Brant Hudson tried to hide the wince and sudden impulse to throw up when the woman’s rum-scented breath washed across his face. The number one reason he didn’t enjoy these industry-type parties: people who couldn’t hold their liquor. He forced a smile and looked around the room again for a familiar face to save him. Anyone who made eye contact at this point would do. Unfortunately anyone within eyeshot was currently involved in their own conversations. Probably with sober people who made sense and smelled nice.
“Ser’sly, I know what ’m talkin’ ’bout,” the drunk woman continued.
Seriously, I doubt it.
She squinted her eyes and scrunched her mouth, apparently having forgotten what she knew all about in midthought. Then her features relaxed and opened up like she’d seen the Messiah. She smiled and looked at Brant with unfocused eyes. “I’d rock yer world.”
She was pretty enough, he supposed. Surely some men would find her attractive, even sloppy drunk and hanging on them like a limpet. But he wasn’t one of them. Never was, never would be.
Brant made another scan of the crowd and spotted a vision in gold and silver floating effortlessly through the crowd toward him. Oh, thank you, God.
“Excuse me, darling,” Violet Walsh said in that siren’s voice of hers, then shot a glare so wicked at the woman it even gave Brant pause. She wedged herself between Brant and Miss Limpet, neatly freeing him, and said, “I need to steal this man for a few minutes. Well, for the evening actually. Run along now and find yourself a straight playmate, eh.”
Brant exhaled his relief at the well-timed escape opportunity, and laughter bubbled up from his chest. “I love you right now, Violet,” he said as she tucked her hand over his elbow and steered him away to safer waters, making leading him look like he was leading her. The woman had mad skills.
She smiled up at him with a mischievous grin. “I know, sweetheart.”
“Now that I’ve made a narrow escape, thanks to you, what do you plan to do with me?”
“If I had the right equipment, a lot of things.” The woman damn near growled, and Brant had to laugh again. “Alas, it is not to be. And of course, I’m very happily married. So what I plan to do with you is introduce you to your future husband.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet of you, but you know I kind of have a boyfriend.”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Violet scowled and then after an exaggerated the-things-I-do-for-you sigh, continued, “What is it with the two of you anyway? I swear… Kind of
is not the stuff of true love, hon.”
“The two of whom? And I know the stuff of true love, Violet. Hell, I wrote the book on it!”
“Really?” She stopped and looked up at him with wide, starstruck eyes.
“You don’t fool me with that innocent look for one second.”
Violet smiled and shook her head. “Well then, Mr. Know-it-all Romance. What are you doing with Mr. What’s-his-face Kind-of-boyfriend?”
“You have such a unique way with words.”
“Like I told Jacob. You need to trust your Auntie Vi.”
She slanted a sly smile his way before slipping her hand out from his elbow and striding forward to a small group of people conversing near the bar. There were three men, two of which had their backs to him, and one woman. Three strides ahead of him, Violet reached the foursome and slipped an arm around the waist of one of the men facing away. While Brant towered over Violet, despite the four-inch lethal weapons she wore on her feet, the man she had cozied up to met her at eye level when he turned his head to greet her. He smiled and even from the short distance between them, in profile only, Brant knew the man had a smile that could stop traffic. Total cliché yes, but he was Mr. Romance after all, and as far as he was concerned, completely within his rights to use all matter of cliché, poetry, and grand gesture to win a heart.
Brant was the first to admit to being a die-hard romantic, but he came by it naturally. His mom and dad had been his prime examples and unwavering role models on what it meant to love and cherish another till death do they part. Some of his fondest memories were of sitting on the couch in his parents’ rambling ranch house with his mom, dad, two brothers, and sister, watching movies. He, his mom, and his sister, Ellie, always cried at the sad or heartbreaking parts while his brothers tossed popcorn at them, and his dad covertly wiped his eyes. Brant grew up surrounded by love, a love that didn’t even hitch a beat when he came out to his family at fifteen. No matter how busy his life became, he made a point of always going home for Sunday-night dinner and a movie with his folks. Usually it was just the three of them these days—his brothers and sister, busy with their own families, managed to only make one Sunday a month—and he and his mom still cried while his dad pretended not to.
