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Joanna Weaver looked great. Her mirror had told her that when she applied the glossy color to her lips as she got ready for her fifteenth high school reunion, but there was just something about hearing it from a handsome man that made it all the more real. So when their former teacher Rod Carlyle approached with a smile and said, “Hello, Jo. Don’t you clean up real nice?” she couldn’t help feeling a little bit flattered.
Jo turned with a smile toward the deep voice behind her. Mr. Carlyle, the industrial arts teacher at River’s Edge High for seventeen years, stood there looking mighty fine himself and rather Gatsby-esque in a white dinner jacket with a black bow tie and neatly pressed black slacks. The touch of gray at his temples and streaking his tidy beard only added to his appeal. “Hello, Mr. Carlyle. I’m glad you came tonight.”
His grin made her heart beat a little bit faster, even though he would never see her as anything more than a former student, a friend, the person who volunteered in his small engine repair class at the high school career center. “Would I miss the fifteen-year reunion of one of my favorite classes at REH?” He eyed her sisters, Jasmine and Jenny, who were sitting at the table with her and Jazz’s beau, Elias Walker. “In fact, all the Weaver triplets look exceptionally lovely tonight, wouldn’t you agree, Eli?”
Eli raised his glass, but he had eyes only for Jazz. “I would indeed, Mr. Carlyle.”
The older man shook his head as he pulled out an empty chair at the table. “When are you all going to start calling me Rod? I might’ve been the guy who taught you how to fix a lawnmower engine when you were sixteen, but we’re all adults now. It’s okay to call me by my first name.”
Glancing around the big pavilion-style tent, Jo couldn’t help smiling. Reunion weekend had finally arrived, and after months of planning, the committee’s big event—the formal dinner and dance—was going off without a hitch. The huge tent in the parking lot of the Four Irish Brothers Winery was a deliciously decadent venue strung with twinkle lights and full of white tablecloths, shining crystal and china, liveried waiters, and bubbly wine.
Ah, the wine—Four Irish Brothers sparkling traminette always made Jo’s nose tingle in the very best way. And the food! Mac Mackenzie’s Riverside Diner had outdone themselves with a French menu that included coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, salad, baguette, and a choice of crème brûlée or chocolate mousse for dessert. Jo couldn’t wait until they started serving. Harley had found a great DJ, who was playing a wide selection of music from their graduation year, as well as newer tunes and some oldies that had brought nearly everyone onto the dance floor already.
Jo caught Jazz’s eye when the DJ suddenly went way back in time, and Elvis Costello’s voice filled the huge space with “She.” Jo loved all music, but she particularly adored the old music—essentially anything from the entire last half of the twentieth century. Music from her grandparents’ and parents’ times of falling in love in time to beautiful ballads, swaying under the stars, and smiling into each other’s eyes. Eschewing the music app on her phone, she instead listened to her grandpa’s old records, cassettes, and CDs on the complicated stereo system he’d left in the little stone cottage that he and Gram had lived in for so many years and that was now Jo’s home. Her sisters teased her about wishing she’d lived in a different time, but Jo didn’t mind. She sometimes wondered herself if she’d been born into the wrong era. Old movies, old music, even the Regency romance novels that she and her grandmother read and exchanged brought a sense of peace to her soul.
Eli laughed. “Probably not going to happen. Mr. Carlyle is ingrained and I’m not meaning to make you feel older, sir, but man, this reunion weekend is having that effect on me, for sure. Fifteen years is longer than it seemed while it was happening. Although, I think we’re all looking pretty darn good.” He scanned the huge tent and Jo followed his gaze.
Teachers and students alike, who were milling about renewing friendships, dancing, and laughing, had taken the White Tie Encouraged invitation seriously. She hadn’t seen this many tuxes, dinner jackets, and lovely dresses and gowns in one place since senior prom. Her heart warmed at the sight of men and women she’d known her whole life, all dressed up and enjoying themselves. “Jazzy, this formal dinner-dance was the best idea ever. Everyone is having a great time tonight.”
The whole table murmured in agreement, and Mr. Carlyle offered Jazz a thumbs-up.
Jo’s sister’s smile lit up the table, and her cheeks filled with color as Eli slipped his arm around her. “I’m grateful it all came together. We had a few glitches along the way.” Jazz rolled her eyes. “The first two DJs Harley contacted came up with bids that were half our entire budget, and then she couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t already booked until she ran across this guy’s website. Oh, and after they set up the tent, none of the twinkle lights would turn on, and one of the workers had to go all the way back to Cincy to get more. Plus, the tablecloths they sent were pink! Small stuff all, but combined, Joanie and I were sweating.”
Eli tugged Jazz into a hug. “Oh, no, my darling, not pink tablecloths! How could we ever have survived that?” He winked at Jo and Jen.
