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“Who’s the babe?” Xander Blue asked his brother, Trey Kelly, while keeping his eyes glued to the ballroom entrance.
“Which one?” Trey responded.
“The one standing in the entrance.” He waved his beer in that direction.
Holy shit, not only is she gorgeous, she’s standing there like she owns the place. Hell, she did own the place. To walk into an event like the Kelly family annual Boots & Bangles Charity Gala alone and exude the sort of confidence she did was a complete turn-on in Xander’s book.
Trey laughed. “That’s not a babe. That’s Kelly Boots’s CFO. Bailey Richmond.”
“Have you gone blind?” Xander asked, his attention still riveted on Bailey. “That woman is smokin’.” Long, dark hair, knockout curves in a sexy, strapless, and, thank you, God, short red dress.
“You’re right,” Trey said after a moment. “She’s hot.”
“You sound surprised.” Trey was far more involved in the Kelly ranch than he was in the family’s world famous, hand-tooled, custom boot company, but what planet had he been on not to have noticed that Bailey Richmond was a total babe?
“I’ve just never thought of Bailey that way. She’s been with the company a long time and worked her way up.”
“Why haven’t I met her?” Xander had been in Whiskey River several weeks now, although he’d only recently begun going in to the Kelly Boots’s offices and assessing the company’s needs.
“She’s been gone the last few weeks. On vacation.”
That explained it. No way could he have seen Bailey Richmond and not have remembered her. “I think it’s time I met the Kelly Boots CFO.”
“Want me to introduce you?” Trey asked, sounding amused.
Xander raised an eyebrow. “Do I look like I need help with women?” He didn’t wait for Trey’s response but took off, snaring a glass of wine from a nearby waiter as he went.
Even though Trey’s main interest lay in the Kelly ranch, while his brother Wyatt handled Kelly Boots, Xander knew both Kelly brothers had a say in every aspect of the family empire. Just as Xander and his twin brother, Nicholas, would, now that they’d all accepted the terms of their father’s crazy-ass will.
Their father. God, the thought was still so weird to him. Xander and Nick had always wondered about the father their mother never spoke of, but truthfully, they’d gotten along just fine without him. Still, Xander had to admit to a curiosity about the man who had fathered him. He would never have guessed, though, that Boots Kelly—known throughout the state of Texas for his businesses, his money, and his women—was that man. And Xander sure as hell wouldn’t have guessed the man would die and leave him and Nick heir to part of a vast fortune and a business empire to go with it, as well as with two brothers they’d never known existed.
That was exactly what the old man had done, though, and part of the terms of the will was that Boots’s four sons live together on the Kelly ranch and all of them be involved in the family businesses. All of them or none of them. So they’d met, they’d talked, and decided it would be all of them. Since Xander’s business was information technology, Kelly Boots, one of the family bedrocks, was the logical place for him to start.
And Bailey Richmond, Chief Financial Officer, was the logical person to start with. Xander meant to pitch his own version of an Enterprise Research Planning system for Kelly Boots. Designing an ERP system to handle everything from manufacturing and inventory management to human resources was not new to Xander. He’d done it several times, for other companies, quite successfully. But Kelly Boots would require its own special system and Xander looked forward to taking that on. And since that meant working closely with the CFO, aka Bailey, all the better.
All that was business, though. And Xander’s interest in Bailey was definitely not all about business.
Bailey always enjoyed the annual Boots & Bangles Gala. She’d been to it every year since she started to work for Kelly Boots. Usually she came alone, and tonight was no different. She didn’t date. Not anymore.
She’d dated players, she’d dated nice guys, and between the two she preferred the players. The nice guys were nice, and dull. The players were fun, until life got in the way. As evidenced by her son’s father, poster child for love ’em and leave ’em, who’d promised to marry her and then left town when Bailey was six months pregnant.
That would be the problem. Bailey had always found the players a lot more interesting than the nice guys. It was, in her opinion, her major failing.
