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Excerpt: Whisper Privileges

Whisper Privileges (The Gables Series) by Dianne Venetta

Book Three: The Gables Series

Chapter One

Arms crossed, Clay Rutledge watched the six-foot brunette swing her arm back and in one fluid step forward, punch the volleyball clear to the far corner of her opponent’s court.  A mammoth blonde dove for the shot but missed, the ball kicking sand in her face as it passed.  The whistle blew and the crowded beach of spectators erupted in cheer.

“Way to go, Syd!”

Sydney Flores slapped hands high in the air with her teammate.  Clay couldn’t make out what she said.  But then again, a smile curved his lips, there was no need.  He was content to simply watch her.  Even the blistering humidity of midday in Miami couldn’t keep him from this scenery; the woman was power in motion.  Not only could she drill the ball with a ferocity that looked like it would hurt if you were hit, but her legs were incredible.  Long and heavily muscled they were topped by the fullest rear he’d ever seen on an athlete.  Round and curvy, it was almost unnatural on her athletic build.  But sexy, garnering his full attention as it peeked out from the bottom of her uniform.  He chuckled.  The black bottoms and hot pink sports bra were more bathing suit than uniform.  And completely hot.  He’d always known he was an “ass man” as they called it, but damn…

Hers was as fine as they came.  “She’s really good,” he said, moist heat gathering beneath his Polo shirt as the sun baked his head and shoulders.

Beside him, Charlie Williston snickered.  “Told you you wouldn’t be disappointed.”  He took a swig of beer from his red Solo cup and continued to stare at the women.

“Most definitely not.”  Clay found her to be beautiful, from her heavy brown ponytail catching the sun as she played, to the quiet sway of her shoulders when she walked across the sand—as though each step were made with solid determination.  And she was intense.  Clay couldn’t see her eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but he imagined them blazing with the same fire of competition he saw etched in the hard lines of her expression.  He turned to Charlie with sudden curiosity.  This woman was his coworker at JL Conventions, one of the biggest event planning groups in Miami and picking up women at the office seemed a natural extension for his pal.  “Why aren’t you two dating again?”

He grunted.  “Sydney won’t give me the time of day.”

“This, coming from the smoothest operator I know?”  Clay suppressed a chuckle.  “Why not?”

“She may be hot on the outside, but she’s the Ice Maiden on the inside.”

Clay returned his gaze to Sydney, whose brown skin glistened from exertion.  “I find that hard to believe.”

“Trust me.  If you can’t do something to further her career, she ain’t interested.”

“Sounds to me like someone’s sore at not scoring,” Clay remarked.  From his vantage point, the woman was totally hot.  Catching the ball thrown in from an official, she strolled back to the serve line with a strut of confidence that appealed to him.

“More like I don’t have anything to offer her career,” Charlie hit back.

“What are you saying?  She only dates men who give her convention business?” he asked watching her wind back for the serve, but before hitting the ball, she checked with her teammate’s backside first.  Currently bent over, the slender Latin woman stood center court with her hands pressed to her rear.  Where Sydney was full on the bottom, this one busted out of her suit from the top.  She gestured something to Sydney with her fingers.

“Or a promotion.”

Clay turned to face Charlie and let his arms fall slack.  “She’s dating your boss?”

“Used to, but not anymore.”

“Hmm…”  Clay’s pleasure faded.  He turned from Charlie and back to her.  Settling hands to his hips, he pondered the revelation.  He had no use for manipulative women, though it didn’t prevent him from admiring the view.  At the whistle, she arched back, her wall of abs contracting as she hammered the ball over the net.  The hulky blonde on the opposing team was quick and crushed the ball back.  Sydney fell to her knees and expelled an audible grunt as she returned the ball into the net.  Clay saw her mouth the words damn it as she smacked the sand, then quickly jumped to her feet, ignoring the assist offered by her teammate.  No time for downtime in this match, he mused, his attention glued to the sand clinging to her perspiration-slicked legs.  She was going back in.

Today was the amateur championship and according to Charlie, a pretty big deal around these parts.  The place was jamming.  Sponsor tents lined the courts creating a perimeter; banners draped the width of them advertising everything from beer and local restaurants to cable television and the resident Chamber of Commerce.  Beer flowed like water from makeshift taps while bottled-water was freely dispensed to the athletes from oversized coolers.  Born and raised in South Carolina, he’d been to Myrtle Beach but never witnessed a beach volleyball game.  This was a sport he’d remember.

Charlie’s coworker brushed the sand from her body and looked up.  Her gaze landed squarely on him.  Pleasure hummed across his senses.  Hello, sweetheart…  She cast him a definitive scowl and Clay pulled back.  Maybe Charlie was right.  This one isn’t friendly.  He watched her jog around the net, taking in the length of her—the formidable length of her—and a smile formed on his lips.  Maybe she just needed some warming-up from the right heat source.


“Shake it off, Syd,” Alana said.  “Shake it off.”

Sydney grumbled under her breath.  Yeah, she knew the drill.  But that blonde beast was beginning to piss her off.  Nailing the opposing team for “sport” wasn’t the goal here.  But catching sight of Charlie only added to her misery.  Despite the fact she’d repeatedly told him “no and in no uncertain terms,” the man insisted on attending her games.  She knew there was only one reason for him to be here.  The gawk factor.  In her opinion, it was the single “undesirable” element to the game.  But league dictated that both men and women wear bathing suits for competition games, with the option of a hat and the occasional jersey.  She’d rather wear shorts and tanks, but they weren’t allowed.  Period.  Why not?

Skimpy attire lured in the spectators and spectators paid the bills.

Charlie waved to her as she and Alana jogged to the opposite side of the net.  It was then she noticed the fellow standing next to him.  Tall, wiry build, sandy blond hair tousled by the ocean breeze, his skin browned from the sun, he looked as if he’d been plucked straight off the shores of Malibu.  Normally a solo viewer, she was surprised to see Charlie here with anyone let alone a good-looking someone.

“Great job, Sydney!” Charlie called out as she passed.  He winked and Sydney returned a glare from behind her dark-tinted shades.  Fool probably thought she was looking at him—which she wasn’t.  No way in hell!  Charlie was one of the few people in this world she actually detested.  An ego the size of China, the man couldn’t see past himself and his own desire.

Sydney took her position in the middle of the court and suddenly felt self-conscious.  Despite an athletic build, she was cursed by an over-sized rear—one she couldn’t shrink no matter how hard she worked and it stuck out from beneath her suit for everyone to see.  As the sun bore down on her back, she shook the image from her mind.  She didn’t know the new man in town so she didn’t care and she could easily ignore Charlie.  Better ignore him, she thought, centering on the opposing player feet away from her across the net.  Decked out in yellow racerback top and square-cut bottoms, the woman had to be pushing six-four and was built like a cement wall.  She played with every ounce of power one would expect from such stature, too, slamming the ball into Sydney’s shoulder last set.  Damn thing left a mark!

