RED CREEK BROTHERS - BOOK 2
MAN OF HONOR…
Jake Forrest had always believed in honor. It was how he lived his life, made his choices. Dressed in army greens, he stood tall and proud, his startling blue eyes focused on the task at hand, his broad chest swelled with pride. Then it all disappeared, and Jake wanted only to forget…
A PEACEFUL WOMAN…
It was only in the arms of Ramona Hardy that Jake found peace. But the small-town doctor had fought demons of her own, and she knew the love growing between them could never last…until Jake stopped running from his past. Their future depended on it.
RED CREEK BROTHERS: Three brothers travel the road to love in a small Colorado town.
Read an Excerpt
Jake Forrest had not slept well last night In fact, he hadn’t slept at all. He’d lain in bed and stared at the ceiling, thinking that if he could only rest, he might not look so haggard for his brother’s wedding. Twice, he’d nearly gotten up for a belt of whiskey—that usually put him out—but he’d been afraid he might just stay up drinking till dawn. It had happened before, when the demons were on him.
And the demons were on him now. They had been for more than a week, climbing from the trunk where he managed to periodically wrestle them and tormenting him with haunting memories and visions burned forever into his mind.
Now, standing beside the altar as his brother took his vows, Jake swayed in exhaustion. He held himself rigidly erect, focusing on Lance and on the joy that shone in his eyes as he kissed his brand-new bride. In spite of himself, Jake smiled. Wasn’t that something? Lance married. Jake had honestly believed his brother would never settle down.
But then nothing was turning out the way Jake thought it would.
Tyler, supposedly the happy family man, had walled himself off up on his mountain, shunning women as if they were rats carrying plague. Lance, the footloose ladies’ man, was married with a child. And Jake was supposed to be the soldier. Likely a lieutenant colonel by now if he hadn’t bailed out four years before he could have retired in style.
No, things were not turning out the way he had imagined.
The wedding party started their march down the aisle. Jake automatically held out his arm for the woman he was paired with—a small brown wren with a bosom that could hardly be contained in the unfortunate choice of bridesmaid’s dress. The rest of the bridesmaids looked like confections in the simple yellow satin. This woman was a little too round for it, a little too pale to be wearing that sunny shade.
She smiled at him, and he felt ashamed of his critical thoughts. In return, he managed to muster something like a smile. She squeezed his elbow as if offering support. “Are you all right?” she whispered.
Jake scowled. What had she seen? Did he look as haggard as he felt? He’d forgotten to get his hair cut, and it was too long, and he’d nicked himself shaving, but he thought the black tux made him look a bit like his old self. Maybe not.
“Just tired,” he said. The words came out on a gruff note he hadn’t intended, making him sound worse than he felt.
The woman—what was her name?—nodded. There was something empathetic in her eyes, something that made him feel annoyed. How dare she look at him as if she knew his thoughts? As if she knew it wasn’t a hangover that made him feel miserable, but days and days without a single restful minute of sleep. He swallowed the fury it roused in him.
“We’re almost finished here,” she said. “Then we eat.”
Judging by her rounded shape, she probably looked forward to that, he thought darkly. Again, his meanness shocked him. In repentance, he tried to find something he liked about her as they stood on the church steps waiting for the limos that would take them to the reception.
For one thing, she wasn’t really overweight. She was, as his mother would say, buxom. With generous hips and breasts, and arms that were a little fuller than the current emaciated standard. He didn’t like buxomness particularly, but looking at her, he had the sudden feeling she would be very soft. Warm and soft and easy to hold close in the darkness of a sleepless night.
Her name suddenly popped into his mind: Ramona. Ramona Hardy. She was one of Tamara’s friends, but he didn’t know much more than that.
“Lance has done this up right, hasn’t he?” she asked with a grin. “And Tamara looks like Cinderella.”
Jake looked at his new sister-in-law. She wore an elaborate white gown, covered with beads and lace and pearls. Her dark hair was swept into a knot on top of her head. As he watched, Lance put his hands on his bride’s face and kissed her, pulling away with an expression of stunned wonder on his face. Tamara glowed.
