When We Touch Brenda Novak You're invited to a wedding in Whiskey Creek, Heart of the Gold CountryUnfortunately, it's the wrong wedding. Olivia Arnold is arranging the festivities–and it's the hardest thing she's ever done. Because she should be marrying Kyle Houseman. They were together for more than a year…. But her jealous sister, Noelle, stole him away–and now she's pregnant.All their friends in Whiskey Creek know as well as Olivia does that Kyle's making a mistake. His stepbrother, Brandon, knows it, too. But Kyle's determined to go through with it, for his child's sake.Olivia's devastated, but surprisingly Brandon–the black sheep of the family–is there to provide comfort and consolation. The intensity between them, both physical and emotional, shows Olivia that maybe Kyle wasn't the right man for her….But is Brandon? You’re invited to a wedding in Whiskey Creek, Heart of the Gold Country Unfortunately, it’s the wrong wedding. Olivia Arnold is arranging the festivities—and it’s the hardest thing she’s ever done. Because she should be marrying Kyle Houseman. They were together for more than a year…. But her jealous sister, Noelle, stole him away—and now she’s pregnant. All their friends in Whiskey Creek know as well as Olivia does that Kyle’s making a mistake. His stepbrother, Brandon, knows it, too. But Kyle’s determined to go through with it, for his child’s sake. Olivia’s devastated, but surprisingly Brandon—the black sheep of the family—is there to provide comfort and consolation. The intensity between them, both physical and emotional, shows Olivia that maybe Kyle wasn’t the right man for her…. But is Brandon? * * * “Brenda Novak is always a joy to read—and never more than with this new series!” —Debbie Macomber, #1 New York Times bestselling author When We Touch A Whiskey Creek Novella Brenda Novak www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk) Dear Reader, I recently came off a stint of wedding movies—Something Borrowed, Made of Honor, The Wedding Planner, The Wedding Date. Some of these are dated. You probably realize that. I’m not sure how I missed them when they first came out, but it was fun catching up. I had renewed interest in this subject because the first of my five children was married recently. Everyone talks about how stressful such an event is. With only two months to plan, we whipped through the preparations but were so pleased with how it all turned out (thanks in large part to the fact that one of my BFFs owns the best wedding venue in the area and another is a fantastic photographer). I can honestly say I’ve never been to a more beautiful wedding (completely objective opinion, of courseКУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 237.04 руб.
). Anyway, all those “I do” vibes and sighs of love put me in the mood to write my own wedding story—a first for me. Here you have it. Only this wedding doesn’t go quite as smoothly for some participants as others….
I’m excited to be able to offer you this story. I think it’s a fabulous way to introduce you to my Whiskey Creek series. If you like When We Touch, you’ll hopefully enjoy When Lightning Strikes (to be released August 28th, 2012), When Snow Falls (to be released October 30th, 2012) and When Summer Comes (to be released January 29th, 2013). I’d also recommend trying my Dundee, Idaho, series. More details about both series can be found at my web site (www.brendanovak.com (http://www.brendanovak.com)), where you can also enter my monthly giveaways, join my fan club, purchase fun Whiskey Creek items or learn more about my annual online auction for diabetes research, which runs every May. So far we’ve raised $1.6 million!!
To Megan and German...
Watching you two fall in love has been one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced as a mother and confirms everything I believe as a romance writer. You can live the dream. Never, never lose what you have!
Chapter 1 (#ue1f60da4-fbdf-580f-943c-af0b0458fc8b)
Chapter 2 (#u6f92abbd-0034-5906-b68d-9e1ac25a24fa)
Chapter 3 (#u1f0b227b-1ac3-542d-92ec-51ef7f6b0d46)
Chapter 4 (#u3244d4b6-77e0-544e-bcf0-82b573ad8da1)
Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo)
Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo)
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 a tempting 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.”
Olivia had never been inside Brandon’s house. Kyle had driven her past it once, when they’d been coming back from a picnic near the old mine. Brandon had been abroad at the time, or they never would’ve taken the chance of running into him. Kyle preferred to have as little contact as possible. Since then, she’d noticed the turnoff that led to his solitary cabin whenever she drove up this way to hike or bike. Brandon had always been a bit of a mystery to her. Or maybe it was just that ever since she’d sat in front of him in Chemistry she’d felt his magnetism as much as any girl. There’d even been a few times over the years when she’d been tempted to swing by his house.
