Excerpt: Tangled At First Sight
Book 6: Once Upon A Romance Series
“Earth to Paige. Earth to Paige!”
Paige Sumner heard her name and the snapping of fingers in front of her. She stilled, and then jerked her head up from her drawing. “Dolly. I didn’t realize you were here.”
“The whole building coulda tumbled down around you and you wouldn’t have noticed, honey.” The funny, sweet lady was right, of course. Waving her hand, she said, “Enough with that. You come help with the drinks and we’ll join the rest of them in King’s Café.” Lowering her voice, she said, “Big news. B-I-G!”
She gulped hard. Why am I invited? I’m just an employee. Forlornly, she looked at her drawing again and back at the blank wall in this chamber. She was just getting into the ideas for the knight mural—castles, horses, a dragon, knights in shining armor. It would be a great addition to the café. The little princess room was a smash hit. Now, the King family had asked her to do the mural for the all-boy room to balance it out.
“Hurry. Time’s a wastin’.”
Smiling, Paige rose from the bare floor. She gave a lingering glance to the drawing and the room, and then a lusty sigh before she followed the perky older woman. Dolly was still talking and chuckling. “Special drink…coming up…”
Does she always talk to herself?Paige made her way down the hall and into the huge restaurant kitchen screaming stainless-steel everything.
The hearty laughter from the overwhelming King family gathering rushed to her from the main dining area. She gulped hard at the thought of the noisy grandkids playing, grandparents cooing at the babies, and adults conversing. Dodging the crowd when she first arrived seemed the best defense. Now, she’d have to at least make an appearance. “I don’t belong here,” she whispered.
“Just take in that tray of drinks for me, will ya, honey? I’ve gotta grab these babies out of the oven before they burn.” The metal clanged as she took out the baking sheets. “New recipe. Marcus, Stu, and I did the buffet. Gotta have taste testers for our new recipes. We’re putting together a cookbook for King’s. Ain’t that somethin’?”
Paige murmured and grabbed for the tray. One good deed, and then I’m back to drawing.
The tray was big and cumbersome. A restaurant tray with at least ten glasses. Figures!Backing out of the room, she went unnoticed. She tiptoed away, turned, and promptly ran into someone. Reaching out, Dolly grabbed for the tray to help steady them. Lemonade sloshed over the sides and splashed on the metal.
“But, how did you get from there to here?” Paige wondered how the woman had moved so fast. It was like something out of the movies. The woman moved at lightning speed.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Dolly exclaimed. “I was just checking on the crowd and boom, you’re under my feet. You scared me half to death, Paigey. Come and help me tidy up.”
Paige grimaced at the nickname the King family cook had bestowed on her and the idea of hanging around. But, she did cause this mess, so her manners won out. “I’ll be glad to.” Well, not really, she thought as twin boys banged through the doors and rushed into the kitchen.
“Slow them steps down, Pete and Repeat.” Dolly winked at her. ”Love them two little rascals.”
“Yes ma’am,” they called out in unison. They scrambled in and rummaged for something, and then, just as quickly, dashed back out again.
“My, this place is Grand Central Station if you ask me. But, I love it.” She giggled.
Smiling at the likeable lady, she followed her back into the big modern kitchen with every known stainless-steel appliance gleaming. The wonderful aroma of chocolate made her moan. “This could be straight out of one of those design magazines Priscilla loves so much. Now I know why you like to use this as your test kitchen and bake all those goodies to send to the store for us.”
Dolly patted her hips. “Honey, you can’t keep a good girl down. If you know what I mean?”
Hurriedly, Paige wiped down the outside of the glasses while Dolly cleaned off the tray.
“You can’t fool me. You were trying to sneak out. No, don’t you go denying it. I can tell just by your cheeks turning pink.”
Heat stung her. Caught!Shrugging, she said, “I’m an only child. I’m not used to a lot of people.” That much was true.
She burst out laughing. “Well, get used to it and fast. You’re the next big thing at King’s, so you’re going to get noticed.”
Her throat went dry—well even drier than it was. Shaking her head, she said, “No. No way. Not me.”
“Uh huh. Yes, you.”
This time a chill went over her. All she wanted was a normal, boring life. Was that asking too much?At twenty-seven, she’d had enough drama and attention to last her a lifetime. Normal, was her adopted mantra this last year.
Going against her parents’ wishes, she’d found a roommate and moved into an apartment. They were still overprotective and dropped by or called several times a day. Truth be told, they’d smothered her, but she didn’t have the heart to come right out and tell them: Mom, Dad, I need my own space and you need to find something else to focus on now. Or, in other words, get a life.
