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Sawyer Fortune had come to the opening of Mendoza's nightclub to have the time of his life.
But if he was honest, every night had pretty much been like that for him from the day he was born.
Money? The Fortunes had more than they knew what to do with.
Opportunity? Right at his fingertips.
Glamour and good times? Check that and that, too.
As he took a seat at the long, old-style cowboy bar under the cursive, neon-pink Wet Your Whistle sign, Sawyer shouldn't have had a care in the world, thanks to his lot in life. Yet somehow he'd ended up with more than a few worries.
Even so, after some beers and conversation with a beautiful woman or two, he expected that all his concerns would fade to the background. That's how it always worked for him. That's how it would work tonight, too.
He took stock of the place: a raised hardwood dance floor crowded with people moving to a loud Kenny Chesney song while its music video played on oversized screens around the room, neon boot signs lighting the dark corners.
Miguel had done well with this club, reinventing himself, going from being a sales executive at a record company in New York to a nightclub owner here in Red Rock, Texas.
As Sawyer put in his drink order to the bartender, he felt someone slap him on the back. When he turned around, it was Miguel Mendoza himself, beaming in the flush of his club's obvious opening-night success.
"So what do you think?" he asked over the music, his dark eyes glinting. He looked the part of the owner, all right, his black hair trimmed, his midnight shirt and pants a complement to the badass boots that he must've gotten from his wife's company, Castleton Boots.
"What I think," Sawyer said, "is that you're on top of the world. Congratulations. This is really something."
"That's high praise coming from a man who's visited a lot of nightclubs in his day." Miguel took a seat on a rawhide stool next to Sawyer. "This place is more than Red Rock has ever seen, though."
It was the only nightclub in Red Rock, Sawyer thought. The town was growing, but it wasn't exactly New York or even Atlanta.
"No club I've ever been to has charm like this," he said. "And charm is hard to come by."
Miguel cocked a brow at Sawyer. "Not for some."
He was talking about all the stories Sawyer had earned with his reputation, which had followed him from Atlanta.
The Fortune playboy. The last of his extended family to have survived the love bug that'd been biting their clan for years now. His own branch of the family had been victims of the Plague, as he called it, ever since his sister, Victoria, had succumbed to Garrett Stone, then his brothers had struck out on their own here in Red Rock, finding their own soul mates.
But Sawyer wasn't a carbon copy of his brothers. Sure, like them he'd defected from JMF Financial in Atlanta after a fight with their father, where he was still the de facto director of publicity and marketing, and he'd relocated to Red Rock, too. Yet he was damned if he'd ever get hitched. He also was out to reinvent himself, just as the rest of his family had done since defecting, but he was avoiding the love plague. He'd never met a woman who wasn't so into the Fortunes' money that she wanted him for what he had to offer otherwise.
Ranching and day trading, Sawyer thought, lifting the beer that the bartender had just slid in front of him in a toast to Miguel and his success with the club. This was his new life, and he'd definitely drink to that kind of reinvention.
The bartender had brought Miguel a beer, too, and they drank in silence for a moment as the fast song wore away and the DJ wrangled together the folks on the dance floor for a trivia contest and a giveaway featuring Mendoza's T-shirts.
Miguel couldn't stop grinning, watching everything play out. "So this is what it's like to see your dreams come true. Since I was old enough to think about a future, all I wanted to do was open a place like this. It wouldn't mean as much without Nicole, but "
Sawyer chuckled, and Miguel did, too.
"I know, I know," he said. "You're going to razz me now for becoming one of the love-struck masses."
"Wasn't it just over a year ago at your brother's wedding that we snuck out of that lovey-dovey reception, met each other in the bar where we watched highlights on ESPN from the football games we'd missed that day and you said"
"That I was never going to get married? Yeah, that was me. You, too. The both of us dyed-in-the-wool bachelors who'd escaped all the wedding silliness, swearing off matrimony."
Sawyer didn't get on Miguel's case too much. After all, Miguel had told Sawyer at that wedding that if he ever did get married, he'd sure as hell invite him to the ceremony, and he'd made good on that promise.
"So," Sawyer said, taking pity on the newlywed because there'd no doubt be a lot of tough times ahead for him. "Where is Nicole?"
"Finishing up some work. You know how it is for those CEO types."
As Miguel smiled, he had no idea of realizing that he'd nicked Sawyer a little with his comment. Sawyer had always known that, as the youngest son of James Marshall Fortune, he didn't have a shot at being a CEO or even a VP. As a matter of fact, he was the only son who didn't hold a high office at JMF Financial, probably because his dad had never trusted his "go with the flow" attitude. It just didn't fit in with the great James Marshall Fortune's steely work ethic.
