Josie Blume's earliest memories were of an eccentric mother who hid her three daughters away from prying eyes and scared off trespassers with a gun. Josie's bizarre childhood had to be the explanation for her miserable track record with the opposite sex. That's why the spunky interior designer needed to piece together her family puzzle, even though it meant finding the father who'd rejected her at birthand who might reject her again.
As always, her buddy Gabe Thomas was beside her every step of the way. Yet the closer she got to the truth, the more confusing things became. Of course, passion was something women shared with menbut passion with your best male friend?
Heartland Sisterstogether again.
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The man in the Wisconsin sweatshirt was eyeing Josie's butt. Gabriel Thomas was sure of it now as he watched his good friend Josie Blume approach the pool table. She analyzed the break of the pool balls, then walked around to the far corner of the barroom. She grinned when she found the angle she liked.
Glancing sideways, Gabe noted that the other man's attention shifted to Josie's chest when she leaned over the cue stick. Of course he would look there. Guys did. Despite her diminutive stature, Josie hadn't been short-changed up top. Those sexy assets curved inward to a well-toned waist, then flowed back outward to lean but feminine hips.
The woman was stacked.
She also had stylishly short brunette hair, kissably full lips and the biggest hazel eyes Gabe had ever seen. So yes, guys noticed her, Gabe included. Not that Josie would ever suspect. She thought of him as the big brother she'd never had, he was certain.
Which was for the best.
Josie must be unaware of Wisconsin's interest, or she'd have called him on the carpet for his boldness. If she was receptive to the idea of a Wednesday-night hookup, she'd have told her admirer directly that she didn't respond to drooling. If she wasn't, well, she'd have told him directly to get lost.
Josie didn't hint at what she wanted; she demanded it. And she didn't hide her thoughts behind societal expectations or womanly wiles. If you had broccoli in your teeth or conceit in your behavior, she told you about it. Yet she greeted you with such an affable enthusiasm it would be hard to dislike her, even with that sometimes blunt honesty.
Obviously, Wisconsin found her agreeable.
She should have reacted by now.
What the hey! The man's interest in Josie was no more Gabe's business than her response to it. He and Josie were merely buddies. Unless she was taking up with a conspicuous drug dealer or abusive jerk, Gabe generally kept his mouth shut about her love life.
After waiting for Josie to make a series of shots — she missed the third by a fraction of an inch — Gabe walked around to stand next to her. He lowered his mouth to her ear and murmured, "He's not your type, kid."
Josie stood up straight and looked around. "Who?"
"Wisconsin." Gabe turned to study the table. After pocketing his first solid ball, he scanned Josie's perplexed expression. "The guy behind us in the ball cap. He's enjoying those tight jeans of yours a little too much."
She scowled. "These aren't tight."
He raised his eyebrows as he perused the table again. "The outline of your driver's license is showing through your right hip pocket."
He nearly cackled when he heard the slap of her palm against her bottom.
"You were looking?" she asked.
"Not in that way," he fibbed. As though he hadn't noticed the query in Josie's eyes, he strolled around the table and pretended to find the conversation a bore.
"I certainly hope not," she chastised. "Anyway, so what if some guy's noticing me?"
Gabe scrutinized the man against the wall behind her. After he'd bent to hit a great ricochet shot that sent his six ball into the corner pocket, he explained, "As I said before, he's not your type."
Josie stood very still, and Gabe knew she was trying not to crane her neck around to see her admirer. "I don't have a type."
"Sure, you do. This one's too young, I think."
She snorted. "If he's in Mary's Bar, he's old enough."
"You started sneaking in here at sixteen."
"How would you know?We met when I was nineteen." Oops again.
Gabe had heard about Josie long before the day they'd officially met. The Blume family had been different enough to cause talk, even among the Augusta cliques who considered themselves too refined for small-town Kansas gossip. Gabe's mother included.
But until he'd met Josie, Gabe had doubted the tales of little girls hiding in the attic or magazine salesmen chased off by the barrel of their mother's shotgun. Even of the boldhearted youngest daughter, who'd had the grit to defy her mother's edicts.
"We've been friends for a long time, kid," he said.
"You must've told me most of your wild-and-crazy youth stories at some point." Gabe missed his next shot and moved out of her way.
Apparently, she bought his explanation. She walked around the pool table again, surveying the balls, and snuck a peek at Wisconsin on her way past.
"That guy has to be twenty-five at least," she said a few seconds later, after she'd made her shot and returned to Gabe's side. "He doesn't have a noticeable excess of tattoos or jewelry and he's gawking at me, a female, and not you, a male."
Gabe bit his tongue. Josie's standards weren't exactly celestial when it came to boyfriends. She said it all the time. The guys had to be fun, straight and un-attached. That was it, she swore.
"So he's my type," Josie said, as if Gabe had voiced some argument.
"Right, kid. If you have as few restrictions as you claim, why haven't we hooked up?"
