My smile was fake. I’d perfected a pleasant exterior as my insides roiled, and I wondered how the hell I was going to escape this guy. Why had I ever agreed to go on a date with him? It had clearly ruined everything.
New rule: don’t date anyone you work with.
“Oh, that’s nice, Evan,” I said, taking a step backward.
Evan moved forward again, swinging his Nikon around as if it hadn’t cost him a small fortune. He’d been my second shooter at a dozen weddings all over the country, and it had seemed like a great idea to ask him to shoot the grand opening of Wright Vineyard. That was before I’d agreed to go on a date with him. The worst date of my entire life.
“Maybe after we’re done, we can head out for a drink,” he suggested.
I bit my lip. I’d decided after our last date that I was going to go cold turkey on guys for ninety days. After a string of horrendous dates—truly horrendous dates—I couldn’t stomach it. I wanted the summer all to myself. But saying no was easier said than done when I’d spent my entire life doing what everyone else asked of me. It was time to be more like my best friends, Annie and Sutton. They got what they wanted. I wanted that, too.
“I don’t know, Evan.”
“Ten o’clock downtown?”
My eyes were wild with alarm at the stupid word that wouldn’t escape my lips. How hard was it to say no to a guy? No, I don’t want to date you. No, I don’t want to sit through another dinner where you talk about yourself. No, I don’t want to hear how much better you think you are than me. Just no.
But the word never left my mouth.
“Uh…I don’t know. Maybe…”
Evan furrowed his brow and opened his mouth, as if he were going to say something, but then his eyes darted up and over my shoulder. He took a step back in response.
I whipped around and found none other than Julian Wright. My heart stuttered at the sight of him. He was dressed to impress in his typical preppy attire—sharp khakis, a blue button-up, gray blazer, and boat shoes. His dark hair was swept to the side, and his dark eyes were fixed right on me. I’d been attracted to him since the day he’d literally fallen into a pool on top of me. That was three years ago. One date and one perfect kiss later, and I was a goner.
But that was ancient history. We were just friends now.
“Hey,” I said with a smile.
“Hey, Jen,” he said. “Think I could borrow you and your camera?”
His eyes moved to Evan behind me. His jaw flexed for a moment. The news of our bad date had circulated. He’d probably heard about it.
Damn Annie! I wanted to bury my face in my shirt.
“I can go,” Evan said quickly.
Julian dismissed him without a word. “Jen?”
“Yeah. Sure. What do you need?”
He gestured for me to precede him, which I did. We headed across the main barn and toward a side exit, which helped us avoid the crowds. Because not only was today the grand opening, but we’d also secured the band Cosmere to play a private concert for us right here in the Wright Vineyard barn. It helped that the lead singer, Campbell, was from Lubbock and his brother, Hollin, was a co-owner with Julian.
We exited the barn, and I took one fleeting look behind me. It was already busy with early-access guests. The high ceiling and ambient lighting made the rustic interior shine. The floors, which used to be dirt, were now a glossy hardwood, and there was a stage set up at the end of the place, just big enough for a band or a wedding party. It had taken them months to get it the way they wanted, and it had all paid off.
“What do you want me to shoot?” I asked Julian.
“Oh, nothing,” he said, running a hand back through his dark hair and shooting me an alluring smile. “You looked like you wanted to be anywhere but talking to that guy.”
I laughed self-consciously and tucked a strand of my light-brown bob behind my ear. “That is the truth.”
“Didn’t you recommend him for the job?” He tilted his head to the side.
“I did,” I said with a wince as I fell into step beside him.
We took a trail away from the bustle of the barn and toward the cellars. Hundreds of people were already waiting in line before the barn door for the Cosmere show. Thankfully, they’d hired security for the event, and everything seemed to be in order. I was glad that we were taking a different route to the cellars rather than past the crowd. My anxiety couldn’t handle that on a good day. After dealing with Evan, today was not that day.
“Oh God, haven’t you heard?”
He shook his head.
I sighed. “Well, we went on a date. He took me to La Sirena.” Which was my favorite restaurant in town. I’d thought it was looking up. “Then he spent the entire dinner talking about himself. He got handsy into the third course of tapas.”
Julian cringed. “Jesus.”
“Yeah. It, uh…dissolved from there.”
“So, why is he still coming around? I’m shocked he’d take the job.”
“Well, I’m not Annie,” I said with a laugh.
Julian arched an eyebrow in question. “You aren’t going after my brother?”
I laughed, a genuine one at that. “Dear God, I am most certainly not.”
