Baking with Nerds is Ainsley Morrison and that cranky former Marine, Brett Bentwater’s book. Brett is honorably discharged from the military—a fate worse than death—due to a PTSD diagnosis. He’s returned to civilian life with some major baggage. Meanwhile Ainsley, with the aid of her cousin, is suddenly thrust into opening a much needed coffeehouse in town. With his baggage and her new business they don’t have time to fall in love. Or do they?
Well, this isn’t going well.
Ainsley Morrison pursed her lips. She no basis for dealing with her current situation.
Brett Bentwater, the former Marine who had moved into Sara Newton’s apartment, Ainsley’s best friend, was nothing like sweet, personable Sara. This imposing, scowling man couldn’t be further from the petite blonde who Ainsley missed so much there weren’t words.
Ainsley’s brother, Clay Morrison, had coaxed her into introducing herself to the man.
She had been willing to be friendly.
Morrisons did friendly.
The nearly snarling man in front of her didn’t appear to appreciate this fact.
He also didn’t seem impressed with the brownies she’d made for him as a house warming gift. The ones she’d labored over for days. After a few experiments, this recipe was perfect.
Even she, her worst critic, hadn’t had a bad thing to say about the resulting product.
Most people lit up at the appearance of a homemade baked good. Not Brett Bentwater.
“Thanks.” His rusty voice sounded as though it hadn’t been used in a while. He cleared his throat and indicated the disposable container she used to bake the brownies.
“You’re welcome. Hope you enjoy them.” Although she had to admit to some dubiousness of this man enjoying anything. “Welcome to Hershey.”
He nodded, his lips thin, nostrils close to flaring. As though the very sight of her made him long to trample her into the nondescript carpet lining the hallway.
She rubbed her moist palm as unobtrusively as possible across the fall-appropriate material of her long skirt. Then fiddled with the hem of her sweater. “Okay… well.”
The ding of the elevator made her jump. A woman exited the car and paused outside a door near the stairs. It didn’t take her long to unlock the barrier, and she soon disappeared inside.
The elevator signal had never startled Ainsley before. So what was the big deal? She breathed deeply until her heartbeat settled.
Brett’s unblinking eyes narrowed on her. He didn’t say anything. His cold perusal didn’t give her a case of the heebie-jeebies. It should give her the creeps. The reason why his coldness didn’t freak her out finally popped into her head.
“You remind me a lot of my brother when he first retired from the service.”
“Your brother was in the service?” His hand tightened on the disposable container. It creaked in protest.
“He was an Army Ranger.”
This appeared to impress him. For a nanosecond. “Knew some Rangers.” He must not subscribe to the Marine-Army Ranger rivalry.
Brett’s baritone voice sent a shivery sensation down her spine. The consequence wasn’t uncomfortable, not entirely. Ainsley still didn’t care to repeat the experience. She rubbed the back of her neck, before offering a fleeting smile.
“Why did you come?” He didn’t bother to hide his suspicion. At least it didn’t sound as though he made an effort.
Her spine went rigid. “Because my cousin’s husband, Mitch Monahan, a former Marine, and my Army Ranger brother, insisted.”
If she spat what she was really thinking, she’d disappoint her grandfather. Disappointing Granddad wasn’t her favorite thing to do. It ranked near the bottom of her least Favorite Things To Do list. And yes, she did keep such a list. In a mental file in her brain, but this list did exist. Ainsley preferred organization over chaos.
“I’ve met Mitch once or twice.”
Ainsley eyed the man looming in the doorway of Sara’s old apartment. “He’s married to one of my cousins.”
His shrug couldn’t have been more casual. “Thank you.” He waved the brownie pan, stepped back into the apartment, and shut the door.
She gaped at the closed door, before remembering there was a peep hole. Stepping away from the door, Ainsley grappled with the entire interaction.
Had she been rude? Had she said something inappropriate?
Maybe she’d been too chirpy. Her heart dropped. That possibility remained all too realistic. Sara, once when Ainsley had pressed, admitted that Ainsley tended toward chirpy. Her best friend had hastened to reassure that she liked chirpy. Some people, on the other hand, hated chirpy people.
Brett Bentwater, surly former Marine, must fall within that category. The man could scare off a grizzly with porcupine quills in his bottom. Not that she in any way resembled a grizzly bear. From what she understood, they didn’t chirp.
It was too bad he didn’t like happy people.
Being a Morrison, she was well loved, and she possessed the usual blue-green eyes most of the family sported. Also, as a Morrison, at least her branch of the family, she tended toward the tall end of things. She was statuesque, as her mother preferred to call it, and carried ten extra pounds, probably due to her profession as a chef and pastry artist, with light brown hair and her Morrison family eyes. Nothing special.
Of course, a man who bordered on handsome wouldn’t notice her. Of a size with Mitch and Clay, Brett could also hold his own with those gray eyes and black hair. She happened to like a little beard stubble and flat stomachs. But she drew the line at cranky.
No one wanted to live with a cranky pants.
Brushing off her hands, both physically and philosophically, she had done what was asked of her. Never again did she have to deal with Brett Bentwater.
