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This was the most important day for two of the most important people in her life—and she would make it perfect.
Starr Taylor watched the florist crew decorate Ballroom A of the Lucky Lane Casino and Hotel. The arrangements were all white…exactly what her future sister-in-law had ordered. Between the florist and the caterer and the seamstress, Starr had accompanied Grace to so many planning meetings, seen so many shades of purple and blue and periwinkle, they’d all blurred together. But her soon-to-be sister-in-law was right. The white stood out and made a very elegant statement.
Watching the florist continue his work, she mentally went through her to-do list: she’d confirmed the menu and the table linen set-up with the hotel catering staff last week and again yesterday; same with the cake, and the head caterer said he’d text her when it arrived so that Starr could come double-check it. Band was confirmed; florist was here. Check, check. She had things under control, and it wasn’t even as hard as she thought it would be, not that it mattered. She’d scale Mount Everest for Noah and Grace. Growing up, they’d both always had her back. Now that she was grown, that hadn’t changed.
When Grace had asked her to be maid of honor, Starr’s heart soared. Since everyone knew everyone in Washoe City, their little hometown twenty miles southeast of Reno, Starr had assumed she’d be one of several—maybe even a dozen—bridesmaids. Even more surprising, and flattering, was when Grace and Noah explained that they wanted to keep the wedding party small—as in, just a maid of honor and a best man small.
Perhaps Starr was the obvious choice for maid of honor because she was the only sister on either side. Less obvious was the best man, since Noah had several buddies who’d qualify. But Grace had, instead, lobbied for the closest thing to family she had—which was how Spencer Kensington, Grace’s friend from the years she’d spent in New York, had snagged the honor.
Starr’s phone rang. She checked the screen, then smiled as she answered. “Yes, everything looks great.”
“Are you sure?” Grace asked. “Are the white flowers too stark?”
“Not at all.” Ivory roses and white hydrangeas sat in tall, slim vases in the center of each round table, offsetting the periwinkle tablecloths and the deep purple bows on the chairs. “Everything looks perfect.”
And everything would be perfect today—as soon as the best man arrived. “Have you heard from Spencer yet?”
“No, but I’m guessing that means he found a flight.”
Because it would’ve been way too hard for him to actually text Grace and let her know, as opposed to worrying the bride-to-be all day. Men were idiots, even the good ones.
For months, Starr had heard all about Spencer’s charming personality, his successful law career, and what an overall great guy Grace’s first and best New York friend was. Apparently, the only thing Spencer wasn’t good at was being on time. And texting. Not that getting bumped from an overbooked flight was his fault. Starr wouldn’t give him too much of a hard time about it, just as long as he arrived before the ceremony and was at least half as hunky as Grace promised.
“Listen,” Grace said. “I’m almost done at the salon, then I’m coming down. I want to see the room for myself.”
Starr sighed. There was no point in arguing with Grace; it was her day. “Fine.” Starr’s phone beeped in the background. “Hey, listen. Someone’s calling on the other line. I’ll meet you in Ballroom A in fifteen minutes.” She walked out of the ballroom and checked the screen, then clicked over to answer the incoming call. “Hey, bro. What’s up?” Though she already knew. He’d called her at least once a day for the past month, checking on things. Starr knew it wasn’t because Noah didn’t trust her; he just wanted everything perfect for his bride.
“I just checked into my hotel room and wanted to make sure everything is okay. Do you need help? Are the caterers here yet and the florist? Is everything like Grace wanted?”
Starr smiled into the phone, relishing Noah’s devotion and the sweetness of his concern for his bride. But she was still a little sister…
“Everything’s perfect. I mean, the black roses definitely make a statement like Grace wanted.” She held her breath, waiting for the explosion.
“Black? They’re not supposed to be black. Does Grace know? No, don’t tell her. I’m coming down—”
“Wait—don’t hang up.” She laughed. “I’m kidding.”
“What, you mean the flowers are fine?”
“Yes, the flowers are fine, the room is gorgeous. Everything is exactly how Grace wanted it. I made sure of it.”
He took a deep breath and let it out. “I know you did. I probably deserved that, didn’t I?” She could hear the smile in his voice. She smiled back.
“Absolutely. Now go get ready and leave the fretting over the details to me.”
“Love you, sis.”
“I know.” Smiling, she clicked off her phone and checked the time. She had over ten minutes to mull around the Lucky Lane Casino and Hotel before meeting Grace, since it would take her at least that long just to get back to her room. Starr wasn’t a gambler, so she beelined for the bar.
She slid onto one of the bar stools and realized it was the first time she’d sat down all morning. Closing her eyes, she stretched her neck to the right, and then to the left, and felt the tension slip from the base of her neck and down her shoulders. She was good at fretting too much about the details. She chuckled to herself. Seriously, of all the things she was no longer good at, why had she retained that gem of a talent?
