Authors: Kelly Jamieson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
"Well ... we got an offer from one of the big breweries—Steinbrau. A really sweet deal,” he said with fervor. “But after we thought and talked about it, we just couldn't sell out to Big Beer."
"Yeah, that's what we call the big three breweries...” He named them. “Together they have about ninety percent of the beer market in America. The stuff they mass produce is barely beer...” He stopped and grinned. “You've probably heard the saying ... their beer is like making love in a canoe.” He lifted a brow, waited.
She shook her head, couldn't help but smile. “How is their beer like making love in a canoe?"
"It's too damn close to water."
She burst out laughing and couldn't stop herself from putting her hand on his arm and leaning into him as her body softened with mirth. Their eyes met as they laughed together.
"Their beer may be like water, but they have unbelievable distribution networks and of course massive marketing machines,” he continued, still smiling. “As part of the deal, we'd get to tap into that, which is huge. But we just couldn't do it.” He sighed. “Anyway, we're back to finding other investors. It won't be a problem, there's lots of interest. But then this week we had another problem."
He sipped his drink and Ashlyn looked up at him, impressed with his business knowledge. She really did want to know about his problems, strangely enough. This wasn't just putting on an act to hook him and reel him in.
"We heard a rumor this same brewery is putting out a new ‘craft beer.’ Something that's apparently going to be just like our California Blonde Ale."
She frowned. “They're copying you?"
"Yeah, but we don't know how they did it.” He sighed again. “And to top all that off, my brother's having some personal problems right now.” The corners of his mouth tightened, and Ashlyn found she really didn't like that expression on him. Something fluttered deep inside her.
"You and your brother are close?” she asked gently.
"Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, that's too much of a downer to talk about right now.” He smiled. “More champagne?"
"Mmm ... sure. And I think I'll slip into the ladies’ room if you'll excuse me for a minute."
"Okay. I'll meet you back here."
She watched him move away and sighed. With his height and athletic shoulders, he stood out in the crowd of suits.
But she had work to do. Quickly, she headed to the restroom, keeping an eye out for Derek. There he was. She changed direction and casually wandered over to him.
"Hi again.” She smiled at him.
"Ashlyn. I wondered where you'd gotten to.” His smile and his eyes were predatory, and she could feel in her gut he was another pig/ dog. “Sorry I had to leave earlier. I had to speak to someone on a business matter.” He moved closer. “Are you here alone?"
She went through her routine, fixing her gaze on him with simulated interest, smiling, touching his arm. With Zach, she hadn't had to fake it—her attention and enjoyment had been completely genuine. But with this guy, she had to call up every acting skill she'd ever learned in all those years of ballet and musical theater her poor mother had forced her to take, hoping it would turn her into a little lady. Eventually her mother had given up on that idea.
Soon Derek was leaning closer, and then his arm was around her waist. The heavy scent of his aftershave almost choked her. All the while, Ashlyn tried to keep a cautious eye out for Zach. He'd be looking for her. Luckily the room was big and crowded. If she was smart, she'd just abandon this whole thing—but she might not get another chance with Derek.
"Let's go for a walk,” Derek suggested. “Away from the noise for a few minutes."
"Okay,” she agreed and once again let herself be led across the room. Luckily they were near a door opening into the hall.
He led her down the carpeted hall, away from the foyer area, until they reached another quiet alcove. Surreptitiously, Ashlyn opened her purse and started the camcorder. Then she hung the bag over her shoulder by its strap and arranged it on her hip.
Derek turned to her. “You're really a beautiful girl,” he said, smiling. “I can't believe I didn't remember you at first."
She shrugged one shoulder. “Oh well. It was months ago."
"Months wasted,” he murmured. “If I'd met you sooner, we could have gotten together sooner."
Oh boy. He was a fast mover. Thank God, because she didn't have much time.
His hand stroked her bare shoulder and arm. She smiled encouragingly.
"I have a room here at the hotel. In case it was a late night, I didn't want to be drinking and driving. How about we go up there for a while?"
Ashlyn pretended to look surprised. “What for?” she asked, eyes wide. He chuckled and touched her cheek.
