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“Wonderful! Vivi Holt pulls at your heartstrings and then some.”Kit Morgan
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She's a surgeon with places to go, he's a cowboy with a killer smile. A wedding brings them together, but will her ambition drive them apart?
Eamon thinks he has love and life figured out. A successful accountant, full of confidence and charm, he's got it all, including the beautiful girlfriend and the high flying job. But when his brother inherits a ranch in south Georgia, he leaves everything behind to help him run it.
Emily Zhu is a driven and ambitious surgeon from Boston. Everything in her life is structured and planned, down to the last detail. When she doesn't get the job she's been promised and has been working toward, it seems everything could come tumbling down around her. Suddenly the future is clouded with uncertainty.
When Eamon and Emily's paths collide at a wedding, they fight an immediate attraction. Eamon could be the only person who can help Emily find her feet in a world where nothing makes sense. The one to show her opportunity where all she sees is failure. But will she be willing to give Eamon a chance to prove he's the one thing she really needs? And what will they do when an unexpected tragedy strikes at the heart of everything they've fought for?
Travel back to the Cotton Tree Ranch for another summer of fun, horses, and burgeoning love. Read this sweet and heartwarming contemporary romance from bestselling author, Vivi Holt.
Release date: October 30, 2017
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 157
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Emily Zhu hated weddings.
She hated the pomp and ceremony, the lace and tulle, the sappy speeches and centuries-old rituals. She even hated the new rituals, like when the bride and groom and their entire bridal party would break out in a flash-mob dance during the reception. She’d begged Hazel not to do it – the last thing she needed was a video of her tearing up the dance floor to “Gangnam Style” surfacing on YouTube and have her boss, the Chief of Surgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, discover it.
She tugged on the low square neckline of her lavender jersey dress and grimaced. Evening gowns didn’t suit her, and that’s what bridesmaids’ dresses really were. It didn’t fit her personality to be so … frilly. She stared at the mirror on the wall of the small room, surveying the dark shade of eye shadow above her almond eyes and the pink blush brushed across her prominent cheekbones with a frown. Even the red lipstick looked strange on her usually bare lips.
Her gaze landed on the long white dress behind her and Jennifer Barsby, the maid of honor, standing to one side of the train. The bride turned around. “Em, you have to help me with this - I can’t quite get the zipper to … ugh!” Hazel’s green eyes implored her. Her gown was a form-fitting cream with lace overlay on the bodice. It opened up at the back, and fell straight down her lithe frame. A long train draped along the ground behind her. She looked every bit the bride.
Emily turned to help with a smile – even though she couldn’t stand the tradition, she had to admit her friend looked amazing. Hazel’s eyes sparkled and her cheeks had a natural flush that made her beautiful face glow. With a quick tug, Emily zipped up the side of Hazel’s dress. “There you go.”
Hazel sighed and ran a hand over her hair, smoothing it back into place.
Emily took Hazel’s other hand and squeezed it gently. “Leave it be. Your hair is perfect. You’re perfect.”
“I’m nervous,” her friend confided.
“I can tell,” responded Emily with a laugh. “I think it’s just about time to start – we’d better find your dad. I thought he was going to meet us back here.” Her brow furrowed as she scanned the small dressing room tucked behind the chapel.
Hazel’s eyes flew wide. “Yes, we should find Dad. Oh, and we need the bouquets – where are they?” She threw her train over one arm and teetered around the room in her cream heels.
Emily raised an eyebrow. She moved a pile of bathrobes – no bouquets. They weren’t on the dressing table either. They were nowhere to be seen.
Just then, Hazel’s cousin Hannah raced through the door, puffing frantically. “Have you seen Camille and Jason?”
“What? We’ve lost the father of the bride, the bouquets, the ring bearer and flower girl as well?” Hazel’s face fell and she pressed her hands to her fore‐ head. “We’re supposed to be starting the ceremony …” She turned to Emily, her face betraying her panic.
