MARRIAGE MATERIAL

MARRIAGE MATERIAL

RED CREEK BROTHERS - BOOK 1

FATHER MATERIAL… Lance Forrest was the sexiest thing Tamara Flynn had ever laid eyes on. Once, he’d hightailed it out of Red Creek, Colorado, on his wild reputation, leaving behind a string of broken hearts and a son he never knew about. A son Tamara raised as her own. HUSBAND MATERIAL? When he walked back into her life five years later, Tamara knew she could no longer deny Lance the knowledge of his son, or the joy of his company. But the more time the three of them spent together, the more Lance started to feel like family. Tamara had always thought Lance and marriage didn’t mix… until now. Red Creek Brothers: Three brothers travel the rocky road to love in a small Colorado town.

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Chapter One

Lance Forrest hit Red Creek, Colorado, much the same way as he always did—radio blaring so loud it seemed as if his car were floating on the sound. Rock and roll, naturally. Through the windows blew a light, dry mountain wind, combing playful fingers through his always too-long hair. He breathed the air deep, all the way to the bottom of his lungs, smelling the sharply evocative mix of sunlight and crushed pine needles on earth just faintly damp.

He’d been living in Houston, where the air weighed three hundred pounds per square inch, and nothing could have been finer than the sweet mountain air of home. He hung his elbow out the window, feeling a faint hint of September bite. The aspens, shaking their gold-coin leaves against a sky the color of a little girl’s Easter ribbon, already showed autumn had arrived.

Red Creek wasn’t much of a town. Barely three thousand people if you didn’t count the tourists and skiers and the new crop of rich folks building million dollar “retreats” on enormous parcels of land buried in the trees. Lance didn’t. Not many of them stayed year-round. Even fewer had the faintest clue what Colorado really meant.

As he reached the outskirts of town, he noticed a few changes—the grocery store had been revamped to look like any big-time supermarket. A brand-name pizza parlor camped next to the lone motel. Next to the old drugstore, where Lance had spent many hours over ice-cream sodas, a gourmet coffee shop and French bakery offered upscale breakfast goodies.

Not so bad. It would be unrealistic to expect the place to stay completely preserved year after year. Lance could live with a few changes. Cheerfully, he waved to everyone he saw, grinning at the double takes they did at his car.

His car. It was a beauty, all right. A 1965 Ford Fairlane, silver-gray, with white walls and an engine designed when gas was a quarter a gallon. It rumbled like a street rod as he ambled up Main Street, the engine purring even at nine thousand feet above sea level. It was his pride and joy, this car, fully restored down to the last detail.

His father would have loved it.

Glancing in the rearview mirror, Lance saw the black-and-white sheriff’s car that had fallen in behind him. He grinned. Right on time. Sheriff Holloran never let him get past the Kwick Shop without a tail, and it hardly would have felt like a proper homecoming without the escort. Holloran no doubt hoped to catch him swigging from an open beer, but not even Lance was fool enough to drink and try to navigate the mountain passes over which he’d driven. He half wished he had one now, though, just to nettle Holloran. The old man must have missed Lance after so long a time—who else would give him so much to do?

At the traffic light by the courthouse, Lance lifted his green bottle of soda pop, and waved at the sheriff over his shoulder. Damn, it was good to be home.

Even if it was for a funeral.

* * *

Tamara Flynn wiped glasses desultorily and glanced at the clock. One more hour and she was free. She put the glass neatly in its place on the rubber matting behind the bar and turned to pick up another, trying to hide a yawn by lowering her head.

Not that anyone would notice. There were only a handful of customers at the Wild Moose Inn this early in the day. A pair of retirees had taken up permanent residence over a backgammon board in the booth in the corner. A closemouthed traveling salesman who drove through Red Creek on Mondays and Fridays on his way to and from Denver, nursed his single beer. A handful of construction workers, off for three days to mark the passing of old man Forrest—he’d dropped dead of a heart attack right at this bar, one hand on a whiskey, the other reaching for a waitress’s behind—played pool in the back room.

Late afternoons were always like this—slow and lazy. Tamara used the time to prepare the bar for the late shift, stocking the cooler full of bottled beer, and making fresh gallons of Bloody Marys and margaritas for the crowd that would come in later for the buffalo steaks, venison stew and antelope burgers that had made the place famous for twenty-five years.

Tending bar in an eccentric mountain bar and restaurant wasn’t everyone’s idea of a great job, but for Tamara, it was perfect. It let her squeeze in a half schedule of accounting classes at the community college every morning before she arrived at eleven, and let her off in time to fix dinner for her son, Cody, and spend some time with him before he went to bed.

A lock of hair escaped the fat band she used to hold it back, and Tamara took a second to tuck the errant strand back in. She glanced at the salesman’s beer. He nursed one for almost an hour, and never had a second, but habits might change. This one hadn’t. The beer was still half-full.

