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The line of people waiting to get past the security guard was finally dwindling. It had definitely taken long enough.
Ben Robinson stepped into the sphere of golden light bathing one of the stone pillars leading toward the entrance of the house and joined the line, nodding briefly to the man in front of him as he glanced back.
"Long line," the guy said ruefully, waving the ivory invitation in his hand. He was dressed in a tuxedo that sat uneasily on his shoulders. The woman in a cashmere shawl beside him seemed equally nervous about the diamonds circling her neck, considering the way she kept checking them.
"Yes." Ben's black suit was Tom Ford. Not a tux, but not exactly off-the-rack, either. And he was comfortable in it. The only difference that mattered between him and the line of guests in front of him was that they all held one of those ivory invitations that allowed them entry to this highly exclusive event.
An invitation he himself did not possess.
The man in front of him hadn't turned his attention forward yet. "Suppose it'll be worth it?"
Ben shrugged. He was counting on it, but the invited man in front of him didn't need to know that. "Guess we'll find out."
"Honey." Diamond Necklace touched her mate's arm excitedly. "That woman getting out of the limo?" She discreetly waved toward the long vehicle that had just stopped nearby in the circular drive fronting the opulent house. "That's Lady Josephine Fortune Chesterfield," she said under her breath. "I'd recognize her anywhere. You know she spends a lot of time in Texas now. Her daughter, Lady Amelia, got married in Horseback Hollowthat's where they opened Cowboy Country last year. Remember? Oh, my goodness, she's here right now! Doesn't she remind you of a young Audrey Hepburn? It's so romantic that she chose a rancher to marry, but she was engaged to an earl. I wonder if her sister, Lady Lucie, is"
The guy gave Ben a wry look and focused again on his companion, cutting off her excited chatter. "Let me guess. You read all about them in those magazines you love."
"Don't make fun of me, Mr. Smarty Pants," she warned. She waved her hand at the palatial estate and the line of guests still in front of them. "You're worried this whole thing was a recipe for disaster. But I'm more convinced than ever that this is some big deal about the Fortune Foundation. Maybe they're going to open an office in Austin."
"Who sends an invitation like this without saying who they are? And why would the Fortune Foundation keep quiet if this was their doing?" The guy flipped his invitation lightly against her nose, sending Ben a look, as if expecting agreement.
Ben shrugged again. He hadn't seen the actual invitation. But he had damn sure done his research. He, at least, knew who the chef was of this particular dish. And it was not the Fortune Foundation, which was a nonprofit headquartered out of Red Rock, Texas, a few hours away.
The line moved again then, and Necklace didn't entirely succeed in holding back a squeal as she grabbed Smarty Pants's sleeve and pulled him up to the guard, whose suit didn't disguise either the muscles or the sidearm beneath. Ben moved more leisurely, but soon enough he was in front of the guard. With the dwindling line, there was only one now. When Ben had first arrived and begun scoping out the situation in person, there had been three guards at the door.
"Your invitation, sir?"
Everyone had always told Ben he was just like his father. He didn't need times like this to know how damned true that was. Gerald Robinson had nerve to spare. And so did Ben. He smiled smoothly and pulled his Robinson Tech ID from his lapel and held it out with an expectant look.
The guard returned it with one caught halfway between surprise and suspicion. "Uh, Mr. Robinson." He obviously recognized the badge. And Ben's name. "I don't have you on"
"The list. There hasn't been enough time. When I heard there might be a computer breach between the ranch here and the headquarters in Minnesota"
The guard paled a little, stealing a quick look at the state-of-the-art Robinson model computer propped on a stand beside him. "Breach?"
Ben clapped the guard reassuringly on the shoulder while returning his company ID back to his lapel pocket with his other hand. "Don't worry, man. I'll have it ironed out in no time." He could feel the guard's tension and smiled confidently, even though he was lying through his teeth. "I know the system is secure. My own people put it in. But you know how your boss is. Never entirely trusting someone outside the network without a few tests slipped in along the way."
It was a calculated and accurate assessment, and almost immediately, the tension Ben felt under his hand eased. Knowing he'd succeeded, he let his hand drop from the guard's shoulder and stepped through the opened doorway into the house, even before the guard waved him along. He wasn't surprised at being passed through.
