Read an Excerpt
Skyler Harrington smoothed her new cream-colored pencil skirt as she took her seat at the corner table at La Cantina. She pointed at the enormous platter of nachos that sat on the table between her and her two best friends, India Pike and Elissa Mason. Elissa was in the midst of grabbing a nacho laden with beef, sour cream and gooey cheese.
"Glad to see you all waited for me," Skyler said.
India nodded toward Elissa, who was now stuffing said nacho into her mouth. "She threatened to start gnawing on her arm if we didn't get something to eat pronto."
"What?" Elissa said around her food. "I was starving. You try unloading a truckload of shrubbery and see if you're not hungry."
She had a point. While each of them owned her own business, Elissa's plant nursery required more physical labor than India's clothing boutique or Skyler's inn.
"Plus," Elissa said as she pointed another nacho at Skyler, "you were late."
Skyler's forehead scrunched as she reached for her phone to check the time. It was exactly one minute after six, and she knew she'd been at the restaurant more than a minute already.
Skyler lifted her narrowed gaze to her friend, who was teasing her yet again about her preference for being places on time, or better yet, early. "I don't know why I'm friends with you."
Elissa smiled. "Because I'm so lovable."
"You let her get you every time," India said.
"One of these days maybe I'll figure out what she finds so funny about my punctuality."
"You call it punctuality, I call it inability to go with the flow," Elissa said.
"I can go with the flow." It made her twitchy, but she could do it. "I'm not as big of a stick in the mud as you seem to think."
"Oh, really? When was the last time you really let go and didn't plan your day out to within an inch of its life?"
Skyler opened her mouth but then couldn't think of an answer that wouldn't prove Elissa's point. "I have a lot of responsibilities, people depending on me."
"And we don't?"
"Hey, I'm not that different from India." At least India before Liam Parrish strode into town with his cowboy boots, a Stetson and two very long legs. India's wellordered life had gone topsy-turvy in two seconds flat. Not that Skyler blamed her. Liam wasn't just good-looking. He also was a really good guy and would become the closest thing Skyler had to a brother when he and India got married in a few weeks.
Skyler grabbed a nacho and scraped most of the toppings off of it back onto the platter.
"You're getting rid of all the good stuff," Elissa said.
"A little goes a long way. Now I'll actually be able to taste the chip."
Elissa rolled her eyes. "Can't even eat a nacho without overthinking it."
"I'll remind you of that when your arteries get clogged with cheese."
Elissa just smiled, stuffed another nacho in her mouth and mmmed her taste buds' appreciation.
Skyler didn't know whether she wanted to throw something at Elissa or give in and eat a heaping nacho herself.
After the waitress took their orders, Skyler turned her attention to India before Elissa had the chance to start bugging the living daylights out of her again.
"So how are the final plans for the wedding going? Is there anything else you need me to do?"
India's eyes lit up at the mention of her upcoming nuptials, causing Skyler's heart to warm. After everything she'd been through, India deserved to be happy.
"I don't think so. You've done so much already, both of you."
"It's not every day your best friend gets married to the hottest guy in town," Elissa said.
On that point, Elissa and Skyler could agree.
"I wish it was tomorrow," India said.
Skyler smiled. "That anxious to make an honest man out of Liam?"
India laughed. "If there was more to do between now and then, I'd be fine. But the waiting might kill me. You know what would really help?"
India and Elissa exchanged a look that made Skyler nervous. "Why do I feel like I've missed something really important?"
"Your thirtieth birthday is two days away and we haven't planned what we're going to do," India said. "That would keep my mind occupied."
"It doesn't take that long to look up movie times in Austin," Skyler said.
India raised an eyebrow. "I think the occasion calls for more than a movie."
"I happen to quite like watching Jeremy Renner and his awesome arms."
"Well, I can't argue with you there," Elissa said. "But India's right. We can do a movie anytime. I was thinking of something more exciting."
"Of course you were."
Elissa sighed and leaned back in her chair. She glanced at India. "I told you she wouldn't be up for anything interesting."
The sudden overwhelming urge to prove her friend wrong rose up in Skyler. "Fine. You know what? You all can plan whatever you want, and I'll do it."
Elissa barked out a disbelieving laugh. "Yeah, right."
"Really. I'll let you plan the whole thing." The moment the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to call them back and pretend they were never uttered. But if she backed out now, she would never, ever hear the end of it. Blast Elissa for causing her emotions to override her common sense.
