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"Hang on a sec," Ty Spurlock said to Sheriff Dennis McAdams, stunned as he watched a tall redhead wearing seriously tight blue jeans that complemented her seriously sexy figure walk into The Wedding Diner on the arm of Sam Barr, a bachelor recruit whom Ty had brought to town for the express purpose of matchmaking.
It appeared that a match might indeed be in the making. The problem was, the redhead wasn't one of Ty's intended bachelorettes.
Because he secretly had his eye on her for himself.
"What was that?" Ty demanded.
"What was what?"
"Jade Harper going into The Wedding Diner with Sam."
Dennis grinned at him. "Free country, isn't it?"
"Sure it is." Ty sank onto the hood of the sheriff's cruiser and pondered why the idea of Jade and Sam together bothered him, like a real bad toss from a bull. He'd had those, many of those. They were never any fun.
Neither was this. "Is there something going on there I don't know about?"
Dennis's eyes twinkled. "Do you think there's something you should you know about? Are you taking over from Madame Matchmaker, our resident maker of matches? That'll put Cosette's pink-frosted hair in a twist for sure, if she thinks you're butting in on her area of expertise."
Ty felt strongly that Sheriff Dennis might be keeping something from him, which only made Ty resolve to get to the bottom of the matter. Jade had no business going out with Sam Barr, as prime for matchmaking as Sam might be. "Is there something going on between Sam and Jade?"
Dennis shook his head. "You'll have to ask Jade. Or Sam."
The sheriff was being deliberately obtuse, prickling him because he could. Nobody understood him the way Dennis did. The man had been elected sheriff after Ty's adoptive father, Terence, had given up the sheriff's jobfifteen years of being a great sheriff undone by one rumor. A rumor that had never gone away. But Sheriff Dennis had always supported Terence Spurlock, and Ty appreciated that more than he could say. Maybe only another sheriff could understand how loose lips and bad information could strike down a career and a man. "Or I could just ask you, since nothing goes on in Bridesmaids Creek that gets past you."
Dennis chuckled. "True enough."
"So? Is there?" Ty asked impatiently.
Dennis crossed his arms and smiled. "Didn't you bring those four cowboys here to find them brides? Sam Barr, Squint Mathison, Justin Morant and Francisco Rodriguez Olivier Grant, otherwise known as Frog?"
"What does that have to do with Jade?"
Dennis laughed. "Ty, you can't blame her for dating someone. Jade thinks you don't know she's alive, except for her occasionally scooping you some ice cream in her mother's shop. You haven't exactly pursued her."
Ty grunted, glancing around the main square of the town he called home, even as an adopted son, and the town to which he owed so much. Owed them everything because they'd helped raise him, and because he'd had a great childhood because of them.
He owed them everything but his bachelorhood.
"Is there a problem?" Dennis asked.
"No." There was, but he knew Dennis wouldn't needle him about it further. Except he did.
"You could always try talking to her," he said, surprising Ty. Dennis prodded him in a gentle, fatherly way that made him miss his own dad.
"I'm good at talking," Ty said, "but I'm a couple weeks away from trying to make it into the SEALs. I have nothing to offer Jade." He'd be gone for six long months of training, and then a little longer, if he made it.
No. When I make it.
Mentally, he reviewed The Plan, which was so far working like a charm.
Bring home eligible, trustworthy, elementally studly bachelors with the intent of pressing some of the ladiesnot Jadeinto marriage. This would start a rollerball of reactions: namely, babies and families, new blood in Bridesmaids Creek.
Which was very important in a town that was one step away from dying off completely.
He wasn't about to let that happen. No, everything was working smoothly, with Mackenzie Hawthorne and her four darling little girls now married to rodeo rider Justin Morant. That was the beauty of goals and plansthey worked like charms because they were road signs pointing the way to the future. One needed merely to stick to a plan and not deviate; that was the key.
Victims number two, three and fourthose being Sam, Frog and Squintwere certainly catnip to the many ladies in town. So there was no reason under the clear blue sky of Bridesmaids Creek, Texas, that Sam should settle on Jade Harper.
"Eat your heart out much?" Sheriff Dennis asked, jarring him back to the present.
"I think Jade would understand the whole BUD/S training thing, Ty. She's an independent girl. She works hard. Don't you think it might be better to speak than to hold your tongue to the point that you lose her forever?"
