To have and to hold from this day forward
Wedding bells are ringing in the charming town of Christmas, but not for Vivian Westfield. She's just had her heart trampled under the cowboy boots of Chance McBride and lost her dream job at a big-city newspaper. But when she returns for a wedding, she stumbles on a story that could resurrect her career. First, though, she'll have to deal with the handsome man standing in her way . . . and a still-burning flame that's too hot to ignore.
Chance recognizes trouble when he sees it. He just didn't expect to find it in the first-class cabin on the flight home for his father's wedding. Yet there she is, as gorgeous as ever. Vivi dared Chance to want things he knew he could never have. It's why he left her. But Christmas's meddling matchmakers have them firmly in their sights. So if they want to survive the next week, they'll have to play the part of an adoring couple-an irresistible charade that may give them a second chance at the real thing . . .
Release date: May 26, 2015
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Wedding Bells in Christmas
Vivian Westfield stood in the long security line at LaGuardia airport rereading her responses to next week’s letters from the lovelorn. Satisfied that they met her new criteria—the one where she no longer kicked butt but gently smacked it—she sent her Dear Vivi column off to her editor. At least Heartbroken had a job that she loved, Vivi thought as she shoved her iPad in her carry-on.
Vivi remembered the feeling. Oh, how she remembered it. Ten months ago, she’d landed her dream job as an investigative reporter for the Daily Spectator. All the long hours and hard work she’d put in at online newspapers had finally paid off. But she’d had only four lousy months to revel in the sweetness of her success.
While working on her biggest story to date—the story guaranteed to earn her editor’s respect and, more importantly, protect her best friend Skylar O’Connor—Vivi’s career imploded as spectacularly as a sinkhole opening up on Fifth Avenue in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
Looking back, and she’d done so every day since that bitterly cold November night, she realized where she’d gone wrong. She’d let Superman into her life. She should have known that someone who named himself after a comic book hero would turn into an overprotective wack job. In her defense, until that story, he’d fed her information she never would have gotten on her own. And over the months they’d spent texting each other on a daily basis, she’d found herself thinking about him all the time.
As embarrassing as it was to admit, she’d been crushing on Superman, fantasizing about becoming his Lois Lane. Which was ridiculous. She had no idea what he looked like. She hadn’t even spoken to the man. The only thing she knew for certain was that in his misguided attempt to protect her, her sources had dried up overnight. And that’s when her story went sideways. But Vivi was no quitter, and she’d tracked down the woman at the safe house to get the goods.
Lesson learned: bad guys don’t quit, either.
The NYPD hadn’t been happy… Okay, so that was an understatement. She was lucky they hadn’t thrown her in jail and sued the newspaper for her interference in an ongoing criminal investigation. Actually, luck didn’t have much to do with it. The credit went to the Spectator’s legal team. Too bad they hadn’t been as successful when it came to her job. She was put on a six-month probation the same day ninety-year-old Hilda Branch, aka Dear Hilda, died in her sleep. Vivi’d sat across from the Spectator’s editor in chief, staring at him in stomach-dropping horror as he gave her her new assignment.
Everyone, other than the editor in chief obviously, knew that Vivi was the least qualified person for the job. And it wasn’t because she’d never been dumped before. Of course she had, she was thirty for god’s sake. What thirty-year-old hadn’t been dumped, had a couple of those he’s-just-not-into-you revelations that broke her heart? No, the reason Vivi wasn’t suited for the job was because she was the most unsympathetic person north of Wall Street. And that was why, once she’d recovered, she didn’t yell and she didn’t argue. She smiled and graciously accepted the position. With her in-your-face attitude, she figured her stint as Dear Vivi would last… about a day.
But people obviously enjoyed having their butts kicked, because her column had been an overnight sensation. Which was why Dear Vivi’s responses of late had gone from a butt kick to a light tap on the behind. She had no intention of being an advice columnist for forty years like Hilda Branch. One way or another, when Vivi’s probation was up a few weeks from now, she was getting her old job back.
