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New Year's Eve. A night of mystery.
Just like she was mysterious. Beautiful. Exotic. And definitely mysterious.
Dark, auburn hair spilled in waves down her back, kissing the golden spine revealed by the cut-down-to-there black cocktail dress that clung to her lithe figure. Her companion's dark blue gaze was focused intently on her face dropping to her lips as she took a small sip of her martini. Slightly dirty, just the way she'd ordered. She lowered the cocktail and leaned a little closer to him, feeling more than slightly naughty. Beneath the table, she slipped her foot out of her sinfully high black heels and subtly slid her toes along his ankle
"Excuse me, miss. Miss? Miss?"
The fantasy spinning inside Sarah-Jane Early's head popped like a bubble of spent soap and she focused on the tuxedo-clad man standing in front of the hostess station she was manning at Red, looking none too patient. She was there not to daydream, but to help see to the needs of every guest of the wedding reception that had commandeered the popular Mexican restaurant for the night, and she quickly smiled. "Yes, sir, how can I help you?"
The man tugged at his skewed bow tie, casting a glance off to one side. "How do I get to the Red Rock Inn?" His question was hurried, and muttered half under his breath. She could have told him he needn't have bothered trying to be so quiet. For the past three hours, the music from the reception had made conversations nearly impossible. She leaned a little closer to give him the directions to the hotel. He nodded, and took time to thank her before moving away to hold out his hand to the woman he'd obviously been waiting for.
In seconds, they were hurrying out the front door of the restaurant, the man's arm wrapped possessively around the woman's hips. It was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that the couple couldn't wait to be alone.
She knew there was no point in envying a couple in love or even a couple in lust, or she'd be spending her life in a constant state of envy. Still, Sarah-Jane sighed and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
Fantasizing about wearing killer heels was one thing. Actually doing it was another. She wished she'd have just worn a pair of shoes from her own closet. She had a pair of black pumps. Admittedly they were nearly ten years old, purchased by her mother who had insisted that Sarah-Jane needed to wear the modestly-heeled things for her high school graduation. But they were leather and having been worn only a few times since, were still in good condition.
She glanced down at the shoes she was currently wearing. If she were honest, the only thing in common these shoes had with the old ones in her closet were that they were black. She twisted one foot this way and that, and sighed again, a little wistfully. The shoes that Maria Mendoza had insisted she wear were beautiful. The velvety suede was as black as midnight and certainly suited the clinging black cocktail dress she was wearing better than her sensible old pumps.
Just thinking about the dress had Sarah-Jane's fingertips twitching at the hem of it, as if she could eke out another few inches of cloth where there was none. The hem of the dress stayed midway down her thighs, where it had been since she'd donned the garment earlier that day. She couldn't do anything about the hem anymore than she could do something about the diagonally-slashed cutout neckline that exposed much more of Sarah-Jane's cleavage than she liked. If she weren't positively devoted to Maria, who not only owned the restaurant along with her husband but also owned the knitting shop where Sarah-Jane really worked as an assistant manager, there's no way she'd have worn something so unsuitable out in public. She was a lot more comfortable in the pullover shirts and khaki pants that she wore at The Stocking Stitch. She wouldn't win any fashion awards, but at least she didn't have to worry that people might think she believed she could carry off such a look.
Her gaze drifted from the empty lobby area of the restaurant back toward the bar where many of the wedding guests had migrated. Most of the wedding party remained, though Emily Fortune and her brand-new husband, Max Allen, had already departed. As had many of the older guests, leaving the younger crowd to stay on and party into the night.
There wasn't an unsuitably-clad person in the bunch.
What else would one expect when the bride was part of the wealthy Fortune family? To a one, every single person who'd entered the restaurant that evening had looked like they'd stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
Her fingertips searched for her hem and tugged.
The sound of her name had her quickly straightening and she turned to find Marcos Mendoza gesturing from near the kitchen. He managed Red, but was also married to a Fortune of his own, and since that Fortune happened to be the little sister of the bride, he'd also been part of the wedding party. She left her post at the hostess station and hurried toward him. "Yes?"
"I think it's safe for you to clear out," he offered. "There's still a little New Year's Eve left for you to enjoy."
