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"The thing about the Callahans is that if they call you friend, there's nothing they won't do for you. But woe if they call you enemy."
Bode Jenkins, talking to a reporter
Rumor had it that Taylor Waters was one of Diablo's "best" girls. She had a reputation for being wild at heart. Untamable. Men threw their hearts at her feet.
She walked on those hearts with a sweet-natured smile, and guys ate it up with a spoon.
Falcon Chacon Callahan studied the well-built brunette in Banger's Bait and Tackle. He'd talked the owner of the diner, Jillian, into selling him one last beer, even though the diner usually closed at the stroke of midnight on weekends. It was his Saturday night and he hadn't wanted to do anything but relax and consider what he was going to do with his life once his job at Rancho Diablo was over.
Taylor was a more immediate interest. She smiled that cute pixie smile at him, and Falcon sipped his beer, deciding on a whimsome might call it a hunchto toss his heart into the Taylor-tizzy. Intuition had been known to save his life on several occasions, so Falcon believed in living by his spontaneous side. "I need a wife," he said, and she grinned.
"So I hear. So we all hear." She came and sat on the bar stool next to him. "You'll get it figured out eventually, Falcon."
Taylor worked hard to support herself and to help out her sick mother. There was no Pop Waters anymore, just mother and daughter trying to manage things on their own. Falcon understood how tough it was to be without a parent. "Marry me, Taylor."
"I've only served you three beers and a plate of fajitas. I know you're not drunk enough to propose, Falcon. You're just crazy, as everyone in Diablo already knows." She smiled so adorably all the sting fled her words. In fact, she was so cute that Falcon felt his chest expand with admiration.
"I leave crazy to my brothers. My sister is the nutty one. Me, I'm somewhere on the other side of the spectrum." He leaned over and kissed Taylor lightly on the lips, not caring anymore that he had spent much of his life avoiding the marriage trap. To win the land north of Rancho Diablo, across the deep, winding canyons, he had to have a wife and family. Taylor would do just fine. She packed a generous fanny, and he thought that boded well for childbearing. She also had a nice rack, and that boded well for him.
He grinned. "What's your answer, cupcake?"
"You're not serious." Taylor shook her head. "I've known you for over a year. Of all the Callahans, you're the one the town's got odds on being last to the altar." She got up, sashaying to the register. His eyes followed her movements hungrily. "A girl would be a fool to fall for you, Falcon Callahan."
That did not sound like a yes.
"Aren't women supposed to be happy to do all that wedding stuff? Trust me, my offer's good as solid gold."
She laughed. "Jillian, Falcon wants to marry me."
Jillian barely glanced up. "Don't do it, honey," she said. "No need for you to marry down."
"Wait a minute," Falcon said, sitting up straighter. "Marrying down is just as honorable as marrying up. Don't tell her to pass on a rascal on principle, Mrs. Banger." He looked at Taylor. "Good advice isn't something you want to take every time, sugar."
"Oh, goodness." Jillian finally gave up on the receipts she'd been studying. "Falcon, why in the world would Taylor want a wild man like you?"
He smiled. "I didn't say it was a good deal for her. It would be a good deal for me."
"That's not the way marriage works." Taylor lightly tossed a dish towel at him as he got up from the bar stool. "It's supposed to be good for both parties."
"Some things would be very good. You would not lack for the things ladies really like." He noted Taylor's blush with a satisfied smirk. "I could convince you to like me if you give me a chance, Taylor. Just think about it. I'm offering you a helluva good time."
"How could I ever pass an offer like that up?"
He grinned at her freckle-sprinkled nose and sexy, full lips. "Modestly as I can say it, you shouldn't."
"Let me butt in," Jillian said. "Here's what I think, Falcon. This is August. If by Christmas you're still interested, you can ask Taylor againafter you've got your act together. It's only about three and a half months. The best things are worth waiting on." She said it kindly, but very seriously, and Falcon knew that Taylor was taking Jillian's words under advisement. The little brunette was studying her boss as if Jillian was some kind of oracle. Or fairy godmother.
