Unmasking the maverick, p.1

Unmasking the Maverick, page 1

 

Unmasking the Maverick
 


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Unmasking the Maverick


  Releasing his inner cowboy

  Rust Creek Ramblings

  Rugged ex-marine Brendan Tanner and his muscles recently took up residence at the Stockton ranch, presumably for a short-term stay. Could Fiona O’Reilly make him rethink his wandering ways? The sparks between those two could light up all of Rust Creek Falls, if only they weren’t so darned wary of falling in love. Bundle up, dear readers, and warm your hearts as Fiona and Brendan try to find their way home—to each other!

  “I look forward to seeing snow. Maybe for the holidays. I’ve never had a white Christmas.”

  “Really?” When she looked at him, her eyes sparkled with happiness. “I wasn’t sure you would be staying that long.”

  “The truth is that I haven’t figured out my future yet. I can’t make you any promises.”

  “I never asked for one.” Her eyes were flashing now but not with anything good. “What makes you think I want a commitment?”

  “All I said was it would be nice to see snow. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow so—”

  “I’m not saying you have to decide. I made an innocent comment and you pushed back as if I suggested we elope next Sunday. I’m a big girl, Brendan—”

  “Yeah. I noticed.” Things would be less complicated if he hadn’t.

  She pushed away from the tree and faced him, standing just inches from him. This was not a good time to finally figure out what it meant that a woman was beautiful when she was angry. And Fiona was more beautiful than he’d ever seen her.

  MONTANA MAVERICKS: THE LONELYHEARTS RANCH:

  You come there alone, but you sure don’t leave that way!

  Dear Reader,

  We’ve all heard the saying you can’t go home again, but for some of us it’s harder than others.

  Growing up was rough for Brendan Tanner, but he finally found his niche in the Marine Corps. For the first time in his life he knew where he fit and his military family had his back. He loved his career...and then his father got sick. He resigned to take care of his dad only to lose the man who single-handedly raised him. Now he’s more adrift than before. An invitation from an acquaintance to stay at Sunshine Farm in Rust Creek Falls offers him a place to stay while he gets back in shape—and considers reenlisting. But meeting beautiful Fiona O’Reilly may give him more than he bargained for!

  Fiona has lived in Rust Creek Falls her whole life—which makes finding Mr. Right a challenge. Most of the guys in town feel like brothers. Taking a chance on a relationship with a stranger left her publicly humiliated, an experience not to be repeated. So now she’s pushing thirty, feeling the pressure of being the oldest O’Reilly girl not yet married. One look at newcomer Brendan Tanner convinces her things might be looking up! If she can convince him that he belongs right where he is...

  I hope you enjoy reading about how Fiona brings Brendan into the fold as much as I enjoyed writing their Montana Mavericks story.

  Happy reading!

  Teresa Southwick

  Unmasking the Maverick

  Teresa Southwick

  Teresa Southwick lives with her husband in Las Vegas, the city that reinvents itself every day. An avid fan of romance novels, she is delighted to be living out her dream of writing for Harlequin.

  Books by Teresa Southwick

  Harlequin Special Edition

  The Bachelors of Blackwater Lake

  Just What the Cowboy Needed

  His By Christmas

  The New Guy in Town

  Just a Little Bit Married

  A Word with the Bachelor

  How to Land Her Lawman

  The Widow’s Bachelor Bargain

  A Decent Proposal

  The Rancher Who Took Her In

  One Night with the Boss

  Finding Family...and Forever?

  Montana Mavericks: The Baby Bonanza

  Her Maverick M.D.

  Montana Mavericks: What Happened at the Wedding?

  An Officer and a Maverick

  Montana Mavericks: 20 Years in the Saddle!

  From Maverick to Daddy

  Montana Mavericks: Back in the Saddle

  The Maverick’s Christmas Homecoming

  Visit the Author Profile page at www.Harlequin.com for more titles.

  Join Harlequin My Rewards today and earn a FREE ebook!

  Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards

  http://www.harlequin.com/myrewards.html?mt=loyalty&cmpid=EBOOBPBPA201602010002

  To the brave men and women of the United States military. Thank you for your service and sacrifice.

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Epilogue

  Excerpt from Season of Wonder by RaeAnne Thayne

  Excerpt from Almost a Bravo by Christine Rimmer

  Chapter One

  The poor kid from Prosperity, Texas, who hated fixing other people’s trash for a living had come full circle.

  On the upside, his father would be proud. But Brendan Tanner had a lot of mileage on him since those resentful teenage days. The Corps had a way of turning an ungrateful kid into a buttoned-up, battle-hardened marine. And it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

  Now he was in Rust Creek Falls, Montana, fixing a broken toaster. He was living at a place called Sunshine Farm. After seeing something online about it being a welcome place to get a fresh start, he’d reached out to Luke Stockton, one of the owners, and the cowboy had invited him to stay as long as he wanted. The name made him smile, although the upward curving of his mouth felt a little rusty. In the last eighteen months there hadn’t been much to smile about.

