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One would think Allaire Traub would be smart enough to recognize her best friend across a parking lot. But when she first saw him, she had no idea it was the man she used to call "her D.J."
Tori Jones, Allaire's friend and fellow teacher, spotted him first as they walked into the parking lot of Thunder Canyon High School. Both her and Allaire's arms were loaded with lesson plans and workbooks, their cheeks already reddened by a cool September wind.
"Please tell me that's one of my students' parents just dropping in for a conference," Tori said.
Trying to get a bead on who her friend was referring to, Allaire whisked a strand of blond hair out of her eyes. Across the lot, the school band practiced their competition show. A coach's whistle trilled from the football field to the east.
Her gaze soon fell on a man standing with his back to them, hands in his jeans pockets while he watched the band easing into formation. His shoulders were broad beneath his suede-and-sheepskin coat, his dark brown hair tufted by the same breeze that was presently sending a shiver over Allaire herself.
Without quite knowing what she was doing, she well-muscled legs. His stance was casual, confident. Her art teacher's fingers itched to shape him, to sculpt and feel.
But nope, not for her, even if she did like what she saw. These days, Allaire didn't have the will to invest herself in dating, much less the emotion it took to be intimate with someone. Divorce had sapped the energy right out of her and, even if her marriage had dissolved four years ago, it didn't feel like enough time had passed to "get out there" again.
However, four years was enough time to get into thehabit of being a single woman who depended only on herself, and Allaire had discovered she hadn't minded that so much.
She shot Tori an encouraging grin. "You'd better hope he's not the parent of a failing student. That'd be fun."
The strawberry-blonde shrugged good-naturedly, wrinkling her nose as she smiled, too. A light spray of freckles added a pixie-like vibe to Tori's short, wispy haircut. She was so hip that you could tell she'd moved here from a big city like Denver.
"Please," Tori said. "I don't mix business with pleasure. Look but don't touch. That's what I sayunless the looking comes during my off hours."
"More power to you then ." Allaire trailed off as the man across the parking lot turned around.
It was as if he'd been tuned in to her presence, sensing the moment she'd walked out of the school. Then again, it'd always been that way with the two of them.
A couple of peas in a pod, Allaire thought, as the man in the sheepskin coat smiled at her.
"D.J.?" she whispered.
He sauntered toward them while the band started to play, horns blaring and echoing through a big blue sky already painted with strokes of pinkened clouds.
"Who's D.J.?" Tori asked.
Good question, Allaire thought. Who was Dalton James Traub nowadays? She'd thought she'd known the answer all those years ago, when they'd been best friends throughout school.
When he'd been the best man at her wedding to his older brother, Dax.
Allaire paused, then smiled, the gesture weighing on her lips. "D.J."s a pal. Someone I haven't seen in a long, long time."
"Then I'll leave you to him," Tori said. "I need to get home and grade a batch of essays about Moby Dick, anyway. And, truly, I just can't wait to read all the veiled phallic jokes in store for me. Wish me patience and good humor?"
All Allaire could do was nod as her friend headed toward her compact car. The wind flirted with Tori's oversized coat and jaunty red scarf as she left Allaire to fend for herself.
Not only had she not seen D.J. in years, she hadn't talked to him in a long, long time, either. They'd started floating apart ten years ago after graduation, when he'd gone across the country for college. She'd seen him at her wedding, of course, but things had been too crazy for them to really enjoy each other's company. Then he'd left Thunder Canyon for good, except for a quick trip to his dad's funeral five years ago, just before she and Dax had divorced. Even then, she and her old friend hadn't talked to any extentshe'd just seen D.J. at the service, and he'd disappeared immediately afterward.
Stung, she'd been reluctant to call or e-mail, thinking he was avoiding her for a reason, probably because of her strained marriage to his brother. She'd even believed that D.J. might be taking Dax's side, even if they weren't the closest of brothers. She didn't know why that wasneither D.J. nor Dax ever wanted to talk about it. Still, blood was thicker than water, so she hadn't chanced the contact with D.J., afraid of how much an official rejection from him would hurt.
Now, as he approached, his gait slowed. He actually seemed more self-aware with each closing step.
