Dane Andrews sat on his favorite stool in the Admiral’s Eighth Bar and Grill watching the evening crowd acutely aware that whether through the scope of his rifle or his naked eye, he was always on the lookout for trouble. He’d picked this stool when he first entered this bar years ago when he was of legal drinking age. Dane liked how over the years the wood had been molded into a perfect seat for his size. He could sit in this stool for hours and watch every inch of the bar scene. Nothing and no one escaped his view. This stool was his spot, and his staff knew to keep it saved for him when he was in town.
He wasn’t planning to visit his bar tonight. Business plans fell through and instead of heading back to his ranch, Dane and Bates, his right-hand man, decided to have a few drinks and relax. Bates sat beside him on his right. His attention focused on the woman sitting next to him. Wearing black jeans and T-shirt that showed off an array of navy tattoos on his muscled arms, Bates instantly attracted the woman’s attention within minutes of her entering the bar. Dane smiled as he listened to the banter between the two. Bates wasn’t one for talking, more the strong and silent type, uttering a few words when required. It didn’t matter to the woman, as long as she had his attention. And she did, at least as much as Bates could give her. He always had Dane’s six, his back, and that would never change.
Dane nursed his Chivas. The regulars knew him well enough to give him a perfunctory nod. The local women had learned to stay clear of Dane, giving him a wide berth after being told more than once that he wasn’t interested. He always let them down politely, never telling them the reason why he didn’t mess with women in his home town. He preferred to stay clear of romantic relationships and the ensuing complications. He couldn’t afford to be tied to a woman unless it was by the hour, and even then it was rarely done on home turf.
He fit right in with the evening crowd wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and a cotton button shirt, although everything Dane wore advertised that he had money. His handmade cowboy boots were freshly polished. His jeans, though faded, were a designer label, and his shirt was custom-tailored. Only his wristwatch looked out of place. It was a gift from his paternal grandfather upon his graduation from the Naval Academy. It was the only piece of jewelry he wore.
Dane turned on his stool to face the bartender and pointed to his empty glass. “Refill, please, Tom.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
Dane watched the amber liquid fill his glass with appreciation. There were few things he valued in life: expensive liquor, honesty, and a gun that shot straight.
“That’s my man. He knows his whiskey.” A woman’s arms wrapped around Dane’s neck as soft, warm lips caressed his ear. She whispered so only he could hear, “Help a girl out. Your name’s Gary, and you’re my boyfriend.”
Dane was one for playing games, especially those meant for the bedroom. The scent of her perfume and the soft purr of her voice pulled Dane into the stranger’s game, instantly causing him to ignore his rules. He took a long swallow of his whiskey while glancing at Bates and giving him a wink to let him know to stand down. He could manage this. Dane turned on his stool to face his new playmate. He smiled with appreciation at the breathtaking woman standing before him. Auburn hair fell in waves past her shoulders, emerald eyes, set in a perfect face of flawless alabaster skin, sparkled even in the dim light of the bar. A glance of her body which seemed to be poured into a tight green dress let him know that the rest of her was damned spectacular, too.
“Red, what took you so long?” He got to his feet. “I was beginning to wonder.”
Her smile let him know he made the right play. “Gary, this is John from work. Remember? I told you about him.”
Dane’s tall frame towered over the man. “Glad to finally meet you, John,” he said as he held out his hand to him.
The man shook Dane’s hand. His face took on a pained expression with every shake from the vice-like grip.
“The way she talked about you, I have to admit that I thought you were a fantasy.”
Dane squeezed John’s hand harder. “I’m not a fantasy and don’t make my girl one of yours. Got it, John?” Dane kept the pressure on while the man tried to pull his hand free from his grip. “Don’t go after another man’s woman.”
John looked down at his aching hand and then at the woman. “Got it.”
“Good. Then take a hike. My girl and I have a lot of catching up to do.” Dane let go of the man’s hand and watched as he turned and skulked away from them.
“Wow. How did you know?”
“That the guy’s a creep?” Dane winked at the redhead. “I can think of only two reasons why a beautiful stranger would approach me in a bar—one, because she needs my help to get out of a sticky situation, or two, she’s hitting on me and wants what’s inside my wallet.”
“Nothing else?” She allowed herself a long drink of the man standing before her. Ash brown hair styled short on the sides and long on top. He must have been at least six foot four, with a body that looked as though it was no stranger to working out at the gym or other places. His cotton shirt fit him perfectly, promising a muscled chest and abs underneath. And his jeans covered large thighs and —her eyes lingered a moment at the fullness of his crotch.
