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(Kendrick/Coulter #4)
January 2004
ISBN: 0-4512-1075-1

A drumroll reverberated through the bar, punctuating the end of the last band number. The lead country singer hooted into the microphone, the sound of his voice seeming to bounce off the walls. After tipping his Stetson to a pretty lady in red on the dance floor, he smiled and lightly strummed his guitar, leading into the next song, "She'll Leave You with a Smile." The music throbbed in the air, bearing testimony to the state-of-the-art acoustics that made Chaps the most popular country-and-western nightclub in Crystal Falls, Oregon.

Tapping the toe of his boot in time to the base guitar, Hank Coulter balanced a quarter on his thumb, took careful aim at the empty beer mug at the center of the table, and let fly. Flashing in the spiraling lights, the coin flipped end over end in a high arc, struck the edge of the glass, and bounced away. The other men sitting with Hank laughed, and someone shoved a full mug of beer toward him.

"Chug it down, partner!"

Everyone at the table took up the chant, yelling, "Chug! Chug! Chug!"

Determined to shake off his bad mood, the result of a quarrel that afternoon with his older brother Jake, Hank laughed and started to drink. The rule of the game was to consume the beer without coming up for a breath. Foam touched his nose as he gulped. When he slapped the empty mug back down on the table, his buddies cheered. Hank wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve.

Eric Stone, seated to his left, refilled the mug. "Go again," he ordered, yelling to be heard over the loud music.

"Pray for better aim this time, partner, or you'll be drunk on your ass before pumpkin hour. What's that make now, three?"

"Five," Hank corrected. "And getting drunk won't cut it. I've got plans for later tonight."

"Don't we all?" Eric nudged back his tan Stetson to survey the bar, his brown eyes dancing as he took inventory of the babes. "I've got dibs on that cute little brunette over there."

Hank had noticed the brunette and toyed with the thought of hitting on her later. She had a saucy smile and a way of swinging her hips that warmed a man's blood. "Go for it, son." Hank winked. "Maybe you'll get lucky."

Accepting the coin that Pete Witherspoon slid toward him, Hank took aim at the glass again. For the life of him, he couldn't recall how he'd gotten talked into tossing quarters. He came to Chaps on weekend nights to have a few laughs, toss back a few beers, and hopefully end the evening with an accommodating female. Getting drunk on his ass at so early an hour was not part of his plan, but now that the competition had commenced, he couldn't very well beg off.

Once again, the quarter missed its mark, this time ricocheting off the glass and rolling onto the dance floor. Joe Michaels guffawed and dug in his pocket for more change while Hank swilled the contents of his mug. With six sixteen-ounce beers under his belt, he was definitely starting to feel the effects of the alcohol.

Seated at a nearby table, Carly Adams watched the cowboy. His hair was the same rich color of the fudge her friend Bess had made the other night. As he leaned his head back to swallow, his throat worked, and his larynx bobbed. Watching the play of muscle drove home to Carly how differently men were made than women. Her own throat felt soft when she touched it, no muscles in evidence unless she strained to tighten them.

Carly had no idea how old he might be. In his late twenties or possibly older. Accurately judging someone's age took practice, and having had her sight restored only a week ago, she'd had precious little opportunity to hone that skill. No matter. Finally, at long last, she could actually look at a guy. Little wonder her friends in high school had spent so much time whispering and giggling about boys. Everywhere Carly was soft and full, he was hard and flat, and every place she was smooth, he had interesting bulges.

Carly wasn't sure why she found this particular man so fascinating. Unlike the other cowboys in the bar, most of whom were decked out in flashy, western-style clothing, he wore a plain, wash-worn shirt, a pair of old jeans, and sturdy, no-nonsense boots with badly scuffed toes. Maybe he stood out in the crowd because he wore no hat— or maybe he was just so handsome that he drew the female eye. She honestly couldn't say if he was attractive by societal standards. She only knew she found him intriguing.

Even at a distance of several feet, his deep, rumbling laughter was infectious, and he had a wonderful, lazy way of grinning that made her want to smile. Fortunately for him, the new coin changed his luck, and he got the quarter into the glass with his next toss. Looking relieved to be off the hook, he rocked back on his chair to watch as the next player took his turn.

