NONE OF THE WOMEN in the Shipwreck looked like wife material to Joe.
The usual crowd filled the tavern: sun-burned beach bums, a few arty types, some Navy guys and the standard allotment of amateur fishermen, professional fishermen and big talkers eager to regale any sucker who wandered by with stories about the one that got away. The Shipwreck’s female clientele fell into similar categories—boaters, Navy personnel, beach bunnies, artistes. Joe knew at least half of them. The other half he figured he probably didn’t want to know.
“She’ll be here,” Kitty promised, sidling up to the bar and slapping down her tray. “I need two rum-runners and a Cutty on ice.”
Joe wrenched his attention from the noisy, dimly lit room, with its knotted plank flooring, its walls draped with weathered nets, and its ceiling equipped with broad-blade fans that churned the sticky air without doing much to cool it. In front of him the bar stretched left and right, his personal chest-high fortress. In front of the bar stood Kitty, his head waitress. Despite the heat, her skin was dry, her platinum-blond hair only the slightest bit droopy.
“Two rum-runners and a Cutty on ice,” he repeated, reaching for glasses. “What time did you tell her to come?”
“I didn’t. She’ll get here when she gets here, okay?”
“This is important, you know.”
Kitty snorted. “If it’s all that important, why don’t you marry me?”
Grinning, Joe cascaded a generous portion of scotch over the ice cubes in a highball glass. “That would make me, what? Your fourth husband?”
“Fifth, but who’s counting?”
“You know I love you, Kitty. But you’re exactly what I don’t need right now.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” She returned his grin, then waltzed off, her tray balanced above her shoulder on one splayed hand. Joe observed the sway of her hips with detached admiration. She had big curves top and bottom, and she dressed in clothing that flaunted them—tonight, a snug T-shirt and fire-engine red shorts. Her legs were a tad thick, but her other dimensions were superlative enough to overcome that flaw. She probably would have been even more attractive if she didn’t bleach her hair. Toward the end of every month, the dark roots made her look a little seedy.
Joe and Kitty had slept together once, years ago—between her second and third husbands, if he wasn’t mistaken. But they hadn’t set the world on fire, and they’d decided that from that point on they would be just friends. In any case, a four-times married bleached-blond woman whose brassiere cups runneth over wasn’t the kind of woman Joe needed right now.
He needed someone proper and demure, someone stable and respectable and…boring. The woman Joe was looking for had to be bland and inoffensive. No dark roots, no wise-ass sense of humor, no D-cup bra and sassy hip-wiggling. The woman he was going to marry had to be exactly the sort of woman he’d never bother with, if he had any choice in the matter.
But he didn’t have a choice.
When she’d arrived at the Shipwreck for her shift that evening, Kitty had told him she’d found exactly the woman for him. “She moved into my building just a few days ago. Unattached, quiet, keeps to herself. I ran into her in the laundry room, introduced myself and said, ‘I know a guy who’s looking for a lady just like you.’”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. She just kinda flinched.”
“Great,” Joe had snorted. At five o’clock, the bar had begun to perk up. The early-bird drinkers had staggered home to sleep off whatever they’d spent the daylight hours imbibing, and the evening drinkers were starting to trickle in. Joe had been filling bowls with peanuts when Kitty had sashayed in through the back door and filed her report on this new neighbor of hers.
“No, listen,” Kitty had continued. “It wasn’t you she was flinching about. I said to her, ‘The guy in question is my boss, and he’s desperate to get married.’”
“Terrific,” Joe had muttered. “You paint me as desperate, and she flinches at the mere thought of meeting me. You have such a way with people, Kitty.”
Kitty had brushed off his sarcasm. “Damned right I do. Who gets the best tips around here?”
“They’re tipping your anatomy, not your personality.”
“Whatever works. So anyway, so I said, ‘Why don’t you mosey on over to the Shipwreck tonight and check him out? He doesn’t bite.’”
“That must have really reassured her.”
“All right, look, you don’t want my help? Just say the word, Joe. Stay single and see where that gets you.”
Where that would get him was alone and bereft. His lawyer had told him that if he wanted to hold onto Lizard he would have to clean up his act and settle down, attach himself to a good woman and create a stable family situation. Joe knew all the good women in Key West. Most of them were married, and the rest, like Kitty, presented the sort of image that would have the majority of family court judges delivering Lizard to the Prescotts in no time flat. If this new neighbor of Kitty’s worked out, Joe would be eternally grateful.
