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Love So Wild by Valentine, Marquita (1)

Chapter One

Two years later

The only thing Elijah Lawson loved more than flying was his family. They were the only reason he’d come back to Jessamine and bought a bar with his cousin Preston.

Family was everything to him. Since birth, it had been drilled into him that, no matter what, family came first. However, after six months of looking at the same landscape every day, he was starting to get itchy. It crossed his mind that maybe it was time for him to leave again—time to find another adventure—and the feeling was growing more with each passing day.

That feeling, if acted upon, would break his mother’s heart. His dad’s, too, truth be told. They were funny like that.

There was only one time in Eli’s life he had felt grounded enough to consider setting up house and not going anywhere. It had been with a woman whose hair reminded him of sunsets, whose eyes reminded him of home, and whose kisses made him forget his own name.

However, that was two years ago, and he hadn’t heard from her since.

Sometimes, he wondered if she’d been real at all.

“You planning on staring at her all night… or are you finally going to get out there and introduce yourself?” Preston asked.

Elijah turned slightly, still polishing the glass in his hand with a clean rag as they stood behind the bar and surveyed their establishment.

It was a Saturday night, and the bar was hopping. Music played, and the dance floor was full. Elijah didn’t feel much like dancing or introducing himself. All he felt like was observing. It came naturally to him. Plus, observing didn’t get him in trouble or make him think of settling down.

Observing didn’t get his heart broken.

“Nope. I’m good.” Elijah set the glass into the tray and picked up another one, intent on polishing the sheen right out of it. “Really, really good.”

Preston gave him an incredulous look. “Seriously, dude?”

“Yup,” Elijah said. “What else am I supposed to do?” Yeah, he was stupid for asking his horndog of a cousin about what to do with a woman who was interested in him. However, his horndog of a cousin was no longer a horndog, not since he was happily married to Apple McCoy.

“I don’t know… maybe see how it goes after a man and woman introduce themselves to one another? I know that might seem shocking to a guy such as yourself, but it’s how things are done around here. Try the local customs, cousin, and see what happens.” Preston nodded at the woman across the floor.

To Elijah’s horror, she started walking their way.

“Look who decided to take matters into her own hands.” His cousin laughed.

Son of a gun. This was not what Eli wanted to happen. “I didn’t mean for you to ask her to come over here and do that,” he said as he slammed the glass down harder than he’d meant to. “I was just making conversation… I was out of my mind. Shit. I don’t know why I talk to you at all.”

“Because I’m a wealth of information, and it’s a proven fact I know what the ladies around here like.”

Elijah gave him an ‘are-you-kidding-me’ look. “Still priding yourself on that?”

Preston shook his head. “No need to. I mean, I did land Apple McCoy. However, it is my duty to put my former extraordinary talents to good use when a fellow Lawson needs help.”

“I don’t need help,” Elijah grumbled.

The brunette was almost on top of them.

Preston leaned over, whispering slyly, “By the way, your momma said to tell you to treat Jamie Watson kindly, and that one date wouldn’t kill you.”

Eli almost groaned. Of course his momma had her hands in this. She’d been trying to set him up since his feet touched the ground in Jessamine. While he loved his mom and appreciated her “thoughtfulness,” he knew no matter the woman he was set up with, she’d never measure up to Skye. He knew it all the way to his soul.

Jamie stopped just shy of the bar and smiled. He vaguely remembered her from high school, or at least an impression of her. She’d been kind and… maybe on the dance squad or a cheerleader? He was shocked he could remember that much, seeing as how they’d graduated seventeen years ago.

Preston clapped him on the shoulder. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a party of ten to see to right now.”

Convenient. Eli let him go without a fight, mostly because he was certain his cousin would say something encouraging to Jamie.

“Jamie Watson,” Elijah said with a nod. “How are you?” Man, he was going to regret letting her down, and not only because she was pretty and sweet. He hated being put in this position of power, hated being responsible for the future happiness of someone he didn’t know all that well.

“Elijah Lawson. So good to finally talk to you,” Jamie said as she sat on the bar stool directly across from him. “It’s been a while… and I’m doing great, actually. You?”

Automatically, he flashed a smile. “Fine. What can I get you? First round is on the house.”

Her cheeks flushed. “I’ll take a glass of white wine.”

“Good choice.” He turned, grabbed a bottle of zinfandel off the shelf behind him, and then poured some into a clean wineglass. “What brings you to Whiskey Hollow?”

Son of a gun.

He shouldn’t have asked, but he’d been asking the exact question for months now. It had become a habit. A sort of on-the-fly questionnaire to help Preston and him figure out where to spend the advertising money. So far, word of mouth was their best avenue…

Except his mouth, at this moment, had probably just gotten him into big trouble. While he might have a reputation for being the wild Lawson, he did not want to get the reputation for being the asshole Lawson.

Jamie lifted her shoulder in a dainty shrug. “A little birdie told me the time was right to stop by and see you. I’d been meaning to have a drink at your establishment for a while now, anyway.”

“Appreciate your business,” he said, trying to direct the conversation to very general and banal topics. “Do you still live in Jessamine?”

It was an innocent question.

A friendly question.

One he’d ask anyone in his bar.

She smiled. “Moved back right after college. I work in advertising for a company out of Raleigh, but I get to telecommute. Nothing like wearing your pajamas and fuzzy slippers to morning meetings.”

He grinned, despite his best intentions. “Sounds like a dream job.”

“It really is. It wasn’t easy to get it, but when I want something, I do whatever it takes to make it mine.”

Yeah, that was attractive as hell. A very small part of him wanted to see what whatever entailed, but the gentleman in him won out. “Good for you.” He took a breath. Let it out in a rush. “Great seeing you, Jamie, but I have to get back to work.”

Her confident smile fell, but then returned in full force. “Maybe you should give me your number. I could text you later, so we can talk without interruption.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m… involved with someone.” He didn’t know what made him say it. Maybe a weird hope that somehow, someway, he’d find Skye again. Or maybe it was the photograph of the Colorado sunset he’d put up by the door that had gotten his attention. Made him think of flying and adventures.

Who was he kidding? The sunset—with its rich reds, oranges, and golds—held the colors of Skye’s hair… and until he could get her out of his mind, there was no way he would string a woman along.

It just wasn’t right.

Oh-kay,” Jamie said, standing. Her forehead creased. “Thanks for the wine.”

“You’re welcome.” He moved to the other end of the bar, tossing over his shoulder, “Have a good evening. Be sure to tell your friends about us—ladies’ night is every second and fourth Thursday of the month.”

“Asshole,” Jamie muttered, loud enough for him to clearly hear.

Maybe he was, but it was better for her to be angry he hadn’t responded to her flirting than for him to use her to get his mind off the one woman who wouldn’t leave him alone.

“Not your type?” Preston asked when he stepped back behind the bar.

Eli shook his head. “I like to pick out women on my own.”

“Aunt Delilah only wants what’s best for you.”

He knew his momma wanted that, and he also knew she saw it as her duty to get her only unmarried son hitched—regardless if he were ready or not.

Except he was ready.

Kind of.

Well, he was ready for the right woman, but she didn’t exist in Jessamine.

“I’ll talk with her.”

Preston’s eyes danced. “Best talk to her tomorrow morning, because I heard from a very reliable source that Sage McCoy is next on her list.”

“I think we have enough McCoys in this family already. No offense.”

“None taken.” Preston hefted a tray of glasses on his shoulder. “I already got the best McCoy there is. The rest pale in comparison.”

Elijah knew exactly how his cousin felt.

Worse, he also knew every woman he met would pale in comparison to Skye Holland.