A High-End Finish
I managed to shower and dry my impossibly thick, curly hair in record time. Getting dressed took a few extra minutes because I was undecided about what to wear. Nice pants and a jacket? A dress and high heels? Jeans and a sweater? The weather was mild for October on the Northern California coast, but the wind was always unpredictable, especially by the water. A chilly breeze could kick up in a matter of seconds.
I thought of the wide, worn wooden slats of the pier and shoved my high heels back into the closet. I could just see myself getting a heel stuck and wobbling like a goose in front of the whole town.
“Boots, no heels,” I muttered. I slipped on my best black pants and a pretty teal blouse that brought out the green in my eyes. My short black leather jacket completed the outfit, along with earrings and a pair of black ankle boots. If Jerry was shorter than five foot ten, he would thank me for eschewing the high heels.
The easiest way to get to the pier three blocks away from my house was to walk. As I passed my next-door neighbor Jesse’s house, he came scooting out the door and down his front walkway to greet me. Jesse Hennessey was a good old guy, a former Navy man now in his seventies. I’d known him practically since I was born because he was not only my neighbor, but also Jane’s great-uncle. I always made time to chat with him.
“I’ve got five dollars on you, kiddo,” he said, his voice raspy from years of drinking, smoking, and brawling.
I frowned for a second, but then it clicked and made perfect sense. “Are you telling me there’s a betting pool going on? Over me?”
“Sure is,” he said, and cackled. “It’s not every night that young Shannon Hammer goes out on a blind date. Everyone in town wants in on this action.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. And a little creeped out, too. There wasn’t much I could do about it now, though. We walked together toward Main Street. “I’m going to regret asking, but what’s the bet?”
He snickered. “Either you go home with the guy or you wind up kicking him in the, uh, you know, the family jewels. It’s even odds, I might add.”
“That’s . . . horrible.” I had to press my lips together to keep from laughing. Jesse was known for his salty language. I was pretty sure it was just for shock value, especially when it came to me and Jane.
I tried for a serious look. “I’m going to have a perfectly nice time tonight, Jesse, so I wouldn’t bet money on either of those outcomes. They’re beyond long shots.”
“But that’s why there’s so much cash riding on this.” He rubbed his hands gleefully.
“You’re all crazy—you know that?”
“Yeah, I know. But what the hell? If nobody wins, the money’ll just roll over into the next big pot.”
I was almost afraid to ask the next question. “So, which way did you bet?”
“I figure you’ll kick him in the nards.” He grinned. “Don’t disappoint me.”
I laughed. Couldn’t help it. I knew he meant it as a compliment, but, honestly, here I was, heading for the first blind date I’d ever been on and I was the subject of a betting pool down at the pub. This was life in my small town, and the pub was the epicenter of it all. That’s where the betting always started.
And now that we were speaking of bets, I was willing to bet that my father and uncle were right in the middle of the action. Which was just wrong of them in so many ways. And right in a few others, I had to admit.
We reached Main Street and I gave Jesse a tight smile. “Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need luck, kiddo. You look beautiful.” He gave me two thumbs-up and strolled back to his house while I walked briskly down Main Street and past the town square until the street dead-ended at Lighthouse Pier.
“That was fun,” I said, as Jerry and I walked down the stairs from the pier to the boardwalk for a stroll. “But you didn’t have to pay for dinner.”
“It was my pleasure,” he said. “I had fun, too.”
We walked along without talking for a full minute, taking in the charming shops and cafes and the colorful hodgepodge of humanity. I was surprised that I felt so comfortable. Jerry had been a gentleman all through dinner; easy to talk to, a good listener, friendly, and interesting. He asked me questions about my life, laughed at my stories, and entertained me with funny ones of his own, too.
He was a successful real estate agent who brokered deals up and down the north coast. His home was in Pentland, two towns north of Lighthouse Cove, which explained why we had never met until that night. He was obviously successful in business and I could see why. He was charming and smooth and very good-looking, tall and muscular with a sly smile and twinkling blue eyes. His attention was on me throughout the meal, and I appreciated that I didn’t once catch him looking over my shoulder to see if someone more appealing had entered the room.
