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"You promised me sex."
Sean Paterson lounged against the wall, crossing his arms as he surveyed the room.
Despite the refinement of the five-star-hotel ballroom, the party was beginning to get out of hand. It was late, and the volume had risen in direct proportion to the consumption of alcohol. The dance floor was heaving. Women's shoes had been abandoned, men's coats left hanging limply on satin-covered chairs. On a nearby table, an overturned glass created a slowly spreading stain in the crisp, expensive linen cloth.
As weddings went, Sean figured this one would go down as a success.
"I did nossuch thing," his brother slurred. Rob was looking flushed, but whether it was from champagne or the untold dizziness of his newlywed status, Sean wasn't sure. Either way, he took big-brother pride in his little brother's happiness, while also being simultaneously suspicious andstrangelya tiny bit jealous of it.
He raised his eyebrows as he turned to Rob. "Yes, dear brother, you did. When you asked me to be your best man, I declined for all the sensible reasons we both understand all too well. But then you told me the ladies go gaga over a guy in a tux and the bridesmaids would be desperate to get in my pants, so I reluctantly capitulated. What you didn't tell me was that, of said bridesmaids, one would be about-to-pop pregnant and the other would be jailbait."
Rob swayed a little. "Yeah. Maybe I did. Sorry 'bout that."
Sean straightened and slapped his brother on the arm. "Might want to take it easy on the grog, mate. Don't want to disappoint your bride on her wedding night."
Rob laughed. "Look at her. As if she isn't going to pass out as soon as she hits the sheets." There was an unmistakably fond warmth in his voice as he gestured to the dance floor, where Hailey was dancing with her friends. The flowers pinned in her hair were about to fall out and her frilly skirts were hitched up in her arms so she could show off all her steps to the '80s retro hits the DJ had insisted on playing all night. If anything, she was drunker than Rob.
"Besides," Rob said, awkwardly peeling off his black jacket, "when've I ever had to help you score? You do just fine on your own."
Sean inclined his head in acknowledgment. Although he and Rob were close, they'd taken very different paths in life.
Rob and Hailey had met in their senior years of high school and there'd never been any question that they'd marryit was just a matter of when. Sean knew that Rob had only slept with one other girl in his lifewhen he and Hailey had broken up for a few months during their university yearsand Sean wasn't sure if he approved of that. Surely it wasn't right for a guy to commit himself to one girlforeverwithout sampling more of what the world had to offer. But Rob insisted he knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was Hailey.
Sean's life, in comparison was different. Very different. Much to the despair of their parents. But despite all the family difficulties, they were still brothers, and so here he was. For Rob, he'd do just about anythingeven face his mother's frown and his father's scowl and the general disapproving air from the rest of the snotty Paterson clan.
He scanned the room again. Weddings were so not his thingfamily or otherwise. But there was
"Who's that?" Sean asked. He'd noticed the woman before, at the ceremony, but lost sight of her when he'd had to go with the wedding party and pose for a ridiculous series of photographs in ever-more-unlikely locations: the bustling kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, and on the tram tracks in the middle of one of Melbourne's busiest city streets. For the couple of hours they'd been under the photographer's control, Sean hadn't been sure if she'd been trying to photograph them or get them killed.
"Who?" Rob asked.
Sean pointed with his chin across the room. She was hard to miss. Sitting at a table by herself, trying to look okay with that fact, but failing badly.
Bronzed brunette hair hung in waves down her back. Her burgundy evening dress was cut low in front and swept across her hips to fall in soft folds around her legs. They were great legsSean had noticed when she'd sat down in the church. From his vantage point, he'd had a great view of the generous split up the front that had parted and almost revealed all her assets before she'd primly pulled the two halves of the skirt together and covered herself from his sight.
It was one of those moments that Sean always noticeda moment his writer's brain took in and preserved for future character-revealing traits. Her little maneuver told him a lot about her: she'd worn an unmistakably sexy dress, and yet wasn't quite comfortable in it. Intriguing.
"Oh, the brunette?" Sean nodded.
"Yeah, that's Hailey's boss."
