The stool on his right moved, scraping back a few inches, and then scraping forward as the very pretty, very appealing Paige Joffe took a seat next to him.
“Mind if I sit here?” she asked.
Dillon was too old to harbor crushes, but he had a soft spot for Paige, owner of Main Street Diner, a woman that was tragically out of bounds due to her close friendship with his sister-in-law McKenna. “Not at all.”
“I promise not to bother you.”
His jaw eased. He smiled faintly. “You could never bother me.”
“You say the nicest things.”
“Not really. You’re just easy to be around.”
“Because I’m not chasing you?”
He liked how the light played the lines of her face, highlighting her cheekbones and the smooth angle of her jaw. “I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to. I’ve lived here three years now and I hear the chatter. You’re extremely popular with the ladies.”
“That’s only because I still have a full head of hair and a very small beer belly.”
Her laugh was pitched low and sweet. “Of course, that’s the only reason.” Her lips curved up, and her blue eyes smiled at him before her gaze dropped to sweep over his torso. She took her time studying him, too. “And from what I can see, I don’t think there is any beer belly happening there. If anything, you probably have a decent six-pack.”
“You can tell through a thick thermal?”
Her gaze lifted, meeting his. “Wasn’t born yesterday, and I was married to a man like you. Fit. Smart. Athletic. So don’t make me heap on the compliments. It’d be uncomfortable for both of us.”
“It might be uncomfortable for you, but I’d like it.” He shifted on the bar stool, facing her. She wasn’t that big, barely reaching his shoulder even sitting on the bar stool. “Maybe that’s because I like you.”
Paige pushed a silky gold strand of hair behind her ear. “How much have you been drinking?”
“I’ve had a few.”
“But not enough to lose control. I know what I’m saying. I know what I like.”
“You’re impossible not to like. You’re smart, kind, funny, and ridiculously pretty.”
“Should I continue? I will—“
“No. Just kidding.” She was blushing and fidgeting. “Now I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. Just thought I’d tell you what I was thinking.” He hesitated, then shrugged. “But no, I’m not drunk. And I’m not hitting on you.”
“Good. Because I’m too old for you.”
Her lips pressed, her blush deepened. “I’m almost thirty-eight?”
“You are a lot younger.”
“Eight years difference. Big whoop.”
She turned, pivoting on her stool to get a better look at him. “So why aren’t you hitting on me then?” Her question dangled there between them. “What’s the problem then? Is it because I’m a mom?”
He did have rules about dating single mothers, but in her case, it wouldn’t have kept him asking her out. “You’re McKenna’s best friend.”
“You mean a lot to her.”
“I don’t date McKenna’s friends. Ever.”
She looked at him a long moment and then nodded. “You’re afraid things would end badly.”
“Why would it end badly?”
“You’ve been around this town long enough to know. I’m not what nice girls want, or need.”
“Interesting. But you’re wrong. One, I’m not that nice. And two, I’m not a girl. I have a little girl, but I haven’t been a girl in a long, long time.” Her lips twitched. “And if you don’t date nice girls, who do you date? I didn’t think there were any bad girls in Marietta.”
He smiled crookedly. “I do spend a lot of time drinking whiskey and playing pool.”
“It’s all becoming clear now.”
“So you should be able to relax with me. You’re safe.”
Her expression turned thoughtful. “Quick recap: you find me attractive—“
“Very attractive, but you won’t ask me out, or make any moves on me, because I’m way too nice, and McKenna’s best friend.”
“That pretty much sums it up.”
“And if I wasn’t nice, and McKenna’s best friend…?”
“I would have been all over you like white on rice.”
“Tell me you’re not driving tonight. You’re in no condition to get behind a steering wheel.”
“Not driving. Staying at the Graff.”
“See? That’s what I mean. You’re perfect.”
“I think Reese needs to cut you off.”
“It’s not the liquor. It’s you. I’ve thought you were pretty near perfect from the moment you arrived in Marietta.” She’d moved to Montana about the same time he’d returned to Marietta and she’d arrived looking like the California girl she was—slim, tan, fit with long blonde hair, high cheekbones, great mouth. He wasn’t surprised when he found out she was from Orange County. She radiated sunshine.
In the past year she’d cut her hair, taking it up to her shoulders, and her tan had faded, but she still exuded warmth. Light. Confidence. And confidence was so damn sexy. In his mind, she was by far the most intriguing woman in Marietta, and he’d kept the information to himself, until now, but he was leaving and even though he wasn’t the right one for her, he wanted her to know she mattered.
That she was special. Maybe even his dream girl.
She’d bonded with McKenna not long after arriving in Marietta. They both had kids in the same preschool class and they began getting Addison and TJ together for play dates outside of preschool and then the moms just liked hanging out together. They were both single, working moms and they formed their own little community, watching out for each other’s kids, helping with childcare, errands, or shopping when one was in a pinch.
He’d admired how resourceful they were, and glad they had each other, but it meant he had to keep his distance. “What are you drinking?” he asked her.
“Nothing yet. What about you?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Is it good?”
“I don’t think whiskey can be bad.”