Jazz stuck out her tongue. “Make fun all you want, Elias Walker. The ambiance would not have been the same.”
“No worries. You rocked the ambiance, ladies.” Mr. Carlyle grinned and gave Jazz’s shoulder a congratulatory pat.
Looking around at all the beautiful clothes, Jo was very glad she’d chosen the elegant black chiffon jumpsuit with spaghetti straps that left her shoulders bare under the flowy sheer vest. Jo had to agree that all three of them looked pretty spectacular tonight. Jen’s one-shoulder lilac Grecian-style dress emphasized her tan as well, and with her hair piled loosely on her head, she was striking. Jazz’s fringed and beaded pale-aqua flapper chemise hugged her curves. She hit just the right Roaring Twenties note with the strand of knotted pearls around her neck. Eli couldn’t keep his eyes off her.
“How about a dance, Jo?” Mr. Carlyle arched a brow in her direction. “It’s Ed Sheeran—something I can dance to without looking like I’ve got a swarm of angry bees in my pants.”
Laughter burbled up in Jo. “Please don’t make me laugh. If you do, I’ll have to pee and finding my way out of this jumpsuit is next to impossible without another pair of hands.” The stupid words were out before she realized how provocative they sounded and heat rushed to her cheeks.
Mr. Carlyle merely gave her the sort of sweetly tolerant look he’d give one of students and extended his hand. “Hopefully you’ll find nothing funny about me slow dancing.”
Jo slipped her hand into his rough, warm one and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor at the end of the huge tent. Swaying easily to the music, she reminded herself again that her old teacher was only being polite. Hadn’t he already danced with several other women tonight, including the new German teacher, Fraulein Heinrich, and Mrs. Franklin, the sixtysomething school librarian whose husband had just passed away in January?
They danced through the rest of Ed Sheeran and then right into the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” before he escorted her back to her table, excusing himself to meet up with several other teachers who’d just arrived. Jo watched as he wove through the crowd to the open front of the tent, stopping along the way to pat a shoulder or greet a former student.
“Dang, he’s a hottie.” Jo waved her hand in front of her face like a fan. “And he can dance.”
Jazz shook her head and tutted. “You and your older guys, Jo. I still can’t get past calling him Mr. Carlyle.”
Jo lifted her chin. “He is a little too old, you’re right. But I sure don’t see any other available men here tonight.”
Jazz released a frustrated breath. “I suppose you could always try a younger man.” She shrugged. “Just a thought.”
“She’s right, you know.” Jen nodded in agreement, but gave Jo a sympathetic smile that told her that her sisters understood her more than she believed. “Just because they’re older doesn’t mean they can’t break your heart.”
Jo frowned. “Point taken. But the men our age that I have dated haven’t improved much since high school. So, younger? Not so much. I think I’ll stick to Cary Grant and James Stewart and Clark Gable.”
“All dead,” Eli deadpanned, while Jazz and Jen snickered.
Jo narrowed her eyes at him. “Harrison Ford? Robert Redford? Dustin Hoffman?”
Eli merely gave her an over-the-glasses look, while Jazz scrunched her nose, clearly considering Jo’s dating dilemma. “It’s only that you haven’t found the right one yet. Honestly, I’m not sure younger is all that great, either. Men don’t really come into their own until they’re past thirty. Until then, they’re just little boys in grown-up bodies. Personally, I think most men grow into their best selves as they leave their twenties, so it’s time for you to start looking at men closer to our age, and this party is the perfect opportunity.”
Jo snorted inelegantly. “Don’t think so. All the male classmates that showed up tonight are coupled up. And do men ever truly grow into their best selves? I mean, really?”
Eli cleared his throat and pointed to his own white pleated shirt. “Um. Just a guy. Sitting here . . . hoping I’m my best self . . . all alone . . . no other men to turn to for support.”
“Don’t worry, honey. You’re one of the good ones.” Jazz patted his cheek. “Come on. He’s playing Harry Styles’s ‘Adore You.’ Want to see how it dances?”
“If it means holding you in my arms, I’d dance to the US Marine Band’s version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ C’mere, babe.” He pulled her out of her chair and they made their way to the dance floor.
“Look at them. God, I miss that first blush of love.” Jenny’s voice was low and her eyes bright with what Jo suspected were unshed tears. “You know what I mean?”
Jo nodded, but she didn’t really get it. Her first blush of love, so many years ago, had left her in tatters, and she hadn’t been willing to put herself in that position again. It didn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out that was probably why older, unavailable men appealed to her. If the relationship was impossible, it would never happen and she wouldn’t get hurt.