She felt his finger under her chin, guiding her gaze to his. “Red, you approached me from behind. I don’t think there could have been another reason.”
He stopped her with a light kiss on her forehead as he pulled her against his chest and hugged her. “He’s still watching us. The game’s still on.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
Dane liked the feel of her in his arms. Her height and her soft curves made her a perfect fit against his body. He hadn’t been with anyone who fit as perfectly as this woman. It didn’t take much thought for him to decide to play out this game as long as he could. Recognizing the song blaring from the speakers, he looked for an opening on the dance floor. “Dance,” he answered as he took her hand in his and led her deep into the mass of people moving to the music. “You can dance, can’t you?” He placed his right hand on her hip and began to move her along the dance floor with a slow two-step.
“Yes, I can.” Her eyes opened wide. “And you can, too.”
“Don’t look so surprised. Isn’t this part of your fantasy?” He smiled, seeing the deepening blush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “What exactly did you tell Johnny boy about your fantastic boyfriend?”
“You’re a fireman. You specialize in wildfires. You’ve got two days’ leave before you head out again.”
Dane nodded his head. “Lucky for you Alberta’s got a lot of wildfires going on right now. So why did you have to make me up?”
Red looked away from him, focusing on the exit light across the room. She needed an exit plan just in case.
“Red, you can tell me anything. I promise what you tell me stays with me.”
She turned her attention back to the man. His eyes were chocolate brown. She always thought blue eyes were sexy on a man, but these eyes made her want to get lost in him forever. His nose was slightly off-center, and his smile just a bit crooked. He’d probably been in a fight or two, most likely won them because of his build. A thin scar above his lip made her sure that this man could fight. With every moment studying him, she realized that her fantasy boyfriend would look exactly like him. Perfectly imperfect.
“We’re both doctors at the hospital. We went on one date. I quickly realized he wasn’t the one for me. He doesn’t like rejection. I thought if I told him I had a boyfriend, he would lose interest.”
“It made things worse. John hates losing. He became even more interested, grilling me about my boyfriend. That’s when I made up Gary, so incredibly perfect that he would have to back off.”
“It didn’t seem to work.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“What made you decide to pick this place? And why pick me?”
Red looked up at him. Damn those eyes. They made her want to trust him, and believe that he could keep her safe.
“Tonight, he followed me from work. I told him I was meeting you, Gary, and John insisted on meeting you. He dared me to show him a boyfriend.”
“So Johnny boy didn’t believe you? It’s good to know you aren’t good at telling lies.”
“I don’t lie.” She saw the arch of his eyebrow, showing his disbelief. “Okay. I only lie to creeps.”
“Why did you bring the creep here?”
“I saw the bar’s sign from the bus, and I thought it looked like a place Gary and I would meet. Because it’s late, there was a good chance that I’d find a man that would fit Gary’s description, and maybe he’d agree to help me out. As soon as I walked through the door, I saw you and the man sitting beside you. He was busy, and you weren’t.”
“And then you went for it.”
“I had no choice. I hoped you’d play along with me.”
“You didn’t see my face.”
“I didn’t have to. I saw your shoulders, and you looked like you’d do.”
“I’m not a pretty boy. My face isn’t perfect.”
“I’m not into pretty boys. It’s what’s in a man’s heart that appeals to me.”
“What’s so funny?”
He gazed down at her and held her stare. “I’ve heard that one before.”
Dane twirled Red for a couple of steps before bringing her back into his arms while continuing their dance.
“I can’t thank you enough for helping me. I’d like to buy you a drink, or a few if you’d like.”
“Thanks. It’s not necessary. I can buy my own.”
“I won’t sleep with you as payment.”
He laughed again. He’d lost count the number of times women had offered sex as payment for doing a job, as though sex was a valuable commodity. It wasn’t. Not to him. Pretending to be Gary for the night became more appealing than he first thought.
“I’m not expecting you to. Look, your creeper is still here with a front-row seat to watch us. You’ve got me until you decide to leave.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. You probably have plans. Someone to go home to.”
“The only plans I had were to have a few drinks with my buddy at the bar. As you witnessed for yourself, he’s busy, so now I can have drinks with a beautiful woman who wants to pretend that I’m her boyfriend for the next few hours. I’d be a fool to say no.”
Dane spotted an empty booth and directed her toward it. Catching the bartender’s eye, he motioned for two drinks.
“I don’t know your name. What should I call you?” she asked as she slid into the booth ahead of him.
“Gary suits me just fine, as Red does you. Any objections?”
“No.” She smiled, pleased with her new name.
“Good. That’s all we need to know. For now.”