Everything will be fine, perfect.
Today was a happy occasion. Her big brother was marrying the love of his life, the woman he’d loved then lost then found again. Starr had recently learned just how rare finding that special someone was. As if on cue, her phone vibrated and a text from her ex-boyfriend, Robert, popped up on the screen. What could he possibly want today? He knew about the wedding and how busy she’d be.
Back on your skis, babe? Time to step up. Do it for me—and MM. Need those promo clips. Call me.
He could be such a jerk. As if it were that simple: just get back on those skis—like she hadn’t tried. And his arrogance… Babe? As if she’d do anything for him. It’d been two months since the accident, and her gut still twisted remembering the look of disgust on his face—disgust at her weakness, her inability to “snap out of it and appreciate everything he’d done for her.”
Everything he’d done. What an oxymoron.
She wished she could separate her design work for MogulMania from Robert, though that wasn’t bound to happen given its founder and CEO, Jim Brown, was Robert’s younger brother. For Starr, improving the company’s high-performance gear and expanding its lines would be a professional success as much as her skiing. She loved working with Jim; she loved everything about the company—except its chief sales officer. Though Robert might be tolerable—in his sales role, not as a human—if he’d just stop pushing her to do those promo clips. She wasn’t ready. Not yet.
She shoved her phone in her back pocket and motioned to the bartender. “A soda water, please. Make it a double.”
The bartender slid a tall glass of bubbly water with a lime wedge down the bar. She took a long sip and watched a giddy bride scoot across the casino floor and through the slot banks, trailed by just-as-giddy bridesmaids.
From the additional ballroom setups she’d seen this morning, there were three other wedding receptions tonight. Thankfully, Starr’s duties as maid of honor wouldn’t include corralling a gaggle of giggling girls all night.
The guy standing next to her placed his empty glass on the wooden bar with a thunk. Starr couldn’t help but trace her eyes from the fingers gripping that glass up the muscular arm to a very tall, very muscular back.
“I didn’t just get up and leave. I told you I had an early appointment,” the guy practically hissed into his phone. “And I never said I was free tonight.” His back was to Starr, so she couldn’t see his face. But his deliberate tone and his very tense—and very broad—shoulders showcased his controlled but obviously bubbling anger.
He motioned curtly to the bartender, who refilled his glass with Jack and Coke. “No, Kate, last night doesn’t change anything. You had fun; I had fun. That was the deal—no strings. You knew that before you invited me to stay over.” The last words came out short, well-rehearsed, and without an ounce of emotion.
From the sound of it, Kate had picked a real winner. Not that it was any of Starr’s business.
The guy shifted toward the bar, giving Starr a side shot of his features. It was an impressive view, one that no doubt reeled in a lot of women. Light brown locks skimmed brows in that carefully cultivated mussed-hair look. High cheekbones crested a strong and unshaven jawline, though not enough stubble to cover the lines of irritation around his lips. His full, totally kissable lips.
“Let’s talk about this when I get back.” The guy paused, then sighed and continued listening. Apparently, Kate had no intention of waiting to talk about it. When the guy finally spoke again, there was a hard finality in his voice. “Fine, then let’s just end this now. Goodbye, Kate.” He hung up.
Ouch. Why did jerks seem to have the monopoly on kissable lips?
He downed his drink before glancing at Starr and then her glass. “Need another? Me, too.” He motioned to the bartender for a refill. “And…” He nodded toward Starr. “Vodka tonic?”
She didn’t need some player downing her day. “Soda water, but I’m fine.” Starr pursed her lips over her straw and took a small swig.
He smiled one of those swoony smiles that he’d probably perfected over the years. The dimple on his right cheek made it that much deadlier. “Come here often?”
Starr almost spat out her soda, taken off guard by the utter lack of originality. Plus, was he so self-absorbed that he didn’t realize she—and probably every other person sitting around the oval casino bar—had heard him be a jerkwad to a woman named Kate not two minutes ago? Or did he just not care?
He waited for her answer. His light blue, almost gray, eyes glinted with mischief.
The latter, definitely the latter.
Starr nodded toward his now-refilled glass. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?” She didn’t try to keep the judgment out of her voice.
The corner of his lip twitched, like he was amused. “It’s a matter of perspective when weddings are involved, especially family weddings.” He winked. Her stomach tightened with annoyance. He raised his glass and took a long drink. His movements were smooth. Very smooth.
She watched him swallow, and her throat suddenly craved something a bit stronger than bubble water. Too bad Starr had a job to do as maid of honor and couldn’t afford to drown her heartaches in Chardonnay. “I suppose there’s some truth to that. I’m here for a family wedding, too,” she found herself admitting, though she had no clue why.
He lifted his glass. “To family weddings.”
