People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.
That crisp January night Mackenzie Walker couldn’t help but notice the beauty of the bride and the handsomeness of the groom. All the family and friends at the reception glowed, too, reveling in the couple’s obvious happiness.
The whole lot of them was giddy with gladness, with just one exception.
The maid of honor—Mac herself—was miserable.
Not that she’d allow anyone to guess that. Instead, she smiled and laughed and responded gaily to every question thrown her way.
Wasn’t her new sister-in-law’s gown lovely? Of course it was, Mac agreed. Who would deny it? The ivory-colored dress clung to Angelica’s figure, her golden skin showing through spangled chiffon sleeves that began just off the shoulder and ended at her wrists.
Didn’t Brett Walker appear just as comfortable in his charcoal suit and silvery-gray tie as he did in his usual uniform of jeans and work boots? No doubt, Mac responded. Her big brother rocked the formal wear.
And what a bridesmaid dress! one of Mac’s cousins exclaimed. Everybody knew those could be dreadful. Hers was not, Mac had to concur. The pale blue was the color of her eyes and it had a flattering, sweetheart neckline with sheer sleeves dotted with crystals just like the bride’s.
Yes, her attire was lovely. That wasn’t the source of Mac’s low mood.
On that thought, she made her way to the bar at Mr. Frank’s, an old-fashioned restaurant and bar with red vinyl booths and dark paneling in the village of Blue Arrow Lake. The lake itself was private and the surrounding lavish homes beyond pricey, because Southern Californians could find stupendous mountain scenery and four real seasons just a couple of hours away from urban centers and sand and surf.
This was a vacation spot for them, but locals lived—much more modestly, of course—in the area, too. Mac’s family, the Walkers, had been here for over one hundred and fifty years, part of the first wave of pioneers who labored up the mountain with their oxen for lumber opportunities and stayed because they fell in love with the land.
She slid onto a bar stool and sketched a wave at the bartender. “Hey, Jim.” His white shirt was starched and his red vest well pressed. “Looking good.”
He beamed, his fiftysomething face lighting up. “Nothing but the best for your brother and his bride. We were only too happy to close the place for the reception.”
Though Brett and Angelica had actually run off to Vegas and done the deed in October, they’d decided to celebrate the tying of the knot with all the trimmings once the holidays had passed. It had been a bit of trouble getting the dresses in a timely fashion, but the rest had fallen into place.
“What can I get you?” Jim asked.
While she pondered, his gaze wandered over her shoulder. “They sure are a picture.”
Mac glanced back and took in the sight of the bride and groom surrounded by the rest of the bridal party: her two sisters, their fiancés and five-year-old Mason, Mac’s nephew, who had also stood up with the groom. When her stomach tightened, she told herself it was wrong of her to let her own feelings darken even a moment of these happy hours.
“You’re the last single Walker now, eh?”
Except there was that unavoidable truth. Of her four siblings, Mac alone was single.
Suppressing a sigh, she decided on her order. “A tequila shot, please.”
Jim didn’t remark on the out-of-character request, though Mac rarely took her spirits straight. Instead, he plunked down a napkin and then a shot glass filled to the brim with a golden liquid. “Top shelf for you,” he said.
Because he was sorry for her, just as she feared everybody she knew was sorry for her, just as she was a little bit sorry for herself.
She threw back the liquor, choked, coughed, then slammed the empty glass back on the bar. Heat coursed through her, hot enough, she hoped, to burn off the uncomfortable sense of being the odd woman out in her own family. Just months ago, the Walker siblings had been hardworking singletons. Now three of the four were still hardworking, yet exuberantly happy people paired off, leaving Mac the odd wheel.
Honestly, that wouldn’t be so bad if—
“There you are!”
She slid her gaze to the side, taking in her date for the evening, Kent Valdez. “I’ll have what she just gulped down,” he said to Jim.
Mac showed the bartender two fingers, indicating another tequila shot was in order for herself. “Having fun, Kent?” she asked, forcing herself to sound pleasant. Not that there was anything wrong with the man or anything wrong with the obvious good time he’d been having. But she’d invited him to be her date and he’d been whooping it up with the other guests instead of hanging at her elbow, doing his part to assure everyone that Mac had a full and very satisfying romantic life.
Because the other downer she’d been dealing with lately was the astonishing and irritating revelation that her entire community still believed her to be hung up on her first love.
Who had left her and the mountains ten years before.