Brant wanted to experience that kind of love and devotion and share it with the world, so after getting his business degree, he started his own relationship consulting company, True Romance. He knew every move in the book to win a heart and build a lasting relationship, and he did
write the book. True Romance: How to Win a Heart
still sat firmly on the best-seller list three years after its release. But even knowing what he knew, watching his clients’ relationships bloom and grow, his own seemed to miss that magical spark that set a fire for a lifetime. Ever the hopeful romantic, he fully believed his prince would come. He just wished the man had shown up before he’d turned thirty two years ago.
Violet turned back to Brant and beckoned him with an outstretched hand. “Brant, I want you to meet a very dear friend of mine.”
The man turned around to face him fully, and Brant froze. Brant had come across many an attractive man over the years. Some he simply admired for their good looks or their bearing; some drew his attention long enough to linger in his memory and maybe visit his dreams. Occasionally they stirred a wave of lust and desire so strong he had to go with it to see where it led, but Lord have mercy
, this was the first time he’d felt the whole trifecta in one blow.
Warm hazel eyes offset by caramel-colored skin and dark hair that hung in long bangs sent Brant’s brain skittering, and the incredible smile that backed them up made it spiral right off the tracks. His heart pounded hard in his rib cage, and the ballroom seemed brighter all of a sudden. A shiver of adrenaline kicked through his veins, followed by a wave of euphoric dizziness that threatened to drop him to his knees.
Whoa, so this is what love at first sight feels like.
Distantly he heard Violet speaking, knew she was introducing them, but only two words took root in his endorphin-muddled brain: Jacob Cruz. The man whose spell Brant had just fallen firmly under cocked his head slightly to the side, and Brant damn near whimpered, “I’m yours.
He had no idea how long he stood there staring at Jacob, certain his mouth was hanging open while drool trickled down his chin, before he realized Jacob had extended his hand in greeting and was waiting patiently for Brant to accept the gesture. The world slowed and sound muted as Brant watched his hand reach for Jacob’s as though he were viewing through someone else’s eyes. Their hands met, closed around each other, and heat spread outward from the point of contact until Brant felt his chest swell with its sweet warmth. He marveled at the way his paler skin perfectly contrasted with Jacob’s, the way their hands fit together as though they’d been meant to. As though they were fated.
Brant realized his mouth hadn’t been hanging open after all when he opened it to speak, but apparently he’d lost that ability with his brain still off track. Now he was surely drooling.
Jacob’s smiled widened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Brant.”
Brant restrained a groan—just—at the soft timbre of Jacob’s voice, and then his mouth discovered it could operate without consulting his brain, and he blurted, “I have a boyfriend.” Immediately heat shot up his neck and spread into his cheeks. Oh, God, could I be any more of a moron?
Well, at least the runaway mouth would take attention away from any embarrassing lack of bodily fluid control.
A very unladylike snicker broke through the pounding of his heart in his eardrums. Damn, he’d all but forgotten Violet was there, that anyone other than he and Jacob were in the large ballroom—which now seemed louder than it had just a few minutes earlier—and by the smug look on her face, she knew it. He let go of Jacob’s hand and took a step back, fighting the urge to wipe his clammy palm on his thigh.
Brant closed his eyes and quietly said, “Please say that wasn’t my outside voice.”
“Sorry.” The tone of Jacob’s voice was teasing, though Brant could swear he heard a hint of regret in there too. He opened his eyes, hoping to see an expression to match what he imagined he’d heard in Jacob’s voice, but only saw genuine kindness. “I have a boyfriend too, so we’re even.”
“Oh.” The word was out and delivered with clear disappointment before he could curb it. If he could kick himself… What was he thinking? He and Glen had only been together for a couple of months, but Brant did genuinely care for Glen. Even though he’d never felt with Glen, or anyone for that matter, what he’d just felt with Jacob.
“That was your outside voice too, sweetheart,” Violet teased. She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, “Breathe, Brant. It’s all good.” Then she stood back, grabbed both his and Jacob’s hands in hers, and gave them each a squeeze before releasing.
She said, “You two stay right here and get acquainted while Auntie Vi gets you both a drink.”