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Authors: Susan McBride

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BOOK: Love, Lies and Texas Dips
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He stopped talking abruptly when he realized Laura stood but a few feet away.

She was close enough to see the pale hair glisten on Dillon’s arms and legs. She could even make out the flecks of gold in his sea blue eyes as he gave the weighted bar a rest and sat up on the bench, facing her. He picked up a water bottle from the floor, giving it a good swig before he rubbed the back of his hand against his mouth.

“Laura, hey,” he said. “What’s up?” He shot her a curious look. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sounding totally lame. But she hadn’t quite figured out just what she was going to say yet. She did know she didn’t want an audience. “Um, do you mind?” she asked, and jerked her chin at Dillon’s buddy.

“No problem,” the guy said, and moseyed over to a pull-down machine across the way.

“So?” Dillon set the water bottle at his feet, near where his cell phone and a Zone bar lay. He leaned his arms on his knees and waited.

Laura scrambled to come up with something fast that Dillon would buy. He might’ve been a jock, but he wasn’t a total him-bo. “It’s the Rosebud Ball,” she started babbling. “It’s only eight months away and counting, and I’m panicking already.”

He cocked his head. “Panicking about what? Getting to party like a princess?”

“I’m already walking a tightrope, Dillon, seeing as how I’m not exactly the cookie-cutter debutante.” She waved her hands dismissively. “But that’s only part of the problem. I have to be able to bow down in a ball gown while hundreds of my parents’ friends watch to see if I’ll eat it. I don’t know anyone in better condition than you”—
Okay, except Avery
, she thought, but left that out—“so if anyone can help me out, it’s you. Please, say you’ll do it,” she finished, and took a deep breath.

Beneath the damp curls of his hair, his forehead creased. “You want me to train you?”

“Yeah.” She nodded. “Kick my ass, tone me up, make me buff, whatever it takes.”

He squinted up at her. “You’re joking, right? ’Cause you could hire a personal trainer and not even have to leave your house.”

“But I don’t want any old trainer.” Laura shook her head. “I want you, Dillon.”

His mouth tightened into a thin line. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” he said quietly. “And we both know why.”

“Because of Jo Lynn?” Laura saw his shoulders stiffen. “My God, Dillon, you’re what? Six four and solid rock? You can’t be scared of a skinny thing like her. Besides, she doesn’t have to know what we’re up to. She can’t keep tabs
on you every minute, can she? Or does she have you on that tight a leash?”

“No,” he said brusquely, “she hasn’t got me on a leash.”

Right
, Laura wanted to say, but wisely kept that to herself.

“Well, I definitely won’t be the one to tell her, and you’d be doing me the biggest favor.” She dropped down on her knees in front of him, clasping her hands. “Look, I’m begging … no, I’m groveling. Pretty please, just give me a few minutes before or after your workouts. Show me what I need to do and supervise me, just so I don’t hurt myself or anything. That’s all I’m asking. Here, look—” Impulsively, she snatched his phone from the floor and flipped it open. Before he could even react, she was into his address book, adding her name and number to his list. Then she hit the Call button and lifted his cell to her ear, until she heard the voice mail on her BlackBerry, imprisoned in the locker room. “We’re good,” she said. “So call whenever, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to meet you here.”

“Jesus, Laura!” He grabbed his phone from her, flipping it shut and setting it beside him where she couldn’t reach it again easily. “Let me think about it, okay?”

But Laura knew if he thought about it—or if he even mentioned the idea to Jo Lynn—he’d blow her off. She’d never have this chance again, and she wasn’t about to let this golden opportunity slip through her hands.

“Did I ever tell you my father went to school with Armand Dickson? Yeah, they’re great buddies,” she said, thinking fast on her feet, and Dillon’s eyes went wide.

“Your dad’s friends with the athletic director at UT?”