Starr reluctantly raised her soda and clinked glasses. His eyes seemed mostly gray now. Maybe it depended on the light or the color shirt he wore. He held her in his gaze, like he was sizing her up. Her stomach squeezed again, and she broke his stare, forcing herself to look anywhere but his face. She focused in on the threads of his shirt. The tailored, button-down, white Oxford didn’t give his eyes much to work with, though it emphasized his arm and chest muscles well enough, and his narrow waist. Not a bad package, really.
Was she seriously staring at his body? She quickly glanced back up. He was grinning, like he’d been reading her mind. Her face heated. His smile grew. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
His physique? “What?”
“How people are so hell-bent on ruining their lives with this marriage business.”
Starr watched him glance down to her left hand, the one holding the glass. Was he seriously checking for a ring? “Are you really here to attend a family wedding?”
“Not just attend.” He took another drink.
His words sank in. “You mean you’re in the wedding?”
He let out a deep, sexy bark of a laugh. “I was shocked, too.” Though his tone was pure pride, now. Apparently, he’d gotten used to the idea just fine.
The poor groom. “If you’re serious, you need an attitude adjustment, pronto. Otherwise you’re going to bring your groom bad karma.”
Mock indignation crossed his face. “My karma is not bad.”
“And getting married doesn’t ruin people.” She squirmed in her seat. “It’s beautiful—two people finding each other, committing to each other, forever.”
He rolled his gorgeous eyes. “Spare me the lecture, Ms. Hallmark Card.” His lips twisted when she huffed at the name. Then he watched her again, eyes narrowing. “Come on, seriously, no one should be stuck with one person for the rest of their life. What fun is that?”
His grin said he was just baiting her—and kidding, but his tone was harsh around the edges.
“Stuck with?” Starr exaggerated each word.
He shrugged unapologetically, still grinning.
Stuck with. The words dug into her chest. Robert had used that phrase the day he’d left. He couldn’t be stuck with someone who’d gone from hurling down mountains to being afraid of her own shadow.
Angry pain circled inside her, looking for an exit.
Starr grabbed her purse and dug for her wallet. This guy was an idiot, and she couldn’t get away fast enough. “As enlightening as this conversation has been, I have to meet a friend.”
Mr. Bad Karma’s eyes widened. He probably wasn’t used to being blown off. The thought that she might be the first, or at least one of the few, gave her a little satisfaction.
“Listen.” His face softened and his tone turned silky smooth. “I didn’t mean to rile you up. How about we meet back here after our weddings to continue this enlightening conversation? We can exchange notes on how things went.” The glimmer in his eyes told her he wanted to exchange more than notes.
“What?” He had to be pushing her buttons now. She wouldn’t take the bait. She was done letting guys push her buttons or dictate anything about her life. She forced her best plastic smile. “That’s so sweet, but no thanks.” She pulled out her wallet.
He waved it away. “I got this. And here.” He placed a business card on the bar and slid it over. “In case you change your mind.”
Starr rolled her eyes and dropped several dollar bills on the bar. Whatever poor gal he was partnered with tonight was in for quite an evening.
“Good luck tonight, uh…” She leaned in to read his name on the card. And froze.
No, the universe isn’t this cruel.
“Starr!” Starr turned toward the familiar voice just as Grace reached her stool. “I thought we were meeting in the ballroom. Come on, let’s go see my flowers.”
Grace glanced past Starr, and her face lit up. “Oh, my goodness!” She threw herself at Mr. Bad Karma.
It couldn’t be… What were the odds?
“Spence. You made it!” Grace laughed as he twirled her around. “Why didn’t you tell me you were here?” the blushing bride-to-be asked when he finally set her down.
“I’ve barely checked in and dropped my stuff in my room. The air in Reno is so damn dry, I needed a drink.”
Grace laughed. Like what he’d said was funny or something. How could this be Grace’s so-highly-thought-of, you’re-going-to-love-him friend? She had to warn her brother. And what would she say? No, she’d just have to deal with it and make sure Spencer didn’t mess anything up.
Grace stepped back. “So, you two have met?” She looked from Spencer to Starr and back again.
“Yes.” Spencer bit down a grin.
“No,” Starr replied at the same time, crossing her arms tightly across her chest.
Grace laughed. “Well, which is it?”
“We were just introducing ourselves.” Spencer winked at Starr. She gave him her best glare.
“Well, let me make it official.” Grace said, too far into bridal bliss to feel the thick-as-mud tension in the air. She snaked one arm through Starr’s. “Honey, this is my best friend from New York, Spencer. And Spencer”—she wrapped her other arm around one of his—“this is my soon-to-be sister-in-law, Starr.”
Grace squeezed the arms she had ensnared and beamed. “Two of my most favorite people in the world. I just know you’re going to love each other.”