ZEV BRADEN DIDN’T know which was worse, seeing the woman who had captured his heart in second grade with another man or knowing his family had betrayed him by leaving him in the dark about her attending his oldest brother’s wedding. Beau had gone all out to give his new bride, Charlotte, a fairy-tale wedding at Sterling House, the Colorado Mountain inn she’d inherited. He’d built a wedding tent that brought the enchanted forest indoors, with miles of white silk draped over an artfully built frame of tangled branches and decorated with tiny white lights and strings of faux pearls. A crystal chandelier hung from an ornate iron tree in the center of the tent, and flowers spilled out of lush centerpieces. It was an intimate setting for their large family and close-knit friends. But at that moment Zev didn’t feel quite as close to his beloved family as he normally did. He and his five siblings enjoyed giving each other a hard time, but they had always had each other’s backs.
He took another swig of tequila, chewing on that thought.
He should be celebrating the discovery of a lifetime this weekend. He had spent the last several years, and tens of thousands of dollars, searching for the wreckage of pirate Garrick “One-Leg” Clegg’s ship, the Pride, which sank off the coast of Silver Island in 1716. Two days ago Zev had discovered three concretions—hard masses that develop when metals start to disintegrate and combine with salts present in ocean water, forming a conglomerate that cements rock, sand, clay, and any nearby artifacts—at the site where he believed the ship had gone down. An X-ray of the masses had shown what appeared to be iron and silver artifacts and coins. Zev had given the largest concretion, which weighed nearly one hundred pounds, and the supporting X-rays and documentations to his attorney to begin the legal process of having the vessel arrested, which would hopefully grant him exclusive salvage rights to the sunken ship and all artifacts he hoped to find. But instead of celebrating his history-making discovery, he was downing tequila to dull the ache of seeing Carly Dylan again.
The Pride was supposed to be their discovery. They’d become obsessed with the sunken ship when they’d seen a documentary about it in third grade, and their interest had only grown over the years. They’d even made plans to spend the summer after their freshman year in college searching for the wreckage. When they were kids, Carly had been his fellow adventurer, troublemaking cohort, and best friend, and as they’d matured, she’d also become his lover and, he’d thought, his future.
But that was before…
Zev spotted Beau and their brothers Nick and Graham heading his way. Traitors. He stared them down as they approached. He and his brothers were all tall, broad shouldered, and athletic, but Zev and Beau had something else in common—the torturous past that had changed both of their lives.
Goddamn Beau. If they weren’t at his wedding reception, Zev would be tempted to knock the big-ass grins off each of their faces.
“I know you’re celebrating your discovery, but if you keep sucking down that tequila, it’ll be the only thing leaving you flat on your back tonight,” Graham said with a smirk. He was the youngest of Zev’s siblings. Graham and their brother Jax could be Beau’s doppelgängers, with short brown hair, meticulously manicured scruff, and serious eyes, while Zev and his older brother Nick wore their hair longer, and Zev let his scruff go long stretches without a thought, much less a trim.
Zev offered the bottle of tequila to Graham, chewing over the fact that he’d had to learn about Carly’s living there, her close friendship with Beau and Charlotte, and the fact that she’d catered desserts for the wedding secondhand when he’d overheard a conversation during the reception.
“No thanks, man. The only thing I want knocking me on my back is my beautiful Sunshine.” Graham glanced across the lawn, where their twin siblings Jax and Jillian were chatting with Graham’s wife, Morgyn, aka Sunshine.
Zev’s attention was quickly drawn past Morgyn and the others to the woman who had haunted his thoughts and starred in his every fantasy for as long as he could remember. When he’d first seen Carly before the ceremony, stunning in a sexy peach dress that showed off her long legs and slim waist, their eyes had connected with the heat of summer lightning, and Carls had slipped from his lips like a secret just as Zevy had fallen from hers. Hearing her sweet, breathless voice after nearly a decade had left him momentarily numb. She’d been carrying a tray of chocolate desserts, following Cutter Long, a real-life fucking cowboy who Zev knew was one of Charlotte’s closest friends. Cutter had barely left Carly’s side since the ceremony, and now Carly was holding his arm, laughing at something he’d said. Zev had once been the guy by her side. They’d even attended the same college. But that was a long time ago.
