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"I vote you seduce him," Arianne Waide drawled.
"What?" Quinn Keller's shock came through the phone as clearly as if she'd been standing right there in the store. "Ari, I talked to the guy for ten seconds at the faculty welcome mixer, along with about sixty other people introducing themselves. He probably doesn't know I'm alive."
He would if you seduced him. But Arianne had only been teasing about that—it was a strategy she'd cultivated during her adolescence to deal with her parents and overprotective older brothers. Start with something outrageous first so that when you asked for what you really wanted, they were relieved to give it to you.
"All right, so not a full-fledged seduction," Arianne relented. "Why not just drop by his classroom tomorrow morning and ask if you can buy him lunch and answer any questions he has about the school or the town? Or, at the very least, recruit him to help you with the fall festival."
Silence stretched across the line as Quinn considered. "I could do that."
"Of course you could," Arianne encouraged.
"It's not that I'm shy," Quinn said, a touch defensively. "It's just… I'm so used to already knowing everyone in Mistletoe that I forget how to meet new people."
"I understand." In theory. Like Quinn, Arianne also grew up in the small north Georgia town of Mistletoe, but Arianne didn't have a bashful bone in her body. The youngest of three siblings, she'd learned early how to vie for attention and how to stick up for herself, often going toe-to-toe with her brother Tanner, who'dbeen the family prankster in his misspent youth.
Quinn sighed. "I should let you get back to work."
Arianne looked around the empty store her family had owned for three generations. Outside, parking lot lights reflected off the relentless drizzle that had made it such a chilly October day. "I promised Dad I'd finish the inventory report tonight, but I'm glad you called. This place is deserted. David bolted right at five so he could rush home and coo over the baby, and Dad's eating dinner with Mom and won't be back for another hour. I was getting tired of my own company."
Quinn laughed. "That's hard to imagine. Your company's always so… interesting."
"If I didn't know what a sweet woman you are, Quinn Keller, I'd have the sneaking suspicion I'd just been zinged."
"I'm hanging up on you now," Arianne said. "But promise you'll take my advice to heart?"
"I always do."
Quinn wasn't the only one. As Arianne put the phone back in its cradle, she indulged in a moment of self-satisfaction. She'd given romantic counsel to everyone from her older brothers to her brothers' wives to town pet-sitter Brenna Pierce. And she did so with enough confidence and wisdom that people listened, rarely questioning why they were taking suggestions from a woman who'd never actually had a serious relationship herself. She'd had opportunities, but had skirted any lasting, exclusive commitments.
The copper bell over the door jarred her from her thoughts and she turned with an automatic "Welcome to Waide Supply," even though she knew it was probably her father bringing takeout for her.
Nope. Her breath caught. Definitely not dear old dad. Instead, it was Gabe Sloan.
Her body trembled from the cool draft that swept inside, and she huddled deeper into her oversize cranberry sweater. "Hi."
Without breaking stride, Gabe nodded a hello in her direction, playing the strong, silent stereotype to the hilt. He was in here two or three times a week, but Arianne doubted he'd said a cumulative dozen words to her. Quinn characterized him as a mysterious loner. Having grown up with brothers, Arianne was less inclined to romanticize a guy.
Still, she had no trouble admitting that Gabe was one sexy man. At least six feet tall, he was well-muscled from continuous hours of manual labor. He'd let his jet-black hair grow shaggy so that it tempted a woman to brush his bangs away from his clear gray eyes. Physically, everything about him invited contact: silky, collar-length hair just right for running your fingers through, broad shoulders that looked perfect for leaning against. His self-contained manner, however, projected a different message.
If Arianne had been busy with other customers, or if her brother and father were here with her, it would have been easier to ignore Gabe's presence. But the two of them alone on a rainy night created an almost intimate atmosphere. She put the inventory report on the counter in front of her, but couldn't help tracking Gabe down the aisle where hoses and spigots were kept.
Because shopping opportunities in Mistletoe were limited, Waide Supply provided a wide assortment of merchandise, serving as sort of a catch-all retailer for townspeople, but it was primarily a hardware store. Gabe, who earned his living as a self-employed handyman, was one of their best customers. As far as Arianne knew, he didn't advertise beyond a magnetic truck sign that read Sloan Carpentry and Odd Jobs. In Mistletoe, word of mouth went a long way, but still… Didn't the guy know how much a few well-applied business techniques could help him? The familiar urge to give unsolicited advice bubbled within her.
Smiling wryly, Arianne imagined his reaction. Somehow she doubted that Gabe was as persuadable as Quinn or even Arianne's stubborn father, Zachariah Waide. Then again, Arianne liked challenges. Her smile grew as she contemplated tactics. For starters, she had to engage him in actual conversation.
She got her chance when Gabe approached the counter with a few items that represented the variety of work he did—a coil of "soaker" hose, an adjustable wrench and a triangular-edged paintbrush. In flagrant disregard of the damp night, he wore a black T-shirt with no jacket.
Gazing appreciatively at his arms, she asked, "Aren't you cold?"
Progress! They'd moved from nonverbal gestures to a monosyllabic response.
Arianne rang up the hose on the cash register, then glanced toward the rain-streaked window. "Depressing weather. Has the rain been slowing down your work?" He had the natural, year-round tan of someone who worked outside on a near-daily basis.
"Not really." Rocking back on his heels, he regarded her with something like caution. It would probably look incongruous to an observer—a guy his size unnerved by her—but Arianne had grown accustomed to similar reactions from the men in her family.
She flashed him her most disarming grin and gave in to sheer impulse. "Gabe, would you like to have dinner with me sometime? Maybe this weekend?"
