HER IDEAL MAN

RITA Finalist

HER IDEAL MAN

RED CREEK BROTHERS - BOOK 3

HER DREAM COME TRUE…?

Tyler Forrest had everything he needed–his son and the wide-open beauty of the Colorado mountains. He didn’t want a big house, a lot of money …or a bride.

But when sexy, outspoken Anna Passanante showed up on his doorstep, Tyler’s long-celibate past gave way to a weekend of passion .. . .

Three months later, he was faced with a very pregnant Anna–and a hasty wedding. But it would take more than vows for Tyler and Anna to become true husband and wife.

RED CREEK BROTHERS: Three brothers travel the rocky road to love in a small Colorado town.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Anna Passanante cursed herself. There were some things no mortal should ever undertake, and this was one of them.

Driving.

In the mountains.

In a blizzard.

Snowflakes the size of crystal balls fell from a sky so low it swallowed the tops of the pines growing in dark abundance on the mountainside. The higher she climbed on the twisting, narrow gravel road, the lower the sky fell. She could see almost nothing beyond a few feet ahead of her brand-new Jeep, which had proved almost—but not quite—equal to the task of navigating the mountain.

A tank, now, might have been up to the task.

She wrapped her leather-gloved hands around the steering wheel more tightly, inching up the road at five miles an hour. Overconfidence. That was her problem. Misplaced exuberance and overconfidence. After twenty-five years, she thought, a person might have learned better.

The Jeep lurched in a pothole as big as Montana, tossing Anna against the door. A jagged bolt of fear tore through her lungs and belly as the car hovered just this side of control, then settled evenly on the other side of the hole.

“Insane,” she said aloud. She would have turned back twenty minutes ago, but there had been no place to do it on the narrow road. She was stuck going all the way.

Just as the first threads of true alarm started winding through her veins, the road abruptly leveled and ended in a clearing set amid the dark, snow-laden pines. Anna stopped the truck and turned off the ignition, staring in wonder.

The woodcutter’s cottage.

Crouched close against the forest that towered behind it, the cabin was small, crafted of weather-darkened logs. Snow drifted in thick swirls around it, making Anna think of the glass globes sold in tourist shops. Smoke came from a stone chimney, and neat piles of wood of various sizes were stacked under a small shed.

Anna smiled. No wonder Curtis loved fairy tales so much. He lived in one.

Curtis. The four-year-old grandson of Louise Forrest was the whole reason Anna had agreed to this wild quest. Far from her enormous family, Anna had taken a special liking to the motherless Curtis, who raptly listened to Anna’s endless store of fairy tales for hours on end.

Thinking urgently of the drive back down the mountain and the teddy bear Curtis could not sleep without, she opened the door.

Before she had made two ungraceful steps in the thick snow already piled on the ground, a figure emerged from the log-framed doorway. Curtis’s father, Tyler. Anna halted at the furious non-welcome she read in his posture. An enormous muslin-colored dog with bright black eyes stood next to him.

“What do you want?”

Defensively Anna called, “Your mother sent me!”

He only stared, his arms crossed, his face thunderous.

On three occasions she had met Tyler Forrest. This was the fourth, and her reaction to him had not changed one bit. Although he lived in the woodcutter’s cottage, Tyler was the enchanted prince of every fairy tale ever written.

In the soft gray light, he was hauntingly handsome. Snow caught in his long hair, hair the color of sword gilt—not quite gold, not quite silver, but some ethereal color in between. Thick flakes clung in airy stars to the dark blue corduroy of his shirt and landed in tufts on his lean, broad shoulders. Snow melted on the heat of his elegantly sculpted face, a face molded to capture the hearts of a thousand maidens, with its high brow and aristocratic nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Only his mouth marred the elegance, for it was wide and full, a sensual mouth formed perfectly for the shape of kisses.

It was foolish, this besotted sense of fate Anna felt every time she looked at Tyler Forrest. A prickly loner who lived alone up on the mountain with his son, miles from town, he’d never said more than three words to her directly. He never spoke to women at all, if the truth were told. He was as unattainable as a myth.

And yet, she could never seem to stop the quick, yearning ache of her heart whenever she saw him.

He lifted his chin now, that gorgeous mouth flattened to a tight line. “Did she send you to rescue me?”