Signaling to her partner, she flashed a nasty smile to Sydney.  Probably telling her teammate to aim for me, she mused.  Digging her feet into the hot sand, Sydney ground herself in for the play.  Go ahead and try.  While she and Alana may be half the density of these ladies, they were no neophytes when it came to the game of volleyball.  They won the last set and they’d win this one.  Sydney caught sight of Charlie whispering something to his friend as he pointed to Alana.  Most likely something to do with the Brazilian cut bottoms and low-rise tattoo on Alana’s backside.

Sydney pulled her focus back to the game, and the woman with the ball.  Sweat gathered across her brow as she swung her arms low and methodically, awaiting the serve.  At the whistle, the woman made a devilish twist with her mouth and pulverized the ball straight to Alana.  Sydney spun around, caught the rebound and whacked the ball over the net in a powerful arc.  Both women dove after the ball but missed, crashing to the ground in a simultaneous slide across the court.

“Yes!”  Sydney high-fived Alana with a quick hug and whispered harshly, “Nail em’, Alana.”  While her teammate didn’t look capable, she could dish out a punishing serve.  Winded now, Sydney moved to front and center of the net.  Pressing the front of her hands against her lower back, she signaled Alana to serve back, right corner, whereby she’d take the net.  Glancing at Charlie and his friend—both watching her now—a sliver of annoyance cut through her.  Ignore them.  Alana’s generous breasts would draw them back to her in no time.

Alana served twice, backed by an enthusiastic home crowd.  If they won this set, they moved on to the finals and ultimately the goal of tournament win.  The two had been practicing for months for this day and she wasn’t about to let it slip away.  More than the financial winnings, Sydney wanted to lay claim to champion status.  It had been almost two years since her last showing and she wanted people to know she was back on the circuit.  Breathing hard and deep, Sydney settled in for the next serve.

Alana belted it over the net only this time the ball was spiked down in an angle to Sydney’s right.  She lunged for it, bumped it with the heel of her hand allowing Alana to slam it across.  But the brunette beast crushed it to Alana’s rear.  She dove for it, but landed flat on her side with an audible grunt.  Damn, Sydney cursed under her breath.  That looked like it hurt.  She strode over to help Alana to her feet and couldn’t help but glance over at Charlie and his friend.  As expected, their eyes were glued to Alana’s sand-clad figure.

“You okay?”

Perfecto,” she replied and openly brushed the sand stuck to her breast and bottom.  Unlike herself, Alana didn’t mind the blatant ogling.  “Two more points and we sink them.”

Sydney smiled, held up two fingers between them and nodded.  “Two more.”

The whistle blew and the ball sailed across the net straight toward her.  She slugged it sideways with a two-fisted bump, stinging the tops of her hands.  Lady of Concrete leapt up and pumped it back—but Alana was right there.  Leaping high into the air, she met the ball with a downward thrust, hitting the woman square in the forehead.  The ball bounced up and behind her for the score.  Sydney chuckled under her breath.  Nice six-pack!  Otherwise known as a slam to the face.

While Alana apologized for the hit, an official tossed the ball to Sydney for the serve.  Heading to the back line, she forced her breathing to slow and deepen, recovering her breath from the last play.  Focus, she told herself.  Focus.  Turning to face the net, she checked with Alana’s backside.  Beyond her Sydney noticed Charlie and his friend were staring at her as she steadied the ball before her.  Everyone knew this one was for the win.  She took a deep breath, checked Alana’s fingers once more and nodded slightly.  Exhilaration swept deep through her midsection.  This one was for the win.

At the sound of the whistle, Sydney wound back for the serve and crushed the ball with the heel of her hand.  Brunette raced to meet it, pulverized it back.  Alana returned the hit, but yellow team pummeled it with lightning speed.  Sydney ran forward, her body instinctively diving to make the connection.  With a single-handed punch she hit the ball, crashed to the ground—landing hard on her shoulder.  Alana whirled around, squatted, and bumped the low hit up and over the net with a decisive spin.  Sydney scrambled to her feet.  She prayed the deep ball would remain inbounds.  The whistle blew, the horn sounded.  “Match point!”

“Yes!”  Alana jumped up and down, pumping her fist wildly through the air.  “We did it!”

Sydney ran to her.  “Way to go, Alana!”  Fans whistled and cheered as they embraced.

“We’re going all the way, Sydney!”

“All the way,” she repeated, heart hammering in her chest.  Briskly brushing hands with the competition in a quick show of duty, they murmured, “Nice game.”

“Next time, you’re ours,” the bigger one muttered.

Skin flushed from the heat of play, sweat streaming down the side of her face, Sydney wanted to say there won’t be a next time if you two hulks don’t sharpen your game.  But she only smiled, indicating she looked forward to the next match.  The intensity of play made her feel alive and powerful.  It made her feel capable, invincible.  It made her feel like a winner.


Sydney turned to see Alana scooped into the arms of her boyfriend.  He twirled her around in a circle and exclaimed, “Fantastico!” followed by a full on open-mouth kiss.  The two proceeded to babble on in Spanish, most of which was incoherent to Sydney.  Despite living in Miami her entire life and having a Cuban father, Sydney couldn’t carry a conversation in Spanish if it had two handles.  Swiping the perspiration from her forehead, no boyfriend waiting in the wings to congratulate her, she turned, in need of some ice-cold water.  That’s when she saw them approach.  Her pulse accelerated.  Standing alone center court, dressed in nothing but a glorified bikini, she felt oddly on display—especially when it came to oglers like Charlie.

“Hey Syd, great game!” he said genially, as though they were friends.

“Thanks,” she tossed back.

“Awesome game,” his friend agreed and removed his sunglasses. “You’re an amazing player.”

“Thank you,” she replied.  Heart still pounding, she was stunned by the cobalt shade of his eyes.  The color jumped out at her, almost hard to look at beneath his dark lashes.  They seemed to catch the sun, absorbing light deep within blue wells of color.  Combined with the faded purple of his Polo shirt, sun-bleached hair combed forward and face tanned from a day at the beach, the guy definitely looked as if he jogged over with his surfboard after a quick slice through the waves.  The short white Puka shell necklace worn high around his neck only sealed the image in her mind.

“You should really go pro,” he said.

“I’m not that good.”  She pulled her long ponytail forward over a shoulder and shifted her weight.  “Amateur is about as far as I can make it.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said easily, the tenor of his smile more intimate than he had a right to be.  “You have natural athletic ability.  Why, I bet if you decided you wanted to go pro…” his smile tilted up to one side, “you’d make it in a heartbeat.”

