Maxwell Ames looked across the room at Dominique Deveraux and felt himself physically flinch at a memory-driven whip of embarrassment.
An eighteen-year-old Dominique had arrived at college with an ice queen reputation and a pair of legs that had fueled half the hot dreams on campus. But it hadn’t been the legs that had gotten to Max—it had been her lips. Max had taken one look at Dominique and decided he wanted, no, needed to know what those lips felt like on his body. And he’d declared, drunkenly, to an entire frat party that he would melt the ice queen. He hadn’t doubted for a minute that he could do it. He was a senior. He was a nationally ranked college wrestler—his body showed his effort—and he rarely had to do more than lift a finger to get panties to hit his floor. Perhaps it had been the liquor that had made him stupid, but whatever the reason, he’d simply walked over and told her what he wanted her to do to him. He recognized his mistake the second he heard the words come out of his mouth. Her horrified expression only confirmed how badly he’d misjudged. Then she’d gone from shocked to furious, but instead of slapping him, she’d pulled herself up to her full height, looked him in the eye, and declared loud enough for the rest of the room to hear: I have better uses for my mouth. And then he’d stood there and let her pour the entire contents of her red solo cup down his front.
And now, six years later, his father had dragged Max into the Galbraith Tennis and Social Club and directly into revisiting one of his top ten stupidest moments.
“Dad,” said Max, turning to look at his father.
“She donates two-k a year,” said his father, staring across the party hall at a woman in beige everything. “She’s worth like eighty million. Would it kill her to scrounge a little more change out of the couch cushions for needy kids?”
“Dad,” said Max again.
“Yeah, what?” asked Grant Ames, finally making eye contact.
“You didn’t say this was a Deveraux party.”
“Uh, yeah?” said Grant, looking away again—probably scanning the crowd for more targets. “Oh, that’s right. You went to school with them, didn’t you? Dominique and Aiden? They’re probably around somewhere if you want to dig them up. Eleanor usually commands appearances from the family at these little shindigs.”
Eleanor Deveraux was running for congress. Again. Or still. Whichever. These little shindigs were fundraising events masquerading as cocktail parties. Max didn’t know why she bothered. Her nearest competitor was a bitter Republican that sounded crazy even to his constituents. But his father, always on the hustle, spared no thought about why the party existed—he simply enjoyed that it did. And of course, it hadn’t occurred to Grant to mention to Max who was hosting.
After the frat party incident, Max hadn’t even had the courage to apologize to Dominique. His only consolation was that during all their other encounters she had treated everyone in the room with an equal amount of cool disdain—he hadn’t been singled out. Generally, she hadn’t even acknowledged him, let alone what had happened.
“You said we wouldn’t be here long,” said Max, looking back at Dominique. Her golden blonde hair was longer than the last time he’d seen her, laying in soft waves against her pale skin. Those lips that had made him lose his judgement were painted a wine red that emphasized their size. Her conservative pencil skirt and long-sleeve, high-necked blouse should have taken her allure down a notch, but as far as he could see, she was even more gorgeous than she had been in college.
Max had been with plenty of beautiful women—hell, his last girlfriend had been a model-slash-actress. Dominique shouldn’t have been able to make the impact she did. But here it was, six years later, and Dominique still hit him like a Mack truck to the libido even when the only skin he could see was her knees.
“We won’t be long, I promise,” said Grant, scoping the room, oblivious to the direction of Max’s gaze. “I need to make the rounds. Say hi to a few people and then we’ll be off for burgers.”
It was a lie. Max didn’t know why he’d thought his first visit to his father’s in over a year might warrant special treatment—particularly, since his entire childhood held evidence to the contrary. He wondered if there was a point in adulthood when a parent’s failings stopped mattering so much.
Dominique nodded along as the guy next to her talked. He was a lean, good looking twenty-something with black hair and a designer suit. Max watched in surprise as Dominique burst out laughing at whatever he’d said—Dominique had never been very demonstrative in public. Her laugh made the guy grin, but, still talking, he leaned over and snagged something off her plate. Dominique smacked at his hand, but the man leaned further away, dragging the morsel with him, and popped it into his mouth. She flicked at his ear, miming patently faked annoyance. In equally mock penance, her companion lowered his head and held out his plate and Dominique made a show of selecting something in recompense. The only person he could remember bringing out that sparkle of playfulness in her had been her brother, Aiden. It seemed that the ice queen had been melted after all.