He couldn’t look away from her. She was even more beautiful than he had remembered. Her hair was a lighter blond now, but even after all this time he could still feel the silky strands trailing through his fingers. He could still see her big blue eyes sparking with heat and playfulness as they rolled around in the grass or treaded water in the ocean.
He gritted his teeth, struggling to push away the happier memories he’d held on to like lifelines since the day he’d broken up with her and left their hometown of Pleasant Hill, Maryland, two days after her best friend, and Beau’s then-girlfriend, Tory Raznick, had been killed in a car accident. Tory had been visiting a girlfriend and she’d flown home early without telling anyone. She’d wanted to surprise Beau, but Zev had taken him out to a party. When she’d texted from the airport, they’d been drinking, and Beau hadn’t heard the phone. She’d called several other people looking for a ride home, but in the end, she’d taken a cab. It was a stormy night, and the driver lost control of the car less than three miles from the airport. Zev knew it wasn’t his fault Tory had been killed, but guilt from taking Beau out that night, and the realization that someone they loved could be torn from their lives at any second, had tipped an iceberg that had crushed him.
Nick nudged Zev’s arm, jerking him from his thoughts, and said, “Dude, Carly’s looking hotter than ever. If I’d known she was into cowboys—”
“Shut the fuck up.” Zev took another swig of tequila.
Nick chuckled and tipped his hat. He was a horse trainer with a body built for a fight and an attitude that always seemed to be begging for one.
Zev had seen Nick knock a man out with a single punch, but that wouldn’t stop Zev from going after him if he continued pushing his buttons. He might be leaner than his massive brother, but his nomadic treasure-hunting lifestyle had also made him quicker. Fearless and fast was a dangerous combination when frustrations burned through Zev’s veins, as they were now. But he didn’t give Nick a chance to get any deeper under his skin. Instead, he set an angry stare on Beau and said, “Why didn’t you tell me she was coming?” He eyed his other brothers. “You all knew she lived here, and nobody clued me in. What the hell is up with that?”
Beau rolled his shoulders back and said, “The last time I brought up Carly, you said you’d slaughter me if I ever mentioned her name again.”
“You did, bro,” Graham agreed. “Remember? We were at Mom and Dad’s last Fourth of July, when Beau and Char got engaged.”
How could he ever forget the day he’d never seen coming?
After Tory died, the pain and guilt had been so overwhelming that Zev and Beau had both needed to get the hell away from Pleasant Hill. Beau hadn’t been able to even be in the same room with his childhood best friend, Tory’s older brother, Duncan, without wanting to tear something apart. Although Zev had rarely returned home, he’d kept up with his family and had known about the ever-growing rift between Beau and Duncan. Which was why when Duncan had walked into their parents’ house the night Beau had gotten engaged, Zev had been ready to take him down—until he’d learned that Beau had found a way to move past Tory’s death and had made amends with Duncan.
That was the day that had made Zev wonder if he could find a way to move past all that had happened, too. But the only person he wanted to move forward with was Carly, and before the wedding, he’d seen her only once since they’d broken up, and she’d made it clear she was over him.
“I know what I said.” Zev leveled Beau with a serious stare and said, “But come on, man. You couldn’t have warned me? You and Char are close to her. You knew she’d be here with Cutter. What the hell?”
“Hey, I have no idea what’s up with her and Cutter.” Beau glanced at Charlotte, heading their way with Morgyn and her toughest sister, Sable, just one of the many Montgomery siblings who had made it to the wedding, and said, “But please tell me you’re not going to back out of watching the animals for us while we’re on our honeymoon.” He had surprised Charlotte with a weeklong honeymoon to the small village in France where her maternal grandparents had lived.
Zev had agreed to stay at the inn and watch their chickens and thief of a dog, Bandit, prior to his epic discovery because none of his siblings had been able to commit. Last night he’d arranged for the remaining, smaller concretions he’d found to be sent to his cousin Noah’s marine biology laboratory on the outskirts of town, where he could work on extracting the treasures while he was watching the inn. He’d spent every minute since wondering which sibling he could wrangle into taking his place. But now that he knew Carly lived there, he didn’t know what the hell he wanted.