They’d been through so much pain because of her. She couldn’t hurt them again.
Slowly, she struck out to do the things she’d never been allowed to do before. It was liberating and scary all at the same time.
Normal was nice. Normal was just where she wanted to stay.
However, her recent nine-to-five job had turned against her when Charlotte King, the owner of King’s, spotted her drawings one day. From one artist to another, they’d hit it off and soon Paige found herself designing dresses instead of selling them.
She loved to design and thought she’d hide in a room all by herself. It had worked. Until recently.
Ditching get-togethers and ducking out of the spotlight had worked fine. Until now…
“Ah, Dolly. I’m not sure what you mean.” Fear trickled down her spine.
“You, silly. You’re the next hit at King’s. I can’t wait to see that blush wedding dress you just designed.” Lowering her voice, she whispered, “Charlie wants you to model it for the promo ads. My, that long, long blonde hair of yours…How long is it, honey? You never did answer that one?”
Um…over four feet, when I take it down or out of the braid.
“And your beau-tee-ful big blue eyes…” She sighed wistfully.
This was the first she heard of the plan. “She…never said anything.”
“Oops!” She chuckled. “I let the cat out of the bag, didn’t I? Never you mind what I say.”
How could she forget something like that?Her picture splayed across newspapers. Again! No, not this time.
“You take this tray to the family, will ya? No ditching us, either, hear me? I gotta check on the whoopie pies. My first time making this kind of whoopie, if you know what I mean.”
She chuckled with the lady. Dolly kept talking and laughing as Paige picked up the tray. She tread lightly out of the room and to the large double swinging doors. Glancing around, she spotted a table to set the heavy tray down on before she made her getaway.
Male voices grew louder, making her heart jump to her throat. She froze. Someone, maybe Dolly, would come and find her here, ready to bolt. Then she’d never get away.
There was only one thing to do.
Balancing the tray in her hand, she scurried to the door and shoved it open. It shoved back. The force propelled her backwards. She stumbled, the glasses clinking together, and then she righted herself. Going back again, she pushed forward. Charge!
Before she could get there, the door swung inward. She saw a chest—wide and in her face—covered in a denim shirt just before she plowed into it. Now I know what it’s like running into a brick wall.
“Wow!” Gulping, she looked up and into startling warm chocolate-brown eyes. She tried to draw back, but her hair was snagged on him. Somewhere. She didn’t dare look any lower.
“Wow, yourself,” he said, looking at her and then to her long, thick braid draped over her shoulder and now part of it tangled in the buttons on his shirt. “Here, let me,” he offered, gently extracting the silky, long strands.
“Jay, I told you she was pretty,” the man-boy beside him said.
“That she is, brother, that she is…” He whispered the last, his voice low.
It tugged at her. Something crashed and fell, hitting the pit of her belly. Finally, she dragged her attention away from Mr. Rock Hard Sexy and turned to the guy beside him. “Hey, I know you. Danny, what are you doing here?” Her breakroom buddy stood with that sweet, goofy grin of his. He shoved his glasses back up on his nose.
“I know you, too. Fancy meeting you here. Paige, this is my baby brother. Jay, this is my friend from King’s, Paige. Now shake hands.” He eyed them closely.
Reluctantly, Paige rebalanced the tray and did as he said. Baby brother?The guy was taller by at least six inches and broader. Sexy Jay took her hand and held it in his large grasp. She let out a gasp at the strong, yet gentle touch. Pinpricks raced up her arm.
Paige grew warm, very warm. Tugging her hand and her gaze away, she shoved the drink tray at him. Thankfully, he grabbed it and held it easily in his big hands. “Help yourself. And while you’re at it, you can pass them around.” She tilted her head to the voices coming from the dining area. “I’m outta here.”
“Uh…” He stuttered. “Your shirt. Wet T-shirt contest kinda wet.” His gaze flickered over her damp shirt and met her eyes. His lopsided grin made her weak-kneed. “If you’re going for that look, no problem. But, I’m not sure if you’re into public partial nudity.”
Jerking her gaze to the front of her white shirt, Paige groaned at the large wet spot and how it seeped to her bra, making everything particularly transparent. Quickly, she repositioned her braid to cover the right one and crossed her arms over her chest and covered herself.
Could you die of embarrassment? Was there some kind of study done? Like how it begins with the whooshing heat and continues until there’s nothing but ashes left? ’Cause she could feel the heat blasting through her cheeks at the moment and the rest of her was on fire. Is this the answer to the great mystery of spontaneous combustion?
She tried to glimpse a peek over his broad shoulder. “I gotta go.” But where to, looking like this?
