At least I don’t think I do. And damn it, I’m too distracted by her pretty face. I think she’s screwing with my brain.
All that calm, contained elegance she wears so eloquently is seductive. Honey-blonde hair that falls in gentle waves to the middle of her back. Cool, assessing blue eyes that seem to see right through me and are amused with what they find. Her mouth is slicked with a deep, ruby red lipstick and she presses her lips together before she flashes a mysterious little smile. Just looking at the gentle curve of them sets my blood on fire.
Not a good sign.
She’s of average height, hitting me at about my shoulder, and she’s wearing a simple black dress that covers her completely yet clings to every delicious curve. She screams both ice queen and touch me—an alluring combination I’m finding harder to resist the longer I’m in her company.
Lately, I’ve sworn off women completely. I enjoy spending time with them. I appreciate them like any other man. But they’re a total distraction when I don’t need one, always wanting more than I can give. Focusing on my business is the ultimate goal at the moment. Starting up a relationship with the potential for it to turn serious?
I don’t think so.
Truly, that is the absolute last thing I want. Especially after witnessing my best friend Archer Bancroft fall hopelessly in love—with my little sister Ivy, for God’s sake. I know that’s not the path I’m ready to take.
Plus, there’s a hell of a lot of money on the line. The a**hole friend of ours who came up with the million-dollar bet, Matt DeLuca, is laughing hysterically at me right now. I can feel it; I can always feel it. I think he’s here somewhere, probably spying on me as I talk to this woman I don’t even know. All the while he’s got that new assistant of his following him everywhere, sending him longing glances while he’s an oblivious idiot.
She’s got the hots for him, the poor thing.
We were at a friend’s wedding when the three of us declared we never wanted to get married. We must’ve been drunk when we did it, but we all bet each other we’d never let ourselves get tied down to a woman. And the last single man wins one million dollars.
If I have my way, Matt definitely won’t win. Smug bastard. He thinks this situation we’ve all found ourselves in is hilarious. He believes he’s got winning our stupid bet covered. Mister Lone Wolf has thrown himself completely into the renovation of the winery he recently bought. Women don’t interest him, he told me just the other day. Maybe for a quick romp between the sheets, but nothing that could last. Nothing serious.
All the while, his very attractive assistant is sitting not ten feet away from us, her body stiff. I swear to God, her head tilted toward us so she could totally listen in on our conversation.
I’m with him one hundred percent in that regard. Let Archer take the fall—alone. He’s thrilled to be playing house with my sister, which still blows my mind. Ivy’s just as enamored with him. Funny, considering how not that long ago they argued all the damn time. I figured they hated each other.
Now . . . hell, they’re getting married in a couple of months. I’m going to be Archer’s best man. Just thinking of wearing the imaginary noose that Archer’s willingly walking into has me tugging at my suddenly too-tight shirt collar.
“So what brings you here tonight, Gage Emerson?” Marina repeats the question I asked her earlier, that same little mysterious smile curving her lips. There’s a natural sultriness to this woman that calls to me. I can’t explain it. I want to lean in closer to her and inhale her scent. Touch her soft cheek, take her hand and press my palm to hers. Something, anything to make that instant connection between us I’m suddenly looking for. Her lips drive me to distraction; they’re such a lush, seductive red.
I bet she tastes f**king amazing.
Keep your head straight, a**hole.
“Business,” I answer firmly, sipping from my bottle of beer. It’s from a local microbrewery that’s become a recent favorite. That’s why I came, that and—as always—to make business connections. Archer got me the invite. The more properties I buy in the area, the more inclined I am to stay here.
I like it. The countryside is beautiful, the people seemingly friendly until you want to take over their turf, and it’s not too far from San Francisco, my home base.
I keep my eyes trained on Marina the entire time I drink, noticing how she jerks her gaze away from mine, her chest turning the faintest shade of pink, as if I might’ve made her uncomfortable.
Yep, I’m such a goner. And when I know I shouldn’t be. I’m completely entranced. The women I’m normally drawn to are sophisticated, confident. My equals in age, status, and earning capability. I appreciate more of a powerhouse couple ethic. I sound like a complete jackass in my own damn brain, but I can’t help it. I’m drawn to intelligent, confident women.
This one is young, pretty, and seemingly shy . . . with that air of innocent, yet sensual mystery that has me eager to get to know her better, despite my current aversion to the fairer sex.
“And what sort of business are you involved in?” I swear she just batted her eyelashes at me.
“Real estate.” I take another drink, giving her the side eye as she casually averts her gaze, seeming to scan the crowd from over my shoulder. I glance behind me, seeing no one familiar in the room before I turn to face her once more. Of course, I’m the outsider here. And they’re all watching me as if they expect me to grow five heads or something. I feel out of place.