In order to correct that group delusion, she’d hit upon the scheme to attend each of the Walker matrimonial events—all happening in the next few weeks—with a different eligible bachelor.
She’d show everyone in the vicinity of Blue Arrow Lake that the last single Walker standing was happy and heart-whole.
The recollection of that goal plus the burn of the second tequila shot got her off the bar stool. Tugging on Kent’s hand, she towed him toward the dance floor, just as a line dance was forming. Thrusting both arms in the air, she let out a loud “Woo-hoo!” and took her place beside Angelica, who shared a grin. Then the bride stuck out her tongue at the groom, who stood on the sidelines, arms crossed over his chest and a smug half smile curving his mouth, his gaze never leaving his beautiful new wife. She laughed and blew him a kiss that he pretended to catch. Then Brett clapped his hand to his heart.
Mac froze, stricken by the romantic gesture coming from her usually reserved older brother. But when the music ramped up, she drove off the melancholy by throwing herself into the moves, hoping the old fake-it-until-you-make-it adage would blow away her doldrums.
And it worked.
Not for one instant did she leave the dance floor, finding partners for the slower dances and gyrating with her girlfriends during the fast numbers. Kent did his part, and when he begged for a breather she waved him off with her blessing and a smile. When the DJ segued into another romantic ballad, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” she sidled into a shadowy corner to enjoy the song and the sight of Brett and Angelica wrapped in each other’s arms, their foreheads touching, their mouths a millimeter apart.
Closing her eyes, she tried ignoring the pang in her heart.
But the sudden sensation of a male body behind her and muscled arms crossing her waist couldn’t be disregarded. She started, but his hold tightened and a hard jaw pressed against her temple as a low voice whispered in her ear. “Just enjoy the moment.”
Only slightly swaying to the beat, he drew her closer to his solid warmth.
Goose bumps rolled down Mac’s body, hot chills of sexual response. Her breath caught in her throat. Who…?
Not Kent, because through the dancers she could glimpse him at the bar talking to Jim. Anyway, she already knew he didn’t draw this kind of reaction from her. As the sweet notes of the song wrapped around them, curiosity prodded her to turn and confront her partner, but another part of her didn’t want to disturb the strange and strangely compelling bindings that seemed to be lashing their bodies together.
His heart beat against her back.
Hers sent an urgent message to her brain. This is something special.
Mac didn’t dare disturb the magic created by the sensation of his exhalations stirring her hair. Breathing deep of his scent, she felt both bold and safe enough to lean into his strength, going so far as to wrap her fingers around his forearms covered in the fine wool of an expensive jacket.
Enjoy the moment.
She couldn’t recall the last time she’d done that. Walkers worked hard to keep their place on the mountain and she was no exception, doing everything from washing windows to sending out invoices as the proprietor of Maids by Mac. Housework wasn’t a glamorous career, but she’d never wanted anything more than to be her own woman.
Except when you longed to be Zan’s woman, a devil whispered in her head.
She kicked away the thought of Alexander Elliott. He didn’t belong in this sweet bubble of possibility. Closing her eyes again, she allowed herself to bask in the man’s scent and in the man’s heat and mused that maybe Mac Walker wasn’t destined to be single and alone, after all.
Lost in that, she missed the ending of the song until the loud shriek of the mic yanked her out of her reverie. The DJ began speaking and she dropped her hold on the stranger behind her. But just as she turned to look at him, her sister Shay’s stepdaughter-to-be, London, grabbed Mac’s hand and hauled her onto the dance floor.
“Wait!” Mac glanced around, trying to find her partner, but she was already surrounded by a bevy of other women. “What’s going on?”
“The bouquet toss, silly,” London said in an excited voice, having lost her usual teenage insouciance somewhere after the I do’s.
Mac groaned. The tradition was embarrassing and one she did her best to avoid. But London had begged Angelica to include the custom and the kid had Mac’s wrist in a viselike grip. She tried tugging free. “Why don’t I get Shay and Poppy out here,” she suggested, naming her two engaged sisters. Once away from the teenager, she’d actually go on the hunt for her sexy stranger.
“They already have rings on their fingers,” London said. “This is for us.”
“You’re too young to get married,” Mac replied. “And I’m too…”
Hung up on Zan Elliott, the devil murmured again.
Instead of shrieking in frustration, Mac gave up. The absurd ritual couldn’t take long, right? Then she’d find the stranger and do…what?
