Copyright © 2012 Dee Tenorio
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“We want you to marry Mandy.”
Cole Engstrom never knew you could reverse-snort up a French fry, but there you have it. Someone call Guinness.
A few solid thwacks on the back later from one of the notorious six Jackman brothers, and he was breathing marginally well again. That didn’t mean, of course, his hearing was any better.
“We—” Locke Jackman leaned forward in his diner seat, bracing more of his weight on his oversized hunks of arm and nailing Cole in place with a vivid blue glare, “—want you to marry Mandy.”
When Locke said we, he spoke for all six of the brothers. Probably their deceased parents, grandparents and all the generations that traveled over the Atlantic more than two centuries ago. He was more than big enough to pull something like that off.
Cole risked a glance at the elder twins—as Daniel and Dean were typically called—who sat on his left, their bulk swallowing most of the curving diner bench in the darkest corner of Shaky Jake’sbar. He should have known they were out to get him when they’d invited him here for lunch and dragged him to this spot. Not only were they cheap, they were scared of the dark. Yet both of them nodded and grinned at him like they’d done him a favor. He smelled a set-up. He also had the suspicion they were stealing his fries.
Locke smiled. Sort of. When you have a face that big and that closely resembling a brick wall, it’s probably harder to be convincing about joy. “We like you.”
Wasn’t that reassuring?
Locke shrugged. “She will.”
“So, she doesn’t know anything about this?” Adding two and two while surrounded by two trios of human mountains with zero common sense was slow going.
“Why tell Mandy? She’d just argue with us. But she needs to get married. It’s time. Mom and Dad would have had her married off years ago, and since they aren’t here, it’s up to us.”
Cole didn’t want to remind Locke that the main reason Amanda wasn’t married off was because their parents had died, and no man who wanted to retain his moving parts was going to attempt to so much as look Amanda’s way with the mini-hulks blocking his path.
“And you picked me because…”
“The elder twins said you were nice to her.” Locke nodded to the two boys who’d been Cole’s friends since junior year in high school. He’d been a skinny, chain-smoking computer nerd in their weight-training class. They’d openly seen him as a project.
By the end of the year, he’d quit smoking, at least, but he was still slim and never destined to bench much more than his own weight. They kept him anyway—he had a car. There were times he wondered if that was why they’d adopted him in the first place. Times like now, he wondered why he’d adopted them back.
The elder twins grinned at him, still nodding, both chewing. Bastards.
“Didn’t they tell you I’ve planned to never get married?” Because Daniel and Dean knew damn well he was never getting married. Ever. They even knew why. Hell, Locke knew why. It wasn’t a secret.
“Plans can change.” Locke’s unfaltering gaze bored into Cole, placidly threatening. Threatening what, Cole wasn’t sure, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to guess it would be painful.
Still. Some things Locke couldn’t force, no matter how he tried.
“Not these ones.”
He felt the tension suddenly ratchet up in the shoulders on either side of him. And though Locke didn’t move even a muscle, Cole swore he grew impossibly more hulking.
“Look, Amanda’s a nice girl.” She was too. Very nice. Nice to talk to, nice to spend time with, nice to look at. All right, more than nice to look at. More like stunning, with that silky white-blonde hair and blue-gray eyes, curves he’d give his right nut to stop thinking about, and good God, legs for miles. Tall, like her brothers, but delicate and quiet in comparison. Sweet too.
But if she believed for one second that he’d gone along with this ridiculous plan, he had no doubt whatsoever she’d rip his throat out. No self-respecting girl wouldn’t, and Cole made it a special rule never to piss off the quiet ones. Usually, they’d already had lots of time to think about body disposal.
“But?” Locke was no idiot. Not like the others, who followed his orders like good pets.
“But she and I aren’t…involved.” And he’d taken great pains to make sure that they would never be involved. He enjoyed her company way too much to risk ever dating her. That was a surefire way to make her think him an asshole.
“Of course you aren’t. Yet.” There it was, Locke’s scary smile again. The one that was a cross between a pit bull growl and a hungry tiger attack. Either one would eat you alive, so Cole was sure to stay perfectly still and not tempt either. “You’ll ask her out. Date for a while. But not too long—I won’t have Mandy embarrassed because her boyfriend won’t settle down.”
Sure, Cole could see how that might be embarrassing.
“Then, in about six months, you ask her to marry you. She says yes, you get hitched and it’s all done with.”
Done with? His life, maybe. Hers, definitely. “What if Amanda says no?”
“Why would she say no?” Locke’s subtext was easy to read; she’d better not say no. “Be nice to her, make her feel pretty, tell her she’s a good cook and you’re set.”
“Mandy really is a good cook,” Dean added.
“You guys think all it takes to get married is to tell a girl she’s pretty and that she can feed you from now on and she’ll fall over from the romantic sentiment?”
Dean actually thought about it.
“Good point. Women are picky about stuff like that. You’re just going to have to make her fall in love with you or something,” Locke concluded.
Or something. Cole thought longingly to the fry that had mercifully tried to kill him minutes ago. Why had he fought it?
“I know this sounds completely unlikely, but…let’s say she doesn’t fall in love with me and the prospect of feeding me every day for the rest of her life isn’t enough of an enticement to get her to marry me?”
Locke shrugged. “At least you tried.”
Cole took his first breath of the meal…
“We’ll just find someone else and try again.”
…and choked on it.
“Try again? You mean you guys are going to shop Amanda around until someone bites?”
Locke didn’t smile this time. He didn’t do anything. He just stared, his blue gaze as implacably serious as the resolute will he’d used to raise the family currently surrounding him.
Asking Cole to marry Amanda was one thing. The Jackmans were his friends, despite Locke’s unnerving ability to…well, unnerve him. He wasn’t going to go telling anyone that the brothers were off their rockers and just short of pitching their sister on the auction block, and they knew it. Even the youngest ones. But should he turn them down, Amanda would quickly become a laughingstock in their quaint little southern California town of Rancho del Cielo. And no one in RDC ever forgot a good laugh.
Put like that, turning them down wasn’t an option.
Locke pulled something out of his shirt pocket and clacked it onto the center of the table. “See you at dinner, Cole. Seven o’clock. And wear a tie. You’re courting.”
He slid out from behind the table with a little more grace than someone his size should have been allowed. Within seconds, Cole found himself alone at the massive booth with an empty plate, a raw set of nerves and an open jeweler’s box complete with a glittering engagement ring.
For the first time since high school, Cole Engstrom was dying for a cigarette.