Payton "Sin" Sinclair was an unapologetic people-watcher. As a sports consultant, working with some of the biggest and most recognizable athletes in sports and business, he had to be able to read the smallest nuances of others. That ability was just one of the unique attributes that set him apart from the competition and made him the go-to person when corporations wanted to align themselves with the top professional athletes in the country.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Sin was sipping a nice vintage wine and helping celebrate the recently announced engagement of C. J. Callahan, one of his two best friends, in the lavish East Hampton home of C. J.'s elated parents. Just because Sin was standing with C. J. and Alex Stewart, Sin's other best friend, and enjoying himself didn't mean he'd stopped noticing the people around him, especially those he cared deeply about.
Since he'd long ago developed the ability to listen with one ear while observing--it was critical at sports games, with so much going on--Sin listened to C. J. go on and on about what a great woman Cicely was and how lucky he was, while Sin watched Summer Radcliffe chat with a beaming Cicely St. John, C. J.'s fiancée, in the elegant, French-inspired great room.
The other woman with them was Dianne Harrington Stewart, the new wife of Alex. Dianne, a stunning long-legged former international fashion model, looked as happy as Cicely. On the other hand, Summer's usual smile and vibrancy were noticeably missing â€¦ at least to him.
He'd first noticed Summer's pensiveness when Dianne and Alex were dating and had an argument outside C. J.'s bar, Callahan's. Summer had completely stunned Sin by musing that, when Dianne and Alex settled their disagreement and kissed, they would later have makeup sex.
Sin couldn't get her startling comment out of his mind. It bothered him that he hadn't been able to tell if she'd been wistful or frustrated. Not once in their long friendship had he ever heard her mention sex. Truthfully, it stunned him a bit that she had. She wasn't the type of woman to take intimacy lightly or talk about it openly. Afterward, she'd ignored his attempts to find out if the comment had been offhand or something more, and had gone inside the bar to play pool with Dianne.
Sin traveled a great deal, but he hadn't heard about Summer being in a relationship. Her cousin C. J. was as protective of Summer as he was of his younger sister, Ariel. After Summer's parents' death, she had gone to live with her mother's only sibling, C. J.'s mother.
C. J. certainly would have mentioned it if Summer was serious about a man â€¦ if he had known. Lately C. J. had a full plate with Callahan Software, Callahan's Bar, and Cicely. It disturbed Sin that some idiot might have slipped past C. J. Worse, that the idiot didn't appreciate what a wonderful woman he had. Sin's eyes narrowed dangerously. If he found out that was the case, he would take care of it himself. No one, absolutely no one, took advantage of Summer while he breathed.
From the moment they met when she was just out of high school and dealing with the death of her parents, he'd felt protective of her. Despite her tragic loss, she'd worked her butt off to make her parents' dream of owning a successful upscale restaurant in Manhattan a reality. He admired her determination, loyalty, and tenacity.
She hadn't had it easy in life. Perhaps because he'd lost his father when he was eighteen, and she'd lost her parents at the same age, he felt a certain empathy and closeness with her. If at all possible, he was going to figure out what was bothering her and fix it. He didn't like seeing a forced smile on her beautiful face.
At least he knew her pensiveness wasn't due to the unfortunate incident that could have damaged the reputation of Radcliffe's. It still angered the hell out of him that a woman he'd rebuffed had tried to get back at him by spreading vicious rumors about Summer's restaurant. The spiteful socialite had seen him in the newspaper with his arm around Summer while she was catering at his suite at Yankee Stadium and drawn the wrong conclusion. Once he'd learned of the woman's lies, he'd confronted her at a high-profile social function and warned her to admit the lies or suffer the consequences.
She'd caved and became the one gossiped about. For a while Summer hadn't been too pleased with him, blaming the incident on him dating so many women. It had taken weeks for her to fully forgive him and for their easy camaraderie to return. He'd do anything for them never to be at odds again.
A broad hand clasped Sin on the shoulder, breaking into his thoughts. He looked up into C. J.'s handsome, clean-shaven face, which had always made him extremely popular with the women. "Thanks for being my best man."