As the line in front of her moved forward as slowly as at Bagel Bagel on a Saturday morning, Skye’s assigned ringtone jingled from Vivi’s carry-on. She’d been expecting her call. Their mutual best friend Maddie McBride had already checked in with Vivi on the cab ride to the airport. The three of them had been friends since their first day of college. As they were only children—technically that wasn’t true in Vivi’s case, but it’s how she thought of herself—they’d become the sisters they never had.
In the past eighteen months, Vivi’s “sisters” had abandoned her. They’d moved from New York City to Christmas, Colorado. Maddie and Skye said they fell in love with the small mountain town. Vivi knew better; they fell in love with the town’s most eligible bachelors. Vivi no longer believed in a one-and-only, but even she had to admit, if there was such a thing, Skye and Maddie had found theirs.
She missed them. New York wasn’t the same without them. But that didn’t mean she’d cave to their pleading and cajoling and move to Christmas. Vivi didn’t do the great outdoors. Give her concrete, skyscrapers, Bagel Bagel, and Roasters Coffee down the street any day.
“Where are you?” Skye asked the moment Vivi put the phone to her ear.
She sighed. Her best friends expected her to bail at the last minute. And Vivi knew why—Chance McBride. She did her best to avoid the small town of Christmas when there was a possibility he’d be around. Since his father was getting married next week, the probability that Chance would be there was high. Then again, he’d been home only once in the last five years. Vivi knew why he avoided his hometown, and that knowledge was probably the reason her voice came out more raspy than usual. “Security line at the airport.”
“Vivi! Your flight leaves in twenty minutes.”
Checking the time on her phone, Vivi glanced at the ticket in her hand and grimaced. She was cutting it kind of close. “Relax, I’ll make it.”
“Don’t tell me, you were working on your column and time got away from you. You’re a workaholic, Vivi,” Skye said in an exasperated tone of voice. “The week away will do you good. You can relax for a change.”
Sometimes it was annoying how well Skye knew her. Only Vivi hadn’t been working on her column before she left her apartment; she could dial those in. She’d been checking out a couple leads for a story. One that would knock her editor’s socks off and get Vivi back her job.
She returned her attention to Skye. “Relaxing? I thought you guys said you needed me there to help with the wedding. ‘Vivi, Maddie, and I will have nervous breakdowns if you don’t come. We can’t do this on our own. We’re new mothers,’ ” she said, imitating Skye’s angst-filled voice from three weeks ago.
“Hey, I did not sound whiny and hysterical.”
“Yeah, you kinda did. But don’t worry, I’m riding to the rescue in my big, white bird.” Ten members of a seniors bowling team shuffled forward. “I have to take off my boots. See you soon.”
“Okay, but don’t, you know, tick off security. We really do need you here. Nell’s driving us insane,” Skye said, referring to Nell McBride, who looked like a sweet little old lady if you ignored the flaming red streak in her white hair. And no one should ignore that devil-red streak. The older woman was the biggest shit-disturber Vivi had ever met.
Vivi knew this because eighteen months earlier, she and Maddie got caught up in one of Nell’s schemes. In the end, everything worked out well for Maddie. For Vivi, not so much. She was still in recovery mode. Which was the reason why she’d agreed to go to Christmas in the first place. Like Heartbroken, Vivi had a man who’d taken up too much space in her heart and head: Chance McBride.
She opened her mouth to respond when Skye said in a voice tinged with nerves, “Um, speaking of Nell. This was all her idea, okay? So don’t get mad at me and Maddie. We had nothing to do with it. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.”
Vivi froze, balancing on one foot as she took off her rubber boot. “What was Nell’s idea?”
“Gotta go. Evie’s crying,” Skye said, obviously using her five-month-old daughter as an excuse, because there was no noise in the background.
“Skye! Skye, don’t you dare hang—” Vivi broke off at the sound of a beep. “Call Ended” flashed on her phone’s screen. “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she muttered at the same time the bald, mustached man in uniform waved her over.
