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Enjoy Chapter One now!
Entering the main house at the Duncan Ranch like he had a million times before, Jack Taylor took in the alterations made in preparation for Sam Duncan and Whitney Wright’s nuptials. Chiefly, what registered were two colors: white and red. Of course, he couldn’t think of any color scheme that might be more appropriate for a holiday wedding. The wedding planner—or more accurately, the owner of the company who was providing the wedding planning—Lindsey Mackey-Duncan had gone all out for this family wedding.
With his best buddy, Josh, being the second of the four Duncan brothers, Jack had essentially grown up here. He didn’t know if it was due to him being away from Rocky Ridge so often or because he was about as single as a man of thirty-two could be, but everyone here seemed so much further along in life than he did. All these boys had coupled themselves up somehow, and it felt almost like they’d snuck around and found their happily ever afters when he hadn’t been looking.
That especially felt true for the youngest Duncan brother, Pete. Jack had barely seen the baby of the family due to Pete being out of town for schooling’s sake. Since Jack himself tended to be on the road during the summertime, that meant he’d hardly laid eyes on the kid for the better part of the decade. Worse, said kid had apparently decided to make his inroads into coupledom with Jack’s one and only sister, Lilliana.
And man, oh man, did that annoy Jack to no end.
Not that he didn’t want his precious Lil to find happiness. He did. He absolutely did. But it seemed like their relationship had lasted for an eyeblink and had started out as less than ideal. Yet despite all this, Lilli had been sounding really serious about things lately. Too serious for Jack’s taste. Yes, Lilliana was a woman now and had been for a long while. But she’d been hurt before, and Duncan or no Duncan, Jack wasn’t about to let that happen again.
Even if he thought of Josh as his sibling and Jim and Maggie as his second set of folks.
Pete Duncan had better watch his step where his sister was concerned.
“Jack Taylor, there you are,” Maggie Duncan, matriarch of the Duncan clan bounded up to him as if on roller skates. The lady had always seemed to be quick on her feet and being of retirement age hadn’t slowed her down one bit.
If anything, it might’ve made her faster.
“You’re late,” Lindsey appeared as if from out of nowhere, her hands on her hips with her hair done, makeup on, and red bridesmaid dress looking pressed within an inch of its life. But then Lindsey always seemed put together and polished, no matter what.
“You’re right, and I’m sorry.” Better to admit to his faults rather than make excuses. On the bucking bronco circuit, he’d crisscrossed the country and traveled miles and miles without once being late barring traffic issues beyond his control. But here at home, he couldn’t seem to get his act in gear sometimes. Though a great deal of that came from the requirement of dressing up.
Sam had made him a groomsman, and while he felt pretty close to Sam, Jack hadn’t honestly expected the request. But maybe since his best bud had gone off to the Justice of the Peace to get hitched—a brilliant idea in Jack’s view—Sam felt obligated to put Jack in the lineup with his brothers. Jack felt both honored and reluctant. Yet Lilli would’ve skinned him alive if he’d said no, so here he was, starched button-down and all.
Living in denim and getting all sweaty and dirty on a daily basis did not a fancy man make.
A handful of the guests were milling about but most had seated themselves in the white chairs making up two neat rows in the living room. Lindsey rushed up to her husband and buttoned the very top button of his shirt, bringing the stiff fabric up snugly against his neck and making him grimace in discomfort. Jack could sympathize; he detested that sensation, too.
“Bryce Duncan, if you unbutton that thing one more time, I swear—” Lindsey threatened him, her gaze narrowed so ferociously that Jack took a step back from her. The woman obviously meant business.
“But it’s strangling me,” Bryce complained, even as he lowered his hands.
No one liked to fight with Lindsey. Bryce’s wife might appear to be sweet and innocent, but she could turn into a hungry mountain lion when it came to arguments. Nine and a half times out of ten, she’d win the debate so skillfully that you’d find yourself nodding along with her before you even knew what hit you.
Lindsey didn’t bother to say another word. Instead, she bounded off with a potted poinsettia in her hands. Jack glanced around, having no idea where she would put it. The flowers were already everywhere in sight. She found a location for the plant near the bottom of the staircase, then zoomed up the steps despite her spiky stiletto heels.
Coming from the back porch, Josh appeared and gave him a one-armed hug.
“Good thing you finally made it. If you’d missed this, Lindsey would’ve murdered you.”
“Slowly,” Jack agreed, hugging him back. In the old days when they’d been just out of school, Josh had competed alongside him. But eventually, he’d decided to stay on his family’s ranch, supporting Jack rather than being his opponent. “Where’s your own lovely bride?”
“With Whitney, upstairs.” Josh lowered his voice. “Dude, I’m so glad we skipped all this nonsense. Lindsey’s been on a tear, Maddie’s been stressed, and from what my wife tells me, Whitney’s been a nervous wreck. Our way was so much easier.”
“You’re a wise, wise man,” Jack complimented him.
He didn’t know if he’d ever try his hand at marriage himself, but if he did, he liked the notion of following in his best bud’s footsteps. It all sounded so simple. Say your “I dos” in front of a judge, throw on some rings, and sign a piece of paper. Easy squeezy, no muss, no fuss.
