Read an Excerpt
"Amy Wilson is the last woman on earth I want to be with."
Amy winced as those words came out of groomsman Rhys Bullock's mouth. He couldn't possibly know she was standing only ten feet behind him, but couldn't he have kept his voice down so the whole guest list at the wedding reception couldn't hear?
The day had been going so well. Callum Shepard's wedding to Avery Spencer had been a gorgeous, Christmassy affair. The food at the golf club was delicious and Amy had been having fun at the dance. Until she'd seen the tension between Rhys and Callum's sister, Taylor. It had been crystal clear to her that they were fighting their attraction. The two of them had been doing a strange mating dance throughout the whole planning of this wedding.
Only minutes ago Amy had caught the bouquet and Rhys the garter. They'd danced and, to her surprise, he'd held her close. But Amy had known exactly what he was thinking-or rather who he was thinking about, and it wasn't her. It was as clear as the nose on her face that he belonged with Taylor and Amy had had no illusions as to why Rhys had been so cozy. It had been to make Taylor see what she was missing. Amy had willingly played along, happy to help.
What a fool she'd been to try to steer them in the right direction. She'd known that Rhys didn't like her in that way. And neither did she-their one awkward date had proved that months ago. Still, the callousness of the harsh words hurt.
Tears of humiliation sprang to her eyes. But before she could sneak away and pretend she hadn't heard a thing, Rhys and Taylor realized she was standing there. Taylor had the grace to look embarrassed. Of all the Shepard family that Amy had met, Taylor had been the most welcoming. She'd even invited Amy for lunch one day. Now Taylor's pretty face was looking at her with apology etched all over it. Rhys's face was inscrutable, revealing nothing.
"Amy.. " Taylor started to apologize but Amy lifted her hand, cutting her off, unable to meet the other woman's sympathetic gaze. This was all embarrassing enough, but she couldn't stand pity. Poor Amy. Struck out again. Can't hold a man, just like her mother, poor thing.
Amy's lower lip trembled. She had to get out of here before she really embarrassed herself.
She spun on her heel and made a beeline for the bathroom. One of the stalls was unoccupied and she headed straight for it, going inside and latching the door. She put down the toilet-seat lid, sat down and bit down on her lip. Sometimes she really hated living in this town. Her breakup with Terry years ago had been bad enough. He'd broken her heart and nothing stayed a secret for long in Cadence Creek. Her past relationship with Sam Diamond had been the clincher, though. She'd really liked Sam. She'd been hurt when he'd broken it off and had been a tad too vocal about it.
She knew what people thought of her. A harmless flirt to be gossiped about and laughed at. Looking for love in all the wrong places. Serial dater. She could find a man but not keep a man. She'd heard them all. Besides, no one had forgotten how her dad had just up and left them years before. It had broken her mother. The legacy of his abandonment had followed Amy through to adulthood.
"Who was that?" a woman's voice asked.
A low laugh. "Amy Wilson."
There were a few chuckles. Nothing else had to be said.
She was not a bad person. She didn't sleep around or go after unavailable men. She just
She just had rotten luck in the romance department. And yet she kept trying and believing that one day the right guy would ride into town and sweep her off her feet. So much so that she knew no one would believe her motives for dancing with Rhys were altruistic, even if she swore it on a Bible. Well, it was the last time she tried to play matchmaker. She might have known it would be misconstrued.
She was done. And the population of Cadence Creek- males and females-could dry up and blow away for all she cared.
The door opened and closed again and she held her breath even though she desperately needed a tissue. After a few seconds two tissues appeared over the top of the door. "Here," a man's voice said quietly. "Blow your nose."
"Oh, my God!" Her voice bounced off the porcelain fixtures as she leaped to her feet. "This is the women's room! Get out!"
"I locked the door behind me. Blow your nose, Amy."
She paused. She knew that voice. Not well, which was why it stood out. It was the groom's brother, wasn't it?
