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Marcus Sullivan was a man on a mission.
Twenty minutes ago he'd left his brother's engagement party and had headed straight for the belly of San Francisco's Mission District. Dance music pounded out into the streets, loud enough that the crowds waiting in line were already dancing.
Leather and piercings, tattoos and fluorescent hair, weren't part of the look of Marcus's usual crowd. Despite their wild appearances, the men and women in line looked happy, at least.
Marcus was planning on being a hell of a lot happier himself in a couple of hours.
Not, he thought, that he had any chance of being as happy as his brother Chase, who was now engaged to the woman of his dreams. One month ago, Chase had met Chloe in Napa Valley when her car had skidded off the road into a muddy ditch. Unfortunately, as soon as Chase got Chloe out of the rainstorm, he saw the bruise on her cheek and realized that she had much bigger problems than just a busted-up car in a ditch. It had taken Chase several days to gain her trust, and when she'd finally confessed what her ex-husband had done to her, Chase had given her the support she'd needed to report her abuser to the police.
The first time Marcus met Chloe he'd immediately been able to see that his brother was smitten. He also thought his brother had made a good choice in falling for Chloe. She was beautiful, but she was also a very sweet, intelligent, brave and loving person. She clearly loved his brother with the same passion and equal devotion.
Their whole family had been at his brother's engagement party this eveningeven Smith, who was one of the biggest, and busiest, movie stars in the world. Chase was the first Sullivan to get engaged, and it was a big deal to all of them. Especially for their mother, who had been both pleasedand more than a little relievedthat one of her eight children had finally decided to take the plunge into "forever."
Marcus had enjoyed celebrating with his brother, with his siblings and his mother. But throughout the party, he'd felt as if everyone had been looking at him, and wondering why he and his girlfriend, Jill, weren't yet engaged. After all, they'd been together for two years. And he'd settled down with her during those twenty-four months. Way down.
None of his family knew the reason why Jill hadn't come to the engagement party.. and he hadn't wanted to ruin Chase and Chloe's party by filling them in on what had happened. Besides, he could still hardly believe it himself.
Even though he'd seen what Jill had done with his very own eyes.
The music from inside the club was getting louder as Marcus walked past the long line of people waiting to get inside. It seemed to him that everyone was at least a decade younger than he was, and even though that age difference should have made him feel out of place, he was even more certain that he'd chosen the right destination tonight.
He needed a complete break from reality, and a club full of twentysomethings in the Mission was as good a place to start as any.
Despite the fact that he was wearing a suit and tie, the bouncer took one look at him and opened up the latch on the rope to let him in. Marcus was a large man, with broad shoulders, and big hands that were capable of doing damage if ever his brothers and sisters had needed him to defend them when they were kids. Although he didn't often use his size to intimidate people, he wasn't averse to using whatever tools he had at his disposal when he needed them.
The dark, heavy beat of the music throbbed through him as he stepped through the black doorway into the crowded club, but neither it nor the strobe lights came close to obliterating his thoughts.
But that wasn't why he was here. He wasn't here to forget what he'd seen.
No, Marcus thought, his gut twisting at the sight of a couple holding each other close as they danced slowly together despite the fast-paced song. He didn't want to forget and he wouldn't let himself make that mistake again. He would never be that stupid, that blind, ever again.
Marcus was here tonight to make up for two wasted years. Twenty-four months ago, he'd met Jill in San Francisco on a hot August night. He was a guest at a charity event her firm was hosting, and Sullivan Winery had made a very sizable donation to the Children's Fund. As soon as he'd set eyes on her cool blonde beauty, he believed he'd found the missing puzzle piece in his life. He was thirty-four and had started to think about a family of his own, about a wife, and kids.
In Jill, he'd seen his future: marriage, kids, estate dinners at his winery with the perfect wife by his side.