She kept her smile in place. "I arranged to be here the entire evening, Marcos." She certainly didn't have anything more exciting waiting for her at home. Her roommate, Felicity, was at a party, and there had never been any handsome men in Sarah-Jane's life who were anxious to ring in anything with her, much less a new year. At least by helping out Maria, she was doing something productive. "I know Maria wanted all of you to be able to enjoy the wedding as guests rather than staff. I can still help out in the kitchen or something."
He smiled wryly. "Well, I'm not about to turn down willing help. But you'd be a waste in the kitchen dressed like you are." Off duty and wedding guest or not, he was still clearly in management mode. He quickly scanned the restaurant, then nodded with decision. "Cindy's slammed at the bar; if you don't mind grabbing a tray and starting to collect the empties"
"I don't mind," she assured, and was glad to head that way. Being busy was always preferable to standing around letting her wandering mind conjure up silly fantasies of a faceless man who had eyes only for her.
Ignoring her aching feet, she headed toward the bar, crossing between the crowded tables. She would have had to have been blind not to notice the line of men bellied up to the bar as she rounded it, but she kept her gaze focused on the new task at hand. Cindy, the temporary bartender that Maria had hired for the evening, did look slammed, barely glancing at Sarah-Jane when she found the trays behind the bar. She retrieved one and quickly turned back around, heading to the tables once more. In minutes, she'd filled the tray with abandoned glasses, and she aimed toward the swinging door leading to the kitchen. She had to pass by the line of men at the bar again on the way, and as she did, one of them stuck out his arm behind him.
"Here you go, hon." Even above the music, his voice was deep and filled with a Southern drawl. The man didn't glance at her, and she automatically took the glass, looking away shyly when her gaze collided with the dark blond-haired man sitting next to him. "Wyatt, what the hell do you mean you're not coming back to Atlanta?" she heard him demand.
Not wanting to appear to be eavesdropping, she stacked the glass precariously inside another, and aimed for the kitchen again. The tray was too heavy to carry one handed, and she turned, using her hip to push through the swinging door.
Her gaze couldn't help glancing toward the men at the bar. She'd been the one to seat them at their assigned tables when they'd arrived, so she knew they were all related to the bride, though she wasn't sure exactly how. There were five of them, all wearing similar black suits that looked as if they'd been born to them. And each one was better looking than the last. They'd arrived without women on their arms, but Sarah-Jane had a hard time believing that they'd all be leaving without one.
At least she'd have plenty of details to give Felicity in the morning.
As if he'd felt her attention, the blond-haired man at the end of the bar sitting next to the glass-giver looked her way. He'd pulled his silver tie loose around his throat and looked like he couldn't wait to get out of it altogether.
Her breath stopped up in her chest and the door that she'd just nudged open swung back again, bumping her square on her rump. She jumped, feeling her cheeks flush.
But the man who'd seemed to be staring right into her eyes merely lifted the shot glass he was holding and tossed back the amber contents, his focus turning again to his companions.
He hadn't noticed her at all.
Feeling foolish, she backed through the swinging door and dumped off the empties with the kid manning the dishwasher. What was she thinking? Men like that didn't give women like Sarah-Jane a second glance. Not a serious one, anyway.
Never had. Never would.
With that reminder firmly in her head, she took her empty tray and went out to fill it again.
"I mean there's been a change of plans," Wyatt repeated patiently, while his cousin Michael eyed him with clear impatience. "We're staying here in Red Rock." Wyatt looked past his cousin to his three brothers. First Asher, then Shane, then Sawyer. Willing them to nod. Back him up. They'd already made the decision, and just because his brothers had been drinking steadily since they'd hit the bar didn't mean anything had changed.
Not back in Atlanta, that was for damn sure.
Asher finally nodded. Sawyer did, too. Shane's nod was a little slower in coming. "That's what we said," he muttered, though he didn't look any too happy about it.
Wyatt loved his brothers. But if anyone was going to side with their father, it was going to be Shane.
As if he'd heard Wyatt's thoughts, his brother shot him a look, then gestured toward the pretty bartender with his glass. Without a word, the lanky blonde tipped the bottle of whiskey, pouring out another shot before she turned and filled several margarita glasses for a waiting cocktail waitress.