With his dark eyes twinkling in his bearded face, Sin tipped his wineglass toward C. J. Both men were over six feet, but while C. J. had the broad shoulders of a linebacker, Sin was lean and muscular. "Thank me when I drag you away from the blowout bachelor party Alex and I are going to give you so you can be at your best for your wedding."
C. J.'s laughter was pure wickedness. "I might leave before then. I can't wait for Cicely to be completely mine. She gave up her dream for me."
The words were barely out of his mouth when his attention shifted to where the women were standing. Sin could tell by the rapt expression on C. J.'s face that he and Cicely had gotten lost in each other's gaze again, as they had off and on since their arrival two hours ago. For them, everyone else in the elegantly decorated room had ceased to exist.
"I think we lost him," Alex said with a burst of laughter. "Again."
Alex--a successful Manhattan lawyer with a Who's Who list of clients, as well as the people no one ever heard of but whose cases he took because he hated to see people screwed over--stood at a trim six foot two. Like Sin, Alex liked to dress well. Today he was comfortably dressed in chocolate slacks and a tan linen short-sleeved shirt. C. J., who favored jeans and T-shirts if he wasn't in corporate mode running the family-owned Callahan Software company, wore navy dress slacks and a white shirt in honor of the special occasion.
"I seem to recall you being the same way," Sin reminded Alex. When Dianne wasn't working at her and Alex's fashion design house, D&A of New York, or Alex wasn't at work, they were usually together. Placing his champagne flute on the tray of a nearby waiter, Sin caught C. J.'s arm. "Let's put him out of his misery."
"Let's." Alex caught C. J.'s other arm, and they led him to his waiting fiancée.
They were barely there when C. J. reached out and tenderly pulled Cicely into his arms and kissed her. Always fashionable, she wore a sunny yellow dress that bared smooth shoulders and stopped inches above a pair of great-looking knees. Elegant, sophisticated, and gorgeous--it was easy to see why Cicely was the fashion director at one of the most influential high-fashion magazines in the country.
"Happy?" C. J. asked.
"I've never been happier." Cicely leaned into the shelter of C. J.'s six-foot-four frame, her head against his broad chest.
"I plan to keep you that way." C. J. gave her another kiss.
Dianne, in a short sleeveless magenta dress that showed off her famous legs, walked into her husband's open arms. While the newly engaged snuggled and the newly married looked on approvingly and did the same thing, Sin watched Summer. There was a smile on her striking face that was serene and restful, but there was also a hint of sadness in her dark chocolate eyes. The sparkle of happiness and teasing warmth that had unknowingly gotten him through a couple of rough days in the last four months wasn't there.
Sin didn't think; he just stepped forward and curved his arm around Summer's slim waist. Her arm went around him without hesitation. They'd done this a thousand times, but he'd never felt as he did now--that there was a barrier between them he couldn't break through to comfort her. He didn't like the feeling. At the moment, there were too many things in his personal life that were out of his control. He didn't want to add another.
Sin felt the slight trembling of Summer's slim body, and pulled her just the tiniest bit closer as he glanced down at her.
He saw what she undoubtedly wanted everyone to see, a beautifully poised and stylish woman in a white sheath that accentuated her shapely, slim five-foot-five body to perfection. The coal-black wavy hair that usually hung free and reached to the middle of her back was in some kind of intricate twist on top of her head. The upsweep made her slender neck appear vulnerable, her heart-shaped face more alluring. Any man would be proud to call her his.
"Looks like we're the odd ones out," Sin said, trying to tease her into smiling for real.
"Yes," she said without looking at him.
Sin wondered if anyone else heard the tiniest tremble in her voice. He'd take her for a walk on the beach behind the estate as they'd done so many times after she'd lost her parents and in the years since, if he thought he'd get an answer. He wouldn't. Summer could be as tight-lipped as the clams she served in Radcliffe's, her five-star restaurant in Upper Manhattan.
"I don't supposed you've changed your minds about having the engagement party at Callahan's and letting your father and me book a more appropriate place or have it here," C. J.'s mother, Evelyn, asked hopefully.
"Nope." C. J. curved his free arm around his mother's tense shoulders. "My bar it is."