While she appreciated his vote of confidence, he really had no idea the kind of time and training it took for professional sports.  All or nothing it would leave her with no time for a career.  “Thanks,” she returned with a smile.  “But I’ll settle for amateur.  Keeps me in the sport, at least.”

“She’s too busy clawing her way to the top of my company to go pro,” Charlie interjected and then made introductions.  “Sydney, this is my friend Clay Rutledge.”  He switched between them.  “Clay, this is Sydney Flores.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said and extended his hand.

“You, too.”  She met his hand and noted his palm was soft, his skin warm.

“Is that Flores, as in flower?  Because if it is,” he paused and lengthened his smile, “it suits you.”

Sydney’s cheeks flushed at the silly compliment, heightened by the southern drawl he inflected.  She pulled her hand from his, but not before he gave a slight squeeze.

“We’re headed out for lunch,” Charlie said.  “Wanna join us?”

Black hair, ice blue eyes, sharp features and muscular build, Charlie may garner attention from many women, but not this one.  “No thanks.”  His rot-gut personality blinded her to any good looks he might have.  “My body needs water and rest right now.”  Standing idle, the sun began to sear into her head and shoulders.  “And anyway, Alana and I will have another match soon.”

“Maybe another time,” Clay said.

Sydney considered the man before her.  On the one hand she was attracted to his appearance; however, his choice of friends left a lot to be desired.  She cast a glance toward Charlie.  The man was a two-timing, self-centered certifiable jerk.  Returning her attention to Clay she replied, “Maybe.”  But don’t count on it.  Any friend of Charlie’s must have something wrong with him.

“Are you playing tomorrow?”

“Depends on this afternoon.  Alana and I move on to the semi-final round from here and then, we’ll see.”

“I’m still waiting for nude volleyball.”  Charlie laughed.  “You and Alana would win that one hands tied behind your back!”

Sydney’s stomach turned at the crude visual.

Clay turned on him.  “What’s the matter with you?”

He’s an idiot.  Crossing arms over chest, she glared at the both of them, and then settled on Clay.  Or haven’t you noticed?

“What?” Charlie looked at Clay in surprise.  “Syd knows I’m only kidding.”

“That’s no excuse for being rude,” he bit back.

Well there’s a refreshing surprise…  By the tone of his voice, it sounded like this Clay fellow was actually as disgusted by the comment as she.

“Apologize to the woman.”

Charlie balked, but when Clay continued his penetrating stare, he relented.  “Sorry, Syd.”  He looked at the ground and kicked at the sand.  “It was just a joke.  You know I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Yes you did—you meant exactly what you said.  “Whatever.”  She had no interest in wasting any more time on Charlie than necessary.

Clay turned to her and said in a tone so soft and low, she had to struggle to hear him.  “I’m sorry, Sydney.  I didn’t know Charlie could be so crass.”

He’s an ass, she wanted to say.  It’s what he does.  But voicing her true feelings would do nothing to solve the problem.  Charlie had been this way since the day she met him at JL Conventions and she didn’t expect him to change.

“Great match, Syd!”

The three of them turned.

“Hey, Diego!” Sydney said, warmed by the sight of her cousin.  A fellow volleyball player, he too, was here as an amateur athlete in the events.  Built thick and solid, Diego was shorter than most players but what he lacked in height he made up for in enthusiasm.  “How’d your match go?”

He beamed, his teeth bright white against the brown of his skin.  “Aced it!  Joe and I are advancing to the next round.  You?”

“Alana and I will see you there.”  Sydney turned back to Charlie and his friend.  “Listen, I’ve gotta run.  It was nice meeting you.”

“You too,” Clay murmured.

Without a word to Charlie, she asked Diego, “Thirsty?”

“Absolutely.”  Diego passed a glance over Charlie and Clay and told her, “Joe’s over at the tent now.”

“Great.  Let’s go.”  Sydney walked off with Diego and imagined Charlie and Clay’s eyes trailing her backside.  Nude volleyball.  While she tried to eject the juvenile reference from her brain, it felt like each dimple of cellulite in her rear cried out, ‘Look at me!  Look at me!’

Chapter Two

Leather-bound notebook in hand, Sydney jogged up the stairs spiraling prominently up the atrium lobby of JL Conventions.  She mentally scrolled through her stats as she rounded the top step, swinging into a brisk stride down the hall.  Located in downtown Miami, the company comprised three levels—her boss’s office consuming the corner penthouse suite overlooking Biscayne Bay.  With a view of water to one side, the city beautiful to the other, it was a space she coveted for herself one day.

But working to help coordinate the Special Olympics National Games was probably not going to get her there.  The games were being held right here in Miami, but the organization handled most of the details leaving her nothing to do but run errands, or so it felt that way.  Her job was to make sure they had everything they needed, from managing local suppliers and communication between the two to calling the right people in the event if something went wrong.  Athletes were set to arrive Saturday, opening ceremonies were scheduled for Sunday afternoon and the first full day of games would commence early Monday morning.  A shimmy of anticipation skirted through her veins as she neared the office. Over three thousand athletes were expected for the games, accompanied by four hundred coaches, upwards of thirty thousand family members and guests not to mention the slew of nearly ten thousand volunteers who had already signed on to help.

Sydney had experience with big events, but these numbers were staggering.  From the hotels and restaurants that would benefit, to the university sports complex and neighboring businesses, the games were projected to bring in close to fifty million in revenue for the area in less than two weeks.  Talk about major impact—this one took the cake!

Paid the bill, she mused soberly.  And the last event she wanted.  The Special Olympics National Games were a far cry from the Celebrity Golf Tournament she’d put in for, but it wasn’t her job to assign events.  Sydney strode through the open door to her boss’s office.  It was her job to work them.

Javier Lopez looked up from his desk with a smile.  “Right on time,” he said, his coffee-brown eyes lighting up as he took in the sight of her.  Full-blooded Cuban, Javier had dark smoldering looks—looks that could undress you in seconds, seduce you in minutes.  His eyes were lined in soft black, his silky black hair cut in long loose layers giving him an easy casual sophistication, one that went hand in hand with his management style.  Setting his pen down, he hitched his chin toward the chairs across from him.  “Have a seat.”

Sydney pulled one of the straight-back art deco style chairs from his desk and dropped to the cushion.  Decorated with minimalist overtones, his black furnishings were gloss and shine, accented by a lone unframed canvas boldly colored and totally abstract.  Included were the customary diplomas, but mostly his walls were adorned with photos of Javier accompanied by the Who’s Who in Miami.  But then again, connections were his business.  Crossing one leg over the other, she pulled the turquoise edge of her skirt toward her knee and laid her notebook open across her thigh.  Sliding the pen from its secure loop, she tapped tip to paper, poised to take notes as she asked, “Did you call Henry?”

