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"This is the best party I've been to since you got married," Alana Sharp Dumond announced. She raised her flute of champagne to her sister, Alexis Sharp VanBuren. Alexis had married her true love, Jared VanBuren, in a fabulous Valentine's Day wedding and now, the Saturday before Christmas, they were at the reception of Sherri Stratton and Lucas VanBuren, Jared's younger brother.
Alexis took a sip of her alcohol-free spumante and smiled at her older sister. She wasn't drinking because she and Jared were expecting their first baby. "We started off the year with a wedding and we're ending it with one. Perfect symmetry, I'd say."
"A great way to end the year," Alana agreed. "Yes, I'd love some more," she added happily to the waiter who was offering to refill her glass.
Alexis raised a carefully groomed eyebrow as Alana took a rather healthy swallow of her drink. "You better slow down, sister. You've had quite a bit of that tonight."
Alana grinned to show that she didn't take offense at her younger sister's words of caution. "I'm drinking for two since you can't have any. Don't worry, I'm fine. I've eaten enough food for two linebackers and it's soaking up all the alcohol very nicely. Now I want to dance," she said cheerfully.
They were sitting at the long table set up for the wedding party, which was being held at Seven-Seventeen, the stylish and successful upscale restaurant owned by the VanBuren brothers and their friend, Roland Casey. The VanBurens were chefs and restaurateurs and Roland was their partner. The table was mostly empty at the moment, since the bride and groom were out on the dance floor looking at each other with the eyes of love. Jared and Roland were outside smoking expensive cigars while most of the other attendants were either dancing or taking funny pictures in the photo booth that had been rented for the occasion.
Alana could sense Alexis getting ready to continue the conversation about her intake of Moet and she beckoned to David Stratton, Sherri's brother.
"C'mon and dance with me, David," she said. "We haven't had a chance to catch up yet." Giving her sister a wink, she took his hand and they went to join the other dancers just as the music changed to something fast and jazzy.
Alexis sighed while she watched the two of them head for the dance floor. Alana was just a bit too giddy for her taste, not that her older sister would act up or make a scene. It just wasn't like her to imbibe so much, but it was such a festive occasion that who could blame her?
Jared and Roland came back to the table looking rakish and debonair in their tuxedoes with the ties loosened. Her husband sat down and pulled her chair close to his side before putting his arm around her and kissing her neck, enjoying the little purr that she always made when he did that.
Roland grinned at the two of them and said, "Get a room, you two. Where's my beautiful partner?" He scanned the room looking for Alana, with whom he'd been paired in the wedding.
Alexis stroked her husband's face and sighed as he took her hand and kissed the palm. "She's out on the dance floor shaking her booty," she replied.
Roland made a face of mock outrage as his eyes found Alana, who was indeed dancing in a lively but sexy fashion with David Stratton. "I'll see you two scandalous people later. I'm going to reclaim my woman-to-be," he announced as he took off in her direction.
Alexis laughed softly as Jared pulled her out of her chair and into his lap. "What's that about?" she murmured.
"Roland likes Alana," he answered. "He says she's been dodging him long enough and he's about to stake his claim."
"I wish him luck with that one," Alexis said dryly. "Bolder men than Roland have tried to storm Fort Alana and failed. They all come home bruised and empty-handed."
Jared was busy kissing the back of her hand but he stopped long enough to answer her. "You don't know Roland. My family always called him my brother from another mother because we're alike in so many ways. Number one, we know our woman when we see her. And number two, the word no means 'try harder' to us. We don't give up when we really want something and I have a feeling that Roland really wants Alana."
"I wish him luck, but he's got his work cut out for him. In the meantime, I want to go be sociable with our folks and then go home. I need some alone time with my baby before our baby gets here," she said with a teasing light in her eyes.
Alana was just leaving the dance floor when a strong arm went around her waist. She looked up in surprise and then she smiled at Roland.
"I take it you want to dance," she said teasingly.
"I do. You're supposed to be my partner and I've been deprived of your company for too long," he replied.
"Well, we'll have to make up for lost time, then."
The music was a slow number and Roland was a great dancer. He'd taken off his tuxedo jacket and the way his broad shoulders looked in his shirt was amazing. As he held her close, she could detect the sexy scent of a rich, expensive cigar and equally pricy cognac. Before she could stop herself she leaned in closer and took a deep sniff and detected the even more enticing scent of his skin. She felt his muscular chest move as he laughed softly.
"Find anything you like?" he asked. His voice was deep, sensual and even headier than his fragrance.
"You smell good," she answered. "Really, really good. You're a good dancer, too."
She raised her eyes to his and studied him carefully. It was almost like seeing him for the first time, which was crazy. She'd met Roland months ago after he and Lucas VanBuren had moved from Chicago to Columbia to open Seven-Seventeen. They'd been around each other quite a bit, at family gatherings and the like, but she couldn't claim to know him very well, no better than he knew her. Gazing at him now, she took in every one of his features and realized that they added up to a very compelling package.
Roland was tall, maybe even taller than Jared. He was much more muscular than Jared, though; he was built like a linebacker. His skin was a rich deep brown with red undertones, smooth as milk chocolate. His eyes were penetrating, with thick black eyebrows and lashes that were way too long and pretty for a man. With his high cheekbones and chiseled lips, he could have been almost feminine except for his strong, slightly hooked nose and his neatly trimmed goatee. His head was bald and perfectly shaped and all in all, he was an extremely handsome man.
"Is there something on my face? Spinach in my teeth?" Roland looked amused instead of put off, which was good.
"I've been staring at you, haven't I? Sorry about that," Alana said with a crooked smile. "I usually have better manners than this."
"It's quite all right with me, I liked it. This is the longest you've looked at me since we met. Did you like what you see? I mean, do I pass?"