Lose her forever? Ty chewed on that a moment. He wasn't going to lose Jade, because he'd never had Jade. What he had was The Plan. Nothing could disrupt it, because you didn't get into the SEALs by being an indecisive doorknob. You accomplished that by having determination and focus, and by serving one master. And the only way to clear his father's name, to rebuild the Spurlock brand, was to return home a man of his word. The people of BCBridesmaids Creekhad ceased believing that Terence Spurlock was a man of his word when a stranger to BC had been allegedly murdered at the local haunted house, the Hanging H, Mackenzie Hawthorne's place. Folks said Terence had been bought off by the town's evil shyster in big boots, Robert Donovan, who owned significant chunks of town and was determined to own more, carving it up into retail parcels that enriched his considerable wealth. If he could get the Hawthornes to sell, along with the owners of the ranches surrounding Jade's place, Donovan would have the kingdom he desired. But because the people had mostly grouped together against him, refusing to sell, Donovan currently held smaller, disconnected and farther-flung chunks of land not suitable for his grand visions.
Ty's father would never have been bought off by anyone. It burned Ty's gut that some folksnot everyone, but enoughhad put such a rumor out there. More than anything, he hated that Bridesmaids Creek was held hostage by Robert Donovan and his coterie of greedy swindlers.
"I understand the mission," Dennis said softly. "I'm just saying you don't have to pay for what happened to your father by losing something you love dearly."
Ty moved away from the voice of temptation, which was intended to be the voice of reason. Sheriff Dennis was a good man. He wanted to help. When Ty's father had died of a broken heart from losing the town's trustand Ty was sure as the setting sun that that's what had driven his father to his graveDennis had been there to remind him of what a very good man his father had been.
Ty clapped Dennis on the back and walked in the opposite direction from The Wedding Dinerand Jade.
"Ir's a dumb idea," Ty said a half hour later, relenting on entering The Wedding Diner, because his curiosity was killing him. He inserted himself at the table in The Wedding Diner with his buddies Squint and Frog so he had an excellent visual on Jade and Sam, but whether he was torturing himself on purpose he couldn't say. "In fact, that idea is so dumb it makes me wonder if you've poured something strong in your coffee."
Squint shrugged. "You don't want a family. We do."
Frog nodded. "You brought us to BC to find women. We want what Justin got when he married Mackenzie. He got a family."
Ty swallowed, not about to admit that the idea was very appealing. "You wouldn't know what to do with Justin's four babies."
"I don't care how many babies are involved," Squint said, sipping his coffee thoughtfully. "I just care that babies are eventually involved."
"So let me get this straight. You're going to propose pregnancy to a couple of ladies. Not marriage, just pregnancy."
"That about sums it up." Frog eyed with pleasure the plate of steaming eggs, toast and bacon a waitress set down in front of him. "Women aren't looking for a ring anymore, Ty. They want to know that the man they choose can give them a family. And personally, I want to know that I have children in my future. So it's a win-win."
"We're not saying we couldn't love a woman who didn't want children," Squint said. "But we think Justin's got a pretty good setup, and it inspires us. Plus we're pretty good father candidates."
Ty grunted. "Have you chosen your victims?" This ought to be rich. He couldn't wait to hear more details from men whom he'd specifically brought here for the very purpose of finding brides and making families to grow BC.
Just not in the manner in which they were planning to go about it.
"Well, Sam's picked Jade," Squint said, nodding his head in the redhead's direction. "That's as far as we've gotten."
Ty winced. If Sam thought he could just propose pregnancy to an independent woman like Jade Harper, it might be worth hanging around to see him get handed his head. Ty almost laughed at Sam's plan.
Then again, maybe it wasn't that funny. What if Jade said yes? She was twenty-seven, and a beauty like her shouldn't still be on the market, except she claimed she wasn't ready to settle down.
That might be changing now that her best friend, Mackenzie, was happily married.
Ty shrugged off the vague sense of uneasiness the thought gave him. "Picking a lady and having her fall for you are two different things." He glanced Jade's way, commanded himself to quit staring.
"We thought you'd support our plan," Squint said, his tone surprised. "When you lured us to BC, you said there were plenty of ladies looking to settle down. When you've been in the military as long as we were, the thought of ladies looking to settle down is pretty inviting."
