Chapter 1: Charley
My mom always says I’m going to be late to my own funeral.
My mom is rarely wrong.
And if I’m late to the one job I have right now, my brother Aidan will make my funeral a reality.
I have one singular goal.
To get the brother of my best friend—who also happens to be Aidan’s girlfriend—to her surprise birthday party I’ve been planning for weeks.
Her famous, hot as hell brother I might have a teeny-tiny crush on.
A man I’ve watched play professional baseball for the Florida Bull Sharks on TV for years and had some naughty celebrity fantasies where he is the star.
I ignore my racing pulse and quickly make my way down the hallway of the inn, stopping in front of room seven.
“Tonight, he’s just Megan’s brother. That’s it. Not Nate freaking Gentry. I need this job. And you’re on a man sabbatical anyway.”
Squaring my shoulders, I rap my knuckles against the door.
When a few seconds tick by without an answer, I lean forward, listening for any sign of life beyond the thick wood.
I check the time on my phone and let out a huff. I’m on time for once. Where is this guy?
Before I can lift my hand to announce my arrival again, the door flies open.
And my jaw drops.
Did I say Nate Gentry is hot?
Sinfully, makes-me-want-to-sell-my-soul-to-the-devil hot is more like it.
Especially in nothing but a towel riding low on his hips.
Words and my ability to speak leave my brain as I watch droplets of water cling to his dark hair and tanned skin. My throat is dry as desert sand, and those small beads of water are like a mirage.
The man is large and in charge, all muscle without an ounce of fat. His shoulders look like they could carry the weight of the world.
Black ink in some sort of diamond-like design covers half of one pec. A wide chest tapers down to abs and a sexy V that makes my mouth water.
He clears his throat and my gaze snaps to his. His brows are drawn down, his mouth a flat line.
“Can I help you?” he asks.
His deep-timbral voice makes me tingle, but the sharp tone in it could freeze hell over.
I swallow, trying to find words. When was the last time a guy had me tongue-tied? Working in a bar over the years taught me how to handle all types of guys. They don’t fluster me; just ask anyone in Madison Ridge.
Then again, most guys aren’t Nate “Iceman” Gentry, either.
Seriously, get a grip, Reynolds.
I mentally pull myself together and give him my best smile.
“Hey, I’m Charley Reynolds. It’s nice to meet you. I’m your escort for the night.” I thrust a hand out between us.
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want the floor to open up and swallow me. His hazel eyes narrow and heat floods my face, but I don’t drop my hand.
“I-I mean, I’m here to escort you to Megan’s party. I’m Aidan’s sister. Didn’t he tell you I was coming by?”
He raises a brow and continues to study me for a moment. Warmth floods my body everywhere his gaze lands, which is from the top of my head to the tip of my open-toed heels.
There are a couple of things I notice about Nate Gentry in person that the TV doesn’t pick up.
I’m a sucker for beautiful eyes, and Nate’s are the most unique shade of hazel I’ve ever seen. Green with brown swirls and flecks of gold. They remind me of autumn leaves.
He smells amazing. Tendrils of steam fill the room behind him with a woodsy, citrus combination that makes me want to take a deep breath and lounge in it.
My outstretched arm starts to ache, bringing me back to the fact that while he might be really pretty, his reputation for being broody precedes him.
He shifts a step closer and takes my hand in his. My lizard brain is sad to see it wasn’t the hand holding up the towel.
“He told me.” He clears his throat. “I, uh, just wasn’t expecting…never mind. Nice to meet you, Charley.”
Same? That’s my response? Great job, Charley.
His large hand wraps around mine, still warm from his shower, completely dwarfing it. A dull buzzing starts in my ears and a current of electricity shoots up my arm.
If I wasn’t so stunned, I’d probably be in a puddle at his feet.
Having women fall at his feet is a daily occurrence for him, I’m sure.
“I’m running behind, but I’ll be ready in ten.”
My lust-induced haze muddles my head like the steam from his bathroom. When my brain finally comes back online, I realize our handshake is now hand holding. I drop my hand and step back.
I check my phone, my gut clenching in panic to see we’re cutting it close. “It’s a quick walk to the winery from here, but we need to leave in ten unless you want to run. And I’m not running in these heels. Oh, and if we’re late, it’ll ruin the surprise for your sister.”
His gaze drops to my heels, and he tilts his head for a moment, a small smile on his lips.
