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"Next on the agenda," Alice Craigmoore said in her raspy, Southern drawl, "is this year's Miss Hot Pepper pageant. Mona, as our reigning pageant chair, do you have a report?"
Dalton Montgomery took this as his cue to commence with a nap.
The private back room of Duffy's Barbecue was famous for not only its fishing-themed decor, but also its oak and leather chairs roomy enough to allow a guy to enjoy a man-size meal without feeling sliced in half. In other words, it was easy to tune out of the bimonthly meeting's most mind-numbing portions.
As president-elect of Hot Pepper, Louisiana's chamber of commerce, Dalton had no problem tackling ordinary business matters. But whenever his fellow members started in with one of their half-dozen festivals they'd planned, or God forbid this pageant, he felt completely out of his league. But then these days, was there anywhere he did feel comfortable and in control?
As the only son of the president of the First National Bank of Hot Pepper, Dalton had been expected since birth to one day step into his father's shoes. The one time he'd deviated from the plan, he'd failed miserably both personally and professionally, leading him to believe maybe fate was smarter than he was.
Fifteen years later, here he was, resigned to living the rest of his days in a twelve-by-twelve office with an alley view.
Rubbing his forehead, he stifled a groan.
He wasn't usually so cranky about his lot in life. He had a large group of family and friends. A great house. Pool. Shiny new red Escalade. In the grand scheme of things, he didn't have much to complain about.
So why was it that when he'd shaved this morning, the guy gazing back at him inthe mirror had looked damn near dead?
"Dalton?" Mona asked. "Haven't you heard a word of what I've just said?"
"Huh?" He glanced up.
All ten chamber of commerce members present stared his way.
"The outgoing Miss Hot Pepper. It's your responsibility to tango with her during the lag time when the judges tally their scores."
Nope. Not going to happen. "I thought it was the president's responsibility to do the whole cheesy dance thing?"
"Cheesy?" Alice and Mona said in equally outraged tones. "I'll have you know," Mona said, "that the end-of pageant dance is a tradition that's been alive longer than you."
"And as incoming president," Alice piped in, "seeing how you're a man, you'll have to perform. After all, you wouldn't want to see me up there dancing with the beauty queen, would you?"
Hell, no. But that didn't mean he wanted to do it, either. "Why does it have to be me? There are twenty other guys I'm sure would be thrilled for the opportunity. For that matter, doesn't the outgoing Miss Hot Pepper have a boyfriend? Why can't you use him?"
"It's not that bad," Frank Loveaux said, loosening his brown striped tie. The man had a triple chin, so Dalton could see where the business noose would hinder his breathing. "I did it three years ago and had a ball. That was back when Mindy Sue Jacobs was Miss Hot Pepper." He whistled, then grinned. "That little lady was a pistol. To this day, I still dream about the kiss she gave me at the end of our dance."
"That's all well and good," Dalton said, "but everyone knows I can't dance. Just ask my prom dateover a decade later, and she's still crippled from my stepping on her toes."
"My daughter's toes work just fine," Catherine Bennettmother of his prom date, Josiesaid. "Why are you being so obstinate? If it weren't for your arguing, we could've been three more items down the agenda."
Ouch. He and Josie hadn't lasted much beyond prom.
Her eagle-eyed, blunt-talking mother had been a huge part of the problem. That, and the fact that Josie had been pretty and sweet and all, but she hadn't lit any fires in his belly. His mama had always told him that if a girl didn't keep him awake at night, craving their next kiss, it was time to move on.
Well, here he was, thirty-five years old, and aside from his ex, Carly, sleeping like a rock. Not that he lacked for female companionship. Just that to date, no woman except Carly had come anywhere near making him feel alive. Complete. But she had changed all that by slashing his heart in a zillion pieces. Now he vastly preferred the single life. He might occasionally be lonely, but the alternative of being emotionally annihilated sucked.
Alice slammed her gavel against the speaker's podium. "I'd like to make a motion that Dalton perform the end-of-pageant tango. All in favor?"
Nine arms shot up. "Aye." "Opposed?" "Nay," Dalton alone said.
With another slam of her gavel, his fate was sealed. "The ayes have it. Next on the agendathe Hot Pepper Festival's food concessions. Frank, are you ready with your report?"
Dalton's first glimpse of the hottie greeting him in the dance studio's pale pink reception area had him doing a double take. "Um, you're not blue-haired Miss Gertrude."
Flashing a professional smile that didn't reach her eyes, the vision said, "Miss Gertrude retired. I'm the studio's new owner, Rose Vasquez. Are you the Dalton Montgomery I have down for a tango lesson?"
"That'd be me," he said. For the first time since that week's chamber meeting, he stopped cursing his fellow committee members. Maybe the whole dance gig wouldn't be half-bad.
"Welcome." She held out her slim hand for him to shake.
