FALLING FOR THE REBOUND BRIDE
A ranch for the runaway bride
Weeks before her wedding, Emily Weber walks away from her planned society shindig and her cheating fiancé—straight to her cousin's New Mexico ranch. Everyone's advice: Emily's got to work it out of her system, and her childhood acquaintance—all six feet of dark good looks—is just the guy.
Colin Talbot recognizes someone on the run from their life. Hell, the rootless photojournalist hasn't been on his ranch in years, till now. But he's not about to indulge in a promise of pleasure, not with a potential for disaster. Emily still wants marriage and babies; he can't wait to bolt. So he'll keep his distance before she has him wanting what he can't have: a family and a forever love.
The young woman had been eyeing him from the other side of the luggage carousel for several minutes, her pale forehead slightly crimped. Far too wiped out to be paranoid – or return her interest, if that’s what it was – Colin instead focused on his phone as he reflexively massaged an unyielding knot in the back of his neck. Although truthfully his entire body was one giant, screaming ache after nearly two days either on a plane or waiting for one—
“Um…Colin? Colin Talbot?”
Instinctively clutching his camera bag, he frowned into a pair of sweet, wary blue eyes he was pretty sure he’d never seen in his life. Clearly he even was more tired than he’d realized, letting her sneak up on him like that.
With a squeaky groan the carousel lurched into action, the contents of the plane’s belly tumbling down the chute, bags and boxes jostling each other like a bunch of sleepy drunks. The other passengers closed in, ready to pounce, many sporting the standard assortment of cowboy hats and beat-up boots you’d expect to see in New Mexico. Colin squinted toward the business end, keeping one grit-scraped eye out for his beat-up duffel, then faced the gal again. Crap, his backpack felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Not to mention his head.
“Have we met? Because I don’t—”
“I was a kid, the last time I saw you,” she said, a smile flicking across a mouth as glossy as her long, wavy hair, some undefined color between blond and brown. “When I visited the ranch.” She tucked some of that shiny hair behind one ear, the move revealing a simple gold hoop, as well as lifting the hem of her creamy blouse just enough to hint at the shapely hips her fitted jeans weren’t really hiding. Hell. Next to this perfect specimen of refinement, Colin felt like week-old roadkill. Probably smelled like it, too, judging from the way the dude next to him on that last leg from Dallas kept leaning away.
The smile flickered again, although he now saw it didn’t quite connect with her eyes. She pressed a slender, perfectly manicured hand to her chest. “Emily Weber? Deanna’s cousin?”
Deanna. His younger brother Josh’s new wife. And their dad’s old boss’s daughter. Now, vaguely, Colin remembered the gangly little middle-schooler who’d spent a few weeks on the Vista Encantada that summer more than ten years ago. Vaguely, because not only had he already been in college, but she was right, they hadn’t talked much. If at all. Mostly because of the age difference thing. That she even recognized him now…
“Oh. Right.” Colin dredged up a smile of sorts, before his forehead cramped again. “You don’t look much like I remember.”
Humor briefly flickered in her eyes. “Neither do you.”
He shifted, easing the weight of the backpack. “Then how’d you know it was me?”
A faint blush swept over her cheeks. “I didn’t, at first. Especially with the beard. But it’s hard to ignore the tallest man in the room. Then I noticed the camera bag, which is when I remembered the photo I spotted at your folks’ house, when I was there a few months ago for the wedding. Josh’s wedding, I mean.” She grinned. “There’s been a few of those in your family of late.”
Seriously, his brothers had been getting hitched like there’d been a buy one, get two free sale on marriage licenses. First Levi, then Josh – his twin younger brothers – and soon Zach, the oldest, would be marrying for the second time—
“In any case,” she said, “enough pieces started fitting together that I decided to take a chance, see if it was you. Although you probably wondered who the creeper chick was trying to pick you up.”
Colin glanced back toward the carousel. “Thought never crossed my mind.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her gaze lower to her glittery flat shoes. “Crazy, huh?” she said, looking up again. But not at him. “After all this time, both of us being on the same plane to Albuquerque.”
This time the sound that pushed from her chest held a definite note of exasperation. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude on your privacy or whatever. I just thought, since I did recognize you, it’d be weird not to say anything. Especially since we’re probably both headed up to the ranch. Unless…” Another flush streaked across her cheeks. “You’re not?”
Colin shut his eyes, as if that’d stop her words’ pummeling. True, he was exhausted and starving and not at all in the mood for conversation, especially with some classy, chatty chick he barely remembered. A chatty chick who clearly didn’t know from awkward. Or didn’t care. But she was right, he was being an ass. For no other reason than he could. Cripes, his father would knock him clear into next week for that. Not to mention his mother.