The bell above the door rang, and Tamara glanced up without much interest. Long fingers of buttery light slanted through the big front window and door, skidding off varnished yellow pine walls. The man in the doorway stood there silhouetted against that gold, as if allowing his eyes to adjust. For a single, fanciful moment, Tamara thought he looked as if he wore a halo.

There was a scrape of a chair toward the back, and Tamara glanced in that direction automatically. Only then did she become aware that the room had gone quiet. The knot of construction workers had come forward to stand in a ragged line in the archway to the back room, their attention focused on the new customer.

She looked back at the man with a frown, alert for trouble. He moved into the room with a marked lack of concern, as if he didn’t see the burly group eyeing him.

His lazy stroll took him from the shadows into the flat square of sunshine spilling over the flat pine dance floor, and Tamara, almost without realizing it, caught her breath.

The dark gold hair was windblown and untidy and too long, but it caught the light in sinful, banded streaks. His face was sun-lined and high-planed. His eyes twinkled, and the lips almost smiled, as if he had a secret. There was cockiness in that expression, the kind of brash confidence some men seemed to own from birth.

Her gaze traveled downward, over his body. All man, one-hundred-percent American made: broad shouldered, with solid biceps and the hardy sort of forearms that came from swinging tools; lean hips and long legs, slightly bowed.

Against her will, Tamara found a half grin of her own forming. If he wasn’t a man without a care in the world, he sure gave a good imitation.

What she wouldn’t give to have that feeling again!

The dancing eyes fixed without worry on the burly line of men at the back room. “Hi, boys,” he drawled.

Not one of them replied. Tamara thought of the television commercials when a stranger came into a rundown, hot place and opened a beer, and the whole room filled with a snowstorm. That was the kind of wary, intense attention these men gave the newcomer, and he bore it with the same singular lack of concern.

He dropped onto a barstool, shoved untidy, wind-blown hair from his face and smiled. “I’ll have a beer, sugar.”

The endearment shouldn’t have been a surprise. It went along with everything else. “What kind of beer?” she said, calmly meeting his eyes. Men knew the rules. If a woman wasn’t swayed by pretty little gestures or outrageous flirting, they moved on fast enough.

The dancing in his eyes—dark blue—increased. “Cold one,” he said.

Tamara sighed. Why did men always think that was so clever? Contrarily, she opened the cooler and pulled out the most expensive import. “Glass?”

“Just like that will be fine.”

Even the most cynical of women would have had a hard time resisting that relentlessly good-natured al-most-smile. Tamara looked away, trying to find something to do with herself. This was the hardest part of the job for her—when someone sat down at mid-bar and showed every sign of wanting to talk. She wasn’t a chitchat sort of person.

“What’s your name, darlin’?” he asked.

She plucked a snowy white bar towel off the sink and wiped the necks of the liquor bottles in the well. If she told him, maybe he’d stop the annoying endearments. “Tamara.”

“Tamara, huh?” He took a sip of the expensive brew straight from the bottle, and inclined his head. “That can’t be right.”

“I’m afraid it is.”

“Anyone call you Tammy?”

She lifted her brows. “Not if they wanted to live to tell about it.”

He grinned widely, and Tamara saw against her will that there was an honest-to-God dimple deep in the left cheek. “Good,” he said. “I used to know a real mean Tammy. She put pig piss in my thermos once.”

Even the taciturn salesman looked up at that.

“That’s disgusting,” she said.

“Yep, it was. Luckily, my brother found out about it before I actually drank it.”

Warning herself that it was a mistake, Tamara smiled.

“That’s better,” he said. “Always consider the day a success if I can make a pretty lady smile.”

Tamara shook her head. “If you talked to Tammy like this, you deserved the thermos trick.”

He chuckled. “I didn’t say I didn’t deserve it.” He inclined his head. “You know, you make me think of…” The glinting eyes narrowed. “A cat I used to have. Big calico, with green eyes, just like yours.”

She rolled her eyes, this time, not even bothering to hide it. “Mister, that’s an old line.”

“No way!” he protested, but the laughing eyes betrayed him.

Honestly, she felt a real laugh almost break the surface over that. It was impossible to mind being hustled when it was so blatantly offered as exactly that. She put a hand on her hip. “You’ve yet to come up with a single original line, as a matter of fact.”

He looked at the salesman. “Is she always this tough?”

The salesman who’d never uttered more than the required words to get his beer now rubbed his chin. “No nonsense, more like.”

“Goes with the territory,” Tamara said in her defense.

The golden man let go of a low chuckle. Tamara found her eyes on his mouth, on the white teeth and long brown throat. A faint, almost forgotten sensation of awareness moved in her.

“Well, it gives you a nice aura of mystery,” he said. His voice was not deep or rough, as might have suited him, but a pleasant tenor that was surprisingly easy to listen to. “And you know men—we like women who have a few mysteries.”

“Well,” she countered, “you know women. We like men with a little bit of sense.”