She could understand why he’d like living here, with the peace and quiet and the spectacular view afforded by one wall made entirely of glass. His home reminded her of the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, probably because it was two stories high and dug out of the mountain—very much a part of nature. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, a telescope held pride of place in the middle of the living room, beneath a giant skylight.
Most people wouldn’t put a telescope in the living room because it would obstruct their view of the television. But Brandon’s TV was in the loft area above. Down here, various geodes and old weapons, artifacts and sculptures lined bookshelves that also contained a surprising array of books, mostly nonfiction. She spotted one on astronomy, another on Buddhism and a third on the history of China.
“China?” she murmured while he was in the kitchen, getting her some ice. She’d never taken him for a scholar. Since he made his living as an extreme skier, he was often videotaped plunging down the steepest slopes in the world. She thought he was foolish to risk his life doing a thing like that once, let alone again and again, but there appeared to be some fringe benefits to his job besides the high pay and adrenaline rush. Obviously it had taken him to many different countries.
“Are you an art collector?” she called, studying several paintings.
He came into the room carrying the most technically advanced ice pack she’d ever seen. “Not really. I pick up what appeals to me. Most of it’s from unusual places. I love to travel.”
“I can tell.” He was consumed by wanderlust. No wonder he’d never, to her knowledge, become serious about one particular woman. It was tough to maintain a relationship under such circumstances.
“What about you?” he asked.
She pulled her gaze from a photograph of an African woman holding the hand of a child in some faraway jungle she’d probably never see. “I don’t get the opportunity very often.”
Although she’d been planning weddings and other events since she’d graduated from Sac State with a degree in business administration, moving to Sacramento had required she take on some expenses that she’d never had before. Not only was she living on her own for the first time since renting a small house with three other girls in college, she’d leased an office and was paying for advertising in the hope of attracting new clients. The money she’d saved while living with her parents once she’d returned to Whiskey Creek needed to be held in reserve, just in case.
“Would you like to see more of the world if you could?” he asked.
She fingered an elephant carved out of wood. “Absolutely,” she replied, but she wasn’t really considering the possibility. She was too preoccupied wondering how the Brandon suggested by this house could be so different from what she’d taken him to be, which was much more the typical jock.
“I’m planning a backpacking trip across Nicaragua in a few weeks.” He bent to look into her face. “You could come with me.”
The idea of escaping held massive appeal. But she wasn’t sure it was a legitimate offer. Most people didn’t extend invitations like that off the cuff. “You’re going across the entire country?”
“Nicaragua’s not that big.”
“I have a feeling it might seem big if you’re walking.”
He smiled. “That’s the best way to see it.”
She didn’t know much about Central America. She’d always been more concerned with the geography she navigated right here in California—especially finding the right place to live after leaving Whiskey Creek. “I wish I could,” she said in a throwaway statement that took for granted he hadn’t been serious.
He didn’t press the issue. He motioned to a soft leather couch. “Have a seat. Let’s get this on your hand.”
She was tempted to choose one of the hammocklike chairs that hung from the ceiling instead. They had, no doubt, come from Mexico or some other country and looked comfortable. But, in deference to her injured hand, she decided against getting into something she might have difficulty getting out of.
Once she was settled in, he examined her hand before putting the ice pack on it. “You should get this x-rayed.”
“I couldn’t have broken any bones throwing a tantrum,” she said, but she knew that was denial talking. She just didn’t want to face that she might’ve caused herself some stiff medical bills and the inconvenience of going home in a cast.
“I’m not so sure,” he responded. “If the pain doesn’t go away in the next day or so, definitely have it checked.”
He should know about broken bones. Not long ago, he’d tumbled off a cliff in Switzerland and broken his right leg in three places. They’d replayed the footage of it on the local news over and over. Almost everyone had seen it. As a result of that spill, he’d been on crutches, convalescing for much of the last year she and Kyle were dating. In the past twelve months she’d seen him around town more often than she had in the ten years since prom.
He arranged the ice pack on her hand and headed back to the kitchen.