Still chewing his stolen goods, Dominique’s companion looked up and scanned the room, homing in on the location of the other Deveraux family members. Max followed the man’s gaze to the matriarch, Dominque’s stately and poised grandmother, Eleanor, holding court by the bar at the far end of the long, narrow room. Then he shifted to Dominique’s red-headed investment manager cousin, Evan, amongst a bevy of Wall Street bros in the middle of the room. And last, Dominique’s brother, the equally blonde Aiden, hovering by the buffet table in front of a wide expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows.
All of the Deveraux children had lived with their grandmother after a plane crash had left them orphans sometime during their early teens. Max remembered thinking how nice that had sounded when his father had missed every single one of his college meets and was late for graduation. He supposed it hadn’t really been pleasant for the Deveraux cousins, but at least they’d had each other and Eleanor.
Max realized, too late, that the scan was continuing on to the new arrivals in the room, which, in this case, were Max and his father. Max found himself awkwardly making eye contact with the guy and knew that he’d been busted staring at Dominique. He broke eye contact and turned to follow his father.
Max pretended to be absorbed in his father’s conversation with a white-collared, black-shirted Jesuit priest. After a few minutes of discussing the endowments and scholarship funds, Max’s eyes glazed over and he looked around the room, desperate for anything to take his mind off his desire to blurt out a question about pedophiles. How did anyone take priests seriously anymore? He found himself fidgeting with one of the tiny decorative pumpkins placed on the bar-height tables and biting his tongue.
With Halloween and the election around the corner, the party was decorated in a patriotic harvest theme. The red leaves and orange gourds seemed attractive, but Max thought the hay bales by the buffet table seemed a bit too folksy for the Deveraux, not to mention the tennis club locale. He suspected that the entire reason for their existence was to support the stars-and-stripes-bandana-wearing scarecrow. After all, a politician couldn’t fundraise without at least a nod to the flag.
He snuck another glance at Dominique and realized that her boyfriend was scanning again. Same pattern—Deverauxs first, then new arrivals, then the rest of the room. There was something professional in the appraising stare, and Max felt the weight of it resting thoughtfully on him. Max checked his watch and angled so he could watch Dominique and her guy. She chatted in an easy, unaffected way, but at a minute fifteen, her boyfriend made another scan. Then again a minute later. It was definitely a more than a casual glance. Max tried to get a better look at the guy. What was he? Boyfriend, bodyguard, security? The suit was expensive, but he was drinking water as he watched the crowd.
Dominique reached out and put her hand on his arm, tugging impatiently, demanding attention. The guy laughed and complied, turning toward her with an affectionate smile. He was definitely not the hired help. For some reason, that burned. In the intervening six years, Max had put Dominique out of his head. Mostly. Sort of. Max would never have admitted it out loud, ever, under any circumstances, including a court of law, but Dominique had always been one of his go-to fantasies. He was perfectly sure that she hadn’t thought about him once in that time. So why did he feel jealous of this guy?
Max turned back to his father and tried to focus on the conversation. Dominique was none of his business. What did he care if she dated someone with an over-active sense of security? None. Of. His. Business.
Grant moved on and Max followed him dutifully, the same way he had when he was twelve. He was a prop to his father’s socializing. He met a dozen people and forgot their names instantly. Finally, he turned away from a blocky woman in a Chanel jacket and found his father about to introduce him to Dominique and her date.
“Max, I don’t know if you’ve met Jackson, but you went to school with Dominique. Max is staying with me for a few weeks while—Hey, Frank! Frank! Be right back. I’ve been trying to get five minutes with that guy all month.” Grant buzzed off and left Max staring uncomfortably at Dominique and her date.
“So, Max,” said Jackson, his expression derisive, “do you need Dominique to get you another drink? We could send the catering staff out for some beer and solo cups.”
Max glanced at Dominique, who was visibly restraining a laugh.
