When the wealthy and charming Drew Graham walks into the Tawnee Mountain Resort where I work and offers me a lucrative part-time job it sounds too good to be true. I just have to pretend to be his fiancée until he wins the election for Governor and then we can go our separate ways. It seems like an easy way to make a hundred thousand dollars…until his brother, Austin, returns from Europe and moves in with us. And I’m completely overwhelmed by my attraction to my fake fiancé’s rebellious younger brother.
My brother hasn’t changed very much since I left for Europe. He’s just a little more of everything. Cocky, charismatic, and quite charming. Give him an audience, no matter how small, and he’ll captivate them within minutes.
Not that I haven’t been accused of being cocky myself. Okay, maybe I’ve been called an asshole on more than a few occasions. But charming I am not. My brother is great at telling people exactly what they want to hear. It’s a skill that will serve him very well in politics. I’m more of a say-what’s-on-my-mind kind of guy. I’m always straightforward and honest. I tell people what I think they need to hear even if they don’t want to hear it.
“Austin Graham,” my big brother says when he finally spots me. He excuses himself from the small group of would-be campaign donors and heads in my direction. “The rebel without a cause returns to the roost.”
To my surprise my brother grabs me into a hug. I reflexively look around the ballroom to see if there are any photographers snapping shots of us. That’s the only reason I could see Drew giving me such a warm greeting. We didn’t exactly part on the friendliest of terms when I left the country.
“I take it Dad summoned you back to the States to help with the campaign.”
“Help is really a strong word. I get the impression I’m needed for publicity photos. He says he wants to show the press that our family is strong and united. You are running a family values campaign, aren’t you?”
My brother glares at me. Then after a few moments of being at the center of his arctic stare he says, “Nice suit.”
“It should be. You probably paid top dollar for it.”
“I thought it looked familiar.”
“Suits and I don’t really get along.”
“I guess that means Dad hasn’t talked you into getting a real job yet.”
“I’ve had plenty of real jobs all over Europe. Everything from milking cows to fixing motorcycles. Whatever odd jobs people had in exchange for a hot meal and a warm bed.”
Drew shakes his head. “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe we’re products of the same two parents.”
“You were there when I was born,” I remind him.
“And you were stubborn and willful from the moment you took your first breath. Some things never change.”
“I need a drink,” I announce. Drew, always being the perfect politician and everything his constituents want him to be wrapped in a picture-perfect package, rarely drinks anything but water and orange juice. I, on the other hand, imbibe on a regular basis.
“Maybe stick with one,” he suggests. “Nurse it for a while.”
“Yes, Sir,” I give him a cheesy little fake salute.
As I approach the bar I see a gorgeous little blonde serving small cups of wine to several middle-aged women wearing matching conservative navy blue suits and single strands of white pearls around their necks. They all have their hair cut short and look like they’ll be absolutely no fun even with a little wine in them.
Once the women of the blue suit brigade have cups of wine in their hands they make their way over to my brother. As I wait for the bartender to acknowledge me I’m a little hurt that she doesn’t even glance up at me when she asks me what I want. Then I remember I’m wearing one of my brother’s stuffy suits and that I probably look just like another one of the conservative jackasses at the fundraising event.
This girl looks like someone who prefers a more down-to-Earth kind of guy. If I had on my everyday attire: leather jacket, well-worn jeans and black biker boots, I think I’d get her attention in a heartbeat.
“Beer,” I say, trying to will the blonde to at least glance at me once. But to no avail. She’s all business, serving drinks then taking the next person’s order.
“We’ve got Miller, Bud, and Coors.”
She nods and fills up one of the small cups with beer. It’s not even the size of a Dixie cup. Maybe half as large. “Got anything bigger than that?”
She shakes her head. “Sorry. It’s complimentary. You can have as many as you like.”
I hold up the ridiculously small cup. It would probably take about ten of these before I even felt a buzz. “Thanks.”
She nods, but she’s only half paying attention to me. When I glance down at her name tag I see her name is Mazzy. Unusual name. I’m completely intrigued. Not just because she’s beautiful with a smoking hot body to match, but there’s something about her that’s different.
Most girls fall all over themselves to get my attention when they figure out who my family is. Being from a wealthy and well-connected family is like an aphrodisiac for most women. I look down to make sure I’m still wearing my name tag and it’s definitely there. This girl just hasn’t even bothered to take a look at it.
Two guys are now standing behind me so I know I have to let her serve them, but I don’t want to move from this spot. I just want to look at her for a few seconds more. I like watching the way she moves. She seems so carefree and comfortable in her body. As carefree as I like to pretend to be I know I’m really just a mass of insecurities and compensative tactics.
