Travis Sullivan knew the proceeds of the Boots & Bangles spring charity ball went to a good cause but he’d rather just donate the money than attend a big party. He’d been to enough of those to last him a lifetime back when he was playing ball.
The Kellys of Kelly Boots fame hosted the ball. People came from far and wide, from all over the state and as far away as the East and West Coasts to attend. There were even a few international celebrities who came every year. The silent auction boasted such items as original art from Whiskey River natives to ski trips to the Rockies and the Swiss Alps donated by generous souls. Local businesses all donated items and, of course, there was a special custom-made Kelly boot designed for the occasion.
“Tell me again why we’re here?” Travis Sullivan asked his friend Zack Bannister.
Zack shot him an annoyed glance and pointed his beer bottle at him. “You know why. Promotion. Advertising. Growing the business. Making friends in the community.”
“We’re all homegrown. We have plenty of friends in the community. Besides, what does a fancy-ass party have to do with promoting the airfield?”
“Since we’ve been trying like hell to get the Kellys to commit to hangaring at least one of their planes with us, it would have been stupid not to come tonight.”
He had a point. “Still, we could have just shown up and left. I doubt the Kellys are keeping track of who comes and goes.”
Their friend and partner Levi Chapman walked up on the tail end of the conversation. “I gotta agree with Travis on this one. Fancy parties are a pain in the ass.” He tugged on his bow tie. “I hate tuxes.”
“You could afford to buy one, you know,” Travis told him. “Then it wouldn’t be so uncomfortable.”
“I’m not wasting my money on a damn tuxedo.”
Zack laughed. “You’re awfully cheap for someone rolling in the green. Look at it this way. There’s free food, free booze and beautiful women. What more could you ask for?”
True, Travis thought. Especially the part about pretty women. He scanned the ballroom, seeing a number of women he knew. Some of the prettiest were married. Happily married. Of course, who knew how long that might last?
At least his brother Harlan was happy with Savannah. They’d been secretly involved in high school, had broken up and hadn’t seen each other for years. But they’d gotten married in January and seemed to be crazy about each other.
He was glad for his brother, but as he knew from personal experience, not everyone was that fortunate.
“Holy shit,” Levi said reverently, gazing at the entrance to the huge room.
Zack and Travis turned around to see what had Levi so jazzed.
Poised perfection and drop-dead gorgeous, she stood alone at the ballroom entrance. Transfixed, Travis stared at her, glad he didn’t have to speak. Dark brown hair, shot through with streaks of auburn, fell past her shoulders in a riot of waves. Bare, beautiful shoulders rose above a low-cut strapless bodice of a sparkly fabric, and a blessedly short, cobalt-blue skirt emphasized her tiny waist and long legs. She wore cowboy boots, customary at the Boots & Bangles ball, hosted by the Kellys. Her boots were navy, with a sparkling, cobalt-blue leaf design that matched the skirt. And the expanse of smooth, shapely leg showing between boots and dress was enough in itself to make a man’s hands itch to touch.
He’d never seen her before in his life.
Or had he?
Before he could get his shit together enough to walk over to her, he realized his buddies had left him in the dust. They were both making their way, purposefully, over to where she stood. Seconds later they reached her.
Mystery woman smiled and shook hands, then let Zack lead her out on the dance floor. Travis decided he’d bide his time and see how his friends fared before he tried his luck.
Travis strolled over to Levi, who was standing by the dance floor watching Zack and mystery woman. “Too bad you struck out.”
Levi shrugged. “She said she’d dance with me next.”
“Did you get her name?”
He nodded. “Lynn. No last name. Just Lynn.” They both watched the couple for a bit before Levi added, “Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have let Zack talk first. He’s a smooth bastard.”
Travis laughed. Clapping his friend on the shoulder, he said, “Cheer up, buddy. You’ll get your chance.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll talk to her before the night is over.”
He left and made the rounds talking to people. Travis, Zack and Levi were partners in Devil’s Rock airfield, a small private airfield they planned to enlarge in order to better serve Whiskey River and the surrounding business communities and private citizens. They’d recently converted one of the runways to accommodate small jets, and another one, suitable for larger planes, was in the works. The plan was to expand further, enabling more jets to fly in and out, as well as enlarging the private plane services. The terminal itself was still in the design stage, but in order to grow, building a new one was a must.
Zack owned Devil’s Rock airfield and the surrounding land, Levi was the money and ideas man, and Travis was a flight instructor and the one most familiar with airplanes and their upkeep. At the moment a number of smaller private planes were hangared there, but they had planned for more business with the construction of several new, larger hangars. Which was one of the main reasons Zack had dragged them to the ball.
