Sean stood at the front of the Chicago Wyse Hotel circle drive and watched Max rev his engine and pull his bike to a stop. The pair of shapely legs—a fair observation, not some pervy, inappropriate last-minute play on his part—bracketing Max’s shifted, and then Sarah was stepping off the bike, somehow managing the frothy pile of white dress enough to keep herself decent in the process. The girl had skills.
Max crawled off the bike himself, and despite the guy’s inexplicable refusal to tux up for the big day, the off-white suit and open shirt collar looked damned good. And Sarah… Well, shit, she was a knockout. Total boner material—or she would be if she wasn’t marrying one of his best friends.
“Sarah, you’re breathtaking. Absolutely radiant,” Sean offered, the filter between his brain and mouth fully engaged on Wyse Hotel grounds.
“So awesome!” Molly squealed, bouncing over to her brother and future sister-in-law. “How was it getting over here?”
Her feet were bare, and there was a bruise the size of a quarter next to her shin. Sean felt a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. How the hell had she gotten that? With Molly, it could be anything. As with that shock of hair in the front. When he’d seen her at eleven the night before, it had been purple, but now it was the hottest pink he could imagine.
“The ride of my life.” Sarah beamed, toeing off the clunky motorcycle boots that had served as her “something borrowed” and exchanging them for the pair of strappy heels dangling from Molly’s fingers.
“You ready to do this, Big Brother?” Molly asked, sticking her feet into her boots.
“Like eight years ago.” Max grinned, then checking his watch, he looked back to Sarah. “Why’d we have to get here so early again?”
Sean knew why. Molly had clued him in the night before while making that little squick face of hers. Turns out Sarah was all about too-much-informationing Molly into sticking to a set of boundaries no one had managed with his girl before. So any time Molly even edged into inappropriate-question territory, Sarah gave her an answer sure to scar her for life. This time, the answer had to do with how hot it had made her to remember Max pulling up to CJ’s wedding in a tux, and that actually being the bride on the back of Max’s bike might mean a little “alone time” was in order before the ceremony.
Hence the additional room booked for the pre-wedding activities. Definitely information Sean didn’t need about his very fucking favorite employee. But since Molly had to bear it, he did too.
Sarah tugged Max down to whisper in his ear, and Molly grimaced beside Sean.
Max’s brows rose. His expression darkened. And then Molly wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with the way the heat had just cranked up there on the sidewalk.
Without taking his eyes off his bride, Max tossed his keys to Sean. “Yeah, so we’re gonna go get cleaned up some before the ceremony. See you in about an hour.”
Sarah had her finger hooked into a button on Max’s shirt and was walking backward, leading him into the hotel.
Damn, Max had found his perfect match in that girl.
One of these days, Sean would find his own perfect match. He’d been looking. Even thought he might have found her once or twice. But despite everything on paper being right—the right name, the right school, the right looks and connections—he hadn’t been able to pull the trigger. Then again, after the shit storm between his parents these past months, that was probably a good thing.
“It’s not the infidelity,” his mother had spat out that day in their Manhattan Wyse apartment. “It’s your lack of tact I take issue with, Warren. We’ve both had our indiscretions…but at least I had enough respect for you and what we’ve built together to make sure they didn’t follow me home. You humiliated me.”
His father had straightened his tie where he stood, his voice as calm as if he’d been ordering room service. “I thought it was enough. A million dollars, Beverly. It’s not like I could force them—”
Talk about pulling the curtain back.
And ever since, Sean had been looking at things…differently.
Reevaluating the plans he’d had in place forever.
Questioning exactly what he wanted his life to look like, and the only solid answer he’d come up with so far was…not like that.
But he’d figure all that shit out another day. Today he was Max Brandt’s best man, and he had one last gift for the groom.
“Hey, Moll,” he said, catching her hand in his before she could dart off. “Hang back a sec.”
“Yeah?” She peered up at him with those vast blue-sky eyes and that open, excellent smile.
Dropping her hand, he took a step back, giving her a jut of his chin. “You get the rent from your roommate yet?”
The big blues cut away, and her smile firmed into a flat line. “I said I’d take care of it.”
She had said so. Six months ago, when the dick cheese holed up in her spare room stopped paying rent on time, sometimes skipping a whole month before giving half of what he owed. Why did she have to be so stubborn? If she’d let him, Sean would’ve had the rent paid in full and the guy out within a week. But no. Not little Miss Independent-to-a-Fucking-Fault.
