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The party was in a newer mansion on the outskirts of Whiskey River. No one knew too much about Max Parrish—the billionaire owner of an international conglomerate who’d moved in over the summer. But it was the party to be at and Angelica Rossi—who had become a pariah in society since a video of her yelling at one of her staff members had gone viral and trashed not only her reputation but also her business—needed to be there. She’d left New Orleans and moved to the small Texas town of Whiskey River to start over but, so far, the good people of Whiskey River hadn’t seemed to want her.
“We’ll just go in and find this Parrish guy. Tell him our proposal, wow him with our girl-boss vibes and then…” Angelica said.
“Then what?” Cosima asked. Cosima was her cousin and business partner. Even though Cosima had come up with this plan, she had left Angelica to work out most of the details.
Angelica thought if they could get Max Parrish to fund a community art center in The Barrels—Whiskey River’s poorer community—it would be the start to repairing her reputation and rebuilding their brand. They had run a chic boutique in New Orleans filled with handmade objects d’art created by Angelica and other local artisans—none of whom wanted anything to do with her now. But that had only been one half of the boutique. Cosima had run a wine bar and café on the other side, featuring the Rossi wines from California and a menu designed by Angelica’s celebrity chef brother—Jock.
“Then we celebrate at what is shaping up to be the kickoff party of the holiday season.”
“Or he realizes we weren’t invited, calls the cops and we never work again,” Cosima said.
“When did you become such a pessimist?” Though Angelica suspected it was tied to losing their boutique in New Orleans and not getting the welcome-wagon reception when they’d opened their new one here in Whiskey River. Which was precisely why Angelica was taking this risk.
“It’s called being a realist.” Cosima tipped her head to the side as they sat in the car waiting for the line to move in front of them.
“You used to believe in the goodness of people. Don’t let my experiences change you. Veronica showed me I was an idiot for that belief,” Angelica said.
Her former friend had been angered over the fact that her works weren’t selling well and started a fight with Angelica, which she had videoed and then edited to make it look like Angelica was a bully. She’d tried to defend herself and had even won a dismissal of the civil case that Veronica had brought against her, but the damage had been done.
“Well, it’s the season of miracles and maybe we’ll get one to help convince us to believe again.”
“I’m not sure I believe in miracles,” Angelica said. “We should have a plan B in case we don’t get in.”
“Well, now that you mention it, I do,” Cosima said.
“Should I ask what it is?”
“Yes,” Cosima said nodding so that her high ponytail danced wildly. “It’s sort of a gutsy move where we pretend to be the entertainment.”
She shook her head, regretting this course of action as they got closer. She had always been the kind of woman to take life by the horns but… “So plan A is to say that we’re good friends of Logan Calloway’s, he sends his regrets but thought we’d enjoy the party.”
“Yup,” Cosima agreed.
Angelica wasn’t sure how they were going to pull this off. But the both of them were quick on their feet. “We’ve only met Logan once and I’m not sure he’ll remember our names.”
“He and Nico are good friends. You’re in a photo with both of them,” Cosima pointed out.
“He’s Nico’s friend not mine,” Angelica said trying to stifle the doubt creeping in.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” Cosima seemed to pick up on her second thoughts.
No. Rebuilding their lives—and their business—was important.
“You don’t think we should do anything but hide out. You used to be…well different. I get why you’ve changed but this will be good. Nothing ventured, noting gained. Remember?”
She glanced over at her cousin. To be honest they were more like sisters. There was only one month between their birthdays and as the only two girls born to this generation of Rossis they’d always been close. They always had each other’s backs against their older brothers and matchmaking mamas. Angelica realized she had to do this for Cosima. Simply because even though Angelica was embarrassed by the gossip and ashamed of her behavior, Cosima didn’t deserve to be losing money and worrying about keeping the shop open.
“We’re doing this.” Angelica was all in. “He’s probably not going to ask too many questions about how we know Logan,” Angelica said.
“That’s what I’m thinking. Maybe we can talk to his second in command—someone named R.T. Harden,” Cosima said. “He’s the one who is supposedly going to be managing the revitalization of The Barrels.”
They were next in line in front of the large mansion. It had been built in a sprawling sort of Spanish-inspired style. There was a portico that the cars were queueing up in front of where valets waited to take their keys. She pulled down the vanity mirror and checked her lipstick. She’d made sure to look as professional as she could tonight, pulling her thick curly hair back into a chignon. She’d straightened it first so that it was all smooth and no stray curls would escape.
She’d changed her entire look after leaving New Orleans. As if straight hair and buttoned-up business clothes were going to make people think she wasn’t a bully.
Cosima looked cute and confident as always. She winked at Angelica as a valet opened the driver’s side door when they stopped. He offered Cosima his hand. Another came around and opened Angelica’s door.
She took his hand and stepped out. The house was large and the well-heeled crowd who were lined up to get inside weren’t the poshest she’d mixed with but that had been old Angelica. The woman who had been sure of her worth and her place in the world.
