“Don’t Mess with Texas,” the sign read. Sydney raised a brow. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she muttered. “All I want is my sister back.”
She stepped on the gas and her rented Ford compact strained to reach seventy miles per hour. Though the Austin airport had yielded nothing more surprising than Texas wine and loud chili-pepper neckties, she was beginning to realize that she’d arrived in a foreign country. No doubt about it: Jersey didn’t feature pick-up trucks with gun racks and bumper stickers that read, I BRAKE FOR ARMADILLOS.
And the further she got from Austin, the scarier it became. She passed big spreads of wire-fenced land dotted with brush, scrub trees and water storage tanks; a business called Big Rack Taxidermist and another called McCoy’s Building Supply Center. McCoy’s, for real?
She expected to then roll by Hatfield’s Demolition, but instead the next business of interest proved to be something called the Wild Ride Saloon. Hmmm. She had a feeling they weren’t referring to horses.
After the Nutty Brown Café came big signs for a new Polo Club. Weirder and weirder: she could have sworn they rode western in Texas. Polo? Oh-—it was a housing development, perhaps represented by Ranch Real Estate nearby.
Syd passed the American Red Brangus Association (what the hell was a brangus?) and tried to imagine her sister Julia living out here. She failed miserably. Julia’s Manolo Blahniks would catch in every gopher hole from here to San Antonio. She’d bounce all her checks from the Cattleman’s National Bank. And she couldn’t possibly picture her employing anyone from Ole Yeller Landscaping.
Julia, purchasing hay for $30 a bale? Hanging out in the 101-degree heat astride a Longhorn? Or perhaps—-Sydney snorted—-chomping down on a piece of Whittington’s Beef Jerky. Yeah, right.
She ignored the rumbling of her stomach, not wishing to risk stopping at a barbecue place called The Pit, even though it smelled more promising than its name. She saw signs for Johnson City, birthplace of Lyndon B. and her stomach asked if she wanted to stop at a different restaurant, this one called the Feedmill. God help me, she thought. The next sign she noticed just read, “Stop Here. Good stuff.” I don’t think so.
That’s when things started to sound not only Texan, but German-—which made even less sense to Sydney. Oma’s Haus and Garten? The Vogel Orchard? Becker Vineyards?
Texas possessed vineyards? Syd’s Jersey lip curled. Well, if barley and hops could make beer, and potatoes made vodka, then she supposed . . . hay . . . could make wine.
The German influence continued as she approached Fredericksburg. The road she was on, Highway 290, became Main Street as she passed the intersection at Goehmann, and Sydney tried very hard not to be charmed.
She failed. The curl in her lip relaxed without permission or warning into a delighted smile. Through her window yodeled the sound of country music: Why don’tcha luv me like you used to do? Why do ya treat me like a worn-out shoe?
You’ve got to be kidding me . But she grinned at the sheer hokiness of it, and rolled down her window to hear more. The tune blasted from the truck ahead of her, driven by a man in a bona fide, white, ten-gallon hat. He must be one of the good guys . . .
Bemused, she drank in the vista before her. Main Street was lined solidly with shops: wood and stone cottages with big picture windows and welcoming porches, carved cedar benches and urns of flowers.
She drove slowly, taking in the galleries, gift shops, cafes and bars. A wine market, several jewelers and countless antique stores surprised her. What were they doing in the middle of nowhere, Texas?
The Nascar place, Forever Texas Souvenirs and a quilt shop were more along the lines of what Sydney had expected. She was tempted to stop at the Uptown Visitor Center, but frowned at the impulse. She was there to talk sense into her sister, not be a tourist.
She panted along in the Ford, looking for Orange Street where the Marv’s Motor Inn was located. There was Crockett, which according to her map, meant Orange was the next one. Aha. A right turn and there it was, a squat, ugly, no-frills building painted in Marv’s familiar poop brown and mustard yellow. To complete the aura of bad ‘seventies welcome, a giant neon arrow pointed to the “Come On Inn” sign, of course underscripted with their father’s famous tagline: Count Sheep for Cheap.