Again, he let go of a delighted laugh. “One of the great conundrums of life, don’t you think?”

Tamara was surprised at his use of the word—it didn’t strike her as part of the ordinary vocabulary of the kind of man he seemed to be. The assumption that he would be stupid stung her conscience for a moment and she smiled. “I guess it is.”

An odd stir in the atmosphere of the bar made her nerves prickle. Tamara looked up, alert and frowning. She’d tended bar long enough to recognize that kind of warning—and her instincts were right.

The restless construction workers from the back room had drifted out, one or two at a time, until they were spread throughout the room. One stood at the pass-out bar, two by the front door, another dead center of the room. The last, a burly, dark-haired finisher named Gus, with a beer gut straining the front of his old white T-shirt, swaggered over to stand beside the man at the bar.

Trouble. Damn.

Tamara pushed away from the bar and backed up slowly toward the door that led to the empty restaurant.

“Tamara,” said the sun-gilded man at the bar, reaching into his pocket for money as if Gus and the others were invisible, “I think I’m ready for another beer.”

He stood up, took some bills out of the front pocket of his jeans and sat back down. Tamara turned, ready to run for the other room. He might be stupid enough not to recognize the hatred bristling through the room, but she didn’t intend to be in the middle of a fight when it broke out.

The construction worker who’d been at the pass-out bar stepped back three paces, blocking Tamara’s way to the restaurant.

She narrowed her eyes and thought of the phone. As if he read her mind, he backed up another foot and leaned his considerable shoulders against the receiver. He gave her an apologetic glance. “Sorry, honey. Old Gus has been waiting for this a long time. That man stole his girl.”

Gus bellied up to the man at the bar now. “Well, well, well,” he said with false joviality. “Lance Forrest. ‘Bout time you brought yourself back here.”

The name hit Tamara hard. She narrowed her eyes. Lance Forrest, the legendary wild man of Red Creek, by all accounts a hell-raiser that put even his father to shame. Her heart sped up.

She’d been on duty the night Olan Forrest had dropped dead of a heart attack. She’d been on duty a hundred nights before that when she had to call him a cab, or have a bouncer toss him out, or knock his wandering hands aside when she served him.

Hard to believe this gorgeous creature, who seemed made of sunlight, could be in anyway related to that bad-tempered womanizer.

It also explained a lot. Tamara felt her mouth go tight. Lance Forrest. It was about time. He wasn’t exactly what she’d expected after all these years, but that freewheeling nature would fit neatly into her plans.

Revenge. That was what she wanted. And she’d waited four long years for this chance.

But at the moment, there were more important problems to consider. Like how to get out of here before the whole place turned into a melee.

Tamara glanced at the salesman. He caught her eye steadily, and she put as much pleading as she could into the glance. He stood up and backed away. No one paid him any attention.

Lance looked up, a lock of that bright hair falling over his eye. There wasn’t an iota of fear his face, she noted with a little panic. Was he that stupid?

“Hey, Gus,” he drawled, and Tamara would have sworn there was a twinkle in those blue eyes.

Tamara couldn’t stand it. “Don’t you dare have a fight in my bar,” she said. “Not if you ever want to drink here again.”

Gus looked at her. “Nothing personal, Tamara,” he said regretfully. Fast as lightning, he turned and threw a punch. Lance ducked, but not quite fast enough. A fist caught him across the eye.

“Stop it!” Tamara shouted.

Lance came up swinging, barreling into Gus with a grunt, and driving him backward into the wall. Two framed pictures of trout crashed to the floor. From the back room came the sound of the jukebox, kicking into a rowdy, loud country-western song.

It covered the noise of the fight. It was only Gus and Lance, roaring and tumbling over the space of the dance floor, knocking chairs and tables askew. The rest of the construction workers simply stood sentry at various doors and made sure no one else jumped in.

It happened so fast there was no time to react in the first few seconds, but as the two men spun around the room like a couple of brawlers in an old-time saloon, knocking things down, crushing furniture, Tamara lost her temper.

“Stop it!” she yelled again, and tried to round the bar, shoving at the man who blocked her way with a furious hand. “They’re trashing the place!” she cried. “Break it up.”

He didn’t move. Tamara backed away, and heard another crash. She whirled and saw a table go over, spilling salt and pepper. A tall jar of sugar crashed to the floor. She stared at the mess blankly for a second, thinking of how much work she’d have to do when these idiots quit their wrestling. Dinner would be late again, and she had an accounting test in the morning to study for.

Without a second thought, she jumped on to the bar, and then to the floor, vaguely planning to head for the door—or at least the pay phone near the rest rooms.

She dodged the guy closest by her, ducking down low to avoid him, and slipped out of his reach. Feeling victorious, she straightened to run for the door—

—and a fist came from nowhere and slammed into her face. The force of the punch landed right below her eye. Stunned, Tamara tumbled backward, feeling hands catch her as she fell.

~ … ~

Marriage Material