Wednesday, December 16th, The Silver Feather Ranch, Cupid, Texas
“You gotta be shi—”
“Remington Dewayne Lockhart! Watch your language!” At thirty-five, his stepmother Vivi was just three years older than Remington, but she lectured him as if he was the same age as her twin toddlers.
Vivi clapped her palms over the ears of Remington’s half-brother, Rory, who was sitting in her lap. “Reed,” she called to Rory’s twin halfway across the den stacking blocks. “Cover your ears, son.”
Reed looked up wide-eyed.
“Ears.” Vivi nodded and gave him a pointed look. “Now.”
Like a well-trained puppy, the boy plastered his palms over his ears.
“I swear I think you Lockhart men just enjoy testing the limit of my patience,” Vivi muttered.
“Do you think making a big deal over curse words might draw more attention to them?” Remington drawled, leaning one shoulder against the doorjamb that led from the foyer to the den.
“Swear jar.” Vivi snapped her fingers at the bookcase where a glass mason jar sat. Dollar sign stickers and the symbols %$#@^ decorated the jar.
“Hey,” Remington raised both palms. “I didn’t say it. You cut me off at the knees.”
“The intent was there.” Vivi got to her feet, rested her fisted hands on her hips.
“Wicked stepmother,” he said affectionately. “To my way of thinking, my foul mouth is all your fault for springing Aria Alzate on me.”
“Your father and the US Army is to blame for your foul mouth, not me.” Vivi retrieved the swear jar and shoved it under his nose. “Five dollars.”
“Five dollars? Highway robbery,” Remington grumbled, but he got out his wallet and opened it up. “I only have twenties.”
“I’ll take one.” Vivi leaned over to pluck the twenty from his wallet. “You’ll cuss around my boys again. Consider your next three curse words prepaid.”
“No doubt I will, especially since you blindsided me with her. Low blow, Vivi, low blow.”
Vivi fluffed her shoulder-length blond hair and grinned. “I do try my best.”
His stepmother ran a cowboy wedding venue on the Silver Feather Ranch and Aria worked for her as a wedding planner. Because of Aria’s connection to Austin, where she’d lived for a time, she’d managed to get a write up in Texas Monthly and Vivi’s business had exploded as people sought them out for authentic cowboy weddings, and Aria, rising to the occasion, dazzled. They had so much work they’d upped their prices and started turning down requests they couldn’t fulfill.
Much as he disliked Aria, apparently the woman was pretty good at her job. Remington valued hard work, and he admired that about her, if nothing else.
“Would you have agreed to drive cargo to a wedding in North Central Texas if you’d known Aria was part of that cargo?” Vivi asked.
“Hells to the no.”
“Exactly.” Vivi held up two fingers. “You only have two curse words credit now.”
“Hell isn’t a curse word, it’s a place, and you just put me in a vehicle with it for the next eight hours.”
Vivi waggled her index finger. “You have one prepaid swear word left.”
Tempted to give her all the money he had in his wallet so he could swear up a blue streak, Remington reached for the cash, but his toddler half-brothers watched him with mesmerized eyes.
“I’m no more thrilled to get stuck in that paramilitary black SUV with you than you are to have me there,” said a tart female voice from the other entryway into the den, this one from the dining room.
He stared across the room, his gaze clashing with the woman standing there. Their eyes narrowing at each other like gunslingers squaring off on the dusty streets of Tombstone.
Looking at Aria Alzate, knowing what was ahead of him for the next several day Remington made a brash forecast. Thrown together for several days in forced proximity, they would either learn to get along or tear each other from limb to limb.
Remington’s money was on the latter. He groaned and briefly closed his eyes. “You could have warned me that she was in the next room, Vivi.”
“Look,” Vivi said. “I know you two get along like cats and dogs, but I need you both to play nice and get this done. Got it?”
Remington opened his eyes and studied the stunning woman standing in the doorway.
Aria Alzate was a major pain in the ass, but she was sure pretty to look at. Slim and trim, but curvy in all the right places, she studied him through lowered eyelids thick with long dark lashes. Her father was Mescalero Apache, and she’d inherited his straight black hair and high cheekbones, while also inheriting a pale creamy complexion from her Irish mother, Bridget.
She was an interesting contrast of dark and light.