The smile that spread across Elissa's face told Skyler she'd just made perhaps the biggest mistake of her life.
"Is it Christmas?" Elissa asked. "Because it feels like Christmas."
"Don't gloat," India said, but she looked like she was having a hard time keeping from smiling, too.
Skyler really knew she was in trouble when their food arrived and Elissa didn't immediately attack her quesadillas. Instead, she was scrolling through something on her phone.
Skyler picked up her fork and stirred the contents of her taco salad. "You know it's rude to have your face buried in your phone when you're with other people, right?"
"This is important business."
"A mulch emergency?"
"I'll have you know I'm doing research, with a little help from Verona."
Skyler stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth, warning bells clanging in her head. "Verona?"
"Yes, you know, my aunt."
Skyler narrowed her eyes. "I don't trust you or your aunt."
"Why not? You have to admit she got it right with India and Liam."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I want her anywhere near my personal life."
"Verona does more than matchmake, you know."
"What, she's giving you tourist suggestions? I've lived in Texas my whole life. Pretty sure there aren't that many places of interest I've not been to."
Elissa waved off her concern. "Hush. Eat your salad."
Knowing that short of snatching Elissa's phone from her there was nothing she could do, Skyler refocused her attention on her meal. Her stomach growled in response. She'd been so busy during the day that she hadn't taken time for a real lunch, nothing beyond the bag of apple slices she'd snagged from her fridge on the way out of her apartment that morning.
Sure, since her apartment was located at the inn, she could have gone to get something else to eat or ordered something from the kitchen, but a staff meeting had led to several phone calls, which had flowed into going over a contract for fresh produce. The next thing she knew, it was time to leave to meet her friends for dinner.
When Elissa set down her phone, the satisfied smile on her face didn't bode well for Skyler.
"What do you have up your sleeve?"
Skyler slowly rested her fork on top of what was left of her salad. "You shouldn't try to sound innocent. You're not very good at it."
Elissa shrugged. "Who wants to be innocent anyway when there's so much fun to be had?"
"I'm afraid to ask what kind of 'fun' you have in mind."
"I wouldn't tell you, anyway."
"Um, it's my birthday."
Elissa finally looked up after she took a bite of her dinner and swallowed. "And birthdays include surprises."
"You know I'm not a fan of surprises." They'd rarely turned out well in her experience.
Surprise! Your dad's gone to Alaska to fish.
Surprise! He's back again with no warning and who knows for how long.
Surprise! Your mom had a heart attack and died.
"You'll like this one."
Skyler doubted that and considered booking a last-minute vacation for one to the Caribbean.
"And no, we're not letting you weasel out of this, so stop trying to concoct a way to do just that." Elissa gestured toward Skyler's head as if she knew exactly what she was thinking. She probably did.
"Sometimes it's highly annoying that you know me so well."
As Elissa and India laughed, Skyler felt like kicking herself all the way to El Paso and back for giving them just enough rope to hang her with.
Skyler was on the verge of asking Elissa again where the devil they were going when she spotted a sign on the side of the road just as Elissa started to slow down. Hill Country Adventure Sports.
"Please tell me this isn't our final destination, that you're delivering plants or something."
Elissa glanced at her from the driver's seat of the SUV. "Nope, this is the place."
Skyler turned halfway to look at India and Verona in the back. "Tell me she's kidding."
India shook her head. "It'll be fun."
Skyler looked from one friend to the other, wondering if they'd been body snatched. Because the Elissa and India she knew wouldn't go this far. "Are you smoking crack? There is no way I'm jumping out of a perfectly good airplane."
"Yes, you are," Elissa said as if Skyler was being silly. "You only live once."
"Yeah, and I'd like to live beyond today, thank you very much."
"They're not going to push you out without a parachute, dear," Verona said.
"It's tandem diving," India added. "You jump with an experienced diver who is trained."
Elissa took her hand off the steering wheel long enough to wave away Skyler's concern. "They've done this a million times."
"All it takes is one time when it doesn't go as planned."
Elissa shook her head as she parked next to a long building that contained an office and several hangar bays for small planes. "I knew you were a compulsive planner, but I didn't know you were a chicken."
"I'm not. I'm sane."