Rescue him. Anna clutched her hands together. He certainly needed rescuing, but a blue-collar woman from Brooklyn didn’t have the tools to break the spell holding him in his lonely world. He needed a princess with golden hair and dreamy blue eyes.

“Something far more prosaic, I’m afraid,” she called, forcing a smile. “Curtis forgot his teddy bear, and you know he can’t spend the whole weekend without it, even with his grandmother.” She felt her face get warm as she babbled, and clamped her lips together. She took a breath and dared to take another step forward. “If you’ll just get it for me, I’ll be on my way—before this storm gets any worse.”

As if he’d only just noticed, he looked up at the sky. “All right.” His mouth tightened. “You may as well come in while I get it.”

Anna made her way through the thick snow in the clearing, thankful for the fur-lined boots and her parka. He waited for her, his face blank, and when she got to the porch, he held out a hand to help her up. “Watch your step.”

The hand was lean and very strong, with smooth oval nails. Small nicks and scratches, likely from his carpentry work, gave it a manly aspect. Anna allowed him to haul her up to the porch. For one minute, he looked at her hard, as if he were angry, or maybe disappointed.

His dog whined up at Tyler, his tail wagging, his feet restless in the snow. “No, Charley,” he said firmly, letting go of Anna’s hand.

The dog, still very young by the look of him, looked crestfallen. “I won’t bother him if you’re training him as a watchdog,” Anna said, “but I’d love to greet him, if it’s okay.”

“Go ahead. Be careful. He thinks he’s supposed to kiss you.”

Anna bent down to rub the dog’s enormous head. Exuberantly he leaped up and put his paws on her shoulders, giving her chin a lick. His thick hair was well brushed. “What kind of dog is he?” she asked, softly admonishing him to sit.

“A Newfie mix. Probably a little golden Lab.” He scowled at the dog. “No, Charley! Sit.”

Charley did, licking his chops as he waited for the pat Tyler gave him. “Good dog.” The scowl returned when Tyler turned his attention back to Anna. “My mother sent you, huh?”

“Yes.”

“How did that happen?”

Anna shrugged. “She called and asked.” Uncomfortable, she felt compelled to point to her Jeep, glossy with factory-fresh paint. “She knows I like any reason to drive my new truck.”

He looked at the Jeep, then at Anna. His eyes were as unusual as everything else about him. Pale gray, with a dark ring around the iris. The eyes of a mage, somehow clear and opaque at once. Standing so close, she could see that his eyelashes were a light brown tipped with gold, as was the shadow of beard on his narrow jaw.

She laced her fingers together and looked away. For once in her life, she would act with decorum and dignity.

Or try, anyway.

He led her inside. Anna stopped just beyond the door to let her eyes adjust to the dimness after the blazing snow light. She smelled a heady combination of spicy pine and wood smoke and apples, and heard Tyler moving away over a wooden floor. Charley padded over to the hearth and plopped himself down with a sigh.

Slowly, her vision cleared, and Anna was staring at a hearth with a low fire burning orange and yellow. The mantle was made of native stone, and the only decoration was a picture of a pretty young girl, blond and smiling, in front of the cabin on a summer day.

Conscious of the mess she’d make, Anna stayed close to the door. The cabin looked to be mainly one large room, with a kitchen at one end, a living area in the center and a bedroom at the other end. A ladder led to a loft that was dark and appeared to be unfinished—she assumed it held a storeroom of some kind. Tyler had gone through a doorway below the loft, probably a bedroom for Curtis.

She had expected something primitive, but it wasn’t. Braided rugs covered a floor made of wooden planks, and the furniture was all of an elegantly simple design, the fabrics in warm hues of dark red and blue. In the kitchen, copper and iron pots hung from hooks. The bed was neatly made with a Pendleton blanket in a Native American pattern.

It made her feel better, somehow, to think of Curtis living here in this warm, pleasant place. For all his aloofness, Tyler had made a good home for his son.

Which she really should have expected. She’d rarely met such a bright, adorable, loving child. Neglected children were never that sunny and giving. They were afraid to be.

Tyler returned in a moment with a bedraggled teddy bear in his hands. “Anything else?”

“I think that’s it. Thanks.” Anna clutched the bear close to her tummy and turned to open the door.

“Look,” he said roughly. “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that my mother knows I want to be alone this weekend, and she doesn’t like it, so she’s meddling.”

Anna looked up in surprise. “I swear, I—”

He lifted a hand. “Understood. She means well, but everyone has to grieve in their own way, and she won’t stay out of it.”

