BEAUTIFUL STRANGER

BEAUTIFUL STRANGER

RED CREEK BROTHERS - BOOK 4

SHE NEVER KNEW LOVE — UNTIL HIM

Raised in a gilded cage, she was the chubby twin sister no one noticed. Now her weight loss made Marissa Pierce the kind of woman every man desired – including Robert Martinez. If only she had the courage to return his seductive gaze…

A proud Native American, Robert resented Marissa’s privileged lifestyle. Yet this elegant stranger understood his wounded heart. Now Robert was determined to show her how truly beautiful she was – before the princess could escape to her ivory tower forever.

RED CREEK BROTHERS: Red Creek, Colorado’s matchmaking matriarch rounds up two bachelors for the Pierce twins!

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

The girl showed up on his doorstep, wearing nothing but an oversize windbreaker to protect her from the February cold. Her shoulders were painfully thin under the jacket. Her stomach bowed out in an unmistakable shape she tried to hide, a shape all wrong on a fifteen-year-old.

The long hair hadn’t been washed in a few days, and Robert could tell she was wearing the same makeup she’d set out with. Whatever belongings she’d carried with her were in a very small backpack.

When the knock came, it startled him into breaking a fragile bit of red glass he’d been fitting into a small frame, edging it with heat to ease it. Tsking, he flipped his safety glasses to the top of his head and went to the door. The girl was standing there on his step, her chin lifted at that cocky teenage angle that was all bravado, yet hid a scared little girl heart. She popped a big wad of gum. Long earrings glittered against her tangled hair, and her eyeliner was smeared, as if she’d slept in it.

“Hey, uncle,” she said, like she’d just come in from school. Like she wasn’t five hundred miles from home. Like he expected her.

Robert met that I-dare-you gaze for one long moment, seeing, with painful memory, himself at fourteen, fifteen, wanting somebody to—

Without a word, he opened the screen door. He didn’t yell or ask what the hell she was doing. He simply pushed the door aside, opened his arms and she fell against him, her twig arms fierce against his ribs, her relief an almost palpable presence. She didn’t have to tell him she was in trouble, that she’d run away, that she had nowhere else to go.

When her tough-girl facade cracked, it cracked wide open, and his fifteen-year-old niece, five months pregnant if she was a minute, burst into tears and sobbed like a baby. He just held on.

There wasn’t much room for her in his little house, and heaven knew he was the last man on earth who ought to be an example for anybody, but Robert held her while she cried, then sent her to take a shower while he made her a big bowl of soup. He made her eat, then put her to bed in his own room before he called his sister, Alicia, who responded pretty much as he’d expected—her new husband was more important to her than her daughter. Robert forgave her before he even hung up. They’d had the same mother after all.

He leaned in the doorway and watched Crystal sleep, a knot of pain in his chest. No matter how bad he’d be at the father thing, he was better than nobody. He’d managed to oversee a motley crew of soldiers through a war—how bad could one teenage girl be?

He set to work on cleaning up the back room, boxing up his tools and supplies so she would have a room of her own. Tomorrow they’d figure out the rest.

Chapter One

As her classroom of twenty-seven ninth graders filed out of seventh hour—her last class of the day, thank heavens—Marissa Pierce grabbed her purse out of the desk drawer and bolted for the faculty rest room. In ten minutes, she had an appointment with the parent of a difficult student, and if she didn’t visit Mother Nature right now, she wouldn’t have a chance for another hour. Intolerable.

She bustled through the throngs of high-schoolers in their skinny jeans and baggy butt pants, and took pleasure in the simple fact of being able to bustle—an act that had been purely beyond her for a long time. It was still a little shock to zip up a pair of size-twelve slacks, but the best part of losing eighty-five pounds was this: being able to move lightly and without trouble through a crowd.

Just like a normal person.

The rest room was blessedly empty. Marissa tended to nature, readjusted her belt and peered at it in the mirror. All day long she’d felt odd about this belt. She knew she’d fiddled with it, touching it with her hand every so often to make sure the belly beneath it wasn’t sticking out a mile. But the mirror insisted the belly looked exactly the same as it had this morning—a little rounder than some, maybe, but ordinarily so. And there were no gobs of back fat pushing out her blouse in the rear.

