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Riley O’Sullivan had her camera ready. She was happy with all the pictures she’d taken so far, but as she’d learned over the years as a fashion photographer, the best photos were often taken in unguarded moments. As she watched through her camera lens, the groom put out a hand and gently touched his bride’s face, his obvious adoration for the woman in front of him clear for all to see.
Click-click. Smiling, Riley dropped her arm. This would be the best one, her gut was telling her.
It was a glorious day, the first Saturday in August, the air filled with the crisp promise of fall. As the wedding photographer for her cousin Craig and his bride Annie’s wedding, she’d been taking pictures since early this morning—first of the bride and her bridesmaids—she’d had to ask her godmother, Aunt Janice, to help with some of them, seeing she was also a bridesmaid—and later of the groom and his groomsmen.
Her happy place was behind the camera lens—always had been—and taking photographs of the happy couple against the backdrop of orange and brown trees was a profoundly beautiful experience.
Taking wedding photos wasn’t her usual gig, but when Craig and Annie had asked if she’d be able to be here for the wedding to take the pictures, she’d changed her plans immediately. For her cousin, she’d walk over hot coals if need be. Craig had always been there for her when she’d needed him. To be able to do this for him and Annie was her small way of thanking him for the way he’d always had her back.
She was tired, but it was a good tired. Capturing happy moments for these two people, who so obviously belonged together, was such a privilege and great fun.
And bonus, being busy had one other big advantage—she didn’t have to talk to people. As a textbook introvert, she was energized when she was alone. People drained her, but if she was busy doing what she loved, she was able to ignore the near panicky feeling she got when she was in a crowd.
Back in Portland, she had one friend, Elana. They’d met in second grade and had been friends since then. The two of them had always tried to meet up at least once a month, but since Elana had married her college sweetheart, an editor at a well-known publisher, they hardly saw one another these days. Two were as big a crowd as she could handle.
With her camera still in her hand, she walked toward the table where her godmother, Aunt Janice, was sitting. She was not hard to miss. Dressed from top to toe in bright red, a pair of huge silver earrings dangling from her ears, she made a definite statement. Age was just a number, she would always say.
“Dylan still okay?” Riley asked as she crouched down to lift the long tablecloth covering the table. Her three-year-old son was sleeping peacefully on a small mattress. He was growing up way too fast; next month he’d be four. Pulling the blanket over him, she got up. “Thanks, Aunt Janice. Don’t you want to go and dance?”
Aunt Janice smiled. “I am enjoying myself from here. I can’t believe Craig and Annie have actually invited Carol Bingley to the wedding. She will now have material to keep her gossiping machine going for months.” Her eyes twinkled. “And I see Barry Davis is trying his level best to get you to dance with him. I don’t even think he’s been invited to the wedding.”
Putting her camera down, Riley grimaced. “He’s just plain scary. He tells me he’s sixty.”
Janice snorted. “He’s probably eighty, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from trying to get a young gal to dance with him tonight.” Aunt Alice chuckled.
“I don’t want to be rude, but if he grabs my arm one more time, I won’t be responsible for what I do. I’m going to get something to eat. What about you?”
“I’m fine. Thanks, sweetie.” She motioned toward the dancing bridal couple. “I’m so, so happy for Craig and Annie.”
Riley grinned. “Clearly besotted with each other. Sure you don’t want anything?”
“I’m sure. Go get something to eat. You’ve been on your feet all day.”
With another quick look under the table to make sure Dylan was fine, Riley headed toward the table with food. Eating had been the last thing on her mind all day, she’d been so busy.
Fortunately, most people already had their food, so she could leisurely look around and decide on what she wanted.
“You’ve been busy today,” a smooth voice said next to Riley.
Warily, she turned her head. It was Mitch. The yelling brother as she’d dubbed him. His older sister, Vivian, had married Riley’s brother, Aiden, in May and now Annie, his younger sister, was marrying Riley’s cousin, Craig. The few times she’d seen Mitch during the past year, he’d either been yelling or threatening to beat up either her brother or her cousin. In fact, Mitch had actually punched Aiden. Mitch had been furious because Vivian was upset and had been crying.