Wow. Just that small smile makes me lightheaded.
“Right,” he says roughly. The muscles in his throat move and those hazel eyes meet mine again. “I can be ready in five.”
“If that’s true, you’ll keep me from being murdered by Aidan.”
He runs a hand through his damp hair and gives me a lopsided grin that damn near makes me swoon. “Well, we can’t have that. Wanna come in?”
A few minutes alone with him in his suite won’t hurt me, right?
I walk past him and try not to inhale too much of the sexiness radiating off him in waves. The click of the door shutting behind me makes goose bumps pop on my skin.
Being among his things feels far more intimate than it should.
“My apologies,” he says, heading toward the double doors of the bedroom. “We hit some weather leaving Florida and it delayed my flight. I’ll be out in a few.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
He closes the doors between the living and bedroom area. I blow out a breath to steady my racing heart and shaky legs.
I roam around the large suite—willing my body to behave—focusing on my surroundings instead of the man in the next room.
The suite is tastefully done in walnut wood and colors of gray and black, with a pop of burgundy here and there. The midcentury modern vibe feels sleek and expensive, but with a cozy aspect to it.
Just like my cousin Emma, who owns the place with her fiancé, Shane.
I stop at the window and push the sheer curtain aside. This particular suite has the best view of all the rooms at the Gold Mountain Inn. The North Georgia mountains in the distance and the rolling hills of the acreage the inn sits on are spectacular.
Behind the inn, several yards from the main house, a beautiful white gazebo stands, looking regal with the greenery in the background.
Off to the right, piles of lumber sit, ready to be turned into a modernized barn that will hold weddings and other gatherings.
Gold Mountain Winery is on its way to being a premier resort destination in the area and I want to be a part of it.
Last week, I applied for the position of Events Manager. It’s a huge leap for me, as my biggest accomplishment thus far has been the ability to carry a tray of twenty tequila shots without spilling a single drop.
But I also have a degree in hospitality management and I’ve been in the service industry since I was sixteen. In ten years’ time, I went from being a waitress in high school to practically running the Silver Moon Cafe, the town’s most popular bar.
But event planning is my dream job. Megan’s party tonight is a sort of trial by fire for me, to prove I have what it takes to pull off the kind of events that will be held there.
I also want to show my family I’m capable of being more than just the baby of the family and the good-time girl. Which means it’s time for me to get my shit together, go after my dreams, and use the degree I’ve earned.
Hence, the man sabbatical. I need to focus, and men are known to be a distraction for me.
The doors open behind me and I turn. My lips roll inward to keep from drooling.
The man standing in front of me is distraction with a capital D.
Nate Gentry is a weapon of mass panty destruction.
He walks out in a pair of charcoal-gray slacks and navy blue button-down. The sleeves are rolled up, showing off his thick wrists and muscular forearms honed by years of training.
Until this moment I didn’t know I had a thing for forearms.
And whatever cologne he’s wearing makes me clench my thighs.
My vibrator is going to get a workout tonight when I get home.
He looks like he stepped off the pages of a magazine. In less than ten minutes.
It took me ten times as long just to pick my dress.
He smiles when he sees me. “I’m ready. We okay on time?”
I nod. “If we leave now, we’ll be right on time.”
The inn is quiet right now, so we manage to make it downstairs and out the door without any fanfare.
We set off down the winding path running from the inn property to the winery where patrons can easily go back and forth. It’s scenic, wide, and packed with white pebbles that crunch under our shoes. A slight breeze blows through the tree-lined path decorated with clear lights.
There’s a comfortable silence between us, but I can’t be quiet for long.
“So, you said you had a flight delay in Florida. Everything else go okay once you got here?”
“Yeah, everything was fine.” He pauses, turning his body slightly toward me as we walk, his lips in a slight smile. “How’d you end up being my ‘escort’”—he makes air quotes—“for the night?”
I kick a pebble and purse my lips. “I lost at rock, paper, scissors with Aidan.”
“Sounds like a story there.”
“I planned the party with him. Which worked out well until we got to one point. We couldn’t agree on who should bring Megan.” I put a hand on my chest. “I said I would be better so I could help her pick her clothes. He had…other ideas. Anyway, we played a round and the winner brought Megan, the loser brought you.”
He chuckles and the deep timbre of it sends a shiver down my spine. “I feel so wanted.”
I shrug playfully. “That’s the breaks, kid.”
