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Shane Stryker was determined enough to never walk away from a fight and smart enough to know when he'd been beat. The beautiful redhead dancing on the bar might be everything he wanted, but pursuing her would be the worst decision he could make.
Her eyes were closed, her long, wavy hair swayed in rhythm with her body. The sensual beat of the music hit Shane square in the gut. He shook his head. Okay, it hit him lower than that, but he ignored it and the draw he felt. Women who danced on bars were trouble. Exciting, tempting, but not for him, not anymore.
He might not know her, but he knew the type. Attention-seeking. Deadlyat least for a guy who assumed marriage meant commitment and monogamy. Women like the one on the bar needed to be wanted by every man in the room.
Slowly, regretfully, he turned away from the woman and headed for the exit. He'd come into town for a beer and a burger. He'd thought he could catch the game, maybe hang with the guys. What he'd found instead was a barefoot goddess who made a man want to forget all his hopes and dreams in exchange for a single smile. His dreams were worth more, he reminded himself, glancing over his shoulder one last time before stepping out into the warm summer night.
Annabelle Weiss opened her eyes. "It's easy."
"Uh-huh." Her friend Charlie Dixon put down her beer and shook her head. "No."
Annabelle climbed off the bar and put her hands on her hips. It was her attempt to look intimidating. Kind of a feeble gesture when she considered the fact that Charlie was a good eight or ten inches taller and had muscles Annabelle didn't want to know existed.
She was about to make her case, maybe even throw in a line that it was for the children, when the mostly female crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
"Great dance," someone called.
Annabelle spun in a circle. "Thank you," she called. "I'll be here all week." She looked back at her friend. "you have to."
"I'm pretty sure I don't."
Annabelle turned to Heidi Simpson. "You talk to her."
Heidi, a pretty blonde who had recently gotten engaged, glanced up from studying her diamond ring. "What? Oh, sorry. I was busy."
"Thinking about Rafe," Charlie grumbled. "We know. He's wonderful, you're happy. It's getting annoying."
Heidi laughed. "Now who's cynical?"
"It's not news. I've always been cynical." Charlie grabbed her beer and led the way back to their table. The one they'd abandoned when Annabelle had offered to show them both the dance of the happy virgin.
When they were seated, Annabelle turned to Charlie. "Look, I need to raise money for my bookmobile. Being in the town festival is the best way for that to happen. It's a ride on a horse. You know how to ride. You even own a horse."
Charlie's blue eyes narrowed. "I'm not dancing on a horse."
"You don't have to. The horse dances. That's why it's called the Dance of the Horse."
"mason is not a horse who dances."
Heidi leaned forward. "Annabelle, this is your bookmobile project. You're the one who has the passion. Why don't you do the dance?"
"I don't know how to ride."
"You could learn. Shane could teach you. I've seen him working with the rodeo cowboys. He's very patient."
"I don't think there's enough time. The festival is ten weeks away. Could I really learn to ride a horse well enough for it to do the dance by then?" She turned to Charlie. "more than a thousand years ago the Maa-zib women left everything they knew and migrated up to where we are today. They were powerful women who wanted to make a home for themselves. They settled here and their strength and determination flows through all of us."
Charlie sipped her beer. "Good speech and no, I'm not doing the horse dance."
Annabelle slumped over the table. "Then I've got nothing."
Heidi poked her in the arm. "Like I said, do the dance yourself. You're the one always going on and on about the Maa-zib women protecting their daughters from sacrifice by leaving. They were tired of their daughters being killed before they'd ever had a chance to live so they came here where they could be free. Embrace that spirit."
Annabelle straightened. She was hardly the type to lead a parade, she thought. She was quiet, more of a behind-the-scenes person.
She opened her mouth to say "I can't" but the words got stuck. Because she could if she wanted. She could do a lot of things. But all her life, she'd been conventional in an attempt to fit in. From trying to please her parents to making herself over to suit every guy she'd ever dated. She considered herself accommodating, not strong.
Charlie stared at her. "You okay? You look funny."
