Journey’s End, Book 5
Five brothers. One small town. Journey’s End.
Do you believe in second chances at happiness for lost loves?
Prodigal son Daniel Harper doesn’t. His only goals upon returning to Journey’s End after fourteen years? To run his family’s winery and get his college girlfriend, beautiful Zoya Thomas, out of his head forever.
Zoya’s only goal? To avoid sexy Daniel like the plague.
What happens when these two run into each other at a wedding? Come to small-town Journey’s End and find out…
If you love contemporary romances that are steamy and emotional, pick up Unforgettable today!
“Ann Christopher gets it right every time. Emotional, page-turning reads and characters that stay with you long after you close the book.”—Lori Foster, New York Times Bestselling Author
“Ann Christopher’s gift with words will leave you captivated and breathless.”—Brenda Jackson, New York Times & USA TODAY Bestselling Author
Read an Excerpt
“Zoya,” said a sexy male voice behind her. A voice she hadn’t heard since she was a senior at Cornell. “Hey.”
With those words, the bottom dropped from beneath Zoya Thomas’s feet as though someone had sprung a trapdoor in one of those old Looney Tunes cartoons.
She froze and gasped, the half-full champagne flute gripped in her hand.
Not him. Not tonight. Not here.
They were in the middle of an elegant evening wedding reception at a pavilion on the Hudson River. Zoya was the maid of honor. The fall air felt crisp, the water sparkled and the alcohol flowed. Inside, the bride and groom danced to John Legend’s “All of Me,” and out here, Zoya and her cousin, Sofia Abbaté, had just finished teasing each other about catching the bouquet. Zoya’s last sentence, that as a grown thirty-six-year-old, she didn’t want any part of that bouquet and would probably never get married, still hung in the air.
Now this. Him.
Everything else disappeared, including her good sense. All of it gone—boom—at the sound of this one man’s molten dark chocolate voice.
Only one man had a voice like that.
Steeling herself to face him again for the first time after fourteen years—please let him have gone to seed, God—she turned and the misery took hold.
There he was.
Daniel Harper, the one unforgettable man from her past, the lone asterisk in her otherwise rich and varied dating life. The man with whom she’d spent two blistering years. The man who’d walked out on her without a good-bye or a backward glance.
God was not feeling the mercy today.
Because Daniel still stood six four if he stood an inch. Still possessed the square-shouldered and sinewy body of a running back for the Bills. Still rocked those sharp cheekbones beneath the smooth mahogany skin that demanded touching. Still looked just right in his clothes, as though he had Tom Ford on retainer (back in the day, it had been Levi Strauss), ready to cut slim dark suits and custom shirts for his body on an hour’s notice.
Still smelled like a clean shave wrapped in leather and sipping bourbon.
Oh, there were changes, sure, she noted unhappily. A mustache and razor-edged goatee framed his full lips now (those lips had been her heaven when they were in college), and streaks of gray hair had infiltrated his black skull trim at the temples and above his forehead.
The remnants of the boy he’d been (only twenty-one when they first met) were long gone. He was all man now. A thousand percent.
But those eyes.
Nothing about those eyes had changed.
They were still vaguely asymmetrical for one thing, and the way one thick black brow sat a little higher than the other gave him the familiar cynical, seen-it-all look that had always reminded her of Han Solo. Their color? Brown to black, depending on how pissed off (or passionate) he was at any given moment.
Laser-focused and unsmiling, those eyes locked on to her face and held on the way a broke guy hangs on to a winning lotto ticket.
“Daniel,” she said.
He stilled, his intensity sharpening as though he wanted to snatch the sound of her voice out of the air and examine it in minute detail.
And she, meanwhile, lapsed into the kind of brainless staring that made women look like fools.
Then she caught herself.
Having played the fool for this man before, she damn sure wasn’t about to do it again. No matter how good he looked.
“They said your flight got canceled because of the wildfires out west.” She tried to sound brisk and aloof, a tough feat to manage with her face flaming like those poor incinerated trees. “We didn’t expect you.”