And since Vivi was now in a ticked-off, panicked mood, she managed to tick off the security agents. By the time they got through with her, she was late for her flight. Her carry-on banging against her hip as she raced to her gate, she accidently bumped into several people, ensuring she’d now ticked off half the airport.
Breathless by the time she reached the woman standing behind the desk in front of her gate, Vivi waved her boarding pass, panting, “That’s my flight.” It was while she watched the woman scan the nonrefundable one-way ticket Skye had sent her that Vivi realized what Nell was up to. The older woman had decided to help Maddie and Skye in their bid to keep her in Christmas. She almost laughed in relief. She’d been worried Nell’s current scheme had something to do with…
“It’s your lucky day,” the woman said, handing Vivi back the boarding pass with a smile. “There was a problem closing the cargo bay door. The plane was delayed.”
To a white-knuckled flier, a malfunctioning door didn’t sound lucky at all. “Are they changing planes?” Vivi asked, because while she had no problem writing about aircraft falling from the sky and people getting sucked out of them, she had no intention of being one of them.
“No, everything’s fine. Get going. They won’t hold the plane much longer.” The woman gestured to the narrow corridor.
“Okay. Thanks,” Vivi said, even as near-miss, landing, and takeoff accident statistics popped into her head.
Replacing those thoughts with the more pleasant one of seeing her best friends, she ran down the blue-carpeted corridor. A few feet from the plane’s open door, a blast of hot, muggy air slammed into her. The earlier thunderstorm hadn’t cleared out the mid-May heat wave that had blanketed New York for the last three days. One more reason to head to Colorado: she’d be able to breathe.
But when the flight attendant showed Vivi to her first-class aisle seat, she stopped breathing all together. A long-legged, broad-shouldered man slouched in the window seat with a champagne-colored Stetson covering his face. Every time she saw a tall, exceptionally built man wearing a Stetson, she’d had the same reaction.
This was worse.
This was painful.
Because this man’s scuffed, brown cowboy boots looked the same as the ones that had spent a week under her bed. So did the well-worn jeans that encased thighs that appeared to be as hard as the ones she’d run her bare foot along. She recognized the black T-shirt with the Rocky Mountain logo that hugged his wide chest. An extraordinary chest she’d kissed her way up and kissed her way down. Broad shoulders that she’d clung to. Muscular, tanned arms that had wrapped around her, and large hands that could easily crush a man but had caressed her gently, and at one time, she’d misguidedly thought, lovingly.
At the flight attendant’s impatient sigh, Vivi dragged her gaze away. “Ah, is there another seat available? I’d rather not sit in first class. Too close to the front of the plane.” The woman’s black-penciled eyebrows snapped together when Vivi continued, her voice barely a whisper, “In the event of a crash, it’s forty percent safer to be at the back.” Safer for her. She needed time to prepare herself for the sight of his to-die-for face. She remembered that face, remembered kissing that face, falling head over heels in love with that face. And those amazing grass-green eyes of his wouldn’t miss her reaction to seeing him for the first time in eighteen months. They’d never missed anything.
He’d know he’d broken her heart.
At least that was one positive thing that had come out of writing an advice column. Vivi had learned what she had to do to move on with her own life. She needed to prove to Chance as much as to herself that she was over him. That he hadn’t ruined her for any other man. When Superman entered her life, she’d hoped that was the case. He’d been proof that all those soft, romantic feelings hadn’t shriveled up and died. It didn’t matter that he was no longer in her life. Everyone needed a rebound guy, and Superman had been hers.
Hopefully moving on from Chance would be as easy as moving on from Superman. Since the day Chance dumped her, she’d rehearsed her first face to face with him a million times. She knew exactly what she’d say and how she’d act. She’d even planned out what to wear. Which was so not Vivi. She was a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl. But she’d packed an outfit that oozed cool sophistication. It sure as hell wasn’t the yellow rubber boots, black leggings, and seen-better-days, off-the-shoulder green T-shirt she currently had on. And a brief encounter with Chance on Main Street was not the same as being trapped beside him on the four-hour flight to Denver. Vivi’s lungs constricted, and her face tingled. Good God, she was having a panic attack. And the flight attendant’s tight smile and negative head shake was so not what she needed to see right now.
