CHAPTER ONE

“Leave it to Greta to have, like, the nicest wedding ever,” Cassidy Trevor said as she looked around the outdoor courtyard of the Primrose Creek Ranch. “Even with these things.” She kicked out a cowboy boot-clad foot and laughed.


“Well, we’re in Texas. Cowboy boots go with everything. Even bridesmaids’ dresses.” Avery kicked out her own matching boots.


“Even wedding gowns,” Cassidy added. Beneath Greta’s long white gown were the prettiest white bridal cowboy boots. Greta and Cassidy had been roommates at Talbot College. Along with Avery and the rest of the bridesmaids, they’d been a tight-knit group of friends for years. Though that was changing these days. Now only Cassidy and Avery were unmarried, which explained why they were sitting together at the bar as the assembled guests waited for Greta and her husband to clean wedding cake off their faces so the dancing could begin. The other bridesmaids were with their husbands.

“I wish I had my phone on me.” Avery made a show of patting down her dress. “So I could take some photos. I’m getting so many ideas for my own wedding.”


“You’re getting married?” Cassidy’s voice was laced with surprise. Avery engaged to be married was news to her.


Avery laughed. “No. Not yet.” She pulled a wry face. “But someday, right? I mean, those paper lanterns are adorable. I’d get married just to have those.”


The delicate paper lanterns suspended from the trees were adorable, Cassidy had to admit. As were the little tumbleweed centerpieces that were actually made of spun sugar. Everything about the Primrose Creek Ranch was gorgeous. The lush green lawn that sloped down to a small sparkling lake. The renovated barn, which stood ready in case of rain. She squinted through her glasses at the late afternoon sky. Of course, there was nary a cloud to be seen.


Even the bridesmaids’ dresses were lovely, a pretty pomegranate color that matched the pomegranate martinis the waiters had been delivering on trays since “I do.”  It was a flattering color on everyone. One thing she had learned from Lydia’s wedding last spring—chartreuse was not a good color for Cassidy. Against her blonde hair and perpetually tan skin the dress had looked like demonically vomited pea soup.


“Can’t you see yourself getting married someplace like this?” Avery kept on.


“Sure. This is beautiful.” In reality, though, Cassidy couldn’t see herself getting married here. Or anywhere, for that matter. At twenty-seven, she should be feeling that urge to settle down. Shouldn’t she? Everyone seemed to think so. Her parents, her sisters, her friends, the ladies at the quilt shop.


But she wasn’t. Not even a twinge of an urge.


“So are you next?” Avery looked at Cassidy over the rim of her pomegranate martini.


“To get married?” Cassidy lowered her gaze from the eggshell blue sky and looked straight at Avery like she had temporarily lost her mind.


Avery nodded.


“Good heavens, no.”


“No prospects on the horizon?”


Cass gave her friend another look. “I live in St. Caroline, remember?”


“I don’t recall there being a complete dearth of men in that area when we were in college.”


“There’s a dearth of men I haven’t known since I was in kindergarten. The summer folk come and go.”


Still, it was undeniable that everyone around her was pairing off, starting families, buying houses, setting up 529 college funds. Cassidy felt pressured to start thinking in that direction too but … the thought of settling down in St. Caroline and buying a house that someone she knew had already lived in and having two point six kids felt like a lead weight on her soul.


I’m not ready yet.


“Can I ask something without you getting mad?” Avery said.


“Sure.”


“Are you going to work at your mom’s quilt shop for the rest of your life?”


“No. Of course not.”


Avery’s face was skeptical. Granted, Cassidy had been full time at Quilt Therapy, her mother’s shop, since she graduated from college. That was five years ago now. Where has the time gone? She had worked part time for her mom before that … it was hard to say when exactly she started working at the shop. She’d grown up there, as all of her sisters had. It was a family business.


“There was a fire earlier this summer and we had to move into a new location. Mom needs the help right now.” That wasn’t just an excuse. The fire happened back on Memorial Day and it was now late September, but the summer had been rough sales-wise.


