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Blade and Samari's wedding reception, New York City
"What's this I hear about you and Kenna moving in together?"
Reese Madaris tightened his hold on the wineglass and met the intense gaze of the older woman staring back at him. She was his great-grandmother, Felicia Laverne Madaristhe first, since she'd had the honor of having a granddaughter named after her.
The elderly woman stood as straight as she could for someone in her nineties. She was quick to tell anyone that her cane was strictly for appearances' sake and not because she ever used it, although most people knew better.
You would think that since it was his cousin Blade's wedding dayan event his great-grandmother had worried might never happen given Blade's reputation as one of Houston's most notorious bachelorsshe'd be happy. Reese couldn't help thinking, Why isn't she in the middle of the ballroom floor doing a happy dance? Instead, she was harassing him about his best friend, LaKenna James.
He knew his great-grandmother wouldn't give up until she'd gotten an answer. "Yes, Kenna's moving in with me for a while," he said. "She found out that her condo won't be finished for another month after she'd already packed up her stuff to leave Austin."
A smile touched his great-grandmother's lips. "That was nice of you to offer her a place to stay."
He shrugged. "I'd do anything for Kenna. You know that."
Felicia Laverne Madaris nodded. "Yes, I know. The two of you have a special friendship. I just hope it will survive the coming months."
He lifted a brow. "The coming months?"
"Yes. Since Blade is no longer Houston's most eligible bachelor, you are," she said. "Which means?"
"You're a Madaris. And although you work for a living, most people know you don't have to. Whether you want to admit it or not, you're pretty wealthy. And thanks to your uncle Jake, you all are."
Reese took a sip of wine and acknowledged that what his great-grandmother had said was true. Thanks to his uncle Jake Madaris who was one of the area's most prosperous ranchers and a savvy businessman and investor, Reese, along with the rest of the Madaris clan, was extremely wealthy. If Reese never worked another day in his life, he would still be able to live comfortably. But the bottom line was he did work for a living and he enjoyed it.
"I still don't follow you, Mama Laverne. What does my being a bachelor with money have to do with anything?" he asked.
His great-grandmother shook her head. "Blade has been the most eligible single Madaris man for so long that now you and your cousins have to assume the obvious."
"Women will turn their sights toward another Madarisyou, Lee, Nolan and Corbin, but especially you."
He lifted a brow. "Why especially me?"
"Because you're the oldest Madaris bachelor, even if it is by just a few months. And because you're a loner, you date whenever it pleases you and not according to anyone else's timetable. They'll see you as a challengenot only in pursuing you, but as the ultimate catch in marriage."
A scowl quickly appeared on Reese's face. His great-grandmother was right about him in that he only dated when it pleased him. He was more than comfortable being serially monogamousdating one woman at a time. He didn't want any woman in his pocket and didn't intend to be in any woman's pocket either. In other words, he liked being in control. Unlike Blade and his older cousin Clayton, who had both enjoyed having plenty of lovers before they'd finally settled down, he was never interested in getting involved with a bunch of women just for the sake of doing so.
He had a habit of being up-front with any woman he dated. He much preferred relationships to one-night stands and casual affairs. However, the length of time the relationship lasted depended on how well he and his partner connected.
He had dated Alyson Richards for close to a year before she began showing signs of jealousy toward Kenna. That was the one thing he did not tolerate from any womanKenna would always be in his life. Whoever came between them was wasting their time, he thought.
He glanced across the room to where Kenna was dancing with his uncle Jake. She was his best friend and had been since college, and he refused to put up with any woman who had a problem with that. He refused to be a trophy for any woman who pursued him just for the thrill of it or for the Madaris statusthat wasn't going to happen.
"Just thought I'd warn you," said his great-grandmother, her voice interrupting his thoughts. "You also need to consider how being the most eligible bachelor in Houston is going to affect Kenna."
His gaze moved from his uncle Jake and Kenna back to Mama Laverne. "Affect Kenna in what way?"