So what had Sawyer done over the years? Well, he'd been even more easygoing than everthe opposite of his driven older brothers, that was for sure. He'd become the afterthought that Dad had always expected Sawyer to be, a so-called "reckless" or "careless" man who'd never sought the glory of a corner office.
But that was neither here nor there right now, in a place where he'd left JMF Financial behinda town where he could wear jeans and boots and Western shirts instead of the suits he'd never been comfortable in.
Still, sitting here, seeing how all Miguel's hard work had paid off sent a pang through Sawyer, as if he should've been more ambitious in life.
"You know I'm not so much of a man with a plan, Miguel." He gestured around the club with his bottle. "I'm not sure I ever had any long-term goals like this or any, in general."
"What're you talking about? You're a Fortuneyou were born with goals."
Sawyer laughed. "Fortune, schmortune. People put too much stock in the name, no pun intended. If you ask me, I'd rather we all change it to Smith and be done."
The name had never meant much to him, even though he loved his family more than anything. It was just that being a Fortune had caused its share of problems, with a lot of women who sought things that came with the name, with expectations that Sawyer didn't want any part of. Hell, it'd almost happened with his brother Shane recently, when they'd suspected that his fiancée, Lia, was a gold digger. Sawyer hadn't been so easygoing then.
Truthfully, he'd put her at a wary distance, although he'd tried to make it up to her after they'd found out she was on the up-and-up and was truly in love with Shane. Whatever "love" was.
"As a Fortune," he said to Miguel, "I probably could've indulged in whatever I wanted throughout the years, but if I was born with anything, it was a predestined life. A career path. I was never expected to dream about opening a nightclub or doing what I wanted. I didn't have much choice but to join the family business."
"Having money and a guaranteed job is not exactly a bad thing, my friend."
Miguel was right. And it wasn't that Sawyer was ungrateful for what he'd been born with, it was just that
Well, what did it mean to be a Fortune, exactly?
He wasn't sure, had never been sure, and as the years passed, the picture never became any clearer.
Miguel dangled his bottle between his fingers. "What would you do if you could start over from scratch, then? If the mighty Fortunes could buy that kind of do-over?"
Sawyer was surprised his family hadn't found a way to accomplish that very thing, what with their track record of successsomething he'd never felt much a part of deep inside, where no one could see what he was really feeling.
He turned Miguel's question over in his mind. Turned it over again. And he'd be damned if he could come up with an answer.
Finally, he said, "You knowif I ever pursued that idea seriously, I don't have the foggiest idea what I'd do."
It came off as a jokepeople were used to Sawyer jokingand Miguel laughed once more.
Sawyer played off the moment. He guessed it was sort of funnya twenty-seven-year-old Fortune as aimless and dissatisfied as he was.
"At any rate," he said, "I'm young and I've got plenty of time to figure everything out."
Miguel, who was about the same age, nodded, and they toasted to that, too.
But this time, Sawyer put his bottle on the bar instead of drinking. Hadn't he already started a do-over by leaving JMF behind and coming out here, setting down stakes on New Fortunes Ranch and going in a different life direction?
Yet did that matter when the biggest reason he'd left Atlanta behind was because he and his siblings had suffered a falling-out with Dad?
So many secrets That was what had pushed Sawyer and his brothers, Shane, Asher and Wyatt, from JMF in the first place. They'd found out that their father had left half his shares in the business to a mysterious woman named Jeanne Marie and, at first, they'd suspected that he was a bigamist. There'd been a major blowup with Dad about that. But why shouldn't their minds be reeling with suspicion when her last name had been Fortune, too? And just why would Dad have left all those assets to her?
Then, after they'd made the decision to distance themselves from their father and JMF Financial then they'd met Jeanne Marie and discovered that she was actually Dad's twin sister, and it'd thrown the family into a real tizzy. More questions had blown around them: Why hadn't Dad just told them the truth? And why hadn't he come to Red Rock yet to come clean with all of them?
James was scheduled to arrive next week to finally explain everything. Sawyer, more than anyone else, had been trying to keep an open mind about his intentions, which was ironic, considering Sawyer had always felt like Dad's least favorite.
The youngest, the afterthought. The son least like the grand tycoon.
But maybe that's exactly why Sawyer was slow to hop on the doubt-ridden bandwagonbecause this was the one time he could matter to Dad.
And maybe not.
As Miguel chatted briefly with the bartender, Sawyer's gaze skimmed the club again. A band was setting up on a stage and the DJ was ending the giveaway by whipping the crowd into a hooting rise of enthusiasm for the last prizea hundred-dollar gift certificate to Red, the most popular restaurant in town.