It had taken eighteen months to lose the weight, and she still had a good fifteen or twenty pounds to go. They had been long, long months at times, sometimes very discouraging, and even now it seemed that a kind of ghost of her former self clung to her.

But there were moments like this one, when she saw herself in a mirror, with a shirt tucked into a pair of trousers, that she realized anew it had all been worth it. After fifteen years of being the fattest kid, then the fattest woman in any room, of ducking mirrors and dreading shopping malls, she took extraordinary pleasure in the simple act of not wincing when she bent to put a little fresh lipstick on her mouth.

Feeling much better, she went back to her room in the clearing halls and found Crystal already seated in her usual place, third seat in the fifth row, by the windows. And as she often did, the girl stared out that window as if some rescue was imminent—or at least, she wished it was. Kids this age were often a mass of tangled hungers and skewed logic, and pregnancy only made all of that about twenty times worse.

One of the reasons Marissa had chosen to teach this age group was because her own adolescence had been very difficult. To her surprise, she was very good at it. Her heart and soul were engaged by the delicate, topsy-turvy, exuberant and exasperating world of teens. Every so often, a particular child captured her—last year it had been a boy with such brilliance for math that she’d been challenged every single day to stay ahead of him.

Something about Crystal Avila had snagged Marissa hard. She found herself worrying about the girl at odd moments, just before she fell asleep, or in the shower. It wasn’t just that she was pregnant. Crystal was far from the first pregnant teen to sit in this classroom.

No, it was deeper than that. There was such a depth of yearning, such sorrow in those dark eyes, that it was sometimes hard to look at her. She’d lost something big in her old life, something more than her innocence. It plucked at Marissa in some odd way she couldn’t shake.

Dropping her purse back into the desk drawer, Marissa said casually, “Hey, kiddo. You can come sit up here if you like.”

She just shook her head, the long strands of straight black hair sticking on the coat she wore every minute, probably to hide her belly. She was a pretty little thing, small and delicate, her face adamantly Native American with broad cheekbones and narrow chin.

Marissa started the process of tidying her desk. “How was your day?”

Crystal made a grunting, you-are-so-stupid noise, and rolled her eyes. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

“It sucked, as usual.” She bent her head, ran her thumbnail along the pencil holder carved into the desk. “I hate this place.”

It was a good opening. Marissa carefully focused on gathering scattered writing utensils and putting them in a square container another student had made for her in woodshop. “Did you like your old school better?”

“No.” A singularly surly word. “I hated it, too, but my mom didn’t make me go.”

“And you’re mad at your uncle because he makes you?”

She shrugged, probably not quite willing to be that disloyal with an outsider.

“Well, you know—” Marissa kept her body moving, unfocused and therefore unthreatening “—if you weren’t as smart as you are, I might think there were better ways for you to spend your time.” She erased calculations from the blackboard and turned around. “But anyone with a brain like yours really needs an education.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, snorting, “I’m so smart. Can’t you see how smart I am?” She gestured with anger to her belly.

“Getting pregnant is a mistake, but it has nothing to do with brains.” When the girl only lowered her head, Marissa went on. “Lots of really smart women get pregnant by accident—even women who are trying to be careful, so you aren’t alone.”

Crystal began wiggling her foot, but she still didn’t have the blinders up. A surprise, but Marissa wasn’t about to waste a chance. “You really are smart, Crystal. I’d really like to help you see that, if you’ll give me a chance.”

The great dark eyes flickered up, flared briefly with hope, then lowered quickly again.

Oh, babe! Marissa thought, that familiar ache in her chest.

“Nobody else ever told me I’m smart. What if you’re wrong?”

Marissa laughed softly. “I’m never wrong,” she said. “And I’m really smart myself. I know what I’m talking about.”

A knock sounded at the door, and Marissa straightened, turning to welcome the girl’s uncle into the room. But halfway to her feet, her heart slammed hard into her ribs and then settled into a painful thudding.