"I suppose Summer will cater," his mother said, lines forming in her otherwise smooth forehead. "I realize you, Cicely, and Summer don't need help with the menu, but you know I'm here if you need me."
Cicely and C. J. shared a resigned look, then Cicely said, "Mrs. Callahan, about the menu. We've decided to have hamburgers and onion rings. It's the first meal I ate at Callahan's."
Mrs. Callahan's eyes widened with horror. C. J. plucked a glass from a nearby waiter and handed it to her. She lifted the flute to her mouth without hesitation.
"The crew at the bar wanted to do it for us," C. J. explained as his mother took another sip. "We hope you and Dad will understand."
"Of course, son," his father said, an indulgent smile on his handsome face.
He and C. J.'s older brother, Paul, had suffered some serious health issues in the past, so C. J. was running Callahan Software and had a manager running his baby, Callahan's Bar. Thank goodness both C. J.'s father and his brother were doing well.
"It is your wedding," C. J.'s father continued.
Mrs. Callahan lowered the glass and frowned up at her husband. He smiled and took the almost empty glass from her. "Isn't that right, Evelyn?"
"Of course â€¦ It's just I wanted something a bit more lavish for you."
Sin knew the bride-to-be's parents usually threw the engagement party, but that wasn't likely to happen. When C. J.'s brother and his wife had their engagement announcement party, both sets of parents worked together to have the affair at the Waldorf for more than two hundred intimate family members and friends. It had been spectacular and a night to remember.
"We understand," C. J. said, smiling into his mother's troubled face. "That's why besides helping plan the wedding, we're giving you carte blanche on planning the rehearsal dinner."
Mrs. Callahan's eyes brightened with pleasure. "Really?"
"Please," Cicely said, placing her hand on her future mother-in-law's shoulder. "Regardless of what your son thinks, we both know that eleven months--"
"I wanted the wedding in six weeks," C. J. interrupted.
"--is not enough time to plan the type of formal wedding we're having," Cicely continued as if C. J. hadn't spoken. "With C. J.'s and my busy schedule, which frequently takes us both out of town, you planning the last time we'll see each other before we become husband and wife will mean so much to both of us."
Mrs. Callahan hugged Cicely and then C. J. "It will be fabulous and memorable. I promise."
"We know." C. J. smiled at his mother. "And I promise we won't get too rowdy and embarrass you and the family at the engagement party."
"You could never do that." C. J.'s father said. "We're proud of you, son, and proud of Cicely. Even if the women will now outnumber the men. We might never get to watch another sports game on television."
C. J. playfully winked at his father. "I'm turning Cicely into a sports fan. She'll be on our side."
Cicely's smile was all teeth. "I might enjoy sports, but I can think for myself. It would behoove you not to forget it."
C. J. threw back his head and let out a shout of laughter. "Is it any wonder I love you? You'll never let me get the big head."
"And you'll never let me forget how much I'm loved," Cicely said, her voice the barest whisper of sound.
"Always," C. J. said, his voice sure and strong.
C. J.'s mother sniffed, dabbed her eyes with a fresh tissue her husband handed her. Sin noticed that she'd gone through several. Clearly C. J.'s parents were enormously happy for him and Cicely, but her parents had declined the invitation from C. J.'s parents to the Sunday brunch, saying they didn't have "enough time" to make flight arrangements from Columbia, South Carolina. C. J. told Sin that her parents had said the same thing when Cicely called. Sin had offered to send his private jet for them, but they'd politely declined as well.
Family could be a blessing or a curse. No one knew that better than Sin.
Stepping away from Sin, Summer plucked a flute from a nearby waiter's tray. "I'd like to propose a toast to my cousin C. J., and his fiancée and my friend Cicely." Summer kept her flute raised as C. J.'s sister, his brother, and his wife joined them. "To C. J. and Cicely, wishing you every happiness on your journey of forever together. May each day bring your closer, make your love stronger."
"To C. J. and Cicely," people chorused as the distinct click of crystal flutes sounded.
Sin drank his wine, but he never took his gaze from Summer. Her hand was steady, the sparkle finally back in her incredible eyes. Whatever it was had passed. While he was glad, he intended to find out what had put the sadness in her lovely face.