But Sawyer didn't dwell on the entertainment too muchhe hadn't come here for the band or the DJ. Miguel had done quite a job getting women into his clubgorgeous ones, too. Texas belles with tiny waists, tight T-shirts, short skirts and fancy boots.
When his gaze came back to the bar, traveling over the women sitting on stools, it stopped on one in particular.
And damn. She was willowy, with long, straight blond hair that streamed down her back. From where he was sitting, he could tell that she wasn't gussied up for a night out. It was the opposite, actually, because she was dressed in a plain white T-shirt that clung to her curves, plus faded jeans that had been worn in just enough to shape a perfect derriere. When he saw her red boots, it was a bit of a surprise, seeing as he'd taken her for the type who was trying not to stand out, despite her good looks.
Was she waiting for someone while she leaned her elbows on the bar and nursed a bottle of soda?
Miguel had stopped talking with the bartender.
"You might want to think twice about that one," he said.
"Why?" For the first time tonight, Sawyer had been in a much better mood, just from looking at her. "Weren't we talking about having some goals? She seems like a pretty good one for now."
"You dive-bomb her with that attitude and you're going to get shot down. Laurel Redmond isn't what you'd call an easy pickup, Sawyer."
Not easy, huh? Maybe he was tired of easy. Something different sounded just fine to him, seeing as he'd gotten tired of the gold diggers, gotten tired of always being so instinctively cautious with all the "easy" women.
Miguel added, "I have no idea why she even came here. From what I know, she's not exactly a barfly or. Well, just watch. You'll see."
A cowboy had sauntered up to the bar, cozying right next to Laurel Redmond. She didn't even glance over at him. Uh-uh. She just sat there, cool and reserved, even as he pushed back the brim of his hat to blatantly check her out.
"Keep watching," Miguel said, clearly entertained.
When the cowboy leaned over to say something, all she did was utter one short sentence. He drew back from her and was gone in a flash.
"That's what I've heard about Laurel Redmond,"
Miguel said. "I don't know the woman myselfshe's been in Red Rock for nearly a year, I think, and I've mostly been in New Yorkbut she's got a reputation as big as yours."
"She's the girl about town?"
"The opposite. She's as independent as they come. Enjoys her own company. Ambitious as hell. They say she's got a real chip on her shoulder from her time as a pilot in the Air Forceshe always wanted to prove herself as a woman there and rise above the standards they set. Cream of the crop, you know?"
"In short, she's not just a pretty face."
"Yeah, but I wouldn't ever mention those last two words to her. My God, she might throw you across the room."
Sawyer took another gander. Even if he wasn't the most ambitious man around, a challenge sounded like just the thing.
"She doesn't look like that much of a bully," he said.
When another mana silk-shirt-wearing, hair-slicked-back guyapproached her, all she did was mutter one sentence to him again, and he was off and away.
What was she saying that was so effective?
Sawyer couldn't help himself. He took his beer in hand, hooking a thumb in the belt loop of his jeans. "Don't mind if I do, Miguel. Thanks for the warnings, though."
Miguel shook his head. "It's your ego. But one last thing to remembershe's Tanner Redmond's little sister."
Sawyer definitely knew Tannerhe was married to Sawyer's cousin Jordana and was an ex-Air Force pilot, just like his little sis.
It hit Sawyer then. He'd actually seen Laurel at Jor-dana's wedding, but she'd had her hair pulled into an upswept style that made her look more polished than she did tonight, and she'd seemed uncomfortable in her fancy dress. She'd also stayed far from the dance floor, and she might've even left early. Sawyer had been pretty distracted that night, so he wasn't sure.
Tonight, though, she was relaxed, obviously not out to impress anyone, and Sawyer couldn't take his eyes off her.
Miguel sighed. "If you know Tanner, then you realize he's going to be on your case if you"
"I'm not out to make trouble with her." Family was everything to Sawyer. Even when James had told his sons that he felt betrayed by their defection, Sawyer had still felt a certain loyalty, defending him during the whole Jeanne Marie scandal.
Why? Well, he'd just have to see if Dad had been worth the effort when he got to Red Rock.
He brushed off his worries and shook Miguel's hand, congratulating him again.
But down the bar, another man was already making his move on Laurel.
"Good luck," Miguel said, staying on his stool at the bar.
A front-row seat?
Great. But Sawyer wasn't planning on crashing and burning, as Miguel had predicted he would.
When it came to meeting women, Sawyer Fortune always flew pretty high.