Strong and Steady - Vanessa Vale



“You know what they say about an oyster’s aphrodisiac properties.”

Really? He was going to use that line? If the guy wanted to think Rocky Mountain Oysters were actually oysters from the sea, then I wasn’t going to tell him otherwise. I smiled vaguely at… Bob. No, Bill. Something with a B. He was in his thirties, well dressed in a suit and gray tie, as if he came directly from work at a bank. He had all his hair, was well groomed, yet seemed perfectly… average. Average wasn't bad, but he was an idiot. He was shoveling in fried bull testicles as if the free food might run out.

My friend Christy had decided to forgo a sit-down dinner for her engagement party, instead having an open bar and finger foods. I guessed she’d put the Colorado specialty on the menu to mess with the out-of-town guests. The invited group had taken over a private room that connected to the bar area of a popular restaurant in town to drink and socialize. Clearly, the socializing part wasn’t going well because I had to watch Bob/Bill chow down on one bull ball after another.

I’d nibbled on some chicken satay and bruschetta and a few other options the wait staff had passed around and tried not to wince as he used a cocktail napkin to wipe crumbs from his chin.

“You should only eat oysters in the months that don’t have an R.” He nodded as if to confirm his statement.

“Yeah, you can eat these guys probably anytime,” I replied.

He stuck a toothpick in one on the small plate he held, stared at it. “Yeah, being fried helps.”

Yeah, that was it.

Christy had met an amazing man in her fiancé, Paul, but his cousin, who was attempting to work his lackluster charm on me, was a complete dud. He actually thought he was eating real oysters. We were in landlocked Colorado not a coastal town.

I averted my gaze toward the wall of windows. The restaurant was on the third floor of a historic boutique hotel with amazing western views of the mountains.

I really wanted to give him the brush-off, to tell him he needed a breath mint and some dental floss, but he was related to Paul, and I owed it to Christy to keep from alienating one of her future relatives. Besides, I’d probably have to see him at the wedding in a few months, and God forbid he was one of the groomsmen. As a bridesmaid—the oldest bridesmaid in history—I'd probably have to walk down the aisle on his arm. I tried to smile and nod as diplomatically as possible. Smile and nod, but he had the personality of a sea slug or an oyster. We’d talked about Paul and Christy for a minute or two, but after that… he showed himself to be a player. He stood a little too close, his gaze surreptitiously dropping to my chest, and he had an odd leer. It had to be a leer, or he had some kind of tick in the corner of his lip.

Why the guy was lingering with me where there was zero hope of… anything, I had no idea. I’d been burned by a man, okay, scorched to a charcoal briquette, and I wasn’t looking for another one. I’d survived the divorce, survived because Chris needed a mother, needed me to be the strong one. But he was away at college now, and I wasn’t shielded behind the role of parent any longer. I could chat about off-sides rules in soccer or PTA fundraisers, but talking to a guy, a real guy and not another parent from high school, was unbelievably hard. I doubted Bob/Bill knew about any of that, and probably once he discovered I had a child—even an eighteen-year-old—he'd take his bull balls elsewhere.

God, I was such an introvert! I hated big crowds, new people, loud noises. I wasn't a party person. Because of this, it was hard meeting new people. I was terrible at it, unlike Christy, who never knew a stranger. The whole introvert-extrovert dynamic had helped when she’d been able to pull me out of my shell my first day of work, thankfully introducing me around my new department, which had made us instant friends. It wasn’t as if I was shy or weird or anything, but I was definitely set in my ways. That was what I called it, at least.

Christy called it lonely, and I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than that. She considered