Napa is small and everyone notices a new face. At least back home in San Francisco, it’s pretty damn easy to get lost in the crowd when you want to. “I’ve recently made some purchases here in the area.”
“Is that so?” Her lips curl into a knowing smile and I frown, trying my best to figure out who the hell she is.
But I don’t know. Not for lack of trying.
“It is. There are a few more that I’m interested in too. That’s why I’m here. I’m hoping to find out some information.”
She lifts an elegant dark blonde brow and my gaze is drawn to it. So she’s a natural blonde? There’s a rarity. “What sort of information?” she asks carefully.
“Well, I was hoping to run into someone from the Molina family.” I’ve tried to contact many of them already, but they won’t return my calls. “I know they still own a substantial amount of property and businesses in and around the area. And that they’ve slowly sold off a few pieces they felt didn’t fit into their real estate portfolio over the years.” I clamp my lips shut, afraid I might’ve revealed too much. What is it about this woman that makes me . . . forget?
Marina remains quiet for long, tension-heavy seconds. Pressing those sexy-as-hell lips together, she blows out a shuddery breath, her gaze narrowing. “So what you’re saying is that you’re a vulture.”
Cocking my head, I frown. “What did you just call me?”
“You heard me. A vulture.” Her voice drips with contempt. She scrunches her mouth into a sexy pout, her eyes coldly assessing. “You swoop in when someone is vulnerable and desperate for money. Then you take everything from them.”
I never said any such thing, though she’s right. The Molina family is vulnerable and looking to sell off their assets, considering they’re land rich and cash poor. “I wouldn’t call myself a vul—”
“No need to explain yourself.” She holds up a hand, stepping away from me. As if she needs the distance. The seductive smile, the sparkling interest in her pretty blue eyes, it’s all gone. Doused like a flame under water. “I understand your type. It was nice meeting you.”
My type? What the hell is she talking about? “Wait, Marina!” I call her name but she’s already walking away, not once bothering to look back as she exits the building and disappears completely.
“YOU DUMBASS, MARINA Knight is a Molina.” Archer smacks the back of my head like he used to do when we were teens, and I let out a wimpy yelp, twisting out of his reach belatedly. Back then, I was usually quick enough to duck and miss that hard-as-hell-smack.
Now I kind of deserved it.
“I only just realized that. And trust me, I feel like a dumbass.” I rubbed the back of my tense neck. Last night while lying in bed, I’d finally connected the dots and figured out who Marina Knight was. The last name Knight should’ve been my first clue. I did a little Google research, which enlightened me. Talk about feeling like a complete idiot.
I need a vacation. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to let go and just relax.
We’re at the restaurant inside Archer’s hotel, Hush, having lunch while I tell him what happened at last night’s event. Archer was the one who’d given me the invite in the first place since he hadn’t been able to attend. Too busy making kissy noises at my sister I guess. I don’t remember his excuse.
So I went in his place. Sounds like I really stepped in it too. Something I never, ever do. I’m careful to a fault.
“A little late with that, aren’t you? Her mother is Maribella Molina.”
“I know,” I interrupt, but Archer can’t be stopped.
“She married Scott Knight back in the late seventies and it was considered a monumental merger of two of the most influential, wealthy families in the area. The Molinas and Knights are like royalty in the Napa Valley.” Archer pauses.
That I let the Knight reference slip by shows how distracted Marina made me. I’m always on my game. I can always appreciate a beautiful woman, but when it comes to work, I don’t let them distract me.
So what gives? Why is Marina the exception?
Yeah, Scott Knight might run everything, but all the businesses are still under the Molina name. Still. I’m irritated that I was such a dumbass.
A waitress stops at our table, refilling our water glasses before she flashes a flirtatious smile at Archer. He barely looks at her, offers a cordial thank you before she hurries away.
All the women love him, and he only has eyes for Ivy; thank God. I’d have to kick his ass if I caught him flirting with some random chick.
“Listen, I know who she is. Thanks for the explanation.” All information I already knew. Though I can use it to my advantage. For whatever reason, it’s been impossible to get to Scott Knight. And my usual tactics haven’t been working. I can definitely put Marina into my arsenal.
That is if she’ll ever speak to me again.
“Can’t believe you had the nerve to talk about the Molinas in front of their daughter. You’re a complete dickhead.” Archer shakes his head, chuckling. “To be a fly on the wall . . .”
“Shut up.” I sound vaguely whiny even to my own ears. I remember how she glared at me when I started talking about her family. Holy shit. So much disgust had filled her gaze. How she called me a vulture before fleeing, not once turning back to look at me despite my yelling her name. She’d hurried right out of that room as if the devil himself was chasing her.