Andie Bennett watched the couple on the dance floor with unabashed longing. Normally she’d be more discreet about her yearning, but tonight she’d had too much wine to care if anyone noticed she was wildly, passionately, pathetically in love with Heath McGregor, despite the fact that he was her older brother’s best friend.
Oh, and her employer. Mustn’t forget that he was also the one who signed her paycheck every week.
Marietta’s inaugural Valentine’s Day ball swirled around her, the locals of their small Montana town having dusted off their best suits and gowns for the occasion. Pink fairy lights hung from the decorative ceiling of The Graff Hotel’s ballroom, and red and pink decorations dotted the tables and draped the walls.
If you were here with someone you loved, someone you planned on taking home to your bed, it would probably be really romantic.
Andie’s gaze slid to the woman in Heath’s arms, another petite, buxom brunette in a long line of petite, buxom brunettes. What did her brother call them again? Pocket rockets. Right. Heath liked his women small and curvy and dark-haired, always had, apparently always would. Which was great news for the woman circling the dance floor with him right now, but bad news for Andie.
At five eleven, she stood almost eye-to-eye to Heath’s six foot one, and she was about as curvy as a bean pole. Her chest was almost flat – on a good day, if she were feeling optimistic and the bra manufacturer were generous, she was a B-cup – her hips boyishly slim. The only thing she had going for her was that she had long legs.
Some men liked long legs. Not Heath. Heath liked boobs. And dark, shiny hair, instead of wishy-washy blonde blah, and brown eyes instead of plain-old blue.
But she knew all this. She’d known this for thirteen years, ever since puberty had hit and she’d looked at her brother’s best friend with new eyes and known that he was The One. Sadly, he hadn’t been struck with the same realization. He thought of Andie as the little sister he never had, which had been fine when she was a teenager, but really sucked now that she was a woman, with a woman’s wants and needs.
God, how she wanted and needed Heath McGregor. She wanted to tear his black suit from his shoulders and pounce on him. She wanted to ravage that wicked mouth of his, with its fuller, decadent lower lip with smiley corners. She wanted to rub her cheek against his stubble-shaded jaw, and run her hands over his broad, strong chest, and curve her palms over that perfect, hard round ass of his…
She made a sound that might have been a whimper and reached for her wine glass. The people on her table had left long ago, getting up to dance or circulate and catch up with friends, abandoning her to her drinking and yearning. It didn’t matter, she didn’t know any of them. She’d bought a single ticket to the dance, and the organizers had plonked her on a table with a bunch of other misfits.
To think, not two hours ago she’d been standing in her bedroom, convinced that tonight was going to be the night that changed everything. She’d actually been nervous with excitement, she’d bought into her own bull so much. She’d been to the hairdresser and had her hair cut and highlighted and woven into a sophisticated up-do. She’d spent a fortune on a slinky navy-blue dress from a ridiculously exclusive boutique in Bozeman. She’d shoe-horned her poor feet into these stupid high heels and sprayed her body with perfume and followed the instructions from the girl at the make-up counter at Macy’s to make her eyes smoky. She’d even stuck on a set of false eyelashes to “make her eyes really pop”.
She’d looked as good as she was ever going to, a million miles from the jean-clad, pony-tail wearing, hard-working electrician who worked alongside Heath in his construction business Monday to Friday. There was no way he could fail to notice the change, she’d told herself as she stared at her reflection in the bedroom mirror. There was no way he could look at her with all this girly, feminine enhancement and not recognize that she was a woman.
Hah. Showed what she knew. How willfuly deluded she was. How naive.
The moment she’d arrived in the ballroom, Andie had shed her coat and scanned the crowd, looking for Heath. When she hadn’t found him, she’d positioned herself oh-so-casually near the entrance, arranging herself in the come-hither pose she’d practiced for a full hour in her mirror. Then he’d walked in, and her heart had gone absolutely nuts in her chest at the sight of him in black tie, the crisp whiteness of his shirt showing off his tan and making his dark chocolate eyes seem even darker. She’d forgotten all about her pose, raising a hand in a small, eager wave. She hadn’t spared a glance for the woman trailing after him – there was always a woman trailing after him – and had forgotten to breathe when he spotted her and smiled. Everything south of her belly button had caught fire, and she’d waited for his eyes to go wide and for his gaze to make a slow, disbelieving, enlightening scan of her body as he saw her properly – really saw her – for the first time.
Instead, he’d crossed to her side and given her a friendly punch on the shoulder, exactly as her brother would have.
