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Red, the extremely popular restaurant located in Red Rock, Texas, and the realization of a dream by José and Maria Mendoza, had closed its doors to the public this holiday evening.
But it was far from empty. The premises had been rented out to Emmett Jamison who, along with his wife, Linda, both former FBI agents, oversaw the Fortune Foundation, a philanthropic organization now in its fourth year. The guests at the New Year's Eve party included key personnel at the foundation, as well as every single member of the Fortune family who could walk or crawl within a fifty-mile radius.
Included, too, were a large number of friends, not the least of whom were more than several members of the Mendoza family. There were so many people packed inside the converted former haciendasaid to have once belonged to distant relatives of Santa Anathat guests were spilling out onto the inner courtyard, despite the cold temperature. The press of bodies generated its own heat.
Good cheer abounded, mixing with the occasional strains of festive music, some of it coming from the old-fashioned jukebox, some of it from the five-piece band that Maria had hired at her son, Jorge's behest. Christmas carols meshed with both Mexican and country music. It was a veritable potpourri of everything that Texas stood for.
Almost everyone seemed to be having a good time, if noise could be considered a barometer of fun. The only true difficulty was in maneuvering through the throng, and in locating people the crowd had swallowed up.
So when Jack Fortune all but walked into his brother-in-law as Jorge finished placing a fruity, mixed drink on a comely young woman's table, he took advantage of thesituation.
Hooking his arm around his brother-in-law's neck, Jack said playfully, "Hey, there's a vicious rumor making the rounds that Jorge Mendoza is actually here without a date." Hearing Jack's voice, Jorge relaxed, lowering the tray he was about to use as a weapon. "I've been defending your reputation," Jack continued, releasing his hold on Jorge, "saying that it just wasn't possible, this being New Year's Eve and all."
"I'm afraid that you've been wasting your breath, Jack," Jorge said, turning around to face the man who made his sister Gloria's world spin on its axis. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gloria making her way toward them. "The rumor's true. I didn't bring anyone to the party."
There was a very good reason for that, but Jorge kept it to himself. The current lady in his life, Edie, was hinting broadly about their relationship. She wanted an honest-to-gosh commitment from him, even though they'd only been seeing each other for about a month. And while it had been a very enjoyable month, with several memorable moments, none of it was earthshaking enough to prompt him to make the relationship permanent.
He felt sure that neglecting to invite her to share New Year's Eve would send her a message about his intentions. So he'd opted to go it alone tonight, thereby dodging a very real bullet with his name on it.
"Is it terminal?" Jack asked.
Confused, wondering if he'd misheard, Jorge leaned forward. "Is what terminal?"
"Your illness," Jack answered. "You're sick, right? That's got to be the reason you didn't bring anyone. I've never known you to be without female companionship for more than, what? Fifteen minutes at a time?" Jorge went through women the way his father, José, went through clean undershirts in a hot kitchen. "Legend has it you tried to pick up a candy striper in the nursery the day you were born."
Jorge laughed, shaking his dark head, his deep brown eyes crinkling. "I'm not sick, Jack. I thought I'd just help Mom and Dad out tonight. You know, wait on tables, tend bar, mix drinks"
"Flirt with every woman under the age of a hundred," Gloria interjected, completing her older brother's sentence as she came up to join him and her husband. She hooked her arm through Jack's, but her attention was clearly on Jorge.
"Right." Jorge saw no reason to deny that charge. He believed in enjoying himself whenever he could. And flirting was his inalienable right. Flashing his thousand-watt smile, he repeated, "But I'm only here to help out. Besides," he confided, "if I brought someone with me to this little fiesta, Mom would immediately think it was serious. You know what she's like." In her time Maria Mendoza had been on each of his now-married sisters' cases. "She'd be writing out wedding invitations right after the stroke of midnight." He considered that, then amended, "Maybe even before."
"Mom just wants you to be happy, big brother," Christina chimed in, coming in at the tail end of the conversation, her fingers firmly laced through her husband Derek's. It took a little maneuvering to join the threesome.
Jorge gave Christina a lecherous wink. "Mom and I have a very different definition of happiness."
"I'll say," Sierra agreed sarcastically, as she and her husband, Alex, came up to join the other two couples and Jorge in the impromptu family meeting.
"Mom wants to see you married with a family and you just want to go from woman to woman, gathering honey like a drunken bee going from flower to flower."
Jorge rolled his eyes. "A happy drunken bee," he emphasized.
Gloria rolled her eyes. There was no changing a leopard's spots and it seemed that there was no changing Jorge. He was going to be a playboy until the day he died.
"You're hopeless," she told him with a sigh.
Again, he saw no reason to deny the truth. He was what he wasa man who loved women. And from where he stood, there were so many women out there to love.
"Exactly," Jorge responded, the same killer, boyish grin that had made many women weak in the knees gracing his lips. He leaned into Gloria, as if to impart something confidential. "I'd give up trying to change me if I were you. Now go dance with your husband, Glory," he urged, then turned to his two other sisters. "You, too, Sierra, Christina. Don't harass the help. I have drinks to make and pretty women to wait on," Jorge told them just before he turned away and faded into the crowd as he headed back to the bar.
Gloria shook her head. A sigh escaped her lips. "There goes one unhappy man."
Jack took Gloria by the hand, deciding that his brother-in-law had a good idea. He pressed his hand against the small of her back and slowly began to sway in time to the music. "Oh, I don't know. He didn't seem all that unhappy to me."
Men could be so dense, Gloria thought, seeing only what was on the surface and nothing more. "Ever hear of the expression, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside?"
This was not an argument he was about to win, Jack thought, and he was far too shrewd a businessman to continue fighting a doomed battle. Especially not on New Year's Eve.
