An itch started in the back of Tina Cassidy’s neck, spread to her shoulders, and turned into a shudder as it crawled down her spine. The e-mail on her screen was innocuous: a patient, Kathy Brayley, described symptoms of intestinal distress, which hit her entire family before dawn. That they had fevers made it a bit more serious than most stomach ailments, but that was not enough to cause such a feeling of foreboding.
After a brief phone conversation with the patient, she typed up a quick note, shaking off one more shiver of unease. Then she put it out of her mind while she saw her scheduled patients. Shortly before closing, another family called with the same symptoms.
There was no reason to think the two cases might be related.
Tina taught a diabetes nutrition class at the library, then headed home, her mind already on the evening’s plans.
Change clothes, eat some dinner, and play with Beowulf for a few minutes, then I need an evening at Eddie’s.
Her body wanted a night at the club in Portland, but she was working tomorrow. A few drinks, one or two games of pool, and some dancing were all she’d get tonight.
It would do.
After a few minutes of teasing her black cat with a string and flashlight, she stood in her underwear in her bedroom closet, tapping her nose as she considered what to wear. She was drawn to the new black dress, but it was far too naughty for an evening at Eddie’s with men she considered friends.
With a last glance at the dress, she turned to the casual section and grabbed a pair of jeans and a sweater. The sweater was pleasingly snug, with a daring plunge to the neckline. The deep blue set off her black hair and made her brown eyes appear larger under her arched brows. A glance in the full-length mirror told her she looked sexy, but not so much that she’d distract her friends.
It was just too bad there wasn’t anyone to distract her.
Maybe it was the Wild Turkey, but she made the mistake of playing pool a little too well. Or more likely, Mike Ormand’s prodigious beer drinking caused him to play a little too badly. Either way, he lost his temper over something and raised his arms to shake them at her.
Unfortunately, he still had his cue stick in his hand. Tina could see he’d forgotten he was holding it and she backed against the table behind her, keeping her eye on the waving rod. Glasses clinked behind her. From his perch on a stool, Jake Wilson slipped an arm around her waist and patted her hip. “Easy there, darlin’.” His words slurred in her ear. “Don’t wanna be spillin’ the slop, now do you?”
Tina ignored him. Mike stepped closer, towering a foot above her head, the cue still waving.
“Now Mike,” she said, “that was a fair shot and you know it. The ball went in the pocket nice and easy. It was just pure luck that your four-ball got hit out of the way.”
Mike tended to be slow after a few drinks, so he gave her words some thought. Tina sensed Jake was ready to pull her out of the way if the cue inched closer. His swaying upper body gave her doubt as to his usefulness in that regard.
She was surprised when a light baritone broke into their tableau. “I beg you, sir. For the sake of your fellow men, please reconsider your actions.”
“Huh?” Mike turned to the fellow who stood beside him, but he didn’t lower the stick. Tina glanced without moving her head. The stranger was a few inches shorter than Mike, clean-shaven, with light brown hair, and wearing a trim suede-leather jacket. That’s all she noticed, since she felt it was important to keep an eye on Mike.
“I beg you,” the man repeated, “not to mar the beauty we all find so entertaining. If you hit her with your cue, there will be a bruise. We will all be disappointed.”
Asshole, Tina thought.
The man continued, his voice becoming grim. “Of course, if I see the smallest indication that you might actually hit her, I would prevent your action. You would not be pleased with the result.”
Okay, maybe not an asshole.
Mike lowered the cue and shrugged. “Wouldn’t really hit her,” he said in a whiny tone. “But she’s robbin’ me blind, and she knows I got kids to feed. She’s got no heart.”
A couple of nearby customers guffawed at this and Tina rolled her eyes, sliding away from Jake to put the table between her and Mike. “Hearts and pool are two different games,” she said. “You didn’t ask to play hearts.”
“Tell you what.” The stranger placed his half-empty glass on the table. “I’ll take your spot for this game. Give you time to relax and get your arm back. If I win, you get the pot. If I lose, I’ll pay your ante and you’re out nothing.”
Mike wasn’t that slow. “Why in hell would you do that? You don’t know me from Adam.”
The stranger’s smile relaxed as he offered an innocent shrug. “I’m not doing it for you. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get this woman’s attention for an hour. You’re obviously regulars, and you know each other well. I couldn’t find an opportunity to break in until you lost your temper.” He turned to Tina with a slight bow. “If the lady is willing to give me a game?”
Tina’s lips twitched in response to the raucous laughter this provoked, and she gave him a thorough look. He was cute, in a scruffy kind of way. Straight brown hair hung over his forehead. His eyes were an interesting golden-brown, his face a bit craggy, as if his skin had a story to tell. Full lips that were downright inviting. His body was trim, almost too skinny. She figured he was thirty, maybe thirty-five.
And just might make up for missing Portland.
She crossed her arms. “All right. But you have to play me a second time. Double ante.”
He took Mike’s cue. “I believe it’s your inning?” He gestured toward the pool table.
He looked her over as she came around the table. She stopped a few feet from him, giving him plenty of time to see what he wanted, not hiding her own casual observation. His eyes met hers just as Jake chortled “she’s found some fresh meat,” which was heard over the crowd’s ribald encouragement. She smiled and stepped closer. “Welcome to Green Roads, Oregon, Mr…?” She tilted her head and held out her hand. The laughter quieted down as the others waited to hear his name.
His smile was for her alone, but he answered so everyone could hear. “Clive Winslow. At your service.” His smile deepened as the crowd hooted its approval of his phrasing. His hand squeezed hers, warm and gentle.
Tina suppressed the rising inner flame his touch ignited and imitated his formality. “Tina Cassidy,” she said with a dip of her head. She dropped his hand and strolled to the pool table to pick up her cue before glancing back at him. Yes, he just might make up for Portland. “Services to be determined.”