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As Christmas parties went, it didn't suck, but Ginger Winchester would have given her left eye to be anywhere else. The ballroom in the James Brothers Hotel glittered with decorative touches to put everyone in a holiday mood. A band provided music, and she hadn't lacked for partners in the two hours since she'd arrived. But she'd rather have been home with a mug of hot chocolate and a book than dragged along by her best friend and forced to celebrate. Until she saw him.
The man didn't look familiar, although Ginger didn't know all the employees at Riley & Ross Electronics, her hosts this evening. She sipped her white wine, watching him over the rim of her glass, as the band charged into an energetic version of "I'm a Believer." Even in a town the size of Howard, Missouri, she could run into a stranger. She smiled to herself. She'd like to do more than run into this guy.
He looked up then, directly at her, as though he'd heard her thoughts from fifteen feet away. Ginger didn't blush often and now was no exception. She nodded slightly. He smiled back, raising his beer bottle in a salute. His lack of a wedding ring didn't guarantee he was single.
Short brown hair shimmered with bronze highlights under the chandeliers. His dark suit emphasized his tall, lean frame. Light danced on prominent cheekbones and caressed his full lips, much as she'd like to. He looked to be in his early thirties, with lines at the corners of his eyes. Laugh lines? She liked the idea of him being a happy person. She'd been that way not so long ago. Maybe this stranger could bring some joy to her world tonight.
After the call from the adoption agency earlier that day, she needed some holiday cheer. She hadn't been approved as a foster parent yet, the first step of many in adopting a baby. She thought she'd have a little visitor for the holidays. Now she'd be alone. Again.
"Having fun yet?" Lisa Riley asked, appearing at her side. "Loads." Ginger rolled her eyes for her friend's benefit, not wanting Lisa to pick up on her distress. She wouldn't ruin Lisa's holidays, nor did she want her to guess just how entertaining her fantasies of the man had been. He'd be a great distraction for her woes. Maybe she could finagle an introduction without being too obvious. "I don't know many people here, though."
"That hasn't stopped you from dancing." Ginger forced a grin. "The band's talented. Good variety of music. There are a couple of nice single guys here."
"And a couple with notsonice intentions."
"Ooh, point them out." Ginger noticed the frown before Lisa turned away. Lisa and her husband, Joe, had coerced her into coming, and Ginger aimed to have a good time. If that included collecting some phone numbers or spending time with a guy in private afterward, that wasn't any business of the Rileys'.
After all, Lisa and Joe had each other, as well as her two children, Abby and Bobby. Ginger was alone now and probably would remain so.
"Do you want to introduce me to some of the nicer guys?" she asked to placate Lisa. "You'd know who's unattached with pure intentions." Not that she wanted anybody too pure of heart. Gesturing toward the mystery man with her now empty glass, she said, "What about him?"
Lisa followed her gaze. "I don't recognize him. He might be the new guy in Dylan's division."
Dylan Ross, Joe's partner, headed up the R&D department, inventing computer programs and troubleshooting existing ones. Mystery Man looked too strong and too vital to be a computer nerd.
"New guy?" Ginger tried to appear only mildly interested.
"Some genius from the South that Dylan snatched up when his company downsized. In Alabama, I think. Dylan considers hiring this guy to be a real coup."
"I can imagine." She'd consider snatching him up to be a coup, too. Strong, clean hands gripped his bottle. His lips curved in a smile in response to the blonde woman now chatting with him. Ginger wanted those hands on her, that mouth smiling at her. The rush of heat she felt just looking at him surprised her. In the past year since her exhusband walked out, she'd never experienced such an immediate attraction.
The song ended. "We're going to slow it down now," the band leader announced. Lights lowered in the center of the room as they began playing Eric Clapton's, "Wonderful Tonight." The singer's husky baritone intensified the sexy mood in the room.
A man claimed the blonde woman and led her away. Spotting her chance, Ginger said, "I'm going to get another drink. Meanwhile, could you find out his name?"
"Whose?" Lisa's gaze followed hers. "Oh."
"See if Joe or Dylan knows if he's single."
"Don't worry, Mother Hen." She patted Lisa's arm as she moved by her. "I know what I'm doing."