“It’s fine, Hazel. You sit right here and relax – I’ll find them. They can’t have gotten far – it’s a small chapel, there are only so many places they could be. Just breathe, I’ll be right back.” Emily hurried from the room as Hazel sat, tucking her train carefully around her legs.
Emily scampered down the short hallway on her tiptoes in an attempt to prevent her heels from clacking on the hardwood floors. She pushed the chapel door open slightly, peered in and saw Dalton and his groomsmen standing by the pastor, handsome in black suits.
She’d met all three groomsmen – two were Dalton’s brothers and one a friend from the rodeo circuit. She’d been paired with Parker, the groom’s youngest brother. Eamon, the best man, stood beside him. From their time together at the rehearsal the previous evening, she could already tell he was more than full of himself. He was handsome, no questioning it, but he seemed to know that a little too well for her liking.
The chapel was filled to bursting with family and friends, and even the mother of the bride was already seated, fanning her face with an order of service. But there was no sign of the flower girl, or the ring bearer, or Hazel’s dad. She let the door swing shut and hurried down the hall.
The pastor’s chambers were on the opposite side of the building from the dressing rooms. She burst through the door there and searched the cozy space frantically. Where were they? A look out the window revealed Hazel’s dad smoking a cigarette beneath a large oak outside. She sighed and pushed the door open, feeling the heat of summer flood the cool room. “Mr. Hildebrand?”
He spun around, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He dropped the cigarette, his cheeks turning pink, and stepped on it with the sole of his shiny black shoe. “Yes?”
“It’s time, Mr. Hildebrand. Hazel’s ready for you.” “Oh, of course – thanks for letting me know. Just enjoying the view, you know, getting some fresh air.”
She smiled and nodded. “I understand. It’s a big day.” She opened the door wider to let him pass. As he hurried down the hallway, she sighed and set her hands on her hips. Now to find the children …
There were several closets in the small chambers and she checked each one. Finally she found them behind the last set of doors, which opened onto a wide square cabinet beneath the narrow staircase that led up to the quaint bell tower. The children had crept inside and shut the door behind them. Dismantled bouquets littered the ground around them, and her eyes widened. “Jason! Camille! Oh my goodness, what have you been up to?”
Five-year-old Jason looked at her with sparkling eyes and a mischievous smile, his hair mussed and one button of his vest undone. Camille, three, bit her lower lip and stared wide-eyed at Emily.
Emily reached into the cabinet, and both children took her hands and allowed her to lead them out of the confined space. Then Camille linked her hands behind her white skirt, her cheeks dimpling as she frowned. “Sorry, Miss Emily.”
Jason quickly followed her lead, though his expres‐ sion was much less contrite. “Sorry, Miss Emily.”
She sighed. How could she be angry at creatures with such sweet faces? She squatted to retrieve what was left of the bouquets. Even reassembled, they looked tattered, with petals torn and greenery pulled loose. What would Hazel say when she saw the mess that had been made of her thoughtfully selected flow‐ ers? “Never mind, children, what’s done is done. Though I imagine your momma will have something to say to you about it afterward. Come on, we have to find your cousin Hazel – it’s time to walk down the aisle. Do you remember how to do it? Just like we practiced.”
“But will Hazel be mad?” asked Jason, fear creeping into his voice.
“She might, but we can’t worry about that now. You both have a very important job to do, okay?”
Jason and Camille exchanged a look, then both nodded at Emily. “Okay.”
She laid the bouquets on a nearby table, stood between the children and took their hands. “Let’s go.”
Jennifer Barsby flew out the dressing room door, her eyes widening when she saw the children holding Emily’s hands at the end of the corridor. “Phew, you found them! Crisis averted. Where were they?” She tickled Camille under the chin and kissed her on her ruddy cheek.
“In the pastor’s chambers, hiding in a closet.”