Whether a result of being Gerald's firstborn or being the chief operating officer of the company his father had founded, there were few people Ben encountered who didn't tend to see things the way he wanted them to.
He bypassed the long table set to one side of the high-ceilinged foyer, where guests were finding their name tags, breaking up the tidy rows in which they'd been arranged, despite the efforts of the two young women dressed in plain black dresses who were clearly assigned the job of assisting.
The tags were fancy. Gold. Preprinted. But even so, they looked wholly prosaic among the proliferation of tuxes and jewels. Nevertheless, he found them handy as he made his way deeper into the palatial house, following the directions provided by even more party attendants. Because the tags assigned faces to names that, up until now, had been only that.
James Marshall Fortune of JMF Financial out of Atlanta. His older brother, John Michael Fortune, who'd founded the telecommunications giant, FortuneSouth. One of their sisters, Ben knew, was the Lady Josephine whom Diamond Necklace had been so excited to spot. There were power brokers, movers and shakers in attendance, as well as folks like Mr. Smarty Pants and Diamond Necklace, who'd struck him as pretty salt of the earth.
Yet all of themsave the helphad been invited because in one way or another they were part of the Fortune family.
His lips tightened and he tamped down the resentment that had been seething inside him for longer than he wanted to think about.
But not Ben. And none of his seven siblings, either. He'd only learned about the party in the first place because he'd had the family under a microscope ever since his sister Rachel dropped her little bombshell.
He finally arrived in a soaring room cleared of typical furniture in favor of round banquet tables draped in heavy gold silk and topped with crystal and candles. He wound through the exalted invitees, who'd begun clustering in small groups of twos and threes around the open areas of marble floor, and stopped near one of the three bars set up in the corners of the room. He chose the bar at the far rear because, from that position, he had a good view of all entrances into the room.
He'd been intent on gaining access.
Now that he'd done so, he was pretty much flying by the seat of his pants. He intended to speak to the party's hostess. One way or another. How he accomplished that
well, that was yet to be decided.
"Good evening, sir. What can I get you?"
He hadn't been interested in a drink. Just the right spot. He glanced over his shoulder at the young woman behind the bar. She was dressed in the same nondescript tailored black sheath all the other female party attendants wore, yet he found his attention lingering on her. The display of bottles on the table behind her slender hips said there was no limit to what libation a person might desire.
He might as well fit in. There didn't seem to be a guest there who didn't have a glass in their hands, either obtained from one of the bars or from one of the attendants circulating through the room with gold trays and crystal flute glasses. "Dry Manhattan."
He caught the quick dismay in her expression before she nodded. "Certainly." She quickly turned to face the array of liquor bottles, her hand hovering but not exactly reaching.
She had auburn hair. And once upon a time he'd had a weakness for redheads.
But no more, he reminded himself. Plus, no matter how her curves filled the dress, she looked like she wasn't even old enough to be serving alcohol, anyway. The dark red tresses were pulled back in a high, youthful ponytail that revealed the pale skin at her nape above the collarless black dress. She had a cluster of faint freckles there that struck him as ridiculously young.
And she was wearing a Mickey Mouse watch.
"Use the Bushmills," he advised. "Two bottles to your right. There. The twenty-one year." Some might consider using that fine a whiskey in a cocktail a waste, but Ben took perverse pleasure in doing so.
The bartender sent him a grateful smile and plucked the bottle from its neighbors, turning back to face him and the bar again. Her cheeks were a little flushed, her guileless blue eyes chagrined. "I don't usually tend bar," she admitted softly. "I was actually supposed to be doing valet tonight but the usual bartender had a family emergency. I've done all sorts of things for the temp agency, but this one is new territory. Please don't hold that against anyone but me."
It had been too long since he'd been amused by anything a female said, redheaded or not, and he leaned his elbow on the bar and watched her slender fingers uncap the bottle, trying not to imagine how their light touch would feel. "Like the host? Is she as terrifying as everyone claims?"
The girl's eyes met his for a millisecond before flitting away. "I haven't met her, actually. I just meant" she lifted a shoulder left bare by her dress and the long tail of her ponytail slid behind her back "you know. The catering company hired for the party."