* * *
Sin was watching her.
In the past, the knowledge that he was always there had given Summer a certain amount of comfort. At the moment, it made her want to squirm and hang her head. And, unlike in the past, he was the last person she could talk to about the reason. At least the party was over.
Bidding her family and Cicely good-bye, Summer climbed inside the limousine Sin had hired to drive him, Alex, Dianne, and her up to the Hamptons from New York. He had a vintage Aston Martin convertible two-seater, but he seldom drove it, preferring a car service.
Scooting over, Summer kept the practiced smile on her face. She'd considered leaving early, could even think of so many plausible excuses that she could have used. Sin would have insisted the driver take her back to town. But that would be the coward's way. She wouldn't add that to her shame.
What was the matter with her that she couldn't move past this â€¦ this feeling that kept circling her and coming back to nip her on the backside no matter how much she fought it?
How could this have happened to her? It made no sense, but that didn't change it or make it go away.
It had just snuck up on her when she hadn't been looking or expecting it. Sin was one of her best friends. He wasn't supposed to make her skin tingle, her body have the strong desire to lean closer, to brush her lips across his, to feel the softness of his beard against her cheek.
And no matter how hard she tried to stop the new feelings, they wouldn't go away. She suspected they had started when, a couple of months ago, she'd begun to catch glimpses of sadness in his expression, which before had always been filled with laughter and teasing. She hadn't asked about the reason because the occasions were so fleeting.
Or was it because she hadn't wanted to hear that it had been because of a woman?
Summer blew out a breath and waited for the rest to get inside the limo. Perhaps that was why she'd caught herself teasing him about the women in his life: She'd been hoping to gain information. She never did. Sin wasn't the type of man to talk about his women. But she had no doubt they were many. He and C. J. both had reputations for women going in and out of their lives like revolving doors, but once out, they were never invited back.
If that wasn't enough for her to deal with, the Li'l Green Monster had decided to perch on her shoulder.
She'd felt horrible that she hadn't been able to shake the feeling that men she thought were confirmed bachelors had somehow found the loves of their lives while she was still searching. That Summer now called the women they'd found friends somehow made the ache worse.
Alex and Dianne might have known each other since they were children, but C. J. and Cicely hadn't. Yet, somehow, they'd managed to find each other and fall in love.
Everyone around her seemed to be having a summer romance, heading to the altar, or having a baby while Summer remained alone. She wasn't lonely. She was too busy for that, but she wished there was one special person--someone attainable--to share the day with, to talk about nothing, or just to hold and watch the sun set.
Still, she had no right to feel the twinge of jealousy. She had so much to be thankful for. She was living her dream, running Radcliffe's. Hundreds of restaurants opened and promptly closed in New York while Radcliffe's thrived. Her envy made her feel like an ogre. She didn't like the feeling and planned to do something about it. Sin might be giving her some bad moments, but he had also helped her to see that not facing her problems head-on only made the situation worse.
Summer accepted that the only time she had become truly angry with Sin had been due to jealousy. At the time she hadn't thought so. It occurred the night a customer told Summer that an acquaintance claimed that, besides horrible food and slow service at Radcliffe's, she'd seen a rat on her way to the ladies' room. The socialite had warned all of her friends not to patronize the restaurant. Since the customer had never encountered a problem of any sort at the restaurant, she hadn't listened, but she'd wanted Summer to know about the claim.
It had taken all of Summer's professionalism and training not to show her anger, just thank the customer for her continued patronage and calmly refute the other woman's accusations. She'd personally seated the customer and promised to check back from time to time. Two hours later, the customer and her party had left with smiles and accolades for the food and service.
Sin had been dining that night with two of his clients. She'd told him as soon as the opportunity presented itself. To her surprise, he knew the socialite and the reason she had targeted Radcliffe's. Summer had never seen him so angry, but she had been just as angry that the woman had tried to ruin her restaurant to get back at Sin. Unjustly, Summer had blamed Sin for the woman's lies. It had taken her weeks to get over her annoyance at him, annoyance that was probably heightened by her growing attraction to him.
"That was fun," Dianne said as she slid in on the other side of the limo. Alex climbed in beside her. "Reminds me of our engagement party."