Ignoring her protests, everyone else got out of the car and headed toward the office. She wondered what they'd do if she flatly refused to budge. It was her birthday, damn it. She ought to be able to choose what she wanted to do and not do. And skydiving was way up on the "not do" list.
But the longer she sat in the SUV, the more fidgety she grew. Hurtling through thin air was definitely not on her bucket list, but she didn't like that the mere thought of jumping could get the better of her either. She wanted to believe she could do anything even if she chose not to, but she'd given her friends permission to take this decision out of her hands. Big mistake, but one she was going to have to swallow.
She cursed under her breath as she opened the door, shut it none too gently and closed the distance between her and her so-called friends.
"I'm so sorry," said Jesse Bradshaw as she got close enough to hear him speaking to Elissa, India and Verona. "I must have caught a stomach bug. I can't dive today."
Oh, hallelujah, birthday wishes were granted!
"That's too bad," India said.
"Man, we'll never get her out here again," Elissa said before she noticed Skyler.
Something was off about her friends' responses to the news that Jesse was sick, but she couldn't put her finger on it.
"She can still go up. My cousin will just be the diver, not me."
Skyler fought the urge to run all the way back to Blue Falls. "I didn't know you had a cousin, Jesse." She scanned the area but saw no one else but the pilot, next to a small red-and-white plane on the tarmac, and the jet-fuel delivery guy.
"Yeah, he's in town visiting. I just called him a few minutes ago. He's on his way. He wasn't expecting to have to dive today."
"Oh, I don't want to put anyone to any trouble," Skyler said.
"It's no trouble."
The sound of a pickup heading toward them on the gravel entrance road drew everyone's attention. "That's him now," Jesse said.
A red pickup truck that looked like it had seen better days, better decades, rolled to a stop next to Elissa's SUV, leaving a cloud of gravel dust in its wake.
When the driver stepped out of the truck and strode toward them, Skyler thought there had to be some mistake. This guy looked about as much like a skydiver as Verona did. With worn jeans, scuffed boots and a dark brown cowboy hat, he would look more at home on a cattle drive. When he nodded at her friends and said, "Hello again," Skyler definitely knew something was up.
"This is all a big joke, isn't it? I'm being punked."
"Well, that's not usually the reaction I get from the ladies," the guy said as he stopped a couple of feet away, his lips stretching into a mischievous smile.
Skyler gave him a raised-eyebrow look before shifting her attention to the other three women. "Seriously, what is going on?"
Before they could answer, the guy laughed. "Don't worry, I don't dive in the boots."
She glanced at him. "Just the hat?"
"Nah. I'd lose it as soon as we jumped."
"Lucky for you, there won't be any jumping today."
"But we've already paid for it," India said.
"Then I suggest you get your money back." When Skyler glanced at Jesse, he had an apologetic look on his face.
"I'm sorry, but there's a no-refund policy on the deposit unless canceled by inclement weather," he said.
Skyler sighed heavily as she looked up into the bright blue sky devoid of clouds. You couldn't ask for a more beautiful day, unless, of course, you were hoping to avoid plummeting to your death.
"Come on, Jesse," the still-nameless cousin said. "You can allow the refund."
Surprised by his siding with her, Skyler met his eyes. "Thank you."
"Ah, come on," Elissa said. "Everyone I know who has done this has loved it. Heck, Jesse jumped with McKenna Parks's eighty-seven-year-old grandpa last week, and the old guy is ready to go again. Right, Jesse?"
Jesse, to his credit, looked uncomfortable being put in the middle of their disagreement. But he nodded. "He wanted to go back up as soon as we hit the ground."
She knew Elissa was daring her, effectively taking away any nonchicken way of backing out of the dive. Skyler shifted her eyes to Jesse's cousin. "Just how many dives have you done?"
He smiled. "Enough."
For a moment she let herself appreciate how that smile only added to how good-looking he was. Good-looking, ha! The man was threealarm fire, drop-dead gorgeous.
She snatched her gaze away from his. She did not need to be thinking about dropping dead, or about how Mr. No Name looked good enough to lick up one side and down the other. Her face flamed, and for once she was glad to have fair skin and red hair. It made blaming the flush on the sun totally believable.
The guy leaned close and used a faux whisper to say, "Don't worry, beautiful. I promise you're safe with me."
She wondered how many times he'd used that line. Because the cowboy was a flirt and most likely a class A player.