“Of course they were. Well then, come with me, you two rascals – we’ve got to go around to the front of the church so we can walk down the aisle with Hazel.” She turned and took the children’s hands from Emily with a wink.
Emily leaned close to Jen’s ear and whispered. “They tore up the bouquets. I put them back together, but they still look it. What should we do?”
Jen blanched and her eyebrows arched. “Shoot. Um… maybe we could pick some flowers from the church garden.” She stood on tiptoe to glance out a nearby window.
Emily frowned. “I don’t think we can do that. You know what? You take the kids around front and leave the flowers to me. I’ll be right behind you.”
She watched Jen lead the kids out the door and along the footpath, then went back to the cramped room to retrieve the bouquets. They were a sorry sight, and she stood with her hands on her hips surveying them for a moment. Well, there wasn’t time to go for more flowers – but if it came down to it, having no flowers at all would be better than raggedy bunches of torn ones.
She plucked out the most damaged buds, removed the torn greenery and re-tied the ribbons that held them together, then held each of the four bouquets up and studied it, her forehead creased in concentration. Better. Not as impressive as they had been – the white roses had been reduced to only a half-dozen each, and the greenery and baby’s breath were cut back – but they looked passable.
She gathered them up and carried them as fast as she could in her high-heeled silver pumps back the way she’d come and along the garden path beside the chapel. When she reached the front of the church, she smiled. The breeze caught Hazel’s veil, making it swish around her satin gown. The sun glanced off her chestnut locks that curled around her long neck as she looped her arm through her father’s. There was no mistaking it – she was a stunning bride.
Emily’s throat tightened. She swallowed the sob that threatened to escape and shook her head. What was wrong with her? She’d never teared up at a wedding before. She must be getting soft. Now that she’d finished med school and didn’t have the constant pressure of study hanging over her, at least until she had to sit the exams for her chosen specialty, she’d changed. She wasn’t as driven as she had been, as consumed by succeeding. That must be it.
She hurried over to Hazel and handed her friend the bridal bouquet with a smile. “You look amazing.” She smiled and felt tears looming again when she met Hazel’s gaze. Her friend seemed excited, anxious and happy all at once, and Emily hoped for just a moment that one day she’d get a chance to feel that way.
Hazel took the bouquet and her eyes narrowed. “Does this look different to you?”
Emily raised an eyebrow. “Different from what?” “How it looked before.”
“Time to go,” called Jen, waving to them from the top of the church steps.
Emily handed the third bridesmaid, Hazel’s cousin Hannah, her bouquet, then followed Hannah up the stairs. She gave Jen the last bunch and Jen arched an eyebrow when she saw it. “Looks perfect!” she insisted with a wink.
Emily lifted her own bouquet with both hands in front of her lavender gown. The dress clung to her figure more than she’d have liked. She was used to wearing scrubs every day to work, and having so much skin exposed made her shiver a little even in the heat of a south Georgia summer day. The church doors opened ahead, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Hazel behind her, her arm linked through her dad’s, her eyes glowing. She took a deep breath and forced a smile, even as her lips trembled.
Piano music filtered through the doorway, and as Emily stepped into the chapel her heart seized at the sight of hundreds of onlookers’ eyes on her. Jason and Camille were already standing in place beside Hannah at the front of the room. She just had to make sure she didn’t stumble in these ridiculously high heels Hazel had insisted she wore.
She sighed with relief when she neared the end of the aisle and the music changed. As the bridal march rang out clearly and powerfully through the beauti‐ fully decorated chapel, the audience shifted its atten‐ tion to the bride. Emily took her place at the front, soon joined by Jen, and the two of them turned to watch Hazel almost float toward Dalton, smiling and nodding to people from beneath her white veil. Then Hazel’s gaze focused on her groom and her smile widened.
Emily swallowed the lump in her throat as the couple stood beside Jen, hands linked. Hazel passed her bouquet back to Jen, and Emily saw the glimmer of happy tears in her friend’s eyes.
