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Strains from the jazz band followed Royce Ryder as he strode across the carpeted promenade between the ballroom and the lobby lounge of the Chicago Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He tugged his bow tie loose, popping the top button on his white tuxedo shirt while inhaling a breath of relief. His brother, Jared, and his new sister-in-law, Melissa, were still dancing up a storm in the ballroom, goofy smiles beaming on their faces as they savored every single moment of their wedding reception.
But it had been a long night for Royce. He'd stood up for his brother, joked his way through an endless receiving line, then toasted the bride and the bridesmaids. He'd socialized, danced, eaten cake and even caught the garter—a reflexive action that had everything to do with his years as a first baseman in high school and college, and nothing whatsoever to do with his future matrimony prospects.
Now his duty was done, and it was time for a final night in the civilized surroundings of downtown Chicago before his sentence began in Montana. Okay, so managing the family ranch wasn't exactly hard labor in Alcatraz, but for a man who'd been piloting a jet plane around the world for the past three years, it was going to be a very long month.
It wasn't that he begrudged Jared his honeymoon. Quite the contrary, he was thrilled that his brother had fallen in love and married. And the better he got to know Melissa, the more he liked her. She was smart and sassy, and clearly devoted to both Jared and their younger sister, Stephanie. Royce wished the couple a fantastic, well-deserved trip to the South Pacific.
It was just bad luck that McQuestin, the family's Montana cattle ranch manager, had broken his leg in three places last week. McQuestin was down for the count. Stephanie was busy training her students for an important horse jumping competition. So Royce was it.
He slipped onto a padded bar stool, the majority of his focus on the selection of single malts on the mirrored, backlit shelf as he gave the woman next to him a passing glance. But he quickly did a double take, disregarding the liquor bottles and focusing on her. She was stunningly gorgeous: blond hair, dark-fringed blue eyes, flushed cheeks, wearing a shimmering, skintight, red-trimmed, gold dress that clung to every delectable curve. Her lips were bold red, and her perfectly manicured fingers were wrapped around a sculpted martini glass.
"What can I get for you?" asked the bartender, dropping a coaster on the polished mahogany bar in front of Royce.
"Whatever she's having," said Royce without taking his gaze from the woman.
She turned to paste him with a back-off stare, her look of disdain making him wish he'd at least kept his tie done up. But a split second later, her expression mellowed.
"Vodka martini?" the waiter confirmed.
"Sure," said Royce.
"You were the best man," the woman stated, her voice husky-sexy in the quiet of the lounge.
"That I was," Royce agreed easily, more than willing to use tonight's official position to his advantage. "Royce Ryder. Brother of the groom. And you are?"
"Amber Hutton." She held out a feminine hand.
He took it in his. It was small, smooth, with delicate fingers and soft skin. His mind immediately turned to the things she could do to him with a hand like that.
"Tired of dancing?" he asked as the waiter set the martini in front of him. He assumed she would have had plenty of partners in the crowded ballroom.
"Not in the mood." Her fingers moved to the small plastic spear that held a trio of olives in her glass. She shot a brief glance behind her toward the promenade that led to the sparkling ballroom. Then she leaned closer to Royce. He met her halfway.
"Hiding out," she confided.
"From?" he prompted.
She hesitated. Then she shook her head. "Nothing important."
Royce didn't press. "Any way I can be of assistance?"
She arched a perfectly sculpted brow. "Don't hit on me."
"Ouch," he said, feigning a wounded ego.
That prompted a smile. "You did ask."
"I was expecting a different answer."
"I'll understand if you want to take off."
Royce gazed into her eyes for a long moment. Past her smile, he could see trouble lurking. Though women with trouble usually sent him running for the hills, he gave a mental shrug, breaking one of his own rules. "I don't want to take off."
"You one of those nice guys, Royce Ryder?"
"I am," he lied. "Good friend. Confidant. A regular boy next door."
"Funny, I wouldn't have guessed that about you."
"Ouch, again," he said softly, even though she was dead right. He'd never been any woman's good friend or confidant.
