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Cassiopeia watched Tuck whatever his last name was of quarterback fame swagger in the general direction of their table with his long, loose-limbed gait. Somehow his big, blond athleticism seemed to dominate the vast expanse of the open tent, with its delicate swathes of royal blue draped across the ceilings and trailing gently to the deck. But then she had a feeling he'd probably dominate any setting.
He made slow progress. Men stopped him to slap him on the back and shake his hand. Women stopped him to bat their eyelashes and put their hands on him. He took both in his stride, shrugging off their adoration with a wide, easy Shucks, I ain't nuthin grin. The man was so laid-back Cassie was surprised he managed to stay vertical.
Very different from the man she'd watched only yesterday playing a very physical game of one-on-one basketball with Reese's ex-Marine ex-husband Mason.
Reese had left the party that had originally been intended to be her wedding to Dylan to go after Mason, but her instructions to the remaining members of the Awesome Foursome had been clearmake sure no one gets into a fight.
Reese had deliberately sat Tuck, the jilted groom's best man, next to heraway from Ginato prevent such a calamity.
With Tuck firmly on Team Dylan and Gina, whose favourite pastime was baiting people, on Team Reese, Cassie could already tell it was going to be a long night.
'He sure is pretty,' Gina murmured with relish as she tracked his progress.
A very long night.
Cassie didn't really see the attraction. But then she'd never been a slave to her hormones. She just wasn't programmed that way.
Sure, Tuck Whats-his-name had all the features that the female of the species looked for in a mate. He was tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped. She couldn't see the delineation of the muscles in his chest tonight, although they were obviously there beneath his charcoal suit. She knew from his shirtless one-on-one yesterday that they were plentiful and very well developed.
And, in the animal world, muscles equalled strength.
Another biological tick in his favour.
There was also the symmetry of his face. Square jaw, prominent cheekbones, nose, chin and forehead all proportional. Eyes evenly spaced. Lips perfectly aligned. Facial symmetry was one of the big markers of physical attraction and worthiness for mating, and Tuck had it in spades.
But Cassie still didn't get it.
'I have to go to the bathroom,' she said, turning to Gina. 'Try not to get into a fight with him while I'm gone. Remember, Reese is counting on us.'
'I'll be on my best behaviour,' Gina assured her.
If Cassie had been better at picking up sarcasm she wouldn't have been assured one iota, but she nodded, satisfied.
'Herereapply,' Gina said, reaching into her clutch purse and pulling out the deep mulberry lipstick she'd slathered on Cassie's mouth earlier.
Cassie frowned. 'Why?'
'Because.' Gina sighed. 'That's the price of wearing lippy.' She waggled the item at her friend, who was looking at it as if it were a foreign object she'd never seen before. 'Beauty is pain.'
Cassie smiled at the old catchphrase. Beauty is pain. She'd learned many things about being a woman under Gina's tutelage. Gina could wear a pair of killer stilettos out clubbing all night without a single wince. Cassie had pretty much forgotten everything in the intervening decade, but she'd never forgotten how Gina had taken her under her wingas if she were an Antipodean Eliza Doolittle.
Of course Cassie had failed 'Female 101' resoundingly, but Gina had been sweet and patient and there was just something about her vibrant personality that drew people. Cassie and Gina had stayed in contact despite the wedge that had been driven between the Awesome Foursome after Gina had thrown her one-night stand with Carter in Marnie's face that fateful last night together ten years ago.
And now, a decade down the track, Gina was still looking out for her in the fashion stakes. Gina had taken one look at the shapeless maxi-dress Cassie had been going to wear and declared it an unnatural disaster. Before Cassie had known it she was swathed in soft grape fabric with no sleeves, a plunging crossover neckline, a ruched form-fitting waist and an A-line skirt, the hem of which fluttered just below her knees.
Her straight brown hair had been freed from its regulation floral scrunchie and loosely curled. Sparkly, strappy kitten heels had been supplied. A subtle hand had seen to eyeshadow and mascara. Lipstick had been brandished with gusto.
'Reapply,' Gina repeated.
Bowing to a greater knowledge, Cassie took the lipstick as instructed and departed.
Tuck pulled up at the table he'd been allocated a minute later. His knee ached but he ignored it in deference to the sultry sex goddess with raven hair. She was dressed in something red and clingy, sitting there looking up at him with a smile on her full mouth. A connoisseur of women from way back, he liked what he saw.
