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"Did Webster's change the definition of celebrate and no one told me? Because I always thought it should involve being, you know, happy."
Veronica Carter turned her attention from the dance floor, with its multicolored spotlights and twirling couples, to Lola Ann Whitford, town librarian and Ronnie's best friend. While it was impossible to discern Lola Ann's every word over top of the exuberant local band that played every Friday night, the gist was clear.
"Sorry," Ronnie said sheepishly. "I'm not being very good company, am I?"
"No." The short, curvy brunette grinned, showing all her dimples. "Which is why I am ditching you for the very first guy who asks me to dance."
"Well, as long as he's hot," Ronnie conceded. After today's inspection of her new home, she should be feeling celebratory. Yet her emotions were as badly tangled as a carelessly handled fishing line.
In addition to the inspector telling her she'd chosen her future house well, and that the flaws were mostly cosmetic and the foundation was solid, she could still hear Wayne Carter's resigned sigh. Her dad's eyes, the exact green as hers, had brimmed with wistful loss instead of eager joy, an image reversed in reflection. I am twenty-five, more than old enough to move out. She shouldn't feel guilty, like some ungrateful teenager running away to the big city in the middle of the night. Heck, Ronnie wouldn't even be changing zip codes.
Lola Ann snapped her fingers in front of Ronnie's face. "I've lost you again."
"No, I'm here. You're right about celebrating! Is it bad luck to toast the new place before it's legally mine?" In a few weeks, she'd officially close on the house then spend the foreseeable future remodeling. Ronnie had always been mechanically inclined, better with power tools than curling irons or mascara wands, and without the quirks and superficial damages to the one-story brick home, she never would have been able to afford it. "Come on, I'm buying this round."
They edged their way through the dance hall's regular weekend crowd and stopped at the teak counter that ran parallel to the far left wall. Flannel-clad Jack Guthrie, his wire-rimmed glasses and silver hair taking on an otherworldly glow beneath the neon signs, had been the bartender here since time before memory. He'd poured Ronnie a drink the night she turned twenty-one and had done the same for her three brothers before her. He'd also served inaugural beers to her parents.
There was that pang again. Often she could think of her parents, the life they'd once shared, without missing her mother too terribly, but todaythe approaching milestone of buying her first househad left her nostalgic.
Forcing a smile, Ronnie placed a ten on the bar for two drinks. In her peripheral vision, she saw that her oldest brother, Danny, was waiting to order. His wife, Kaitlyn, stood behind him, her face flushed with pleasure and the exertion of dancing. Children were allowed inside Guthrie Hall, and Ashley often accompanied her mother and father. Tonight, however, Ronnie's niece was hanging out with Grandpa Wayne, who'd promised to teach the second-grader how to play poker just as he'd taught Ronnie when she was around Ashley's age.
Ronnie caught her sister-in-law's eye, and Kaitlyn approached, nodding hello to Lola Ann.
"You look like you're having fun," Ronnie observed.
Kaitlyn bobbed her head in cheerful agreement. "I adore my daughter, but I need these occasional adults-only evenings to remind myself what a passionate, flirtatious man my husband can be."
Ronnie pretended to shudder. "I don't want to hear about passion and my brother in the same sentence."
"Fair enough." Kaitlyn chuckled. "Some unsolicited advice from an old married womanwhen you get married, don't feel like you have to have kids right away. Take the time to savor those early newlywed years."
Sound, yet pointless, advice. Last time Ronnie had checked, dating was a prerequisite to marriage.
Men weren't exactly beating down her doorcorrection, her father's doorto ask Ronnie out. Her town identity as a skinny grease monkey had long been cemented. While even a flat-chested mechanic could attract male admirers once in a blue moon, her overprotective brothers had put an end to those few budding relationships, making marriage the least of Ronnie's current concerns. Not that she minded being single. Once she moved out of her dad's house, she selfishly planned to make the most of the solitudewatching whatever she wanted on the television set and not worrying about preparing meals for anyone.
Danny joined them, handing his wife a cold bottle of water and sipping draft beer from a plastic cup. With his free hand, he tugged lightly on Ronnie's ponytail. "You saving a dance for your big brother?"
"Nah, I'll leave you to a woman who can truly appreciate you." She jerked her chin toward Kaitlyn, then grinned teasingly. "Personally, I'm holding out for a better offer."
Kaitlyn and Lola Ann both laughed at the jibe, but Danny took the words at face value.