“I spoke with him this morning,” Javier replied evenly.  “He wants to be sure the family info packets are set to go.  Are we set with maps and area brochures?”

“Yes.  I spoke with Lisa over at All American and she assures me they have everything ready to go for the airport and venues.”  She marked a check by the item.

“Have you seen for yourself that they’ve been included?”  He arched an accusatory brow.  “You know it to be complete?”

“Yes.  Went through the order personally and spoke with the people in charge at each location.”

“Very good.”  He smiled, and a subtle familiarity entered his eyes.  “Are you excited?”

She paused.  “Revved as usual.”  Always happened as they closed in on the deadline for an event start.  These final days were the culmination of months—sometimes years—of planning and it was her job to see that everything came off without a glitch.  Or in this case, assist the Special Olympics people in achieving the same.  She had to admit, their in-house organization was one of the best she’d ever seen, rendering her almost extraneous to the process.

“Are you prepared for the number of volunteers that may show up?”

She nodded.  Thousands of volunteers had signed on to help with the events and even more were predicted to show up the day of, expecting something to do.  It was an incredible outpouring of support and one the Special Olympics staff made a point to embrace.  They informed the local venues, in no uncertain terms, that not one able-bodied person was to be turned away.  “We’ve increased the size of our order to almost double the number of water bottles originally planned.”

“Mayor Cortez wants to be sure his revised welcome letter has been included in lieu of the previous.  I cannot underscore enough the significance of his request, Sydney.”

She nodded and scribbled a note to remind herself to make one more confirmation call regarding the issue.  “I forwarded a copy to Lisa.  Her printer has already substituted the new for the old.”

Javier smiled, his manner comfortable.  Personal.  “You still sore at me?”

“No,” she replied automatically, tightening the grip on her pen.  Javier knew the assignment she wanted to be overseeing this month, knew he was showing preference for Morgan Price over her on this one.

“If it’s any consolation, Morgan is stressing.”

Ignoring the twinkle in the black of his eyes, she shrugged.  “Sorry to hear that,” she lied and tamped back the familiar resentment.  Morgan wasn’t stressing.  She was making a show of it for Javier, appealing to his ego.  She was playing to the protector in him.  Consulting her notes, Sydney continued, “Athletes will begin to arrive at Miami International about seven thirty Saturday morning, whereby I’ll greet them and streamline their contact with the media and subsequent transportation to housing.”  Athletes and coaches were scheduled to stay in the dorms on campus, while their families were relegated to area hotels.  Some families would be hosted by area residents, though how many she couldn’t be certain.  “Initial events are scheduled for Sunday morning first thing, continuing until noon whereby athletes will return to their housing and prepare for opening ceremonies.”

“Did you consult with staff at the arena regarding their concerns over seating?”

“I assured them they’d have a full house, nothing more.  It’s a ticketed event and the numbers are limited.”  Which reminded her.  She jotted down a quick note.  Her friend Sam Rawlings needed four more tickets.

Javier leaned forward in his chair.  “Speaking of opening ceremonies, the Mayor wants you to join the escort for Team Florida.”

“What?”  Alarm fired through her pulse.  “Why me?”

“Seems he caught sight of you on the beach and thinks you’d be perfect.”

The appreciative leer she received was so unexpected, Sydney drew back in embarrassment.  “But I’m a nobody, Javier.  I don’t belong in that role.  Besides, I’m needed behind the scenes.”  That was her job, organizing details, making things happen, not parading into the Miami Arena with a bunch of strangers.

“You’re a local athlete celebrity which makes you the perfect choice.”  Javier’s grin turned smug.  “And didn’t you say the SO handles most everything on its own?  You’re ancillary at best.  You’ll have plenty of time to take part.”

Sydney bristled.  Was Javier insulting her?

“Listen, Brooke Simpson cancelled last minute and the Mayor needs another pretty face to take her place.  He suggested you and I agreed.  I told him you’d be honored.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“What?”  He chuckled.  “I thought you’d be pleased.  Besides, they’re lucky to have you.  You’re much better looking than Brooke.”

Sydney’s chest constricted.  What next—did he have her uniform steamed and pressed?

“Don’t worry.  You don’t have to wear your uniform.”

Staring at her notepad, she mused sourly, geethanks.

“Only suits will be on the politicians,” he said.  “You’ll be in some good company, too.  Governor’s gonna be there, US Congressmen, both senators—and that singer, what’s her name.”  Sydney raised her head up to look at him and he frowned at his inability at recall.  With a quick wave of his hand, he relegated the notion as insignificant.  “Anyway, these ceremonies are a very big deal.  A lot of very important people will be there, including your sponsors.  Just wear something sexy,” he added with a flickering gleam, “to make us proud.”

Staring at him across the desk, Sydney ground her jaw.  The man never quit.

“And prepare a few nice words to say to the crowd.”

Her heart stopped.  “Javier—you know I don’t do public speaking.”

“I know,” he said, his tone assuming a placating intimacy.  He picked up the pen from his desktop and held it suspended above his paperwork.  “But the Mayor made a personal request.  Think of this as your big opportunity, Syd.  You’ll be sharing the stage with some famous people.  Think of the exposure it will bring to you.”

She didn’t care about famous people.  She cared about looking the fool.

“Hey, you want the promotion, don’t you?  I’m giving you an opportunity here.”

She stared at him.  Her breathing grew tight and shallow.  What she ever saw in the man escaped her at the moment.

“Now listen,” he continued, heedless to the untenable position in which he was placing her.  “After all the athletes are seated, the Mayor wants you to join him on stage and give a general welcome to the audience, sort of a rah-rah Miami spiel.”  He gave her a genial smile, one she wanted to rip from his face.  “I know public speaking isn’t your thing but you can say a few words, keep it brief, let the people see you.”  Javier tried to lighten her mood with an encouraging smile.  “You’re a local celebrity around here, one of our very own VIPs.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?”

“Me?  Stretch?”  He shook his head as though she were being ridiculous.  “Aw Syd, you know you’re a celebrity to me and always have been.”  Javier’s demeanor softened, but if he were trying to soothe her ego, he was failing.  Miserably.  “With your recent volleyball win, you’re a perfect fit.  And if you ask me, the Special Olympics people are lucky to have you.”

“The focus should be on the athletes, not me,” she protested, ignoring his paltry attempt at kindness.  “Don’t you think my presence will only serve to take away from them?  After all, these are their events, not mine.”

