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Rose Traub hadn't wanted to get naked with a man since moving to Thunder Canyon, Montana. That was kind of a problem if you wanted to get married, and she wanted it bad. "Rose?"
Austin Anderson's deep voice scraped over her nerve endings and snapped her out of it. "Hmm?" "You okay?"
"Of course." She looked over at him, sitting in the driver's seat of the old truck. The two of them had just finished delivering Thanksgiving dinners to the town's invalids and people a little down on their luck this year. They'd left with the meals from DJ's Rib Shack and Austin had brought her back to pick up her car. "Why would you think I'm not fine?"
"You got quiet. I was afraid tryptophan fumes from all those turkey dinners put you to sleep. That's easier to believe than "
"What?" she asked.
"That I bored you into a coma."
She laughed and shook her head. "You're great company, Austin, and you know it. Now you're just fishing for compliments."
"Busted." Lights in the empty parking lot illuminated the interior of the truck and his grin was clearly visible. "So you're not sorry about being stuck as my partner today?"
"Nope. It was fun."
He nodded. "Any regrets about moving to Thunder Canyon?"
She was only sorry Austin didn't fit her male fantasy profile because he was, by far, the most interesting guy she'd met. He was also very cute, in a Ryan Reynolds, sexiest-manalive sort of way. If only But wishing for what could never be was a waste of time and that was something she didn't have.
"Any regrets?" she mused.
Glancing out the truck window at mounds of white that had been plowed to the sides of the lot, she remembered the first snowstorm several days ago. It was beautiful but cold. Shivering, she pulled her knit hat more securely over her ears. "I'm not in Texas anymore. Living in the cold and snow is very different from reading about the seasonal range of temperatures online."
"You get used to it," he assured her. "Take it from me, snow is a lot better when you're inside with a big fire going."
"I've got a fireplace in my apartment. I'll have to learn how to use it," she said.
"I've lived here my whole life, except for going away to college. That translates to lots of experience. So if you need any help with that fire, you know who to call."
Was he suggesting something? Her heart skipped a beat, which was just plain stupid, and to read something romantic between the lines, more than a little pathetic. It was an involuntary reaction that smacked of desperation.
"I guess snow is the price one pays for living in the Montana mountains and I do love them. Thanks for showing me the ropes today, Austin." She started to reach for the door handle. "I should probably go"
"How's the new job?" he asked.
She looked back at him, grateful for the excuse to stay a little longer. "It's good. Working for the mayor is great. Bo Clifton is enthusiastic and energetic. I almost feel guilty taking a paycheck for doing publicity and communications for his office because he makes it so much fun." She met his gaze. "Just between you and me, this is the first job I've had that wasn't for my family. Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot at Traub Oil, but it feels good to know I have actual marketable skills and my family wasn't just feeling sorry for me."
"No, now I have a job with your family's company and they feel sorry for me." He laughed. "Seriously, working for Traub Oil Montana is a terrific career opportunity. I'm grateful to your brother Ethan for taking a chance on me."
"He's the lucky one. To find a hometown boy with an engineering background, a doctoral student researching green energy alternatives " The complexity of what he did boggled her mind. According to Ethan, he was brilliant, innovative and passionate about this new technology. Not just a pretty face, she thought. "Ethan is really excited about the possibilities."
"That makes two of us."
Was she imagining that his gaze lowered to her mouth when he said that? Probably. Desperation did strange things to a woman.
"I'm glad things are going well with my brother because he can be focused, intense and demanding."
Austin's expression was ironic. "You just described practically every guy I know."
"Me, too," she said, laughing. "And I know a lot of guys, what with having five brothers."
"Lucky you," he said with mock envy. "I've got two sisters."
Rose had met the younger one, Angie, earlier at DJ's Rib Shack as the holiday volunteers had split into teams. Rose had already been assigned to ride along with Austin, a newbie learning the ropes from someone more experienced. Her attraction to him had been instantaneous, and she'd asked his sister a few questions. She almost wished she hadn't, but it was probably better to know up front that it wouldn't work. Still, the disappointment had not made her things-to-be-grateful-for-on-Thanksgiving list.
"Seriously, though, Ethan is a great boss. And I owe him for giving me a start." He rested his wrist on the truck's steering wheel. "We're definitely on the same page. Protecting Thunder Canyon and the environment is important to both of us."
She nodded. "I haven't lived here long, but I can certainly understand that this is a special place. Part of what drew me is that the town takes care of its own. I'm grateful to be a part of it."
"Remember that at dinner when everyone has to say what they're thankful for."
She laughed. "Does your family really do that?"
"Oh, yeah. It's tradition." His dark eyes were warm with humor. "Are you cooking or going somewhere for dinner?"
"I'm not cooking for which my family is thankful," she answered. "Ethan and Liz invited me to have dinner with them. What about you?"
"As far as cooking, I could engineer the heck out of trussing a turkey, but I'm not sure it would be fit to eat. It's going to be a quiet dinner, just me, Angie and Haley. But we're having dessert with the Cates clan because she and Marlon can't bear to be separated for too long. The two of them decided to have this one last holiday with their families. A quiet one because the wedding is day after tomorrow."
"I can understand that."
"Duh. It's a double wedding." Marlon Cates was marrying Haley Anderson and his twin, Matt, was marrying Elise Clifton. By all accounts it would be a fabulous affair. "I hear it's going to be the Thunder Canyon social event of the year. By the way, you'll look great in the family pictures."
Was it okay to say that? He'd never be her boyfriend, so it wasn't flirting. Just the truth.
"You think so?"
"Yes. And you're fishing for compliments again."
"Busted again. You'll be there, right?" he asked.
"Yes. Elise is the mayor's cousin and he asked me to take notes for the press release from his office."
