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Excerpt: So in Love

Excerpt: So in Love

Ribbon Ridge: Love on the Vine, Book 3

Chapter One

Ribbon Ridge, Oregon, New Year’s Eve

“Three, two, one! Happy New Year!” The Archers’ massive living room erupted in a chorus of cheers quickly followed by everyone finding their significant other and kissing. Everyone but Crystal Donovan. She acknowledged there were a handful of other people who were singles, but the majority of the room was filled with married couples, or those about to be married, and a few in very solid, monogamous relationships. Crystal simultaneously wondered what that felt like and was grateful she had no idea. Events like this always made her lean toward the former, but she had to remind herself that she preferred the latter—independence was everything.

As she scanned the room over her glass of champagne, her gaze connected with one of the other few singles—at least she thought he was here as a single—Jamie Westcott. He wasn’t an Archer, but what she called “Archer-adjacent” since his half-brother was married to one. Crystal supposed she was technically “Archer-adjacent” since her oldest, best friend, Alaina, was married to one too.

The Archers were the first family of Ribbon Ridge, a sprawling family of kind, generous, hardworking people who knew how to party. And take care of their own. Yeah, Archer-adjacent wasn’t a bad thing.

Crystal’s gaze strayed to Alaina, who was snuggled in the arms of her adoring husband, Evan. Alaina was expecting their second child in the spring, so she sipped sparkling cider, as did a few other guests. Crystal counted and thought there were at least three, maybe four, pregnant women in the room.

Shit, she should skip out before it was catching.

She laughed into her glass, thinking, You kind of have to do something to make that happen, dumbass. And she hadn’t had sex in months.

Tossing back the rest of her champagne, she went into the kitchen, where a full bar was set up. The Archer patriarch, Rob, was pouring his special New Year’s Eve brew at the tap. Crystal wondered if it was maybe time to switch to beer. She’d had a few cocktails earlier in the night and now two glasses of champagne. She was comfortably warm and happy, so yeah, probably beer time.

She deposited her empty flute on the counter with the dirty dishes, then went to the other bar where Rob was standing chatting with George, who was actually a bartender at the family’s pub in downtown Ribbon Ridge.

“Happy New Year, Crystal!” Rob said. “Fancy a pint?”

“I do, thank you.”

“Dad, are you making fun of Sean?” Tori asked from the other end of the bar. Tori Archer-Hennessey was one of the famous Archer sextuplets—along with Evan—and her husband Sean was a Brit.

“Because I said ‘fancy’?” Rob asked as he finished filling a glass for Crystal.

“He could be making fun of me.” The comment came from over Crystal’s right shoulder. She turned and saw that Jamie Westcott had come into the kitchen.

“You’re not British,” Crystal said.

“No, but I lived in London for a few years. I admit when I hang around Sean too much, I revert back to some of their phrases.”

Crystal thanked Rob as she picked up her pint and pivoted toward Jamie. He was cute, with warm hazel eyes and brown hair that was just a bit on the long side. He was also young—too young—probably five years her junior. She now recalled that he’d gone to the London School of Economics. And was crazy smart. Crystal preferred men with street smarts.

“So, you like to say things like ‘cheerio’ and ‘down the pub’?” she asked.

Jamie nodded toward Rob, who pulled him a pint. “Sure. And wanker. I love wanker.”

Crystal had taken a drink of beer, and it went directly up her nose as she laughed. She immediately began sputtering and brought her hand to her face as her eyes watered.

Jamie took her glass and set it on the counter. “I’m a wanker, sorry.”

She shook her head and managed to find words. “Stop saying that.”

The other people around the bar—Rob, Tori, and someone else whose name Crystal couldn’t remember—laughed. They held their glasses up in a toast. Jamie grinned and took his pint from Rob. “Cheers!”

He sounded quintessentially British. And that was a bit of a turn-on.

Crystal swept up her glass and took a quick drink. She probably should’ve given herself another minute to recover, but oh well. Better to dull any inconvenient attraction with alcohol. Not that she felt attracted to Jamie Westcott.

“Thanks, Rob.” She turned and left the bar with her beer, making her way back to the living room. She immediately made eye contact with Alaina and walked in her direction.

“Hey,” Alaina said, stifling a yawn. “I’m sorry. I can’t stay awake. Evan’s grabbing our coats and we’re heading out.” Her gaze dipped to Crystal’s beer. “I hate to pull you away.”

