Mallory dropped the hammer and jerked her thumb to her mouth, sucking softly to deaden the throbbing pain. She slammed her free hand on the incomplete bookshelf that had caused her injury, wishing for the fifty-second time that she had hired someone to do the handiwork in her refurbished studio. At this rate, she wouldn’t have any fingers left to actually take the pictures she was supposed to, let alone the ones she hoped to in the future.
“You know,” drawled a surprisingly Western-twanged voice from nearby, “your inability to swear is really adorable.”
Mal twisted her head to glare at the dark-complexioned, ponytailed young man leaning back in his chair, grinning at her. “Shut up, Dan,” she said around her thumb.
His grin spread further, his dark eyes twinkling mischievously. “My grandfather would call you Terror With A Hammer.”
Mal rolled her eyes and removed her thumb, shaking it. “Clever. What’d he call you, Brain Of A Peacock?”
Dan chuckled and folded his hands behind his head, still leaning back. “Peacocks are the finest birds on the planet. I could go for that.”
For a graduate assistant, Dan was fairly insolent, seeing as his graduation and future were conditional upon her reports. But considering she was not exactly demanding as far as mentoring was concerned, that was probably her fault.
She grumbled under her breath and returned to the impossible bookshelf at hand. Dr. Durango swore up and down that the two students he’d given her were the best in his class and would be promising photographers themselves in the future, and she believed him. But working with them, or anyone, was not quite in Mal’s nature yet. At the moment, Taryn was working secondary camera shots and the front desk, while Dan handled editing and lighting. It wasn’t ideal for them—or for Mal, as she preferred to have her hands on everything—but it was the best she could come up with.
Apparently, internships and assistantships for photography students were hard to come by. She’d never thought her old professor would actually consider her fit for mentoring, let alone guest lectures, but she was finally hitting her stride with that.
And the boost to her salary was pleasant enough.
“Don’t you have some work to do?” she muttered, knowing Dan was still leaning back in his chair and watching her. “Or are you going to start talking about the ancestors now?”
Dan snorted and shook his head, his long hair whipping around in his ponytail. “You really need to get your ethnicities straight. I’ve told you before. It’s not Mulan, it’s Pocahontas.”
She looked up at him with a raised brow. “You’re a Disney princess?”
He opened his mouth to retort something that probably would have been brilliant, but they were both distracted by the appearance of Taryn, looking like the trendy fashionista she was, if a bit sloppy. She gaped at Mal with wide eyes, her Trident gum threatening to fall out of her mouth.
“What?” Mal asked when it was clear her assistant was beyond words.
Taryn’s blue eyes blinked once. “You never told me Jenna Hudson was your cousin.”
Dan’s chair crashed backward, and Mal exhaled in a slow, measured breath. She’d gone her whole life without anyone making that connection. And she’d enjoyed every minute of it.
“She is,” Mal finally said. “So?”
“So?” Dan echoed in disbelief, picking himself up, finding his discarded baseball cap, and plopping it backward on his head. “So, it’s Jenna Hudson.”
“Who is in the front of the studio,” Taryn said, folding her arms. “And asking to speak with you.”
“Shasta,” Mal muttered, making Taryn and Dan grin at each other. She put the hammer on the floor and got to her feet, wiping at the bit of sawdust that had settled on her black denim pants. She glanced down at the emerald green V-neck she wore, and remembered the mustard stain from lunch. There wasn’t much she could do about that now. Then she remembered the old button-ups she kept for little-kid shoots. The parents loved the dressed-like-dad look, so she kept a few on hand. She never thought she’d wear them herself. Still, there was no way she was going to face her Saks Fifth Avenue cousin looking like she did now.
She grabbed an off-white pinstripe and tossed it on, rolling the sleeves to her elbows. Then she twisted her hair back into a messy, hopefully artistic bun and fastened it with the hair tie that lived on her wrist. It would have to do, but for the first time ever, she wished she kept a mirror back here.
