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Tess Robertson stepped through the doors of the Per-ryman Hotel, nodding at the doorman as she passed. The lobby of Nashville's most luxurious hotel was decorated for the Christmas holidays, although the atmosphere was now buzzing with the excitement of the upcoming New Year's weekend.
She searched the scattered guests, lounging on upholstered sofas and chairs. A few of them glanced over at her and she wondered if they could see right through her elegant facade. Maybe that saying was true. You can take a girl out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the girl.
Her gaze dropped to her shoes, purchased just that morning, along with her dress and the small clutch purse she had gripped in her hand. The sexy shoes pinched and the sleek bag barely held more than money, a lipstick and her cell phone. But she had to admit the dress was the prettiest thing she'd ever owned, worth every penny she'd charged on her credit card. It was important she looked her best tonight. For the first time in the five years she'd worked for the Beale family, she'd been invited to their annual New Year's Eve party.
The Beales, Frank and Nan, and their son, Jeffrey, were Tennessee gentry, their old family money made in industrycotton, tobacco and shippingand now invested in commercial real estate and the thoroughbred farm she managed for them outside Lexington, Kentucky. They wintered in Palm Beach and summered at a mountain estate near Asheville, leaving their vast business concerns to Jeffrey, their thirty-three-year-old only son.
Though people like the Beales moved in a very different world from Tess's, their paths often intersected at the farm and at all the important horse racesthe Derby, the Preakness, Belmont. Still, there had always been an invisible wall between themthe Beales relaxed in a luxury box while she worked in the stables. They wore beautiful clothes and she dressed in jeans. They traveled on private jets and she rode in a pickup truck, pulling a horse trailer. The rich were very differentexcept for Jeffrey.
She spun around to find her best friend, Alison Cole, hurrying across the lobby, her heels clicking on the marble floor as she walked.
"Sorry I'm late," Alison said. "Have you been here long?" She leaned close and hugged Tess. "How was your Christmas? And your Dad? Good I hope." She stepped back and gave Tess a quick perusal. "You look fabulous! You clean up very well." She examined Tess's hair and nodded in approval. "No hay. That's a good sign."
Tess's spirits brightened. "Do you really like the dress? It was between this and a blue one. The blue one made my chest look enormous, but I thought this garnet color was more sophisticated."
They both glanced around the lobby, realizing that Tess had spoken a little too loudly. "Good choice," Alison said with a laugh.
"Well, it's true," Tess whispered, silently reminding herself to think before she spoke. It was one of her worst habits, one she was trying to change.
"Now, tell me, why was it so important that I come along with you to this party? You hang around these people all the time. Why are you nervous about tonight?"
Tess grabbed Alison's hand and led her toward the bar. "I'll explain everything over a drink. I don't want to get upstairs too early. I haven't eaten all day and the buffet will be too much to resist. You know I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to crab claws."
Once they'd settled themselves at the bar, Tess took a gulp of her vodka tonic, then drew a deep breath. "I think Jeffrey is going to propose to me tonight," she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth.
Alison gasped, her eyes going wide. "What?"
"I've been expecting it for a while. We've been carrying on this relationship for about four years and I can tell he's getting restless. When he was at the farm a couple weeks ago, he told me he was going to make a very important announcement at the party tonight and that I might be surprised. Then, out of nowhere, I get an invitation. I've never been invited before. And this would be so him, shocking his parents with the news that he wants to marry me. I can just see him, getting down on his knee at midnight in front of all these people."
"Have you even discussed marriage?"
"No, not really," Tess said. "But it makes perfect sense for both of us. We make a good team."
"And you love him?"
Tess hesitated before answering. It was a question she'd asked herself over and over again. The answer seemed to change like the weather. "He can give me the security I never had, and I can be a good wife to him." She shook her head. "I know you've never really liked him, but"
"No," Alison said. "It's not that I don't like him. I don't know him. We've never met. You're the only one who knows him. This whole relationship exists in the dark, Tess. No one has a clue anything's going on between you. Don't you find that strange?"
"We both wanted it that way," Tess insisted. "It would have caused too many problems if everyone at the farm thought I was sleeping with the boss. And you know my father. Give him a few drinks and he'd be bragging about it to all his buddies. Besides, the Beales have always wanted Jeffrey to marry someone from a prominent family. He's trying to protect me."
Alison shook her head, turning back to her drink. "I just think it's a little weird."
Tess reached out and touched her arm. "I know it is. But we're two very practical people. We respect each other. We're both focused on our work. And even though the sex isn't earth-shattering, it's enough for me. I can be very happy with that."
"I thought I could, too," Alison said. "But when you find the real thing, you'll feel much differently. Think about yourself for once, Tess. Don't worry about your father or your finances."
That was easy for Alison to say, Tess mused. Alison had two parents who had loved and cared for her and two sisters to support her along the way. All Tess had was an alcoholic father who'd drifted from job to job during her childhood and gambled away any chance they ever had at a stable home life.
Tess had become his caretaker at the age of seven, at the moment her mother had walked out nearly twenty years ago. How many times had they been homeless since that day? How many days had they scraped out a living doing menial labor on horse farms just to eat? She knew exactly what Jeffrey's money would buy. Tess would finally have a home of her own, a place in the world that wasn't dependant on keeping her job.
"I know what I'm doing," Tess said.
"Then why am I here? Are you sure you didn't want me to talk you out of this?"
"Moral support. I need at least one person in that room on my side. And I can say anything to you. You understand me."
"You should be able to say anything to Jeffrey, too," Alison said. "You shouldn't have to pretend to be something you're not, Tess."
"I'm not pretending," Tess countered. "I'm just moderating my bad habits." She straightened. "He lives in a whole different world, with different rules. I just want to fit in."
