Authors: Emma Jay
To Anne Scott and her infinite patience and skill at finding the diamond in the rough.
Haven Reynolds came to a complete stop at the bottom of the stone stairs of the Texas Hill Country Inn the wedding party had reserved for the weekend. Her blood froze. Oh, hell no. Eric Viera stood at the check-in desk across the limestone-walled lobby from her, his pose casual, his black leather duffel at his feet, charming the clerk as she handed him a room card with a coy smile.
No one had thought he’d make it, though he was still listed as a groomsman. She’d checked a dozen times, as discreetly as she could. Every one of her sources was certain that he would miss the wedding because he was out of town, in a faraway jungle studying some culture or another.
If she’d thought there was a sliver of a possibility he’d be here, she’d never have come downstairs like this, just out of bed in yoga pants and a hoodie, hair pinned up, no makeup, and desperate for coffee. No, the first time he saw her again, she was supposed to be wearing an incredible red dress and heels, be ten pounds slimmer. He’d drool in his soup.
Just like the first time they’d met, at Jared and Christine’s engagement party.
Sex on legs, that was Eric Viera. The night of the celebration, she had been captivated by him—long, lean, close-cropped brown hair, sexy little goatee, fuck-me blue eyes. Her heart had pounded when he’d focused on her and asked her to dance. That had led to the most delicious night of sex in her life, the first night of a two-week-long affair that had spoiled her for other men for eight months.
Eight long months.
She’d thought she’d been worldly enough to accept a no-strings affair, and if it had only been that night, maybe she could have. But one night had morphed into a week, and a week into two before he left for Costa Rica. He’d slipped past all her carefully erected guards, without knowing it—because she hadn’t allowed him to know it—and she’d spent the next few months nursing a broken heart and rebuilding the walls.
Shaking off the memory of his body against hers, his magical mouth, his clever fingers, she pivoted to head up the stairs before he could see her. His oh-my-God sexy voice rumbled across the limestone foyer as he thanked the clerk.
Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me.
If she had to deal with him at this wedding, she’d do it on her terms, dressed to advantage, made-up, caffeinated, all her shields in place. Not surprised by him in the foyer.
Shit. Shit. The option was to continue upstairs and not acknowledge him, at least until later when she was in a position of control. But running away was cowardly. So she stopped, curling her fingers around the banister as she gathered her nerve, pasted on a smile and turned. God help her, he looked even better than he had last summer. Her knees—and resolve—weakened a little.
“Hey, Eric. I didn’t think you were going to make it.” Thank goodness her voice was perfectly modulated, unlike her body, which was ready to go all traitor on her.
He hoisted his garment bag over his shoulder as he approached the stairs to stand below her. Okay, this kind of gave her the upper hand. She willed herself not to grip the banister so tightly that her knuckles whitened. Still, she couldn’t ignore how good he looked, his brown hair cut close to his scalp, eyes slightly shadowed with weariness, travel-rumpled cotton shirt and jeans that fit just right, low on his hips. She bit the inside of her lip to snap her attention away.
“I couldn’t miss Jared’s wedding. I flew in from Costa Rica this morning.”
She nodded at his mud-spattered boots. “I thought you were out of the country.”
He hooked the finger holding the bag in acknowledgement. “It took some juggling to get here, but I couldn’t miss it.”
A knot of anxiety formed just below her heart. Avoiding him wouldn’t be easy since he was part of the wedding party, not with all the activities Christine had planned. She forced a rueful smile. “Bridesmaid.”
His gaze traveled down the length of her body, and once again she fretted that she was dressed so casually.
But when his eyes returned to hers, they shone with appreciation. “You look great.”
She waved dismissively, wishing his approval didn’t send a wave of warmth through her. She’d accepted that what they had was over. At least, her head had. Her heart and body were having other ideas. “I was just…in search of coffee.”
“I’ll put my gear in my room and join you.”
“Eric, wait.” She touched his arm as he started up the stairs past her. His arm was warm and the hair beneath the rolled-up sleeve rasped her skin, sending pulses of heat along her nerves, scattering her thoughts. Looking into his eyes didn’t help. “No one knows about what happened last year.”
His eyebrows flicked upward. “Okay.” He dragged the word out as if waiting to see what she’d say next.
“This is Christine and Jared’s weekend and they’ve worked hard for it. I don’t want to take anything away from that.” She could get him to go along with that, she was sure.
“I don’t intend to.” He stroked his finger down her cheek. “So. Coffee?”
She grasped the out he gave her, though she wanted to lean into his caress. “Tons to do. I’m going to grab my coffee and go back upstairs. I guess I’ll see you later. Christine and Jared are taking us for a picnic along the river today.” The whole wedding party and Christine’s family would be along. She would have an easier time keeping her distance. She needed to be in control or risk her heart again.
Haven walked out onto the big patio behind the resort, feeling better. Her favorite denim capris and cap-sleeved T-shirt boosted her confidence, and she was with friends, ready to celebrate. She wouldn’t let Eric’s presence twist her up. After all, he’d been perfectly sweet to her in the hall, like an acquaintance, not a lover. This was going to be fine.
Her gaze rested on him without conscious thought. He’d added a battered Longhorns cap to the same clothes he’d worn earlier and stood with Jared near the rail, their heads bent together. His face was split in that breathtaking grin, all white teeth and crinkled eyes, and everything female in her quivered. He lifted his head and met her gaze, and his smile shifted, becoming a bit softer, more intimate.
Lust pounded through her. She’d seen that smile before and it promised wonderful, wonderful things. She spun away to join the women, who were debating if Jill’s footwear was appropriate for a walk along the river.
“It’s a picnic, right?” Jill asked, defending her choice of leather sandals. “You’re not tricking us into a hike or anything.” She eyed Christine’s boots suspiciously. “Just because you love the outdoors doesn’t mean the rest of us do.”
