In an enchanting new romance from USA TODAY bestselling author Christie Ridgway, love comes home to Blue Arrow Lake when childhood sweethearts get an unexpected second chance
Mackenzie Walker has everything a single girl needs in her California mountain hometown. Family, friends, a thriving business and memories of Zan Elliott, whose touchand betrayalshe's never forgotten. Now, ten years after he left town, Zan returns to manage his late grandfather's estate and flip Mac's life upside down.
Documentary filmmaking has taken Zan all over the globe, yet nowhere was far enough away to make him forget Mac. Seeing her reignites their incredible chemistry. Mac's trust won't be easily won, especially when Zan's inheritance jeopardizes her family's hard-earned dreams. But every moment together is challenging Zan to stop living life through a lens and dare to let his guard down for a chance at forever
About the Author
Christie Ridgway is the award-winning author of over forty-five contemporary romances. Known for stories that make readers laugh and cry, Christie began writing romances in fifth grade. After marrying her college sweetheart and having two sons, she returned to what she loved best—telling stories of strong men and determined women finding happy ever after. She lives in Southern California. Keep up with Christie at www.christieridgway.com.
Read an Excerpt
That crisp January night Mackenzie Walker couldn't help but notice the beauty of the bride and the handsomeness of the groom. All the family and friends at the reception glowed, too, reveling in the couple's obvious happiness.
The whole lot of them was giddy with gladness, with just one exception.
The maid of honorMac herselfwas miserable.
Not that she'd allow anyone to guess that. Instead, she smiled and laughed and responded gaily to every question thrown her way.
Wasn't her new sister-in-law's gown lovely? Of course it was, Mac agreed. Who would deny it? The ivory-colored dress clung to Angelica's figure, her golden skin showing through spangled chiffon sleeves that began just off the shoulder and ended at her wrists.
Didn't Brett Walker appear just as comfortable in his charcoal suit and silvery-gray tie as he did in his usual uniform ofjeans and work boots? No doubt, Mac responded. Her big brother rocked the formal wear.
And what a bridesmaid dress! one of Mac's cousins exclaimed. Everybody knew those could be dreadful. Hers was not, Mac had to concur. The pale blue was the color of her eyes and it had a flattering, sweetheart neckline with sheer sleeves dotted with crystals just like the bride's.
Yes, her attire was lovely. That wasn't the source of Mac's low mood.
On that thought, she made her way to the bar at Mr. Frank's, an old-fashioned restaurant and bar with red vinyl booths and dark paneling in the village of Blue Arrow Lake. The lake itself was private and the surrounding lavish homes beyond pricey, because Southern Californians could find stupendous mountain scenery and four real seasons just a couple of hours away from urban centers and sand and surf.
This was a vacation spot for them, but locals livedmuch more modestly, of coursein the area, too. Mac's family, the Walkers, had been here for over one hundred and fifty years, part of the first wave of pioneers who labored up the mountain with their oxen for lumber opportunities and stayed because they fell in love with the land.
She slid onto a bar stool and sketched a wave at the bartender. "Hey, Jim." His white shirt was starched and his red vest well pressed. "Looking good."
He beamed, his fiftysomething face lighting up. "Nothing but the best for your brother and his bride. We were only too happy to close the place for the reception."
Though Brett and Angelica had actually run off to Vegas and done the deed in October, they'd decided to celebrate the tying of the knot with all the trimmings once the holidays had passed. It had been a bit of trouble getting the dresses in a timely fashion, but the rest had fallen into place.
"What can I get you?" Jim asked.
While she pondered, his gaze wandered over her shoulder. "They sure are a picture."
Mac glanced back and took in the sight of the bride and groom surrounded by the rest of the bridal party: her two sisters, their fiancés and five-year-old Mason, Mac's nephew, who had also stood up with the groom. When her stomach tightened, she told herself it was wrong of her to let her own feelings darken even a moment of these happy hours.
"You're the last single Walker now, eh?"
Except there was that unavoidable truth. Of her four siblings, Mac alone was single.
Suppressing a sigh, she decided on her order. "A tequila shot, please."
Jim didn't remark on the out-of-character request, though Mac rarely took her spirits straight. Instead, he plunked down a napkin and then a shot glass filled to the brim with a golden liquid. "Top shelf for you," he said.
Because he was sorry for her, just as she feared everybody she knew was sorry for her, just as she was a little bit sorry for herself.
She threw back the liquor, choked, coughed, then slammed the empty glass back on the bar. Heat coursed through her, hot enough, she hoped, to burn off the uncomfortable sense of being the odd woman out in her own family. Just months ago, the Walker siblings had been hardworking singletons. Now three of the four were still hardworking, yet exuberantly happy people paired off, leaving Mac the odd wheel.
Honestly, that wouldn't be so bad if
"There you are!"
She slid her gaze to the side, taking in her date for the evening, Kent Valdez. "I'll have what she just gulped down," he said to Jim.
