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The moonlit night was made for romance. Alonsa Salatoya stood alone, fighting the salty tears that wet her dark eyes and threatened to make a black sea of her mascara as the newlyweds two-stepped across the portable dance floor. Love was a beautiful thing—while it lasted.
The night's hostess, Linney Martin, stepped to her side. "Dani and Marcus make a beautiful couple, don't they?"
Alonsa nodded. "They do, and they seem totally in love."
"Yep. They were meant for each other."
"Something tells me your infamous matchmaking skills had a hand in getting them together."
"Not this time. Their relationship sprang from a chance meeting at the Renaissance Festival. Didn't I tell you that story?"
"Only part of it." Alonsa had met the bride and groom on a couple of occasions but didn't really qualify as a friend. Yet Linney had practically insisted she attend the affair to celebrate their recent wedding.
Perhaps because there were so few magnificent parties such as this in the small, rural town of Dobbin, Texas.
"Their story is fascinating," Linney said. "I'll fill you in when we go shopping in Conroe for the fabric to recover those chairs in the guest suite. But speaking of matchmaking, there's probably one or two nice cowboys here tonight I could introduce you to."
That explained the invitation. "I came with a guy," Alonsa reminded her. "A very charming man."
"Your boss, who just happens to be gay," Linney said.
"Gay and a magnificent dancer," Alonsa countered. "In my book that makes him the perfect escort."
If you wanted to be exact, she wasn't his guest tonight. Always the businessman, Esteban had invited a new customer named Keidra Shelton in that capacity. Keidra had recently moved to the Woodlands and wanted an extreme makeover for the interior of her house, a cosmopolitan look that captured the spirit of her new state. Esteban had decided Alonsa was the perfect person to create that.
He and Keidra had picked up Alonsa and driven her to the party. The woman had talked too much and asked far too many questions about Alonsa's personal life and how she'd come to live in a small, rural town like Dobbin. Other than that, she was nice enough and Alonsa looked forward to the challenge of creating an interior that worked for her.
Linney tossed her head, tinkling the diamond earrings that dangled from her earlobes. "Matchmaking and taking advantage of a good situation is one thing, but those women are taking it a tad too far." She nodded toward the bar that had been set up in a corner of the sprawling white tent.
Alonsa instantly spotted the women who'd fueled Linney's ire. The object of their lustful attentions was a man in a black tux and cowboy boots. His dark, thick hair had an unruly bent as he leaned his hard, lean body closer to the attractive redhead who was officially Esteban's guest for the evening.
Alonsa didn't recognize the other two ladies, but one couldn't have been more than eighteen and the other had to be pushing sixty. Keidra was probably in her early thirties. The man had all the bases covered.
"Romeo must be new in town. I haven't seen him around before."
"Brand-new. Hawk is Cutter's latest recruit for the Double M Investigation and Protection Service. He's living in the cabin on the ranch that Marcus recently vacated."
"Hawk? Is that a nickname or a description?"
Linney laughed. "A bit of both. He was a civilian helicopter pilot before he joined the service and became a SEAL."
"So he's another of Cutter's Special Ops recruits?"
"Yes. Infamous, or so I hear. He was awarded several medals. Cutter and Marcus both swear he can not only walk on water but he can take down an enemy a half mile away while he's doing it."
"Yet he looks every inch the dashing cowboy."
"There is that. Him I suggest you avoid unless you're strictly out for a good time."
Which was exactly what Linney had told her only days ago that she needed.
As if on cue, Hawk turned and spotted them staring at him. He smiled and tipped his glass in their direction. Alonsa's eyes met his and her insides reacted with a surprising quiver. She looked away so fast she grew dizzy.
It was the champagne, she decided. This was only her second glass but it would be her last drink of the evening. Good time or not, a womanizer in Western boots was the last thing she needed.
"I'm really glad you came tonight," Linney said, bringing Alonsa back into the moment. "You need to get out more."
"So you've told me before, but it's not like I'm a hermit," Alonsa protested.
"I know. You go to work, but other than that, you pretty much stay cooped up inside that ranch house."
