A loud whoop filled the air from behind Nat as she laughed from her place at the front of a beautiful fern and flower arch, watching two of her best friends kiss for the first time as husband and wife.
“They look perfect,” Zoe gushed next to her, as the two of them watched Carter and Maddy walk across the drawbridge that had served as their aisle. Nat had personally decorated it with daisies and she could feel her eyes pricking with tears as she watched Carter and Maddy seeming to float across it, heading off for some alone time before the reception under the stars began.
“It’s been a great day,” Nat said, looking down at the rose gold watch on her wrist. “I’ve got to get over to the north field.”
“Nat, I’m sure the wedding planner has it totally under control,” Zoe assured her. “You haven’t taken a breath this whole weekend. Plus you’re constantly texting Liberty -about spaces for the London store.”
“The London launch is important,” Nat said. “And so is making sure Maddy’s wedding goes as smoothly as possible.”
“Lydia Munroe is the best party planner in the Pacific Northwest, and if she wasn’t getting paid an exorbitant amount of money to plan all this, she would be so much more annoyed with your meddling than she seems to be,” Zoe said with a grin as the two of them began to make their way down the aisle, towards the north meadow.
“Lydia’s amazing,” Nat said, because the party planner was. She’d created a gorgeous wedding that perfectly matched Carter and Maddy’s taste. “But I am the maid of honor. And I take that very seriously.”
“Too seriously,” Zoe muttered good-naturedly. “Control freak,” she added, laughing and dodging away when Nat playfully shook her bouquet of daisies at her. “I’m gonna run and freshen up before the photos,” she said. “Don’t drive Lydia too crazy, okay?”
Nat rolled her eyes as they parted, Zoe heading toward the main lodge, where most of the wedding party had been staying for the weekend.
River Run, the wilderness lodge and retreat where Carter and Maddy had first fallen in love, now served as the place they exchanged their vows. It really couldn’t be a more perfect place to get married, Nat thought as she picked up the hem of her long, grass-green maid-of-honor gown, not wanting it to drag on the ground as it faded from carefully laid river rock to grass. Set in the Oregon mountains, its staggering beauty never failed to take her breath away.
The same could be said about River Run’s owner, she thought with wry amusement as she came up to the old wooden-railed fence that bordered the meadow where the reception was being held.
The owner in question was currently sitting on the fence, his suit jacket already off, and when Rhett turned, hearing her footsteps, she could see he’d already ditched the tie, too. There was a teasing glimpse of golden chest hair at the neck of his unbuttoned shirt, and it made her glow with a heat she tried to stamp away.
Down, girl. Friendship and nothing more, remember? That was the vow you made to yourself when you moved back to Portland.
She and Rhett Oakes had been friends for years now. Ever since Carter, who owned the company she was CEO of, had asked her to escort Rhett to a charity ball as a favor, back when she was still living in New York. A year and a half ago, Carter had moved Purely Pleasure—the hottest company dedicated to pleasure and sexual empowerment around—back to his home state of Oregon to be with his family when his baby sister had a health crisis. She was okay now, thanks to Carter, but Carter had stepped down as CEO to rededicate himself to his true passion, inventing, and Nat had finally been able to take her place as the head of Purely Pleasure.
Ever since she’d moved back to Oregon, her path kept crossing Rhett’s. Or rather, Rhett kept inviting her out to River Run, because Rhett and the city, even a city like Portland, didn’t exactly mix.
“I am under strict orders to keep you from meddling in the party planner’s business,” Rhett said, patting the spot next to him on the fence rail. He set his jacket there with a flourish. “So your dress doesn’t get dirty,” he said.
“So thoughtful,” she said, taking his proffered hand. He pulled her up onto the fence next to him, his calloused thumb brushing over the top of her knuckles in a way that made her heart skip.
“I’m just trying to keep you and the party planner from coming to blows. Lydia’s nice,” he said.
“And I’m not?” she asked, eyebrow arched. For a horrible second, she wondered if Rhett was interested in Lydia Munroe, and she couldn’t stop the flash of jealousy spiking in her. The party planner was stunningly beautiful, incredibly successful, and whip-smart. Rhett would be a fool not to notice her.
“You’re sharp like a Bowie knife,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things about you. You don’t take shit from anyone.”
If she was a different kind of person, she might’ve blushed. But she’d cut her teeth riding broncos as a teen, gotten even tougher dominating boardrooms as an adult, and now she was the Big Dog: CEO of a flourishing company she’d already taken to a whole new level.