When Crystal visited her bestie in Ribbon Ridge, she stayed in their guesthouse, so she’d ridden to the party with them earlier. “No worries. I’ll just catch a ride later.” The Archers had set up transportation for those who were drinking.

“You could spend the night too, if you wanted,” Alaina said. The Archers had raised seven children—eight, really, since they’d taken in one of their sons’ best friends after he’d been orphaned—in this house, each with their own bedroom, so they had plenty of space.

“Nah, I’ll get a ride.”

Evan came toward them with their jackets. “Okay,” Alaina said. “Be good.”

Crystal rolled her eyes. “What trouble could I possibly get into here? It’s Ribbon Ridge.” Crystal spent most of her time in Los Angeles, where she and Alaina had relocated after high school.

Alaina laughed and shot a look toward her confounded husband. “Yeah, what trouble could you possibly find?” She gave Crystal a meaningful stare tinged with amusement. “I am not a role model.”

Alaina had come to Ribbon Ridge three years ago to hide out from a tabloid story, met Evan Archer, fell head over heels in love, and got knocked up to boot. Trouble aplenty as far as Crystal was concerned. She didn’t have time or the inclination for love, and she sure as hell didn’t have time for procreating. She suppressed a shudder.

“No, you’re not.” Crystal turned to Evan. “Happy New Year. Kiss Alexa for me.” Her goddaughter had surely been asleep for hours, but Alaina and Evan would undoubtedly check in on her when they got home. They were the most doting parents Crystal had ever seen. Which was saying a lot because Crystal’s mom was pretty darn attentive. Or meddlesome. Whatever it was, she did it with love.

After Alaina and Evan left, Crystal went to talk to the friends she’d made on her frequent trips to Ribbon Ridge, Brooke Ellis and Kelsey McDade. They stood near the windows that overlooked the Archers’ expansive backyard. Lights shone on the patio below.

“Shame the pool’s covered,” Crystal said.

“It’s December,” Brooke said wryly. “In Oregon.”

“Actually, it’s January as of a few minutes ago, but your point stands,” Kelsey said.

“True,” Crystal said. “It’s moments like these that I miss my house in Los Feliz.”

Brooke sighed. “I love your house in Los Feliz.”

They’d had a girls’ weekend there a few weekends ago. “You’re welcome any time. Especially in the winter. This is Drearyville.” Though it wasn’t as bad as where she grew up.

Kelsey shook her head. She’d been born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and she loved the gray skies and rain. “You missed the snow last week. It was gorgeous.”

Crystal had to admit she would’ve liked to see that. Her tiny hometown in southern North Carolina didn’t get snow. “Maybe it’ll snow while I’m here this week.”

“Doubtful,” Brooke said. “It doesn’t snow very much, and what we had last week is more than we usually get all winter. Sorry to disappoint.”

Fine. I guess I’ll just have to spend a weekend at Alaina’s house in Vail.” She winked at the other girls, who often ribbed her about her gold-star lifestyle. As assistant to Alaina Pierce, one of the most famous actresses in the world, Crystal had enough money and cachet to do just about anything or go just about anywhere she wanted.

Brooke groaned while Kelsey rolled her eyes.

Crystal held up a hand. “Hey! I’ve offered to take you both with me.”

“We have jobs,” Kelsey said. “In fact, some of us have two of them.”

Brooke nudged Kelsey with a smile. “Not for much longer. You’ll be full-time at the library in just a couple of weeks.”

Kelsey had opened Ribbon Ridge’s library last summer, and through grants had stretched the budget enough to allow her to work full-time, plus pay the part-time assistant she’d hired a few months back.

“Did you already give notice at the pub?” Crystal asked.

Kelsey had been waiting tables at the Archers’ pub in town for the past couple of years. “Yeah. It was bittersweet. And I’ll still help out in a pinch.”

“I think most of Ribbon Ridge does that,” Crystal said with a smile before sipping her beer.

Brooke nodded. “Although we’re doing our best to steal people to help at the winery from time to time.” Brooke worked with her fiancé, Cameron Westcott, at the winery he owned with his two brothers and the youngest, non-sextuplet Archer, Hayden.

Kelsey finished her champagne. “Speaking of the winery, the archaeology team says they’re going to finish up excavating Bird’s Nest Ranch next week. I’m still hopeful they’ll find something exciting.”