Jay Whitfield sucked in a sharp breath. “Is it something I said?” His lips twitched when his question stopped her short. The bright pink in her cheeks was still there and she couldn’t look him in the eye.
At least she smiled. “I’m not a people person.”
“Well, Jay is. Aren’t you, Jay?” Danny elbowed him. “Everyone loves him.”
“That’s not entirely true.” He took pity on the poor girl and handed Danny the tray, Jay shucked off his denim shirt, revealing the black T-shirt he wore underneath, and held it out to her. God, it was a shame to cover her up. He’d glanced and swallowed hard. She was incredible. But he wasn’t a dog. Never was, never had been. Not his style.
There, she looked up and held his stare. It was hard to breathe. Reaching out, she took the offered shirt. “Thanks. I owe you.” Hurriedly, she jerked it on, pulling the long braid out. The fabric hung down to her knees on her petite body. She gathered the edges, bunched it up, and tied the tails together low on her sexy hips. Skintight jeans and sexy sandals. Was it getting hotter in here?
“Come on, bro, don’t be selling yourself short, now. Here, you can show Paige around.”
“No. I’m good.” Jay cringed at his brother’s interference and took the tray of drinks back. How many times did he have to tell this one and the other two, his job was taking care of them? Ever since their dad had died when they were just kids and then their mother when Jay had turned eighteen, he had taken over as the sole caregiver to his older, mentally challenged brother and his two younger ones. They were always trying to fix him up, telling him he needed a life. He had one, thank you very much.
“Again? Paigey. Tsk Tsk!” The older woman came up behind her and slipped her arm through hers. “I’m glued to you now, honey.”
Paige groaned out loud. “Oh, the suffering.”
Jay and his brother chuckled.
“Oh my, it’s you! It can’t be. You’re even bigger and handsomer in person.” The older woman waved her hand. “Come in and set those drinks down.”
“In person?” Paige whispered to the woman.
“Yeah, don’t you know who you’re flirting with?”
“I wasn’t flirting,” she said, looking at him under her long lashes.
“Yeah, right. If you say so.” His brother chimed in.
“Danny, I thought you were my friend?’ To Dolly, she said, “It’s the hair. Everyone stares at the hair.” Under her breath, she asked, “Who is he?” But Jay heard her.
“I’m Dolly, by the way. You two hunks come on in.”
“Not family. So who?”
Holding the tray prevented him from sticking out his hand again. “I’m—”
“Oh, no you don’t, handsome. This one is trying to bolt. Let’s keep her curious and she’ll hang out for a while.”
Jay read the debate chasing over her beautiful features. Her eyes clouded over, yet took him in.
He grew warm, feeling her gaze travel over his face, and then his shoulders, his biceps, and skimmed the rest of him. The blood in his veins buzzed. Jay swallowed. No one had ever made him this hot with just one look. No one. “See enough?”
There it was again; that battle going on in her shone in those crystal-clear blue eyes. She shrugged nonchalantly.
“Oh, come on, you want to know,” Jay’s brother pressed, grinning from ear-to-ear.
Someone burst through the doors. “Shake a leg, will ya?” A voice from behind him caught his attention.
“Girls, where have you been? You’re missing all the fun—” The colorful guy stopped in mid-sentence when he halted beside Dolly. His jaw dropped for a second. “O-M-G! Well, I rephrase that. You two were having all the fun. Hello, gorgeous.” He did a great Streisand impersonation.
Jay’s brother said, “Thank you, Rico. I got all the looks in the family.”
They chuckled in unison.
“Who do we have here?”
Dolly elbowed him. “It’s a surprise, Rico. Paige was going to duck out on us. So now she’s gotta stay and find out.”
He smacked Paige on the arm. “Quit doing that, girl. Admit it. You can’t hide anymore.”
“Not with the two of you breathing down my neck,” she muttered, defeated. But there was a smile in her voice.
What in the world is going on?Paige sat tense in her chair. And guess who they’d sat next to her?Of all people, the handsome mystery guy and her former breakroom friend, Danny. Too bad she’d never gotten his last name. He’d started working a few weeks ago, in the stockroom. He’d helped her with a vending machine when her drink had gotten stuck. Her former hero.
“Don’t think I won’t hold this against you,” she said, leaning around hot guy to tell Danny.
“You’re funny, Paige. One day, you’ll thank me.”
The food was delicious. In spite of being anxious of the crowd and the mystery guy, Paige polished off her food samples. On a nearby sheet, she rated the dishes—appetizers, salads, main meals, dessert. Maybe she needed another bite or two. Just to help out, of course. She glanced down at his plate. “You gonna finish that quiche?”