Red Dog.

That was what they called him, anyway, an army nickname. Marissa knew him through her association with the Forrest family—he was Jake Forrest’s best friend.

And one of the most intensely sexy men Marissa had ever seen. It was less a particular feature or even combination of features that made it so—it was the essence of him, a dangerous combination of brooding darkness and an appreciation of women that was like some devilish cologne seeping from his pores.

Marissa quickly turned and snatched a paper off her desk, seeking his real name. “Mr. Martinez?” With a degree of smoothness she would have thought beyond her at just that moment, she crossed the room and extended her hand, smiling warmly. “Come in. I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Please call me Robert.” Not a single flicker of recognition crossed his face as he clasped her hand with a firm, honest kind of grip. “Thanks for asking me here. Sorry I’m such a mess—I had to come right from work.”

“Not a problem.” And it wasn’t. His chambray shirt and jeans were dusty with a long day’s work in construction, but his long, graceful hands were clean. His hair, thick and inky, was pulled back into a long braid, highlighting the hard, high cheekbones and wide mouth. His eyes were serious, very dark, but she knew from watching him at various gatherings that they crinkled up when he laughed.

She struggled back into a professional demeanor. As they moved toward the middle of the room, Marissa liked the way his attention honed in on Crystal.

“Hey, kid,” he said, and raised a hand in a gesture of inclusion. “Why don’t you come on over here with us?”

The girl reluctantly slid out of her seat and shuffled over, dwarfed by her coat and baggy pants and all that hair sliding forward to hide her face. Her uncle slid an arm around her shoulders and embraced her quickly before he let her go.

They settled into chairs Marissa kept close to her desk for unruly kids. “Mr. Martinez—”

“Robert,” he corrected.

“Right. Robert, I was just telling Crystal that I think she’s very bright, and I’m worried about her.”

Robert glanced at Crystal, then back to Marissa, and she saw his concern in the darkness of those up-tilted eyes. “She is smart,” he said. “But she doesn’t seem to like school very much.”

“Exactly. Maybe if we talk, we can get to the bottom of that. Make it better.”

“All right,” Robert said.

Marissa shifted slightly. “ Crystal, can I ask you some questions?”

“I guess.”

“Have you made some friends here yet?”

A shrug, a dull glance outside the window. “Yeah.”

It was a lie and Marissa knew it, but she wouldn’t push. With a flash of inspiration, she dropped her usual spiel about the missing homework assignments and asked instead, “Tell me, is there anything you’re crazy about? I mean totally nuts. Like cats or horses or a book you’ve read?”

A small alteration in body language. Crystal’s gaze slid toward her uncle. “No,” she said.

Robert grinned. “You can tell her.”

Long lashes swept down. “No.”

Marissa glanced at Robert. He met her eyes, then reached out and put a hand on Crystal’s shoulder. “She’s not gonna use it against you, babe.”

Crystal shifted away. “Everyone makes fun of me. Like I have a sickness or something.”

“I won’t laugh. I promise,” Marissa said, crossing her heart and lifting a hand.

With a dark glare at her uncle, one that dared him to say a word, Crystal said distinctly, “No.”

“It’s all right,” Marissa said. “You don’t trust me, and you don’t really have any reason to.” She shrugged. “If you ever feel like telling me, I’ll be glad to listen—and maybe I can figure out ways to connect school, which you seem to hate, to whatever it is that you love.”

Crystal raised her eyes, and Marissa glimpsed something like surprise.

“Of course, that means we have to talk about the other things now.” Marissa folded her hands. It was always hard to know how a parent would respond to the kind of news she was about to deliver. Some reacted defensively. Some turned their embarrassment into anger at the child.

“The reason I wanted to talk to both of you together,” she said, “is because Crystal is doing very well on tests, but she’s not turning in homework. In math, since she’s obviously getting the concepts, I’d be willing to overlook the lack of homework, but I’m hearing about the same problem from other teachers, and they aren’t going to be as willing to overlook that work.”