"Yeah, why are you beefing about this?" Frog glared at him. "Dude, if you have a better idea, speak up. If not, say nothing. You're leaving soon enough, and you won't be doing much communicating once you're trying to get through BUD/S. So our story won't be of much interest to you."
In other words, butt out. "Your plan is fine. Foolhardy, but fine. I wish you all the best." A horrible thought occurred to Ty. "What if Jade were to say yes to Sam's stupid pregnancy idea?"
His two friends/hires/tricksters stared at him.
"Well, they'd get married," Frog said. "As sure as my name is Francisco Rodriguez Olivier Grant, I'd probably be best man."
"That would be me," Squint said, "as sure as my name's John Squint Mathison."
It could be serious if his lunkheaded buddies were already scrabbling over who was going to get high honor at this imaginary wedding. What possible difference does it make to me? Free country, like Dennis said.
He sneaked another glance at Jade, all long and lean and capable and sexy, with a mop of burgundy-red hair that was a siren's call to Ty. She had a bright smile that teased, always laughing at him, and somehow with him. Captivating him. A laugh that never failed to bring a smile of response to his face, no matter what his mood was. No, when he'd thought up The Plan, the plan of bringing life back to BC, he'd put Jade on a pedestal out of sight, in a mental closet marked Private. Do Not Touch.
Sam put his big, beefy hand over Jade's delicate one, and Ty could hear that musical laugh across the aisle, reaching his ears with a pang that lodged in his heart. Something blew in his brain, like a transformer struck by lightning, and the next thing he knew, he was sliding into the white booth occupied by Jade and Sam, tucking himself up against Jade in the most friendly, brotherly fashion, because she expected friendly and brotherly from him.
Only he knew it was more of an ambush.
Jade grinned at Ty when he bumped in next to her, jostling her arm away from Sam's. "Look at you," she said to Ty. "All buzz cut and ready to report for duty."
Ty palmed his newly shorn head. She'd loved his hair long and wild, but he looked just as hot with it short, too. That was the problem with a rascal like Tyhe looked irresistible shaved or wild and woolly.
Spiritually, he was way too woolly for her.
"I let one of the ladies buzz me down," Ty said, and Sam grinned.
"Your mother took the sheep shears to him," Sam said.
"Betty didn't have sheep shears," Ty said, "but believe me, she was determined the brass wouldn't be disappointed with me when I showed up for training."
"It's short." Jade smiled. "I can just imagine Mom giving you the treatment. In another world, she could have been a hairstylist. The ice-cream shop just happened to get to her first."
"A remarkable woman," Sam agreed, and Ty elbowed Jade so that she looked at him again.
"Did you just elbow me? In a brotherly, somewhat obnoxious way?"
He looked pained. "I'm not really your brother. As much as it felt like that growing up, I'm not exactly brotherly material, as has been well noted by just about everyone."
Including her, which was why she kept Ty very much on the outskirts of her radar. "Mom practically raised you, along with everyone else in this town. You even had a bunk at our place." Her gaze softened as she took in Ty's square, determined jaw and wide brown eyes. "You broke a lot of noses for my sake when we were growing up."
Sam laughed. "He tried to break everything when we were on the circuit. Now go away, brother. This is a private lunch."
"Private?" Ty glared at Sam. "Nothing's private in BC."
"This is," Jade said. "You have to take your overpro-tective, buttinsky self elsewhere."
She hated to send him off. But the thing about Ty was that the more he hung around her, the more her hopes rose. It was something she had almost no control over. He treated her like a little sisterand her heart mooned for him. Stupidly.
And this year, her resolution was to get on with her life and accept that Ty was simply too much bad boy for her. Her practical nature knew this, accepted that she wanted something completely different when she envisioned a husband.
But her heartand her female sidewanted Ty. In fact, her mind and her body were practically enemies at this point, warring with each other, each convinced the other was right.
She'd done a darn good job of moving on, seeking new opportunities. And a new man. Okay, Sam Barr wasn't "the one," but he was the first man she'd gone out with in a long time, and he was nice, and she was looking for nice on her man list, wasn't she?
"Go," she told Ty, her voice a little urgent as she gave him a pointed push, practically edging him out of the booth.
He stood, put on his brown Stetson, looked at her a bit sadly with those big brown puppy-dog eyes and tipped his hat to her and Sam before returning to his own booth.
"Poor fellow," Sam said. "Doesn't know what he wants in life."