Dedicated to my favorite avid reader, Rachel.
The Launch Party
THE BRADY FAMILY, WRIGHT family, and the caterers all arrived within moments of one another, as if on cue. The conversation went no further now that things were about to get underway. Disappointment swelled when she didn’t see Corey. Because of her busy work schedule, they hadn’t seen each other but once in the last three weeks, and with the missed phone calls, she honestly began to wonder if she’d done something wrong. Right behind them were Dex, Karen, Sara, and Kevin. It seemed like the party was just getting started when the limo pulled up in front of the house.
Jill, Meg, Debbie, Penny, Lisa, and Anna, along with Anna's husband, Nolan, stood in a receiving line and greeted them at the car.
John Grayburg emerged from the sleek car dressed in a black formal suit with white shirt, his short gray hair neatly combed off to the side. Megan recognized him from the many photos she saw over the last few weeks, and every article she read referred to him as intimidating and an up and coming force in the industry. He held out a hand for Carol, his wife, who stepped out smiling wearing a peach dress. Her short blonde curls bounced as she moved forward, smiling and nodding at everyone. Calvin came out of the limo, looking much like his father.
Edward was right behind his older brother. They both had blonde hair and brown eyes, with the only noticeable distinction being the direction of their part, Edward to the left, Calvin to the right. Edward helped his sister Grace out of the limo and Calvin lent a hand to Isabel. Kurt, the youngest of the bunch was the last to appear.
"Hello, ladies. Nolan," John said. He looked the girls' over from head to toe, then smiled. "Well, Anna, I like what I see."
"Thank you," Anna replied.
He moved to Meg and her heart raced. "Good to put a face with a voice. Welcome aboard, Miss Evans."
"Nice to meet you, sir," she said, her voice close to a shy whisper. Megan shook his firm hand.
The group walked to the rear of the house where the party was already in full swing. Meg trailed behind still unsure, feeling wobbly in the three-inch heels.
Kurt stopped walking and waited for Megan to catch up. "Are you nervous?"
"You look beautiful, Megan. I'm glad we finally got a chance to meet." He took her by the elbow and led her over to the enormous rectangular table filled with food. "Would you care for something to eat?"
She shook her head. "My stomach's doing flip-flops; I doubt I could keep anything in it." Her eyes remained on the elaborate fruit display, a floral bouquet of every fruit imaginable made her mouth water, but she resisted for now.
He chuckled. "Would you care to dance?"
Meg smiled, "If I step on your toes, I'm sorry."
"You'll be fine," he promised leading her to the makeshift floor. A slow melody played, and he pulled her into his arms gracefully, as if he'd done it a thousand times.
"Have you been here before?" Meg asked.
"At least three or four times a year. I usually come out for a week at a time. It's not a bad little town. New York is nonstop, so this is a nice change of pace."
Meg smiled up at him. All the Grayburgs had the same blonde hair. Although Kurt resembled his brothers, he had softer features, and his brown eyes twinkled with excitement. He was only twenty-seven and Megan thought that his age might be the reason he wasn't as stiff and formal as his brothers. Calvin and Edward’s reserved demeanor had Megan grateful that she got Kurt and not one of the other two.
"So, do you think you'll continue to work with Anna after the line comes out?"
"Without a doubt; I really enjoy it."
"It does slow down, so don't be surprised if you get a little bored from time to time."
HE WALKED TO THE back of the house and froze in place. Megan looked like a beauty queen in the arms of Kurt Grayburg, the wealthy playboy of the family. What is Anna thinking? Doesn't she know that Meg was too green to be associating with someone like Kurt?
"Hey, Corey," Adam Wright said, leaning against the back of the house. "Good turn out tonight."
"Looks like it."
"You haven't seen Ally and Brent yet, have you? They're usually early to these things."
"No, I just got here."
Adam caught Corey's gaze and followed it. "You get used to it," Adam stated.
Corey tore his eyes away from Meg and turned to Anna's younger brother. "Get used to what exactly?"
Adam set his hand on Corey's shoulder. "Watching your woman working and being paraded about by the Grayburg’s. When Debbie first started doing this I wasn't too happy about all the attention other men paid her. I wanted her to be on my arm, not theirs, but it's usually for only a few hours and then we have the rest of the evening to ourselves."