“Anything else?” she asks.
Your number, I want to say, but what’s the point. I don’t plan on being in New Jersey any longer than I have to. I promised my dad I’d stay through the election and that’s it. Then my backpack and I are off to Asia.
I take my ridiculous little cup of beer and head off in search of someone I might find even remotely interesting to talk to.
As luck would have it I run into my mother and her league of women voters. They’re all wearing the same conservative blue suits as the blue suit brigade who were ordering wine in front of me at the bar and they each have a tiny American flag displayed prominently on their lapels. As soon as my mother spots me a look of disgust overtakes her face. She can’t seem to control it whenever she sees me and I’m not sure she wants to. She’s even less thrilled with me than my father and she usually has no trouble expressing that displeasure to me. My only saving grace is that I know she won’t rail at me in front of her supporters. She’s much too shrewd for that. She’ll do her best to pretend I’m the perfect son in front of potential donors and wait to condemn me in private.
I’m so glad I’ll be staying at the lake house. My mother won’t consider venturing out to Northern New Jersey this late in the season. When it’s less than seventy degrees she has no interest in the lake house.
“Austin,” my mother says as she approaches and places a quick peck on my cheek. “So glad you could make it.”
The other women in her small group are all smiling and eyeballing me, even though they’re all my mother’s age or older.
I down the rest of my beer and stare into the empty cup. “I think I need a refill.”
My mother expresses her displeasure with a harrumph, but then quickly replaces her grimace with a broad smile. Hers isn’t as rehearsed as my father’s or brother’s, but it’s equally phony.
“When you come back, Mrs. Lexington has an opening in her firm that might be of interest to you and she’s already said she’d love to talk to you about it.”
“Great,” I lie as I loosen my tie. I’m already feeling trapped and the stupid material around my neck isn’t helping matters any. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a tie.
As I hurry back towards the bar I’m glad to see that Mazzy doesn’t have any other customers. She’s all mine, at least for a few minutes.
I order two beers and down them both double-fisted. When I look up I imagine that Mazzy will have a look of horror on her face, but all I see is puzzlement. As if she’s looking at a creature from a brand new species.
By the time I order my fourth miniature beer I have just enough liquid courage to actually start a conversation with her. It’s not that I generally have a hard time conversing with women. On the contrary, I’m generally quite smooth with the opposite sex. But I feel different in this monkey suit and a political fundraiser is definitely not my native habitat. I’m used to picking up women at dive bars or neighborhood pubs. The more relaxed and casual the atmosphere the better.
There’s absolutely nothing relaxed or casual about my present circumstances. But at least the beers have taken the edge off.
“Mazzy is an unusual name,” I say as she hands me my beer.
She just gives me a polite nod in return.
“Do you live around here?” As soon as the words leave my lips I realize it’s a ridiculous question. I’m sure she doesn’t commute very far for a job as a bartender.
“I’ve lived in Old Town my whole life.” Her clipped tone leads me to believe that she has little interest in talking to me. Not that I blame her. If I ran into me in this setting wearing this suit I wouldn’t want to talk to me either.
“Know of any good bars around here.” I hold up the small cup. “These tiny cups aren’t really doing it for me.”
That remark elicits the tiniest of smiles. At least it’s a start.
“Try Haymakers. It’s the only bar in Old Town. Do you like country music?”
I shrug. “I’m more of a rock-and-roll kind of guy.”
“Haymakers is definitely a country bar. I used to work there.”
“Maybe I’ll check it out.” I’ll be staying at my family’s lake house, which isn’t too far from Old Town. I’m sure I’ll go stir crazy after a while and will need some kind of escape. “Thanks for the recommendation.”
“If you tell them that Mazzy sent you they might even give you a free beer.”
“Free is good.” I give her my sexiest smile, but it doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. I realize that maybe she’s just being nice so I’ll give her a good tip. I reach into my pocket, pull out a five dollar bill and add it to the mostly singles lining the tip jar.
“Thanks,” she says and when she finally looks me in the eye I feel a little flash of something. I’m not quite sure what it is, but my entire body reacts to it. I put my beer on the end of the bar for a moment and put my hands in my pockets in an effort to lower the flag that’s starting to rise in my pants.
“Haymakers,” I repeat. “I’m definitely going to check it out.”
“Only bar in town. You can’t miss it.”
USA TODAY Bestselling Author Karen Mueller Bryson writes romance under four pen names. SAVANNAH YOUNG’s stories take place in fictional Old Town, a town very similar to the one in rural northwest New Jersey in which she grew up. SIERRA AVALON’s contemporary romance novels always have a little sass and lots of spice. Karen lives in a small town outside of Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and their bloodhounds.