Marriage, Maverick Style!
Carson Drake was ready to go home to LA.
As president and CEO of both Drake Distilleries and Drake Hospitality, Carson enjoyed luxury cars, willing, sophisticated women and very old Scotch, not necessarily in that order. As for small country towns where everybody knew everybody and every holiday included flag-waving and a parade?
Didn’t thrill him in the least.
So what, really, was he doing here on the town hall steps in a tiny dot on the Montana map called Rust Creek Falls? Carson pondered that question as he watched the Rust Creek Falls Baby Bonanza Memorial Day Parade wander by. All around him flags waved. And there were babies. A whole bunch of babies.
Carson had nothing against babies. As long they belonged to someone else, babies were fine with him. But did he have any interest in watching a parade that featured babies?
The answer would be no.
Beside him, Ryan Roarke, a lawyer and Carson’s friend of several years, said, “That’s Emmet DePaulo.” Ryan waved at a tall, thin older man on the Rust Creek Falls Medical Clinic float as it rolled by. The man was dressed in a white coat and had a stethoscope slung around his neck. “Emmet runs the local clinic with the help of Callie Crawford, who’s—”
“Nate Crawford’s wife, I remember,” Carson finished for him. The Crawfords were one of the town’s first families. Nate had a lot of influence in Rust Creek Falls, which meant he was someone Carson had made it a point to get to know.
Not that all the connections he’d forged in the past two weeks had done him much good, Carson thought glumly as he settled into a slouch against one of the pillars that flanked the steps. It had been a crazy idea, anyway. And he shouldn’t let his lack of progress get him down. Not every gamble ended up in the win column. Sometimes a man simply had to accept that he was out of his element and going nowhere fast.
Carson was no quitter, but the plan wasn’t happening. He needed to—
His mind went dead blank as he shoved off the pillar and snapped to his full height.
Who’s that? he almost demanded of Ryan.
But he shut his mouth over the eager words and simply stared instead.
Damn. She was something. Just the sight of her had emptied his brain of rational thought and slammed all his senses straight into overload.
She rode one of the floats and was dressed as a stork. Had anyone asked him a moment before if a woman in a stork costume could be hot, he would have laughed. But she was hot.
Her thick brown hair poked out from under the long orange stork bill, escaping the white fluffy stork hood to curl around her flushed cheeks. She was perched on a box covered in white cotton batting—to make it look like a cloud, he assumed. In her wings, she held a tiny squalling baby wrapped up in a blue blanket. Her slim legs, encased in orange tights, ended in platterlike webbed orange feet. She should have looked ridiculous—and she did.
Giant pink-and-blue letters sprinkled with glitter proclaimed the float “The Rust Creek Falls Gazette.”
“That’s Kayla, Kristen’s twin,” Ryan said, which made zero sense to Carson.
But then he ordered his brain to start working again and noticed the other woman standing beside his beautiful stork. Rigged out to look like the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch high and wearing a pageant-style sash that read, “The Rust Creek Rambler,” Miss Liberty waved and smiled as the float drifted past. She was the one Ryan had just called Kayla. Carson deduced this because the woman with the torch was a double for Ryan’s wife, Kristen.
Ryan kept talking. “Kayla is the recently outed mystery gossip columnist known as—”
“Judging by the sash, I’m thinking the Rust Creek Rambler?”
“Right. Kayla had us all fooled. No one suspected she could be the one who knew everyone’s secrets and put them in the Gazette. Kayla’s quiet, you know? She’s the shy one. Nothing like my Kristen.”
Carson tuned his friend out. The sweet stork with the wailing blue bundle had all his attention once again.
As he stared, she actually seemed to feel his gaze on her; her slim body went perfectly still. Then, slowly, she turned her white, billed head his way—and bam! Just like in some sappy, romantic movie, their eyes collided and locked. And damned if it didn’t feel exactly as they always made it seem in the movies. As though she had reached out and touched him. As though they’d just shared a private, way-too-intimate conversation.
As if they were the only two people in the world.