Carly wanted to study everything about him, and she was glad of this time alone so she could do so without feeling embarrassed. Her friend Bess would tease her, she knew. Hey, Carly, it's just a guy, she would say. Don't stare. People will think something's wrong with you. News flash. It was difficult for Carly not to stare when she was seeing so many things for the first time. Bess tried to understand, but no one who'd been sighted since birth could really grasp what it was like to suddenly have the lights come on after twenty-eight years.

Carly decided that she especially liked the way the man's shoulders and chest filled out his shirt. Every time he moved, muscles rippled and bunched under the cloth. She even liked the way he held himself, his dark head cocked to one side, his attention fixed on the game. His posture was relaxed, his arms elbowed out, his thumbs tucked over a wide leather belt that rode low at his narrow hips. Each time his chair tipped back, a large silver belt buckle flashed at his waist.

He was gorgeous, she decided. In her opinion, anyway, and that was all that counted. A lovely tingling sensation spread through her as she watched him.

A woman with bright red hair approached his table. Her large green eyes were heavily lined with makeup. When she spoke, the cowboy glanced up, then grinned and pushed to his feet. Before escorting the woman onto the dance floor, he grabbed a dark-colored Stetson from the table and settled it on his head.

Carly couldn't take her eyes off him as he guided the redhead to the center of the dance floor. At a distance, she had trouble keeping him in focus. One moment, she could make out his features, the next he was a blur. When the music started, the pair began dancing, their feet executing the steps so quickly that Carly couldn't follow them. The cowboy swung the woman with an easy strength and polished precision, shifting his hold on her hand so she could duck under his arm. Occasionally, the redhead sidled away to cut circles around him, her boots tapping out a fast tattoo, her denim-sheathed hips and legs moving with seductive grace, her long hair cascading down her back.

A sharp pang of envy moved through Carly. It would take months of practice before she mastered the art of putting on eye makeup after her eyes healed, and she'd probably never get the hang of styling her curly blond hair. Tonight, Bess had helped her get ready, dispensing with her usual ponytail and lending her an outfit to wear, but Carly despaired that she'd ever be able to manage as nicely by herself.

The dance number suddenly ended. The cessation of noise jerked Carly back to the moment. The cowboy caught the redhead in the circle of his arm to lead her off the floor. At the edge of the jostling crowd of dancers, a short lady with dark hair clasped his arm and went up on her tiptoes to whisper something in his ear. He smiled, bent to kiss the redhead's cheek, and returned to the center of the floor with the other woman. The man's popularity with the ladies answered one of Carly's questions: he must be very good-looking. While waiting for the next number to begin, he chatted with his new partner, listening intently when she spoke, smiling or laughing when she said something amusing.

Suddenly, as though he sensed Carly watching him, he glanced up. Carly was so embarrassed to be caught staring that she wanted to die. Her face went prickly and hot. Oh, God. She anxiously scanned the dancers, looking for her friend, Bess, who had been line dancing for almost an hour. It was impossible to find her in the blurry throng of bodies.

Carly pushed to her feet and cut through the tables to go to the ladies' room. En route, she could have sworn she felt the cowboy's eyes boring a hole into her back. She cringed and hastened her pace, her one thought being to escape for a few minutes. Maybe by the time she returned to her table, he would have forgotten all about her.

When it came to attractive women, Hank had a memory like an elephant. After returning to his table, he kept one eye on the back wall of the bar, watching for a glint of golden hair. When the blonde emerged from the restroom, he spotted her immediately. And he wasn't disappointed. She was every bit as stunning as he'd judged her to be at first glance.

Trying not to be obvious, he observed her as she slowly worked her way through the crowd. He knew most of the women who frequented Chaps on weekend nights. He'd never seen this one. Long, curly hair framed her angelic face with wispy, rippling curtains of gold. He'd never seen more delicately molded features or bigger blue eyes. She also had a soft, lower lip that pouted and begged to be kissed. Her pink western blouse hugged small but perfectly shaped breasts and accentuated her slender waist. New jeans showcased a world-class ass and shapely legs that seemed to stretch forever.

Hank nudged Eric with his elbow, indicating the blonde with a slight nod of his head. "You know her?"

Eric gave the woman a long, careful study. "Not yet."

Hank laughed and pushed back his chair. "Forget it, partner. I saw her first."

"You always get first crack at the prime cuts," he complained.

"Hey, you've got dibs on the brunette, remember?"

"Maybe I just changed my mind."

"Bring in the new day alone then," Hank shot back. "She's taken."