Daniel’s jawline tightened into marble. “Well, you had to know I’d come back one day.”
The faint note of mockery in his voice stiffened her spine.
Bastard. Like she’d waited in suspended animation for this glorious day to arrive? Please.
“Why would I know that?” Without waiting for an answer, she looked to the man standing behind Daniel. The one she’d barely noticed. She meant to be warm and welcoming, but all she managed was a brittle smile that felt like needles piercing her cheeks. “And who is this?”
“Sorry,” Daniel said, a steely edge to his voice now. “Zoya Thomas, this is my buddy from Napa. Sean Baldwin.”
In her dazed state, Sean’s features barely registered, but Zoya did her best to see him. Tall, brown-skinned and handsome, he wore a nice suit and seemed like a decent enough human being.
“Great to meet you,” Sean said, shaking hands with both the women.
“Sofia Abbaté,” Sofia told the men.
“Sofia?” Interest flared behind Daniel’s eyes. “You’re Ethan’s girl.”
“Well…yes.” Sofia grinned. “He’s mentioned me?”
“Mentioned you? Yeah, let’s go with that,” Daniel said.
He smiled, and Zoya damn near swooned.
As if she needed to see those straight white teeth, those dimples and that buoyant flash of enthusiasm. As if she needed another reminder of all the ways he remained the same.
Her stomach knotted around an unwanted pang of longing.
The reaction qualified her as stupid. Possibly stupider than she’d ever been. Fourteen years ago, she’d been a green newbie to the ways of sex, love and Daniel Harper.
Now she knew exactly how much emotional damage one man could do.
Right then and there, she swore it on her soul: Never again.
This man would never hurt her again. She’d make damn sure of that.
“When’re you heading back to Napa?” she asked sharply.
Daniel’s grin slowly disappeared as he gave her a narrowed look. “I’m back for good. You know what people say. There’s no place like home.”
Oh, no he didn’t just say that.
What an unmitigated hypocrite. In that poisonous moment, it was all Zoya could do to stop herself from lunging for his throat.
“People say it,” she said, her staccato burst of words sounding like bullets fired from a gun. “I never thought you believed it.”
Daniel shrugged and looked her up and down. The pointed gesture was enough to sweep her bitterness under the nearest rug and unfurl a dangerous new emotion in its place: renewed lust.
“I’m not as young and foolish as I once was,” Daniel told her in that voice that had always made her want to rip off her panties so they could commence with the screwing. Still did, to tell the truth.
This, then, was the final thing that hadn’t changed about being in Daniel’s presence. Possibly never would change, no matter how much she wished it would.
Her body pulsed for him. Breathed for him. Creamed for him.
Couldn’t care less if wanting him amounted to emotional suicide.
The realization was as sickening as it was humiliating.
She blinked, trying to dial back both her anger and the growing venom.
“Is that right?” She turned away before he could answer, determined not to unravel in front of him. “Well, I’m going inside to get some cake. So nice to meet you, Sean. You coming, Sof?”
With that, she downed the rest of her champagne in a single gulp, thunked the empty flute on the railing and hurried off without waiting for any response from Sofia, following the curve of the deck.
She had no idea where she thought she was going.
It was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other.
Oh, God. Oh, God.
She didn’t want cake. She didn’t want to go back inside for wedding merriment. She wanted to go home to lick her bloody wounds, and then she needed to figure out what the hell to do now. Because Journey’s End was a small town and it would need to increase its population by a good three to four million before it was big enough for her and Daniel to—
“Zoya,” he called from behind her. “Wait up.”
Stifling a curse, Zoya pretended she didn’t hear him and sped up, her spiky heels clattering on the planks—
“Don’t pretend you don’t hear me.” His voice sounded closer and rang with repressed laughter, much to her annoyance. “I’m a foot taller than you are. You’re not going to outrun me.” Brief pause. “Actually, keep trying. The view’s spectacular from back here. Great dress.”
