Hidden Page 4

HAPPY PANTS EXCERPT

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CHAPTER ONE

Thirty-one-year-old Austin Royce felt cold. And it wasn’t a chill due to winter weather or having forgotten to turn up the thermostat. Because it wasn’t winter, and he wasn’t indoors. Nope. This cold came from the frigid cement biting at his bare back as he lay on the ground, staring up at a pale blue, early morning sky, wondering where the ever-living-hell he was. His head throbbed like a son of a bitch, and his stomach felt like he’d eatenxwell, something not good.

Slowly, he sat up, trying to ignore the nauseating sensation of the earth gyrating beneath him. “What happened?” He closed his eyes, pressing his hands to his temples, silently vowing to never, ever again do whatever it was that he’d done last night.

With a few slow breaths, the dizziness subsided, and he opened his eyes, realizing the surroundings looked familiar: a dozen little tables, slightly weathered chairs, red flowersxHe was outside the Happy Pants Café.

How did I get here? And what happened to my shirt? Hell, and my shoes?

He wobbled his way to his feet and steadied himself on the back of a chair. His eyes immediately gravitated toward the gold ring on his finger. “Oh shit!” He held up his left hand and stared at the thing. He’d gotten married last night?

What the hell? To who?

Austin racked his brain, attempting to stir up the last thing he remembered. Chickens. He remembered chickens. And tequila. Andx
Mariachi music?

Crap. Yes, mariachis. He remembered being at that crazy party, doing tequila shots with those insane, unstoppable bastards, and then dancing with Harper.

Harper… Fuck!

His mind filled with blurry bits and pieces, including an image of Harper smiling up at him with her big green eyes, a twinkle of sheer hatred flickering inside them. He remembered her leaving the party right after she falsely accused him of ruining her life. She’d lost her dream job, was humiliated on the front page of a major tabloid—twice—and got arrested—just once, but that was enough.
Oh, man. He shook his head, remembering lots and lots of things, but he sure the hell didn’t remember getting married.

But apparently you did, asshole. At least, that’s what the wedding ring indicated. What had gotten into him?

A bottle of tequila, perhaps?

He needed to find Luci, the owner of the café who threw the party. Luci would know what happened. He hoped.

~~

Ten Days Earlier…

“Dickhead-SOB-from-hell, get away from that bride, or I’ll castrate you with my teeth.”

Aside from her family, twenty-eight-year-old Harper Branton had only ever loved two things in this world: Austin Royce and her job. For the record, she’d been nine when Austin had broken her heart—ancient history—so that pretty much left the job, which was fine by her; that lover boy was demanding. Or was her job more like a needy husband who expected one hundred and ten percent, 24/7?

She shrugged. Who cares? It’s all I ever wanted, and all I’ll ever need. Especially now that Harper’s dream had finally come true. The San Francisco Tribune. Her very own column in the society section. And that blushing, brunette, A-list bride standing across from Harper in the crowded reception tent was her big-debut-fish.

It had cost Harper five hundred bucks for her dress and the promise of babysitting her demonic nephew and niece for an entire week, while her older sister Jessa, a high-profile divorce attorney, went to the Bahamas with her husband, Mr. Cool-As-Shit (aka Cas).
Actually, though it was hard to tell with so many people standing in the way, the shmuck who now stood shamelessly flirting with the famous bride sort of reminded her of Cas. He had thick, modestly messy, wavy brown hair and a dimple (aka pretentious sinkhole) that would show when he made one of those snobby, affected laughs: Ha. Ha. Haaaa. Haaaa. Harper couldn’t hear this particular shmuck’s laughter over the music or the noise of the elegantly dressed crowd getting down to some weird wedding rendition of Avicii, but she didn’t need to. The guy looked like a bit of ax

Douche! No, he didn’t! Had Shmuck just slipped the bride his number? Okay, Harper got that Christina Bass-Andrews was hotness personified and from the coolest “teen” vampire show on TV. (They all looked twenty-five and drank scotch. But, hey. Whatever.) This guy, though?

What a pair of balls! It was the actress’s wedding day, and she was clearly drunk! And I have to talk to her before I lose my chance!
Harper had made three failed attempts to intercept the bride in the swanky country club’s powder room but on each occasion had ended up four or five women behind her prized target. Complete waste of time! Except that she’d overheard the bride telling two other ladies about having met her new husband in St. Helena at some coffee shop with a really odd name—the Happy Pants Bakery or something. The other women had responded by saying that they already had scheduled visits of their own because they were “tired of being single.”

What the hell kind of place was it? An elite hook-up club? And what about that name? Did the male customers have happy pants when they entered? Or were their pants happy after they left? Hmmnx Harper had taken note, thinking it might add a nice little garnish for her journalistic main course: an impromptu interview with the famous bride at the event du jour. That was what Harper had promised her editor, and she couldn’t let her down. Not after just having been promoted to full-time columnist.

You’ll deliver. Just as soon as that douchebag—

“Hi, I’m Gilbert. Wanna dance?”

Harper peeled her anxious eyes away from the bride. A youngish-looking man with a generous belly in a tuxedo-tee (the tux printed on the shirt) stared with stoner-red eyes. He had a nacho-cheese-like substance stuck right in the middle of the faux cummerbund.
“Sorry?” she asked.

His foggy gaze drifted to her ample breasts, which were a bit more exposed than usual in her off-the-rack, consignment store Valentino. Lime green and sherbet orange were so not her colors—clashed horribly with her short auburn hair and freckled skin. In fact, with her curvy figure, she was sure she looked like a piñata waiting to happen. Just add bat.

“Wanna dance?” he repeated.

“Uh, sorry. I’m here with someone,” she lied. Her gaze flashed back over to Douchebag, who turned in her direction, allowing for a better look.