And just like that, Jake wasn’t standing on the church steps on a bright, late-spring day in Colorado. He was in an Iraqi village still smoking from the bombs that had tumbled buildings to rubble. Somewhere, a child screamed, and Jake couldn’t find it. Couldn’t find it until he ducked into the half-standing ruin of a house and saw the boy pinned—
* * *
He shuddered violently at the flashback, slamming back to the happy noise of the wedding party. He blinked hard to clear the dry graininess of his eyes and tried to hold himself upright. To hide the trembling of his hands, he shoved them into his pockets.
Ramona looked at him, steadily, clearly. Her eyes were big and brown, as big as a doe’s, and once again he thought she saw more than she should. She didn’t say anything, just kept her small hand on his elbow. He was absurdly grateful.
“He’s spent a damn fortune on this wedding,” Jake managed to say aloud.
“From what I understand, he can well afford it. What good is money if you can’t spend it on something like this once in a while?”
Jake shrugged. “They look like Barbie and Ken.”
Ramona smiled gently. “I think that’s the whole idea.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Barbie and Ken and picket fences and the whole happily-ever-after game.” Jake stared at the bride and groom with a fierce, hollow ache in his chest. “What bullshit. ”
“No one gets a happy ending, ever?”
“I’ve never seen one.” Jake looked at her. “You make plans and have big dreams, and everybody tells you hard work makes things happen. And there you are one day, thinking you built something solid, something concrete you could put your hands on, and what happens? Life has a way of turning concrete dreams into a house of cards.” His words held a harsh rasp born of his weariness. “No,” he repeated, “I don’t believe in happily ever after.”
Her small, strong hand tightened on his upper arm, and those wide, sympathetic—no, empathetic—eyes saw far more than he wanted them to see. Appalled that he’d been so brutally honest at a moment when he should have been taking pleasure in the joyful wedding of his brother, Jake looked away.
And to his amazement, Ramona said nothing at all. Nothing placating or soothing or nullifying. As if she knew how he felt.
The roiling disturbance in his chest increased in intensity. How dare she think she knew anything? He stiffened, pulling himself away from her, but that small hand stayed firmly wrapped around his arm, almost stubbornly giving him comfort and a measure of strength he didn’t want to accept.
The limos arrived, sleek and black, hired out of Denver at an outrageous price. “See,” Ramona said mildly. “That wasn’t so terrible, was it?”
“Better hurry up,” Jake said, moving forward. “Before they turn back into pumpkins.”
* * *
At the reception, Ramona watched Jake Forrest carefully. Her instincts screamed that he was in trouble. Big trouble, judging by the hollows under his eyes. Gauntness had whittled away the handsome boyishness she remembered from high school, turning his face into something coyote-hungry.
Ramona cornered Louise Forrest as the older woman left the dance floor, flushed from waltzing with an amiable looking Latin man Ramona didn’t know. Smiling at the color in Louise’s cheeks, Ramona teased, “New boyfriend?”
“Oh, heavens, no!” Louise protested. The ruddiness in her cheeks deepened. “I’m well past the age of boyfriends. He’s just a wonderful dancer.”
“I saw that.” Ramona glanced over her shoulder. The man, short and spare, with a thick black mustache, watched Louise depart with a twinkle in his dark eyes. “Who is he? I haven’t met him.”
Louise snagged a paper napkin from the buffet table and blotted her lips. “Alonzo Chacon. Lance hired him a couple of months ago. He does authentic adobe bricks, the old way.”
“I’ll have to go see how he does it,” Ramona said, and meant it. She admired craftsmen.
“You should.” Louise looked straight at her. “What’s on your mind, honey? That boy of mine got you worried?”
“Yes.” Ramona wasn’t surprised at Louise’s perception. She halfway suspected it was no accident she and Jake had been paired in the wedding party. “You’re worried, too, aren’t you?”
“You bet your life I am. For one thing, I don’t think he ever sleeps, not unless he’s flat-out drunk.”
“That’s pretty evident.” Ramona glanced at Jake. He stood at the bar, a glass of something amber in his hand, giving his trademark grin to a slim, leggy blonde. “I thought he might pass out on the church steps.”
Louise scowled at her son. “He hasn’t got a lick of sense about women lately, either. They’re all a bunch of loose, fast girls with only one thing on their minds.”
Ramona smiled. Leaning negligently against the bar, tall and well formed, with his carelessly long, dark hair and vivid eyes, Jake looked like a movie star. “Well, you have to admit he’s a very attractive man.”