“Help yourself.” He shifted his arm and laid it along the back of her chair.
His scent, warm and musky, filled her nostrils. The heat from his arm seared her back. She eyed him under her lashes. “Food. That’s all I want.” Her tummy grumbled. Starving.
He chuckled. “Sounds like you haven’t eaten in a week.”
Whoosh!Heat blasted her face. It was something she’d dealt with for years now. Side effects of her treatment. But she wouldn’t tell him that. “Like a cat, you know. I purr when I’m hungry.” Oh, fudge, that came out all breathy and sexy.
“I thought they only purred when they’re happy…and satisfied.” His husky voice whispered in her ear.
“If I could have everyone’s attention please,” Charlotte King called out as she stood before them. The dull roar eased and the room hushed.
Thank you, Charlie, for saving my butt. Quickly, she grabbed the quiche off his plate and bit into it. She moaned softly.
Jay sucked in a sharp breath.
In mid-chew, Paige glanced at him. His eyes were on hers, and then his gaze dropped to her mouth. She must have crumbs there. Scrubbing her lips with her fingers, she swore she read disappointment in his eyes. Turning away, she popped the rest into her mouth and quickly finished it off. She’d never let a hot gaze detour her from food.
“Thank you all for coming today. Although most of you didn’t have a choice, did you?” Charlie looked at her family. “Dolly threatened and Eddie rounded you up.” Everyone chuckled.
“Griff,” she nodded to the man she’d hired to run the store and now her brother-in-law, “and I have some exciting news to share with all of you. But, first, we want to welcome our guests. Rico, you’re part of the family, and, even if you weren’t, there’d be no need to introduce you since you’re one of a kind and everyone loves you.”
“Of course I am,” he agreed, much to everyone’s delight. He fluffed his hair. “I make an impression.”
“Indeed you do,” Griff, sitting nearby, said.
Rico stuck his tongue out at Griff. “Smarty pants.”
“That’s our Rico,” Charlie offered. “Now, back to business. I’d like you to meet our rising bright star, Paige Sumner. Paige, stand up so everyone can see you.”
She froze. She slid down in her chair. Didn’t work. All eyes focused on her. She forced a polite smile and waved off Charlie. No thanks.
“Take your bow,” Jay said, coaxing her.
“Thanks, I’m good,” she said for everyone’s ears. To Jay, she said, “Mind your beeswax, will ya?”
Before she could get anything else out, Dolly was by her side and tugging her chair back. “No getting outta this one, Paigey. Go on up there.” The woman half pulled and half dragged her out of her chair and up beside Charlie.
Her boss touched her arm. “Everyone, this is Paige Sumner, our newest wedding dress designer. She’s incredibly talented.”
“Hear, hear!” Francine King Goode, the wedding dress buyer for King’s and Charlie’s stepsister, cheered. “Exquisite designs!”
“Gorg!” Rico, King’s wedding coordinator, chimed in, clapping louder than the rest. “Swoon worthy!”
Charlie nodded to her sister and Rico, and then continued. “You have seen her artistic work in the princess room here at the café. Well, she’s now working on the mural for the knight room opening soon.”
Paige wanted to simply die, quick and fast. Her cheeks burned and she could barely look at the people clapping. She let her gaze skim the thirty plus family members and sunk inwardly a little more.
She wanted out of the spotlight, not into it. Once was more than enough. And for all the wrong reasons.
Bravely, she glanced at Jay. His grin made her breath catch. She caught the slight nod he gave her and the tension in her eased a bit.
“We—Griff, Francie, Rico, and myself—have decided Paige should get her own wedding line dress label at King’s…”
A thousand bees buzzed in her ears. She missed the rest of the speech; her mind crashed. No, I must be hearing it wrong. No can do! Safe. Boring. Hidden away. That’s what she longed for.
“Okie dokie, got the contracts all done,” Peg, the executive assistant to Griff, said, tapping on her clipboard.
“Paige? Honey, you’ve gone white on me.” Charlie put her arm around Paige and hugged her to her side. “I know. It’s a surprise. But, really, you’re tops. Take some time to let it sink in.” To the family, Charlie said, “We’ll give Paige here some breathing room. Right, honey? The King family can take a bit to get used to.”
On shaky legs and to more applause, Paige made it back to her chair. Jay stood and helped her sit down. “Impressive, Ms. Sumner.”
Her tight smile made her face ache. “What, the red face or the white one?” I’m talented like that.
His chuckle warmed the cold places in her and she began to feel again. Not a good sign when it was Mr. Rock Hard Sexy doing it to you.