Sydney winced and parked the car. She emerged, stretched her legs and took a deep breath of the murderously hot Texas air. August had never been this grim in New Jersey. Not even close. The oxygen seemed to clog in her nose before she could breathe it.
Sure the sun was adding dozens of freckles per second to her unfortunate skin, Sydney hurried to the door and hauled it open to find Julia.
Blinking to adjust her eyes to the dim interior, Syd locked eyes immediately with her younger sister, who sat behind the registration desk, her petite blondeness dwarfed by a veritable mountain of fat, glossy bridal magazines. Uh oh.
Julia’s mouth formed an astonished ‘o’ before she jumped to her feet and surged around the counter to hug Sydney. “Syd! What are you doing here? Oh my God, it’s so good to see you!”
Same old sunny Julia. You had to love her. Syd hugged her back, inhaling a snootful of blond curls and J’Adore perfume. She was sure she herself smelled far less enticing after her day of traveling-—and specifically the hour or so spent stuck to the vinyl seats of the rental car while she tried in vain to lower the temperature.
Julia danced her around in a crazy, upbeat circle while Sydney laughed and stumbled.
“Syd, you Wild Thing! I can’t believe you came down here! It’s so impulsive . . . so not like you! Let me guess! You came to tell me congratulations in person, didn’t you?” Julia’s eyes sparkled guilelessly.
Uh. Not exactly.
“I am so excited! You’ll love him. Roman . . . isn’t that a sexy name? Makes me think of those buff warriors in the body armor–”
Oh, yeah. Those guys that conquered, killed and enslaved entire populations. What a turn on, Jules.
“He’s a dream . . .”
“. . . and I have to show you a bunch of dresses . . . there’s no way I’ll be able to decide on only one . . .”
She rattled on and though Sydney wanted to interrupt, take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, she found herself unable to rain on Julia’s parade. She looked so happy, so pretty, so very Modern Bride.
Syd bit her lip against both a rush of affection and an unwelcome coil of—-but no, ridiculous. She’d never dreamed of a big white wedding. Well, very rarely. There was that one fantasy she had with the tiara, but it could double easily as your average, run of the mill control-freak vision. It didn’t have anything to do with being swung into the arms of a handsome devil who promised to love her til death did them part. Really. In her dream, she was just the center of attention and everyone did what she told them to do. Not at all unreasonable.
During her musings, Sydney caught a blinding flash of light somewhere in the vicinity of Julia’s left hand. Holy cow! She grabbed her sister’s wrist. “Is that a fallen star or a 3-carat rock on your fourth finger?”
Julia blushed, made a brief pretense of modesty and then threw it to the winds. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” The ring was new enough that her tones were still awe-struck. “It belonged to Roman’s great grandmother.”
“And most likely a czarina before that,” said Sydney. The ring blazed, even under Marv’s cheap fluorescent lighting and against the lovely faux wood-grain of the reception desk. It was absolutely flawless. And it was completely without color. Syd had never seen such a perfect stone . . . it was almost too perfect, for a well-worn, antique ring. Roman’s great-granny—-or great gramps—-had either been loaded or an accomplished thief.
“Julia, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.” Ugh. There it was again. That tiny, shameful green coil of envy.
Her sister lowered her voice. “I know, I can’t believe it. And apparently Roman’s sister is going to be royally pissed that I’ve got it. She’s still mad it was left to Roman and not her.”
Sydney shrugged. “Welcome to the dynamics of your new family. They can’t be weirder than the old one, can they?”
Julia laughed nervously. “I haven’t met them yet. I’m going to dinner at Roman’s parents’ house tonight.”
“How can you not have met them yet? This town almost fits in the palm of my hand.”
Julia’s blush appeared again. “Well, they were visiting Roman’s sister and spending time in New York for a couple of weeks. And then we were kind of, um, occupied for most evenings.”
Sydney raised a brow. Ah. Making like bunnies, in other words.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Julia said it defensively. “Roman is different–“
“Like you’re made out of fine china and have no physical urges or bodily functions.” The crack was a warning that Julia’s emotions were turbulent at the moment. Uh, oh.
