Bex Holmgren opened her eyes and stretched. As the first person to sleep in this bed, she could attest to its comfort. She didn’t really want to get up, but her need for coffee was overwhelming. Last night’s bachelorette party for Sara had been a doozy.
Throwing off the covers, Bex slipped from between the pristine ivory sheets and padded to the bathroom to freshen up. The hotel rooms weren’t quite ready, and one of the missing elements were the coffeemakers, which meant she had to go downstairs where a breakfast buffet, including coffee, would be laid out. Or so Tori had said last night when they’d come over from the Ridgeview for the sleepover portion of the party. They’d eaten popcorn and drunk pinot noir until the wee hours.
Bex was glad she’d been invited. She’d missed the Archer sisters since leaving Ribbon Ridge five years ago. Now she supposed she’d have ample opportunity to see them, and that made her happy. Also maybe a little bit apprehensive. Though she’d broken up with their brother five long years ago, the wound felt somehow fresh. Likely only because she was back in town for the first time since their brother had died seventeen months ago.
She looked around the hotel room. It was sumptuous—or would be once it was completed. It featured all the elements of posh elegance: a stone fireplace, a balcony with a view of the valley, a marble bathroom with both a shower and a tub, and a sitting area with a table. Missing were the chairs and the appliances—besides the coffeemaker, there would be a fridge and a television hidden in a cabinet. The window seat with its velvety soft cushion was the icing on the cake for Bex. She could curl up with a book and happily spend her day there.
The Archers should be very proud of what they’d created. She was only sorry it had come about because of their brother’s death. One of the famous Archer sextuplets, Alex had committed suicide in February of last year. Bex could picture him sitting in that window seat. He’d have his oxygen tank, which typically wasn’t far away, a book, and maybe a beer. She’d known him very well when she’d lived in Ribbon Ridge, and she still couldn’t quite believe he was gone. Being here made his absence more real. Living somewhere else she could almost pretend he hadn’t really died. But now she’d be living here again, and she wouldn’t be able to hide behind that lie any longer.
As she slipped on a pair of flip-flops, she wondered for the umpteenth time if she’d made the right decision in coming back to Ribbon Ridge. Not that she could change her mind. She’d already left her job in Eugene, and she had to be out of her apartment by Monday.
She was being silly. This was a good move. She’d have her own brewery and would be making some of the finest beer in the state. Rob Archer had created an incredible brand, and she was fortunate to have studied under him after college. Now she had the chance to not only brew his legendary recipes, but also craft her own. Rob calling her personally and expressing his support had been the deciding factor. It seemed that things wouldn’t be awkward for her with Hayden’s family.
Ready to face anyone she might encounter, she stepped from her room on the third floor and made her way to the elevator.
She pressed the button and waited. Okay, not anyone. She wasn’t sure she was ready to run into Hayden. Luckily for her, he wouldn’t be back in town until early next week. The Archers had assured her he would be prepared for and fine with her being here.
Thinking about it still made her nervous, however.
The doors opened, and she stepped onto the elevator then pressed L for the lobby.
Don’t be nervous, she told herself. At least not today. She gave herself permission to be a basket case on Tuesday when Hayden was due back.
The elevator slowed, and she glanced at the numbers on the panel, thinking it couldn’t be the lobby. Nope, this was the first floor—she’d thought they’d all stayed on the top floor. Maybe it was one of the guys. Or maybe the elevators weren’t working right yet.
The doors opened, and every fiber, every nerve, every sense inside her came alive. Standing there in khaki shorts and a dark blue T-shirt, his light brown hair slightly mussed with a bed head she recognized all too well, was Hayden Archer.
Her ex-boyfriend. Her former best friend. The love of her life.
So far. She still hoped she’d fall in love again. As of yet, no one had come remotely close.
His light blue eyes widened upon seeing her. “Bex.” He sounded as surprised as he looked. Damn it.
“Hayden, I didn’t expect to see you.” Instinctively, she smoothed her hand over her hair, but she’d already tamed the overnight tangles and pulled it back into a ponytail.
“I flew in early. As a surprise.”
Oh, it was a surprise all right. But she couldn’t say it was a bad one. Just awkward. “It’s really great to see you. You look fantastic.”
And he did. She’d seen him just once in the last five years—at Alex’s funeral—and he looked different. He seemed broader, more muscular, and his skin was bronze, as if he spent a great deal of time outside.
His gaze dipped over her, and she wished she’d changed out of her pajama shorts into something a lot less . . . short. “Thanks. You, too.”
The door started to close. She reached out to press the open button just as he put his hand in front of the door.
He stepped onto the elevator and turned toward the door, keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead. “You’re here for the bachelorette party?”
It was a polite question—small talk—since the answer was obvious. “Yes. I bet your brothers were stoked to see you at the bachelor party last night.”
He nodded. “It was a fun surprise.” He sent her a glance that made her wonder if, for him, this encounter was a bad surprise. “Are you still living in Eugene?”
Did his question mean he didn’t know that she’d accepted a job here at The Alex as the brewer? Oh shit, this wasn’t good.