Mac showed the bartender two fingers, indicating another tequila shot was in order for herself. "Having fun, Kent?" she asked, forcing herself to sound pleasant. Not that there was anything wrong with the man or anything wrong with the obvious good time he'd been having. But she'd invited him to be her date and he'd been whooping it up with the other guests instead of hanging at her elbow, doing his part to assure everyone that Mac had a full and very satisfying romantic life.
Because the other downer she'd been dealing with lately was the astonishing and irritating revelation that her entire community still believed her to be hung up on her first love.
Who had left her and the mountains ten years before.
In order to correct that group delusion, she'd hit upon the scheme to attend each of the Walker matrimonial eventsall happening in the next few weekswith a different eligible bachelor.
She'd show everyone in the vicinity of Blue Arrow Lake that the last single Walker standing was happy and heart-whole.
The recollection of that goal plus the burn of the second tequila shot got her off the bar stool. Tugging on Kent's hand, she towed him toward the dance floor, just as a line dance was forming. Thrusting both arms in the air, she let out a loud "Woo-hoo!" and took her place beside Angelica, who shared a grin. Then the bride stuck out her tongue at the groom, who stood on the sidelines, arms crossed over his chest and a smug half smile curving his mouth, his gaze never leaving his beautiful new wife. She laughed and blew him a kiss that he pretended to catch. Then Brett clapped his hand to his heart.
Mac froze, stricken by the romantic gesture coming from her usually reserved older brother. But when the music ramped up, she drove off the melancholy by throwing herself into the moves, hoping the old fake-it-until-you-make-it adage would blow away her doldrums.
And it worked.
Not for one instant did she leave the dance floor, finding partners for the slower dances and gyrating with her girlfriends during the fast numbers. Kent did his part, and when he begged for a breather she waved him off with her blessing and a smile. When the DJ segued into another romantic ballad, Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud," she sidled into a shadowy corner to enjoy the song and the sight of Brett and Angelica wrapped in each other's arms, their foreheads touching, their mouths a millimeter apart.
Closing her eyes, she tried ignoring the pang in her heart.
But the sudden sensation of a male body behind her and muscled arms crossing her waist couldn't be disregarded. She started, but his hold tightened and a hard jaw pressed against her temple as a low voice whispered in her ear. "Just enjoy the moment."
Only slightly swaying to the beat, he drew her closer to his solid warmth.
Goose bumps rolled down Mac's body, hot chills of sexual response. Her breath caught in her throat. Who ?
Not Kent, because through the dancers she could glimpse him at the bar talking to Jim. Anyway, she already knew he didn't draw this kind of reaction from her. As the sweet notes of the song wrapped around them, curiosity prodded her to turn and confront her partner, but another part of her didn't want to disturb the strange and strangely compelling bindings that seemed to be lashing their bodies together.
His heart beat against her back.
Hers sent an urgent message to her brain. This is something special.
Mac didn't dare disturb the magic created by the sensation of his exhalations stirring her hair. Breathing deep of his scent, she felt both bold and safe enough to lean into his strength, going so far as to wrap her fingers around his forearms covered in the fine wool of an expensive jacket.
Enjoy the moment.
She couldn't recall the last time she'd done that. Walkers worked hard to keep their place on the mountain and she was no exception, doing everything from washing windows to sending out invoices as the proprietor of Maids by Mac. Housework wasn't a glamorous career, but she'd never wanted anything more than to be her own woman.
Except when you longed to be Zan's woman, a devil whispered in her head.
She kicked away the thought of Alexander Elliott. He didn't belong in this sweet bubble of possibility. Closing her eyes again, she allowed herself to bask in the man's scent and in the man's heat and mused that maybe Mac Walker wasn't destined to be single and alone, after all.
Lost in that, she missed the ending of the song until the loud shriek of the mic yanked her out of her reverie. The DJ began speaking and she dropped her hold on the stranger behind her. But just as she turned to look at him, her sister Shay's stepdaughter-to-be, London, grabbed Mac's hand and hauled her onto the dance floor.
"Wait!" Mac glanced around, trying to find her partner, but she was already surrounded by a bevy of other women. "What's going on?"
"The bouquet toss, silly," London said in an excited voice, having lost her usual teenage insouciance somewhere after the I do's.
Mac groaned. The tradition was embarrassing and one she did her best to avoid. But London had begged Angelica to include the custom and the kid had Mac's wrist in a viselike grip. She tried tugging free. "Why don't I get Shay and Poppy out here," she suggested, naming her two engaged sisters. Once away from the teenager, she'd actually go on the hunt for her sexy stranger.
"They already have rings on their fingers," London said. "This is for us."
"You're too young to get married," Mac replied.
"And I'm too."
Hung up on Zan Elliott, the devil murmured again.
Instead of shrieking in frustration, Mac gave up. The absurd ritual couldn't take long, right? Then she'd find the stranger and do what?
Throw herself at him?
Maybe, she decided, reliving the sensation of him surrounding her. Reliving that so unusualfor hertrust she'd felt leaning against his larger body.
The women around her were chattering and the DJ was making noises into the mic, but Mac ignored the sounds, her thoughts focused on that man. Movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention and she turned her head.
