You would think that a man who makes his living making and selling alcohol wouldn’t have to spend much time in a tux, but you’d be wrong. Maybe that would have been the case if I only sold to bars and liquor stores, but producing high-end whiskey meant catering to a more prestigious crowd.
Which was why I was only one tuxedo in a crowd of many.
To make matters worse, this New Year’s Eve party was at a university. And not just any university. It was Stanford.
Two of my brothers had graduated from here, but that didn’t make things easier. In fact, I was thirty-one years old, had a thriving business, was dressed in what was probably the most expensive tux in the room, and I still felt like an imposter. A gawky teenager everyone liked, but no one took seriously.
Intellectually, I knew that wasn’t the case. I’d left my easy surfer vibe behind me more than a decade ago and had forged my own empire, independent of the business my father had built, McCrae International Research Institute – MIRI for short. I’d used some of the business contacts my family made over the years, as well as the money I received from my shares of the company, but I’d built Shannon’s on my own.
Now, thirteen years after I first thought up the idea, I’d succeeded in making a brand I hoped was worthy of the name it carried.
“Mr. McCrae, I’m glad you were able to make it.”
The familiar voice drew me out of my thoughts, and I fixed a polite smile on my face. I turned to face Dr. Johann Josephs, the British Literature professor who’d invited me to tonight’s party.
Glancing around the room, I wasn’t entirely sure if I agreed with calling this a party, exactly. Especially a New Year’s Eve party. While there were at least two hundred people here, I could still hear classical music playing over the sound system. It was that quiet. Everyone spoke in low, modulated tones that would’ve driven me nuts if I’d been here to have fun. Growing up in a massive family meant that most of my life had been filled with noise. I didn’t associate much of anything quiet as being enjoyable.
Still, I was here for business, not pleasure.
“Good to see you again, Dr. Josephs.” I put out my hand, and he gave it a hearty shake. “How was your Christmas?”
“Productive,” he answered with a smile. “I finished my paper on the prevalence of unnecessary graphic sexual violence in British literature over the last thirty years. Sexing the Cherry was a particularly useful text.”
If I hadn’t had several conversations with the interesting professor over the last few weeks, I might’ve thought he was trying to make me feel stupid. It hadn’t taken long, though, for me to realize that he was passionate about his work, and that was just how he talked. Still, I had absolutely no clue how to respond to what he’d just said.
Who would bring up a book called Sexing the Cherry at a faculty party?
Better yet, who the hell would write a book with that title?
Fortunately, a vague response was best in this situation since we weren’t here to talk about books.
“Congratulations. My brother Blaze works at John Hopkins, so I know how important being published is in the academic world.”
Dr. Josephs looked confused. “I’m aware of a professor of education at John Hopkins with that distinctive first name, but I thought his last name was Gracen, not McCrae.”
I took a deep breath in preparation to explain about my complicated family. “It is. Technically, Blaze is my stepmother’s nephew who, with his brother and sister, moved in with us after their parents died. My family tree can get a little confusing, so I usually just keep it simple and call them all my siblings. The details are just technicalities.”
“So true.” Dr. Josephs scratched the side of his long nose. “Technicalities.”
I’d noticed that, if he wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to something, Dr. Josephs tended to agree and repeat a part of the statement. It made conversations with him interesting, to say the least. On the positive side, he didn’t require as much finesse when it came to bringing up or changing a subject.
“Have you had a chance to speak to any of your colleagues about the whiskey you gave them for Christmas?”
When he and I first started talking just before Thanksgiving, I mentioned that I had three kinds of Shannon’s whiskey I could supply Stanford with for any of their faculty events. He’d suggested that he purchase two or three of each and give them to his colleagues as gifts, using their opinions about the whiskey to determine if Shannon’s would be a good fit for future events.
Now, as he gave me the rundown of everything he’d been told, I tried to pick out the important pieces and file them away to use when I wrote up my notes from tonight. Even if Stanford decided not to go with Shannon’s, I’d have feedback to look over and learn from.
Halfway through the recitation, however, something happened that wasn’t normal for me.
I got distracted.
Walking behind Dr. Josephs was a drop-dead gorgeous blonde. She looked to be only a few inches shorter than my own six feet, but some of those came from a pair of sexy high heels. They not only gave her height but made her legs look amazing.
