Read an Excerpt
"Well, aren't you the picture of domestic bliss."
Dean Pritchett didn't look up from his e-reader. Even though his most recent download was an old favorite he'd already read numerous times, there was no need. He had a feeling his brother wasn't done yet.
"Hmm, you seem to be enjoying that spin cycle a bit too much," Nick continued, his voice laced with typical sarcastic humor. "I think you've been cooped up in this trailer too long, little brother."
Shifting his weight as the decades-old washing machine beneath him finally switched into high speed, Dean stayed put despite his brother's teasing. He'd learned the first weekend of staying in this government-sponsored mobile home that perching something heavy, like himself, on top was the only way to keep the appliance from dancing across the tiny laundry room's floor during the last cycle.
"You're just jealous because I got here first."
"I'd rather do my 'spinning' the old-fashioned way." Nick propped one shoulder against the open doorway. "And it's about time you did, too."
He finally looked up. "I'll pass. Thanks."
"Wrong answer, bud. That might've worked when Dad and Cade were still here, but now I need a new wingman."
Dean stared at his brother. He was the shortest of all the Pritchett kids, but built like a football player. All muscle. He had the same blond hair and blue eyes as their oldest brother and baby sister, unlike Dean who had inherited their mother's deep green color.
Nick also had the charms that made sure he was rarely at a loss for company.
"You haven't needed a wingman since you were fourteen," Dean said, "and came home with the phone numbers of three cheerleaders in your pocket. All seniors."
Nick returned his smile. "Yeah, those were the days. But if you think I'm going to let you sit here and stare at that gadget all night" he snatched the tablet from Dean's hand "you're wrong."
"At least tell me you're reading something hot like the latest issue of Biker Babes Gone Wild" He peered at the screen, then guffawed. "Wait, The Collected Works of Jane Austen? That's chick stuff."
"Jane Austen is a literary giant," Dean shot back. "Her work is classic and timeless and she was Mom's favorite author. She gave me my first book."
"Okay, professor. At least it's not Shake-N-Stir."
The washing machine ended its run. Dean hopped down and reclaimed his e-reader, flipping the cover closed to put it to sleep. "That's Shakespeare, you doof."
"Whatever." Nick pushed away from the door. "Come on, it's time to put the books away and suck down a few cold ones. And change that shirt."
Dean looked down at his gray T-shirt with the big block letters stating REAL MEN READ. "Abby gave this to me at Christmas. And it's the last clean shirt I have."
Nick eyed the pile of freshly folded laundry before yanking a snap-front Western-style shirt still warm from the dryer and tossed it at him. "Here, put this on. Girls in Rust Creek Falls love cowboys."
Dean snorted. The Pritchett family had a working ranch back home in Thunder Canyon, about three hundred miles south of here, so technically they could be called cowboys. Lord knew he and his siblings had all worked the land alongside their father from the moment they could walk. And yes, he often wore a battered Stetson while he'd worked here in town to keep the sun out of his eyes.
But it was the family business, Pritchett & Sons Fine Woodworking, known for producing beautiful handcrafted furniture, where both he and his brothers made their living.
And what had brought them to this small ranching community last month.
Rust Creek Falls had been hit hard over the Fourth of July holiday by what was now called the Great Montana Flood. Dean had been one of the first to answer the call for volunteers to help rebuild the town, and soon his entire family joined in, setting up shop in the cluster of trailers on the west end of town.
Thankfully, most of the businesses in Rust Creek Falls were up and running again, except for the elementary school that suffered a lot of damage. Many private homes and ranches were still in need of work, especially those located south of the creek, which had become a raging river breaking through its levees during the storm.
Dean and his family had worked long days those first couple of weeks, but now their father and oldest brother had gone home to take care of the ranch and family business while Dean and Nick had chosen to stick around for the duration.
And maybe, for Dean, even longer.
"Come on, time's a wastin'." Nick nudged him out of the way and opened the lid of the washer. "I'll take care of loading your dryer. You get pretty. We both know you're going to take longer."
Dean cuffed his brother on the back of the head before turning toward the tiny bathroom to wash up and change. It wasn't as if he'd never been to the one bar in town. He'd gone a couple of times, but he tended to prefer books to most people he met.
Catching sight of the faded scar that ran down the center of his chest in the mirror as he buttoned up his shirt, Dean blamed his preference on a childhood filled with mysterious health problems that had kept him on the sidelines most of the time. Everything had changed, though, when surgery his freshman year in high school had fixed a faulty heart valve. Soon he was as athletic as the rest of his family, but that didn't mean he'd morphed from a quiet kid to a charmer like Nick overnight.
Hell, most times he just kept his mouth shut and let the ladies do all the talking. He'd learned over the years that most of the female population found his silence a challenge they couldn't resist. So he'd let them try. Even if they got him to talk, they rarely stuck around for long after thata lesson he'd learned years ago.
Pushing away the memories, he shut off the light and walked down the hallway to the front of the trailer.
"See? You did take longer. We ready to go?" His brother waited in the living room, already sporting his familiar black Stetson. He grabbed Dean's off a nearby hook and tossed it to him.