Mystery woman was dancing with Levi now and they passed close to where Travis stood. Why does she look familiar? It annoyed him that he couldn’t place her. Later, she passed by him again, this time with another man. She looked over the guy’s shoulder, directly at Travis, and smiled.
“I’ll be damned,” he said aloud.
“Undoubtedly,” Levi said. “But why?”
Travis didn’t answer, but as soon as the dance was over, he left his friend and walked up to Lynn and held out a hand. “Dance with me?”
She put her hand in his and let him lead her out to the dance floor, leaving a number of disappointed guys behind. The band had taken a break and a deejay had taken over, changing songs just as they started to dance. They danced for a moment in silence, listening to, ironically, Ed Sheeran’s “Kiss Me.”
“It’s customary to introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met,” she said in a low, musical voice.
If he hadn’t been positive before, hearing her voice clinched it. “True, but that’s not the case with us, is it?”
“Isn’t it?” she asked, giving him a flirtatious look.
Damn. Who’d have guessed she’d come back to Whiskey River as a smokin’ hot babe rather than the cute tomboy he remembered from high school? “Nope. You know exactly who I am. And I know you, Tobi Lynn Robinson.”
For a moment she simply stared at him, then her mouth widened into a smile and she laughed. “What gave me away?”
Travis Sullivan. Her long-ago heartthrob, all through school. Not that he’d known it. To Travis she’d always been one of the guys. One of the Fearsome Four, the nickname teachers had bestowed upon Travis Sullivan, Levi Chapman, Zack Bannister and her because of the trouble they often stirred up. One of the guys…except for that one night and the kiss they’d shared so long ago.
“You recognized me from my smile?”
“Yes. I kept thinking you were familiar and then you smiled at me when you were dancing and I knew. You always had a dynamite smile.”
She gave him a look of disbelief. “You sure never noticed that when we were in high school.”
“Wrong. I noticed. I’d have to be blind not to notice a smile like yours.”
Still a charmer. Mid-length dark hair, deep blue eyes, a strong jaw, and wearing a tux that fit him to perfection—she could tell there was an athlete’s body beneath. It was just too damn bad he was a pilot. She shook off that thought, unwilling to delve further into that particular subject.
“Zack and Levi have no idea who I am.”
“Not to brag, but I’ve always been more perceptive than those two.”
She had to laugh at that. “Yes, and you’re so modest, too.”
He smiled, the smile that had always made her heart rate spike. And damn it, that hadn’t changed over time. The song ended and Travis said, “I hear the fountains are pretty spectacular. Want to take a walk and see them?”
“You’ve never seen them before?”
“This is my first time at Boots & Bangles. I’ve played pool here a few times, but we weren’t looking at fountains.”
“This is my first time at the mansion, period. I’ve always wondered what it looked like inside. And what those fountains are like. I wonder if we can see all of them or if only certain ones are accessible to the guests?”
“One way to find out.” He held out his arm.
She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Okay, lead on.” They stopped to pick up her wrap, a filmy shawl that was surprisingly warm. Travis helped her with it. Was it her imagination or did his hands linger on her shoulders just a bit longer than strictly necessary?
Wishful thinking, that’s what it is.
Oh, come on, Tobi. You had a crush on him years ago. That doesn’t mean you still have the hots for him.
Right. Because I don’t.
But I could.
Somewhere, Travis had learned to dance. In high school the only time she’d known him to dance had been with her at the prom. Then, he’d been a bit awkward. There wasn’t an awkward bone in his body now. Smooth, all the way through.
“What brings you back to Whiskey River, Tobi? I haven’t seen you around here since I’ve been back and that’s a couple of years now. Are your parents still here?”
“No, they moved to Arizona a couple of years after I went to college. They live in New Mexico now, though.”
“Are you just passing through for the party, then? Or are you sticking around?”
“I’m the new partner at the Urgent Care clinic. Which makes me permanent, unless it doesn’t work out.”
“Really? I’d heard we were getting a new doctor in town but I had no idea it would be you.”
“I knew Raleigh Douglas and Clint Hollyfield in medical school,” she said, naming the current owners of Whiskey River’s Urgent Care clinic. “They wanted another partner and I’d been looking to leave Dallas. It seems Whiskey River is keeping them busy.”
He grinned. “A lot of people use the clinic for their regular doctor.”
“That’s what Clint and Raleigh told me.”
“The first time I heard you’d become a doctor it surprised me. Last I knew you got a scholarship in business. You wanted to go into finance, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I changed my sophomore year, adding a chemistry major and going pre-med.”
“Wow. I knew you were smart but a double major? Is that why I stopped hearing from you?”
