Karen was used to having the best. A new car, a plush apartment...not to mention the best looking boyfriend in town. But that wasn't why it bothered her so much when Hank asked her to dance. The fact that Hank was raised dirt poor was of little concern to such an independent girl, and that homely face with its acne scars and big crooked nose wasn't a turn off. In fact, she had grown to view him as a homely stud - and therein lay the problem.
What if Carl discovered her attraction to his friend? The fact that it might destroy her relationship with Carl was something she could accept. They weren't getting along all that well right now anyway. But the thought of causing friction between Hank and Carl troubled her deeply. The two men had been friends since grade school. They were complete opposites, but they were almost inseparable. So much so that she and Carl had been on numerous double dates with Hank and an assortment of women Carl had selected for him. At first she had assumed that Hank was so homely that he couldn't get a date, but that was before she got to know him.
When she had first met the two men, she had chosen Carl - the good looking one. Carl was the one with the flashy car - the one all the girls were after. Hank was merely his loyal side kick. The one who always seemed to be there when Carl's car broke down, and when Carl was too drunk to drive. As time passed, and she matured, it became obvious that Hank would make the better husband. Hank wasn't into shallow relationships.
Now it was Hank's voice that could send her pulse racing. It was Hank's old '57 Chevy that she wanted to ride around in. But Hank had given no indication that he shared her infatuation. Out of respect for Carl, Hank always inquired about her comforts - more so than Carl. Always the gentleman, Hank opened doors for her and even danced with her when Carl seemed to forget - as was the case now.
At the moment, Carl was busy talking to Nancy. Nancy was the baby of the family and this was her twenty-first birthday. Dad had thrown this party for her and Carl was making sure she enjoyed it.
Karen lifted her gaze to Hank. “I think I'd better sit this one out. I twisted my ankle a while ago and it's kind of sore,” she lied glibly. Spending the evening dancing with Hank sounded like a dream, but there were other things to consider - not the least of which was Carl, her date. Carl wasn't the man she wanted to be with tonight, but Carl was the man who had brought her. She wouldn't fool around behind his back. Not that there was any chance, anyway.
Hank nodded solemnly, his slate gray gaze probing her mind. Did he suspect the truth? He cupped her elbow with a warm sinewy hand and nodded to a bench in the shadows of the verandah.
“Well then, why don't we just sit down over there a while. We can watch everyone else dance.”
She allowed him to lead her to the bench and even feigned a slight limp. He gently supported her as she eased down to the bench. Maybe she should have simply accepted the dance. It wouldn't have looked any worse than this, and they wouldn't have been any closer. He leaned back and stretched his arm behind her on the bench. She leaned forward and massaged her ankle as she absently watched the dancers.
Two figures swirled by, one tall and slender, the other short and slightly over weight. Carl and Nancy. Nancy's round cheeks were flushed and she was giggling. Two people obviously enjoying the party. Everyone was enjoying the party. What was she doing on the side lines? It wasn't like she was neglecting Carl - quite the opposite.
She glanced up at Hank. “You know, I think my ankle would feel better if I exercised it a little.”
Hank's eyes held a slight twinkle for a moment, and then it was gone. He rose from the bench in one lithe movement and held a hand down to her. She accepted it and he gently helped her to her feet. When they moved out on the verandah, he guided her smoothly around - slowly, taking care not to re-injure her ankle, no doubt. He held her closer than usual, lending more support. Her heart pounded wildly and an old phrase caught in her mind.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.
Hank glanced down at her. “Are you all right? You seem a little stiff.”
“I'm fine,” she answered, squirming in his arms so that they weren't so close. “It's just that it's a little warm tonight.” More lies. The late May weather was perfect - maybe even a little cool.
He pressed the back of his fingers to her forehead. “Are you sure you're not catching the flu?”
She laughed nervously. “Of course not. I'm like you. I never catch anything.”
The feel of his touch was electrifying. His fingers slid down her cheek in a caress, and then to her neck, brushing an auburn curl aside. Finally he retrieved her hand, gently claiming her waist with his other hand. Now they danced farther apart, but she was acutely aware of his presence. She glanced around the veranda.
“I wonder where Carl got off to,” she mused. Not that she really cared - but she should.
Hank shrugged. “Are you afraid he's going to get bored...or are you?”