Shaking her head, she turned the conversation to Jen. “Does this make you miss Tuff?” Ryan “Tuff” Tuffington was Jenny’s ex-husband, and a slimier snake never took a breath as far as Jo was concerned. She’d been really worried Tuff would show up this weekend since he had been a big football hero at River’s Edge High, although he’d graduated a year before the triplets. He and Jenny had divorced over a year ago because Tuff couldn’t seem to keep his pants zipped, and he’d stayed in central Florida, where he was head football coach for Eastman University, while Jenny and their son, eight-year-old Lucas, had returned to River’s Edge.
Jenny shrugged. “Not the Tuff I divorced, but maybe the one I dated in high school. He was cute and full of enthusiasm about everything, including me. It makes me miss those easy, carefree days, when the worst problem ever was the chocolate stain on my cheerleading skirt or whether or not Tuff was going to make it to my locker before seventh-period study hall started.”
Jo gazed at her with sympathy, wishing like anything she could bust Ryan Tuffington’s backside. Just then, the music kicked up, and shoving her chair back, she drained her glass of traminette. “Come on, sis. It’s the ‘Cupid Shuffle.’ Let’s go show ’em how it’s done.”
Jenny grinned. “Let’s do it.”
They threaded their way to the end of the tent, where they met Jazz and Eli moving off to let the small group that had started the line dance take the floor. Jo grabbed Jazz’s hand. “Uh-uh, Jazzie. You’re doing the shuffle with us.”
Jazz’s eyes widened as Jo pulled her back toward the dance floor. “Eli! Save me!”
Eli laughed. “Save you? Hell no, sweets, I’m joining you!” With that, he seized Jen’s hand and tugged her out to the center of the floor, where the two of them fell into step with the other dancers.
Jo stood still with Jazz for a second, watching Jen and Eli get into the music. “Gotta say it, sis, that guy of yours is all right.”
Jazz’s tender expression told Jo everything she’d ever need to know about her sister and Eli Walker. “Yeah, he is, isn’t he?” She hitched her chin toward the group of dancers. “Shall we?”
Jo stepped to the end of one of three lines that had formed and swayed for a minute to get into the rhythm of the old hip-hop tune, memories of fifteen years ago and this very same group of people at the homecoming dance flashing through her mind. In the cool evening breeze that blew in through the opening in the party tent, she closed her eyes for a second, allowing the music, the magic, and her muscle memory to take over. Sheer bliss.
A loud thump outside turned her head, but before she could even blink, the tied-back side of the tent buckled in and a body hurtled through the opening, landing with a thud and taking Jo down with it.
Stunned and embarrassed, Alex Briggs popped up to his feet, bringing the petite brunette in his arms up with him. “Oh, holy sh—” He snapped his mouth shut and gazed down at the woman in his arms.
Wide golden-brown eyes stared up at him from under the fringe of a cute pixie haircut. His hands were twisted in the filmy fabric of the long vest thing she wore over a killer-hot black jumpsuit that showed off her curves. Her beauty about knocked him back down on his butt.
“Totally meant to do that.” He grinned down at her aghast expression. Aplomb was not his strong suit; on the other hand, he’d never actually tripped over a guywire and fallen into a party before. Humor felt like the best way to go. From the horrified expressions of the others on the dance floor, though, they were not amused. He peered at the woman. “Are you hurt? You’re awfully small, and I’m definitely not.”
“What the hell, you idiot?” The cute brunette, who was clutching his forearms to stay upright, scowled at him as he started to back up. “For God’s sake, don’t move. My vest! Jazz, Jen, come unwind us, can you?” She gave him another annoyed look. “No, I’m not hurt.”
Okay, so she’s not hurt, just pissed. That he could probably handle, even though he lacked the Briggs charm that got his brother, Byron, out of practically any awkward situation.
Two other women, who, except for the length of their hair, were identical to the woman in his arms, scurried forward to separate the buckle of his leather medic alert bracelet from the sheer fabric it had attached itself to. They worked slowly, careful not to let the stainless-steel buckle snag the delicate material. When he tried to turn his wrist to help, the one in the lavender dress snapped at him, “Hold still.” Then clearly as an afterthought, she added, “Please.”
The other one, who was holding the material in the back so it wouldn’t tug against the buckle, glanced up at him. Her expression wasn’t unfriendly, but it certainly wasn’t welcoming. The rest of the gawking crowd had started drifting away. Only a couple of men were still standing nearby, one of them eyeing him the same way one might eye a stray dog that had wandered in.
That guy stepped up to peer over the girls’ shoulders and offered a wry smile. “I’ve heard of crashing a party before, but I’ve never seen it done so literally.”
Gratefully, he returned the smile, although his face was hot under three days of scruff and he was too aware of how out of place his Hawaiian-print Billabong board shorts, tangerine T-shirt, and scruffy leather flip-flops looked among the tuxes, dinner jackets, and fancy gowns. “Well, I do love to make an entrance.”