Her assistants still stared at her, Taryn’s arms folded across her chest and Dan’s hands on his hips, both looking expectant.
“What?” she asked, wiping under her eyes in case her mascara had smudged.
Taryn pushed a strand of her currently Ariel-red hair behind her ears. “Your famous Southern socialite cousin comes to visit you in Denver and you expect us to pretend it’s cool?”
Dan shifted and looked at her. “It is cool,” he pointed out.
Taryn twisted her lips. “Truth. But we need the story.”
Mal ignored that. “What does she want?”
Taryn made a disgruntled noise. “Come on, boss! Tell us!”
“You want me to keep her waiting?” Mal asked with a quirked brow.
That seemed to shake Taryn. “Why are you doing still standing here, woman? Go! Go go go!”
Mal shook her head and passed both of them on the way to the front, knowing they would listen at the door. There was only one thing that her cousin could possibly want with her at this point, enough to make her take the trip from Tennessee to Denver without some massive social event taking place. Despite what her assistants and pretty much everyone else thought, Mal did follow some of the celebrity gossip. And what was being dubbed “America’s Royal Wedding” was destined to be the most sought-after event since the actual Royal Wedding.
Wealth and consequence could get people pretty far, but when Southern charm and family values came into play, everything was a whole new ball game. No one got invitations to these things. No one. When Tennessee’s favorite daughter married North Carolina’s pride and joy, the very select number of people with invitations would be witness to one of the rarest and most elite spectacles in recent history. All wrapped up in perfect Southern Charm.
Mal had wondered faintly if she would receive an invitation. She might not have been close with her father’s side of the family anymore, but they had been as thick as thieves back in the day. Besides, family meant something to the Hudsons. Always had, always would.
The question remained whether or not Mal would have accepted the hypothetical invitation.
She glanced into the waiting area and saw Jenna sitting in one of the straight-backed chairs, looking every bit like Carrie Underwood’s doppelganger. Her unnaturally perfect, but shockingly natural, blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her long, lean legs were crossed, bouncing anxiously. Just as they had when she was a kid.
Mal smirked at that. Despite what people said about Jenna Hudson—mainly accusations that she was a fake—Mal knew that Jenna’s perfection was genuine. She was rare that way. Or, at least, she used to be. She could be anybody now.
“Jenna?” Mal said softly as she entered the room fully.
Jenna turned to face her, her smile revealing blindingly white teeth. “Mal!” she squealed, getting to her feet. “Oh my gosh, you look so good!” Her twang sounded heavy to Mal’s ears, reminding her yet again how long it had been since she’d been down to Tennessee.
It was clear that Jenna was going for a hug, but Mal wasn’t ready for that yet. “So do you,” Mal replied with a smile, intentionally not approaching. “Nice to know they don’t photoshop you.”
Jenna’s smile faded, and Mal wanted to kick herself. It wasn’t Jenna’s fault she was a celebrity. All she had done was date a guy from high school who went on to become a country star. She’d been on his arm at events, and he hadn’t liked the fact that she had become more popular than he had. Even after he broke it off, Jenna had attracted the media instead of him. That was probably one of the reasons he was in rehab now.
Mal gestured to the chairs, and she and Jenna sat.
“It’s good to see you,” Jenna said softly, her smile equally as soft. “What’s it been, ten years?”
“Roughly,” Mal replied. She’d visited after graduating high school, considering that her Uncle Drake, Jenna’s father, had been intent on funding college for her. Checking in with her godfather had seemed appropriate at the time, even if she didn’t know him as well as she used to.
Jenna looked at her for a long moment. She shifted, crossed and uncrossed her legs, and sighed. “Okay, I know you want to know why I’m here.”
Mal smirked. For all her blonde hair, Jenna wasn’t an idiot. “True.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard about my wedding in May,” Jenna said, pushing back an invisible strand of hair, her extraordinary diamond solitaire glinting briefly.
“I have,” Mal replied slowly, shifting herself. “But the details are under wraps.”
