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PRAISE FOR “THE EVER AWESOMELY, INCREDIBLY TALENTED JILL SHALVIS”*
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF JILL SHALVIS
Berkley titles by Jill Shalvis
Kate Evans would’ve sold her soul for a stress-free morning, but either her soul wasn’t worth much or whoever was in charge of granting wishes was taking a nap. With her phone vibrating from incoming texts—which she was doing her best to ignore—she shoved her car into park and ran across the lot and into the convenience store. “Duct tape?” she called out to Meg, the clerk behind the counter.
Meg had pink and purple tie-dyed hair, had enough piercings to ensure certain drowning if she ever went swimming, and was in the middle of a heated debate on the latest The Voice knock-out rounds with another customer. But she stabbed a finger in the direction of aisle three.
Kate snatched a roll of duct tape, some twine, and then, because she was also weak, a rack of chocolate mini donuts for later. Halfway to the checkout, a bin of fruit tugged at her good sense so she grabbed an apple. Dumping everything on the counter, she fumbled through her pockets for cash.
Meg rang her up and bagged her order. “You’re not going to murder someone, are you?”
Kate choked out a laugh. “What?”
“Well . . .” Meg took in Kate’s appearance. “Librarian outfit. Duct tape. Twine. I know you’re the math whiz around here, but it all adds up to a Criminal Minds episode to me.”
Kate was wearing a cardigan, skirt, leggings, and—because she’d been in a hurry and they’d been by the front door—snow boots. She supposed with her glasses and hair piled up on her head she might resemble the second-grade teacher that she was, and okay, maybe the snow boots in May were a little suspect. “You watch too much TV,” Kate said. “It’s going to fry your brain.”
“You know what fries your brain? Not enough sex.” Meg pointed to her phone. “Got that little tidbit right off the Internet on my last break.”
“Well, then it must be true,” Kate said.
Meg laughed. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Kate laughed along with her, grabbed her change and her bag, and hurried to the door. She was late. As the grease that ran her family’s wheel, she needed to get to her dad’s house to help get her little brother, Tommy, ready for school and then to coax the Evil Teen into even going to school. The duct tape run wasn’t to facilitate that, or to kill anyone, but to make a camel, of all things, for an afterschool drama project Tommy had forgotten to mention was due today.
Kate stepped outside and got slapped around by the wind. The month of May had burst onto the scene like a PMSing Mother Nature, leaving the beautiful, rugged Bitterroot Mountains, which loomied high overhead, dusted with last week’s surprise snow.
Spring in Sunshine, Idaho, was MIA.
Watching her step on the wet, slippery asphalt, she pulled out her once again vibrating phone just to make sure no one was dying. It was a text from her dad and read: Hurry, it’s awake.
It being her sister. The other texts were from Ashley herself. She was upset because she couldn’t find her cheerleading top, and also, did Kate know that Tommy was talking to his invisible friend in the bathroom again?
Kate sighed and closed her eyes for a brief second, which was all it took for her snow boots to slip. She went down like a sack of cement, her phone flying one way, her bag the other as she hit the ground butt first with teeth-jarring impact.
“Dammit!” She took a second for inventory—no massive injuries. That this was in thanks to not having lost those five pounds of winter brownie blues didn’t make her feel any better. The cold seeped through her tights and the sidewalk abraded the bare skin of her palms. Rolling to her hands and knees, she reached for her keys just as a set of denim-clad legs came into her field of vision.
The owner of the legs crouched down, easily balancing on the balls of his feet. A hand appeared, her keys centered in the big palm. Tilting her head up, she froze.
Her polite stranger wore a baseball cap low over his eyes, shadowing most of his face and dark hair, but she’d know those gunmetal gray eyes anywhere. And then there was the rest of him. Six foot two and built for trouble in army camo cargoes, a black sweatshirt, and his usual badass attitude, the one that tended to have men backing off and women checking for drool; there was no mistaking Griffin Reid, the first guy she’d ever fallen for. Of course she’d been ten at the time . . .
“That was a pretty spectacular fall,” he said, blocking her from standing up. “Make sure you’re okay.”
Keep your cool, she told herself. Don’t speak, just nod. But her mouth didn’t get the memo. “No worries, a man’s forty-seven percent more likely to die from a fall than a woman.” The minute the words escaped, she bit her tongue, but of course it was too late. When she got nervous, she spouted inane science facts.
And Griffin Reid made her very nervous.
“I’m going to ask you again,” he said, moving his tall, linebacker body nary an inch as he pinned her in place with nothing more than his steady gaze. “Are you okay?”
Actually, no, she wasn’t. Not even close. Her pride was cracked, and quite possibly her butt as well, but that wasn’t what had her kneeling there on the ground in stunned shock. “You’re . . . home.”
He smiled grimly. “I was ordered back by threat of bodily harm if I was late to the wedding.”
He was kidding. No one ordered the tough, stoic badass Griffin to do anything, except maybe Uncle Sam since he was some secret army demolitions expert who’d been in Afghanistan for three straight tours. But his sister, Holly, was getting married this weekend. And if there was anyone more bossy or determined than Griffin, it was his baby sister. Only Holly could get her reticent brother halfway around the world for her vows.
Kate had told herself that as Holly’s best friend and maid of honor, she would absolutely not drool over Griffin if he showed up. And she would especially not make a fool of herself.