Carly stiffened when she saw the dark-haired cowboy walking toward her. Heart pounding, she glanced quickly away, fixing her gaze on her glass of beer, which she'd been nursing all evening. He would move right past her, she assured herself. He probably knew someone at one of the tables behind her.

From the corner of her eye, she saw him stop beside her chair. At a distance, he hadn't seemed quite so tall. She looked up— and found herself staring into the most beautiful eyes imaginable. They were a deep, clear color that put her in mind of a picture she'd seen a few days ago of a tropical lagoon. His wide, firm mouth tipped into a grin that deepened the creases in his lean cheeks and flashed strong, white teeth. The burnished cast of his skin emphasized his chiseled features. As straight and sharp as a knife blade, his nose jutted from between thick, dark eyebrows.

"Hi," he said.

Only that, just one simple word. Hi. But the deep timbre of his voice made Carly's pulse grow erratic. "Hi," she managed to reply.

A twinkle warmed his eyes. "May I have this dance?" he asked, extending an upturned palm to her.

Carly couldn't think what to say. Finally her brain clicked into gear. "Oh, no— I can't. Really. I'm sorry."

He hooked his thumbs over his belt and glanced over his shoulder. "You here with someone?"

"A friend. She's line dancing."

The corners of his mouth twitched. "Girlfriends don't count. I meant a guy."

"Oh." Carly felt stupid. "I, um— no, I'm not with a guy."

He extended his hand to her again. "Well, then? Come polish my belt buckle for a while."

Carly dropped her gaze to the silver oval at his waist. "Pardon me?"

He chuckled, turned a chair out from the table, and straddled it to sit down. Nudging back his hat, he gave her a slow once-over, ending with a long look at her white running shoes. "Is this, by any chance, your first time at a country-western bar?"

"Yes." Carly decided he was a little drunk. Considering the quantity of beer she'd seen him consume, she supposed that was to be expected. "My friend Bess loves to line dance. I came along to watch."

"That explains the language barrier, I guess. Sort of like visiting a foreign country, isn't it?"

Carly nodded. "It's interesting. I've always been told that men are supposed to remove their hats inside a building. Here, everyone wears them."

He feigned an expression of mock horror. "Take off our hats? Bite your tongue. Cowboys can't dance without their Stetsons. They'd feel half-dressed and lose their balance. Most of us only take them off when we sleep, and even then, we hang them on the bedpost, in case of emergency."

Carly laughed. She liked this man, she decided. He wasn't afraid to poke fun at himself.

"When a cowboy asks you to polish his belt buckle, it's just another way of asking you to dance," he explained. "Same goes if he invites you to rub bellies with him for a while."

Carly's cheeks went warm. "I see."

He arched a dark eyebrow. "So, whad'ya say?"

"I can't." She threw a panicked glance at the dancers. All her life, she had prided herself on never being afraid to try new things, but she wasn't ready for the Texas two-step. So soon after surgery, walking on even ground was challenging enough. "I don't know how. It looks complicated, and I was born with two left feet."

"Country-western dancing isn't as complicated as it looks." He lifted his hands, the gesture implying that her lack of experience wasn't a stumbling block. "Not to worry. I know enough about boot scootin' for both of us."

Before Carly could guess what he meant to do, he grasped her wrist, swung off the chair, and drew her to her feet. Hooking an arm around her waist, he steered her through the dancers to the center of the floor.

When he turned her to face him, he winked and grinned. "Don't be nervous. Everyone here had to learn how at some point. It's really not all that different from regular dancing."

Carly had never danced in her life, regular or otherwise. People were bouncing around everywhere she looked, ladies twirling under the arms of their partners and executing fancy footwork. Her body broke out in a clammy sweat. "I really, really can't do this."

He took her right hand and slipped his other arm around her waist. "Sure you can. Stop watching everyone else and concentrate on me." He smiled when she looked up at him. "There's a girl." He started to move, a slow, swaying motion that wasn't difficult to follow. "We'll keep it simple."

"Simple's good," she agreed breathlessly.

He ran his gaze slowly over her face. "Damn, you're beautiful. I suppose you hear that from men all the time."

Carly stared up at him, feeling as if she'd somehow fallen asleep and slipped into a lovely dream. He thought she was beautiful? Even if he was lying, she wanted to believe him— just for this little while.

He swung her in a wide arc, and she stepped on his boot. "Oh, I'm sorry! Did I hurt your toes?"