He shot her one of his killer smiles. He knew they were killer because an article about him in Cosmo had spent an entire paragraph talking about the sheer wickedness of his smile.
'Well this here may just be my lucky night,' he drawled, deliberately dragging out his vowels, plying her with all his Southern charm. His accent had been blunted over the years, with travel and living far from his Texan roots, but he could still pull it out when required.
According to the magazines, women just loved all that Southern country-boy charisma.
Gina quirked an elegantly arched eyebrow. 'Oh, yes? Do tell,' she murmured.
'Ah, you're the Brit.' He grinned. 'Gina, right?'
She nodded. 'And you're the quarterback.'
Tuck checked the closest handwritten place card on the table, disappointed to see that he was sitting directly opposite this sexy Englishwoman. He held it up and looked at her. 'What say we switch this one for who-ever's supposed to be sitting next to you?'
'Hmm ' Gina placed her elbows on the table, propping her chin on one palm, pretending to think. 'I think Reese meant to keep you and I apart.'
Tuck shot her his best wounded look. 'And why would she want to do that?'
'I think she was afraid you and I might come to blows.'
He continued his faux outrage. 'Over what?'
'Over her recent shall we say split from the groom. Your best friend?'
'Ah. Well, now, if Dylan's unconcerned then there's no good in me holding a grudge, is there? Besides,' Tuck said, pulling out his chair and sitting, his knee protesting at the movement, 'I can flirt just as well from this side.'
Gina laughed. She couldn't help herself. The big blond quarterback had an ego the size of North America. 'You're that good, huh?' 'Darlin', I am the best.'
Gina spied Cassie in the distance, making her way back to the table. She flicked her gaze to Tuck. It would be good to see him brought down a notch or two. 'Works every time, huh?'
Tuck grinned at the sudden sparkle of light he could see in her eyes. 'Every time.'
'No one's immune to your charm?'
Tuck shook his head. 'Women love me. If they're female and breathing ' He shrugged, then dazzled her with another wide smile. 'What can I say? I have a gift.'
Gina smiled back. He really was an exceedingly good-looking man, and his cast-iron confidence only added to his allure. It was a shame she wasn't in the right frame of mind for a dalliance because she had an idea a night in bed with Tuck would be a great way to forget how badly she'd stuffed up all those years ago.
But her heart wasn't in it.
Just then the DJ played his first number for the night and Tuck pressed home the advantage. 'Ah, they're playing our song,' he teased. 'How about we knock off the pretence and you just dance with me, Gina?'
Gina considered him a moment, aware of Cassie drawing closer all the time behind Tuck's head. 'Nah, getting me to dance would be too easy. Care to take a little wager?'
Tuck smiled at her. A woman who liked to gamblebetter and better. He leaned forward. 'I'm all ears.'
'I bet you can't get her' Gina nodded her head to indicate Cassie 'to dance.'
Tuck turned in his chair to see who Gina had in mind for him. A woman about the same age as Gina in some kind of purple dress was walking towards them. She had long dark brown hair arranged in loose ringlets that fell forward over nice bare shoulders. She had a cute nose, pretty eyes and an interesting mouth, and she was walking along seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, a slight frown marring her forehead as if her thoughts were somewhere else.
She was no English sex kitten, that was for sure.
She didn't look like the average gridiron groupie either. Still, she was female, and Tuck had always liked a challenge. He turned back and smiled at Gina. 'Piece of cake.'
Gina laughed. 'Oh, this is going to be good.' Tuck raised an eyebrow. 'What do I get? When I win?' Gina smiled. 'The pleasure of Cassie's company, of course.'
Tuck inclined his head. 'Of course.'
Despite her earlier concerns about leaving Gina and Tuck together, Cassie had given it little thought in the fifteen minutes she'd been away. Her brain had been mulling over the findings of an astronomy research paper she'd read last night. She'd even applied the lipstick as ordered by Gina without conscious thought as she recalled the fascinating data.
She was surprised for a moment when she arrived back at the table to find Tuck Whats-his-name sitting there with Gina, apparently getting along just fine. She slotted the research into a file in her head and shut it down with a mental mouse click.
'Everything okay here?' she asked.
Tuck took a deep breath, then stood and used one of his very best hey-baby smiles on Cassie. 'Hi,' he said. 'I'm Reese's cousin, Tuck.' He stuck out his hand. 'It's mighty fine to meet you, ma'am.'
