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Chase Sullivan was seven years old when he picked up his father's Polaroid camera for the first time and started taking pictures. For his eighth birthday, his father gave him his very own camera, both of them knowing by then that Chase was meant to be a photographer.
Chase took endless pictures of his seven brothers and sisters, his mother and his fatheruntil he'd passed away when Chase was ten. His siblings hadn't always liked having a lens pointed at them, and more than once one of his brothers had threatened to knock the camera out of his hand if he didn't put it down.
And yet, even after over a decade of working as a professional photographer taking pictures of everything from desert landscapes to Olympic athletes, Chase still thought that his earliest subjectshis familywere some of the most interesting he'd ever captured.
Which was why he was happy to take on the role of official photographer at big family events. Especially one as important as his mother's seventieth birthday party.
His brother Ryan's house overlooking the San Francisco Bay was the perfect spot for the party. Despite the vast size of Ryan's living room and kitchen, the place was packed with well-wishers who had come to celebrate the beloved head of the Sullivan clan.
Laughter and conversation were in high gear when Marcus, Chase's oldest brother and the owner of Sullivan Winery, put his arm around their mother's shoulders and brought her over to the big birthday cake. The noise level dropped as if on cue and Chase put down his beer and picked up his camera. He began by taking shots of Sophie, his younger sister, carefully lighting the birthday candles she had artfully arranged to spell out his mother's name as well as the number seventy.
As he looked through the viewfinder, Chase was struck, not for the first time, by just how much Sophie and his mother looked alike. Mary Sullivan had been a model when she'd met his father and, many decades later, she was nothing less than radiant as she stood surrounded by her children and friends.
His mother's hair was gray now and cut to curl at the base of her neck, rather than long and dark and glossy as it had been during her years on magazine covers, but in both of Mary's twin daughters, Sophie and Lori, Chase could clearly see the resemblance to his mother in her mid-twenties. Mary still had the same lightly tanned skin and long, elegant limbs, and he was often struck by the way her expression was a perfect combination of Sophie's innate calm and Lori's irrepressible energy.
He'd overheard more than one party guest remarking that it was hard to believe Mary was seventy years old when she looked at least ten years younger. Especially, many of them had added with a grin or a grimacedepending on which of her children they were looking atwhen one considered that she had raised eight kids virtually by herself after her husband had passed away unexpectedly at forty-eight.
Chase's chest twisted, as it always did, whenever he thought of his father. He wished Jack Sullivan could be here with them all. Not only because he still missed his father every single day, but also because he knew how much his mother had loved her husband.
Forcefully shaking off the dark thoughts, Chase took a shot of the cake with all of the candles blazing, seventy plus one for luck. Marcus led them in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday," and soon, everyone in the room was joining in.
While his mother beamed at them as if they weren't butchering the simple song with their off-key singing, Chase moved to the outer edge of the crowd to capture as much of his family as he could through the viewfinder.
When the birthday song finally warbled its way to the end, Marcus squeezed Mary's hand, saying, "Time for you to make your wish, Mom.'"
She looked out at the crowd of people who loved her, her smile meant for each and every one of them. "So many of my wishes have already come true." Her grin grew wider. "And still, I want more. At least seventy more."
They laughed along with her, each of them knowing she had to be one of the least greedy people on the planet. Whatever wishes she'd made in her life had clearly been made for her children. She'd never remarried, never even dated as far as Chase knew. Instead, she'd focused on raising them, supporting them, guiding them. Now that they were all adults, she was still always there if they needed her
and even, sometimes, when they didn't realize that they did.
So as Mary Sullivan closed her eyes to make her wish, and then opened them again to bend down and blow out the candles, Chase hoped she was making at least one for herself.
Everyone applauded and he got a great shot of Marcus pressing a kiss to their mother's cheek, while Sophie wrapped her arms around Mary from behind. One by one, Chase captured the images he knew his mother would love of his brothers and sisters celebrating with her on her birthday.