He laughed and tightened his arm around her waist. "Don't worry about it, darlin'. I walk on 'em all the time. Let's try it again, the other direction this time." He dipped to the left, pressing his thigh against her right leg to make her step back. "There, you see? Easy as pie."

To Carly's delight, it actually was easy. By following his lead, she was spared the difficulty of navigating on her own.

He trailed his gaze over her face again. "Where have you been hiding all my life? When I spotted you a while ago, my heart damned near stopped beating. You looked like an angel, sitting there."

An angel? Carly knew better, but it was a lovely compliment, anyway. "I just moved to the area. I'll be starting grad school here in Crystal Falls this September."

"Ah. That explains why I haven't seen you before. Where you from?"


"Uh-oh, a city gal. No wonder we speak a different language. Right turn," he inserted, cuing her with his body before executing the swing. Then, "You've got the most gorgeous blue eyes I've ever seen. I swear, they were shining at me like beacons from clear across the room. Tinted contacts, right? No eyes that blue can be natural."

While pursuing her bachelor degree, Carly had heard men in college campus bars say things like this to her friends. Pick-up lines, nothing more. He was hitting on her. And, oh, God, it felt wonderful. All her adult life, she'd sat on the sidelines, listening to life happening all around her and wishing that someone would notice her. Now, at long last, someone finally had. Even better, he was handsome and charming. She felt like a princess in one of the fairy tales her mother had read to her years ago.

"Nope, no contacts," she assured him with a tinkling laugh. She fluttered her lashes. "These are the real McCoy."

"You're kidding. Damn. Is this my lucky night, or what? You're the most beautiful woman in the place."

Carly knew he was only telling her what he thought she wanted to hear. And he was right. It was what she wanted to hear. My turn. A reckless, dizzying excitement coursed through her. Just this once, she wouldn't analyze or question or worry about getting hurt. She had waited a lifetime for this moment, and she meant to enjoy every delicious millisecond.

"My name's Hank Coulter," he told her, his voice deep and raspy, yet oddly soft, like the sound of raw silk rubbed against the grain.

"Carly Adams."

He bent his head toward hers. "Come again?"

After she repeated her name, he said, "Glad to meet you, Charlie. Boy, howdy, am I ever glad."

"Carly," she corrected.

He nodded and smiled. Carly let it go at that. When the song ended, he would escort her back to her table, and she'd probably never see him again.

He moved with an impressive grace for so large a man, lean muscle and bone working in a harmony of motion as he guided her through the steps, the tendons in his thighs bunching under the faded denim of his jeans, his lean hips shifting in time to the music. Before Carly knew quite how it happened, he had her twirling away from him, then shuffling back to spin on her toes under his arm.

"Hoo-yah!" he said with a laugh after she executed a perfect swing step. He winked, hooked an arm around her waist, and drew her snuggly against his hard thigh to circle at a dizzying speed in a two-step shuffle. "Cut a rug, darlin'."

The press of his leg against the apex of her own made Carly's heart leap, and her whole body felt as if it were humming. It was the strangest thing. Every part of her tingled, inside and out. When he suddenly moved away, sliding his big hand down her arm to grab her hand, he tipped his hat to her. Then he shuffled back, his intense blue eyes holding hers, his dark, chiseled features oddly taut.

Sensory overload. All the instincts Carly had honed to sharpness as a blind person were still in fine working order, making her aware of him in every pore of her skin, and her eyes added visual delights she'd never before experienced. Having a man make love to her with his eyes. Seeing his broad shoulders dip toward her. Feeling the firm yet gentle grip of his big hands. His scent— a blend of musky maleness, woodsy cologne, leather, and sun-dried cotton— working on her olfactory nerves like an intoxicant.

Much too soon to suit Carly, the music faded. She drew away from his embrace and smiled. "Thank you for asking me to dance. It was fun, after all."

He caught her hand, his fingers so long they curled over her wrist bone, his palm warm and slightly rough, yet another indication that the cowboy attire wasn't just for looks.

At her questioning expression, he grinned and tightened his grip. "Don't go. Please. Spend the evening with me."

Before Carly could reply, the band broke into "Be My Baby Tonight." Hank threw back his dark head and laughed. "Is that perfect timing, or what?" He caught her in his arms again and started singing along. By the time he reached the "could ya, would ya, ain't-cha" part of the song and asked if she'd be his baby tonight, Carly was laughing too hard to feel self-conscious. He swung her in a wide arc that set her head to spinning. "Please, darlin', don't say no," he murmured near her ear. "You'll break my heart."