He gaped, and she stared back at him with her sweet mouth hanging open, clearly oblivious in that moment to everything but him, though the band across the street played loudly and badly and some kid nearby had set off a chain of firecrackers and the baby in her arms continued to wail.
What was it about her?
Carson couldn’t have said. Maybe it was those big, shining eyes, or that slightly frantic look on her incomparable face—a face that reminded him of his perfect girl-next-door fantasy and some bold gypsy woman, both at the same time. Maybe it was the stork costume. Most of the women he knew wouldn’t be caught dead dressed as a stork.
But whatever it was about her that had him gaping like a lovesick fool, he had to meet her.
Her float rolled on past. Next came the Veterans of Foreign Wars float, with men and women in uniform holding babies in camo and waving way too many flags. As the band launched into “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Carson tried to figure out what had just happened to him.
Slowly, reality crept in—reality wrapped in a blue blanket and wailing.
The woman had a baby, for God’s sake. Carson liked his women free and unencumbered. And there was not only the baby to consider but also the real possibility of a husband.
Was he losing his mind? He would never make a move on a woman with a baby. If she had a husband that would simply be wrong. And if she didn’t, well, there would still be the baby. If he’d wanted kids, he wouldn’t be divorced.
You’d think he’d been sampling the magic moonshine that had brought him to Montana in the first place, the magic moonshine created by a local eccentric named Homer Gilmore. Carson wanted the moonshine formula for Drake Distilleries. So far, he’d gotten nowhere near his admittedly out-there goal.
Which was why he’d just about convinced himself to give up and go home.
But the sight of the girl changed all that. The sight of the girl had him thinking that he didn’t really want to give up. He just needed something to go right; that was all. He needed a win.
Meeting the adorable girl in the stork costume would definitely cheer him up, even with the damn baby—as long as there was no husband involved.
So then. First and foremost, he needed to find out if she was already taken.
At least that was easily done.
He asked Ryan, “Did you see the girl in the stork costume?”
Ryan gave it right up. “Tessa Strickland. Lives in Bozeman. She’s visiting her grandparents at their boardinghouse."
Tessa. It suited her. “Married to…?”
Ryan shot Carson a narrow-eyed, you-can’t-fool-a-lawyer look. “You’re interested in Tessa. Why?”
“Ryan, is she married or not?”
His friend shoved back that shock of sable hair that was always falling over his forehead. “Tessa’s single.”
“But with a baby.”
“You are interested.”
“Would that somehow be a problem?”
Ryan smirked. “No problem at all. And Tessa’s got no baby.” She’s single, no baby. Things were definitely looking up. Ryan added, “The baby is Kayla’s—you remember, Kristen’s sister, the Rust Creek Rambler in the Lady Liberty costume?”
Not that it really mattered but… “How do you know who that baby belongs to?”
“I will repeat, Tessa doesn’t have a baby, whereas Kayla is married to Trey Strickland, and they have a son. Little Gilmore is just two months old. Kayla gave up her job writing the gossip column last year. She and Trey live down in Thunder Canyon now, but they come back to visit often. Somebody else writes the Rambler column now. Nobody knows who, but apparently someone talked Kayla into riding on the float. For old time’s sake would be my guess.”
“Props to you, man. You’re here six months and you know everything about everyone.”
Ryan extended both arms wide. “Welcome to my new hometown.” Actually, Ryan and Kristen lived in nearby Kalispell, but why quibble over mere facts? And Ryan was smirking again. “The baby’s named Gilmore. Get it?”
Carson stared at him, deadpan. “You’re not serious.”
“As a guilty verdict.”
“They named their baby after Homer Gilmore?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Who names their kid after a crazy old homeless guy?”
Ryan leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Kayla and Trey first got together last Fourth of July…” He arched a dark eyebrow as he let the sentence trail off.
Carson took his meaning. “You’re telling me that they ‘got together’ over a glass of Homer’s moonshine and in the biblical sense?”
“You said it—I didn’t.” The previous Fourth of July, a lot of women had drunk the famous moonshine, left their inhibitions behind and ended up pregnant—thus, the current Baby Bonanza. Ryan added, “As for why Tessa was holding Kayla’s baby, I’m guessing that managing the torch and the baby was too much for Kayla, so she got Tessa to carry Gil—and you’re definitely interested. Just admit it.”