That tightening sensation across his chest warned he needed to rein it in. Because as pissed as he was that this bullshit was still an issue—that Molly wouldn’t let him help her—going nuclear beneath the awning of his hotel wasn’t going to happen.
But he knew what would.
“You remember what I told you, Moll?”
She didn’t answer, but the subtle tensing of her shoulders told him she remembered just fine.
“If you didn’t take care of it, I would.” He’d warned her, but she hadn’t listened.
Turning abruptly, that sheer, creamy skirt twirling around her pretty knees, she glared up at him. Her arms crossed, turning her into a miniature version of her brother. Well, a miniature hot and cute and not-quite-as-tough-as-she-wished-she-was version.
“Don’t you even think about getting Max involved in this.” She sucked a breath through her nose and narrowed her eyes at him.
Damn, she was fun when she was fired up. But he had to stay tough—he was fired up too.
“Sean, just stay out of it. This is my problem. My apartment. My life. My situation to handle. If I wanted your interference, I’d ask for it. Understand?”
He nodded once, watching as she started inside for the wedding that would be held on the garden terrace.
He understood exactly. Molly had too much damned pride, and there was no fucking way he was going to stand by and let this wad screw her over for even one more day. Pulling his phone from his pocket, Sean hit Dial and waited for the call to connect. “Yeah, go ahead and load it up. Use the keys I left on the coffee table at my place to get in to hers… Yep, good.”
Then, with a twirl of Max’s keys around his finger and the perfect combination of testosterone and righteous indignation thundering through his veins, he hopped on Max’s bike, revved the engine, and took off for Molly’s place.
Get ready to meet your new roommate, Moll.
* * *
Three hours later, Sean stood at the edge of the dance floor in the Wyse Villa Ballroom watching Max dance with his brand-new bride to Ray LaMontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing.” Max was smiling down at her, looking like the happiest man alive.
They deserved this. The dance, the day, the future. The happily ever after. All of it.
A smooth hip bumped his, and Sean turned to find Molly beside him, swaying in time to the soulful love song. Slinging his arm around her shoulders, he pulled her in so she was tucked close to his side. His hand rested over her bare shoulder, his thumb playing with that silky braided strap in a back-and-forth rub, until… Shit, right—this was Molly.
She grinned up at him, completely oblivious to the mental lapse on his part. “They look so damn good together. Seriously, can you believe that’s my brother out there? Commitment-phobe of the century?”
Sean shrugged. “Guess when you know, you know.”
Letting out the kind of dreamy sigh Molly would skin him for noticing, she nodded. “I guess.”
At the next chorus, the dance floor opened up to the wedding party.
Oh yeah. About time.
Without missing a beat, Sean had her hand in his. “Here we go, Moll. Let’s show ’em how it’s done.”
He spun her out before reeling her back in, held her against his chest for a beat, and then laughed as they mirrored each other, advancing and retreating into the shared space. He didn’t know how she did it, but even in those clunky boots, every move was fluid and free.
Pulling her in again, he sang along for a few lines, getting a kick out of his girl’s absolute delight. He meant every damn word.
Molly was the best thing. The best friend he had.
And he was going to soak up all her laughter and sweet smiles while he had them, because she was going to be pissed once they got back to her place.
“What’s with that face?” Molly asked, moving easily in time with him.
“What are you talking about?” he replied, giving her his polished best, the practiced society-page-ready smile he’d perfected too many years ago to count. The one she hated.
She fake gagged, giving him a disgusted look. Definitely not photo ready. But that was Molly, and hell, it was probably what Sean loved about her most. She didn’t care what anyone thought.
He’d caught a snap of her making that face about a year ago—with her lip curled, one lid a little lower than the other as she rolled her eyes at something he’d said—and instead of crawling all over him trying to steal his phone to delete it, she’d blown it up and posted it over the Belfast bar with a caption that read: Don’t Drink and Drive.
Just thinking about it had the more genuine smile she never failed to score breaking through his professional one.
“There we go,” she said, her head rocking to the beat of the music just a little. “That’s more like it. But seriously, what’s got your manties in a twist?” She scanned the ballroom around them. “Everything looks perfect. Your guys are bringing their A game tonight for sure. The food was tasty, the servers are rocking their jobs…and you know, being in the industry, I’m picky about that stuff.”