"You know what for,” he murmured and leaned in to kiss her softly. She turned her face up to him to allow the kiss. “You are so sexy. We could have a drink, see what happens..."
Ashlyn hoped that was enough, because it was all she could take tonight. Unlike Zach, this guy repelled her. Her skin tightened.
She smiled slowly. “What's your room number? I'll meet you up there."
"Okay. See you in ... five minutes?” He nodded eagerly. She walked slowly down the hall and around the corner, and then sprinted in her high heels for the stairwell.
As she drove home, her heart squeezed in her chest at the thought of Zach returning with a glass of champagne for her. She pictured him wandering around, looking for her, waiting for her, and then getting ... what? Worried? Impatient? Disappointed, maybe? Pissed off, probably.
Her throat tightened. Shit. This was so against the rules.
Remember, he's a lying, cheating bastard.
When she stopped at a red light, she bumped her forehead against the steering wheel ... once, twice ... then rested her head there and took a few deep breaths, until a honk behind her alerted her to the green light.
"And she disappeared again,” Zach said mournfully to Connor over breakfast at Denny's the next morning. The aproned waitress poured coffee into their cups and slapped the check down on the table. Conversation hummed unevenly around them, and dishes and cutlery clinked.
After Jess had kicked Connor out on Thursday—why, he still had no clue—he and Zach had been staying at a hotel near work. Zach's kitchen renovation was almost done, otherwise Connor could have stayed with him. Now they were both temporarily homeless. Just fucking great.
Zach poked at his sunny-side-up eggs.
"Get the hint, man,” Connor said sourly. “She's not into you."
"Yes she is. I could feel it."
Connor made a rude noise and tossed down the piece of toast he wasn't eating. He gulped some coffee. “Women."
Zach looked at his brother sympathetically. “You haven't heard from Jess?"
Connor shook his head miserably. “I just don't get it,” he said. “I know I've been working a lot lately, but hell, that's what it's like to have your own business. That's no reason to end our marriage.” His face tightened, and Zach's chest constricted. He, too, was perplexed by this sudden move on Jessica's part.
"Tell me again what she said."
Connor sighed heavily. “She said she knew I was cheating on her, she had evidence of it. But she wouldn't say what the evidence was or who I was supposedly cheating on her with—or anything else. Just that our marriage was over. And,” he added, “she called me a few choice names I won't repeat."
"And you're not cheating?” Zach asked, narrowing his eyes.
"God no!” Connor's pained gaze met his brother's before he quickly looked away.
Zach's eyes narrowed even more. He tapped his fingers on the table. “You're sure? You're not forgetting to tell me something?"
Connor looked down at the table briefly, and then back up at Zach. “I love Jess. I don't want anyone else. I would never do that to her.” Then he sighed. “Okay, a few months ago something happened."
Zach's gut clenched, his restless fingers going still. “What happened?” he growled.
Connor shook his head. “Nothing, really. It was just ... this girl ... she had a crush on me or something. She was coming on to me pretty strong, but I told her no way, I'm happily married, not interested."
Zach studied his brother. “Who was it?"
Connor looked away again. “I'd rather not say. But I swear, nothing happened."
Zach nodded. Connor's word was good enough for him. “Okay,” he said. “Does Jessica know about her?"
"Yeah. She asked me about some phone calls from the girl. I told her it was business and it was nothing."
"Shit.” Zach thought for a moment. “But that was months ago ... right? We need to find out what's going on now. Have you talked to Leanne? Women tell their best friends everything."
"I called her but she didn't answer. Probably screening my calls."
"I'll see if I can get through. Maybe she'll talk to me."
Connor picked up a piece of bacon, took a bite, and then tossed it down. He pushed away his mostly-uneaten food.
"Eat, man,” Zach urged.
Connor eyed Zach's own untouched breakfast. “Hey, don't talk,” he said. “At least I'm down about something real—not some ‘dream girl’ who keeps vanishing into thin air."
