She was looking for a man.
Marli couldn't sit at home submerged in grief and guilt any longer. Returning to the location of her ultimate shame made her skin crawl and her stomach tighten unpleasantly, but she didn't know how else to get out of the sinkhole her life had become, how else to dig herself out of this crater of depression and blame.
She surveyed Cactus Jack's Saloon, scanning the face of every man leaning against a rough wooden post chatting up a woman, every guy sitting at the long bar nursing a beer, every male partner two-stepping on the dance floor to the twang of steel guitars.
Marli swept her gaze across the crowded tables. From her seat at the end of the bar, she had a view of the entire saloon. Perfect.
She sipped her Diet Coke. She liked sleek, sexy clubs with throbbing techno dance music and people dressed in trendy clothes, not blue jeans and cowboy boots. But Cactus Jack's had been Krista's favorite place.
Memories of the last night she'd been there played through Marli's head like a movie trailer. Krista laughing and dancing with that guy...Ron. The way Ron had looked Marli up and down. Krista accusing her of flirting with Ron. Krista leaving with Ron, and the way he'd turned and smirked at Marli as they'd walked out.
Someone slid onto the barstool next to her, and Marli's stomach jolted with nerves. Her gaze flew to his face, expecting dark eyes and a blond moustache. But she met flame-blue eyes in a clean-shaven face. Strong. Square jaw, nice mouth. Gorgeous.
She drew in a shaky breath and turned away from the handsome stranger, relief and adrenaline sliding through her body.
"Sorry," he murmured. "Didn't mean to startle you. Is this seat taken?"
"No." She didn't look at him. He wasn't what she was looking for. She tightened her grip on the icy-slick glass of cola and directed her gaze back out to the rowdy bar.
"Are you meeting someone here?" the man asked. "If he shows up, just let me know and I'll move."
"I'm not meeting anyone," she said quietly. "I'm kind of looking for someone, but he's not here."
"Well, if you see him, just let me know."
Yeah, right. "Sure."
The bartender appeared in front of them. "Surf Coast Pale Ale," the stranger requested. "Can I order food here?"
"You bet." The bartender slapped a laminated menu onto the bar, looked at Marli. "Another Diet Coke?"
She nodded, swirled the melting ice in her glass and finished it off.
"I'll have a steak--medium rare. And fries." The man handed the menu over to the bartender, who disappeared with it.
Marli felt the stranger's eyes on her again. She doggedly avoided looking at him, instead continuing her scan of the bar.
"You like country music?"
She repressed a sigh. Had this happened a few weeks ago, making small talk with a handsome man would have been a given. The way he looked--a definite given. But not now.
"I hate country music."
"Ah. So...what's a gorgeous girl like you doing here...all alone in a country bar...drinking Diet Coke?"
"There's an original line." She tried to give him a freezing look. She wasn't very good at it. On the contrary--apparently something about her attracted men like wasps to syrup, without her even trying. Which had led to the whole big freaking mess her life was in.
"It wasn't a line," he muttered. "I'm not trying to pick you up. Just making conversation."
She pressed her lips together and looked away, then back, studying him out of the corner of her eye. Talk about tall, dark and handsome. But not handsome in a pretty-boy way. His face was tough looking, square-jawed, serious, his mouth firm and straight. But when he'd smiled...whew. It was enough to make a girl's panties damp and her nipples hard.
And he was big. He took up all his own space and some of hers. His faded jeans covered thick, muscular thighs. His white button-up shirt didn't hide the flat muscles of his chest and the bulge of biceps beneath the thin cotton. Big hands held his beer bottle, which he'd been drinking very slowly, the turned-back cuffs of his shirt revealing strong wrists. He gave off an aura of safety. Protection. Awareness tingled; attraction sparked inside her. Damn. Talk about crappy timing.