Only, as he'd learned that afternoon, it hadn't been perfect at all
Marcus could hear moaning even as he turned his key in the lock to Jill's apartment. It could have been a movie turned up too loud for the dirty parts, but Marcus knew betterhad known better for months, if he was being honest with himself. Jill had been distracted and moody for a while now. He'd tried to convince himself that it was simply pressure from her job that was making her short with him, not to mention being less and less interested in sex. But when she'd stopped coming to Napa to relax at the winery on weekends, he'd had to admit to himself that their problems went deeper than too much work. They were deep enough that he'd tried to talk to her more than once, even though she kept pushing his questions away.
His hand stilled on the doorknob for a split second before he pushed open the door and moved through his girlfriend's apartment, the moaning growing louder with every step he took.
"Ooh, that's it! Right there! Just like that!"
Jill had always been a screamer in bed, but he'd never realized just how false it sounded until now, when he was getting a taste of her show from the cheap seats. His hands tightened into fists as he turned through her kitchen and headed down the hall to her master bedroom. He didn't really want to see this, but he knew he needed to. He'd been so stubborn about sticking with her
and as he heard her continue to scream her heart out in faux ecstasy with whatever guy she was doing, Marcus suddenly had to ask himself why?
He'd long ago asked her to move up to Napa to live at his winery with him, but she'd always had a reason to put it off. The latest was that her current apartment was a rare find barely a block away from her financial planning company with its frequent 4:40 a.m. wake-up calls. She told him he could stay over at her apartment whenever he wanted.
Only, the truth was that Marcus had never felt at home in her apartment. Everything was a cold shade of white with mirrored and glass surfaces that smudged at the slightest touch. It wasn't a home that children would ever be welcome in.
After growing up as one of eight siblings, he knew exactly what muddy feet and dirty hands could do to furniture like this. It wasn't pretty, but it was life. Real life.
His house in Napa Valley, by contrast, was full of large, comfortable couches, colorful rugs imported from Italy and artwork he loved, whether painted by a famous artist or an up-and-coming local painter.
But he'd wanted a future with her and he'd assumed making good on that future meant bending, compromising.
How many weekends had he come to the city to see Jill when it suited her? How many times had he changed his entire schedule at a moment's notice to be there for her when she needed him?
He knew his brothers and sisters all had an opinion about Jill, of course, but amazingly, they'd been fairly reticent about sticking their noses into his relationship with her. Maybe because they'd figured he would come to his senses eventually. Only Chase had recently tried to talk to him about Jill. But, by then, things were a big enough mess that Marcus hadn't exactly encouraged his brother's questions and concerns.
So, yes, Marcus knew he'd given up what he wanted to try to make Jill happy too many times to count.
But never, not once, had he ever walked in on a live porn show, much less one starring his girlfriend.
She was riding the guy like he was a bucking bronco and she was the star rodeo rider. The only thing she was missing was the cowboy hat, boots and braided rein.
He saw naked skin and limbshell, he couldn't miss them from the bedroom doorbut it was as if he was watching them from a clinical distance. Like watching a triple-X cable channel that had accidentally flipped on in a hotel room when he wasn't in the mood to watch strangers have nasty sex on TV.
And then, suddenly, the guy under his girlfriend noticed Marcus standing in the doorway.
"What the fuck?" He looked at Marcus with alarm. Clearly, he hadn't been expecting anyone to walk in.
That was when Jill shifted slightly to look over her shoulder at Marcus. Her eyes widened in what was supposed to be surprise. But he knew her well enough to see through it. For as much as her lover hadn't expected Marcus to appear, Jill had been counting on it.
How long had she been deceiving him with this guy?
And what other aspects of their relationship had been a lie?
Not rushing in the least, Jill moved to pull a sheet over her and her lover. As Marcus watched them slide apart, he could tell she was working on looking as seductive as possible as she covered up part of her nakedness. Her lover, on the other hand, was clearly trying to leave as fast as possible.
"I'll get out of here," the guy said as he reached over the side of her bed and yanked his jeans up off the floor, but Jill put her hand over his so that he'd stay on the bed.
"No, Rocco, you don't need to leave."