“They’re old Phi Delt fraternity brothers.” Laura felt
buoyed by his obvious interest. “They go hunting every deer season, and sometimes J. R. Rhodes goes with them.”

Dillon looked like he was about to stroke out. “Your dad knows Coach Rhodes?”

“Oh, yeah,
really
well. My dad’s a die-hard Longhorn from way back, and he’s one of the university’s most generous Texas-Exes.” Laura wasn’t sure how far to push it, but decided to go for broke. “I’m sure he could talk you up to J.R. big-time, particularly if you did a huge favor for his baby daughter.” She paused, tapping a finger to her chin. “Well, actually, if I wanted to, I could convince him to take you on their next trip to the cabin. It wouldn’t hurt for you to have some face time with the coach, huh? There’s fierce competition to play quarterback for the ’Horns, I’ll bet.”

“Beyond fierce,” Dillon replied. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard, digesting what Laura had just said. “Damn,” he murmured, and glanced nervously across the room, apparently needing a moment to figure out how to handle the situation.

Laura followed his gaze to the wall of glass that made the room seem to extend into the thick green of Buffalo Bayou beyond. The boughs of a thick oak seemed about to reach through the window, gently brushing the transparent panes with each breath of wind.

“So?” she said, and she tapped his shoulder so he’d look at her. When she still saw confusion on his face, she did what she’d always done whenever her daddy wouldn’t cave: she turned on the waterworks. Dewy tears caught in her lashes and slowly rolled down her cheeks, and Laura’s lower lip trembled.
“Puh-leeze,”
she got out, prepared to really blubber if necessary.

He hesitated a second, like he was holding his breath, before he whispered, “Okay, okay.”

“What?” Laura blinked.

“I said I’ll do it. I’ll help you out. If you’ll work on that hunting trip with the coach and A.D.” He leaned toward her, and she could smell the sweat on his skin. “I’ll give you a call next time I’m working out here. I can maybe swing a few minutes of supervised instruction once a week, just until you know what you’re doing. But that’s it, and it’s just between us.”

Laura sniffed away her crocodile tears. “You mean it?”

“You heard me,” he said. “Now I’ve got to go.” He extricated himself from her and the bench, snatching up his cell, the water bottle, and his towel. “C’mon,” he called to his workout buddy. “Let’s hit the cave.”

The older dude popped off the pull-down machine and followed Dillon out of the gym toward the windowless weight room in the back used by the truly serious athletes.

Laura rose from the floor, feeling strangely dazed as she wandered back toward where Mac worked out halfheartedly on an elliptical machine.

“What the heck was that about?” Mac hissed at Laura as soon as she was within earshot. “What could you possibly have to say to Dillon Masters?” Mac had completely stopped moving and waited for an answer as Laura climbed onto the adjacent machine. “Because if you think cozying up to Dillon will help you get Avery back, you’re dead wrong. Jo Lynn will despise you even more if she thinks you’ve been within a hundred yards of her boyfriend. Have you forgotten that she hates your guts?”

No, Laura had not forgotten. In fact, Jo Lynn’s attempt to
get her blackballed from the GSC’s debutante list was foremost in her mind. It was a little like walking through a minefield every day, not knowing if her next step would set off an explosion, which was why she needed Dillon indebted to her. If anyone could make Jo Lynn bend to his will, it was him.

“I’m taking countermeasures,” Laura told her.

“No, you’re not, you’re committing social suicide,” Mac informed her. “Jo Lynn’s already declared war. Whatever you’re doing with Dillon is only gonna make things worse!”

Laura blew stray hairs from her eyes, not wanting to listen. When Mac was on a roll, she spewed as much steam as boiling water.

“You need to stay away from Dillon, and from Avery, too. For God’s sake, Laura, the Ratfink’s dating one of Jo Lynn’s best friends. He does whatever she tells him to. He’s not ever going back to you. You’re like Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up a hill.”

God, why did Mac have to go all Greek mythology on her?