Would he be uncomfortable around her now that she and Dax were kaput? And what would she and D.J. have to say to each other after all these years?
As he got closer, Allaire's pulse picked up speed. It was a new feeling, at least around good ol' D.J., and she didn't understand why a mere glimpse of him across the parking lot had changed things.
Allaire searched for reasons: her heart was bippity-bopping because she was nervous about seeing him again, that's all. She wasn't a big social type, anyway, not unless you counted her new friendship with Tori. Marriage to Dax had been her world until it'd collapsed; she'd married young and never thought to make any friends because she'd had him.
Besides, D.J. was Dax's brother. Her ex's brother. There was no place for accelerated pulses here.
D.J. stopped a proper distance away, but it was close enough for her to see how brown his eyes still were, how his cheeks still got those ruddy stains in cold weather, how his hair still refused to keep to its combed style.
Yet there was something different about him nowa lot different. He'd grown up, his face leaner, more angledsloped cheekbones, a firm chin with a slight dimple.
Allaire's heart tilted, as if reconsidering him. "I thought that was you," he said, voice much lower, manlier, than the D.J. she remembered. Had he sounded like this when they'd fleetingly greeted each other at the funeral?
His tone sent a spark through her, but she doused it. What was going on? Once again brother of her ex? Hello?
"You're back in town." Allaire immediately congratulated herself on announcing the obvious. Everyone knew that Grant Clifton and Riley Douglas had asked D.J. to open one of his celebrated barbecue restaurants up at Thunder Canyon Resort. She just hadn't realized he would be here at the high school, not when there was so much to be done.
"I thought it might be time for a longer homecoming than the last visit," he said.
They held gazes and, just when the contact seemed to go on a moment too long, Allaire glanced away, holding her papers tighter against her chest. There'd been something in his eyes, something that she couldn't understand. An intensity.
Had that always been there, too?
As if to erase the tension, D.J. offered his hand in greeting. Something an acquaintance might do. Something far less intimate than what she thought she'd seen in his gaze.
She reached out to clasp his hand, wondering exactly why it was they couldn't hug hello this time. But she knew. Life hadn't only put a lot of miles and years between themit'd taken something away, too. Something they used to share with such ease.
His hand was large, roughened by work, though she knew his job couldn't entail all that much hard labor.
Nope, he'd made a small fortune by opening a slew of D.J."s Rib Shacks across the U.S., meaning he probably spent more time behind a desk crunching numbers than anything.
A wealthy businessman. Her D.J.the studious kid who'd been too bashful to ask anyone to the prom. At the reminder of how much things had changed,Allaire shifted, suddenly more uncomfortable than ever.
Still, as warmth from his hand suffused her skin, her stomach heated, melting to places she'd denied herself the pleasure of using for quite some time now.
Confused at her reaction, she decided to deal with things the easy way: to be the twenty-seven-year-old paragon of wonderfulness everyone expected. The bright, optimistic, open girl who'd pretty much deserted her, although Allaire still tried to make the world think she was that same person.
"Dalton James Traub," she said, embarking on easy conversation. "What brings you to our esteemed Thunder Canyon High?"
One of D.J."s eyebrows quirked, as if noting her sudden personality split. "Straight to business it is, then."
"Sorry. It's only that I never expected I thought you might be busy up at the resort overseeing construction and design of the restaurant."
"After you heard the news that I was coming back, you must've known you'd see me."
"Actually," she said, "I wasn't sure I'd ever really see you again."
Guilt seemed to swipe across his features. His jaws bunched, a muscle ticking in one of them.
The blare of brass instruments saved him from having to answer as the band pivoted in their direction. D.J. nodded his head toward the football field, clearly asking her to walk with him there. He even relieved her of her workload, easily taking her bound pile of papers as if he were holding her schoolbooks at his side.
Out of old, old habit, she fell into step with him. He'd obviously not forgotten how he needed to shorten his stride to match hers, seeing as she only came up to his shoulder.
They walked down a hill, and the band's show tune softened into the background. Allaire thought that this might be the perfect opportunity for D.J. to answer her blunt comment about never seeing him again, but he didn't. No, he had always been the best listener and the best philosophical conversationalist, yet Allaire knew all too well he had always kept a part of himself sheltered.
As he was doing now.