Too late, on both counts.
Again she attempted to get up, but Griffin put a big, tanned, work-roughened hand on her thigh, and she felt herself tingle.
Well, damn. Meg was right—too little sex fried the brain.
Clearly misunderstanding her body’s response, Griffin squeezed gently as if trying to soothe, which of course had the opposite effect, making things worse. Embarrassed, she tried to pull free, but still effortlessly holding her, Griffin’s steely gray eyes remained steady on hers.
“Take stock first,” he said, voice low but commanding. “What hurts? Let me see.”
Since the only thing that hurt besides her pride was a part of her anatomy that she considered No Man’s Land, hell would freeze over before she’d “let him see.” “I’m fine. Really,” she added.
Griffin took her hand and easily hoisted her up, studying her in that assessing way of his. Then he started to turn her around, presumably to get a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view, but she stood firm. “Seriously,” she said, backing away, “I’m good.” And if she weren’t, if she’d actually broken her butt, she’d die before admitting it, so it didn’t matter. Bending to gather up her belongings, she carefully sucked in her grimace of pain.
“I’ve got it,” Griffin said, and scooped up the duct tape and donuts. He looked like maybe he was going to say something about the donuts, but at the odd vibrating noise behind them, he turned. “Your phone’s having a seizure,” he said.
Panicked siblings, no doubt. After all, there was a camel to create out of thin air and a cheerleading top to locate, and God only knew what disaster her father was coming up with for breakfast.
Griffin offered the cell phone, and Kate stared down at it thinking how much easier her day would go if it had smashed to pieces when it hit the ground.
“Want me to step on it a few times?” he asked, sounding amused. “Kick it around?”
Startled that he’d read her so easily, she snatched the phone. When her fingers brushed his, an electric current sang up her arms and went straight to her happy spots without passing Go. Ignoring them, she turned to her fallen purse. Of course the contents had scattered. And of course the things that had fallen out were a tampon and condom.
It was how her day was going.
She began cramming things back into the purse, the phone, the donuts, the duct tape, the condom, and the tampon.
The condom fell back out.
“I’ve got it.” Griffin’s mouth twitched as he tossed it into her purse for her. “Duct tape and a Trojan,” he said. “Big plans for the day?”
“The Trojans built protective walls around their city,” she said. “Like condoms. That’s where the name Trojan comes from.”
His mouth twitched. “Gotta love those Trojans. Do you carry the condom around just to give people a history lesson?”
“No. I—” He was laughing at her. Why was she acting like such an idiot? She was a teacher, a good one, who bossed around seven- and eight-year-olds all day long. She was in charge, and she ran her entire world with happy confidence.
Except for this with Griffin. Except for anything with Griffin.
“Look at you,” he said. “Little Katie Evans, all grown up and carrying condoms.”
“One,” she said. “Only one condom.” It was her emergency, wishful-thinking condom. “And I go by Kate now.”
He knew damn well she went by Kate and had ever since she’d hit her teens. He just enjoyed saying “Little Katie Evans” like it was all one word, as if she were still that silly girl who’d tattled on him for putting the frogs in the pond at one of his mom’s elegant luncheons, getting him grounded for a month.
Or the girl who, along with his nosy sister, Holly, had found his porn stash under his bed at the ranch house and gotten him grounded for two months.
“Kate,” he said as if testing it out on his tongue, and she had no business melting at his voice. None. Her only excuse was that she hadn’t seen him much in the past few years. There’d been a few short visits, a little Facebook interaction, and the occasional Skype conversation if she happened to be with Holly when he called home. Those had always been with him in uniform on Holly’s computer, looking big, bad, and distracted.
He wasn’t in uniform now, but she could check off the big, bad, and distracted. The early gray dawn wasn’t doing her any favors, but he could look good under any circumstances. Even with his baseball hat, she could see that his dark hair was growing out, emphasizing his stone eyes and hard jaw covered with a five-o’clock shadow. To say that he looked good was like saying the sun might be a tad bit warm on its surface. How she’d forgotten the physical impact he exuded in person was beyond her. He was solid, sexy male to the core.
His gaze took her in as well, her now windblown hair and mud-spattered leggings stuffed into snow boots—she wasn’t exactly at her best this morning. When he stepped back to go, embarrassment squeezed deep in her gut. “Yeah,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder in the vague direction of her car. “I’ve gotta go, too—”
But Grif wasn’t leaving; he was bending over and picking up some change. “From your purse,” he said, and dropped it into her hand.
She looked down at the two quarters and a dime, and then into his face. She’d dreamed of that face. Fantasized about it. “There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar,” she said before she could bite her tongue. Dammit. She collected bachelor of science degrees. She was smart. She was good at her job. She was happy.
And ridiculously male challenged . . .
Griffin gave a playful tug on an escaped strand of her hair. “You never disappoint,” he said. “Good to see you again.”
And then he was gone.
Five minutes later Kate pulled up to her dad’s place. One glance in the rearview mirror at her still flushed cheeks and bright eyes told her that she hadn’t gotten over her tumble in the parking lot.
Or the run-in with Griffin.
“You’re ridiculous,” she told her reflection. “You are not still crushing on him.”
But she so was.