"A huge ranch house, and I have a three-year-old son to keep me busy. But you're right. I should get out more. Thanks for inviting me."
"So here you are. I've been looking all over for you," Cutter said, joining them and slipping an arm around Linney.
"Alonsa and I were just watching your friend Hawk in action," Linney said. "He's already collected a harem of admirers and this is only his second week in town."
"As long as you're not one of them," Cutter said, leaning over to kiss his wife on the back of the neck.
"Not a chance. I've got my cowboy."
"Good. Hold that thought. Not that I'm not grateful to have Hawk join up with me."
"Do you need a pilot?" Alonsa asked.
"I need another good man. Hawk Taylor's the best and the reason I, and more than a few others, are back on U.S. soil and breathing instead of being feasted on by worms on the other side of the world."
Linney slipped her arm around her husband's waist. "You never told me Hawk saved your life."
"You never asked. Now, if I'm not mistaken, the band is playing our song. Will you excuse us, Alonsa, while I dance with my gorgeous wife?"
Alonsa watched the two of them walk away, so in love that they glowed brighter than the tiny white lights that twinkled above them. For now, they had it all. Alonsa had been there once. It seemed eons ago.
It was a hell of a post-wedding celebration. A great band, free-flowing alcohol, beautiful women and all out in the wide-open spaces of the Double M Ranch. But the best part of it all was that Hawk was not the sucker who'd just bought in to the fantasy of marital bliss.
Been there, done that, had the scars and the holes in his bank account to prove it. Give him a reconnaissance mission over a heavily armed enemy anytime. At least then you knew they'd be gunning for you. Not that the divorce hadn't been mainly his fault. He'd only been half there and only half the time. The only people he'd ever truly committed to was his team of rowdy frogmen.
"Care to dance?"
The woman asking and looking up at him with a pair of gorgeous blue eyes was a hottie who'd been semi-stalking him all night. He'd met her at the champagne fountain earlier. She was a secretary to one of the local congressmen—or was she his daughter? Anyway there was a correlation.
The band broke into a new number, but this time instead of a nice boot-scooting beat, the tune had a Latin rhythm. "I'd love to dance with you, but I'm afraid that's not in my repertoire," he said. "But look me up for a two-step, and I'm all yours."
"On a stack of James Bond novels."
Another guy came along and tugged her onto the floor with a few other brave couples. They weren't bad. One couple were obvious graduates of a course in ballroom dancing, probably recently. The man's mouth moved as he counted the tango beats. The woman was as stiff as MRE rations.
A debonair, slightly past middle-age man with thinning salt-and-pepper hair stepped onto the dance floor. Accompanying him was the gorgeous dark-haired woman Hawk had spotted earlier standing with Linney.
The sapphire-blue dress she was wearing curved about her like silken skin, not so tight she looked trampy, but fitted enough that there was no denying she had a dynamite body. A tempting amount of cleavage showed. Not nearly enough, in Hawk's opinion.
The hemline cleared her thighs, but there was plenty of bare leg left to appreciate. Great calves, superb ankles and a pair of silver stiletto heels that did their best to show off the sexy features.
None of that compared to how she looked when she started to dance. Hawk had been near explosions that weren't half as hot.
Linney stepped up beside him and linked her arm with his. "Need a napkin to wipe that drool from your lips, cowboy?"
"I might. Who's the temptress?"
"My interior decorator."
"Yeah, well, I'm feeling in need of a major overhaul. Is that her husband she's dancing with?"
"No. She's a widow with a young son."
She looked as if she were about to say more, but didn't.
"So is the dude she's dancing with her lover?"
"He's her boss. Esteban of Esteban's Western Interiors."
"And does the temptress have a name?"
"Alonsa Salatoya, but she's had a really rough life the last few years, Hawk. I don't want to see her hurt again, so let's just say she's off-limits to you."
"You don't really believe all those wild heartbreaker tales Cutter and Marcus spread about me, do you?"
"Strictly jealousy on their part," he teased.
"What about the women swooning in your wake all night?"
"It's the boots. Women love 'em."
"Every guy in Texas has boots."
