MADE IN TEXAS, page 1
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Adelaide Larson knew she was likely to regret stepping through the doorway of Billy's, a bar with the largest dance floor north of Austin and affectionately known as the "meet market" of central Texas. Next door were two motels, and a diner open till three in the morning, so Billy's was nothing if not convenient for an evening out on the town.
"You know," Addie said to her friend, "I'm not the luckiest person in the world. I could jinx you for the whole night."
"Quit fussing," Kate said, giving her a nudge to walk faster. "And smile, will you? You look like you're going to an execution."
"I'm not ready for this." "This" was a Valentine's party, with no cover charge for the ladies and red roses to be given out at midnight. The amount of red and pink crepe paper streamers hanging from the ceiling was almost obscene, along with the clusters of red and white balloons that filled the corners of the enormous room. Bars lined opposite sides of the building, and a country-western band blasted an old Garth Brooks tune from a stage across the room. The place was filled with people. And smoke. And dancing, drinking, flirting couples.
Addie thought it was like visiting a foreign country.
"You'll feel better once you have a drink," her friend assured her, but Addie wasn't so sure. This kind of thing was easy for Kate, who was different from anyone else Addie knew. Kate had been divorced for almost four years, and thrived on the single life, which is why Addie had decided that her return to the dating world would be chaperoned by an expert.
"I haven't danced since my wedding reception, you know." Which seemed like a century ago, when she was young and pretty and full of dreams. And Jack—no, best not to think about him right now. "I don't think I remember—"
"It's too late to back out now. Your mother's watching the kids and you're free for as long as you want to be. We're going to meet some men and have a good time." She took Addie's arm and hauled her toward the closest bar. "First, a drink. You don't have to dance if you don't want to. We'll see if there's anyone here we know Give it an hour and if you're really miserable, we'll leave, I promise."
"All right." But she wouldn't leave, Addie thought. Not right away Part of her wanted to be back home, tucking in her children and watching the latest episode of The Bachelor on television, but she was so tired of being alone at night in that sad, little bedroom at the top of the stairs. Getting drunk in a bar on Valentine's Day wasn't exactly the best alternative, but one rum and Coke and a little adult company wouldn't kill her. "I'll do my best."
"Good. Smile. Look like you're having a good time."
"What?" They were closer to the band now and Addie couldn't hear. Kate led her through the crowd clustered around the bar and managed to catch the bartender's eye.
"A beer and—"
"Rum and Coke," Addie shouted. Kate grinned, and three men turned their heads to stare. Men always stared at Kate. She was tall and slender, with long, black hair that waved past her shoulders and halfway to her waist. When she turned her blue eyes on men of any age, they did everything but drop to their knees and kiss her snakeskin boots. Addie, on the other hand, was not the least bit statuesque, with nothing about her to make men stop and stare with their mouths hanging open. The only guys who lit up when she walked through the door were five years old and dependent on her for food.
Which is why she'd let Kate fix her makeup and redo her chin-length hair into something spiky and, as Kate said, "totally hot." Which meant her light brown hair now had gold highlights and gelled tips. She'd borrowed one of Kate's ice-white Lycra T-shirts, with a modest rounded neck, but refused to wiggle into a pair of jeans that hung below her belly button. As she'd told Kate, a woman who'd once given birth to twins had no business strutting around with her stomach exposed.
"You look good," Kate said into her ear after she handed Addie her drink. "But you're still wincing, like you'd rather be helping out at the kindergarten than dancing the two-step with some good-looking guy."
"Pretend." Kate laughed, prompting several jean-clad men to step closer and start a conversation. Addie sipped from the plastic cup and tried to remember what it was like when she was young, single and sure that life was going to turn out exactly the way she wanted it to. But that was a long time ago, and she was tired of thinking about it and, inevitably, feeling sorry for herself.
Which was not at all attractive.
And even boring.
She looked up from her drink to see a pleasant-looking young man holding out his hand to her. "Uh—"
"Go." Kate plucked the cup from her hand and set it on the bar. "Have fun."
"Well—" She hesitated, but no one seemed to notice. She was lonely. So lonely that the pain of it threatened to eat her from the inside out. She wondered if anyone could see it, that loneliness seeping out of her skin and turning her gray and cold. She wondered if there was anyone else in this giant room who understood what it was like to live with that unending feeling of loss.
"Cool." The kid—she couldn't help wondering if he was old enough to drink—took her hand and hauled her out to the dance floor. Addie attempted a smile and told herself it was time she got on with her life.
At Billy's and everywhere else.
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Cal had been damn glad to get to town, even though he'd gotten in later than he'd planned. He needed a few cold beers to wash the dust down tonight. It had been one hell of a week, but he was free now, and tomorrow was Sunday, meaning an easy day with few chores and an afternoon to do whatever he damn well pleased. It wasn't until he noticed the number of cars packed into the parking lot, and beyond, in a nearby field, that he remembered it was Valentine's Day.