It irritated him that he could be so easily read. “It’s fine,” he muttered.
Adam pushed off the wall and stood up straight. "Someone's in denial. If that's not jealousy, then I don't know what is. Just don't cause a scene tonight. Anna will always forgive you, but I'm not so sure about Megan." He turned and walked toward the party.
Corey moved to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey, downing it quickly. He had to pull himself together and fast. He'd spent the last three weeks wondering if they were going to be together or not. The job was a big part of her life now and he wasn’t sure if there was a place for him after all. He grabbed a glass of champagne, took a deep breath, forced a smile and turned around to face everyone. It was a small crowd of about forty people and he knew them all. Some better than others and he liked most. Meg stood in a corner with Kurt, Jill, and Edward. This made him feel better, but only a tad.
Tonight, she was stunning, beautiful even in the long emerald gown. It clung to her breasts and the skinny straps caught the light and glittered. The gown hugged her body like a second skin, outlining all the curves of her slim figure. Her hair swept up off her neck, and all he could think about was kissing her there, letting his tongue slide all the way to her collarbone, then further still. His body caught fire and Megan looked at him, her eyes wide. Does she suspect what I want to do to her? He smirked at the thought, keeping his eyes glued to her as she turned away blushing.
He needed to keep his emotions in check, wait for her to get free, and make sure she was all right—that they were all right. As he watched her, a sudden surge of jealousy washed over him when Kurt put his arm around Meg's shoulder and she leaned into him. He shouldn't be surprised that Kurt, or any man for that matter, would be attracted to her. She was beautiful, friendly, and always ready with a genuine smile. Megan would give the shirt off her back to help a stranger if they needed it. He could handle her new job, her career, a future that finally made her life worthwhile, especially after all the recent heartache.
He turned his attention to the setup. Anna had outdone herself this time. Clear Christmas lights hung across the back of the house and blue icicle lights hung around every table illuminating the dance floor. It was just enough light to brighten up the yard and had a definite romantic charm about it. He found his parents sitting with Margaret and Patrick Wright, Anna's parents. They hadn't even noticed his arrival, so caught up in the conversation with their longtime friends.
THOSE DARK EYES WERE following her everywhere she went leaving her no escape. Meg hoped Corey would come to her, but he kept his distance. Fears of her career coming between them plagued her constantly since their conversations seemed to grow shorter. This was the first launch party, the one that would make or break her, and she couldn’t deal with the job and wondering what Corey must be thinking about seeing her on the arm of Kurt. She turned her back to him, praying he would stop staring. Meg's newfound self-confidence was shaky –her excitement over the job diminished and it was all because Corey Brady was within her reach and looking at her with an intensity that made her heart pound so hard her chest hurt.
"So, what do you think so far?" Jill asked, her brown eyes full of life and excitement. They sparkled as she looked around the crowded yard.
"I'm having a good time. It just took me a little while to get over the nervousness," Meg admitted.
"I told you it would be fun." She pulled her closer and whispered, "What do you think of Kurt?"
Meg smiled and looked at him sitting and talking with his family. "He's cute, nice and I think a little conceited."
Jill laughed. "You've got his number all right. I think the wealth has gone to his head, but he's loads of fun to be around."
The two women moved to a large table occupied by Nolan, Anna, Lisa, and Sara.
"Did you get enough to eat?" Anna asked them.
"Plenty. This is a great party," Meg said. "The second I looked at the baked goods, I realized it was Abby Brady's work. She's really outdone herself."
"See, she's just fine," Lisa affirmed, nudging Anna.
"After the models take their turn moving about the party, you're on your own. Stay if you like or go home and I want everyone to take tomorrow off with pay," Anna stated firmly.
"You got it!" Jill said ecstatically, jumping to her feet to go spread the word to the rest of the girls.
"Is Anna being good to you?" Sara asked.
Meg smiled, "Yes. I really like working. I used to hate going into The Stix and dealing with all the drunks. No tip was worth what I went through."
"Endurance has some pretty strange characters," Nolan acknowledged smiling.
"That's an understatement," Lisa added, rolling her eyes for effect.