Throw herself at him?
Maybe, she decided, reliving the sensation of him surrounding her. Reliving that so unusual—for her—trust she’d felt leaning against his larger body.
The women around her were chattering and the DJ was making noises into the mic, but Mac ignored the sounds, her thoughts focused on that man. Movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention and she turned her head.
Her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes widened in complete surprise.
There, beyond the tight clutch of women, a figure stood in profile. A figure she hadn’t seen in ten years and who was more muscled than when he’d left, but one she’d recognize anywhere.
And one she should have known when he stepped up behind her to whisper in her ear.
Just enjoy the moment.
Heat rose from her chest and flamed up her throat to her face as she recalled how quickly she’d relaxed in his hold. What did he think of that? And why would he have…have ambushed her in that way at this important event?
As if sensing her regard, his head turned, too, and their gazes met. His mouth quirked, stopping somewhere between a smirk and a smile.
Her temper kindled. What gall! What gall to show up so suddenly and without even a word of warning.
Just as she made to break out of the female circle in order to challenge her unexpected and unwelcome blast from the past, something soft and fragrant struck the side of her face. Instinct had her putting up her hands as a cheer sounded throughout the room.
Mac looked down at what was now cradled in her arms, trying to come to terms with the fact that she’d caught the bridal bouquet—and that Zan Elliott was back in town.
* * *
The fragrance of roses and lavender wafted up from the flowers. She gulped in a breath of it, then peered over the women gathered around her in congratulation, once again seeking out Zan.
He’d moved from where he’d been moments before…if he’d really been there moments before. It was as if he’d vanished into thin air. Could it be possible she’d imagined him?
Angelica broke through the ring of celebrants and beamed at Mac. Really, she was breathtakingly beautiful with her shiny brunette hair and dark eyes. She and Brett were going to make beautiful babies, and proud Auntie Mac would dote on them from her comfortable spinsterhood, unless Zan—
“I’m so glad you caught the flowers!” Angelica said, leaning in to kiss Mac’s cheek. “I know you consider the tradition barbaric, but I thought it was fun.”
She pretended to scowl at her new sister-in-law. “How come there’s no garter toss if you find tradition so great?”
“That’s because your brother’s a caveman. He said he didn’t want me baring my legs for all the wedding guests to see.”
Speaking of wedding guests… Mac took a quick look around the room, then leaned in to whisper in her sister-in-law’s ear. “Have you seen Zan?”
Angelica pulled back, her eyes going wide. “Zan? Your Zan?”
“He’s not my Zan,” Mac said quickly. “But I…I thought I caught a glimpse of him a minute ago.” I thought I felt his arms around me. I thought maybe my heart would beat out of my chest as we swayed to the music. “Did he call Brett or something and say he was coming back to town?”
The bride shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“But did you see—”
“I wouldn’t recognize him, right? We’ve never met.”
“Oh.” Mac felt another flush climb up her neck. The man—whoever he was—had her so flustered she wasn’t thinking clearly. “Never mind, then. I’ll just, uh, go put the bouquet down at my place at the table.”
Then she hurried off the dance floor, keeping a lookout for a dark-haired, hazel-eyed ten-year-gone guy. But when she didn’t see him, she began to wonder about her sanity. Perhaps the night before she’d stayed up too late boxing the chocolates that were going to the guests as party favors. Maybe she needed to gulp down a large cup of hot coffee and get her wits back in place.
“There you are!” Her sisters, Poppy and Shay, approached, their long skirts swishing about their legs. They wore gowns identical to Mac’s, only different in color. Poppy’s was pink, while Shay’s was a subtle peach.
“Nice catch,” Poppy said, nodding to the bouquet.
Mac rolled her eyes. “You saw what happened. It hit me in the head.”
“Maybe you’ll be better prepared when I throw mine at my reception in two weeks,” Shay said.
“No,” Mac groaned the word. “Not you, too?”
“London is insisting.”
“I’ll hide out in the bathroom, then,” Mac said. “Promise you’ll give me the high sign?”
“Absolutely,” her youngest sister said.
Mac narrowed her gaze. “You’re a terrible liar.”
“I’m not even going to pretend I won’t make you be in the gaggle of bachelorettes when it’s my turn,” Poppy put in. “But, anyway, did you see—”
“I did.” Mac’s heart jumped, then started to race. “I thought maybe I imagined it, but if you saw Zan, too…” She broke off at the puzzlement on her sister’s face.
