Authors: C. M. Stone
Tags: #contemporary romance, #Lovestruck, #C.M. Stone, #category, #Las Vegas, #best friend, #Entangled, #second chance love, #older brother, #little sister, #cowboy, #One Night in Vegas
You can’t avoid fate…
Eliza DeMatteo returns to her hometown of Las Vegas on vacation knowing her matchmaking older brother is probably going to try and set her up with his best friend. But Eliza already knows plenty about sexy cowboy Christian Yerrick, the man who crushed her heart when they were kids. In fact, she’s determined to avoid Chris completely...until she runs into his truck on the Las Vegas freeway.
Chris has his own misgivings about seeing Eliza. His lingering feelings for her trigger all of his issues with relationships. Especially long-distance ones, which is the only kind of relationship they’d ever have. Still, there’s no reason they can’t enjoy New Year’s Eve together. But when the fireworks between them burn hotter than the Vegas Strip, Chris and Eliza know they only have one night to get it right. Because this time, what doesn’t happen in Vegas could haunt them forever...
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by C.M. Stone. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Lovestruck is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
Edited by Heather Howland
Cover design by Heather Howland
Photography by Shutterstock
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition December 2014
To all my fellow Vegas babies. We’re probably the only people in the world who grew up complaining, “there’s nothing to do in Vegas!”
“Hey. I’m just heading back to the hospital now.” Eliza DeMatteo settled into the cool, faux-leather driver’s seat of the borrowed Chevrolet Impala SS. Already nine years old, the Impala wasn’t what she expected her surgeon brother to own, but it was a vast improvement over the crumbling Honda Civic it replaced. Light-years ahead of her own current lack of a car, too. “Let me get you on speaker phone.”
“I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to meet you.” Her brother Jackson sounded tired, weighed down by the crush of the world on his shoulders. Some of that weight settled in her stomach as she guessed what was coming next. “There was an accident on I-95 with a bus. I can’t leave.”
Bingo. Fighting down her disappointment, Eliza pursed her lips and felt a weak spark of relief amidst the misfortune. Not that he was canceling, but that the conversation was happening over the phone so he didn’t have to see her disappointment. Her older brother was a trauma surgeon, still paying off more student loan debt than she could fathom. Staying with him in Las Vegas during her holiday vacation had been his idea, but she’d barely seen him since arriving. Yet how could she even complain? Her missing her brother was nothing in comparison to people dying and being maimed.
“Of course, don’t even worry about it. I’ll figure something out for the night. I just hope people are okay.”
“No, you don’t have to figure something out for the night. Chris is going to meet you at the hospital so you can drop off my car. I changed the dinner reservation to his name and told him I’d pay him back. Go out, have fun. Drink all the champagne you like. I’m paying.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “Christian Yerrick?”
“Yeah. He’s really eager to see you after all these years.”
Chris Yerrick was eager to see her? She tried to imagine that, but it just wasn’t working. The last she’d seen of him had been an awkward good-bye a few weeks before he’d left for college. Truth was, she barely remembered what, exactly, they’d said. Everything that had happened leading up to that good-bye was what her memory clung to.
Her brother and his best friend Chris were two years older than her, and had been on the cusp of starting their adult lives while she was still stuck in high school. What happened had been stupid, but she was sixteen. Wasn’t she entitled to be stupid at sixteen? And wasn’t she supposed to be smarter now? She bit her lip, wrestling with herself. “I don’t know if that’s the best idea, Jackson. I’d feel really awkward about seeing him after all this time.”
“You know, he’s still single.” Temptation hung off every syllable, as if Jackson were some sort of matchmaking devil after her soul.
“Oh God. You’re not actually trying to set us up, are you?” Her stomach flip-flopped at the thought. Going through that embarrassment and rejection all over again wasn’t an option. She’d die. Her heart would just stop, or her brain would spontaneously melt into a bloody Jell-O mold or something.
“I’m just saying. It’ll be fun, okay?”
“No, I really can’t. Call him and tell him I’m not going. I’ll pick you up from the hospital myself when you’re free.”
Jackson made an annoyed sound. “Fine, I’ll text him when I can, but I’ve gotta go.”
“Okay, I love you. Good luck tonight.”
“Love you, too, Eliza.”
Leaving the mall parking garage behind, she marveled at how everything had changed so much and yet remained exactly the same. It didn’t matter that it was New Year’s Eve. It was still Vegas and that meant the sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky as it sank into the west. At a glance, she could tell who was a tourist and who was a local. The natives were all bundled up as though they were preparing for an Arctic expedition, because anything below sixty degrees was frighteningly chilly to them. The tourists were mostly wearing light jackets or going without, and far too many of them looked uncomfortable when the wind cut through them to the bone. There was a cold to the desert that was entirely different from the snow she dealt with in Kansas City. Her arms could be cold while her underarms were drenched with sweat.