With a sigh, she reached for the weekly stack of casserole dishes she’d made to get her family through the week without anyone having to actually be in charge. She got out of her car, leaving the keys in it for Ashley, who’d drive it to her private high school just outside of town.
Tommy stood in the doorway waiting. He wore a green hoodie and had a fake bow and arrow set slung over his chest and shoulder.
“Why are you all red in the face?” he asked. “Are you sick?”
She touched her still burning cheeks. The Griffin Reid Effect, she supposed. “It’s cold out here this morning.”
The seven-year-old accepted this without question. “Did you get the tape?”
“I did,” she said. “Tommy—”
“I’m not Tommy. I’m the Green Arrow.”
She nodded. “Green Arrow. Yes, I got the tape, Green Arrow.”
“I still don’t see how duct tape is going to help us make a camel,” he said, trailing her into the mudroom.
She refrained from telling him the biggest aid in making a camel for the school play would’ve been to give her more warning than a panicked five A.M. phone call. Instead she set down the casserole dishes on the bench to shrug out of her sweater as she eyed him. She could tell he’d done as she’d asked and taken a shower, because his dark hair was wet and flattened to his head, emphasizing his huge brown eyes and pale face. “Did you use soap and shampoo?”
He grimaced and turned to presumably rectify the situation, dragging his feet like she’d sent him to the guillotine.
Kate caught him by the back of his sweatshirt. “Tonight’ll do,” she said, picking back up the casseroles and stepping into the living room.
Evidence of the second-grade boy and the high school–junior girl living here was all over the place. Abandoned shoes were scattered on the floor; sweatshirts and books and various sporting equipment lay on furniture.
Her dad was in the midst of the chaos, sitting on the couch squinting at his laptop. Eddie Evans was rumpled, his glasses perched on top of his head. His khakis were worn and frayed at the edges. His feet were bare. He looked like Harry Potter at age fifty. “Stock’s down again,” he said, and sighed.
Since he said the same thing every morning, Kate moved into the kitchen. No breakfast. She went straight to the coffeemaker and got that going. Ten minutes later her dad wandered in. “You hid them again,” he said.
She handed him a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled egg whites and wheat toast before going back to wielding the duct tape to create the damn camel. “You know what the doctor said. You can’t have them.”
His mouth tightened. “I need them.”
“Dad, I know it’s hard,” she said softly, “but you’ve been so strong. And we need you around here for a long time to come yet.”
He shoved his fingers through his hair, which only succeeded in making it stand up on end. “You’ve got that backward, don’t you?”
“Aw. Now you’re just kissing up.” She hugged him. “You’re doing great, you know. The doc said your cholesterol’s coming down already, and you’ve only been off potato chips for a month.”
He muttered something about where his cholesterol could shove it, but he sat down to eat his eggs. “What is that?” he asked, gesturing to the lump on the table in front of him.
“A camel.” It had taken her two pillows, a brown faux pashmina and a couple of stuffed animals tied together with twine, but she actually had what she thought was a passable camel-shaped lump.
Ashley burst into the kitchen wearing a way-too-short skirt, a skimpy camisole top, and enough makeup to qualify for pole dancing. In direct opposition to this image, she was sweetly carrying Channing Tatum, the bedraggled black-and-white stray kitty she’d recently adopted from the animal center where she volunteered after school. Contradiction, meet thy queen.
Channing took one look at the “camel” and hissed.
“What the hell is that?” Ashley asked of the makeshift prop, looking horrified as she cuddled Channing.
“Don’t swear,” Kate said. “And it’s a camel. And also, you’re going out in that outfit over my dead body.”
Ashley looked down at herself. “What’s wrong with it?”
“First of all, you’ll get hypothermia. And second of all, no way in hell.”
Ashley narrowed her overdone eyes. “Why do you get to swear and I don’t?”
“Because I earned the right with age and wisdom.”
“You’re twenty-eight,” Ashley said, and shrugged. “Yeah, you’re right. You’re old. Did you find my cheerleading top?”
Kate tossed it to her.
Ashley turned up her nose at the scrambled eggs, though she fed Channing a piece of turkey bacon before thrusting a piece of paper at Kate. “You can sign it or I can forge dad’s signature.”
“Hey,” Eddie said from the table. He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose. “I’m right here.”
Kate grabbed the paper from Ashley and skimmed it. Permission slip to . . . skip state testing. “No.” Skipping testing was the last thing the too-smart, underachieving, overly dramatic teen needed to do.
“Dad,” Ashley said, going for an appeal.
“Whatever Kate says,” Eddie said.
“You can’t skip testing,” Kate said. “Consider it practice for your SATs for college. You want to get the heck out of here and far away from all of us, right? This is step one.”
Ashley rolled her eyes so hard that Kate was surprised they didn’t roll right out of her head.
Tommy bounced into the room. He took one look at the camel and hugged it close. “It’s perfect,” he declared. Then he promptly inhaled up every crumb on his plate. He smiled at Kate as he pushed his little black-rimmed glasses farther up on his nose, looking so much like a younger, happier version of their dad that it tightened her throat.
A car horn sounded from out front. Kate glanced at the clock and rushed Tommy and Ashley out the door. Ashley got into Kate’s car and turned left, heading toward her high school. Tommy and Kate got into the waiting car, which turned right to head to the elementary school.