The amazing didn’t stop there, though. She had the sort of curves that drew my attention enough that I completely forgot that I was talking to someone about something important. I probably couldn’t have even told anyone my name at that moment. When she finally disappeared from my line of sight, I found Dr. Josephs looking at me with an expectant expression.
Even though I hated to admit that I hadn’t heard him, I wasn’t going to make the mistake of trying to answer a question I hadn’t processed correctly. I didn’t, however, feel like I had to tell him exactly why I’d been so distracted.
“I’m sorry. My mind got away from me for a minute.”
“No apologies necessary,” Dr. Josephs said with a wide smile. “I often have similar experiences when, in the middle of a conversation, I’ll suddenly come to a new understanding of symbolism in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By the time I emerge from that near-trancelike state, fifteen minutes have passed, and I find myself alone, waxing eloquent about James Joyce.”
Strange, but a nice guy.
“Thank you. Now, if you don’t mind repeating the last couple things you said, I’ll have an answer for you.”
For the next twenty minutes, Dr. Josephs and I kept on topic, and by the time he excused himself to speak to the head of the English department, I was feeling pretty good about how the whiskey had been received. The only people who hadn’t liked the whiskey were the two professors who had told Dr. Josephs that they weren’t really big fans of alcohol in general. That balanced out the three wine drinkers who’d been pleasantly surprised that they’d actually enjoyed something new and non-fruity.
All of that meant that I was one step closer to closing the deal, and I should’ve been thrilled.
I was thrilled.
I was also trying to find that blonde again, something that was made increasingly difficult by the number of people who decided that they wanted to know who the unfamiliar face was. Normally, I’d have been thrilled at all the networking, but now, it was just annoying.
By the time everyone had gathered near the insanely large grandfather clock to watch the last five minutes of the year count down, I’d seen the blonde three more times. Once, I’d been close enough to see that she had heart-stopping clear blue eyes, and I thought she smiled at me that time too.
Then, suddenly, she was a foot to my right, draining a glass of champagne and giving the entire room a bored sweep. Bored until her eyes met mine. She raised a single eyebrow, and that was all it took for me to close the distance between us. Even though the room wasn’t loud, I still leaned close to put my mouth next to her ear before speaking.
Damn, she smelled good.
“If I kiss you at midnight, will your partner hit me?”
She looked up at me, lips twitching with amusement. “Partner?”
I shrugged and grinned. “I make no assumptions about a person’s sexuality.”
She considered me for a moment. “And how do you know I wouldn’t hit you if you kiss me?”
I wasn’t surprised at the sharp wit. Stanford, after all. I was surprised, however, by how much the banter turned me on.
“If you say no, I’ll respect that.” I took in her full expression, her body language, and then took a little risk by brushing my arm against hers. When she didn’t step back or tell me to leave her alone, I knew I’d read her correctly. “But I’d really like to kiss you in twenty seconds.”
She waited ten of those twenty before placing a hand on my arm. “All right. You better be worth it.”
My smile widened. It’d been a long time since someone had issued a challenge that I’d wanted to rise to this badly.
I placed my hand on the side of her neck, ran my thumb along her jaw.
I didn’t take my eyes off hers.
I leaned down, moving slowly, giving her time to change her mind if she wanted to.
My mouth hovered over hers, and it felt like no one else was in the room.
Not literal ones, but it sure as hell felt that way. Electricity crackled between us, and I let the kiss linger longer than I’d intended, lips moving together as if we’d kissed a thousand times before.
The sedated cheering and clapping finally broke through, and I straightened, letting my hand fall from her face. She looked almost as dazed as I felt.
She collected herself in a heartbeat before smiling. “Freedom.”
The expectant expression on her face told me that, like several of my siblings, offering her name always invited questions. Instead of being that predictable, I decided to surprise her and head straight for what I’d known I wanted the second her lips touched mine.
“Are you interested in ringing in the New Year back at my hotel?”
Another sly look, but this one was tinged with that surprise I’d been trying for. “You don’t waste any time, do you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t see the point.”
She gave me a hard look that confirmed my suspicion that she was far more than just a pretty face and a great body. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”
“I’m not looking to be one.”
She examined my face for another few seconds before nodding. “Good. We’re on the same page.” Her eyes sparkled. “Lead on.”
I made a note to thank my siblings for not insisting that I stay with them while I was here. I had a feeling Freedom wasn’t going to be a quiet lover.