Her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes widened in complete surprise.
There, beyond the tight clutch of women, a figure stood in profile. A figure she hadn't seen in ten years and who was more muscled than when he'd left, but one she'd recognize anywhere.
And one she should have known when he stepped up behind her to whisper in her ear.
Just enjoy the moment.
Heat rose from her chest and flamed up her throat to her face as she recalled how quickly she'd relaxed in his hold. What did he think of that? And why would he have have ambushed her in that way at this important event?
As if sensing her regard, his head turned, too, and their gazes met. His mouth quirked, stopping somewhere between a smirk and a smile.
Her temper kindled. What gall! What gall to show up so suddenly and without even a word of warning.
Just as she made to break out of the female circle in order to challenge her unexpected and unwelcome blast from the past, something soft and fragrant struck the side of her face. Instinct had her putting up her hands as a cheer sounded throughout the room.
Mac looked down at what was now cradled in her arms, trying to come to terms with the fact that she'd caught the bridal bouquetand that Zan Elliott was back in town.
The fragrance of roses and lavender wafted up from the flowers. She gulped in a breath of it, then peered over the women gathered around her in congratulation, once again seeking out Zan.
He'd moved from where he'd been moments before if he'd really been there moments before. It was as if he'd vanished into thin air. Could it be possible she'd imagined him?
Angelica broke through the ring of celebrants and beamed at Mac. Really, she was breathtakingly beautiful with her shiny brunette hair and dark eyes. She and Brett were going to make beautiful babies, and proud Auntie Mac would dote on them from her comfortable spinsterhood, unless Zan
"I'm so glad you caught the flowers!" Angelica said, leaning in to kiss Mac's cheek. "I know you consider the tradition barbaric, but I thought it was fun."
She pretended to scowl at her new sister-in-law. "How come there's no garter toss if you find tradition so great?"
"That's because your brother's a caveman. He said he didn't want me baring my legs for all the wedding guests to see."
Speaking of wedding guests Mac took a quick look around the room, then leaned in to whisper in her sister-in-law's ear. "Have you seen Zan?"
Angelica pulled back, her eyes going wide. "Zan? YourZan?"
"He's not my Zan," Mac said quickly. "But thought I caught a glimpse of him a minute ago." I thought I felt his arms around me. I thought maybe my heart would beat out of my chest as we swayed to the music. "Did he call Brett or something and say he was coming back to town?"
The bride shook her head. "Not that I know of."
"But did you see"
"I wouldn't recognize him, right? We've never met."
"Oh." Mac felt another flush climb up her neck. The manwhoever he washad her so flustered she wasn't thinking clearly. "Never mind, then. I'll just, uh, go put the bouquet down at my place at the table."
Then she hurried off the dance floor, keeping a lookout for a dark-haired, hazel-eyed ten-year-gone guy. But when she didn't see him, she began to wonder about her sanity. Perhaps the night before she'd stayed up too late boxing the chocolates that were going to the guests as party favors. Maybe she needed to gulp down a large cup of hot coffee and get her wits back in place.
"There you are!" Her sisters, Poppy and Shay, approached, their long skirts swishing about their legs. They wore gowns identical to Mac's, only different in color. Poppy's was pink, while Shay's was a subtle peach.
"Nice catch," Poppy said, nodding to the bouquet.
Mac rolled her eyes. "You saw what happened. It hit me in the head."
"Maybe you'll be better prepared when I throw mine at my reception in two weeks," Shay said.
"No," Mac groaned the word. "Not you, too?"
"London is insisting."
"I'll hide out in the bathroom, then," Mac said. "Promise you'll give me the high sign?"
"Absolutely," her youngest sister said. Mac narrowed her gaze. "You're a terrible liar."
"I'm not even going to pretend I won't make you be in the gaggle of bachelorettes when it's my turn," Poppy put in. "But, anyway, did you see"
"I did." Mac's heart jumped, then started to race. "I thought maybe I imagined it, but if you saw Zan, too " She broke off at the puzzlement on her sister's face.
"Zan?" Poppy said. "I was going to ask if you'd seen Mason dancing with the little McDonald girl."
"Um, no, I didn't," Mac mumbled, feeling stupid. "Never mind"
"Zan is here?" Shay asked. "Zan Elliott?"
"I don't know. Probably not. It was just a glimpse," Mac said.
Her two sisters exchanged glances. "How much have you had to drink?" Poppy asked.
No way would Mac mention the two tequila shots. "Never mind. I'm sure I was mistaken."
Her sisters looked at each other again. "Oh, Mac," Poppy said in a concerned voice.
Mac winced. Poppy had the gooiest heart of any of the Walkers, and right now she was clearly oozing pity for her poor, unattached sister who had delusions about the return of her very first boyfriend, her very first love. "It's nothing," she told her sister in a firm voice. "Like I said, a mistake."
"Look, they're about to cut the cake." Mac pointed toward the other end of the room. "We'd better get over there."
Thankfully, that distracted her sisters, and Mac followed slowly in their wake. Could she really have mistaken some stranger for Zan?