At that, she stopped dead and pivoted to glare up at his smug face as he joined her at the railing. “Already with the sexist remarks? Are you going for a land speed record?”
He shrugged. “Is it sexist to tell a beautiful woman she’s got a great ass?”
“Why, yes. Yes, it is.”
“Feel free to make a sexist comment about me.”
“I think I will. You look as well-hung as ever.”
He barked out a surprised laugh. “And you look better than ever. Not that I’m surprised.”
“What do you want, Daniel?”
“I haven’t seen you in years. We’re both here.” He tipped his head at the glittering water and up at the beautiful dusk. “It’s a nice night. We should catch up.”
He sobered and put his hands in his pockets. “We ended things on a bad note. Now that I’m back, we’ll see each other now and then. It’s been over a decade. Why have hard feelings?”
This perfectly reasonable proposal had the perverse effect of making her batshit crazy. This bastard had never wasted a second of that time wondering how she was, so why pretend he cared now?
“The way you ended things clearly doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re doing great. I’m doing great. We’re both doing so great that neither of us bothered to pick up the phone and reach out to the other this whole time. Let’s just leave it at that and call it a day.”
“So you’ll be cool? Running into me?”
Cool as a butterfly trapped in a spiderweb.
“I’m not worried about you, Daniel,” she said, possibly the biggest lie she’d ever told.
Something in his eyes flickered and turned dark, causing a nasty twinge in her stomach.
She turned to go because she just could not deal with emotions, especially when they came to him. Cake. She needed to go inside, where there were other people to buffer her from this, calm herself down and find some cake—
“I’m not doing that great, actually,” he said. “I figured you’d be the one person who’d understand.”
She hesitated. Turned back. Reluctantly waited, ears perked and eager to hear anything they could about his current life.
“My dad called me back home to take over the vineyard so he can retire. I was running a big vineyard in Napa. Making good money. Doing things my way. Now here I am.” Rueful shrug. “Not sure Journey’s End is big enough for me and the Emperor to coexist peacefully.”
“Oh.” An unexpected pang of sympathy hit her as she thought back to a couple of the arguments she’d witnessed between the Harper men. Or, as she liked to think of them, World Wars III and IV. “A lot of time has passed. He’s probably mellowed out since his heart attack. And it was always the plan for you to take over for him one day, right? I’m sure you’ll get it figured out.”
“And you still have contacts in California, don’t you?” she asked, the thought cheering her up. “You could always go back there if things don’t work out.”
A distinct chill hit the air, and it had nothing to do with the breeze coming off the river and everything to do with the sudden flatness in Daniel’s expression.
“That’s the second time in five minutes you’ve referred to me going back to California,” he said. “Wonder what Freud would make of that?”
Nothing good, that’s what.
She faked a laugh. “I’m merely pointing out that you have options. Back when you ran away to join the Air Force—”
“I joined the Force and became a commissioned officer.”
“—all you had was your viticulture and enology degree, right? Well, times change. Now you have plenty of great experience. You could probably work anywhere in the world you wanted to.”
“You remember a lot about back then.” His challenging gaze scraped her up and down. “Wasn’t sure you would.”
“Yeah, well, I also remember when I had the flu in sixth grade,” she said. “There’s no need to make a federal case out of it.”
“Is that bitterness I hear in your voice?”
“Not at all,” she said, another lie. “It’s complete indifference.”
“So you’re not happy to see me?”
Happy? Funny word. She and happy hadn’t occupied the same zip code on a consistent basis for a good long time. If the happiness drought stretched back to the moment when their relationship imploded, she didn’t want to know it.
As for what she was feeling now (equal parts excitement and anticipation, to tell the truth), well, she didn’t want to examine that too closely, either.
“I’m happy for your parents,” she said. “I’m sure they’re thrilled to see you. I’m surprised your mother isn’t still hugging and kissing you. What did they say when you got here?”
The sun had almost set now, but there was enough illumination from the lights strung overhead for her to see the dull flush that crept up his cheeks.