Cian Hunter is tasked with the impossible: find Verity Wellington and bring her home safely. His survival is not guaranteed.
Everyone in their business knows Verity is perfectly capable of getting herself home, since she’s the gut-them-first-and-ask-questions-later type of operative. She also has the advantage of knowing where she is, which would be helpful.
He accepts the assignment, aware two operatives are better than one when dealing with the nebulous factions who lurk in the shadows. Plus, the chance to get close to Verity to see if his attraction to her is more than a fleeting interest is too good to pass up. Provided she doesn’t gut him first.
Cian is confident in his secret operative abilities, despite wishing to leave them behind. However, his relationship goals leave something to be desired. If he can figure those out… he might stand a chance of getting them both home alive.
If his skills hadn’t kicked in, he’d probably be dead right now.
The brush of hair on fabric gave his attacker away. Cian Hunter twisted at the same time as he grappled with the hand wielding the gleaming knife aimed at his throat. He spun, then clapped the assailant against him, so his lips nearly brushed her delicate ear.
Her clean, feminine scent enveloped them, clouding his senses.
“Did you miss me?”
“I thought you were dead.” Verity Wellington’s voice didn’t carry any further than his in her hotel room.
“Patrick Mallory is dead, not me.” Patrick Mallory being his alias from what felt like another life.
She sniffed. “Ah, but the great Cian Hunter lives another day.”
Despite his years of service and experience, it took her two-point-four seconds to break his hold. She rotated in a cat-like gesture to face him.
Seeing her in person kicked him in the stomach. Just like old times. Although those instances had been far too few and too long in between. And had equated to little more than mere acquaintances meeting at random times.
“Still as beautiful and enticing as ever,” he drawled.
Her sneer did not detract from her loveliness in any way. “What do you want?”
When her frown grew hot enough to scorch the paint, he relented. Since he didn’t relish the idea of being gutted. Now, or later, in his sleep.
“Your brother sent me.”
“He’s sending dead men on missions now?” One perfect eyebrow arched and his stomach might have somersaulted. He didn’t dig into the nuances.
“My Patrick Mallory alias is dead, but I don’t mind being sent out as myself.”
Her perfect chin rose as her eyes clouded. “I report to Vlad, isn’t this a conflict of interest?” Her voice was smooth chocolate interlaced with rich caramel, yet also held husky notes for texture. It blended perfectly with her platinum blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and that innate feline quality within. A femme fatale in the flesh.
He had heard this very quality and her breathtaking good looks were the banes of her existence. While he hadn’t understood it then, he thought maybe he did now.
Her eyes narrowed, assessing his story and him.
What she felt did not show on her face. She didn’t hug him like he’d hoped. Actually, he had hoped not to be disemboweled, if truth be told.
Still, she could have thrown him a bone and said hello.
“Maybe. But your brother and prince wouldn’t be too happy with you if you gut me.” He didn’t bother to hide his smirk, because this was fun. If dangerous. Still, it was better to forestall her natural instinct to take him out. It might keep him alive another day. Or two.
Her snarl contained everything he had hoped for.
“My brother personally sent you?” Suspicion laced her question.
“General Vladimir Wolfgang Wellington, Commander of the Rurikstan Military himself.” He didn’t rock back on his heels because that kind of ridiculousness got a person killed. Still, he now understood the appeal.
“I know my brother’s name and title.” Verity’s pouty upper lip curled. If people had fangs, one of hers would have showed. “What does he want?”
“Your general tasked me with escorting you back to Rurikstan.”
“What? Since when does he send an American who works for their government after a Rurikstani citizen?” Her voice didn’t raise, but he did check that the paint on the hotel room wall remained intact.
How to say this delicately? “There have been some danger signs.”
“There are always danger signs.”
“True.” He had to acknowledge her scoff. “However, there has been some extra suspicious activity.”
As he hoped, this tidbit snagged her attention. She padded to a chair, the one placed so her back faced the wall, and where she could see all the entrances and exits of the room.
He hauled another chair beside hers for the same reason. Then dropped into it, his eyes busy, because otherwise, death came impolitely knocking. Or pounding. Or sometimes shooting in a fountain of bullets.
“What activity?” She gnawed the inside of her cheek. “If it’s got Vlad worried . . .”
“He’s concerned enough he sent me to make certain you return to Rurikstan in one piece.”
“What about you returning in one piece?” A smug little air swirled around her.
This woman is so after my heart. “I’m supposed to do my best.” He lifted an eyebrow.
“Right. He can’t guarantee your safety.” Her smirk should have been cute, but in the same vein as the rest of her, it veered into downright sexy instead.
“Safety guarantees are nonexistent. Everyone knows this.” He could state this with absolute confidence to Verity Wellington. And her older brother Vlad. As well as a few other associates. They understood.
“Correct. So why does Vlad believe you’re the man for escort detail?”
He hoped an innuendo hovered in there, but based on his knowledge of Verity, he expected to be disappointed. She didn’t wink at him, lick her lips, or send him a sly look from the corner of her eye.
This woman stared at you straight on and wouldn’t blink at slashing through your guts while discussing the weather.