They were all pretty invested in discovering everything they could about the ranch. Their “project” had started when a brick had been unearthed on the property. Etched with the letters BNR and the year 1879, Crystal, Brooke, and Kelsey had worked to find out what BNR stood for: Bird’s Nest Ranch.

It had been built in 1879 by a couple, Hiram and Dorinda Olsen. They didn’t know a lot about the Olsens, just that Hiram had been ill by 1881 and died in August of that year. The farm wasn’t doing well, and sometime after that, Bird’s Nest Ranch had become a brothel.

The archaeologist had determined that the house had burned down around 1902. Dorinda’s death certificate indicated she’d died that same year, but they didn’t know for sure if she’d died in the fire. However she’d died, it seemed a tragic end for someone Crystal and the others had inexplicably grown to care about. She’d been a single woman in a relatively isolated town—they’d been rooting for her.

“I doubt we’ll discover anything that will fill in the blanks of Dorinda’s life,” Crystal said.

So far the team had only found bits of pottery and a brooch, nothing that could tell them anything specific.

Kelsey exhaled. “Probably not. But you’re not giving up. I know you.” Kelsey flashed her a smile. “When are you heading back to the historical society?”

“Day after tomorrow.” Crystal had taken a break from research over the holidays but was eager to get back to it.

Luke Westcott ducked into their circle and dropped a kiss on Kelsey’s cheek. “We’re heading down to play pool for a bit. You good?”

Kelsey nodded as Cameron Westcott also invaded their group to kiss Brooke. Crystal had never felt more like a fifth wheel.

Cam inclined his head toward her. “Hey, Crystal.”

“Hey, Cam.”

He looked around at the group. “Why don’t you come down? Tori and Sean are playing too.”

Brooke snuggled closer to his side. “Sure.”

“Let’s go,” Kelsey said. She looked to Crystal. “You coming?”

Crystal loved pool. “Absolutely. Be warned: I plan to kick your ass.”

“Are you good?” Kelsey asked. “If so, we should do girls against guys.”

“I have three older brothers, and we had a pool table. I’ll leave it at that.” Crystal chuckled before sipping her beer.

Cam glanced around. “Did Sara leave? Please tell me she left. If she joins you, we’re screwed.”

Brooke’s eyes lit. “Nope, she’s still here. Be right back.” She took off, and Cam groaned.

Crystal grinned. “Things are about to get interesting.”

Ten minutes later, they were downstairs. Luke and Kelsey were racking the balls and everyone else was choosing cues from one of three wall-mounted racks.

“Why is everyone taking from this one?” Crystal asked.

Cam gestured toward the racks that no one was touching. “Those are the Archer cues. They’re personalized to each family member. They had to add a second rack after everyone got married.”

“Figures they’d be proprietary,” Crystal said.

Luke chuckled. “You don’t know the half of it. The Archers take their pool very seriously.” He smirked toward Tori, who grinned.

“It’s true. I can’t deny it,” she said.

Crystal was the last to choose a cue and noticed that one had writing on it. Curious, she took it from the rack and read the Sharpie-penned inscription: sod off you manky pillock. “Someone wrote on this one.”

Everyone turned toward her, and there was a collective groan.

Hackles raised, Crystal blinked at them. “What?”

“You chose The Humiliator,” Sean said, shaking his head. “Bad luck. Especially since Sara isn’t here to help out your team.” It turned out that she and her husband, Dylan, who was Cam and Luke and Jamie’s half-brother, had opted to go home. They had an infant daughter who would be up with the sun.

“What the hell is The Humiliator?” Crystal asked.

“It humiliates the player who wields it,” Tori said with a wince. “Sorry.”

“You should be. What sort of sadist keeps a cue like that lying around?” Crystal glowered at the stick in her hand and frowned. “Why hasn’t this made its way into the fire pit by now?”

That is a very good question,” Cam said.

Crystal went back to the cues to replace The Humiliator and select another. “No problem, I’ll just pick a different one.”

“No!” Sean and Tori said this in unison, both coming toward her.

Tori shook her head emphatically. “You can’t do that. It’s the rules.”

“Enforced by who? You can’t seriously want me to use this if it’s cursed. Aren’t we on the same team?”

Tori winced again and apologized again. “Archer rules.”

“Nobody here is an Archer,” Crystal said. “Except you, and like I said, it only hurts you if I can’t use another cue.”

