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Authors: Michelle Major

Always the Best Man

BOOK: Always the Best Man
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THIS TIME THE GROOM?

Hometown golden girl Emily Whitaker couldn't have left Crimson in her rearview mirror fast enough…until life threw her some curveballs and she's back—divorced and with a young son. Her brother's wedding should have been a welcome reprieve, but Jase Crenshaw is the best man to her maid of honor. She'd steered clear of him when they were kids, but now Jase has become one highly irresistible man.

Jase always harbored a crush on his best friend's sister. Back then, she was too good for the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Now she thinks the upstanding town lawyer and mayoral candidate is too good for
her
. Can Jase convince the girl of his dreams they're both actually perfect…for each other?

“You make me feel things I haven't in a long time. I'm sorry, Jase. I can't—”

He didn't wait for her to finish. There was no way he was going to listen to the word
can't
coming from her, not when she'd basically told him she wanted him. In one quick movement, he leaned down and brushed his lips over hers.

The moment was cut short when a dog barked—the sound coming from his house—and Emily pulled back. “You have a dog?”

“A puppy,” he said, scrubbing a hand over his jaw and trying to get a handle on the lust raging through him. “Ruby—my pup—was the runt. She was weaker than the rest and her brothers and sister tended to pick on her.”

“You rescue puppies, too? Unbelievable.”

“It's not a big deal.”

“Tell that to Ruby.” She reached up on tiptoe, touched her lips to the corner of his mouth and then moved away. “You're damn near perfect, Jase Crenshaw.”

“I'm not—”

“You are.” She shook her head. “It's too bad for both of us that I gave up on perfect.”

* * *

CRIMSON, COLORADO:
Finding home—and forever—in the West

Dear Reader,

Did you ever daydream when you were younger about how your perfect life would look?

Emily Crawford had her future all planned out, and the one thing it didn't involve was returning to her hometown of Crimson, Colorado. But now she's back, a divorced single mother to a sweet boy with special needs. She's starting over and has no idea what her future holds, but she's determined to make a new life on her terms, if only someone will give her a chance.

Jase Crenshaw has been waiting for a chance with Emily, his best friend's sister, for as long as he can remember. But this Crimson native is as dedicated to the town as he is to repairing his family's reputation, and Emily's dreams of leaving Colorado far behind were one more thing that put her out of his reach.

But dreams change, and sometimes it takes an unexpected love to show two people that what they really need to make them happy has been right in front of them all along.

Thank you for returning to Crimson, Colorado, with me. I'd love to hear what you think of Emily and Jase's story. Drop me a line at
[email protected]
.

Happy reading!

Michelle

Always the Best Man

Michelle Major

Michelle Major
grew up in Ohio but dreamed of living in the mountains. Soon after graduating with a degree in journalism, she pointed her car west and settled in Colorado. Her life and house are filled with one great husband, two beautiful kids, a few furry pets and several well-behaved reptiles. She's grateful to have found her passion writing stories with happy endings. Michelle loves to hear from her readers at
michellemajor.com
.

Books by Michelle Major

Harlequin Special Edition

Crimson, Colorado

A Baby and a Betrothal

A Very Crimson Christmas

Suddenly a Father

A Second Chance at Crimson Ranch

A Kiss on Crimson Ranch

A Brevia Beginning

Her Accidental Engagement

Still the One

The Fortunes of Texas: All Fortune's Children

Fortune's Special Delivery

The Fortunes of Texas: Cowboy Country

The Taming of Delaney Fortune

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!
Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards
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For Stephanie.
You have the strongest, bravest spirit of any mother I know and you inspire me every day.

Chapter One

S
ome women were meant to be a bride. Emily Whitaker had been one of those women. For years she'd fantasized her walk down the aisle, imagining the lacy gown, the scent of her bouquet and the admiring eyes of family and friends as she entered the church.

When the day had finally arrived, there was no doubt she'd been beautiful, her shiny blond hair piled high on her head, perfect makeup and the dress—oh, her dress. She'd felt like a princess enveloped in so much tulle and lace, the sweetheart neckline both feminine and a little flirty.