"Like who?" he asked, scanning the crowd with narrowed eyes.
Ronnie groaned. "Kaitlyn, go keep your husband occupied, won't you?"
"My pleasure." Ronnie's sister-in-law winked at them and stood on tiptoe to whisper something in Danny's ear. Giggling like teenagers, they headed toward a dimly lit corner.
Turning back to Lola Ann, Ronnie sighed. "Does it make me pathetic that the only invitation to dance I've had since we got here is from my brother?"
Even if she weren't at a point in her life where she yearned for his-and-her towel sets, the occasional two-step partner would be nice. An image began to form in her mind, of a man with light brown hair and storm-cloud-gray eyes, but she shook off the ludicrous idea of being in his arms. Beyond some chance encounters and casual hellos, Jason McDeere barely knew she existed. Besides, he almost never came to Guthrie's, much to the disappointment of the town's single women.
"You forget," Lola Ann said, "I'd love to be asked to dance by a Carter brother."
Sympathy tugged at Ronnie. A few months ago, she'd realized Lola Ann harbored a crush on Devin, the only remaining bachelor among Ronnie's siblings. Unfortunately, Dev seemed hell-bent on his bachelor status, having already dated half the eligible women in Joyous, Tennessee, and never staying with one for long.
"'Scuse me." A deep voice interrupted the women's conversation, and Ronnie looked upand upinto the gentle brown eyes of Teddy Blinn. The nearly six-and-a-half-foot-tall man was known to most simply as Bear. "I hope I'm not interrupting you ladies?"
"Not at all." Ronnie craned her neck back as far as it would comfortably go and smiled hopefully. She'd danced with him once or twice before. While it was difficult to match his long-legged stride, he was at least big enough not to be intimidated by her brothers. "How are things with you?"
"Good, good. The truck's running great," he informed her. She'd ordered some engine parts for him last month.
"You both look real pretty tonight."
With men like Bear, the compliment wasn't a come-on so much as part of the perfunctory courtesy his mama had instilledlike opening doors for others or saying "ma'am."
He edged a step closer to Lola Ann, their differences in height nearly comical. "I wondered if you'd do me the honor of a dance?"
"Love to." Lola Ann passed her drink to Ronnie. "Would you mind holding this?"
Some celebration, Ronnie thought with a wry smile. She'd been reduced to cup-holder in the absence of an unoccupied table.
Truthfully, she knew she wasn't scintillating company tonight, and she was glad to see Lola Ann having fun. Bear moved with surprising agility for a man his size, and the two of them seeming to be enjoying a brisk polka around the sawdust-sprinkled floor. When the song ended, Bear escorted Ronnie's friend back with the solicitousness of a boy who'd promised to have his date back by curfew.
Lola Ann fanned her face with her hand. "Whew. That was fun. Thanks, Bear."
"Always a pleasure." He touched the front of his gray cowboy hat. "Ronnie, maybe you and I can cut a rug later?"
"Sounds good." But as Bear walked away, she couldn't help a quick double check over her left shoulder.
Yep, there was her brother Devin, smiling noncommit-tally at something a blonde was saying, but keeping one eye on Ronnie. As a kid, she'd adopted tomboy mannerisms and hobbies, wanting to fit in with her three brothers so that she didn't get left behind while they camped or attended sporting events. Little had she known that all she had to do to get her brothers' attention was hold sixty seconds of conversation with anyone ofgasp!the opposite sex. She crossed her eyes at Devin, watched him stifle a laugh, then turned away.
Unfortunately, Lola Ann had followed Ronnie's line of sight. The librarian scowled as fiercely as if she'd just caught someone defacing a reference book. "What has she got that I don't have? Besides mile-long legs, flowing gold hair and a size-two waist."
"You're every bit as pretty as she is," Ronnie insisted.
"Yet he's never asked me out. You'd think, with all the different women he dates, he'd have worked his way around to me eventually."
My fault. Lola Ann had probably been placed out of romantic bounds by virtue of being best friends with Devin's "kid sister." Not that Ronnie was a kid anymore, but Dev, who still called her Red and had given her pajamas featuring cartoon characters for her last birthday, obviously didn't think of her as an adult. Still, considering his track record, was it such a bad thing that he hadn't asked out Lola Ann? Ronnie would hate to see her friend hurt.
"Lola, you know I love himhe's my brother, so I'm obligated. But even I have to admit that he's "
"Unable to emotionally connect? A commitment-phobe? A serial dater?" Lola Ann sighed. "You're right, of course. The problem is, I've spent too much time with your family and got to know him as a real human being."
