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Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
Ben Sawyer had heard folks say that of some women. Not the one standing on the far side of the banquet hall from him, though. The one who'd done her best all day to avoid him.
Dana Wright had once worn a long white gown and walked down the aisle to meet her groom. He should know, as he'd stood up near the altar holding the ring his best friend would slip onto her finger.
Now, if the saying held true for the male side of a wedding party, he surely fit the bill.
Always a groomsman, never a groom.
Always losing out.
No sense worrying over it. He'd made his decisions a long time ago. Still, he had to fight to keep his eyes from tracking Dana's every move.
Twirling the stem of his champagne glass in his fingers, he watched the couples two-stepping past him. After plenty of turns on the dance floor himself this evening, he'd decided to sit this one out. Every once in a while, in a gap between the couples, he could see the opposite side of the hall. Just then, he caught sight of Dana disappearing through one of the glass doors to the terrace.
The newlyweds danced toward him.
"Having fun yet?" Tess asked.
"Absolutely," he confirmed. "Like everyone else."
Tess's groom, Caleb, swept her away.
Ben set his glass on a nearby waiter's tray and began circling the room. Every few feet, someone stopped him. While he always enjoyed a good conversation, the interruptions came more often than he would've liked right now.
Finally, he eased away from a small group and edged over to the doorway Dana had exited through.
In the light from the carriage lamps outside, he saw her standing alone near one of the stone fountains flanking the club's entrance. He frowned and went through the door, pulling it closed behind him without a sound.
Her back to the building, she stared down into the water pooling in the base of the fountain. Lamplight and moonlight combined to make the silver combs in her blond hair sparkle. The combs held her hair up, exposing the smooth, pale skin of her neck. A row of buttons that matched her long pink dress marched down to the point where a bunch of lacy fabric covered the sweet curves of her hips.
His mouth went dry. He'd have welcomed another glass of champagne at the moment. Hell, he needed it to wet his tight throat. To occupy his hands. His fingers itched to touch those buttons now taunting him.
How had she managed to get into that dress all by herself? Would she need a hand getting out of it?
He shook his head at the stupidityand the futilityof his questions. Of his dreams. Nine-year-old Lissa had probably buttoned her mother's dress and would unbutton it, too. In any case, Dana certainly wouldn't want his help. She didn't want his assistance with anything.
That gave him trouble, in view of the promise he'd made to his best friend. A promise he aimed to keep.
For a moment, he stood there considering his next move. Unusual for him. Folks teased that he'd talk to a tree if he couldn't find a person handy to listen to him. Yet, for the first time in his life, he didn't know what to say.
He took a deep breath and let it out again. Not wanting to startle her, he called her name in a low tone.
Without turning to look, she raised her chin a notch. She'd recognized his voice and gone into defensive mode. Hadn't he known she would? The sight should have made him turn around and leave. Instead, he smiled.
He never could pass up a challenge.
He ambled across the open space to stand by her side. Her head barely reached his shoulder. He caught the faint scent of a flowery perfume. When she neither lowered her chin nor looked at him, he gestured toward one of the small stone benches near the fountain. "How about you relax and we call a truce for tonight? After all, we're here to celebrate with Tess and Caleb."
She glanced from the bench to the country club as if assessing the lesser of two evils. "You're right, it's their night." With a small sigh, she took a seat.
The bench proved narrower than he'd expected and put him closer to her than he should've risked, truce or no truce. Their arms touched. Their elbows bumped. It would have made sense for him to wrap his arm around her shoulders. They were friends, weren't they? But once he'd touched her, could he keep it at that?
Her expression softened. "Caleb went all out for Tess, didn't he?"
"Renting the biggest hall within a hundred miles of Flagman's Folly? I'll say. Good of him to invite all the folks from town to the wedding, too."
"He seemed surprised that everyone accepted. But I know they wanted to wish him and Tess well." She smiled softly. "Tess makes a beautiful bride."
You did, too. Without missing a beat, he changed the words that had come so quickly to him. "You're looking good in that maid of honor dress yourself."
"Matron," she said. "Being a widow makes me a matron of honor."
Which makes you a woman alone with three little kids. So, why won't you accept my help? He couldn't ask that tonight. Not after he'd called for a ceasefire between them. He probably wouldn't ask that ever, as nine times out of ten, the shots came from Dana's side of their conversations. She'd never acted so defensively with him before Paul died.
"What is it they're calling Nate again?" he asked. Nate was the bride and groom's nine-year-old tomboy and the best buddy of Dana's daughter Lissa. Like the girls, Tess and Dana had been best friends all through school.
"A junior bridesmaid." She laughed. "Nate stopped fighting over wearing a dress the minute Caleb said he'd get her a pair of boots made to match his. She held her ground about being a flower girl, though."
He chuckled. "That sounds like her. Well, Sam's little girl had a good time dropping those petals in the church aisle. I heard you made her dress. And yours. Nice."
Damn him for using the compliment, but it gave him a reason to touch her lacy pink sleeve.
She shied like a filly come eye to eye with a rattler.
He clasped his hands together and stared down at them.
