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Erin Castro stood at the front of the church and tried not to fidget.
It was Erika and Dillon's wedding day and she knew that the attention of all of the guests was focused on the bride and groom, but since she'd arrived in Thunder Canyon, she'd worked hard to blend in and couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with so many eyes turned in her direction.
Her fidgeting fingers found the wide ribbon that bound her bouquet. The satin was smooth and cool, and the rhythmic winding and unwinding of it gave her something to concentrate on rather than the crowd of onlookers.
When she'd come to town a few months earlier, she'd had two suitcases in the trunk of her secondhand Kia, a newspaper clipping in the pocket of her faded jeans and absolutely no clue how to begin the quest she had set herself upon. Then she'd seen the "Help Wanted" sign in the front window of The Hitching Post and had taken the first step in her journey.
She'd worked with Haley Anderson at the restaurant and when Erin mentioned that she didn't want to live at the Big Sky Motel forever, Haley had helped her find an apartment. With both her job and housing concerns alleviated, Erin had believed that she was meant to stay. A few weeks later, she learned of a position available at the Thunder Canyon Resort. Realizing that the more people she encountered, the more likely she was to find someone who might have answers to the questions that prompted her trip from San Diego, Erin willingly took on the second job. When she started working a lot of overtime at the resort, she'd had to give up the waitressing job, but she had no regrets. It was at the resort that she'd met Erika Rodriguez, who was now exchanging vows with Dillon Traub.
She was happy that her friend was marrying the man of her dreams, but she couldn't help wishing that she was watching the nuptials from somewhere in the back of the church rather than the front. She wound the ribbon around her finger again as her eyes moved restlessly over the assembled crowd, focusing more on the stunning white décor of the winter wonderland setting than on any of the guests.
Her thoughts and her gaze continued to wander, until caught by the hot, intense stare of Corey Traubthe groom's brother.
Her breath stalled, and her heart pounded.
She'd met Corey the night before at the rehearsal. And her response to his presence had been just as powerful then as nowand just as unwelcome.
Her reasons for coming to Thunder Canyon hadn't included any thoughts of romantic entanglements. Especially not so closely on the heels of the end of another relationship.
She knew that her mother had harbored great expectations for the future of her almost-twenty-six-year-old (read "virtually unmarriageable") daughter and the man she'd already envisioned as the perfect (read "willing to marry her daughter") son-in-law. And while it shouldn't have been so difficult to end a relationship that meant more to Betty than it did to her, it had been tough. More so than she'd expected. She'd always felt as if she hovered on the periphery of her family. She couldn't have said why she felt that wayit wasn't anything specific anyone had said or done, it was just a sense that she didn't quite belong, and she desperately wanted to belong. And perhaps on some level, she'd thoughthopedthat a good marriage would give her the gold star she'd longed for.
As the youngest child and the only daughter, her parents didn't have the same expectations of her that they had of their sons. One of the few things they expected was that she would meet a nice man and start a family. After only a few weeks of dating, Trevor had told her that he wanted to get married.
He'd laughed at the shocked expression on her face, then explained that he wasn't actually proposing to her. He was just putting it out there, he said, so she understood what he was looking for and so that she could let him know if she didn't want the same thing.
She wanted to want the same thing. She tried to make herself feel more for him than she did because she knew that her parents would approve of Trevor and she really wanted to be approved of. But in the end, she couldn't stay with a man whose kisses left her unmoved. She couldn't plan a future with a man whose touch made her want to pull away rather than press closer. She knew that physical attraction was only one aspect of a relationship, but she couldn't imagine building a long-term relationship with a man without ever feeling that little quiver in the pit of her belly.
As she looked into Corey Traub's espresso-colored eyes, she felt that quiverand a whole lot more. There was a crackle and sizzle in the air that assured her his kisses would not leave her unmoved.
When his gaze drifted to her mouth and his own lips curved, she knew that his thoughts were following a similar path to her own. Her body's response was strong and swift, and she was shocked by the purely visceral reaction.
She wasn't the type of woman who got swept away by passion. She wasn't sure she even believed in the kind of all-consuming passion that could sweep a woman away. She'd certainly never experienced anything like it before. And what was wrong with her that she was having such thoughts about a man she barely knewand during her friend's wedding, no less?
She resisted the urge to lift the bouquet of flowers to her face and use it as a fan to cool the heat that had suddenly infused her cheeks.
" I now pronounce you husband and wife."
The minister's voice broke through Erin's reverie and refocused her attention.
"You may kiss your bride," he told the groom.
She watched Dillon as he lowered his head toward Erika's, and the obvious love and happiness in his eyes brought tears to Erin's. Standing behind Erika, she couldn't see the expression on her friend's face, but she knew Erika's eyes would reflect the same emotion and joy. Erika had been floating on cloud nine since she'd finally accepted that Dillon loved her and admitted that she felt the same way about him. This wedding was just the icing on the cakea public ceremony to affirm the love they shared and formalize the commitment they'd already made to one another.
Erin was surprised to realize that she envied her friend. Surprised to realize that getting married and starting a family might not be as far down on her list of priorities as she'd suspected. Of course, she'd have to fall in love first, and she wasn't looking for any kind of personal involvement right now.
She'd never been all the way in love before. Sure, she'd experienced attraction and infatuation and there had even been a time or two when she'd thought what she was feeling might be love. But when those relationships had ended and she'd felt more relief than regret, she'd known it wasn't. And the relief had given way to doubt as she wondered if she would ever know the intensity of emotion that was supposed to be love.
Her parents had itshe recognized it in the looks that passed between them, the casual touches they exchanged, the secret smiles they shared. Even after more than thirty years of marriage, there was an enduring bond of both at traction and affection between them that Erin someday hoped to find with someone.
