling, and she’d sensed integrity in him.
A half grin had widened into a full one at her comment about him being the only one there not wearing leather and chains.
He raised his hand, and the waitress appeared. "Two of the same."
"I don’t know if that would be a good idea," Hannah said. She intended to stay only long enough to discourage the pair waiting for her outside.
"You’re shaking like a leaf."
Hannah didn’t argue with him. It would do little good, and he was right. She continued to tremble, but she wasn’t completely convinced fear was the reason. Even then, something deep inside her had known. Not consciously, of course. It was as though some deep inner part of herself had reached out to this stranger. Intuitively she’d known he would never harm her. The waitress delivered two amber-colored drinks. Hannah didn’t have a clue what she was tasting. All she did know was that a small sip of it was potent enough to burn all the way down her throat and settle in her stomach like a ball of fire. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, just potent.
"Do you have a name?" the sailor asked her.
"Hannah. What about you?"
She grinned, intrigued by the name. "Riley Murdock," she repeated slowly. She watched as he raised the glass to his lips and was struck by how sensuous his mouth was. With some folks, Hannah had noted over the years, the eyes were the most expressive feature. One look at her father’s eyes and she could easily read his mood. Riley was different. His eyes were blank. Impersonal. But his mouth competently telegraphed his thoughts. He was intrigued with her, amused. The way the corners turned up just slightly told her as much.
"Are you here for Seafair?" she asked, making polite conversation. A second sip burned a path down the back of her throat.
He nodded. "We’re only in port for the next few days."
"So, how do you like Seattle?" She was beginning to grow warm. It was a good feeling that radiated out from the pit of her stomach, and it had the most peculiar effect on her. It relaxed Hannah. The tension eased from between her shoulder blades and the stiffness left her arms. She was a little dizzy, but that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, either.
"Seattle’s all right." Murdock sounded like a man who’d been in too many ports to appreciate one over another. He finished the last of the his drink and, not wanting him to think she was unappreciative, Hannah sipped from her own. Actually, once she grew accustomed to the flavor, the taste was mellow and smooth. It still burned, but the fire was warm and gentle. Welcome.
"Finish your drink and I’ll walk you to your car," Murdock offered.
Hannah was grateful. It took her several minutes to down the potent liquor, but he was patient. He didn’t seem to be the talkative sort and that suited her. She wasn’t interested in conversation any more than he was.
If the two men who’d followed her were waiting for her outside, Hannah didn’t see them. She was glad. A confrontation was something she wanted to avoid, although she was surprised by how formidable Riley Murdock looked when he stood. He was easily six feet if not an inch or two taller. And rock solid. His arms weren’t bulging with muscles, but there was a strength in him that Hannah had sensed from the moment she’d first seen him. A physical strength, yes, but a substantial emotional fortitude, as well. Although she wasn’t good at judging ages, she guessed him to be somewhere in his early thirties. Light-years beyond her twenty-three.
Moonlight cascaded over the street as they started walking. The sky was filled with stars as though someone had scattered diamond dust across endless yards of black satin. Riley rested his hand on her shoulder in a protective, possessive gesture that Hannah found comforting. If she were to shut her eyes, she could almost pretend it was Jerry at her side and not some sailor she barely knew. He was so near, so strong, and being with him, standing this close, blocked out the sharp edges of the pain that had dominated her life these past few weeks.
For the first time since her father had come to break the news to her about Jerry, the dull ache was gone. It felt so good not to hurt, so pleasant that she didn’t want this time to end. Not so soon. Not yet.
An unexplainable comfort radiated from her shoulder where Riley had placed his hand. His touch was light, gentle, nonthreatening. Hannah had to force herself to lean into him and absorb his strength. It felt so good to have him at her side, so strong and reassuring.
They paused at a street corner and Hannah glanced up at him; her gaze slid warmly into his. She smiled briefly, feeling a little shy and awkward, yet at the same time more bold than she could ever remember being. It was the drink, she told herself, that had lent her the courage to behave the way she had.
From the corner of her eye she noticed the light change, but neither moved. He was openly studying her, reading her. Hannah boldly met his gaze. Gently his hand slid up the side of her neck. She closed her eyes and slowly, seductively, rubbed her chin across the tops of his fingers in a catlike motion. Warm sensations enveloped her and she smiled contentedly. This was what she’d had before and lost. Heaven help her, she needed something to hold on to through the years, something that could never be taken away from her the way Jerry had been. If she were to be damned for seizing the moment, then so be it. Without thinking, without calculating her actions, she turned and placed her arms around Riley’s neck, stood on the tips of her toes and kissed him. She knew from his reaction that she’d taken him by surprise. Hannah had never done anything more brazen in her life. She guessed there were subtler ways of letting him know what she wanted, but she was a novice at this and was reacting to impulse and not reason.