Josie stared at him.
Damn it, he'd done it again. What was wrong with him? He forced a laugh. "I only meant you have more requirements than you think."
Gabe's question had bewildered him, too. The idea of hooking up with Josie sounded dangerous — and exciting. She was young, though — even younger than his twin sisters. It took on a forbidden air.
No. He wasn't the guy for Josie. Besides, if she grew bored with him in a month, as she did often with her lovers, where would their friendship stand?
Josie remained silent as she concentrated through another couple of shots, but as soon as Gabe had leaned over the table and posed his cue stick, she said, "You think you know everything about me, don't you?"
He gazed at her. "I know a few things, especially about your love life. Remember? I'm the guy you're usually with when you meet your dates."
Her eyes slid to his hairline. "Okay, do I prefer my men tall and dark or tawny and brawny?"
Gabe shot and missed. Then he made a quick study of the tuck of hair beneath Wisconsin's ball cap. Dark blond, he believed, and curly. The guy was only slightly shorter than Gabe. Josie's last boyfriend had been Hispanic. Squat and muscular, with thinning dark hair. "Guess anything goes in the looks department."
"Right. My two requirements for men are enthusiasm in bed and simplicity out of it. Commitment makes people fat and boring."
One of Josie's pet phrases.
Gabe wasn't one to question her choices. He, too, intended to lead a single life. Commitment wasn't a problem for him — it was the kids that most women set their sights on a few years down the road. A decade ago, Gabe's father had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, after a long and debilitating illness. Gabe couldn't risk passing on those defective genes to any male children.
But at least Gabe stayed with a woman long enough to let her down easily when the time came. Josie tended to seek out guys who had no clue how to handle her. And she left before anyone cared.
Josie maneuvered around so her back was to Wisconsin again. Predictably, the guy leered. When Gabe caught the younger man's eye, the corners of Wisconsin's mouth twisted up in a sort of half simper, half gloat.
"Simplicity in the head, lack of skill in bed," Gabe muttered. A favorite phrase of his own, if usually un-voiced.
When Josie missed her next ball entirely and paused to glare at him, her expression was almost comically disgusted.
Her problem wasn't her pool game, however.
It was his big mouth.
He didn't blame her. He couldn't fathom why he was making the careless comments. Maybe because Josie had recently celebrated her twenty-seventh birthday. Their almost eight-year age difference didn't seem titanic, as it had when she was that wild nineteen and he was twenty-six.
Gabe stepped forward and sank three balls as he reminded himself that he had no business interfering in Josie's love life. No reason to warn Josie off Wisconsin.
And infinitely more reason to choke his attraction to Josie than to nurture it.
They'd ignite, explode and be done.
He liked her too much for that. "You have to admit, the guy has a great smile," Josie said.
Gabe studied the pool table and didn't say a word. "And if you really think I have a type," she added,
"think about that country music deejay I dated."
"Chubby-cheeked, middle-aged wiseacre?" Gabe asked.
"Yeah." Josie nodded, lifting a corner of her mouth at some memory. "He had a wicked sense of humor. Man, was he fun!"
Gabe maneuvered around for a likely shot. "That guy lasted, what? Two months? One of your longer stints."
"Mmm-hmm. Now think of Jerry, the computer programmer."
Gabe hadn't liked that one, either, and Josie had dated him over the course of an entire summer.
"Remember him? Such an intelligent kisser."
Was she trying to prove her point, or make Gabe jealous?
"So you see?" she said. "Those two had to be total opposites. I don't have a type. Maybe this guy's exactly what I need to get my mind off my worries."
She swiveled to check out her admirer, dropping her scrutiny from his hat to his chest to his running shoes. Although she made a show of peering beyond him then, squinting at the clock near the bar's television, the message had been sent.
She'd looked. Briefly, but directly. "It's getting late," she said to Gabe in an obvious tone. "Guess we should finish this game and quit."
That was when the guy approached.
Of course. Only a complete moron would have missed Josie's invitation.
Gabe frowned at the pool table as he listened to her get-acquainted conversation with the other man. This was no big deal. Josie flirted all the time.
But tonight was a work night, and Gabe had only come out with Josie to pull her out of a blue mood. They really should be leaving soon.
After fumbling his shot, Gabe waited for a lull in the conversation so he could tell Josie it was her turn.
"I'm a student," Wisconsin was saying. "I go to Butler County Juco over in El Dorado. I was on my way home and saw this place, so..." He shrugged.
Josie had nodded through the guy's explanation. Apparently, she was still interested, even though the kid had just told her he was Juco-student age. Presumably, too young.
"Home...to Wisconsin?" Josie approached the pool table, sank her shot and then peered at the lettering on the other guy's chest.
"Nah, I bought the shirt on vacation," Wisconsin said. "I live in Wichita — Willowbend North."
The subdivision he'd named was filled with pricey homes, and no student-type rentals that Gabe could picture.