We shared a good, crisp sauvignon blanc along with the deep-fried popcorn shrimp appetizer. I ordered fish and he had lobster.
We’d been seated next to the wall of windows and the view of the sunset was spectacular. Because the sky was still light and the weather remained mild, we decided to take a walk after dinner.
After strolling a few blocks along the boardwalk, Jerry stopped and pointed across the sandy expanse to the waves crashing down by the shore. “How do you feel about walking in the sand?”
“I feel good about it.”
Laughing, we stepped onto the sand, and headed down to the shoreline. When we reached the edge of the wet sand, we stopped to gaze out at the water.
“I love this time of evening,” I said, staring west toward the Sandpiper Islands, seven miles off the coast. “The islands are still silhouetted by the last rays of the sunset. It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Jerry shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been told that a Clipper ship sank out there somewhere a few hundred years ago.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Plenty of divers have gone down to investigate.”
He nodded. “I’ve sold houses to some of those would-be treasure hunters so I’m all for keeping the legend alive.”
“It’s more than a legend,” I said. “It’s all true. Every few years, a gold doubloon will wash up on shore and everyone goes crazy. There’s a shop on Main Street with one of them in the window. They’ll happily sell it to you for a few hundred thousand dollars.”
“I’ll pass,” he said, chuckling.
We watched the last streams of coral and pink clouds fade in the evening sky before heading back toward the boardwalk and the pier.
“I still can’t believe you’ve spent your entire life here,” Jerry said. “Didn’t you ever get the urge to move?”
“I went away to college,” I said, “and a few years later, I moved to San Francisco. I was only there for about a year, and then my dad had a heart attack so I returned to take over the family business. I’m glad I had the chance to live in the city, but I’m happier back here.”
“I can’t believe you’re happier here. I love San Francisco.”
“This is home,” I said. “I missed the beach and the trees and my friends. My work. The town square has everything. I love it all.”
Halfway back to the boardwalk, Jerry stopped and turned to check the darkening horizon. “I confess I’m still not used to living in such a small town.”
“I’ve frankly never thought of Lighthouse Cove as small,” I said, following his gaze. “Pentland’s a little bigger, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but believe me, it’s still small.”
“I guess if I’d lived in a big city most of my life and then moved here, it would take some getting used to. But I know this place and I enjoy it. Even when the gossip is all about me.”
He leaned closer and I could feel his breath on my cheek. “Why, Shannon, have you been stirring up gossip?”
“Nothing too outrageous.” I laughed lightly and took a small step backward.
“Outrageous, huh? Tell me all about it.” He moved in again and I inched back. “I want to hear all about Shannon’s outrageousness.”
“It’s time to head back to the boardwalk,” I said, ignoring his request. “It’s getting pretty dark out here.”
“I like the dark.” He raised his eyebrows. “You’re not scared, are you?”
“No,” I said, trying for a laugh, though I had to admit that Jerry was getting a little too close too fast. “I just think it’s time to call it a night.”
“But we’re just getting started.” He drew me close and kissed me. It should’ve been a romantic move, but it didn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t getting any kind of an affectionate Hey, I like you feeling from him, so the whole move felt kind of cheesy. Besides, the walk in the sand had reminded every one of my muscles that I’d worked a long day.
“Sorry, but it’s getting late,” I said lightly, pulling away. “I’ve had a great time, but this walk made me realize how tired I am, so I’m going to say good night. Thanks again for a nice evening.” I started toward the boardwalk, but the sand made it slow going.
“Wait. No way.” He grabbed my arm and turned me around to face him. My purse went flying. “What are you trying to pull?”
I leaned away from him. “I’m not pulling anything.” I got a look at his face and saw the furrowed brow, the bared teeth. Someone had flipped a switch and Jerry had gone from good guy to big jerk. “We had a fun evening. It was nice to meet you, and now I’m going home.”
“That’s not how it works.” His expression darkened and he grabbed my arms.
I felt the first inkling of fear …