Guests had whispered at her resemblance to Grace Kelly, and Emily had been foolish enough to believe that image was the same thing as reality. Her fairy tale had come true as her powerful white knight swooped her away from Crimson, the tiny Colorado mountain town where she'd grown up, to the sophisticated social circles of old-money Boston.

Too soon she discovered that a fantasy wedding was not the same thing as real marriage and a beautiful dress did not equate to a wonderful life. Emily lost her taste for both daydreams and weddings, so she wasn't sure how she'd found herself outside the swanky bridal boutique in downtown Aspen seven years after her own doomed vows.

“You can't want me as your maid of honor.”

Katie Garrity, Emily's soon-to-be sister-in-law smiled. “Of course I do. I asked you, Em. I'd be honored to have you stand up with me.” Katie's sweet smile faltered. “I mean, if you'll do it. I know it's short notice and there's a lot to coordinate in the next few weeks so...”

“It's not that I don't want to...”

Katie was as sweet as any of the cakes and cookies sold in the bakery she owned in downtown Crimson. She'd been a steadfast best friend to Emily's brother, Noah Crawford, for years before Noah realized that his perfect match had been right in front of him all along.

Emily was happy for the two of them, really she was. But if Katie was pure sugar, Emily was saccharine. She knew she was pretty to look at but after that first bite there was an artificial sweetness that left a cloying taste on the tongue. Emily didn't want her own bitterness to corrupt Katie's happy day.

“You have a lot of girlfriends. Surely there's a better candidate than me?”

“None of them are going to be my sister-in-law.” Katie pressed her fingers to the glass of the shop's display window. “I remember the photos of your wedding that ran in
Town & Country
magazine. Noah and I don't want anything fancy, but I'd like our wedding to be beautiful.”

“It will be more than beautiful.” Emily swallowed back the anger that now accompanied thoughts of her marriage. “You two love each other, for better or worse.” She took a breath as her throat clogged with emotion she'd thought had been stripped away during her divorce. She waved her hand in front of her face and made her voice light. “Plus all the other promises you'll make in the vows. But I'm not—”

“I'm a pregnant bride,” Katie said suddenly, resting a hand on her still-flat stomach. She smiled but her eyes were shining. “I love your brother, Emily, and I know we'll have a good life together. But this isn't the order I planned things to happen, you know?”

“You and Noah were meant to be,” Emily assured her. “Everyone knows that.”

“Crimson is a small town with a long memory. People also know that I've had a crush on him for years and until I got pregnant, he had no interest in me.”

Emily shook her head. “That's not how it happened.” It had taken Katie walking away for Noah to realize how much she meant to him, but Emily knew his love for his fiancée was deep and true.

“It doesn't stop the talk. If I hear one more person whisper
shotgun wedding
—”

“Who?” Emily demanded. “Give me names and I'll take care of them for you.” Since Emily had returned to Colorado at the beginning of the summer, she'd spent most of her time tucked away at her mother's farm outside town. She needed a do-over on her life, yet it was easier to hide out and lick her emotional wounds. But it wouldn't be difficult to ferret out the town's biggest gossips and grown-up mean girls. After all, Emily had been their ringleader once upon a time.

“What I need is for you to help me take care of the wedding,” Katie answered softly. “To stand by my side and support me as I deal with the details. You may not care about the people in Crimson anymore, but I do. I want my big day to be perfect—as perfect as it can be under the circumstances. I don't want anyone to think I tried to force Noah or rush the wedding.” She smoothed her fingers over her flowery shirt. “But I've only got a few weeks. Invitations have already gone out, and I haven't even started planning. Josh and Sara had one free weekend at Crimson Ranch this fall, and I couldn't wait any longer. I don't want to be waddling down the aisle.”

“None of that matters to Noah. He'd marry you tomorrow or in the delivery room or whenever and wherever you say the word.”