"I'm a pushover," Annabelle said. "A doormat, in the most honest, unflattering terms."
Heidi and Charlie exchanged looks of concern. "Okay," Charlie said slowly. "You're not having a seizure, are you?"
"No, I'm having a revelation. I've always been the one to bend, to sacrifice what I wanted for another person's needs and desires."
"You were just dancing on a bar," Heidi said with a shrug. "It doesn't get more independent than that."
"I wasn't drunk. I was showing Charlie the dance of the happy virgin in an effort to convince her" She shook her head, then stood. "You know what? I'm going to do it. I'm going to learn the dance myself. Or learn to ride. Whatever. It's my bookmobile. My fundraiser. I'm taking charge. I'm putting myself out there. The spirit of the Maa-zib women lives on in me."
"You go, girl," Charlie told her.
"You were home early last night."
Shane turned off the water in the barn and glanced up to see his mother walking toward him. It was barely dawn, but she was up and dressed. More important, she carried a mug of coffee in each hand.
He took the caffeine she offered and swallowed gratefully. Visions of a fiery redhead had haunted the little sleep he'd managed.
"Jo's Bar turned out to be more interesting than I'd thought."
May, his still-attractive, fifty-something mother, grinned. "You went to Jo's Bar? Oh, honey, no. That's where the women in town hang out. There's shopping and fashion playing on the TV, not sports. You should have talked to your brother about where to catch the game. No wonder you didn't stay out late." She reached out her free hand to stroke the nose of the mare hanging her head over her stall door. "Hello, sweetie. Are you adjusting? Don't you love Fool's Gold?"
The mare nodded, as if agreeing that all was well.
Shane had to admit his horses had settled in more quickly than he'd anticipated. The drive from Tennessee had been long but the end results worth the journey. He'd bought two hundred prime acres in the foothills outside of town. He'd already drawn up plans for a house and, more important, stables. Construction would start on the latter within the week. Until then he was boarding his horses in his mother's stable and he was staying up at the house with her seventy-four-year-old boyfriend, Glen, Shane's brother Rafe, and Rafe's fiancée, Heidi. Talk about a crowd.
Shane reminded himself he was doing exactly what he'd always wanted to do in a place he planned to settle down. He had the horses, the land, family close by enough to make it feel like home but, once his house was built, not so close that they would get in the way. If only he could get the image of that woman out of his head.
"Mom, do you know"
He bit back the rest of the question. His mother was the kind of woman who would know everyone in town. Give her a name and within fifteen minutes she would get back to him with four generations' worth of details.
He wasn't looking for trouble. He'd already done that, had married and then divorced the kind of woman who haunted a man. He'd had enough excitement to last him until he was ninety. Now was the time to settle down. To find someone sensible, someone who would be satisfied knowing that one man loved her.
His mother looked at him, her dark eyes so much like his own. Her mouth curved in a slow, knowing smile.
"please, please say you're going to ask me if I know any nice girls."
What the hell, he thought, then shrugged. "Do you? Someone, you know, regular." No one like the bar-dancing goddess.
His mother practically quivered. "Yes and she's perfect. A librarian. Her name is Annabelle Weiss. She's lovely. Heidi was telling me Annabelle wants to learn to ride a horse. You could teach her."
A librarian, huh? He pictured a plain brunette in glasses, cardigan buttoned up to her neck and practical shoes. Not exactly exciting, but that was okay. He'd reached the place in his life where he wanted to have a family. He wasn't looking for someone to rock his world.
"What do you think?" his mother asked anxiously.
"She sounds perfect."
"Returning to the scene of the crime?"
Annabelle grinned at her friend. "There was no crime."
"You know that and I know that, but rumors are flying, missy."
Annabelle held open the door to Jo's Bar, then waited while Charlie preceded her into the brightly lit business. It was lunchtime in Fool's Gold and women already filled nearly a dozen tables. Jo catered to the female population, decorating with girl-friendly colors like mauve and cream. During the day the big TVs were either off or turned to shopping and reality shows. The menu had plenty of salads and sandwiches, with discreet calorie counts listed to the side.