Hello, hottie! Now she got why the bride was so into him. The man was a tall Ken Doll-type—gorgeous face with distinguished bone structure and a perfect smile.

Oooh. He hadn’t bothered to shave, either. Harper had an inexplicable weakness for o-forty-eight-hundred-hour shadows. Especially when the male jaw in question was angular and strong. Add a pair of sensual lips and warm eyesx

She jerked her tongue back inside her mouth. Stop drooling, you idiot.

Yeah, he was hot. Way hotter than the groom—a sixty-plus portly man, who also happened to be a movie producer.

“Ken,” who wore a sleek tuxedo (A real one. No cheese.), flashed a charming smile at the bride, and she laughed exaggeratedly. Ha. Ha. Haaaa. Haaaa.

You just got married, Christina! What the hell? The woman looked like she might just lean herself over the enormous table behind her with the ten-tiered wedding cake and give Ken a look-see of her wedding-day knickers.

“So’s that a no?” the tux-tee guy asked.

Harper flashed a glance his way. “Shoo, Chuck E.! I don’t have your cheese.” It was on his shirt, but she was too afraid to point that out because he might decide to lick it off in front of her.

Harper’s gaze then moved back to Big-fish Bride and Mr. Ken Doll, only to encounter something horrific: Ken pulling out a recorder.
Harper’s blood pressure dropped to her sparkly, pedicured toes. “No! No! She’s mine!” Effing Ken was a reporter about to steal her story!

Harper deposited her half-full champagne glass on a table and pushed through the crowd toward the bride. “Hey!” she barked, catching the attention of both Christina and Reporter Guy. “I don’t think so. She’s clearly had too much to drink, and the invite said ‘no press.’ Who the hell do you think you are?”

Ken Doll looked at Harper dismissively and then smiled at Christina. “Looks like this young lady is the one who’s had too much champagne.”

Young lady? Young lady? “No, I haven’t. I don’t even like champagne because it gives me a headache, but that’s beside the point. That bride,” Harper pointed at Christina, “is shitfaced. You can’t record what she’s saying!”

Christina looked at him. “Ya know,” she slurred, “I think she’s right. I am kinda shitfaced.”

The man, with his full, sensual lips, sultry hazel eyes and too-delicious thick lashes, looked like he might just strangle Harper. “Who are you?”

“None of your business, you sleazy, unshaven vulture.” Harper turned toward Christina. “Why don’t we find you some water?”

“NoooxWater is for days,” the bride wobbled a bit, “when I’m trying to be sober. Wait—who are you?”

“Um-um, I’m Jessa’s sister.”

The bride swayed a bit and narrowed her eyes at Harper as if trying to see clearly.

“Jessa. Your pre-nup attorney?” Harper added.

Christina pointed her finger in Harper’s face. “Oh, yeahxyou’re her little sister, the reporter—wait—heeeyx”

Ken spun Harper around, seething, “You—you—” his fierce gaze gripped her like a vice made from raw, sexual attraction. Visions of libidinous acts thrashed inside her head, causing her pulse to spike and her face to feel like it was roasting in the warm sun. Only, that sun brought the promise of endless orgasms instead of a sunburn. And, for a few brief seconds, she felt lost in the masculine paradise of those eyes and savored the illusion of him being as lost as she was.

Ken shook his head as if trying to regain his focus. “You’re a reporter,” he said accusatorily.

She nodded dumbly.

“Oh, I get it,” he said, “it’s okay for you to try to get a quote, but not me?”

Harper felt her face turn I’m-so-busted red. “Well, yeahxbut I wasx”

Ken stepped in closer, towering over her five-six-ness with his six-five-ness.

Wow, his eyes are such an unusual shade of hazel—gold with green speckles.

“You were what?” he asked. “Going to pretend to be her friend, bring her some more champagne, and then get her to talk?”

Yeah. That had been the plan, but now she felt a little sorry for the woman. Harper was going to try to win her over by keeping her away from sexy-vulture Ken.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Harper argued, giving him the once-over. “I’m not a complete douchebag.”

Anger lit the man’s beautiful hazel eyes. “Douchebag?” he growled in a low, deep voice. “Me? I told her immediately who I was. You were trying for the sneak attack. I think that makes you the douche.”

Harper gasped. “Did you just call me a douche?”

He looked her up and down and then crossed his arms over his strapping tuxedo-clad chest. “If the bag fits—”

Harper slapped him right across his stubbly cheek, and his head whipped to the side.

Shocked by her own act of aggression, Harper gasped and placed her hand over her heart. Why did I do that? She’d never hit another person in her entire life. Okay, there’d been that time when she was nine and those stupid boys were making fun of Austin, but surely that didn’t count.

Rage flickered in the man’s swoon-worthy, handsome face, and Harper noticed his fingers twitching to his side. Oh no! Now I’ve done it. He’s going to hit me back!

Looking like a pot of soup about to boil over, Ken’s nostrils flared. He moved his hands toward Harper’s shoulders, as if he was going to give her a good shake, but the drunken bride stumbled right in front of him.

Being that Christina was several inches taller than Harper, his hands landed right on Christina’s breasts. Of course, Harper couldn’t see the action, but Lord, she saw Ken’s face looking like he just might die of shame. And, of course, Christina yelped before attempting to quickly move away from the accidental, public-grope situation, but instead stumbled again. Harper watched in slow-motion-horror as the bride fell and crashed into the wedding cake.

“Crap,” was about all Harper managed to say before being nabbed by two security guards. “Oh, sure, but the hot guy gets to stay!” she yelled as they threw her out of the persnickety Marin country club on her ass. Yes, right in front of a thousand paparazzi.
Turned out, Harper would be the scoop that day.