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The Tavern on the Highway
Ten miles west of Honeyford, Oregon
"He's a firefighter."
"No way. Ballroom-dance instructor. Specializes in Argentine tango."
"Please. His pants aren't tight enough. And he lacks that chronic self-involved air. He has nice hands. I bet he's a surgeon."
Rosemary Jeffers smiled over the rim of her lemon-drop martini as her three best friends dished about a man at the bar to her right. She didn't turn to look.
The bar scene was not her thing. Neither were lemon-drop martinis, come to think of it, but Ginger Kane, Vi Harris and Daphne Nordli had driven three hours from Portland, Oregon, to Honeyford, intent on rescuing her from a thirty-second birthday that had looked as if it might require the use of antidepressants.
Single, recently relocated and waiting for her new job to begin the following week, she had planned to spend her birthday alone at home, dying the three gray hairs she'd found earlier in the day back to brown.
"Where are we going to eat?" she ventured, attempting for the second time that night to steer the conversation around to her growling stomach.
Vi's red brows swooped in frank disgust. "We're not here to feed our stomachs. We're here to indulge our senses. And yours have been sadly neglected, my friend."
Rosemary shrugged. She did not want to have this conversation. Again. "Taste is a sense. I hear there's a great Italian place"
"Stop!" Vi slapped her hand on the myrtle-wood table. "We did not doll you up and take you out so you could dribble marinara down your dress. You haven't gone on a date in two years. Now turn and look at the dude by the bar. He's been ogling you since we got here."
Daphne nodded eagerly. "He really is a cutie." Two reassuring dimples appeared in her ivory cheeks.
"It is time to get back in the dating pool," Ginger added, though she had the grace to look a smidge apologetic.
Rosemary's empty stomach threatened to dry heave. The thought of diving into the dating pool was roughly as appealing as dunking herself in chum and plunging into shark-infested waters.
"I've given dating some thought," she ventured, taking a pretzel from a bowl in the center of the table and sucking salt as she tried to sound offhand. "I've decided not to do it until I find a completely honest man."
She was met with three pairs of wide eyes and a pregnant pause until Ginger said quietly, "That's going to severely limit your prospects, sweetie."
Rosemary lowered the pretzel to her cocktail napkin while the others reached morosely for their drinks. Of the four of them, only she had married, proving that she'd never intended to spend her thirties like a nun. But neither had she planned to return home from work early one evening to find her husband in flagrante delicto with his paralegal. That miserable night had occurred two years ago on this very date, which unfortunately had also been her tenth wedding anniversary.
Faith Hill came on the jukebox, singing about the perfect kiss while the aroma of mini tacos wafted from the happy-hour buffet.
"You know what the trouble is?" she pondered aloud, plucking the lemon twist from her martini and winding it until it broke. "The trouble with romance and infatuation and falling in love?" Vi arched a brow. Ginger and Daphne shook their heads. "It isn't that people break your heart because they lie or they leave. What makes you absolutely miserable is the hope that next time will be different. That the next guy is going to be the guy, or that 'tonight' is going to turn into 'forever.' Hope," she said earnestly. "That's our problem."
"Wow. That's cynical." Vi tapped a toothpick-speared pearl onion on the edge of her Gibson glass. "I like it. Keep talking."
Rosemary's caramel eyes narrowed. In her chest there was a deep well where her heart used to be, and for too long that well had been filled with confusion and grief. She wanted her heart back.
"I know I don't want to get married again." She tested the words aloud for the first time. "Or even to live with anyone."
"Never?" Daphne looked appalled.
"No." Rosemary shook her head. "Not ever." She felt stronger merely from saying it. "But you're all right about one thingI shouldn't live like a nun."
"Damn straight," Vi toasted.
"I just have to find a way to date without pain. Like men do."
Disappointed, Ginger reached for her margarita. "I thought you were going to say something profound." She sucked frosty liquid from two skinny red straws, swallowed and proclaimed, "It's not possible to date like men do. Men are born without a conscience. That's why they need women. We're like softwarewe download guilt onto their brain computers."