"Kenna being your best friend is one thing. But now that she'll be living under your roof for a while, it will cause a stir. She'll become the envy of every single woman in town."
Reese couldn't help but laugh. "Really, Mama Laverne, I doubt women will start coming out of the woodwork. Besides Kenna's and my relationship is strictly platonic. You and the family know that, and frankly it's nobody else's business."
"That might be the case, but I can see some women trying to drive a wedge between you and Kenna."
Reese shook his head, thinking their friendship was too rock solid for that to happen. "Thanks for the warning, but don't worry. Kenna is the closest friend I have and she always will be."
"Yes, and that's a good thing as much for Kenna as it is for you," his great-grandmother added.
He knew he shouldn't ask, but he couldn't resist. "And why is that?"
Resting both hands on top of her cane, she responded, "Because Kenna is a nice-looking girl who will be new in town. There will be plenty of men vying for her attention. There will probably be just as many men checking her out as there will be women knocking at your door."
She paused a second, glanced around and said, "Well, I might as well mosey on over and chat with May Lois to see what she's been up to."
Reese pondered his great-grandmother's words. After all, Felicia Laverne was the matriarch of the Madaris family. She had outlived her husband, whom she readily admitted to being deeply in love with. She had raised seven sons and buried only one of them. She was close to her sons, and their wives, her grands and great-grands. She was a good motherthe best.
But she had one major flaw. She had a tendency to stick her nose where it didn't belong when it came to family. She knew it. They knew it. But she had a heart of gold that couldn't be traded for anything in the world. Since it was her only flaw, the family figured they'd overlook it.
After the song had ended, Reese glanced across the room and found Kenna again. She was back on the dance floor, this time with his brother Luke.
For some reason his great-grandmother's comment about Kenna being hotly pursued once she moved to Houston seemed to annoy him. Over the years she'd had a number of steady boyfriends, a few hits and a few misses. Some he'd liked and some he hadn't liked. But he knew for a fact that she hadn't been head over heels in love with any of them. She'd guarded her heart after her college boyfriend Terrence Fairchild had played around on her with another girl on campus. At the time Reese had been involved with someone else, but that hadn't stopped him from providing Kenna with the shoulder she needed to cry on.
Although she'd dated steadily after that, it was years before Kenna got involved in a serious relationship again. That guy was Lamont Cotton, whom Reese hadn't much cared for. She and Lamont had been involved for eight months before they'd gone their separate ways. Then she began dating again, but didn't get serious with anyone until Curtis Purcell. She'd mentioned last month that she and Purcell had split, but she hadn't said why.
Personally, he didn't need to know the details. What he did know was that another man she'd gotten involved with had broken her heart yet again. Over the years his protective instincts for Kenna had grown stronger. In a way, that was what had made them closer, and made their relationship seem what some considered more than friendly. For Reese and Kenna, it was normal. It was the way things were naturally supposed to be.
The very first time he had brought her home from college one weekend to introduce her to his family and explained to them that she was his best friend and nothing more, they had accepted her as such. But every once in a while someone would try to insinuate that there was more between them. It had gotten to the point where he let them assume whatever they wanted to.
He took another sip of cabernet. For some reason he couldn't stop staring at Kenna as she moved around the dance floor. He tried to see her as other men did. Not as his best friend, but as a womanand if his great-grandmother's predictions were truewho would attract dozens of men once she moved to Houston.
Her short, medium-brown curly hair was stylishly cut and framed an attractive, warm-brown face. No doubt men would be mesmerized by her soft brown eyes, her full lips, creamy, flawless, chocolate-brown skin and the soft curves of her body. Although most women assumed a tall, slender frame was the only body type that could catch a man's eye. Reese knew that men were strongly attracted to a full-figured, voluptuous woman like Kenna, who was stacked in the most delectable ways. There was no doubt in his mind that any man would think she was beautiful.