“It’s a picnic,” Christine conceded, still skeptical. “But it’s not a park.”
“Haven’s wearing sandals too,” Jill pointed out, looping her arm through Haven’s.
“I only brought sandals,” Haven said. “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
Christine started to turn away in surrender, then swung back. “Neither one of you had better be in a cast for my wedding, got it?”
“Got it,” Haven and Jill agreed, and headed for the steps leading to the trail, arm in arm.
“Hey, did you see Jared’s friend Eric turned up after all?” Jill asked. “Good Lord, is he gorgeous or what? I hate to be the cliché, a bridesmaid hooking up with a groomsman, but wow. Have you seen that ass?”
Up close and personal. Haven’s face heated with—was that jealousy? She didn’t get jealous. Okay, she might envy someone’s new pair of shoes or figure or hairstyle, but she’d never been jealous over a man.
Jill jiggled the arm still looped through Haven’s. “So? What do you think? Should I go for it?”
How could she answer without sounding suspicious? She hadn’t told her friends about their affair at the time because while it was going on, she’d wanted to keep it private, something for just the two of them. Telling them after the fact would have only hurt more, when they’d offer sympathy. Now, well, she hadn’t been lying when she told Eric she didn’t want their drama to disrupt the weekend. Besides, this way the affair was still something that belonged to only the two of them, and the idea of that warmed her.
“He’s been in the jungle all this time,” she told Jill. “He may not have much staying power.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, he passed her on the trail, turning to stare, his eyes wide. Before she could wish herself into a hole in the ground, Jill burst out laughing.
They reached the picnic area where the resort staff had laid out an elegant arrangement, white cloths on the ground, silver buckets icing champagne, trays of fruits and cheeses artfully set on the linens. Nearby a cooler held bottled water and wait staff stood by ready to serve sandwiches.
“This is my kind of picnic.” Jill split from Haven and hovered near Eric, as if waiting to see where he’d sit.
Haven didn’t. She sat near Christine and helped herself to a strawberry as Jared opened the champagne. When she glanced up, she saw Eric sitting across the linen from her, looking at her. Great.
Jared motioned with the bottle of champagne. Ignoring Eric, she leaned forward, holding out her flute so Jared could pour. She sat back, her weight on her hands, and grinned at Christine, who lifted her shoulders in an exaggerated sigh, though Haven noticed that she kept an eye on the servers to make sure everything ran smoothly. Affectionately, Haven patted her friend’s thigh to remind her to enjoy the weekend. But with Eric present, it took her a bit—and two glasses of champagne—to relax. Finally the teasing among the groomsmen penetrated her nerves and she let the tension ease from her own shoulders.
“It was a science experiment,” Eric protested when Jared brought up the smoke bombs in the boys’ restrooms.
“To what? See how quickly you could get me suspended?” Jared shot back.
“To see how fast the fire alarm went off,” Eric replied. “Took a damned long time, as I recall.”
“And two seconds after that, the principal was hauling us out by our ears.” Jared shook his head, smiling fondly at Christine.
“Wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d looked like Haven,” Eric said, his eyes glinting at her. “I might have gone to the principal’s office even more often.”
“You couldn’t have gone more often,” Jared countered. “And she looked like what she was, a former WAC shoved into a purple suit.”
Eric leaned across the linen toward Haven. “She was shorter than some of the fifth graders but could kick their asses with one look. No lie.”
“How often did she kick yours?” she asked, unable to hide a smile. When they’d been together, she hadn’t seen him interact with his friends and hadn’t realized what she was missing.
He eased away with a smile of his own. “Every damn day.”
The walk back to the resort was more relaxed as the four bridesmaids, four groomsmen and Christine’s family headed back up the hill. Haven still kept her distance from Eric, concentrating instead on listening to Christine enumerate the tasks that needed to be done before tomorrow. The bride’s tone was sleepy and she weaved a bit on the path. Haven reached out to catch her elbow, and her foot slipped out of her sandal, twisting beneath her.
With a grunt of frustration and pain, she landed on her ass on the dusty path. Before she could catch her breath, Eric crouched before her, his hands on her ankle, which was beginning to throb.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his fingers smoothing over her skin.
Haven stopped herself from jerking away from that touch, so familiar that her hormones were dancing, appreciating the tingle his callused fingertips sent from the tender skin behind her ankle to the apex of her thighs. But to react strongly would only alert everyone to their previous relationship. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” She drew her knee up, breaking contact and breathing a sigh of relief. She looked past him to Christine, who bent over his shoulder, tucking her hair behind her ear and furrowing her brow. “Don’t worry. Nothing is going to stop me from walking down that aisle tomorrow.”
Christine lifted her gaze to Haven’s and smiled. “All that matters is that you’re okay.”
“I think so.” Eric took her ankle again, his thumb brushing over the hollow above her heel. He grinned at her, temporarily making her forget all about the pain, making her think—other things that she shouldn’t be thinking in front of her friends. She lowered her gaze, choosing the pain over the—well, the pain. “We’ll get you back and get some ice on it, you should be good as new.”
“Better be,” Mr. Padalecki said with a wink. “Dance lessons tonight.”
Eric grasped her arm and helped her stand. She tried to put her weight on her foot and winced. “You don’t want to aggravate it.” Eric looped his arm around her waist, his hand resting below her breast. His touch seared through the thin fabric of the T-shirt as if she wore nothing. “Lean on me.”
“No, really, I can—”
“Better this way.” He released her and turned his back. “Jared, give her a boost.”
Haven wished she could melt into the ground as everyone in their party watched. She stared at his broad back. “You aren’t going to carry me.”
“It’s only a little ways.”