It was clear as day that she didn't have a clue what to do with the whiskey. He could have taken pity and told her to just pour him a shot and be done with it. Whiskey like that was meant to be sipped, anyway. Perhaps with a drop of water, but nothing else. Or he could have changed his order to a beer; there was a healthy display of good labels on that score, too.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he assured her. He reached across the bar top and picked up a clean pilsner glass. "This'll do to mix it in. Fill it with ice."
Her fingers brushed his as she took the glass and she sucked in her full lower lip, leaning to one side to scoop ice from some hidden source beneath the bar into the glass. He dragged his eyes away from the smooth skin of her throat, revealed when her collar pulled slightly to one side.
"Now a shot of whiskey," he directed when she straightened and looked expectantly at him again. "Half as much of vermouth. Dry."
That bottle she clearly knew.
"Dash of bitters." He pointed and she quickly reached.
"Now stir. Gently," he added, reaching over to guide her hand. Her gaze met his again in a here-and-gone second and the long crystal stirrer she'd snatched up immediately slowed.
He smiled slightly and let go of her hand.
"I use a martini glass, right?"
"Right. Just strain out the ice." He glanced over his shoulder, surveying the room quickly to verify he wasn't missing anything or anyone. When he looked back, she was pouring the last drop into the glass. "And a lemon twist."
She quickly dropped a curl of lemon rind inside the cocktail and set the glass atop a small napkin in front of him. "My first Manhattan."
He lifted the glass. "Firsts are always memorable."
Her eyes skated over his again and her cheeks went red. He reminded himself that she wasn't responsible for the animosity he'd developed of late to women in general, and he lifted the glass in a silent toast before moving away a few feet. The spot he left was soon filled with more customers, most of whom didn't request anything more complicated than wine. White. Red. An occasional gin and tonic. Even though he found himself lingering, she was more than capable of dealing with the requests.
Pretty soon, that line dwindled, too, and Ben's Manhattan was rapidly becoming a memory. There was a quartet of musicians playing old standards and the small clusters of party guests were migrating, growing larger as more family connections were drawn and discovered.
His lips tightened and he turned away from the sight, his focus colliding with the pretty bartender, who jumped guiltily as if she'd been caught staring.
In appearance and apparent guilelessness, she seemed the antithesis of the women with whom he'd been dealing lately, and he exhaled, giving up the notion of disinterest. He finished off the drink and headed back to the bar.
Her eyes followed the glass when he set it, empty, in front of her. "Would you like another, sir?"
He had a company of people who called him "sir."
"Call me Ben."
Her eyes flicked up to his and her lips pressed softly together.
"And no," he answered. "But I'll take a mineral water."
She leaned sideways again and retrieved a small bottle, which she opened and poured the contents into a clean glass. She set it atop a fresh cocktail napkin and began sliding it toward him. "Firsts might be memorable, but I guess they're not always successful."
He wrapped his hand around the highball glass before she could withdraw her hand, and his fingers brushed hers. "The Manhattan was perfect," he assured. "But I'm driving." It was only an excuse. He wanted his head clear for an entirely different purpose.
"The party's expected to last hours."
He leaned his elbow on the bar again. "What else do you know about the party?"
Her gaze flicked past him, then back again. "Nothing, sir."
"Ben," he reminded her.
The corners of her full lips twitched. "Sir," she repeated. He felt his own lips twitch despite himself. "Name badges tonight seem reserved for guests. What's your name?"
"How old are you, Ella Thomas?"
Her full lips parted a little in apparent surprise. She had the faintest of spaces between her perfectly white two front teeth. It added a distinct interest to an already interesting face. Her brows were dark slashes above those translucent blue eyes; her nose was a little long and her smile was disproportionately wide.
If he'd been interested in being interested, of course.
"We're not really supposed to fraternize with the guests," she was saying.
"No problem." He gestured at his name-tag-free lapel. "Not a guest. On the job." He stuck his hand across the bar toward her. "Ben Robinson. Robinson Tech." It was strange using the name. As recently as a few months ago, the company had still been called Robinson Computers.
Such was progress.