“Who’s going to get himself killed if he doesn’t make peace with himself.” Louise thumped her empty glass on the table. “I saw the same thing happen to my father. He was just a boy when he fought in WWII. They called it combat fatigue back then: He was among those troops who went into Dachau, and he had nightmares that made him wake up screaming night after night. He didn’t eat. He couldn’t work. It was a terrible thing.”
“Did he get well?”
Louise pursed her lips in an ironic expression. “I’ll never know. He went off to look for work one morning when I was in my teens and never came back.”
Ramona put her hand on Louise’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
“Ancient history,” Louise said with a shrug. “But I don’t aim to lose my son the way I lost my daddy, you understand?”
“Of course.” She inclined her head. “I have the feeling you think I might be able to help him, and I don’t think you understand that I’m a G.P., not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I treat bodies, not minds.”
Louise made a scoffing noise. “I know that. I’m not that dumb.”
“Do you want a referral for a good counselor? I know the man who leads the support groups at the VA home.”
“Nope,” Louise said firmly. “He won’t go to one. I want you to help.”
Ramona grinned. Few women could be as steadfastly stubborn as Louise Forrest once she’d made up her mind to something. Patiently, Ramona said, “I’m not qualified to treat him.”
“So why do you spend all that time out there with those old coots at the VA home, huh?”
“Some of those old coots are in pretty bad shape physically. They need medical doctors.”
“Mmm-hmm. You think I don’t remember your daddy?”
Ramona looked away. “I don’t.”
“I know you don’t, honey. He’s not the only Vietnam vet who self-destructed years after he came home. And it’s a terrible thing that you lost him to it, but look what good things have come out of it.”
Ramona felt a small clutch of emotion in her throat. The reasons for her devotion to the vets at the home were a lot more complicated, but Louise would not know all that. Lightly, Ramona said, “There are no mysteries about my psyche, are there? I’m a doctor because I wish I could go back and save him.”
“That’s what I mean, sugar. God can turn anything into a positive.”
“Maybe.” Ramona wasn’t entirely sure about that, but a wedding reception hardly seemed the place to hold a philosophical debate.
“Listen.” Earnestly, Louise took her hand. “I’m not asking you to perform miracles, but Jake’s out there at the VA home a lot. He goes in the evenings. Maybe once in a while, you could just…be there.”
“You having a calming way about you, Ramona. It might be real nice for him just to have a woman friend—” she shot a dark glance toward the bar “—he could talk to.”
Louise would not give up until she extracted a promise, and Ramona gave her a resigned smile. “All right. I’ll see what I can do, okay? No promises. If Jake is suffering posttraumatic stress disorder from his combat duty, he’ll need more than a friendly shoulder to cry on.”
Louise winked and patted her hand. “Good girl. I knew I could count on you.”
“Louise, don’t expect too much. It’s a serious condition.”
“Are you taking your blood pressure medicine properly?”
The man Louise had been dancing with joined them. “I must steal this woman,” he said to Ramona. “She is the only one here who can dance. Okay? You done?”
Ramona was charmed to her toes by the lilting accent and twinkling eyes. “I’m done.”
“This is the doctor, Alonzo. Ramona Hardy. She said she’d like to see your work sometime.”
“A lady doctor? You must be very smart.” He inclined his head. “Sure, sure you can come. Anytime. I am always working.”
Louise pushed none too gently at Ramona’s arm. “Go get something to eat,” she said, and sent a meaningful glance behind Ramona. Jake had filled a plate and now sat at his place at the table. Ramona’s bouquet was on the chair next to him. As she watched, Jake took a long breath as if preparing himself for some painful task, then picked up his fork.
For one moment, Ramona was transported backward over the years. She was sixteen and very studious, a shy girl who hid behind thick glasses and tried her best to camouflage her overdeveloped bosom under baggy clothes. Her shyness was only increased by the comments the boys constantly made about her chest, as if it belonged to them. As if it had something to do with who she was.
And across the years, she remembered standing in the doorway of the cafeteria, mortified by a knot of boys who had trapped her as she went in to buy her lunch. They made crude remarks in quiet, snickering voices and shoved each other until one “accidentally” put his hand right there.