“It matters to me.” Katie grimaced. “My parents are coming for the wedding. They haven't been to Crimson in years. I need it to be...” She broke off, bit down on her lip. “You're right. It doesn't matter. I love Noah, and I should just forget the rest of this. Why is a wedding such a big deal anyway?”

But Emily understood why, and she appreciated Katie's need for validation even if she didn't agree with it. So what if Emily no longer believed in marriage? She'd picked a husband for all the wrong reasons, but Katie and Noah were the real deal. If the perfect wedding would make Katie happy, then Emily would give her a day no one would forget.

“I could be the wedding planner, and you can ask one of your friends to—”

“I want
you
,” Katie interrupted. “I'm an only child and now I'll have a sister. My family's messed up, but that makes me value the one I'm marrying into even more.”

“I haven't valued them in the past few years.” Emily felt her face redden, embarrassment over her behavior rushing through her, sharp and hot. “Until Davey was born I didn't realize how important family was to me.”

“When your dad got sick, you helped every step of the way.”

That much was true. Her father died when Emily was in high school. She'd taken over the care of the farm so her mom could devote time to Dad. Meg Crawford had driven him to appointments, cooked, cleaned and sat by his bedside in the last few weeks of home hospice care when the pancreatic cancer had ravaged his body.

It had been the last unselfish thing Emily had done in her life until she'd left her marriage, her so-called friends and the security of her life in Boston. As broken as she felt, she'd endure the pain and humiliation of those last six months again in a heartbeat for her son.

“You're a better person than you give yourself credit for,” Katie said and opened the door of the store. The scent of roses drifted out, mingling with the crisp mountain air.

“I know exactly who I am.” Emily removed her Prada sunglasses and tipped her face to the bright blue August sky. She'd missed the dry climate of Colorado during her time on the East Coast. It was refreshing to feel the warmth of the sun without miserable humidity making it feel like she'd stepped into an oven.

“Does that include being my maid of honor?” Katie asked over her shoulder, taking a step into the boutique.

“Shouldn't it be matron of honor?” Emily followed Katie, watching as she gingerly fingered the white gowns on the racks of the small shop. The saleswoman, an older lady with a pinched face, stepped forward. Emily waved her away for now. Shopping was one thing she could do with supreme confidence. Not much of a skill but today she'd put it to good use. “What's the protocol for having a divorcée as part of the bridal party?”

“I'm sticking with maid. There's nothing matronly about you.” Katie pulled out a simple sheath dress, then frowned when Emily shook her head. “I think it's pretty.”

“You have curves,” Emily answered and pointed to Katie's full chest. “Especially with a baby on board. We want something that enhances them, not makes you look like a sausage.”

Katie winced. “Don't sugarcoat it.”

“We've got a couple of weeks to pull off the most amazing wedding Crimson has ever seen. You can be sweet. I don't have time to mess around.”

“It doesn't have to be—”

Emily held up a hand, then stepped around Katie to pull a dress off the rack. “It's going to be. This is a good place to start.”

Katie let out a soft gasp. “It's perfect. How did you do that?”

The dress was pale ivory, an empire waist chiffon gown with a lace overlay. It was classic but the tiny flowers stitched into the lace gave a hint of whimsy. The princess neckline would look beautiful against Katie's dark hair and creamy skin and the cut would be forgiving if she “popped” in the next few weeks. Emily smiled a little as she imagined Noah's reaction to seeing his bride for the first time.

“You're beautiful, Katie, and we're going to find the right dress.” She motioned to the saleswoman. “We'll start with this one,” she said, gently handing over the gown.

The woman nodded. “When is the big day?”

“Two weeks,” Emily answered for Katie. “So we'll need something that doesn't have to be special ordered.”

“Anything along this wall is in stock.” The woman turned to Katie. “The fitting room is in the back. I'll hang the dress.”

“Do I have to plan a cheesy bachelorette party, too?” Emily selected another dress and held it up for Katie's approval.