“Do you ever get lonely out here?” she asked, looking toward the giant window directly across from her. From where she sat, she couldn’t see the water, but she knew the river cut through the ravine below.
That was a stupid question, she told herself. Why would he get lonely? He could have a woman visit any time he wanted.
“Do you ever get lonely in Sacramento?” he called back.
After living at home with her family since college, and dating Kyle for three of those years—seeing him every day—Sacramento had been a big change. She’d been more than lonely; she’d been positively bereft. But no one wanted to hear someone sniveling on and on about a past relationship. Other than that lapse of sanity in her car, she thought she’d managed to absorb the pain without showing how bad she really felt. “I try to keep myself so busy I don’t even have time to think about stuff like that.”
“No wonder you lost your cool.”
His response surprised her. “Excuse me?”
“You haven’t dealt with the blow.”
“I refuse to feel bad about a man who could do what Kyle did. That’s all.”
He reappeared with some painkillers and a glass of water. “Here, take these.”
She swallowed the pills, then eyed him dubiously when he said, “To be honest, I don’t understand why you’re here.”
“You invited me,” she pointed out, purposely misunderstanding.
“You know what I mean.”
With a wince, she adjusted the ice pack. “Everyone’s wondering whether I’ll show up. I felt it was best to come back with my head held high. Not coming would only have confirmed to Kyle and Noelle that I’m still hurt.”
“I admire your courage, but…”
He thought she’d bitten off more than she could chew. That episode in the car proved it. “I won’t break down again.”
“There’s no shame in loving someone, Olivia.”
As if he knew anything about it. She almost said that, but stopped herself. Why be unkind? He wasn’t the person who’d wronged her. She knew better than to give him the chance. “There is if that someone is marrying your sister,” she grumbled. “Everyone’s watching me, waiting for the tears to flow.” And he’d actually witnessed them…
His expression softened. “Kyle screwed up.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, even if you are sort of obligated to say that to someone who’s going through what I am.”
He didn’t try to convince her he’d meant it more honestly. “Just because you’re in town doesn’t mean you have to stay,” he said. “I’m the only one who’s seen you.”
“You’re suggesting I leave? Miss the wedding? She’s my sister.”
“That goes both ways. Most people would say she had no business hooking up with your boyfriend.”
The fact that Kyle had been her boyfriend made him that much more desirable for Noelle. It was a strange but undeniable dynamic. Noelle had always coveted what she had. “What good would it do to nurse my resentment? To tear my family apart?” she asked. “Besides, I have to attend the wedding. I’m planning it.”
His thick eyebrows jerked together. Because he’d removed his sunglasses the moment they walked into the house, she could see his eyes. She wasn’t sure that was a good thing. They were so beautiful they could render a woman helpless with a single, smoldering glance—especially a woman who needed to feel desired again.
“You’re planning it?” he said. “Why the hell would you do that?”
The anger in his voice made her stiffen. “That’s what I do for a living. That’s what I’ve been doing since college.”
“Doesn’t mean you had to do this wedding. Why didn’t you say no?”
“To my parents?”
“They had no right asking you.”
“They couldn’t afford anyone else. I have all the contacts. I could do it much more easily than they could themselves. Besides, they want me to forgive her. They want to maintain peace and harmony in the family.”
“That’s bullshit. They should’ve protected you, told her to elope.”
Olivia had never dreamed she’d be commiserating with Brandon Lucero. Apparently their mutual dislike of Kyle had pulled them onto the same team. “Why haven’t you ever gotten along with your stepbrother?” she asked.
“Kyle’s not bad,” he replied. “Not anymore.” He returned to the kitchen a third time and came back with two glasses of wine, one of which he handed to her.
“That didn’t really answer my question.”
“I was fifteen when he came into my life.”
He seemed reluctant to continue, acting as if it was in the past and didn’t matter anymore. But she could tell it did.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “He was sleeping with my sister within a week of our break. We weren’t even supposed to be seeing other people. I’m not going to stick up for him.”
“There’s no need for anyone to stick up for him. Everyone knows I’m the black sheep.”
“You’re saying he’s had it easier than you?”
He took a sip of his wine. “By the time he came into my life, it’d been ten years since my dad died.”
“I heard he was in a plane crash. Is that true?”