Of course, her life was too unsettled right now to be mak ing any kind of long-term plans, but someday.
She glanced at Corey again and found his eyes still on her. Her future might be uncertain, but she wasn't immune to the attraction of a handsome man.
And she found herself wondering what it would be like to be held by him, kissed by him. She wanted him to take her in his arms and hold her tight against his hard body until she was breathless. Which would take all of about half a second considering that just the thought of kissing him stole all the air from her lungs.
She tore her gaze from his and forced the treacherously enticing thoughts from her mind.
Because she had no doubt that the six-foot-tall oil heir had kissed more than his fair share of women and she had no intention of joining the undoubtedly long line of willing women he had left behind. And he would be leavinghe might have family in Thunder Canyon, but his home was in Texas and her home was well, she hadn't quite figured that out yet.
Which was just one more reason that any kind of involvement with Corey Traub would be both foolish and reckless.
When the bride and groom's kiss finally ended, even the minister was smiling his approval. Then he turned to the assembly and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you Dr. and Mrs. Dillon Traub."
The guests all rose to their feet and applauded.
Dillon took Erika's hand with one of his and held out the other to Emilia, his two-year-old stepdaughter. The little girl's bright, happy smile made Erin smile, too. Her friend had harbored doubts about Dillon's willingness to be a father to someone else's child, but the sexy doctor had proved that he wasn't just ready to step up but was eager to do so, and it was obvious to everyone present that the bride and groom and tiny flower girl were already a family.
Erin felt an ache in her heart as she thought of her own family and the questions that had brought her to Thunder Canyon. Questions that remained, after more than three months in town, unanswered.
Her parents still didn't understand what had precipitated her sudden decision to pack up and head to Montana. She'd claimed dissatisfaction with her job and the relationship with Trevor, but she knew they were worried, that they felt she should have tried to change the situation rather than run away from it. But after her last meeting with Aunt Erma, only hours before the elderly woman passed away, she'd realized that she needed answers her parents couldn'tor wouldn'tgive her. Answers that might finally explain why she'd always felt a little out of place in her own family.
You need to find your family. Her aunt's words echoed in her mind. They're in Thunder Canyon.
Erin had been as stunned as she was skeptical, especially when Erma didn't provide any more information. As for the newspaper clipping the elderly woman had given to her, Erin still didn't know what to make of that. She didn't have a clue which of the families in the photoif anymight be able to help her find the answers she sought, and Erma hadn't steered her in a specific direction.
She hadn't shown the clipping to her parentsa decision that she continued to wrestle with. But both Jack and Betty had been dismissive of Erma's claims. When Erin had asked if she'd been adopted, her mother had offered to show off the stretch marks and unsightly veins that were her reward for the nine months that she'd carried her daughter.
But there was something about Erma's words that haunted Erin in a way she didn't understand and couldn't disregard.
If she wasn't adopted, maybe her parents had gone through a rough patch in their marriage and her mother had been involved with someone else. It had taken a lot more courage to ask Betty about that possibility, but her mother had actually laughed, assuring Erin that there had never been anyone before her father and never anyone since.
Still, she couldn't help but feel that there had to be some kind of foundation for Erma's conviction. Unfortunately, her aunt's death had left Erin with a lot of doubts and uncertainties, countered only by her determination to find the truth once and for all.
The question jolted her out of her reverie and made her realize that the bride and groom had already started down the aisle. She forgot about Erma and all of her reasons for coming to Thunder Canyon when she settled her hand in the crook of Corey's elbow.
She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as she followed Dillon and Erika and Emilia, refusing to look at the groom's brother. But as they approached the doorway, Corey pulled her a little closer to negotiate the narrow opening, and she shivered.
Thankfully, the cool November afternoon gave her a ready excuse for the goose bumps on her flesh, even if she knew they were more a response to the man at her side than the chilly weather. But she had no intention of being distracted from her fact-finding mission by anything or anyonenot even the groom's far-too-sexy brother.
It was torture, riding beside him in the limousine on the way to the resort for the reception. Although there were only five of them in a ten-passenger limoand one of those five a child buckled into a car seatthe interior of the vehicle felt small to Erin. Or maybe it was that Corey was so big.
She shifted on the seat so that she was pressed against the side of the car. But she could still feel the heat of his body and smell a hint of his aftershave, and she couldn't help but watch the smooth, efficient movements of his hands as they peeled the foil off of a chilled bottle of champagne.
He unfastened the wire and popped the cork while Dillon struggled to unwrap the straw on a juice box for his new daughter. Erika reached for the drink, obviously trying to help, but her groom was determined to master the task. The bride shrugged and settled back against the cushy leather seat, content to let him.
Erin felt a little tug of envy again but pushed it aside. Maybe Erika did have it all, but getting it hadn't been easy for her. She'd had her heart broken when Emilia's father walked out on her, and then she'd had to tackle the trials and tribulations of single parenthood. From Erin's perspective, her friend had done a wonderful job, and if she'd lucked out when she'd fallen in love with Dillon Traub, well, no one de served it more.
Corey had finished pouring the champagne and passed the crystal flutes around to the adults.
"To the bride and groom," he said, lifting his glass.
Erin joined in the toast but only took the tiniest sip. Although she was sure the bubbly wouldn't be nearly as po tent as Corey's proximity, she didn't want to take the chance of alcohol further compromising her judgment.
"To Erika," Dillon said. "Not only the most beautiful bride I've ever seen and the most amazing woman I've ever known, but also the one who has given me the greatest gift I could ever hope for by becoming my wife today."