The guy touched the brunette’s shoulder. “You sure you’re okay, Jo?”
She huffed a breath. “I’m fine for someone who just had a two-hundred-pound bear fall on them.”
Look for one of the Weaver triplets, the man who’d dropped him off at the bottom of the packed parking lot to the Four Irish Brothers Winery had told him. Any one of them can help you. Alex watched the three women worrying over the bit of fabric—they really were identical. “Are you the Weavers?”
The woman he was attached to—Jo?—lifted her eyes from her sisters’ hands. “Yes. Who are you?”
He shook back the hair that had fallen into his eyes—the waves had finally gotten annoying enough, he’d hoped to find a barber somewhere along the river this weekend. His boat had other plans, though. “Alex Briggs. A guy from the waterfront dropped me off here to find one of the Weaver triplets.” He let his gaze pause on each of them for a moment. “I’d say I hit the jackpot.”
At last, the material released from the buckle, miraculously without any harm to the outfit, for which he was eternally grateful. If he’d shredded her clothes, Jo Weaver might really have been even more pissed, and he needed her help.
Smoothing her hands down the front of that very sexy jumpsuit, Jo heaved a sigh and offered him a pointed look. “Why were you looking for us?”
The man behind the triplet in the blue dress—Jen or Jazz, apparently—extended a hand. “Let’s get off the dance floor. Maybe take this over to our table?”
The other man, an older guy in a Frank Sinatra white dinner jacket and bow tie, took Jo by the elbow. “Are you okay, Jo?”
She frowned, clearly embarrassed, as she gently tugged her arm from his grip. “I’m fine. Really.” Her cheeks flushed red as she walked slightly ahead of the others back to a table where waiters had just placed salads at each place.
The man wasn’t old enough to be her dad . . . maybe her older brother?
“She said she wasn’t hurt.”
The guy simply glared at him as they followed Jo’s sisters to a table across the tent. Several people stopped them along the way to check on Jo, who insisted she was fine, but Alex could see she was annoyed, whether by all the attention or him, he wasn’t sure.
The two men got the three women settled into chairs, then the younger one extended a hand. “Eli Walker,” he offered with a smile.
The older one followed suit sans the smile. “Rod Carlyle.” Then he walked off with little more than a quick smile and a pat on Jo’s shoulder.
Okay, then . . .
Alex sat down in an empty chair between Jo and the sister in lavender, who introduced herself as Jenny Tuffington and her sisters as Jo, which he’d already figured out, and Jasmine Weaver, who was obviously spoken for by Eli. He’d doped that one out because the guy had a possessive arm slung across the back of her chair, and his fingers were stroking her biceps.
Got your message, dude. Next time just piss on her shoes to mark your territory.
The three women gazed at him, their expressions ranging from expectation to annoyance, and Alex groaned inwardly. It was time to put his cards on the table. “So, I need a marine mechanic. My boat quit out in the middle of the river. No clue what’s going on. I’m anchored a couple hundred yards out, just beyond the paddle wheeler. I came ashore in the dinghy and talked to some folks who were getting on the showboat. One of them, a guy named Clyde, gave me a lift down to the marina, but it was closed.”
Jo nodded. “Yeah, we close at four on Saturdays.” She wrinkled her brow. “Did Clyde take you up the hill? Our dad or grandfather should have been there.”
Jenny held up one hand. “No. The ’rents and Grandpa and Gram went to the gambling boat tonight to see that Billy Joel show, remember?”
“That explains why nobody answered the door at either place.” Alex sat forward and folded his hands on the table. “Anyway, this Clyde dude brought me up here and told me to find one of the Weaver triplets. What are the chances I’d fall right on top of one of you?” He turned to Jo and offered his best sucking-up smile. “I am so sorry, Ms. Weaver. Truly. I’m not usually this much of a klutz.”
Jo’s lips twisted and she gave him what could only be described as the stink eye, something he really didn’t think he deserved. He hadn’t tripped on purpose, and he certainly hadn’t fallen on her deliberately. It was an accident. Her expression, however, was anything but forgiving. “So you think I should leave my party and go down and figure out your issue this very moment? Tonight?”
Despite the urge to snark right back at her, Alex kept his cool. No way did he want to tick her off more than she already was. “Well, here’s the thing. I think my boat’s too far offshore to leave it there overnight. I’d hate to cause a problem out there.”
“But it’s okay to cause one in here?” Her softened tone and a hint of a smile told him that Jo was cooling off.
Again, not wanting to push his luck, he didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he pinned on the sucking-up face that had gotten him this far. “Not at all. I’m sorry to disturb your party. Will you help me?”
Jo glanced around at her sisters, apparently taking some sort of poll that he was not privy to, but after a moment or two of eyebrow quirks, she sighed. “Okay. I’ll help you.”
End of Excerpt