"Must be my cologne, then."
"Collect all the hearts you want, Hawk. Just not Alonsa's. Not that I actually think you could. As far as I know she hasn't had a date since her husband died."
"So she's a recent widow?"
"It's been two years."
The music stopped and Esteban dipped his partner so low that the two were practically parallel to the floor. Her hem inched upward. Hawk felt a tightening in his groin. Staying clear of Alonsa was probably a warning he should heed, but not for the reasons Linney had stated. He just wasn't up to dealing with the emotional entanglements of dating a woman who'd been grieving for two years, especially a woman with a kid.
When the dancing duo righted themselves, they headed for the edge of the dance floor. Linney waved them over. "You two were magnificent," she raved. "It was like having a filming of Dancing with the Stars right here at the Double M."
"Alonsa makes any man look good on the dance floor," Esteban said.
She gave a mock bow. "A woman is only as good as her partner."
That might be true about some things, but Hawk figured Alonsa would look good dancing with a battery-operated frog. Her gaze met Hawk's for the briefest of seconds and he was mesmerized by their dark mystic depths.
The band hit up a version of "Crazy."
"I love this song," Linney said, looking up at Esteban as she started to sway.
"Would you care to dance?" he asked.
"I'd love to."
They disappeared onto the dance floor, leaving Hawk alone with Alonsa.
"I think we've been set up," Alonsa said.
That wouldn't get any complaints from him, but… "Actually, I was warned by Linney to stay clear of you."
"I got the same warning. I suspect it was to make certain we noticed each other."
"Ah, the old reverse psychology."
"Afraid so. Linney's been back in Dobbin less than a year but already her matchmaking schemes are infamous. I guess it's understandable, though. She's so happy with Cutter that she wants that for everyone."
"Then I guess we should at least dance," Hawk said. "We don't want to disappoint our hostess."
"I'm afraid she's doomed to disappointment with me."
"Why is that?"
"Nothing personal, but I've adjusted quite well to not having a man in my life."
"I asked for a dance, not matching towels."
She reddened a little. "In that case, I accept the offer."
"Don't expect any fancy footwork," he cautioned. "Unlike your previous partner, I'm your basic shuffle and snuggle kind of dancer."
"Just don't stamp on my toes. These shoes are painful enough as it is."
"And worth every throb." He took her hand and led her onto the floor. Her fragrance was intoxicating, kind of like a sunny summer morning after a hard rain. He pulled her into his arms. He was tall enough that even in her nosebleed heels, she fit in his arms just right, cheek to cheek, hip to hip, thigh to thigh. Arousal coiled around his insides like a corkscrew.
She put her mouth to his ear and he felt the heat of her breath on his neck. "You are a much better dancer than you admitted," she crooned.
"Like your boss said, you'd make any man look good."
"I had a lot of practice," she admitted. "I took lessons for most of my life and danced on Broadway for years."
"From Broadway to Dobbin, Texas. That's some detour."
She didn't offer more and Hawk didn't push. He didn't intend to be manipulated into a relationship by Linney, but that didn't mean he couldn't enjoy having a beautiful, sensual woman in his arms.
Alonsa's small, satin bag was buzzing against the table when they returned. She reached inside and grabbed her vibrating cell phone. He heard just enough to know that the call concerned her son.
"I have to find Esteban," she said as soon as she broke the connection.
"That was my babysitter. My son fell and hit his head. She doesn't think it's serious, but it's bleeding and he's crying. He's only three. I need to check on him."
"No need to find Esteban. I can drive you if it's a ride you're looking for."
"That's not necessary."
"It could be. Esteban's car may be blocked in. My truck isn't." He'd made sure of that just in case he decided to sneak out early. He didn't usually last more than an hour or so at fancy shindigs like this one.
Alonsa scanned the parking area. "Surely the parking valet could get Esteban's car out."
"You'd save time if I drive you, but hey, it's your kid. Your call."
That seemed to resonate with her. "If you're sure you don't mind?"
"Wouldn't have offered if I did."
"Then I just need to let Esteban know so he won't look for me later."