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Fay felt as if every eye in the bar was on her when she walked in. It had been purely an impulse, and she was already regretting it. A lone female walking into a bar on the wrong side of town in south Texas late at night was asking for trouble. Women's lib hadn't been heard of this far out, and several pairs of male eyes were telling her so.
She could only imagine how she looked in her tight designer jeans, her feet encased in silk hose and high heels, a soft yellow knit sweater showing the faint swell of her high breasts. Her long dark hair was around her shoulders in soft swirls, and her green eyes darted nervously from one side of the small, smoke-filled room to the other. There was a jukebox playing so loud that she had to yell to tell the bartender she wanted a beer. That was a joke, too, because in all her twenty years, she'd never had a beer. White wine, yes. Even a pina colada down in Jamaica. But never a beer.
Defiance was becoming expensive, she thought, watching a burly man separate himself from his companions with a mumbled remark that made them laugh.
He perched himself beside her at the bar, his narrow eyes giving her an appraisal that made her want to run. "Hello, pretty thing," he said, grinning through his beard. "Wanta dance?"
She cupped her hands around the beer mug to stop them from shaking. "No, thank you," she said in her soft, cultured voice, keeping her eyes down. "I'm waiting for someone."
That was almost true. She'd been waiting for someone all her life, but he hadn't shown up yet. She needed him now. She was living with a mercenary, social-climbing relative who was doing his best to sell her to a rich friend with eyes that made her skin crawl. All her money was tied up in trust, and she was stuck with her mother's brother. Rescue was certainly uppermost in her mind, but this rowdy cowboy wasn't her idea of a white knight.
"You and me could have a good time, honey," her admirer continued, unabashed. He smoothed her sweater-clad arm and she withdrew as if his fingers were snakes. "Now, don't start backing away, sweet thing! I know how to treat a lady."
No one noticed the dark face in the corner suddenly lift, or saw the dangerous glitter in silver eyes that dominated it. No one noticed the look he gave the girl, or the colder one that he gave her companion before he got gracefully to his feet and moved toward the bar.
He wore jeans, too. Not like Fay's, because his were working jeans. They were faded and stained from work, and his boots were a howling thumbed nose at city cowboys' elegant footwear. His hat was blacker than his thick, unruly hair, a little crumpled here and there. He was tall. Very tall. Lean and muscular and quite well-known locally. His temper, in fact, was as legendary as the big fists now curled with deceptive laxness at his sides as he walked.
"You'd like me if you just got to know me" The pudgy cowboy broke off when the newcomer came into his line of vision. He became almost comically still, his head slightly cocked. "Why, hello, Donavan," he began uneasily. "I didn't know she was with you."
"Now you do," he replied in a deep, gravelly voice that sent chills down Fay's spine.
She turned her head and looked into diamond-glinted eyes, and lost her heart forever. She couldn't seem to breathe.
"It's about time you showed up," he told Fay. He took her arm, eased her down from the bar stool with a grip that was firm and exciting. He handed her beer mug to her, and with a last cutting glare at the other man, he escorted her back to his table.
"Thank you," she stammered when she was sitting beside him. He'd left a cigarette smoking in the dented metal ashtray, and a half-touched glass of whiskey. He didn't take off his hat when he sat down. She'd noticed that Western men seemed to have little use for the courtesies she'd taken for granted back home.
He picked up his cigarette and took a long draw from it. His nails were flat and clean, despite traces of grease that clung to his long-fingered, dark hands. They were beautiful masculine hands, with no jewelry adorning them. Working hands, she thought idly.
"Who are you?" he asked suddenly.
"I'm Fay," she told him. She forced a smile. "And you ?"
"Most people just call me Donavan."
She took a sip of beer and grimaced. It tasted terrible. She stared at it with an expression that brought a faint smile to the man's hard, thin mouth.
"You don't drink beer, and you don't belong in a bar. What are you doing on this side of town, debutante?" he drawled.
"I'm running away from home," she said with a laugh. "Escaping my jailers. Having a night on the town. Rebelling. Take your pick."
"Are you old enough to do that?" he asked pointedly.
"If you mean, am I old enough to order a beer in a bar, yes. I'm two months shy of twenty-one."
"You don't look it."
She studied his hard, suntanned face and his unruly hair. With a little trimming up and proper dressing, he might be rather devastating. "Are you from around here?" she asked.
"All my life," he agreed.
"Do you work?"
"Child, in this part of Texas, everybody works." He scowled. "Most everybody," he amended, letting his eyes linger pointedly on her diamond tennis bracelet. "Wearing that into a country bar is asking for trouble. Pull your sleeve down."
She did, obeying him instantly when she was known for ignoring anything that sounded like a command at home. She flushed at her instant deference. Maybe she was drunk already. Sure, she mused, on two sips of beer.
"What do you do when you aren't giving orders?" she taunted.
He searched her green eyes. "I'm a ranch foreman," he said. "I give orders for a living."
"Oh. You're a cowboy."
"That's one name for it."
She smiled again. "I've never met a real cowboy before."
"You aren't from here."
She shook her head. "Georgia. My parents were killed in a plane crash, so I was sent out here to live with my uncle." She whistled softly. "You can't imagine what it's like."
"Get out," he said simply. "People live in prisons out of choice. You can always walk away from a situation you don't care for."