When he looked at her profile again, he found her gazing into the distance, unblinking. The moonlight showed her lips pressed together in a straight line, the way he'd noted much too often lately. Her cheekbones had never looked sharp before now.
Nothing could make her less beautiful to him, but it shocked him to realize she had lost weight.
She'd driven herself after losing Paul. Trying to handle everything alone had to be too much for her. He needed to stop thinking about himselfabout what he wanted and could never haveand figure out some way to be of help to her.
He'd already bought the building where she rented office space so he could give her a break on the rent. There had to be something else he could do.
Right now, he just needed to get her talking. He cleared his dry throat. "Caleb's fired up about his new property. I've got to hand it to you for that one. Nobody could've done a better job of selling that ranch, especially considering it's bigger than every spread around here."
She waved her hand as if to brush his words away. "That was Tess's effort, mostly. I just stepped in to handle the paperwork when we knew she'd become half owner. Besides, she had to focus on getting married."
"Whatever the reason, I know she was happy to have you help wrap everything up in time for the wedding."
He knew Dana accepted help in return from Tess, too, when she needed it. Why wouldn't she take it from him? They'd all been friends forever, through high school and beyond. Not Caleb, who at some point had fallen a year behind. But he and Tess and Dana. Sam Robertson. Paul Wright.
He thought of his best buddy often, recalling him as young and full of life. As part of almost every memory he'd forged since the day he started school. He tried not to think about Paul's death a year and a half ago. Impossible to avoid that thought at the moment, with the man's widow sitting on the cold stone bench beside him.
In all the years since grade school, nothing had ever come between Paul and Dana. He had always honored that. Now he had to make doubly sure not to cross the line. "Today has to be hard for you," he said, keeping his voice low.
"Seeing Tess and Caleb so happy? Why should that cause me any trouble? I'm glad they're finally together."
She meant it, he knew, though her words sounded as brittle as the chipped ice in the banquet hall's champagne buckets. In the moonlight, her eyes glittered. Had she tried for a lighter tone to fight back tears? Or to prove how comfortable she felt around him?
Why did she have to prove anything? Why the heck couldn't she enjoy his company, the way she always used to? If she'd just give him that, he'd feel satisfied.
Sure, he would.
She'd grown quiet again, and he gestured toward the fountain. "What brought you out here? Wanting to make a wish?"
She shook her head. "No. Those are for people who aren't willing to work hard to get what they want."
"I can't argue with you there." Still, he felt tempted to toss a coin into the water for a wish of his ownthat for once, she'd let him make things easier for her. "But there's such a thing as working too hard, you know."
"Ben, please." She gathered up her dress and stood. "You called the truce yourself, remember? I know you only want to help. For Paul. And because we're friends." Her voice shook from her stress on the word. "We've had this conversation before. Now, once and for all, I'm doing fine." As if to prove her point, she smiled. "And I have to go inside. Tess will be tossing her bouquet soon. I wouldn't want to lose out on that."
A tear sparkled at the corner of her eye.
Missing the chance to catch a handful of flowers couldn't upset her that much. He knew what she really missedhaving a husband by her side. Her husband. His best friend.
But neither of them would have Paul back in their lives.
Before he could get to his feet, she left, running away like that princess in the fairy tale his niece asked him to read to her over and over again.
No, not a princess. The one who took off without her glass slipperCinderella.
Dana was no Cinderella. She hadn't left a shoe behind. Hadn't even dropped a button from that pink dress as something for him to remember her by. As if he could ever forget her.
She'd been the heroine of a story he'd once created long ago, a story he'd had to write in his head because he hadn't yet known how to spell all the words.
How did it go? Like in his niece's storybook
Once upon a time, that was it.
Once upon a time, in the Land of Enchantmentotherwise known as the state of New MexicoBenjamin Franklin Sawyer had high hopes and a huge crush on the girl who sat one desk over from him in their classroom every day.
No other girl in town, Ben felt sure, could beat Dana Smith, and most likely no other woman in the world could compare to her, either. In any case, without a doubt, she was the cutest of all his female friends in their kindergarten classroom.
Unfortunately, when the teacher moved his best friend, Paul Wright, to the desk on the other side of Dana's, Ben saw his hopes dashed.
The crush, however, continued. For a good long while.
As for Benjamin Franklin Sawyer's hopes
Well, not every story had a happy ending.
Not even Dana's.
Since Paul's death, they had seen less and less of each other. By her choice, not his.
She needed time, he had told himself. Needed space. So he'd waited. He'd talked himself down. He'd exercised every horse in his stable enough to cover every inch of the land he owned. When none of that worked, he'd bought the danged office building. And even that hadn't brought him peace.
Seeing her now had.
He never could stand to watch her cry, but tonight, he welcomed those tears in her eyes and the way she'd hurried away from him. Doing fine, she'd said. Like hell. Her actions revealed more than she would willingly tell him. More than she'd ever want him to know.
She needed his help, though she refused to accept it.
The help he had promised Paul he would give her.
No matter how firmly she dug her heels in and how often she turned him down, he was damned well going to keep that promise.