Rocco? His classically beautiful girlfriend, the woman he'd been planning to marry and start a family with, the woman he'd planned to share the helm of Sullivan Vineyards with, was screwing a guy named Rocco with a nasty-looking goatee and piercings? He looked to be barely in his twenties.
It had to be some sort of sick joke.
The guy looked between Jill and Marcus, going a little white as his gaze lingered on Marcus's fists and the way his shoulders took up the bulk of the doorway, but he remained right where Jill had him, staying on the bed like a well-trained pet.
Jill got up off the bed and dropped the sheet, then slid on a short, blue silk robe that had been draped over a chair in the corner of her room. She moved toward Marcus and informed him, "We should go talk in the living room."
Thankfully, she slipped past without touching him, but she was close enough for Marcus to smell sex on her. To smell some other guy on her.
He wanted to pound his fist into Rocco's face. But, clearly, Jill had engineered this. Start to finish.
So he'd deal with her instead.
Marcus moved back through the hallway to the living room where Jill was waiting for him.
She didn't look guilty. And, for the first time since that day in August two years ago when he'd seen her across a room and decided she was his future, he didn't think she looked beautiful, either. Yes, she was still classically pretty, tall and slim
but there was an ugliness stamped across her face that he'd never let himself see before.
"I'm falling in love with Rocco."
As apologies went, it sucked.
In his silence, as he simply stared at her in the living room they'd shared dinners and movies and laughter that suddenly seemed so false, she continued with a defensive, "You and I both know our relationship wasn't going anywhere."
Finally, his response came. "I'm the one who wanted it to go somewhere. You said you needed time. I gave you time, enough time to screw around on me. With Rocco."
Jill's eyes widened at the barely repressed fury in his voice. He'd never spoken to her like that before, had never been the kind of man who raised his voice to make a point, or who opted to be a bully to get his way. He'd gotten where he was by working hard and being smart and reasonable, with some Sullivan charm thrown in when he needed it. Only when he was a kid had he ever used his fists to defend his brothers and sisters, and only when a bully wouldn't give up for any other reason.
"Look," she said with an irritated sigh as if he was entirely to blame for the mess they were in, "this thing between us, it was good for a while, at least at the very start, but if we'd really been in love we would be married by now."
He raised an eyebrow and called her on it. "You know I wanted to get married."
She shook her head. "We were together for two years, Marcus. If you really wanted to marry me, you would have swept me off my feet so that I wouldn't have been able to resist. But you were always so busy with your brothers and sisters, always going to help your mother with something."
Her expression had finally changed from calculating to honest anger. "I tried to love you, Marcus. I really did. But I want something more. Something bigger. Something exciting. And I want someone who puts me first. All the time. No matter what else is going on in his life, even if his friends and family try to get in the way." Her eyes lit as she said, "I want what I have with Rocco, the way he thinks I'm so sexy and important. Not to sit by your side and wear pearls at your winery events. And not to always be the last priority in your life."
Marcus stared at the woman he'd so stupidly assumed would be his wife, the mother of his children. The pearl necklace he'd given her was still on her neck, the only thing she'd had on while she'd been having sex with another man.
She talked about his being too busy with his brothers and sisters, but what did she expect him to do? Walk away from them for her? He could have never done thatwould have never done itnot when he was as much a father figure to his siblings as he was a brother. Because after their father had died unexpectedly when he was only forty-eight, Marcus had immediately stepped in to help his mother, especially with the younger kids who were only two and four at the time. He didn't regret one second of time he'd spent with his family.
Hell would freeze over before he'd apologize to Jill for still loving them now.
Especially when what he was mainly interested in at the moment was ripping the pearls off Jill's neck and watching them scatter all over the floor.
Instead, he said in a calm, cold voice, "I'll send my assistant for my things next week. She'll contact you to arrange a convenient time."
"See?" Jill came at him now, her finger pointed at his chest, her robe gaping open across her breasts.
He'd once loved her small breasts, thought they were just as classically beautiful as the rest of her. Now, they did nothing for him. Less than nothing. He silently swore that the next woman he was with was going to be the polar opposite of her, as wild as Jill was polished.