Which, if he remembered correctly, was an easy day to get laid if you were a young guy with any kind of brains. But he wasn't young and he wasn't feeling particularly intelligent, either. Not that he wouldn't react if a pretty, young thing winked at him, but those days were pretty much long gone. He'd gotten used to things the way they were, meaning he was fast dosing in on forty and he sure as hell was no prize. The women had stopped flirting years ago, and so had he.
But Cal was thirsty. And Billy's always had pretty good music and a crowd worth watching. A man could lean on the bar and get an eyeful of good-looking ladles in skimpy tops and tight jeans while he drank a beer or two and remembered what it was like to be young and crazy.
He wasn't disappointed either, once he'd handed over the cover charge and made his way through those pink streamers hanging from the ceiling. He kicked a few balloons out of his way as he walked to the closest corner of the bar. The noise was almost deafening and the place was packed wall-to-wall with people having a good time.
Cal ordered a beer and watched a tall, black-haired beauty hold court at a nearby table, one of the few that lined the wall farthest from the band. She chose to dance with a heavyset man who looked like he wrestled steers for a living. They disappeared onto the dance floor, leaving a blond woman at the table with a handful of guys who didn't look pleased to be left behind. Cal watched the blonde refuse to dance with any of them, which meant she was either married or ticked off about something. She looked young—not yet thirty, he guessed. Not that he could see her face very well, but he figured she must be pretty decent-looking or she'd be sitting by herself.
Cal shifted, his attention distracted by the arrival of his beer and a question from a redhead who wanted him to pass her the ashtray by his elbow. By the time he thought about the blonde again, she was long gone from that back tab
He stayed for over an hour, long enough to quench his thirst and feel human again. He'd talked to some old friends he hadn't seen for months, discussed the weather with a couple of ranchers' sons who were up to no good and laughed with one of the bartenders over the commotion a Shania Twain look-alike was causing due to her low-cut jeans and halter top. It was after midnight when Cal decided he'd had enough. Oh, a few years back he'd have asked two or three women to dance—he did a respectable two-step and a damn fine waltz—but now he'd been content to watch from the sidelines. The bar had become uncomfortably crowded and he'd grown tired of being elbowed and jostled.
"I'm so sorry." A soft voice interrupted his thoughts about leaving, especially when he looked down into a pair of blue eyes swimming in unshed tears.
"About what?" For the life of him, he couldn't understand why the woman looked upset. She was pretty—despite the weird brownish-blond hair and too much eye makeup—with flawless, pale skin, and lips that could tempt a man to forget his age. She was in her twenties, he guessed. Too young for an old cowboy, he reminded himself. But there was something familiar about her, a face he'd seen before somewhere.
Her gaze dropped to his boots, and he looked down to see them covered in liquid. "I just spilled my drink on your boots," she said. Yeah, she had. And the world was going to keep on spinning. "I didn't mean to, of course, but somebody hit my arm."
"Is that why you're crying?"
Her chin lifted, a stubborn chin in a heart-shaped face. "I'm not crying."
She set her empty cup on the bar. "Your boots—"
"Have survived worse," he interjected. They were new, his Christmas present to himself, but he figured they'd clean up okay. "Can I buy you another?"
"Oh, no. Thanks." There was the briefest smile before she looked sad again. "I think I'm going to go home now." She looked toward the table where the black-haired woman he'd noticed earlier stood cozying up to a guy large enough to have played linebacker for UT. She was the blond he'd noticed before, the one refusing to dance with her friend's admirers.
"What about your friend?" He gestured toward the tall, laughing woman.
"She said she had a ride home." Again, there was that brief smile, then a flash of pain in her eyes when she glanced up at him.
"You don't come here very often, do you." He didn't ask it as a question. The woman clearly looked over her head in a bar loaded with singles trying to hook up and couples whose intentions for later on were obvious.
"This is my first time at Billy's. And probably my last," she admitted, sounding as disappointed as if she'd just flunked out of school. He wanted to chuckle, but he thought he'd hurt her feelings if he did. She looked so damn depressed about being here, and a few moments ago he'd thought she was going to start crying.
"So," he said, feeling ridiculously protective and more than a little intrigued, "your friend dragged you here to have a good time."
"Yes. But it didn't quite work out that way."
"Why not?" He set his empty beer bottle on the counter of the bar and leaned closer so he could hear her words better. "You were hoping to meet someone, right?" He took her hand in his as the band started a country rendition of "The Tennessee Waltz." There was no law that said he couldn't change his mind and ask a lady to dance.
"No," she said, looking down at his hand clasping hers.
"No, you won't dance with me? Or no, you weren't hoping to meet somebody?" He didn't wait for an answer. Instead he kept her hand in his and eased through the crowd, making room for both of them to move away from the bar and get closer to the dance floor. A lot of other couples had the same idea, because the area was filling up fast.
"Neither, I guess."
"Good answer. Where are you from?"
"Austin," she said, looking up at him. "And you?"
"Nowhere." She tilted her head as if she thought he was joking, so he smiled. "Really. You've never heard of Nowhere?"