Their driver was Ryan Stafford, Kate’s second-best friend and the principal of the elementary school.
And her ex.
He must have had a district meeting scheduled because he was in a suit today, complete with tie, which she knew he hated. With his dark blond hair, dark brown eyes, and lingering tan from his last fishing getaway, he looked like Barbie’s Ken, the boardroom version. He watched as Kate got herself situated and handed him a to-go mug of coffee.
“What?” she said when he just continued to look at her.
“You know what.” He gestured a chin toward the cup she’d handed him. “You’re adding me to your little kingdom again.”
“My kingdom? You wish. And the coffee’s a ‘thanks for the ride,’ not an ‘I don’t think you can take care of yourself,’” she said.
Ryan glanced at Tommy in the rearview mirror. “Hey, Green Arrow. Seat belt on, right?”
“Right,” Tommy said, and put on his headphones. He was listening to an Avenger’s audiobook for what had to be the hundredth time, his lips moving along with the narrator.
Ryan looked at Kate. “Thought you were going to talk to him.”
She and Ryan had once dated for four months, during which time they’d decided that if they didn’t go back to being just friends, they’d have to kill each other. Since Kate was opposed to wearing an orange jumpsuit, this arrangement had suited her. “I did talk to him,” she said. “I told him reading was a good thing.”
“How about talking to himself and dressing like superheroes?”
Kate looked at Tommy. He was slouched in the seat, still mouthing along to his book, paying them no mind whatsoever. “He’s fine.” She took back Ryan’s coffee, unscrewed the top on the mug, blew away the escaping steam, and handed it back to him.
“You going to drink it for me, too?” he asked. He laughed. “Just admit it. You can’t help yourself.”
“Maybe I like taking care of all of you. You ever think of that?”
“Tell me this, then—when was the last time you did something for yourself, something entirely selfish?”
“Ryan, I barely have time to go to the bathroom by myself.”
“Exactly,” he said.
Now she laughed. Ryan shook his head and kept driving. They passed the lake just before the bridge into town. The water was still and flat in the low light. On the far side was the dam that held back the snowmelt, controlling the volume feeding into the river so that Sunshine didn’t flood. Along the very top of the dam was a trail, which Kate sometimes ran on the days that she wanted to be able to fit into her skinny jeans. Up there, at the highest pool was an old fallen Jeffrey Pine. On its side, battered smooth by the elements, it made a perfect bench.
It was her spot.
She went there to think or when she needed a time-out from the rest of the world, which happened a lot.
“You get a date for the wedding yet?” Ryan asked.
No. She’d put that particular task off, and now, with the wedding only two days away, there was only one man who’d made her even think about dating. But tall, dark, and far-too-hot Griffin Reid was way out of her league. In fact, he was so far out of her league, she couldn’t even see the league. “Working on it.”
Ryan made a sound of annoyance. “You’ve been saying that for months.” He glanced at her over the top of his sunglasses. “Tell me it’s not going to be me.”
“Hey, I’m not that bad of a date.”
He slid her another look. “You going to put out afterward?”
Kate whipped around to look at Tommy, but the kid was still listening intently to his book. “No,” she hissed, and smacked him. “You know I’m not going to put out. We didn’t . . . suit that way.”
“Well, I’m hoping to . . . ‘suit’ with one of the bridesmaids.” He glanced at her again. “You ought to try it.”
“Sorry. The bridesmaids don’t do it for me.”
“Stop picturing it!”
Ryan’s smile widened, the big male jerk, and she smacked him again.
“All I’m saying,” he said, “is that you should stop treading water and try for some fun. Live a little.”
“You think I have no life.”
Ryan blew out a sigh. They’d been down this road before. “You know what I think. I think you do everything for everyone except yourself. Look at your track record. You’ve had exactly one boyfriend in five years, and you’re still making him coffee every morning.”
“And you’re still driving me to work so I can fill you in on the school gossip without you having to actually pay attention in the staff room,” Kate said more mildly than she felt. Maybe because she heard the underlying worry in Ryan’s voice, and she didn’t want anyone to worry about her. She was fine. She was great. “We use each other. And we’re both fine with that.”
Ryan reached over and pulled out the fancy, thick white envelope with the gold embossing sticking out of her purse. “Fourteen more days.”
“Hey,” she said, trying to grab it back.
He waved it under her nose. “Treading water, Kate. And the proof’s right here. Just like it was at this same time last year. And the year before that.”
Again she tried to grab back the envelope.
“Why do you carry the offer around with you when you know damn well you aren’t going to go?”
She wanted to go. But . . . “It means a whole year away from here.”
She blew out a breath.
“It’s a dream come true for you,” he said quietly.
It was. Being offered a full scholarship to the graduate program for science education at the University of San Diego—a world away from Sunshine, Idaho—was her dream. It would take a year to complete, an entire, glorious, science-filled year. With the degree—and the grant that Ryan promised to get her if she finished—she could bring a new and exciting science program to the county’s school district. It was something she’d wanted for a long time. Some women wanted a spa week. Kate wanted to go dissect animals and work with scientists whose work she’d admired for a long time. Yes, it would be great for the school, but the truth was that Kate wanted it for herself.
“I was thinking maybe I’d accept and go this time,” she said.
“But?” he asked.