She jerked her attention back to Hank. “What?”
His gaze searched hers. “I asked if you were getting bored.”
She stared at him. Bored? Not a chance. She dredged up a happy smile. “How could I be bored with someone like you to entertain me?”
Her heart lurched. Why was he so inquisitive tonight - so attentive? Did he suspect her feelings for him? Maybe he was trying to bring it into the open so he could squelch it. Well, she wasn't going to give him the chance. What did it matter? It wasn't like she was going to throw herself at him, anyway. He was taboo.
She tried a nonchalant shrug. “You know. You're so nice. You always make it your business to make sure people are enjoying themselves.”
He eyed her skeptically. “I see. A regular busybody.”
This time her smile was genuine. “I didn't mean it that way. I was simply pointing out that you're not self-centered, like most of us. You put others first - especially your friends.”
His rhythm faltered and he stepped on her toe. His neck turned red. “I'm sorry. Was that your bad ankle?” He took her arm. “Here, let me help you to the bench. I shouldn't have taken you out on the dance floor knowing your ankle was bothering you.”
She twisted her arm from his hand. This facade had gone too far. She was only torturing herself. “I'm fine. My ankle doesn't hurt at all.”
“What's going on here?” Carl grinned as he shoved Nancy at Hank. “Here. See if you can dance without walking all over her feet.”
Nancy giggled and tugged Hank onto the verandah. “Come on, this isn't a slow dance. Let's boogie.”
Carl turned to Karen and took her hand. “Yuck. Your hands are clammy.”
Karen felt the flush creep up her neck and jump into her cheeks. “I don't feel good.” And that was the truth. At the moment her stomach felt queasy. Why had her statement troubled Hank so much that he lost step to the music? Did he think she was being unfaithful to Carl?
Carl frowned. “Would you like me to drive you home?”
She shook her head and sighed. “No, I'll just go lay down for a while.”
Lying down didn't help. She was stretched out on the couch when Nancy came in to check on her. Nancy sat down on the edge of the couch and gazed down at her sister with genuine concern.
“What's the matter, Karen? Did you and Carl have a fight?”
Karen smiled. “No. I just don't feel good.”
Nancy seemed disappointed. She always did like a good tale. “Did Hank say something to offend you? I noticed you two were talking mighty serious.”
Karen frowned. “Of course not. You know Hank is always a perfect gentleman.”
Nancy's shrug was too nonchalant and her gaze might be described as sly.
“I was beginning to think you and Hank had something going.”
Karen stared at her. Was it that obvious? Did Nancy have special feelings for Hank as well? Was that what Hank wanted to tell her? That he had feelings for Nancy?
Karen laughed. “Don't be silly. If you're interested in Hank, let him know.”
“Hank?” Nancy gasped, shuddering. “You've got to be joking. Me and Hank? No way. I can do better than that. Dad didn't spend all his life acquiring this fortune so I could marry a dirt poor mechanic.” She made a face. “Besides. He's ugly.”
“He's not ugly,” Karen blurted, sitting up so fast her head hurt. She covered her forehead with one hand and frowned at Nancy. “And I'm sure Dad didn't acquire his fortune so that his children could be snobs, either.”
Nancy rose from the couch, her eyes growing large. “Take it easy, Karen. I didn't mean to insult Hank. I was just....” She eyed Karen suspiciously. “I guess you do have a thing for him.”
If Nancy wasn't interested in Hank, what was going on? Why all the probing questions about Hank? Karen pushed off the couch and faced Nancy.
“Hank is a very nice man, and you could do a lot worse.”
Nancy lifted a brow. “So you're not going to deny you have a thing for him?”
Karen's face was burning. “That isn't the point I'm trying to make here. I'm simply saying that you need to re-evaluate your selection process. Isn't love more important than money - or looks?”
Nancy smiled and winked. “So you're admitting you love him?”
Karen stomped her foot. “Stop it. You know Carl and I have been going together for more than a year now.”
The smile vanished from Nancy's face. “I know. And you don't love him. So don't go preaching to me about love being more important than money and looks.”
Karen gasped. It was in her mind to explain the situation when another thought hit her. She watched Nancy's face as she spoke.
“You want Carl.”