“It was his own plane. He loved to fly; but there was a malfunction....”
“I was only five when it happened.” He sat across from her. “But by the time my mother remarried, I was comfortable, no longer craving a father or a brother. My mother and I were doing just fine.”
“Then she met Bob Houseman and…everything changed.”
He nodded. “Suddenly I lost the company of my friends and found myself in a new town, a new school. Not only that but I had this father figure who was bossing me around and laying down strict rules. I had a brother, too, who meant the absolute world to him, which meant I could never compete. That made having a dad more of an illusion than a reality.” He studied the wine in his glass. “The worst part was how it affected my mother. She was so eager to please them both that I was quickly relegated to the backseat, expected to understand and adapt.” He fell silent before finishing with, “There were just a lot of changes.”
So he felt that Kyle and Kyle’s father had stolen his previous life and his mother from him. When she looked at it from his point of view, she could see why. It sounded as if Kyle had been in a better position to enjoy the new family dynamic. It would be hard to start over in high school, hard to have your position usurped.
Was that why he’d used his good looks and charisma like a weapon?
“How do you feel about Kyle now?” she asked.
“None of what bothered me then seems to matter anymore. I’ve come to terms with it.”
She got the feeling that wasn’t completely true. Maybe the animosity had died down, but.... “Do you think you’ll ever be close?”
“Probably not. Imagine taking two boys with strong personalities, competitive personalities, both oldest sons and trying to force one to become ‘the little brother’ after years and years of living a different life. Although I was younger, I refused to let Kyle best me at anything, and he resented the constant challenge.”
“I’m sure it didn’t help that you went your own ways so soon after your parents were married.”
“I don’t follow you....”
“You never really got a chance to adjust.” Kyle had headed off to college just two years after the wedding, right after she and Brandon went to Brandon’s junior prom, which was something that had always bugged Kyle—even though he and Olivia weren’t dating back then. By the time he returned, Brandon was gone. Then they started their careers and, with Brandon out of town so much, it’d been easy for Kyle to forget he even had a stepbrother. Most of the time, he hadn’t wanted to talk about Brandon.
“Actually I think we were both relieved about the separation,” he said with a wry grin.
“If he finds out I’m here, you could be looking at another challenge to your relationship.”
He winked at her. “I’m willing to take that risk.”
She glanced around the room. “You’re willing to take any risk.”
His eyes never left her face. She could feel his close regard, even though she avoided eye contact. “Only if I want something badly enough.”
Olivia’s phone rang, saving her from a response. She was glad. Whether or not he’d meant what he’d said as a pickup line, she’d felt a tingle down to her toes. She prayed her reaction was because her self-esteem had hit an all-time low. She needed to heal before she involved herself in another relationship, especially with someone so likely to use her without a second thought.
She checked Caller ID. It was her mother. Nancy had been expecting her and must be getting worried. They were supposed to make the favors for the reception after dinner tonight. Olivia had the supplies in her trunk.
Sending Brandon a look asking his forbearance, she overcame her reluctance to take this call and answered, infusing as much lift into her voice as possible. “Hello?”
“Where are you? I was sure you’d be here by now.”
Olivia allowed herself a grimace. “I, uh, had a little accident.”
“With your car?”
“No. I tripped while loading up and hurt my hand. So I’m running late.”
Brandon was watching her, but she continued to avoid his gaze.
“How bad is it? You didn’t break any bones…”
“I doubt it,” she said, removing the ice pack to take a look.
“Do you need Dr. Harris to x-ray it?”
“We’ll see. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Dinner’s at six.”
She heard the subtle threat in that statement. They’d eat without her if she wasn’t there. “I’ll make it.”
“Good. Kyle and Noelle are here waiting.”
“I bet they are.”
Her mother had to have heard the sour note in her voice, but, wisely, she didn’t react to it. Since the news of Noelle’s pregnancy, Nancy had done her best to minimize Olivia’s previous relationship with Kyle. The way she told the story, Noelle was marrying an “old friend” of her other daughter’s. Never mind that she and Kyle had slept together. Never mind that they’d talked about marriage themselves.
“Hurry. We have a lot to do.”
“See you soon.” After she hung up, she returned her attention to Brandon. “It was very gallant of you to rescue me from my imaginary bee attack, but I’ve got to go.”