  It disappeared when he heard a sudden high-pitched squeal. Those battle-hardened marine instincts kicked in and he automatically took a defensive stance, then realized the sound was a child’s laughter. Slowly he released his breath. The reflexes were still sharp, but apparently so were the bad memories.

  The kid in question burst through the open door of his temporary barn workshop and came to a stop in front of Brendan. The blond, blue-eyed little guy stared up at him and chewed on his index finger.

  “Hey, buddy. Where’s your mama? Did you go rogue?”

  The kid babbled something that could have been a foreign language for all Brendan knew, then pointed to his tall rolling toolbox. It had belonged to his father, one of the few things he’d brought with him from Texas. When word got out that he was handy, he’d found a use for the tools. Something told him this kid could put them to use, too, but there would be hell to pay.

  His next thought was all about heaven when the prettiest redhead he’d ever seen appeared in the workshop doorway.

  “Jared! There you are, you little stinker.” The reprimand was spoken with such affection that it wasn’t a scolding at all. Then she smiled at Brendan. “Hi.”

  “Ma’am.” He nodded and touched the brim of his Stetson. She was a little breathless, probably from running, but it was just about the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. “I wondered where his mom was.”

  “Oh, I’m not his mother. Aunt by marriage. My sister Fallon married Jamie Stockton, who was a widower, and she became a mo
m to his triplets—Jared, Henry and Kate.”

  Brendan watched her grab the kid when he made a move toward the toolbox. Instantly the boy started squirming to escape. If Brendan was in her arms, escape would be the last thing on his mind.

  Then it sank in. Triplets. “There are two more like him?” he asked.

  “Triple joy.” She laughed and held on to the little wiggle worm. “Or triple trouble. It changes from moment to moment.”

  “Dat.” Jared pointed a stubby little finger at a screwdriver sitting on the workbench. “Want dat.”

  The kid’s determination increased his twisting to get free, but to her credit the redhead hung on. Brendan had trained in hand-to-hand combat in the Marines and wasn’t sure he could have managed to wrangle the boy. He’d never been around kids, but even he knew giving this small human a sharp tool was a bad idea—no matter how determined he was to have it. He could offer to supervise, but there were too many ways for the situation to go sideways. Then he had an idea.

  Underneath the workbench was a basket of broken toys. Eva Stockton, the wife of Luke, who owned Sunshine Farm, had given it to him. She’d said she kept them around for her niece and nephews and asked him to repair any he could. The kids were hard on them, she’d said, and after meeting Jared he understood what she meant.

  He pulled the stash out into the open. “Maybe he’d like to look through these?”

  “You’re a lifesaver.” The woman looked at him as if he’d hung the moon.

  The lifesaver part was truer than she knew, Brendan thought. He’d saved lives, and buddies had saved his, too. They shared a bond unlike anything he’d ever known, the tight-knit family he’d never had. A brotherhood forged in battle. But a different sort of skirmish ensued when the redhead set little Jared on his feet. The toolbox was forgotten as he started in on the toys.

  “Car!” Jared held one up that was missing a wheel. He squatted down and set it on the hard-packed clay floor and made the universal sound effect used by boys to simulate an engine revving.

  “Here’s to the short attention span of a two-and-a-half-year-old.” The woman’s eyes were big and blue and beautiful. The laughter shining there was really something special. “He hasn’t seen those broken toys for so long they’re like brand-new to him.”

  “I haven’t had a chance to check them out and see if they’re salvageable.”

  “Eva and Luke are keeping you busy?”

  “Understatement. Fix a broken clothes dryer and suddenly you’re a Jedi knight who can use the force to put Humpty Dumpty back together.” He shrugged. “And they tell all their friends.”

  “So, do I call you Sir Jedi? Or do you have a name?”

  He nearly winced. Obviously his social skills were as rusty as his smile. “Brendan Tanner.”

  She held out her hand. “Fiona O’Reilly.”

  He took her hand and something crackled up his arm, shocking the words right out of his head. He barely managed to mumble, “Nice to meet you.”

  While his brain was frozen, the rest of him was hot as a Texas sun on the hard-packed plains.

  Before it turned awkward, Jared struck again. He’d emptied every last toy from the basket. Apparently the process of taking them out was playing with them and he was on to bigger and better things. Like the toolbox he’d temporarily forgotten. He opened a metal drawer, the one with various saw blades.

  Without thinking it through, Brendan grabbed him up before he could touch anything and hurt himself. There was an instant screech of protest.

  “I think they heard that in the next county.” He looked at Fiona. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle him, but those things are sharp.”

  “You have pretty good reflexes.” Instead of being upset, she looked impressed. The kid, however, was ticked off and held his arms out to her. She took him and ignored the loud grunts and the struggle to get back down. “No way, Jared. How come you don’t know by now that I’m not a soft touch?”

  Brendan begged to differ with her on that. She looked plenty soft to him, in all the right places. But he knew that was not what she meant. “I can’t imagine herding two more like this one.”

