After all the vengeful years of plotting and planning, and weeks of searching, he thought he’d found her.
Adrian Quinn’s stomach rumbled as he ordered a beer. In his haste to get here after work, he hadn’t stopped to eat. He couldn’t eat. His stomach had twisted in knots so tight he wasn’t certain if the beer would pass through.
His hand crushed the bottle the waiter brought, but his gaze never left the stage. The shaved-head waiter shoved his tip in his pocket and sauntered off. To Adrian, the kid looked too young to work in a bar, but Adrian wasn’t in any position to report him. He sank lower in the cracked vinyl seat of the booth and tried drinking the beer, barely noticing the taste. He hadn’t touched the stuff in years, but in these last few weeks of hunting his prey he’d guzzled enough to dull any desire to drown in it.
The noise level in the barroom had already reached rocket-launch proportions. Tearing his gaze from the unlit platform of the stage, Adrian scanned the almost all male crowd, gauging it as he had learned to do from these last years in confinement with repressed male hostility.
The red and blue bar lights illuminated the smoky haze just enough for him to catch glimpses of weather-seasoned faces. This wasn’t any polite yuppie hang-out where the constant murmur of networking laced through the entertainment. This was a very large, noisy, drinking, brawling, pickup crowd. How the hell had Miss La-De-Da wound up here?
She was a “Miss” now, he remembered. Before, she’d been Mrs. S.O.B.
For the most part, the crowd left him alone. Herd instinct warned them to steer clear of loners, and his naturally brown coloring marked him as alien in their all-white world. He knew how to overcome the obstacle of his mother’s Hispanic origins when he wanted, but he wasn’t in the mood for that game anymore. He had only one purpose hereto find the woman who had ruined his life and return the favor.
Adrian cracked a peanut shell between tense fingers and sought the stage again. The band was moving about, setting up instruments. The last singer had left to a chorus of boos and catcalls. The audience didn’t care for melancholy love songs, it seemed.
He hadn’t even known Tony’s wife could sing. Hell, what he knew about her could fit in a thimble. If it hadn’t been for the conniving old reporter, Headley, he could have spent the rest of his life searching for her.
Or he could have bought a gun on the street and rapped a few skulls until he got what he wanted.
First time around, he would try the peaceful approach. He wasn’t in a hurry to spend any more time behind bars. The black hole of the last four years had already sucked him dry.
The audience stirred restlessly. The tinny noise from the jukebox didn’t provide sufficient vibration to animate more than a tapping toe or two. Two couples in the booth across from him erupted in a name-calling argument. The burly bouncer edged his way through the throng at the horseshoe bar in their direction.
Adrian sank lower in his seat. He was out of his territory. Hell, he was out of his state, violating parole. No one knew him here, but he had no wish to be identified later.
The band began tuning up. The crowd’s roar lessened perceptibly, and all eyes turned toward the stage. Obviously, she wasn’t a newcomer.
He propped his snakeskin boots on the far seat and sipped from his bottle. Those boots had caused him some ribbing years ago, back in Charlotte, in the good ol’ days. But boots were the order of the day here in Knoxville, in this end of town. Maybe he should have a hat, too.
He couldn’t afford one.
He didn’t go down that depressing trail. He’d been broke before. He knew how to persevere against all odds. Hope was what mattered. As long as he had a smidgen of hope to cling to, he would survive.
Hope came in the form of Faith this time. Faith Hope.
Adrian snorted at the incongruous appellation. He assumed it was a stage name. He’d known her as Faith Nicholls back in the days of yore. Even that name hadn’t fit. Faith Dollars might have made sense. Faith Fatbucks. Faith Moneybags. Her kind didn’t deal in nickels and dimes.
Curiosity curled the edges of his mind as the spotlight blinked on. Maybe the beer was working on his empty stomach. He threw another peanut in his mouth and wrapped his fingers around the neck of the bottle. What the hell was Faith Moneybags doing in a dive like this?
Headley had broken the story that had ended in Adrian’s arrest all those years ago. The old reporter had felt responsible or guilty enough to keep in touch ever since. Headley had been the one to tell him Ms. Moneybags walked out on her S.O.B. of a husband long before the trial. Adrian hadn’t known that at the time. Nicholls hadn’t said a word, and once the shit hit, Adrian had been too busy trying to save his own hide to care what his partner’s wife did.