Remington had known her his entire life, although he hadn’t seen her much in the twelve years he’d been in the Army, most of those spent as a paratrooper. On the few occasions she’d been home when he’d returned on leave, they’d made a point never to be in the same room alone together. They’d always rubbed each other the wrong way, and they literally had nothing in common.
Aria was impulsive, rebellious, quirky and something of a busybody. Everything Remington was not. They’d grown up together on the Silver Feather in an arid, isolated stretch of Trans-Pecos nestled in the shadow of the Davis Mountains. Her family had been servants to the mighty Lockharts. Her father, Armand had been the ranch foreman until he’d retired, and his son Archer took over. Her mother had been their housekeeper.
In those terrible times, after his mother Lucy died when Remington was ten, Bridget acted as a surrogate mother to him and his three brothers, Ridge, Ranger and Rhett.
At the moment, Remington was living on the Silver Feather because his paternal grandfather, Cyril had left the four Lockhart grandsons—this was before Dad had Rory and Reed with Vivi—two-acre parcels of land on each four quadrants of the hundred-thousand-acre spread.
Nice of him, but as with everything involving his father’s family, there was a catch. None of the four brothers could sell their places without approval from the entire family. And Remington’s father would never grant his permission.
So, knowing he had little option with the land, he had a house built on his property while living in a fifth-wheel trailer. His contractors had just finished building the house, giving him something to occupy his mind while he recovered from his injuries and adjusted to civilian life. But things still felt alien. He’d been away for twelve years. Living in a third-world country had shown him a whole other way of being. And he wasn’t really sure who he was anymore, now that he was no longer an Army Ranger.
Besides, Aria reminded him too much of who he used to be. The self he’d worked so hard to shed.
Yes, he and Aria found themselves forever tied, and not just because of their pasts, but also since his three brothers had all married her three sisters. He might as well get used to having her around. It was a weird family dynamic, especially when everyone seemed to expect him and Aria to get together too, just because they’d all hooked up.
Yeah, over his dead body. The woman was sexy, but she was a bonafide flake. She acted first and thought… Well, Aria didn’t think, did she? Neither before, during or after jumping in with both feet.
“Why can’t she drive herself?” Remington asked feeling a bit petulant. He wasn’t proud of it, but neither was he ashamed.
Aria drilled down on her glare.
“One,” Vivi said. “It’s a long drive in the winter with a potential ice storm brewing. Two, she’s got a lot of stuff to haul and three, she needs help to set things once she gets there—”
“It’s okay, Vivi, you don’t have to make excuses for me,” Aria interrupted.
“Excuses?” Remington lifted an eyebrow. What had the harum-scarum woman done now?
“My doctor says I can’t drive, okay?” Aria folded her arms over her chest and jutted out her cute little chin. “If it wasn’t for that, you can bet your sweet booty I’d drive myself.”
“You think my booty is sweet?” he drawled, intentionally provoking her.
Aria made vomiting noises.
“Stop it you two.” Vivi sounded exasperated. “This wedding is important.” She turned to Remington. “Besides being one of Aria’s best friends, the bride, Olivia Schebly, is the mayor of Twilight’s daughter. If we do a good job and we’ll have an ‘in’ with Texas politicians and along with the Texas Monthly article, this could make our careers.”
“A lot’s on the line then,” Remington said.
Vivi nodded and turned back to Aria. “So, follow the checklist. Got it?”
“I’ve got it right here.” Aria tapped her temple with an index finger. “Olivia is my bestie. I won’t disappoint either of you.”
“Write it down, please.” Vivi’s expression brooked no argument.
“I don’t need—”
Vivi interrupted her. “Write it down. I know you have a good memory, but considering recent events, write it down.”
“Yes ma’am.” Aria rolled her eyes.
Without missing a beat, Vivi reached down and took a piece of carpet fuzz out of her son’s mouth. “Let Remington rub off on you. He’s a great planner.”
“Eww, I don’t want Mr. By-the-Book rubbing off on me.” Aria pantomimed dusting herself off.
“Don’t worry,” Remington said. “I have no intention of getting close enough to you to rub off.”
“Good.” Aria tossed her head and her long straight hair swished like a curtain. “I hate being boxed in. I follow my muse.”
“You can plan and still find inspiration,” Remington said.
“Maybe I can.” She put a palm across her heart. “But can you?”
“You’re ironic, you know that.”