“Looking good, kid,” he’d said. And then he’d introduced her to his date, and the two of them had disappeared into the crowd in search of their table.
He hadn’t noticed the dress or the shoes or the hair. He hadn’t been stunned by the beauty the Macy’s girl had coaxed out of Andie’s perfectly-acceptable-but-nothing-spectacular face. He just…hadn’t. Because he didn’t see her that way. She wasn’t a woman to him. She was a sister. A workmate. A friend. Someone to go fishing with. Someone to grab a beer with. Not someone to hold close on the dance floor. Not someone to take home and press against a wall while he kissed her senseless and did amazing things to her body.
Andie gulped the last of the wine from her glass and looked around for more. There was half a bottle on the abandoned table to her right. Yanking her long skirt up so she wouldn’t trip, she stood and leaned across to snag the bottle. She was going to feel like hell tomorrow, but right now she felt like crap, so what was the difference?
She was settling back into her chair when a woman dressed in black stopped at her table.
“Here,” she said, thrusting a sheaf of papers stapled at one corner at Andie. “We’re low on entries, so don’t be shy. You never know, you might win. And if you’re married already, pass it on to a friend, because the odds are really good with the entry numbers so low.”
Andie shook her head, utterly bamboozled by every word that had come out of the other woman’s mouth. Before she could ask for clarification, the woman in black was gone. Andie glanced at the papers. Be a Part of The Great Wedding Giveaway, the title proclaimed in bold font. Andie let out an involuntary bark of laughter. This night was getting better and better by the second.
Way to rub my face in the fact that I’m twenty-six years old, single, and in love with a man who will never look at me twice, Universe. Thanks a lot.
Morbid curiosity made her read further. The list of the prizes up for grabs was actually pretty impressive – the wedding dress, the groom’s suit, flowers, the wedding reception. There was even a set of hand-crafted bedroom furniture for the lucky couple. As if they hadn’t already hit the jackpot by meeting and falling love with each other in the first place.
The music changed to a smoochy Marvin Gaye song, and she glanced across at the dance floor. Heath was whispering in his date’s ear, a naughty, suggestive smile on his lips. His date laughed, flicking her long hair over her shoulder in a way that should have made her look like a horse but instead looked sexy and confident and alluring.
Three things Andie would never be. Damn it.
She poured herself another glass of wine and brooded as she watched them slow dance. If this night had turned out the way she’d dreamed it, that would be her in Heath’s arms right now. He’d be whispering in her ear, telling her all the sweet, dirty things he was going to do to her. She closed her eyes for a beat, imagining.
He’d drive her home, one hand on her thigh. Not too high, but high enough that she’d know he meant business. He’d kiss her on the front porch, unable to wait until they were inside, his hands gliding down her back to cup her butt –
Her chair jerked, and she started, opening her eyes.
“So sorry, Ma’am,” a waiter said before moving off.
Andie stared at the blank entry form in front of her. This night sucked so hard, she couldn’t even enjoy a perfectly innocent fantasy without it being ruined. She blinked, aware that self-pitying tears weren’t far away.
The only thing worse than sitting here on her own like a sad, needy loser would be sitting here crying into her wine glass.
Without really registering it, she read the first question on the form. Describe how you and your fiancé first met.
She’d been six years old and stuck up the apple tree in the backyard of her childhood home the day Beau brought Heath over to their place the first time. She’d dared herself to climb as high as she could, then frozen when she caught sight of the ground far, far below. She’d been stuck in the tree for nearly an hour when her brother came down to the bottom of the yard to introduce her to his new friend. Pride had forced Andie to pretend nothing was wrong, and pride had kept her hands steady when Heath and Beau climbed up to check out the view. Heath had looked at her with approval once they’d reached her branch, impressed with the height she’d achieved, and damn if she hadn’t climbed down the trunk as confident as a monkey when they all decided they’d had enough.
Probably not the kind of cute-meet story the judging committee were looking for. They’d probably want something sentimental and meaningful. Or magically destined. Say, for example, if she and Heath had both been reaching for the last packet of white chocolate fudge at Copper Mountain Chocolates, and their hands had touched, and sparks had flown.
Andie reached for her small evening bag, pulling out a pen. It was stupid, and she was drunk, but she figured it wouldn’t hurt to just jot down a few little details. A harmless self-indulgence where she pretended for a few precious minutes that the world was the way her heart wanted it to be.
