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Even though the gala was part of a professional conference, it looked as though almost everyone had arrived two-by-two. Moira Cullen had known they would, and decided to come anyway. So what if this, like most social occasions, had too much in common with Noah's ark? She was supposed to have been half of a couple tonight, too, until she'd gotten the email this afternoon from Bruce.
I'm sorry, Moira, but I won't be able to escort you tonight after all. Something has come up. I know you hadn't planned to attend until I asked you, so I hope it won't be too big a disappointment.
He'd signed off with "Bruce." Plain and simple. No "Love, Bruce," or "I'll think of you tonight and wish we were dancing together," or even "I'll call tomorrow and explain."
She still had no idea what could have happened since this morning, when they'd parted after a conference session. She and Bruce Girard both had been attending the conference held in Redmond, across Lake Washington from Seattle, for members of the building trade. He was a real estate attorney, she was an architect. They'd been dating for nearly six weeks, and she'd decided that tonight was a fitting time to invite him into her bedroom for the first time.
And she'd bought the most beautiful dress!
In a spirit of defiancé, she'd decided to come to the gala anyway. Lots of attendees were from out of town and had come without significant others. A single woman would surely be asked to dance. It could be fun, she had decided, surprising herself with her determination. Bruce was probably disappointed, too, and would undoubtedly be in touch. They'd have other nights. She had no reason to feel hurt.
She hesitated only momentarily in the lobby, then walked toward the ballroom, telling herself she looked voluptuous in her new dress, not fat.
Repeat after me: I am not fat.
She knew she wasn't. Believing, though, that could be another story.
Right by the open doors, she saw a man she knew. She'd worked with Stan Wells on a job a couple of years ago. He appeared to be by himself.
He turned, looked her up and down, and said, "Well, hello," then did a double take. "Moira?" He sounded stunned.
Stan had never once looked at her as if he'd noticed she was a woman when they had worked together.
She smiled pleasantly and said, "Hello, Stan," then strolled past him, enjoying the knowledge that he'd swiv-eled on his heel to watch her walk away. The dress must be as flattering as she'd imagined it to be.
It was also form-fitting, which meant that she scanned the buffet table with a wistful eye but didn't dare partake. So what. She wasn't here to eat.
Moira made her way around the outskirts of the ballroom, pausing to chat a couple of times and to promise a dance once the musicians started to play. She'd been right to think she'd have funit was nice to come to a party where she actually knew many of the people.
Then her roving gaze stopped on a tall, handsome man with sandy hair and a lopsided grin. Bruce Girard, wearing a well-cut suit, had his head bent as he talked to a beautiful, slender woman in a fire-engine red dress cut short to bare long legs. Moira stared in shock. She wouldn't have dared wear a dress that short, because she didn't have legs like that. On her, the razor-sharp, chin-length bob wouldn't have emphasized sculpted cheekbones, because she didn't have those, either. Andoh, Godif she'd worn a red dress, never mind the slash of scarlet lipstick, her hair and freckles would have looked orange.
They were orange.
She had to quit staring. Moira knew that, in some distant part of her mind. It would be humiliating if Bruce were to happen to glance her way and catch her gaping.
Maybe, at the last minute, his plans had changed and he'd come on the chance that she would be here. If he'd tried calling her at home, and thought that because she didn't answer
He laid his hand on the brunette's lower back. Really, almost, on her butt. The way his hand was splayed there was unmistakably proprietary and sexual. Recognizing it, the woman smiled and tilted her head so that it, very briefly, rested against his upper arm.
Pain squeezed Moira's chest. Surely he hadn't been seeing someone else all this time. Or was even married? They had several mutual acquaintances who knew they were dating each other. Wouldn't someone have said something?
Andface itwhy would he have dated her at all if he had a wife or a lover who looked like that?
The backs of her eyes burned, and she suddenly felt homely and fat. Probably Stan Wells had turned in incredulity at the amount of flesh she'd squeezed into this damn dress.
Breathe, she told herself, and couldn't.
She couldn't seem to make herself move, either. She was frozen between one step and the next, excruciatingly self-conscious. What she'd convinced herself were curves were really bulges. And no one thought a woman whose skin was spotted was sexy. With self-loathing, she wondered who she had been kidding.