Callum's very handsome, very successful younger sibling. "Jack Shepard?"
"Yes, it's me."
"How did you know I was in here?"
He hesitated before answering. "I heard what Rhys said. Saw you take off."
She snagged the tissues from his fingertips and blew her nose-loudly. For another few moments the only sound was the reassuring thump of the DJ's music at the dance, muffled through the walls. "Thanks," she murmured. She and Jack had only bumped into each other a few times. He'd asked her to dance tonight, too. He was a nice guy. But to follow her into the ladies' room? She frowned.
"Are you going to come out of there?" he asked.
"Maybe. When everyone else goes home and I can be humiliated in private." Right now she preferred to lick her wounds in solitude. Gosh, even when she didn't intend to, she found herself in the middle of a spectacle. Memories were too darned long around here. Repetitive.
"It's not even ten o'clock. You could have a long wait."
She hated that he was right. And that he sounded amused. "Then I'll get my coat and slip away. It's not like anyone will miss me."
"Oh, now," he chided, "that sounds a lot like you're going to have your own pity party, and that's no fun."
Right again. He really was being quite annoying. Except he'd come in here to make sure she was okay, and he'd given her tissues. She felt herself softening just a little. "Shut up, Jack," she said mildly.
"Who gives a rat's ass what Rhys thinks anyway," Jack suggested. "You're better off without him."
Jack thought this was about Rhys? Of course. Jack was an outsider. Even today, as part of the family, he said and did all the right things but she'd noticed that he'd kept to the side a little bit, included but hovering just on the fringes, not getting too close.
And since he was new here, he definitely didn't understand that the name Amy Wilson came with built-in context. "You might want to be careful expressing that opinion," she replied. "Because Rhys has definitely got his eye on your sister."
"I didn't say I didn't like him. I'm just saying that you deserve someone who wants to be with you. Only you. Who can't go on another day without you. Now, are you going to come out of there or not?"
Amy's heart gave an odd thump. What Jack was cavalierly explaining was something she'd felt deep down for a long, long time. She'd always believed it-true love- was out there. She'd kept faith that not all guys were losers and deadbeats like her dad. That faith was what kept her from swearing off men. What kept her hoping each time she went on a date. Somewhere out there was someone who would care about her enough to stay.
Problem was, she was starting to think that true love existed all right-but just not for her. That she was somehow inherently flawed. There had to be some reason why things never worked out why all the princes turned out to be frogs. Every relationship attempt had been a disaster. And through it all she'd smiled and tried to pretend it was no big deal. Tried to hide her hurt feelings by moving on .
God, that sounded so desperate.
"I'll come out," she conceded. She stood up and smoothed her dress, a little black number that skimmed her curves and made her feel pretty. Or at least it had. She gave her hair a shake, pasted on a smile. Then and only then did she click back the latch and open the door.
Jack was waiting, looking ridiculously handsome in his tuxedo and boots, the footwear a concession made to a wedding party filled with cowboys. Not a hair on his head was out of place. Jack's features were nearly perfect, except for a small scar just in front of his right ear. He was, she realized, quite dreamy. Except she was giving up all the dreamy nonsense. Especially since Jack was a "here today, gone tomorrow" guy. As soon as the wedding was over it was back to the United States for him, back to running his empire.
"Put some cold water on your face. Touch up your makeup."
She curled her lip at him, taken aback by the blunt orders. "My, aren't we the bossy one."
He shrugged as if he didn't care at all what she thought. "You want to go back out there looking like that?" He pointed at the mirror.
She took a look at herself and frowned. Her eyes were rimmed red, and a bit of mascara had run, leaving black smudges around her lids. Plus she'd either licked or bitten off any remnants of her lipstick.
"Okay, good point." She pulled a piece of paper towel out of the dispenser and turned on the cold water. Jack waited while she dabbed at her eyes, then made short work with a bit of concealer, a touch of mascara and a fresh swipe of gloss across her lips. Not quite flawless, but better.