“ Excuse me?” Syd tried to neutralize her expression. Had her face really been that sour?
“You know the Look. You’ve perfected it over the years.” Julia ran a hand through her perfect tousled curls and retreated behind the registration desk. “Your nose goes up, your eyes narrow, your mouth pinches. It’s the do-I-have-to-put-a-leash-on-her-again look.”
“I didn’t give you any such look,” said Sydney, who did indeed feel the urge for a leash.
“Yes, you did.” Julia’s pink lips flattened mulishly.
“Did not.” And just like that, they’d regressed to ages five and three. Except that three-year-olds didn’t usually get engaged.
“Roman is the most amazing man I’ve ever met,” announced Julia.
Sydney dropped her heavy leather bag and sank into a mustard velour club chair. Step carefully. “Jule, you said that about Eddie. And that Somers creep, too.”
Her sister’s eyes flashed and she folded her arms. “Why did you really come all this way, Syd?”
Avoid the question or this will flare into ugliness . There was a looong history between them of Sense driving Sensibility crazy. And vice versa. Syd said cautiously, “I want you to be happy.”
Deep breath . “I want you to be careful.”
“Caution is overrated, in my opinion, and this is real. Roman is the One.”
Don’t let this escalate into an argument . Sydney counted to three. But I’ve got to say what needs to be said. Otherwise, what was the point of coming down here? “Aren’t you afraid you’re rushing things? Riding some crazy romantic high?”
“I knew you didn’t come down here just to help me celebrate! That would be completely out of character for you. No. I am not riding some crazy romantic high. I mean I am, but I know what I’m doing! And it really ticks me off that you just assume that I don’t! Did Marv put you up to this? Is he out there in the car?”
Syd shook her head. “Pop doesn’t know. Trust me, if he did, he’d be down here throwing a brown-and-mustard fit.”
The phone interrupted their uneasy chat. “Marv’s Motor Inn, may I help you?” Julia sang. “Yes, sir.” A gurgle of faux laughter. “Where you count sheep for cheap, exactly, sir. We absolutely have a room for you on the 19 th and 20 th. Will that be smoking or non? Double, queen or king? And would you like turn-down service?”
Syd blinked. Turn-down service? Since when?
“You get turned down all the time already? Well, sir, that’s a shame. You sound like such a nice gentleman.” Julia rolled her eyes at Syd.
“Well, no sir, I couldn’t do that. I just got engaged and my fiancé would not appreciate it. Yes, well. We do look forward to seeing you on the 19 th, sir. Thank you!”
“You’re just scary,” Sydney said. “I would have hung up on him.”
“And that’s why you’re not in customer service. You stay on the numbers side, okay? He’s just a lonely old geezer and he thought he was being incredibly witty. Besides, Marv wants this location’s receivables up twenty percent, and I’m not going to accomplish that by being rude to potential guests.”
True. “Okay, whatever. To return to our discussion, how exactly did you meet this Roman guy? What do you know about him and his past?”
“Oh, here we go. The Syd Spinelli Inquisition! Forgive me, Boss, for not asking your permission before getting engaged. Pardon me for falling in love—-I know, it’s just so impulsive and ill-advised!”
Syd tried to interrupt, but Julia forged ahead.
“Before I agreed to marry Roman, I should have extracted some of his DNA and had it tested for genetic mutation, had him fingerprinted and run through the criminal justice system, made him get a physical and drawn blood for analysis of any irregularities. Let me guess, I also should have run a financial check on him and hired a private investigator to dig into his past!”
Sydney winced. She had been thinking along the lines of at least a blood test and a p.i.
Furious, Julia glared at Syd and folded her perfectly tanned, moisturized arms over her trendy Juicy Couture top. Her nails were healthy, shiny and polished too.
Sydney told herself to keep control of her temper and sat on her bare, ragged, unbuffed nails, reminding herself that she didn’t have time for such frivolities. Yep, that was it. Nothing to do with gnawing. She took a deep breath.
“I’m not trying to put you through an Inquisition. All I asked was how you met him, okay?”
“I met Roman because he’s renovating the place next door,” said her sister, calming down a bit.