“Zan?” Poppy said. “I was going to ask if you’d seen Mason dancing with the little McDonald girl.”
“Um, no, I didn’t,” Mac mumbled, feeling stupid. “Never mind—”
“Zan is here?” Shay asked. “Zan Elliott?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. It was just a glimpse,” Mac said.
Her two sisters exchanged glances. “How much have you had to drink?” Poppy asked.
No way would Mac mention the two tequila shots. “Never mind. I’m sure I was mistaken.”
Her sisters looked at each other again. “Oh, Mac,” Poppy said in a concerned voice.
Mac winced. Poppy had the gooiest heart of any of the Walkers, and right now she was clearly oozing pity for her poor, unattached sister who had delusions about the return of her very first boyfriend, her very first love. “It’s nothing,” she told her sister in a firm voice. “Like I said, a mistake.”
“Look, they’re about to cut the cake.” Mac pointed toward the other end of the room. “We’d better get over there.”
Thankfully, that distracted her sisters, and Mac followed slowly in their wake. Could she really have mistaken some stranger for Zan?
In her mind’s eye, she saw him as he’d looked his second-to-last day in the mountains. She’d been eighteen, he’d just turned twenty-one, and they’d been a couple for two years. That afternoon they’d taken his boat to a secluded cove, where they’d spread a blanket and a picnic. Her intention had been to tough it out and not allow her belly-hollowing longing for him and her aching sadness at his imminent departure to ruin those final warm, sunny hours.
They’d made love for the last time, the wide shoulders of his rangy body blocking the sun so that she couldn’t read the expression in his hazel eyes as he’d entered her. But her legs had wound around his hips, tight, like two vines that could bind him to her forever.
He’d cupped her face in his hands. One hot tear had leaked from her eye and he’d brushed it away with his thumb, the stroke slow and tender. “Mackenzie Walker,” he’d whispered. Just that, as if memorizing her name.
Maybe he no longer even remembered it. Maybe he’d never thought of that girl again, who’d given him her body and who’d wanted to give him everything else: her heart, her soul, her whole life.
She grimaced, thinking of that green and unguarded young woman. Likely Zan had headed down the mountains and never thought of her again.
Except that didn’t explain the postcards that had come to her regularly over the past decade. On their fronts were photos of places like Oslo and Algiers and Singapore. On the other side, a single-letter message, three bold strokes that made up the letter Z.
No other thought. No return address. Just a pointed reminder of the young man who’d left her behind.
Mac was older now, but maybe no wiser if she truly thought for even a second that Zan might return to the place he’d always sworn to leave.
Standing near the table at the far end of the room, she watched Angelica and Brett feed each other bites of cake with the tidiest of manners. When her brother brushed an errant crumb from his bride’s bottom lip, a hot press of tears burned at the back of Mac’s eyes, which she ruthlessly held back.
God, how was she going to make it through two more of these darn events?
Poppy was the family crier, but Mac was on perilous ground herself and thanked God she was recruited to pass out slices of cake. A diversion was necessary. Moving among the guests wasn’t as much of a reprieve as she’d hoped, however. It was easy to agree about the bride’s beaming smile and the groom’s clear dedication to his new wife. But other comments weren’t so simple to smile through.
When will we see you married, Mac?
Why hasn’t some man finally put a wedding band on your finger?
Whatever happened to that boy of yours…that Zan Elliott?
At this last, she stopped short, staring down at tiny Carmen Lind, who had to be closing in on ninety and wore her silver hair braided in a crown on top of her head. “What made you think of him, Mrs. Lind?” Mac asked, through a suddenly tight throat.
The little lady dug into her cake with relish. “Who, dear?”
“You mentioned Zan.”
Mac smiled a little. “Zan Elliott. You just brought up his name.”
“Oh, yes. Such a good-looking young man. But he got into a lot of trouble, I recall. Those bad boys always catch a girl’s eye, don’t they?”
At nine years old, Mac’s big brother had brought Zan around one day, and she’d tagged after the two boys until Brett knocked her down into a pile of pine needles. Already she’d been too stubborn to cry or complain. Instead, she’d thrown a pinecone at Brett in retaliation and her bad aim meant it nailed Zan in the butt. He’d whirled, laughter glittering in his eyes, then leaped on her to “shampoo” her hair with a handful of dusty needles.