Then, to complete her misery, Bruce's head turned and their eyes met. His face went still. Knowing a riptide of red was sweeping up her neck to her cheeks, Moira forced herself into motion. With her redhead's skin, she didn't blush, she flamed. Even from a distance, he would see.
Her eye fastened desperately on a bar ahead. She could pretend she'd been looking for a drink. That gave her a goal. Made her feel as if she was less pathetically, obviously alone.
Except, of course, that she was.
There was a short line. The couple ahead of her were strangers and paid no attention to her. She wished someone else would join the queue, someone she could hide behind. Unfortunately, in her peripheral vision she could still see Bruce and the woman. He spoke to her, then left her watching him speculatively and approached Moira.
If only she could cool her cheeks, she might be able to handle him with savoir faire. A surprised glance, an, "Oh, you made it after all?" If only she had any actual confidence.
"Moira." He was here, at her side.
She tilted her chin up and, somehow, smiled. "Bruce. I didn't expect to see you."
"I didn't think I'd see you, either."
Anger was her salvation, or maybe it would embarrass her, she didn't know which. She went with it anyway.
With raised eyebrows, she glanced toward his date. "Yes, that's obvious."
"Ah.I'm sorry about this. I should have told you."
"That we weren't dating each other exclusively?" She was proud of her level tone.
"It's not like that." He frowned at her. "We were. I was. It's just that I ran into Graziella and." Bruce spread his hands and shrugged. "We'd broken it off, but as soon as we saw each other again we both knew we'd made a mistake."
In other words, Moira realized, he'd been in love with another woman the entire time he'd dated her. No wonder he'd been so patient. He'd been filling time with her. Licking his wounds. She couldn't even flatter herself that he'd been on the rebound. He hadn't been interested enough in her for their relationship to qualify.
It hurt. Her heart or her pride, she wasn't sure which, but either way, it did hurt.
The couple in front of her stepped up to the bar. She moved forward.
"Honesty would have been nice."
"I didn't lie"
"Yes, you did. If only by omission." Anger was still carrying her along, thank goodness. "I didn't understand that I wasn't supposed to come tonight. You've embarrassed me. That wasn't necessary, Bruce." Drinks in hand, the couple stepped away. To Bruce, Moira said, "Please excuse me," and turned to the bartender. "A martini, please."
By the time she'd paid, Bruce was gone, striding across the ballroom toward his Graziella, whose name was as exotic as her looks.
Moira took a huge gulp of the martini and wished she could go home. But if she did that, the jerk would know that she wasn't just embarrassed, she was humiliated and wounded. And she refused to give him that satisfaction.
She'd dance, and maybe even get a little bit drunk. She would clutch at her pride, because that's all she had. And she wouldn't let herself think until she got home about the fact that Bruce Girard hadn't wanted her, not really.
Men never did.
Will Becker leaned against the railing, his back to the view of dark woods that somehow still existed within a stone's throw of the Redmond Town Center mall and the surrounding upscale hotels and restaurants. Instead, nursing a drink he didn't really want, he looked through the floor-to-ceiling glass at the ballroom where other people seemed to be having a fine time.
Him, he hated affairs like this. He was content lurking outside, glass separating him from the gaiety within.
Circumstances being different, he wouldn't be here at all. As it was, he and Clay had attended a few conference sessions together, but the real point of the weekend had been for Will to introduce his brother to everyone he knew. This had been a four day long changing of the guard, so to speak.
"Yes," he'd said dozens of times, "Clay will be taking over Becker Construction. He knows the business. Hell, better than I did when I stepped in for my father." Got stuck, was what he really meant. "I have confidence in Clay."
That was the important part: to convey to everyone that he believed Clay could replace him without one of the county's biggest construction companies suffering even a minor hiccup.
"I have plans," he'd said vaguely when asked what he'd be doing. Only to a select few had he admitted that a week from tomorrow he was flying to Zimbabwe to begin a two-year commitment to build medical clinics. He only knew how to do one thingbuildbut at least he'd be having an adventure. That, and doing good, instead of adding another minimall where it wasn't needed.