Buildings had been torn down and replaced by shiny new ones. The freeway system that confused and terrified her as a new driver had developed new layers of chaos. Instead of feeling like she’d come home after ten long years, it made her heart hurt. Her home ceased to exist when her parents moved her across the country her senior year of high school.
At the freeway on-ramp, she made another call to try to get her mind off everything.
Her best friend Sarah answered on the second ring. “Hey! Having fun in Vegas?”
“Not so much. Something came up at the hospital, so my brother and I aren’t doing anything. Again.”
The conversation on speaker phone was excellent for her nerves, because the freeway made her jittery. Las Vegas traffic wasn’t any heavier than Kansas City, but there seemed to be a qualitative difference because the majority of drivers in Kansas City were local. When her ex-fiancé took back the car he’d given her, there’d been a robust enough public transportation system that it hadn’t been an utter disaster, but she’d grossly underestimated how different the infrastructure was between the two cities. Taking the bus would have wasted hours of her time, and Vegas was far more spread out, so she’d been borrowing her brother’s Impala since she arrived three days before.
“Oh, that sucks. Maybe you should go out to a club. I bet there’s something going on practically everywhere there,” Sarah said.
“I’d rather not do anything now. Jackson tried to set me up for dinner with his friend, too.”
“Ooh. Is this a hot friend?”
“Um.” She’d shown Sarah old pictures from the spring before Jackson and Chris left for college. “It’s Christian Yerrick.”
“The guy you were a wreck over for years?” Sarah asked skeptically. “I hope he got a better haircut.”
“Cut him some slack. You saw what I looked like in high school.” Between braces and immensely baggy clothes she’d worn to try to hide her body, they hadn’t been her most flattering years. It was little wonder that Chris hadn’t returned her interest, wasn’t it?
“Eliza. Sweetie. Yes, he’s tall and he’s got big dreamy eyes but, in the pictures you showed me, he had dandelion hair and looked like he weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet. He was just a kid, same as you.”
Eliza was quiet for a moment. The memory of how he’d looked to her sixteen-year-old self overrode a more objective viewpoint. At eighteen, he’d already hit six feet, two inches. Track and the rodeo association had ensured that he was in good shape, but shooting up that tall in a short amount of time left him a little on the gawky side. His curly blond hair had been long enough to form a puff around his head, making him look like Justin Timberlake. And not sexy, all-grown-up Justin Timberlake, but from the NSYNC era that, as an adult, she knew was best left forgotten entirely. His intense blue eyes were pretty, but they were just a boy’s eyes. He really
been only a kid. For all that, he’d been the center of her pubescent universe.
“I guess you’re right.”
“And you know I’m here for you, but getting this neurotic over a teenage crush is kind of sad.”
A crush. Was that how she’d described it to Sarah? The word sounded so distant compared to the reality, but distancing herself from the memories was easier to do when she was over a thousand miles away. Now that she could take a wrong turn and run into Chris, denial wasn’t working so well.
“It was more than a crush.”
Sarah sighed, and her voice took on the gentle tone an adult would use to tell a kid Santa was the spirit of giving and not a real person. “Of course it was. It’s always more than a crush.”
“We kissed.” She slammed her mouth shut to stop any more words from rushing out to further reinforce Sarah’s view of the whole situation as pathetic, even as her own ego was chafing at not defending herself.
It had been more than just a kiss, at least for her. All through Jackson and Chris’s senior year, she and Chris had been growing closer, or so she’d thought. Since they both had an interest in horses that Jackson didn’t share, rodeos and trail rides were reserved for just the two of them. The way he’d look at her when they were alone still cropped up in her dreams, the full wattage of those blue eyes shaking her to her core. With one final trail ride planned before he left for college, she’d known it was her last chance to say something.
Except there hadn’t been any words. Maybe words would have made it better and cleared things up somehow, but it was too late to wonder. That last trail ride had wound them through hills full of creosote bush that would forever be the scent of desert rain to her, through sweet wild rose scrub, and finally into the conifers at the cool peak of Mount Charleston. It was always colder at the peak than it was in the Las Vegas Valley, even at the height of summer and, when they’d gotten off their horses, Chris had put his arm around her. For warmth, maybe, but that hadn’t been how she’d interpreted it in the moment.