With that came power. And it also came with burdens, because when you showed weakness as a woman in the business world, men eager to diminish you liked to pounce.
It was hard to turn off being so guarded, even with Rhett, who put her at ease more than any man she knew.
Rhett didn’t expect anything from her. He didn’t demand things. Instead, he appreciated her. Every month or so, he’d call her up and ramble on about whatever latest animal he’d brought into the wildlife sanctuary that took up a majority of River Run’s 800-acre expanse, and then when she was lulled by his deep voice and his stories, he’d say, “You gotta come out and see me, Banks. We’ll go for a ride.”
Sometimes she turned him down, but other times…
Well, other times she felt like this place, those long rides on the slaughter-saved horses he housed on the property, were a little oasis in her chaotic, never-stop world. She loved the snow-capped mountains surrounding River Run, the smell of pine sap and fresh snow in the winter and wildflowers in the summer. It reminded her of home. And sometimes, she missed home more than she’d like to admit.
She settled herself on the fence post next to him, staring out into the meadow. Rows of tables had been set up, and mason jars with candles and twinkle lights sparkled in the trees.
“You know you’re going to have to put that back on for the photos,” she said, nodding at his loosened tie.
He looked down, looking a little shamefaced. “Crap,” he said. “Do you know how to do the fancy knot it was in? Zoe did it for me earlier.”
“Oh, you,” she said, scooting closer to him and taking the length of dark blue silk from him. “I’m surprised you didn’t wear flannel.”
“I tried to get Maddy to agree, but she pulled the bride card,” Rhett sighed, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Mm-hmm,” Nat smiled, trying not to notice the heat of his skin as she buttoned the final button on his shirt. She leaned forward, nearly losing her balance as she looped the tie under the collar of his shirt.
“Careful,” he said, his hand settling on her hip, steadying her.
She couldn’t stop the sharp intake of breath at his touch. The warmth of his hand seared through the delicate layers of her chiffon gown, and when she looked up in his unusual, honey-colored eyes and how their glance dipped to her lips, her throat went dry.
They had been here once before. Not here, as in the meadow. But here, as in Oh so close and Oh so tempted and Oh, it would be so good.
“It was sweet of you,” she said, her voice cracking a little with nervousness, “to shut down the lodge for the weekend for the wedding.”
She tried to concentrate on tying the tie, but he was so close, and even though she was focusing on the fabric and her suddenly clumsy fingers, she could feel him looking at her. There was this shiver in the air, pressed against her skin, an awareness she always felt when he was near her. A sense memory, a sort of haunting left over from years ago and one reckless moment after a ball where she stood on her toes and kissed him in the night.
Don’t think about kissing him when he’s this close! He’ll use that weird wolfy nature sixth-sense of his and clue in!
“Seems like you’re having a little trouble,” he said, and she stopped breathing when his hands—so much broader, sprinkled with golden hair, too—covered hers.
She wanted to close her eyes against the sensation flooding her, but she knew if she did, he’d know.
Friends, friends, we’re nothing but friends, she tried to remind herself, but it was so hard when he was so close and he smelled like pine sap and hay, like her cozy childhood, and like what her future would’ve been if she’d denied her ambition. She wanted to be able to shut this off, this damn pull she felt towards him—it wasn’t fair. It couldn’t ever be. Not with who she was. Not with who he was.
You can totally be friends with someone you’re insatiably attracted to, she thought sternly, a motto that she had to use many times over the past year. You just need to control yourself. And never let on that you want anything more. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.
She winced at her ridiculousness, and then winced again when she realized he’d seen her wincing and crap, why did she get so flustered around him?
Because you still can’t stop thinking about one kiss, one freaking kiss, years ago.
In her defense, it had been a really good kiss. He knew what he was doing. Which made her go down the road of what else he was good at.
“You having a bit of mental war in there?” he asked, tucking a curl behind her ear, and then he didn’t move his hand, because of course, he wasn’t going to make this easy. He probably didn’t even realize what he was doing, what he made her feel. She’d tried hard to hide it, and he’d always respected the line they’d drawn in the sand, that friendship line they couldn’t cross because… doom. So much doom. And doomed love was sexy only in movies and books. In real life, it just sucked.
He made it so hard, though… he had no idea how hard. Especially when his thumb was resting lightly against her neck, catching a little underneath the delicate silver chain of the necklace Maddy had gifted her, the little full moon pendant resting in the little divot of her collarbone.