"Want to bet? I'm rich," she said curtly. "Filthy rich. But it's all tied up in a trust that I can't touch until I'm twenty-one, and my uncle is hoping to marry me off to a business associate in time to get his hands on some of it."
"Are you for real?" he asked. He picked up the whiskey glass and took a sip, putting the glass down with a sharp movement of his hand. "Tell him to go to hell and do what you please. At your age I was working for myself, not for any relatives."
"You're a man," she pointed out.
"What difference does that make?" he asked. "Haven't you ever heard of women's lib?"
She smiled. At least one person in the bar had heard of women's lib. "I'm not that kind of woman. I'm wimpy."
"Listen, lady, no wimpy girl walks into a place like this in the middle of the night and orders a beer."
She laughed, her green eyes brilliant. "Yes, she does, when she's driven to it. Besides, it was safe, wasn't it? You were here."
He lifted his chin and a different light came into the pale, silvery eyes. "And you think I'm safe," he murmured. "Or, more precisely, that you're safe with me?"
Her heart began to thud against her ribs. That was a very adult look in his eyes, and she noticed the corresponding drop of his voice into a silky, soft purr. Her lips parted as she let out the breath she was holding.
"I hope I am," she said after a minute. "Because I've done a stupid thing and even though I might deserve a hard time, I'm hoping you won't give me one."
He smiled, and this time it was without mockery. "Good girl. You're learning."
"Is it a lesson?" she asked.
He drained the whiskey glass. "Life is all lessons. The ones you don't learn right off the bat, you have to repeat. Get up. I'll drive you home."
"Must you?" she asked, sighing. "It's the first adventure I've ever had, and it may be the last."
He cocked his hat over one eye and looked down at her. "In that case, I'll do my best to make it memorable," he murmured dryly. He held out a lean, strong hand and pulled her up when she took it. "Are you game?"
She was feeling her way with him, but oddly, she trusted him. She smiled. "I'm game."
He nodded. He took her arm and guided her out the door. She noticed a few looks that came their way, but no one tried to distract him.
"People seem to know you in there," she remarked when they were outside in the cool night air.
"They know me," he returned. "I've treed that bar a time or two."
He glanced down at her. "Broken it up in a brawl. Men get into trouble, young lady, and women aren't always handy to get them out of it."
"I'm not really handy," she said hesitantly.
He chuckled. "Honey, what you are is written all over you in green ink. I don't mind a little adventure, but that's all you'll get from me." His silvery eyes narrowed. "If you stay around here long enough, you'll learn that I don't like rich women, and you'll learn why. But for tonight, I'm in a generous mood."
"I don't understand," she said. He laughed without humor. "I don't suppose you do." He eyed her intently. "You aren't safe to be let out."
"That's what everybody keeps saying." She smiled with what she hoped was sophistication. "But how will I learn anything about life if I'm kept in a glass bowl?"
His eyes narrowed. "Maybe you've got a head start already." He tugged her along to a raunchy gray pickup truck with dents all over it. "I hope you weren't expecting a Rolls-Royce, debutante. I could hardly haul cattle in one."
She felt terrible. She actually winced as she looked up at him, and he felt a twinge of guilt at the dry remark that was meant to be funny.
"Oh, I don't care what you drive," she said honestly. "You could be riding a horse, and it wouldn't matter. I don't judge people by what they have."
His pale eyes slid over her face lightly. "I think I knew that already," he said quietly. "I'm sorry. I meant it as a joke. Here. Don't cut yourself on that spring. It popped out and I haven't had time to fix it."
"Okay." She bounced into the cab and he closed the door. It smelled of the whole outdoors, and when he got in, it smelled of leather and smoke. He glanced at her and smiled.
He started the truck and glanced at her. "Did you drive here?" he asked.
He paused to look around the parking lot, pursing his lips with faint amusement when he saw the regal blue Mercedes-Benz sitting among the dented pickup trucks and dusty four-wheel-drive vehicles.
"That's right, you don't need to ask what I drove here in," she muttered self-consciously. "And yes, it's mine."
He chuckled. "Bristling already, and we've only just met," he murmured as he pulled out into the road. "What do you do when you aren't trying to pick up strange men in bars?"
She glared at him. "I study piano, paint a little and generally try to stay sane through endless dinner parties and morning coffees."
He whistled through his teeth. "Some life."
She turned in the seat, liking the strength of his profile. "What do you do?"
"Chase cattle, mostly. Figure percentages, decide which cattle to cull, hire and fire cowboys, go to conferences, make financial decisions." He glanced at her. "Occasionally I sit on the board of directors of two corporations."
She frowned slightly. "I thought you said you were a foreman."
"There's a little more to it than that," he said comfortably. "You don't need to know the rest. Where do you want to go?"
She had to readjust her thinking from the abrupt statement. She glanced out the dark window at the flat south Texas landscape. "Well I don't know. I just don't want to go home."
"They're having a fiesta down in San Moreno," he said with an amused glance. "Ever been to one?"
"No!" Her eyes brightened. "Could we?"
"I don't see why not. There isn't much to do except dance, though, and drink beer. Do you dance?"
"Oh, yes. Do you?"
He chuckled. "I can when forced into it. But you may have trouble with the beer part."
"I learned to like caviar," she said. "Maybe I can learn to like beer."
He didn't comment. He turned on the radio and country-western music filled the cab. She leaned her head back on the seat and smiled as she closed her eyes.