Jake Forrest had come to her rescue. Big and strong, and as clean-cut then as he now was ragged, he had grabbed the boy manhandling her and twisted his arm behind his back. With a quick jerk of his head, he indicated Ramona should go, and she had. When she tried to thank him the next day, he’d just shrugged. “No big deal.”
He didn’t remember her, Ramona thought now—and maybe that was for the best. He wouldn’t remember what a terrible, nerdy little wallflower she had been. How many times had she wished there had been someone like Jake Forrest to rescue her a year later from another group of boys?
She shoved the thoughts away. She was over the trauma of that awful day. More, she’d won. The boys had gone to jail.
And because she had survived that brutal day when she was seventeen, because she had built a solid, warm life in spite of the evils in the world, she knew she could help Jake Forrest.
If he would let her.
At the very least, she could offer kindness to repay him in some small way for that long-ago act in her defense. Catching up the skirt of her ridiculous bridesmaid’s dress, she headed across the room.
* * *
Jake felt better after he allowed himself a solid belt of single malt Scotch on the rocks. Scotch was good medicine—and not only for sleeping. It blunted the edges of his rage and sorrow and lostness. Enough of it could even make him forget everything entirely for an hour or two. Some days, the idea of simply crawling into that tall green bottle and never coming out was very appealing.
Trouble was, a drunk couldn’t afford imported Scotch, and Jake really didn’t care for anything else.
The food was very good—catered by an upscale establishment that had grown used to satisfying celebrities and the simply wealthy who kept second homes in Red Creek to be close to the best skiing to be had this side of the Atlantic. He ate wafer-thin slices of smoked salmon and strawberries and whole-grain bread with real butter, and the knot in his gut eased. By the time he spotted Ramona returning to the table, he felt much mellower and not nearly as defensive about her all-too-knowing eyes.
Pretty eyes, he could think now, without danger. Big, soft, get-lost-in-them brown. As she made her way across the room, he noticed that people stopped her often—and bent down to hear her gentle voice. They smiled after her, and even the restlessness of children confined by patent leather shoes and unfamiliar dress clothes seemed to settle a little as she moved among them, stopping to touch this one’s shoulder, murmur a joke in that one’s ear, scold another who was teasing his sister.
Peace and calm followed after her like the glow of a good wine.
He grimaced. Fine and well if you were looking for a mother, or maybe even a mother for your children. She was the type of woman who wanted to domesticate the world—probably had herbs hanging from her kitchen rafters and rows of home-canned tomatoes and beans on her shelves.
Not his style.
Restlessly, he scanned the room, feeling his disturbance rumble in his loins. Sometimes sex helped almost as much as liquor, and there were several possibilities in the room. Somehow, he couldn’t seem to rouse himself enough to get out of the chair.
When Ramona sat down beside him, Jake briefly imagined her in his arms, all warmth and softness. A little of the tight anxiety eased out of his neck. “I bet you put up your own jam, don’t you?” he said before he could help himself.
To his surprise, she laughed. The sound was much huskier and richer than he expected. It made him think of thick woolen blankets on a cold, cold night. “You make it sound like something criminal. Don’t you like jam?”
“I don’t think about it.” He picked up a roll and suddenly did think about the rows of ruby soldiers his mother had made every year. “Do you ever make chokecherry?”
That laugh again. A little fuller this time. “I made a lot this year. There were so many chokecherries last fall I gave thought to starting a new hunger drive—chokecherries for the world.” Her dark eyes danced. “What do you think?”
He smiled, almost against his will. “So do you have any left?”
“Well, I don’t know. If putting up jelly is a criminal activity, maybe you ought to be careful about becoming an accomplice.” She speared an artichoke heart on her fork. “Did you taste these? The sauce is wonderful.”
“Slimy green vegetables aren’t my thing.”
“Shame on you.” She popped it into her mouth and made a noise of pleasure. “Wonderful!” Spearing another, she held it out to him. “Try one. Really. You’ll be glad.”
He looked at her for a long moment. Maybe she wasn’t as plain as he first thought. Her coloring was nice—the hair that was swept up into some elaborate system of braids was not just brown, but brown and blond all mixed together, and very healthy. He wondered how long it was and what it would look like spread over her shoulders.
A faint, almost unnoticeable ripple moved down his thighs. Impulsively, he leaned forward and snagged the triangle off her fork, knowing she had meant him to take it with his fingers.