“I’m just… thinking,” she said, trying to focus back on the vintage tie he was wearing that she had hopelessly tangled. She undid the knot and laid the sides flat again, starting over.
She could still feel his gaze on her, and it prickled over her skin like a bubble popping.
“Changes,” she said. “Carter and Maddy… I’m so happy for them. But things are changing. She’s really the first of my friends to get married.”
“You are the head of the young, single set,” he said. “Is it called a set? A girl gang? Cabal?”
She laughed. “You are ridiculously old-fashioned. Though I like cabal.”
“You would, power-mad witch that you are.”
She giggled harder. She loved his sharp sense of humor—it matched hers, and it was one of the sides he showed only to a few people. She liked that she was one of them; it made her feel special.
She folded the ends of the tie over each other, trying to remember the steps to the special knot that each of the groomsman wore. “Change is good, right?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “But personally, I like things staying the same.”
“You get new animals and new customers here every day,” she said. “This place has gone through so much change in the past six years. You’re always improving it.”
“But it’s always home,” he said.
And there it was—the reason Rhett Oakes had a hook in her heart. Sometimes he’d just say something like that, and she’d ache, positively ache with this feeling in her chest that was all desire and warmth and the kind of yearning she couldn’t acknowledge, because if she did, she’d have to deny it.
And she didn’t have the strength to do that.
“There you two are!”
Nat almost fell off the fence post at the voice. Rhett grabbed her, holding her tight, and her fingers curled around his strong biceps, trying not to feel him up too much. Once she was steady, she looked over her shoulder, where a brunette in a dark blue dress and a headset was standing.
Lydia Munroe smiled at the two of them. “I’ve been sent to find you two,” she said. “We can’t do group pictures without the best man and the maid of honor.”
“Nat was fixing my tie,” Rhett said, getting off the fence and holding out his arms for her.
Nat turned a little red, but she let him slide his hands on her waist, hitching her down in one smooth movement.
Lydia’s smile was knowing as she looked at the two of them, and it made Nat turn even pinker. “The photographer’s in the pear orchard,” she said. “Do you need an escort?”
“I think I know where it is,” Rhett said with a grin, making Lydia laugh.
“Have fun, you two,” she said.
“Oh, the flowers—” Nat started, and Rhett shot her a look, so she stopped, remembering what he had said. Lydia was looking at her expectantly. “Never mind,” she said brightly. “Everything is absolutely beautiful, Lydia. You’ve done an incredible job. And I’d love to talk to you about some Purely Pleasure events in the future.”
“I’d like that,” Lydia said. “Now go! The photographers don’t want to lose the light!”
“Come on, Banks,” Rhett drawled, taking her hand. “Let’s go smile for the cameras.”
The party was in full swing, the moon high in the sky, and the scent of pear blossoms thick in the air as people danced and mingled and drank and celebrated across the meadow.
Rhett watched with more than a little pride as he saw what a good time everyone was having. Lydia Munroe may have planned the wedding, but his staff had coordinated with her every step of the way, and he’d put in a lot of work as well. He had never expected to become something of a wilderness hotelier, but he had found that he was rather good at it, and he was good at finding the right people to staff River Run—everyone who worked for him was fantastic. He was grateful for all their hard work, and for the fact that he was able to provide so many jobs in the area, where the tourist trade had definitely ticked up since he’d built the hot spring facilities. It had been a great choice to build the bathhouses and the wood-fired dry sauna—they had become a huge draw for his return customers and brought in a whole new clientele. He’d always had in-room massage therapists on call, but now with the hot springs and sauna, he’d been able to hire a few on staff full-time.
His proud gaze fell back on the dance floor, and he couldn’t stop the stirring of jealousy in his chest as his eyes settled on Nat, who was dancing with a tall blond man he recognized as Aiden McGowan. His eyes narrowed as McGowan bent and said something in Nat’s ear that made her laugh. And it wasn’t her polite CEO laugh—it was her real one, the one that flashed the dimple on her left cheek.
God, that dimple. He could write a fucking sonnet about that little divot in her cheek.
“What are you up to?” asked a voice behind him.
He turned, a slow smile lighting his face as he took in Maddy, still resplendent in her wedding dress. His best friend has chosen a gem of a woman for his life partner, and Rhett was really happy for the two of them. There was a bone-deep good streak in Carter, he mused; the kind of good that spoke of self-sacrifice—hell, the man had given up one of his kidneys to his baby sister. That was the type of man Carter was. But for Carter’s friends, that goodness had a price—they worried that someone might take advantage of him. Rhett could still remember a few instances in their college years where idiot jocks thought they’d get the better of the geeky inventor.