Interfering fairy godmothers could be a bad thing. He knew this from experience. His spry and determined aunt Fiona occasionally tried to play at good-natured manipulation of people's lives, with mixed and sometimes disastrous results.
Falcon sighed. "I really didn't want to have to work hard for a bride, Mrs. Banger. I wanted this to be an easy thing."
Taylor raised a brow. "Whoever told you I was easy?"
He put up a soothing hand before female hackles rose. "I never said that. I said I wanted an easy marriage. Maybe even a quick baby. I leave that part up to you."
"And then?" Taylor asked.
"Hell, I don't even know what's going to happen tomorrow," Falcon said honestly. "I guess if we could stand the sight of each other after nine months of baby-making, we'd still sit on the porch together."
"You're not serious." Taylor laughed. "Why don't you just order a bride? Or meet a woman on one of those internet sites?"
"Because," Falcon said, considering her sweet lips and friendly face, "I might not like her the way I like you."
"You don't like me," Taylor said. "You've been coming in here for months, and you've never asked me out. Never did more than sit here and eat fajitas and drink a beer or two."
"A guy just doesn't blurt out that he thinks a girl's got a fine butt and a nice, uh, smile, the first time he comes into her diner. I was working up to it."
He paid his tab, realized he hadn't completely made his case. "So what happens in December, Mrs. Banger?"
"Oh, a lot happens before December," Jillian said. "I'm going to fix Taylor up with every eligible man I know, and every bachelor the ladies of the Books'n'Bingo Society know, and I'm sure Taylor's aunt, Nadine Waters, knows quite a few. And then if Taylor wants to marry you come December, then I guess I won't be able to stop her." She smiled. "They say nothing gets in the way of true love, Falcon."
He put his hat on. "Yes, ma'am." He went over and kissed her on her cheek, as he always did. "I'm going to live up to your expectations. You just wait and see." He glanced at Taylor, who leaned up against the bar, her arms crossed, watching him. "You pick out your wedding gown. A Christmas wedding will work fine for me."
"Good night, Falcon."
That was all she said. It was enough. Jillian could fix Taylor up with all the men she liked, but in the end, Taylor was going to choose him.
He would see to that. Nobody had said romance and lovemaking were off the listjust no marriage proposaland he did his best convincing in the sheets.
Those terms suited him just fine.
Falcon's brothers, along with their sister, Ashlyn, were sitting in the upstairs library of Rancho Diablo when he walked in the next night. As he headed over to fix himself a whiskey before the weekly meeting, an explosion of colored confetti showered down on him. His siblings roared with laughter.
"What the heck's going on?" Falcon demanded.
"We heard about your marriage proposal, brother dear," Ash said. "We wanted to celebrate your effort, paltry though it was."
"Thanks." He flung himself onto a leather sofa. "How did you hear?"
"Word travels fast on Diablo's grapevine." His eldest brother, Galen, wore a grin on his pumpkin head that was positively gleeful.
The twins, Tighe and Dante, shook their heads. He had no comment for them. They'd been chasing two nanniesbodyguards in disguiseand that had gone nowhere fast for either of them. River and Ana seemed completely immune to what his brothers had to offer, and that was a great source of amusement to the Callahan clan. "Shut up," Falcon said to Tighe and Dante, who snickered.
"We're happy for you," Ash said. "You made an effort. It's progress. Even if you proposed in a diner. Couldn't you have classed it up a little? We have a family reputation to uphold. We may be spontaneous, but we're always classy."
"Jeez." Falcon examined his glass before he emptied it. "She didn't say yes. Yet."
"What made you decide to ask Taylor Waters to marry you?" Jace asked. "She's a hot little thing, sure, but you'll never get her, you know. She's out of your league. Smarter than you. Nicer, too."
It was no surprise to Falcon that Jace couldn't understand. Jace was an earth lover, a man of his heritage, and he was young. He was the only one of the siblings who actually wanted to settle down. Jace dreamed of a wife and family.