Rob nodded, his head bouncing as though it was attached to his neck by a spring. "Uh-huh."
"Who's she here with?"
"Oh, uh, I think she came on her own." Rob was distracted by someone calling out to him from the other side of the room.
Sean stopped himself from rubbing his hands together. "Nice," he said under his breath.
Rob heard and his attention abruptly returned to their conversation. "Sean, she's Hailey's boss."
Sean didn't miss the warning. "I'll behave," he said.
Before Rob could say anything more, the room was filled with the sound of cutlery clinking on glassesa tradition that demanded the newlyweds kiss before the noise would stop.
"Oh, jeez, again?" Rob groaned.
The guests had been taking great delight in forcing Rob and Hailey to kiss as often as possibleand usually when they were on opposite ends of the room.
Sean gave Rob a shove toward the dance floor. "Better go do your husbandly duty."
"Yeah, I guess." Rob's words were flat but his expression showed he was nothing less than thrilled about another chance to kiss his bride. He took a step toward the dance floor, but then paused and turned back. "Hey, man?" Rob settled a serious look on his brother. "Thanks. You know? Really. I know how much this sucked for you. I'm just glad you could be here."
Rob grabbed Sean in a drunken embrace, and Sean found himself stepping into it, clasping his brother in return, slapping his back hard, then just hanging on. He'd had a key role in the wedding, but this was the first time they'd had the chance for a brotherly momentevery other minute of the day had been packed with tasks, obligations, and with Sean taking great care to avoid being alone with either or both of their parents.
Rob stepped back, blinking suspiciously.
Sean wasn't about to get that soppy. Besides, unlike Rob, he hadn't had much to drinkhe'd learned from hard-won experience it was better to keep his wits about him when surrounded by his family.
He gave Rob another slap on the arm. "You're welcome. Now go be a husband."
Rob grimaced, but Sean watched his face transform as he headed to his bride, the frown turning into a goofy smile when Hailey did a clumsy pirouette and began to dance in his direction.
Sean turned his attention back to the room, scanning it before his gaze once again settled on the brunette. Hailey's bossshe owned and ran the small vet clinic where Hailey was working while she finished her veterinary studies. Rob hadn't told him her name. Oh, well, at least that gave him his opening.
Jess's feet were twitching in their uncomfortable heels, and she hoped most people would mistake it as an urge to dance. Actually, it was an urge to get the hell out of here.
It had been a lovely gesture for Hailey, her veterinary nurse, to invite her to the wedding. It was wonderful to see Hailey looking so beautiful and so happy; she and Rob were the picture-book bridal couple. Jess had listened to all the wedding planning and prewedding nerves over the past few months, so it was nice to be here to see it all come togetherespecially knowing how much the whole thing cost. There'd even been a photographer in attendance from one of the glossy magazinesapparently a Paterson family wedding was a bigger deal than she'd thought. She also better understood some of Hailey's bridezilla-style hysterics now, having met the indomitable Mr. and Mrs. Paterson, who presided over the event like a stern king and queen.
But at the moment, Jess wished she'd been able to find an excuse not to come. When Margie, the clinic receptionist and third team member of their tiny practice, had realized she wouldn't be able to attend the wedding because it clashed with the Pacific-island cruise she'd booked with her husband, it had been too late for Jess to retract her acceptance.
At least if Margie had been here, Jess would have known someone. It wasn't that she was a wallflower, really. It was just hard being the odd man out, so to speak, in a room full of people who otherwise all knew each other.
Unfortunately, she'd been seated at the table with Hailey and Rob's university friends. Jess could understand the logica lot of them were single, too, and they weren't family. But they were all Hailey's and Rob's agemaking them at least ten to twelve years younger than Jessand that made her feel like the grown-up who'd been seated at the kids' table. While they'd made occasional polite attempts to include her, they'd spent most of the night getting very drunk and reminiscing about their shared history and university high jinks and pranks. It had been fun, at first, but it was only possible to stay enthusiastically interested in such things for so long.
Especially when she was sober.
How early could you politely leave a wedding reception, anyway? Weren't you supposed to wait until after the bride and groom left?
