Diane stole another glance at the handsome stranger across the bar. A tall, lanky young man, with tousled brown hair and piercing blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when he grinned, he was impossible to ignore. He'd come in with a group of men after a late Saturday softball game, and glowed with an easy athleticism burnished by an afternoon in the sun.

He was well-liked by his friends, who directed all of their comments, jokes and stories toward him, but his eyes kept darting back to the slender blonde in the dusky blue silk dress moving around the room, serving drinks. She didn't belong here. She was different, and neither the apron nor the tray diminished that fact in the slightest. His interest was piqued, and he had to know more.

He gave the bartender a wave, and Sam sidled over to take his order.

"Hey buddy—I'll have another draft and uh… maybe you could fill me in on the blonde waitress. What's her story?" he grinned conspiratorially.

Sam was taken aback by the question but quickly covered.

"You got it—one draft coming right up."

He moved to the tap and filled a mug for the guy, hoping he'd forget the second part of his inquiry. As he slid the cold glass across the bar, Sam watched him watch Diane and felt a pang of possessiveness. He tried to turn away from the customer, but was stopped before he could get too far.

"So about that waitress…" the young man began again.

"Oh yeah," Sam began, trying his best to sound nonchalant, "That's Diane."

"What's her deal? What's she doing here?"

"She a waitress, though most days you'd never know it," Sam joked, trying to lighten the situation.

"No, I mean, what's she doing being a waitress? She's not the type, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Sam replied, stifling a sigh, "I know. She's different."

It was hardly an original thought. It occurred to Sam every time he saw her don that apron and serve men who didn't deserve to be in the same room as her. A big part of him wished she'd just up and quit so he didn't have to watch her cater to the louts that frequented his bar. So many times he watched her brush off clumsy passes with her characteristic grace and good humor, or apologize for a mistaken order to someone who had treated her like an underling.

For all her education and family background, she never expected special treatment from the patrons or treated them as though they were beneath her. On the contrary, she would often engage them in long conversations, assuming they understood whatever the hell she was talking about. Her heart was open to anyone and she believed the best of everyone, despite being disappointed more often than not.

So many times he wanted to leap across the bar and pound the living daylights out of one creep or another, but he restrained himself. It wasn't his place. As she'd told him so many times before, she was a grown woman and could take care of herself. Besides, she was no longer his to defend. That ship had sailed over a year ago, and there was no going back. The thought of that still smarted.

"You're telling me," the stranger continued, never looking away from Diane, "Is she married? Does she have a boyfriend?"

"No… no… she's free," Sam reluctantly answered.

The patron extended his hand in a belated greeting.

"Hey thanks, man. Oh by the way, the name's Jeff."

"No problem, Jeff. I'm Sam. I own the place."

"Great place you've got here, Sam."

Sam forced a smile and shook hands, biting back his desire to crush the guy's fingers in his grip, though Jeff had a strong grip himself. Sam knew exactly what Jeff was thinking about Diane, because he'd had all the same thoughts three years ago when she first walked into the place.

Diane was like no one else he'd ever met before. She looked to be a prissy librarian type, but her smile was infectious, and there was something behind her eyes that let you know she was far more than what she appeared to be. It would take someone special to reveal what lay beneath, and the challenge was irresistible to Sam, as it was to Jeff.

How naïve he'd been all those years ago. His tired come-ons and salacious innuendos were summarily dismissed. No, Diane needed more from him. Much more, and it was difficult to grant her what she required, but eventually he was able to give her a glimpse of who he really was— something he'd never been able to do with another woman. It pained him to give her even that much but oh, the rewards were worth it.

Diane was a wellspring of love and caring. No one had ever given so much of herself to him. Her thoughtfulness and devotion to their relationship was infinite, and he couldn't have asked for a more perfect sexual match. Yes, she could get a bit goofy with her projects and her cultural passions, but that was part of the total package that made her Diane, and he loved it all as he loved her.

He knew she was the best thing that ever happened to him, but down deep, he felt he didn't deserve it. He'd never known that kind of love, not even from his parents, and couldn't allow himself to trust that it would last. He'd failed at just about everything he'd ever tried, save for the bar. What made him think he could sustain a relationship with a woman like Diane? Those thoughts ate at him until he self-destructed and drove her away. Now he could only sit on the sidelines and watch another man—a man who would probably know what to do with a woman of her worth—move in and steal her away.

Now she was smiling back at Jeff, looking up at him coquettishly as he extended his hand to her. She set her tray down on the bar and quickly wiped her hands on her apron before returning the greeting. Sam stifled an urge to intervene and turned away. A low sigh escaped him and he felt his heart break just a little more—something he didn't think was possible at this point.

Jeff planted himself at the back corner of the bar closest to the office, where Diane was sure to pass frequently, and made eye contact with her every time she did. Sam detected color rising into Diane's cheeks, and her eyes sparkled with delight at Jeff's attentions. He was a handsome guy, there was no denying it, and a good five years younger than Sam too. Sam began to feel like the loser he'd always suspected himself of being.

