“Smell the cupid?”
“Or…whatever. Don’t change the subject. It’s not such a bad thing to be interested in someone, you know. Getting divorced didn’t put a scarlet letter on your chest.”
“They didn’t put any kind of mark on me that I didn’t earn.”
“What are you, perfect? You’d be the only one.”
The other woman set her sandwich on her brown-bag wrapping. “You can’t give them the power to dictate your life.”
“I…don’t.” But, oh, she sure did. She’d been born and raised in this town, watched over by the community and held to their expectations. She hadn’t minded, either, because she’d intended to surpass every marker they’d laid out for her, every goal.
Allaire wandered over to rest her paintbrush, then hopped off the stage and joined Tori at the table.
“D.J. was my best friend.” She reached for her quilted hobo bag and riffled through it for a padded photo case. When she opened it, she smiled at D.J. and Dax’s senior pictures. Both were in spiffy suits, Dax looking suave in a smooth matinee-idol way, D.J. looking like he’d rather be yanking off his tie and ducking out of the frame.
“Wow. This is your ex?” Tori said, pointing to Dax.
No surprise—she’d fixated on the elder brother first. Next to Dax, D.J. had always disappeared into the woodwork.
So what had changed about him? Was it maturity that had given him more of an edge, an alluring quality?
“That’s Dax, all right,” Allaire said. “He owns the motorcycle shop near the Clip ’n’ Curl. He used to race professionally. Doesn’t he look the part?”
“Allaire, you have good taste.”
Allaire shrugged, but her friend had already moved on to inspect D.J.’s photo.
“Aw,” she said. “The boy next door.”
At that, Allaire’s heart sank a little. She and D.J. had lost so much, and she wished she knew how to get it back. You didn’t find friends like him growing on trees.
But what if they could piece their relationship back together? Hadn’t today been a start?
Couldn’t it be the same, even with everything that’d happened after high school?
“Seems to me,” Tori said, “that you outgrew Dax and found D.J. today.”
A sense of panic—or maybe it was the shock of truth—zapped Allaire. “Wrong. Even if your appraisal held any grain of truth, I’d never date the brother of an ex-husband. It’d be awkward, to say the least.”
“Are you still in love with Dax or something? Because that’s not what you’ve been telling me every time I want to go to The Hitching Post on a Friday night.”
Allaire was already shaking her head. “I don’t love him anymore—not in that way. There’s still a…fondness, I suppose. We don’t hate each other. There aren’t even hard feelings. Our marriage was like one of those songs that doesn’t have a real ending, if that makes sense. It kind of repeated over and over until it faded to nothing.”
Tori was cocking her head, fully invested, urging Allaire to go on.
“Dax and I started dating in high school, and our feelings really were genuine. You know how it is when you’re younger. At that point, real life hasn’t intruded much. There aren’t any big compromises to be made yet. And we didn’t live with each other before the wedding, though we did get married shortly after high school. I gave up all the plans I’d made, like going to a state college and studying art in Europe. Those things didn’t matter at the time. I loved Dax and that was top priority.”
“And you got resentful eventually.”
Allaire wasn’t so sure it was resentment as much as regret. “Sometimes young love doesn’t mature very well, and that was what happened with us. When I was a girl, I was this…I guess you could say ‘fragile dreamer.’ And when it turned out that I had a buried independent streak—something I hadn’t been very aware of—Dax balked. Not that I blame him. He’d been expecting a wife who would devote her time to being with him on the racing circuit, and that lost its shine for me pretty quickly.”
“Understandable. So while Dax raced, did you start pursuing those old ambitions? Did you go over to Europe for some studying?”
“I wish.” She’d still been Dax’s wife, keeping the home fires burning. “But I did pursue an art education on a different scale. I decided that by going back to school and getting a teaching credential, I could still live a few dreams through my students. I mean, teaching—what a job, right? I’d get to share my love of art while creating some of it on my own, too. But Dax didn’t see it that way because he wanted me to cheer him on in every race. One night when he was off-circuit, he said I’d become a stranger, because I hadn’t minded being his pep club before. I took exception to that and asked him if he seriously thought I was just going to remain the same compliant dreamer I had been in school.”
Even now, that particular epiphany surprised her. It’d taken years for her to develop, yet so many things had stayed the same. She was still too worried about what others thought, and though she was much more sensible nowadays, she would always have a heart prone to dreaming.
That’s why she spent so much time doing freelance work besides her teaching, balancing the fantasy with the reality as she avoided having to face hard questions about life.
“Darlin’—” Tori leaned over the table to place a hand on Allaire’s arm “—you still might have a lot of sweet and fragile in you, but there’s the heart of a lion beneath it all.”
Allaire smiled, wondering if that were true, especially as she rested her gaze on the stage-bound set pieces.
She didn’t see much heart in her work at all.
The next night, D.J. made sure he wrapped up his meetings with the Rib Shack contractors on time and was out the door before the clock struck eight. Allaire had told him that she’d almost be done greeting her students and parents by that hour.
And D.J. wanted her all to himself.
As he parked his pickup in the lot, he told himself not to get excited. First of all, other teachers would still be around as de facto chaperones. Second of all, he shouldn’t expect her to suddenly realize she’d made a mistake in marrying Dax and run to him instead. He knew his old friend better than that. Both of them realized Dax would be standing between them, no matter how hard D.J. might hope that she really saw him—the man who’d been waiting for her to notice—and not his brother.
He walked into the school’s side entrance, moving past a rainbowed sign that said Open-School Night! Allaire had told him that she was based in Mr. Richard’s old classroom, so D.J. headed straight there. Funny how he still recalled these locker-lined halls, even with the changes—a new wing of classrooms, a revamped office area. Even the same stale school air lingered.
When he found Allaire leaning against a wall and chatting with another teacher, he almost tripped over his own boots. His pulse threaded in and out of itself in a demented race.
Her pale hair was up in that spiky bun again, and she was dressed in a beige suit with black piping that reminded him of a Victorian woman. Even her shoes were those black ankle boots that buttoned up the side.
She was his every fantasy, right here, in the flesh, and D.J. didn’t know if he had it in him to ever claim her.
But, again, he hadn’t come back to Thunder Canyon for Allaire. When he’d left, he’d promised himself that he would return only when he truly became a man worthy of winning her, and he wasn’t sure when he’d get to that point. Or if he ever would. Besides, it wasn’t in