“The horses are at Hal’s ranch, so you won’t have to muck the stalls,” Beau said, as if it were a selling point. “I know you’ve got a lot going on right now, but nobody else can do it.”
“Yeah, dude, I definitely can’t stick around to take care of their animals,” Nick said. “I’m heading to Virginia to buy a couple of horses at the end of the week.”
“Morgyn and I are leaving tomorrow for two weeks in Seattle, and everyone else is taking off first thing tomorrow, too,” Graham added. “Jilly and Jax have a big-city fashion show and will be gone for two weeks, and Mom and Dad have a meeting about the winery expansion.” Their mother’s family owned a chain of wineries called Hilltop Vineyards, and their father, an engineer, was helping with the designs. “Sorry, Zev, but it’s all on you.”
Charlotte came to Beau’s side, looking gorgeous in her fairy-tale-style wedding gown, which Jillian and Jax, both fashion designers, had made for her. Beau put his arm around her and leaned in for a kiss. Seeing his brother happy and so in love again brought warm memories of how it felt to be with the person he loved. Zev stole another glance at the only woman who had ever made him feel damn near anything. He may not know what he wanted, but one thing was certain: Leaving was no longer his highest priority.
“Don’t worry,” Zev said. “I’d never leave you hanging.”
“Bet you say that to all the girls, Foreplay,” Sable said with a raise of her brows, earning chuckles from his brothers.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Zev countered. Morgyn had come up with the nickname Foreplay, which she claimed meant he was the guy women sought for a good time but never for anything long term. As far as Zev was concerned, that was pretty damn accurate.
“You’ve been staring at Cutter and Carly for so long, I’m starting to wonder which one you’re into,” Morgyn teased.
“You know I don’t swing that way, Sunshine. But if I did, it wouldn’t be with that cowboy.” Zev took another swig of tequila, his gaze shifting to Carly again. Jillian and Jax had joined her and Cutter, and it looked like they were all having a great damn time.
“Funny, I was thinking a cowboy was exactly what I needed.” Sable flipped her thick mane over her shoulder and turned her attention to Nick. “What do you say, burly boy? Can all those muscles move on the dance floor, or are they only good for toiling away on your ranch?”
“Baby, there’s nothing this body can’t do.” Nick put a hand on Sable’s lower back, leading her toward the makeshift dance floor.
“I want to dance!” Morgyn exclaimed. She grabbed Graham’s hand, and they followed Nick and Sable.
Charlotte took Beau’s hand and said, “They’re playing our song, hubby. We should dance, too.” She stepped closer to Zev and lowered her voice to say, “Carly doesn’t bite, you know.”
“Well, that’s a damn shame, cutes,” Zev said with a grin. “I always loved the way she used that sexy mouth of hers.”
Charlotte gave a happy little squeal and said, “I bet she’d bite if you asked her to!”
“Come on, beautiful. I’m sure Zev doesn’t need any help in that department.” Beau led her away, leaving Zev alone with his dirty thoughts of Carly and her talented mouth.
No one knew Zev had run into Carly in Mexico when she was on spring break the year after Tory’s death. He’d just finished a diving expedition, and he was having a drink in a bar when he’d heard her infectious laugh. He’d thought he’d imagined it, but then he’d seen her across the room, stunningly beautiful and enticingly familiar. The second their eyes had connected, an inferno had blazed between them, and the all-consuming emotions he’d been trying to forget had nearly swallowed him whole. Their connection had always been so strong they’d never needed many words to convey their thoughts, and that night had been no different. They hadn’t talked about losing Tory, or his leaving Pleasant Hill. In fact, they hadn’t talked much at all, except for Zev to say he was in no position to make any promises, to which Carly had said, I don’t want promises. I only want tonight. They’d spent one incredible night in each other’s arms. Zev had known then that he’d made a mistake leaving the way he had, and he’d thought—hoped—they might be able to find their way back into each other’s lives. But when he’d woken up the next morning, Carly was gone without a trace, leaving him confused, hurt, angry, and fiercely determined never to feel that way again.
As he looked at her now, flashing her radiant smile at that fucking cowboy, he accepted the truth he’d spent years trying to deny. Carly Dylan hadn’t just captured his heart when they were kids. She’d claimed his entire being—mind, body, and soul—and she’d own them until long after the day he took his last breath.
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