“This family is larger every time I visit.” Glancing around the room, I can barely believe my eyes. With nine siblings, the Bennett clan was always large, but now that half of them are engaged, or married with kids, the sheer number of people milling around this living room tonight is overwhelming.
“Never a dull moment with us,” Sebastian says.
“Sorry I missed your wedding.” Guilt gnaws at me because I missed most events in the Bennett family in the last few years. I first met Sebastian, the oldest of the Bennett siblings, when I was in high school, and we quickly became best friends. For years, I was a regular in the Bennett household; then my job as a TV executive producer required me to constantly travel. “Glad I could catch up with all of you before heading out again.”
“Pity you’re in town for only three weeks. We should—” Sebastian clasps my shoulder but stops midsentence, as his father asks for everyone’s attention for a few moments. He gives a short speech, praising his wife of forty years. Her birthday is the reason for the gathering at their house this evening. I smile, imagining her reaction when she opens my present later. I wanted to do something special for her because I owe the Bennetts so much. My parents separated when I was thirteen, and they both started new families afterward. I didn’t fit in with either. But the Bennetts treated me like I belonged in their family.
After the speech, Sebastian’s wife, Ava, catches his eye from across the room, motioning to their ten-month-old son, Will, in her arms.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Sebastian says, heading toward his wife.
I walk to the makeshift bar area, planning to get myself a drink and then chat with each of the Bennetts. I’ve only spoken to a few of them since I arrived, but I want to check in with everyone. I think about them as my siblings… well, except for one. Alice. She’s Sebastian’s younger sister, and for the first few years, I saw her as one as well. An annoying, outspoken spitfire of a sister. But then she turned into this amazing woman, and I never could look at her like a sister again.
Speaking of her, Alice is at the bar as I approach it, pouring herself a drink.
“The prodigal son returns,” she exclaims when she notices me, a smile lighting up her features. I stop right next to her. Compared to my six-foot-two, Alice is tiny. Her light brown hair is up in a bun, the curve of her slender neck looking more appealing than it should.
“In the flesh.”
“What do you want to drink?”
“Bourbon on the rocks.”
“I’ll pour it myself.”
She holds up a hand to stop me. “No, no. I need to practice my bartending skills.”
“Why? I thought Blake was the one in the bar business,” I say, referring to one of her younger brothers. Last I knew, she was in the restaurant business.
“Blake and I are opening a location together. Large bar area in the front, a restaurant in the back. I want to get my bartending skills up to par. You never know when they’ll come in handy.”
“You also want to make sure you can do your bartender’s job better than he does, don’t you?”
“Nate Becker! Don’t you dare mock my perfectionist tendencies, or you’ll pay for it.”
Ah, how I missed Alice’s fiery nature. She keeps me on my toes, and I never know what will come out of her mouth next.
“I apologize deeply.”
She cocks a brow at my over-the-top apologetic tone. “Are you going to do a curtsy too?”
“If required, yes. If there’s one person I believe could murder me and make it look like an accident, it’s you.”
“Not sure if I should be proud or offended.” She adds a few ice cubes in a glass, pouring bourbon over them.
“Definitely proud. Now, tell me more about what you and Blake are up to.” I drop in one of the chairs next to the bar and Alice sits next to me, rattling on about her plans. Color me impressed at how well she’s doing. But then again, I always admired her. Though Sebastian and Logan are the founders of one of the biggest companies in the high-end jewelry market, Alice wanted to strike out on her own.
“You are amazing. I can’t believe I missed so much,” I say after she finishes.
“Then stick around. Are you here to stay this time?”
I shake my head, sipping my bourbon. “Moving to London in three weeks.”
She casts her eyes toward her glass. “Moving?”
“Yeah. I got the job of executive producer for The 300.”
The 300 is an internationally successful, long-running English show, and it’s taken me years of hard work to finally have my shot at being at the helm.
I elbow her playfully. “Might want to sound a little more enthusiastic.”
“I am happy for you. I know how much you love the show. But we’re going to see even less of you from now on, huh? I always admired people who could just move wherever they found a job they loved. Won’t you feel lonely? But then again, I suppose you’re used to it, what with all your traveling.”