“But,” she said. “Next year is crucial for Ashley. We have colleges to decide upon . . .”
“Uh-huh,” Ryan said. “And last year it was Tommy’s health.”
“He had pneumonia.” Snatching back the envelope, she shoved it in her purse.
And they didn’t speak again for the rest of the ride.
Grif drove through town, attempting to keep the memories at bay. He’d been gone a long time, and the places he’d been in the military were just about as far from Idaho as one could get.
He’d once hated Sunshine, but that’d been from a wild teen’s perspective, one who’d grown up chafing at the bit. To that kid, the small ranching community had felt like iron bars. Being destined to run his dad’s ranching empire had been a death knell; one Grif had gotten away from by running off and joining the army.
His father still hadn’t forgiven him, though their problems had started far before that. With the dubious years of maturity now on Grif’s side, he hoped to change that. But it wasn’t his dad he was thinking about now.
That honor went to Kate, in a prim blouse and cardigan sweater, a cargo skirt with lots of pockets, and thick tights. The capper had been her snow boots, untied as if she’d just shoved them on in a hurry. She was a five-foot-four bombshell with showstopping curves stuffed into an elementary teacher’s wardrobe, and she’d effectively done what nothing else could—she’d taken his mind off the discomfort of being home. She was a paradox, Little Katie Evans. An adorably sexy, tousled, slightly repressed hot mess of a paradox.
And she wanted to be called Kate. Kate was a woman’s name, and she most definitely fit the bill there. She had all those soft flyaway strawberry blond waves layered around her face, highlighting mossy green eyes, and the sweetest mouth known to mankind. He wasn’t sure exactly when his perception of her had changed or when he’d become so aware of his need to touch. But the sensible attire on that heart attack inducing bod combined with the one-hundred-mile-per-hour brain and sweet disposition was sexy as hell. And irresistible.
Not good, because his sister, Holly, was extremely protective of her best friend. And although Grif had all the muscle in the family, muscle meant nothing when butting up against the sheer brick wall of his sister’s stubborn will.
Holly wanted him safe and happy, but she absolutely did not want him within twenty feet of Kate.
And Holly had a way of getting what she wanted, which was why he was still awake after a red-eye flight and too many sleepless nights in a row now. She’d wanted to meet for breakfast, away from the family ranch, presumably to get a good look at him before anyone else. That was what nosy sisters did.
He parked at the café where she’d ordered him. As he walked into the place, scents assaulted him, scents that were visceral reminders of being home again: coffee, bacon, and Holly herself as she launched at him. Her loud squeal of pleasure pierced his still ringing ears as she burrowed in. Ignoring his headache and his unease about being back, he endured the endless hug.
“Missed you,” she whispered in his ear, and squeezed him half to strangulation.
He held her with one arm, reaching up to resettle his baseball cap with the other. “Hey, Hol.”
“Hey, Hol?” She hauled back and punched him in the arm. “I just said I missed you, you big lug, and all you have to say is ‘hey, Hol?’ I missed you,” she repeated with a devastating wealth of emotion blazing in both her voice and her eyes.
He rubbed his arm. “That’s because I’m miss-able.”
She made to slug him again, but he caught her hand. “Don’t,” he said. “And fine, I missed you, too, a little.”
“Well, that’s more like it,” she said, softening. “Let’s eat. Dad wanted to come, but he’s caught up at Aunt Rena’s ranch until later this afternoon.”
Some of Holly’s smile faded at Grif’s doubtful expression. “I’m really hoping,” she said, “that my number two and three favorite alpha males can share their space without a fight. I want peace for my wedding to my number one favorite alpha.” Then she turned and kissed the man at her back. Adam Connelly was big and silent and stoic, and the toughest badass Grif knew. And yet the guy grinned like a sap after that kiss.
Turning her attention back to Grif, Holly tried to pull off his baseball cap, but he dodged her.
“Come on,” she complained. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.”
“Did you forget what I look like?”
“How could I? You look just like Mom . . .” Again she went for the hat, but he simply straightened to his full height so she couldn’t reach. “Though you act just like Dad,” she said. “I want a look at you.”
Grif could’ve told her she really didn’t, but he held his tongue. Best not to give her any ammunition until absolutely necessary. “You can see me just fine.”
Adam’s dark eyes took in everything Holly was too excited to see. Gently setting aside his fiancée, he stepped in close and gave Grif a very real welcome home hug—minus the usual male backslap.
Somehow Adam knew.
“At least you made it home in time for tonight’s bachelor/bachelorette party,” Holly said. “Great timing, you getting that early leave.”
Not exactly great timing. And the leave wasn’t in her honor at all. Nor was it a leave. He was out, medically discharged, which she didn’t need to know about. He’d told no one from home, and he didn’t intend to change that any time soon. He didn’t want anyone fawning over him, and he sure as hell didn’t want anyone to know how badly he’d screwed up or exactly how close he’d come to missing the wedding.
Not to mention the rest of his life.
Out of the military for the first time in his adult life, Grif was home for the wedding and maybe also to make peace with the place that had once been the bane of his existence.
“Have you seen anyone yet?” Holly asked after they were seated and had ordered.
“Kate.” The name rolled off Grif’s tongue before he could stop himself. She was still on his brain, her and that sweet smile that could slay him dead—which even an IED at ground zero hadn’t been able to accomplish.
