"I think he's going to ask you to dance," Merilee shouted over the loud Western band. "He's been checking you out for the past ten minutes."
"Fifteen." After they'd found a table, Beth's artistic eye had zoned in on a pair of jeans in the line of males at the bar, only to discover that the occupant of those jeans had observed her in the process. And had given her a slow, lazy smile.
Beth tried to tell herself it was his unique attire that had caught her eye. After all, his clothing was similar to her own faded work shirt and jeans and his practical boots were made for anything but dancing. But deep down, her hormones forced her to be honest. You were checking out his ass...?
"Mmmm-mmm good," Merilee sighed, adjusting her cowgirl hat.
"Why is it," Beth asked during a merciful break in the music, "that you're enjoying this much more than me, and you're the one that's happily married?"
"Because, sugar, I can look all I want at how those jeans are filled. I don't need to do a damned thing about it."
"I vaguely remember that feeling."
"Elizabeth Nash-Swenson. It's been two years since Tim died." Merilee leaned further across the table on her forearms. "I'm not tiptoeing around you anymore. You need to start living again." Her blue eyes narrowed. "You need to start painting again."
Beth ignored the goad about the dry spell in her work. "This," she said as she scanned the dance hall, "is not my idea of real living."
"No, darlin', it's not. But these people are just out for a good time. To experience something you don't remember. It's called fun."
Beth spotted Merilee's husband, Pete, as he worked his way back toward them through the crowd. Two bottles of beer and a glass of cola were trapped between his hands. "Success," he shouted as he distributed the drinks.
"My hero," Merilee murmured. She tipped her blonde head forward to give him an enthusiastic kiss.
Pete grinned at Beth with satisfaction. He was a hulk of a man, well over six feet tall. He'd lost half his hair and even Merilee would have never called him handsome. What she did call him was 'hers,' and she'd done so for the past eight years.
"Next two-step is mine, Beth." Pete drank from his bottle of beer and put his arm around Merilee.
"But I don't want to impose on..."
"I'll claim the lady for the next dance." The voice behind her was male and vaguely familiar.
Beth pushed her short, auburn curls aside and turned. The loner had left his perch by the bar. Though his voice sounded familiar, she was certain she'd never met the man. His clear, blue eyes were set in a lean face, accentuated by a buzz cut of sandy hair tinged with grey at the temples.
He wasn't quite as tall as Pete's six-plus feet, yet he seemed to take up more space. Keeping his hand around the neck of a green bottle, he placed it on the next table and calmly invited her scrutiny. Beth obliged him and studied his eyes. The lines around his calm gaze did not look as if they were acquired from constant good humor. She opened her mouth to decline. "I don't..."
"...know how you can refuse?" he finished for her. "I don't either. One of my favorites."
The music had changed to a waltz. He held out his hand. Merilee, the traitor, cooperated with him by lifting the glass of cola from Beth's hand as he coaxed her from her stool. His large hand held hers firmly as if he knew she would bolt given a chance.
Before she could object, he grasped her waist and led her in a slow circle around the wooden floor, just like all the other couples. It felt good. Too good. The heat of his hand at the small of her back burned through her spine and made her stomach muscles tighten. His wide chest brushed against her shirt on a sharp turn and managed to zap current right through her show-no-nipples mom-bra.
When she worked up the courage to finally look up at him, his vivid eyes pierced her with such intensity that Beth stepped on the man's toes, not that he seemed to notice. That kind of focus was a bit unnerving, but just because her pulse was skipping along double-time to the music, it didn't mean she had to leap into this man's lap. So when the song ended, she nodded and walked away. And he sauntered right behind her.
"Thank you," she said with a tone of dismissal.
For the first time, he actually smiled. It did nothing to bring levity to his eyes or to his angular face. He picked up his bottle of non-alcoholic beer and drank, then leaned with an elbow on the tall table where she sat. "Your friends are on the dance floor. Why don't I hang out here so that no one bothers you?"
She smiled sweetly. "I'm capable of taking care of myself."
"Most women are," he replied.
"Then why don't you just return to your outpost by the bar?"
He cocked his head. "Am I that bad of a dancer?"
"You know you're not." She decided to switch tactics. "What if the person that bothers me is you?"
He choked on his drink. "You're not exactly buttering up to me, are you?"
"I like a man who doesn't need things spelled out for him."