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Brazen & Burning
By Julie Leto
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo stop the infernal knocking, Sydney Colburn swung her front door open. Bright light sent her stumbling backward, but she managed to catch the doorknob for balance. Unable to form a curse harsh enough to express her ire, she opted to growl.
The person who had driven her to this indignity had the audacity to sound amused. "Are you always this cheery at twelve noon or are you just really happy to see me?"
Sydney squinted, fighting the blinding light - the noon hour explained the glare - to find out who had the frickin' nerve to show up at her door sounding so incredibly buoyant when Sydney had a raging hangover. Her anger deflated when she met Cassie Michaels's eyes - sapphire-blue and wide with nineteen-year-old innocence.
Sydney knew Cassie's innocent act wasn't entirely fake. With a petite body and naturally dark hair plaited in youthful braids that reminded Sydney of Gilligan's Mary Ann, Cassie played the ingenue card for all it was worth. But Sydney had known Cassie too long to completely buy her sweet young thing act. Still, she let her inside the condo anyway. Cassie was, after all, the niece of Sydney's very best friend in the world. The very best friend who was indirectly responsible for her drinking binge the night before. And Syd was pretty sure that Cassie had been the one to make sure she got home safely last night.
"Shut the door before I show you how thrilled I really am," Sydney threatened feebly, stumbling away from the threshold and cursing herself for mixing vodka and rum. Or was it tequila and gin? She didn't remember. She didn't need to remember. Whatever she'd drank the night before had been blended with something pink. Grenadine? Cranberry juice? When she opened her fridge searching for something to quench her thirst and caught sight of a jug of Ocean Spray, she gagged, thankful she had no breakfast in her stomach and, therefore, none on her floor.
Why hadn't she eaten yet if it was noon? Oh, yeah. She'd just woken up. Why had she gotten out of bed again? Right. Loud knocking. Cassie.
The pint-size brunette strolled into her kitchen as if she'd been there a thousand times before. Which she probably had. "Have a good time last night?"
Sydney would have growled again, but she hated to be redundant. "Why are you here?" she asked instead.
"Aunt Devon wanted me to check on you."
"Liar. Devon's on her honeymoon."
Cassie slid a chair out from under the kitchen table, filling Sydney's head with a horrible screeching noise that obliterated the first couple of words of Cassie's answer.
"... drank more than all the groomsmen put together. And I'm a little concerned that binge drinking may be your way of dealing with being the last single woman in your circle of friends."
"Let me guess," Sydney said, pulling out her own chair much more quietly, "the first class you're taking at Tulane is Pop Psychology." She had no intention of answering Cassie's intrusive question. Besides, she didn't have an answer. She didn't want to accept that she'd drunk herself into oblivion last night all on account of a cliché.
Poor, unmarried me. No single friends left to hang with. No man in my life to make my world complete.
"No, but I read Dr. Phil's newest book on my plane ride home for the wedding," Cassie answered. "Besides, I'm nineteen. That makes me a certifiable expert on everything, remember?"
Remember what? Nineteen? Sydney snorted. She couldn't remember last night, much less something that had occurred over eleven years ago. Besides, she'd tried damned hard to suppress most memories from around ages ten to twenty. Those years were formative and filled with more mistakes, missteps and misery than she ever wanted to relive.
However, just around the time of her twenty-first birthday, Sydney had made a decision to buck the system of her New England upbringing and live without apologies. She did what she wanted, when she wanted. She spoke the truth, even when people didn't want to listen. She played the stock market like a blackjack table - and won. She wrote widely popular, highly subversive historical romance novels where the women were strong and smart and could bring hulking knights and bloodthirsty warriors to their knees.
And whenever she could, she took lovers the way most men did - with emphasis on immediate physical payoff and avoiding commitment. For the past decade, Sydney's carefree, unrepentant lifestyle had worked wonders. She'd graduated from college, made a successful career for herself as a novelist and collected a small but loyal group of friends who accepted her for who she really was. Not to mention that she had a love life that would make even the most sexually satisfied heroines in her books pea-green with envy.
And, yes, last night she'd become the last single woman in that loyal group of friends, excluding Cassie, who was too young to really count, though rumor had it her innocent young friend had recently met a college boy and was, officially, smitten. Who knew how long it would be before Sydney was throwing a wedding shower for a bride thirteen years her junior?
Oh, well. She'd throw one hell of a party. Sydney'd never planned to get married anyway. She hadn't drank too much last night because she'd felt lonely or left out or any other weepy sentiment on the dark side of the emotional spectrum.
She'd drank too much last night because drinking too much was the only thing she could think to do since her life suddenly came to a stop. And not because of Devon's wedding. She was genuinely happy for Devon. As Cassie's legal guardian, Devon Michaels had spent most of her adult life caring for her niece at the expense of her own personal fulfillment. Sydney had toasted her friend and fellow writer with great gusto and premium poetic words. She liked to think she had a hand in the romance of her mystery novelist friend and Jake Tanner, the hunky former cop Devon had married. She'd encouraged their relationship from the start and had no regrets.
No, Sydney Colburn's life had come to a stop at precisely five o'clock Wednesday afternoon - a full three days prior to the wedding - simply because she'd reached the pinnacle of her career. Her newest book, a hardcover historical set on the moors of Scotland, had debuted in the number one spot on the coveted New York Times bestseller list. She'd achieved her single most important dream, as evidenced by the newspaper Cassie had carried into the condo and was now spreading carefully over Sydney's butcher-block tabletop.
"Congratulations. I hear you kicked some literary ass last week," Cassie said, attempting to couch her understated tone with a wry grin.
"Apparently," Sydney grumbled.
Sydney had dreamed about this day since she first learned there ever was such a thing as a bestseller list. These novels were in such demand by booksellers and readers across the country that the titles and authors' names were printed in the country's most prestigious newspaper.
"Aunt Dev said you've wanted this all your life."
"Well, I don't think I wanted it when I was four," Sydney quipped. "My main ambition then would have been a Malibu Barbie with a cool Corvette convertible."
Excerpted from Brazen & Burning by Julie Leto Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.