He wished he’d had more than a few hours’ warning that he was going to be meeting a prospective bride that night. He’d showed up at the bar wearing his everyday garb—a loose cotton shirt, old jeans and sneakers without socks. If he’d known Kitty had invited a woman to stop by and meet him, he would have dressed in something a little nicer—and he would have shaved. As a rule he shaved only every third day. Tonight was day two.
He surveyed the room again. Two women huddled in front of the juke box, their backs to him. Even in the dull amber light he recognized one of them from the pink-rose patch on the hip pocket of her shorts. Sabrina would have made a good wife, he supposed—at least she would have been a pleasure to find in his bed after a long day. She and Joe had been an item several years ago. But one long weekend, when he’d tagged along with a couple of buddies doing a round-trip sailing jaunt to Miami, Sabrina had taken up with a biker. Sabrina had given him the boot after a few weeks, but her attempt to reconcile with Joe had gotten kind of complicated, and then Lizard had arrived, and Joe had found himself with more important things to worry about.
Sabrina had been damned good in bed, though—even if she had lousy taste in music, a fact he was reminded of when she shoved her quarters into the juke box and the room filled with the nasal whine of one of those one-named girl singers. Someday when Joe had a free minute, he was going to yank all the whiny-one-named-girl discs out of the juke box so he’d never have to listen to them again.
Scanning the crowd once more, he noticed a woman entering the bar. She was on the heavy side, maybe a few years his senior, her hair a dark halo of frizz in the humid heat. Okay, he thought magnanimously. Assuming she wasn’t too much older than him, she’d do. If Joe were to marry someone past, say, forty, a judge might not view it as a stable family situation. But mid-thirties probably wasn’t too old. And so what if his wife wasn’t exactly heart-stopping gorgeous? This was strictly business. Joe didn’t have to love the woman. He just had to marry her.
He watched her weave among the tables, heading toward him. Turning away, he checked his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. What with the atmospheric lighting and rows of liquor bottles lining the shelves in front of the mirror, he couldn’t see much, and what he did see registered pretty low on the first-impression scale. He ran his fingers through his long, shaggy hair, scowled at the bristle of beard shading his jaw, and straightened out his shirt. Spinning back, he presented the woman with what he hoped was a congenial smile.
Except that she wasn’t there to receive it. She had joined a group of guys at a table near the back. In fact, she was perched on one man’s lap.
Suffering a twinge of regret tempered with relief, he nodded to Lois, his other primo waitress, as she hollered at him for a couple of Buds. He snapped off the tops of two bottles, set them and a pair of iced mugs on her tray, and sent her off to serve her customers.
No sooner had she departed than Kitty was back, requesting two pina coladas. Joe busied himself with the blender. He didn’t say a word, but Kitty apparently read volumes in his silence, because she said, “Stop worrying. She’ll be here.”
“What does she look like?” he asked, recalling with some shame his immediate response to the frizzy-haired woman who’d come in.
“What do you mean, what does she look like?” Kitty arranged the frosty drinks on her tray and grinned slyly. “She’s nowhere near as pretty as me, of course. But you could do worse. As a matter of fact—” she lifted the tray into its one-handed perch “—you have done worse.”
“Thanks.” He watched Kitty saunter back into the crowd, then rinsed out the blender. His gaze strayed to the clock on the back wall. It resembled a ship’s wheel, with thick wooden bars radiating out from a hub. It was actually quite tacky, which was why he’d bought it for the Shipwreck. Tacky was the ambiance he was aiming for.
Right now the clock wasn’t just tacky; it was annoying. It read nine-fifty-three. If this lady friend of Kitty’s couldn’t get her butt down to the bar at a reasonable hour, when the subject was as momentous as her potential marriage to Joe, she wasn’t going to work out. Joe was used to night owls, but he doubted a night-owl woman would make a wife decent and demure and proper enough to persuade a judge to let Joe keep Lizard.
Brick arrived through the back door. Joe called a greeting to his second-in-command, and Brick grunted in response. Grunting was about the limit of Brick’s communication skills, but he made the best tequila sunrises on the island, and at the Shipwreck such a talent was considered far more important than eloquence.
A trio of women entered the bar. Joe knew them all. He’d dated them all. One of them waved to him as the threesome worked their way through the room, looking for a table.