“Not at all.  All the teams are bringing famous people along with them, many of them athletes.  Some are even gold medalists.  You’ll be in very good company, trust me.”

Sounded more like pressure, to her.

“And think of the visibility you’ll gain.  It will do a lot for your career.”

Straight for the jugular.  The man took no shame in using her own ambition against her, despite knowing how much she hated being in front of a crowd.  “Is this mandatory or optional?”

“Why Sydney…” Javier’s eyes flicked toward his office door.  “You don’t want to disappoint the Mayor, do you?”

“Disappoint me?”

Sydney whirled at the sound of the incoming male voice.  “Mayor Cortez,” she blurted.  She quickly rose to her feet, the notebook nearly tumbling to the floor.  Clutching the pen and book, she held them to her chest.  What was he doing here?

“Sydney and I were just discussing your appearance at opening ceremonies this weekend,” Javier told him.

The Mayor came to a stop and extended his hand toward her.  She swapped hands with her pen and shook his, keeping her barrier firmly in place.

“I heard the word ‘disappoint’.”  His chubby chin dipped as he peered at her over his glasses, black hair slicked straight back over a balding head.  He maintained firm hold of her hand and asked, “Is there a problem?”

At six-two, she stood taller than him in heels, but legs locked rigid, all nerve fled the scene.  “Uh, well…”  She referenced Javier with a glance, “We were just discussing my contribution and…”

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said smoothly.  “How could I not with a beautiful woman by my side?  An athlete of the utmost skill.”  He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.  Sydney recoiled inwardly at the manipulative touch.  “Am I right?”  He checked with Javier.

Her boss smiled.  “Absolutely.”

Glancing from man to man, she felt like a piece of meat sandwiched between the two.  She pulled her hand away and took a step back, her calf hitting the chair cushion.  Suddenly her legs felt brittle and thin beneath her as she cleared her throat.  “I’m sure there’s someone more qualified for that honor than myself,” she deferred, hinting for a way out.

“Oh, you are too humble, my dear.  Having the Special Olympics in my city is a great honor, yes, and you are one of our best and brightest athletes.”

She was an amateur beach volleyball player.  That’s it.  “I’m no big deal” she wanted to tell him, but suspected his true intention for including her had nothing to do with her volleyball talents.  The Mayor had a reputation in town—and it had nothing to do with honor.

“I’ve submitted your name to the committee,” Mayor Cortez said.  “They’ll announce us as we enter the arena and once the athletes find their seats, you and I will head to the podium.  Team Florida will be the last team to enter, so festivities will begin upon our arrival,” he said, pulling the cuff of his white shirt toward his wrist—pinky extended—so it extended fully past his coat sleeve.  “You and I will say a few words of welcome to the visiting athletes and visitors, and touch upon some of the finer points of our city.”

The muscles in her shoulders tightened.

Javier rose.  “No problem, Manny.  We’ll write something up and submit it to your office by Friday.”

The Mayor held up a hand.  “It’s not necessary.  I have full faith and trust in Ms. Flores.  I know she won’t disappoint me.”  He turned to her with an air of presumption.  “Whatever she decides to say will be fine.”

“I agree.”  Javier looked to her in silent conference.  You getting all this?

Sydney nodded, but the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled in revolt.  How could she refuse his very forward request without insulting him, not to mention jeopardizing her position at JL Conventions?  By the tone of his voice, it seemed Javier’s reputation was on the line as well.  But this was not a job she wanted.  While it was an important one, one that would look good on her résumé, she wanted nothing to do with it.  Because if she flopped—her heart thumped hard in her chest—it would prove a red slash across the same.

“Ceremonies begin at three o’clock.  They’d like us to be there at least an hour ahead of time.  Does that work for your schedule?”

“Yes,” she heard herself say.

“Shall I send a car for you?”

“That won’t be necessary.  I’ll meet you there at two.”

“Perfect.”  Mayor Cortez waited expectantly and Sydney realized that was her cue to leave.  Seemed the Mayor and Javier had other business to attend.

“Okay,” she murmured.  Sliding the pen back in place, she closed her leather folder and tucked it under her arm.  “Well that settles it then…”  But it can’t be the end of it—there had to be some way around this fiasco!  She only had to find it.


She turned to Javier and clamped notebook to her body.  “Yes?”

“You’ll be meeting the planes this Saturday as they arrive, yes?”

“Yes, Javier.  It’s on my schedule.”

“Oh really?”  The Mayor perked at the news.  “I’ll be there as well.  Perhaps you’ll join me for a bite of lunch?  That way we can discuss Sunday in further detail.”

Was that really necessary?  Didn’t you just stand here and profess your trust in me not to disappoint?  But staring at him, ignoring the leer in his eyes, she refrained.  No sense inciting the matter.  “Perhaps,” she said and forced a smile but fumed under her breath, no way in hell.  Unless it was to deliver an excuse out of Sunday’s speaking event.

Chapter Three

Sydney stood outside the entrance of Olives, the martini bar located in a hotel lounge on Brickell Key, convenient for both her and her friend Samantha Rawlings.  Arms crossed, she tapped her foot as three more women entered, avoiding their appraising glances.  Olives had become the place for urban singles to gather after work and was already hopping.  She craned her head toward the interior, dismayed by the number of people collecting around the bar.  Even a Monday couldn’t keep this crowd away.  At this rate, they might not find a seat.

She sighed.  Or maybe because it was Monday, everyone felt the need to pile in for a drink.  If their day was half as bad as hers, they would.  The meeting with Javier had only been the beginning.  Business soured from there with Lisa’s call informing her that five hundred of her info packets had gone missing.

Missing?  They were there Friday!  How did one lose five hundred info packets in the space of a weekend?  Lisa blamed it on the cleaning crew, but Sydney had her doubts.  From the shallow tenor of Lisa’s defense, Sydney suspected it may have been a miscount on All American’s part.  But the reason behind the discrepancy didn’t matter.  Getting the packets assembled and organized did.  To be on the safe side, she planned to hand deliver and oversee said packaging herself.  She heaved a sigh.  As though she had time for such baby-sitting.

Sydney caught sight of Sam as she entered through the dark wooden entrance doors to the lobby and waved.  Colorful layers of sheer skirt fabric cut above the knee danced about her legs as she hurried over.  Feminine and stylish, Sam’s cropped red jacket kept the ensemble professional.  Make that summer professional, or Sam’s version of casual Friday on Monday.  She, on the other hand, opted for her standard straight skirt and V-cut tank.  Today’s shade was turquoise, one of her all-time favorites.

Sam breezed across travertine floors buffed to a lustrous shine and pecked Sydney’s cheek with a kiss.  “I’m not late, am I?”

