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Francisco Rodriguez Olivier Grant stared at the very petite, very darling woman dressing him down. Suz Hawthorne giving a man hell was an impressive sight despite her five foot two and a half inch size, due to the streaky blue-in-blond hair, strategically placed cheek studs, a tiny diamond stud in her nose and a miniscule silver loop in her right eyebrow. Though they were small and delicately designed, her tats spoke loudly of her rebel statusa fragile red rose on one wrist, and a beautiful, delicate Celtic cross on the other. When a man adored a woman like he adored Suz, being in her line of fire was enough to nail a man's boots to the groundand his boots were nailed down good.
"Here's the deal, so pay attention." Suz put her hands on her rounded, feminine hips, guiding his eyes farther down her oh-so-delicious body. Well, he just knew her body would feel deliciousif he could get his hands on it.
"I'm paying close attention."
"All right. I can't bring myself to call you Frog like everybody else does. I've never seen a man look less frog-like or toadly in my life. There's nothing amphibious about you, beyond your ability to swim."
He started to say, "I don't care what you call me as long as you call me," then realized that would sound desperate. Or something. "Thanks."
"Good. I'm glad that's settled."
Suz's brain was a wonder to contemplate, and right now, operating about two gears faster than his. Mainly because he was sidelined by what he belatedly recognized as surefire, 100 percent lust. "What's settled?"
He grinned at the sweet-'n'-sassy bombshell, who was disarming him completely. "You're going to call me Francisco Rodriguez Olivier Grant every time you speak to me?"
"No. From now on, you're just Cisco."
He took that in.
"Perhaps your silence means you're not crazy about that. But Frog just isn't working for me."
"Fine. I don't care. Address me as Santa Claus if you want." He got his swagger back and then some, kind of impressed that she wanted to call him Cisco. There were probably any number of legendary hanging, swinging badasses that had been called Cisco over time.
Not so many named Frog. He'd been named Frog courtesy of his SEAL brothers, because he could out-swim just about every man around.
"Frog" was fine under certain conditions. But when a man wanted a woman thinking about himand a dynamite package like Suz most particularlyit was probably better to be a Cisco.
"Now that we have that settled, you're going to escort me to the upcoming Bridesmaids Creek swim."
"The newly christened Cisco feels like he's missing a bit of info. We just had a swim for Jade Harper and Ty Spurlock, which is why they're married, according to the tenets of the fabled charm, right? As I recall, I swam that race pretty quickly." And he was none too pleased, because the way the rumor mill worked in Bridesmaids Creek, the prize for winning the swim was the woman waiting on the banks at the finish line.
The woman at the finish line that day had been Daisy Donovan, and a more annoying wild woman he'd never had the bad luck to come across.
He wanted Suz. Not Daisy.
But supposedly the legend, charm, magicwhatever you wanted to call itof Bridesmaids Creek had never, ever misfired. Daisy definitely thought she was hisand was convinced enough of that fact that lately he'd been considering taking himself to parts very far away from the small, family-centered town.
"Yes, your swim was impressive. But another one is scheduled. I've decided to challenge Daisy for you."
This was news he could use. "Really?"
Suz nodded. "Yes."
"Does the charm work that way?" He scarcely dared to hope.
"We don't know. In your case, we're calling it an evil spell. You might say we're messing with our own potion here in BC." Suz looked thoughtful. "It's very experimental. Frankly, we don't know what could happen if we sidestep the legend."
"Well, I won't be going off with Daisy," he said cheerfully.
"Or you could fall head over heels in love with her. As I mentioned, we've never tinkered with our town mysteries before."
He felt some hope. "So, you want to win me, huh?"
He resisted the urge to stick out his chest, show off his pecs, showcase himself a little.
"Not really, but I drew short straw." Suz got into her truck, completely unaware she'd just flattened his ego. "Ladies don't swim the race. It's the man's job to win his female. Or so we've always assumed. It's been this way dating back to the early days of Bridesmaids Creek."
He gulped. "You mean I'll be standing on the banks waiting for the winner to win me?"
That scared the hell out of him. Suz was diminutive, while Daisy was more well, Daisy was mean and beautiful and hotheaded. Looked pretty athletic, too, as she raced up and down the main drag on her motorcycle.
"Can't I just say I don't believe in voodoo and ghosts and crap, and it'll blow over?" The thought gave him hope. "I could just ignore it and it might go away. Or Daisy might find another guy."
"She's got her sights set right on you. And just so you know, we don't do voodoo in BC. We have magic." Suz started the engine. "I learned to swim in the sixth grade, and though I really haven't done more than dog-paddle in years, it's got to be like falling off a bike, right?"
Oh, boy. "Cisco" smiled, felt a bit pained and wondered how he'd come to land in a town that was, as his friend Ty saidthat same Ty who'd convinced him to come to Bridesmaids Creeka town full of carneys and soothsayers all selling the BC shtick.