As the service progressed, Emily let her gaze wander over the rest of the bridal party on Dalton’s side. Parker stood behind Eamon. His hair and eyes were dark, and from their time together at the rehearsal she knew he was quiet and reserved. He was also better-looking than any man she’d ever dated. But
there was something out of reach about him, as though he lived deep inside his head and couldn’t quite be persuaded to venture out.
Behind Parker stood Buck, his hands clasped in front of him. He looked awkward in a suit and tie, his hair slicked down against his head – you could tell he’d much rather be wearing jeans and a Stetson. There was a line of sweat across his brow and he stared straight ahead as though he might lose his balance if he didn’t.
Then, beside Dalton was Eamon. She wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him yet. Hazel assured her he was likable, but when she met him his eyes had flashed with mischief, and he insisted on calling her “Doc.” He’d flirted with every eligible female who’d crossed his path at the rehearsal dinner the previous night, including her, and he’d taken every opportunity to flash his heart-stopping dimples, to great effect. Before the night was over, every other single woman in the room had thrown herself at him.
But she wasn’t impressed by a cowboy who played the field – she had no desire to be his latest conquest. Besides, with his wavy blond hair, blue eyes and those dimples, she knew she didn’t stand a chance with him. He’d have his pick of women – and from their short time together, it seemed he knew it. No, he wasn’t her type, not even close.
She realized she was staring when he caught her eye and winked. Her cheeks blazed and her gaze dropped to the floor. Great – now he’d think she was interested in him, just like every other woman he met.
Back at the Cotton Tree Ranch outside Tifton, where Dalton and his brothers
lived, Emily changed from her pumps into cowgirl boots beneath her gown. She put on a white beaded shoulder shrug, then hurried outside to join the festivities. The photographer had taken longer than she’d expected, and the wedding reception was already well underway, but there was no way she was dancing at a country hoedown in pumps.
The entire yard at the ranch had been transformed with twinkling lights, strings of hanging lanterns and flowers galore. A square dance floor had been erected in the center of the space, with white cloth-covered tables extending in a horseshoe around it. She reached the dance floor and flashed her boots to Hazel and Jen, who laughed out loud and beckoned her to join them. “Where did you get those?” yelled Hazel above the noise of the band.
Emily struck a pose. “Bought them in town yester‐ day. Do you like them?”
Hazel grinned. “Love them.”
They danced until the sweat dripped from their faces, then sat just in time for the speeches and the meal. Emily couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun – or so much wine. She rarely drank, since most of her life was spent working in the hospi‐ tal. As a surgical resident, she barely had time to go to the gym or cook herself a meal, let alone go out for a drink with friends. And being on call so often, she didn’t feel it was right to indulge in case she had to go in to work.
But this was different – she was on leave, nowhere near Boston, and could do as she pleased. She threw her head back and gulped another mouthful of red wine. In fact, maybe she’d be doing a lot more of this – her year as a resident had just ended and she’d been offered a permanent position at the Brigham, where she’d been for the past three years. She couldn’t wait to get moving on her career as a general surgeon. It was what she’d always dreamed of.
The food was amazing – Dalton had selected his favorite dishes, so it was nothing like a Boston wedding reception. Steak so tender it melted like butter in your mouth, barbecued ribs that fell off the bone, corn on the cob, cornbread, sweet potato casse‐ role, fried okra, biscuits and gravy, turnip greens, black eyed peas, and the best macaroni and cheese she’d ever tasted. “Mmmm … this macaroni is amazing!” Emily licked her lips, then dabbed them with a napkin.
Hazel, seated beside her, exchanged a loving glance with Dalton, who laughed and leaned in to kiss her full on the lips.
“What?” asked Emily, who had the distinct feeling she’d missed something.
“It’s an inside joke, mac and cheese,” replied Dalton with a grin that deepened his already pronounced dimples.