Falcon had had to sneak up on the idea of marriage a bit more slowly. First, he hadn't met that many women. He worked a lot, like everyone else in this room. They were soldiers, all of them, trained for covert ops and sniper fire, and everything else one faced in the Special Forces. The job wasn't the best backdrop for casual dating. Anyway, the first time he'd laid eyes on Taylor, something had hit him in the gut. And it had hurt so good he'd known he was onto something with the spicy brunette.
"Sloan, you're settled now, got kids," he said. "What do you think about marriage?"
Sloan smiled. "I recommend it. Just maybe not with the first girl you lay eyes on. It's all fine and good to try to win the ranch land, but maybe you don't want to propose every day that ends in y until you finally pick off a female. Be patient. Eventually a woman will take pity on you."
"Very funny." Falcon grimaced. "It can't be that hard. Marriage is just a contract between two people."
Ash came over to sit next to him, leaned against his shoulder. "You really want that land, don't you?"
"Look who's talkingyou've already named it," he pointed out. "I've got a name chosen for when I win it, too."
Galen sighed. "This is what Aunt Fiona and Running Bear want, all of us focused on the land and settling down at the drop of a hat. They did it to our Callahan cousins, and they're going to be really happy to see all of us sink like rocks into the wedding swamp."
"Swamp?" Dante laughed. "Even I wouldn't have thought of Aunt Fiona's wedding dare as a swamp. Maybe a soup."
His twin, Tighe, shuddered. "Swamp works for me."
Jace got up, went to look out a window. "I'm looking as hard as I can for a bride. It's not happening."
"They say a watched pot never boils," Sloan said. "Maybe your fire's not turned on."
"My fire's fine," Jace snapped. "Let's not worry about my fire, thanks."
"I move we get on to the general business." Falcon felt edgy, impatient. "Any news?"
"Fiona mentioned the chief dropped by." Galen's expression turned intense. "She said Running Bear wants to meet with us tonight in the stone circle."
"Did our cagey aunt say what the topic is?" Falcon asked.
Ashlyn smiled, her once-short, light blond hair now grown just past her ears, making her look less soldier these days and a bit more delicate. "Apparently, Running Bear may have word about our parents."
Falcon blinked. They hadn't heard from their parents in years. At least twelve. He tried to remember. He was thirty-three nowhe'd last seen their parents on his twenty-first birthday.
Ash, the baby, had been thirteen, Dante and Tighe fifteen.
Falcon had been a man thenbut it hadn't felt like it. Galen had come home from his medical studies in the military to keep them in line. The siblings had tested Galen, giving him a bit of hell, but it hadn't lasted long. Those who were of age followed him into the military. The rest Galen ramrodded into growing up good.
Good and tough.
He looked around at his siblings. "Well, that would be news. If it were true."
They all gazed at him. He sighed.
"I'm sorry. I can't get excited about it. It's been too many years and too many dead ends in the maze." He shrugged. "We all know how the story ends, anyway."
They looked away. Falcon knew his words were perhaps harsh, but they were honest. He went to the windows and stared out at the vast horizon toward the canyons, feeling angry, hurt, somehow betrayed, even though he knew their parents had done exactly what he would have doneand would do, at this very moment if necessary, to protect his family.
He didn't focus on the pain anymore. It didn't do any good. He held his parents' memories inside him, respecting them, knowing they were in his heart, where they could never be taken away from him.
Still, peace was elusive.
There was not going to be a happy reunion, and he knew it as well as the rest of his family did.
He brooded about thatuntil he saw shadows swirling in the evening light washing the distant mesas. "Look," he told his brothers and sister, and they came to stand beside him. They watched as the mystical Diablos, a sure portent of things to come, thundered through the painted canyons.
Yes, he would make the very same decision his parents had made. It was all about protecting the familyand right now, his mission was guarding his parents, Callahan cousins, Rancho Diablo, and the Diablos from the danger stalking them.