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Pretend it's Love
A Behind the Bar Story
By Stefanie London, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Stefanie London
All rights reserved.
There were plenty of other things Paul Chapman would rather be doing than watching two people make goo-goo eyes at each other. He could stab himself in the eye with a steak knife. Or listen to his mother talk ad nauseam about the intricacies of the floral arrangements.
Either would be preferable.
"Man, you've got to lighten up." Noah Reid, his best friend and soon to be fellow groomsman, elbowed him in the ribs. "You look like you're about to go all Friday the Thirteenth."
"I hate pretentious parties." He shoved a bite-size piece of toast with smoked salmon into his mouth. "And I hate this stupid, tiny food."
"What did you expect?"
Noah had a point. Paul should have known what he was in for the second his brother announced the engagement party would be held in his fiancée's family home in Toorak, aka the "old money" part of Melbourne. The Greenes were rolling in it. It was fitting that they'd be drinking the fanciest champagne on the market and eating food that looked fit for a dollhouse.
"Is it so bad that I want a burger and a beer?"
Noah laughed. "If you're still hungry we'll do a Macca's run on the way home."
Paul watched the happy couple. His big brother looked more satisfied than he'd ever seen him, and Gracie, his pint-size wife-to-be, wore a smile that managed to out-sparkle her impressive engagement ring.
"Reckon that will be us one day?" Noah asked, studying Des and Gracie as though they were an alien species.
"No way. Marriage is for chumps." Paul screwed up his nose. "I'm only here because of Des."
Stomach grumbling, his eyes roamed, already on the hunt for something else to eat. The current options were miniscule sushi rolls and pieces of raw fish. What was the point of eating something if you weren't going to bother cooking it first?
He brought a champagne flute to his lips and knocked back the remainder of his drink. It wasn't his poison of choice but it was alcoholic. Better than nothing.
A gloomy funk had descended over Paul ever since the engagement had been announced. He was happy for his brother, of course. Gracie was good for him and they'd worked hard to get past the early hurdles in their relationship. But it was just another opportunity for Des to prove to their family that he was the favorite. The golden child. The chosen one.
The son who would live up to all their expectations.
Des ran the restaurant and bar, First, where Paul worked. His big brother's success in business would be further complemented by a wedding. Then it wouldn't be long before the bambini arrived, and Paul would never have a hope of catching him.
A waiter walked past carrying a tray of freshly filled champagne flutes. Paul switched his empty glass for a full one and downed half of it in a single gulp.
"Whoa there. You're drinking like an eighteen-year-old girl at O week." Noah shook his head, laughing. "I don't want to be holding your hair back later tonight when that all comes back up."
Paul opened his mouth to retort, but Des and Gracie were coming their way. He put on his best "happy brother" face and held his champagne flute up in salute. Gracie launched herself at the two guys, collecting them both in a hug that was impressive for a girl her size.
"How are my future brothers-in-law?" she asked.
Noah might not have been a flesh and blood brother, but the Chapman boys — and now Gracie — treated him as if he were part of the family.
"Enjoying the festivities. Paul here has taken a liking to the champagne." Noah smiled innocently as Des rolled his eyes.
"Me, too." Gracie leaned forward and winked at him, her cheeks flushed.
"Too many drinks, not enough dinner," Des said with a frown. "We should get something into your stomach."
"Don't be a bore. I haven't drunk like this since university — it's a special night!"
"Can I get that in writing so when you're glued to the bed all day tomorrow I can remind you the hangover is worth it?"
She poked her tongue out at him before turning to Paul. "Was he always this straight-laced growing up?"
"Uh, yes," Paul replied. "Hard to believe it, but he was worse."
"Yikes." Gracie giggled, covering her mouth with one hand.
When she wandered off to dance with her sister, Des shook his head. "The wedding planning has been a little ... tense."
Noah frowned. "Because of Mrs. Greene?"
No one ever referred to Gracie's mother as anything but Mrs. Greene, although Paul had been led to suspect her name might be Cecilia. Despite sharing her daughter's petite stature and flair for style, she lacked any of the warmth and charisma that Gracie exuded, and had a reputation as being a bit of a dragon.
"Yeah." Des raked a hand through his dark hair. "She's driving Gracie bananas, but I can't get involved. She gets worked up if I mention it. Good thing it'll be over in a few weeks."
Paul choked on his drink. "A few weeks?"
"Yeah, we're going to announce it tonight. The wedding is going to be in six weeks."
"Is she ..." Noah looked around to see if anyone else was in earshot.
Des folded his arms across his chest. "She's not pregnant."
"Not yet," Noah said, waggling his eyebrows.
"Why the hurry?" Paul set the champagne flute down.