When their palms met, he felt a twinge in his gut. Her grip was firm, yet somehow fragile, as if the merest hint of a wind might blow her away. Aside from a trickling lobby fountain and humming drink machine, the studio was quietsave for his racing pulse. He hadn't expected them to be alone. Not that it was a problem. Just that, being in a small-town dance studio, he'd pictured himself surrounded by eight-year-old gigglers in pink tutus.
Clasping her hands over her gently curved belly, she said, "The woman who made your reservation"
"Yes, well, Joan, mentioned you just need a crash course."
"Yep. That'll do it. The basics are all I need to get me through one heinous night."
"That's all well and good," the woman said, her once lovely expression now sober, "but when you say you want to know just the basics about the tango, you've insulted not only me, but a tradition that has lasted more than a hundred years. Tango isn't just a dance, and I hope that once we're finished with our lessons, you'll see that. I also hope you'll treat this venture we're embarking upon with the dignity and respect it deserveseven loyalty."
Dignity and respect? Loyalty? Dalton figured he deserved an Academy Awardat least an Emmyfor the acting job he was doing in holding back a snort. They were talking about dance moves. This woman might be attractive, but she had a lot to learn about what in life deserved such sentiments. If anyone was an expert on what loyalty made a man do, it was him.
"You're awfully quiet," she said, tapping a purple pencil against the top of a yellow laminate reception desk. The girlie colors brought on indigestion, or was it the fact that he was for all practical purposes being lectured by a stranger that had his stomach in an uproar?
He reached into the chest pocket of his suit for a chewable antacid, but he was fresh out. Damn.
When he spotted her eyeing him funny, he withdrew his hand from his pocket. "I'm assuming from the tone of our one-sided conversation that either I play this dancing game all your way or hit the highway?"
She smiled, and the force of it nearly knocked him off his feet. She wasn't merely hot, as he'd previously thought. She was beautiful. In fact, she could've launched an entire new category of beauty. Rich, olivetoned skin served as the perfect backdrop for soulful brown eyes and silky, raven-black hair that his fingertips itched to touch.
Snap out of it! his conscience cried.
She was a looker, but considering the tone of the speech she'd just delivered, she was also a few cupcakes shy of a dozen.
Smile not reaching her eyes, she said, "I can't say anyone has ever paraphrased my wishes so eloquently, but yes, you're right. If I agree to give you a crash course in tango, you must give me as close to one hundred percent of yourself as possible."
When he opened his mouth to object, she shocked him by placing the pad of her index finger against his lips.
"No," she said, "don't speak. I can read your mind. You're thinking how can you devote all your energy to learning this dance when work is what you live for, am I right?"
He nodded. "As you'll soon see, I'm not asking for much. Just your undivided attention."
Right. From where he stood, sounded more like his soul.
"Do we have a deal, Mr. Montgomery?"
Telling himself he felt the same jolt of awareness every time he shook a female colleague's hand, Dalton once again grasped the lovely Ms. Vasquez's fingers in his. "Deal. Ready to start?"
"You mean now?"
"My secretary did make a reservation." "No," she said with a faint shake of her head. "II'm sorry, but something has come up. I have lessons from noon until six tomorrow evening. You and I shall tango at seven."
AFTER MR. MONTGOMERY left, Rose had trouble locking the door. Her fingers trembled as she remembered the spark of interest in Dalton Montgomery's striking blue eyes. Her stomach clenched when she considered how close she'd come to reaching out to straighten a wayward lock of his unruly short, dark hair. At just over six feet, with a square jaw, high brow and Roman nose, Dalton exuded strength and undeniable sex appeal.
Why had she lectured him like that? Why had she turned away the good money she could've earned from tonight's session?
Not because she was eager to check on Anna as she'd told herself, but because for the first time since John's death well over a year earlier, she'd found a man attractive, and the notion shook her to the core.
The thought of spending an hour in Dalton Montgomery's arms while performing the dance she'd so loved with her husband, well It was inconceivable. Which was why she'd bought herself a little extra time. To adjust to the idea that it was okay to find another man physically attractive.
Find him attractive yes, but feel warmth spreading through her limbs when he looked at her? What had that been about? How could she begin to process her mixedup feelings in the all-too-brief time until they met again?
Somehow, some way, she'd found the strength to tackle each day since the motorcycle accident that'd stolen John from her andAnna. Rose forced a deep breath, knowing she'd capably handle this development, as well.
In the brief time they'd shared as man and wife, she and her husband had enjoyed a wholly fulfilling physical relationship. She'd always been a passionate woman. It was common sense that as a healthy female in her prime she would have certain needs. Logically, the attraction she'd felt for Mr. Montgomery had been purely biologicalnothing at all to be concerned about.
Oh yeah? Then how come your pulse is racing at the mere thought of seeing him again?
She didn't have an answerat least one she was willing to admit, even to herself. Rose flicked off the studio's lights then resolutely marched up the stairs to her and Anna's airy loft.
In coming to terms with John's death, Anna had been her rock. Tonight, whether the six-year-old knew it or not, she would again be her mom's strength.
As for Dalton Montgomery, all Rose had to do to deal with him was convince herself that he was just another student and the tango was just another dance.