A thin smile appeared on Jenna’s face. “That’s on purpose. We’re going even smaller than people think. Tom and I have lots of friends, but most of them are ‘friends,’” she said as she rolled her eyes and used her fingers to quote the word. “And we’re tired of pretending. I can’t get away from it completely, but we can cut down on it. So, the location is top secret, and the invitations are strictly family, close friends, and significant people in our lives.”
“And the press is gonna go for that?” Mal asked in disbelief. With how many tabloids and magazine covers that plastered pictures of Jenna whenever they could, Mal had a hard time believing that they would go along with that. Jenna was worth a mint every time they could snag a picture or story about her. No sane person in the media world would bypass the chance to sneak a glimpse of her wedding.
Jenna shrugged. “They better. None of them are coming.”
Mal’s jaw dropped, and her Rocketdogs skidded on the tile floor. “No press?”
Jenna smirked and shook her head. “Not a single reporter. No magazine access, no TV coverage, and no famous people.” She rolled her eyes. “Except for us.”
Mal sat back heavily against her chair, impressed by the implications, if it worked. “How’d you manage that?”
“I know people now,” Jenna said with a grin. “But we also promised the press something they can report on for a while.”
Something in her cousin’s voice sent a warning signal in Mal’s brain. “What’s that?” she asked suspiciously.
Jenna tapped the table between them lightly in an absent rhythm. “Postwedding access to a week-long prewedding extravaganza involving the wedding party and immediate family. Exclusive photos from one official camera approved by me. If they agree, and there are no paparazzi, they get the photos and interviews with guests after the wedding. If they don’t, they get the secondhand version and the blurry selfies that Aunt Joni posts on her blog.”
Mal snorted and covered her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut. That image would be her happy place for months. Aunt Joni loved nothing in the world but her niece’s fame and her cats and thought every family event was actually a tribute to her. She was tolerable in large family gatherings, but lethal if she cornered you. Anybody restricted to her version of things would get far more than they bargained for.
Jenna bit her lip and shrugged. “We’ll see if they agree to it. We have contract agreements with the major networks, so it looks good so far. We want our wedding to be like anybody else’s, you know?”
Mal gave her a look that clearly told her what she was thinking. Thomas Gregory Yardley the Third and Jenna Charlotte Hudson were not just anybody, and there was no way they could have an event that would remotely resemble “anybody else’s.”
“I know,” Jenna said, answering the look. “But we can try.”
Mal would give her that one. If anybody could pull it off, it would be these two. Tom came from money and power, and Jenna could charm anyone to do anything, and Uncle Drake wasn’t exactly hurting for money either.
“Who’s taking the exclusive photos?” Mal asked, thinking up a dozen names of people who would love to get their hands on it. “You’ve got that all decided, right?”
“Oh, I’ve decided,” Jenna said slowly, “and Tom thinks it’s a great idea. I haven’t settled it yet.”
Mal nodded, not quite sure why she was doing so, but it felt natural. “Better take care of that. You’ve got, what, two months? It’s going to be tight, usually high-end photographers book a year out.” She shrugged. “But it’s you, so I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting anyone you want.”
Jenna smiled. “That’s good. Because I want you to do it.”
Mal blinked once, then again. “Say what?”
“I want you to take the pictures at the wedding party, the whole week, and the ceremony and reception,” Jenna said, leaning forward. “But more than that, I want you there, Mal. I want you to be a part of this.”
“I don’t do celebrity,” Mal said faintly, ignoring the family plea. “I’m not that sort of photographer.”
“I know exactly what sort of photographer you are.” Jenna raised a brow and sat back, crossing her legs again. “You’re the best. And I am not just saying that because you’re my cousin. I went to the galleries in Colorado Springs and Des Moines. I saw your graduate project. Rustic Americana. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Mal could have been knocked unconscious by a breeze. Never in a million years would she have pegged Jenna to have an interest in her work. And to go to the galleries? It was impossible.