“That’s a relief,” Julian said.
His dark eyes met mine, and something fluttered in my stomach at the look.
I glanced away. “I mean that I’m not as extroverted.”
“No one is as extroverted as Annie,” Julian said with a laugh.
“Psh! Not even me.”
“Well, I’m definitely not. So, I guess I didn’t make it clear enough to him that I wasn’t interested. I honestly think that he thought the date went well.”
Julian wrinkled his nose. “Fucker.”
I snorted and then immediately covered my mouth. “Oh my God, don’t make me laugh like that.”
His eyes found mine, and his own smile was wide and unassuming. “Why not? That snort is the best part of your laugh.”
I giggled, tucking my hair behind my ear again. “You’re ridiculous.”
He was flirting with me. Oh my God, was he flirting with me? I didn’t know. Julian Wright was as charming as they came. I’d never met anyone who could woo someone so thoroughly. And I wasn’t just saying that because I’d been into him for so long. I knew it wasn’t going anywhere and that he couldn’t control the charm. But I also couldn’t help hoping that this was more than his normal charm…and actual flirting.
It seemed unlikely. Just as much as I wasn’t dating because of my string of bad dates, coupled with my inability to tell people how I really felt, Julian hadn’t been dating the last couple months either. He’d been dating Ashleigh Sinclair for two years when he found out that she was trying to sabotage the winery to get him to work for her father—a real estate mogul here in Lubbock. Their breakup had been swift and brutal, and he hadn’t dated since.
“Come on. Let me show you the cellars while we’re down here,” Julian said, opening the cellar door.
I’d already had a full tour. Ever since Julian and Hollin had offered me a spot as the company wedding photographer, I’d been all in on Wright Vineyard.
For more than three years, I’d been working weddings and elopements as a travel photographer. I went all over the country and the Caribbean. I even shot a wedding in Bali. Bali. But it had been hard, being gone every weekend and most weekdays from April to October, especially since I found it impossible to say no to clients. And not every wedding was as much of a dream as the trip to Bali. They were a lot of hard work, and I liked the idea of having a full-time job here in town. Then I got to pick and choose which elopements to photograph. It was an easy way for me to say no to potential brides without saying no.
But I couldn’t say no to Julian either.
Nor did I want to.
So, I stepped into the cellars and breathed in the wine fermentation. It was a particular smell that I was coming to enjoy. Especially with the added benefit of free wine on the job.
Julian was regaling me with stories about the different vintages. I only half-listened. From the moment he’d decided to purchase the winery, he’d been full deep dive into winemaking and running the business. This was his life, and even if I only understood half of it, it was interesting to hear his excitement.
The cellars were at least relatively deserted, and we made it all the way down and around the corner, uninterrupted.
Julian stopped in front of his office. “Well, that completes the tour. Show should be starting soon,” he said. “Probably should get you backstage.”
I nodded. “Probably.”
Despite the fact that I’d said no guys for ninety days and I wanted the entire summer to myself, I didn’t want to walk away from Julian. It was impossible anyway. Probably stupid to even consider.
Then his eyes rounded in circles as he looked over my shoulder.
I turned to find none other than Ashleigh Sinclair on the property.
“What is she doing here?” I whispered.
As far as I knew, all Sinclairs were banned from the premises.
“I have no idea.” Julian reached out and grabbed my hand. I looked back at him in surprise. “I really don’t want to find out.”
But he put a finger to his lips and then tipped his head back. Without a word, he pulled me into his office, decisively shutting the door behind him. The lights were off, and I could hear our breathing in the space as we waited to see if Ashleigh had seen us.
“What are you doing?” I barely breathed.
He hadn’t dropped my hand, and he squeezed it. “It’s opening day. I just…I don’t want to deal with her.”
“I thought she wasn’t allowed on the property.”
His sigh was audible. “She isn’t.”
“Do you think she saw you?” I whispered.
He didn’t respond. We lingered in the silence of that dark space. The heat between us potent. An energy crackling that I’d never felt before. It started at the top of my head and ran all the way to the tips of my toes. I could lean in, and our bodies would touch. I wanted to. Even knowing it was stupid.
We were hiding from his ex. This wasn’t…anything.
“I think she’s gone,” he breathed softly.
I felt him pull away, and then against all odds, the door to the office began to open. I saw a flash of bleached-blonde hair and creamy white skin. Ashleigh had seen us.
I heard Julian’s quick intake of breath and the two simple words that turned my life upside down, “Forgive me.”