She was. And the event team was working like a well-oiled machine. But then they’d be nuts not to, considering Sean signed their paychecks and the bride headed sales and marketing for Wyse Hotels’ Midwest territory. Still, he liked hearing it.
Molly cleared her throat, waiting. Right, because she didn’t bother with questions she wasn’t fully expecting an honest answer to.
He shrugged. “Little jealous, maybe.”
Her big, blue eyes went wide with alarm as she grabbed his lapel, jerking him close to her face. Subtle.
“Over Sarah?” Molly sounded like she was going to puke, and who could blame her if she thought he was pining over her brother’s new bride? Okay, and sure, Sarah was the one who got away, though technically speaking, she’d been Max’s one who got away before she’d been Sean’s, and ix-nay on the pining, because he’d seriously only begun to register the assortment of desirable traits that might have qualified her as a potential Mrs. Wyse when Max started beating his chest and tripping over his damn feet because of her.
No way Sean was getting in the way of that. His real friendships were too few and far too important to risk over a maybe, possibly kind of interest. So after Max’s first chest thump, Sean had shut down the maybes and possibilities altogether. A skill he’d perfected over the years. And aside from the occasional clinically dispassionate observation that, under different circumstances, yeah, Sarah would have fit in with his former plans pretty damn well, he hadn’t thought about her like that again.
“Nah, not Sarah,” he assured Molly with a curt shake of his head. “But the nailing-down-their-forever, yeah, some.”
Molly’s smile went full-on imp. “Always a best man…never landing your bride?”
Sean coughed out a laugh. Because this girl. “Something like that,” he acknowledged.
Then more seriously, she added, “Must be nice to have someone love you like that.” Cutting him a sidelong look, her eyes narrowed. “Not that I’m interested.”
Right. She didn’t like people to know what a softy she was underneath her tough outer shell, but he knew the truth. Molly was all marshmallow inside. Sweet and gooey and his favorite platonic treat.
He tugged her close. “Liar. But it’s okay, Moll. Your secret’s safe with me. You want lurve,” he joked.
A motorcycle boot on his toes was her answer, but the way she was fighting that grin, her cheeks turning a pretty shade of pink, was reward enough. “Yeah, right.”
“You know you do,” he added, all singsong just above her ear. More of the blush filled her cheeks, hitting him like a drug and giving him everything he wanted.
Teasing Molly had been his favorite pastime since she’d basically moved into the quad he was sharing with Max, Jase, and Brody the second week of their freshman year in college. She’d been fifteen, still in high school, but so desperate to escape the war zone at home that she’d been willing to make the hour commute each day. It still killed him to think about that girl who’d been as lost and displaced as they came. Sullen and isolated. Shut off from everyone, even her brother.
It got to him. Seeing a kid like that with eyes so sad.
His family wasn’t anything like the Brandts’, but he knew what it was like to feel alone, so he’d made Molly his pet project. Chatting her up as if they were long-lost friends. Carrying on conversations between them where he’d ask her a question and then—because even pulling a single-word response from her could be damned near impossible—answer for her, making up outrageous claims. Clowning around and making faces at her every time he caught her sneaking a look from beneath the too-long fall of white-blond hair that was always in her eyes. Until finally, one day about three months into school, he did it. He teased that first smile out of her, and—Christ—he’d never gotten over it. Even eleven years later, Molly’s smile still topped his list of favorite things.
“Whatever. I’m not the one who’s been taking applicants for a wife for the past five years. Looking at every spoken-for female, like there’s another one who got away. You’re the one desperate for love.”
He barked out a laugh, knowing she was only half joking. He’d been serious about settling down, but not like that. “Love wasn’t really the objective.”
“Even worse.” She snorted. “But I know. You wanted the partner. The pedigree.”
“Come on,” he groaned, though why he gave her the satisfaction, he had no idea.
“The right school, the right name, the right connections. The right breeding.”
“Jesus, you make it sound like I was looking for a dog.” He hadn’t said half of that stuff, and the truth was, none of that really mattered to him. But it did matter to his parents. And he’d been going along.
Looking at Max and Sarah, who had that blissed-out, eye-staring thing happening, he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d already blown his chance at that kind of love. There had been a lot of women over the years. Women he’d shared a night with but refused to give a chance beyond that because they hadn’t fit the vision of what his future was supposed to look like.
Molly followed his stare and then stopped dancing.
“What?” he asked.