“No. I am,” he said, daring to meet her gaze. And the you’ve-gone-too-far-buster set to her mouth under it. A mouth that under other circumstances – although what those might be, God alone knew – might have even provoked a glimmer of sexual interest. Okay, more than a glimmer. But those days were long gone, stuffed in some bottom drawer of his brain where they couldn’t get him in trouble anymore. “And I apologize. It was a rough flight. Part of it, anyway.”
Although not nearly as rough as the weeks, months, preceding it.
Emily’s gaze softened. Along with that damn mouth. As if she knew, which was ridiculous. Hell, he really was tired.
Since his name was plastered all over the magazine spread along with the photos, it wasn’t exactly a secret. “Serbia.”
A moment of silence preceded, “And why do I get the feeling I should leave it there?”
His mouth tugged up on one side. “Because you’re good at reading minds?”
She almost snorted, even as something like pain flashed across her features. “As if. Then again…” Her gaze slid to his, so impossible to read he wondered if he’d imagined the pain. “Perhaps some minds are easier to read than others?”
Nope, not taking the bait. Even if he’d had a clue what the bait was. His arms folded across a layer of denim more disreputable than his yet-to-appear duffle, he said, “You get on in DC.? Or Dallas?”
“And nobody’s picking you up?”
Her mouth twisted. “It was kind of last minute. So I told Dee I’d rent a car, save her or Josh the five-hour round trip. They’ve got their hands full enough with the kids and the ranch stuff this time of year, and I can find my own way.” Her eyes swung to his again. “What about you?”
“They don’t know I’m here.”
That got a speculative look before she snapped to attention like a bird dog. “Oh, there’s one of my bags—”
“The charcoal metallic with the rose trim. And there’s the two others. But you don’t have to—”
“No problem,” Colin said, lugging the three hardsided bags off the belt. Gray with pink stripes. Fancy. And no doubt expensive. His gaze once more flicked over her outfit, her hair and nails, even as his nostrils flared at her light floral perfume.
Rich girl, whispered through his brain as another memory or two shuffled along for the ride, that his new sister-in-law’s mother had hailed from a socially prominent East coast family, that there’d been murmurings about how Deanna’s aunt – her mother’s only sister – hadn’t exactly been thrilled with Kathryn Weber taking up with a cowboy and moving to the New Mexico hinterlands. Something about her throwing her life away. A life that had ended far too soon, when Deanna had only been a teenager.
Not that any of this had anything to do with him. Didn’t then, sure as hell didn’t now. Never mind the knee-to-the-groin reaction to the charmed life this young woman had undoubtedly led. A life that tended to leave its participants with high expectations and not a whole lot of understanding for those whose lives weren’t nearly so privileged—
“Hey. You okay?”
Colin gave his head a sharp shake, refusing to believe he saw genuine concern in those blue eyes. Apparently the long trip had chewed up more than a few brain cells.
“I’m fine. Or will be,” he said as he grabbed his bag off the belt, dumping its sorry, chewed-up self on the airport’s floor beside the shiny trio. “Nothing a shower, some food and a real bed won’t fix.” Not to mention some sorely needed alone time. “And the sooner we get—” Home, he’d started to say, startling himself. “—back to the Vista, the sooner I can make that happen.” Slinging the duffle over his shoulder with the camera bag and commandeering the two smaller of Emily’s bags, he nodded toward the Rental Car desk across the floor. “So let’s go get our cars and get out of here.”
Jerking up the handle of the larger bag, Emily frowned. “Um…why rent two cars? Wouldn’t it make more sense to share one? Besides, don’t take this the wrong way, but you do not look like someone up for driving through a couple hundred miles of nothing. In the dark, especially. So I’ll drive, how’s that?”
That got a momentary sneer from the old male ego – because Old Skool Dude, here, the man was supposed to drive – until weariness slammed into him like a twenty-foot tidal wave. And along with it logic, that the woman had a point. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense to rent two separate vehicles when they were going to the same place.
Not to mention passing out and careening into a ravine somewhere wasn’t high on his to-do list. However…
“You might not want to be confined with me in a closed space for two-and-half hours.” Her brows lifted. “I think I smell.”
She laughed. “Not that I’ve noticed. But it’s warm enough we can leave the windows open.”
“Once we get up past Santa Fe? Doubtful. Spring doesn’t really get going good until May, at least.”
A shrug preceded, “So I’ll put on another layer—”
“But what’ll you do for a car once you’re there?”