She laughed. “Will you even remember this conversation tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. I’m buzzed, not drunk.” His gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth, and the bow shaped upper lip. Such a soft, full kissable mouth. He wondered who kissed that mouth. Wondered if she ever dated. McKenna said Paige didn’t see anyone, that she wasn’t ‘there’ yet, because she was still grieving her husband, Lewis, a man Trey and Troy had gone to school with.
“And maybe I wouldn’t have told you I thought you were sexier than hell if I was completely sober, but I won’t regret telling you tomorrow. I’ll be glad. There’s no one in Marietta I like better.” He grimaced. “Now maybe I’ll regret that tomorrow.”
She smiled and shook her head. “I won’t tell anyone.”
It was hard to stay focused when she smiled like that. She looked pretty damn irresistible. He had to remind himself why he couldn’t kiss her. Why he’d kept his distance these past few years.
He wasn’t what she wanted. Wasn’t what she needed. He deliberately avoided single moms. Not just Paige, but all single moms. Kids were a complication he couldn’t do.
Dillon lifted his whiskey. “So what are you doing here, on a Friday night? You don’t strike me as a Grey’s girl.”
“What’s a Grey’s girl?”
He nodded to the laughing young women in the back hanging around the cowboys playing pool. “That.”
Paige glanced over her shoulder to study the girls with their short short skirts, tight low-cut tops, and calf-hugging boots. “They’re young, but cute,” she said.
He shrugged. “If you like that sort of thing.”
She looked at the girls again. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Attention. A husband.”
“Ah.” Her lips pursed, expression amused. “You’re not looking to get married.”
“Nope ever….or nope, not right now?”
“Just…nope. Not on my agenda, nor anytime soon on the horizon.”
“What is on your agenda, then?”
“Getting out of Dodge.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Is that happening soon?”
“Tuesday.” He’d had his fill of the ranch, small town living, and fresh-faced wholesome Montana girls who ached for marriage and babies. He didn’t want to be too blunt in front of Paige because she was a mom, and from all appearances, a really good mom, but kids weren’t part of his plan.
He loved his nieces and nephews, but he’d inherited his father’s DNA, along with his father’s impatience and selfishness. He’d never be warm enough, or good enough, to be a father. He’d never be able to put his children first, not the way children needed to be put first. So years ago he decided he wouldn’t have kids, and he hadn’t wavered in that decision.
“Tuesday,” she repeated. “As in, four days from now?”
Her brow furrowed. “Where are you going?”
“Is it ranch related?”
“No. Trey’s got the ranch pretty well in hand. I’m going back to my company and what I do best—bioengineering.”
The brown brows lifted. “I had no idea that was your background.”
“Why should you? I’ve spent the past three years ranching, shooting pool, and drinking.” The corner of his mouth curled, even as his gut tightened. No one knew how difficult the past three years had been. While most men his age were building their futures and fortunes, he’d been living on the ranch trying to stay sane.
“You’re going to be missed.”
“I doubt that.”
“Come on. Your brothers and their families adore you. You’re TJ’s favorite uncle. He talks about you nonstop.”
He felt a twinge of remorse, then swiftly suppressed it. He couldn’t afford to be sentimental, or lose sight of his goal. Life was hard. He had to be stronger, allowing no room . for indecision or weakness. “So what’s that?” he asked, as Reese approached and slid an envelope across the counter to Paige.
“Extra tickets for the Bachelor Auction. We sold out at the diner and I wanted to have a few more for tomorrow, just in case someone else wants one.” She slipped the envelope into her purse. “Which reminds me, why aren’t participating in the auction? You could have brought in some serious money, and I know you’re friendly with Molly Dekker.”
“I’d agree initially, but once things firmed up with Tutro, there was no way I could fulfill the bid requirements so I had to back out.”
“You don’t intend to come back?”
“Not often. At least, not in the beginning. There is going to be too much to do the first couple of months.”
“So you won’t be here tomorrow night for the auction?”
“I will. I’ve promised Reese I’ll pitch in behind the bar. I think he’s got me pouring drinks tomorrow night upstairs.”
“That’s good. That’ll make the girls happy. Quite a few of them bought tickets just to see you.”
“You’re making that up.
“No. I heard them myself, talking at the diner.”
“Maybe you heard wrong.”
“I’m pretty sure I heard right. Dillon Sheenan. Six foot four, black hair, green eyes—“
“Not green. Brown.”
She leaned forward, stared intently into his eyes. “Not brown. But not green, either. More…gold.”
She smiled and a dimple flashed. “Not a fan of amber, either? How about whiskey? You do like whiskey. Is that better?”
“As long as you don’t let my brothers hear you.” He couldn’t help smiling as his gaze skimmed her face, taking in that soft mouth, the pink flush in her cheeks, the bright blue eyes. She really was everything he shouldn’t want.
Sister-in-law’s best friend.
But Paige was also the one woman who’d somehow managed to get under his skin. Good thing he was leaving town Tuesday. When she smiled at him like that, eyes crinkling at the corners, lips curving, he couldn’t focus on anything but her.
End of Excerpt