His lips crashed down on mine, and there was no longer air left in the world. There was simply this moment as I drowned in him and forgot what it meant to breathe.
I’d kissed Julian Wright once before.
At Jensen and Emery’s wedding, we’d danced all night, and he kissed me before saying good-night. I hoped it was the start of something special. I’d been wrong.
He’d moved to Lubbock from Vancouver to be with his mom during her cancer diagnosis. It was the third time she’d fought it, and she beat it again. But that year, dealing with her chemotherapy, had been a blur for Julian. And when he’d come out of the haze, he’d found Ashleigh. Not me.
I hadn’t been surprised. What had I expected anyway? He was a Wright. They were essentially royalty in our dusty, small town. And he hadn’t been treated any differently as a Wright cousin when he moved here. I couldn’t believe that he’d even seen me ever so briefly at that wedding.
When he’d found Ashleigh Sinclair, I’d thought that made perfect sense. Her parents were big-time real estate moguls. They owned almost everything downtown and near Texas Tech University. Wright built the town, and the Sinclairs owned it. That was how it had been for years. Why wouldn’t a Wright end up with a Sinclair? And not…some nerdy girl with a camera permanently attached to her face. Some girl who hadn’t even gotten into pharmacy school. Someone like…me.
Or at least, that was what all my dark fears said about me. My therapist was working with me on my negative talk and worst-case scenario-ing. I was better than I’d ever been. But not as good as I could be.
As Julian had his lips pressed to mine, I hoped that this time would be different. That he’d see me again. Even though I knew it would never happen.
Julian pulled back just barely. Our lips still hovered together. I could have hung in that second forever. His dark eyes opened to look down into my hazel eyes. Something flashed across his face that I couldn’t place. I’d never seen him look at me like that.
I swallowed, wanting nothing more than to stand on my tiptoes and claim his mouth for mine again. But at the end of the day, I’d never be confident enough to do that.
“What is going on here?” Ashleigh’s voice snapped me out of my reverie.
Julian’s jaw tensed at the sound of Ashleigh’s high-pitched voice. And that fast, I lost him. If I’d ever had him.
He wrenched back, his face a mask of tightly controlled fury. “Ashleigh…”
I winced at the sound of his voice. I’d never heard him talk like that before. Charming Julian Wright had fled the building. He’d been betrayed by Ashleigh. He hadn’t forgiven her, and he wouldn’t forget what she’d done. If it were me, I’d be cowering at that voice. But Ashleigh continued to look at him in some form of mock shock.
“I came to see you, and this is happening?” she demanded.
“What are you doing here?” he snarled.
“I wanted to see you.”
“You’re not allowed on the premises.”
Ashleigh flicked her bright blonde hair off her shoulder. “I came to talk to you about the gala that we’d planned.”
Julian tensed. “What about it?”
“I have some final details to go over with you, and I want to coordinate our outfits.”
“We’re not going together,” he said lethally.
Ashleigh fluttered her eyelashes. “We always planned to, love.”
“That was before.”
“We can get past this…”
My jaw dropped. The audacity of this woman.
“It’s time for you to leave, Ashleigh. If you have something to discuss with me, you can send an email,” Julian said, crossing his arms over his chest and straightening to his considerable height. “Now, go.”
Ashleigh’s smile turned purely feline. “But, babyyy…”
Her whine grated on my nerves. No one had ever really liked Ashleigh, even when we’d tolerated her for Julian’s sake. I still had no idea what he had seen in her as far as personality went. She was a nightmare. But she was gorgeous with long tan legs, thick blonde hair, and bright blue eyes. She always wore the latest fashions and had money coming out of her ears. Maybe it was easier to ignore her personality with all the rest in your face. Maybe for a dude.
“Don’t make me call the cops.”
“You wouldn’t,” she hissed.
He narrowed his eyes, as if to say, Just try me.
“I’m done with this. If I see you on the property again, I’ll have you arrested.” He stepped forward, towering over her already-tall frame. “And I’ll push to take you to court for everything you did earlier this year, too.”
Ashleigh sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’re so dramatic.”
Part of me wanted to reach out and shake her. She literally didn’t see the danger in front of her face. The other part of me wished I had her gall.
Julian looked like he was going to blow his gasket, but she dismissively waved her hand.
“I know this isn’t real. There’s no way you could go from me to that.” She pointed at me.
My face turned three shades of red. I swallowed and wished I had a comeback to that. Instead, I felt humiliated by the accuracy.
Julian stepped forward. “Don’t fucking talk to her like that.”
Ashleigh lifted one shoulder. “Whatever.”