That turned out to be a very big mistake on their part.Rhett didn’t let anyone fuck with his friends and Carter was a geek, but he was a geek who trained in several martial arts with the same devotion he applied to science.
And now Carter had Maddy, who was sweet and smart—and whose high heels could probably easily stab a man if she needed to. The perfect match, really. They’d probably be popping out gorgeous, Amazon-like babies any day now.
“I was just thinking about how happy I am for you,” he said, leaning over and brushing a light kiss on her cheek.
“Really? Because it looks to me like you were staring at Nat and Aiden McGowan,” Maddy said archly.
“I am an accomplished multi-tasker,” he admitted, not bothering to deny it, and it made her laugh as she came to stand next to him. The vintage emerald eternity band on her finger sparkled as she plucked his glass of champagne out of his hand and took a sip.
“You don’t have to worry about those two,” she said, nodding toward Nat, who was currently laughing at something Aiden said.
“I’m not,” he said, probably too quickly, because Maddy looked smug.
“She likes Aiden, but just professionally. Anyway, McGowan is completely in love with Lydia Munroe,” Maddy said.
“The party planner?” Rhett asked. Maddy always had the gossip about their larger social group, which he guessed made sense since she ran Purely Pleasure’s social media branch.
“Mm-hmm,” Maddy said. “Neither of them seems to realize it, which is hilarious.
Whenever those two are in the room together, it’s like all the air’s sucked out, and it’s just them. It’s intense.”
“Oh, so like you and Carter,” he said, making her light up.
“Have I thanked you yet for giving us River Run for the wedding?” she asked.
“At least a dozen times today alone,” he said. “I was delighted to do it, Maddy.”
“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I fell in love with him here. Right in that forest.”
“I remember. I had to fix the door on the groundskeeper’s cabin you two waited that storm out in… and the shower rail you broke. I don’t even want to know how that happened. I have a feeling it’d scar me for life.”
She turned bright red, her pretty face alight with mischief and happiness. “You know, if you asked her to dance…” she nodded toward Nat, who was still smiling up at Aiden McGowan in a way that made him want to stalk over there and tear her away. “… she’d say yes.”
“We’ve danced before,” he said, and he didn’t know why he said it. It wasn’t an excuse, but it almost sounded like one.
They had danced before. Years ago, before River Run had expanded, when he was still wooing investors. In a lot of ways, Nat was the reason River Run had become the destination property—and the animal sanctuary—it was. She had been the person who had inadvertently brought Eleanor Townes, River Run’s angel investor, into his life.
Ever since she’d stepped into his life, Nat’s presence had had a ripple effect on it. He’d thought of her every day, even when she was all the way in New York. She’d been home in Oregon for more than a year now, and while distance and the city still separated them, there wasn’t a week where he didn’t get a call or text from her, or he sent one in turn, and if that stopped…if they stopped…
He valued their friendship. And he knew better than to cross that line. If he did, there would be nothing but heartache. Nat was the CEO of Purely Pleasure now. A rare female CEO of a company that was on the rise, partly because of her. He understood how important that was—not to just her own career goals, but for young women just getting their start in the business world. Nat was an example. A role model. A great shining hope. Someone who had climbed her way to the top on her own wits, smarts, and talent; who had survived the cut-throat, male-dominated business world. Someone who would open the door for more women in positions of power, a mentor for young women, because she was the kind to always pay it forward.
He wasn’t going to get in the way of that. It didn’t matter that he enjoyed the times she came out to the property more than pretty much anything else. He couldn’t think about all those long talks and rides they’d taken, her easy touch with the horses, the way she swung up in a saddle like it was where she belonged… like next to him was where she belonged.
“She looks beautiful, doesn’t she?” Maddy asked, and God, it was Rhett’s curse that not one woman in his life wasn’t really smart, savvy… and nosy. If he wasn’t so damn fond of her, he’d be annoyed.
And anyway, she was just telling the simple truth: Nat looked amazing in the green chiffon gown.
“She does,” he said. Because she always did, no matter what she wore. Nat was beauty personified, with her wild hair and her sun-kissed skin and those big, dark eyes that were like pools of unfathomable and mysterious secrets.
The song Nat and McGowan were dancing to ended. He said something to her before they parted, and Nat nodded.
“Now’s your chance,” Maddy said with a wink, and drifted away toward the dance floor, where Carter was waiting for her.