Pushing forty, his game was growing tiresome, and he found himself going home alone more often than he would ever admit. The one woman he ever felt connected to, the only one he knew he really loved, was moving on without him. Diane was never stuck for a date. Hell, every guy who walked in the place had a crush on her. He'd learned to live with that fact, but this Jeff was something else.

As the evening wore on and the bar emptied, he spotted Diane chatting quietly in a corner with him. It looked like they were making plans, and Diane gestured over to the bar as if indicating her intent to leave for the night. Jeff stood as Diane untied her apron and went to retrieve her purse from under the bar.

"Sam, I know I'm supposed to help close, but do you mind if I leave a little early tonight?"

"No problem," he lied.

Jeff winked at Sam, as though Sam had somehow abetted this conquest, and the very idea made Sam sick to his stomach. He settled up his tab, which had grown substantially over the five hours he'd spent hanging out waiting for Diane. Sam hoped Jeff wasn't planning on driving Diane anywhere.

No sooner had the pair exited the bar than Sam heard a ruckus coming from the stairwell. Diane's scream pierced the closing time quietude. He leapt over the bar and rushed to the door to see Diane pinned against the wall, struggling to get free. Jeff had one arm against her throat and the other was reaching up under her skirt. Diane fought back in vain against his drunken attack. He was just too big to overcome. The panic in her eyes set Sam's blood racing and he saw red. Throwing the door open in a rage, he pulled Jeff off Diane and shoved her back inside the bar.

"Lock the door and wait in my office," he told her tersely.

Shaken, Diane locked the door as instructed and had started toward the office when she turned to look back at the stairwell. There was a flurry of fists, and several heavy thuds against the door. Diane hurried to the window, frightened for Sam.

Jeff sat on the bottom step holding his head between his legs. Sam stood over him, fists still clenched, and his eyes full of a fire she'd never seen in him before. She knew he had a temper, but this was something altogether different. She quickly ducked out of sight.

"Who the hell do you think you are, man? She doesn't want you and you still put your hands on her?"

"She was begging for it. You saw her. All night she was beggin' for it. She's a slut cocktail waitress, no different from any other. She just dresses a little better."

Sam picked him up by the collar of his shirt and slammed him against the door hard.

"You shut your goddamned mouth right now before I break your jaw. You say another word about her and so help me I'll make it so you don't ever speak again. You aren't fit to talk to a woman like that, let alone touch her. Now get off my property, and stay the hell away from Diane. If I see you here or anywhere near her again, I will end you."

Diane hurried back to the office and sank down on the couch before Sam could come in and discover her by the door. Tears welled up in her eyes. Jeff's words stung, but Sam's words… she felt her heart would burst with love for him. How could she have been so wrong about Jeff? It wasn't the first time a man tried to force his attentions on her, but never had a date been so violent with her. As ever, she turned the blame on herself.

After a few moments, she heard the key turn in the lock of the front door. Sam walked back into the office, flexing his bloodied and painful hands. He didn't want to look at her. He didn't want to own the feelings she inspired in him or acknowledge the lengths he'd go to protect her. That would be revealing far too much.

"You alright?" he asked.

"Yeah… yeah, I think so."

"It's okay, he's uh… gone now."

"Oh," Diane answered. She wasn't sure she wanted to press him for more, and he wasn't offering anything further. She knew exactly what happened, but wondered why he wasn't recounting it for her. It was so unlike him not to revel in his own heroics. She looked down at the floor. "I guess I'll go home now."

"Okay."

"Sam..?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm sorry… I never should have made a date with him. I know I brought that on myself."

Sam wheeled around to face her.

"Are you kidding me? You didn't do anything! Diane, that guy was a creep. He was stalking you all night. It's my fault! I told him you were available and didn't do a damn thing to stop you from walking out of here with him. Damn it," he shouted, bashing his already painful fist on the office door, "I'm such an idiot!"

He slumped against the doorjamb, averting his eyes once more. Diane's heart was in her throat.

"You're not an idiot. You're my hero," she whispered hoarsely, "Thank you, Sam."

Sam turned to look at her, but this time it was she who was avoiding his gaze. His mind swirled, unsure of what to make of her words. For once, he was speechless.

Diane, now self-conscious, recovered and picked up her purse, clearing her throat.

"Okay, well… now I guess I really should be going…"

"Yeah… sure…" he murmured, disappointed.

"Sam..?"

"Uh huh?"

"Would you mind walking me to my car?"

He looked at her and saw the apprehension in her eyes, and felt that maybe, even if it were just for that moment, he could be exactly what she needed. He put his arm around her and felt her sink against him, her arm sliding tentatively around his waist. Her tension released and she sighed a small sigh. He pulled her closer to him as they started toward the door. He'd missed this feeling more than he could say.

"Sure, sweetheart. Whatever you want."