She stifled a yawn as she watched the happy couple grooving on the dance floor. Didn't look as though they were in any hurry.
The thought of her bed had never been more appealing.
Jeez, when had she turned into such an old, boring grump?
"You look like you could use one of these."
A misty glass of champagne appeared in front of her and Jess looked up to see mischievous green eyes twinkling down at her with a predatory grin beneath.
"I, uh " Her hand took the proffered glass more out of reflex than anything else, but her temporary wine waiter took that as encouragement and sat down beside her, placing his own glass on the table.
"I'm Sean Paterson. Best man. And you are?" he asked.
It was such a smoothly delivered line Jess's instant reaction was to shoot him down, but he was the first person who'd approached her since her tablemates had all moved to the smoking area outside. At least with someone sitting with her, she wouldn't look like such a loser.
Not to mention that he was the man she'd been trying hard not to stare at all afternoon. In this instance the term best man was more than a job description.
His short, rich brown spiky hair had been artfully arranged; his jaw showed the shadow of a beard that held more than a hint of ginger. Those mossy-green eyes had flecks of gold in them, making them look as if they were constantly sparklingas if there was some joke going on that only he knew about. He was tall but not freakishly soonly just making it to six feet Jess would guessa good thing because very tall men always made her feel uncomfortable about her own five-feet-four-on-a-good-day. His tuxedo fitted him perfectly; tailored to suit his broad shoulders and narrow waist.
He was, in short, devastatingly gorgeous.
And he was Hailey's husband's brother.
Jess knew all about him. She'd known his name was Sean before he introduced himself. He was a writer of comic books or schlock horror novels, or something like that, and a nomad, apparently, of no fixed address. The black sheep of the Paterson clanthe one they didn't like to talk about at family gatherings. He'd dropped out of his accounting degree at university and run away. There had been, according to Hailey, a massive fight over Rob's insistence on having his older brother as his best man.
He was alsowhat were the words Hailey had used? Oh, yeahirresponsible and reckless and immature. Hailey said they were the adjectives his own mother invoked.
Sean was the center of most of Hailey's more extreme hysterics about all the things that could go wrong on her wedding day. Sean would forget the rings. Sean would refuse to wear the suit properly. Sean would bring a hooker as his date. Sean would simply not turn up.
Jess had listened patiently to Hailey's rants. Listened, while secretly thinking that Sean sounded kind of thrilling, only to silently chastise herself immediately. She had appalling taste in men. Her attraction to Hailey's brother-in-law-to-be, just from a description of his faults and the potential chaos he could cause, was yet further proof of that.
When she'd seen him standing at the front of the church next to Rob, she'd inwardly sighed. Of course he was the most attractive man she'd seen in years. Of course that would be how it worked.
He was hot. And so off-limits it wasn't funny. Not that anything like that was likely. It just wasn't something she did these days.
Yep. Somehow, when she hadn't been paying attention, she'd turned into a miserable old spinster who preferred to be at home in her slippers than dancing the night away in heels.
What a depressing thought.
"I'm driving," she said, putting the glass he'd handed her on the table. But she twisted a little in her seat to face him. It would be rude to ignore him, after all, and there was no harm in talking. "Thank you anyway."
"'I'm driving.' It's a strange name."
He was teasing her because she hadn't answered his question. She thought for a moment for a witty comeback but nothing sprang to mind. "Jess. Jess Alexander," she said in the end. Really sparkling repartee there, Jess.
"What kind of car?" he asked, putting his own champagne down on the table untouched.
"What kind of car do you drive?"
"Oh, a Subaru. Station wagon." A sensible car that was large enough to transport animals occasionally but not too large to maneuver in the city.
He nodded, looking as if he was waiting for something. Finally Jess caught on.
"What kind of car do you have?" she asked politely.
"My car was used for the wedding."
"Ah. Yes, of course." Jess remembered that particular conversation with Hailey now. It was the one thing that Rob had insisted on for the weddingapart from having his brother as best man. He'd been adamant that they use his brother's pride and joy as the bridal car. Hailey had cried buckets because she'd wanted white limousines, not a red '70s vintage muscle car with black stripes down the hood.