Robert frowned, an expression of bewilderment more than anger. “She does her homework. I check it every night.” He turned to her. “Aren’t you turning it in?”

“I forget.”

Marissa carefully did not smile. Crystal wasn’t forgetting. Or if she was, it was a passive-aggressive kind of forgetting, a way to get what she thought she wanted. She’d discuss some ideas with Robert once Crystal left the room, but for now she let it go. “ Crystal, I’d really like to help you get some good patterns going, so school is more fun for you. It would be criminal for you to waste that great mind.” She paused. “Do you have any suggestions?”

A sudden wash of tears filled the dark eyes, and she looked away sullenly. One hostile shoulder lifted and fell.

“How about if you come here for an hour after school, and I can help you with your work—not just math, but whatever you’re having trouble with?”

“I’m not having any trouble.”

“Well, maybe it would just be a case of you turning the homework in to me, then, so I can see that it gets to the right places.” She looked at the uncle, resisting that little zing of awareness he gave her. “Would that be okay with you?”

“What d’you say, Crystal? Maybe try it for a week or two, see how it goes, eh? It’s only an hour. What the heck?”

Heartfelt shrug, both shoulders. “I guess.”

Marissa smiled. “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow, here, then. And since you’ve been tortured long enough, how about giving me a few minutes with your uncle? You can get a soda or something, maybe?”

“Somebody here won’t let me drink pop.”

Robert chuckled, and reached into the pocket of his jeans. “I saw the Sno-Kone man out there. Get some ice cream. It’s good for you.”

“How come it’s good and pop is bad?”

“Because ice cream is made from milk, silly girl.” He winked at her. “Get me a couple of ice-cream sandwiches, will ya? I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Crystal took the money and gravely shook her head. “Someday, Uncle, you’re going to be as fat as a house. Or my uncle Gary.”

He laughed. “Probably.” He patted her shoulder and inclined his head. “Go on.”

Crystal shuffled out, and Robert turned back to Marissa, his face wiped free of amusement. “She’s not doing real well here, is she?”

“No.” Marissa, acting on a hunch, stood up and closed the door, then returned to her seat. “She’s been here … what? Four or five weeks? And I’ve never seen her even talk to another student. Other kids try, you know, to include her, and she’s not having it.”

He sighed, and then, as if he couldn’t think while sitting, stood up and paced to the window. “I’m not too good at this father thing,” he said, turning. His arms were crossed. “I’ve never had a kid—but I gotta try. Her mom is useless, and there’s nobody else. I’ve been trying to make her stick to regular hours and eat normal food—just, you know, normal.” He gestured, shook his head. “Why am I telling you this?”

“Maybe because it’s hard to go it alone,” Marissa said. “It sounds like you’re doing all the right things, and it’s obviously a rough time for her.” She frowned. “Is she doing any kind of parenting class, Lamaze, anything with other kids who are also pregnant?”

“She starts the end of the week. You think that’ll help, maybe? Maybe she feels kind of isolated.”

“Yeah.” Marissa thought, fleetingly, of herself at fourteen—feeling like a hippopotamus in her flowing dress while all the other girls wore their leggings. “Trust me when I say this is a rough age for all the kids, but if there’s anything to set you the tiniest bit apart, it’s that much harder. She’s pregnant, she’s new and she’s Native American, which sort of makes her exotic around here.” She smiled. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not exactly a wildly integrated community.”

Humor flickered over his eyes—eyes that crinkled upward at the corners just as she remembered. In detail. With a little ripple of despair, she decided he was just sinfully delectable.

“I noticed,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a city. Red Creek might have some flaws, but at least I don’t have to worry about her getting on the wrong side of some gang.”

“Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”

“No—please. I’m open to anything.”

“I’ll have her come in every afternoon and see if I can get her on track with school, maybe let her know there’s someone else in her corner. We can start a check-off system to help her get her homework in. And it’s probably going to help a lot to get her into her pregnancy class.” She straightened. “But it also occurs to me that there’s someone in town who would be more than delighted to help you mother this lost child.”