Vi stared. "That is seriously twisted." She smiled hugely. "I like that, too." She waved a hand at Rosemary. "You're talking about dating without strings. Been there. In fact, I live there."
"No." Rosemary shook her head. "More than that. I'm talking about dating without hope. No texting girlfriends from the restaurant to see if they'll be your bridesmaids. No doodling potential wedding dates on every scrap paper in sight."
Daphne's hand snaked out guiltily to crumple her cocktail napkin.
"Carpe diem dating," Rosemary improvised like the pitchman of an ad campaign. "When the date itself becomes not simply the means to an end" she stabbed her finger on the table, punctuating her words "but the only goal you'll ever have!"
Dead silence followed her big finish. Then Vi stood up and applauded. Ginger followed, albeit more slowly, and Daphne had to be lifted up by the arm. Once they were all standing, Rosemary took a humble bow, and Vi praised, "Brilliant. Show us how it's done."
Resuming her seat, Rosemary laughed. "Maybe I will."
"Not 'maybe.' Right now. The cute dude at the bar hasn't been able to take his eyes off you. He stared the whole time you were talking. I think he just sent over a drink."
The cocktail waitress arrived at that moment with not one, but four peachy-gold drinks she called Honey Slides. The girls approved.
"Very generous," Daphne whispered.
"Good manners." Ginger nodded in approval.
"Wow, that is one sickeningly sweet drink," Vi said after taking the first sip, but she raised the golden concoction and aimed a beautiful smile toward the bar. Before the others knew what she was going to do, Vi crooked one talon-tipped finger and beckoned the man over.
"Vi, no!" Rosemary warned. "We don't even know him."
"Which makes him perfect for your experiment." Abandoning the Honey Slide, she returned to her Gibson. "I dare you to dance with that gorgeous hunk and not allow yourself to think beyond this one night. If you can do that, I promise not to bug you ever again about dating, because clearly you will have proved yourself a more evolved woman than I."
Rosemary looked at her friends' enthusiastic expressions. "You won't bug me ever again? Any of you?" They shook their heads. "And then we can go to the Italian place?" Nods all around.
Rosemary knew she wasn't like other women her age, the ones who could flirt, get up and salsa, even touch and kiss men they'd just met. She'd never developed the ability to be casual with males. Spending time, even a little time, with a strange guy in a bar not only would not fill her with hope, it was unlikely to do more than give her a few hives. This was a bet she could win in a walk.
One dance, and they can never pressure me to date again.
She gave it another few seconds of consideration then said quickly, before she could change her mind, "All right. I'll do it."
She was the most stunning creature he had ever seen.
With his back to the bar, Dean Kingsley observed the four vivacious females who shared a table in the sawdust-strewn lounge of Tavern on the Highway. The lady who had caught his interest was not the sexiest of the quartet (that honor belonged indisputably to the redhead), nor did she have the most perfect features (the petite blonde looked like a china doll come to life). But the girl with the dark chocolate curls and the light-as-milk skin was the one he couldn't stop watching.
He'd been studying her for the past half hour, and it had been the most satisfying thirty minutes he'd spent in months.
So far, he'd seen her only in profile, but already he was familiar with several of her mannerisms. She ducked her chin and smiled with her lips closed shortly before she said something that made the other women laugh .
She bit her thumbnail when she was thinking hard then scowled and shook her hand once she realized what she was doing, as if nail biting was a long-standing habit she wanted to break..
She listened carefully when her friends spoke, and she cared about what they were saying..
And, she liked only the salt on pretzels, as the growing stack of soggy sticks on her cocktail napkin attested. That particular habit would wreak havoc on his stash of Rold Gold, but no relationship should be too perfect.
Dean grinned. For the first time in weeks, he felt something other than dull resignation. Interest and desire kindled in his body, making him feel alive again. He liked it.
"Forget about her." Len Perris tapped him on the forearm. "She hasn't looked at you once." Tilting his tan Stetson back on his head, Len narrowed his eyes in a thoughtful assessment and nodded. "Go for the blonde. She's an angel. So to speak."