“Mr. Three-Carats actually performs manual labor?”
“ Sydney, stop it. He likes doing that stuff-—it relaxes him. Anyway, it was a Sunday, and I was laying out in back by the pool . . .”
That explains it. One look at Julia in her tiny bikini and it was all over for the poor son of a bitch.
“. . . and I hear this deep voice saying that he’s never wanted so bad in his life to count sheep for cheap.” Julia giggled. “So I open one eye behind my shades, just to see where the voice is coming from, but there’s nobody around.”
“And then there’s a big hearty laugh, and the voice says, “Yeah. And it doesn’t take a big neon arrow to point out that she’s about to spill out of that top.”
“At that point I got mad. The voice was coming from an open window at the house next door. So I walked over there to tell him I didn’t appreciate the running commentary, and this heart-stopping, shirtless hunk in a tool-belt opens the door! Tool belts are beyond sexy, don’t you think?
“Well, I gaped at him and he gaped at me, and he said into his cell phone, ‘I gotta go,’ and that was that.”
Huh? They’d smushed into each other, like chocolate and peanut butter? “What do you mean, ‘that was that?’”
Julia shrugged. “I told him that I was nowhere near falling out of my top, thank you very much.” She smiled, all innocence. “And he said, very respectfully, ‘no, ma’am.’ He said he could see that, and he apologized most humbly for making me feel uncomfortable and he was really sweet about it.”
I’ll just bet he was.
“Then he dropped this monster cordless drill right on his toe and we had to come over here and get some ice for it.”
What a coincidence.
“We just started talking and never stopped until morning. We talked through a pizza, some sundaes and even donuts at 7 a.m. And don’t look at me like that, I did not sleep with him. Not that night,” Julia said, looking a little guilty.
Sydney didn’t want to think about her baby sister sleeping with anyone. She shuddered. It was almost as bad as imagining her parents doing the deed.
There were some things in the world too grim to be contemplated, such as Marv chasing Myrna around a heart-shaped bed. Syd closed her eyes and blinked the image away.
In a tone that came out harsher than she’d meant it to, she said, “So your relationship with this Roman guy is based on great pecs and pizza?”
Julia snapped a Bride Magazine closed and stood up again. “I should have known you wouldn’t understand! You don’t have a romantic bone in your body—“
“Oh, thank you very much.” Stung, Sydney wasn’t about to admit the accusation hit close to home.
“It’s true, Syd. I still remember you asking David whatshisface to your senior prom just because he was tall enough!”
“That’s a total lie.”
“Oh, really? You’re going to tell me that you were madly in love with that dorky, pimply bag of bones? Have you ever even been in love, Syd? Are you capable of it?”
“Or are you just a human calculator?”
“That is beyond insulting. You have no right–”
“Because I also remember you dating that law student freshman year because he’d be able to help you on some paper. And—“
“You know what,” Sydney yelled, “we weren’t talking about me!” And unfortunately her mouth just took over. What was it about siblings that they could get you to screaming point within one minute?
“No, Julia–we’re talking about you and snap judgments and basic flightiness—“
“Oh!” Julia stamped her Stuart Weitzman-clad foot.
“—and screwing up your life for the sake of some JACKASS IN A TOOL BELT! Julia, I don’t care how well-heeled or well-hung he is-—you don’t need to marry the guy. Marv would be all too happy to buy you a ring with even more bling than that one if it’ll blaze some SENSE into your head!”
“Shut up, Sydney. You can take your high and mighty tone and shove it–”
A male throat cleared behind them and both sisters spun around. “Ladies! Ladies, what’s going on here?” He set a small cardboard box down on a nearby mustard-colored chair, nodding at Julia. “Service with a smile: your bud vases from my Aunt Susie.”
Bud vases , at a Marv’s Motor Inn?
Julia snapped her mouth closed and blushed a disgustingly becoming shade of rose. Sydney narrowed her eyes upon her target. How much had he heard?
He was obviously amused. The deep grooves at the corners of his eyes, the jaunty tilt of his mouth told her that. Even the dark stubble at his jaw seemed to vibrate with humor.