“You sure you’re ready for what lies ahead?”
“No, but I never will be. It’s like going in for a root canal. Better to get the pain over with.” She rolled her eyes. “Noelle and Kyle are anxiously awaiting my arrival.”
“Lucky you,” he said dryly.
“Where are you staying?”
He made a face. “Isn’t your sister living there?”
She drank the rest of her wine, put her glass on the coffee table and got up. “Until Saturday night, when her new husband whisks her off to wedded bliss.”
“You’re more forgiving than I am.”
“I could pay for a hotel, but I’d be a hundred bucks poorer. How would that bother them?”
“Good point.” He stood, too. “Just don’t let loose on any inanimate objects again. You might break your other hand.”
“I’ve learned my lesson,” she responded, but just hearing her mother’s voice had put a lump in her throat. She couldn’t help feeling betrayed by her parents, too, because they were so eager to throw their support behind this wedding. She knew they had a grandchild at stake, but still…
After using his bathroom to fix her makeup, she found Brandon standing at the window, looking outside. “What do you think? Can you tell I’ve been crying?”
“I never would’ve guessed.”
She suspected he might be placating her, but she didn’t push. “Maybe I should change into something more conservative.”
“Are you kidding?” He whistled. “Let Kyle eat his heart out.”
That almost made her smile, until she imagined the reality of the next few hours. “I’ll probably be the miserable one.”
Although he continued to study her, she could tell he’d shifted gears. “If it gets too bad, you could always come back here.”
She arched her eyebrows. “So we could…”
His grin turned her knees to water. “Sleep. Of course. And I won’t charge you for the room.”
“Maybe you’d let me check out your big telescope,” she said, widening her eyes in feigned innocence.
“If you want to see the stars, I could give you a night to remember,” he said, playing along.
She laughed. “The ultimate revenge?”
“No,” he said, growing serious. “What I’ve wanted since prom.”
“That’s why you dropped me off at the end of the night and have avoided me ever since?”
“I knew I wasn’t what you needed. You’re too sensitive.”
He was right. That had been true then, and it was true now. If someone as trustworthy and admired as Kyle could hurt her so terribly, how would she ever survive the kind of emotional damage someone like Brandon could wreak?
“But I’ll go easy on you,” he added with a grin. “My number’s in your phone, in case you need it.”
“Thanks.” She was surprised he’d taken the liberty. She was a little flattered, too. But she had no intention of returning. She hadn’t been with a man in three months. That wouldn’t have seemed like a long time before her relationship with Kyle, but it felt like an eternity now that she knew what she was missing. She couldn’t come back. She’d only get herself into trouble if she did, because it wasn’t Brandon’s telescope she wanted him to share.
Kyle’s work truck, a Ford F-150, sat in her parents’ driveway. Olivia had expected to see it, but her heart sank all the same.
Taking a breath, trying to bolster herself, she got out of her Acura and started toward the front door, rolling her suitcase behind her with a sense of determination and purpose that belied the pain.
You can do this. Just keep your chin up and try to forget that this is Kyle and Noelle. Pretend they’re are no different from any of the other couples you’ve worked with.
It was a wedding, a job, she told herself. But she hadn’t been home since she’d moved away. Her only contact had been through her mother, who shared various details over the phone, like Kyle buying a new car because Noelle “hated” trucks.
Olivia felt strange marching up to her parents’ front door knowing that nothing was as it used to be, that Kyle wasn’t waiting for her in quite the same way as he’d waited for her in the past.
“I’ve entered The Twilight Zone,” she muttered.
She spotted a flurry of movement at the window. Then the door flew open and her mother descended on her. “There you are! I’ve been worried. Let me see what you’ve done to your poor hand.”
Grateful for the distraction, she displayed her injury.
“Oh, dear.” Her mother’s eyebrows knitted. “Look at that. Of all times for something like this to happen. Well, come on in. We’ll get some ice. Maybe we’ll be able to put you on the left side when we take the wedding pictures so the swelling doesn’t show.”
“I don’t need to be in the pictures at all,” she said before she could stop the words.