“Not even a second,” she returned, swallowed up by a rush of Sam’s spicy perfume.  Amazing.  Six o’clock and the woman remained fresh faced and fully scented, her full lips painted deep red, her eyes lined in dark brown.

“Good.  Because I hear a martini calling my name and you know I don’t like to keep those sweet babies waiting.”

Sydney laughed.  “When don’t martinis call your name?”

She slapped Sydney with a head-on gaze, one of the few women who could look her eye-to-eye and said, “I know, right?  It’s a curse.”

“Try blessing,” Sydney offered quietly.

“Sounds like someone needs a drink.”

“I need more than a drink, but we can start there.”

Sam slipped an arm through Sydney’s and waltzed her toward the bar.  “Well, let’s get started, shall we?”

Moving among the sleek and young, Sydney noted that most men had discarded the formality of jacket and tie, their collared shirts opened at the neck as they caroused the crowd.  Women remained decked out in full business dress—if you could call some of these outfits business—with their ultra-short skirts and plunging necklines.  And to think she felt like she was pushing the edge of decorum going sleeveless.  But these women were on the hunt, much like their male counterparts.  Hair and makeup had obviously been touched and redone, accelerating them into full femme-fatale mode.  Where meat markets weren’t Sydney’s style, Olives was only ten minutes from home and offered any martini you could dream up—particularly important this evening.

“Bad day at the office?” Sam asked, checking out male patrons as they passed.

“Horribly bad day at the office.”

“We’re in luck.”  Sam pointed.  Two vacant seats at the far end of the bar.

“Good.”  She didn’t feel like standing, but she would.  So long as she had a drink in her hand, she would stand for hours.

The bartender eyed them as they approached.  Slim and very Latin, he slid two napkins on the black granite bar top in front of them as they took possession of the upholstered stools.  “What will it be, ladies?”

Sam hooked her purse on the chair back and told him, “I’m ready for a stiff one.”

He smiled at her request and hinted that oh yes, he understood her ulterior meaning.  Seemed he too, could go for the same.  With a sexy swirl of accent he asked, “What’s your flavor?”

She smiled broadly.  “Well, you’re not bad for a start.”

He gave Sam a playful smile, though his eyes assumed a sultry heat—like a man suddenly on the prowl.  Seemed someone was accustomed to attention from the ladies.  “You are a fantastic start, beautiful lady.”

Sam grinned.  “Gin martini, straight up, three olives.”  She paused just long enough for him to turn to Sydney for her order before adding, “And make it dirty.”

His smile took on a lusty hue as he replied, “But of course, darling.  It’s the only way.”

“Smart man,” she said.

Reminding the two of her presence, Sydney cut in, “I’ll have a mango martini, please.”

The bartender slid his eyes in her direction and smiled, lingering, as though to remind her he hadn’t forgotten that there was yet another beautiful woman in his presence.  “Your pleasure is my command,” he said and whisked away to reach into the fridge behind the counter.

Nothing like smearing it on thick, Sydney thought, then said to Sam, “And what are you doing flirting with the bartender?  I thought you and Vic were serious.”

“We are,” she said, her gaze tacked to the man’s rear as he pulled out the slender bottle of vodka.

“How would he feel if he knew you were making eyes at the bartender?”

Sam turned to Sydney and smiled.  “I’m not blind, I’m dating.  Besides, Vic’s not worried about me.”  She gestured toward the bartender and said, “That young man there is just a cougar snack.”

“A what?”

“A cougar snack.  You know…something to tide me over until I see my man again.”  Sam winked, then rapped her fingers against the bar top.  “Now tell me about this day of yours.  We need to flush these toxins out of your system and that martini of yours is only the beginning.  Talk to me.”

Sydney shook her head.  Too true.  “Javier expects me to escort Team Florida during the opening ceremonies and then say a few words to the crowd.”

“Perfect!  Which reminds me—I need four more tickets for the event.”

“As an addition to the four you already requested?”

“Yes.”  Large brown eyes cast a look of pleading innocence.  “Is that too many?”

“If you plan on keeping your sanity it is, but as far as the number of tickets goes, I can get them.”  There were some perks to this gig.  Front row seats, VIP tickets—it was the least she could do for a friend and the kids would have a ball.

The bartender strolled up with their drinks and deftly placed them on the bar before them.  “Here are two gorgeous martinis for two gorgeous women.”

The man was quick, she’d give him that.

Sam’s gaze bounced from her drink to him and said, “Definitely gorgeous.”

He received the intended compliment as though it were a highly bestowed honor.  “I won’t be far,” he assured her, his accent heavy, his tone provocative.

“Let’s hope not.”

Sydney grasped the cone-shaped glass filled with ice-cold, orange liquid and shook her head.  “Poor Vic.”

“Poor Vic, nothing.  The man has me tied up like a West African voodoo doll tucked away in his front pocket and he knows it.  It’s not my fault I have tendencies.”  She brought the glass to her lips and pulled in a healthy swallow of gin.  “Damn, he’s good.”

“Who—Vic or the bartender?”


Sydney laughed.  Sam never hungered for male companionship, that was for sure!  From the day Diego introduced the two, she learned Sam’s weekends were lined with good-looking men and most of them younger than herself where she on the other hand usually slugged through dry spells without a man in sight.  But dating never seemed to work out for her the way it did for Sam.  Thoughts of Javier curdled her mood.  Maybe she should try a younger man.  Older ones seemed to enjoy the control factor a little too much.

“So what’s up, Syd?  The big events are days away, yet you seem like you could care less.  What gives?”

Tasting the vodka-infused mango juice, she savored the ice-cold liquid as it cut across her tongue and down her throat, leaving a distinct aftertaste of sugar in its wake.  Damn good, if you asked her.  Sweet and potent, worthy of near pharmaceutical labeling.  Lingering over the finish in her mouth, the streams of calm pummeling through her muscles, she looked at Sam and considered her situation.  “You know this is not my first choice of events and now that Javier’s dropped this little speaking surprise in my lap my troubles are compounded.”

“But opening ceremonies are a big deal.  The whole week is huge.”  Sam waved a hand through the air.  “You said so yourself.  Aren’t you looking forward to it at all?”

Did it make her a bad person because she preferred to be working with celebrity golfers rather than special needs athletes?  Wanted to immerse herself in the world of high brass sponsors, not small town athletics?  Kids weren’t her thing.  Sure the Special Olympics were world renowned, a big operation, but it wasn’t like the regular Olympics where millions and millions of people tuned in.  It was geared toward a specific segment of the population.  Was it a character flaw that she didn’t want to be included?

Maybe.  But it didn’t change the facts.  She wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming events and she wasn’t about to pretend differently with Sam.  “Not really.”