She narrowed her eyes and widened her stance. “How so?”
“A wedding planner who doesn’t plan.” He snorted. “How does that even work?”
“I plan. Just not in the dead boring, extreme minutiae way that you do.”
“Why can’t you drive yourself?” Remington changed the subject. He didn’t want to get into what his first and last serious girlfriend had called his “intractable” ways.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” Aria sassed, “but I suffered a concussion two days ago—”
Alarm shot through him. Concussion? That wasn’t good.
Remington had suffered one helluva a concussion two years ago in Afghanistan, and he’d had lingering health issues for months. He knew firsthand just how serious a concussion could be. While he disapproved of the scatterbrained woman, but he didn’t want bad things happening to her.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“It’s a mild concussion, I’m fine. I have a slight headache.” Aria kneaded her temple. “But no biggie. Still, to be on the safe side, my doctor forbade me from driving for ten days.”
Remington shifted his gaze to Vivi. “Should she even be doing this?”
“Dr. Kemper says she’s fine to work, just not drive and especially not to overdo it. As long as she gets plenty of sleep and keeps hydrated, she’ll be fine,” Vivi said. “That’s why she’s adding an extra day to her schedule.”
Remington eyed Aria. “How did you get a concussion?”
Aria looked embarrassed. “I…um…” She dropped her gaze, fiddled with the hem of her sweater. “I fell out of the hayloft.”
“What were you doing in the hay—” It hit him then that she might not have been alone in the hayloft. Aria dated a lot. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.”
She fluttered her eyelashes at him and offered up a knowing smirk. “Sometimes I get a little too adventuresome.”
“A little?” He arched his eyebrows. It sounded irresponsible to him. Falling out of a hayloft.
She shrugged and stabbed him with a piercing stare as if daring him to judge her. “What can I say? I like to have fun. Unlike some people in this room.”
“There’s fun and there’s just plain foolishness. What’s wrong with having sex in a bed like anyone else?”
Aria hooted. “You thought I was having sex in the hayloft?”
“That’s what you implied.” He scowled. She loved to poke fun at him.
“No, that’s what you inferred.”
“What were you doing in the hayloft?”
“Hanging Christmas decorations.”
“In a hayloft?”
“It was for ambiance.”
“In the horse barn?”
“Don’t be dopey. It was in the wedding reception barn.”
That didn’t make it any better. People needed to consider the consequences of their actions and plan ahead. If she climbed up in the hayloft to string lights, she should have had help, and a backup plan in case she fell out and concussed herself.
“No one else can drive her?” Remington shifted his gaze back to Vivi.
“Hello!” Aria waved a hand. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m standing right here.”
Oh, he’d noticed plenty. That was part of the problem. Annoying she might be, but he found her hot as a firecracker and that vexed him to no end.
“Duke’s out of town,” Vivi said. “Ridge and Kaia’s third baby is on the way any day, Rhett is running the Christmas toy drive—”
“How about your brother?” Remington asked. Archer seemed the prime candidate to drive her to Twilight, at least in his book.
“Archer has his hands full with the ranch and Casey doesn’t want him traipsing off for five days just before Christmas.”
“Maybe a ranch hand then?”
“We give the ranch hands two weeks off at Christmas in case you’ve forgotten,” Vivi said. “That’s why Archer is so busy.”
“There’s absolutely no one else?”
“Everyone’s eyeball deep in work. While you, Mr. Dark and Broody, have been moping around your new house feeling sorry for yourself ever since you got discharged from the Army.”
Things were a lot more complicated than that, but Remington wouldn’t get into the lingering effects of PTSD with Vivi.
“Don’t think you’re alone in hating this,” Aria said. “I’ve already gone through all the other possible chauffeurs. I even thought about calling an Uber from El Paso to take me, but the cost is beyond astronomical.”
“Dammit,” Remington muttered.
“Curse again and you’ll need to cough up more money.” Vivi rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “You’ve maxed your twenty.”
Okay, he was dragging his feet and grasping at straws. A knot of dismay settled in his gut. He didn’t want to do this, but he was a former Army Ranger. He knew how to suck it and get the job done whenever he got a rotten assignment.
And Vivi was right about one thing. He’d been in a dark cloud mood ever since he’d received the medical discharge for losing the ring finger and pinky of his left hand in a parachuting mishap.
