No Strings Attached

By: Alison Kent

CHLOE ZUNIGA STEPPED inside the doorway to Haydon’s Half Time and flinched at the unholy blast of noise. What was it about team sports that turned a civilized gathering into a loutish milieu, complete with the roars, growls, honks and snorts of a teeming jungle habitat?

The primitive racket ricocheting off the sports bar’s walls had her longing for earplugs or cotton balls. Protective headgear, even. And she’d trade two gRAFFITI gEAR luxury spa packs for a can of air freshener right about now.Fanning at a plume of cigar smoke with one hand, squinting into the gaudy neon glare, Chloe searched the raucous crowd for a pair of shoulders worthy of Tarzan.

If Eric Haydon wasn’t here, she was going to kill him.

The man had some nerve, refusing to return her phone calls, forcing her to resort to this ridiculous extreme. It was April, a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. So what if it was—as spelled out on the parking lot marquee—the Houston Astros Season Opener, and Haydon’s Half Time was Houston’s Richmond Drive’s hot spot.

She had better things to do with her time than dodge rabid fans, and certainly better places to put her feet than a floor littered with spent peanut shells and cork beer coasters and whatever that sticky stuff was gumming the soles of her shoes to the glossy concrete.

Uncouth. That’s what it was. Ill-mannered and crude. What was wrong with these people?

The fact that their enthusiastic word of mouth had put Haydon’s Half Time on the map, that their patronage provided Eric’s bread and butter, hardly gave them carte blanche to act like they were raised in a barn. Team sports. Ugh. Chloe gave an affected shudder and blew out a loud puff of breath.

The very idea of all that sweaty grabbing and pawing, that tackling and blocking and sliding into base! The silly pants, the silly nicknames, the silly sports drinks colored like kiddie crayons. What a ridiculous waste of spirit, not to mention entertainment dollars.

Men. Honestly. They could be such children, she thought, even as a feminine shriek of excitement cut through the din.

Okay. So the place was coed.

The women were one thing, standing by their men, rooting for his team or often their own alma mater. And, yes. There were women who did the team sports thing for no other reason than the love of the game. The women didn’t factor into Chloe’s aversion for athletic fanaticism.

The women didn’t stir memories of being sidelined for no other reason than being a girl, a girl who in a heartbeat would’ve traded her secret baseball card collection for the chance to strap on shin guards and play a game with the neighborhood boys.

The women didn’t bring back memories of petticoats and patent leather and the punishing discomfort of the cold metal bleachers where she’d sat primly at her father’s side—Daddy’s little girl, pink-cheeked and petite, come to watch her brothers compete on the field.

The women didn’t leave her heart hopelessly hollow, her body crazy-hungry for heat, as did the incredibly clueless males of the species who, in Chloe’s wide world of experience, preferred their women to remain on a pedestal, between the sheets, or three paces behind.

The entire concept of love and romance was going to hell in a handbasket.

“Hey, sexy lady. Wanna beer?” The slurred voice interrupted her thoughts.

Chloe sighed and looked to her left. Ex-jock. Muscles gone to fat. Gaze flicking to three grinning buddies at a nearby table. “I think I’ll pass,” she replied.

“Pass? On a beer? Then how ’bout I give you the best night of your life?”

Puh-leez. “Not interested.”

“Aww, c’mon, baby.” He leered his way down the front of her new football jersey. “If I could see you naked, I’d die a happy man.”

“Yeah, sugar. But if I saw you naked—” she reached out and poked his beer belly “—I’d probably die laughing. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Turning her back on the whoops and sympathetic groans, she headed in search of some breathing room away from the cluster of tables.

Men. All so predictable. At the first sight of breasts, they turned into boobs. Keeping an eye out for Eric, she moved away from the common room back toward the entryway, and searched the bar from that vantage point.

It was obvious that what the modern world needed was another Cary Grant. A real ladies’ man. A true romantic.

Chloe might be only twenty-six years old, but she’d spent years devouring the favorite movies of the mother she’d never known, the mother who’d died before her first birthday.

And Chloe was not too young, too jaded or too cynical to envy Ingrid Bergman those heated looks shared in Indiscreet, Deborah Kerr the courtship of An Affair to Remember, Grace Kelly that spectacular kiss in To Catch a Thief.