Soon, Chase had all the shots he needed to put together a great photo book to commemorate his mother's seventieth birthday. He could have put his camera down, but he knew better. In a family of eight siblings, each of them had to carve out their unique place. The photos Chase had taken over the past twenty-plus years gave clear evidence as to the way their personalities had only grown more distinct with time.
Even before their father had passed away, Marcus had taken his role as oldest Sullivan seriously. At fourteen, all of his training paid off when he was able to immediately step in to try to fill their father's shoes. Chase knew they all owed Marcus for the childhood he'd given up for them, and was beyond glad that his brother had found his own calling in the vineyards and varietals of Sullivan Winery, which he'd founded ten years ago. Unfortunately, as Chase turned his camera to focus on his oldest brother, he found a frown on Marcus's face as he spoke to his girlfriend, Jill. She was evidently upset about something, her mouth pinched, her eyes narrowed as she gestured at the rest of them. Seeing frustration so clearly stamped on his brother's face, Chase lowered his camera. He didn't feel right about capturing this moment between Marcus and his girlfriend, not when he was certain Marcus wouldn't want any of them to know that all wasn't right.
Lori, his twenty-four-year-old sister and Sophie's twin, tugged on his elbow, and he gladly looked down into her grinning, mischievous face. "You look happy, Naughty. Have you and Nice made up yet?"
Long ago, he'd christened Lori Naughty and Sophie Nice. Were it not for the fact that they were physical carbon copies, Chase wouldn't believe for a second that they were related to each other. Unfortunately, for the past few months, the twins hadn't exactly been getting along. Not that either of them would tell their brothers a damn thing about why they were fighting, of course. Even when they were at odds, Chase mused, the twins always worked as a team.
Out of all of his siblings, Lori had always been his most willing subject. A fantastic choreographer, Lori had always loved to dance and from the age of two on she'd happily performed for him while he took frame after frame of her little body in motion as she twirled, leaped and shimmied. And yet, he believed his most striking shots of his little sister had always been taken after all the motion had stopped, and she had forgotten that she was being photographed. She channeled her love, her energy, her passion, into dancing, and when she was still, all of those emotions remained on her very pretty face.
In silent answer to his question about her twin, Lori looked in Sophie's direction and frowned. "Don't get me started on her," she said, before giving a quick shake of her head and turning back to Chase to confirm, "Oh, yes, I'm definitely happy." She directed his attention to where his brothers Zach and Gabe looked to be having a rather intense discussion, clenched fists and all. "Have you met Zach's date for the evening yet?"
"I have," Chase said as he shot the bottle-blonde in the sky-high heels a quick glance. The woman was pretty, just like all the rest of the women Zach went out with, but not particularly memorable. As he looked back and forth between his brothers, it didn't take long for Chase to guess what had Lori grinning from ear to ear.
"Gabe used to date her, didn't he?"
Lori laughed as she nodded. "He sure did."
Throw six brothers between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-six together and things were bound to get messy. All eight siblings together under one roof meant lots of laughs, plenty of ribbing
and likely at least one major argument. But since it was obvious that neither of his brothers was serious about the girl, Chase figured there was a zero percent chance that they were going to come to blows over her other than as an excuse to blow off some steam with their fists.
Since high school, Chase had heard more than one woman exclaim over Zach's looks, and boy, did his brother work his genetic luck-of-the-draw. Given that Zach loved two thingsfast cars and even faster womenChase supposed it all had worked out just fine so far. Grinning as he took a few pictures of Zach working to lay claim to his own date, Chase decided he would torture a couple of friends who ran a successful modeling agency with these pictures of Zach next week. Because if Zach would ever agree to put down his wrenches and give up his race cars to pose in the latest designer clothes, even for one week, the modeling agent could charge pretty much anything he wanted for Zach's time.
Then again, Chase thought as he moved his lens to focus on Gabe, any agent worth his salt would try to get Gabe to sign onto his roster, as well. Even though Gabe was the youngest of his brothers, he also happened to be one of the biggest and strongest Sullivans. He had the most dangerous job of any of them, working as a firefighter in San Francisco. More than once, he'd had to leave parties like this one over the years when a call came in. And every time he did, every last one of the normally loud group of Sullivans took a quiet moment to pray for his safety. Tonight, Chase hoped the rain coming down outside meant Gabe would get to stay with them at least until the party ended.
