Returning for her sister’s wedding would’ve been difficult had it merely meant pretending to be a happy and supportive bridesmaid. But being in charge of the whole event? That added insult to the most heart-wrenching emotional injury Olivia Arnold had ever sustained.
As she drove back to Whiskey Creek for the first time since learning that Noelle would be marrying Kyle Houseman—the man she’d been dating herself until three months ago—she wished she’d had the nerve to refuse her parents.
Noelle tried to beat Olivia at anything and everything she did. It had been that way since they were children.
But Olivia planned weddings for a living. She was also the family peacemaker, so it came naturally to try to forgive, to move on. And, as her mother had pointed out, she was the one who’d asked Kyle if they could take a “break” while she moved to Sacramento to build her business. She’d wanted one year to see if she could develop it into something spectacular in a bigger city before marrying Kyle and settling down in Whiskey Creek.
Given all that, how could she refuse to help? Especially when she could save her father so much money?
Despite her determination to soldier on through everything that was happening, an odd sense of panic welled up as she reached the edge of town. Pulling over just beyond the sign that said Welcome to Whiskey Creek, The Heart of Gold Country she tried to get hold of herself but almost turned her Acura around. Within an hour, she could be home in Sacramento. She could hide away until this wedding was a distant memory and, if she was lucky, avoid her sister and new brother-in-law for a decade or two. Maybe by then she’d be able to face them without wanting to cry.
And why shouldn’t she turn back? If she stayed, the humiliation of the next few days would be as painful as the heartbreak. Whiskey Creek was a town of only two thousand people. Thanks to the fact that she and Kyle had been a couple for two years, and had separated so recently, she couldn’t possibly escape the whispers, the pitying looks or the condolences of the friends and neighbors who’d known her most of her life.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!” Bumping her forehead against the steering wheel, she pictured Kyle kissing “the bride” and groaned at the disappointment and betrayal. Noelle had waited for just the right moment. When Olivia was in Sacramento, trying to experience something new before starting her life with Kyle. When he was alone and not coping well with the separation. Then she’d made her move. Olivia wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to forgive her sister, especially since it was Olivia’s own tears and confidences that had armed Noelle. They’d never been particularly close, but they came from the same family and had lived under the same roof until Olivia relocated to Sacramento last February. That gave Noelle certain insights she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
But if she left, if she ran, her sister would know she was just as hurt today as she had been that terrible evening the horrible truth—that Kyle and Noelle had been seeing each other—came out. Why give Noelle the pleasure? Why confirm that her sister, younger by two years (which only made it worse), had finally landed the coup de grâce of their sibling rivalry?
“Ahhhhh!” She pounded the steering wheel with her fists this time, before hitting everything else in sight. Somehow, seeing her hometown looming ahead had destroyed her restraint. Rage seemed to be a monster growing in strength and power until it was bursting out of her chest—
A knock on the window interrupted her midsob. She’d been so focused on her distress, on screaming and beating her dashboard, she hadn’t heard anyone approach.
Mortified to realize she had a witness to her behavior, she turned to see a tall, blond man dressed in a white T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops. His mouth, tense with some emotion, made a slash in his face beneath a pair of mirrorlike sunglasses.
Oh, God… Despite those glasses, it wasn’t a cop, as she’d expected. Worse—it was Kyle’s stepbrother, Brandon Lucero. He was younger than Kyle by a year, which made him almost a year older than her, and he appeared to be…concerned. No doubt he thought she’d lost her mind.
He might as well have caught her with her pants down. It would’ve been less embarrassing. Her only consolation was that Brandon wasn’t likely to tell Kyle what he’d seen, even if he connected it to the upcoming wedding. There was no love lost between the two men. They’d lived together while in high school, after Kyle’s mother married Brandon’s father, but that hadn’t made them friends.
Brandon waited to speak until she rolled down the window. “You okay?” he asked, his teeth a stark contrast to his golden tan.
After getting abusive with the interior of her innocent car, her right hand hurt so badly she was afraid she’d fractured it. She cradled it in her lap, hoping he wouldn’t notice the swelling, and wiped her other hand over her wet cheeks.
This kind of behavior wasn’t like her.
“Don’t I look okay?” she countered as if she hadn’t just lost control.
“Babe.” He shook his head. “Tell me this has nothing to do with Kyle.”
She dabbed at her eyes, inadvertently smearing her mascara, which she wiped onto her white shorts. Cut low at the hips and high on the leg, they’d been purchased with one goal in mind—turning male heads. In her current situation, she needed the ego boost. But her pride in the body she’d worked so hard to slenderize and tone had gone out the window, along with her composure. What did it matter if she looked better than she ever had? Noelle was marrying the man Olivia thought would be her husband. “Would you believe I broke a nail?”
His biceps bulged, stretching the sleeves of his T-shirt as he folded his arms.
“Not a chance. Want to try something else?”
“No. Who cares if you think I’m an idiot?” she grumbled as she pushed her long hair out of her face. “You’ve never liked me much to begin with.”
This seemed to surprise him. “What gave you that impression?”
“I don’t know.” She managed a facetious smirk. “Maybe the way you scowl every time you see me? Or, if you can’t avoid me, which is always your first choice, you just grunt so you don’t have to say hello?”
He scowled when she’d expected him to laugh. “Would you believe I was saving you from myself?”
“I can be chivalrous when I want to be.”
“That’s definitely not an adjective I’d use to describe you. I’m sure all the women with broken hearts you’ve left behind would agree with me.”
His scowl darkened. “What women with broken hearts?”
She could’ve named a few. Some of them were acquaintances. He was attempting challenge—few women could refuse him. But he didn’t give her the chance to be more specific. He was still talking.