Looking around the huge ballroom, she saw nearly everyone she knew. No one wanted to miss the Kellys’ annual gala. And speaking of the Kellys, there was Trey walking toward her with a purposeful stride. Word was he’d been dating Ariana Wright and the bets were on that he’d finally met a woman he couldn’t resist.
However, Ariana wasn’t with him at the moment. As he drew closer, she did a double take. Not Trey. This man was tall and built similarly to Trey, and he had dark hair but he wasn’t Trey. Which meant he must be . . .
“I’m Xander Blue,” he said, handing her a glass of wine.
“Thanks.” Damn, close-up he’s even better. Wipe the drool off your face, Bailey. “I’m Bailey Richmond.”
“CFO of Kelly Boots.”
Bailey nodded. “That’s me.” She took a sip of wine and added, “I thought you were Trey until you came closer.”
“No, I’m much better looking.”
She laughed. “And so modest, too.”
He grinned. “To tell the truth, I don’t see the resemblance. Neither does Trey.”
“Trust me; it’s there.” She’d always thought Trey was ridiculously hot. Apparently, so was his brother. Xander was tall, with the same black hair and blue eyes that Trey was famous for. Mesmerizing, true-blue eyes. Now that she looked more closely, she realized Xander’s face was more angled and hard-edged than his brother’s. Which made him look a little dangerous and, damn it, a whole lot hot.
“How do you like Whiskey River?” she asked.
Not a very original question, but it was the best she could do at the moment. He’d thrown her off balance, and she wasn’t sure why. Normally, men didn’t fluster her. She flustered them. But clearly she didn’t fluster Xander Blue.
“I like it. Mostly.” He glanced around. “Not crazy about everyone knowing, or wanting to know my business, though.”
“I hear you,” she said. “It’s one of the drawbacks to living in Whiskey River.” Bailey knew all about the gossip, having been the subject of it often enough. Not so much now, thank God, but in years past.
“I come from a small town in West Texas, so I’m familiar with how it works, but I’d forgotten what it’s like living in a fish bowl. I haven’t lived in Mertzon in years.”
“It’s not exactly a fish bowl,” Bailey said. “More of a large aquarium with a few plants and rocks for cover.”
Xander laughed. “Never heard it described that way. That’s a good one. And speaking of good, so is the music. Dance with me?”
She shouldn’t. She really shouldn’t. Rumor had it the Blues brothers were players, just like their father had been. But damn, Xander was one fine-looking man. He couldn’t possibly be as irresistible as he looked. Could he?
What the hell. What could one dance hurt? “I’d love to.”
Xander took her wine glass and his beer and set them on a nearby table before leading her out to the dance floor.
The band began playing a slow country song, “Don’t You Want To Stay”, as soon as they hit the floor. Bailey wondered how he’d managed that or if it was just indicative of his luck in general. Xander was a good dancer, and he kept his hands where they belonged. Neither of those things surprised her.
“I dreamed about you last night,” Xander said after a moment.
“Somehow I doubt that,” she said dryly, looking up at him. “We didn’t meet until tonight.”
“True, but I dreamed I danced with the most beautiful woman at the gala and here you are.”
“Smooth,” she said, laughing. “Not true, but still nice to hear.”
“Point out one other woman who looks as good as you do tonight,” he said.
“That’s easy. Juliette looks great. She’s dancing with Wyatt, over there, to our left.”
He looked over in the direction she mentioned and shook his head. “No, she’s pretty but not as pretty as you.”
“Well, there’s Jasmine,” she said, mentioning her friend, Jasmine Sanchez, the assistant manager at the Lavender Dreams shop. “She’s dancing near the band with Ernest Whitlow. He’s a wrangler at the Kelly ranch. Do you know him?”
“No, I haven’t met everyone involved in the various businesses. I hadn’t met you until tonight,” he reminded her. “And to return to the subject we were discussing, Jasmine is also pretty. But, not as pretty as you are.”