Des looked over his shoulder. "I don't want this planning phase to go on any longer than it has to. Besides, we're ready to be married. It sounds corny, but I don't want to wait any longer."
Paul made a gagging motion. "What chick flick did you pull that from?"
"Mock me, oh little brother. One day this will be you, and I'll be the first one to remind you of this moment." Des turned to Noah and slapped him on the back. "And when it comes to the wedding you have to wear a suit. No excuses."
Noah had worn black jeans and an open-collared shirt under a leather motorcycle jacket, despite the fact that the invites had said Dress Code: Cocktail. "It'll be the first time."
Des moved on to talk to Gracie's older sister and left the two men to their drinks. The engagement party was intimate. Private. Immediate family and the bridal party only.
But the wedding would be filled with people Paul didn't want to face. Most of all, his ex-almost-fiancée and the guy she'd married ... who just so happened to be his cousin.
"Six weeks, can you believe it?" Noah shook his head. "How are we going to plan a buck's party in that time?"
But Paul's mind was consumed with the wedding itself. He'd thought that Gracie and Des would have a more standard engagement, like one or two years ... five, if he was lucky. Then he would have time to get his shit sorted, find someone he trusted enough to bring to a family function, and do something noteworthy so he didn't have to rehash the overdone conversation about his lack of direction in life. He could hear his aunts now.
Paul, why can't you be more like your brother? Why haven't you settled down with anyone yet? Don't you want to get married?
And the underlying question beneath it all: what did you do that was so bad your girlfriend cheated on you with your own cousin?
Like it was his bloody fault.
"Hey." Noah waved a hand in front of his face. "I said, do you think Des would want a weekend away for his buck's?"
"Maybe." Paul wanted to talk about anything that wasn't connected to the wedding, but his concentration had deserted him.
"You giving a speech?" Noah asked.
Paul looked up. "Huh?"
His friend pointed to a piece of paper sticking out of his suit pants pocket. "I thought you hated speeches."
"I'm not giving a speech, but I did get her number." He nodded toward the blond catering assistant who flushed when the two men turned to look at her.
"This is a family event." Noah shook his head.
Paul grinned. "Girls love me, what can I say?"
"You're so full of shit."
Truth was he hadn't really wanted her number, but old habits die hard. At one point women were the center of Paul's life, though not any one woman in particular. However, lately he'd stopped going out partying with Noah. He'd even deleted all the numbers in his phone that weren't family or his mates. Empty encounters had begun to fill him with resentment.
The kind that burrowed deep down and made you question everything.
The sudden decline in socializing hadn't gone unnoticed; both Des and Noah had questioned him to no avail. He didn't want meaningless sex anymore nor did he want to be chained up in a relationship hell. If only he could have some kind of in-between solution ...
But now Paul had bigger problems to deal with other than his sex-life limbo. Tonight's announcement meant he had only six weeks to find someone to stand by his side at the wedding and do something meaningful with his life. No big deal, right?
There was no way in hell he'd front up to his ex alone being exactly the same guy as when she'd dumped him two years ago. Not going to happen.
Libby Harris begged her cell phone not to ring again. After four calls bearing bad news, she was about ready to hurl the damn thing out a window. This couldn't be happening.
One press release and her business — which was on the brink of launching — was going down the drain faster than a Britney Spears comeback. Maybe if she stopped answering her phone the bad news would disappear.
"Stay calm." Her best friend, Nina Bauer, sat cross-legged on the couch in Libby's office and mimicked deep breathing. "I know it seems bad, but there's room in the market for more than one person. Everything will be fine, and we'll probably laugh at this in a few months."
"Laugh?" Libby held up her iPad with both hands and thrust it in Nina's general direction. "My business is going to die because I didn't launch early enough. That's nothing to laugh about."
"Freaking out isn't going to help the situation." Nina pushed off the couch and grabbed the iPad, gently setting it down on the coffee table. "And stop waving your gadgets in my face."
One month out from her launch party, Libby's business — a line of girlie infused vodkas and cocktail mixes — was in peril. That morning a press statement had been released that the infamous reality TV star turned sex-tape celebrity, Kandy K, was launching her very own line of flavored vodkas.
What were the friggin' odds?
Now all the businesses she'd lined up to stock Libby Gal Cocktails were dropping like flies — they wanted to jump on the celebrity bandwagon. Despite her social pedigree, Libby Harris was not a celebrity.
"We don't know how many places are going to pull out. Maybe the worst of it is over."
Libby dropped her face into her hands and tried not to hyperventilate. "I'm going to fail because I never made a sex tape. How ironic is that?"
