Jace Crestwell tapped Gabe Hamilton on the shoulder and when Gabe turned, Jace grinned. “You’ve hogged my sister long enough. It’s my turn to dance with her.”
Gabe didn’t look happy with the interruption. He and Mia had been solidly glued to one another for the past hour, but he grudgingly took a step back and Mia smiled radiantly as Jace took Gabe’s place.
The entire ballroom of the Bentley Hotel was decorated for Christmas, a nod to the fact that above all else, Mia loved Christmas, and it was also a well-known fact that Gabe would do damn near anything to make his new fiancée happy.
And, well, Gabe moved fast when he wanted something, if nothing else. He’d started planning the engagement party the moment he got his ring on Mia’s finger. Almost as if he were afraid she’d change her mind unless he got the ball rolling immediately.
It was pretty funny for Jace to see his friend in knots over a woman. The fact that the woman in question was Jace’s sister was a little weird, but Mia was happy and that was all he could ask for.
“Are you enjoying yourself, baby girl?” Jace asked as he turned her around on the dance floor.
Her entire face lit up. “It’s fantastic, Jace. The whole thing. It’s positively magical. I can’t believe Gabe pulled this off so fast. It’s just . . . perfect.”
Jace smiled back at her. “I’m glad you’re happy. Gabe will be good to you or I’ll kick his ass. I already made that clear.”
Her eyes narrowed. “If he isn’t good to me, it’s not you he has to worry about. I’ll be the one kicking his ass.”
Jace threw back his head and laughed. “That I have no doubt about. You made him work for it. I gotta admire that.”
Mia’s face became somber and Jace frowned, wondering what could have possibly made her so serious on a night she should be over the moon.
“I know you gave up a lot for me,” she said in a quiet voice. “I always wondered if the reason you hadn’t married and had children of your own was because of me.”
He stared at her like she’d lost her mind.
“Maybe now you can stop worrying about me so much, and you know . . .”
“No, I don’t know,” he said. Then he shook his head. “You’re a nut, Mia. First of all, just because you’re getting married doesn’t mean I’m going to stop worrying about you and looking out for you. That’s just a fact, so get over it. Second, don’t you think if I’d gotten married before now, especially when you were younger, that it would have made things easier? For both you and me? You would have had a mother figure instead of being stuck with an overbearing, overprotective brother as your sole source of support.”
She stopped mid-dance and threw her arms around him, hugging him fiercely.
“I don’t regret a single thing about the way you raised me, Jace. Not a thing. You did a wonderful job and I’ll always be so grateful for all the sacrifices you made for me.”
He hugged her back, still shaking his head. Nut. Total nut. She was aglow with happiness over her impending marriage to Gabe, and now she wanted everyone she cared about wrapped up in that same glow. God help him. He and Ash should probably be ducking and running.
“It was no sacrifice, Mia. I don’t have a single regret either. Has it ever occurred to you that I didn’t want to get married and have kids?”
She pulled back with a frown and then her gaze skirted sideways to where Ash was standing across the room with Gabe. “Yes, I suppose it did.”
Jace barely suppressed a sigh. It was obvious Mia had a very good idea of his and Ash’s sexual proclivities when it came to having threesomes with the same woman. It wasn’t exactly something a brother wanted his sister to know about his sex life, but there it was. He wouldn’t apologize for his lifestyle, but neither was he going to get into a conversation about it with his baby sister.
“Play hard and live free,” he said by way of explanation.
Mia frowned and cocked her head upward.
Jace chuckled. “It’s our motto. The three of us, Gabe, me and Ash. Only you changed the game for Gabe. Doesn’t mean Ash and I are eager to follow his lead.”
She rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake. You make Gabe sound like a pussy.”
Jace cleared his throat. “If the shoe fits . . .”
Mia pounded him on the shoulder. “I’m so going to tell him you said that!”
Jace laughed again. “The man would probably admit to being a complete pu**y when it comes to you. And that’s not a bad thing. I want him to treat you right.”
They were interrupted when Ash stepped in, sweeping Mia into his arms.
“My turn,” Ash proclaimed. “Gabe’s only going to wait so long before he reclaims her, so I’m getting my dance in now while his parents have him occupied.”
Jace leaned forward and kissed Mia on the forehead. “This is your night, baby girl. I want you to remember it forever. Have fun.”
Her smile lit up the entire room. “Thank you, Jace. Love you.”
He touched her cheek and then moved back as Ash swept her away.
Jace retreated to the far side of the room and stood back, observing the goings-on at the party. It was small—what Gabe and Mia wanted—a night to celebrate their love.
It sounded corny as hell, but then one only had to look at the two to know they were complete goners. He still wasn’t entirely certain how he felt about his best friend hooking up with his little sister. There were fourteen years separating them and he knew damn well what Gabe’s sexual demands were.
He cringed, remembering the scene he’d walked into when he’d gone to Gabe’s apartment unannounced several weeks earlier. He needed bleach for his eyes because there were just some things a brother never, ever needed to see regarding his baby sister.
He still had concerns over whether Mia really knew what the hell she was getting herself into, but Gabe was a complete mush pile when it came to her. Hell, the man had humbled himself in front of half of New York City to get her back, so Jace guessed Mia would be able to handle whatever Gabe dished out.
Jace was just going to not think about it.
He sighed as his gaze wandered over the crowd and the festive environment. Mia had been a huge part of his life ever since their parents had been killed in a car accident. She had been a late-in-life “oops” baby, but she’d been adored by him and their parents. When they’d died, it had been a life-altering event for both him and his sister.
At a time when he’d been in college and only focused on beer, girls and having a good time with Gabe and Ash, he’d been forced to take responsibility for six-year-old Mia. Gabe and Ash had both been a huge source of support for him and perhaps in a lot of ways Mia had cemented their friendship. So he supposed it was only fitting that he’d be giving her into the care of his best friend now that she was an adult and making her own life.