“Kate?” Holly asked, putting down her coffee. “My Kate?”
“I didn’t realize you owned her,” Grif said mildly.
Holly was silent for a full beat, staring him down as if she could extract his secrets by osmosis. “No,” she finally said in her bossiest sister voice. “No. She’s off-limits, Grif.”
“Excuse me?” he asked in the tone that would have anyone else running for the hills. Not Holly. Holly had this thing about boundaries. As in she had none.
“Okay,” she said. “I know you hate to be told what to do, but don’t do Kate. I mean it, Grif.”
“He’s a big boy, babe,” Adam broke in lightly, touching her hand. A gentle warning that she didn’t heed.
“She’s vulnerable right now,” Holly said to Grif.
Yeah, well, he wasn’t exactly feeling so steady himself.
“Her mom’s gone,” Holly said, “and her dad’s— Dammit, Grif. You know what her life’s like. She’s practically raising her siblings on her own, and they’re not easy. Tommy thinks he’s a superhero, and Ashley does a damn good impression of the Wicked Witch of the West.”
“East,” Adam said.
“Aw,” Holly said. “I love that you know that.”
Personally, Grif thought Adam should have to turn in his Man Card for knowing that, but Holly was smiling at him dopily, and then Adam leaned in and she met him halfway for an annoyingly long, hot kiss.
“Great.” Grif blew out a breath. “My best friend and my sister swallowing each other’s tongues. This is nice. Really. I should have come home sooner.”
They kept kissing.
Grif checked his watch.
They kept kissing. “Hey, you’re making the kids uncomfortable.”
Holly pulled back and grinned. “Jealous?”
“Bored,” Grif said.
“Too bad that this week’s all about me, then, isn’t it?” She sent him a narrow-eyed glance. “Just as soon as I finish warning you off of Kate. I’m serious about this, okay? I’ve been trying to slowly work her back into the dating pool, but we’re starting small. Trust me, she’s in no way ready for the likes of you.” She looped her arm through his. “Please don’t take that as a challenge.”
“You think she’s too sweet for me,” Grif said. “Too good.”
“She’s not some eighteenth-century virgin, Grif. She’s a full-grown woman who, yes, is a really wonderful, giving, warm, good person. She’d give a stranger the shirt off her back. I just don’t want that stranger to be you.”
Adam snorted, and Grif slid him a look that Adam met evenly. And Grif had to admit, maybe they had a point. Grif liked women.
And they tended to like him back.
“All I’m saying,” Holly said, “is that sometimes people take advantage of Kate.”
“And you think I’d be one of them?”
“Not purposely,” she said, “but come on. You know she has a big crush on you. If you so much as look at her, she’s spouting science facts. All I’m asking is for you to remember that the women in your world come and go. And she’s not one to go.”
“I didn’t say I was interested in her that way.” Having long ago learned the trick to dealing with his sister and her nosiness was a solid distraction, he said, “I bet you’re a total bridezilla.”
Adam laughed, turning it into a cough when Holly slid her husband-to-be a glance. But suitably distracted, she spent the next hour talking about the imminent wedding.
Grif had zero interest in the material of her dress or the accent color or the difficulty of the seating arrangements, but he had great interest in not talking about himself. Finally, ears still ringing, he left the café and drew in a careful breath.
Since his injury, his sense of smell had been as FUBAR as his head, but just like the café, Sunshine itself also had a distinct scent. Fresh, chilly mountain air. Cedar and pine.
Forgotten hopes and dreams.
He drove to the huge, sprawling old ranch house he’d grown up in and let himself in. He immediately thought of his mom. Though she hadn’t lived here in years, the house was a visceral reminder of her, from before the divorce. Long before. Because even well before that she’d been living in New York, separate from Donald Reid. Still, her presence could be felt here, from the pictures of her scattered among others throughout the house, to her touch in the big-but-cozy furniture and other items she’d used to decorate the house. There was a picture of her on the mantel, with a five-year-old Grif on horseback. Holly was right; they were the spitting image of each other with their dark hair, gray eyes, and crooked smiles. It made him ache for her. His head ached, too, rattling his teeth with the pain—the IED blast that kept on giving.
Opening the door to his childhood bedroom, he dropped his bag by the bed and plopped onto the mattress exhausted.
* * *
He came awake badly, as he tended to do these days. Noting the low sun, he sat up. The day had gone by without him, which worked. Heart still pounding, damp with sweat, he stared at four chocolate brown eyes belonging to the two huge golden retrievers sitting bedside, breathing on him. Thing One and Thing Two. They’d started out as his dad’s foster dogs last year, but no one ever returned a foster animal, not even the cantankerous Donald Reid. “Hey,” he said.
This, apparently, was an invitation to be jumped, and they jostled for space on the bed. Thing One nearly unmanned him. Thing Two licked him from chin to forehead. Both were wild, like kibble-fueled rocket ships made out of pure energy. Laughing, he shoved them both down.
The house was no longer empty. He could hear music, talking, laughing. Head still pounding, Grif forced himself to lie still as he drew in a breath for a count of four, held it for a count of seven, and then let it out for a count of eight. One of his nurses had taught him the trick as a way to calm himself when he first woke up. It never worked, but it was something to do.
