Emergency Attraction Excerpt
Copyright © 2017 by Samanthe Beck. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
“Son of a bitch…”
Sinclair Smith swallowed the rest of the expletives lodged in her throat and watched her worst mistake cross the room. He caught her looking. The lying lips once responsible for making her heart race and her clothes fall off kicked up at one corner. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t laid eyes on Shane Maguire in ten years. She’d know that slow, unrepentant smile anywhere, even in the bustle of her sister Savannah’s wedding reception.
The question came from the man sitting beside her—best man Hunter Knox—and reminded her the rest of the room hadn’t actually disappeared. John Legend’s “All of Me” transitioned to The Beatles’ “In My Life,” and the DJ invited everyone to join the happy couple on the dance floor. Shane continued his unhurried strides, as if she’d been sitting there for the past decade, patiently waiting for him to show up and turn her world upside down. Again.
“No problem,” she replied. Without taking her eyes off Shane, she grabbed Hunter’s hand. “Dance with me.” The tall, strapping EMT had inches and pounds on her, but surprise worked in her favor. She hauled him to the center of the dance floor, slung her arms over his broad shoulders and fit herself against him like she belonged there. When she looked beyond him, she had the satisfaction of seeing Shane stop in his tracks. His eyes narrowed, and then…whoa. Her view spun away as Hunter executed a fluid move and reversed their position.
Rather than crane her neck, and give Shane the mistaken impression she gave an actual crap what he did, she switched her attention to her partner. Hunter was a hottie, with his clear blue eyes and easy grin. Given the opportunity, she might have been interested in finding out exactly how good the best man really was, but Savannah had told her he was crazy in love with some lucky girl. Thankfully, she wasn’t looking for crazy, or love. She just needed a compliant dance partner—which he wasn’t turning out to be. He resisted every attempt she made to take the lead.
“Hey, Footloose, what are you doing?”
“Trying to size up the guy you’re aiming to make jealous.” His voice held no complaint, just curiosity.
She almost laughed out loud. “I’m not aiming to make anyone jealous. I wouldn’t waste my time on such a stupid game.”
Dark blond brows lifted. “You don’t play games?”
“Oh, I can play games.” Giving in, she craned her neck and scanned the crowd. “I can play with the best of them. I’m simply not playing one now. I’m not interested in speaking with someone—someone who’s not supposed to be here in the first place—much less dancing with him. I figure the best way to avoid doing both is to speak and dance with people I am interested in.” Aware her explanation came out a little sharp, she refocused her attention on Hunter and fixed a smile on her face.
The corners of his mouth twitched, but if he was fighting a laugh, he managed to hold it back. “I’m honored to have made the cut, and under other circumstances I’d be happy to risk an ass-kicking to dance with a beautiful woman, but I’m expecting another beautiful woman to come through the door any second, and…well…I don’t play games with her.”
Damn. This guy might actually restore her faith in mankind. Without really meaning to, she relaxed in his arms. “Savannah mentioned something about you falling hard recently.”
“Beau’s got a big mouth,” Hunter complained, but the easy grin made an encore.
“I doubt that.” Her big sister’s new husband fit the definition of the strong, silent type. “But Savannah’s got a sixth sense about—”
A hand landed on Hunter’s shoulder. “May I cut in?”
The voice held a deeper, more authoritative tone than she remembered, his Georgia drawl polished so smooth only a knowing ear would pick it up. All that deep, smooth, and authoritative made his question sound more like an inevitability than a request.
Hunter turned, and, in doing so, left her at the mercy of a determined green gaze. A gaze capable of luring her on an unwilling—and unwise—detour down memory lane. A gaze with the power to heat up her hormones, even after a decade, at the same time it fired her temper. The flash of satisfaction in those wicked depths told her the bastard had clocked her reaction from the other side of the room.
“That’s up to the lady,” Hunter replied, probably figuring one of them should respond.
Hell to the no. Shane might have put a tailored suit on his ridiculously impressive frame, and trimmed his thick, dark hair to a civilized length so it didn’t fall like a raven’s wing over his brow anymore, but she knew firsthand a dangerous heart beat beneath his respectable facade. She’d outgrown her bad-boy phase a long time ago. Been there. Done that. Got the scars to prove it. “No, thanks.”