“I have another question.”
“Carson. Admit it.”
“Wait. Listen. Kayla’s husband is a Strickland, you said, same as Tessa. So then, Trey Strickland must be Tessa’s brother, right?”
“Wrong. Trey and Tessa are cousins and—Carson, what are you up to here? We’ve been friends a long time. I’m happy to introduce you around and tell you everything you need to know. But you’ve got to be up front with me. I care about what happens in this town. What do you want with Tessa?”
Carson met Ryan’s eyes—and admitted the truth. “I think she’s gorgeous, and I want to meet her. Is there something wrong with that?”
Ryan made a low, self-satisfied sound. “I knew it. Rust Creek Falls is getting under your skin.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is. You’re just like the rest of us.”
“Oh, yeah. You’ll fall in love with Tessa, and you’ll never want to leave.”
Carson had to make an effort not to scoff. “I just want to meet the girl. Can you make that happen?”
“Consider it done.”
Tessa rocked the crying baby and ordered her racing heart to slow down.
But baby Gil kept right on bawling, and Tessa’s heart kept beating way too fast and much too hard. Dear God, she was horrible with babies. They were so small and vulnerable and she always felt like she was holding them wrong. And boy, did little Gil have a set of lungs on him. How could someone so tiny make such a racket?
“Shh now, it’s okay. Shh, sweetie, shh…” She tried to sound soothing as her heart galloped a mile a minute and a voice in her brain ordered her to toss the baby to his mother, leap right down off the moving float and run away from Main Street as fast as her webbed feet would carry her.
She really did need to get out of there. And she needed to do it ASAP, before he found her—and, no, she didn’t know him. She’d never seen the man before in her life. She had no idea who he was or what he was doing in town.
What she did know, what she’d known at the first sight of him, was that he would be looking for her.
She had to make certain that he didn’t find her. Because that man was nothing but trouble for someone like her.
Oh, yeah. One look at him and she knew it all.
Because he had it all. Tall, broad-shouldered and killer-hot, he had dark, intense eyes and thick brown hair, chiseled cheekbones and a beautiful, soft, dangerous mouth. He’d looked like he owned the place—the steps he stood on, the town hall behind him, the whole of Rust Creek Falls and the valley and mountains around it.
Tessa could tell just from the perfect cut of his jacket and the proud set of those broad shoulders that he had money to burn.
Just the sight of him, just the way he’d looked at her…
Oh, she knew the kind of man he was, knew that look he gave her. That look was as dangerous as that beautiful mouth of his.
The last time she’d met a man who gave her that kind of look, she’d thrown away her job, her future, everything, to follow him—and ended up two years later running home to Bozeman to try to glue the shattered pieces of her life back together.
No way could she afford a disaster like that again.
Kayla glanced down at her. “You doing okay, Tessa?”
“Fine,” she lied and rocked the howling Gil some more.
“Just hold on. We’re almost there.”
There was Rust Creek Falls Elementary School, where the parade had started and would end after a slow and stately procession up one side of Main Street and back down the other.
Why couldn’t they hurry a little?
At this pace, he would probably be waiting for her, standing there in the parking lot, the sun picking up bronze highlights in his thick brown hair, looking like a dream come true when she knew very well he was really her worst nightmare just waiting to happen all over again.
Yes, she’d been instantly and powerfully attracted to him. The look on that too-handsome face had said he felt the same. And that was the problem.
Tessa knew all too well where such powerful attractions led: to the complete destruction of the life she’d so painstakingly built for herself. She would not make that mistake twice. Uh-uh. No way.
Five minutes later—minutes that seemed like forever—they turned into the school parking lot. As soon as the float stopped rolling, Tessa jumped to her feet. Taking pity on her, Kayla set down her Lady Liberty torch and reached for the baby.
Gil stopped crying the second his mother’s arms closed around him. “Thanks, Tessa.” Kayla gave her a glowing, new-mommy smile.