He looked puzzled. “Mother?”

She chuckled. “Yeah. Louise Forrest—er, Chacon, I guess it is now. Jake’s mother.”

“You know Jake and his mother?”

He didn’t recognize her at all. With a grin she said, “We have met, Robert. I’m good friends with Lance.”

His body went soft with surprise, and she saw the knowledge and recognition dawn on his face. “Oh my God! I know who you are now. Marissa.” His gaze moved with frank astonishment over her body. “My God! You’ve lost … you’re so much—” He stopped, clamped his mouth shut, took a breath.

Marissa laughed.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was really rude.”

“Not at all. It’s very common lately.”

“You’ve lost a lot of weight.”

“Almost a hundred pounds.” She gestured like Oprah. “And trust me, I love it when people are amazed.”

His eyes made the journey over her figure once more, this time frankly appreciative. “You look terrific.”

“Thanks. Now, about Louise…”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, Louise is a great idea.”

“Day to day, it’s just getting through. Sometimes just minute to minute.” She smiled. “I teach them all day, remember. But when you run into something troubling, Louise might have good advice.”

He nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and held out his hand. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the interest you’ve taken.”

Marissa stood and clasped the long brown hand in her own, allowing herself at last to experience the slightly heady sensation of standing close to him, holding his hand and smiling up at him. “My pleasure,” she said, and made to draw away.

But he held on, tightening his fingers slightly. “You’ve always been beautiful, you know.”

Marissa, stricken to the core, was afraid he’d see too much if she let him hang on a second longer, and she pulled away, hiding her emotions under a well-mannered smile. “Thank you. And thank you for coming.”

At the door he paused. “Do you want to know what she loves?”

“I’ll wait until she’s ready to tell me.”

He nodded. “All right. Thanks again.”

He closed the door behind him and Marissa sank against the desk, swallowing the weird rush of emotion his simple, clear words had given her. You were always beautiful. Not exactly the words she would ever have expected to come from the lips of a jaded, brooding man who only crooked his finger and had women from thirteen to seventy flocking to his side.

Then she realized with a wry little smile that it was exactly what she should have expected. The great power of a ladies’ man lay in his understanding of a woman’s most private, most revered hungers.

Reaching for her purse, she chuckled. He’d certainly zeroed in on Marissa’s.

* * *

There was a card from her sister in the mailbox when she got home, and Marissa laughed when she opened it. The front showed a beachy guy in worn white cutoffs, smiling hunkily, and the inside said, “Just wanted to send you something fun to break up your day.”

Marissa had mailed out the exact card, for no particular reason, to her twin sister, Victoria, only three days before. They were identical twins, the only children of their obscenely wealthy and overly protective parents. What nature began in the womb, the isolation their parents had imposed had completed; the pair had an almost uncanny bond, as if they were one mind in two bodies.

When she walked in, still smiling, the phone rang.

“I just got it,” she said into the phone, knowing by a twin’s intuition exactly who was on the other end. “I should have known.”

Victoria laughed. “I don’t even know why we bother. Next time, just buy the card and keep it and so will I, and we’ll both save the postage.”

“Ah, what fun would that be?”

Victoria changed gears. “Enough of that. Who is he?”

It startled Marissa. “Who?”

“Some man. Don’t lie. I felt it, right in the solar plexus.”

Marissa chuckled. “Well, he’s really no one. A cute parent, that’s all. Sweet talker.”

“Mmm. He must be hot, that’s all I have to say. I’m going to come see for myself. Can I come visit? Maybe stay for a week. Or a month?”

“Really?” Marissa cried. She had not seen her sister in more than two years, largely due to Victoria’s hectic and worldly schedule. “That would be so fantastic!” She smiled to herself. “I have quite a surprise for you.”

“And I have one for you.” She laughed softly. “I can’t imagine that we’ll duplicate each other this time.”

Marissa thought of her sister’s ultra skinny frame. “Nope. Not this time.”

“All right, then. I’ll see you in a week or two.”

They hung up.

 

~ … ~