“Marcus, would you like to tell us your news before I go any further?” Charlie asked.
“Sure thing.” He kissed his wife and baby girl before moving to Charlie’s side. He nodded to Jay and said, “We have two more guests. King’s own, Danny, who started in the stockroom a few weeks ago. He’s amazing at organizing things and, if he’s willing, I can use him to help organize Stu and my restaurant storerooms.”
“I’m your guy,” Danny said, grinning from ear-to-ear.
Jay pat his brother on the shoulder. “Great job, buddy.”
“My new side business.” Danny rubbed his hands together.
“Now, the guy sitting next to him is his brother, Jay Whitfield. Jay, if you don’t already know, is a former Dallas Cowboys tight end—”
“Oh, shut the front door,” Rico exclaimed. “Tight end?! I call dibs!”
Paige stilled and then slowly turned to the man sitting at her side. She blinked once and then again as she stared at him. Why hadn’t she realized it before now?He was known for his quick moves and fast legs. The great Jay Whitfield! Her father would flip if he knew she’d met him, never mind sat beside him.
“You…the Jay—” She gulped hard. Something inside her crashed and burned. He was incredible on the field. His college and pro records could fill a book. His name alone would stop traffic, never mind his gorgeous face, warm brown eyes, and wavy shoulder length hair. He made men—look at Rico now—and women swoon. Kids looked up to him. His charity work was legendary. He was just as at ease off the football field as he was on. And people adored him.
He made the papers slightly less now that he’d retired due to several concussions. But he’d been rumored to be working on some exciting new things to be announced soon. It was only a matter of time before he hit the Dallas headlines again.
“You look mad for some reason,” he whispered to her.
“Congratulations on being a god,” she muttered, turning away from him. For some reason it hurt. He hadn’t said a thing. And why should he; he was a stranger to her. But, she should have known he was special, should have sensed he was famous and in the limelight…
Where the heck was her radar when she needed it the most?
He couldn’t figure her out. One minute, they’re joking and the next, she’s looking at him as if he’d grown a horn in the middle of his head.
“Jay?” Marcus asked.
His brother jabbed him in the side with an elbow. “They want to know if you’re gay.”
Jerking his head back to focus on Marcus, he said, “What?”
“Rico wants to know what side you play on.”
Looking across the many tables packed with the King family, he caught the man’s wide eyes and big, hopeful smile. Jay shook his head. “Sorry, bud, not my type.”
He pressed the back of his hand to his forehead. “Why? Just tell me why all the good ones are straight?”
Jay chuckled and the others joined him. Even Paige let out a puff. Was it a laugh or a snort? Why should he even care?
“Your true love is out there, Rico.” Under his breath, Marcus said, “Somewhere. Hopefully he’ll show up soon and help us all out.”
“I heard that,” Rico said. “And I used to like you, too.”
Marcus grinned. “No hard feelings, Rico. It’s just you need to get—”
“Hey, not in front of the children,” Dolly chimed in.
“A man.” Marcus finished and shook his head. “What did you think I was going to say, Dolly?”
The older woman blushed. “Mr. G., you don’t fool me. I know what you were thinking.”
He winked at her and the pink turned to red. There was a lot of ribbing from the other family members.
Jay smiled. The close-knit family made him realize he was making the right move for his brothers and himself. This wasn’t so much a world-renowned department store as it was a family business that happened to be very, very successful.
Marcus held up his hands to quiet them. “Okay, folks, back to more news. Jay, Stu, and I are in serious talks, which is code for it’s a go, to open a sports bar and grill in the city.”
“I’ll be damned…”
Cheers went up and congratulations went around. All but Paige reacted. Well, she did, but not in a good way.
“Is it the bar and grill or just me you don’t like?” Jay asked. Why should it matter to him?
Finally, she turned to him. “It’ll be a smash hit.” She shrugged. “If that’s the sort of thing you like.”
He recalled her reaction to being called up beside Charlotte King—her cringing at the request, her reluctance to take a bow. “Don’t you like success?”
“Love it,” she said tightly. “For other people.” She shoved back her chair.
Jay stopped her. “He’s not finished. You have to stay for the rest of it.” No wonder Dolly had to warn him she was a flight risk.
“Not only that, but there’s more,” Charlie said. She nodded in his direction. “Jay has agreed to an exclusive deal with King’s Department Store. He will have his own line with us. So we’ll have two new lines we’ll be promoting in the next few months: Jay’s brand and products and Paige’s wedding dress line.”
“No, she just didn’t say that, did she?” Paige muttered, jerking her head to look at him.
“Yep.” Jay smiled with satisfaction at her stunned expression. “You and me, Paige.”