Devyn Voss’s first hint that her holiday was about to crash and burn, hard, came in the form of a text message from her sister when Devyn landed in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, airport on a crisp, cold afternoon a week before Christmas.
Sorry, Sydney’s text read. I’m not going to make it out of DC until the weekend.
Something that didn’t make any sense, because Sydney was supposed to be here in Jackson Hole already, neck-deep in planning their eternally theatric mother’s fiftieth birthday celebration on December twenty-sixth. The celebration that was already crazy, because a simple birthday party wasn’t enough for Melody Grey.
Melody had decided that her landmark birthday was the perfect opportunity to address her spotty, complicated, and usually spectacularly dramatic romantic life. She hadn’t simply invited all of her family and friends to descend on the resort ski town in the middle of its high season and everyone else’s holiday break, which would have been frantic enough. She’d also taken it upon herself to invite all of her exes to take part in what Devyn was certain would be an absolute and utter disaster spread over the course of a few jolly, happy days in December.
And Melody had always been a pretty creature with a free spirit, to the dismay of her dour mother—a woman whose own grandchildren felt she was more Calamity Jane than Mrs. Butterworth. Such was Elly Grey’s trademark warmth and cheer. Grandma didn’t exactly hold back her opinions, no matter if they landed wrong and offended everyone in a three-mile radius.
In this case, Devyn shared them.
This was going to be a horror show of epic proportions.
She was so sure of that, in fact, that Devyn had been more than happy to step back and let Sydney take charge of the whole thing—despite knowing that her sister was not exactly dependable when it came to family stuff. Or anything else that wasn’t her busy, highly classified job in Washington, DC.
What do you mean? Why aren’t you here already?? Devyn texted back as she waited for her bag, but, surprise surprise, Sydney didn’t answer.
Which was her typical non-response response.
And Devyn was familiar with the sinking sensation in her belly as she stood near the big windows and stared at the achingly blue, beautiful Wyoming winter’s afternoon out there in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. She’d felt it approximately nine thousand times before when, once again, she was called upon to handle things as the only member of her little patchwork nuclear family who was in any way dependable.
She tucked her chin deeper into the scarf she wore wrapped around her neck and ordered herself not to turn around, run to the nearest ticket counter, and get out of here. She could picture it with entirely too much ease. A ticket, the next plane, and she could be back in her comfortable, drama-free studio apartment in Chicago before morning.
If she didn’t love her mother, she would already have done it.
She told herself she couldn’t possibly recognize that voice. Because she shouldn’t have. It had been such a long time, and anyway, it wasn’t as if she had a database of voices that had once plagued her locked away inside her head.
But it wasn’t her head that was the problem.
It was a simple greeting, nothing more, and yet it rolled down the length of her spine like a long, dangerous pull of her mother’s favorite winter drink, the desperately alcoholic Irish coffees she made herself so she could survive the usual family Christmases in Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Big Sky, Montana—a large one of which Devyn would have loved right about then.
She couldn’t recognize that voice, because there was absolutely no reason that the owner of it should be here in Jackson Hole. None. Her mother’s ridiculous birthday celebration was going to be hard enough without his presence, so it couldn’t be him, simple as that.
And when she turned to confirm that, she spent a good thirty seconds trying to convince herself that it wasn’t him at all.
Because the man standing before her, there in the Jackson Hole Airport as if the snow-covered Grand Tetons had been erected behind him simply to make him look like a country song come to life, looked nothing like the near-stepbrother she’d spent the better part of the last decade trying to forget.
The Vaughn Taylor she’d known had been a problem, it was true. With his gleaming dark eyes and that lazy smile her friends had insisted was infectious. Devyn had always believed that there were far greater problems with the guy than his smile. Like how tall he was, for a start. Lanky, everywhere, and always lounging here and there on the furniture in the house their parents had shared and had insisted the rest of them treat like some kind of latter-day Brady Bunch situation.
Neither Vaughn nor Devyn and Sydney had been even remotely interested in becoming a bunch of anything.
The Vaughn she remembered had been merciless. As unenthused about their parents’ proposed union as she had been, but a lot better at keeping that under the radar. He’d taken it out on Devyn instead. All those snide remarks under his breath. All the challenging looks. Like the mocking older brother she’d never wanted. It had been easy to hate Vaughn instead of the awkward situation their parents had created for them, and Devyn had been more than happy to throw herself into that hatred head on.
