“SEX SCANDALS, insider media leaks, Mafia connections and homicidal nurses running amok in a hush-hush, celebrity boutique hospital in Austin, Texas? How are you planning on spinning your way out of this one, Sebastian?”
Sebastian Black grinned at his stern secretary, Blanche Santini, like James Bond smirking at Moneypenny. “I’m not a spin doctor,” he said. “I’m a highly trained public-relations specialist adept at repairing the tattered reputations of the social elite.”
“I’m shocked that you doubt me, Blanche, shocked.” He loved teasing her just to see her get bent out of shape. He’d hired Blanche because she reminded him of the doting aunt who’d raised him. He kept her on—even after he discovered she was nothing like his permissive aunt Bunnie—because she was the most efficient secretary he’d ever employed.
“Confidential Rejuvenations’ latest disgrace made the front page of the Inquisitive Tattler. It’s the fourth time this year. Tough case, even for a man with your silver-tongued talents.”
“Have you ever known me to fail?”
“First time for everything,” Blanche said crisply and dropped the Confidential Rejuvenations file on his desk.
With his smile still firmly entrenched, Sebastian cradled the back of his head in his palms and propped his feet on his desk. Blanche frowned at his shoes, which were polished to a high sheen. It was all he could do not to settle them back on the floor. The woman worked for him. He wasn’t about to let her dictate his behavior.
“Why, Blanche,” he drawled. “If I didn’t know better I’d think you wanted to see me fall on my ass.”
“Charm, poise and sex appeal will only get you so far in life, Mr. Black.” He hated when she called him Mr. Black. It made him feel like his father and he was nothing like his old man. “Don’t forget my razor-sharp wit.”
Blanche rolled her eyes. “Mark my word, one of these days you’re going to get your comeuppance.”
“Comeuppance? Which millennium is that from?”
She ignored his comment. “At some point the wine, women and song have got to come to an end.”
“It still works for some,” Sebastian said.
She waved a hand at the file. “You have a first-class seat booked on the ten a.m. flight to DFW. With the time difference and plane change, you should arrive in Austin on schedule for your dinner appointment with the Confidential Rejuvenations’ owners. I checked the weather in Austin, storms are expected this evening so I packed your raincoat. Would you like me to drive you to the airport, sir?”
“No, thanks,” Sebastian said. Blanche had driven him to the airport before and she followed the speed limit as if it was one of the Ten Commandments. “I’ll get Linc to do it.”
“As you wish.”
He chuckled, but the minute Blanche was out the door, he dropped his feet to the floor, leaned forward and flipped the file open. Truth was, he loved a challenge of this magnitude.
Sebastian saw himself as a modern-day knight in shining armor. Swooping in on his fire engine–red Ferrari, saving the day with a glib turn of phrase, a wink and a grin for the media and then swooping out again, with money lining his pockets and kudos ringing in his ears. Returning to his lavish 90210 area code and bachelor lifestyle. It was the kind of life he’d daydreamed about as a poor kid growing up on a run-down farm in Bakersfield with his little brother Lincoln, his ditzy, hippie aunt Bunnie and all the other eccentrics at the commune.
He was just about to buzz Lincoln’s office when his brother appeared in the doorway, jangling his car keys. Even though Linc was the younger brother, he was a good two inches taller than Sebastian’s own six-foot height, and where Sebastian had black hair and black eyes, Lincoln possessed green eyes and auburn hair. They had the same mother. Different fathers. But being half brothers hadn’t affected the close bond between them.
Growing up, Sebastian had been the one to look after Linc, get him off to school, make sure he did his homework. He taught him how to ride a bike and then later, drive a car. Aunt Bunnie and her friends had been too busy making clothes out of hemp, drinking wine, spouting liberal politics, writing poetry and playing guitar to pay much attention to what he and Linc were up to.
“Blanche said you needed a lift to LAX.” Even though Linc was eleven months back from Iraq, he still kept his hair trimmed in a precision military cut.
“Do you mind? Blanche drives like a prison warden.”
“Not at all. It’ll give us a chance to talk.”
Sebastian pushed back his chair, stood up, took his designer suit jacket off the coatrack and shrugged into it. “What’s up?”
“It’s about Keeley.”
“Did you guys break up?” he asked hopefully.
Sebastian couldn’t say he was surprised. While Keeley was a good person, he didn’t think she was right for Linc. She was one of those tree-hugging idealists who chided Sebastian for leaving “a big carbon footprint.” Whatever the hell that meant. He shrugged. Bottom line, she thought he should drive a Prius and live in a hut made out of manure and eat berries and twigs. Since Keeley was a peacenik and Linc was a soldier, he’d just been waiting for the sonic boom.