At her refusal, Hunter subtly shifted so she stood behind him, and she supposed she would have needed to get her estrogen checked if she hadn’t experienced a small thrill watching two prime examples of the male animal silently square off. But after a moment, Shane merely shifted his attention to her, and—goddamn him—smiled.
“What’s the matter, Sinclair? Don’t trust yourself in my arms?”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” She wasn’t some love-struck schoolgirl, susceptible to eyes as captivating as trapiche emeralds, or lips seductive enough to make bullshit sound like gospel.
Those lips curved into the I-dare-you grin she blamed for some of her most regrettable decisions. She could hear his unspoken challenge from across the space separating them. From across oceans. Across time.
Don’t fall for it…
“Fine. One dance. Then you leave.” She wasn’t falling for a damn thing. She was beating him at his own game—investing three minutes of her evening to get rid of him for the rest of her life. As soon as he took her hand, however, she knew she’d miscalculated. The single touch generated tiny sparks of recognition from every cell in her body. Before she could fully extinguish them, his arm closed around her waist and he pulled her against him. All the way against him, so her breasts rested against the unyielding expanse of his chest, and the big hand dominating the small of her back tipped her hips into the cradle of his. Hard thighs brushed hers.
“Sinclair, I can make a dance last all night.”
She sensed, rather than saw, Hunter back off. A self-preserving part of her begged to do the same, but pride demanded she stay the course. Show Shane he didn’t have the capacity to rattle her. Not even when he settled both hands low on her hips, in the kind of cocky, possessive gesture once guaranteed to send her pulse skyrocketing.
Different time. Different place. They’d both changed since then. She’d gotten wiser. He’d gotten a little taller, and a lot…manlier. His lean, youthful frame had solidified into hard-packed muscle, tense with leashed power everywhere it pressed against her. The once naturally smooth line of his jaw now looked like it saw a razor on a daily basis. Her inner thighs itched at the hint of five-o’clock shadow, and his lips kicked up a notch as if he’d read her mind.
Not in this lifetime. She lifted her chin and held up her end of the stare-down while couples circled around them. Somewhere up in the rafters, rotating fixtures showered the dance floor with a dizzying rain of lights, while Paul McCartney sang simple, eloquent words about friends, and lovers, and memories.
The edges of her vision grew blurry, and her world narrowed to him. Just him. The song, or the atmosphere…or something…made her feel lightheaded. Or maybe the sensation had to do with the fact that while she was holding his gaze, she was also holding her breath? She inhaled, sending much-needed air to her brain, as well as the completely unneeded scent of sophisticated cologne, along with a hint of something she hadn’t had a whiff of in ten years, yet her memory instinctively recognized as Shane.
He leaned in close, so his breath tickled the sensitive skin along the side of her neck. “You’re a terrible pen pal, baby girl.”
Her? What a low and completely unfair blow, especially coming from him. He was a…a…whatever. She ignored the comment, and the old endearment, and concentrated on drawing a deep breath. She would hold her tongue, because calling him a jackass on the dance floor in the middle of her sister’s wedding conveyed a message, all right, but not You can’t rattle me. Ultimately, the past didn’t matter. The present mattered. Most specifically, how long before she saw the last of him.
“What are you doing here?” The question came out snippier than she would have liked, but she couldn’t help it. He was crowding her with his height and his muscles—the scent of his skin, the sound of his voice, and lot of banished memories.
“Celebrating the bonds of holy matrimony. Same as you.”
“I don’t mean here.” She gestured around the reception, although how he’d ended up as someone’s plus-one also mystified her. “I mean, what are you doing in Magnolia Grove?” A fair question, in her mind, because even though he’d been born and raised in this town, he hadn’t set foot anywhere near the place for years. His parents had moved to Illinois shortly after he’d left for boot camp, and he hadn’t kept in touch with anyone local—least of all her. As far as she was concerned, he didn’t have any reason to be there.
“Maybe I’ve missed my hometown?”
“Try again. You hated everything about Magnolia Grove.”
His hold on her tightened fractionally. “Not everything.”
She refused to get drawn into a conversation about what he liked, or missed. A ten-year absence demonstrated pretty clearly how deep his feelings for the town and everyone in it ran. “Sentiment didn’t pull you back, so I’m going to guess work.”
“Would you believe me if I said both?”
She rolled her eyes, but his smile only widened. “The city requested bids for emergency planning services, and the firm I work for, Haggerty Consulting, won the contract.”