Josh smiled then headed up the stairs. He must be going there to collect Maddie. From somewhere above, Jack could hear a gaggle of distinctly feminine voices. Possibly because he’d kept his eyes on his best bud, he didn’t realize Pete had nearly scurried by behind him from the opposite direction. With deliberate purpose and a heavy hand, he smacked the kid on the shoulder blade, making certain that back pat could be felt.
“Pete, how’s it going, man?” Jack kept a grin on his face, but his tone and penetrating glare broadcasted nothing so much as a warning to keep his nose clean when it came to all things Lilliana. Based on the kid’s eyes growing big, Pete caught that warning, too.
Jack wouldn’t hesitate to do anything for his sister. She didn’t know this, but those two exes of hers who’d been cheaters had both been introduced to Jack’s fists. Not that he’d actually hit them. He’d merely held a boxing stance as he told them to never darken his sister’s doorstep again. But if they’d ever come near her afterward, he would’ve laid them out flat without a second thought.
The code of conduct on the bucking bronco circuit was tight. But if either of those losers had messed with Lilliana again, Jack would’ve willingly dealt with the consequences even if they included an assault charge.
“Good, Jack, good. Lilli told me you had an exceptional season with Streakstar. He’s quite the beast.”
Jack tipped his chin upward, tugging at the collar of his starched button-down and feeling glad Lindsey couldn’t see him. “He did well, but then, he always does. Where’s Lil?”
Pete did something with his hands—maybe it was going to be a gesture pointing somewhere—when an acoustic guitar began to play, and Pete glanced up to the second floor’s landing. Jack peeked up there as well to see Lindsey waving at them frantically. Sam had already moved to stand under the arch that had been covered in crimson poinsettias near the Christmas tree. Must be their cue.
Hurrying through the kitchen and up the stairs, Pete and Jack passed Bryce and Josh who stood near the head of the stairway.
“Nice of you two to get your backsides up here,” Bryce grumbled. “My wife is getting frazzled.”
Getting? By Jack’s gauge, she was already there. Not that he’d actually speak those words out loud.
The rest of the bridesmaids appeared from one room, Maddie throwing a smile Jack’s way as she bypassed him and went to join Josh. Lindsey whisper-yelled at them to get in line, and everyone formed twosomes. At the front was Lindsey and Bryce followed by Maddie and Josh, then Pete with his sister. Jack waved at Lilliana, but she didn’t seem to notice. She’d latched gazes with the kid, and the pair proceeded to make obnoxious goo-goo eyes at each other.
Jack “accidentally” bumped into him, casting him an even more pointed look than he had a few minutes earlier. And solemnly, Pete raised and lowered his head, letting Jack know his message had been received.
Had they all been younger and his and Josh’s positions reversed, his best friend would’ve no doubt made fun of all the couples. But none of them had been teenagers in years, and besides, Jack had never been the comic foil that his buddy had been. Despite his none-too-subtle hint toward Pete, the youngest Duncan brother had returned to staring at Jack’s little sister. And she was staring back.
They were regarding one another the way Sam and Whitney looked at each other. The same glance was being shared by Josh and Maddie. And when she wasn’t playing the dual roles of Matron of Honor and wedding planner, it was how Lindsey gazed at Bryce, too.
Everything had become uncomfortably lovey-dovey for Jack. These couples being here at this family wedding seemed to be emitting pheromones into the air like vapor on a hot day just as it started to rain.
Before he could feel any more like the odd man out, the fourth bridesmaid appeared.
And Jack forgot everything else.
With dark brown hair that reminded him of the best kind of coffee and a similar shade of blue eyes as the Duncans, she peered up at him with a soft, close-lipped smile. In front of them, Pete and Lilli were murmuring to one another, but Jack was no longer tuned in to them. Instead, all his bandwidth had gone to this beautiful woman standing before him like a vision.
Or a mirage.
All the bridesmaids had donned the same rich red gowns, the fabric thick like velvet, yet off the shoulder, and it showcased this woman’s porcelain pale skin like the background for an expensive jewel. Then, another image sprung to his mind. Her complexion reminded Jack of one of those priceless vases from some lost dynasty derived from the Orient, the color of ivory or maybe even a pearl. With the contrast of her hair with her skin, her high cheekbones and pert nose, she was mesmerizing.
He couldn’t seem to focus on anything else.
Thrusting out a hand, he introduced himself. “Jack Taylor, friend of the family.”
She blushed and sighed, which he didn’t understand. What was all that about? But then, she offered him a surprisingly firm grip for such a little wisp of a thing. The top of her head only came up to his Adam’s apple.
“Felicity Duncan. My dad, David, is Jim’s brother.”
“So, you’re their cousin,” Jack added up two and two and got four. It was amazing he could think at all since he couldn’t seem to do anything but ogle her.
“I am.” The guitar changed tempo, and she glanced down the stairs to where Lindsey and Bryce had begun to descend toward the poinsettia-covered arbor in the living room. “And I guess it’s time to see one of my cousins tie the knot.”
Whitney materialized behind them, all white cloudlike beauty as she took the arm of Jim, who Jack hadn’t even noticed was there on the same floor with them.
“I guess so.” And with that, Jack provided Felicity with his arm and proudly escorted her down the aisle.