Tessa was already jumping to the blacktop, headed for her battered mini-SUV on the far side of the lot. “No problem. Happy to help,” she called back with a quick wave.
“We’ll see you at the picnic,” Kayla called after her.
Tessa waved again but didn’t answer. She wouldn’t be going to the Memorial Day picnic in the park, after all. He was far too likely to show up there, all ready to help her ruin her life for a second time.
She hurried on, grateful beyond measure that she’d thought to drive her car. It wasn’t that far to her grandmother’s boardinghouse, but her stupid webbed stork feet would have really slowed her down. Not to mention, she was far too noticeable dressed as a big white bird.
Yes, she realized it was absurd to imagine that the dark-eyed stranger with whom she’d exchanged a single heated glance might be coming to find her, might even now be on her trail, determined to run her to ground. Absurd, but still…
She knew he would be looking for her, knew it in the shiver beneath her skin, the rapid tattoo of her pulse, the heated rush of her blood through her veins. She could taste it on her tongue with every shaky breath she drew.
It was ridiculous for her to think it, but she thought it, anyway. He would be coming after her.
And she needed to make sure he didn’t find her. Getting to the safety of the boardinghouse was priority number one.
Main Street was packed with parade-goers, so she took North Broomtail Road. Tessa had her windows down. As she rolled along, she could smell the burning hickory wood from the big cast-iron smokers trucked to Rust Creek Falls Park before dawn. The giant racks of ribs and barbecue would have been slow-smoking all day long. The picnic in the park would go on for the rest of the day and into the night.
At Cedar Street she turned left. A minute later, she was pulling into the parking lot behind a ramshackle four-story Victorian—her grandmother’s boardinghouse. Strickland's Boarding House was purple, or it used to be years ago. The color had slowly faded to lavender gray.
Tessa parked, jumped out and headed for the steps to the back porch, her ridiculous orange stork feet slapping the ground with each step. She didn’t breathe easy until she was inside and on her way up the narrow back stairs.
In her room, she shut and locked the door and wiggled out of the stork suit. She felt sweaty and nervous and completely out of sorts, so she put on her robe, grabbed her toiletries caddy and went down the hall to the bathroom she shared with the tenant in the room next to hers. It was blessedly empty—the whole house felt empty and quiet. Everyone was probably celebrating on Main Street or over at the park.
She took her time, had a nice, soothing shower, slathered herself in lotion afterward and put real care into blowing her unruly curls into smooth, silky waves. She put on makeup, too—which didn’t make a lot of sense if she planned to hide in her room for the rest of the day.
But that was the thing. By the time she got around to applying makeup, an hour had passed since she’d locked eyes with the stranger on Main Street. As the minutes ticked by, her panic and dread had faded down to a faint edginess mixed with a really annoying sense of anticipation.
Come on. He was just a guy—yeah, a really hot guy with beautiful, intense eyes and a mouth made for kissing. But just a guy, nonetheless. It was hardly a crime to be hot and rich and look kissable; now was it?
She’d overreacted—that was all. And it was silly to let a shared glance with a stranger ruin her holiday. The more she considered the situation, the more determined she became not to run away from this guy.
She was not hiding in her room.
She was taking this out-of-nowhere attraction as a good sign, a sort of reawakening, an indication that she really had recovered—from the awful, depressing way it had ended with Miles and from the loss of the hard-earned, successful life that she’d so cavalierly thrown away to be with him.
Tessa returned to her room and dressed in a white tank that showed a little bit of tummy. She pulled on skinny jeans and her favorite red cowboy boots. She looked good, she thought. Confident. And relaxed.
On the way out the door, she grabbed her Peter Grimm straw cowboy hat with the studs and rhinestones, the leopard-print accents and the crimson cross overlay. The park was half a block from the boardinghouse, so she left her car in the boardinghouse lot and walked.
She was going to have a good time today, damn it. The past didn’t own her. Not anymore.
A single shared glance during the parade didn’t mean a thing. That man was a complete stranger, and he’d probably forgotten all about her by now.
Most likely, she’d never see the guy again.
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