Annabelle followed Charlie to a table and took a seat.
"Everyone is talking about you dancing on the bar."
Annabelle laughed. "I don't care. It was for a good cause. Even if it didn't convince you to be in my festival. But that's okay. I'm going to do it myself." She frowned. "You are telling people I wasn't drunk, right?"
In fact she hadn't bothered to finish her single glass of wine. Getting on the bar last night had been more about feeling unsettled than wanting to show off and had nothing to do with any alcohol in her system.
Charlie grinned. "I swear, I'm sticking to the one-glass-of-wine story. The archaeologists were intrigued, though. I think the dance of the happy virgin is giving you street cred with them."
"Yes, because they're so wild."
Last fall, construction workers on a building site had blown away a bit of the mountain, exposing Maa-zib gold. Archaeologists had stormed in to take charge of the discovery. After the pieces were researched and catalogued, they would be returned to the town.
"Are you helping them?" Charlie asked.
"I'm more unofficial liaison," Annabelle told her. "My minor in Maa-zib studies gives me enough information to be annoying to the professionals."
"Most professionals need a little annoying."
Annabelle appreciated the loyalty. "Then my work here is done."
The door opened and Heidi walked in. She saw them and waved.
Heidi hurried over. "Shane said yes. He's going to teach you to do the horse dance. Well, ride a horse. I don't think his mom mentioned the dancing."
"Probably better to sneak up on him with that one," Charlie said.
"You're right." Heidi grinned. "He's a successful horse guy. He's not going to be into the dancing thing. You'll need to introduce the idea gradually."
This was what she loved, Annabelle thought happily. Her friends and, for the most part, her life. She had a great job in a town she adored. She belonged. If she got a twinge of envy when the light caught Heidi's gleaming diamond engagement ring, well, that was okay, too.
In truth, she didn't care about the rockit was what the rock represented that gave her a couple of pangs. Love. Real love. Rafe wasn't trying to change Heidi. He didn't accept only parts of her. He was all-in. Annabelle had never had that. Her revelation from last night had stayed with her. She wanted more than conditional love. She wanted it allor nothing. Messy, inconvenient love, where both parties gave with their whole hearts.
Not that she had a bunch of guys lining up, begging her to take a chance.
She pulled a folder out of her large tote. "I have the information I promised." She withdrew the pictures she'd taken at the two florists in town, along with pricing sheets.
Heidi sighed. "You're amazing and wonderful and I really appreciate the help."
Charlie bristled. "Hey, I tasted cake. I wouldn't do that for just anyone."
Heidi looked at her. "Are you sure?"
"Okay, I would taste cake for just about anyone but I did it for you because you're my friend."
"You two are the best," Heidi said, her eyes getting bright. "Seriously. I don't know how to thank you."
Charlie held up a hand. "I swear, if you start crying, I'm outta here. You're emotional. Are you sure you're not pregnant?"
"Yes. I'm sure. It's just everyone is being so wonderful about the wedding."
Heidi had been engaged all of two weeks, which wouldn't be notable except the wedding had been scheduled for the middle of August, giving everyone barely two months to get it all arranged. Heidi's only family was her grandfather, so Annabelle and Charlie had stepped in to help with the details.
They looked over the flowers. Heidi studied arrangements and prices. They paused when Jo stopped by their table to find out what they wanted for lunch.
"By the way," Jo said, handing them each a small card with a price list, "the party room is going to be opening in about a month. You were asking about it for the bridal shower."
Heidi leaned forward. "You're making it like you said?"
Jo grinned. "Yup, just as girly as the rest of the bar, with very flattering lighting. Lots of tables, a private bar, big-screen TV and a small stage. I'm working on the menu right now. We can do appetizers and finger sandwiches or regular meals. Whichever you want."
"Champagne?" Heidi asked.
"I love it," Annabelle said. "Want to have your shower here?"
"The room can hold up to sixty," Jo told them.
"You wouldn't have to limit your guest list," Charlie told her.
"Sounds like a plan," Heidi said happily.