This rang a bell. Magnolia Grove wasn’t the small town it had been ten, or even five, years ago. The technology boom in nearby Norcross meant more residences and businesses in the surrounding areas, and Magnolia Grove definitely benefitted from the growth. Now a group of investors had plans to restore the Whitehall Plantation and turn it into a resort. To foster the project, the town council had agreed to create and implement a coordinated emergency response plan for the city, covering everything from fires to cyberattacks to natural disasters. “You’re an emergency planning consultant?”
She already knew the answer. He’d left town, not dropped off the face of the planet. Tidbits about his life still made their way back to Magnolia Grove, whether she wanted to know them or not. She’d checked out his picture and profile more than once over the years, but she’d choke on her own tongue before she’d confess as much to him.
“I’m one of the best,” he responded, and somehow managed to make the assertion sound matter-of-fact rather than boastful. “And since I already have a baseline familiarity with the area, Haggerty opted to send me.”
“Lucky us.” It was official. Fate hated her.
“Lucky all around,” he countered, and leaned in again. “The mannerly response would be to welcome me home, Sinclair.”
The low, teasing words gently mocked her. “Welcome home,” she ground out. “When do you leave?”
His laugh caressed her ear. “Who said I was leaving? Maybe I’ll stay. This is my home, after all.”
No. Fucking. Way. Magnolia Grove was hers, dammit. He’d forfeited it ten years ago.
“It’s changed a lot since you’ve been gone. I doubt you’d—”
“I can see it’s changed.” Long fingers trespassed below the invisible line of decorum at the small of her back to very deliberately trace the curve of her hip. The move brought every nerve ending in the vicinity to attention, and she had a funny feeling he wasn’t talking strictly about the town. “I have to admit, those changes are part of the allure. Show me around.”
Uh-uh. She wasn’t the Welcome Wagon, and he wasn’t staying. If she had anything to say about it, he’d be gone before—
“Hot damn!” a voice blasted from the other side of the room. “There’s a knock-down, drag-out fight in the parking lot.”
Sinclair whirled to see who called out, while all around her, people rushed toward the exit. A few jostles and one stomped toe convinced her to step aside. She made her way to the perimeter of the dance floor. When she turned around, Shane had disappeared.
So much for him sticking around. And ironic, really, that he’d pull a fade in the face of a disturbance, because there’d been a time when he’d have been the first guy to wade in and throw a punch. Were it not for that mile-wide impulsive streak, and his misplaced protective instincts, they would never have known each other except in passing. She’d grown up in a nice, comfortable house in one of Magnolia Grove’s most distinguished neighborhoods, while he’d been raised in a run-down rental in the old section of town. He’d been two years ahead of her in school, although showing up for the sake of district attendance expectations hadn’t seemed high on his list of priorities.
But there had always been something about him…
Since she had no desire to run outside and watch a couple of over-served idiots roll around in the dirt, she slipped into the small room the venue had allowed them to use for gifts and checked in with the wedding planner to get a sense of when they’d be doing the garter and bouquet toss. People were filtering back into the reception by the time she returned, which meant whatever drama had unfolded in the parking lot was under control. She saw her mother seated at a round, linen-draped table, talking with a gray-haired woman. She approached, realizing too late that her mom shared the table with gossipy old Claudia Pinkerton. The look her mother shot her absolutely forbade her from bailing.
Resigned to her fate, she kissed Mrs. Pinkerton’s plump cheek, and took the empty chair next to her mother.
“Sinclair, dear. You look pretty as a picture in that dress. The color matches your eyes.”
She smoothed her hand over the fitted bodice of the strapless, midnight blue satin. “Thanks. The credit for the dress choice goes to Savannah, although I did warn her things would get ugly if she stuck me in sea foam. What happened outside?”
“You don’t know?” Mrs. Pinkerton scooted her chair closer to the table. “Heavens, I nearly passed out from fright. The best man’s girlfriend’s baby daddy showed up drunk or stoned or some such nonsense and tried to snatch the baby right out of her arms.”
“Hunter’s girlfriend? Holy sh…heck,” she modified as her mom whacked her knee.
“Is everyone okay?”
Mrs. Pinkerton nodded. “Hunter knocked him on his you-know-what and then threw him in the pond. Your dance partner fished him out and handed him off to Sheriff Kenner. Deputies took the whole mess down to the station so as not to ruin Beau and Savannah’s day.”