In the end, their parents had lived together for two torturous years and then separated without marrying.
Devyn had imagined—happily—that she would never have to lay eyes on Vaughn Taylor ever again.
But here he was. Larger than life and already studying her with that familiar, mocking look on his face.
Worse, the years and his karma had not done their work the way she’d hoped they would. He hadn’t become stooped over, withered, and small. He still had all his thick, dark hair. And, tragically, he hadn’t run to softness and fat.
On the contrary, he looked like six feet and four inches of hard-packed female fantasy material in jeans and boots, and Devyn wanted to tear her own imagination out of her head for conjuring up all those… images.
Because she definitely wasn’t a teenager anymore.
“This is going to be a long Christmas if you can’t even say hello,” Vaughn drawled, as unbothered as ever, in that voice of his like chocolate and something infinitely more adult.
“I’m so sorry,” Devyn said, pulling herself together. As best as she could. “I was trying to place you. Vaughn, right?”
The old Vaughn, the one she had flatly refused to call brother, would have rolled his eyes at that or made some snarky, cutting remark, but this Vaughn didn’t do either of those things. His mouth curved a little, that was all, which forced Devyn to notice that it was that same damned mouth she’d had to pretend not to pay any attention to when they’d lived in the same house. A little too hard. A little too firm. A little too—
She stopped that runaway train of thought. What on earth was wrong with her?
“Nice to see you again, Devyn,” Vaughn said in that low, distracting way of his.
There was a little more Tennessee in his voice than she remembered. Which made sense, she thought. Because now that she was remembering things, the fact that he and his father Frederick had come from Tennessee felt something like a new sort of complication inside of her. As if the man standing in front of her, treating her to that half smile that did entirely too much conjuring, was a long, slow pull of whiskey himself.
And Devyn couldn’t afford to get drunk.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Devyn said, forcing a polite smile. What she meant was: I didn’t expect to see you at all, ever again, amen.
“How could I resist a summons from your mother? I’m only a man, after all.”
“I figured she asked your dad, but you?” It was an effort to keep her tone friendly. Polite. She wasn’t sure she managed it.
“You know how it is. Where one Taylor goes, so goes the Taylor nation.”
Devyn forced herself to laugh. Just a little bit, though she thought she sounded more manic than merry.
“Well, the more the merrier, of course. This is going to be quite a birthday bash!”
Her forced gaiety seemed to hang there beneath the gleaming wooden ceiling of the airport, like some kind of accusation.
She couldn’t get over how Vaughn looked. Tall as ever, but sculpted with the kind of muscle she thought only actors and celebrities were capable of producing, mostly because they treated their bodies as part of their jobs. The Vaughn she’d known had been anti-gym, anti-trying-anything-too-hard-or-at-all, and anti pretty much everything else, too, because he’d been in college and over everything, as personal policy. But this didn’t seem like the right time to wax nostalgic. Especially not when he was wearing that winter jacket of his open against the heat inside the airport, which meant she had a face full of his chiseled abdomen.
Devyn had resolutely refused to view Vaughn as hot when they’d thought their parents might marry. There was no reason why she should abandon such fine principles now, she told herself.
With only the faintest touch of something like hysteria.
“What, exactly, is your mother trying to prove?” Vaughn asked, a little more of that Tennessee drawl in his question, which Devyn took as the warning it likely was. “I remember how she gets. What’s her endgame this time?”
The worst part was, Devyn couldn’t even take offense at that. She might love her mother, but she knew her, too. Entirely too well, after twenty-seven years of being victimized by her mother’s love life.
Happily, Melody had stopped having babies with the men she decided she loved after she and Sydney’s father had broken up. Or this would all be a whole lot more complicated.
She eyed Vaughn. “I’m amazed that you imagine there’s some kind of endgame. That’s giving her a lot of credit.”
“Now, darlin’, there’s always an endgame. It might not make any sense to you or me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Devyn wanted to tell him not to call her darlin’, because it was inappropriate, but she was terribly afraid that she might flush bright red if she said that word out loud. And that would be all kinds of bad. So many kinds of bad she almost blushed at the thought—and the last thing she wanted to do was show Vaughn Taylor that he got to her.
In any way at all.
“All I know is what she’s told me so far.” Devyn had tried to ignore the entire birthday circus, of course, because she’d actually convinced herself that her sister would be the one handling it. When she should have known Sydney would bail, because Sydney always bailed. So really, who was to blame here? “She feels that her fiftieth birthday is an excellent time to revisit past mistakes. Lost loves. Call them what you will.”
