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"Pinch me, brother."
Brett Murphy, one-third owner of Murphy's and the older brother of the other two-thirds owners, Finn and Liam, paused wiping down the long, sleek counter of Forever's only saloon as he saw Dr. Dan Davenport, walking by the establishment's tinted bay window.
It was not the town's only physician who had caught Brett's attention but the tall, willowy young woman who was walking beside Dan. The tall, willowy young woman who was not Dan's wife, Tina, or Holly Rodriguez, his new nurse.
"Why?" Liam asked, only half listening to him.
Though the saloon wasn't actually open yet, and certainly not ready to go into full swing for a number of hours, Liam was doing a preliminary instrument checkfor the second time. He and his budding band were playing here tonight, and Brett had raised him never to leave anything to chance or take anything for granted. Liam had his eye on someday leaving the saloon behind him and going professional.
Though he was seldom mesmerized by anything, Dan's companion had managed to completely captivate him, even at this distance.
Now, that is one gorgeous woman, Brett couldn't help thinking.
"Because, little brother," he said aloud, "I think I've just seen the woman of my dreams."
That managed to get Liam's attention. His guitar temporarily forgotten, Liam looked up at his oldest brother then turned to see what Brett was talking about.
At that point, the young woman who had so completely caught Brett's fancy had disappeared from view. Her presence was replaced by another female who was passing by. Mildred Haggerty.
Liam's jaw slackened and dropped as he turned back to look at his brother.
"Mrs. Haggerty is the woman of your dreams?" he asked incredulously. "Have you had your eyes checked lately? Better yet, have you had your head checked lately?" Liam asked.
Mildred Haggerty was as tall as she was wide, had an overbearing personality with an unabashed drive to dominate everyone she came in contact with. A woman of some independent means, in her lifetime, she had buried three husbands. Rumor had it that they had all died willingly in order to permanently get away from the source of their misery, Mildred.
Brett looked at Liam as if the latter was the one who had lost his mind. But before Brett could remark on it, the front door began to creak, announcing that someone was disregarding the hours that were posted outside and coming into Murphy's. In general, Brett was rather flexible about adhering to the hours carved into the sign, enforcing them when the whim hit him. He was not above welcoming the lone, stray customer before hours.
Thinking that Mrs. Haggerty was the one enteringpossibly trolling for husband number fourLiam took it upon himself to loudly announce, "We're not really open for business yet."
"How about pleasure?" Dr. Dan Davenport asked as he held the door open for the reason he had come to Murphy's in the first place. The young woman accompanying him walked into the saloon, squinting slightly as her eyes became accustomed to the darkened interior. "Are you open for pleasure?" Dan asked, a broad grin on his lips.
All in all, the physician looked like a man who had just caught hold of a lifeline, one he hadn't really expected to materialize, Brett thought.
His green eyes slowly traveled over the length of the woman who'd been ushered in by the town's only doctor. Brett took in her long, straight blond hair, her fair complexion and her almost hypnotically blue eyes.
If possible, the woman looked even better close-up than she did at a distance.
"Pleasure it is," Brett acknowledged, wondering who this woman was and, more important, if she was staying in town for an extended visit. Was she a friend of the doctor's, or perhaps a friend of Dan's wife, Tina, neither of whom were actual natives of the town?
Dan inclined his head, picking up Brett's answer. "Then it's my sincere pleasure to introduce you two to the lady who answered my adand my prayers." For his part, Dan resembled a little boy who had woken up on Christmas morning to discover that everything he had asked for was right there, beneath the Christmas tree.
"You advertised for an angel?" Brett asked, putting his own interpretation to Dan's introduction.
Alisha Cordell had always had sharp eyes that missed very little. She narrowed them now as she looked at the man behind the bar.
This dark-haired, green-eyed bartender fancied himself a charmer, a smooth talker, she thought with an accompanying degree of contempt. The contempt rose to the surface as a matter of course. After Pierce, she'd had more than her fill of good-looking men who felt they were God's gift to women. Her conclusion had been that the better-looking they were, the worse they were.
