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Brady Everett was the insufferable, patronizing, sadly all-too-gorgeous bane of Amanda Kittredge’s existence.
Because he was completely oblivious to it. Or rather, to her.
Cold River, Colorado, holiday potlucks were always the same, which could be a good thing, like the reliable appearance of Janine Winthrop’s curry chicken salad from Labor Day to New Year’s and back again.
Amanda found the sameness comforting, especially when she was hungry. But today, it all felt crushing in a way that made her want to upend her twenty-two years of polite behavior—along with the buffet table set out in the yard of the Everett ranch house to take advantage of the perfect early September weather.
And if she did, it would be Brady’s fault.
She was standing in line to get some of that chicken salad, along with far too much cornbread, and he’d taken it upon himself to load her plate for her because he had possession of the serving spoon. Not as if he were being a gentleman, which might have been okay, but like he thought she required assistance to scoop up chicken salad.
Unfortunately, she’d seen that look on his face before. Polite yet distant. It was the kind of look he aimed at geriatrics and preteens.
Then he made it worse. Because he tried to be nice.
“How’s school?” he asked. Polite smile in place, the way it had been when he’d asked Whitney Morrow about her recent hip replacement while helping himself to her signature shepherd’s pie.
He didn’t hear the astonishment in her voice. Clearly. “Having a good year?”
Amanda was not in college. If she’d gone to college like Brady had, she would have been the first in her family to go. That meant that even Brady, the Everett brother who’d moved to Denver rather than staying at the ranch like Gray, or riding bulls like Ty, would have heard.
More to the point, she would have graduated already.
With a mixture of horror and despair that his polite smile only made worse, she realized he probably meant high school.
Brady Everett thought she was in high school.
“Fun fact, I actually graduated from Cold River High.” Her jaw hurt from holding on to her own polite potluck smile when what she wanted to do was start flipping tables. “When I was eighteen. Which was over four years ago.”
He blinked, indicating he did not know that. He was her older brother Riley’s best friend, had known Amanda her entire life, was actually looking straight at her right this very minute, and he didn’t know she wasn’t in high school.
“Huh,” he said. Still polite. Still distant. Then he smiled the same way. “Good job.”
“Good job?” she repeated, painfully aware that her voice got way too squeaky. With outrage.
But Brady didn’t notice. He was too busy turning his maddeningly broad and sculpted back on her as he carried on down the buffet table. Making polite and patronizing conversation all the way.
She did not flip the table in front of her, an act of willpower and sacrifice she thought deserved a standing ovation or two. Nor did she throw things at him, and not only because it would be a pity to ruin that national treasure of a T-shirt he wore that made his shoulders look like poetry. But also because despite what he seemed to think, she really wasn’t in high school.
Amanda wasn’t sure when she’d started noticing Brady, since he was a solid ten years older than she was, but now she couldn’t stop. He was undeniably, unfairly gorgeous. He’d actually been places when most people around here thought a drive over the mountains to Aspen was a huge undertaking. And unlike every other person in this town, he wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of her brothers.
Because Amanda was twenty-two years old and she considered herself not entirely hideous, but she had been on exactly three dates. In her entire life. Two homecoming dances and her senior prom. And her four older brothers had ruined all three occasions.
Now that her oldest brother, Zack, was the sheriff, her brothers would probably use his job as an excuse to throw any man foolish enough to try to date her straight into a jail cell. Jensen had all that EMT training to help with his firefighting, but also, he’d said once—to Amanda’s prom date—that he knew exactly how to both hurt a person and bring him back for more. Add in Riley’s reputation as the most dangerous of the brothers plus Connor’s wildcard temper, and it made a man who wasn’t intimidated by them all the more intriguing.
It made him magic.
Also, those shoulders. Not to mention the dark green eyes that made her belly flip.
Maybe she was a masochist, because when she’d piled her plate high with enough food to feed three of her, all of which she intended to eat merrily, she didn’t go and find a seat near her mother or her friends. Or even with Abby Everett, who Amanda viewed as a surrogate big sister as well as her boss at the coffee shop in town—and who was almost the guest of honor at the Labor Day potluck today. The real guest of honor being her cute little newborn baby boy, Bart, who she’d just had with Brady’s oldest brother, the forbidding Gray. Who looked more besotted than forbidding today as he gazed at his wife and son.
Instead, she headed for the table where Brady sat with Riley and Connor.
Because if Amanda let a few infantilizing comments wreck her day, she would never get out of bed in this town, where she was universally seen as forever twelve. Amanda headed for the empty chair next to Brady.
“By the way, congratulations, Uncle Brady,” she said breezily, as if she was continuing their buffet conversation. “Bart is adorable.”
“He’s already an uncle,” Riley growled. Because Riley always growled, as if the words themselves offended him as he spoke them. All the words.
“Remember Becca?” Connor asked in that lazy voice he used when he was being a jerk, which was basically all the time. “Pretty sure she made Brady an uncle sixteen years ago.”
Becca was Gray’s daughter from his first, unhappy marriage that had ended tragically more than ten years ago. Amanda had babysat her, for God’s sake. But she didn’t bother to snap back at either one of her brothers, because Brady was smiling at her.
Not that polite, buffet line smile. A real smile.
And for a moment, the Labor Day afternoon seemed a whole lot sunnier than before.
“Looks like we’re keeping him,” Brady said genially, nodding over in the general direction of Abby and his brother and baby Bart.
Amanda knew he smiled at everyone in exactly this same way. He would smile at a tree or a horse just like this, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, as her grandmother liked to tell her. Regularly. She basked in Brady’s smile anyway, as if it were hers. As if he ever could be hers.
She would add it to her personal collection of Brady moments, like that conversation they’d had when he’d been a little bit drunk at his brother Ty and sister-in-law Hannah’s retying the knot ceremony last week, and she could have sworn he’d noticed she wasn’t a child any longer. If only for a moment or two, right here in this same yard.
Something she didn’t need to be thinking about around her brothers.
The youngest of her older brothers, Connor, was kicked back in his chair and staring at her, all six feet of him obnoxious. A mere eight years older than Amanda, he was the closest to her in age, which sometimes made them friends.
“The kids’ table is over by the porch, monkey,” he said.
So, not friends today.
What struck Amanda—hard—was that he wasn’t being mean. He wasn’t teasing her or trying to get in a dig, for a change. He didn’t even have that lazy note in his voice that indicated he was deliberately being jerky.
Connor was legitimately directing his twenty-two year old sister to the kids’ table. He was being helpful.
She snuck a look at Riley, but what Connor was saying was so unobjectionable, so normal to him, that Riley didn’t appear to be paying the slightest bit of attention. He was glaring across the yard instead, no doubt because his ex-wife, Rae—one of Abby Everett’s two best friends—was over there, cluttering up his line of sight the way people did in small towns whether you wanted to see them or not.
As usual, no one was here to save her from the helpfulness.
And Brady might think Amanda was in high school, but he still wasn’t as messed up in the head as all of her irritating brothers. He should know better, but instead, he kept on smiling. He looked perfectly polite again. And as distant as if she were grouchy old Lucinda Early with another complaint.
Amanda was having a Brady moment, and he clearly thought there was absolutely nothing wrong or weird about shunting her off to sit with a selection of loud toddlers, feral ten-year-olds, and a couple of actual surly teenagers.
Copyright © 2020 by Caitlin Crews