Her phone rang again, and Libby threw it into the drawer of her desk, slamming it shut with a resounding bang. She couldn't take hearing one more restaurant owner tell her that they were "very sorry" but they needed to put their business first and "explore other options."
They didn't even have the guts to admit why they were dropping her.
"Trust me, in a few years you'll be happy you don't have a sex tape." Nina pulled open the desk drawer and retrieved the phone. "There's no point sticking your head in the sand. We need to focus on fixing this problem. How many are we down to?"
"Six, I think." Libby flipped open her laptop, scanning down the details neatly typed into a spreadsheet. "I had ten restaurants lined up for the soft launch in Melbourne; four have pulled out so far. But I'm pretty sure that" — she pointed at her phone, not daring to pick the damn thing up. It may as well have been a venomous snake baring its fangs — "was Lulu Bar."
"So we go into damage control. Let's meet with the restaurant owners and see what we can do. Don't they say market competition is good?"
Libby balled her fists. "This is not good, it's a bloody disaster!"
Nina sighed and grabbed one of the bottles of Libby Gal Cocktails infused vodka that sat in an open box, awaiting shipment. "Marshmallow and rose petal, my favorite. Just what the doctor ordered."
She screwed the top off before Libby could protest and fished out two of the branded shot glasses that were supposed to go along with the order. The sight of her business logo — a martini glass with a lip print on the side and her initials in pink and green — made her suck in a breath.
"We shouldn't be drinking the stock, Neens."
"Heavy drinking is often recommended in times of intense stress." Nina winked and waved the bottle in front of Libby's face.
Libby laughed despite herself. This was exactly the reason she was friends with Nina. The woman could put a smile on her face no matter how dire life seemed.
"I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what's recommended."
Nina shrugged and set the shot glasses on Libby's desk, free pouring until the liquid reached the edge of the glass. "Bottoms up."
Libby brought it carefully to her lips. She downed the drink in a single gulp, shutting her eyes and letting the alcohol work its magic. The sweet scent of marshmallow and rose petals danced in her nose. It was the first flavor she'd ever made.
The business had started out as a hobby when she'd infused store-bought vodkas in pretty jars and given them as gifts for Christmas and birthdays. When Nina got married she asked Libby to make her a special blend for wedding guest gifts. Compliments and requests came rolling in, and Libby put her medical degree on hold to turn her passion into a business.
It was the first time she'd ever taken a risk on herself.
"Hit me again." Libby slammed the glass down on her desk and gritted her teeth.
She would not let her business die. She would not admit defeat because of bad timing. And she most definitely would not crawl back to her father and tell him that he was right.
"That's my girl." Nina grinned and blew a strand of her electric blue hair out of her face as she refilled the glasses. "Cheers."
Libby tipped back the second drink and dropped down into her desk chair, surveying her office. The room was originally a spare bedroom, but she'd turned it into her own personal command center. Boxes of product were piled up in one corner, and her adorable vintage couch and coffee table were covered in Nina's artwork for the launch party. Her desk was a bit of a hot mess, but she still had her beautiful makeshift flower vases — some of the prototype Libby Gal Cocktails bottles — holding rainbow bouquets of roses and oriental lilies.
This was her dream, and she would fight for all of it. Kicking off her towering emerald-green stilettos, she turned her laptop to face her. Slowly, she ran one pink lacquered nail down the column of restaurant contacts and jotted down names and addresses on a notepad.
"What are you going to do about The Chief?" Nina jumped onto the desk, swinging her bare feet back and forth. "You know he's going to be all over this like a rash."
Though her father was a world renowned surgeon, he approached everything from parenting to washing his car with a style more suited to the military. Hence the nickname.
"I'm hoping that he'll be too wrapped up in his latest wife to have noticed," Libby said.
"You think he won't mention it? Yeah right." Nina twirled a strand of her blue hair and let out a sigh. "He'll latch onto anything right now if it means dragging you back to his life plan."
"I guess I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it." Libby pursed her lips. "But I know one thing for sure, I'm not going back to med school."CHAPTER 2
Libby gritted her teeth and strode along the footpath, ignoring the throbbing pain from a nasty blister on her heel. She'd been on her feet all day, dashing from one meeting to another in shoes that were better suited to a stilt walker than a burgeoning entrepreneur.
But her look was part of her brand — bright hair, big heels, in-your-face lipstick. People noticed her because of the way she looked, then she made sure they remembered her for what she said. She wasn't giving that up, blister or no blister.
Sadly, nothing had helped her today. She was zero for ten ... every single business she'd signed for her launch had backed out. If her life was a game then she'd hit the biggest damn snake on the board.
Excerpted from Pretend it's Love by Stefanie London, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2015 Stefanie London. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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