She turned on her four-inch stiletto heels and stalked back through the cellar. Julian watched her exit with hypervigilance. Not until she was out of the building did he finally relax and slump back against the doorframe.
“Fuck,” he said, running his hand down his face. “Fuck.”
He shook his head. His eyes were squeezed shut. Then, they cracked back open and met mine. “I’m so sorry for everything.”
“You can’t control what she says and does.”
“No,” he said easily, pushing off of the doorframe. “But I can control what I did.”
I flushed and looked down at the ground again. Here it comes. All the ways he regretted that kiss. The kiss that I thought had been perfect…even if it was fake.
“You were just telling me that some other guy touched you without your permission, and then what do I do? Kiss you without asking if it’s okay.”
“It’s fine,” I said quickly.
“I mean, it was a great kiss.”
My head jerked up in surprise. “It was?”
He laughed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I thought so. If you didn’t like it, then I’m doubly sorry.”
“No, it wasn’t…it was fine,” I finished lamely.
“Fine,” he said with a nod. “My mother tells me that fine never means fine from a woman. So, I’m going to continue to apologize for everything that happened. Kissing you without your permission and everything Ashleigh said. Don’t listen to a word out of her mouth. I learned the hard way how much of a poisonous snake she is.”
“Not your fault,” he said automatically. “Should I continue apologizing?”
I laughed and shook my head. “It’s okay. You saved me first. I was happy to do the same.”
His smile was electric. “I guess we’re even then?”
“We are,” I agreed.
“Good. Well, I should probably get our photographer back to the concert before it starts.” He gestured for me to step out of his office, and we went back toward the barn.
I bit the inside of my cheek as I second-guessed whether or not I should dive into his business. Curiosity ended up getting the better of me. “Have you been dealing with a lot of Ashleigh?”
He breathed out heavily. “Well, sort of. She didn’t take our breakup well. Mostly she’s mad that she got caught and thinks that if she pushes enough, I’ll bend to her will.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
He flashed me a smile. “It doesn’t, does it? Stubbornness runs in my family.”
He nudged me. “Hey!”
“What? Sutton is one of my best friends. I’ve seen Wright stubbornness way up close.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t matter how much Ashleigh hounds me; we’re not getting back together.”
“I’d think not after what she did.”
“Never pegged you as a grudge-holder, Gibson.”
I flushed at the use of my last name. “I’m not. But she didn’t just hurt you, she tried to force you into her mold and hurt the winery, too. I’m kind of attached to it, to be honest.”
“Me or the vineyard?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows.
I covered my blush with a laugh. “The vineyard!”
Our eyes met, and we both broke down into laughter. As much as I wanted something with Julian, the main reason I’d never gone for it was because of what was happening right here between us. I was into him, but I valued his friendship more. I wouldn’t risk losing this easiness between us to shoot for more.
I pulled my camera up and snapped a picture of him.
I took another.
“What are you doing?”
“I won’t miss getting a real Julian smile.”
“Let me see,” he said, coming around to stand next to me.
I pulled the back of the camera up and flipped through the pictures I’d taken. This was the one thing I wasn’t self-conscious about. My pictures were good. I was certain of that. I loved photography, and I did it constantly. All those weddings had really honed my craft. I wasn’t like our friend Blaire, who was a legitimate social media influencer with a million followers, but I had a good thirty thousand–plus people following my photography. I’d been featured in wedding magazines and won contests for my work. This was my passion.
“Jesus Christ, Jen,” he breathed. “How the fuck do you do this?”
“Talent,” I teased.
He nodded his head. “Absolutely. I’m so glad that we convinced you to work here. Couldn’t have been easy, giving up all the traveling.”
“Well, it was, and it wasn’t,” I told him. “I like that I can be picky now, and as I said, I’m already attached to the place.”
His smile was bright. “Could you send me this one?” He pointed at the picture I’d captured of the real him—charming and laughing Julian Wright. Exactly how I saw him. “I’d like to put it on the website.”
“Definitely. That’s what I’m here for.”
We continued up the walk until we nearly reached the barn. I could hear the concert had already started and winced. I was supposed to be there for that.
We stepped inside to the backstage. It was loud from the show. Sutton was standing off to the side, watching the show. A group of the production crew was buzzing around. Hollin was speaking to the new manager, Alejandra. Jordan was sitting at a table with Annie in his lap. And someone else was standing before us that I’d never seen before.
Julian stiffened next to me. His eyes widened.
“Dad?” Julian gasped.
Serves me Wright
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