Deciding to go without the hat, Dean laid it on the coffee table, then checked his watch, surprised to find it already after nine. He figured he'd only have to stay for a beer or two before his brother found someone else for company. "Let's go."
They left their pickup trucks parked and took the short walk in the still summerlike night air from the group of trailers to the Ace in the Hole. It was a rough-around-the-edges bar, popular with everyone, from cowboys to millworkers and now the volunteers helping the town get back on its feet.
The bar's parking lot on this Thursday night was filled mostly with trucks, a few cars and a handful of motorcycles. There was even an old-fashioned hitching post out front because local cowboys had been known to ride into town on horseback, even after dark. Lighted beer signs shone in the windows and an oversize playing card, an ace of hearts, blinked in red neon from its perch over the front door.
Once inside, Dean's eyes adjusted to the dim lighting as he followed his brother to the already-crowded bar that ran the length of one wall. Booths hugged the outer walls and round tables surrounded a small dance floor in the middle of the room.
There was a sorry excuse for a stage in the far back corner, but tonight's musical entertainment came from an antique Wurlitzer jukebox that still played three choices for a quarter. Pool tables filled the space in the far back and a couple of dartboards hung on the wall next to the exit door, all perpetually busy.
Dean and Nick grabbed two empty stools at the bar, but a lull in the music and the sound of a man's voice had them, along with the rest of the crowd, turning to face a booth in a far corner.
"Hey, everyone, could I have your attention for a moment?"
Dean recognized Collin Traub as the man rose to his feet. The pretty brunette next to him was his wife of less than one week, the former Willa Christensen. Both Dean and Nick had attended their wedding last Saturday. In fact, the entire town of Rust Creek Falls had been there to watch them exchange their vows.
"I have something I'd like to share with you," Collin said. "Something my wife and I just decided on."
"Are we hearing the pitter-patter of little feet soon?" someone called out.
Collin laughed along with the crowd, but waved off the suggestion. "Ah, I think it's a bit early for that, seeing how Willa and I have put off our official honeymoon to work with all of you, and the many volunteers who have joined us, on rebuilding our town."
Several people clapped and Collin waited until the noise died down again.
"We've pulled together since the flooding, and we've accomplished a lot in a short time, but there's still a long way to go. I know this town is going to come back stronger than ever." He looked down at his wife, who gave him a quick nod, then he addressed the crowd again. "Part of that strength is missing however with the tragic loss of Mayor McGee. His death during the flood has left a void in our town, so I've decided to join the election as a candidate to fill the mayoral seat."
A cheer rose from the crowd and soon Collin and his wife were surrounded by well-wishers.
"I guess folks around here think that's a pretty good idea," Nick said as a group of men greeted him with friendly hel-los. He made a few quick introductions to Dean, including two waitresses who stopped by, one of whom wrapped an arm around Nick's shoulders for a quick hug before she continued on her way.
"Traub seems pretty popular. Just like you." Dean leaned closer to be heard over the jukebox. "Why am I here again?"
Nick shrugged and reached for the bowl of unshelled peanuts in front of them. "If you're talking about Faith, there's nothing there, man. She's old enough to be our
aunt. Besides, she's married."
"Never stopped you before."
His brother shot him a dark look. "You know, I was serious. You need to find yourself some company of the female persuasion. You're either working, cooped up in that trailer by yourself or hanging around with a bunch of kids."
Dean had to admit his brother had a point. When he wasn't relaxing in the trailer he could be found at the town park. He'd been taking a walk one night when a fight broke out during a pickup football game. He'd stepped in before two kids, barely in their teens, had gotten more than a few jabs thrown at each other and defused the situation. From then on, he'd been playing referee, spending more time at the park with the kids who hung out there.
Before he could reply to Nick's suggestion, a sweet voice called down to them from the center of the bar.
"Hey there, boys. Welcome to the Ace! I'll be right with ya."
Dean's gaze zoomed in on the petite blonde bartender. Now, there was someone he hadn't met yet in this small town.
Her shoulder-length hair whipped against her neck as she moved in a hurried but practiced pace, filling drink orders from both customers and staff. Dressed the same as the other waitresses in dark jeans and a black T-shirt that featured the bar's logo, she hadn't done any alterations to the shirt to show off the maximum skin possible like some of the others.
No, she just wore it pulled back in a knot at the base of her spine. A move that allowed a sliver of creamy skin to appear from time to time, and the deep V at the neckline offered a nice view of her curves. She stood in profile to him, so he could see only half a smile, but the cowboy she placed a tall, frothy beer in front of seemed to enjoy it.
"What can I get you, Nick?" she called down to them again, directing her words over one shoulder as she continued to work.
"A couple of longnecks." Nick added after tossing out their favorite brand, "Each."
She nodded her head and turned away, pulling two icy beers from a cooler beneath the bar.
"Damn, she hardly looks old enough to be in here." Dean felt a slow curl of heat ride low across his gut when she reached back and casually wiped her hands across her perfectly shaped backside. "Please tell me you haven't tried to go after someone who's almost jailbait."
"Shelby? Naw, she's not my type."
Happy he managed not to say the word aloud, Dean forced his gaze from the girl, surprised at the instant attraction coursing through his veins. An attraction that was all wrong considering how young she must be.