Nancy blushed. “Well, at least I love him.” She made a face. “But don't worry. I won't try to take him away from you. You're my sister, for crying out loud. Do you think I'd stab you in the back that way?”
Karen sank to the couch. What a mess. “You're right. I don't love him.” She shook her head and sighed. “I wish you'd said something before now. I didn't even think about the fact that someone else might want him. I mean, we've been going together for so long that...Well, I guess I just wasn't thinking of anyone but myself. I'd never want to stand in the way of your happiness.”
Carl and Nancy? Of course, why not? Like Carl, Nancy loved the party life. Carl would be much happier with someone who didn't insist on being home by ten. How many times had Hank been burdened with the task of taking Carl’s date home? Poor Hank. Was that what he was trying to tell her? Did he know Carl was getting ready to drop her for Nancy? How many people had suffered because she hung on to Carl - trying to save Carl's feelings. How could she have been so blind?
Nancy glanced behind Karen and Karen followed her gaze. Hank was standing in the doorway, leaning one shoulder against the door jam. How much had he heard? Nancy cleared her throat.
“I'd better get back to the party.”
She brushed by Hank and he sauntered over to the couch.
“Have a seat, Karen. There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about.”
His voice was so casual, so deep and strong - like Hank. She settled on the couch and tucked her feet underneath her dress. As he sat beside her, she gazed into his solemn face.
“I know about Carl and Nancy. You don't have to worry. I'm not going to make a scene.”
He frowned. “Carl and Nancy?”
Karen's face flamed. Maybe there was no Carl and Nancy. Maybe it was only Nancy loving Carl - and Carl not loving back. “I thought...Nancy said she and Carl....”
He waved a hand, cutting her off. “I don't know anything about Nancy and Carl, and I didn't come in here to discuss their love life.” He took a deep breath. “I came in here to discuss ours.”
“Ours?” Karen frowned. “Listen, if you don't want to dance with me, and take me home when I'm being a bore, you don't have to feel obligated to do so just because I'm Carl's' girl. I'm calling that off tonight.”
He nodded, eyeing her suspiciously. “I see. So you'd rather I left you alone?”
“I didn't say that.”
He grimaced. “I know. You've been not saying a lot of things lately. So let me do a little talking.”
She picked at a piece of fuzz on the couch. “Go ahead.”
He lifted her chin so that her eyes met his. “I love you. I thought...I hoped you felt the same way about me.”
Her heart was flip-flopping all over the place. “But what about Carl? Aren't you afraid this will destroy your friendship?”
He smiled. “Is that what's been holding you back?” He shook his head. “First of all; I'll give Carl a little more credit than that. Second; I'm ready to forsake all others, as the vow goes.”
She gripped his hand. “But you'd be sorry if you lost your friend.”
He nodded. “That I would. But when a man gets married, it's never the same with his friends again anyway. If I'm not ready to accept that, it isn't time to get married yet. When I get married, my wife will be my best friend.” He sighed. “Sure, I'll want to go out with the guys once in a while. And they will still be my friends. But it will never be the same.”
She held his hand, feeling both contented and aroused by the warmth of his palm. “I love you, too. And I hope I can be your best friend.”
He smiled. “You already are.” He patted her hand. “Now it's my turn to try and be your best friend.”
She laughed softly. “Really, Hank. If you're not my best friend, I don't know who is.”
He sobered. “I can't give you all the fine things you're used to. I don't know if I'll ever be able to.”
She shrugged. “We,” she corrected him gently. “I have money - if you're not too proud to use it. Anyway, I'd rather have you than all the money in the world.”
He nodded, his expression skeptical. “Right now; but what about later? I'm not too proud to marry a woman who is financially better off than me. I don't have anything against living well, but I don't really care to live the way your family does. Do you think you can live with that?”
She met his gaze. “I'm ready to take you for better or for worse, as the vow goes. If I'm not ready to accept that, I'm not ready to get married.”
He grinned. “A woman who not only listens to her man, but quotes him.”
“She has a wise man,” she answered flippantly. “Now let's get back to the party. I need to talk to Carl.”
He rose from the couch and helped her up. “I'll go with you.”
That was like Hank. He'd always been there for her. Always ready to face the truth head on. She had a lot to learn from him. Thanks to his straightforward way, they had the rest of their lives to learn from each other.