"You strike me as more of a playboy."
"Shows you how wrong you can be." He glanced away, taking a sip of the martini. Not a lot of taste to it.
"And you left the party because…"
"I wasn't in the mood for dancing, either," he admitted.
"Oh…" She let her tone turn the word into a question.
He swiveled on the stool so he was facing her. "I'm a jet pilot," he told her instead of explaining his mood. Time had proven it one of his more successful pickup lines. Sure, she'd asked him not to hit on her, but if, in the course of their conversation, she decided she was interested, well, he had no control over that, did he?
"For an airline?" she asked.
"For Ryder International. A corporate jet."
Her glass was empty, so he drained his own and signaled the bartender for another round.
"Getting me drunk won't work," she told him.
"Who says I'm getting you drunk? I'm drowning my own sorrows. I'm only including you to be polite."
She smiled again and seemed to relax. "You don't strike me as a man with sorrows, Mr. 'I'm a Jet Pilot' Best Man."
"Shows you how wrong you can be," he repeated. "I'm here celebrating my last night of freedom." He raised his skewer of olives to his mouth, sliding one off the end.
"Are you getting married, too?"
He nearly choked on the olive. "No."
"Going to jail?" she tried.
He resisted the temptation to nod. "Going to Montana."
She smiled at his answer. "There's something wrong with Montana?"
"There is when you were planning to be in Dubai and Monaco."
Her voice turned melodic, and she shook her head in mock sympathy. "You poor, poor man."
He grunted his agreement. "I'll be babysitting the family ranch. Our manager broke his leg, and Jared's off on his honeymoon."
Her smile stayed in place, but something in her eyes softened. "So, you really are a nice guy?"
"A regular knight in shining armor."
"I like that," she said. Then she was silent for a moment, tracing a swirl in the condensation on the full glass in front of her. "There are definitely times when a girl could use a knight in shining armor."
Royce heard the catch in her voice and saw the tight ness in her profile. The trouble was back in her expression.
"This one of those times?" he found himself asking, even though he knew better.
She propped an elbow on the polished bar and leaned her head against her hand, facing him. "Have you ever been in love, Royce Ryder?"
"I have not," he stated without hesitation. And he didn't ever intend to go there. Love guaranteed nothing and complicated everything.
"Don't you think Melissa looked happy today?"
"I'm guessing most brides are happy."
"They are," Amber agreed. Then she lifted her head and moved her left hand, and he realized he'd missed the three carats sparkling on the third finger.
Rookie mistake. What the hell was the matter with him tonight?
Amber should have had more sense than to attend a wedding in her current mood. She should have made up an obligation or faked a headache. Her mother was in New York for the weekend, but it wasn't as if her father needed moral support at a social function.
"You're engaged." Royce Ryder's voice pierced her thoughts, his gaze focused on her ring.
"I am," she admitted, reflexively twisting the diamond in a circle around her finger.
"Don't I feel stupid," Royce muttered.
She cocked her head, and their gazes met and held.
"Why?" she asked.
He gave a dry chuckle and raised his martini glass to his lips. "Because I may be subtle, but I am hitting on you."
She fought a grin at his bald honesty. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"Not your fault."
True. She had been up-front with him. Still, she couldn't help wondering if there was something in her expression, her tone of voice, or maybe her body language that had transmitted more than a passing interest. Not that she'd cheat on Hargrove. Even if…
She shut those thoughts down.
She'd never cheat on Hargrove. But there was no denying that Royce was an incredibly attractive man. He seemed smart. He had a good sense of humor. If she was the type to get picked up, and if he was the one doing the picking, and if she wasn't engaged, she might just be interested.
"What?" he prompted, scanning her expression.
"Nothing." She turned back to her drink. "I'll understand if you leave."
He shifted, and his tone went low. "I'll understand if you ask me to go."
Her brain told her mouth to form the words, but somehow they didn't come out. A few beats went by while the bartender served another couple at the end of the bar, a smoky tune vibrated from the ballroom and a group of young women laughed and chatted as they pulled two tables together in the center of the lounge.