Maybe the woman at the gate was right and it was Vivi’s lucky day. Maybe this guy who leaked testosterone from his pores wasn’t Chance McBride after all. Her gaze went to the man’s overlong, copper-streaked, dark-blond hair. No, it was not her lucky day. This was the second-worst day of her life. The worst day had been when she’d woken up to a note on her pillow. And the words “Take care, Slick” in Chance’s bold, masculine handwriting.
* * *
Chance McBride kept his body relaxed even though everything inside of him tightened in response to that raspy bedroom voice. He didn’t need to see her to know who it was. That voice was imprinted on his brain. It had made him want things he couldn’t have. Made him forget things he had no business forgetting. It’s why he’d left her without saying good-bye. He’d known he was in trouble the first time he’d laid eyes on Vivi Westfield.
A hollow ache filled his chest at the memory of the days and nights they’d spent together. Of her gorgeous, toned legs wrapped around him, his mouth at her pink-tipped breast while his hands kneaded her amazing ass. Her long, dark hair spread across the pillow as soft, sexy sounds escaped from her parted lips. Full, sensuous lips he could spend a lifetime fantasizing about. But it was her eyes, incredible violet eyes, that did him in. And those eyes were the reason he’d left her. The emotion that had turned them from violet to black.
She’d fallen in love with him. A man who had no love left to give. The death of his wife, Kate, and their baby girl had seen to that. If he’d met Vivi before Kate, it would have taken an army to drag him away from her. But he wasn’t that man, and he’d walked away from her without a backward glance. Didn’t mean he didn’t think about her, keep tabs on her. He might not be able to give her the love she wanted and deserved, but she’d damned well needed his protection.
Vivi Westfield was a hothead. She had no fear. She was driven, ambitious, going after a story with no regard for her personal safety. She’d nearly gotten herself killed six months back. He’d done what he could, but she’d shut him down as quickly as he’d cut off her sources. She’d given the slip to the tail he’d put on her that night in November. If he hadn’t been on another job halfway across the country, he would have protected her himself. Done everything he could to keep her out of harm’s way. At least he hadn’t had to worry about her the last few months.
Thinking of her as Dear Vivi, his mouth twitched. He doubted she found the demotion amusing. And if she ever discovered who he was, she’d go ballistic. Her girls, Madison and Skye, they knew. Obviously they hadn’t shared that he was Superman or Vivi would be straddling him right now, her hands at his throat. He shifted in the seat. He needed to get that particular visual out of his head.
Fucking Nell. He should have known his great-aunt was up to no good when she sent him the nonrefundable, one-way first-class ticket. She always had an agenda. Like the one that had put Vivi on his radar in the first place. He worked for an international security company and had been on assignment in New York when Nell tagged him to investigate Madison. A job that took him all of ten minutes. The rest of the time he’d spent with Vivi.
He’d assumed the plane ticket was Nell’s way of ensuring he was there for his dad’s wedding. If Chance didn’t know it would break his father’s heart if he was a no-show, Nell’s nonrefundable ticket wouldn’t have been enough to sway him. He’d been home only once since Kate and the baby’s funeral. It had been tough being there. Tougher than he’d admit to anyone. Now with Vivi in town and his great-aunt apparently in matchmaking mode, it would be worse.
He took a moment to prepare himself, then pushed up the brim of his Stetson with a finger and forced a lazy, amused tone to his voice. “Hey, Slick. Long time no see.”
Long time no see. Seriously? That’s all he could come up with after he’d… Of course it was. For Vivi, her heart had been on the line, while for Chance, their week together had probably been nothing more than an extended one-night stand. And since that was something she didn’t want him to know, she forced her face into what she hoped was a this-is-a-happy-coincidence expression and lifted her gaze.
Her knees went weak as she looked into his oh-so-green eyes for the first time in more than a year. She curled her fingers into the headrest of the leather seat. Any hope of forming a scintillating response fled at the sight of his beard-stubbled face. He was even more devastatingly handsome than she remembered. “Hey,” she croaked, her greeting as lame as his.