The spotlight changed colors and Adrian popped another peanut as his gut clenched. Would he recognize her after all this time? Last time he’d seen her, she’d looked like the proper SouthPark matron she washer flaxen hair smoothed into a chignon, her red suit screaming “designer,” her nails neatly buffed and polished as she swore on a Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
As the band struck a fast chord with a heavy bass beat, he recognized the tune. The crowd roared, probably more in gratitude at not having to make more small talk than in appreciation for the music. If that was her signature tune, it wasn’t very original.
Adrian had his doubts that he had the right woman, but Headley had sworn she was in Knoxville and that he’d heard reports she’d been singing in bars. That meant some of Headley’s drunken cronies had seen someone who looked like her, but if she used the name Faith—
The cymbals crashed, the guitar hit a screeching crescendo, and the spotlight burned red.
Adrian nearly crushed the bottle neck as Faith Hope strolled on stage, belting out a familiar country refrain.
He didn’t hear the song. He strained to see the Stepford Wife he knew behind the white leather miniskirt, sequined vest, bouncing blond locks, and red knee-high boots. Only the red silk shirt hinted at the woman he wanted to see. He didn’t recognize her, but he’d never really met Faith Nicholls. He’d seen her in the office occasionally, saw her once at the trial. This couldn’t be her.
Disappointment washed over him as the singer crooned a song of love, her blond shoulder-length hair swinging with the beat. She already had toes tapping and heels stomping. She didn’t look any older than the damned waiter.
How in hell did that enormous voice exist in such a delicate package?
Adrian would have ripped the cap off the bottle with his teeth if the waiter hadn’t already removed it. His blood simmered and settled in his groin as he studied the slender bundle of energy on the stage. She probably wasn’t being deliberately seductive. She’d covered nearly every inch of her but the long legs, and she wore boots to deemphasize them.
He’d considered banging the first willing female he found as soon as the prison gates opened, but life had gotten in the way. That had been a mistake. As Faith Hope’s voice lowered into a sultry refrain, he practically sizzled in his own juices.
It couldn’t be her. Nothing he had seen of Faith Nicholls had ever caused him to so much as blink an eyelash, and not just because she’d been his partner’s wife. He didn’t like dainty blondes. People shorter than him made him feel like a gangly youth.
But the woman on stage was an irresistible ball of fire. She shouted, she crooned, she laughed and sweet-talked her way into the hearts of every damned man in here. And she wasn’t that great a singer.
Adrian scowled as even that realization didn’t cool his lust. He wasn’t a musician, but he recognized most of the songs because he’d grown up with them blaring out of the radio. She had most of the words right and didn’t mangle the notes badly enough to jar, but a skilled vocalist, she was not. She captured the audience by sheer passion alone.
He watched in awe as she not only silenced the testosterone-laden crowd with the haunting refrains of “Blue Bayou,” but had them weeping in their beer for lost loves and lost places as her voice broke on the chorus. Without missing a beat, she swung into a rocking version of “Rocky Top,” and the crowd stampeded to the dance floor, with or without partners. The woman might not be a musical genius, but she knew her audience.
He couldn’t tolerate the doubt any longer. This couldn’t be Faith Nicholls. Every cell in his brain screamed the impossibility. Respectable society matrons did not descend to stinking, smoky dives to sing for truck drivers and hog farmers. But he couldn’t bear hitting another dead end either. It had to be her. He didn’t know where else to look, and the rest of his life depended on finding her.
Leaving the bottle on the table, Adrian edged around the foot-stomping crowd on the floor. Sticking to the shadows outside the circle of light, he leaned against a massive, vibrating amplifier at stage edge and watched her from a few yards away.
She was all sparkle and light, flashing sequins, flying golden hair, and shimmering stockings over tanned legs. She stroked the microphone and crooned to it in a way that probably aroused every prick in the place. It certainly did wonders for his own.
Wryly, Adrian noted she had a run in her stocking that snaked a thin trail over a leg so shapely a man’s hand could mold it like clay. He wanted to cling to that small evidence of imperfection, prove to his straining groin that she was a woman just like any other, and no goddess capable of restoring his life with the wave of a wand.
But if she was Faith Nicholls, she had that power.