“And kisses are nice, but not worth torturing yourself over,” Sarah said, sounding oh-so-reasonable.
Eliza caught her bottom lip between her teeth to stop herself from arguing. Some kisses were worth torture. Some kisses had more intimacy to them than what it took to conceive children. She hadn’t planned it—it’d been her first kiss—but when Chris put his arm around her, instinct took over and her lips found his. That first brush of contact had sent electric shocks through her, giving her a new understanding of the word need. He’d drawn away with his eyes all wide in surprise, making her heart skip a beat in horror, then gently pushed her back against the nearest tree and showed her what kissing could really be.
“You’re right.” Blurting the words out would appease Sarah and cut off her own thoughts. Yes, some kisses were worth torture, and if she thought about it too long she’d end up dwelling on Chris rejecting her after the kiss. Torture was exactly the right word for that.
, he’d said. She was too young and then he was gone to college and she was dragged to Missouri when her parents moved. It had been the easiest thing in the world to never see him again.
“He’s probably gone bald by now and has three ex-wives. I don’t think you have anything to fear. Especially not with how gorgeous you are.”
It was a sweet thing to say, but Eliza wasn’t sure if she could accept Sarah’s assessment of her own looks. Her eyes flicked to the rearview mirror to take herself in briefly. Very ordinary green eyes stared back at her. Her shoulder length brown hair was nicely curled and made a frame for her face, but it wasn’t anything spectacular. The braces were gone, but she would never manage to get as skinny as the magazine ideal. Friends would assure her that they were jealous of her generous curves, but it rang hollow when they were all constantly dieting to get skinnier.
“No, he’s never been married. Jackson keeps me updated, even though I really don’t want to know. He’s been focused on his career.” Her tone sounded light, purposefully casual. She hoped Sarah couldn’t see right through it.
“What’s he do?”
“He’s a vet, specializing in equine medicine.”
“And you remembered that, but you don’t want to know any of this?” Even without being able to see her face, Eliza could hear the amusement in Sarah’s voice.
“It’s just one little factoid. I really don’t care anymore.”
“If you don’t care, blowing him off for dinner shouldn’t be a problem. You can just go have fun by yourself without all that baggage, right?”
Eliza sighed. Sarah was right. Chris was no longer the god of her imagination. He was just an ordinary man and she wasn’t a teenage girl any more. She could ignore her brother’s attempts at matchmaking and go find her own entertainment, couldn’t she?
“Yes, I can,” she said, punctuating the words with a small nod.
Up ahead, there was a sign indicating that the lane she was in was exit only. She swore quietly and looked in the rearview mirror. Would the traffic open up enough for her to get over in time? If she got lost on surface streets, she could find her way again with GPS, but the thought of dealing with the traffic and the city she was no longer familiar with made her antsy.
When her mirror showed a gap, she merged to the left. Almost immediately there was the ear-splitting sound of metal scraping on metal.
“Crap! Crap! Oh crap.” She checked to her left, frantic, and saw that she’d scraped the side of a truck going through her blind spot. “I’ve gotta go, Sarah. I just got into a fender bender.”
“Be safe. Call me.”
Eliza pulled over onto the shoulder and got out to inspect the car. Her brother was notoriously thrifty, so even if he’d finally replaced the beat up little Honda that had taken him through med school and his internship, he hadn’t rushed out to get something particularly fancy. That was a relief to some extent. She couldn’t be sure which dents on the side of the Impala were from the accident. Maybe not any of them.
The truck she hit pulled onto the shoulder just ahead of her. She could see the white of the Impala’s paint streaked across the red Dodge Ram. The plates were local, so at least she wouldn’t have to deal with that added complication of rental car companies.
Once the truck was parked, the driver’s side door opened. A pair of cowboy boots hit the road. Her eyes traveled up blue jeans that encased powerfully muscular legs. A runner’s legs, she thought absently. The other driver wore a white T-shirt that drew tight across the muscles in his chest and a black leather jacket over that. His skin was tanned, almost assuredly from working outside instead of using a tanning booth. He had a square jaw, currently clenched in displeasure. His full lips were pursed with a frown. His aquiline nose couldn’t express many emotions, but she was sure if it could it would have been annoyed. He had tousled dark blond hair that looked bleached by the sun in spots and was currently blowing every which way from the traffic’s wind. A pair of sunglasses stared back at her as she squinted into the afternoon sunlight to see him.
Those frowning lips started to part and she could imagine the blistering insults that would issue forth, all well-deserved. She’d driven right into him like a complete moron, scraping up his beautiful truck. She braced herself for his righteous outrage.