The flight attendant played with her shiny, dark hair, flashing Chance a coy smile. With all of his attention focused on Vivi, he didn’t return the woman’s obvious flirtatious attempt. When the flight attendant realized she wasn’t going to get the reaction she hoped for, she huffed, “Please take your seat.”
Right. She had to sit beside him. Sit next to that prime example of male perfection with his hard muscles brushing up against her for the next four freaking hours and pretend he didn’t affect her. That she didn’t…
“Ma’am.” The flight attendant raised her black-penciled eyebrows.
Vivi sat, then made a production of stowing her carry-on under the seat in front of her to buy herself some time. Smile, she ordered herself when she finally sat upright. What was she smiling for? She wasn’t a smiley type of person. It would be a dead giveaway. Though she had smiled a lot with him. The reminder had her pressing her lips together as she hunted for her seat belt.
Goose bumps raised on her arms in response to his deep, panty-dropping voice. She kept her head bent, digging between the seats as she tried not to touch his jean-clad thigh. “I’m good. But you’re, ah, sitting on my seat belt.”
She sensed him watching her as he raised his hip. He handed her the belt, his fingers brushing hers. A heated charge of memory and sensation rushed through at that simple, accidental touch. She suppressed a shiver. “Thanks,” she said through clenched teeth while trying to fit the metal pieces together.
“You sure you’re okay?” His big hand closed over hers as he clicked her seat belt into place.
“I’m good. Just a little frazzled because I was late for the flight. I hate being late for anything, you know.” She was always late. “I was working on a story and time got away from me.” She rubbed her forehead when what she really wanted to do was bury her face in her hands. She was rambling, and Vivi never rambled.
She heard what sounded like amusement in his voice and glanced at him. Her overwrought nervous system must be causing her to hear things because there was nothing but a look of languid interest in his eyes. She nodded and lied. “Huge story. Really big. Probably the biggest in my career.”
His perfectly sculpted lips tipped up at the corner, and she was about to ask him what was so funny when the two flight attendants at the front of the plane drew her attention. “Do they look nervous to you? Because they look nervous to me. Must be that cargo door they were having problems with earlier.” All she could think was that God worked in mysterious ways. She silently thanked Him and started to unbuckle her seat belt.
Chance’s hand closed over hers. She really wished he’d stop doing that. “Better keep that on, Slick. We’ll be taking off in a couple of minutes.”
“We can’t take off. Not when there’s a problem with the cargo door. Do you want to get sucked out of the plane?” she asked, her voice rising along with her panic.
“Mommy, I don’t want to get sucked out of the plane,” a little boy whined from behind her.
“Terry, there’s something wrong with the cargo door,” the older woman across the aisle from Vivi said to the bespectacled octogenarian beside her.
“What’s that, Ethel?”
“The cargo door, Terry. She says we’re going to get sucked out of the plane,” Ethel yelled, waving her hand at Vivi.
Penciled Eyebrows strode down the aisle. “What’s going on here?”
Everyone pointed at Vivi, repeating her comments, while Chance sat back with a grin on his ridiculously handsome face, his arms crossed over his chest. It took a moment for the flight attendant to calm the passengers and to read Vivi the riot act. Vivi opened her mouth to refute the flight attendant’s statement that flying was the safest mode of travel, then closed it. She didn’t want to scare Ethel, Terry, and the little boy behind her any more than she already had.
“It’s not funny. Everything I said was true,” she muttered to the silently laughing man beside her. She tightened her grip on the armrests as they taxied down the runway. Closing her eyes, she chewed an imaginary piece of gum as the plane lifted off.
“Huh. And here I thought there was nothing the fearless Vivi Westfield was afraid of.” He laced his fingers through hers, stroking his thumb over her knuckles.
At the confidence in his deep voice and his comforting touch, her heart beat double time in her chest, and her mouth went dry. Her reaction to Chance McBride was more terrifying than the thought of the 757 falling from the sky. “I’m not afraid. It’s—” She jumped at the loud clunking noise coming from beneath the plane. “What’s that?”