He probably had good reasons why he’d behaved that way. Normally, she’d study someone’s face to try and understood a person’s behavior. But for some or other strange reason, she’d never been able to get herself to really take a good look at Mitch Miller’s face.
“You about to yell at me?” she asked.
Chuckling, he also took a plate and helped himself to the food. “No yelling tonight, you have my word. Both my sisters are married. For the moment, at least, I’m doing okay. But both Aiden and Craig should know I have my eye on them.”
“I’m sure they’re shuddering in their boots knowing that.” She didn’t even try to hide the sarcasm. Mitch Miller was so not her cup of tea.
“You! Camera Girl!” a voice called from behind Riley.
Groaning, she glanced over her shoulder. Yup, the old guy was drunkenly making his way over to her. Again.
Quickly, she put her plate down and grabbed Mitch’s hand. “Come on, dance with me. If Harry or Barry or whatever his name is, grabs me one more time tonight… come on!”
But Mitch didn’t move. “Maybe if you ask nicely…”
“Camera Girl!” Barry called loudly; this time he sounded much closer than before.
Gnashing her teeth, she laced her fingers with Mitch’s. “Please, damn it.”
The next minute, Mitch had taken her hand, and lifting their clutched hands, he spun her away from him before pulling her back into his arms. They were dancing.
“I wanted to dance with you!” Barry wailed from the sides.
Ignoring him, Mitch danced her to the middle of the floor. The first few lines of an old song penetrated her befuddled mind. Something stupid—one of her mother’s favorites.
To her surprise, Mitch was a good dancer. He was barely touching her, but she instinctively knew what his next move was going to be. From the very first step, her body was in perfect sync with his. In silence, they glided over the floor as one.
Dropping his hand from her shoulder, he spun her out. With the corners of his mouth turning up ever so slightly, he pulled her back toward him. As she stepped back into his arms, his hand touched her shoulder before it slipped down her back until warm fingers were touching her bare skin.
Rattled, she inhaled slowly. A mistake. His male scent of… what was it? Vanilla? Suede? Whatever it was found its way into her bloodstream, heating her blood within minutes. What was happening?
Swallowing a groan, she tried to focus on the music, but the words of the lyrics weren’t helping. Seriously, she didn’t have time for this.
Up until now, she’d had a lovely day. If it hadn’t been for the old guy bothering her, she wouldn’t be dancing with Mitch, wouldn’t have become so aware of his scent, his broad shoulders, his muscled body.
Mitch’s hand slid a little farther down her back, and her heartbeat kicked into the next gear as her dopamine levels went ballistic.
And she’d thought dancing with Mitch would be an escape—what had she been thinking?
The subtle scent of orange blossoms floated around Mitch, threatening to overwhelm his already overstimulated senses. Talk. Say something, anything, before he did something really stupid. Dancing with the enigmatic Riley was turning out to be more than he’d bargained for.
“So, why don’t you want to dance with Barry?” was the first thing that came to mind.
Riley lifted those long lashes, and clear blue eyes looked at him, really looked at him for the first time.
The next lines of the song sank in. Could it be he’d nearly been in the brink of saying something totally stupid? Since the first day he’d laid eyes on the redhead in his arms, she’d literally taken his breath away. She was usually dressed in soft, flowing clothes, big hoops dangling from her ears. With eyes the color reminiscent of fields of lavender, long, red tresses falling down her back, legs that seemed to go on forever, she was breathtakingly beautiful.
However, she’d been such a thorn in his hide during the times she’d been visiting her brother and cousin, he’d tried his best to ignore her. Granted, he’d behaved badly, but he’d been looking out for his sisters, damn it; she didn’t have to make fun of his concern and call him the yelling brother.
Over the last few days, he’d been busy moving into his new home and hadn’t seen Riley before yesterday at the rehearsal dinner. She’d sat at the opposite side of the long table, though, and they hadn’t spoken a word.
Tonight, she looked incredible. The bodice of the blush-pink dress she was wearing fitted like a glove and dipped low at the back. His first glimpse of her naked back nearly had him falling over his feet. The wide skirt of the dress ended just about her knee, leaving those tantalizing perfectly formed calves bare. What had nearly brought him to his knees, though, were the pair of impossibly high, nude heels she was wearing. Her legs looked even longer, making it difficult to look anywhere else.