Nancy’s smile faded. The expression on her face suggested she was about to respond, but whether she was going to warn her not to ruin the wedding, or say she was sorry about what Olivia must be feeling, Olivia never heard because Kyle strode out to greet her.
Olivia thanked God that Noelle wasn’t with him. Seeing him was bad enough. He seemed reluctant yet eager to approach, which added more confusion to the emotions currently assaulting her.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said.
Their eyes met briefly before she jerked hers away, but he kept his smile stubbornly in place as he hurried to assist with her suitcase.
Obviously he’d been anticipating this moment and was prepared for it. Olivia had tried to prepare, too. Little good had it done her. Nausea threatened to ruin her calculated indifference.
“I’ve got it.” She made an effort to keep the resentment from her voice, but it was impossible. No doubt he picked up on her tone. They were too familiar with each other for him to miss the slightest nuance. She knew the strength of his arms and how wonderful it felt to have them close around her, the rough texture of his jaw, the fullness of his lips and how soft yet demanding they could be when he kissed....
Why had this person she’d trusted so deeply betrayed her? There were moments, moments like now, when she couldn’t believe that their lives had taken such a dramatic turn.
He attempted to grab her case in spite of her refusal, but she hung on and kept walking, leaving him no choice but to fall back and follow.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked her mother as they reached the front patio, an attractive covelike entrance to her parents’ rambler.
“Out back, grilling some steaks.”
Olivia didn’t ask where Noelle was. She didn’t want to see her sister.
The smell of a home-cooked meal enveloped her as soon as she entered the house—evoking the only pleasant sensation Olivia had experienced since she’d left Brandon’s. Everything else cut like broken glass.
A buzzer went off in the kitchen, and her mother hurried to remove whatever she had on the stove. “We didn’t want to eat without you,” she said, raising her voice to be heard, “but it was getting late. I’m glad you arrived in time.”
Olivia didn’t comment. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t complain, wouldn’t wallow in self-pity, wouldn’t start a fight. But how she wished she could miss this meal. No aroma could be tempting enough to make her want to stay.
Sensing Kyle’s presence at her elbow, she left her suitcase and pivoted to go back outside, already eager for a reprieve from the tension twisting her stomach. “I’ve got the stuff for the wedding favors in my trunk. I’ll grab it.”
“Not with your hand hurt,” Kyle said. “Let me.”
“No, thanks. I can manage.” She had no intention of allowing him do anything. But, to her chagrin, he joined her anyway. So she tried to ignore him. She didn’t want to see him any more than she wanted to see her sister, didn’t want to hear him, either, or confront the reality of what they used to be and what they were now.
Once they were out of earshot of her mother, he caught her elbow to get her to face him and lowered his voice. “I’m so sorry, Olivia. I know…I know how hard this must be. It’s killing me that I’m causing you pain.”
He seemed sincere, but maybe he was just being arrogant. She’d begun to doubt everything she’d ever known about him, except the physical sensations that had been such a major part of their relationship. Looking at him made her crave the familiarity they’d enjoyed. Since Carly, her best friend, had moved to Phoenix to accept a job offer with Southwest Airlines, Kyle had become both friend and boyfriend. Losing his friendship hurt as much as all the rest.
Battling the threat of tears, she manufactured another smile. “You’re not causing me pain,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I’m already seeing someone else.”
Dropping his hand, he blinked in surprise. “Your mother said…I mean, she didn’t mention that.”
“I haven’t told her about him. There’s enough going on around here. This is your week, your wedding. I’ll save my announcements for later.”
Did he go pale? Or was that her imagination?
“Is it someone in Sac?” he asked.
She could’ve said yes and left it at that. She wasn’t entirely sure why she didn’t. Maybe it was because a mere name wouldn’t have the same effect. “No, actually. He’s from Whiskey Creek. Someone you know quite well.”
A muscle flexed in his cheek. “Who?”
She’d already gone too far. But the same desperate compulsion that had overtaken her in the car when she injured her hand seemed to goad her now, until the name that would hurt him most passed her lips. “Brandon.”
The color returned to his face, staining his cheeks a bright red. “My stepbrother?”
“You’re not really related,” she reminded him. “That happens to be important to me, even though it wasn’t to you.”
He seemed to struggle with words. “His mother is married to my father.”