“I see you ogling their happily ever after.” She crossed her arms in that mini-Max stance that always put a smile on Sean’s face. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not making any deals with you about five years from now, if both of us are still single. No matter how many fancy hotels you have under your belt.”
Sean coughed a laugh into his hand, scanning the room out of habit to see who might be watching.
“Have it your way,” he replied. Then giving her a devilish grin, he pulled her back into the dance. They’d been to enough weddings over the years that she fell into step without a thought. “But you’re missing out. The hotels under my belt are really, really big. Awe inspiring. Life changing even. You should be so lucky to get your hands on one of my hotels.”
A disgusted grunt. She loved him.
“I see someone’s trying to compensate again.” Her pitying look hit all his sweet spots.
As to compensating…not really. But what he was trying to do was make the most of Molly’s good spirits before she found out what he’d done.
There were times when he kind of got off on her temper. But generally, it wasn’t directed at him. This time, it would be. And with that spine-deep stubborn streak she had going, there was no telling how long it would be before she let him off the hook. But he wouldn’t back down. And even if he wanted to, it was too late. The roommate was gone. Sean had gotten the text from the movers he’d hired to pull the guy’s stuff from the apartment, and Gary was out.
Molly would thank him. Eventually.
After she’d tortured him for a while, but whatever. He’d had enough of the asshole taking advantage of her.
The next song that came on was one of those older classic indies, with a slow beat and a dark, lulling melody Molly couldn’t get enough of. Wrapping an arm around her waist, Sean pulled her close. Her arms linked around his neck, her head falling back as she let him lead, one of those gorgeous contented smiles on her face.
Maybe she wouldn’t be mad for too long.
He hoped not.
Leaning over her so she bowed back while the singer held a note and the bass pumped, he drew a breath close to her neck. Damn, she smelled good.
“What is that, coconut?” he asked when he pulled her back up.
“Yeah, I just got it. Smells good, right?” Her hips following his, she cocked her head to the side, offering him another whiff of her neck.
Going back in for a second hit, he nodded. “It smells like one of those candy cocktails we were drinking down in Mexico.”
Molly’s eyes squinted, and he had the feeling he was witnessing her attempt at a sexy look. “I’m intoxicating.”
Yep. Supposed to be sexy. “Watch out, men. She comes across sweet, but she’ll knock you on your ass if you aren’t looking.”
Her answering nod was pure delight. “Hells to the yeah.”
Damn, she was cute.
But now he was thinking about the guys who were always sniffing around her, and he mentally added: Even if Molly wasn’t strong enough to knock them out, Sean and her brother sure as hell were.
* * *
“Sean, you are such a cock blocker,” Molly hissed, elbowing her favorite partner in crime in the ribs. The guy would not leave her alone. “Seriously, you’re cramping my style. People are going to think we’re together.”
“Cock blocking?” Sean snorted from behind her at the south bar, not showing any signs of stepping back. Not that she’d thought he would. Sean tended to do what he wanted. And in all honesty, when he wanted to hang out with her, she didn’t mind. Even if it was costing her the hottie bartender who’d been giving her his A game all night. Clingy Sean was her favorite Sean. He didn’t show up too often, but when he did, he was full of hugs and private jokes and the dirty, crass comments she’d loved since way back when he was just another college kid. Back before he’d become the face of the Chicago Wyse and tucked all his awesomely bad behavior behind the facade of his proper public image. “Moll, you know I love it when you talk like you have a pair, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing for me to block.”
She rolled her eyes. “Obviously, the blockage would take place from the other side. I don’t need you getting in the way of… Gah, never mind.”
Sean craned his neck and searched the crowd. “One of these guys? I thought you had a thing about not dating cops. And so far as I can tell, they’re the only single guys here.”
“Hmm,” she replied noncommittally, because no way was she going to give up the identity of her flirty bartender. Too much fun watching Sean try to weasel it out of her.
He didn’t like that. Suddenly, everyone was a suspect, earning that overprotective, narrow-eyed look that if she really let her imagination stretch, she could almost pretend was a distant cousin—a very distant cousin—to jealousy. It wasn’t. Sean didn’t think of her like that. He thought of her as the little sister he’d never had. Which made her lucky, and she was totally good with that.
The wild crush of her youth was almost completely tamed these days—and had been for years. Sure, there was the occasional flare-up, but she knew better than to give it too much room to breathe, and usually, she had those rogue emotions back to heel within a couple of days, if not hours.