Katie ignored the dress, focusing her gaze on Emily. “Is that your way of saying you'll be my maid of honor?”

Emily swallowed and nodded. This was not a big deal, two weeks of support and planning. So why did she feel like Katie was doing her the favor by asking instead of the other way around? “If you're sure?”

“Thank you,” Katie shouted and gave Emily a huge hug.

This was why, she realized, as tears pricked the backs of her eyes. Emily hadn't had a real friend in years. The women who were part of her social circle in Boston had quickly turned on her when her marriage imploded, making her an outcast in their community. She'd burned most of her bridges with her Colorado friends when she'd dropped out of college to follow her ex-husband as he started his law career. Other than her mom and Noah, she had no one in her life she could count on. Until now.

She shrugged out of Katie's grasp and drew in a calming breath. “Who else is in the bridal party?”

“We're not having any other attendants,” Katie told her. “I'll try on this one, too.” She scooped up the dress and took a step toward the back of the store. “Just you and Jase. He's Noah's best man.”

Emily stifled a groan and muttered, “Great.” Jase Crenshaw had been her brother's best friend for years so she should have expected he'd be part of the wedding. Still, Crimson's favorite son was the last person she wanted to spend time with. He was the exact opposite of Emily—warm, friendly, easy-to-like. Around him her skin itched, her stomach clenched and she was generally made more aware of her long list of shortcomings. A real prince among men.

Katie turned suddenly and hugged Emily again. “I feel so much better knowing you're with me on this. For the first time I believe my wedding is going to be perfect.”

Emily took another breath and returned the hug. She could do this, even with Jase working alongside her. Katie and Noah deserved it. “Perfect is my specialty,” she told her friend with confidence. Behind her back, she kept her fingers crossed.

* * *

“What the hell was that?” Noah Crawford held out a hand to Jason Crenshaw, who was sprawled across the Crimson High School football field, head pounding and ears ringing.

Jase hadn't seen the hit coming until he was flat on his back in the grass. He should have been paying more attention, but in the moment before the ball was snapped, Emily Whitaker appeared in the stands. Jase had done his best to ignore the tall, willowy blond with the sad eyes and acid tongue since she'd returned to town.

Easier said than done since she was his best friend's sister and...well, since he'd had a crush on her for as long as he could remember. Since the first time she'd come after Jase and Noah for ripping the head from her favorite Barbie.

Emily'd packed quite a wallop back in the day.

Just not as much as Aaron Thompson, the opposing team's player who'd sacked Jase before running the ball downfield. Jase brushed away Noah's outstretched hand and stood, rubbing his aching ribs as he did. “I thought this was flag football,” he muttered as he turned to watch Aaron do an elaborate victory dance in the end zone.

“Looks like Thompson forgot,” Noah said, pulling off his own flag belt, then Jase's as they walked toward the sidelines.

“We'll get 'em next time.” Liam Donovan, another teammate and good friend, gave Jase's shoulder a friendly shove. “If our quarterback can stay on his feet.”

“This is a preseason game anyway,” Logan Travers added. “Doesn't count.”

“It counts that we whipped your butts,” Aaron yelled, sprinting back up the field. He launched the game ball at Jase's head before Logan stepped forward and caught it.

“Back off, Thompson,” Logan said softly, but it was hard to miss the steel in his tone. Logan was as tall as Jase's own six feet three inches but had the muscled build befitting the construction work he did. Jase was in shape, he ran and rock climbed in his free time. He also spent hours in front of his computer and in the courtroom for his law practice, so he couldn't compete with Logan's bulk.

He also wasn't much for physical intimidation. Not that Aaron would be intimidated by Jase. The Thompson family held a long-standing grudge against the Crenshaws, and hotheaded Aaron hadn't missed a chance to poke at him since they'd been in high school. Aaron's father, Charles, had been the town's sheriff back when Jase's dad was doing most of his hell raising and had made it clear he was waiting for Jase to carry on his family's reputation in Crimson.

BOOK: Always the Best Man
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