June 18, 2007 12:00 PM

It appeared to be nothing more than two friends on a casual night out. Yet when Beth Holloway arrived at the NorDys art gallery in Birmingham, Ala., on the arm of John Ramsey last February, onlookers couldn’t help but notice. “They seemed very carefree, very happy,” notes one observer, recalling the chummy way the two talked. “Once someone recognized him as JonBenét’s father, we couldn’t talk about anything else.”

Holloway, 46, is the mother of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba two years ago. Ramsey’s daughter JonBenét was found murdered on Dec. 26, 1996, in Colorado. The two met at a speakers’ conference in Nashville last December and have been spotted keeping each other company the past few months at restaurants and galleries in the Birmingham area, where Holloway lives. This has led to reports of a budding romance, which Ramsey denied in an interview with KUSA-TV in Denver on June 4. “The tabloid rumors are totally exaggerated,” said Ramsey, 63, who lives in Charlevoix, Mich. “I have great respect for Beth and how she’s handled her terrible situation. We’ve developed a friendship of respect and admiration.” (Holloway divorced her second husband, George Twitty, in April. Ramsey’s wife, Patsy, died of ovarian cancer in June 2006.) And while they deny a romance, as one observer who saw Holloway and Ramsey share a peck on the lips suggested, “They’ve had so many bad things happen to both of them, they deserve a little happiness.”

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