“But eventually, you’re going to move away and do something with your degree. Right?” Avery pressed her on the matter.


“I’m thinking of going back to school, to get my MBA.”  


A smattering of applause broke out as Greta and her husband reappeared, their faces now clean of cake and icing, Greta’s lips newly shaded with lipstick that matched the pomegranate bridesmaids’ dresses and martinis. Cassidy was relieved for the distraction. She had enough trouble explaining her continued residence in St. Caroline to herself, let alone other people. On the one hand, she liked working with her mother and sisters. She’d heard enough complaints from friends about crazy bosses and passive-aggressive coworkers that she knew how good she had it with her family. They didn’t always see eye to eye on things, but she never worried about her mother throwing her under the bus for some silly mistake.


On the other hand, she definitely wanted to see the world, meet new people, all that good stuff. She had a bucket list of all the places and things she wanted to see, a bucket list that grew longer every year.


* * *
“Hey. You okay, buddy?” The guy standing next to Matt Wolfe at the hotel bar clapped him on the shoulder. Dave, the guy’s name was. Matt had met him exactly six days ago at the nearby fire training academy. Matt was in Texas taking a week-long seminar. Today was the last day and everyone in the class was out to celebrate.


“Yeah. Fine,” Matt replied, squinting harder into the hotel lobby’s weird orange mood lighting. It made the space look like a science fiction movie set. Or like the whole place was on fire. Maybe that was why the fire training instructor had dragged them all here.


“Because you got a weird look on your face.” Dave wasn’t letting this go, and Matt really wished he would. It had been a long week. Matt wanted to drink a few beers to be polite, catch a cab to the hotel where he was staying, and fall face first into bed. His flight left early in the morning.


“I think the beer goggles have kicked in,” he said.


“Oh yeah? Who you checking out?”


“I see a woman over there who looks like someone I know. From back home. But I don’t know what she’d be doing way out here.” It probably wasn’t her. It was hard to tell in the orange light, and her face was turned down toward the phone in her hands.


“Which one is she?”


“The one in the pink dress, cowboy boots. Blonde hair. Glasses. Sitting alone in one of those big chairs.” Big enough for two, he thought.


“Whoa. Not bad. Well, if you do know her, introduce me.” He clapped Matt on the back again.


“If that’s really her, she’s an ice princess. I’ve known her all my life and no one has ever been good enough for her.”


Dave laughed. “Well, I love a challenge. Let’s head over there. You can either introduce me or we’ll just introduce ourselves.”


For a split second, Matt considered not following Dave over to the woman in the pink dress and cowboy boots. Chatting up women used to be one of his favorite pastimes. Or, as his brother Jack was fond of saying, his only pastime. But lately, nothing engaged his enthusiasm. His mother had succumbed to ovarian cancer the month before and his older brother’s wife lay in a hospital in Baltimore, comatose from a car accident. It had been a rough year and Matt was frankly exhausted. Physically, emotionally, mentally. He was wiped out.


Dave took three steps with his long legs, then turned to look back at Matt. “You coming?”
Matt pushed away from the bar and followed. “Yeah, sure.” He’d let Dave do all the talking.


As they got closer to the woman in the pink dress and cowboy boots, he saw that she was in fact the person he thought she was. Cassidy Trevor. One of the Trevor girls. The sister of his brother’s fiancée. The daughter of his parents’ close friends.


For all those reasons—and probably more that he was forgetting—Cassidy Trevor was forever off limits to Matt. All the Trevor sisters were. As Dave strode determinedly toward her, Matt wondered whether that prohibition applied to him too.


You’re not Cassidy Trevor’s keeper. Plus, she really was an ice princess. In fact, that should probably be in capital letters. Ice Princess. And maybe neon lights, just for good measure. She was going to shut down Dave’s advances like nobody’s business.