Yet if he hadn't come to BC to help the locals breathe new life into BC, he would have never met the amazing, gifted, full-lipped, daunting Suz Hawthorne. And that would've been a shame. Even if she didn't seem to reciprocate his feelings, he was certain this radioactive doll had his name all over her. Reserved especially for him. "Do me a favor. Since I'm agreeing to escort you."
"Kiss me." He leaned close to the window to give her prime access.
"Why would I want to do that?" Suz's blue eyes widened.
"Because I have nice lips. Or so I've been told. Pucker up, dollface."
"I don't pucker for anyone who calls me 'dollface,' unless you want me to look like I bit into a grapefruit. Now that kind of pucker may be available to you."
He laughed. "So much sass, so little honesty."
She sniffed. "I'm trying to save you, cowboy, not romance you. Don't confuse this."
"No kiss? I really feel like I need to know if you're the woman of my dreams, if you're determined to win me. And a kiss tells all."
"Oh, wow." Suz looked incredulous. "You really let that line out of your mouth?"
"Slid out easily. Come on, cupcake." He closed some distance between her face and his in case she changed her mind. Strike while the branding iron was hot was a very worthwhile strategy. It was in fact his favorite strategy.
"If I kiss you, I probably won't like it. And then what motivation do I have to win the race? I'd just toss you back into the pond for Daisy."
He drew back, startled. "That wouldn't be good."
Suz nodded. "It could be horrible. You could be a wet kisser. Eww."
"I really don't think I am." His ego took a small dent.
"You could be a licky-kisser."
"Pretty sure I'm just right, like Goldilock's bed," he said, his ego somewhere down around his boots and flailing like a leaf in the breeze.
"I don't know," Suz said thoughtfully. "Friends don't let friends kiss friends."
"I'm not that good of a friend."
"You really want a kiss, don't you?"
He perked up at these heartening words that seemed to portend a softening in her stance. "I sure do."
"Hope you get someone to kiss you one day, then. See you around, Cisco. And don't forget, one week until the swim!"
"Hey!" He stopped her from driving off. "How am I supposed to get you in shape in a week?" Suz raised a brow. "In shape for what?"
She winked. "I'm off to The Wedding Diner to eat a piece of four-layer chocolate cake Jane Chatham promised to hold back for me. I guess you'll have to cross today off your list for training."
She drove away, her angelic smile doing nothing to ease his trauma. Suz wasn't trying very hard, as far as he could tell. Somehow she'd gotten roped into this raceshort straw indeedand obviously had no plans to seriously go for the win.
Which meant his Daisy problem was still alive and well. Frogno, Cisco, because that's who Suz decreed he was, and he was fine with whatever she wanteddecided he was going to have to make sure that he was absolutely, 100 percent, the gold buckle of bachelors she just couldn't live without winning.
Cisco was busily plotting how to best tempt Suz into putting some real effort into winning himas much effort as she'd put into going off for chocolate cakewhen the familiar roar of Daisy Donovan's motorcycle disrupted him. The siren brunette with long chocolate locks pulled up beside him and slipped off her helmet. Daisy was a heart attack on wheels and she knew it. The thing was, she had a very dark side, courtesy of her old man, Robert Donovan, who'd haunted this town for years trying to run it into the ground so he could take over the real estate.
Ty Spurlock had brought Cisco, Justin Morant, Squint Mathison and Sam Barr to town on a bride hunt, to help repopulate the town and fortify it against Robert's manipulations. Justin had fallen first, for Mackenzie Hawthorne, becoming a father to her four darling quadruplet sweethearts. Then Ty had fallen into his own trapand no one much saw him these days between his deployments and loving on Jade Harper Spurlock and their twin tiny dolls.
The real kicker was that their buddy Squint had a thing for Daisy. He was just positive her brand of wild child needed him for taming. For some reason, Daisy never looked his way. She preferred instead to cast her lure for a frogwell, a Cisco. He looked at the long-legged brunette with the sexy-devil smile cautiously.
"Hello, lover boy."
He winced. "Nice January day, huh?"
Daisy laughed. "You're cute when you're nervous."
"I'm not nervous." He drew himself up. A navy SEAL did not get nervous over brunettes who ripped up the road on motorcycles and tried to tie you down.
Okay, maybe a little nervous. Just because of the tying down thing.
"If you're not nervous, kiss me."
She gave him a sultry look that singed his toes. He felt his boots smoking. "I'd better not. It's probably bad luck to kiss before the big swim," he said.
"If you don't want to get lucky, fine by me."
His throat dried out. He could practically feel sweat pouring out from underneath his hat, when it was a perfectly frigid twenty degrees Fahrenheit outside. "I'm late to meet Squint and Sam. See you, Daisy."
He stopped and, looking at her, his heart wadded into a knot. "Yes?"
"If you change your mind about getting lucky, I'll be around."