“You’re going to say the same thing about every woman I point out, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
“Some people would say that’s very shallow of you,” she said, looking up at him to gauge his reaction. “There’s more to a person than their appearance.”
“True. I haven’t known you long enough to know about anything other than your appearance. But I’d like to.”
“Oh, we’ll get to know each other. We’ll be working together.” And Lord help her, she knew it was a bad idea to get involved with a coworker.
But damn, he was tempting.
So much for good intentions. Bailey had meant to have one dance with Xander and only one. But she was having fun. And he was funny and charming and not at all like most of the men she knew. One dance turned into two, then three. After that she didn’t bother to count.
“Want to take a walk?” Xander asked her when the band took a break.
Since she’d clearly lost all sense of caution she said, “Sure.”
“Let’s go to the courtyard. Have you seen the fountain there?” Xander asked.
“Every year at Boots & Bangles,” she said. “But I love fountains. I’m always willing to see it again.”
He took her hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It felt natural, too, with her hand in his. He didn’t push or pull her, but simply walked with her out to the main courtyard, the one the ballroom and several other rooms opened onto. The fountain was a traditional one made of stone, with a three-tiered design. There was a lion at the top that spouted water from its mouth to fall gracefully over the sides of each tier and into a water basin with a tiled interior. The base of the fountain was lit as was each tier. Very elegant and pretty.
She also noticed Xander didn’t let go of her hand once they got there, but she hadn’t really expected he would. And she didn’t want him to either. Remember, Bailey, a player’s stock in trade is charm. Good-looking devils with tons of charisma and neither the ability nor the desire to stick around for the long run. But why ruin a perfectly lovely evening worrying about the long run?
“These people were obsessed with fountains,” Xander said.
“These people? You mean your ancestors?”
“Not mine,” he said, then shrugged. “Okay, I guess they are. Technically. Anyway, they were obsessed. Every wing has a courtyard and every courtyard has a fountain. Well, except for the one that has a basketball goal.”
Bailey laughed. “Which courtyard is that? The one Boots built?”
A corner of his mouth kicked up. “No, Paloma’s.”
Bailey blinked. “You’re kidding. Paloma and my mom are in the same bridge club and Paloma has never struck me as a basketball lover.”
“I doubt she is. There’s a story behind it.”
“Of course there is. Stories about the Kellys are one of Whiskey River’s favorite topics.”
“The story I heard was that the minute Boots and Paloma divorced and she moved into town, he had her courtyard torn up and put in a basketball court. Wyatt and one of his cousins had turned the ballroom into a skateboard park one rainy day, so Boots decided a basketball court might give them something else to do. Not to mention,” he added, “he wanted to stick it to his ex-wife.”
Bailey laughed. “I can just see Wyatt making a skateboard park in a ballroom.” She chuckled again, then said, “I’ve heard that each new generation added to the house. How many wings are there?”
“The main house has two suites and several bedrooms and then there are four wings. This house is a labyrinth. It took me a week to figure out where I was going. I kept getting lost, usually winding up in the Baron’s suite.”
“I’ve only been in the main house, but I’ve heard a lot about the rest of it.”
“Trey or Wyatt never showed you the other wings?”
She turned to him and smiled. “Is that your subtle way of asking me if I’ve dated your brothers?”
He smiled in turn, took her other hand, and held both. “I didn’t think I was being subtle.”
She laughed. “You’re not. And no, I never have.”
“Wyatt’s my boss. I like working for him and for Kelly Boots. I wouldn’t want to risk ruining a good work relationship. As for Trey, he never asked me.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Well, for one thing, I was in a relationship for a long time.” Bailey had been in a relationship. She wasn’t so sure about Ryan, aka Mr. Love ’em and Leave ’em.
“I was. He wasn’t.” She wouldn’t call deserting his pregnant girlfriend serious.
Xander didn’t push for more, which she appreciated.
Instead, he said, “Come on. I’ll show you some more fountains.”
End of Excerpt