"Dr. Davenport advertised for a doctor," she informed the would-be Romeo massaging the counter in no uncertain terms.
The look she gave the man just stopped short of being contemptuous. If this two-bit cowboy thought she would instantly become smitten with him because he was clearly handsome and capable of spouting trite compliments, he was going to be very sorely disappointed, Alisha silently predicted. She hoped the rest of the men in town weren't like this.
And if she was going to be staying in this dusty little burg, even for a little while, this cowboyand anyone else who might share the same stereotypical mind-setneeded to be put in hisand theirplace, as well as on notice that she wasn't here to indulge their fantasies. The only reason she was here and would even entertain the idea of remaining here was to help Dr. Davenport heal their wounds and take care of their ills.
Brett detected the flicker of fire in her eyes, and his grin widened. "Well, I think I'm getting feverish, so I just might wind up being your very first patient," he told what was hopefully Forever's newest resident.
Alisha took a certain amount of pleasure shooting the sexy bartender down.
"I'm just here to observe for the first few days, so I'm afraid that Dr. Davenport would be the one who'll have to treat your fever," she informed him crisply.
Dan cleared his throat and launched into introductions. "Brett and Liam Murphy," he said, waving a hand at first one, then the other of the brothers as he said their names for Alisha's benefit, "I'd like you both to meet Dr. Alisha Cordell. Dr. Cordell," he went on, reciprocating the introduction, "Brett and Liam. They're two-thirds of the owners of Murphy's, Forever's only saloon."
Brett inclined his head. "Pleased to have you in Forever," he told her. His voice became only a tad more serious as he said to her, "The doc here could really use the help."
"I'm sure," Alisha replied, sounding exceedingly formal.
She hadn't wanted to be impolite to the doctor, but she'd tried to tell him that this tour of the town and its residents was really unnecessary. She'd come here to practice medicine, to answer the call for a physician, not concern herself with socializing. After the fiasco with Pierce, she'd had more than enough of socializing to last her for a very long time.
Possibly forever. The irony of that thought was not lost on her.
But since she was here, Alisha thought with resignation, she might as well pretend she was taking the sceneryand its peoplein.
Alisha scanned the saloon slowly. The place had an exceedingly rustic look to it, as if the building had been here for at least the past seven or eight decades, if not longer.
Was this the extent of the diversion that the town had to offer? she wondered in disbelief.
"And this is where people come for a night out?" she asked, not bothering to hide the incredulous note in her voice.
"Dr. Cordell is from New York," Dan felt obligated to tell the two men. It wasn't an apology so much as an explanation for the obvious disbelief in the young woman's voice.
He'd come from New York himself, although at this point, it felt as if that had been a hundred years ago instead of just four. At the time, it hadn't even been a sense of altruism that had brought him here. Guilt had been the emotion that was responsible for bringing him to Forever.
Guilt and a sense of obligation.
He felt he owed it to Warren. Warren had been his younger brother, and a more quietly dedicated human being hadn't ever walked the face of the earth. He'd been the one to fatefully convince Warren to come out on one last night on the town before Warren left for the godforsaken dot on the map where he intended to set up a practice. Forever hadn't had a doctor for thirty years and was in desperate need of one within its borders.
A car accident that night had claimed Warren's life while leaving him with nothing more than an outward scratch. Internally, though, was another matter. For weeks afterward, he had been all but hemorrhaging guilt. But even so, he'd initially planned to stay in Forever only until a suitable replacement for his late brother could be located.
He hadn't counted on falling in lovewith the town and with Tina Blayne, a single mother and the sheriff's sister-in-law.
Life truly happened while you were making other plans, Dan thought now. And while he didn't expect this young woman who had responded to his letter to feel the same way about the town, he had to admit that he was secretly hoping that she would in time.
"New York, eh? Don't worry," Brett assured Dan, even though his eyes never left the woman. "We won't hold that against her."
Alisha raised her chin, as if she had just been challenged. Of late, she knew she had gotten extremely touchy, but knowing didn't seem to help her rein in that feeling.
"Why should you?" she asked.
Brett didn't take offense at her tone. Rather, he just rolled with it, asking, "Short on senses of humor back in New York, are they?"
