Maddox Drake tried to pay attention. He really did, just as his father had taught him. He offered warm smiles, engaging nods, and short agreeable remarks, but Abigail Lenore’s voice reminded Maddox of a fork against a dinner plate. He tried to be discreet. He tried to be polite. He checked his watch—she’d been talking continuously for the better part of forty-five minutes. The more she prattled on, the more tantalizing the circulating waiters with trays of full champagne flutes became. He watched the bubbling glasses of gold longingly. Etiquette had to have boundaries. Maddox had to have boundaries. He dropped his gaze and pretended to fiddle with his tie. “And then my father said—” Abigail abruptly stopped, reached into the bosom of her dress and—much to Maddox’s horror—pulled her cell phone from her bra. Maddox gulped down his mild disgust as Abigail unceremoniously wiped the sweat from the screen of her phone, swiped to unlock the device, and took the incoming call. “Yeah…uh-huh…sure…right, of course. Of course. See you soon.” When she hung up, she looked to Maddox with an apologetic tilt to her overly waxed eyebrows. “I’m so sorry, Maddie. I’ve got to go. We’ll catch up again soon, yeah?” She kissed him on the cheek—Maddox could feel the chalky residue of her lipstick brand him like cattle—and quickly departed.
Maddox watched her with feigned disappointment as she wove her way through the crowded ballroom. It wasn’t until he saw her safely beyond into the grand hall that he heaved a sigh and let his shoulders hang. The moment a waiter came within reach, he was overjoyed and collected two flutes. He dumped one down his gullet as if he were at a frat party instead of a gala and put the empty flute back on the tray. He did the same with his second glass before collecting a third to sip slowly like a civilized human being.
The waiter arranged the empty glasses so they weren’t so near the edge of the tray. He offered Maddox a good-natured and sympathetic smile. “Miss Lenore is quite the storyteller, I assume?”
Maddox’s cheeks flushed, and he hoped any witnesses would attribute it to his alcohol consumption instead of embarrassment. He laughed, controlled and forced. He licked his lips before he spoke, and he watched as the waiter—Robert, according to his name tag—followed the casual sweep of his tongue. “That’s one way to put it,” Maddox said. He shifted his weight and canted his hips, shifted his shoulders and cocked his head.
Robert wasn’t particularly handsome, but he wasn’t particularly not-handsome either. High cheek bones, defined jaw if the edge of his beard was any indication, soft-looking lips that pulled into a nervous smile. No, not not-handsome at all. Maddox took the liberty of eyeing Robert fully, from the breadth of his shoulders and height, down to how his uniform accented his tapered waist.
When Robert cleared his throat, Maddox, nonplussed, casually glanced up from his appraisal and met his gaze. “Shall I bring you something a bit stronger, Mr. Drake?” Robert offered.
Maddox waved a dismissive hand and said, “That won’t be necessary, presently,” before bringing his champagne to his lips. He swallowed, pleased when Robert glanced to his bobbing Adam’s apple. “Though I may drift towards the bar near the end of the evening. Perhaps you can whip something up for me then?” Maddox took a step back, fully intending to let the offer hang ominously between them. Maddox fully intended on taking three very measured, intentional steps backward, making his appreciation for Robert well-known and unquestionable, before turning on his heel and disappearing into the crowd. Maddox planned on sinking a hook of curiosity into Robert in just such a fashion, a method that had worked on countless other men, a method that would have worked on this man had someone not darted behind him.
The collision was graceless, the kind that left Maddox stumbling to regain his balance before toppling over. His champagne splashed across the front of his suit, cold and sticky and impossible to hide. Embarrassment quickly burned into anger. Maddox spun on his heel without nearly the amount of finesse as he intended, venomous words burning the flat of his tongue and ready to be spat. He expected his sister, Tegan, who was prone to pestering him at boring social events. He expected his father, who made a habit of seeking him out in a manner more appropriate for a son of twelve than of a son of twenty-two. He expected any number of familiar familial interferences to have thwarted his designs on Robert. What he didn’t expect was the stranger he found at his back.