Hazel closed the distance between her and Dalton and laid her head against his shoulder. “The first night we met, I tried to show Dalton how independent and competent I was by making mac and cheese from a box.”
Emily rolled her eyes. They were adorably disgust‐ ing. “Oh, that’s cute.”
Hazel kissed her new husband gently on the lips, and Emily turned away with a grimace. Ugh. It was true, she wished she had what they did, but they were so sweet it was almost sickening. She stood and took another slug of wine. “Yes, well – you two are beautiful but revolting. I’m going to see if I can get a bowl of that banana pudding – it looks amazing.” She strode off, still sipping her wine.
With a fresh bowl in hand, she scooped a large serving of pudding with a smile. She might not have a hunky man to make out with, but she did have dessert. She turned to head back to the table and spotted Hazel’s parents standing behind her and Dalton. The conversation looked uncomfortable. She knew about the tension between Hazel and her folks, having lived in the same dorm as Hazel while she was studying pre- med at the University of Georgia. She took a bite of pudding, watching the exchange. Hmmm … perhaps she should find another table.
She swiveled in her new boots, lost her balance and stumbled sideways, holding her pudding high in one hand and the half-full glass of wine in the other, not wishing to spill either. Her eyes widened as she felt her feet go out from under her and she landed in someone’s lap.
“Well, what a pleasant surprise,” said Eamon, his breath against her ear.
Her eyes still wide from the fall and her mouth full of pudding, Emily turned to face him and swallowed. “Safe!” she cried, then burst into giggles. What was she doing, making a baseball reference? She knew nothing about baseball and she rarely joked. Her cheeks flamed.
He raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Impressive – you didn’t spill a drop.”
She nodded, took another bite of pudding, then realized with dismay that she was still sitting in his lap. How drunk was she? “Oh, sorry.” She stood and swayed. “I think I’ve had a bit too much wine. I don’t usually drink, so I’m a bit of a lightweight, and there was champagne before the service and during the photos … well, you know. You were there.”
“Yes, I was.” He studied her with a lazy grin, then stood and took her arm. “You okay?”
She giggled again. “So chivalrous. I didn’t think you were – you seemed so … oh dear, I’m talking too much.”
He frowned. “I seemed so …?”
Her cheeks flushed a deeper red. “Um … well, you know. You’re confident.”
“You mean arrogant.”
Her eyes flew wide. “No, of course not, well, maybe. You just like the ladies … oh man, I don’t feel so good …”
“So I’m arrogant and a player?” His eyes narrowed. He seemed to be purposely misunderstanding her.
She was sure she hadn’t said anything like that. Had she? But her head was spinning and everything swayed. “I’m gonna go dance.” She leaned forward and wobbled across the uneven ground toward the dance floor.
When she reached it, she set her wine and pudding down on an empty table and stepped up onto the raised surface. Hannah was there, dancing with Parker. The band was covering a Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” and it blasted out across the ranch as the crowd on the dance floor writhed to the beat.
Emily looked up and watched the stars twinkle overhead. It really was beautiful out here on Dalton’s ranch – and now Hazel would be living here too. That was hard for her to imagine – Hazel, an orchestral violinist, living on a horse ranch in south Georgia, married to a cowboy. She shook her head and fixed her eyes on the dancers surrounding her. Hannah smiled at her, her lavender gown shimmering in the dim lighting, and she began swaying along to the music with the rest of them.
She felt her feet slip from beneath her again … but two strong hands closed around her waist, setting her right again. She spun around to face Eamon, a sparkle in his eyes. “Mind if I join you?”
She shook her head and he lifted her hands one at a time around his neck. She didn’t resist, unable to break her gaze from his. His eyes were so blue they were almost irresistible. Her legs felt weak, and he pressed close against her, making her gasp. She tightened her grasp on him, letting her fingers comb through the hair at the nape of his neck.
Then she felt her stomach lurch, and her eyes clenched shut. “What’s wrong?” asked Eamon.
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