“No,” said Max, trying not to feel like an ass—any hope that she’d forgotten him or the incident slipping away. “I think once was enough.” Did she really have to tell everyone?
Dominique actually did giggle this time and her boyfriend looked amused by her laughter, but his attention was pulled away.
“Nika, what is Aiden doing?” asked Jackson, looking past Max.
“Um,” she squinted toward the door, “exactly what you told him not to do?”
Jackson sighed. “OK, I’ll be right back.” He ducked around Dominique, his jacket swinging open. For a second, Max clearly saw the strap on a shoulder holster and outline of a gun. Max looked back at Dominque, but she seemed not to notice. She was watching her brother attempting to sneak out of the room and biting into her bottom lip with a frown. She transferred her gaze back to Max and smiled, but it was the same old cold smile.
“I’m glad you can laugh about that uh… incident,” he said, deciding to man up and do what he should have done six years ago. He glanced down at the floor and realized that she was only conservative from the ankle up. Her heels were stacked, strapped, and had a black satin bow at each ankle that begged to be untied. “I really apologize for that,” he said, tearing his eyes off her feet.
She looked startled and suspicious.
“I was a total asshole,” he added.
“Um.” She frowned, then smiled—a real smile this time. “Well, apology accepted.”
It was his turn to feel surprised. He hadn’t expected her to simply believe that he was sorry. “And I wouldn’t say total. I’d go ninety-eight percent.”
“Well, I’ll give you a one percent discount for being young, dumb and in college.”
“Yes,” he agreed fervently.
“And another one percent for standing there for the entire cup of beer.”
“I knew I’d earned it,” he said. She glanced over his shoulder, still following the action across the room.
“Your boyfriend’s a little intense,” he said.
“My boyfriend? You mean Jacks?”
He wanted to comment on the intimate shortening of their names. Jacks seemed weird, but he liked Nika. On the other hand, it really was none of his damn business.
“Does he always carry a gun?” he asked instead.
“Oh, you know…” she said, trailing off and not answering the question. Max decided that meant the answer was yes. “Grandma has gotten some… Well, they’re death threats, really, in the last few weeks. She’s chairing that Senate Committee Hearing on Absolex. And nothing brings out the crazies like Big Pharma.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought that was about government fraud?”
“Absolex falsified research and then sold their drug Zanilex to the VA as a solution to treat complex PTSD. Suicide rates sky-rocketed. Turns out that, in fact, it makes the symptoms of PTSD worse, particularly the paranoia and depression. Or at least that’s what Grandma intends to prove. She’s going to haul the CEO out on the carpet next week. But ever since the hearings started, she’s been getting hate mail.”
Max looked around the party. “Where is the Secret Service?”
“None of the threats have been active. It’s all kind of vague. And she’s not a party leader or anything. So, no Secret Service.”
Max frowned. If he had been Eleanor, he would have been putting his foot down and demanding an investigation. He also wouldn’t be hosting a party and looking as relaxed as she did.
“Besides,” continued Dominique, “we have Jackson. Although, even he couldn’t get her to cancel this stupid party. She claimed that we all just didn’t want to go.”
He raised an eyebrow and she looked guilty.
“That may be partially true. Anyway, Jacks said if she was going to insist on having the party, we should at least be smart about it. He gave us all rules and hired additional security. Of course, Aiden is not following the rules. I would accuse him of being willful, but it’s more likely that he’s just not taking the threats seriously.”
Max nodded. His memory of Dominique’s older brother was a sunny personality to whom nothing serious was allowed to adhere and who never seemed to get mad about anything.
“I expect Jacks will tell him about a secret stash of bourbon under the bar and rope him back in.”
“Sounds like Jackson knows what he’s doing then,” said Max, turning to look at the two men who were now making their way back toward them. Aiden stopped to adjust the bandana on the scarecrow with a disapproving shake of his head.
“He does,” agreed Dominique, looking up at him with a flash of a smile, “but Jackson isn’t—”
Whatever she had been about to say was drowned out by the sound of a car engine and then a thunderous crash as a car exploded through the windows, slammed through the buffet table, plowed across the room, and buried its nose in the far wall.
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