“Dee said there’s a truck I can use, if I want. So I was gonna turn in the rental tomorrow in Taos, anyway…”
First off, that shrug? Made her hair shimmer around her shoulders, begging to be touched. So wrong. Second, the image of Emily’s perfectly polished person collided in Colin’s worn-to-nubs brain with whatever undoubtedly mud-caked four-by-four her cousin was referring too. The ranch vehicles weren’t known for being pretty.
Unlike the woman with the shimmery hair who’d be driving it.
Then he dragged his head out of his butt long enough to catch the amused smile playing around her mouth. “You really have a problem sharing a ride with me?”
Colin’s cheeks heated. “It’s not you.”
“Actually, I got that. No, really. But I’m beginning to understand what Josh said, about you being a loner—”
“Even I know you haven’t been home in years,” she said gently. “That you’ve barely been in touch with anyone since you left. And then you don’t even tell your family you’re coming back? Dude. However,” she said, heading toward the rental desk, her hair swishing against her back. Glimmering. Taunting. “My only goal right now is to get to the ranch.” She glanced back over her shoulder at him, and once again he saw a flicker of something decidedly sharp-edged. “Expediency, you know? Your issues are none of my business. Nor are mine, yours. In fact, we don’t even have to talk, if you don’t want to. I won’t be offended, I promise. So. Deal?”
With the devil, apparently.
“Deal,” Colin grumbled, hauling the rest of the bags to the desk, wondering why her reasonableness was pissing him the hell off.
* * *
An hour later, Emily had to admit Colin had been right about two things: The farther north they went, the colder it got; and he was definitely a little on the gamey side. Meaning she’d had no choice but to keep the windows at least partly down, or risk suffocation.
Also, it was dark. As in, the headlight beams piercing the pitch blackness were creepy as all get-out. To her, “night” meant when the street lamps came on, not that moment when the sun dived behind the horizon, yanking every last vestige of daylight with it. Her heart punched against her ribs: So much for her “Oh, I’ll drive” bravado back there in the airport, when for whatever reason it hadn’t occurred to her she’d never actually driven the route before, somebody had always ferried her to and from Albuquerque. Sure, she would’ve made the trek herself in any case, but being responsible for another human being in the car with her…
“Jeez, get a grip,” she muttered, turning up the Sirius radio in the SUV, hoping the pulsing beat would pound her wayward thoughts into oblivion. Not to mention her regrets, crammed inside her head like the jumbled mess of old sweaters and jeans and tops she’d stuffed willy-nilly inside her pretty new luggage. Clothes that predated Michael, that she’d rarely worn around him because he’d said they made her look dumpy.
Emily’s nostrils flared as her fingers tightened around the leather-padded wheel. Someday, she might even cry.
Someday. When she was over the hurling and cursing stage.
Beside her, a six-feet-and-change Colin snorted and shifted, his arms folded over his chest as he slept. They’d barely made it out of Albuquerque before he’d crashed, his obvious exhaustion rolling off of him in waves even more than the funk. If it hadn’t been for that picture Dee had shown Emily – a very serious publicity shot of Colin the photojournalist – she would’ve never recognized him. As it was, between the five-days’ beard growth and shaggy hair, the rumpled clothes and saddlebags under his eyes, she still wasn’t sure how she had. It must’ve been the eyes, a weird pale green against his sun-weathered face—
Emily released another breath, aggravation swamping her once more. Although with herself more than Colin, she supposed, for not having the good sense to leave well enough alone. Or at least him. Gah, it was as though she’d been totally incapable at stanching the words spewing from her mouth. Apparently heart-slicing betrayal had that effect on her. But seriously – after a lifetime of making nice, now she couldn’t resist poking the bear? And a grumpy, malodorous one at that?
From her purse, her phone warbled. Her mother’s ringtone. Good thing she was driving, then, because…no.
The man shifted again, muttering in his sleep, the words unintelligible. She imagined a frown – since that seemed to be his face’s default setting, anyway—
At the laser-like flash of the animal’s eyes, Emily swerved the car to the right, hard, the wheels jittering over rocks and weeds before jerking to a spine-rattling stop. Colin’s palm slammed against the dash as he bellowed awake, a particularly choice swear word hanging in the cold air between them for what felt like an hour.
“What the hell?”
“S-something darted out in front of the c-car,” Emily finally got out, over the sudden – and horrifying – realization of exactly how close she was to losing it.
How a gruff voice could be so gentle, Emily had no idea. How she was going to keep it together in the face of that gentleness, she had even less. But she would. If it killed her.
Her neck hurt a little when she nodded. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
On a half-assed laugh, she leaned her head back. Or would have if the headrest had let her. “I almost took out Bambi. What do you think?” She dared to cut her eyes to his, only to realize she couldn’t see them anyway. Thank goodness. “Sorry about the sudden stop. Is everything…are you…?”
