"Good Lord, ladies. I do believe I've died and gone to cowboy heaven." Carol Tanner glanced around the decorated dance hall at the local cowboys, decked out in their Saturday night best--tight-fitting, starched blue jeans, brightly decorated shirts, hand-tooled leather belts, and boots that probably cost them a week's pay. She deliberately skipped her gaze over Jake Reilly, whose intense gaze hadn't wavered from her face since she stepped into the building. Tonight she'd forget about Jake and enjoy herself, or die trying.
But as hard as she tried to ignore him, she had to admit he did look hot tonight. Pissed, but hot.
"Now that is one fine example of prime male physique." Jean Sutherland sighed as a tall, muscular cowboy passed by.
"Just another reason to love this town," Nancy Phillips drawled, with a wink aimed at the cowboy under discussion. "So why are we just standing here? Let's go see what kind of trouble we can stir up."
Logan and Megan Tanner shook their heads and laughed as the three single women headed into the crowd on the dance floor. Logan took baby Charlie from Megan's arms and kissed his wife's cheek. "I'm glad I married you before that bunch had a chance to corrupt you with their wild ways."
Megan grinned. "Who said I wasn't corrupted? I married you, didn't I?"
"So you did." He turned to his daughter, Katie. "Listen, you can go meet up with your friends, but do not go outside after dark, do you understand? Most of these cowboys are harmless enough, but some are drifters that we know nothing about. And check in with Megan or me every hour."
Katie sighed. "I'm not a kid, Dad. See you in an hour." She hurried off, waving at a group of girls gathered around the groaning buffet tables.
Logan watched her go, wishing she was still young enough that he could keep her by his side. She'd grown into a beautiful young girl. No longer a child, but not yet a woman. "Remind me again that she's still only fourteen?"
"Fourteen going on twenty," Megan said. "It's all uphill from here."
"Logan, Megan. Good to see you stepping out for a change." Jake Reilly handed Logan a beer. "You want me to get you something to drink, Megan?"
"I'd love a root beer, Jake. Thank you."
When he came back with the icy drink, his face was stormy. "That sister of yours is asking for trouble," he told Logan.
"Why? What's Carol up to?"
"Out there on the dance floor, making eyes at those range rabbits. Don't even recognize some of those men. Asking for trouble, I'm telling you."
"She'll be okay. We'll keep an eye on her. Why don't you go ask her to dance? You're the one she wants to be with, anyway, and you know it."
Jake shook his head. "I'm going to sit this one out."
For the next hour, Jake watched from the edge of the dance floor as Carol two-stepped her way across the room with first one cowboy, and then another. Every once in a while, he caught her glancing his way--whether to see if he noticed her or hoping he'd ask her to dance, he didn't know. But he noticed, all right. How could he help it? With her skin tight jeans outlining her curves, the close-fitting sweater accentuating her breasts…
His hands clenched into fists as yet another man cut in and swung her away, out of his sight.
"You'd better go get her, Jake, before you decide to take out half the town with your fists." Logan leaned against the wall with Charlie tucked against his chest. The baby was sound asleep despite the loud music.
"What makes you think she'd dance with me? She hasn't spoken to me in two years."
"You ready to tell me why?"
"No." Jake scowled at Logan. "It's none of your business."
"Maybe, maybe not. She is my sister, so I expect anything that has to do with her happiness is my business."
Megan moved between the two men. "Will you two just stop it? Y'all are neighbors, friends. You work side by side nearly every day. You can't afford to get into a pissing contest and risk that friendship."
Jake ducked his head and nodded. "I don't want to fight with either of you over this. It's between me and Carol. If you want to know so badly, ask her."
"Believe me, I have. She's not talking either," Megan said with a sigh.
Katie passed by, dancing with a young man. Logan scowled. "What's she doing dancing with a boy? She's too young."
Megan laughed. "Would you rather she was dancing with a girl? Relax. That's Dean Neiman. He's a good kid. He brings his horse Dancer into the clinic every once in a while. If he treats Katie as well as he does that horse, you have nothing to worry about."
"Why don't I know him? I know most of the Neiman clan."
"Because he's only been here a few months, living with his grandparents, Hugo and Leona. His parents are working in Abu Dubai for a year."
"Hmmph. She's still too young for a boyfriend."
"Who said anything about a boyfriend?" Megan shook her head. "It's just a dance, Logan. Don't make a big deal out of it."
Jake smirked as he listened to them. "I can't wait until she goes on her first car date. You planning to deck her first date like you did me when I took Carol out?"
Logan shot him a warning look. "Watch it, Jake. I can still take you down."
"I'd like to see you try." Though the banter was joking, it still rankled that Logan had taken him down with one punch all those years ago.
"No one is taking anyone down tonight." Megan said. "Now, let's just enjoy the party, okay?"
Katie came back to join them. "Want me to hold Charlie for a while? Y'all haven't danced even once since we got here."
Megan smiled her thanks at Katie, then ran a hand up Logan's arm. "Ready to dance with me, cowboy?"
"Always." Logan passed the baby to Katie, then swung Megan into his arms and they moved onto the crowded floor.
Jake watched them for a minute before his gaze strayed back to Carol. She had a new partner now, one that seemed to be holding her awfully close. He wanted to cut in, to stake his claim. But he had no claim. He didn't even have the guts to tell her how he felt.
He'd tried, God knows, he'd tried. But he'd never been good at discussing feelings. He'd been raised to keep them to himself, and he couldn't recall a single time his father had expressed any feelings toward his mother. But Carol was all about feelings. She used to ask him how he felt about everything from a new calf to a summer breeze.
A calf was a calf, money on the hoof. Cute, maybe, but you couldn't let yourself get attached because sooner or later you would have to sell it or butcher it. As for a summer breeze, it kept your blood from boiling under the unforgiving West Texas sun. But those weren't the answers she'd wanted to hear.
So how did he explain the way his chest got all tight when he saw her with someone else?