In a way that most of his dates probably hadn't, Ronnie acknowledged silently. Dev came off as such a carefree charmer that most people never noticed how truly guarded he was.
"You think I should forget it and move on," Lola Ann surmised.
"Hey, I'm the last person to judge when it comes to illogical crushes," Ronnie insisted. Lola Ann knew her secret. With most guys in town, Ronnie could shoot the breeze about anything from spark plugs to the finer bluffing strategies of Texas Hold 'Em to the Titans' most recent football season. But there was one man who left her tongue-tied and uncomfortably aware that no one had taught her the feminine arts.
Jason McDeere. The high school English teacher who'd moved to Joyous last spring with his toddler daughter was unlike any of the other men Ronnie knew. While it was true they hadn't said more than a few words to each other, she couldn't help but feel a bond with him, given the losses he'd experienced.
"Hi, girls!" The throaty alto voice was instantly recognizable, and Ronnie was grinning even before she turned her head.
"Treble! Always good to see you, Mrs. Caldwell." Ronnie emphasized the title with a wink.
"Absolutely," Lola Ann chimed in, "but I'm shocked to see you out and about. I figured newlyweds had better ways of spending their Friday nights than hanging with the likes of us."
Treble, a gorgeous brunette who towered over them, compliments of her spike heels, laughed good-naturedly. "Are you kidding? I go out of my way to find you two. At least neither of you resent me for taking Keith off the market." She punctuated this with a fond glance at her husband, who was ordering them drinks at the bar.
Though Treble had grown up in Joyous, she'd moved away years ago. When she'd returned to Tennessee over the summer, she'd won the heart of Dr. Keith Caldwell, one of the most sought-after men in town. To celebrate Valentine's Day, they'd eloped last month. Treble's family grumbled about her nontraditional ways, but Ronnie knew they were thrilled for her newfound happiness, especially Treble's sister, Charity. "Resent you?" Lola Ann echoed. "Heck, no. We want to live vicariously through you! Ronnie here hasn't had a date in"
"Hey!" Ronnie interrupted her friend's impish tone.
"Pot, kettle, very black."
Lola Ann grinned. "I meant to say, neither of us have had a date in ages. We're living out a different story from the whirlwind courtship, followed by impulsive elopement."
"So what's your story like?" Treble asked.
"The 'love from afar'kind," Lola Ann said, glancing furtively at Devin and the blonde.
Treble made a sympathetic face. "Have you tried telling him your feelings?"
"Of course not!" Lola Ann looked horrified. "That would defeat the 'afar' concept. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the ladies' room to freshen my lipstick before Treble talks me into something ludicrously bold that I'd regret tomorrow."
"What?" Treble widened her eyes in feigned innocence.
"It's like you don't know me at all."
Ronnie snorted. "So, what about you?" Treble asked, zeroing in on a fresh victim. "Have you considered telling Jason McDeere about your mad, secret love?"
Hell, no. "You exaggerate. I don't think you can call it love I barely know the man." Their very first conversation had been after Ronnie rammed into Jason with her shopping cart at the local grocery. She'd apologized, feeling clumsy and starstruck by his good looks. Those eyes Someone with Treble's fearless poise had probably never had to maim a man to get his attention. "Why not go talk to him now?" Treble prodded. "Get to know him."
"Now? You mean he's here?" Heat bloomed in Ronnie's face; she'd never been able to outgrow the blushing her brothers had teased her mercilessly about.
"In the flesh." Treble gestured toward the bar area and a row of tall narrow tables. "I passed him when I came over to say hello."
Ronnie had to look twice to make sure, but, yes, there was Jason McDeere, standing at one of the tables. What was he doing here? She'd been doing her best to keep the blues at bay, but if Jason were here on a date There were two drinks on the table in front of Jason, but to her somewhat embarrassed relief, he seemed to be here with Coach Hanover, a forty-something man she knew mostly through his restoration of a classic '55 Ford F-100.
"This is your chance!" Treble nudged her. "In case I haven't said so before, you have excellent taste. He's gorgeous."
Ronnie nodded. "None of the teachers looked like that when I was a sophomore." Jason was somewhere between her height and that of her looming brothers. The lean, corded muscle was well defined in his arms, and the slim gold glasses he sometimes wore made his chiseled face even more masculine in contrast. He didn't have them on tonight, she noticed.
"So?" Treble prompted.