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Michael Fortune walked into the 1950sera diner. Estelle's, thinking it was like everything else in Red Rock. Texasquaint. Michael didn't do quaint, which was probably the reason his cousin had chosen this place for lunch. To put Michael off his A game. The place was a living, breathing piece of nostalgia with its long Formica counter, red leatherette booths and chrome-legged tables and chairs.
He took a seat in an empty booth, and a few minutes later a fiftyish woman set a glass of water on the tabletop, next to his cell phone.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, honey. My name's Es-telle," she said, sticking the eraser of her pencil against the back of his hand, stopping his fingers from drumming on the table. "I can see you're the impatient type."
"So my family tells me."
"You're new in town," Estelle said. "Must be meeting someone."
The town gossip, Michael decided. "My cousin Wyatt and his fiancée. I'm early, though."
"Ahh. You're a Fortune, then. They sure do grow 'em handsome in Atlanta." She cocked a hip and settled her gaze on him. "Good men, your cousins. It was pretty big news around here when they packed up and settled down in Red Rock."
Which was the very reason he'd come to Texas. Michael's uncle James had begged him to intervene. "Talk some sense into that son of mine," his uncle had said, frustrated at Wyatt'sand his three other sons'defection from the family business.
Estelle poised her pencil over her order pad. "You headed to New York City after you leave?"
"Suit. Tie. Shoes polished to a sheen. Not something anyone around here wears, not even to funerals. Ah, here's your company."
Wyatt and his fiancée, Sarah-Jane Early, greeted Estelle, then slid into the booth, never letting go of each other's hands, barely breaking eye contact. What was it about Red Rock that caused so many Fortunes to become love-struck fools? Wyatt made the seventh to succumb in the past two years.
Michael didn't get it. Romantic love was a myth, and marriage nothing more than a practical merger made in the interest of procreationno matter how it seemed to start. He'd determined long ago that what people called love was really just lust, and that always faded. Respect was the key word. That sustained a relationship. Like his parents' marriage.
"It's nice to see you again," Sarah-Jane said, her long, auburn ponytail swaying when she turned to look at him. Her brown eyes sparkled with friendliness, then went tender when she gazed back at Wyatt.
No one had ever looked at Michael like that. Usually he was the recipient of cool or calculating looks, or just as often, hostile. He didn't hold the important position he did because he went with the flow but because he exulted in riding the more unpredictable rapids. As for personal relationships, casual and short-term didn't result in loving or tender looks, either.
"You've already turned Texan," Michael said, noting Wyatt's jeans and cowboy boots.
"You should try it. Maybe loosen up that corporate stiffness from wearing suits and ties all the time."
Michael took the kidding easily. "I don't wear a suit on the golf course. Or jeans. Not allowed, you know. I understand congratulations are in order," he said, changing the subject. "When's the wedding?"
"In June," Sarah-Jane answered.
"I wouldn't mind eloping," Wyatt said with a put-upon expression. "But she wants her wedding. Women."
Eyes sparkling, she wriggled her nose at him, signaling a private joke between them.
Estelle moseyed over, plucked menus from behind the napkin dispenser and passed them out.
"What would you recommend?" Michael asked her.
She laughed at that. "Well, la-di-dah. I'm some kinda New York server, now. Isn't that how they do that there?"
"I'm sure you're right, but you own the place. Don't you have particular favorites yourself?"
"Sure I do. Tell me, do you like hearty food that'll stick with you 'til dinner or do you go for fruits and grains and mid-afternoon stomach pangs?"
"Fill me up. You choose with what. Surprise me."
"Maybe there's hope for you yet, Suit."
Sarah-Jane laughed at the nickname, then ordered a Cobb salad.
"So I think I've got this figured out," Estelle said to Michael after Wyatt ordered a hamburger. "You're here to try and talk the Fortune boys into going home. You must be one brave man."
Michael realized he'd made a tactical error in letting Wyatt schedule the meeting place. He should've taken care of the arrangements himself, maybe in San Antonio, away from the gossip-filled Red Rock.
Wyatt sat back casually. "Estelle's right, isn't she?" he asked after she'd left. "My father put you up to this little confab. Shane told me you already talked with him."