“Disasters. I would call them disasters. Note the plural.”
“Eh. Tomayto, tomahto.”
“Here’s the thing. I like your mother, Devyn. I do. She’s always been good to me, in her way.”
“High praise indeed. Maybe you can put that in a card.”
Vaughn ignored her dry tone. “Melody has always seemed like a nice woman, if a little bit lost. But that’s the trouble. My dad likes nothing better than collecting lost things, and he didn’t do so well the last time your mother broke his heart.”
“You should tell him not to come.”
That hard mouth of his curved more, and seemed more granite than flesh, somehow. “Oh, I did. Believe me. Over and over again. But my father listens to me about as much as your mother listens to you.”
“Is that why you’re here?” If there was one thing Devyn didn’t appreciate, it was being reminded how little power she had. No matter that she would be given all of the responsibility. Her eyes narrowed of their own accord. “You decided to have a classic white Christmas in all this Wyoming snow with my mother’s many ghosts of Christmas past lurking all around, and play bodyguard to your dad while you’re at it?”
“I didn’t want my father marrying your mother the first time around,” Vaughn replied, as if that went without saying. And given the way things had gone down back then, maybe it did. “I like a good love story as much as the next guy, but your mother didn’t love my dad. Not really. I don’t think anything’s changed in all these years apart. Do you?”
Again, something turned over inside of Devyn, as if she should leap to her mother’s defense. But how could she do that? She had all the same reservations that Vaughn did, and then some.
She found herself crossing her arms over her chest, but she didn’t feel defensive. She felt something a whole lot more messy than that, and she figured it was a good idea to keep it contained.
“I want to argue with you, but I can’t,” she said after a moment. “I don’t know what she’s doing. I do know she’s invited every single one of her exes here and knowing her, I have to assume she has one of them in mind already. I don’t know if she thinks this is an episode of the Melody Grey Bachelorette or something. She may genuinely imagine that all her exes are her friends, because some of them are. But really, you know as much as I do. I just landed.”
Vaughn unleashed that lazy grin of his, and things were very different now, miles away from anywhere in the snowy mountains of Wyoming. She wasn’t a teenager, for one thing. And he wasn’t her potential stepbrother. Maybe that was why she suddenly got what her friends had been saying all those years ago.
She got it hard, like a smack upside the head.
That grin of his was lethal.
And horrifying, she told herself firmly—and the rest of her body, which was reacting to him as if he was just an attractive man. And not…him.
“That doesn’t sound like the Devyn I knew,” Vaughn was saying, all drawl and lazy heat. “I would have thought you’d be micromanaging every detail of this party.”
“Sydney said she would take care of it.”
His laugh, it turned out, was worse. It made something bubble up in her chest and sit there, a bit too warm and bright for comfort.
Devyn scowled, and pressed the heel of one hand against her breastbone as if she could pop that strange little bubble manually. “It’s not funny.”
“Well, people change, I guess.” Vaughn studied her expression, still grinning. “Has your sister changed?”
“No,” Devyn admitted, in a rush of something she would have called relief, had she been talking to anyone else. One of her cousins, for example. But even then, maybe not. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her cousins, because she did. But none of them were ditzy, free-loving, always problematic Melody’s children. That was on Devyn and Sydney. The more outrageously Melody behaved, the more uptight Devyn got. While Sydney simply…detached, and disappeared into whatever she was working on. School, her job, whatever, leaving Devyn to fuss and implode alone.
It was the same old family dynamic, over and over and over.
But still, it felt like a kind of release to be able to admit it to Vaughn. Because he already knew. He’d lived with them.
Even if she expected him to mock her.
“Well, hell,” he said instead, with no mockery at all, and that was…worse. “Looks like we got our work cut out for us, then.”
There wasn’t any we, of course. Devyn had no idea why she didn’t say so.
Maybe because she was proud of the fact that they were both acting like adults, for a change. Not the bratty almost-siblings they’d been a decade ago, with that sharp, dark thing beneath every interaction that had always seemed to cut Devyn into pieces, though she’d have died before admitting it. Not as if they had to be enemies because they didn’t know how to be around each other if they weren’t.
But if she could be on good terms with Vaughn Taylor, of all people, then Devyn was certain she could do anything.
Even survive her mother’s crazy little Christmas birthday party…one way or another.
End of Excerpt