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“Do you think this dress is too much?” Charlie Stockton asked her sister.
“I think you look amazing in it,” Audrey said. “Turner’s going to flip when he sees you.”
Charlie laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Are we talking about the same Turner McBride, one of my oldest friends? I’m not sure he even realizes I’m female.”
“Oh, really? Then why did he ask you to the Cancer Society fund-raiser tonight?”
Charlie pushed her hair back from her face. “Because he needed a date. He doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment and we’ve been friends for a million years.” She and Turner had been friends since middle school. Good friends. Even best friends, but never romantically involved. But lately, she’d sensed a change in Turner, in the way he treated her. He was always nice to her, but recently he’d been even nicer than usual. And she’d caught him watching her a few times with a curious expression on his face. But when she asked him about it, he’d told her she was imagining things. So she filed it away to think about later. Because tonight she knew she’d have fun. She always did with Turner.
“Why would it be too much?”
“Because it’s so not me. But I couldn’t help it, I fell in love with it the minute I saw it.” She turned from side to side, twisted her head to look at the back and then faced forward to look at herself in the full-length mirror on the door of her bedroom closet. What a gorgeous dress. The diaphanous red fabric was shirred across the strapless bodice and waist. The sparkle and glitter of rhinestones traced the neckline of the bodice. Gathered at her hips, the dress flared out in pleats that pooled on the floor.
“Who wouldn’t?” Audrey asked. “I’ve noticed Turner’s been hanging around the shop more often.”
“Turner likes pie.” The Stockton sisters owned and ran Char-Pie, the pie shop on Main Street in Last Stand, Texas.
“You and he have been more chummy than usual. Is there something you want to tell me?”
“What would I have to tell you that you don’t already know?”
Audrey raised her eyebrows. “Lots, I’m sure.”
“You’re imagining things.”
Audrey had been lounging on Charlie’s bed while watching her get ready, but now she sat up straight and pinned her sister with a narrow-eyed gaze. “Are you sure you and Turner have never been more than friends?”
“What?” She turned her back on the mirror to see if Audrey was kidding. “No, of course not. Oh, I take that back. He kissed me when we were fourteen but I had gum in my mouth and he had braces so it was a disaster. We both about died laughing.”
“Yes, but you’re not fourteen now and you’re both single,” Audrey persisted. “And you have to admit, Turner McBride is hot.”
Sure, she could admit that. Turner was tall, with blue eyes and medium-length brown hair. With his classic features and a killer smile, he was damn good-looking. Not to mention, he was a successful doctor, a neurosurgeon. She knew he helped out on the McBride family ranch from time to time, which no doubt explained his healthy tan and lean, muscled body. On top of all that, he had the McBride charm, in spades. “I’d have to be blind not to admit Turner is very appealing. He’s a sweetheart. But I don’t want to lose our friendship and if we actually got together, I’m pretty sure we would.”
“Then why are you wearing a dress meant to blow his mind?”
“Because it’s gorgeous and I wanted it.”
“That’s the only reason? No ulterior motive?”
“I wanted the dress so I got it. I wanted to look different. I was tired of always looking blah.”
“You sure as hell don’t look blah now,” Audrey said.
“It’s a change, all right. But I’m not out to seduce Turner. You know how I feel about getting involved with a man again.” When her ex-husband had walked out on her because she “couldn’t give him what he needed,” it had cured her of wanting to marry again. In fact, it had almost put her off men entirely. She’d relented on that, at least enough to date casually, but she was doing just fine on her own, thank you.
“If you say so. I’d still pay money to see Turner’s face when he gets a load of you wearing this dress.”
Charlie studied herself in the mirror again. She looked like a completely different woman from the one who wore jeans and a chef’s apron most of the time. Even when she wasn’t working at Char-Pie, she generally wore jeans or shorts and a T-shirt or sweater, depending on the weather. Occasionally she wore a dress, though nothing like this number.
“I haven’t worn a formal since I lived in California.” Which brought to mind her ex again. Why he’d left her and why she wouldn’t risk her heart again.
“You’re thinking about that bastard Lance again, aren’t you?”
“No,” she lied.
Audrey raised her eyebrows.