Then he reconsidered. Dave wasn’t a local St. Caroline boy. Cassidy had always turned her nose up at the guys in town. As a teenager, she had spent summers chasing after the summer kids. The rich summer kids. Which had always seemed like a losing proposition to Matt, since the summer kids all went home at the end of the, well, summer.


Not that it mattered to Matt, of course. He had been under strict orders for years to leave her alone. That was fine with Matt. There were plenty of fish in the sea, and he was an excellent fisherman. Gifted, some might say. And by “some,” he meant himself.


She looked up from her phone, seeming to sense their impending arrival. Confusion darkened her eyes for a moment, then she smiled one of those big Trevor smiles. Broad with blinding white teeth. He realized why he hadn’t been entirely certain of her identity from across the lobby. Her blonde hair was done up in some curlicue hairstyle. He’d never seen her wear her hair that way. Usually, it was long and loose around her shoulders or pulled back into a simple ponytail. Occasionally, a neat bun. Once in awhile, a thick braid down her back. But never this loose, curly do. He wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.


“Matt. Hi,” she said when he and Dave reached her. Dave immediately perched himself on the edge of the wide leather chair. The familiarity of the gesture rankled Matt. But Cassidy didn’t seem to mind. She glanced at Dave, then looked back to Matt. “What are you doing here?”


“Training at the fire academy nearby. Since I’m taking over some of Oliver’s duties while he’s on a leave of absence.”


Cassidy nodded somberly. “How’s Serena?”


He shrugged. “The same. Ollie’s too distracted to be at work right now.”


“Understandable.”


“Yeah. So what are you doing out here? All dressed up?” He looked down at her boots. They were a roughed-up brown leather, with pink flowers embroidered on the toes.


“My college roommate got married this afternoon.” She smoothed her pink dress. “I was on bridesmaid duty.”


Dave cleared his throat. Oh right. He wanted to be introduced.


“Cassidy, this is Dave. He’s a firefighter from Kansas City.”


Cassidy shook Dave’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”


“So you two know each other?” Dave was taking charge of the conversation. Matt was too tired to object.


“We grew up together in Maryland,” she answered. “Our parents are friends.”


That barely scratched the surface of their connections, Matt thought. Or maybe Cassidy didn’t see them as being all that connected.


Dave reached over and lifted her drink from her hand. “Whatcha drinking?” He sniffed at the glass, another act that irritated Matt. He didn’t exactly consider Dave to be a friend. It wasn’t like they were going to stay in touch or anything.


“Just water,” she answered, then trained a big flirty smile at Dave. “I think I had one too many pomegranate martinis at the wedding.”


“Pomegranate martinis? That sounds either really good or really awful.” Dave flirted back, his hand touching her shoulder for an instant. Her bare shoulder, Matt noted, since the straps of her bridesmaid’s dress were so thin as to be nearly non-existent.


“They were pretty good.”


“Hmm.” Dave made a show of studying the bar. “I wonder if the bartender here will make us some?”


“You should go ask.” Cassidy winked theatrically at Dave. “Hint, hint.”


“I think I will.”


Matt resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Dave was practically puffing up his chest at his success so far with Cassidy.


“You want one, man?” Dave asked Matt.


Matt held up his near-empty beer bottle. “Nah. I’m good.” He watched as Dave threaded his way through the increasing crowd and back to the bar.


“So how long are you out here for?” Cassidy asked.


“I leave tomorrow morning. And what about you?”


“I’m renting a car and driving over to Austin and San Antonio. I’m going to spend a few days checking out some quilt shops. See if I can find any good ideas to steal for mom.”

 

She flashed that blinding Trevor smile at him again, which had the same effect on him now that it had when he was in middle school and she was the glamorous eighth-grader, the “older woman” a year ahead of him.


O Cassidy, Cassidy! Wherefore art thou Cassidy?


Yeah, he remembered a few lines of Shakespeare from middle school, too.


“So how was the wedding?”


“It was good. Fine. Fun. You know.” She shrugged.