“Nothing yet. You’re the first person I, ah, ran into.”
That caught her by surprise. She stared at him, wondering if he’d sought her out before any of the many members of his own family.
He stared back with a turbulent expression she couldn’t begin to decipher.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she demanded.
Lopsided half-smile. “I’m remembering.”
“Everything,” he said quietly. “Every damn thing.”
Her pulse skittered with unwanted pleasure.
If only that information didn’t move her.
If only she were a better actress.
The same ancient memories tormented her at odd times, appearing unexpectedly when they should have shriveled to dust long ago. The laughter they’d shared. The fights and the lovemaking, both equally volatile. The love. At times it all streamed through her brain like a Steven Spielberg masterpiece.
But there were darker emotions, too.
Pain. Loss. Bitterness.
Once again, her self-directed anger won. It was a free country. Daniel could live here or any other damn place he wanted. What he did should have zero effect on her life. She was the one who couldn’t keep a lid on her unruly emotions. That made her the problem. Not him.
“You know what? Waste all the time you want walking down memory lane,” she said, taking a step toward the door that led back inside. “You do you. I’ll be inside getting cake.”
He caught her wrist in his searing grasp, rubbing his thumb over the sensitive skin, and it was all she could do not to cry out with the thrill of it. There’d been a brief, shameful second earlier, when he first showed up, and she’d wondered if he’d try to hug and kiss her. He hadn’t, and now she realized it was all for the best. When the touch of his hand on her bare skin—her wrist, for God’s sake—felt like a molten streak of lightning through her veins, they had no business being anywhere near each other.
She pulled free or he let her go, she couldn’t tell which, but excitement still pulsed through her blood.
“Are you here with someone?” he asked urgently.
It was hard to look at him and breathe. Nearly impossible to look at him and form enough coherent thoughts to keep her head on straight.
“I’m not discussing my personal life with you, Daniel.”
His jaw tightened with something that looked disturbingly like determination.
“Have a drink with me.”
She paused, trying to wrestle the unwanted yes into submission. The best she could manage was a lame,
“It’s not a good idea.”
Dammit. Why couldn’t she say no or, better yet, hell no?
“You’re right. We always did each other too much damage when we tried to talk.” His gaze smoldered. He reached out again, this time running his thumb along the tender curve where her neck sloped down to her shoulder, the spot that had always turned her into a bundle of nerve endings and illicit needs. “Why don’t we skip the rest of the reception? Come back to my hotel with me. Let’s see what else we can remember.”
That thumb worked its magic, and she was too stupid to stop him because the memories were so sweet. His lips. His tongue. The hard thrust of his body inside hers. Long nights of unspeakable pleasure.
For one self-destructive second, she wondered if it would really be so bad if she spent, say, an hour—two at the most—in his dark hotel room.
And then she remembered one last thing: the way she’d collapsed on the floor and spent the night in the fetal position, crying her eyes out, when she discovered he’d skipped town without saying good-bye.
Her blood turned to ice.
“I don’t think so,” she said, smacking his hand away. “You’ve already had way more of my time and attention than you ever deserved.”
“Well, you know what they say: if at first you don’t succeed…”
“I think it’s ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and I’m coming after you with a meat cleaver.’”
The gleam in his eyes intensified with his soft laughter. “It’s great to be home, Kitten.”
“I’m going to call you Kitten,” he said, running his teeth down her neck as he thrust deeper, making her cry out.
“Kitten?” She tried to catch her breath, to focus. “Why?”
“Because you’re so tiny and you purr when I touch you.” He slowed down, easing out of her, inch by slow inch. “But I don’t want to mess around with your teeth or your claws.”
“These claws?” She arched beneath him, scraping her nails up his back.
“You don’t mind if I call you Kitten, do you?” Judging by the smoldering heat in his eyes, he knew exactly where her thoughts had roamed. “You never minded before.”
Zoya blinked the sweet memory away. “Screw you.”
More of that infuriating laughter followed her as she walked off.
Never again, she reminded herself.