“I’m good. Or will be when my heart climbs back down out of my throat.” Which he now cleared. “Good save, by the way.”
“How would you know?” she said, even as pleasure flushed her cheeks. “Since you slept through it.”
“We’re still upright. And alive. So I count that as a win.”
“Funny, you don’t strike me as a ‘look on the bright side’ type.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I already am. Well.” And her heart could stop breakdancing anytime now, she thought as she gripped the wheel. “I guess we should get going—”
“Only a little…what are you doing?”
This asked as he got out of the car and walked around to her side, motioning for her to open the door. “Taking over the driving, what does it look like?”
“You don’t have to—”
“Actually, I think I do.”
Emily felt her face go grumpy. “I thought you said that was a good save.”
“It was. And I mean that. But I’m awake now—”
“Sorry about that.”
“—and I’m probably a little better at recovering from stress than you are.”
“Heh. You ever driven on the DC beltway?”
“Many times. Although trust me, it doesn’t even begin compare with Mumbai. Besides, once we hit town, do you have any idea where we’re going?”
There was that. Because, again, she hadn’t driven when she’d been out before. Of course her plan had been to either rely on the car’s GPS, or – probably better – Dee or Josh. Which she could still do. But by now she realized she was beginning to slip across that fine line between independent and mule-headed. And she was whacked, too.
Again with the gentleness. Jerk.
“Fine,” she said, climbing down from behind the wheel and marching around to the passenger side, huddling deeper into her sweater coat before strapping herself in. Rocks crunched and rattled as Colin pulled back onto the highway, and Emily felt her jangled nerves relax. A little.
Because for some reason this guy seemed a lot bigger awake than he had asleep. And she wasn’t exactly tiny. A fact that had apparently induced no small amount of angst in her petite mother—
“So where are we, exactly?” Colin asked.
“Just past Taos.”
He nodded. “You mind if I turn down the…music?”
“Turn it off, if you want. I don’t care.”
Except the silence that followed made her brain hurt. Strange, how she didn’t mind the quiet when she was actually by herself. But when there was actually someone else in the space—
“So how come you didn’t tell anyone you were coming?”
He hesitated, then said, “Because I didn’t want to.”
“None of my business, in other words.”
His gaze veered to hers, then away.
“And you don’t think they might find it weird when we show up together?”
A single-note chuckle pushed through his nose. “Dog with a bone, aren’tcha?”
Her mouth pulled flat, Emily shoved her hair behind her ear. But after years of being the peacemaker, the One Most Likely to Back Down… “Guess I don’t have a whole lot of patience these days for secrets.”
“Even though this has nothing to do with you.”
“Me, no. My cousin, yes. And her husband. And his family. So…”
“And you’re nothing if not loyal.”
She waited out the stab to her heart before saying, “Out of fashion though that might be.”
That got a look. Probably accompanied by a frown, she wasn’t about to check.
Another couple of miles passed before he said, “And I’m guessing I’ve been the topic of conversation recently.”
“Your name does come up a lot,” she said quietly, then glanced over. “Since, you know, you’re the brother who’s not there. And haven’t been there for years.”
Seconds passed. “I’ve been…on assignment.”
Exactly what Josh had said, after his and Dee’s wedding, his that’s-life shrug at complete odds with the disappointment in his eyes. And between the leftover shakiness from nearly taking out that deer back there and feeling like hornets had set up shop inside her brain, whatever filters Emily might have once had were blown to hell.
“From everything I can tell, Colin, your family’s great. In fact, most people would be grateful…” Tears biting at her eyes, she gave her head a sharp shake, rattling the hornets. “So what exactly did they do to tick you off so much?”
* * *
And to think, Colin mused, if he hadn’t agreed to this crazy woman’s suggestion to share the car, the worst that might’ve happened would have been his ending up in a ditch somewhere.
Of course, he didn’t owe her, or anyone, an explanation. Although she seemed like a nice enough kid – if pushy – and surprisingly playing the total bastard card wasn’t part of his skill set. Besides, in a half hour they’d be there, and he’d hole up in one of the cabins, and she’d stay with her cousin in the Main House, and they probably wouldn’t even see each other again for the duration of her visit. Right?
Except right now she was watching him, waiting for an answer, those great big sad eyes pinned to the side of his face. Yeah, there was a story there, no doubt. Not that he was about to get sucked in. Because he’d come home to get his head on straight again, not get all snarled in someone else’s.