He tucked the Confidential Rejuvenations file into his wheeled carry-on bag and spied the present he had tucked away for Linc. He’d been waiting for the right moment to make him an equal partner in the PR company and give him the solid gold nameplate he’d had made for Linc’s desk. He snapped the case shut.
Sebastian crossed to the door, pulling the suitcase behind him and clamped his brother on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about Keeley. Plenty of fish in the Pacific Ocean. I’ll take you out when I get back from Austin. We’ll hit all the trendy clubs and get rip-roaring drunk.”
Linc met Sebastian’s eyes. “Keeley and I didn’t break up.”
Uh-oh. His brother had that defiant expression on his face that he used when they were kids and Sebastian told him to do something and Linc wasn’t of a mind to obey. His brother was generally a pretty accommodating guy, but when he dug in his heels, he dug in his heels. Sebastian couldn’t count the number of wrestling matches they’d had as he’d imposed his will on his younger sibling. Linc had never won, but he’d come damn close a time or two.
“No?” Sebastian turned and started toward the elevator, and his shoes suddenly felt heavy, as if he was trudging through mud.
Linc hurried after him. “I know you two don’t get along.”
“Of course we get along.” Sebastian stepped into the elevator and Linc followed. “I get along with everyone.”
“On the surface, yeah, because you’re great at keeping up appearances, but I know Keeley rubs you the wrong way.”
Sebastian punched the button for the parking lot. “Hey, I don’t have to sleep with her. If you like her…”
Linc hardened his jaw. “I want you to make more of an effort to see her side of things.”
“Look, she’s entitled to her opinion, I’m entitled to mine. We don’t have to like each other.”
“Could you do it for me?”
“Why push us on each other, Linc? This affair will burn out and then you’ll have a new girlfriend. I can’t be best buddies with all of them.”
“You’re wrong about that.”
Sebastian felt a cold prickle of apprehension slide down his spine.
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted you to be the first to know.”
He didn’t want to ask because he feared the answer, but Linc had a hand on his shoulder. “Know what?”
“Keeley and I are getting married. We’ve set a date for April. I want you to be my best man.”
That grabbed Sebastian by the short hairs. He jerked his gaze to Linc.
His brother wasn’t backing down. “You heard me.”
“Aw, come on, buddy. You can’t be serious.”
“You’re not thinking clearly. Marriage is a huge step and April is only six months away. Why so fast? You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“We’re getting married in Austin where her parents live. They want to throw us an engagement party at the end of the month. I can give you their address if you’d like to drop by and meet them while you’re in town. Keeley’s father is the one who recommended us to Confidential Rejuvenations.”
“I appreciate the recommendation her father threw our way, but you don’t have to marry Keeley over it,” Sebastian joked.
Linc shot him a chiding glance. “Keeley says she’ll make an effort to get along with you, if you’ll make an effort to get along with her.”
“But come on, marriage?”
“She wants you to like her.”
It was as if they were having parallel conversations, both talking but neither really hearing the other. “You can’t be getting married. You’re barely twenty-five and she’s what? Twenty? Twenty-one? She’s not even through college. That’s way too young to get married.”
Especially to someone as uptight and uncompromising as Keeley Marshall.
Linc stopped beside his silver Toyota Camry. “My mind is made up, can’t you just be happy for us?”
Guilt chewed at him. He wanted to be happy for his brother, he really did, but whenever Sebastian thought about marriage he got a tight choking feeling in his throat. Reaching up, he loosened his tie. “Dude, you’ve got a good ten years of bachelorhood left in you. Ten years you can never get back. You can always get married.”
“I love her, man.”
Sebastian raised his palms. “You just think you’re in love. You come back from Iraq after seeing a lot of scary things. You’re vulnerable, horny and first thing out of the box you meet Keeley. It’s chemistry and circumstances. That’s all.”
“I know what I feel,” Linc insisted stubbornly and unlocked his car door with a push of the keypad.
Sebastian tossed his carry-on bag into the backseat and climbed in the passenger side, shaking his head as his brother slipped behind the wheel. He snapped his seat belt into place. “How many women have you slept with?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“A hell of a lot.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Just answer the question.”
“Three,” his brother admitted and cranked the engine. “Three, okay? I’ve slept with three women. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I want.”
“You don’t have enough sexual experience to say Keeley is the one.”
“How many women have you slept with?” Linc wheeled from the parking lot.
“A gentleman never kisses and tells.”