"You're telling me you've all just up and decided to take unscheduled vacations from JMF Financial?" Michael was still shaking his head, disbelief thinning his lips. "A month ago you were complaining because you didn't know how to fit in a week to come out here for Emily's wedding."
A month agohell, even less than thatWyatt and his brothers had still had a rug firmly under their boots.
Thanks to their father, now they didn't.
"It's more than a vacation." His voice was flat. "We're not going back. Period."
Michael frowned, but he was obviously just as confused by the pronouncement as he was annoyed at the change of plans. His cousin didn't like being left out of the loop, but Wyatt didn't feel like explaining the reasons behind their decision. Not here at Emily's wedding reception, anyway, where the loud music was making any kind of conversation more public than he liked.
"What'd you all decide to do? Hang around Red Rock and find yourselves wives?" Michael's voice was heavy with sarcasm. "That's what everyone else in this family who sticks around in Red Rock for more than a few days seems to do. Puts their heads right into a marital noose."
"Hell no!" Sawyer visibly shuddered. He was twenty-seventwo years younger than Wyattand the idea of marriage was clearly as far from his mind as it was Wyatt's. Shane was nodding, too. And Asher well, Asher had already gone through one divorce. He just stared into his drink and said nothing.
"Then what the hell's going on?"
Wyatt's jaw was so tight, it ached. He looked away from his cousin's confounded face and his brothers' stoic ones. The hostess who'd seated them was still moving around the tables, loading up her little round tray with empty glasses. He watched the sway of her shapely backside as she disappeared through the swinging kitchen door with her latest load.
She looked about average heightshorter than the tall bartenderand from the gleaming auburn hair that she'd tied back in a knot to the high-heeled shoes she was wearing, she looked anything but average.
Watching her throughout the evening had at least provided a nice diversion when he'd felt his mood turning black.
"Maybe we need to go back to Atlanta," Shane suggested. "Shutting that door is pretty damn permanent, Wy. Even you've got to admit that."
Wyatt eyed his older brother. The eldest of his brothers at thirty-two, Shane was chief operating officer of JMF Financial. Slightly higher up the food chain than Wyatt was, but neither Wyatt's nor Sawyer's or Asher's stake in the future of the company was any less important. "We can discuss it later."
"He's right," Asher said quietly. He was only a year younger than Shane, and as was often the case, when he did speak up, he was the voice of reason. "This isn't the place."
"You've all lost your minds," Michael muttered. He was older than them all, and cousins or not, was used to calling the shots. "Whatever is going on. You're just gonna up and leave everything you've worked for at JMF. To stay in Red Rock." He shook his head at what he clearly considered unfathomable, but thankfully dropped the subject and waved his finger over his squat glass. The bartender saw the signal, and poured him yet another shot.
The blonde was good at her job. Efficient. Didn't linger, listening in. The reception had an open bar, but Wyatt figured he'd still leave the girl a healthy tip. She'd certainly earned it.
The voluptuous hostess slipped past again and Wyatt tracked her progress without really realizing it. The bartender was a pretty blonde who looked like she'd be just as at home batting around a volleyball on the beach as she did working behind the busy bar. In contrast, the hostess was a stunning knockout with enough curves to please a Formula 1 driver.
Wyatt wasn't a race car driver. And while he usually tended toward tall, athletic women more like the bartender, he found himself definitely appreciating the hostess's heady curves. Watching her was a lot more pleasurable than dwelling on the mess they'd left behind in Atlanta.
A mess that he and his brothers had had no hand in creating, but one they sure as hell had to live with.
The bartender stopped in front of him. "Sure I can't get you something stronger, Mr. Fortune?"
He shook his head. He'd learned a long time ago that he couldn't keep up with his brothers when it came to liquor. "I'll stick with the soda, thanks."
"On occasion." At this stage, neither his brothers nor his cousin looked like they were going to stop drinking anytime soon, so maybe he would be filling that role that night, as well. Michael had arrived at the reception with the wedding party in one of the limousines. Wyatt and his brothers had driven over in one of their rental cars.
"Let me know if I can get you anything else," the bartender offered, and experience told Wyatt she wasn't only talking about drinks. But even after conveying the message, she was already in motion again. Wyatt turned against the bar until it was behind his back and leaned on his elbows. He wasn't interested in the bartender. He wasn't interested in anyone.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of auburn hair and his gaze followed it.