“Not really. It’s just that he’s so tied to California in my head.” Her sister knew exactly how devastated she’d been when her marriage failed. Everyone else, even Turner, only knew she was divorced. She never talked about the reason why. Not to anyone but her sister, anyway. “But it’s been over for two years and most of the time I don’t give him a single thought.”
“I hope not. Lance Archer is not worth a second of your time.”
Charlie planned to enjoy being with Turner and ignore the little voice that every now and then wondered if they could ever be more than friends. But they couldn’t. Not unless she was willing to risk ruining a lifelong friendship.
“Who are you and what have you done with Charlie?” Turner said when Charlie opened the door. This woman was definitely a Charlotte, not Charlie, his good buddy. Not Charlie—one of his best friends, the one he could always count on to either kick his butt or sympathize as needed.
“Very funny.” She scowled at him and let him into her house. “I’m still me, even if I’m wearing a formal dress and more makeup than I usually wear in a week.”
Turner thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head. He’d been thinking a lot about Charlie lately. But now… Wow. Just…wow. “You look amazing.” Her strapless red gown showed off a generous expanse of smooth, creamy skin, from her neck, to her shoulders, to the low-cut bodice with sparkles across the top of it. Like he needed more invitation to look at her breasts? The dress hugged curves he hadn’t known she had, flaring out in ruffles at her hips. They weren’t frilly ruffles. Instead they sort of swirled around and fanned out gradually from her hips to the floor.
Her face didn’t look like hers either. Sure, she was clearly recognizable as Charlie, but not Charlie, his old friend, who he saw often at her pie shop, wearing an apron, with her hair pulled back and flour on her face. Or at the Last Stand Saloon, wearing jeans, boots, and drinking a beer.
No, this woman was pure gorgeous temptation.
“You’re staring at me like you’ve never seen me before. Is it too much?” She waved a hand at her dress.
“Too much? Are you kidding? You look fantastic.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll get my purse and we can go.”
Charlie locked her door and turned around, stopping short before she took two steps. “Really? You brought your ’vette?”
Oops. He hadn’t thought about Charlie having a hard time getting in and out of the Corvette in a long formal gown. “Sorry. Do you want me to go get my SUV? It won’t take long.” He drove his small SUV most of the time, especially if he went out to the family ranch. If he tried to drive the ’vette on those roads, it would bottom out in a heartbeat.
“No, I’ll just fold up like a pretzel and be fine.”
Okay, that was the Charlie he was used to. He shook his head, a little unsettled by his reaction to her. Yes, he’d been thinking about her—about the two of them—a lot lately. But damn, he hadn’t expected to be totally blown away when he saw her. “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“Let’s just go.” She’d walked to the car and was standing beside it. “You’re going to have to help me in and out.”
“Let me pull the seat back all the way. That should help.” Maybe. The dress was fitted on the top but there was a lot of fabric making up the bottom. With his help, she backed up to the car, lowered herself into the seat and swung her legs inside, arranging all the layers of her dress around her. The maneuvering brought their faces close together. He not only got a whiff of her perfume—a sexy, sultry scent that had his stomach clenching—but her eyes were a brilliant green and her lips were plump, red and inviting as hell. He wanted to kiss her. The last, and only, time he’d kissed Charlie they’d been teenagers and it hadn’t gone well. They’d laughed themselves sick and gone right back to being friends. But they weren’t teenagers anymore and he suspected kissing her now would be a whole lot different.
“Is my dress inside? I don’t want you to close the door on it.”
“All good. Can you get the seat belt?”
He shut her door and went around to the driver’s side and got in. Charlie was still struggling with the seat belt so he helped her find the other end and buckle it.
She narrowed her eyes and gave him a death stare. “If you laugh, I’m going to punch you in the nose.”
She would do it, too. “Not laughing. I promise.”
“I’m glad you asked me to this fund-raiser,” Charlie said as he started the car. “I’ve been to Jameson House before but only to some of the charitable organization offices, not to an event.”
Turner’s hand tangled in her dress as he shifted. “Charlie?”
“Oh, sorry.” She gathered it closer to her. “Is that better?”