Just like there was no doubt they would lust after her, he thought as he took another sip of red wine. Even Reese had to admit to lusting after her himself, oncethe first time they'd met when she had shown up at his dorm room one day. He had been twenty and in his junior year at Morehouse and she was eighteen and a sophomore at Spelman. She was whip-smart and an ace in physics. She had been recommended as a tutor, and that had been the start of their friendship. That was eleven years ago.
"Any reason you're standing over here staring across the room watching Kenna dance with Luke?"
Reese blinked before looking around to meet his cousin Nolan's eyes. He, Nolan and another cousin, Lee, had all been born the same year. Nolan's brother Corbin trailed them by ten months. "I wasn't aware I was staring."
The corners of Nolan's lips lifted into a smile. "You were. There's nothing wrong, is there?"
He glanced back toward the dance floor to see that his brother Luke had been replaced by his cousin Corbin as Kenna's dance partner. "No, there's nothing wrong."
"Well, if you're waiting to claim a dance with Kenna you'll have a long wait on your hands. We're all waiting our turn," his cousin said, grabbing a champagne flute off a passing waiter's tray.
He couldn't help but smile at that. Kenna liked to dance and his brothers and cousins enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with her on the dance floor. "No problem."
He polished off his cabernet, thinking it really wasn't a problem. She was enjoying herself. From across the room he saw the huge smile on her face and the sparkle in her eyes. His Kenna. His best friend. She glanced in his direction, met his gaze and smiled.
He smiled back before looking over at Nolan to find his cousin staring at him strangely. "What?"
Nolan chuckled. "Nothing."
He tensed at his cousin's one-word response, wondering what was going on in Nolan's mind. He eyed him suspiciously before saying, "I'm going to dance with Kenna."
"Sorry, pal, you'll have to wait your turn" was Nolan's reply, before he began drinking his champagne.
Reese chuckled and said over his shoulder as he walked toward the dance floor to cut in on Corbin, "No, I don't, since I have an inside connection."
"Darn, Kenna, I can barely keep up with you. Are you sure you haven't taken more dancing lessons since the last time?" said Corbin.
Kenna couldn't help but smile. Besides painting, dancing was her favorite hobby. Growing up, she had envied the girls who had been able to take dance lessons, something her grandmother hadn't been able to afford. She'd made a promise to herself that once she finished college and had a job, she would take dance classes. And she did.
She enjoyed everything from ballroom to Latin to hip-hop. She did it all, including belly dancing and tap, which wasn't an easy feat for a full-figured woman. She blamed it all on her hips, which wouldn't go away no matter how hard she danced or worked out. She'd gotten used to them and accepted her curvy figure as something she'd have to live with.
"Come on, Corbin, it's not like you to whine." She laughed. "The music just started, so don't conk out on me now. It's just the tango." They snapped their heads around in perfect sync and stared at each other with feigned smoldering passion.
"Just the tango?" he said, as their heads swiveled back and forth in tandem. Corbin's thick, neatly coiled dreadlocks went flying over his shoulders. "Look around. We're the only ones left on the floor now. All eyes are on us."
He quickly glanced over Kenna's shoulder as he twirled her around. "I think Reese is coming to cut in. Of course he wants to be the center of attention."
Kenna threw her head back and laughed as Corbin dipped her body low to the floor. Anyone who knew Reese knew that the last thing he wanted was to be the center of attention, of anything. No doubt he was coming to sweep her off the dance floor since he probably thought that the long slit on the side of her gown revealed too much legone of the dangers of dancing the tango.
Reese could be a little overprotective at times. But she could deal with it. He had been her best friend for as long as she could remember, and she loved him like a brother. She quickly repressed the thought, which she knew was a lie. She did love him, had always loved him, and not as a brother. He was the man she would never have, and as her best friend he'd always looked out for her. She no longer fantasized about "what might have been," but accepted the role he played in her life nowthe part he would always play.
She picked up his masculine scent long before he reached her. He tapped Corbin on the shoulder and took over as her dance partner. She couldn't help but smile at him. Like always, he dreamily smiled back.