We walk a little farther before he speaks again. “Listen, I’m sorry if I appeared rude when I first opened the door. It’s a defense mechanism. If I open the door to an unfamiliar but beautiful woman, I go into defense mode.”
Holy shit. Did Nate Gentry just call me beautiful?
I need a lifeline or my man sabbatical is going to go up in flames.
Much like my underwear.
And the goose bumps rising on my skin? It’s just the wind. It has nothing to do with the fact a famous baseball player called this small-town girl beautiful.
“I take it this kind of thing has happened before?”
His lips pull down into a frown. “Yeah. I’ve lost count of how many times. I like my private life private.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m on a man sabbatical.” I nod firmly, but standing next to him, I wonder who I’m trying to convince.
I speak quickly, hoping he won’t bite on my man sabbatical comment.
“Anyway, I do understand the groupie thing. My brother Del ran into that situation when he was on TV regularly. It’s better now that he isn’t on so often, and most of the time if tourists see him in town, they’re cool. But when he first came home, the local deputies had to rescue him and his girlfriend from a line of crazy women.”
“It’s scary as hell sometimes.” He sighs. “And the biggest reason why I’ve stayed away from visiting Megan for so long. I didn’t want to get her wrapped up in all the paparazzi mess.”
I smile and punch him lightly in the bicep, which is warm under his shirt and hard as a rock. “Aw, aren’t you the protective big brother?”
He looks down at the ground and rubs a hand over his chin, but a slight smile peeks out. “Maybe.”
“Well, from what Megan has told me, you’re an amazing brother. Hell, you even bought a bar at the beach for her to run.”
“Yeah, until your brother came in and swept her off her feet and now she lives here.” One corner of his mouth lifts in a half smile.
I laugh. “Yeah, he did. What did you end up doing with the bar?”
“I still own it. Moving forward with renovations. I’ll just have to find someone else to run it.”
I start to comment but the lights of the winery catch my eye. “We’re here. Let’s head around back so we won’t be seen.”
A stepping-stone path leads to the back door. Once inside, we weave around huge stainless steel tanks and other winemaking equipment, making our way up to the main floor.
Inside, the winery is all understated elegance with dark woods, white walls, and wrought iron. The one touch of opulence is the beige marble floors with gray-and-gold veining.
Usually, it’s full of people milling around, wine in hand, or standing at the various tasting stations around the room.
But tonight, it’s closed to the public, making it dark and quiet, and our footsteps echo on the marble floor.
I’m keenly aware of the man walking beside me. Every so often, I catch a whiff of his cologne, the scent wrapping around me like a hug.
Focus on the task at hand, Charley. In a few minutes, you’ll go your separate ways at the party and that will be it.
We follow the signs for the Wine and Vine ballroom, and the murmur of voices grows louder as we approach the room. I slide a glance to him.
“You ready? My family and the people in this town can be a lot, but I’ll keep us moving.”
Nate stretches his neck from side to side and bounces on his toes like a boxer, making a show of getting amped up. “Born ready.”
I can’t help but smile. Nate Gentry has a little funny side to him.
Once we walk in, it’s just as I figured it would be with my siblings and mother welcoming him with open arms and other guests wanting to shake his hand.
Nate takes it all in stride, smiling politely but continuing to move through the crowd. It’s clear he’s had practice.
I push through the swinging door, and Nate follows me into the kitchen off the main room. “Thank God, we got here before Aidan and Megan.” I wipe fake sweat off my brow. “Okay, my instructions are to keep you in here until Aidan gives me the signal. Then you can come out.” I rub my hands together with a grin. “I cannot wait to see her face when she sees you.”
Nate gives me a full smile and this time I swear my heart stops. I can see right away this particular smile is one he reserves for his sister.
Breathless from a smile? What is wrong with me?
I lean against the open swinging door so I can see when Aidan and Megan come in. But from the corner of my eye, I study the man roaming the commercial kitchen area.
With those broad shoulders, it’s easy to see him as a leader in everything he does. As a catcher, even his position in baseball leans to being the one in charge and taking care of his guys.
“Here they come!” someone whisper shouts, drawing my attention away from Nate.
I wave him over. “They’re here.”
When he comes up behind me, the heat of his body makes my skin flush. I close my eyes and try my best not to sway into him.
When the group in the room yells “Surprise!” my eyes fly open and I straighten my spine.
And my resolve.
