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The wedding was in full swing, "The Irish Rover" was in heavy rotation by the band, beer was flowing and the hundred and fifty friends and family of Theresa O'Brian-Moran were halfway to hangovers.
Shannon Fitzgerald had found a relatively quiet corner. It had taken Shannon the better part of the evening to convince herself to approach her second cousin about joining the small and exclusive St. Marks lunch exchange. But Ariel was perfect, really. At twenty-four, she was three years younger than Shannon, lived in Nolita, worked in Midtown and was still single, as was Shannon. Arial was also very pretty and had attracted a group of red-faced, very happy young men wanting to dance.
Shannon had pulled in her share of slightly older young men, mostly in the twenty-eight-to-thirty-five range, although Angus was hovering and he'd just turned eighty-three. It was like being caught in a swarm of bees. Shannon and Ariel kept swatting them away, but they just circled over to the bar, then came back.
"Trading cards?" Ariel asked, leaning in so she'd be heard above the fiddles and tin whistle of the band and the tipsy pleading of brokenhearted boys. "I thought it was a lunch exchange."
Shannon nodded. "It's both. If you want to do the food part, you bring in frozen lunches for fourteen, then you take home your own fourteen lunches. It saves a ton of money and gives you variety, but the important thing is the trading cards. All of us have friends or exes or coworkers who are eligible single men."
She pushed her cousin Riley a full arm's length away without giving him a glance. His breath. God. "Nice men," Shannon continued. "Men we'd want our best friend to go out with."
Ariel nodded slowly, fussing a little with the bodice of her pink dress, then her eyes lit up. "David Sainsbury at my office. He's off-limits to me, but he's extremely nice and he just broke up with his girlfriend. He'd be a real catch. He's always nice to the temps, and he gets coffee for his assistant every time he gets a cup for himself. He's funny, too."
"There you go," Shannon said, tickled about the addition of David, who sounded like someone she might be interested in.
"How do I do this? Submit his name?"
"You procure a picture of David, a head shot is best, let us see what we're getting. I'll make sure you have a few samples of the cards that are no longer in circulation. Then I put the picture on the front of the trading card."
"Oh, yes. Of course. The printing plant."
Shannon wondered if that was Ariel's first beer. Fitzgerald & Sons was a huge part of the extended family. Ariel's father had worked there for over ten years before he opened his stationery store. But then it was hard to think in all this craziness. "For the back of the card," Shannon said, deciding right then to reiterate all of this information in a follow-up email, "you fill out a short form. It starts with his profession. Then whether he's a marry, date or one-night stand."
Ariel's head tilted as she let the second part sink in. "Ah," she said, when the beauty of that key piece of information hit.
"Exactly. Next, his favorite restaurant. Then his secret passion. Not his career but the thing he loves more than anything. Sports or movies or dancing. Whatever turns him on."
"David is completely into science fiction. He's always got a book nearby."
The wistfulness of Ariel's voice made it clear that Shannon wouldn't be going out with David. She and Ariel were cousins, and she wasn't interested in starting a family feud. "Are you sure he's off-limits?"
"Company policy. He's one of their top attorneys."
"Maybe it'd be worth it to try and find another job," Shannon said, turning briefly to shoo away one of the wilson twins.
Ariel shook her head. "I've put out feelers. It's murder out there. I'm not risking my job for anything. They have full medical."
"Understood." She took a sip of her white wine, sacrilege in this crowd, but Shannon didn't care. Beer was for the pub. Wine was for weddings. "After his passion comes the bottom linewhat it is that makes him special. Why you're recommending him. Then, I put that information on the back of the card, do the printing and, voila, we have Hot Guys Trading Cards."
"I love this idea," Ariel said. "I really do."
"It works. It's safe, too, because the person who submits the card sets up the date. And no one outside the group knows the cards exist."
"Including the guys?"
"Especially the guys." Shannon made a point of looking Ariel in the eyes. "The whole thing is a secret, very private. No one knows outside the group. Understand?"
Ariel nodded, took a healthy swig of her beer and grinned, showing off her expensive dental work. "It's brilliant."
"I know," Shannon said, not even a little bit embarrassed to say so since the whole concept had been her idea. "We've only been swapping cards for a couple of months, and it's exceeded our expectations. The only problem we haven't solved is how to keep increasing the dating pool while still keeping it a secret. Very tricky."
"Shannon." The deep voice behind her made her look because she couldn't immediately identify who was speaking. It wasn't a cousin, which was astonishing, but he might as well have been. "Hello, Mike."
"I was wondering if you'd like to take a turn with me?" He nodded toward the dance floor.
Mike was a nice man, almost thirty, owned a bookstore that was holding on by a thread, and she felt guilty for not liking him more. They'd tried dating once and there'd been no chemistry whatsoever. Maybe she should put him on a card. He really was sweet. "Oh, sorry. Maybe later? I'm in the middle."
"Sure, sure thing," Mike said, giving her a dejected smile. "I'll be around."
As soon as he was out of earshot, which was a matter of two steps, Ariel leaned in again. "What kind of men are on the cards? Are there any restrictions?"
"Nope. Except that they need to be local. And looking. There've already been some epic matches. Like Charlie Winslow and Bree Kingston."
Ariel's jaw dropped. "That was you?"
Shannon smiled. "It was."
"Holy cow. That's incredible. I'm in."
"Great." Shannon pulled out a tiny little notepad that fit in her tiny bridesmaid's purse that matched her pale green dress perfectly. "I'll give you the address and"
Ariel was no longer listening. She was staring over Shannon's shoulder. "Is he on a card?"