"Which is exactly why he shouldn't go for the blonde." Fred Werblow, Dean's pal from the time he, Len and Fred were all more interested in their rock collections than in women, slapped him on the back. "The last thing our boy needs is an angel. Right, Deano? If you're going to make it through the next two years without wanting to do yourself in then you need a woman who can whip up some excitement." Leaning close, he advised, "Go for the redhead. She looks like a wildcat. Grrrrrr."
"Did you just growl?" Shaking his head, Dean set his draft beer on the bar behind them. The tension he'd momentarily been able to dispel slammed into him again, full force.
"Listen, I don't want to talk about my 'plans' tonight," he said. "I particularly don't want to discuss how or whether I'm going to make it through the next two years." Talking about his predicament, even casually, made his blood pressure spike.
Len put an arm around Dean's shoulders. "That's why we're here, buddy. We're riding shotgun for you."
Fred slapped him on the back again. "That's right. You're being forced to take a wife, and we're going to help you find one you can stomach."
Swearing beneath his breath, Dean hung his head.
His father, Dr. Victor Kingsley, may he rest in peace, had died this past April, leaving a will that bequeathed his sons exactly what they wantedas long as they married within twelve months of their father's death and remained wed for at least two years.
Afraid his sons might permanently shun marriage, the doctor had prescribed a couple of daughters-in-law.
It was now December. Dean had four months left to marry.
Anyone who knew Dean and his younger half brother would have expected Fletcher to flip the birdie to the will, and Dean to be thoughtful, rational and ultimately compliant. And in fact, that was exactly how the men had reactedat first. Fletcher had flatly refused to consider marriage, but then, shockingly, he had met someone who'd managed to transform him from gruff loner to tender lover. Two weeks ago, he'd gotten married.
Dean, on the other hand
Feeling the muscles in his neck contract, Dean considered swapping his beer for bourbon, but he'd never had a taste for hard liquor. Or for escaping life's problems.
After the reading of his father's will, he had forced himself to be practical. A marriage of convenience was not, after all, such a far cry from what he had planned for himself all along.
At thirty-five, he had been engaged once, to a woman as logical and reasonable as he. When Amanda's career had required her to move out of state, they'd ended their relationship, wished each other wellmeant itand had been no worse for the wear. Afterward, Dean had wondered why he'd felt only mildly disappointed when she gave him back his ring.
Eventually, he'd come to accept that deep emotions and powerful yearnings tended to escape him where relationships were concerned. There was only one dream for which he was willing to go to the mat. His father had understood that and was capitalizing on Dean's single passion to coerce him into marriage.
"Maybe Dean's looking for something less permanent tonight. A last hoo-rah." Fred's booming voice was jovial and wholly approving. "Is that why we're here? Do you need to party a little before you settle down? Because no one is going to blame you for that."
Dean sighed. "I'm here because you two wouldn't shut up until I came," he muttered.
What did he want? He wished to God he knew.
Some unnameable impulse tugged his focus once more to the brunette. He'd sent over drinks and each woman had already tasted her Honey Slide. Each woman except for the girl with the curly hair.
I want you.
The answer came so swiftly and clearly that he couldn't refute it.
He wanted to know what she was thinking in this very moment. Why her skin glowed as if she was lit from within. Whether she came here often, why she'd ordered a martini when she didn't seem to like them and what she was doing for the next twenty-four hours, because he wanted to spend them with her.
He saw the redhead toast him, offering a dazzling, if artificial, smile. The brunette didn't even turn around. Dean pushed a responding curve to his lips. You're welcome, he nodded to the redhead. It was done. Time to go.
He was about to suggest to Len and Fred that they try the new Italian place in Honeyford, when the brunette stirred. Leaning forward, she put a thumb and delicate forefinger on the fine straws in the frosty drink.
Len said something about barbecue, but Dean only half heard. He waited, gazing like a landlocked sailor staring out to sea, engrossed and longing, hoping for some action to release him from the spell.
And then she moved, turning her head before she lifted her gaze to his. Their eyes caught and held. Eyes the color of butterscotch taffy, big and curious, acquired a spark of surprise when she saw him. Her smile, tentative at first, grew progressively wider and more relaxed, turning the elegant portrait of her face into a masterpiece.