That woman was gone and though her brother Nico had suggested that with time she’d seen what had happened as a growth moment, she was struggling to put that spin on it. She was tired of having to smile and act demure and apologetic when inside, honestly, she wasn’t. She didn’t want to have to apologize for the woman she was.
And if things went well tonight, she wouldn’t have to anymore. She could start rebuilding her reputation and get back to doing what she loved. Creating art that made a difference in lives. Though everyone knew her business wasn’t doing well, no one knew she hadn’t been able to make anything since that video had gone viral and that was what made her determined to figure out how to start over, because without her art she felt like she was nothing.
“I thought you said this would be a small gathering,” Max Parrish said to his best friend and business partner Reg Harden. They, along with two other friends, had formed an investment consortium using their trust funds at first to create nightclubs and then after his brother’s death from a drug overdose…they’d changed their focus. They’d moved away from the party scene and more into rebuilding broken communities. Reg accused Max of trying to save the brother he’d lost and maybe his friend was right, but more than that Max needed to feel like he was leaving the world with something other than a good time.
“It’s small compared to a Beverly Hills party,” he said. “There is money in Whiskey River and the community does a lot of charitable work but they’ve ignored The Barrels. I think we might provide the impetus they need to start looking after it.”
“I like the idea. Logan has been saying for years that it needs to be razed to the ground but we know that’s his own past talking… It’s so hard to see beyond our own needs when it comes to actions like this. Do you think someone in this crowd is going to help? Or are they just coming out of curiosity?”
Logan Calloway was a Hollywood legend and local Whiskey River guy who’d grown up in The Barrels. Max and Reg had gotten to know him working with their Second Start program. Logan had put both his star power and his money behind them. Which had helped them reach more people. Max, thanks to his family, had connections to the top one percent in society but it took more than money to really make a difference.
“Here’s hoping,” Reg said. “If not, we could use a party to get us in the holiday spirit.”
They had been working hard for the last few years. The pandemic had really shaken a lot of communities, leaving them vulnerable. And Second Start had stepped in, planting community gardens to give anyone who couldn’t stay shut in their home a place to get outside and something to do. They had also built sports clubs and other community centers to give people a safe place to go if they couldn’t stay in their homes. He was proud of the work he’d done.
He had felt that if his brother were still alive, working with the Second Start program would have really helped him as he’d struggled with his addiction. Anytime Cal hadn’t had something to occupy his mind and his body, he turned to drugs. And one hit was all it took to start that downward spiral again.
He knew that everything he did was to give that second chance to someone else. In real life he’d given Cal many second chances but had drawn the line the last time he’d come calling. And that line had led to his brother’s death.
He shook his head. “Let’s get a drink and get this party started.”
He wasn’t going to spend the night in his own mind and in the past. Cal had made his own choices, just as Max was now making his.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Reg said. He wore a black Hugo Boss suit and festive red tie. He had his dark hair slicked back the way he liked to wear it.
Max glanced at his own reflection as they walked past the mirror. He had made no allowances for the holiday. He wore a navy suit with a gray tie. It was what he favored.
The entire house had been decorated for Christmas and all of the rooms on the ground floor were open for the party. The marble foyer with the grand staircase had been decorated with a large tree that stood all the way up to the top floor in the atrium. A three-piece jazz ensemble was playing versions of classic Christmas tunes. Max stayed where he was on the balcony as Reg went down to mix with their guests.
Everyone was dressed in cocktail attire and uniformed staff circulated among them with trays of cranberry martinis and champagne. He realized that he was tired. His mission to rebuild communities and give second chances wasn’t working as well as he hoped. The gnawing guilt that he ignored most of the time was still there. And now he had the added bonus of being bored with doing good deeds.
He heard the tinkling sound of laughter. Skimming the crowd he tried to find the source of it. He was surprised when the woman with the smiling eyes and joyful laughter wasn’t what he expected. She wore a white wool suit that hugged her slim figure. She had on a pair of Christmas red heels and her blondish-brown hair was pulled back tightly at the back of her head. Her skin was white like alabaster, but her brows were thick and brown, and her lips were the same shade of red as her heels. She put her arm around the woman next to her who wore a sparkly sleeveless dress and had her hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail.
Max would never have guessed the two of them were together. They intrigued him. He waited and saw them bend their heads close together again, then she laughed. A jolt of sensual energy went through him and he didn’t feel bored anymore or sick of these kinds of parties.
He went down the stairs determined to meet the woman with the enchanting laugh. There was something about her… He didn’t dwell on it because past experience had taught him this feeling never lasted long, but he really only needed it for tonight. Tomorrow he’d jet off to another town and another party and another woman.
“We did it,” Cosima said. “You were right. They didn’t quibble over the invitation. And you look so dramatic and sexy that guy was never going to say no to you.”
Angelica shook her head. “I was sweating the entire time. I may have overdone it with this wool suit.”