Sean looked apologetic but also resolved. “You have to understand the sanctity of the Archer rules. Trust me when I say it’s not worth fighting over. Just take your lumps this game and never, ever use that cue again.” He turned to his wife. “Perhaps you all should consider removing it from—”

Before he could finish, Tori put her finger over his lips. “Sacrilege. You know we can’t break the rules.”

His gaze softened. “I know.” Then he kissed the pad of her finger.

She smiled at him and took her hand away, turning toward Crystal. “Maybe you’ll break the curse. But first, we need Scotch. Who’s in?”

“I’m sticking with wine,” Brooke said.

Everyone else raised their hand for whiskey. Tori went to the well-stocked bar to pour, and Sean helped pull down glasses. The Archers had a ton of liquor, two taps, and the massive wine cellar wasn’t far away.

Crystal chalked the end of her cue, feeling disgruntled.

Jamie sidled up beside her, a perfectly pleasant cue in his hand—or so she assumed.

“I suppose your cue is curse-free?” she asked.

“Yep,” he said. “I know better. Sorry about The Humiliator.”

Crystal wondered how it had gotten its name and whether it really deserved it. Maybe it had somehow been maligned. She looked at the cue and said, “Tell you what, Humiliator, let’s switch things up a bit. How about we work together to humiliate everyone else? Then everyone will fight over getting to use you, but the joke will be on them because you’re going to be so amazing that I’m going to steal you for my very own. Deal?”

The cue did not respond, of course, but Crystal felt a thrum beneath her fingertips. Or imagined she did, anyway.

“Did you really just give that cue a pep talk?” Jamie asked.

She finished chalking the end. “I’d rather think of it as a motivational speech in the vein of Braveheart.”

He laughed. “Let’s see if it worked.”

As they gathered drinks, they set the rules: straight pool to fifty points.

“Ladies first, right?” Kelsey asked, batting her eyes at Luke.

Luke laughed. “Nice try. We’ll flip a coin.”

“We usually go by age,” Tori said.

Crystal stood near the bar and sipped her whiskey. “Is that another hard and fast Archer rule?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Or are we allowed to do things differently?”

Tori shrugged. “It’s not a rule per se…”

“Good, then we’re flipping a coin.” Luke pulled one from his jeans pocket. “Kelsey, call it in the air.”

He tossed it up and Kelsey said, “Tails!”

The quarter landed on the pool table heads up.

Kelsey frowned. “Damn it. Sorry, girls.”

“No worries. We’ll still kick their asses,” Crystal said.

Jamie met her determined gaze. “You can try.” He leaned toward her, his hazel eyes sparking with mischief. “Although, I’ll admit there’s something sexy about a woman threatening to kick my ass in pool,” he murmured so that only she could hear. “Or whatever,” he added with a lazy smile.

Heat flared in Crystal’s gut, surprising her. He wanted to flirt? Oh, she could flirt. And she’d had just the right amount of alcohol to feel loose and…flirty.

“You’re damn right I will kick your ass in whatever.” She blazed a grin at him, the kind she knew made men turn their heads.

His gaze swept over her and didn’t linger on her breasts, which was what typically happened. Too many times to count, she’d been told they were her best physical asset. That Jamie hadn’t focused on them impressed her. Score a point for the youngest Westcott.

“Mind if I go first?” Cam asked, racking the balls.

The guys shook their heads, and Cam prepared to take his first shot.

Rob and Emily Archer came in at that moment and the game was suspended for a few minutes as everyone thanked them for hosting a great party.

“It’s our pleasure,” Emily said, smiling warmly. “We love having so many people in the house—it’s far too big for the two of us. One of these days, we’re going to have to sell it.”

Stop.” Tori stuck her fingers in her ears. “I refuse to listen to such nonsense.”

Emily chuckled before going to press a kiss to her daughter’s cheek. Tori hugged her fiercely.

“We’re heading to bed,” Rob said. “But stay as long as you like. Emily plans to cook up a great breakfast for anyone sleeping over. There are also a couple of cars outside ready to shuttle you home, if you prefer.”

“Very kind of you, Rob,” Luke said.

“As Emily said, it’s our pleasure. Behave yourselves!” He turned with a laugh.

Emily looked around at them, her eyes sparkling. “What he said. ’Night!”

As they disappeared upstairs, the game started up. Jamie came and sat on the barstool next to where Crystal stood. “How long are you in town?” he asked before taking a drink of Scotch.

“Not sure.” She didn’t always book her return trip when she came for a visit, especially when she was doing research. “I’m researching the building that was excavated at the winery.”