Carly leaned back to look up at him. She felt like a candle sitting on a sunny windowsill, her body warm and suddenly boneless. She knew she should end this before she waded in too deep. But somehow, knowing that and doing it were two different things. Would she ever get this chance again?

"I'm here with a friend," she reluctantly reminded him.

"Ditch her."

"I can't do that."

He wrapped both arms around her, pressed his face against her hair, and fell into a simple two-step. "Maybe she'll hook up with somebody and ditch you," he said with a hopeful note lacing his deep voice.

Carly knew Bess would never do that. "Maybe," she settled for saying.

"Meanwhile, stay with me," he urged softly.

Carly nodded her assent. She felt his lips curve in a smile. When the song ended, he led her from the floor. At the edge of the crowd, the redhead he'd danced with earlier stepped in front of them to ask Hank to dance.

Carly tried to pull her hand free. "I don't mind, Hank." It was easy to sound convincing. She'd been taking a second seat to other women all her life. "Really, I don't. Go and have fun."

He tightened his grip on her fingers. "Sorry," he told the redhead with an apologetic smile. "I'm bushed. We're going to sit this one out."

The woman shrugged and moved on.

Carly glanced after her. "Really, Hank, I wouldn't mind. She's a good dancer, and I'm— well, not."

"You're fabulous, and there's no way I'm leaving you. All my buddies would be after you like bees for honey." He fell into a walk, leading her to a back corner. The blue haze of cigarette smoke that hung over the table burned her sensitive eyes, and the smell of beer was strong. "Maybe we can talk here," he said as he drew out a chair for her. "Normally, I don't mind the noise, but tonight, it's a pain in the neck. I want to know everything about you."

Carly was relieved to lower herself onto the chair and escape the smoke. He sat next to her, turning his seat so they were facing each other. "Tell me about yourself, Charlie."

"Carly," she corrected again.

He nodded. "Gotcha. So tell me about yourself."

"There's nothing much to tell."


"I'll be twenty-eight in August."

"I'll turn thirty-two in December." He arched a dark eyebrow. "What are you going to grad school for?"

"I'm a teacher. I taught visually disabled elementary kids for two years. Now I want to get my master's in special education."

"No kidding?" Amusement warmed in his eyes. "I love teachers."

"You do?"

"Absolutely. They make a man do it until he gets it right."

Carly gave a startled laugh. The waitress appeared at their table just then. Hank ordered them each a beer. While they waited for their refreshments, he told Carly that he was a rancher. After their beers arrived, he explained that he was partners with his brother. They ran a few hundred head of cattle and bred and trained quarter horses for a living.

"So you're a real-life cowboy, not the dime store variety."

"Or a buckaroo. Not as romantic sounding, is it? Buckaroos work with horses, cowboys with cattle. Jake and I still run cows, so either term fits." He inclined his head at her mug. "I'm already on empty, and you've barely started."

He signaled for the waitress. "You need to get busy over there."

Carly obediently took another sip of beer. He reached over to smooth away the foam mustache on her upper lip. His touch was gentle, his expression tender. "I am so glad I spotted you. Talk about a great cure for a gloomy mood."

"Why were you in a gloomy mood?"

The second round of beers came just then. He paid the barmaid and took several hearty slugs before answering the question. "I had words with my brother Jake right before I came to town. My sister's husband's brother's wife's birthday is today."

"Say that again?"

"Exactly, a shirttail relative. Maggie Kendrick's a sweetheart, but her birthday party isn't my idea of a great way to spend Friday night. Jake objects to my lifestyle. Says I'm on a one-way path to nowhere and that I'll never meet a nice woman in a bar." He lifted his mug to her and grinned. "Wrong."

Carly was flattered. "That's a lovely compliment. Thank you."

He finished off the second beer, gave her a thoughtful study, and said, "At this rate, you're never gonna get a buzz on, darlin'. How about a mixed drink?"

Carly almost declined. She was still on painkillers and the doctor had told her to have no more than two drinks. But she'd had only a few sips of beer, she reminded herself, and she was tired of always being cautious. Hank ordered them each a slammer. By the time the drinks arrived, Carly had skirted a dozen personal questions, telling Hank just enough to satisfy his curiosity. She hesitantly tasted the drink he'd ordered and asked what was in it.

"A love potion. After taking one sip, a woman falls madly in love with the first man she sees. I guess that means this is my lucky night."