"A man from nowhere," she murmured. "Perfect. I've always liked this song," she said, as he took her in his arms. She placed her hand on his shoulder and looked up at him. "I guess one dance won't hurt."
Looking back, Cal wasn't sure how it happened. Oh, they danced a few more slow tunes together—the band was loading up the set with love songs in honor of Valentine's Day—and they talked easily about books and movies and music when the band took a break between sets. And when the music started again, Cal held her closer and she rested her cheek against his chest. He decided he liked the feel of that warm, little body against his, and maybe she wasn't too young for him after all. It had been years since he'd met a woman he might want to know better.
And he didn't even know her name.
So when she said she had to leave, he offered to walk her to her car like any true gentleman would. He would ask for her name and phone number.
"I have pepper spray on my key chain," she told him, hesitating at the door to grab a hooded jacket from a heaping coatrack. It was raining again. "I'll be fine."
"It's still not a good idea for a lady to walk alone in parking lots after midnight," Cal said. Maybe she'd want to have dinner sometime. Or maybe he was being foolish even thinking about dating anyone.
And when she unlocked her car door and turned to thank him, he felt ten feet tall. He'd enjoyed himself, he told her.
"Thanks for being so nice about your boots. And thanks for the company." She surprised him by reaching up and kissing his cheek. He'd turned his head to say good-night at the same time, so his lips brushed hers. But it didn't stop at a mere touching of lips, because he leaned closer and kissed her again, this time with a deliberate meeting of mouths that threatened to drop them both to the dirt. Her arms reached, clung to his neck, while he held her warm body against his and kissed her with an unexpected need of his own. Their tongues met and mated. His hands swept her back and tugged her shirt from the waistband of her jeans so he could slide his hands along the warm, bare skin of her back. She didn't stop him, simply moved closer, as if being touched by him was exactly what she wanted, right now, right here.
"Get a room," someone called, followed by male and female laughter.
He was crazy, caressing a strange woman in a parking lot behind a bar. He lifted his head, but only a fraction of an inch.
"I have to go," she whispered against his mouth, but she didn't pull away. Despite the cold rain that wet their heads and ran down their faces, he kept holding her in the darkness. Her mouth was warm against his, and his bands swept low, cupping her bottom.
"Don't go," he said, pulling her tight against him. Cal knew need when he tasted it. "Not yet."
He didn't know how long they kissed out there in the darkness, but he knew it was never going to be enough. By the time he paused to catch his breath, he could feel the rain dripping past his collar, onto his neck. It was like being crazy, with no thoughts in his head except how good she felt and how sweet she tasted. "You want to stop?"
"Not yet," she said, echoing his earlier words. Her small hands were inside his shirt, and he would have tossed it to the ground if they'd been anywhere but the parking lot at Billy's. She gasped when he lifted her into his arms.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting out of the rain." He strode past the rows of cars, toward the neon Vacancy sign in the window of the Sleepy Time Motel, the newer one of the two facing the main road. "Getting some privacy."
He listened for her protest, but she wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder as if he had been carrying her to bed for years. He didn't know if she'd stay or not. He didn't know what was going to happen in the next few hours. But kissing h
So, what the hell.
He carried her right into the empty lobby, a small room with a counter and a couple of vinyl chairs. He was afraid if he let her go, she'd disappear, so he rang the bell and waited for someone to show up from the back room. Getting his wallet out of his back pocket took some doing, but within a couple of minutes, the yawning old man had given him a key and a room number.
"You've done this before," she said, looking up at him with an uncertain expression.
"A few times, for friends who were too drunk to drive home." Cal pushed the door open with his foot and stepped out into the rain once again. "Believe it or not," he said, holding her closer against him to shield her from the weather, "this is the first time with, uh, female company."
"Female company," she repeated, then smiled. "That sounds so old-fashioned."
"I'm an old-fashioned guy." He found the right door and was forced to set the woman on her feet so he could unlock it. Once the door swung open, they hurried inside to the stuffy interior. Cal shut the door behind them and didn't turn on the lights; the glow from the streetlight through the picture window was enough to outline the furniture. The bed—its wide mattress looking as big as Texas—was easily visible.
"I've never done anything like this before, either," she whispered. He took her cold hands in his and tried to warm them with his own. "Kiss me," she said. "So I don't think about changing my mind."
"I will kiss you for as long as you like." Cal brushed his mouth against hers. Her lips were cold and her cheeks were wet. "All night, even."
"I don't have all night." She pulled her hands away from his and reached for his shirt, which was still unbuttoned. Her touch threatened his self-control, but he did his best to keep from lifting her onto the bed and tumbling down on the mattress on top of her. He kissed her mouth, her jaw, her ear, while her fingers smoothed his chest and drove him to the edge of sanity. He backed up to the bed and sat down, the blue-eyed woman standing between his open knees. She shrugged off her damp jacket and tossed it aside, leaving Cal free to lift her T-shirt. She quickly pulled it over her head and dropped it to the floor.