Was conversation with Cassidy always this awkward? It wasn’t as though they didn’t see each other back home. They were friendly, if not exactly friends. But right now, he felt like he was chatting up a woman he’d just met in a hotel bar.  Look for conversational openings. He glanced down at her short cowboy boots with the pink flowers.


“Did you wear those in the wedding?”


She twisted an ankle back and forth, and he tried to ignore the slender length of tanned leg between the boot and the hem of her dress.


“I did. We all did.” She laughed. “We’re out of context here, aren’t we? We’re not in St. Caroline anymore.”


“No, we’re not, Toto.” That made her laugh again. Cassidy had a big, hearty laugh. She was a girl who liked to have fun. Not a girl. A woman. There was a straightforward quality to her that Matt had always found appealing. “You look nice,” he added. “That color’s very pretty on you.”


“Well now, Matthew Wolfe. Aren’t you just the perfect gentleman?” Her voice was suddenly soft and flirty. “Though I have to say, you look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet.”


It was his turn to laugh now. “It’s been a tough week. With the training and all.” Matt was about to ask whether she was staying at this hotel, when Dave reappeared with two martini glasses.


“Yup. Bartender hooked us right up.” Dave handed a pomegranate martini to Cassidy. “Let me know if these taste as good as the ones you had earlier. If not, I’ll go give the bartender hell.”


Cassidy took a small sip. “Mmm. Tastes exactly the same.”


“Excellent.” Dave clapped Matt on the back. “Tom over there said to tell you he wants to talk to you.”


Yeah, right. Matt could tell from the bemused expression on Cassidy’s face that even she saw through that ruse. Dave wasn’t even trying to hide it. But fine. Cassidy wasn’t giving off any signs that she objected to Dave’s interest. And Matt wasn’t her keeper, he reminded himself for the second time that night. And for probably the millionth time in his life. But who was keeping count?


“Well, see you two later then.” Matt retreated to the bar and to Tom, who didn’t seem surprised to see him.


“Ol’ loverboy, eh?” Tom laughed.


Matt didn’t share the laugh. Too damn tired right now. The week had been nonstop work at the training academy. He drained the rest of his beer and, against his better judgment, ordered another. The thought of sleep was enticing, but he’d stay awhile longer to say goodbye to Cassidy. He half-listened to Tom’s mostly idle chatter and added a few comments where it seemed appropriate or solicited. He ignored the interested stare of a woman at the other end of the bar. When his beer was finished, he turned back toward the lobby.


Dave and Cassidy were gone.


Well, can’t say you didn’t see that one coming. And like the world-class idiot he was, he had even facilitated it. He pulled out his phone to text his brother, Jack.


Just ran into Cassidy out here.


A moment later, a reply came. Oh yeah? Becca says she’s out there for a wedding.


Matt stuffed his phone back into his pocket. Of course, the Trevor sisters weren’t off limits to Jack. Nothing was off limits to Jack. The sky was the freaking limit for his younger brother.


For Matt, the ceiling had always been about thirty-five thousand feet lower. He was the workhorse in the family, the body that could always be counted on when another body was needed. Old reliable, that’s me. Not that he was complaining. When his father, the chief of the St. Caroline fire department, had asked him to take over some of his older brother Oliver’s training and management responsibilities at the station, Matt had stepped right up. Being a firefighter was what it meant to be a Wolfe. His father, his uncle, both of his brothers—all firefighters in St. Caroline. He wasn’t taking over Oliver’s job permanently. As soon as his wife was out of the hospital, Ollie would be back at the station. And Matt would step back into his old job, where he’d been since college.


He knew people tended not to take him seriously most of the time. Yes, he liked to have a good time. And yes, he liked women. Why not? Interacting with the opposite sex had always come easily to him. Generally speaking, it had been his experience that he could have any pretty thing he wanted. As long as that pretty thing’s name didn’t have “Trevor” tacked on to the end.  

 

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© 2019 Julia Gabriel
romance books romance author romance fiction