“Two shots of Cutty, neat!”
“I need a Stinger, a Boxcar and a Gimlet!”
“Three rum-and-Cokes, hold the Coke!”
“A glass of chardonnay.”
The noise level had increased as the ship’s-wheel clock rounded ten p.m., and Joe’s skull was starting to echo. All the stools along the bar were occupied; dozens of customers loomed behind those seated, waiting for someone to stand and free up a stool. On the juke box the whining woman was replaced by real music—Van Morrison—and the temperature in the crowded room ratcheted up a few degrees.
Kitty stood at the pick-up station, smiling mysteriously. “I said, a glass of chardonnay.”
“Who in this joint would order white wine?” Joe grumbled, rummaging through one of the refrigerators below the bar for a bottle of the stuff.
“Your fiancée,” Kitty answered.
Joe bolted upright, the chilled bottle clutched in his hand. His heart did a tap dance against his ribs and his throat momentarily squeezed shut. He hated to admit how anxious he was. If this neighbor of Kitty’s didn’t work out, he was going to have to go shopping for a wife on the mainland. Things were getting tight.
Not desperate, though. He wasn’t going to let on—to Kitty or anyone else—that he was close to desperation.
“A white-wine sipper, huh?” he murmured, sliding a goblet from the overhead rack and standing it on Kitty’s tray. “Where is she?”
“Over near the front door. In case she wants to make a quick escape, I guess.”
He peered through the mob of bodies in the dimly lit room, but he couldn’t tell which one she might be. “I’ll bring her drink to her. What’s she wearing?”
“A white dress.”
“What’s her name again?”
“How the hell should I know? I asked her if she’d consider marrying you, not what her last name was.”
“Okay. Brick? Give me ten,” he called to his assistant once he’d poured a hefty dose of wine into the goblet.
Joe managed a smile of thanks for Kitty, although he was feeling uncharacteristically nervous. It wasn’t like him to get twisted in knots over a woman—or over anything, for that matter. Crises came and went, and when they were truly awful, he indulged in some intense moping. But then he got over it. Rolling with the punches was his preferred modus operandi.
But this was different. This was wife-hunting. Joe had never proposed to a woman before, and here he was, about to propose to a total stranger.
Not really propose, he reassured himself, sauntering around the end of the bar and working his way through the throng, barely pausing to acknowledge the greetings the regulars hurled at him. What he was offering the woman was less a proposal than a proposition.
Scratch that. If she was a white-wine sipper in a white dress—already dressed for her wedding, apparently—she wasn’t the sort to be propositioned. He had to approach her in a classy way.
And he didn’t even know her last name, damn it.
“Hey, Joey!” a burly voice reached him from behind. He smiled and waved vaguely, but his gaze was riveted toward the screened front door that opened onto Southard Street. Standing next to it, looking incredibly out of place, was a woman in a white dress.
Not bad, he thought, one set of apprehensions fading and another set kicking in. The white dress she had on resembled a tank shirt that fell to mid-calf, the hem notched a few inches on the side seams. The way the cotton cloth draped her body indicated that she was somewhat lacking in the curves department. Her arms were slim, her shoulders bony. Her feet were strapped into flat leather sandals. Her long, graceful neck was framed in ash-blond hair that fell to her shoulders with barely a ripple. Gold button earrings glinted through the silky locks. A matching gold bangle circled one slender wrist.
Her face was as angular as the rest of her, her nose and chin narrow, her cheeks hollow. Her eyes were a pale silver gray. In fact, all of her had a pale, silver-gray quality. Obviously she was a recent arrival on the island. No one who’d been on Key West for any length of time could stay that pale.
A little washed-out, but definitely an interesting face. Not quite pretty, but intriguing. It was the sort of face a man could look at for a long time without growing tired of it.
Her expression was cautious. Maybe a touch skeptical. Haunted. Those eyes, so large and pale, seemed troubled.
The notion of marriage troubled him more than a little, too. But the alternative—losing Lizard—was far worse.
He took a step closer to her, and another step. In her search of the room, she stared at him, past him, and then at him again. Noticing the wine glass in his hand, she straightened up and eyed him warily. She bit her lip. Her teeth were as white as her dress.
“Hi,” he said, sounding a hell of a lot more confident than he felt. “You must be Pamela. I’m the guy who wants to marry you.”