Now, he was lying low. He'd done his duty this evening and would have left if Clay didn't still seem to be having a good time.
Music spilled from the crowded ballroom, and he idly watched the dancers. Not for the first time, Will found his gaze following a redheaded woman whose lush body was poured into a high-necked forest-green dress that might have been demure on someone elsesomeone who didn't have a small waist, a glorious ass and breasts that would overflow a man's hands, even hands as large as his.
The guy she was dancing with kept trying to pull her closer, and she was refusing to relax into him. She sure as hell had no intention of melting against the guy, which seemed to be frustrating him no end.
When the music ended, he said something to her, his hand still resting against her waist. She shook her head and walked away, straight to the bar.
Will had noticed that, too. The beautiful redhead was putting away the drinks. Not enough yet to have her tanked, but more than was wise if she intended to drive home. And he guessed she'd need to, because he hadn't seen any sign she was here with anybody, friend or date. In fact, for all the dancing she was doing, she didn't look
like she was having a very good time. Maybe a mistaken impression, but he didn't think so.
She took her fresh drink and this time headed for the doors that stood open to the terrace where he currently lurked. Just like he had, the redhead went straight for the dark perimeter where light from the ballroom didn't reach. She didn't realize she wasn't alone until she was almost on top of him.
When she started, Will said, "Hey," making his voice soothing. Even if he hadn't been standing in the dark, his size tended to alarm lone women. "Want to hide out here with me?"
She blinked owlishly. "I didn't see you."
"I know. That's okay, I wouldn't mind some company." Hers, anyway. To himself, he could admit that he'd been humming with a low level of arousal since he'd first set eyes on her. He didn't like bony women, and this one had the most luscious body he'd seen in longer than he could remember.
He wished he could make out what color her eyes were. He knew she had a pretty face and a mouth made for smiling. But her eyes, he hadn't been sure of from a distance. Brown? Didn't most redheads have brown eyes?
"I don't want to intrude," she said after a minute.
Will shook his head. "You're not. I was watching you dance."
Her head tilted his way. "You were?"
Some undertone in her voice puzzled him. She sounded surprised. Or even disbelieving.
"You're beautiful," he said simply.
His mystery redhead snorted. "Yeah, right. That's me."
Oh, yeah. Definitely disbelieving.
He grinned at her. "You think I'm full of hot air."
The pretty mouth was mulish and not smiling. "I know what I look like."
He was tempted to end the argument by kissing her, but he didn't make a habit of grabbing women he hardly knew. And anyway she wasn't being coy. The words had been pained, as if pushed through a throat that was raw.
"Did somebody insult you?" Will asked gently.
She took a long swallow of her drink, swayed and clunked it down on the railing beside his. Liquid splashed. "You could say that," she said in a small, tight voice.
He was hardly aware of his hands tightening into fists. Partly to keep them off her, and partly because he wanted to slug the bastard who'd hurt her feelings.
She blinked at him again. "Who?" he repeated.
"Oh, it was my own stupid fault," she said finally. "I guess I was supposed to get the message when he let me know he wouldn't be bringing me tonight." She heaved a sigh. "The part I missed was that he was bringing someone else."
"He thought you wouldn't come."
Will's eyes narrowed. "So he's here."
"Yes. With Graziella." She grimaced. "Of course she couldn't have a name like Ethel."
Not many women in their twenties or thirties were named Ethel, Will thought with a trace of amusement. But he liked the way she said it, and the way she spit out Graziella.
"I'll bet you're nothing as plain as Ethel, either."
"No," she mumbled, "I'm Moira."
"As Irish as your hair."
She reached up and touched the skillfully tumbled mass of red curls atop her head as if to remind herself what was up there. "I suppose."
"I'm Will," he said, and held out his hand. "Will Becker."
She laid hers in it and they shook with an odd sort of solemnity. "Good to meet you, Will Becker."
She sounded as if the booze was starting to go to her head, as if she was having to form words carefully. He hoped she'd forget she still had most of a drink.
"Having a good time anyway?" he asked.
Moira sighed. "Not especially. You?"
"No. I'm not a real social guy."
She stirred. "You probably wish I'd leave you alone."
"No." He clasped her wrist loosely. "No. Don't go."