"You're absolutely right," he told Gloria solemnly. "Jorge's a very unhappy man."
Gloria knew sarcasm even when it was disguised as surrender, but she didn't want to fight. She did, however, want some kind of solution. She wanted Jorge to be as happy as she was. She'd found marriage far preferable to the single lifeas long as it was to the right person.
"Can you come up with someone for him?" Gloria asked suddenly as he swung her around in the little bit of space he'd staked out for them.
"Then I'd be the unhappy man," Jack pointed out. Gloria looked at him, puzzled. "You know Jorge doesn't like us interfering in his life."
None of them liked people butting into their lives, but sometimes, it was just necessary. For their own good. "I just don't like seeing him so alone, Jack."
Jack glanced over his shoulder. Jorge was behind the bar again, mixing drinks and talking to a well-endowed young blonde who seemed to be hanging on his every word. And having a great deal of difficulty remaining in her dress.
"Trust me, Glory. Jorge is never alone for more than four minutes at a time. Five, tops."
Gloria looked at her brother. She had an entirely different take on the scene. The woman was a bimbo. Happily-ever-after didn't happen with bimbos.
"Men," Gloria huffed.
Jack smiled broadly in response. "Glad you noticed that." His eyes gleamed as he looked at his wife. She was every bit as gorgeous, as sexy, as the day he'd fallen in love with her. "What do you say, right after midnight, we" Jack leaned in and whispered the rest of his thought into her ear.
Gloria's eyes widened and then her lips curved in deep appreciation. Thoughts and concerns about Jorge and his lifestyle were temporarily placed on the back burner. The far back burner.
"You're on," she told her husband.
Pleased by her response, Jack continued dancing with his wife.
Maria Mendoza paused and momentarily stopped worrying if there was enough food to keep this crowd well fed, and just took in the happy revelers. Moving back, she found herself, quite by accident, bumping into Patrick Fortune, the retired president of Fortune-Rockwell and father of five of the people here. More importantly, a good friend for several decades.
"Your son is making my daughter very happy,"
she said to Patrick the moment he was within earshot. Patrick had been the one she'd turned to several years ago, enlisting his help to find a suitable husband for Gloria, her once very troubled daughter.
Maternal pleasure now radiated from every pore as Maria spoke to the tall, distinguished, redheaded man at her side.
Patrick silently lifted his glass of white wine in the general direction of his son and daughter-in-law. He was as pleased by the union as Maria was. It was nice to see Jack happy for a change.
"That did turn out rather well, didn't it?" he said proudly.
"And it was all your doing," Maria reminded him, more than willing to give credit where it was due.
Ever modest, Patrick didn't quite see it that way. "All I did was call him home to help Gloria get her new jewelry business on its feet. Chemistry did the rest."
"Chemistry," Maria allowed with a slight nod of her head. "And a lot of lit candles and prayers to the Blessed Virgin," she added with more enthusiasm. And then she sighed, thinking of her two sons. "But no amount of prayers seem to be working when it comes to Jorgeor Roberto for that matter." Both represented two rather sore spots in her very large heart. "Roberto didn't even think enough of the family to come home for the holidays." He lived in Denver now, so very far away. She'd called her firstborn twice, only to get an annoying answering machine both times.
And no return call.
Patrick knew how hurtful that could be. "The boy's busy, Maria," he told her gently.
"Boy," she echoed the term her friend had used. "He's my eldest. How can Roberto be a boy when he's forty years old?"
She knew better than that, Patrick thought. "Because, to us, no matter what their age, they will always be our children. Our boys and girls." Finished with his wine, he set the glass down on an empty table. "Which is why you worry, Maria," Patrick pointed out. Good humor highlighted his aristocratic features. "Stop worrying," he advised. "Things will turn out all right in the end. You did a good job raising them. They're good people. All of them. Once in a while, it takes a little extra time for them to find their way," he told her. "But they always do in the end." He smiled encouragingly at her. "You just have to have faith."
Maria sighed. He really believed that, she thought. "You truly are an amazing man."
Taking Maria's hand in his, he gave it a gentle squeeze. "Don't worry," he repeated. "And if it makes you feel any better," he added, "I'll look around and see if there's anyone suitable to put in Jorge's path."
"Thank you, old friend," Maria replied with enthusiasm.
"Maria," a deep male voice called out just then, slicing through the noise. "Ven aca. I need you." The blend of Spanish and English had an urgency to it. Maria turned to see her husband, José, waving to her,
beckoning her toward the kitchen. "We are running out of your special tacquitos."
"Coming, my love," she called back. Saying "thank you" one more time to Patrick, the petite woman burrowed her way through the crowd of people to reach her husband.
Patrick Fortune remained where he was, watching the object of his old friend's concern a moment longer.
The last thing that Jorge Mendoza resembled was a troubled, lonely young man, he thought. Even though he claimed to be working, Jorge, ensconced behind the bar now, appeared to be having the time of his life. He was moving from one young woman to another, seemingly taking orders for drinks and lingering to flirt, most likely mentally compiling yet another list of names and accompanying phone numbers. The young man was a modern-day Casanova, clearly enjoying both his freedom and the hunt.
Eventually though, Patrick was convinced that Maria Mendoza's wayward son would realize that "freedom" and the hunt were definitely not nearly as important as the love of a good womanthe right good woman. And he was a romantic, Patrick thought. He believed that there was someone for everyone. There certainly had been for him.
"Looks like the family's out in full force," Jack commented, coming up beside his father, Emmett Jamison at his side. Gloria was a few feet away, talking to Emmett's wife, Linda, about a necklace Linda wanted fashioned.