Sydney swallowed as she took in all six and a half feet of him. Shoulders broader than Marv was tall. A chest wide enough to easily seat three naked vixens. Legs that would practically span the panhandle.
The guy was made to model snug denim, born to command, and could likely seduce the sun from the sky. Roman Sonntag was one-hundred percent smiling bad news. No wonder her sister was one smitten kitten. Sydney felt a meow rising in her own throat.
“Nothing’s going on,” said Julia unconvincingly.
“What’s going on,” said Sydney, deciding to take the bull by the horns, “is a frank discussion of how crazy this snap engagement is! You two barely know each other—“
Sonntag opened his mouth to say something but she overrode him.
“—and Julia has a history of—“
“ Sydney! Don’t you go there—“
“rushing into things without thinking very hard about them—“
Sydney had to pause for breath and Sonntag had a chance to say something. “ Jersey, you are waaaay outta line, here.”
“I can’t calm down, okay? And I am not out of line. If you’re going to be a member of this family you may as well get used to me right away—“
He held up a big hand and talked over her. “Are you proposing to me, darlin’?”
Sydney blinked at him. “Huh?”
“You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not Roman. My name is Alex Kimball.” His eyes danced.
“Not Roman,” Sydney repeated. Oh, shit. Her face caught fire. “Julia! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her sister put her hands on her hips. “You didn’t give anyone a chance to tell you anything!”
Syd took a deep breath. “Sorry.” She met the man’s mocking gaze reluctantly. “Um. Nice to meet you?”
“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine,” he drawled, and clearly meant it. Pleasure at her expense.
How to recoup from here?
But it appeared she wasn’t the only plain-spoken one in the crowd. “So, you don’t seem to have a very high opinion of my friend Roman.”
Syd felt the heat in her cheeks flame impossibly higher. What had she said? Well-heeled and well-hung? She raised her chin. “I don’t even know the guy.”
“But you’ve already formed a negative opinion of him. Jackass in a tool-belt, I believe you called him.”
Oh, yeah. That, too. She groaned inwardly while Julia aimed a vaporizing glare in her direction. “There’s no need to, er, share that opinion with him,” she said cautiously.
“Roman’s not stupid,” Kimball told her. “He’ll pick up the non-verbal cues. Not that you seem shy about the verbal ones.”
Sydney put her hands to her cheeks. “Can we just start over?”
“That might be a good idea.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Alex Kimball, a friend of Roman’s since grade school.”
She touched her fingers to his and felt a weird spark shoot up her arm and then down her spine. “Sydney Spinelli, Julia’s sister.”
“You got a cute northern accent there, Jersey.”
Indignation rose to join her blush. “You’re making fun of my accent?”
He just grinned.
Oh, don’t do that. You’re impossibly hot with your mouth closed. You’re lethal when you smile . . . Sydney might not have a romantic bone in her body, but she had to acknowledge some 90 proof lust and a shameful spiral of relief that Alex was not, after all, her sister’s property. So she didn’t have to feel guilty basking in the supremely male wattage of that grin.
“Say ‘coffee,’” he prompted her. “Then say ‘water’.”
He laughed. “Cwuahfee. Wuawtah.”
“At least I don’t say y’all or fixin’ to.”
“Oh, stay down here long enough and we’ll teach you the right way to talk. So when did you get in?”
“I just drove here from the Austin airport.”
“Good. Listen, if you’d like to meet Roman, I’m on my way out to the Sonntag place and I’d be happy to take you.”
Julia looked alarmed. “I don’t think that’s a good-—“
“I’d love to, thanks.” Sydney smiled.
Alex turned to Julia and smiled reassuringly. “I’ll keep things under control, don’t worry.”
“I’d come with you, but there’s nobody to cover for me right now . . .” Julia bit her lip.
“It won’t be necessary for Alex to keep anything under control,” Sydney said stiffly.
“Probably not,” he said. “After all, Roman might really enjoy being called a jackass in a tool-belt.”
Hateful man . And Julia didn’t have to smirk like that, either. I flew all the way down here to talk to her and this is the thanks I get! What’s in store for me next?