Red-faced and sneezing, she’d handed her heart over to him.
It had been that fast. That simple.
Mrs. Lind glanced around, her fork in midair. “You know, I thought I saw him a few minutes ago. Did he come to congratulate your brother?”
Brett. Mac whipped her head around, searching out the groom. If Zan had returned, surely he would have spoken with Brett.
It wasn’t easy getting a quiet moment with the groom, though. The reception was wrapping up and it seemed that each guest needed to pause on their way out the door for a short word with the new couple. She hung in their periphery, intent upon swooping in as soon as her brother was free.
Finally, the only people left in Mr. Frank’s were the bridal party and the bartender. While her sisters went to a back room to help Angelica out of her gown and into something warmer for the ride home, Mac snagged her brother by the sleeve.
“Hey, I’ve got to ask you something.”
“Me first,” Brett said. “I’m going to drive the car around. In about five minutes, when you hear me honk the horn, bring my bride outside, okay?”
“No time, Mac. I want this to go perfectly.” Then he strode away.
Vexed, Mac huffed out a sigh. But then Angelica came back into the main room, still managing to look bridal in a pair of leggings and an off-white winter coat, the hood lined in pale pink fleece. Her cheeks matched the color and her obvious happiness couldn’t help but spill over on everyone within ten feet.
Mac exchanged smiles with her sisters. “Lucky brother,” she said, then hooked her arm in Angelica’s. “Lucky us to get such a wonderful new sister.”
Tears swam in the bride’s eyes.
“None of that now,” Mac admonished. “I’m determined to keep my composure.”
Poppy’s fiancé, Ryan, had already handed Poppy his handkerchief. Shay was digging through her man Jace’s suit pocket for his.
“C’mon, guys,” Mac scolded. “This is a celebration.” Then she heard the sound of a car horn. “That’s our cue.”
Angelica didn’t resist as Mac pulled her toward the front door. When Mac threw it open, they stood in the doorway, silenced by the sight in front of them.
A sturdy SUV stood angled at the curb, a vehicle made for the mountains with its heavy-duty snow tires. But instead of being the usual black or silver or white, the paint job was a profusion of flowers in pink and green and yellow and blue.
Jace cleared his throat. “Check out the license plate.”
Mac redirected her attention. Seven letters spelled out WLKRWIF.
“Walker wife,” Angelica whispered, then hiccuped a sob.
“Oh, jeez,” Mac said, even though her heart was being squeezed like a sponge. “You’ve turned sappy, bro.”
But Brett only grinned as he pulled his bride into his arms. “You’re a real mountain girl now,” he told her.
“I’m your mountain wife,” Angelica said, pressing her cheek to his chest. She let out her breath in a shuddering sigh. “You know what I need.”
“I do.” He kissed the top of her hair. “And I’ll always do my very best to give it to you.”
Angelica looked back at the car, smiled. “What made you think of spring on four wheels?”
“Because you’re every season of my heart.”
On the brink of losing control of her own sentiments, Mac walked away, pushing past Shay and Jace and Poppy and Ryan, both couples moved by the moment into their own hugs and kisses. The closeness of the pairs was cutting her to the bone and another moment witnessing their happiness might have her bawling like a baby. Single. Alone.
Who would have thought Brett had such a grand gesture in him? The SUV symbolized that Angelica had carved her place as a Walker in their mountains. But he’d made it all her own by painting it to please his bride’s very feminine side.
“Mom always said,” she murmured to the empty room, as she went in to collect her belongings, “there’s something irresistible and utterly grand about a grand gesture.”
Reaching her place at the long table where the bridal party had sat, she snatched up her coat from the back of the chair and tucked her tiny evening purse in the outside pocket. Then she looked at the bouquet. Maybe she’d leave it there.
But that might hurt Angelica’s feelings. So she scooped it up and brought the cool petals of the roses to her nose. As she drew in their sweet fragrance, her gaze landed on the cocktail napkin that had been tucked beneath them.
Emotions bombarded her. Elation. Anticipation. Thrill. Then the lessons learned through heartache had her locking down on those feelings. The older and wiser Mac was no longer the naive girl who’d been left behind. Experience had taught her to protect herself by curbing flights of fancy and avoiding bouts of what-could-have-been.
Still, that didn’t stop her from dropping her hand to the soft paper surface, where she ran a fingertip over the three distinctive ink slashes that etched a single letter.