“It was so touching that you put on a show in Iowa so your aunt and uncle could see it,” Jenna said with a smile. “I bet they loved that. And their neighbors too. That one of the old man with the scruff and the prairie grass in his mouth? Was that your grandpa?”
Mal slowly and shakily nodded.
Jenna put a hand over her heart. “I loved that one, Mal. Loved. So poignant and moving. It’s his farm y’all lived on, right?”
Again, Mal could only nod. Jenna had seen the pictures. And that one of Grandpa Ned was Mal’s favorite too. He’d thought it silly she wanted a picture of him, but she insisted. He died a month later, and it meant more to her now than ever.
“And your Aunt Nancy with the cow,” Jenna continued, shaking her head. “She looks so much like your mama, Lord bless her soul. It made me miss Aunt Tess like nobody’s business.”
“You did see them,” Mal said in surprise.
Jenna nodded, still smiling. “Told ya. And I want you to take the pictures, Mal. I know it’s not your thing, but I don’t want regular pictures. This is my wedding, and we are going to be in a beautiful place. Heaven on earth. I want your type of photos to capture it all.”
Well, now, that was a tempting offer. Someone who actually knew her work and wanted her style, even if it wasn’t her usual sort of setting and theme . . . That sounded like a challenge she liked. Granted, at the moment her most popular clients were stay-at-home moms who wanted to test out Pinterest ideas, but sometimes she scored good projects she could actually put in her portfolio.
“And if that’s not enough,” Jenna said, her voice growing more excited, as if she knew she was winning, “I scored you something else too. The resort we’re staying at? They need some new photos taken, something to get more publicity, and they want high-class. The very best. Conveniently, I know the very best, so it works out well. Mountains, vistas, cabins, lakeside docks, old houses, and really bad cell reception . . . Mal, it’s perfect for you. You would have a field day.”
Mal looked at her cousin, impressed again. She was actually quite brilliant. “You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”
Jenna grinned. “I couldn’t take a chance you’d say no.”
“I haven’t said yes yet,” she reminded her. “I won’t do it for free, Jenna, not even for you.”
Jenna snorted. “I would never ask you to, especially not with what we have in store. And the contract for the resort is all you, no favors here and no deals.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper, folded it, and slid it across the table to her. “This is what we’re thinking for the wedding. I have no idea what your contract is, that’s up to you and the resort. But it’ll be good, Mal. Promise.”
Mal felt a little cheap taking that slip of paper, demanding money from her family when they already took care of her more than she’d admit to anyone. But opening that paper, seeing the astronomical number written there, and reading it twelve more times to make sure she hadn’t imagined the number of zeros, she suddenly didn’t feel that cheap.
“Done,” she said simply, tucking the paper into the pocket of her shirt.
Jenna grinned brilliantly. “Thank you, Mal! I promise you will love it. We’ve got a spa and fashion designers coming to spruce us up and a schedule for the entire week. I have a copy here for you, that way you can plan out what you need to bring. Now, you ever been to Lake Lure in North Carolina? ’Course not, you’ve never even heard of it. You’ve been in Iowa and Denver, and didn’t you travel Europe after college? Someone said you had amazing shots of the Eiffel Tower in a snowstorm. Anyway, bring whoever you need, all paid for. Just let me know and we’ll get it.”
Mal’s head started to swim the longer Jenna talked, and she wondered what in the world she’d gotten herself into. Her father’s side of the family was nuts, utterly and completely, but the kind of nuts you talk about with a smile.
At least, she thought they were.
It had been a long time.
She had no problems bringing Taryn and Dan with her, assuming they could keep their traps shut about whatever family secrets were unearthed. But if the muffled squeals and sounds of high fives behind the studio door were any indication, she’d need to figure out some pretty specific contracts for them.
There was no telling what sort of crazy her family would unleash—particularly at a secluded resort with no one to witness any of it.