The taste exploded on his tongue. He widened his eyes to show his approval. “That’s good.”
She grinned, and he decided her mouth was very nice. A nice mouth was one of his requirements in a woman. How had he missed it earlier?
“You might be surprised how many wonderful, slimy green vegetables there are,” she said.
He picked up his fork. “May I have another one?”
“Of course.” She leaned back to give him access, and Jake speared another from her plate. He smelled something nice coming from her skin, very light, a perfume or something.
“You smell good,” he said.
“Thanks. So do you.”
He met her gaze and felt a flame arc between them—that undeniable frisson that passed between a man and a woman, a frisson that had nothing to do with anything except perfect chemical alignment. Chemicals didn’t care if her figure was the kind he usually admired, or whether she had home-canned peas on her shelf. He let his gaze sweep over her face, light on her mouth, travel downward to the plump breasts too tightly confined in the ridiculous dress. For a minute, he was a little dizzy—his exhaustion rising to the fore—and had to close his eyes. With an effort, he opened them again and made a stab at flirting. “You like my cologne, huh?”
Maybe he’d expected her to be flustered. She was not. She met his gaze steadily, a tiny smile hovering at the corner of her mouth. “Yes.”
Something about that expression teased his memory, and he frowned for a minute, trying to place her. The snippet jelled and he saw her laughing with an old soldier as she checked his blood pressure. “You work at the VA home, don’t you?”
“That’s one of my stops, yes.”
“Are you a nurse or something?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Women are not only nurses.”
“A doctor?” He couldn’t keep the slight surprise from his voice. Not because she was a woman, but because he associated women who achieved such grueling positions with a much more aggressive personality. “You’re a doctor?”
“Amazing as it may seem, I am.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” He shrugged and took another artichoke heart from her plate. “Most women with big-time careers are kind of…” He stopped, noticing the tightness of her mouth. “Ah, never mind.”
“No, please,” she said in a silky tone, “I love to hear sexist comments from the lips of macho soldier boys.”
He laughed. It just came out of him all at once, sounding rusty and unused because it was. “Touché,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Accepted.” Tiny flames of humor danced in her eyes. “I mean, you can’t really expect a soldier to be politically correct, now can you?”
“Ex-soldier,” he said automatically.
“Ah, that’s right. You’re retired, aren’t you?”
“No,” he said without the usual pang. Amazing how far a little Scotch, a little food, and a woman to flirt with went toward silencing his demons. “You have to complete your commission to retire. I resigned.”
“I see.” She picked out a perfectly shaped, bright red strawberry and admired it on her fork. “That’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“You guess? Look at it again. This is the queen of all strawberries, and by some fine accident, she ended up on my plate. And my mouth.” She bit into the flesh, and Jake found himself admiring the movements of her pretty lips. A bawdy comment bloomed in his mind as he watched her savor it, eyes closed, all concentration focused on the task. Another prickling wave of desire washed down his thighs. A little more insistent this time.
“Are you flirting with me, Doctor?”
She smiled. “Maybe a little. Isn’t that what one does at these things?”
She made it sound so harmless and innocent and simple. He’d forgotten innocent pleasures even existed and he was suddenly quite glad to realize they still did. “I guess it is.” Impulsively, maybe because she made him laugh, he held out his hand. “In that spirit, I think you should dance with me and let me flirt back.”
She frowned. “I’m not much of a dancer.”
“It’s easy.” He stood up, still patiently holding out his hand. “Just follow me.”
She hesitated for a moment, just long enough to make Jake want to reconsider. He wasn’t kidding himself for a second. He wanted to get laid, and this was the woman his body wanted, no matter how inappropriate it was. Or impossible. He couldn’t go around sleeping with the local doctor.
Plus, in his current mood, it was dangerous to give in to any whim. Once he had her softness close to him, he wouldn’t be thinking about appropriate or inappropriate. He’d be thinking about how to seduce her.
Bad idea. Even Jake had some honor. He stuck to the fast, brittle women his mother despised, simply because they didn’t want anything more than he did—a quick, impersonal roll in the hay. Ramona, with her soft eyes and plush warmth, was not the same kind of woman at all.
But before he could sit back down, she took his hand and rose gracefully. “I hope you don’t fall down from exhaustion,” she said.
“You can hold me up,” he replied, and led her onto the floor.
~ … ~