“I’m going to assume you’re angry or you wouldn’t have said that. You’re obviously having a bad day.”
Ah, the understatement of the year. And since she had to face Kyle and Noelle as well as her parents in the next few minutes, her day was going to get worse.
“We had a class together, remember?” he added. “I took you to my junior prom. I’ve always liked you just fine.”
She couldn’t see his eyes, but she sensed that they were moving over her, taking inventory of what her clothes revealed. Instinctively she wanted to cover up. The only thing stopping her was the sure knowledge that doing so would draw more attention to her atypical attire. “And—” he grinned “—from what I can see so far, I’m going to like the new you even more.”
What had she been thinking when she’d put on this outfit? If Kyle didn’t regret what he’d done by now, a pair of short shorts and a low-cut blouse wouldn’t do the trick. It was too late to save what they’d had, anyway. It wasn’t as if she could take him back.
“I dressed in a weak moment,” she explained, her face burning. “I needed to feel attractive.”
“Mission accomplished.” He whistled. “You could stop traffic. You stopped me, didn’t you?”
She considered the amusement on his face. “I’m pretty sure you thought I was having engine trouble.”
“To be honest, I thought a bee had gotten into your car and you were under attack.”
“Thanks for the visual. That helps with the embarrassment. But it wasn’t that bad.”
His eyebrows rose above his sunglasses. “It was alarming. But back to your changed wardrobe. I don’t think showing that much skin is the best way to recover.” He scratched his smooth-shaven chin. “I mean…I’d hate to see you wind up with the wrong kind of guy. Again.”
“Kyle was the wrong kind of guy?” She was anxious to hear his justification for that statement. The general belief was that Brandon was the less reliable of the two. Kyle had attended UC Berkeley on an academic scholarship while getting a degree in electrical engineering. He’d started his own company manufacturing solar panels after that, which was currently making him rich. He was strong, kind, talented.
Maybe he wasn’t quite as handsome as his stepbrother, but his attention wasn’t nearly as fleeting, either.
“For you he was completely wrong,” Brandon maintained as if he’d been able to see it all along.
The uncertainty she’d always felt in his presence returned. She’d caught him watching her since that prom. Most of the time he turned away the second she noticed, but occasionally their eyes met and held, and she remembered how badly she’d once wished he’d call. “Who would be better?” she challenged.
Mouth quirking up on one side, he said, “Why don’t you follow me to my place and put yourself back together before you walk into the lion’s den? We can talk about it.”
It was a kind suggestion. One she never would’ve expected—not from him. But she could guess why he was suddenly so helpful. He’d love nothing more than to shove a connection with her in Kyle’s face.
And therein lay the appeal of his offer….
“Do you think your stepbrother will hear about it if I do?” she asked.
He chuckled softly. “We can make sure of it.”
That kind of petty revenge was beneath her. But the idea of turning the tables on Kyle, and by extension Noelle, was tempting. “He’d hate it,” she mused. “Whether he’s marrying my sister or not.” She knew because of that last call, the apology, the crack in his voice when he’d said he’d always love her. The memory of it brought fresh tears to her eyes….
A truck was coming up from behind. To get out of its way, Brandon stepped close enough that she could pick up his scent in the air that blasted into her car as the truck whooshed by. He smelled as good as he looked. But that was no surprise. She recalled dancing with him as a sophomore, pressing her nose into his warm neck in an effort to remember his scent. She’d instinctively known that was the only part of Brandon a girl could safely capture.
“He wouldn’t want you to be with anyone else, but me least of all,” he agreed.
Obviously he liked the idea of upsetting Kyle as much as she did. Problem was…associating with Brandon came with a certain amount of risk. For one, the way she was dressed could be misleading. He might assume she’d changed, become promiscuous, like the girls he usually preferred. And what if she fell into her own trap? Brandon was like a meteor. He burned hot and bright as he crashed through a woman’s orbit, but he left a lot of damage in his wake and nothing, no one, slowed him down. Although some girls welcomed the thrill of trying—he never lacked for female companionship—Olivia was already nursing a broken heart. She had no business being alone with this man, especially while she was on the rebound.
On the other hand, she was tired of trying to turn the other cheek. She was also tired of being so darn careful with her love life. Kyle was supposed to have been a wise choice, a man who wanted to settle down and have a family. And look how well that had turned out. He was having a family, all right. With her sister. Noelle was pregnant, hence the rush on the wedding. Her mother wanted Noelle married off before she started to show.
“Are you coming?” Brandon asked when she didn’t answer.
Were they going to be allies? She found that a bit ironic, considering that, after prom, they’d never even been friends. She’d been one of the few who’d understood that wanting Brandon would only end in misery. “If I go to your house, it doesn’t mean I’ll be sleeping with you,” she said, taking a stab at his motivation for inviting her.
He jammed his fists into the pockets of his baggy shorts. “Kyle won’t know that.”
Her injured hand was beginning to throb. She should head to her parents’ house, change into something more sensible and make an ice pack. She was supposed to arrive in time for dinner. But if she showed up there in the next few minutes, they’d question her about her red eyes even if she concocted a good excuse for her hand. She couldn’t stand the thought of that, especially if they cornered her in front of Noelle, who would know exactly what was wrong and take great satisfaction in being the cause of it.
“Do you have an ice pack?” she asked, finally letting him see her injury.
He slid his sunglasses down to take a look, and she felt the full effect of those eyes, which were several shades lighter than hazel. “Do I have an ice pack?”
“You have a lot of them.” Of course he did. As a professional skier, he probably needed one often.
“Come with me and you’ll feel better in a few minutes. I guarantee it.”
She squinted up at him. I think that’s what I’m afraid of, she thought but all she said was, “Thanks.”