Shannon looked where Ariel was pointing. "Danny? No. I decided not to put my brothers into the mix. Too complicated. Besides, since when have you been interested in"
"Not Danny, the guy with Danny."
The guy in question looked kind of familiar. His body, on the other hand
"What? Who is he? Do you know him?"
"No, I don't think so. I'd remember," she murmured as she checked out his shoulder-to-waist ratio, which looked to be perfect. He was in a white oxford shirt, top button undone, dark tie loosened. His slacks were a great fit, designer, not off-the-rack. The whole package was hot. His dark hair, the way he tilted his head back as he laughed, his smile.
"Oh, my God." Shannon stood up, stuffed the unfinished note back in her bag. "That's Nate Brenner."
"Danny's friend. I haven't seen him in ages."
"Well, go find out if he's single, would you? He's a total babe."
Shannon nodded as she headed his way, staring hard to make sure she was right. Yep. The closer she got, the clearer it became that the boy who'd practically grown up with her family was not a boy anymore. How had that happened? Time, of course, but because she hadn't seen him in so long, he'd continued to be eighteen and skinny and more than a little obnoxious to the thirteen-year-old sister of his best friend. No more obnoxious than her own brothers, though. All four had been insufferable. They'd made fun of her hair, of her desire to be on the stage. It hadn't helped that they'd been forced to come to the various pageants where she'd posed and danced and belted out her off-key songs. She'd made them miss games. The unforgivable sin.
When it came to her four older siblings every topic of conversation was centered on sports. Every conversation. Even when the discussion was about, say, books, they were sports books. Moviessports. Okay, that and car crashes, but those were sports films in a way. Women entered the picture only if they first passed the team test. If they were crazy about Notre Dame football, they were in. The Yankees? In. The only variable was the Boston Celtics. They weren't the favorite, but they were acceptable.
She'd suspected there was more to Nate; he'd been more pensive, more intense than her hooligan brothers, but she'd been young when he disappeared, so she'd stopped wondering.
The transition from teenager to man had been very, very good to Nate, that was for sure. He would be thirty-two now, same as Danny. She'd never once thought of him as being good-looking. Passable, yes, cute, maybe. But hot? Not a chance.
"Hey, Princess," Danny said, as she got within talking distance. "Look who's here."
Nate's eyebrows lifted and his smile widened. "That can't be Shannon."
"It can and it is," she said, and then they were hugging, and it felt weird as hell for a whole list of reasons. His chest, for one thing. Firm, strong, broad. The feel of her breasts against it was sparking things that she had no business even noticing. This was a guy she'd known since she could remember. She'd seen him in his Spider-Man pajamas. They'd been his favorites, although sometimes he'd worn a cape or carried a light saber.
She pulled back to look at him. "Where the hell have you been? It's been forever."
"All over the place. It's too long a story to bore you with now. I want to hear what you've been doing." He looked her over then did the vertical version of a double take. "Aside from you're all grown up."
"That tends to happen," she said. "So are you."
"I'll admit I got older. But I'm not sure about the grown-up part."
"Do you still put cherry bombs in toilets?"
He and Danny cracked up. "No," Nate said. "I'm very proud to say that I stopped doing that."
"It's a start," she said. "Did you come back for the wedding?"
"Coincidence. I've got business. Selling my father's firm. And looking for a town house."
"Selling your father's Oh, God. I heard about your dad. I'm so sorry." He'd passed away two years ago, and she'd meant to write Nate.
"Thanks," he said as if it were nothing, but then his jaw tensed.
Shannon wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't been staring so rudely. "Did something happen to your house in Gramercy?"
"My mom sold it. She's living in Tel Aviv now. Got remarried. She's working at the university there."
"That's quite a few major changes."
"Not really. You Fitzgeralds are amazingly stable, that's all. What, it's only you and Brady still living in that huge brownstone?"
"And the parents."
"Uh, sorry to interrupt," Danny said. "I'm going to see if I can get Megan to dance with me." He poked Nate in the chest. "You can tell the Princess here all about your adventures. And the good news."
Shannon watched her brother dive into the heart of the crowd.
"So they still call you 'Princess'?"
She looked back at Nate with a sigh. "I've given up trying to make them stop. They're horrible, all of them. I can't imagine why you still like Danny."
Nate touched the back of her arm, and it jolted her like a static charge. "Every one of your brothers would throw themselves on a sword for you."
"When?" she asked.
He laughed, and it was so much deeper than when he'd been eighteen. She looked at him again. "How's your sister?"
"Married. With a kid. A little girl. They live in Montauk."
"Good for her."
Nate looked at the dance floor, his hand still on her arm. "You want to give it a go?"
She hadn't danced yet, and since the set was now modern music instead of traditional Irish dance, she smiled. "I'd love to." Nodding at a beer mug on the closest table, she said, "Your table?"
He slipped her purse from her fingers and put it next to the mug. "It is now." Then he led her to a corner where they had some chance of not getting an elbow in the ribs.
Shannon liked the song, although she never gave it a thought outside of weddings or elevators, but the beat was good, and she was feeling fine. Happy. She'd recruited Ariel, been completely surprised by Nate and no one had asked her to sing or do any step dancing. It had been part of her repertoire as a young girl, but she'd let it go when she entered high school. Sadly, the family hadn't.
She moved to the music, got her rhythm then smiled at Nate. Ten seconds later, it was all she could do not to burst out laughing.
He was awful. The kind of awful that had to be genetic because no one would choose to dance that way. None of his limbs seemed connected to any of his other limbs, and what was he doing with his head?
She squeaked as she held her smile in place, and he was grinning right back at her as if he owned the whole dance floor.