Alisha never missed a beat. "Not when something's funny," she said.
"Feisty," Brett pronounced, this time directing the comment toward the senior doctor. The grin on the bartender's face seemed to grow only sexier as he observed with approval. "She might just survive out here, then."
Dan made a quick judgment call, seeing the need to usher the young woman out before barbs began being exchanged. "Let me bring you over to Miss Joan's," Dan suggested.
Alisha glanced over at him, trying to hide her uneasiness. "That's not a brothel, is it?"
Brett was the first to succumb, laughing at the idea of the vivacious septuagenarian and diner owner who was part of all their lives for longer than anyone could remember running a house of ill repute. Liam quickly followed, and Dan held out for almost a minute, biting his tongue and trying to think of other things.
But the very image of the redheaded Miss Joan as a madam proved to be too much for him, as well, and he laughed until his sides ached, all the while trying to apologize to a less-thanentertained Alisha.
"I take it the answer's no," Alisha surmised, doing her best to maintain her dignity amid this joke she felt was at her expense.
It was Brett who answered her because Dan appeared to still be struggling for control. "Miss Joan runs the local diner. She dispenses hot food and sage advice, depending on what you need most. She's been here for as long as anyone can remember. Longer, probably. The diner's also the place where everyone goes to socialize when they're not"
"Here, drinking," Alisha said, reaching the only conclusion that she could, given the facts as she perceived them.
Brett corrected her. "When they're not here socializing." His manner remained easygoing, but he wasn't about to allow misinformation to make the rounds. Murphy's wasn't only his livelihood, a way that had allowed him to raise his brothers while keeping an eye on them; it was also his heritage. The saloon had been passed on to him after his uncle had died. Before that, his late father had run the establishment. To Brett, Murphy's was almost as much of a living entity as his brothers were.
"Don't they come here to get drunk?" Alisha pressed, recalling some of the parties that had gone on after hours while she was attending medical school. Nobody drank for the taste or to just pass away an hour; they drank to get drunk and even more uninhibited than they already were.
Out of the corner of his eye, Brett saw that his brother was taking offense at the image the young doctor was painting. He wanted to set this woman straight before something regrettable might be said. Liam was soft-spoken and he meant well, but a lasting relationship between his brain and his tongue hadn't quite been reached yet.
"Not nearly as much as you would think," Brett told her, keeping his smile firmly in place. "I'm not sure exactly how it is in New York, but out here, we do look out for each otherand that includes knowing when to cut a customer off."
"Except for Nathan McLane," Liam interjected. The youngest Murphy brother was nothing if not painfully honestto a fault, Brett sometimes thought.
Alisha looked from Liam to Dan. "Who's Nathan McLane?"
"A man who's married to the world's most overbearing wife," Brett answered. "Nathan has a very strong reason to come here and drown his sorrows."
"So you let him get drunk?" she asked, trying to get the story straight.
Brett caught the slight note of disapproval in her voice. "It's either that, or raise the bail for his release because the poor guy's going to strangle that woman someday just to get her to stop nagging him."
Alisha frowned. The dark-haired man was making it sound as if he was doing a good thing. "How noble of you."
Brett didn't rise to the bait. He was not about to argue with the woman. He wasn't in the business of changing people's minds, only in telling it the way he saw it. "Dunno about noble, but it does keep everyone alive," he informed her.
Dan lightly took hold of Alisha's arm, wanting to usher her out while the young doctor who could very well be the answer to his prayers was still willing to remain in Forever and lend him a hand.
Glancing over her head, he indicated to Brett that he had a feeling that if his new recruit remained here, talking to him for a few more minutes, she might be on the first flight out of the nearby airportheaded back to New York.
"Next stop, Miss Joan's Diner," Dan announced.
"Hey, Lady Doc," Brett called after her. Pausing by the door, she turned to spare him a glance. "Nice meeting you."
"Yes," she replied coolly. "You, too." The door closed behind them.
"Wow, if that was any colder, we'd have to bring out the pickaxes to break up the ice around you," Liam commented.