He gave her hand a light squeeze. “Relax, it’s just the wheels retracting.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’ve put in about twenty thousand miles in the last two months alone, and I have my pilot’s license.”
“Oh, right. I should have remembered that, seeing as it’s how you kidnapped my best friend. My pregnant best friend who was wearing her pajamas at the time.” Honestly, she didn’t know why Skye liked the man after what he’d done, but she did.
“Worked out, didn’t it? Sugar Plum is living happily ever after with her Prince Charming. And if you want to blame someone, blame Nell. She’s the one who set…” His eyes narrowed, and he let go of her hand. “You buy your own ticket?”
“My plane ticket?”
“No, if I did, I wouldn’t be sitting in first class.” She didn’t add “beside you.” Her eyes widened as she realized why he’d ask. “Did you buy yours?”
“No,” he clipped out.
She pressed her fingers to her temple. So this was what Skye had been talking about. Nell’s plan had nothing to do with getting Vivi to move to Christmas. She was up to her matchmaking tricks again. Vivi drowned out the little voice in her head that cheered Nell on with a forced laugh. “Your aunt is deluded if she thinks she can get us together.”
“I know that and you know that, but it won’t matter what we say.”
His answer wasn’t a surprise. She knew how he felt about her, but to hear him so casually dismiss any chance… Good God, she really wasn’t over him, was she?
Obviously the twinge of pain in the vicinity of her heart was reflected in her face, because he patted her thigh. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out.”
“Good luck with that. She’s three for three. The woman thinks she’s…” She trailed off as the flight attendant began the safety briefing.
“Three for three? Who—”
She held up a hand and retrieved the illustrated card from the pouch in front of her. She caught the amused expression on Chance’s face as he watched her. She ignored him, focusing instead on the flight attendant. When the woman turned to the person in the emergency exit seat, Vivi raised herself up as much as the seat belt allowed. “There is no way that guy will be able to throw the door.” She cast a sidelong and slightly covetous glance at Chance’s corded forearms and bulging biceps. “You should change seats with him.”
“Slick, we’re not going to crash. If you want to worry about something, worry about Nell and what she has planned for us.”
Vivi dragged her gaze from his amazing biceps to… dammit, his equally amazing face. His eyebrows raised at what she belatedly realized had been her very thorough perusal of all his amazingness. Her face, along with a certain body part—one that had been piteously ignored for the last eighteen months—got warm and tingly. She fanned herself with the informational card, then realized what she was doing. She stuffed it back in the pouch. “Leave Nell to me. I’ll talk to her and set her straight,” she said with perhaps more feeling than was warranted.
“Trust me, I know my aunt better than you do, and trying to reason with her will do as much good as waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
Trust him? Vivi didn’t trust anyone. She hadn’t since she was seventeen and found out that people you loved died and mothers who were supposed to love you didn’t. Chance had made her forget those hard-learned life lessons. Only he hadn’t been Chance then, he’d been James Harris. But he had more experience with Nell than she did. “So what do you suggest we do?”
“Simple. We’ll tell her we’re together, and she’ll leave us alone.”
Her and Chance… together. It was like her fantasy come true. Only it wasn’t. She cleared what she imagined was a look of longing and hope from her face. “Are you crazy?”
“No. Think about it. If we don’t cut her off at the pass, she’ll drive us nuts. She won’t let up, and she’ll get her buddies in on the action. What’s the big deal? It’s only for a week. And it’s not as if anyone will expect us to spend much time together. I’ll be busy with my dad’s wedding.”
Vivi didn’t think Nell and Christmas’s matchmakers were that big a problem. Sure, they’d be annoying and no doubt drive them slightly insane. But pretending to be Chance’s girlfriend? That would be a problem. All those soft, romantic feelings would come back to bite her in the butt. She opened her mouth to… What? If she didn’t agree to his plan, he’d wonder why. He obviously had no qualms about pretending to be in love with her. She. . .
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