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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
July 2012

Chapter One

Summer Nights, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

Shane Stryker was determined enough to never walk away from a fight and smart enough to know when he'd been beat. The beautiful redhead dancing on the bar might be everything he wanted, but she the worst thing he could have.

Her eyes were closed, her long, wavy hair swayed in rhythm with her body. The sensual beat of the music hit Shane square in the gut. He shook his head. Okay, it hit him lower than that, but he ignored it and the draw he felt. The need. Women who danced on bars were trouble. Exciting, tempting, but not for him.

He might never have met her, but he knew the type. Attention-seeking. Deadly—at least for a guy who had assumed marriage meant commitment and monogamy. Women like the one on the bar needed to be wanted by every man in the room. A ride he wasn't willing to take again.

Slowly, regretfully, he turned away from the woman and headed for the exit. He'd come into town for a beer and a burger. He'd thought he could catch the game, maybe hang with the guys. What he'd found instead was a barefoot goddess who made a man want to forget all his hopes and dreams in exchange for a single smile. His dreams were worth more, he reminded himself, glancing over his shoulder one last time before stepping out into the warm summer night.

#

Annabelle Weiss opened her eyes. "It's easy."

"Uh huh." Her friend Charlie Dixon, put down her beer and shook her head. "No."

Annabelle climbed off the bar and put her hands on her hips. It was her attempt to look intimidating. Kind of a feeble gesture when she considered the fact that Charlie was a good eight or ten inches taller and had muscles Annabelle didn't want to know existed.

She was about to make her case, maybe even throw in a line that it was for the children, when the mostly female crowd broke in to spontaneous applause.

"Great dance," someone called.

Annabelle spun in a circle. "Thank you," she called. "I'll be here all week." She looked back at her friend. "You have to."

"I'm pretty sure I don't and no."

Annabelle turned to Heidi Simpson. "You talk to her."

Heidi, a pretty blond who had recently gotten engaged, glanced up from studying her diamond ring. "What? Oh, sorry. I was busy."

"Thinking about Rafe," Charlie grumbled. "We know. He's wonderful, you're happy. It's getting annoying."

Heidi laughed. "Now who's cynical?"

"It's not news. I've always been cynical." Charlie grabbed her beer and led the way back to their table. The one they'd abandoned when Annabelle had offered to show them both the dance of the happy virgin.

When they were seated. Annabelle turned to Charlie. "Look, I need to raise money for my bookmobile. Being in the town festival is the best way for that to happen. It's a ride on a horse. You know how to ride. You even own a horse."

Charlie's blue eyes narrowed. "I'm not dancing on a horse."

"You don't have to. The horse dances. That's why it's called The Dance of the Horse."

"Mason is not a horse who dances."

Heidi leaned forward. "Annabelle, this is your bookmobile project. You're the one who has the passion. Why don't you do the dance?"

"I don't know how to ride."

"You could learn. Shane could teach you. I've seen him working with the rodeo cowboys. He's very patient."

"I don't think there's enough time. The festival is ten weeks away. Could I really learn to ride a horse enough for it to do the dance by then?" She turned to Charlie. "More than a thousand years ago the Maá-zib women left everything they knew and migrated up to where we are today. They were powerful women who wanted to make a home for themselves. They settled here and their strength and determination flows through all of us."

Charlie sipped her beer. "Good speech and no, I'm not doing the horse dance."

Annabelle slumped over the table. "Then I've got nothing."

Heidi poked her in the arm. "Like I said, do the dance yourself. You're always the one going on and on about the Maá-zib women protecting their daughters from sacrifice by leaving. They were tired of their daughters being killed before they'd ever had a chance to live so they came here where they could be free. Embrace that spirit."

Annabelle straightened. She was hardly the type to lead a parade, she thought. She was more quiet, more in the background, organizing rather than being on display.