Zach tightened his lips. He let it go because Connor was hurting, but he'd seriously felt Ashlyn's attraction to him, which was why he just didn't get why she kept leading him on and then disappearing. Connor could scoff all he wanted, but there was something there. She was the most intriguing, exciting, arousing female he'd ever met.
The sour ache in his gut felt like he'd just drank a dozen cans of light-struck beer—skunky and foul.
"So what do you think about Steinbrau putting out that new ‘craft beer'?” he asked his brother to change the subject. “When I talked to Jack, he said the rumor is they got our yeast and our recipe."
"How the hell could they do that?” Connor asked. “It's impossible."
"I know. I can't figure it out. The only possibility I can think of is that someone who works for us is ... what do you call that ... a mole?"
"How could that be? And
could that be? That's crazy."
"I know, but think about it. How else could they get that stuff? I know they didn't get it from Jack. He's got more security than the White House. And since he was the one who told us about it, it's not likely he's the mole."
Connor thought about it and rubbed his face. “I don't know,” he said. “This is too much. On top of my marriage falling apart, now our business is going down the toilet."
"Oh, get a grip. Our business is fine. Even if they got our recipe and our yeast, they still can't replicate my blonde ale. But it is concerning. I have an idea, though. Why don't we hire an investigator to check into it? Maybe they can find out if the rumor is even true and if it is, who did it."
"That'll cost a bundle,” Connor grouched, ever the numbers man.
Zach shrugged. “How much will it cost us if they leak something really important? This is our future, Con."
"Yeah, okay. I'll do some checking and see if I can find someone to look into this for us."
"The good news is, my kitchen counter is being installed on Monday,” Zach said. “Then they can put the sink in and once they're done cleaning up, I can move back in. Probably Tuesday. And you can stay with me, of course."
"Thanks,” Connor said morosely, slumping back in his seat.
Another unhappy customer.
Sometimes Ashlyn really wished she had the kind of job where the goal was to make the customer
. But Mrs. Van Heusen was a lot cooler about it than Jessica Montgomery had been. Ashlyn wondered how long the Van Heusen marriage would have lasted in any case.
Thank goodness she was almost finished school. In a couple of months she'd graduate and be ready to start her new career. No more of the sex decoy, pseudo-PI work.
Lately it was just getting depressing. She'd been under no illusions about marriage and men and fidelity—she'd seen how her father's cheating had devastated her mom—but recently she found herself longing to find a guy, any guy, who wouldn't cheat. She found herself wanting so badly to believe that true, faithful love did exist.
But when she picked up her paycheck at the office that week, she squared her shoulders. Life was all about choices, and right now, paying her rent and tuition and gas to get to and from school was a priority. So she did her job and she did it well.
"Let's go out for pizza,” she suggested to her two roommates Thursday night. “I'll buy."
"Feeling rich?” Ben asked.
Ashlyn grinned. “For about a day."
"Let's go to Double Dan's. We can shoot some pool after we eat,” Doug suggested.
Ben and Ashlyn had known each other since high school. He'd started college while she took a few years off to travel, and when she came back to go to college, he was graduating. With lots of student loans to pay off, he'd needed a roommate. Then Doug, a co-worker of Ben's, had moved in, too, to share the rent. Ashlyn and Ben had been good friends, and she'd had no qualms about moving in with him, but she hadn't been so sure about living with two guys. Then she'd gotten to know Doug and found he was a really good guy, much like Ben—they were both computer geeks working as analysts at a big pharmaceutical company.
Ashlyn hesitated. “I don't know if I want to play pool."
"Why not? You love pool!” Ben stared at her and pushed his thick black-framed glasses higher on his nose.
"Yeah. You know you'll beat us. That will cheer you up,” Doug put in.
"What makes you think I need cheering up?"
Doug and Ben shared a look. “You've been acting weird for the last week,” Doug said. “What's going on?"
Should she tell them about Connor? She'd been feeling edgy and restless since meeting him. It was very uncomfortable. And she didn't understand it.
"I know it's stupid, but I can't get him out of my head,” she confessed over pizza. “Something about him just got to me."
"That's not like you,” Ben said.
"No way,” Doug agreed. “You're so cool about that stuff. What's with this guy?"