Rising, he headed into the adjoining bathroom for a shower. Someone had figured out he was here and had left him fresh towels. He took a long, hot shower and came out feeling slightly more human.
The sounds of a rip-roaring party drove him to the center of the house, a huge living area that had been transformed for Holly and Adam’s co-bachelorette/bachelor party. Personally, Grif didn’t see the good of a bachelor party if you were going to invite your soon-to-be-wife, but hey, what did he know about such things?
There were at least fifty people spilling out the two sets of double French doors to a large square courtyard. Lights had been strung in the trees, and music was blasting. Laughter and drinks were flowing.
His sister was at the bar wearing a huge tiara and a wide grin, holding a shot glass in each hand. Around her was a pack of women, a few of them wearing smaller versions of the tiaras and equally large grins, also double-fisting shot glasses.
The bridesmaids, he presumed, and cheered up slightly. They came in all shapes and sizes, each glowing as they laughed and talked and tossed back their drinks.
He counted one, two, three tiaras. A fourth was bent over, fiddling with her boot. She wore a white lacy top and a short black skirt with leggings and high-heeled ankle boots. Nice ass. Her shoulders were bare, revealing silky-soft, creamy skin and just a hint of a slinky bra strap running over the top curve.
He loved slinky lingerie. Mostly he loved it on the floor, but they could work on that, and with the evening looking up he headed over there. Just as he got close, Ms. Nice Ass straightened and turned to face him, and he went still.
Unlike earlier, her strawberry blond hair was loose and slightly tousled, the shiny waves falling just past her shoulders. She was wearing a shimmery lip gloss that emphasized that sweet, kissable mouth and eyeliner that was smudged just enough to make her look not at all like an elementary teacher but trouble with a capital T. When she caught him staring at her, she hesitated, and then smiled.
His own smile was unexpected. And probably idiotic, because although he could take apart damn near anything and put it back together again, he couldn’t seem to lust and think at the same time. She had the most amazing eyes, and her smile made him want to do things that were most definitely not on his sister’s approved list.
On the best of days a vulnerable woman was a spectacularly stupid idea, and this wasn’t even close to the best of days for Grif.
In fact he hadn’t even had a passable day in months. Knowing it, he kept moving. Hell, he very nearly ran. As he headed out of the living room, he let his gaze catch on the big, ornate mirror hanging on the wall.
Another man was already talking to Kate. That was good. That was great.
But the guy looked a little determined as he set his hand on her shoulder, and Kate looked a little . . . relaxed. She’d been drinking.
She’s vulnerable . . .
Damn. Stopping, Grif tilted his head back and stared up at the ceiling for an internal debate. Conscience or no conscience, that was the question.
Conscience won, and he headed back. The guy looked up from Kate, and Grif slid him a long, hard look. Yeah, that’s right, keep touching her, and I’ll remove your fingers from your body.
The hand came off Kate.
Good choice. Satisfied, Grif nodded and forced himself to once again walk away, hoping she stayed out of trouble this time because he was out. He didn’t tend toward regrets or guilt, but somehow he felt both as he ducked into the blessedly quiet den and headed straight for the small, well-stocked bar on the far wall.
“Showed up at the last minute, I see.”
At the gruff, familiar sarcasm Grif turned and faced his father. Donald Reid was sixty-five and starting to look it, and Grif felt a pang for all the years that had passed without much more than a quick bickering session between them.
“You could’ve called,” his dad said. “Let someone know you were coming.”
Thing One and Thing Two had entered the room with the older Reid, and they beelined with joy for Grif, who squatted to give belly rubs. “You knew I’d be here,” Grif said.
Donald made a derisive noise that instantly made Grif feel fifteen and stupid all over again. “How? You’ve barely been home except to bury your mother.”
That wasn’t quite true. Grif tried to make it home whenever he could—but admittedly that hadn’t been very often since the two of them tended to circle each other like annoyed bears. And without his mom as a go-between, it had only gotten worse. Grif rose and absently rubbed the scar running along his temple. The long nap had taken care of the headache for now, but it would be back. He was getting used to living with one, along with the ringing ears, light sensitivity, and fatigue. He was lucky these were his only problems, and he knew it. “I’m here now,” he said.
His dad looked at him and then nodded curtly. “Holly will be glad for it.”
“And you?” Grif asked.
Donald strode to the bar to pour himself two fingers of whiskey.
Thing One and Thing Two leaped to their feet and happily panted along in his wake, hoping he was going for food. Donald smiled and pulled a dog biscuit from his pocket for each, receiving doggie kisses for the effort.
He’d always been a better doggy dad than a real dad. Grif rubbed his temple again, and Donald looked over at him. “What’s wrong with you?”
What the hell, Grif thought. “I screwed up and got too close to an IED.”
Donald went utterly still for a very long beat. Then he knocked back his drink and slowly set the glass on the bar. And then just as slowly exhaled audibly. “So you nearly bought the farm.”
“Turns out, I’m hard to kill.”
Donald didn’t relax or smile. “You didn’t think to call?”
“Did you call me when you had a heart attack?”
“Not the same thing,” Donald said tightly.
“No? Why’s that, dad?”
“I didn’t call you because I didn’t want to distract you overseas. You didn’t call me because you’re stubborn as hell.”
