When her eyes darkened, D.J. wanted to smack himself. He hadn’t meant to insinuate that she was entirely out of Dax’s mind. How could anyone forget her?
Yet he couldn’t say that out loud, not without giving himself away and risking another sure rejection.
“What I meant,” he said, “is that he’s probably trying to get on with life.”
She laughed shortly. “You don’t have to sugarcoat it, D.J. He’s moved on after four years, all right. And…well, so have I. I never would’ve agreed to a divorce if I’d still loved him like a wife should.”
Again, a terrible part of him—a part he wanted to disown—lightened at the news that she didn’t feel for Dax anymore.
If that was even true.
But something about the ingenuous way Allaire watched D.J. told him that she really didn’t have any emotion left for his brother.
God, he needed to stop thinking about how she still might be drawn to Dax.
He shoved his free hand into his coat pocket. All he wanted to do was go to her, touch her. Damn it, he really hadn’t gotten over her at all, had he? And here she was, more ignorant than ever as to how he felt.
Was he really putting himself through this again? Had he returned to Thunder Canyon to be that same old “nice guy” who’d never stepped up to take what he wanted?
Of course not. He was a respected businessman, a success story. This lovesick adolescent boy stuff was going to disappear any second now.
In the silence, Allaire offered him a tiny smile—a hint of devilishness on the face of an angel—and D.J. went liquid.
“The thing is,” she said softly, “I really missed you. Missed our old talks. Missed how we could sit around and never even have to talk. I’ve missed having you in my life.”
He tried to barricade himself against her, but it was useless. Still, he found himself assuming the old D.J.’s way of fooling her, of being that steady, loyal, nonthreatening best friend who just stood back while everyone else went after their heart’s desire. The kid who knew all too well how it felt to be left behind.
“I missed you, too, Allaire.”
Had he ever.
“So,” she said, her smile widening, even though it was still tentative, “since I can’t be hanging around your restaurant for hours and hours, would you want to drop by after Open-School Night tomorrow so we can catch up?”
In public, he thought. A safe meeting.
She added, “I’d really like to spend more time chatting tonight, but I’ve got to do some touchups on the Thunder Canyon Cowboys set before the performance and then hole up with work. How about it?”
“I’ll be there,” he said, once more finding that he was helpless to deny her what she wanted.
The best friend. The nice guy.
They went on to small talk about her parents and how they were doing, about her teaching and how she liked it, about changes the gold rush had brought to Thunder Canyon. Then, after reminding him that she had to get to the dinner theater before tonight’s seating, Allaire told him the best time to meet her tomorrow, and D.J. walked her to her Jeep.
In the meantime, he ripped into himself for falling back into the same waiting-in-the-wings buddy he’d tried to leave behind. Nothing had changed between him and Allaire, and nothing ever would.
Yet when he got into his pickup and chanced a look in the rearview mirror, his heart flared.
Allaire was still standing outside her Jeep, an expression on her face that he’d never seen before.
An expression he couldn’t even begin to decipher.
A flicker of hope remained, lighting him up as she got into her car and drove off.
“It was just…off,” Allaire said while touching up a painted stream on a background piece for Thunder Canyon Cowboys.
Tori had gotten restless while evaluating her essays at her apartment and had joined Allaire at the empty dinner theater.
“What do you mean by off?” she asked, a soy-cheese-and-tomato sandwich muffling her words as she sat at a table near the stage. Both she and Allaire had been experimenting with vegetarianism the past couple of months, ever since they’d met while prepping their classrooms during the summer. Little by little, the outgoing “new teacher” had encouraged Allaire to come out of the shell she’d built around herself after the divorce.
“I mean seeing D.J. again was a very different experience.” Allaire stepped away from the backdrop to survey her work, brush poised in her hand. “He didn’t seem like…you know…the old D.J. so much anymore. But then again, he did. Does that make any sense?”
Allaire turned back around to find her friend keenly surveying her while leaning back in her faux-buffalo hide chair. Around her, the pre-performance theater stood in dim Old West spectacle, wagon-wheel chandeliers hovering, washboards, saddles and moose heads hanging on the dark plank walls. Large, round shellacked tables stood ready for the beans-and-beef dinners they’d soon be holding. In the meantime, the scent of old wood, must, campfire grub and paint all combined to create an evocative mélange.
Tori was shaking her head. “Allaire, Allaire…”
Her friend raised her hands, sandwich and all. “Are you serious? You really didn’t get the dynamics of what was going on this afternoon? Yeesh. I took off and left you two alone when I felt the first couple of vibrations shake the air. So obvious.”
Allaire realized that this was a pivotal moment: she could either open her ears to what Tori was about to say—something she already knew herself but didn’t necessarily want to acknowledge—or she could turn right back around and keep painting herself into the same corner she’d been in for the past ten years or so. A corner filled with frustrated ambitions and torched dreams.
She lifted her eyebrows, inviting Tori to go on.
“You aren’t kids anymore,” her friend said. “And the two of you realize it, but it seems too weird or…something. You don’t fulfill the same niches in each other’s lives, but it’s too discomfiting for you to adjust your lenses.”
Oh, but Allaire had done just that when she’d first seen D.J. in the parking lot. She’d noticed his broader shoulders, a face that had gained more of what a person might call “character.” She’d never understood what that meant, but seeing D.J. today defined it. His eyes spoke of years spent away from his hometown, his skin grown rougher—a man’s shadow-stubbled complexion in lieu of a boy’s baby-smooth one.
At the thought, her stomach flip-flopped, and she barred an arm over it. What would everyone think if they knew D.J. had caught her eye?
“One Traub boy wasn’t enough?”
And she could just hear what Arianna, her older sister, would say. “Why even bother getting involved at all? Love rots.”
However, the worst part would be in having to face her parents. Sure, her mom and dad could handle the small-town gossip with their normal good grace, but Allaire would know what they were thinking all the same. They would silently wonder where their perfect little girl had gone wrong, why she wasn’t as successful in love as she’d been in algebra or literature