He tipped his hat, hurried off. Her motorcycle roared, and she headed in the opposite direction. Relief ran all over him as he went to find Sam and Squint.
His buddies were parked in Sheriff Dennis McAd-ams's office, kicking back, having a good jaw with the sheriff. Sam and Dennis grinned hugely at him, while Squint glared.
"We saw you accosting Daisy out there," Sam said. "Squint's jealous."
"Yeah, that's what I was doing." Cisco tossed himself into a chair. "Did you also see me chatting up Suz?"
"No, we didn't see that." Dennis looked pleased, lounging behind his wide wood desk that had seen many, many years of boot heels resting on it. "Well, we might have seen you trying to get very close to our Suz, but from here, it looked to us like she backed away in a hurry. A real, real hurry."
The men laughedexcept for Squint. "Hey, brother,"
Cisco said, "if you want Daisy so badly, please take her off my hands. By all means."
That would allow him to concentrate on Suz, which was his preeminent goal.
Squint frowned. "She seems to prefer Frog legs."
Frog legs, nothing! He held up a hand. "Cisco is the name, boys."
"Since when?" Dennis palmed through some papers. "I don't have any paperwork here stating such."
"Can't a man change his name because a beautiful woman wants him to?" Cisco was pretty proud to brag on the fact that he alone had been newly anointed by one of the town's most awesome, sexy bachelorettes.
"Daisy?" Squint glared some more. "Daisy wants you to go by Cisco? Because I'm going to have to tell her that there's a reason we called you Frog. Frog legs, for sure. Thin and not much meat."
"No, Suz calls me Cisco. And you're still annoyed that I beat you last month in the Bridesmaids Creek swim."
"I had a leg cramp!" Squint's glare bounced right off Cisco.
"You're a SEAL. You should be in better shape. Anyway, it doesn't matter." He thumped his chest. "You're looking at the new and improved Cisco Grant. And Suz is swimming to win me next weekend."
"Really?" Squint sat up. "Does Daisy know?"
Cisco frowned. "I didn't ask. Guess I didn't care."
"Careful," Squint said. "You misjudge Daisy's fineness. She comes across evil and devilish, but I'm telling you, it's true Texas hot sauce that lady's peddling. And I aim to eat it up, if you'll get out of my way."
"You're going to have to do better than that," Dennis observed. "If you want to win Daisy, Squint, win her. Don't get cramps when the race is hot. You must become the rope if you want to lasso her. Frankly, I don't think you have it in you." He shrugged. "Cisco Frog obviously does."
"Cisco Frog!" Cisco glared, worried that pseudonym might stick. "Just Cisco is fine, thanks."
"Well," Sam said, having remained silent this whole time, "I can see that the tie is going to have to go to the runner."
They stared at Sam. Cisco was a bit suspicious. Sam was known for being many things, being clever and underhanded chief among them. In other words, he liked to be in the middle of everything, and turn it inside out just to watch everybody whirl around in different directions thanks to him.
"What runner? We're swimming," Cisco pointed out. "Actually, the girls are swimming."
"Yep." Sam got up and stretched. "And I've entered as a prize."
The men gawked at Sam.
"You can't do that. It's my turn! The ladies want to win me. Well, Daisy does. I'm pretty sure Suz is operating out of pity, but I'm not picky," Cisco said.
"Sheesh," Dennis said. "Have some pride, Frog."
Cisco sighed. "Okay. Sam, you can take my place."
The sheriff's office went silent for a moment.
"Did you give up that easily when you were a SEAL?" Dennis demanded. "Just throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty?"
"No." Cisco looked around the cramped, dark room. A small lamp sat on Dennis's desk. The jail was down the hall, but it was empty now. Dennis's wife, Shirley, had put some potpourri on his desk under the lamp to make it a more "homey" place, she'd said, and it did smell sweet in here. He breathed deeply, trying to clear his head. "You're right. I don't have any pride where Suz is concerned. My brain twirls like a pinwheel when she's around. And she won't kiss me. Says I might be a sloppy kisser."
His best friends thought that was a real thigh-slapper. They roared with laughter. He shrugged, undeterred.
"I've been thinking," Cisco said when the snickers and guffaws died down, "maybe I don't really belong in BC."
They booed that raucously.
"You belong with us," Sam said. "You, me, Squint, we're a team. We were a team in Afghanistan and other places that sometimes felt like hellholes, and sometimes felt real good. But we're a team, and we stick together."
Cisco shook his head now that the words had traveled from his brain to his mouth and hit the atmosphere. "I'm pretty sure the BC rigmarole and fiddle-faddle is beyond me. I'm not cut out for these small-town shenanigans."
"That's right." Squint nodded. "Because you're from a small town in Virginia that grows her boys strapping and proud. No high jinks in those small towns, either."
"It's hard to explain." It wasn't too hard to explainit had to do with what his friends had observed about Suz: she just wasn't into him.
And he was totally into her.