“Why didn’t you wear that cocktail dress I sent you?” Cosima asked. “Though I do love this look.”
“Just wanted to be different,” she said hoping Cosima would buy the breezy note in her voice and not push. But it was true. She did want to be different, just not from the crowd as she hoped her cousin would think. She wanted to be different from the woman she had been.
She snagged two glasses of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter and handed one to Cosima.
“To us,” Cosima said.
“To us and a miracle,” Angelica added.
“You came here looking for miracles?” a deep masculine voice asked as he lifted his own champagne glass and clinked it against both of theirs.
Angelica turned and caught her breath. It was Max Parrish. There was no mistaking that thick, dark curly hair, those bright blue eyes and the formidable jawline. His mouth was full and though his lips were curled in a genial smile she knew that he wasn’t all laid-back and easygoing.
“We did,” Angelica said. “This is Cosima Rossi and I’m Angelica Rossi.”
“Have we met? The name sounds familiar,” Max said.
Angelica felt overheated again. She was never ever wearing this suit in the future. Never again. She forced a firm smile to her lips and tried to remember what Cosima had told her to say, but once she met Max Parrish’s bright blue gaze, her mind went blank.
“We haven’t sadly,” Cosima said with a big smile. “But we are friends with Logan Calloway and he suggested we come to your party.”
“Any friend of Logan’s is a friend of mine,” he said. “Are you Texans or from California?”
“We’re actually both. Cosima and I are cousins. Her branch of the family has a vineyard in the Napa area and my branch runs a profitable import/export business. We relocated from New Orleans to Whiskey River last year,” Angelica said.
“I think I do know the Rossi name. Is Nico related to you?” he asked.
Angelica felt better talking about Nico than their supposed friendship with Logan. “He’s my brother.”
“I like him,” Max said. “Is he here?”
“Not tonight. He’s still in New York for another week.”
Angelica took a deep breath. Before this progressed much further, she should mention the community center they wanted him to invest in. But she couldn’t think of how to bring it up.
“We’re here hoping you’ll back a miracle for The Barrels and the creative kids who don’t get much opportunity,” Cosima said.
“Have you sent me a proposal?” Max asked.
“Not yet. We wanted to meet you first,” Angelica said. Which was the truth. She was afraid once he saw her name on paper and started to look her up the answer would be no.
“Max, introduce me to your friends.”
“Ladies, this is Reg Harden—one of my business partners. Reg, this is Cosima and Angelica Rossi.”
Reg took her hand and kissed the back of it before turning to Cosima to do the same. Reg must be R.T., Angelica thought. He was charming but looked like a paler version of Max. With his slicked-back hair and his festive holiday tie he seemed…well lighter than Max. His smile was easy.
“So lovely to meet you both,” he said.
The jazz trio started to play ‘The Most Wonderful Time of Year’ and some couples started to dance. “Would you like to dance?”
Angelica shook her head. But Cosima smiled. “I’d love to. And when we come back perhaps Ange and I can tell you about our idea.”
“Sounds good to me,” Max said.
Reg and Cosima drifted away to start dancing and she turned to Max. He was watching her with an intensity that made her feel hot but not in that sweaty-I’m-about-to-get-busted way that she had earlier. He made her remember that she was a woman and that she used to flirt and have fun and be open.
“So how do you two know Logan?” he asked.
She had been mid sip of her champagne and it went down wrong and she started coughing. He patted her lightly on the back.
“Are you okay?”
“I am,” she said, blinking a few times to clear her watering eyes as Max took her glass and put it on the tray of another waiter.
“Uh, well, you see…we don’t actually know Logan at all. He and Nico are friends and we thought…well…that you might not mind if we came,” she said at last.
“Yes. Why are you here instead of sending me a proposal?” he asked bluntly.
She had no choice; she was going to have to come clean and honestly maybe it was for the best. “Um, the truth is that we wanted you to have our faces and not just our names to base the decision on.”
Max put his hand under her elbow and she felt the heat of his touch through the wool of her jacket or maybe she was just feeling sweaty again since she was going to have to tell him about the video. To be fair she was dreading it. This was where most of their business opportunities dried up. Her reputation made people think twice about working with her but it also made customers think twice about supporting her business and her projects.
“You’re both pretty I’ll give you that, but I don’t make business decisions based on looks,” Max said.
“Good thing or you’d be fooled by Angelica Rossi. She might have the name of an angel but she’s a mean girl through and through. A bit of a scroogey bully, isn’t that right?”
Angelica tried to freeze her expression as she turned to see Roxanne Powell. Current chair of the Women of Whiskey River and thorn in Angelica’s side. She’d flatly refused Angelica a seat on the committee and had rejected every proposal that Angelica had brought to them.
Max still had his hand on her elbow and he turned to her, one eyebrow arched. “Scrooge?”
“I prefer Ms. Scrooge.”
Angelica tried to appear aloof and calm because they needed this opportunity with Max Parrish, though what she really wanted was to defend herself or disappear.
End of Excerpt