Two months later
“Right, so Kids’ Day is tomorrow. What kids are even going to be there? This isn’t the wedding, it’s the prewedding shindig!” Taryn snorted and shook her head. “But, to be fair, tomorrow is also Designer Day. What does that even mean? Do you think Gucci is coming? Then makeup and hair tests the next day, that should be fun. And Wednesday is a live band and karaoke at the resort. Maybe I’ll get to sing Celine Dion—”
“Holy crap, Taryn.” Dan snorted from his seat, looking over at her from where he rode backward in the limo. “Did you memorize the entire itinerary?”
Taryn glared at him and adjusted the vest over her burgundy peasant top. “Shut up, Dan. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“To take pictures of your idols?” he asked innocently, crossing his ankle over his knee. “You always wanted to be a paparazzo, didn’t you?”
Taryn actually snarled as she smiled. “Don’t be petty, Dan. If you’re nice, I’ll have the bridesmaids bring you some crackers and talk to you for a bit. That way you can have the most action you’ve had since fifth grade.”
“Good year, fifth grade.”
Mal watched her assistants with a small smile, trying hard not to think about the week ahead of her. She’d debated the wisdom of her decision multiple times a day ever since Jenna had asked her to do this ridiculous thing—taking pictures of all those high-class people and snobs, most of them wanting her to shrink the size of their nose and trim their waists in editing. There was hardly anything artistic about this venture.
But she was getting paid, and paid well, and there was simply no refusing Jenna, even now. And if Mal were being honest, she did want to see the rest of the family. It had been too long since she had seen any of them—too long in Iowa, too long in Europe, too long in Colorado. She’d been avoiding them. She’d wanted to make her own name without them.
Which was ironic, since she might make her name because of them. Jenna’s popularity and strict media contracts pretty much ensured that Mal’s work would be in high demand. Yes, by companies and people who wouldn’t treat them with the same appreciation that Mal was going to take with them, but it might be what got her name out. She would give Jenna her best work, despite what she felt about it. She could never take a project and do it half-heartedly, even if it wasn’t what she wanted to spend her time and effort on.
Taking pictures at Rambling Ridge Resort on Lake Lure might give her some notoriety as well, and in the fields where she wished to thrive. She’d analyzed the same itinerary that Taryn had memorized, and she found several gaps where she could take the time she needed to explore. The contract with the resort was straightforward: she was to take pictures they could use in brochures, on websites, for artwork. She had absolute freedom, free rein of the place, and any additional help she needed would be provided upon request. She’d had enough with the lawyers, who really couldn’t answer her questions about the artistic details, but they knew enough about her contract and requirements that she didn’t mind that much.
She just wanted to work now.
“Taryn,” she finally said, as the two continued bickering, “you do realize that we’re not actually part of the group, right?”
That shut the two of them up. Taryn gawked, her gum threatening to tumble out, and Dan’s eyes were wide.
“We’re . . .” Taryn started, apparently unable to fathom such a shocking thought.
“We are the photographers, Taryn,” Mal reminded her, reminded them both.
“You’re her cousin,” Dan said faintly, which made her want to laugh. He’d been so blasé about the whole thing, seeming not to care one way or the other, but he looked as devastated as Taryn right now, and it was hilarious.
Mal shrugged. “I’m her cousin, but I’m the photographer. The only one, remember. And I’m the photographer this week, not her cousin. I’m not her cousin until Saturday at the family breakfast before the wedding. We might get some bits and pieces of what everybody else gets, but if you think we’re going to be decked out in designer clothes and having our pictures taken, I think you’d better check that now.”
Taryn and Dan looked at each other and frowned in unison.
Mal snorted. “Wanna get out? We’re not there yet; if being only a photographer isn’t good enough for you . . .”
The limo stopped then, and Jerry, the cheerful driver who had joked with them all the way from the airport, turned to face them with a grin. “Too late now, folks. We’re here.”
For a second, all three of them looked at each other in a sort of bewildered horror.
Mal swallowed quickly. “Remember, guys, we’re professionals.”
“Right,” they said together as they clambered from the limo, one saying it with determination, the other with sarcasm.