Back in Atlanta, Michael had drawn a blank with Wyatt's oldest brother, Shane, who was the COO of JMF Financials. He'd left the company but not the city. Although he was the only one of the sons who hadn't moved to Red Rock, Shane was on the same quest as his brothers, to find the woman their father had involved in their business without their knowledge.
"I figure you'll try Asher and Sawyer next," Wyatt said. "Good luck with that. You won't be changing anyone's minds. You know, Mike, I appreciate your concern, but this really isn't your business
or your call." Wyatt toasted Michael with his glass of water. "I'm never going back. My place is with Sarah-Jane, and Sarah-Jane's place is here in Red Rock."
"How can you not go back? You're a vice president. Your brothers hold top positions, too, and yet you all walked away. I don't understand why you can't ride this out."
"Ride it out? Seriously? My father is giving away half his shares of the company. Giving them away. To some unknown woman for an unknown reason. And you're siding with him over this?" Wyatt shook his head. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You sharks fish in the same waters. How can you"
Sarah-Jane laid her hand on his, stopping him. Calming him.
Coming from a man Michael had known his entire life, the words stung. "It's your family business," Michael said quietly, respecting Sarah-Jane's discomfort and not wanting things to heat up any further.
"But we're not slaves to it," Wyatt said, just as quietly.
"What will you do?"
He looked at Sarah-Jane for a moment. "I'm not a hundred percent sure. I'm working on some things. I just know that Red Rock is home now. My brothers and I have bought property here, a ranch. I don't know what my role is yet. In the end, it may have nothing to do with the ranch." He eyed Sarah-Jane again. "Once I got over my own shock of leaving the company, I realized it was for the bestfor me, anyway. I might have been stuck there forever. I'm feeling a freedom I never have before. It feels good."
Estelle set their lunch plates in front of them. "Cobb salad for Miss Sarah-Jane, hamburger for Wyatt and Es-telle's famous Reuben for the Suit. Enjoy."
"I love you like a brother, Mike," Wyatt said, picking up a French fry. "The six of you kids and the five of us spent our whole lives like one family, even with our fathers at odds. But you need to stay out of this, unless you want our relationship destroyed as well."
Michael didn't know what he could do to ease the tension, then just when he considered apologizing, Sarah-Jane beckoned someone with a frantic gesture, looking relieved at the interruption. "Felicity! Over here!"
Michael glanced toward the entrance. A woman with shoulder-length blond hair and soft blue eyes walked toward their booth. Her smile lit up the room. Not beautiful, Michael decided, but fresh-faced and, well, adorable. He was sure he'd never used that word to describe a woman before. Or even a kitten. Although she looked kittenish in her fluffy pink sweater and jeans that weren't red, exactly, but a color he couldn't put a name to.
"Sit down," Sarah-Jane said, in a tone more like an order, desperation in her eyes. "Join us."
The slender woman gave Sarah-Jane an amused and curious look, but sat without argument. She took up little space as she slid into the booth next to Michael, but their arms brushed, and he went still. His body felt supercharged, paralyzed. He'd known plenty of women, but he'd never had such a visceral reaction to one, and certainly not one this innocent-looking. What the hell was going on?
She finally made eye contact. Her smile faltered a moment, then, angling toward him, she put out her hand. "Hi. II'm Felicity Thomas. Sarah-Jane and I are roommates."
"Michael Fortune." This time he wasn't surprised at the lightning he encountered in her touch, but he still couldn't understand his reaction.
Her brows raised. "Fortune? You're."
"My first cousin," Wyatt said.
"So, you're Wendy's brother? It's hard to keep all you Fortunes straight. I adore Wendy. She was my first big client."
"Truffles?" was all he could think to say. "Wendy had just become the pastry chef at Red. Have you eaten there?" Felicity asked. Michael nodded.
"She wanted to offer a dessert created with my products."
"Truffles?" he repeated, the only word he'd really picked up clearly.
She cocked her head at him, and he wondered if he could be any more idiotic. What was wrong with him?
"Yes," she said patiently, her smile never fading. "It turns out that they're a big hit at the local hotels and spas, too. People seem to like them."
"Not to mention a certain competition you just won in Dallas," Sarah-Jane said. "Orders have boomed."
Felicity nodded. "Which is why I'm going to have to make decisions soon."
He shook himself. "About what?"
"About whether or not to grow my business. I've been stretching myself to the limit."
He was fascinated. Entranced. Beguiled. "So, you're a candy maker?"