“You lived together for two years. Sadly I’ve had to put up with Noelle my whole life.”
He shook his head as if she’d just cold-cocked him. “Brandon?” he said again. “You’ve got to be joking.”
She lifted her chin. “Why?”
“Because he’d be terrible for you!”
“In what way?” she challenged.
“He-he doesn’t know what it means to really love anyone. The second he gets bored, or a skiing opportunity presents itself, he’ll be gone and you may never hear from him again.”
She sneered. “Funny you should say that.”
“I know I let you down.” He lowered his voice. “But…that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”
“Did you think I’d mope around indefinitely?”
“No, of course not. That isn’t what I want. I want you to be happy.”
She smiled broadly. “Brandon makes me happy.”
A scowl replaced his stunned expression. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, Olivia. He hasn’t been able to maintain one serious relationship. He’ll only hurt you in the end.”
She popped the trunk. “I doubt it. Thanks to you, I’m older and wiser than I was.”
“You’re no match for him. He’ll take advantage of how innocent and trusting you are and how deeply you love—”
“I’m not planning to marry him.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll leave making the Big Commitment to you and my dear sister. Brandon’s good in bed. Right now, that’s all I need.”
When he sagged a little, her heart twisted so painfully she almost admitted the truth. She couldn’t hurt Kyle regardless of what he’d done to her. But Noelle’s voice, filled with suspicion, rang out from the patio. “What’s taking so long?”
Olivia raised the trunk lid, revealing the many boxes of wedding paraphernalia she’d borrowed from River City Resort Club & Spa. She’d been planning to tote it all in herself, regardless of her throbbing hand. She wanted to stay busy, focused. But if Kyle was going to dog her footsteps, she figured he could handle the job.
“Looks like there’s more here than I remembered. If you could bring it into the living room, we’ll get started on the wedding favors right after we eat. I have to leave soon. Brandon’s expecting me,” she said and walked past her sister without saying hello.
When his mother showed up on his doorstep, Brandon was relieved Olivia was gone. He didn’t feel he owed it to his stepbrother to stay away from her or anything like that. After what Kyle had done, Brandon considered Olivia fair game for any guy, even him. But he knew his mother would get involved if she saw Olivia at his place—and if there was any way to keep his mother from getting involved, it was always best to go that route. Otherwise, she’d give him no peace.
“Hi, what are you doing here?” he asked as he swung the door wide. She rarely came over. But he’d let her last few calls go to voice mail. He’d heard enough about the wedding, hadn’t wanted to hear any more.
That had been a mistake. Instead of leaving him alone, she’d come to harangue him in person.
“I was on my way home and thought I’d stop by,” she said.
Sure, that made sense. Except his place wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. Only teenagers and hikers bothered to visit the old mine or the trails he loved so much.
“Can I come in?” she asked, sounding slightly miffed that he hadn’t already offered.
Belatedly he realized he was still blocking the entrance. “Of course.” He stepped aside so she could move past him. Then he placed his arms around her in the obligatory hug.
“Have you picked up your tux for the wedding?” she asked as soon as he released her.
“Brandon!” Cocking her head, she gave him that searching look that said he was about to get a stern lecture. “You’re not going to do anything to ruin this wedding, are you? Because I’m counting on you. Just once I’d like you to go along with what we have planned and behave yourself. Can you do that? For me?”
“No problem.” He tried to play it straight, but it was difficult not to grimace. He hated the way she catered to Kyle and Kyle’s father. Maybe if she’d give them hell every once in a while, he wouldn’t have to establish their boundaries on his own.
“Good. I’m glad to hear it. I’ll grab your tux when I hit town. If you wait too long, they’ll be closed.”
“There’s always tomorrow, Mom.”
“The wedding rehearsal is tomorrow. There’ll be a lot to do as it is.”
“I can get my own tux!”
Obviously put out by his refusal to let her take control, she sniffed. “And you’ll make the rehearsal?”
“On time and sober?”
“When have I ever shown up anywhere drunk?” he asked. As an athlete, he worked against the clock as it was. Age would slow him down fast enough; he wasn’t about to destroy his body with alcohol.
“I’m just covering all the bases,” she told him.
For Kyle… “Maybe I’m not the one you should be worried about,” he said.
“What do you mean?
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