Mal felt a whole lot of both.
The first steps out of the limo told her everything she needed to know about this place. The trees were tall and stately, the pavement beneath her feet worn and dusty, and the air was so fresh she might have been at the top of a mountain in Colorado—except there was something very earthy about this place, a sort of flowery-pine scent that bore a hint of fresh water. And yet it was the most unearthly place she had ever been. She inhaled a few times, then found herself smiling.
“Mal!” a familiar twanged voice called.
She looked up the road to see Jenna with six other girls coming toward her. Jenna was grinning and waving and skipping to hurry up. She was wearing pristine white capris and a sleeveless yellow top, with her hair down and flowing in the wind. She was a picture in and of herself.
To her right was another perfectly blonde girl, shorter than her, but just as unnervingly gorgeous, with a brilliant and perfect grin. Her hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, and she was more causally dressed in denim cutoffs, revealing muscular legs, and an oversize boatneck shirt. She was waving too.
Most people knew Jenna had a sister. Not many knew they were twins.
“Hi, Jenna,” Mal said, adjusting her black denim skinny jeans and her too-expensive white blazer. Impressions were important, and she was here as a professional. “Hi, Caroline.”
The sisters hugged her tightly and asked if the trip was all right, if she was exhausted, and telling her how cute she looked. Normally, she hated this sort of stuff, but from her cousins, it was tolerable, and she couldn’t help but smile. They got it from their mom, so it was second nature.
She introduced Taryn and Dan, who had come around from the back of the limo, where they’d been helping Jerry with their bags. Taryn was starstruck, but managed to not look like an idiot. Dan couldn’t stop grinning like a mad fool.
Jenna turned and waved the other girls over. “I want you to meet my girls. Ladies! Come meet our photographer!”
The other five girls came over, and Mal finally got a good look at them.
“I feel like I’ve stepped into the Real Housewives of Nashville,” Dan muttered behind her with a low whistle.
Mal nearly burst out laughing. It was a perfect description for them. Two were multi-highlighted blonde and had used so much hairspray that their mountainous curls didn’t even twitch in the breeze and wore sunglasses so large it reminded her of 40s starlets. They wore heels and had bags that screamed money, not that the additional advertisement was needed. Their noses were so high in the air that the trees had competition.
Two were brunettes, one fake and one not, and their hair was equally stiff, their clothing too fancy for this natural setting. One had bangles that jingled loudly as she walked and heels so tall all she was missing was a pole. The other was surprisingly natural in complexion and makeup and pushed her normal-sized sunglasses up on her head, which only made her hair more perfect.
The last one had a sharp, bold pixie cut that highlighted what had to be the most perfect bone structure on the planet. If she didn’t have modeling contracts, someone was missing something. And the sheer platinum blonde of her hair could have been white in the sunshine, though a dark, bold liner on her thin lips offset it. She wore all white, as if she were the bride, and Mal could have sworn she wore the jacket on her shoulders so it could double as a cape.
Only two of them smiled as they approached; the other three analyzed her. Fair enough. She’d just done the same thing and made snap judgments. She was so glad she was the help this week and not one of them. That might have killed her.
“Girls, this is Mal. She is absolutely the best photographer ever, and we are so blessed to have her.” Jenna gave her a brilliant smile, and Mal returned it with a small one of her own. “Mal, these are my best girlfriends.”
She gestured to the two highlighted blondes. “Brittany and Bethany.”
Mal had no idea who was who, and it didn’t matter; they weren’t looking at her either.
Jenna indicated the brunettes. “Alexis and Grace.”
The normal-looking one, Grace, smiled and waved. The other was staring wide-eyed at her nail as if it had sprouted fangs.
Jenna pointed at the platinum bob. “And Sophie.”
“Charmed,” Taryn muttered behind Mal with a cough.
Mal bit back a grin. “These are my assistants, Taryn Chase and Daniel Brogada.”