"He here?" asked Royce, cutting a glance to the ballroom. "Did you have a fight?"
Amber shook her head. "He's in Switzerland."
Royce straightened. "Ahh."
His deep, blue-eyed gaze turned cocky and speculative. "You're lonely."
Amber's mouth worked in silence for an outraged second. "I am not lonely. At least not that way. I'm here with my father."
"What way, then?"
"What way what?" She stabbed the row of olives up and down in her drink.
"In what way are you lonely?"
Why on earth had she put it that way? What was wrong with her? "I am not lonely at all."
"I'm…" She struggled to sort out her feelings.
In a very real way, she was lonely. She couldn't talk to her parents. She sure as heck couldn't talk to Hargrove. She couldn't even talk to her best friend, Katie.
Katie was going to be the maid of honor at Amber's wedding next month. They'd bought the bridesmaid dress in Paris. Oriental silk. Flaming orange, which sounded ridiculous, but was interspersed with gold and midnight plum, and looked fabulous on Katie's delicate frame.
Hargrove Alston was the catch of the city. And it wasn't as if there was anything wrong with him. At thirty-three, he was already a partner in one of Chicago's most prestigious law firms. He had a venerated family, impeccable community and political connections. If everything went according to plan, he'd be running for the U.S. Senate next year.
She really had no cause for complaint.
It wasn't as if the sex was bad. It was perfectly, well, pleasant. So was Hargrove. He was a decent and pleasant man. Not every woman could say that about her future husband.
She downed the rest of her martini, hoping it would ease the knot of tension that had stubbornly cramped her stomach for the past month.
Royce signaled the bartender for another round, and she let him.
He polished off his own drink while the bartender shook a mixture of ice and Gray Goose that clattered against the frosted silver shaker. Then the man produced two fresh glasses and strained the martinis.
"His name is Hargrove Alston," she found herself telling Royce.
Royce gave a nod of thanks to the man and lifted both glasses. "Shall we find a table?"
The suggestion startled Amber. She gave a guilty glance around the lounge, feeling like an unfaithful barfly. But nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to them.
She'd started dating Hargrove when she was eighteen, so she'd never taken up with a stranger in a bar. Not that Royce was a stranger. He was the best man, brother of her father's business associate. It was a completely different thing than encouraging a stranger.
She slipped off the bar stool. "Sure."
At a quiet, corner table, Royce set their drinks down. He pulled one of the padded armchairs out for her, and she eased into the smooth, burgundy leather, crossing her legs and tugging her gold dress to midthigh.
"Hargrove Alston?" he asked as he took the seat opposite, moving the tiny table lamp to one side so their view of each other was unobstructed.
"He's going to run for the U.S. Senate."
"You're marrying a politician?"
"Not necessarily—" She cut herself short. Wow. How had that turned into real words? "I mean, he hasn't been elected yet," she quickly qualified.
"And what do you do?" asked Royce.
Amber pursed her lips and lifted the fresh drink. "Nothing."
She shook her head. It was, sadly, the truth. "I graduated University of Chicago," she offered.
"Fine Arts?" he asked.
"Public Administration. An honors degree." It had seemed like a good idea, given Hargrove's political aspirations. At least she'd be in a position to understand the complexities of his work.
"You've got my attention," said Royce, with a look of admiration.
"Only just now?" she joked. But the moment the words were out, she realized what she'd done. She was flirting with Royce.
His blue eyes twinkled with awareness. Then they darkened and simmered. He eased forward. "Amber, you had my attention the second I laid eyes on you."
She stilled, savoring the sound of her name, wrapping her mind around his words as a dangerous warmth sizzled up inside her. The rest of the room disappeared as seconds ticked by, while he waited for her response.
Then his smiled softened, and the predatory gleam went out of his eyes. "I take it that was an accident?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted.
"Well, let me know when you decide."
If flirting with him wasn't an accident, it was definitely a mistake. She needed to get herself back under control. "Tell me about Montana," she tried. "I've never been there."