She opened her mouth to say, "I can't," but the words got stuck. Because she could if she wanted. She could do a lot of things. But all her life, she'd been conventional in an attempt to fit in. From trying to please her parents to making herself over to please every guy she'd ever been with. She considered herself accommodating, not strong.

She was, in the most honest, unflattering terms, a pushover.

Charlie stared at her. "You okay? You look funny."

"I've settled," Annabelle said. "I've always settled."

Heidi and Charlie exchanged looks of concern. "Okay," Charlie said slowly. "You're not having a seizure, are you?"

"No, I'm having a revelation. I've settled. I've always been the one to bend, to be conventional."

"You were just dancing on a bar," Heidi said with a shrug. "Not exactly conventional."

"I wasn't drunk. I was showing Charlie the dance of the happy virgin in an effort to convince her—" She shook her head, then stood. "You know what? I'm going to do it. I'm going to learn the dance myself. Or learn to ride. Whatever. It's my bookmobile. My fundraiser. I'm taking charge. I'm putting myself out there. The spirit of the Maá-zib women lives on in me."

"You go, girl," Charlie told her.

#

"You were home early last night."

Shane turned off the water in the barn and glanced up to see his mother walking toward him. It was barely dawn, but she was up and dressed. More important, she carried a mug of coffee in each hand.

He took the caffeine she offered and swallowed gratefully. Visions of a fiery redhead had haunted the little sleep he'd managed.

"Jo's Bar turned out to be more interesting than I'd thought."

May, his still-attractive, fifty-something mother, grinned. "You went to Jo's Bar? Oh, honey, no. That's where the women in town hang out. There's shopping and fashion playing on the TV, not sports. You should have talked to your brother about where to catch the game. No wonder you didn't stay out late." She reached out her free hand to stroke the nose of the mare hanging her head over her stall door. "Hello, sweetie. Are you adjusting? Don't you love Fool's Gold?"

The mare nodded, as if agreeing that all was well.

Shane had to admit his horses had settled in more quickly than he'd anticipated. The drive from Tennessee had been long but the end results worth the journey. He'd bought two hundred prime acres in the foothills outside of town. He'd already drawn up plans for a house and, more important, stables. Construction would start on the latter within the week. Until then he was boarding his horses in his mother's stable and he was staying up at the house with her seventy-four year old boyfriend, Glen, Shane's brother Rafe, and Heidi, Rafe's fiancée. Talk about a crowd.

Shane reminded himself he was doing exactly what he'd always wanted to do in a place he planned to settle. He had the horses, the land, family close by enough to make it feel like home but, once his house was built, not so close that they would get in the way. If only he could get the image of that woman out of his head.

"Mom, do you know—"

He bit back the rest of the question. His mother was the kind of woman who would know everyone in town. Give her a name and within fifteen minutes and she would get back to him with four generations worth of details.

He wasn't looking for trouble. He'd already done that, had married and then divorced the kind of woman who haunted a man. He'd had enough excitement to last him until he was ninety. Now was the time to settle down. To find someone sensible, someone who would be satisfied knowing that one man loved her. To find someone who wouldn't go looking for adoration from every man in the room.

His mother looked at him, her dark eyes so much like his own. Her mouth curved in a slow, knowing smile.

"Please, please say you're going to ask me if I know any nice girls."

What the hell, he thought, then shrugged. "Do you? Someone, you know, regular." No one like the bar-dancing goddess.

His mother practically quivered. "Yes and she's perfect. A librarian. Her name is Annabelle Weiss. She's lovely. Heidi was telling me Annabelle wants to learn to ride a horse. You could teach her."

A librarian, huh? He pictured a plain brunette in glasses, cardigan buttoned up to her neck and practical shoes. Not exactly exciting, but that was okay. He'd reached the place in his life where he wanted to have a family. He wasn't looking for someone to rock his world. The price was too high.

"What do you think?" his mother asked anxiously.

"She sounds perfect."

 

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