Cassie blinked up at him as he towered over her. Two things struck her at once. The man smelled incredible. Her nostrils flared as her senses filled up with him. And it wasn't his cologne, because she was pretty sure she couldn't smell anything artificial at all. Maybe a hint of soap or deodorant.
This was much rawer. More primal. Powerful. Overpowering, even. It made her want to press her nose to his shirt and inhale him. It demanded that she do so and she had to actually put her hands on the chair-back to stop herself.
So this was pheromones.
Scientists had known of their existence for decades, and perfume companies around the world had been trying to perfect them for just as long, but this man exuded it in hot, sticky waves.
Her salivary glands went into hyper-drive and she swallowed as she grappled with the urge to sniff him.
The second thing was his eyes. They were an intense, startling blue. The exact shade of an exploding star she'd once seen through the lens of a deep space telescope. They were out of this world. They were cosmic. Captivating.
Tuck looked into Cassie's upturned face. She was staring at him, her lips slightly parted, the sound of her breath husky in his ears. He glanced at Gina and grinned.
Piece of cake.
Cassie dragged herself back from the universe she could see in his eyes, his intoxicating scent still singing to her like a Siren from the rocks. 'Oh, yes sorry.' She shook her head. What had he said? Name. He'd introduced himself. 'I'm Cassie,' she said. 'Cassiopeia.'
And then she made the mistake of slipping her hand into his and his pheromones tugged at herhard.
'So you're the geek,' he said softly, smiling at her.
Another dizzying wave of male animal wafted over her and it took a moment for Cassie's brain to clear the fog.
Yes, she was the geek. And he was the jock. She had him by a good sixty IQ pointsprobably more. She didn't get stupid around men. She didn't get stupid, period!
So start acting like it!
She pulled her hand from his abruptly. 'And you're the jock,' she said, as much to remind herself as a statement of fact.
Tuck refused to be offended. He shot Gina a faux insulted look. 'Why do I get the feeling that Cassie isn't fond of jocks?'
Gina lifted a shoulder. 'Don't take it personally. Cassie's not fond of men generally.' He shot her a look and she cut him off before he gave voice to what she knew he was thinking. 'Not women, either.'
Tuck grinned, then turned his attention back to Cassie. Okay, so he had his work cut out for him. His momma always said things came too damn easy to him anyway. Her eyes were even prettier up close. A grey-blue, like a misty lake, with subtle charcoal and silver eyeshadow bringing out both colours perfectly.
He nodded at her place card on the table next to his and said, 'Looks like I have the whole night to change your mind.' Then he pulled out her chair and smiled at her.
Cassie didn't move for a moment. She simply stared at him as the deep modulation of his voice joined forces with his heady scent to drench every cell in her body with a sexual malaise. Her nipples beading against the fabric of the flimsy dress Gina had loaned her snapped her out of it.
'I usually require several pieces of evidence from trusted sources before I change my mind about anything,' she said primly, taking the seat.
'Noted,' Tuck murmured, stifling a grin as he took his seat. He lounged back in it, regarding Cassie as she fiddled with her cutlery. 'So, you don't sound like you're from around these here parts,' he said.
'No.' Cassie refused to elaborate. Just because Reese thought it was a good idea to sit them together, it didn't mean she had to be agreeable.
Gina rolled her eyes and took pity on Tuck. 'Cassie's Australian.'
'Ah. Whereabouts? Sydney? That's one pretty little city you have there,' he said.
'Canberra,' Cassie said as she ran her finger up and down the flat of her knife. 'It's the capital,' she added. A lot of people didn't realise that. And he was a jock.
'Well, now,' he said, leaning forward in his chair, his gaze acknowledging Gina before returning to Cassie, 'we can have us a meeting of the United Nations.'
'Hardly,' Cassie said, desperately trying to sit as far back in her chair as possible and remember that he was a jocka footballereven if he did have pheromones so potent he should be being studied at the Smithsonian. Or milked and sold to the highest-bidding perfume manufacturer.
'There are one hundred and ninety-three member states in the United Nations. And they meet in Geneva.' She looked at Tuck. Jocks weren't very good with geography. 'That's in Switzerland.'
Tuck raised an eyebrow. He was used to people making assumptions about his intelligence. Truth be told, he played up to them mostlybecause calling people on their ignorance was usually an amusing way to pass the time.