Kelly Jamieson 

 How To Save A Life

Chapter 1

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.

Marli shuddered.

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.

"We could talk about something else," he said finally. "How about sports?"

"Go, Dodgers."

"No! You gotta be a Padres fan."

She had to ask. "You're from San Diego?"


"So what are you doing here in Rocky Harbor?"

His mouth twisted. "I'm on a leave from my job. I'm on my way up to San Francisco to visit a buddy of mine. Got this far and stopped here for a while."

"Oh. What do you do for a living?"

He didn't answer for a long moment, and Marli cursed herself for asking. Why was she even talking to this guy? Was she nuts? After what happened to Krista, she was crazy to be sitting here talking to a stranger like this.

"I'm an FBI agent."

Oh. Well. "Really," she said slowly. Her tense body relaxed minutely. With his size, his rough good looks, the intensity of his gaze, he should have made her feel intimidated, but he didn't. Other than the dangerous sexuality that was most definitely threatening. An FBI agent. Huh.

He shrugged, turned the beer bottle in his hands. "How about you? What do you do?"

"I'm a photographer."

"What do you photograph?"

"Commercial stuff. Advertising, some magazine work."

He made an impressed faced. "You have your own business?"

"Yes. But right now it just seems so...unimportant."

"Yeah. When crap happens, everything else seems trivial."

"You sound like you've been there."

"Yeah. Been there. Done that. Screwed up big time."

"Want to talk about it?"

His mouth twisted wryly. "Not really."

"Okay. I get it."

Their eyes met and they stared at each other for a long moment. Attraction tugged at her, a connection drew her to him, and something softened and expanded in her chest. She blinked and looked away.

The bartender appeared with the stranger's steak dinner.

The smell of the charbroiled meat and golden, greasy fries wafted toward Marli and made her mouth water. Funny. She hadn't had any appetite lately.

She turned away from him to let him eat. "Have some fries," he offered, motioning to the huge mound of them on the plate.

"No, thanks."

He cut into the steak, and they sat in silence while he ate his dinner, the twang and dip of country music growing louder as the night wore on.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him lay his knife and fork on the empty plate. "I can't believe you ate the whole thing," she remarked. It had been a generous steak.

He grinned. "Trying to bulk up."

She looked him up and down. "You don't need to bulk up. You look great." She closed her eyes. Shit! She was not flirting. It had just popped out of her mouth...and...and it was only the truth!

"Uh...thanks." He crumpled up the paper napkin and tossed it onto the plate, pushed it away from him. He took a swallow of his beer. "So...wanna dance?"

"No, no thanks."

"Come on."

His sexy voice tempted Marli. She loved dancing. She loved men. She loved--correction--she used to love having fun. She wasn't here for fun tonight.

"I said no thanks."

"Hey, no problem." He put his hands in the air.

He turned his head and lifted a hand to catch the attention of the bartender, who was down at the other end mixing some drinks.

"Can I buy you another drink?" he offered. "Hey, I'm Trey, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Trey," she said, sliding off the stool. "I'm leaving."

"Wait!" Trey put a hand on the pretty blonde's arm.

Panic flashed in her amazing green-gold eyes. This was one jumpy woman.

"Wait," he said again, softly. "Don't go on my account. I'll leave you alone, if that's what you want."

She stopped, looked down at his hand on her arm and jerked away from him.

"Really. I'm not trying to pick you up or anything. I wouldn't even know how." He grimaced self-deprecatingly. "I'm sorry if I was bothering you."

He didn't care if she stayed or left. Except--she did intrigue him.

Light reddish-gold hair hung down her back in long spirals, hair that he wanted to fill his hands with. She had the biggest, most expressive green eyes he'd ever seen, and the overwhelming sadness in them made his breath stick in his chest.

"I don't need another drink." She sat down again.

She wasn't leaving. Whew. The relief shifting through him was crazy, since he'd just told her he'd leave her alone. "Are you sure? I'd even spring for a beer, if you wanted one."

She smiled crookedly.

"Seriously," he said, "if you want me to stop talking to you, just say so. I'll go sit somewhere else." He met her eyes. What had put that nervous shimmer in them?

"You don't have to move. Just know that I don't pick up strange guys in bars. I don't let them buy me drinks, I don't dance with them, and I don't flirt with them."

"Hey." Her vehement protests made him wonder what had happened to her. He put a hand on his chest as if wounded. "I'm not strange."