Laura wished that Mac could understand what it meant to truly be in love with someone, the way Laura was with Avery. It wasn’t something you got over, not when you knew deep in your heart that nothing was impossible.

“The only rock I’m going to keep pushing is Jo Lynn, and I won’t stop until I heave that sucker off the hill, or at least get it off of my back,” Laura said as she fiddled with the setup buttons on the machine, trying to get the thing started.

“You’re either a hopeless romantic or you’re a masochist, or maybe a little of both.” Mac frowned at her.

Despite the tightening in her chest at Mac’s harsh words, Laura managed a shrug.

“Good thing it’s my life to live and not yours, huh?” she declared, gripping the bars and moving her legs as the machine began to hum.

Falling in love is so hard on the knees.
—Aerosmith
Hormones make people do crazy things.
And when I say “people,” I mean girls.
—Michelle “Mac” Mackenzie

Three

Fresh out of the shower after her morning “workout” with Laura—and she used the term loosely—Mac sat cross-legged on her bed, wet hair wrapped in a towel turban. She’d brought out the shoe box from under her bed and set it down in front of her, carefully removing the lid. Inside were all the letters her mom had written to her before she’d passed away from cancer two years ago. After the morning’s frustrations, she needed the positive boost Jeanie Mackenzie’s words always seemed to give her.

Mac slipped one particular note from the batch, unfolding the linen stationery and smoothing it out until it was flat. She felt a catch in her throat, seeing her mom’s handwriting again, but at least her eyes didn’t tear up like they used to (which accounted for the damp smears on most every page).

She ran her eyes down each line of loopy cursive and found just what she was looking for.

I’m going to miss being there to hold your hand when you need it and to remind you how important it is that you always be you. I feel better knowing you’ve
got such true-blue friends in Laura and Ginger. You girls have known each other forever, haven’t you? I hope nothing ever comes between you—nothing important anyway, and never for long. And do remember, when you get impatient with your friends, that it’s important to live and let live. You’re such an individual, Mackie, but so are Laura and Ginger. You have to respect that about them and give them room to grow as well. You won’t always agree with everything they do (any more than you always agreed with everything I said!), but you must always support them and love them, much in the same way I will forever love you
.

Live and let live
.

Mac hugged her knees and sighed, thinking of how often her mom had said those words whenever Mac had complained about people who drove her crazy (and sometimes it seemed like those you were closest to drove you the craziest).

Since Jeanie Mackenzie wasn’t around to say it today, Mac mentally repeated it several times—
live and let live, live and let live—
feeling less keyed up and better able to breathe evenly again. She refolded the letter and retrieved her journal, scribbling in it quickly with a pen she kept handy on the nightstand.

It’s so hard trying to be “myself” some times when everyone around me has a different perception of who I am. Like, theres Brainy Mac, who’s enrolled in all AP classes and who aced the SAJ. Then there’s Goody-Goody Mac, who doesn’t really drink, doesn’t do
drugs, and doesn’t act like a ho (what’s wrong with, waiting to have sex until you’re actually old enough to understand real love, for God’s sake?). And let’s not forget Stick-in-the-Mud Mac, who dragged her feet about debuting. Seriously, I’m still not all-fired sure about being a Rosebud. Why is it so important to everyone but me? Talk about pressure!!! Some day’s I think I’m going to explode. At least I can be the real me when I’m with Alex

Mac set aside her notebook and pen with a sigh. Laura’s insane behavior this morning had only made her surer that the road to deb-dom would be more like a roller coaster than a trick-pony ride. Mac wished that Laura and Ginger hadn’t badgered her into accepting the Glass Slipper Club’s invitation. Not that they didn’t have really good ammunition for arm-twisting, considering Jeanie Mackenzie’s deathbed desire that Mac wear the Oscar de la Renta gown that she herself had debuted in. No pressure there.

BOOK: Love, Lies and Texas Dips
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