“Speaking of dance partners,” her mom interrupted, “who was that boy you were dancing with? You two seemed awfully familiar, but I couldn’t place him.”
“That’s Shane Maguire,” Mrs. Pinkerton supplied, her expression as eager as her reply. “Remember him?”
“The same Shane Maguire who broke your grandson Ricky’s nose their senior year of high school?”
Sinclair resisted the urge to leap to Shane’s defense. Ricky had definitely had it coming, but the Pinkertons were influential in these parts, and thanks to the very loud, very public fit Ricky’s parents had pitched, few people knew, or cared, about the underlying facts.
Mrs. Pinkerton nodded. “A lot of folks considered him a troublemaker, just like his brother, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the boy. By the looks of that dance, you do too, Sinclair.”
Her mother’s keen blue eyes cut to her. “You don’t say?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t.” She intended to disabuse anyone of that notion right quick. “He’s been gone for ages. I barely know him. I simply shared a dance with an old schoolmate. End of story. Hey, Dad,” she greeted her father as he ambled up to their table. “I heard you started some trouble outside.”
He stopped behind her chair, and rested his hands on her shoulders. “Me? Get real. I finished it, kiddo.”
“Bill, please don’t tell me you got involved—”
“Relax, dear.” He winked at Sinclair and then turned his smile on his wife. “Kenner had everything under control by the time I came along. An impressive state of readiness, I have to say. Mayor Campbell credited the city’s new consultant with the speedy response. Apparently he suggested they muster up some overtime budget so Kenner could increase patrols for things like weddings, since the combination of gathered family and host bar sometimes makes for interesting results.”
“Well, good plan, as it turned out,” her mother replied. “Did you get the present for Beau’s parents while you were outside?”
Her dad’s smile twisted into a quick frown. “Damn. No, I got so wrapped up in conversation with Campbell I forgot the whole reason I went out there in the first place.” He dug his keys out of his pocket. “Back in a sec, ladies.”
“I’ll get it.” Sinclair surged to her feet and snagged the keys. Better to fetch a bottle of champagne from her dad’s car than stay at the table getting grilled over her dance with Shane.
“It’s behind the driver’s seat,” her father called after her. “Don’t forget to lock up.”
Sinclair tossed an A-okay sign over her shoulder and made her escape. The classic Mercedes 230 roadster was basically her father’s third child. Even in twilight, the glossy red paint stood out against the backdrop of later-model vehicles. She worked her way toward it. Nobody loitered outside anymore, but her silver sandals slowed her down. The high, skinny heels sank into the grassy field that served as the parking area. Eventually she made it to the car and used the old-school key to unlock the door. A lever at the base of the seat tipped the seatback forward. She grabbed the gift bag containing the fancy champagne and returned the seat to its proper position. And if she rushed a bit more than normal, and caused the seat to fall back into place with a heavy thump, there was only one person to blame.
She hadn’t actually seen him leave, so it was possible he might be out here somewhere. She absolutely, positively didn’t want to run into him in an empty parking area. Normally, she wasn’t the kind of person who ran from a confrontation, but he’d had his dance, and she wasn’t interested in extending the reunion. Staying on high alert spared her the trouble of telling him she had better things to do than play tour guide.
It took about three seconds to back out of the car and push the lock down. The wind kicked up as she turned away and slammed the door. Her sunk-in sandal heel prevented her from taking what she’d intended as a decisive stride toward the pre–Civil War cotton warehouse now enjoying a second life as an event venue. Before she managed a full step, a hard pull from behind stopped her short.
Uh-oh. With dawning dread, she turned to find the skirt of her dress trapped in the car door. Dammit. Impulse had her giving it a desperate tug, which accomplished nothing. Don’t panic. Just unlock the door, and… Double dammit. Where were the keys?
The dread turned heavy and landed like a brick in her stomach. Her father’s keys gleamed at her from exactly where she’d left them. On the seat of the car. The locked car. Her gaze automatically scanned the lot for help, but came up empty. Update. The keys were on the seat of the locked car, in the deserted parking lot.
Fuuuuck. She leaned back against the door and stared up at the first twinkling stars. You fed your skirt to the Benz, and now you’re stuck here with your ass hanging out until somebody comes along. Just pray to God it’s not—
“I’ve been trained to spot risks, but even I didn’t see this coming. Need some help, Sinclair?”