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No Romance Required

By:Cari Quinn

Chapter One

Cory Santangelo glanced at his watch. Again. He’d forbidden the ever-attentive press from attending tonight’s gala because he’d obtained an exclusive for coverage elsewhere. Wrong move, apparently. When a man paid handsomely—and secretly—for a notable photographer from the state’s largest newspaper to surreptitiously memorialize an event, he expected said photographer to arrive in a timely fashion. Preferably before the event ended.

Hell, he would have considered allowing the paparazzi to attend if he’d known the photog he’d secured wasn’t going to show.

Oh, it wasn’t over yet. Though the crowd of guests at Value Hardware’s annual Helping Hands charity benefit had definitely thinned, a stalwart number of partygoers would remain until the last drop of Cristal had been consumed. This gala had its roots in assisting the community, notably the underprivileged and down-on-their-luck, but many of those who came to their aid preferred to do so in gorgeous surroundings. Hence the yearly ball and its attendant auction, which always brought in the big bucks to help the foundation. Particularly this year, when a real-life romance had played out while the trinkets and baubles were offered up for bid.

His little brother, Dillon, had fallen for one of those down-on-their-luck types. Alexa Conroy owned a small, struggling flower shop in town and had fought a not-so-evil empire—which happened to belong to Cory—to save her business. Lex and Dillon had ridden out of there via motorcycle just a short while ago after putting on a show worthy of the daily soaps, complete with sweeping kisses and a frantic bidding war over a painting aptly titled Love at First Sight.

Now Dill was probably off biblically romancing his new girlfriend, and Cory couldn’t have been happier for him.

Especially since he’d hoped to milk the night for every drop of publicity it was worth. And that had been when he’d believed the only excitement would consist of Dillon’s large award for his volunteer work with the charity. The lovey-dovey melodrama was a news-at-eleven bonus, one that virtually assured that the charity and Value Hardware would get good press for days, despite Dillon the do-gooder’s publicity ban.

Or it would have assured it, had the photographer ever showed.

Cory pulled out his cell to call him. No reception bars. Of course. He needed to change plans. Or better yet, he needed his assistant to change them for him.

“Cory, wait.” He turned, glimpsing his mother and stepfather rushing toward him. He didn’t like the inevitable drop in his stomach as his mom gave him a quick hug and recounted the success of the night. All too often lately their discussions veered into a place he didn’t want to go, especially with his parents.

“Isn’t it wonderful about Dill and Alexa?” She sighed. “Dad and I were beginning to think he’d never fall in love.”

Here we go. “Isn’t that something that happens on its own timetable?”

“Of course, but you can help it along sometimes.” She grinned and pinched his cheek as if he were eight years old. As heat filtered into his face, he glanced around to make sure no one had seen her gesture. “It’s all about meeting the right people, sweetie. Something you don’t do enough of. You need to get out more, experience—”

“I experience plenty. Thanks for the advice, though.” He kissed her forehead and waved his phone at his stepfather, who stood stoically behind her. “Sorry, business.”

“Speaking of business…” Raymond Santangelo placed an arm around Cory’s shoulder, effectively halting his escape. He led him and Cory’s mother to a more private corner, where they stood between a potted ficus tree and a giant cardboard cutout of Dillon with the words “Volunteer of the Year.”

Dear God.

His mother tilted her head to the side, peering at him closely. “How long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”

Cory opened his mouth, then shut it. “Excuse me?”

His mother sighed and smoothed a hand over her neat auburn bob. “You remember dating, don’t you, sweetheart?”

“Dating isn’t part of my lexicon right now.” Cory pointedly glanced at his watch, furtively searching for an exit. Perhaps if he got out of there in a hurry, he’d head all of this off at the pass.

Raymond, who seemed completely unaffected by Cory’s attempt at bolting, stroked his short beard and shook his head. “We’re moving away in four weeks. You and Dillon are going to be on your own. Not that we won’t be available via phone and e-mail.”

“And Skype,” his mom added brightly.

Yes, Skype. Dillon had taught her how to use that particular piece of technology, damn him. Cory would make sure to thank his brother later. “I’m not a boy.” Cory met his stepfather’s gaze. “I think I’ve demonstrated my maturity and my ability to take care of myself. Of course we’ll miss you both.” He spared his mother a brief glance. “But this move is the best thing for your health, and Dillon and I are more than capable of running things.” The rest wasn’t worth discussing.