Her question is legitimate, and I’ve asked myself the same thing. The truth is, all these years while I was traveling I imagined that whenever I would settle down, it would be in San Francisco. But then the opportunity of a lifetime came up, and I won’t throw it away just because I have to start a new life overseas. But hell, I would have loved for this loud and boisterous clan to be a bigger part of my life again, like they used to.
“You can visit often,” I assure her.
“I’d love to. Those Brits and their accents are so sexy.”
I grip my glass tighter, the thought of Alice and another man not sitting well with me, which is ridiculous. She and I always had a dangerous dynamic, always danced a little too close to the flirting line, but she’s not mine. I have no claim on her. I repeat the mantra in my mind a few times as Alice tugs at her lower lip with her teeth.
“You can stay with me when you visit.”
“Thanks. I don’t like hotels much. Always prefer a friend’s couch over it.”
I lean slightly toward her, my eyes still on her lower lip.
“You can even have my bed.”
Alice exhales sharply, right before she bursts out laughing.
“That’s not what I meant. I was saying you could have my bed, and I’d sleep on the couch.”
“Such a gentleman.”
“How else can I keep up with those sophisticated Brits?”
It takes her a few seconds to calm down, and then she flashes me a megawatt grin. “I was going to mock you for the worst pickup line in history. You sure you didn’t mean it?”
Her cheeks are red and the flush is spreading down her beautiful neck, which tells me I’m not the only one who entertained thoughts of the two of us crossing the line of friendship, heading straight to full-blown flirting. The things I’d do to this woman between the sheets. Damn, I need to keep my head straight.
Alice deserves someone to take care of her, make sure she’s always happy. All things I can’t even attempt to give her, considering my imminent departure.
“I’d never dare to,” I tease. “Your brothers would kick my ass.”
She clutches her heart theatrically. “I’m wounded. After telling me you think me capable of the perfect murder, you think I need my brothers to do the ass kicking for me?”
Laughing, I shake my head. I always laugh way more when Alice is around. She raises her glass to her mouth, and on an impulse, I cuff her wrist midair, rubbing my thumb in little circles. I notice with satisfaction as goose bumps form on the skin of her arms.
“I missed your smart mouth, Alice.”
She parts her lips, and I’d bet anything that she’s about to serve me a sassy reply, but Blake joins us before she can utter a single word.
Nate lets go of my wrist the moment Blake pulls up a chair in front of us. My skin is still tingling where he touched me. This man is too potent, I swear. It doesn’t help that I’ve had a crush on him for years. With dark hair, piercing green eyes, and a lean but muscle-laced body, he’s pure temptation. Always has been, but like fine wine, Nathan Becker gets more irresistible as time goes by.
“Alice, don’t monopolize Nate,” Blake says. “He’s a hard man to get a hold of.”
“She was just telling me you’re opening a new location together.”
My brother talks about our plans eagerly, and hearing him talk with so much passion makes me smile. Over the years, I’ve opened two restaurants, but this third one is the first I will co-own, and I can’t wait to work side by side with my brother. It’ll be great running the business with someone I trust.
“Would you two like the location to be featured on the Delicious Dining show?” Nate asks.
“I’d give both my nuts for it,” Blake answers.
“Fantastic visual, brother.” Turning to Nate, I add, “It would be an extraordinary promotional opportunity. But they mostly feature celebrity restaurants or those with Michelin stars.”
“It’s not my area, but I can pitch it to the network. You have a good shot. We’ll have to get together a few times to discuss some details, but it’s doable in the three weeks I’m here.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it,” I reply. My heart sinks at the reminder that he’ll leave so soon. I’ve been carrying a torch for the man forever. In the beginning, he was just my older brother’s friend, but over the years, he became my friend too. I have no idea when the friendship turned into something different, but here we are.
Damn, I’m buzzing with awareness just from being near him. It doesn’t help that he’s glancing up and down my neck and breasts every few minutes. I bet he believes he’s really discreet about it too. I’m surprised Blake hasn’t picked up on it yet, but then again, he is oblivious to these things. My oldest brothers are the ones who always flex their protective muscles.
“How about Alice and I meet you at Blue Moon, the new location, next week?” Blake suggests. “It’s not open for business yet, but you can look around and we can discuss this in more detail.”
“Great idea,” Nate replies. The three of us chitchat for a few more minutes. Then Dad comes over, clearly wanting to talk to Nate, and Blake and I leave them to it.
