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Lexi blamed her birthday on the goofy grin she couldn't wipe off her face as she and Luke mingled with the other party guests. She knew the glow from Luke's smoldering kiss would not subside until she climbed into bed. And, with any luck, her brain would replay it in a dream. Over and over and over. Maybe, in her dream, he would take his kiss further...past her cleavage.

Oh gods, how Lexi wanted to take things further with Luke. He was every story hero wrapped into one well-rounded package, and she felt his excitement against her hip each time he kissed her. He was definitely interested. Still, the comment he made about not being good at cultivating a woman's interests, long term... Was that a heads-up she needed to heed?

Lexi had to admit, Luke's confession supported the opinions of her family. A man with success and sex appeal in spades would have his pick of women. Settling down probably wasn't on his agenda. While she desperately wanted to believe Luke was different, a small part of her didn't care. She needed him in the worst way, like a craving gone unsatisfied or an unreachable itch.

James's voice summoned Lexi from her thoughts, and she blinked the living room into focus, remembering he had casually invited himself into a discussion she and Luke were having with Burt about the unique bouquet of a French Chardonnay.

"Do you live in France?" James asked Burt as wine was poured into his glass. "Your accent is hard to place. It sounds like post-classical ancient Greek, but I suspect it's modern Greek, possibly influenced by Corsican or French."

Everyone stared at James as he spouted his scholarly wisdom. Greek had always baffled Lexi. The letters alone were enough to scare off even an ardent language enthusiast.

"Do you speak Greek?" she asked him.

James nodded. "Ναi. Milάτε εlliηiκά?"

Lexi shrugged her surrender. "I can only answer that with 'No, I don't speak Greek', but I'm impressed. You didn't tell me you were interested in languages."

"I did, but I don't think you were paying attention at the time."

Lexi's face went up in flames, which was happening a lot lately. "That's horrible of me, James. I'm sorry. I thought you were studying history and politics."

"I am, with a minor in European and Middle Eastern languages."

"I live in Corsica. If you're still interested, James," Burt interrupted with a disgruntled huff. He grew less friendly the more he drank, and Lexi wagered he had already polished off two bottles of French Chardonnay by himself.

The room slowly emptied of bodies until only Lexi's closest friends remained, plus James, who promised he would stay to toast her at midnight. This didn't seem to bother Luke at all. In fact, he and James had no trouble exchanging ideas. While Lexi didn't know what to do about the awkwardness of having two men show an interest in her at once, she couldn't deny the rush felt damn good.

Five minutes before her mom's favorite Bulova clock struck midnight, her dad walked to the center of the room, brandishing a bottle of champagne as he cleared his throat for attention. "I would like to propose a toast to my baby girl, Alexandra, who will be my baby for five more minutes."

His voice caught slightly, but he covered it by offering champagne to anyone interested in toasting to Lexi's long and healthy life. All the glasses went up, and when the bottle was drained, everyone watched the second-hand count down. Everyone except Lexi. She couldn't keep her eyes off Luke, who was doing the same thing back, gifting her with a bewitching smile. If anyone else was vying for her attention at that moment, she didn't notice. She didn't even care if her Uncle Z was pouting. He could grow wings and fly to France for all she cared.

As the clock chimed, a toast was made, and the room broke into a decent rendition of Happy Birthday To You, boosted by Nora's perfect pitch. During the serenade, Lexi reminisced about her favorite birthday. She had just turned five and her Uncle Z bought her a horse, whom she named after him - Zenith. But she couldn't break Zenith of his bad manners, and Uncle Z had to take him back after the fourth escape. Her dad said the whole debacle was a metaphor for the man who would give a wild horse to a five-year-old.

At the close of the song, a large hand came to rest on Lexi's shoulder, and her Uncle Z's bearded face came into view. This was it. Time for the big surprise.

"Lexi, we're ready to present your gift." His gaze flicked to Luke, who stood close enough to hear him. "We're convening in your father's study to give us privacy. Why don't you say goodnight to your friend James, then meet us there?" He inclined his head to James, who also stood close enough to hear.

Why did they need privacy for the surprise? Lexi had held out hope that her godfather would, some day, return Zenith fully broken and less likely to jump over stable gates. But her mom would never allow a horse inside the house. A new car would be a waste. Her Lexus had served her well since her sixteenth birthday. Had they bought tickets to Argentina? She'd been begging her parents to plan a trip to Patagonia.

"That was nice. I'm glad I could be part of it." James's voice snapped Lexi out of her thoughts, and she realized everyone had abandoned the living room except him. How had she not seen Luke disappear?

"I'm glad you could, too. I'm sorry if my Uncle Z made you feel awkward. My family is kind of weird. I promise to tell you about the surprise tomorrow. Are you staying until Monday?"

"No. I have to leave in the morning after breakfast. Britain doesn't celebrate Labor Day, so it's back to the books on Monday."

Lexi felt a sudden wave of disappointment at having wasted so much time ignoring James. He had flown all the way from Europe to attend her party, probably at the insistence of his parents, and she had completely blown him off. Luke and his golden eyes had commanded every thought. No wonder they called it love struck. It struck a person in the head and rendered them useless.

"Let me get your number," she said as she grabbed her cellphone off the high-top table. "I'd love to talk more about your studies and ask questions about Oxford. But I promise not to pester you too much. I know where to draw the line between friend and pain-in-the-ass."

James smiled shyly as he took out his phone. "I can't imagine you ever being a pain-in-the-ass. I like hanging out with you. You're cool."


Lexi felt strangely flustered as she watched James plug her number into his cell, and she noticed his hand shaking as his fingers moved carefully over the screen. Was he flustered, too? When he pocketed his phone, and without any warning whatsoever, James leaned into her cheek and kissed it.

"Happy birthday, Lexi. I hope you enjoy your surprise."

James bolted up the stairs, leaving Lexi dazed and alone in the living room. She brought her champagne glass to her lips and downed the contents in one go. It felt like the situation called for it. Whatever her family had in store for her, it couldn't be more thrilling than having two men kiss her in one day.

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