Alex kissed her on the cheek. "The second happiest day of my life. The happiest was when we were married."
Sin entered the car in time to hear Alex's comment. Thankfully, he left a good two feet between him and Summer. "Cut it out, you two."
Dianne grinned, leaned against her husband, and crossed her long legs. "One day you and Summer will feel the same way about someone."
"Not if I can help it," Sin said, then turned to Summer. "How about you?"
Summer's smile slipped a notch. Of all the men for her body to lust after, Sin was the absolute worst. Why settle for one peach when you had the orchard? "I'm too busy," she managed, then, "Oh, I forgot my purse,"
Sin placed his hand on hers when she started to get up. "I'll get it. Where did you leave it?"
She shouldn't be feeling the tingling sensation that radiated up her arm, the arousing heat. He'd touched her thousands of times over the years. "Not sure. I'll be back." Climbing out her side, she hurried up the walk and into the house.
Luckily, the two people she sought were in the first of the three foyers, wrapped in each other's arms kissing. The rest of the family was nowhere in sight. Apparently they understood that C. J. and Cicely wanted to be alone. Summer picked up her envelope purse from behind the vase, exactly where she had intentionally left it. "Excuse me."
C. J. slowly lifted his head. Cicely straightened. "I thought you were gone," he said.
"I came back for this." Summer lifted the purse and took a deep breath. "You guys know I love you, right?"
Cicely immediately pulled free of C. J. and came to her, placing her slim hand on her shoulder. "Of course. What is it?"
C. J. frowned. "You all right?"
Summer nodded. "I don't know how to say it except straight out. A couple of times this afternoon, just for a moment or two, I was jealous. Looking at Alex and Dianne, and now you two bursting with happiness, I'm beginning to feel as if my time will never come."
They both hugged her at once. Cicely spoke first. "I've had more than a few jealous moments in my life. It was difficult enough admitting it to myself. I never had the courage to admit it to anyone else."
"I was jealous of Sin because he and Cicely got along so well and I couldn't think of a thing to say to her," C. J. admitted. "I'd rather eat brussels sprouts than admit it to him."
Summer might not be lucky in love, but she was with friends and relatives. Not only had C. J. and Cicely accepted her apology, they'd commended her. "I'm glad you found each other," Summer said, the tension gone from her body.
Cicely leaned against C. J. "I wasn't expecting C. J. I had my life all planned."
"Speaking of plans, don't forget you asked to meet me and Dianne a week from Wednesday night at six at Radcliffe's," Summer reminded her, sure she was going to be asked to be a bridesmaid for the tenth time.
"Thank you. I know you're busy. I didn't want to take you away from the restaurant so soon after today or I would have invited you to my place," Cicely explained.
Summer smiled to reassure her. "I'm looking forward to girl talk and no testosterone."
"I'm meeting her there." C. J. grinned.
"Why am I not surprised." Summer smiled, glad it was real.
"Your day is coming, Summer," Cicely said. "You're beautiful, successful, and intelligent. Love will find you when you least expect it."
"The guy had better be for real, or he and I are going to have a little talk." This time C. J. wasn't smiling.
Summer thought of Sin, fallen-angel handsome and completely off limits. "You don't have to worry. Carry on. See you next Wednesday." Turning, she hurried back outside and saw Sin waiting beside the limo. His dark eyes were narrowed with speculation as he studied her face.
"You aren't the forgetful type." Sin opened the door when she neared.
"C. J.'s never been engaged before." Summer quickly got inside and scooted to the far corner, not daring to look at Sin. She hadn't fooled him, but at least today she wouldn't have to talk about it. He'd bide his time.
Sin, Alex often said, had the tenacity of a pit bull. She might have been able to fool everyone, but not Sin. He'd always seemed to know when something was bothering her.
Since the death of her parents, he'd been there for her. And when C. J. took off to traipse around the world a year after graduating from college, Sin had become even more important in her life. With him, she could be as silent or as angry as she wanted as she worked though the grief of losing her parents so abruptly. They were best buds.
No matter how she might wish otherwise, they could never be anything more.
Copyright Â© 2012 by Francis Ray