Rhett followed, because he was weak. Nat was just heading off the dance floor when he caught her, holding out his hand. “I seem to remember we were good at this,” he said, because he knew if he made it a challenge, she’d strive to meet it.
That was who she was.
And she did. She took his hand, and her skin sliding against his shouldn’t rev him up the way it did, he wasn’t any teenager, but God, it did. She did. Everything about her. Her touch, her skin, her smell. Honeysuckle and linen, a sweet, clean scent that reminded him of cotton dresses drying on the line and flowers blooming in the summer heat.
“If I remember correctly, you stepped on my toes once or twice,” she said as he slid his hand down her back, drawing her closer to him.
“Lies,” he scoffed.
The music was an old song, something that sounded like it belonged in a movie musical from the thirties. As the singer crooned about dancing cheek to cheek, Nat smiled and he drew her even closer, his beard brushing her cheek.
They swayed together, the heat of her body pressed against him a kind of torture he didn’t even know how to process in the moment. He wanted to pick her up and throw her over his shoulder and disappear into the woods with her like a fucking caveman. He wanted to stay right here, as close as they’d been in years, the simple press of their cheeks together, their fingers intertwined, the precious spot on her lower back that his thumb brushed against, where her dress dipped dangerously low. He wanted to say something, or maybe nothing at all, because what could he say?
She was the one person he couldn’t have. That he wouldn’t let himself have. Because she was the kind of woman you gave everything to. Who deserved everything a man had. And if he let himself love her, if he crossed that damn line in the dirt, he would fall to his knees and worship her. He’d give her all that he was, all that he had.
But it wouldn’t be enough. Because he could give her himself, but he couldn’t give her the life she needed to be the person she was.
And he’d be damned if he’d be the cause of her fall from the mountain she’d climbed all herself, that she deserved to summit.
“I think you’ve gotten better at this,” she murmured, her words vibrating against his cheek.
“Better shoes this time,” he explained, and he could tell she was smiling. He wanted to pull back to see it, but he was afraid that if he looked in her eyes right now, he might break and she might see it, how he truly felt, in his eyes.
Earlier today on that fence rail, he’d been so close to breaking as she fixed his tie and they did their normal Nat-and-Rhett routine, shooting barbs and jokes back and forth like they always did. There had been a moment where he swore…
But no. He was making shit up in his head. They were friends. Nothing more. That’s what she wanted. That’s what he needed, because he wasn’t going to fuck up her life with his drama.
“You were very dashing before, too,” she said as he brought their clasped hands closer, pressing them against his heart. He heard a little click, like she was swallowing hard. Could she feel how his heart was thundering underneath his suit?
“I was desperate to save River Run,” he said. “And you did it in one night.”
“I didn’t do anything,” she started, but he squeezed her hand.
“Hush,” he ordered, and to his surprise, she obeyed. “You were the one who talked to Eleanor about me. You were the reason she became interested in the project and the sanctuary. I owe it all to you… and you know it.”
She pulled back, the brush of her cheek against his as she did almost gutting him. Dancing with her had been a bad idea—one he hadn’t been able to resist—but a bad idea all the same. This was going to haunt him, how she felt in his arms, how her fingers twined with his against his heart, how she had him in the palm of her hand.
“You did this,” she said, her dark eyes wide and solemn and so sincere that it made his stomach clench. “You created all of this. All I did was brag about you to a very nice older woman who mistook you for my husband.”
He frowned, startled by this revelation. “You never told me that.”
She let out a laugh but it was a nervous one, too high-pitched to be normal. “Really? I must have.”
“I would’ve remembered it if someone thought I was your husband.”
“Careful, or I’ll take offense,” she said lightly, and dark flush stained the sweep of her tanned cheeks. “I don’t think it’d be too bad, being married to me.”
His stomach twisted at the thought, and he had to stop his fingers from curling into the small of her back and drawing her closer. When was the damn song going to end?
She looked up at him, her full lips twisting into a rueful smile. “Rhett, this is the time where you say to the single woman attending her best friend’s wedding, Any guy would be so lucky to be married to you, Nat. He’d travel the ends of the earth to find you.”
He looked down at her, his throat dry with absolute fucking terror because it was the polite thing to say, but it was the farthest thing from what he wanted to say. Because no guy in the world was worthy of her, and if any of them even got near her…
He leaned forward, his lips brushing against her ear. “If you were mine,” he said. “I’d tear the entire world apart for you.”