He wanted to be alone to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s death. Anna knew that much, because Louise had told her. “I know,” she said. “She told me she wants you to get over it and get married so Curtis will have a mother.”

At his hard look, Anna realized how that sounded, and hastily backtracked. “I mean, not that she meant I should be…um…not that she sent me to be your—” She broke off, feeling heat in her face. Nothing like making a complete fool of yourself in front of the most gorgeous man in the universe. “Never mind.” She spied the photo over his shoulder and seized the distraction. “Is that her? Your wife, I mean?”

Tyler glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah.”

“She’s pretty.”

He crossed his arms.

Anna took a breath and reached behind her for the door handle. “I gotta get out of here before the storm gets worse.”

He followed her out to the porch, and frowned. “This is one hell of storm,” he commented, almost to himself. With obvious reluctance, he asked, “Are you sure you’ll be all right? I can follow you down, if you like.”

In spite of his lack of relish for the job, Anna seriously considered the offer. She had only been inside ten minutes, and already a new layer of snow had collected in thick wet flakes on her windshield. It seemed to be coming down even harder now. If that were possible. Thinking of the narrow, heart-stoppingly twisting road, she hesitated. What if she got stuck somewhere?

But going down was easier, and wouldn’t take as long. “I’ll be fine,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “What’s the worst that could happen? I have to walk out?” She pointed to her boots. “I’m dressed for it.”

He looked at the sky, and the road. “Maybe I should follow you, at least to the frontage road.”

“It’s not necessary. Really.” She smiled. “I may sound like a tenderfoot, but I’ve done my homework. I know how to drive in the mountains.”

He lifted one shoulder. “All right. If you think you can handle it.”

Anna scowled. “I can handle it.” Without giving him further time to question her, she jumped in the Jeep and slammed the door. As she turned the vehicle around, the tires skidded a little, renewing her fears. It had been a bad trip up. Maybe she should let him follow her.

No. She clutched the wheel and leaned forward. She could do this. She didn’t need some snotty native to laugh at her all the way down the mountain. Much as she loved Colorado, the superior attitude of the born-and-bred locals could be extremely annoying. And it was especially true in Anna’s case. Her accent labeled her a New Yorker—and the mountain people seemed to think New Yorkers were all fast-talking, clueless tenderfoots.

Or would that be tenderfeet?

Whatever. No native could love Colorado more than she did. It had been the land of her dreams from the time she was fifteen years old and her family took a two-week vacation here. Those two weeks had changed her life irrevocably, giving her a glimpse of a world she had never even dreamed existed.

More than ten years later, Anna could still remember the way she had felt the first time she stepped out of the car in Colorado Springs and she really saw the mountains in their astonishing scope and power for the first time. A wild, intense emotion pulled on her heart at the sight, a soul-deep cry of such joy and wonder that she forgot she’d been needing to find a rest room for sixty miles, forgot the bruising pinch her brother had given her when she wouldn’t give him a dollar, forgot the squabbling noise of her siblings. She’d simply stood there, drinking in the view as if it alone could sustain her for the rest of her life.

When they got home to New York, she bought a poster of Colorado and hung it on her bedroom wall and announced to the world in general that she would one day make the mountain state her home.

No one believed her, of course. Not her friends at school or her sisters and brothers or her parents or grandparents or cousins. No one could understand why she’d want to go so far away, how she could survive out there in the world without the comforting bulwark of family. They snorted and chuckled and said she was an incurable romantic. “That’s our Anna—such a dreamer.”

She stopped talking about it. But she didn’t give up her dream. Previously an indifferent student, she became possessed, achieving such high grades that she graduated early from high school, and, at the urging of a kindly teacher, took her degree in museum studies. There were a lot of little museums all over Colorado, and as soon as she was eligible, she joined the Colorado/Wyoming Association of Museums. Twice, by working nights as a tutor, she had saved enough to fly out for conventions to network with the group.

And on the second trip, Lady Luck at last smiled upon her. Anna met Louise Forrest, who had single-handedly won support for a full-time curator for the Tacker House museum in Red Creek, and wanted someone who wouldn’t decamp after one winter. Anna was overjoyed at the opportunity. To live not only in Colorado, but actually in the mountains, was more than she had ever dared hope.