  “That’s why I’m here. Luke and Eva invited the family to dinner and I’m part of the reinforcements. Fallon has Henry. The last time I saw them he was chasing a chicken and she was hot on his heels. Jamie was keeping Kate from going headfirst into the horse’s water trough. And I drew the short straw. We call him jackrabbit because he’s so fast.” She kissed his cheek and made smacking noises, getting a giggle out of the squirmy boy.

  The sight of this woman with a child in her arms struck a chord deep inside Brendan. Her brightness flashed a light on the dark emptiness he carried around, the dusty place where he stored any hope of having a family.

  “There you are.” Luke Stockton walked into the workshop.

  It was getting like Grand Central Station in here, Brendan thought. For some reason he didn’t completely mind the invasion. He had liked Luke Stockton the first time they met and hadn’t changed his mind since he’d been here at Sunshine Farm. His blue eyes projected honesty, integrity, and the deep tan was a result of hard outdoor work.

  He shook hands with Brendan, then looked at Fiona and his nephew. “Your sister was getting worried. About you. And keeping up with Jared.”

  “Oh, please.” Fiona rolled her eyes. “I’m onto this little man.”

  “I see you two have met,” Luke said, glancing between her and Brendan.

  “We introduced ourselves,” she confirmed.

  Luke took the squirming little boy, who was holding out his arms. Probably hoping this time he’d get put down. But Luke held him tight. “What are you up to, jackrabbit?”

  “He’s not happy,” Fiona said. “Brendan wouldn’t let him juggle the saw blades in his toolbox.”

  “You’ve got a mean streak,” Luke teased.

  “That’s me. Making kids cry. It’s a gift,” Brendan said.

  “Yeah. Speaking of gifts...” Luke looked at Fiona. “This guy can fix anything from a can opener to a car engine.”

  “So I heard.” Fiona’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “You’re working him so hard the poor man hardly has time for anything else.”

  “Me?” Luke shook his head. “I just mentioned to a couple of people that he’s got some skills repairing broken things. It’s not my fault folks in Rust Creek Falls ran with it.”

  “So he should be flattered while working his fingers to the bone?” She folded her arms over her chest.

  Luke lifted the wriggling kid above his head and got a snort of laughter out of him. “It’s clear to any enterprising person that there’s a need around here for this kind of service. I’m trying to talk him into opening a repair shop.”

  “And?”

  Brendan noticed a questioning look in her eyes, along with something that might have been female interest. If he was right about that, the attraction was mutual. “And I keep telling Luke that I will likely be gone in a few months.”

  “That’s not a definite,” the other man said. “I’m telling you there’s money to be made and we need to spread the word.”

  “If there’s one thing folks in Rust Creek Falls are good at, it’s talking. It’s almost a competitive sport around here,” she joked.

  “A business venture isn’t the only reason to stick around.” Luke glanced at Fiona, then back. “This is a close community with good people.”

  Brendan couldn’t swear to it but he’d bet money that Fiona blushed.

  All she said was, “This town has a charm, for sure.”

  And then another redhead appeared in the workshop doorway, holding an identical version of Jared. That must be Henry. And if the feather he was tightly clutching in his little fist was any indication, he’d caught up with that unfortunate chicken.

  “See?” He held it up proudly.


  “So the party is in here.” This was Fallon Stockton.

  Even if Brendan hadn’t already met her, he would have guessed a sibling connection to Fiona just because of the coloring. She was pretty enough, but...she wasn’t Fiona. And he was going to forget that thought had ever entered his mind.

  “It is getting crowded in here,” Luke agreed. “Also it’s not a safe place to turn these little guys loose.” Again he held up Jared, who squealed with delight.

  “Eva sent me to find everyone. Dinner will be ready soon. We have to get the kids washed up,” Fallon said.

  “On it.” Fiona took Jared. “Nice to meet you, Brendan.”

  “Likewise.” Politely he touched the brim of his Stetson.

  “You should join us for dinner,” Luke said to him.

  That caught him off guard. “I don’t know...”

  “Eva cooks enough to feed half of Rust Creek Falls. On top of that, Fiona brought her famous four-cheese macaroni dish and it is not to be missed.”

  “It’s kind of last minute,” he hedged.

  “There’s plenty of food,” Fallon confirmed.

  “Tell him, Fiona,” Luke urged. “He hasn’t lived until he’s tried your homemade mac and cheese.”

  “I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

  No one could accuse Brendan of picking up on social cues, but even he didn’t miss the obvious matchmaking. Apparently neither did Fiona. The look on her face said she could cheerfully strangle Luke Stockton.

  “I appreciate the offer,” he said, “but I’m pretty busy here. I promised to have these things back in working order by tomorrow.”

  “Okay.” Luke nodded. “If you change your mind, there will be a place set at the table for you.”

  “Thanks anyway.”

  A place at the table, he thought, watching them all walk away. A family thing. He hadn’t experienced much of that in his life and it was probably better for everyone if he stayed away. And by “everyone” he meant Fiona. He’d seen the wary look on her face when he’d been invited. It was so different from her smile when he’d used a basket of broken toys to fix a toddler’s tantrum. Damn it. He wanted to hang the moon for her again.

 
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