For so long, his only concern had been the happiness of his two sisters. It had been his idea to cross borders and relocate. Sacramento hadn’t been home any longer. Their parents’ untimely death, Vivian’s problems with her boss at the hospital where she’d worked, and the fact that Annie’s fiancé called off their wedding weeks before the big day, had all just been too much. It was also around the same time he’d realized the cut-throat world of finance wasn’t for him.
Since they’d arrived in Marietta, he hadn’t even looked at a woman, let alone dated anyone. Then this redhead walked into his sister’s B and B in February, irritating him, infuriating him, but as he’d just realized, also intriguing him.
Up until now, he’d managed to ignore the tightening of his body whenever he saw her, blaming it on his nonexistent love life. Now though, listening to this particular song while he was so close to her that he could count the few freckles over her nose, was making it very difficult to ignore his reaction to her.
“I…” She frowned. “You have one brown eye and one blue one. I’ve never noticed that before.”
Nodding, he swung her around. “You’ve never looked at me before. It’s called heterochromia.”
“So that’s what’s been bothering me…” she murmured. “You see heaven and earth at the same time.”
The last words were so soft he had to bend down to hear what she was saying. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a myth—if you’re born with one blue and one brown eye, you can see heaven and earth at the same time. Ghost eyes, they’re called. Eyes say a lot about a person, you know. They’re not called mirrors of the soul for nothing.”
“The study of physiognomy, an old science that originated in China, claims it’s possible to read information about a person’s character and temperament by merely looking at his or her outward appearance. The Western world sometimes calls it junk science, but even though many scientists doubt the validity of the research on the topic, studies have found a correlation between a person’s character or personality and his or her outer appearance. I find it an interesting idea. We do form instantaneous impressions of others from their facial appearance.”
“So, what do you look at when you form an opinion of someone?”
“There are many different basic elements used to determine hidden meanings and traits in a person. The shape of one’s face, for instance, reveals quite a lot. Someone with a high brow is usually intelligent and has an affinity for the arts. For me, the eyes in particular are a way to determine a person’s character. The shape, the color…”
“Yeah? So what does the color of my eyes tell you about me?”
“I don’t know you well enough to know whether you’re predominantly blue-eyed or brown-eyed. There’s a difference. The energy of blue is very strong—people with blue eyes tend to be uncontrollable… Come to think of it, I’ve seen you lose control a few times. If you’re more of a brown-eyed person, you’ll have great leadership qualities. People drain you; they’re like energy vampires. When in love, brown-eyed people are very sensual…” Her eyes widened ever so slightly.
The word hung heavy in the air around then.
Make a joke, lighten the mood. Quickly.
Forcing out a chuckle, he swung her away from him before pulling her back into his arms. “I think I prefer the ordinary explanation of the word heterochromia. Hetero means different in ancient Greek and chroma color.”
Those blue eyes rested steadily on him. “Just about sums up the difference between us.”
Talking was good; it helped him to ignore his reaction to her nearness. “You mean the fact that you rely on myths and I on facts?”
“Some things can’t be explained by only relying on facts.”
Sighing, she rolled her eyes. “And there you go, scowling again.”
“I’m not scowling.”
“You’ve been scowling all day.”
“How do you know? You’ve never once looked at me.”
“Of course, I’ve looked at you. I had to take your picture a number of times, if I recall.”
“That doesn’t count.”
I love you, crooned the lead singer.
The slight flicker in Riley’s eyes was the only indication she’d also heard the words.
“I think Barry has left or has finally passed out or someone has taken him home,” she said, looking over his shoulder. “We can stop dancing now.”
“The song hasn’t quite finished.” Without any conscious decision, he slipped both his arms around her body, slowing down their movements.
He should’ve let her walk away. Hell, he should’ve pushed her away.
After lifting her arms, she circled his neck. Soft curves fitted perfectly against his body. Ignoring the voice screaming loudly somewhere, warning him to step away, he bent down his head. This is such a bad idea, a little voice was yelling. Think of the potential mess if he were to give in to his instincts. His sisters were married to her cousin and brother—complicated didn’t begin to describe it.
For once, though, he ignored the voice and, with his senses steeped in her scent, her long, silky hair everywhere, he buried his face in her neck.
End of Excerpt