I roll up on my tiptoes, trying to get a glimpse of Aidan and Megan, but I can’t see them for the taller people in front of me. Even in my three-inch heels, I barely skim five-six. “Damn it. I can’t see.”
“Aidan is looking this way and nodding. Is that our sign?”
“Shit! Yes. You’re up.”
I follow behind him as he moves through the crowd that parts like the sea parted for Moses. I know the minute Megan sees her brother because she lets out a big squeal followed by an “Oh my God!”
“Hi, Meg-pie,” Nate says as he walks faster toward her until they meet in the middle with her jumping into his strong arms. He spins her around before setting her on her feet and kissing the top of her head.
It’s a familiar gesture as my three brothers have done it to me and my sisters a million times. I swallow hard against the emotions clogging my throat.
Megan rushes over to me, arms outstretched. “Is this why you couldn’t come help me pick out a dress? You little traitor.” She hugs me and I squeeze her hard.
“I was sworn to secrecy.”
Aidan walks up beside me and drapes his arm over my shoulders. “Hey, you did good. On time and everything.”
“Well, if we’d been late, it would have been my fault,” Nate says, sliding his hands in the pockets of his slacks, his eyes on mine. “My flight was delayed so I cut it pretty close.”
“I still can’t believe you’re here,” Megan says, hugging her brother’s side. “It’s been four years too long. I’ve missed you.”
“Why don’t you guys go get some drinks and food? Catch up?” I ask, going into hostess mode.
When Megan and Nate walk away, Aidan puts an arm around my shoulders. “Thanks for helping me out, Charley. I mean it.”
“You know I love Megan too, and I want her to be happy.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry. She’s plenty happy.” Aidan winks and I smack his hard stomach with the back of my hand.
“Ugh. Stop. I don’t even want to know about my brother and my best friend in that context. Gross.”
He laughs and lifts a hand to ruffle my hair, but I dart away before he can mess it up. He heads toward the table where our mother sits.
I stand along the wall, watching the partygoers eat, chat, and mingle. I’ve waited tables and bartended for so long it’s second nature for me to watch and observe what someone might need.
“You know we have wait staff tonight, right?”
I glance over to see my cousin Emma walking toward me with a smile. “Yeah, but I can’t seem to help myself.”
“I know what you mean.” She stands beside me and gazes around the room. “Tonight, I’m here as a guest, not the owner, and I can’t help but go into owner mode and make sure everyone is safe and having fun.”
She turns her head and looks down at my dress. “That dress looks amazing on you.”
I glance down at the curve-hugging gunmetal gray sequined cocktail dress I decided on after thirty minutes of debating. It’s short, leaves part of my back bare, and is not my normal attire.
“Thanks. I’ve never worn it.” I sigh. “Not sure why I bought it anyway. It’s wasted on the men here. I just wore it to feel pretty.”
That isn’t totally true. There is one man that I wouldn’t mind if he noticed my dress.
She moves closer and gives me a one-armed hug. “Well, you look gorgeous.”
I return the hug then pull back to check out her shimmery black wrap dress. “Now, this dress you got on? I’m surprised Shane doesn’t have you in some locked room trying to peel it off you.”
“Oh, he tried!”
Her laugh is smooth and cultured. That’s Emma. She’s kind, beautiful, a badass businesswoman, and engaged to a sexy billionaire.
She’s also a recovering alcoholic. Her addiction almost cost her everything, but she managed to climb out of the depths and find a new job, a new life, and a new love.
I want to be like Emma when I grow up.
She pats my shoulder. “Listen, do you have a few minutes? I know this is a party and all, but since I have you here, I’d like to talk business with you. If you’re okay with that.”
My stomach drops, but I stand straighter, trying to appear cool. Because that’s how Emma would do it. “Of course.”
I follow her through the crowd, but just before I leave the room, I glance over my shoulder to find Nate staring at me from across the room.
And in a way that tells me he’s noticed my dress.
My blood runs hot through my veins and I quickly glance away. Of course, I have to be on a man sabbatical when my celebrity crush rolls into town, looking at me like he wants to devour me.
Good-time Charley would have climbed him like a tree and loved every minute of it.
But I retired her, put her away. I refuse to be the only Reynolds child in town that hasn’t made something of herself.
I keep my focus on Emma’s back as we leave the noisy room, moving into the quiet lobby, and I hope she can’t hear my heart pounding in my chest.
Something in my gut tells me tonight is the beginning of a new adventure.