Carly thought it was just the reverse, that it was her lucky night. She could scarcely believe she was sitting there with him— or that he seemed to have eyes only for her.

"It's very good," she said after tasting the drink again.

He flashed another of those lazy grins that she had admired earlier. It was far more potent at close range. "Go easy, darlin'. A slammer is almost straight booze, cut with a little citrus juice. You used to the hard stuff?"

She was no teetotaler. "I'm as used to it as the next person, I guess."

"Good. My aim is to loosen you up, not knock you on your butt."

She eyed him over the rim of the glass. "Trying to ply me with liquor?"

"Damn straight."

She laughed and took another sip of the drink. Hank tried to decide what it was about her that he found so appealing. He'd met a lot of gorgeous women in bars and never wanted any of them the way he wanted her. Maybe it was her sweet face. She had an innocent look in her eyes that he hadn't encountered in a good long while. What an illusion. No woman her age was still innocent, and if, by some weird chance, she were, she sure as hell wouldn't be hanging out in a place like Chaps.

Even so, there was a lack of artifice about her that he found attractive. As near as he could tell, she wore no cosmetics. Her hair fell to her shoulders in a rippling curtain of curls that made him yearn to run his hands through it.

Later. When she had a little more liquor under her belt, he'd herd her back onto the dance floor. Nothing like a cozy two-step to warm a lady up.

The seductive images that drifted through Hank's mind had him reaching for his drink. He took a hefty swallow. When he moved to put the glass back on the table, he lost his grip and almost dropped it. It occurred to him in that moment that he might be a little drunker than he thought.

"Are you okay?"

Hank dried his hand on his jeans. "Fine as a frog's hair. Just a little tipsy. But, hey, that's why we're here. Right? To have a good time."

"Right." She lifted her drink in a mock toast. "To having a good time." She took a dainty swallow. "Yum. The more I drink, the better this tastes."

Hank sat back to study her. It wasn't often he hit on a woman and actually meant it when he said she was beautiful. Usually his motto was, Whatever Works. Aside from telling a woman he loved her, he'd say almost anything to score. The gals who frequented places like Chaps normally came for the same reasons men did and understood the unspoken rules. They pretended that the tired old lines were fresh and clever— and possibly even true. It was fun, meaningless, and in the morning, no one looked back.

Hank liked it that way. He wasn't ready to get locked down. If he had been, he sure as hell wouldn't shop for a wife in a bar where all the prospects had been ridden hard and put away wet by countless other men.

"Have I told you how absolutely gorgeous you are?"

She dimpled a cheek at him. "Nope. Gorgeous is a word I'd remember."

"Forgive the oversight. You're gorgeous. I can't believe I'm the lucky fellow who spotted you first. Their loss, my gain."

She rolled the glass between her hands, then caught a drop of condensation with a fingertip. When she glanced back up, her eyes had a dreamy, unfocused look. "You're right. This slammer is strong."

Hank was feeling no pain himself. "Don't drink too much." He wanted to loosen her up, not make her sick. "It packs a punch."

As he lifted his tumbler, he wondered if he shouldn't heed his own advice. Somehow, though, the glass reached his lips. What the hell. Alcohol had never affected his performance in bed. No sense in wasting perfectly good booze.

After a few more minutes of meaningless conversation— the usual prelude to sex, with both parties pretending they'd just stumbled upon the find of a lifetime— the band started a new number. It was a slow song. Hank drew Charlie up from her chair. She lost her balance and staggered into him. Clamping his hands over her shoulders, he somehow managed to catch her from falling even though he was none too steady on his feet himself. They both laughed, acknowledging without words that they'd had too much.

Curling an arm around her waist, he led her to the dance floor. When he drew her close, she melted sweetly against him. He imagined holding her like this in a horizontal position. Skin to skin, her slender limbs intertwined with his. He ran his hands lightly over her back. Then he dipped his head to nuzzle her curls and nibble below her ear. She moaned softly and made fists on his shirt, clearly as aroused as he was. Oh, yeah.

He glanced toward the front door and began dancing in that direction. Sweet, beautiful Charlie. She gave a startled squeak when they reached the exit and Hank pushed the door open. As he swirled her outside, a cool rush of May evening air enhanced the feeling of heat building between their bodies.