Up until the time she'd entered college, Tess and her father had been gypsies, outsiders who never stayed in one place more than a year. From upstate New York to Florida to California, back and forth across the country, Tess had made friends only to lose them.
She'd met Alison their freshman year in college at University of Kentucky in Lexington. They were both there on scholarship and spent long nights working at various campus jobs to make ends meet. Alison was Tess's first and only true friend.
"Do you really think I'm settling?" Tess asked.
"I just want you to be happy. You deserve a guy who makes your heart race, one who can't live without you. A guy who loves you exactly the way you are." She paused. "How do you feel? Can you live without him?"
"Of course I can," Tess said. She stopped short, realizing she'd spoken too quickly. It wasn't the answer Ali wanted to hear. "You know what I mean. I've been providing for us since I could muck out a stall. I just meant that it's possibleto live without him. To live without anybody." She paused, her voice going soft. "I know what I want." Tess took a long gulp of her drink then set the glass in front of her.
"You also deserve a man who doesn't want to keep your relationship a secret," Alison continued. "Who doesn't have to explain his feelings for you to his parentswho doesn't send you an engraved invitation to show up for his marriage proposal."
"Stop!" Tess cried. "Have you found this paragon of manhood? I don't know if he exists. I could wait my entire life and never find him." She looked over at Alison to find a tiny smile twitching at the corners of her friend's mouth. "What? You have?"
"I'm almost afraid to talk about it," Alison said. "It's so new. But it is so incredible. We just can't seem to keep our hands off each other. He's a doctor. And he works out of a little clinic in the mountains, a few hours from Johnson City. I've only known him about a month, but it's like we've been together forever. He's sweet and sexy and funny and he's turned my life upside down. And I love him."
"Then why aren't you with him tonight?"
"Because you said you needed me here. And you're my dearest friend." Alison smiled coyly. "All right. He's upstairs, naked, in bed, enjoying treats from the mini-bar and watching a hockey game until I get back. I'm planning to rejoin him as soon as my duties as best friend are completed."
"Oh, no you don't!" Tess cried. "You don't need to stay with me. I'm just being silly. Go back to your naked man."
"He's just fine," Alison said.
"Really. I can do this on my own," Tess insisted. "And after Jeffrey proposes, I'll bring him downstairs and introduce you. Then I can meet your doctor."
"Or maybe we can get together for breakfast tomorrow?" Alison suggested. "Or brunch?"
"All right," Tess agreed, anxious to send Alison on her way. "Brunch."
"Are you ready?" Alison asked.
She shook her head. "No. I'm going finish my drink. Then I'll be ready. You go ahead. I'll talk to you later."
"All right. I'll see you tomorrow." Alison gave her a hug, then picked up her purse. "Listen to your heart, sweetie, and you'll be just fine." As Alison headed back out to the lobby, Tess grabbed a bowl of pretzels and munched on one, thinking about the way the evening might unfold.
She'd met Jeffrey when he'd visited the farm with his parents right after Derby Week four and a half years ago. She'd been working as the assistant manager at Beresford and Tess had thought he was handsome and friendly. There hadn't been an attraction, at least not on her part. But after he'd returned every weekend for a month with the excuse that he wanted to learn how to ride, they'd just fallen into a sexual relationship. Two years later, she was promoted from assistant manager to manager, due in part to Jeffrey's recommendation.
Though they secretly slept together whenever he was at the farm, they'd maintained a cordial business relationship outside the bedroom. Jeffrey had helped her learn how the stable fit into the Beale holdings and she'd taught him nearly everything she knew about the horse business.
Beyond their shared interests on the farm, they were quite compatible in the bedroom. Sex was enjoyable, if not a bit mundane. And Tess seemed to satisfy his needs. She'd never felt giddy or light-headed, never heard angels singing or saw fireworks when they were in bed together, but she'd written all that off as some silly schoolgirl myth.
The past few years, Jeffrey's family had been pressuring him to choose a wife and give them grandchildren. And though she and Jeffrey had discussed the subject of marriagehis marriagetheir conversations had always just danced around her part in the equation. She knew he loved her. He'd told her that on a number of occasions. In her heart, she believed a marriage proposal was the next logical step.
So why did it feel as if she were settling? Perhaps, she was just too practical to lose herself in the pursuit of some fantasy man. In truth, she had a hard time imagining any relationship in which she could completely surrender her heart. The wounds of her childhood ran far too deep.
Tess studied her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She'd taken special care with her appearance, knowing she'd want to look her best for the photos that would be taken. She'd chosen a dress of garnet Thai silk that shimmered with black and gold highlights as she moved.
A rhinestone necklace circled her neck, leaving the rest of her shoulders and chest bare.
Her attention was caught by the reflection of a man who had appeared at the other end of the bar. She studied his reflection silently, listening as he requested a bottle of scotch. He was the kind of gorgeous she didn't see very often, at least not working on a horse farm. Her stomach fluttered and she turned away, drawing a deep breath.
Tess ran her fingers through the soft curls of her shoulder-length hair, pushing the dark strands back into place. Though she wasn't a great beauty, she was pretty enough. Standing at Jeffrey's side, they made a handsome couple. If she set her mind to it, she could pass as someone who belonged in the Beales' social circle.
Tess took one last sip of her drink, then opened her purse and paid the bartender. But as she walked back through the lobby to the elevator, she began to doubt her resolve. Though she ought to be feeling exhilarated, all she could sense was a faint sense of dread. His parents wouldn't approve, the party guests wouldn't welcome her, and she be left as she always wasan outsider searching for a way in.
"So what else is new," she muttered, quickening her step. She'd been an outsider her entire life and had survived quite nicely. If Jeffrey asked, then she'd say yes. He was the only one who mattered. She didn't care what people thought.
Tess hurried toward the elevator.