She was that good.
“Tell me it’s not that guy Jimmy,” Sean grumbled. “The one who’s always getting carried out of the bathroom.”
This time, her eyes were narrowing. “A little credit, please.” Like she would be waiting on a notorious puker? Not likely. Besides, Sean was right. She didn’t date cops. Ever. In fact, she worked tremendously hard to make sure she didn’t date anyone within her brother’s immediate circle. She liked her privacy and independence, which were easier to maintain with a little distance. Sure, if she was with a guy for any extended period, eventually Max and everyone got to know him…but she generally tried to cast her reel into distant ponds. More convenient when stuff went south, and safer for the guy if he turned out to be not so cool to her.
“I know, I know,” Sean assured, though he wouldn’t have brought it up if he wasn’t at least slightly concerned. Annoying, but this was too great a day to hold much of a grudge.
“Come on,” he cajoled. “Give me a hint.”
“I don’t think so.”
“A baby hint. Like, which side of the room is he on?”
For a second, Molly pretended she was ready to give him that much, but then she closed her mouth and shook her head. “A lady doesn’t kiss and tell.”
She knew it was wrong to get off on that stunned scowl, but come on, Sean’s slack-jawed reaction was priceless. “You were kissing?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said, giving him her most mysterious look. Which might have been a smidge too much, because then Sean was shaking his head and laughing into his fist.
“As a matter of fact, Molly, I would. And if you don’t tell me, mark my words, I’ll ruin your shot at picking up anyone at this wedding.”
Brows rising, she grinned. “And just how do you plan to do that?”
Sean smoothed his already-perfect golden-brown hair, scanning the ballroom. “You were worried about people thinking we’re together…and that was just from me hanging around. You don’t think I can do better?”
Molly gulped, because she didn’t doubt he could do way better. But he wouldn’t. Because he was Sean and she was Molly. Period.
“I’m not going to leave your side, Moll,” he warned, rolling up to the balls of his feet. “Where you go, I go. Feel like taking a load off? I’ll join you for a drink at the table. Want to dance? Hello, partner. Some fresh air sound about right—?”
“And what if I feel like taking a tee-tee break? You gonna join me in the little girls’ room, Sean?”
The smirk dropped from his lips, but his eyes held steady. “Pass. But I’ll be happy to wait outside the door.”
Molly shook her head and laughed. “I guess there are worse things than having you as my shadow for a few hours. But just so you know…I’m still not talking.”
Sean’s expression was every kind of victorious—and then it wasn’t. He tugged at his collar and leaned closer. Looking almost nervous.
“Hey, Moll, the reason you don’t care about me cramping your style at the wedding isn’t because you already made plans to meet up with this guy later, is it?”
This was weird. Sean was a chatty guy, and when it came to deets about the men she’d broken up with, he couldn’t get enough. But as a rule, when it came to her sex life in the now, Sean tended to steer clear. That whole residual big-brother thing, she figured. So having him ask about the night to come was unusual.
But not as much as the look of relief on his face at hearing she didn’t have plans.
“What’s up with you?” she demanded.
His brows rose, and he took a step back. “Me? Nothing.” Then reaching for the tie that wasn’t there—because neatening his look was sort of like snuggling with a security blanket for Sean—he shrugged. “I was just thinking I’d crash at your place after the reception and didn’t want to get in your way.”
Now things were really getting weird. “My place. Sean, we’re literally seven floors beneath your place. In the hotel you own. What gives?”
“I’m having some work done, actually. And you know how I hate to stay in hotel rooms.”
She grinned, because that was one of her favorite quirks about Sean. Wyse was one of the most successful luxury hotel chains in the world…but Sean had a thing about staying in the rooms. Whatever.
“It’s fine. But this better not be some ploy to muscle my roommate.”
The corners of Sean’s mouth pulled down into an exaggerated frown as he shook his head. “Promise. I won’t give your roommate a hard time at all.”
“And you’re staying on the couch. Last time you crashed in my bed, you took up the whole thing, and I couldn’t sleep at all.” He was big. Not quite as tall as her brother or the other guys, but still, six feet was a lot of man. Especially when said man was off-limits and keeping a solid twelve inches of space between them was the only way she could ensure she didn’t wake up with her legs tangled with his or her mouth against his chest.
“I’ll stay out of your bed.”
She eyed him a minute longer just to make sure he knew she was serious and then gave up her grin. “Okay, deal.”