"I doubt that," Lisa muttered, making her smile. Ginger wound her way past him, not too close, but catching his eye on her way to the bar set up on the far wall. If he didn't follow, she'd go back and introduce herself. She dug through her tiny handbag for a tip. "Chardonnay, please."
"Could y'all wait on that?" a man said at her side, his Southern inflection sliding over the words like honey. The singer on the stage had nothing on this guy in the sexy voice department.
The bartender looked to her for a decision. She glanced at her mystery man and let a smile flirt across her mouth, thrilled when it drew the attention of his hazel eyes. "Why would I wait?"
"It'll be easier to dance with me if your hands are free."
"Am I dancing with you?"
His eyes locked with hers. "I surely hope so."
Her heart thrummed in her ears for a beat, then another. She spoke to the bartender without shifting her gaze. "Looks like I'll have to come back for that drink."
She heard the laughter in the bartender's voice but didn't mind. She felt like giggling herself. Her new partner escorted her to the dance floor, his hand at the small of her back burning through the satin of her cocktail dress. Before she turned to him, she swallowed the lump in her throat. Pleasure, anticipation and sheer giddy attraction welled inside her.
He held her right hand and placed his other warm hand on her waist. Shivers ran across her skin as she touched his blackclad shoulder. She could feel his strength as they moved smoothly into the dance. About six foot one or two, she guessed, the perfect height for her in heels.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Unusual." He laid her hand against his chest and touched a ringlet she'd left dangling from her temple. He twirled the curl around his finger. "Because of this?"
She nodded. She couldn't actually feel him stroke her hair, but the impression of his touch tingled down her neck.
"I was born with shockingpink hair. Picture cotton candy." She smiled when he chuckled. "My parents hoped it would calm down to a ginger shade more like my mom's, but it never did."
"It's not really red, and it's certainly more dazzling than orange. What do you call it?"
"Apricot." In the heat of his interest, she felt dazzling.
"That sounds about right." He picked up her hand again but held it clasped against his chest. Her fingers stroked against the edge of his emerald silk tie.
"And you?" she all but croaked.
His mouth widened into a smile, showing beautiful white teeth. "My hair's just brown."
She laughed softly and shook her head. Up close, the bronze highlights held red and blond streaks. Lots of time in the sun, she supposed, remembering Lisa said he came from the South. If this was the guy Dylan hired. She only had his slow drawl and Lisa's guess to go by. "I meant your name."
"Nice to meet you."
"The pleasure's all mine."
"Are you new to the area?"
"How did you guess? My accent?" The corners of his lips tipped up in a rueful smile. "My part of the South has less of a twang than other places. Maybe it'll ease up some after I've been here awhile."
"Oh, I hope not." Ginger stared over his shoulder, unable to believe she'd admitted such a thing. His chuckle made her wish for the dance floor to open up, like in the movie It's a Wonderful Life. Her cheeks burned. Having a swimming pool to drop into sounded heavenly at the moment.
"Glad y'all like it," he murmured, drawing her closer. He led her across the floor with confidence. "But I should try to fit in here. Put some stiff Yankee talk in my conversation."
Ginger laughed. "It'd be a shame if y'all sounded like us."
"Now y'allI mean, you are making fun of me." He winked at her.
She enjoyed the moment as their bodies adjusted to each other in wordless communication. He smelled of man rather than aftershave. Just strength and vitality, making her mouth water. The tan skin of his neck so close enticed her lips. She pulled back before temptation made her do something she'd regret. "Are you married?"
His hold on her loosened; his expression sobered. "Not anymore."
Hearing he was single made her pulse accelerate, although part of her wondered why any woman would let a man this adorable and sexy get away. Did he eat crackers in bed? Hog the covers? These things didn't matter to Ginger; she wasn't looking for longterm. "She must have been crazy to let you go."
He shook his head, and his gaze drifted off. Great. Now his thoughts centered on another woman, one he obviously had feelings for still. Ginger knew she should cut her losses and leave him to his memories. He had the look of a man recently set freelost and hungry but too conflicted to act.
The music ended, and she sensed he would lead her off the dance floor, return her to the bar with some expression of thanks, maybe buy her that wine, but she'd never hear from him again. The first notes of "Lady in Red" sounded, and Ginger gripped his shoulder. She felt a kinship with him, although she'd long ago passed the stage of being saddened by her divorce. Maybe a nudge would lead him in the right direction. Toward her. "I'm not married, either. Not anymore."