“But I don’t get it.  Why not?”

She glanced at Sam.  “I’d rather have worked the Celebrity Golf Classic.”

“Want to rub elbows with the beautiful people?”

“I couldn’t care less about the society of plastics.”  One look around this bar and it seemed women were resorting to the knife and needle at younger and younger ages.  Even the men looked like they took way too much interest in their looks.  Were they injecting?  Implanting silicone?

“Now, now.  Nothing wrong with people wanting to look their best.”

Sydney withdrew her gaze from the people surrounding her and growled under her breath.  No, but some people went too far for their looks.  All some women cared about was capturing a man’s attention and were none too shy about using whatever surgical procedure or body part it took to do so.  And where did it get them?

Nowhere.  Life was about action, accomplishment.  It was about doing.  “I want to work the events that can take my career places.  There are some big sponsors associated with that golf tournament and I wanted to get in front of them.”

“Handling these sporting events should give you some pretty good exposure, if you ask me.”

Yes, exposure.  Javier had mentioned as much.  It was precisely the exposure she didn’t care for.

“Aren’t you always trying to get noticed so you can climb the proverbial ladder?”

“I’m a glorified assistant on this one, Sam.  The Special Olympics organization is a great group, don’t get me wrong, but they take care of most everything.  They don’t even need me.  And now Javier wants me to play the Barbie doll for display?”

“A talking one at that!”

Sydney glared.

Sam shrugged.  “Just say no.”

“Then watch him give away more of my events, including my promotion?”  She turned back to her drink.  “No thank you.”

“You referring to the Morgan thing?”

“Yes.  The golf show was mine.  Javier knew I wanted that job but he gave it to her instead.”  How did he expect her to earn a promotion if he refused to give her the important events?  Was he sabotaging her on purpose?  She suspected Morgan may be undermining her—again—but Javier?  She didn’t understand him.  On the one hand, he claimed he still cared about her, yet proceeded to rip the floor clear out from under her.  At this rate, she didn’t stand a chance.

“Do you think he’s sleeping with her?”

The question felt like a punch.  “I don’t know,” Sydney spat.  “Javier doesn’t share his private life with me.”  Not anymore, anyway.  “They probably are.  The woman will do anything to get to the top—lie, cheat, steal.”  Morgan was a bitter loser.  It wouldn’t surprise Sydney if she were using Javier to get the events she wanted by sleeping with him.  The last straw came when Morgan lost the International Finance Convention to Sydney last year.  She accused her of using unfair advantage because of her relationship with Javier.  She wasn’t.  Morgan was new to the company and Sydney had seniority over her.  Oh, but the venom spitting from her back then over the injustice of it all.  Ironic how Morgan was now doing the very thing she accused Sydney of.

Sam nodded.  “I remember.”

“The point remains, he gave my event to her.”

“Maybe he had good reason.”

“More like taking advantage of his relationship with me.”  His old relationship with her.  But these days the tables were turned.  He was keeping assignments from her rather than doling them out in her favor.  Sydney downed a generous swallow of her drink.  He’d been getting back at her ever since the break up and she was getting pretty fed up with it.

“How about you’re the best he’s got and the Special Olympics is a major client.”

Savoring the heat of alcohol as it spread through her chest, Sydney mocked with a smile, “Nice try.”

“It’s the truth.  I don’t see Morgan splitting atoms at the kitchen table, if you know what I mean.”

“Kim could have done it.  Jerry could have done it.  Any number of the associates could have handled this event.  It’s an easy gig.”  Except Charlie.  He would have been the worst person for the job.  “Javier chose me because Morgan wanted my golf tournament, but also because of my connection to you.”

“Me?”  Sam flinched at the hit.  “How am I to blame for this?”

“Because your Big Sisters group raved about me after your annual picnic last summer, remember?”

Sam softened instantly at the mention of her kids, her eyes widening in acknowledgement.  “Well, they didlike you.”

“Great.  And now I’ll have more kids to like me.”

Sam chuckled and set her glass down on the bar.  “Listen, the climb up the ladder is riddled with pitfalls, peppered with opinion.  Your job is to hold on tight and hope you’re not allergic as you cling to the rungs.”


Bumped from behind, a petite brunette quickly chirped, “Sorry.”

Sydney nodded absently.

“Everything happens for a reason and a purpose.  Just remember that.”

Yes, well, Sam’s helpful idioms and positive thinking were doing nothing to solve her problem.  She didn’t know anything about special needs kids.  She barely had experience with regular kids let alone those in need of extra attention.  She preferred mainstream events, the fast-track to connections.  At least give her cutting edge technology and shiny objects.  But kids?  Why pick her for these games?  Marinating in her misery, she pulled a sip from her tangy sweet martini.  To punish her, that’s why.

“So Diego tells me you and Alana were fantastic this weekend.”

Grateful for the easier terrain, Sydney replied, “Placed first, though Alana has a souvenir for her troubles.  Sprained her ankle during the last game.”

“That’s what he said.  Is she okay?”

“She will be.  Carlos is waiting on her hand and foot.”

Sam returned a sly smile.  “Vic would wait on me hand and foot if I asked him.”

“I’m sure he would,” Sydney replied with more than a pinch of longing.  Victor Marin was head over heels in love with Sam, the two meeting in the wake of personal tragedy for him.  It was a heartache she couldn’t imagine living through let alone surviving with the ability to love again.  What he had to endure was yet another reason not to have children.  But Vic had survived and, with Sam’s help, found justice.  And Sam was right.  Vic would do most anything she asked, his devotion deep and strong.  Which gave her pause.  If only she could find a man like him.  A man who meant what he said, remained committed to a fault.  She gazed at her brightly-colored drink.  In her life men didn’t have a great track record when it came to fidelity or long-term commitment.  They moved in and moved on.

“Well look who’s here,” Sam announced.

Sydney heard the distinct drop in tempo.  She looked up and stiffened.  Charlie.

“And what to my wondering eyes should appear?”  Sam swiveled in her seat to face Sydney, pleasure glittering within the rounds of her eyes.  “But there’s a handsome young thing with him.”

“It’s his friend from South Carolina.  I met him during the tournament.”

Sam perked at the mention.  “Oh, really…  Then why is this the first I’ve heard of him?”

Sydney cocked her head to one side and said, “He’s a friend of Charlie’s—or did you miss that part?”

“So what?  Doesn’t make them identical twins,” she said, her head turning back in the guys’ direction.

“Close enough for me.”  Sydney pulled her drink close.  Wrapping fingers around the base of her glass, she was content on ignoring the duo.  Charlie was a user, a womanizer.  It wasn’t a stretch to assume the two had things in common.  Otherwise, why would they be hanging around together?