His hand had healed, but in his head, he was still struggling. For the past twelve years the Army ruled his world. Now, he was clueless about his future.
“Well?” Vivi’s tone irritated him and if he didn’t like as stepmother as much as he did Remington would have walked off. But Vivi had corralled his old man, who could be a humdinger, tamed Duke as much as was humanly possible, and brought a softness to the family that hadn’t been there since his mother died.
“Fine.” He sighed. “I’ll drive her.”
“You can hang out in Twilight until after the wedding.” Vivi nodded. “Then drive her back?”
“Yes, yes.” He grunted and rolled his eyes. He would do it. He would drive her, but he first, he needed to formulate some kind of plan to keep his sanity around the harum-scarum Miss Alzate.
“Don’t worry,” Aria said. “I’ll make it fun.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he muttered.
“Are you always such a sourpuss?” Aria clicked her tongue.
“I know how to cure that.”
“I have no desire for a cure,” he said. “And I have ground rules.”
Aria groaned and dropped dramatically onto the couch, clutching her chest as if he’s just stabbed her though the heart. “I’m not a fan of rules.”
He caught a flash of her thigh in thin black leggings as the hem of her red and green plaid wool skirt rode up and he felt an odd heat bolt through his body.
Stop that, Lockhart.
“Do you want me to drive you or not?” He stuffed his hands into his pocket and intensified his glower.
“As if I have a choice.”
“Good, I’m glad we agree.” He nodded but kept his scowl in place just in case she didn’t get how serious he was about this.
Vivi was watching them, a bemused smile on her face. Haha. At least someone found entertainment in this farce.
“I’m going to let you two to sort out the details,” Vivi said, gathering a twin in each arm and balancing them on her hips. The boys peered at Remington and Aria over their mother’s shoulder as she waltzed out the door.
“We need a plan,” Remington said after Vivi disappeared.
Aria blew out her breath through pursed lips. “Here’s the plan. We get in your SUV and drive northeast.”
“Not so fast. First, I’ve got to check the weather.” He pulled his phone from his back pocket. “I want to get ahead of this ice storm.”
“Then get on it.” Aria snapped her fingers. “Chop, chop, time’s a-wastin’. It’s almost nine.”
“Second rule,” he said. “No side trips. We’re driving straight to Twilight, no delays, no detours, no jacking around.”
“Okay, okay.” She held up both palms, the many bracelets at her wrist jangling merrily. “But Vivi built an extra day built into the schedule just in case something comes up.”
He ignored that. “Third rule, no Christmas music.”
“No Christmas music! Who are you, the Marquis De Sade?”
“Who’s that,” Remington asked. “If the guy hates Christmas music, then yes, I’m the Marquis De Sade.”
“He was a famous sexual sadist.”
“Then no! I am not the Marquis De Sade.”
“Figures,” she mumbled. “So, does that mean I can listen to Christmas music?”
“On your own device where I don’t have to hear to it. That’s why they make earbuds.”
“You are such a Grinch.”
“Thank you. I consider that a compliment.” He nodded. He’d never been a fan of Christmas. At least not since his mom had died.
“His heart is two sizes too small,” Aria muttered.
“Forget it. How many rules are there?” Aria scrambled to her feet, landing gracefully on the spiky heels of her ankle boots. “Because I’ve got a really short attention span—”
“Rule four. No putting your feet on my dashboard. I hate it when people put their feet on my dash,” he said.
“Good grief, you’re such a fussy old man.”
“Five,” he went on, laying out his plan. “Keep conversations to a minimum.”
“No Christmas music, no talking, what? Am I just supposed to sit there like a silent lump?”
“That would be nice.”
“Look, I’ve been through some stuff, okay? I don’t like idle chitchat. Or cheerful music—”
“Or cheerful anything, apparently.”
“Right. The less cheer the better.”
“I get that you’re a war hero and all that…” Her gaze went to his missing fingers.
Self-consciously, he tucked his left hand into his right armpit. No one talked about his injury to his face and that’s just the way he wanted it.
“But I don’t like when people try to micromanage me,” she said.
“You’re kind of a spoiled brat, you know that?”
“And you’re kind of a hardass.”
“I don’t think this will work.” He shook his head. “At all.”
“Vivi!” they called in unison, simultaneously rushing for the door.
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