I head to the opposite part of the room, where my sister Pippa is watching her twin daughters, Mia and Elena, building what looks like a tower from fist-sized Legos. The girls turned two last month, and I love them to bits. Just as I arrive, they start fussing, clearly losing interest in the Legos. Pippa scoops up Elena, and I scoop up Mia. She instantly calms once she’s in my arms and cuddles against my chest. I kiss her hair, inhaling the scent of her sweet shampoo.
“Spill it,” Pippa says, as we walk to the nearest couch with the girls in our arms.
“Spill what?” I ask with fake innocence. My sister is the family’s matchmaker, and she’s very good at it. She also knows about my crush on Nate, because well… she knows everything.
She flashes me a wicked smile.
“A certain family friend here couldn’t keep his eyes off you.”
“He’s also moving to London in three weeks.”
My sister’s hand freezes in the act of rearranging her daughter’s headband. Her smile drops. “Moving? As in permanently?”
“Yep. He’s going to help Blake and me land a spot on his network’s Delicious Dining show while he’s in town, but I’d rather not talk about any of this tonight.”
To my astonishment, Pippa doesn’t insist. As Mia throws her little arms around my neck, clearly looking to cuddle, I happily oblige her, and I’m rewarded with sweet giggles. A few strands of hair fall from my bun. I love family gatherings, but lately, being surrounded by so many happy couples makes me wonder if there’s a lottery out there. Some people find their half, some don’t. With a history of dating running longer than a decade, I also wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with me, something that makes me unlovable. The thought that I might never have a man I can shower with love, someone to share my life with, carves a hollow in my chest
Mia giggles loudly, grabbing one loose strand in her tiny fist.
“You love me, don’t you?” I ask, rubbing my nose against hers. In response, she tugs at my hair, giggling louder. I decide it means ‘I love you, Aunt Alice.’ But then again, she loves anyone who spoils her.
“I need to be introduced to the younger Bennett generation.” Nate’s voice startles me. I was so wrapped up in my niece’s antics I didn’t see him approach. “Sebastian’s son didn’t seem too impressed with me. I’m hoping to have more success with the ladies here.”
“Of course! So good to see you again, Nate,” Pippa says. She rises from the couch, kissing his cheeks while holding her daughter on her hip.
“How can you tell them apart?” Nate asks with a frown, looking at the two girls. I chuckle because Pippa is always asked that since the girls are identical twins and they both have white dresses tonight.
“I usually dress them differently, but tonight, they only have different headbands. This is Elena. Alice is holding Mia.”
Upon hearing her name, Mia unwraps her arms from around my neck and lifts them in Nate’s direction. The little traitor.
“Can I?” he asks Pippa, motioning to Mia.
Nate takes Mia from me with grace and holy hot bejeezus.
Over the years, I’ve seen Nate in various poses that screamed sexy. Playing soccer—there’s something incredibly hot about seeing a man score. Doing sit-ups in our backyard without a shirt—it was the first time I daydreamed about tracing those abs of his with my finger, possibly my mouth.
But seeing Nate with a baby in his arms speaks to me on a primal level. Especially when he kisses her tiny head, all loving and protective. I blame being thirty-one for this. My hormones are all over the place. When he reaches to my shoulder to grab the headband that slid off Mia’s head, his fingers linger a little too long at the base of my neck, as if he can’t help touching me. All my senses go into hyperalert, energy zipping through my veins. When he finally pulls his hand back, the spot he touched feels cold. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Pippa grinning as she looks between us.
“By the way, Blake suggested we could meet at Blue Moon tomorrow, talk some more about getting you on Delicious Dining. Do you have time?”
“Sounds good to me. Ten o’clock?”
Mia starts fussing, reaching out for me again. Nate kisses the top of her head before lowering her in my arms.
“Where’s your mom? I still have to chat with her. I’ve only wished her a happy birthday since I arrived.” He surveys the room. “Ah, there she is.” With a wink, he takes off.
Clutching the toddler in my arms, I sigh, looking after Nate.
“Don’t forget to breathe when you’re around him,” Pippa says with a grin.
Damn it, I need to gather my wits about me. I’m being silly. This man will never be mine. It’s time to pour a bucket of ice water over that torch I’ve been carrying.
Easier said than done… especially since I’ll be seeing him tomorrow.