No one except her cousins cared, but the polite thing was done. Jenna turned back to Mal with a smile. “Well, let’s get your things and let y’all get settled. Dinner’s at six thirty, and we’re havin’ barbecue. Totally casual, just relaxed so we can all get introduced and stuff.”
Mal nodded once, then turned to collect their equipment when a sharp, blatantly suggestive whistle hit the air. Everyone turned to see three golf carts racing toward the group, each bearing men, and from the looks of things, they were all fairly young. And fairly attractive.
Intrigued, Mal migrated with the rest of the group toward them, and she heard, and felt, Taryn and Dan behind her. Catching herself in the act, she stopped suddenly, and both slammed into her back. They snickered and tried not to topple over, and Mal finally felt more comfortable. It didn’t matter if everyone around her was fancy, she was always going to be her awkward self, and that worked for her.
One of the guys got out of the golf cart and went over to Jenna, kissing her cheek. Tabloids and Google searches told Mal that it was Jenna’s fiancé, Tom, and she could quite safely say that no photo did him justice. The man was tall, dark, and just the right mixture of heaven and earth to make toes tingle and mouths water.
As the rest of the men got out of the carts and came over, the wave of tingles intensified into a monsoon. Fairly attractive was a blatant lie.
There were six of them, all told, and it looked like a spread for GQ, except they all wore jeans—expensive, perfectly fitting jeans. They were old-money Southern royalty in every respect. Her cousin Lucas was among them, and where his sisters were blonde, his hair was dark, but he bore the same tan, the same twinkling eyes, and the same dimple, which, when combined with his crooked grin, made him dangerous. He saw her and grinned, winking boldly and shoving his hands into his pockets.
One of them was hanging back by the golf cart, leaning on it and surveying the group with a hint of amusement in the quirk of his perfect lips. Stonewashed jeans, pale green button-up open at the throat, sleeves rolled, dark, tousled hair, the ideal amount of scruff, and intense eyes that were indistinguishable in color from this distance . . . Mal knew full well she was openly gaping at him, and she didn’t care. Every breath felt like a hiccup in her chest, and she was afraid to blink.
The other three men came over to the group and might have been male models with their perfect features, perfect clothing, perfect bodies. One looked too much like Tom to be anything other than his brother, and the other two had something of an “aw, shucks” air about them that made any sentient, red-blooded female smile and sigh at the same time. Something about the group of men looked posed, but perfectly so. And the combination of all of them together made one feel somehow both insignificant and on fire.
“Ooh,” Taryn whispered in a guttural tone. “Pretty.”
Mal gave a breathy uh-huh of assent, then murmured, “You know the . . . the thing about unrealistic expectations in men? This is . . . this is exactly what they mean.”
Dan cleared his throat. “I’m feeling surprisingly insecure about my masculinity right now.”
“Me too,” Taryn echoed, starting to fan herself with a hand.
They gawked together for a long moment, and Mal felt like a kid at Disney World for the first time and had no idea what to do next.
So, she did what came naturally to her.
And not delicately, of course. She snorted and wheezed and covered her mouth instantly, squeezing her eyes shut. Taryn ducked her head against Mal, giggling softly. Dan chuckled and put a hand on Mal’s shoulder.
“Easy, boss. Breathe . . .” he teased.
“It’s not real,” Mal gasped between laughs. “This is so not real.”
She opened her eyes again and tried to find calm, but it was impossible. How could she be serious when there was a display of eye candy that had to be the envy of the earth right in front of her? She wasn’t normally the giggly type, but something about this whole situation was downright hilarious.
“Mal, Mal,” Taryn tried, still giggling, “who are they?”
“That’s Tom, he’s the groom,” Mal said, indicating with her head. “And that’s my cousin Lucas. Jenna and Caroline’s little brother.”
Dan snorted. “Little brother? The guy is all perfect proportions—”
“I’d like a portion,” Taryn interrupted in a low voice.
Mal snickered and covered her mouth again. “That’s my cousin,” she reminded her.