“They didn’t do anything, okay?” he finally mumbled. “Like you said, they’re great people. It’s just we don’t see a lot of things through the same lens.”
He sensed more than saw her frown before she leaned into the corner between the seat and the door – at least as much as the seatbelt would let her – her arms folded over her stomach. Thinking, no doubt.
“So what’s different now?”
“Do you even consider what’s about to pop out of your mouth before it does?”
“Probably about as much as you’ve considered their reaction when you show up out of the blue. And with your dad’s heart condition—”
“First off, people keeling over from shock only happens in the movies—”
“Not only in the movies.”
“Mostly then. And second, Dad’s not on death’s door. He never was, as far as I can
“And how would you know that if you haven’t been there?”
“Because that’s what he said, okay? For crying out loud, I did talk to him, or Mom, or both, every day at the time. I’m not totally out of the loop—”
“Even if you prefer to hover at its edge?”
If it hadn’t been for the gentle humor in her voice – and something more, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on – he’d’ve been a lot more pissed than he was. “They told me not to come home, that it wasn’t necessary. And my reasons for returning now…” He briefly faced her, then looked away. “Are mine.”
“As are your reasons for not giving them a head’s up that you are. Got it.”
“You’re really aggravating, you know that?”
Her laugh startled him. “Then my work here is done,” she said, clearly pleased with herself. Because the chick was downright bonkers. Story of his life, apparently.
“Look,” he said, giving in or up or whatever, “if you’ve been around my family for more than thirty seconds you know they can be a mite…overwhelming en masse.”
Another laugh. “I noticed.”
“So if I’d called my brother and told him I was coming, you can bet your life the whole gang would be at the Vista to welcome me home.” His jaw clenched. “Maybe even the whole town. I know what I’m about to face, believe me. But I’d at least prefer to ease back into the bosom of the clan on my own terms. At least as much as possible.”
“I can understand that.”
“Like you’re the only person in the world who has issues with their family?” she said quietly, not looking at him. “Please.”
The sign for Whispering Pines flashed in the headlights, and Colin turned off the highway onto the smaller road leading to the tiny town. Emily shrugged more deeply into her coat; the higher they climbed, the colder the night got. But the air was sweet and clear and clean. And, Colin had to admit, welcoming.
“It’s the space, isn’t it?” she said, shattering his thoughts.
“Why you’ve come home. Same reason I’m here now, I suppose. To stop the—” She waved her hands at her head, then folded her arms again. “The noise. The crowding.”
The impulse to probe nudged more insistently. He’d assumed she was only there to visit, like people did. Normal people, anyway. Or to attend Zach’s wedding, although that wasn’t for weeks yet. Now, though, questions niggled, that maybe there was more…?
And whatever that might be had nothing to do with him.
“Hadn’t really thought about it,” he muttered, ignoring what had to be a doubtful look in response. Shaking her head, Emily dug her phone out of her purse, only to heave a sigh and slug it back inside.
“No signal. Jeez, how do people even survive out here?”
“Same way they have for hundreds of years, I imagine.”
A soft grunt was her only reply. Thank God. Although Colin had to admit, as wearying as her poking and prying had been, the silence was far worse, providing a far-too-fertile breeding ground for his own twisted-up thoughts. Because despite the Universe’s insistence that this is where he needed to be right now, he’d be lying if he didn’t admit this felt an awful lot like starting over.
Or worse, failure.
A dog’s barking as they pulled into the Vista’s circular driveway shattered the silence, although Colin barely heard it over his pounding heart, the rush of blood between his ears. Beside him, Emily gathered her giant purse, then gave him what he suspected was a pitying look before grabbing the door’s handle.
“I don’t envy you right now,” she murmured, then shoved open the door and got out. By now her cousin and his brother were out on the oversized veranda. Even in the screwy light he could see confusion shudder across both their faces.
“You’ll never guess who I ran into in the airport,” she said, and Colin realized he had two choices: Show himself, or turn right around and pretend this had all been a mistake. Except the flaw with Plan B was that, for one thing, Emily’s luggage was still in the SUV. And for another, she’d rat on him.
So, on a weighty sigh, Colin pried himself from behind the wheel and faced his little brother, who immediately spit out a cuss word that would’ve gotten a good smack upside the head from their mother. Two seconds later, Josh was pounding the hell out of Colin’s back, then grinning up at him like a damn fool.
“Holy hell, Col,” he said, his eyes wet, and Colin did his best to grin back.
“I know, right?” he said, feeling heat flood his cheeks, before he glanced over to see Emily wrapped tightly in his new sister-in-law’s arms, bawling her eyes out.
Copyright 2016, Karen Templeton-Berger. Reprinted with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.