Besides, D.J. was Dax’s brother. Her ex’s brother. There was no place for accelerated pulses here.
D.J. stopped a proper distance away, but it was close enough for her to see how brown his eyes still were, how his cheeks still got those ruddy stains in cold weather, how his hair still refused to keep to its combed style.
Yet there was something different about him now—a lot different. He’d grown up, his face leaner, more angled—sloped cheekbones, a firm chin with a slight dimple.
Allaire’s heart tilted, as if reconsidering him.
“I thought that was you,” he said, voice much lower, manlier, than the D.J. she remembered. Had he sounded like this when they’d fleetingly greeted each other at the funeral?
His tone sent a spark through her, but she doused it. What was going on? Once again… brother of her ex? Hello?
“You’re back in town.” Allaire immediately congratulated herself on announcing the obvious. Everyone knew that Grant Clifton and Riley Douglas had asked D.J. to open one of his celebrated barbecue restaurants up at Thunder Canyon Resort. She just hadn’t realized he would be here at the high school, not when there was so much to be done.
“I thought it might be time for a longer homecoming than the last visit,” he said.
They held gazes and, just when the contact seemed to go on a moment too long, Allaire glanced away, holding her papers tighter against her chest. There’d been something in his eyes, something that she couldn’t understand. An intensity.
Had that always been there, too?
As if to erase the tension, D.J. offered his hand in greeting. Something an acquaintance might do. Something far less intimate than what she thought she’d seen in his gaze.
She reached out to clasp his hand, wondering exactly why it was they couldn’t hug hello this time. But she knew. Life hadn’t only put a lot of miles and years between them—it’d taken something away, too. Something they used to share with such ease.
His hand was large, roughened by work, though she knew his job couldn’t entail all that much hard labor.
Nope, he’d made a small fortune by opening a slew of D.J.’s Rib Shacks across the U.S., meaning he probably spent more time behind a desk crunching numbers than anything.
A wealthy businessman. Her D.J.—the studious kid who’d been too bashful to ask anyone to the prom. At the reminder of how much things had changed, Allaire shifted, suddenly more uncomfortable than ever.
Still, as warmth from his hand suffused her skin, her stomach heated, melting to places she’d denied herself the pleasure of using for quite some time now.
Confused at her reaction, she decided to deal with things the easy way: to be the twenty-seven-year-old paragon of wonderfulness everyone expected. The bright, optimistic, open girl who’d pretty much deserted her, although Allaire still tried to make the world think she was that same person.
“Dalton James Traub,” she said, embarking on easy conversation. “What brings you to our esteemed Thunder Canyon High?”
One of D.J.’s eyebrows quirked, as if noting her sudden personality split. “Straight to business it is, then.”
“Sorry. It’s only that I never expected… I thought you might be busy up at the resort overseeing construction and design of the restaurant.”
“After you heard the news that I was coming back, you must’ve known you’d see me.”
“Actually,” she said, “I wasn’t sure I’d ever really see you again.”
Guilt seemed to swipe across his features. His jaws bunched, a muscle ticking in one of them.
The blare of brass instruments saved him from having to answer as the band pivoted in their direction. D.J. nodded his head toward the football field, clearly asking her to walk with him there. He even relieved her of her workload, easily taking her bound pile of papers as if he were holding her schoolbooks at his side.
Out of old, old habit, she fell into step with him. He’d obviously not forgotten how he needed to shorten his stride to match hers, seeing as she only came up to his shoulder.
They walked down a hill, and the band’s show tune softened into the background. Allaire thought that this might be the perfect opportunity for D.J. to answer her blunt comment about never seeing him again, but he didn’t. No, he had always been the best listener and the best philosophical conversationalist, yet Allaire knew all too well he had always kept a part of himself sheltered.
As he was doing now.
“I thought I might come out here to ask you a favor,” he said, peering into the near distance to scan the new football stadium that’d been constructed over the summer. “Well, not a favor so much as to lay out a proposition.”
Proposition. The word sent naughty jabs down her body, especially since D.J. was the last one she should be making mental innuendos about.
The sensations stopped in her belly, tingling, but she folded her arms and tried to press the awareness into obscurity.
“A proposition, huh?” she said, glancing at him sidelong as they continued their stroll. She wanted to ask him why he hadn’t offered any propositions over the years, why he’d kept to himself all that time.
But she knew D.J. well enough to realize he would get around to it—if he intended to address the subject at all. No use scaring him off with accusations and hard questions right now. She liked the idea of having him around again too much to blow it.
He was grinning, coming off as much more confident than ever. And why not? He was rich now, even though his modest coat, jeans and boots hardly made him out to be a wealthy man.
“Here’s my thought,” D.J. said. “I’ve seen the sets you’ve done for the dinner theater…what are they calling that burlesque show that’s split the town down the middle opinion-wise?”
“Thunder Canyon Cowboys.”
Allaire felt herself flush while referring to the gauche tourist-pleasing production that had premiered after the gold rush. A spread of riches, Thunder Canyon now attracted out-of-towners like flies to a banquet: jet-setters who descended on the resort, as well as curiosity seekers who wanted to check out the town’s Old West appeal. The resort itself had been operational for almost a year, yet that didn’t mean the locals had accepted the evolving status quo. Thunder Canyon Cowboys was just one of many flashpoints dividing the populace: those who embraced the new prosperity and those who didn’t.
“You’ve seen the show?” Allaire asked, cringing at the notion of D.J. sitting through its corniness.
“I…took a peek.” His smile told her he hadn’t lasted long. “And I found out you’d done the artwork, which was definitely the best thing about it. Really impressive, Allaire. Not that I’m surprised.”
Now she was feeling prideful. And why not? She’d labored hard on those set pieces, although she couldn’t say she’d put her entire heart into them. Lately, she’d found it impossible to commit that much to a project. It’d been far easier when she was young and full of dreams.
“So that brings me to my proposition,” D.J. added. “I was hoping you might consider painting a mural inside the Rib Shack.”
She stopped walking, stunned, and it wasn’t because of his request. It was more that he was reaching out to her, even after her disastrous marriage to his brother. Shouldn’t he keep avoiding her, especially because of her failure to make Dax happy?
“Of course,” he continued, “you’d be well compensated. I also understand you