"You get an A-plus," she replied. "An A-plus-plus, as a matter of fact."
Roland's eyes lit up and his smile was warm enough to melt a glacier. "Now we're getting somewhere," he said. His voice was so silky and deep it was like having a Pashmina draped over her bare shoulders.
There was something so oddly familiar about being in his arms that Alana was at a loss for words, something that no one close to her had ever witnessed. Alana always had a comeback, usually something smart and snappy. But tonight she just enjoyed the feeling of Roland's arms around her and his body next to hers as they moved to the sultry music. They had three dances and when the jazz trio took a break they drifted off the floor with their hands locked together. It was as if neither of them could think of a good reason to let go, so they didn't. They stayed together for the rest of the reception.
Roland was pleased with the new turn of events. He'd been unable to stop staring at Alana all day. It was the first time in weeks that he'd been able to spend any significant time with her and he meant to take full advantage of every minute. Alana Sharp Dumond was an elusive, mysterious beauty that he wanted to get to know better and as soon as possible.
She'd looked gorgeous during the ceremony in the strapless gold brocade and chiffon dresses worn by the bridesmaids, but she looked even better at the reception. The dresses had an overskirt that his sisters informed him was a peplum with a demi-train, which was removed after the ceremony for dancing. Now he could see her beautiful long legs.
It was easy to figure out that the Sharp women were sisters; Alana, Adrienne, Alexis and Ava were all chocolate beauties with shining black hair, beautiful skin and petite figures. When his best friend, Jared, had introduced him to Alexis the first time, Roland had immediately asked if she had any sisters at home. When Jared got finished laughing at the remark, he told Roland that she had a houseful of them and he could have his pick. But when he'd met Alana, he'd known that he wasn't looking any further. Alana wasn't making things easy for him, however.
Whenever he saw her in a crowd of people, she was warm and friendly, full of humorous conversation and borderline flirtatious. How she was in a one-on-one situation he didn't know because she was a master of avoidance. He'd asked her out a few times and she always managed to have some ironclad reason not to go. Normally he would've moved on and found a more willing companion without giving her a second thought. He was far from conceited but he wasn't unaware that he had a certain magnetism when it came to women. He was the oldest of seven children; there were five younger sisters between him and the youngest, his brother, Glenn.
He'd spent his adolescence ducking and dodging the myriad of besotted friends of his sisters, all of whom wanted him for their very own. It was something of a relief to him when he went off to college so he hadn't had to worry about hurting some young girl's feelings. One thing he wasn't used to was being ignored, though, and Alana's behavior was close to a total shut-out. Normally he would have returned the favor and gone on his merry way, but there was something about her that captivated him.
He was having a great time with her, going from table to table talking to family and friends. His family had come down from Chicago for the festivities, as they had been close to the VanBurens since Jared and Roland were small boys. Alana and his sisters had hit it off when Jared and Alexis got married and they were gossiping like sorority sisters while Roland had a chance to look at Alana as much as he liked.
Her glossy black hair was twisted into some kind of updo that showed off her long slender neck and drew attention to her oval face with the big almond-shaped eyes. Her features were delicate but sensual, especially her lips. They were a perfect cupid's bow, but plump and inviting like a ripe plum. Everything about her was fine and elegant, from her slender shoulders and arms to her long, artistic fingers. It was hard to believe that she was a mechanic, but she owned Custom Classics, the top auto repair and custom paint shop in Columbia. Her business was the best place in South Carolina to get a car restored to its former glory, especially if it was a vintage model. She even had offers for reality TV; producers were constantly after her to make a series about her business but she turned them all down.
He would have been content to watch her for hours, but his youngest sister, Pamela, chose to tease him about his fascination. She'd taken a vacant chair next to him and started meddling, which was one of her favorite things to do.
"Your eyes are gonna fall out if you don't stop looking. I think you're drooling, do you want a bib?" Her eyes were full of merriment, but her lips were barely moving, a trick she'd mastered years ago when she wanted to talk in church, in class or anywhere else she was supposed to be quiet.
"Quiet, you nosy wench," Roland said with an unmistakable note of fondness in his voice. He loved his sisters madly even though their sole purpose in life seemed to be to get on his last good nerve. "Go find yourself something else to do besides get in my business or my retaliation will be both painful and public."
Pamela grinned wickedly as she glanced with great interest from Alana to her big brother. "You need to take a picture, it'll last longer."
"That's original. Never heard that one before," Roland muttered as he gazed at the delectable nape of Alana's neck.
"I mean it," protested Pamela. "There's a photo booth over there. You should get this moment commemorated because it might be the closest you get to her for the rest of your life." She yelped as Roland thumped her on the back of her head.
He did follow through with her suggestion, though. After Alana took her last sip of champagne they went over to the booth and found it empty. They attempted to sit on the bench but his long legs took up most of the room so she sat on his lap. Her perfume was as sweet and captivating as she was and as she closed the curtain he inhaled the fragrant essence that was one part Chanel No. 5 and three parts Alana.
The camera clicked as they smiled into the lens and made funny faces. She closed her eyes and planted a big smacking kiss on his cheek, which he returned. Their eyes met and by an unspoken mutual consent their lips touched softly and deliberately before merging into a powerful kiss. Roland was right; her lips were like fragrant plums dipped in champagne and the taste released a powerful longing in him. Their tongues mated and lingered, stoking the growing fire between them.
Alana's arms went around his neck and he pulled her closer to him, crushing her soft breasts against his rock-hard chest. His hands slid down to her slim hips and she pressed against him harder as one slim hand stroked his smoothly shaven head. It could have gone on and on but the curtain was suddenly pushed aside by two smirking women, Pamela and Ava.
"I told you they were in here," Pamela gloated.