It would be an adjustment for him, now that Mia wasn’t solely his responsibility. Not that he planned to go anywhere, but things were different now. She was in a serious relationship and she wouldn’t be turning to him with her problems. It should be a relief, but instead sadness settled into his chest at the idea that his baby sister no longer needed him as she once had.
His gaze settled on a young woman picking up glasses and plates from the tables. It was the second time his eyes had settled on her that night though she hadn’t been out much, just periodically to do cleanup. She wasn’t one of the servers. He hadn’t seen her circling with trays of hors d’oeuvres or champagne. She was dressed in black pants, a white shirt and an apron.
He studied her a long moment before realizing what it was that had interested him. She looked completely out of place. And he wasn’t entirely certain what gave him that impression. The longer he stared at her, the more he thought she looked like she should be an attendee at the party. Not cleaning up after the participants.
Her hair was upswept into a messy bun like Mia wore sometimes, secured with a clip, and the result was a sexy mass of mussed hair that begged a man’s hand to tug at it and set it free. Midnight black, unruly curls, some of which had escaped the clip and tumbled down her neck.
She was slight, not as curvy as he usually liked his women. Narrow h*ps and small breasted but enough curves straining at the white button-up shirt to be tempting. The rest of her was small. Dainty. Almost fragile.
When she turned, presenting him with a view of her face, he sucked in his breath. Her bone structure was small. Delicately rendered. High, prominent cheekbones, almost as if she were underweight, and a small chin. But her eyes. Jesus, her eyes. They were enormous in her otherwise small face. A brilliant shade of blue. Shock blue, like looking at ice. They were startling against the jet black of her hair.
She was mesmerizing.
Then she hurried away, her arms straining at the weight of the tray that held all the dishes she’d cleared from the tables. His gaze followed her across the room until she disappeared through the door for the kitchen staff.
“Not your usual fare,” Ash murmured beside him.
Jace broke from his reverie and turned to see that Ash had already finished his dance with Mia. A brief look toward the dance floor told him Gabe had reclaimed Mia and that the two were once more solidly glued together. Mia’s eyes were alight with joy and laughter, and some of his earlier tension eased. She was in good hands. And she was happy.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jace said, an edge to his voice.
“The chick bussing the tables. Saw you checking her out. Hell, you were practically undressing her with your eyes.”
Jace frowned and remained silent.
Ash shrugged. “I’m game. She’s hot.”
The denial came out more emphatic than Jace would have liked. He wasn’t even sure where the emphasis came from or why he was suddenly tense.
Ash laughed. “Loosen up. It’s been awhile. I’ll go work my charm.”
“Do not approach her, Ash,” Jace growled.
But Ash had already sauntered away in the direction of the kitchen, leaving Jace standing there, fingers in tight fists at his sides. How the f**k was he supposed to explain to his best friend, a friend he regularly shared women with, that he didn’t want Ash within a mile of this one?
Bethany Willis rubbed her palms down her worn pant legs and briefly closed her eyes, swaying as she stood in front of the basin containing all the empties she’d collected from the ballroom.
She was tired. So damn tired. And hungry. The best part of this gig—besides the fact it was cash paying—was the food. She was allowed to take leftovers, and judging by the amount of food bustling in and out of this place, there was going to be plenty.
Rich people always did things in excess. There was no way the number of people invited to this party justified the amount of food and booze being fronted. She mentally shrugged. At least she’d get a decent meal, even if the stuff was too fancy for her palate.
There’d be enough for Jack too.
A wave of sadness engulfed her and just as quickly, guilt. She had no business feeling this way because Jack had come back around. He did that. Disappeared for days and then reappeared, usually when he needed a place to crash, a friendly face. Food. Money . . . Especially money.
Her chest squeezed because she knew what he did with the money he asked for even as he hated to do so. He never looked her in the eye. Instead he dropped his gaze and he’d say, “Bethy . . . there’s this thing. I need . . .” And it was all he’d say. She gave him money because she couldn’t do anything else. But she hated the way he said “Bethy.” Hated that nickname when it had once been one she adored because it had been given to her by someone who cared for her.
Jack. The only person in the world who’d ever tried to shield her from anything. The only person who’d ever given a damn about her.
Her brother. Not by blood but in every way else it counted. He was hers just like she was his. How was she supposed to ever turn her back on him?
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
There was a sound at the side door, the one that opened to the alley where the trash was taken out. She glanced up to see Jack leaning against the frame, his head tilted back so he could glance down the alleyway. That was Jack. Always one eye on escape. He never went into any situation unwary and without his escape route planned.
“Bethy,” he said in a quiet voice.
She flinched, knowing why he’d come. She didn’t say anything and instead reached into her pants pocket for the wadded-up bills she’d stuffed there. Half up front. Half when she went off duty for the night. Jack would get this half. The other half would have to feed her until she found another gig, and she didn’t know when that would be.
Hurrying to where he stood, she pressed the bills into his hand and watched uncomfortably as his gaze skated sideways, not making eye contact with her as he shoved the money into the ripped, torn jeans. His stance was uncomfortable. She knew he hated this. She hated it too.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “You okay? You got somewhere to sleep tonight?”
She didn’t, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. So she lied instead. “Yeah.”
Some of his tension eased and he nodded. “Good. I’m working on it, Bethy. I’ll have a place for both of us soon.”
She shook her head in denial, knowing it was what he always said, and also knowing it wasn’t going to happen.
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. For a long moment, she closed her eyes and imagined different circumstances. But that was pointless. It was what it was and wishing for it to be different was like pissing in the wind.