“Right. I admit I don’t know too much about it.”

“It’s pretty interesting, actually. I’m trying to figure out why it became a brothel.”

“Yeah, I’d heard about that. Crazy to think tiny Ribbon Ridge, which was even tinier back then, had a brothel.” He chuckled. “I mean, how many customers could there have been?”

“It seems customers came from all around. A guy at the historical society in Mac is helping me with the research. He found some mentions of it in correspondence and even an advertisement in a newspaper, if you can believe that.”

He pivoted toward her, leaning his elbow on the bar. “Did it have a name?”

“Bird’s Nest Ranch.”

He laughed again. “Not terribly sexy.”

She arched a brow at him. “No, but then neither is ‘Mustang Ranch.’”

He lifted his glass. “Touché.”

“Argh!” Cam’s frustrated growl filled the room and was quickly followed by feminine laughter.

“My turn,” Brooke crowed, blowing her fiancé a kiss.

Cam gave her a disgruntled stare. “I still got twelve points,” he grumbled.

“What else have you learned about Bird’s Nest Ranch?” Jamie asked. He cocked his head to the side. “Hmmm, maybe we should name one of the new vineyard blocks Bird’s Nest Ranch.”

“Or Dorinda,” Crystal said. “She’s the person at the heart of everything. It was her farm before it became a brothel.”

“Didn’t the house burn down around the turn of the century?”

Crystal nodded. “About 1902. I’d love to know the cause of the fire and what happened to the women who worked there. It’s just such an interesting topic, a brothel here in Ribbon Ridge.” The sound of Brooke reracking the balls drew Crystal to look toward the table. “Good job, Brooke!”

Jamie leaned toward her. “What do you plan to do with all this research? Or are you just curious?” His proximity sent a flutter through her, heightening her awareness.

She sipped her Scotch, taking a rather large mouthful, and welcomed the burn as it slid down her throat. “Just curious, I guess.”

Kelsey stepped around the bar. “She’s more than curious. Try obsessed.” She winked at Crystal, who rolled her eyes in response.

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” Crystal said.

Jamie looked at her with…admiration? “I think it’s cool. Intellectual pursuits are always worthy. And satisfying.”

Crystal wasn’t sure this qualified as an “intellectual pursuit,” but she wouldn’t correct him. She kind of liked that description.

“Crap.” Brooke stepped back from the table. “Who’s next?”

“Jamie, you go,” Cam said.

With a nod, Jamie finished his whiskey and set his empty glass down on the bar. He grinned at Crystal. “Wish me luck.”

She laughed. “Hell no. We’re not on the same time. I hope you foul out immediately.”

His answering laughter reignited the heat in her belly, and he made his way to the table. His jeans were the perfect blend of slouchy and fitted, outlining his athletic ass and thighs to great effect.

What the hell?

Crystal looked at her whiskey and decided she’d had too much to drink. Oh well. She took another sip.

Kelsey took Jamie’s vacated stool and leaned toward Crystal. “What was that about?” she whispered.

Crystal turned her head and gave her a brief look. “What?” She knew perfectly well what.

“Jamie. It looked like he was flirting with you.”

“Eh, not really. It probably only seems that way because we’re the only two not paired off.”

“Hmm. Maybe.” Kelsey rested her elbow on the bar. “It was cute, whatever it was.”

Crystal sent her a pointed stare. “That was not an invitation to pair us off.”

Kelsey’s gaze traveled to the table. “Damn it, he’s good.”

Crystal finished her Scotch and deposited her glass on the bar. She moved closer to the table to watch him. He was good. She looked down at the cue in her hand and sent it a telepathic message: Curse someone else for once. Like that guy. Make his next shot go wide.

Crystal watched as Jamie indicated sending the four ball in the corner pocket. It was an easy shot. Come on, Humiliator, she urged, you can do it!

A second later, the ball jumped the edge and dropped to the floor.

Crystal whooped in delight and pressed a quick kiss to her new favorite cue. “That’s my boy,” she said softly.

Jamie turned toward her. “What did you say?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. Tough luck.”

He snorted. “I’ll say. It was like I was using The Humiliator.”

“Speaking of, it’s Crystal’s turn,” Tori said.

Crystal turned the cue in her hand, eager to prove everyone wrong about this poor, misunderstood cue. She knew what it felt like to be the underdog, to know that everyone had written you off as a failure. And that was why she was going to end this ridiculous curse.

She sent the cue another silent message: let’s do this.