"My friend Bess," she murmured halfheartedly. "I can't—"

Hank cut her off with a deep, searing kiss. Sweet Lord. She tasted even better than he had imagined, her mouth soft and vulnerable. She met the searching thrust of his tongue with a hesitant flick of her own. Then she retreated.

Hank thought he saw uncertainty reflected in her big blue eyes. "Are you okay with this?" he asked in a voice gone husky with desire. "If it's a problem, just say so."

"No, no. I'm just—" She broke off and smiled. "I'm fine with it."

That was all Hank needed to hear. He grasped her wrists and drew up her arms to hug his neck. With a throaty sigh that inflamed his senses, she stepped onto his boots to lessen the difference in their heights and pressed her softness against him.

Hank's head swam. Holy shit. For a split second, he likened the feeling to touching a hot electrical wire. Then his brain blanked out, and he was riding on a current of pure need. He turned— smoothly, he thought, considering how drunk he was— to sandwich her slender body between his and the cement wall of the building. He ran his hands up from her waist to cup her breasts. Through the layers of her clothing, he felt her nipples harden to the passes of his thumbs. She jerked when he rolled the tips between his fingers.

Dimly, Hank registered her reaction, only he couldn't put his finger on what was bothering him. She felt so good. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this turned on. His body was afire with needs he couldn't satisfy in a public parking lot, that was for damned sure.

Continuing to kiss her, he hooked an arm about her waist and hurried her across the asphalt to his new Ford pickup. When he opened the front passenger door, he came up for air long enough to say, "There's a motel two blocks away. Will you come with me?"

She cast a worried glance at the nightclub. "If Bess can't find me, she'll get worried."

Hank almost argued the point, but before he could articulate the thought, he was kissing her again, and he promptly forgot what he meant to say. He settled for opening the rear passenger door. The full-sized back seat wasn't the most romantic place to make love, but if she wouldn't go to the motel, he had no other choice. He grasped her at the waist and lifted her inside, then quickly joined her. He was kissing her again before he got the doors closed.

All his visions of holding her nude body against him went out the window. Some levels of intimacy couldn't be attained in a parking lot. Hank settled for touching her through her clothing. She sobbed into his mouth, heightening his own arousal. When they were both so hot and hungry that he could hold off no longer, he unsnapped her jeans and lowered the zipper. Her skin felt like sun-warmed velvet.

"Wh-what are you doing?" she asked in a tremulous voice.

Hank thought she was worried about protection. "Hold tight."

He angled his body over the front seat, fumbling for the glove box where he kept a carton of prophylactics. When he finally got the compartment opened and found the damned box, his fingers caught on the uplifted lid, and the entire container fell to the front floorboard. Hank cursed under his breath. He almost climbed over the seat to retrieve a foil packet. Only somehow, between thinking and doing, he found himself kissing Charlie again.

He felt like a randy teenager— long on urgent need and short on control. He'd never engaged in unsafe sex. At the back of his mind, alarm bells clanged even as he ran a hand inside her jeans to touch her moist, hot center. Then he thought, "What can it hurt?" Women who hung out in bars usually took the Pill. Barring an unwanted pregnancy, wherein lay the risk? She was too damned sweet to be carrying an STD, and he knew damned well that he wasn't.

She whimpered and jerked when he touched her clitoris. Honeyed wetness spilled over his fingertips. He thrust a finger inside her, and she cried out in pleasure. He pulled her jeans and panties down to her ankles, unfastened his pants, and positioned himself between her thighs. Holding himself with one hand and stabbing to find his target, he clamped her to his chest with one arm angled up her back so he could kiss the sensitive place just below her ear.


"What, darlin'?" His body was knotted with arousal. He pressed his hardness against her, found the wet, welcoming center of her, and promptly lost it, semen pumping in uncontrolled spurts before he even gained entry. "Oh, damn. I'm sorry," he whispered raggedly when she made a soft sound of distress. "It's okay. It's all right. Just give me a second."

Hank grabbed for breath. No problem. Even sloppy drunk, he was always good for two rounds. He could still make it worth her time. He centered himself over her again. With one hard thrust of his hips, he plunged into her.

And she screamed.

Hank felt the fragile barrier of tissue tear. He froze, his breath coming in harsh, rasping pants. He cursed raggedly, the echo of his own words bouncing against his eardrums like a Ping-Pong ball. Lights went off inside his head like camera flashes. He blinked, trying to see her face in the dim light that filtered faintly through the window from the nightclub sign.

A virgin? That was his last thought. Between one breath and the next, he passed out.

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