"My official job title would be confectioner."
She was a confection, all right, all spun sugar and sweetness. He usually preferred his women savory.
"I've been hogging the conversation, haven't I?" she asked with an apologetic smile and a friendly touch on his arm.
Even through his suit jacket he felt the heat.
"How about you?" she asked. "Which Fortune captain of industry are you?"
He'd never seen eyes so blue or hair so shiny, and it took him a moment to realize she was expecting an answer. "I'm chief operating officer of FortuneSouth Enterprises in Atlanta. It's a telecommunications company my father built."
"That's different from Wyatt's. Or the one he used to work for anyway."
Which remains to be seen, Michael thought. He wasn't done with Wyatt yet. "Wyatt's father and mine are brothers. Each built their own business. Until now, they've both been family-run."
"We don't really need to talk business, do we?" Sarah-Jane asked, her voice strained. "Felicity, would you like some of my salad? I can't eat it all."
"Or order what you'd like," Michael said, gesturing to Estelle. Stay awhile. Talk to me some more.
"I've had lunch, thanks. I was making a delivery and saw youum, Sarah-Jane and Wyattthrough the window. I need to get back to the shop. Thirteen days and counting, you know."
She leaned toward him, her hair catching against his suit jacket, and whispered loudly, "The apocalypse."
She smelled of chocolate and mint. He wanted to press his lips against her skin and taste it. "Pardon?" he said, clenching his fists.
She looked around stealthily. "Valentine's Day. The total devastation of my painstakingly created candy supply."
If Sarah-Jane sparkled, Felicity was an entire fireworks display.
"I'll come with you and help," Sarah-Jane said, hopping up and grabbing Felicity's hand. "I've got about a half hour before I need to get back to work. You don't mind, do you?" she asked Wyatt.
But the women were already gone. Sarah-Jane hadn't kissed Wyatt goodbye, which said a lot to Michael. "In a bit of a hurry to get her friend out of here, wasn't she?"
"Stay away from Felicity," Wyatt said, not holding back for a second. "She's not like the sophisticated women you're used to."
Much like his father, Michael wasn't used to hearing the word no. Telling him he couldn't have Felicity was tantamount to waving a red flag in front of a bull. "Just like with you and Sarah-Jane, I believe."
"Felicity is not fling material. If you want a date while you're here, I'm sure there are plenty of women who would be thrilled to keep you company."
"I won't sleep with her." He had no idea where those words came from. They'd just spilled out.
Wyatt laughed. "Right. Sure."
"She'll just be a pleasant distraction. I'm not staying long."
"Not even if she begs," Wyatt said, pointing a finger. "Is that a possibility?"
"Let me offer you a few words of advice, because you're new around here. If you break Felicity's heart, everyone will hear about it. She's the marrying kind, Mike. Even if the unthinkable happens and you fall for each other, you won't leave Atlanta, and she won't leave Red Rock. She's small-town and likes it."
"That's not the point. I'm not talking marriage here." Although, at age thirty-six, he should be starting to think about it. He just hadn't met the right woman, the perfect corporate wife, like his mothersedate, social and proper.
That didn't mean he couldn't act on his attraction to a woman who wasn't marriage material. That was all he'd ever done. Except this woman was different. He needed to acknowledge that, if only to himself.
"Stay away from her, Mike," Wyatt repeated more coldly. "If you break Felicity's heart, Sarah-Jane will somehow hold me responsible. That wouldn't be something I can fix. And it would leave a bad taste in people's mouths about all of us Fortunes."
"I already said I wouldn't sleep with her." But damned if he would let his cousin tell him what he could or couldn't do.
He paid the bill, then they walked out together, saying a terse goodbye before going in opposite directions, tension lingering between them. Michael pulled his phone out of his pocket and called his uncle, not telling the older man how badly he'd screwed up, only that it would take more time than he'd expected. He'd started his campaign with Wyatt because he'd always been the most flexible. His brothers would be even more of a challenge.
"Don't give up," Uncle James said.
"Not my style." Not in business. Not in life. His father had taught him that, too. "I'll try Asher next."
"Good. Keep in touch."
"Will do." Michael ended the call, then immediately placed another to his assistant in Atlanta, then he made his way back to his hotel to work out a game plan. He had two causes to fulfill, and right now, both seemed way out of reach.