“They’re headed our way,” Sam informed her as the bartender wiped the counter around them, openly ogling Sam.

Sydney groaned and sought refuge in another sip of fruity martini.  “Great.”  She looked over her shoulder.  Sure enough, Charlie and Clay were headed straight for them.  As usual, Charlie’s gaze was filled with conceit, as though she and Sam were begging for his company.  Clay on the other hand, wore an expression of unguarded interest.

Charlie strolled up to within feet and said, “Hey Sydney.”  He touched upon her friend.  “Sam.”

“Hello,” Sydney returned, purposely draining her voice of cheer.

“Who do we have here?” Sam asked, eyeballing Clay like a bird on a worm.

Always the direct one, Sydney mused, but had to admit, she did enjoy seeing Clay again.  The man was certainly easy on the eyes and after putting Charlie in his place the other day, had already scored a point with her in positive territory.  Dressed in jeans and white button-down, sleeves rolled up to his forearms, his collar lifted ever so slightly, he appeared sporty and fresh.  Her gaze wandered down to his chest.  And sexy.  Recently tanned by the Miami sun, she thought his skin set off the Puka shell necklace within his open shirt rather well.  Sydney lifted her gaze and bumped into his smile.  As though caught red-handed, she gulped.  Definitely sexy.

Clay extended a hand toward Sam.  “Clay Rutledge.”

“Sam Rawlings.”  With an approving nod to Sydney she took his hand and shook.  “I understand you’ve already met my friend here.”

His smiled broadened.  “I have.  Good to see you again, Sydney.”

“Nice to see you, Clay,” she returned, as casually as she could.

“So what are you girls up to tonight?” Charlie asked.  “Any hot plans we should know about?”  He waggled his brow in what Sydney found to be a grotesque gesture.

“Hot is my middle name, Charlie.  You know that.”

He laughed.  The way Sam stated it as a matter-of-fact, there wasn’t much Charlie could do.  With a light clap to Clay’s shoulder, he said, “I’m trying to show my friend here a good time while he’s in town.  Any ideas?”

“Why not start right here?” Sam slanted an eye toward Sydney.  “Couple of attractive women, expert bartender on hand…”

Charlie looked at Sydney and she iced him with a “don’t even think about it” look.

“Sounds good to me,” Clay said and stepped over next to Sydney.  He placed his hands on the back of her chair in what she found to be a presumptive move.  Her insides shifted.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

Visibly uncomfortable, Charlie glanced between the two.

“Why don’t you wander around a bit, Charlie?” Sam suggested.  “See what you can rustle up in the way of prospects.  Don’t worry.”  She patted the top of Clay’s hand.  “We’ll look after your friend here while you’re gone.”

He looked at her, then Clay, and finally to Sydney who continued her freezing glare.

“Trust me,” Sam said and moved her hand to squeeze Charlie’s shoulder.  “He’s in good hands.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”  He nodded, as if it were exactly what he intended.  “Clay?  You okay here for a while?”

He signaled for the bartender’s attention.  “I’ll wait for you right here, brother.”

Like a wicked old matchmaker, Sam slipped a smile to Sydney.

“Suit yourself.”  Charlie perused the bar, searching for direction.  His features suddenly relaxed as he let out a low whistle.  “Well, look who just walked in.”

All eyes followed his gaze to the three women entering the bar.  Three attractive twenty-something blondes wearing thigh high short skirts and four inch heels.  The girls swaggered past and met up with another group of women seated by the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Biscayne Bay.  The dock beyond was lined with a spattering of lights, a few low-rises and then a sheet of black water was dotted with red and green markers.  Like a dog latching onto the scent, Charlie made a show of following his nose toward the trio.

The man made Sydney ill.

“So what are we drinking?” Clay asked.

“Gin martini.”

“Mine’s mango,” Sydney said, suddenly conscious of Clay’s close physical presence as he stood by her side.  So close, the blue of his eyes seemed to grab hold of her.  His cologne clung to the very air around her shoulders, the bare skin of her arms.  Subtle, rich, it was a mix of cedar and citrus and one hundred percent appealing.  She cleared her throat.  “Um, it’s good.  You should try one.”

He looked at it and shook his head.  “Looks a bit frou-frou for me.”

“Hm…”  Sydney turned her head away from Clay, more a need to gather her senses than anything.  The man was definitely attractive, in an alluring, distracting kind of way.

The bartender appeared and with one eye still firmly hooked on Sam, asked Clay, “What can I get you to drink?”

“You have Kalik?”

“Coming right up.”

“What a nice surprise to run into you again,” he said, his gaze warm and fluid, his smile electric as it coaxed her focus back to him.  “I’ve been wondering how your game went.”

“Fine,” she said.  The sharp reminder that this man had seen her in her bathing suit was somewhat unnerving.  It made her fitted skirt feel almost conservative, despite the fact it rose halfway up her thigh.  She dropped a hand to rest over top of her exposed leg.

“I wanted to come back and watch you play, but Charlie wouldn’t go for it.  And since I’m at his mercy…”

“I’m sorry for you.”

He raised a brow.  “You don’t care much for Charlie, do you?”

She looked up at him.  “Is it that obvious?”  Sydney pitched over to Sam for a little reinforcement on the subject but none was forthcoming.  She merely smiled and sipped.  And watched.

The bartender slid the clear bottle across the bar top in front of Clay, the shiny aqua label snagging her attention.  More a silvery aqua, it was crisp and pretty.

“Thanks,” he said to the man, then asked her, “Is it personal or professional?”

Unfamiliar with the brand, she allowed her mind to drift.  “Both, actually.”

“Anything you care to share?”

Completely ignored in the conversation, Sam seemed content to watch.  Pulling an olive from its stick with her teeth, she slowly chewed.

Briefly settling her gaze on Charlie talking to the women, his patently obvious method of come-on revolting even from this distance, Sydney wondered how the girls could stand listening to him.  “Charlie mistreated a friend of mine,” she said at last, the din of conversation rising around her.

Clay frowned.  “Sorry to hear it.”

“Yes, well, seems to be a habit of his,” she said and looked at Clay, uninterested in masking her contempt, “though it seems to me you should know that better than anyone.”

“Because we’re friends?”

She wondered at his surprise.  Who better if not you, she thought, glancing askance at him.

“Charlie and I grew up together, but once he left for college he didn’t look back.  In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen him so we’ve been trying to catch up.  I’m actually staying at his place until my parents arrive for the events.”

Sam popped back in.  “Events?”

“Special Olympics.”

She drew a line between them with her gaze, as though pulling the two closer together.  “Do you work with the Special Olympics?”

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