He couldn’t seem to get enough air. He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and dialed up the air-conditioning vent, turning it up as high as it would go. “My sexual history isn’t the issue here. Rather your lack of one.”
Linc guided the Toyota onto the expressway and began maneuvering over into the HOV lane. “I prefer quality over quantity.”
“Who says I don’t have both?”
“I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about emotional intimacy.”
“You sound like a girl.” Sebastian hooted. “I mean come on, emotional intimacy?”
“When was the last time you had a serious girlfriend? Oh, wait, you’ve never had a serious girlfriend.”
“Hello.” Sebastian spread his arms. “Happy playing the field. And that’s exactly what you should be doing.”
“With all due respect, Sebastian, I don’t think you’re the best person to be giving me relationship advice.”
Sebastian felt a twinge of something odd in the secret corners of his heart, in a place he didn’t want to examine too closely. Linc had been little more than a kid when he’d joined the army after two years of college. The whole time he was overseas Sebastian kept thinking about the day when his brother would come home. He’d imagined them out on the town together, having fun, living the bachelor lifestyle. He’d mentally planned road trips and adventure vacations. He’d envisioned Linc coming to work for him at the PR firm he’d started with nothing but his self-confidence, winning smile and glib tongue.
And while Linc had come to work for him, they’d never really had a chance to cut loose, party together or take the trips he’d planned. Keeley had seen to that.
Sebastian frowned as Linc turned onto the airport road and got into the lane leading to the terminal. Of course he wasn’t jealous. What the hell did he have to be jealous of?
He certainly didn’t want what Linc had. A bossy woman leading him around by the nose. He’d known for a long time that he wasn’t cut out for marriage. He liked his freedom too much.
He had it all. Successful business, big house in Beverly Hills, lots of money in the bank and a little black book filled with names of beautiful, high-profile women.
What more could a man ask for?
“Why are you so afraid of commitment?” Linc asked. “Considering our childhood, and the way your father treated you, I’d think you’d be hungry to find that one special woman to share your life.”
“I’m not afraid of commitment.” Sebastian reached up and yanked off his tie. He inhaled. Ahh. Getting that noose from around his neck made it easier to breathe.
“I’m not afraid and besides, there is no such thing as one special woman. All women are special.”
“Spoken like a man who’s never been in love.”
That statement irritated Sebastian. What was it about people in love? They turned so smug, as if they’d discovered the ancient secret of the ages or something.
Linc pulled to the curb.
This was it. Time to tell him he was making him a partner. Maybe that would change Linc’s mind about this whole marriage nonsense.
Sebastian reached into the backseat, unzipped his suitcase and took out the nameplate Blanche had wrapped in gold foil and tied with colored raffia.
Feeling awkward and far too sentimental for his own liking, he thrust the package at Linc. “This is for you.”
“What is it?”
“Just open it.”
Linc opened the package, then read the lettering out loud. “‘Lincoln Holt, partner.’”
Sebastian cocked a grin at his younger brother, smiling past the constriction in his throat. “I promised I’d make you partner.”
“Aw, hell, Seb.”
Silence filled the car.
“What do you say, partner?” “Sebastian…there’s something else I gotta tell you.”
“Keeley’s pregnant?” he guessed. It was the only reason he could see for his brother’s hasty marriage.
“No, Keeley’s not pregnant.”
“Did I mention a raise comes with the partnership?”
Linc shook his head. “I can’t. Keeley’s uncle offered me a position at his security firm in Anaheim and I’ve accepted.”
“Oh?” Sebastian said lightly, as if he didn’t care, but inside his gut balled up tight against his spine. “You’re jumping ship right after I make you partner?”
Linc met his gaze. “You and I both know that I’m not cut out for public relations and this job with Keeley’s uncle would make use of the expertise I gained in the military.”
Sebastian felt the same way he did when Linc had told him he’d enlisted, like he’d been kicked in the gut with steel cleats. But he refused to let it show. He gave his brother his best public-relations smile. “This is really what you want?”
“It is.” Linc handed him back the nameplate.
He stuffed the damnable thing into his jacket pocket. “Then go for it.”
Relief shone in Linc’s eyes.
“Thanks, man. I appreciate your understanding.”
His nose burned. The nameplate weighed heavily in his pocket. He blinked and shrugged. “Not a problem.”
Sebastian retrieved his carry-on luggage and humped it into the terminal with a backward wave at his brother. Once he was out of his Linc’s sight, he ditched the nameplate in a trash can, straightened his shoulders and moved through the security checkpoint. He found his gate and then boarded the plane, all the while managing not to feel a damned thing.
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