He could hardly see her over the mountains of red fabric. “Sort of.” He heard her giggle and shot her a dirty look. “So Wallace never took you to anything there?” Rick Wallace, the doctor she’d broken up with a few months ago, was well known for wining and dining his girlfriends. He was also known for being a player, which was why Turner had been glad when he heard they’d broken up. Charlie needed a nice guy to settle down with, not Last Stand’s ultimate player.
“No, he didn’t. I wanted to but it just never happened. Do you know anything about the history of Jameson House?”
“Not any more than almost anyone in Last Stand knows. The Jamesons were one of the original families who fought in the battle of Last Stand. Ruby Jameson was Jameson III’s spinster granddaughter and the only surviving member of her family. She willed the family mansion to the hospital, along with a boatload of money we used to expand it. Which is why we have such an excellent hospital.” And why he could practice a specialty like neurosurgery in a small town.
“I didn’t know all that. I mean, obviously, the Jamesons were hospital benefactors since the hospital is named after them, but I didn’t know the details about Ruby and the family mansion.”
“Ask Clara Perkins,” Turner said, speaking of the older lady nicknamed The Matchmaker. “Clara knows the entire history of the Jamesons. And most everyone else in town too.”
Fifteen minutes later, they pulled up to Jameson House. The gracious old Victorian mansion on the edge of town with its wide porch, intricate trim, and winsome turrets was a symbol of another age. Yet it was put to a modern use. A number of charitable organizations had offices there. Fund-raisers, like this one for cancer research, and other events, particularly formals, were often held there, too.
There was valet parking. The attendant opened Charlie’s door, then stood there with a bewildered expression on his face. Turner wished he had a picture of it. “Better let me help her out,” he told the poor guy.
By the time he got around there, Charlie had managed to swing her legs out, along with a lot of the dress. He held out his hands but Charlie waved them aside. “I can do it myself, but make sure my dress doesn’t drag on the street.”
“Too bad there’s not a red carpet.”
“Oh, you’re funny. Not.”
They walked into the ballroom to a sea of flowers. At least, that’s what it looked like to him. Floral centerpieces on the tables, hanging baskets and pots of various colored flowers were placed everywhere. There was even a fountain of, believe it or not, flowers. Each level of the tile and stone fountain held flowers, and flowering vines fell from one level to the next, pooling at the bottom in a riot of color.
“Oh, my God, this is beautiful,” Charlie said, sounding a little awestruck.
He turned to look at her with a smart-ass comment on the tip of his tongue but instead he said, “So are you.”
He hadn’t meant for that to slip out but she really looked gorgeous tonight.
For a moment, Charlie seemed as surprised as he’d been. Then she lifted an eyebrow. “Careful there. I might think this is a real date if you start saying things like that.”
“Hate to break it to you, Charlie, but this is a real date.”
“A date between friends isn’t a real date,” she insisted.
Maybe not. But it could be. Turner had been thinking about Charlie a lot recently. Thinking about Charlie and him. And tonight—damn, he was seeing her in a whole new light. Beautiful, desirable. A knockout. It’s that damn red dress and lipstick. And the perfume that smells like sin personified.
“You’re staring at me again. What are you thinking?”
I’ve been wondering for weeks now if we could be more than friends.
Until she’d broken up with Rick, he hadn’t really considered it. He and his last girlfriend had called it quits several months ago and while he’d had some dates, he hadn’t found anyone who truly interested him. Then Charlie had broken up with Rick, and ever since then, she’d been on his mind damn near every day. At first he’d ignored the errant thoughts. Sure, he loved Charlie. She was fun and sweet and he’d known her forever. He remembered the times they’d been together and just hung out. Eating burgers and greasy fries and talking about everything under the sun.
He and Charlie knew each other really well. They genuinely liked each other. They tolerated each other’s idiosyncrasies. They were both single. He’d never been married and Charlie was divorced. She’d never told him much about her marriage—only that her ex was a bastard and she was glad to be rid of him.
“I’m just thinking about how much I missed you when you lived in California. I’m really glad you came back.”
She looked surprised, then a bit mystified. “What brought this on? I’ve been back for two years.”
“I know.” He reached out and cupped her cheek. “But I don’t think I’ve ever told you how happy I am that you’re living in Last Stand again.”
End of Excerpt