Grif smiled thinly. “No idea where I got that . . .”
From inside his dad’s pocket came the refrain “I’m A Slave 4 U . . .” He pulled out his phone, and a ridiculous smile crossed his face. “Deanna says to tell you hello.”
Deanna was his girlfriend. She was half Donald’s age, silly, and highly dramatic. She also loved the old guy just as he was, and had stuck with him longer than anyone else since Grif’s mom. Go figure.
His dad thumbed a reply text with surprising dexterity, shoved the phone away, and then got back to business. “What now?” he asked Grif.
“I don’t know.” Grif shrugged. “I’ve got some job options to consider.”
“DC. Texas. Quantico.” Grif might be done with active duty, but he still had skills and knowledge, and any number of alphabet agencies were interested in him.
“So you’re in flux,” Donald said.
“I’m in flux.”
“Which is why you’re here. You had a close call, and you had some sort of epiphany. What is it, you need to make peace with your past?”
Grif met his dad’s gaze evenly, giving nothing away. “Maybe I’m interested in Idaho.”
Donald laughed harshly and set down his drink again. “There was a day when you couldn’t wait to get out of here. Hell, the door couldn’t have hit you on the ass if it’d tried, you ran that fast. You went far and wide and on your own damn terms.”
“Things would’ve been easier all around if you’d stuck here in Sunshine,” Donald went on, “but you couldn’t be bothered to do that, not then. What makes you think you could do it now?”
“I’m not seventeen anymore, dad. And this time I am interested.”
“In the ranch?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Donald laughed harshly. “You think it’s easy to run a ranch? That you can just drop back in after all these years and give it a shot on your own?”
Grif bit back the retort on his tongue, that his dad didn’t do it by himself. He ran a huge operation, and he’d always had help. That had never been the issue. Grif tossed back his drink. More than two fingers, which was in direct opposition to what his migraine pills allowed, but there were days when life exceeded allowances, and this was one of them. “You’re reading too much into this. I’m back to see my sister get married.”
“Wrong. You came back for you,” Donald said. And with that possibly very true statement, he left Grif alone in the den.
Needing a moment, Kate moved away from the group at the bar. Treading water . . .
Is that what she was doing? Really?
She dodged through the crowd. She had no idea what she’d hoped to feel tonight. A spark of . . . something. But instead, her happy—already a little tenuous—was slipping.
She’d had two guys come on to her, which in theory should have been a little thrilling, but neither Charlie, a local fifteen years her senior and four times divorced, or Trevan, the father of one of the boys in her class, had interested her.
She was a little worried that nothing could interest her.
And then she’d caught Griffin Reid staring at her, and she’d felt that surge she’d been looking for. Interest? Oh yes. And lust. And excitement.
And more lust.
But it had been short-lived because when he’d realized it was her, he’d stopped short so fast she’d actually looked down at herself to see if she was trailing toilet paper from her boot or if she’d spilled something on herself.
She hadn’t. She was wearing big-girl clothes tonight, without so much as a paint stain on her anywhere. And she looked good, too; Charles had said so—six times. Of course he’d said so directly to her breasts, but that might be her fault. They were a little bit on display tonight in her lacy top—something she didn’t ever get to wear teaching second graders. After Ryan had thrown her off her game a little bit about her scholarship, she’d needed to mix things up tonight.
Instead she’d actually scared away Grif Reid. That took talent.
With a sigh, she dug into the chips and dip like it was her job. She was pretty certain that the calories in the dip added up to an entire week’s worth of points, but she didn’t care. Turning off a crush so thoroughly as to have him actually run away trumped point counting. In fact, it made the dip point free.
She’d just stuffed in a big bite when Miranda Brown came up to her side. Miranda was Holly’s cousin and one of the bridesmaids. She was taller than Kate, prettier than Kate, and was currently engaged to her college sweetheart, who’d just finished up his residency. She gave Kate a smile. “Someone just suggested we all play some couples games, but Holly vetoed. I think she was worried about you feeling left out.”
“I wouldn’t have felt left out,” Kate said.
Miranda smiled kindly and possibly a little patronizingly. “She said you’d say that, but . . .”
“Nothing.” Miranda sipped daintily from her wineglass, her diamond ring nearly blinding Kate when it caught the light. “So when are you going to find your special someone, Kate?”
Yeah, definitely patronizingly. “I have someone on order, actually. He’s going to arrive any second.”
Miranda blinked. “Is that a joke?”
“Oh.” Miranda laughed. “Right. You’re . . . funny. Must be all the science degrees. Biology and chem, right?”
And education. And a chance at a master’s . . .
“No Mrs. degree yet,” Miranda said, and laughed. “Have you tried Match.com?”
More times than Kate wanted to admit out loud.
“Or maybe you’re happy being the spinster teacher . . .”
Spinster teacher . . . seriously? Is that how people saw her? She wasn’t even thirty yet. “I’m okay with being in between relationships,” Kate said. And she’d been “between” relationships for a long time. Men didn’t grow on trees in Sunshine, and she’d never been all that good at the serial-dating thing.
“So you don’t have a date for the wedding?” Miranda asked.
“I didn’t say that.” Kate tossed back her second wine and felt her head get a little fuzzy. She was a lightweight, but tonight fuzzy was perfect. She’d be a cheap date.