She turned away from the mirror and faced him. "How's that?"
"Okay. Now I'll go get my coat."
"Really? You're seriously going to run away?" She raised an eyebrow. What else did he expect her to do? Right now all she wanted was a pint of chocolate fudge ice cream and her fuzzy pajamas. "Yeah, I am. Because I'm sick and tired of being the butt of everyone's whatever in this town."
"Isn't that a bit overstated?" He gave her a lopsided grin, looking absurdly boyish as he did so.
"Not a bit. I know what people say about me. I can do without a repeat tonight. What Rhys said was quite enough, thanks."
Jack rested his hip on the edge of the counter. "Okay, so help me out here. I don't get it. You're nice, and funny, and pretty easy on the eyes," he said. "Why the gossip?"
She looked away from his intense gaze, touched once more by his compliments. He'd just said she was pretty. Or at least attractive. "I just don't have a good dating track record. And this damned town is too small. Everyone knows everyone else's business. You screw up once and they remember it forever." And sure, she'd screwed up more than once, but had she ever done anything so very bad? No. Still, she was Mary Wilson's daughter. Like mother like daughter, the gossipmongers said.
He nodded. "So every date, every failed relationship, every everything is cataloged and talked about?"
She felt her cheeks heat. "In the past I haven't always been ahem as discreet as I should have been with my love-life woes."
"You're very self-aware."
Somehow she got the feeling he was teasing her. "I can admit when I make a mistake. For example, I dated Sam Diamond for a while. You've met Sam." Sam was also in the wedding party, along with his brother Tyson. Everyone in Cadence Creek knew Sam Diamond. He headed up Diamondback Ranch now. He was confident and successful and now married to Angela Beck. Even when they'd been dating, Amy had felt he was out of her league.
"Slight age difference?"
She blushed again. "We were both adults. Anyway, when he broke it off I wasn't exactly complimentary about his, er, behavior. I've grown up a bit since then. Doesn't matter, though. I'm painted with a certain brush and that's how I'll always be seen. It's pathetic, really."
"And so you rush off to public bathrooms when your feelings get hurt."
She zipped up her little purse and avoided his eyes. "Ouch, Jack. And I thought you were here to help."
"I am. All I'm saying is that you running in here caused a different sort of scene that put the focus on you and not Rhys."
It bugged her that he was constantly right.
"So what's your brilliant solution?"
He smiled and leaned closer, as if sharing a secret. "The moment I leave this bathroom people are going to think " He let the thought hang, but it didn't take her long to understand his meaning. They would think that the two of them were locked in there together, doing God knows what.
Her cheeks heated. They would think that she and Jack that they were As if her reputation weren't tarnished enough! She pulled back, putting several more inches between them. "Oh, God. They are, aren't they?"
"There's not exactly a back exit or a window to crawl through."
To illustrate his point, the door rattled, and a muffled voice outside said, "It's locked."
"Why did you have to come in here?" She paced in front of the mirror. "I could have just licked my wounds and snuck away." That was her usual M.O., after all.
"Because I was worried about you." His answer stopped her short. When had anyone really cared about her feelings? "Really?"
"Why should you care? You hardly know me."
He nodded. "That's true. But the few times we've been thrown together over the past few weeks, I've enjoyed your company. You're a good dancer."
"A good dancer?" Things were starting to feel a tad bit surreal.
"Yes, and you make me laugh. And I hate it when people aren't treated fairly."
"So you rode to my rescue."
A strange look passed over his face ever so briefly, then was wiped away quickly by another charming smile. "I wouldn't put it that way. I just wanted to make sure you were okay, that's all." He shrugged again. "I guess I didn't think far enough ahead to actually getting you out of this predicament."
It sounded so much like something she'd do that she couldn't help it. She gave a little laugh, putting her fingers to her lips.