Normally, Faith wouldn’t have noticed a stranger standing in the darkness. She tried not to really see any of the men avidly following her every move. She hated the stares and concentrated on the words and the music. But the intensity of the stranger’s gaze drew her like a magnet. Alone in a crowd, he collected shadows.
Did she know him? Was that why he was staring at her? Faith swung to the other side of the stage, away from him, but the spotlight only allowed so much leeway. She preferred not being recognized, but she’d always known the chance was out there.
Damn, why didn’t he at least move? Out of the corner of her eye she caught the coiled tension in muscled arms folded tightly over a wide chest, giving the lie to his casual pose against the amp. Had he worn a cowboy hat or a workshirt or anything normal, she might disregard him entirely, but in black long-sleeve shirt and jeans, he was a silhouette of hard, sharp edges. He wasn’t the usual city-soft Friday-night cowboy. She caught a glimpse of silver at his ear and the swing of coal-dark hair slicked back in a long ponytail. He had “Danger” imprinted on his forehead as clearly as any flashing road sign.
A beer bottle crashed somewhere in the rear of the bar, jarring her back to attention. On weekend nights the place could explode like a powder keg if not controlled. She could see Egghead elbowing his way to the shouting combatants, and she eased into a lighter song. The man in the shadows didn’t break a smile at the sexual innuendoes and puns that had the rest of the audience howling.
She’d break after the next song and hope the stranger would leave. The regulars here treated her with respect and had a habit of removing hecklers without Egghead’s help. But the stranger wasn’t heckling. Maybe no one noticed him but her.
She shivered as the altercation in the rear escalated. She needed to concentrate on the music, soothe the savage beasts, give her audience the kick they came for, not obsess over lethal strangers. Keeping the bar from igniting into warfare was in her job description.
Even the stranger turned at the sharp report of gunfire. A woman screamed, men shouted, and the crowd broke in two directions at once.
It only took seconds, too fast to follow entirely. The dancers on the floor surged toward the stage as the crowd at the bar retreated from the brawl onto the dance floor. Someone took a dive over the sound and light booth, tilting it precariously. Beer spilled, amplifiers crashed, and the house lights shorted out just as a mass of bodies rammed into the plywood stage.
Faith tripped on a wire in the dark and started to tumble into the sweat-and-beer stench of the crowd.
Muscle-taut arms caught her by the waist and hauled her out of the melee with no more effort than a shopper heaving a bag of flour into a cart.
She gasped as she sailed over sprawling bodies and swinging fists into the relative safety of the harbor at stage right, sheltered by heavy equipment. The amp the stranger had been leaning against shifted as someone slammed into it, but the stage behind it held. The instant the hard arms released her, she gulped a deep breath.
“Some party you throw here,” a whiskey-velvet voice spoke through the dark.
She knew that voice, but she couldn’t place it. The mellow drawl shivered down her spine, reminding her of ages past, better left behind her. Though she searched for the memory, it eluded her. Maybe, in the chaos of the moment, she imagined its self-assurance.
“We hand out balloons to everyone still standing when the lights come on,” she answered lightly, trying to ignore the electric vibrations emanating from his proximity.
“Faith, hey, you all right?” the drummer called from the stage.
“I’m fine, Tommy. I don’t know about the mike. Maybe Artie ought to unplug the amps before the electricity returns. They may short the place out again.”
“Hell, let’s electrocute a few of the assholes first,” the bass guitarist replied from the edge of the stage near them. “Where you at, Faith? Want me to get you outta here?”
“Go pull the plug, Artie, and stick your finger in the socket.”
Tommy hooted, and ungrudgingly, Artie apparently stood up and sauntered back to the sound and light booth.
“Speak softly and carry a big whip,” the stranger quipped dryly from behind her, nearly startling her to death. He was as still and silent as any phantom until he had a notion to make his presence known.
“They’re good guys; they just don’t think it’s macho to give up.” Faith didn’t turn around to look at him. Intuition told her it would be as dangerous as gazing at Medusa, even through the veil of darkness. “I appreciate your help, but I’ll be all right now. They’ll have the lights back shortly.”
“It has to be you,” he whispered.
Startled, she froze.
He hesitated. Even though she couldn’t see him, she knew he wanted to say more.
To her surprise, he didn’t.
As the lights flickered on, she turned, and he was gone.