Her family had been utterly aghast at her announcement. They had never believed she would really leave. Even as she packed her belongings and got ready for the cross-country drive, her mother had been dropping by her tiny apartment to bring her news of a birthday party that would be held the following week. Swarms of well-meaning emissaries had visited the days before she drove off, but none of them had swayed her even the smallest bit.

They still expected she would be home at any moment. But Anna was home.

At last.

She missed her family, but in a good many ways, it was a relief to make a new life for herself here, away from their loving, intruding ways. Louise had practically adopted her, anyway.

As she made her way carefully down the mountain, Anna understood Tyler’s frustration with his meddling mother, but she wondered if he realized that Louise was only a busybody out of love and worry.

On the road ahead loomed the gigantic pothole. Just in time, Anna swerved to avoid it, taking a long breath when the wheels clung to the outer rim and she stayed on level ground.

She realized she was perspiring. Two more hairpin turns, and the rest of the trip would be a cinch. Maybe. She swallowed, leaning over the steering wheel to peer out the small pocket of windshield the wipers managed to clear.

Visibility was poor, even worse than before, because the wind had picked up. It blew through the hollows and open passes with alarming gusto, shaking the Jeep, turning the huge snowflakes into a whirling, blinding whiteout.

She stopped after one bad gust made it impossible to see. Gnawing her lip, she peered out the window at the uniformly white world and wondered at what point a native would give up and walk the rest of the way. It was still about six or seven miles to town. A long way to walk in a blizzard.

And this had undeniably become a blizzard. It snowed a lot in Red Creek—which was one of the reasons Louise had been looking for a curator. Few people were enamored enough of the mountains to put up with almost two hundred inches of snow every winter. Anna loved it. The dry, crisp cold made her feel energetic. She was dressed for it, in layers, with her insulated boots and leather gloves and heavy down parka, with its functional hood—so she could walk a long way if necessary.

But this was a bad storm, even for Red Creek. If she could just get around the next two turns, she would be all right. Gripping the wheel hard, she inched forward, praying aloud to Saint Christopher, who might have been officially disqualified, but still comforted her at times like this. If he could see her safely through the subways, she figured he could help with a blizzard.

The first turn was coming up—a sharp, almost ninety-degree angle that hugged the mountain on one side and plunged hundreds of feet into a valley on the other. As she approached, her tires skidded on the piled-up snow. Just a little slide, but a knife went through her heart.

A sturdy guardrail protected the edge of the drop, but Anna wouldn’t trust it to keep her on the road if she hit it. With a deep breath, she pulled the truck over as far as possible out of the road, grabbed the teddy bear and got out. Much safer to walk. One thing a native knew was when to say when. It wasn’t as if she could get lost, after all. The road led right into town, and it was all downhill. It would only take her an hour or so to hike the rest of the way.

Relieved, she settled into a comfortable gait, following the faint path her tires had made in the road on the way up the mountain. Aside from the wind, it was quite beautiful—only the snow and the sky and the graceful, arrow shaped trees. When the wind stopped its periodic blustering, the world was utterly silent, broken only by the squeak of her boots and the moist puff of her breath through her wool scarf. She lifted her head and breathed in the cold, unsullied air, tasting winter and sky and—

She halted abruptly, and swore profanely. It was a habit she’d largely given up—it had only been a rebellion, anyway—but there were times a good Anglo-Saxon curse word summed things up better than any other choice.

This was one of those times. Just below the second turn, a gigantic tree, along with two good-size boulders, a couple thousand gallons of snow and half the mountain, had fallen across the road, clear to the edge of the guardrail. A reddish slash of newly bared earth showed where the tree had once stood, forty feet above the road. Obviously the wind had knocked it down.

Two things crossed her mind. The first was a sick sense of relief. She had been on this road only a little while ago. The avalanche might have buried her.

The second was a sense of panic. How was she going to get back to town? The road was completely blocked.

On one side was the sheer, dizzying drop to the valley a thousand feet below. On the other was a steep mountain that looked none too stable. Anna didn’t fancy starting a second avalanche.

Going over the top of the mess was impossible, though she seriously considered it for a moment. The tree’s broken, spiky branches, combined with the treacherously unsettled earth and snow, would make it a dangerous undertaking. One she wasn’t willing to risk.

She had no choice. Taking a deep breath, she turned around and began to walk up the hill, trying hard not to imagine the reception she would receive from the prickly Tyler.

~ … ~