Sara looked in both directions and leaned forward. "Have you talked to him yet?"
Nolan quickly stood. "That's my cue to leave." He kissed the top of his wife's head. "Be nice," he added before heading to the Grayburg's table.
"Well?" Sara prodded.
"Leave her alone," Anna said, shooting her dear friend a look of warning.
"Apparently, I'm the only one who doesn't know who we’re talking about," Lisa uttered.
"It's nothing really," Meg affirmed, her eyes searching for him, needing just one more glimpse.
Lisa followed her gaze and then smiled. "I see that. Corey Brady, he's a good-looking man, you could do worse." She picked up her champagne glass and took a sip.
"Amen!" Sara chimed.
"Hey, why the long face?" Kurt asked looking down at her.
Meg forced a smile. "I'm not sad."
"Great. How about another dance?"
Meg nodded and stood up, letting Kurt escort her to the dance floor.
"GOT A MINUTE?" DEX asked stepping up beside him.
Because he focused all his attention on Meg, he hadn't seen him coming. "I suppose."
Dex took a deep breath. "I heard about the fight at The Stix.”
Corey's head turned quickly back to Dex, his dark eyes narrowing. "What did you hear exactly?" he demanded, trying to control the anger that rushed through his body. He was never going to live that one moment of stupidity down.
"That you put my little sister in the middle of a fight with you and Joe. She's not even close to being your type."
What in the hell did that mean? "How so?"
Dex shook his head and laughed. "Well, she’s my sister, still a baby. She’s hardly dated anyone, been spending the last five years with Joe from what I hear.” Dex jammed his hands into the front pockets of his dress slacks and stared across the yard to Megan. “We’ve always been close, but Megan is my family. If you’re not serious about her, if this is just some fling for you, I want you to end it now before you break her heart and I have to beat the crap out of you.”
Corey laughed whole-heartedly, his shoulders bouncing. He hadn't laughed that hard in a long time and it felt good.
"First, Megan is a big girl and doesn’t need you fighting her battles. Second, what happens between us is just that, between her and me. I love you like a brother, but you really need to find something else to worry about. I’ve got this covered."
Dex turned and looked him square in the eye. "So, what do you plan to do about it?"
Even though they hadn't seen each other in years, Dex could still read him well. "I’m working on it."
"If you’re serious, I won't stand in your way," Dex assured him, clapped his back and walked away.
"Welcome home, buddy," Corey replied, his eyes landing back on her.
Corey seized that moment to talk to Anna, but before he could reach her table, a woman appeared before him blocking his path.
"Hi, stranger," Grace Grayburg said.
"How are you, Grace?" he asked, his focus on Anna. He really didn't want or need this distraction but knew he had to deal with it.
She smiled up at him, batting her big brown eyes. "Really well, thanks. You look great, cowboy. Dance with me?"
Kurt held Megan close on the dance floor and his blood began to boil. "Sure." He reached for her hand and dragged her to the dance floor, right next to Kurt and Meg. He had no qualms about eavesdropping on their conversation. If Meg needed him, he'd be right there.
"Ever feel like going to New York?" Grace asked.
"For what?" The thought was nauseating. He couldn't even picture himself in a small city. He was a rancher, plain and simple. He knew his place, knew where he belonged and what mattered most to him. A city would just make him feel like a fish out of water, knowing full well that’s what Anna felt like for an entire decade she stayed away, pretending that life was great.
Grace giggled. "I could name a million and one things to do; theater, restaurants, shopping. Doesn't any of that interest you? I mean, this place doesn't seem to boast activity."
Corey looked down into her face. Grace was beautiful, there was no doubt about it, with her long blonde hair, soft hazel eyes, delicate features and slim figure, but the woman was clueless. She'd grown up rich and had the world at her disposal. Her summer vacations were spent abroad, Paris and Italy mostly. She could never understand the charm of a small town.
"Not particularly. If you gave this place half a chance you might come to like it just a little bit," he said.
Grace laughed and hugged him tight against her. "This place, never! But the men I certainly do." She gave him that familiar wink, making him wish he’d never slept with her a year ago. That was one mistake he could never take back. Just the thought of that night made him cringe.