"Just part of your job?" he asked.
"That and the Traubs have been friends with the Cates family for years." She shrugged.
Austin studied her intently and there were questions in his eyes. "Double wedding. Social event of the year. Yet you don't sound excited about it."
"It should be great." She hoped he didn't see through the phony enthusiasm. "Are you looking forward to it?"
"Wearing a tux? Smiling until my face hurts? Being nice to everyone?" He shrugged. "Should be fun."
"Now who doesn't sound excited?"
"Who's your lucky date?" he asked.
The question didn't surprise Rose. She had gone out with more than a few guys here in town and earned a reputation as a "dating diva" which made her all the more pathetic for going solo to the wedding. But she couldn't tell a lie. Even if she was tempted, he'd know when she showed up alone.
"I'm not going with anyone."
"Then I'll take you."
Oh, God, he felt sorry for her. It was a pity invitation, but seriously nice of him. And that was such a problem. She'd seen him in action today and liked what she saw. He was funny, not scary-looking but scary-smart, and she'd spent a lot of time wondering if he was a good kisser. She could tick off at least five of her man-must-haves. Ironically it was number six on the list that was a problem. It was the same number that took him out of consideration. His sister Angie had told her how old he was and that made him six years younger than she was.
She'd always dated men at least five years older. It was the perfect age difference and part of her fantasy since she'd been a four-year-old flower girl at her first wedding. Going out with Austin wouldn't put her in cougar territory, but definitely within growling distance as far as she was concerned. And that was unacceptable.
"I'm sorry," she said, truly meaning that. "But I really can't go with you."
Austin was pretty sure that was regret in her big blue eyes. Rose. A beautiful, sweet name for a beautiful, sweet girl. Her hair was just dark enough to call auburn, but in the sun it was red. The freckles on her turned-up nose were extremely cute which was a contradiction to her voice. It was grit and gravel and gumption that scraped across his nerve endings in the best possible way. She was an intriguing combination of fire and ice that made him want to know her better.
"Why?" he asked.
"Can't you go with me?"
"Because I'm too old for you."
Austin stared at her and figured if she hated his guts and would rather take a sharp stick in the eye than go out with him she could have come up with a better lie than that. He'd been lied to before, a betrayal so personal it left a mark that would never go away.
"How do you know how old I am, Red?" he asked.
"Someone mentioned it in the context of how much you'd accomplished for a guy your age."
"So, what are you? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?"
Her full mouth pulled tight before she answered. "Just turned thirty."
She looked like a college kid with her blue knit cap pulled low on her forehead and long, silky strands of red hair spilling over her puffy jacket.
"No way," he said.
"Unfortunately it's the honest-to-God truth."
"Because I thought I'd be married and a mother by now." She sighed, a sound full of frustration and disappointment. "Back in Texas I knew a lot of women who wanted to get married but couldn't find a guy. Men have it so much easier. They can snap their fingers and have women coming out of the woodwork."
Austin disagreed. Not every girl was dying to get married and he'd showed the poor judgment to pick one of those. After that, getting serious was the last thing he wanted, although he was all in favor of having fun. He liked women. He liked Rose. Giving back through volunteering was something he did, but hadn't expected it to be so much fun. He'd actually had a great time today. And he wanted a second helping.
"Go with me," he urged. "What have you got to lose?"
"The title of cougar for one thing."
"It's not that big an age difference."
"It is to me."
"So you'd rather go alone?"
"Yes." But there was no conviction in her voice.
He wanted to see Rose again because she was fun and the wedding would be more interesting if he could hang with her. But there was a stubborn set to the mouth he'd spent the better part of the day resisting the urge to kiss. He had to come up with a strategy to change her mind.
Life had thrown him some big curves, personal and financial. In spite of it all, he'd gone to college and become an engineer. He was really into taking things apart to figure out how they worked. Or building something new that had never existed before. There must be a way to use his skills.
Rose was in public relations for the mayor's office. Spin was her business. She'd said straight out that she was looking for a guy, so that's where he'd start.
Behind the steering wheel he angled his upper body toward her. "It's easier to find a man when you're with one."
"Think about it. They say it's easier to find a job when you have one." That hadn't sounded as lame in his head. "If you're alone at the wedding, a girl as pretty as you, the available guys there are going to wonder what's wrong."
"You mean like dandruff, halitosis or snorting when I laugh?"
"Yeah." He frowned. This wasn't going quite as he'd hoped. "Sort of." "Look, Austin"
"Hear me out." He held up a hand to stop her words. "If you're seen with me, you get the Thunder Canyon seal of approval and men will come out of the woodwork."
One corner of her mouth quirked up. "So that's been my problem since moving here this summer? The great and powerful Austin Anderson hasn't anointed my social life with his presence?"
"Well said." He tried to be serious but couldn't help laughing. "Seriously, tell me you didn't have fun today."
"I didn't have fun today," she said automatically.
"Yes, to save you from yourself. It's very sweet of you to ask me. Really. And I do appreciate the offer, but No." "I don't accept that." "You have to."
"That's where you're wrong."
"What part of no don't you understand?" she demanded.
"Pretty much all of it. Never have." Losing his mother when he was sixteen had made him want to give up and he had for a while. But folks in Thunder Canyon hadn't given up on him and made him see that if a door closed you went around it. One foot in front of the other to get what you want. "If I did, I wouldn't be an engineer at all, let alone doing a doctorate program in green energy or working for Traub Oil Montana." He took a breath and met her gaze. "Therefore, I have an alternate suggestion."
"And that would be?"
"You're looking for a serious relationship, but I don't meet your criteria. I'm only looking to have funat my sister's wedding. Nothing permanent. You told me I was great company today. Did you mean it?"