She held his gaze as he began moving to the song, their bodies in accord.
How could she keep him with her? Judging by his reluctant withdrawal, the reminder of his wife had been a blow. Ginger recalled those first shellshocked weeks after Kyle left her. Scott's breakup must be recent.
"I haven't done this." He gestured to their bodies with their clasped hands. "You know, been out. Not since being single again. I didn't want to be alone tonight, but coming to a party of strangers?" He shook his head.
"It's hard the first time, but it gets easier."
The twist of his mouth expressed his doubt. Would he make the effort again? Her mood deflated. He still had a thing for his ex. She could help him over this first hurdle, but she doubted he'd be interested in trying.
Although he remained in her arms, Scott wasn't really with her anymore.
"I'm sorry." His words came out forced. "I'm not very good company, I guess."
"Don't worry about it. Let's finish the dance, okay?"
He nodded and led her to the music, dancing several steps in silence. Gradually his body relaxed. "Nice song."
His breath whispered across her temple.
"Exceptional partner." He laid her hand on his chest, patting it into place.
She started when she felt his left hand go to her waist. After a second, he pulled her closer until she pressed flush against his body. His hesitation must have been to test her willingness. If he only knew.
We're in a hotel, she wanted to say. Test me upstairs. I'll show you willing.
But she didn't say anythingwith words. Instead she linked her hands behind his neck, letting a finger stroke against his nape. She felt his shiver.
When the song ended, Scott looked into her eyes. "Another? Or would y'all prefer that drink now?"
The intensity of his hazel eyes made her mouth go dry, but a glass of wine wouldn't alleviate the problem. A kiss from Scott might. "I'm fine here."
"This one," the bandleader said, "is for those of you who are missing family this time of year."
They began playing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and Scott stiffened.
"Want to get out of here?" He shook his head. "No, wait. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Outside maybe? The terraceis there a terrace? Doesn't matter, it would be too cold."
Ginger smoothed her hand down his tie. "Wherever." He blinked.
"We could go out and walk in the lobby for a minute." Get him away from the music and the memories.
He held her hand, dodging dancers and groups on the edge of the dance floor. Ginger avoided making eye contact as they passed. Some of these people would recognize her if they looked closelyher hair shone like neonalthough few would have seen her dressed so elegantly. More likely, they knew her with paint under her nails rather than on them. Her Cinderella clothes would have to come off. She grinned, hoping for the moment to happen sooner rather than later.
She followed him out of the ballroom to the long carpeted hallway. The lights were dimmed, creating shadows for quiet conversations. Mirrors and slim tables lined the walls of the one hundredandfiftyyearold hotel, alternating with insets of maroon vases containing various white flowers. They strolled to a deserted area farther along, where a wide window overlooked the snowcovered grounds.
"Sorry," Scott said. "Y'all sure pulled the short straw with me."
She laughed, running her eyes over his long form. "I don't think so."
"Not literally, maybe," he agreed. "But your other partners tonight wouldn't have fled the dance floor like the room had caught fire."
He pronounced it "cot far," making her suppress a grin. And he thought he didn't have a twang?
"Hey." She tugged his hand to make him stop walking and face her. "I'm not out here with anyone else. I came out with you."
His expression softened. "I appreciate that." Then his words caught up with her. "Have you been watching me dancing all night?"
"You're very popular."
Her chin lifted. "Then why didn't you ask me to dance earlier?"
"You're very popular."
"What does that mean?"
Scott shrugged. "I don't deal well with competition."
Had his wife cheated on him? Ginger swallowed, hoping he hadn't asked anyone about her. Since her exhusband left her, she'd filled some of her free time with men. It irritated her that she felt guilty about it now. With Scott. That early wild streak had mellowed once she'd decided to adopt a baby on her own; still, she had to live with her choices.
He squeezed her fingers. "But you dance as though there's nothing more important than that song and that moment. Very full of life." He stepped closer. "You look like a flame with your bright hair and yellow dress. And I wanted to be near that, to watch your green eyes light up and feel your body sway."