She felt a pang of guilt but pushed it aside. What was done was done. “I couldn’t keep up. Something had to go, so I got rid of my email and only had one email address to use for school.” School made a good excuse. Even though she’d stopped corresponding with anyone except her parents well before she changed her major.
“I worried about you. You just stopped emailing. No explanation, no nothing but a discontinued email addy. Zack and Levi hadn’t heard from you in even longer than I had. I thought something bad had happened to you.”
Something did. An accident that changed my life. “I’m sorry. I should have told you what was going on but I just got overwhelmed. Honestly, I didn’t think you’d notice. You were busy playing baseball in the minor leagues. Besides, it’s not as if we corresponded daily or anything.” There came the guilt again, knowing she should have at least emailed him. But at the time it was all she could do just to put one foot in front of the other. Studying had given her an escape, true. Taking on a double major had also been overwhelming, just as she’d said.
He shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but the fact that he remembered all this time later said something. What, she wasn’t exactly sure.
“After a while I heard you were okay, but I always wondered if you were pissed at me. Except I couldn’t figure out why you would be. Did I do something to make you mad?”
“No, of course not. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just—I had a hard time for a while,” she said, lamely. She cast about for a change of subject. The accident and its consequences weren’t something she thought about often. At least, not anymore. And when she did it never failed to make her feel regret and pain. Thankfully, he let the subject drop. Sort of.
“What made you decide to go pre-med?”
“I volunteered at a hospital and found it very rewarding.” Which was true, to an extent. The explanation tripped off her tongue easily since she’d said it so often. “I decided medicine would be a more worthwhile career for me than finance.”
They reached the fountain and stood looking at it a moment. It was a traditional stone fountain of a three-tiered design. A lion crowned the top, spouting water from its mouth to fall over the sides of each tier and into a water basin at the bottom with a blue and green intricately tiled interior. All three tiers as well as the base were lit.
“I love the tile work. It’s beautiful.”
He wasn’t looking at the fountain. Feeling flustered, which irritated the hell out of her, she changed the subject. “Tell me about you. Didn’t you go pro?” Travis had gone to college on a baseball scholarship. “How did that work out?”
“Not too well. I tore my labrum my second major league start.” He spread his hands. “No more pitching.”
She closed her eyes. Oh, crap. She’d heard that but she’d forgotten. She felt like a fool. “Oh, God, Travis, I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“Don’t worry about it. I moved on a long time ago.”
So had she. Mostly.
“I just wondered,” she said hesitantly. “Do we ever totally move on from something like that?” She pretended to herself that she had. But she still heard the therapist’s words echo in her head. You can remain closed off from everyone but it’s an awfully lonely existence.
That therapist had been right, as far as it went. But she’d rather be a little closed off than go through the pain of loving and having it all taken away.
Travis shrugged. “I tried to pitch again after the surgery and rehab but I never got my pre-injury velocity back. Or my precision either. It was brutal at the time, but what else can you do but accept it and go on?”
“I admire you for being able to do that. Not everyone can.”
“Sounds like there’s a story there.”
“Not really.” Not one she could talk about, anyway. Damn it, she rarely thought about the crash anymore, but once something brought it to mind all the memories came flooding back.
He asked her if she was cold, this time really letting the subject drop. She didn’t remember Travis being so perceptive. Of course, he was grown now. All grown up and sexy as sin, damn it.
He was smiling at her, waiting for her answer. “No, I’m not cold. What are you smiling about?”
“I was thinking it would be funny to see how long it takes Zack and Levi to figure out who you are. Without tipping them off by doing something that makes your identity obvious, of course.”
“Something obvious, like smiling?”
He laughed. “Since that’s how I figured it out, we’ll give them that. I think Zack will figure it out first.”
“What happens if they’re both still clueless by the end of the evening?”
“I’ll leave that up to you.”
“They really should know by now. I mean, both of them danced with me and talked with me. I don’t look that different, do I?”
He looked her over, his gaze sliding over her in a slow, appreciative perusal. “Yes,” he said simply.
She wanted to ask in what way but that would be fishing, so she didn’t. “You should take me back in. Zack and Levi sure aren’t going to figure out who I am if they don’t see me again.”
“I like having you to myself. In fact, I think we should find out if we can see any of the other fountains. I hear the Baron’s fountain is pretty phenomenal.”
Was he really interested in her, or was that just Travis and his way with women? “You’re as big a flirt as you ever were, aren’t you?”
“You say that like there’s something bad about it.”
“You don’t need to flirt with me. I’m not in the market for a man in my life. Even if he is cute.”
End of Excerpt