He'd just lowered his camera when Lori said, "I don't know why Zach and Gabe are even bothering to argue over the girl, when she can't take her eyes off Smith." With a shrug over their movie-star brother's infinite allure to every female on the planet, Lori told him, "I'm going to get some cake before it's all gone. I'll be sure to get you a middle piece."
Chase lifted his camera back up as his sister flirted her way back into the center of the party. No question about it, his high-maintenance, stunning sister was going to make some poor guy crazy one day. And the guy would be lucky as hell to win Lori's big heart.
Of course, she knew the camera was on her, because she turned and winked at him and mouthed, "I told you so," as she gestured with her thumb to where Smith had just been cornered by Zach's date.
Chase almost felt bad turning his camera to his brother Smith. For the past fifteen years, Smith's love of actingand his immense talenthad put him at the mercy of thousands of cameras and the worldwide media. Chase always laughed at the way people lost it around his movie-star brother. Smith was just as normal as the rest of them.
Although, he had to admit, chartering a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot yacht in Italy and filling it with stars wasn't exactly normal.
Even now, as the woman stood just a little too close while asking Smith for an autograph, Chase was struck by how well his older brother dealt with his fame. Still, while he never complained to them, Chase knew the pressure to always be "on" and play the role of "Smith Sullivan" for the entire world had to grate sometimes.
It was why when they were together with just the family, Chase and his siblings made sure to treat Smith like he was no different than any of them.
Just to Smith's right, their brother Ryan lifted a heavy chest out of the way so that people could have room to dance as the swing band started up. As a professional athlete, Ryan was tall and muscular and made the movement look effortless, but through the camera eye Chase caught the slight clench of his jaw as Ryan's right shoulder gave just a little too far under the weight. As a kid, his brother's number-one goal had been to pitch for the San Francisco Hawks. They'd had one heck of a celebration the day Ryan had been chosen as the Hawks' top draft pick out of college. For the past ten years, Ryan had made those strikeouts look easy. But Chase knew just how focused his brother could be when he wanted something, just as focused as he'd always been on being the best damned pitcher in the National Baseball League.
As soon as Ryan cleared the dance floor, Lori put down her piece of cake, took his hand and pulled him onto it. Chase continued to photograph them as Ryan tried to draw Sophie in to dance with them, too, but Sophie simply shook her head and moved deeper into the shadows.
Sophie was Lori's direct opposite, Nice to Lori's Naughty. He couldn't imagine her being anything other than a librarian, and knew she absolutely loved her job at the main branch in San Francisco. Even when they were kids, whenever she saw him with his camera, she'd simply lift the book she was holding higher over her face until he gave up on her and went to find another victim. He knew she was steering a purposefully wide berth around him and his camera tonight. Chase had always thought that it was just as much of a gift to know how to blend in to the background as it was to know how to shine in front of a camera. From the time she was a little girl, Sophie had been mastering the art of observing. Watching. Taking it all in. He'd learned a lot from her over the years, and often thought of her as he stepped behind his camera.
A moment later, Chase felt a slender but strong arm move around his waist. He put down his camera to press a kiss to the top of his mother's head.
"Happy birthday, Mom. I hope you're having a good time."
She smiled up at him before saying the same thing she did every year when they all gathered together to celebrate her. "I'm having the best birthday ever, honey. Simply the best."
Together, with their arms around each other, and as they watched his brothers and sisters dance and laugh, talk and argue, Chase agreed. It really was the best birthday party ever.
A few minutes later, Sophie was more than happy to take some pictures of Chase with his mother. "Whatever you do, don't smile," Sophie told them both, a favorite family joke his father had come up with long ago when tryingand failingto get eight unruly kids to all smile for the camera at once. He'd finally told them all not to smile, or else! Of course, being forbidden to smile for a picture had made them all giggle so hard that the family photo had come out perfectly.