She started writing, and the words poured from her pen. Thirteen years’ worth of longing and yearning and fantasizing. She described the first date of her dreams. She outlined Heath’s proposal, complete with him on his knee with a small velvet box. She wrote about why she loved him, describing how sweet and funny he could be, how hard-working and honest. She poured her heart onto the page, and the next time she became aware of the world again, the dance floor was almost empty and her hand was cramping from writing so much. She shook it out, a little dazed by how lost she’d become in a relationship that would only ever exist in her imagination – she’d filled out the whole form, all four pages of it, including the groom’s section.
It was dumb, maybe even a little crazy, but she felt better for it. As though she’d gotten something off her chest.
She glanced up into Heath’s brown eyes, her heart jumping into her throat.
“Hey.” She slid her forearm over the form, desperate to obscure it.
If he saw his name next to hers, if he read what she’d written… She’d have to leave town, change her name and never return. But not before imploding from humiliation.
“Where’s your date?” Heath asked, dropping into the chair next to her. He’d pulled his tie loose and unbuttoned his shirt collar. With his dark curly hair tamed for the evening, he looked as though he should be on stage at Vegas, singing with Dean Martin and the other members of the Rat Pack.
“I, um, didn’t come with anyone,” she said. It was tempting to lie about having a date, but those kinds of fibs always came back to bite a girl on the ass, in her experience.
“Don’t tell me you’re on the prowl?” Heath said with a grin. “If your brother hears that, he’ll be polishing his shotgun.”
“Well, as you can see, it wasn’t exactly a huge success,” Andie said. “So he can relax. And you can keep your mouth shut.”
His smile was warmly affectionate, his big body loose and relaxed. “As if I’d squeal on you, Panda.”
Andie felt her smile falter at his use of her childhood nickname. “I really wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“Can’t help it. It’s stuck in my brain, part of the architecture now.”
“Then renovate and lose that room,” she said. “I hate that nickname.”
“I’m not cute, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m nearly as tall as you.”
His gaze wandered over her shoulder, looking for someone. Andie stared at the triangle of golden skin revealed by his open collar. How she wanted to press her face against that spot and simply inhale the good, hot smell of him. She curled her hands into fists, just in case they were tempted to go rogue on her.
“There she is. Gotta go. See you on Monday, Panda.” Heath pushed to his feet, six foot one of solid, hard-earned muscle.
She opened her mouth to protest again, but then realized it was pointless. As this whole night had so brutally demonstrated, she would always be Beau Bennett’s little sister to Heath, no matter what she did or said or wore. She shut her mouth with a click, and glanced down at her hands.
The sincerity in his tone made her look up again.
“I’ll try, okay? If you really hate it.”
“I really hate it,” she said.
“Then I’ll do my best to change the record.” He pulled his keys from his pocket. “You got a ride home?”
“All sorted, thanks.”
Now, that was a lie, but she’d rather walk home in these torture shoes than sit in the back of Heath’s SUV while Heath’s brunette-of-the-moment sat up front with him.
“Then I’ll catch you later.” He bent down and pressed a kiss to her forehead, enveloping her for a few heady seconds in the scent of his woody, leathery aftershave. And then he was striding away from her, hooking an arm around his date’s shoulders as they headed for the door.
She pressed her fingertips to her forehead, to the exact spot where he’d kissed her.
On her forehead.
As though she was a little kid.
Then she looked at the forms in front of her, the forms she’d just filled to overflowing with her childish fantasies.
You are a fool, Andie Bennett. Your own worst enemy. When are you going to let go of this stupid dream?
A terrible fury gripped her as the sheer unfairness of it all hit her. She loved Heath more than anything, and he had no idea, wasting himself on women who never seemed to stick. She would be a great partner for him, perfect. But he simply couldn’t see it, and she had wasted years of her life wanting things to be different.
For a long, dangerous moment she was overwhelmed with the need to smash something. Hell, she could tear up the whole ballroom, she was so angry.
And then, as quickly as it had hit her, the rage passed, leaving her with nothing but a churning, acid feeling in her gut and the certainty that if she didn’t hustle, she was about to lose her dinner and many glasses of wine down the front of her very expensive gown.
One hand clapped to her mouth, she lifted her skirt with the other and surged to her feet. The few die-hards still lingering stepped out of the way as she charged for the door.
She barely made it to the ladies’ room before the first spasm hit her, and she spent the next ten minutes reacquainting herself with the contents of her stomach.
Yep, this night was a real doozy.
But at least it was mostly over. There was that to be grateful for.
End of Excerpt