She nodded and answered tentatively. “Yes.” Technically she was. Until Monday.
The doors opened, and he gestured for her to precede him. “Are you coming back for the wedding?”
There was no way he knew about her working here. Otherwise, he would know that she was starting this week and that she would already be in town for the wedding. She didn’t want to lie to him, but she also didn’t think he’d want to hear this news from her in this way. He’d already been shocked to see her. Crap! Why hadn’t the Archers prepped him like they’d said they would? They’d hired her three weeks ago.
“Yes,” she finally said. And for my new job, she mentally added. They walked toward the large seating area off the lobby where the buffet was being set up.
“Cool.” It was a monosyllabic utterance completely devoid of emotion.
She couldn’t tell if he was fine with her being here or pissed as hell. And given the way they’d broken up, she had to think it would be more of the latter.
They approached the table with the coffee, and again he gestured for her to go first. With each step, she’d felt wobblier and more uncertain. Anxiety threaded through her even as logic tried to gain control of her mind. She reminded herself that this was Hayden and that they’d known each other as well and as deeply as two people could. She could never hate him, and she had to think he couldn’t hate her either. But she also couldn’t bring herself to ask.
She did the next best thing and tried to at least address the elephant. “Is this weird?” She focused on filling her cup with coffee so she wouldn’t have to see his expression in case his dislike was evident.
“Should it be?”
She flicked him an uncertain glance before stepping to the side and adding cream and sugar to her cup. “You seem . . . Uh, never mind.”
He filled his cup. “I’m so jet-lagged. Sorry.” He yawned as if to punctuate his claim.
That made sense. She preferred that explanation anyway, so she’d take it. “I bet. How long are you home?”
She had no idea when his internship was done or if he’d be staying on over there. He’d worked for the family business since graduating from college until he’d taken the internship after Alex had died. Sara and Tori had given her a brief overview last night.
“Three or four weeks,” he said, answering her question. “Something like that. My ticket’s open-ended.”
That sounded a little bit like an escape clause. Or maybe that was just her perspective. As an only child with two parents who’d never much cared what she did, she’d found his large family a bit oppressive at times. She liked them all, loved them really, but someone was always there. She cherished her solitude and preferred her independence. Not that they demanded dependence—they were just super helpful and concerned and attentive. They offered unsolicited advice where Bex’s parents’ counsel had been strictly limited to “don’t get in trouble” and “clean up after yourself.”
The Archers also had family dinners on Sundays, while the closest Bex’s family had come to such a thing had been pizza night on Mondays. Even those had been family optional since her mother was often traveling, and her father was working at the ER. By age ten, Bex had pizza night by herself. And a lot more often than just on Mondays.
It might sound sad and pathetic, but to her, it had been reality. She just hadn’t known any other way. Until she’d met the Archers and taken a crash course in Family Perfection 101. Given that she’d practically run from town, she considered her grade a total fail.
“So you are going back then?” she asked, thinking it would be so much easier if he wasn’t here. When considering the brewer job, she’d asked if he’d be living here, but his siblings hadn’t known. Maybe they still didn’t.
“Have to. All my stuff’s there. Well, not all my stuff.”
Right, she’d learned last night that his brother Kyle and his fiancée, Maggie, were living in his house. Kyle had returned from Florida last year, and Hayden had conveniently needed a tenant. Kyle was also driving his car.
She tried not to look too hard at his chiseled arms or the sexy stubble along his jaw. “I bet it’s weird being the visiting Archer.”
He chuckled. “A bit. Strange, for sure.”
She relaxed a bit with his show of good humor. Maybe this wasn’t as bad as she thought. They were grown-ups, and their relationship was ancient history. Even if he wasn’t going to be living here, she wanted to be on good terms since she’d be working for his family. For him, really, since he still owned part of this entire business.
Good terms meant being honest, so she decided to take the plunge. “So, uh, I don’t know if you heard, but I’m going to be working here. As the brewer.”
His eyes flickered with the same surprise as earlier. No, not quite the same. His lashes fluttered briefly, and his irises darkened to cerulean. “Really? That’s great.” He said those three words so slowly that she had more than ample time to wilt inside. Nothing about his demeanor or tone reinforced what he said.
She couldn’t keep from wincing. “Sorry. I thought you maybe knew.” So much for honesty—there was no way he’d known. Ugh, this was so awkward! After five years, she’d wanted to think they could be normal. Or at least not weird. And maybe they could. If they’d ever talked about things. But they never had. The wound had lain open and untreated, and she realized now—too late—that maybe it had never really healed at all.
She suddenly wished she hadn’t taken this job.
“No, I didn’t know. But it’s cool.” There was that word again. And that seemed to go with his attitude—chilly.
That was it. She couldn’t take anymore. Not right now with a mild hangover making her head ache and her stomach roil. Not standing here in short pajamas without a bra. Oh God, she wasn’t wearing a bra. Yeah, past time to go.
“I’m sure I’ll see you later,” she said weakly. “Bye.”
She turned and walked very quickly to the elevator. She pushed the up button about fifty times in her haste to get away. And she didn’t dare turn around.Return to You’re Still The One