His jaw dropped, and Arianne experienced a rush of satisfaction. She'd penetrated that stoic exterior. How many women in Mistletoe could say the same?
But he'd already masked his surprise with a coolly assessing gaze beneath a raised eyebrow. "Dinner with you? Just how old are you, little girl?"
"Midtwenties. You do know that it's considered rude to ask a lady her age?" she asked playfully.
"Never claimed to be polite." Or playful apparently.
"So is this your way of turning down my dinner invitation?"
"Sorry. You aren't my type."
A less secure woman would be stung by this. She drew herself up to her full five-foot-two inches. "You don't like pretty blondes?"
Both his eyebrows went up this time; she'd caught him off guard again. His lips twitched, as if he might— wonder of wonders—smile. Be still my beating heart.
But his expression was annoyingly neutral when he replied, "Not really."
Arianne thought about telling him it was his loss, but that would be petty. When you asked someone on a date, you accepted refusal as a possibility and you were gracious about it. So she gave him a smile as sweet as her mama's peach cobbler and thrust his purchases at him. "You have a nice night, Gabe."
He hesitated as if uncertain he wanted to take the bag from her. "You, too." Then he left, the jangling bell punctuating his exit.
She watched him go. Arianne had caught herself watching him more frequently ever since this summer, when Quinn had hired Gabe to do some roofing repairs. As it turned out, seeing his muscular form while he dabbed away sweat with the hem of his T-shirt had been far different than Arianne's peripheral awareness of his being in the store while she was helping other customers. But what struck Arianne the most about Gabe wasn't his sculpted forearms or made-a-pact-with-the-devil abs. It was that she couldn't recall ever having seen him smile. His expression might have softened once or twice, when Quinn offered him something cold to drink or nervously tripped over her words, but a real, honest-to-goodness smile?
When the door opened again, Arianne whipped her head around, illogically expecting to see Gabe reappear.
"Brought you some dinner," Zachariah Waide said.
"Thanks, Dad." She sighed. "But you know you don't always have to come back for me. I'm just as capable as David of locking up the store by myself."
Her father frowned. "I don't like the idea of an attractive young woman being here late by herself. Especially when she's my daughter."
Arianne shook her head at his hypervigilance. This was Mistletoe, after all, hardly a hotbed of violent crime. The last time there'd been a… Abruptly she thought of the dark rumors once surrounding Gabe Sloan. Could they have anything to do with why she couldn't remember ever seeing him grin or hearing him laugh?
But that scandal was more than a decade ago. Then again, small towns had long memories.
Arianne found herself transported to that moment earlier when the corners of Gabe's eyes had crinkled and it had looked as if he might smile at her. For that heartbeat of time, she'd teetered on the edge of intoxicating potential. Coaxing a smile from him would be a victory on par with winning a critical play-off game. And Arianne loved to win.
Excluding periodic PTA meetings and potluck church suppers, Wednesday nights in Mistletoe were not a flurry of social activity. During the summer, with kids out of school and tourists in town, the situation had been different, but when Gabe Sloan walked into On Tap now, he found the pool hall and local watering hole nearly empty. Aside from Nick Zeth throwing darts with a few firemen buddies and a lone couple circling lazily on the tiny dance floor, the only person present was the bartender.
Perfect. Gabe would be left alone without actually being alone.
"Usual?" the bartender asked.
"Yeah. Thanks." Gabe only ever ordered sodas, which he could have just as easily purchased at the Dixieland Diner on his way home. But the diner was too bright, too crowded, filled with chatty patrons and flirtatious waitresses he didn't want to encourage.
Had he done anything unintentional to encourage David Waide's little sister? Arianne. Gabe threw a couple of bills on the counter and reached for his soft drink, perplexed by the bizarre conversation back at the store. "Would you like to have dinner with me?" He wouldn't have been any more surprised if she'd announced that space aliens were landing on Main Street.
Until this evening, he and the youngest Waide had barely spoken. So why on earth would she suddenly ask him out? Had she lost a bet? Was she trying to make another guy jealous?
His blood chilled at the stray possibility. He'd been a pawn in that particular game before, allowing himself to be manipulated when he was sixteen and stupid. Arianne had no doubt heard the story, even if it was an exaggerated version told by someone with no firsthand account of events. It made her offer even more bewildering. Me and her? She was the sunny only daughter of upstanding citizens, whereas Gabe's classmates his senior year had snickered and called him Gabriel the Angel of Death—though they'd snickered less audibly after the fistfight between him and Duke Allen.
Gabe couldn't imagine anyone who would make a more incongruous companion for him than Arianne. Before tonight, he hadn't given her appearance much thought, but she could be the poster child for wholesome cheer—fair-skinned, always smiling, with long wavy hair and big blue eyes. If he studied her closely, he might even have glimpsed a smattering of freckles above her pert nose. She looked like she should be having afternoon tea with Tinker Bell, not hitting on men nearly a foot taller than her.
Or was he reading too much into her overture? He frowned into his drink. Maybe her invitation hadn't been romantic in nature at all. Perhaps Arianne, whose family was well-known in Mistletoe and who had grown up among a throng of friends, simply felt sorry for him. Gabriel Sloan, outcast and sinner. He grimaced, the idea of her pity more distasteful than the idea of her romantic interest.
Normally Gabe shopped after sunset to make the most of daylight hours for his outside jobs, but he could change his schedule for a couple of weeks. If he'd been over at Waide Supply around noon, with more people in the store, Arianne wouldn't have singled him out. Gabe could—
Get a grip. Was he really planning to run from a five-foot blonde he could probably bench-press? No. Now that he'd refused her dinner invitation—rather bluntly, as a matter of fact—she'd probably prefer that they pretend it never happened.