Again—a woman after his own heart.
“I’m available. And I’m not afraid of you.” He winked at her. “Much.”
“Ah, availability.” She swept him up and down. “I could have sworn I heard you met a bomb who won.”
“Patrick Mallory met that bomb. Cian Hunter dragged his sorry carcass to safety and his team found him.”
Her forehead pleated. “What kind of bomb nearly killed you?”
“One that blew up before it was supposed to.”
“Ah. Michael Lamont kicked it the same way.” Michael Lamont had been Greg Gilmore’s favorite alias as a secret operative.
“You’re better with bombs than he was.”
“Yeah. Not sure what happened.” He winced. Memories from that night remained fuzzy at best.
She studied him as though she found him a very interesting specimen under a microscope. Not that Verity resembled a scientist in any way.
Especially not with her restless eyes and deadly skill set.
If he had to choose someone to watch his back, and he had several colleagues he trusted, this woman ranked near the pinnacle. That is if she ever decided to trust him.
I need to work on this.
“So these rumors and warning signs?”
“Yeah, about those. You remember Clay Morrison?”
“The Army Ranger?”
“He’s a retired Army Ranger.” Cian appreciated her wince. “Yeah, he’s not happy about it, but he escorted his girlfriend to Rurikstan because there were some bad guys after her. Actually not her, but her namesake, who happens to be a bioweapons engineer.”
“Exactly. This ditzy genius didn’t have any idea about all the bad guys who are interested in what she knows.”
Gaping should not be so gorgeous on anyone. Yet she even did that in a breathtaking manner. He should know, since he had to breathe through his mouth to obtain enough oxygen to live another minute.
“She didn’t realize bad guys like people who know the ins and outs of bioweaponry?”
“Not a clue.”
The noise she made was funny. At least to him. “At any rate, these guys were interested in Clay’s girlfriend because she has the same name. The girlfriend had a couple of stalkers. The one is dead, I think. But the other party keeps leading us to dead ends.”
Verity sat up straighter as her eyes narrowed. “So terrorists.”
“That’s what the bigwigs are concluding.”
“Hence, you got sent to babysit me.” She didn’t pout or protest, but did look resigned.
“I don’t know any woman less likely to need babysitting.” He sent her a censorious look.
“Would my brother send me to escort you to your home country if something nasty lurked in the shadows?”
“No.” He didn’t even think about his answer.
Her spine stiffened. “Exactly.”
“Because I’m a man,” he agreed. Although it pained him to do so. But the problem wasn’t with her skill set, which rivaled his own, and her brother’s. Her uterus-bearing status caused this furor.
Not because she couldn’t get herself safely home. Especially if she called her prince and demanded his private jet, which she had done in the past. Prince Aleksi usually sent a plane for her, no questions asked. And not only because they were cousins.
“As a female, you’re in much higher demand to terrorists. Especially based on your personal assets.”
“Meaning if any of these slimeballs can force me to be his wife . . .”
“He’s got more bargaining power than any other faction in the world.”
Her gusty sigh revealed definite notes of annoyance.
“Hey, look at it this way, they’d just kill me.”
“Right. The idea of being forced to marry someone you loathe is so much better than outright death.”
“Oh please.” He rolled his eyes. “If you didn’t manage to kill your new husband before the marriage was ever consummated, your brother would personally gut him and force him to eat his own entrails.”
“I’d enjoy making the pervert do that.” She nibbled her bottom lip in such a way his thoughts scattered. It took long moments before he steered them back onto the conversational track.
“Right. I forgot how blood thirsty you Wellingtons are.” He appreciated being among his own kind again.
“You and Greg always did fit in well.” She sent him a little smile and the gesture lit him up far more than it should have.
He dialed down his reaction and reset his breathing. And yanked on years of experience and sheer willpower to force the issue.
“Anyway, we know there is someone, probably terrorists, out there, who have some of our people in their sights.”
“Right. I’ve heard rumors, but nothing else.” She kept watch on a shadow in the corner.
“Ah, so you were expecting me.”
She didn’t shrug, but he caught the impression of one. “I knew my brother would send a minion. That’s why I didn’t put much effort into slicing your head off.”
He grinned. “You should be thankful he sent me. What if he sent Decker?”
“See, I’d rather Decker than most.”
“Did you date Decker?”
“Not that I’m aware.” She pursed her lips. “We were assigned a mission together and posed as a couple then. But he’s enthralled with his wife.”
“Decker got married?” He blinked.
“About four months ago. He’s so happy he bursts into song randomly.”
“He’s retired then?”
“Yeah. Had to take a desk job. Blew out his knee.”
“Was that on the mission with you?” Why had he not heard any of this?
“No, the one directly after.”
Ah, that’s probably why he hadn’t heard.
Not that he was stalking Verity. He just kept an eye on her. On a regular basis.
Yeah, time to change the subject in his head.
“Glad life is working out for them.”
“He seems happy and so does his wife.”
He grunted. “Does she work in the business?”
“Do you remember Salma Rodriguez?”
The image of a dark haired, dark eyed woman, with plenty of curves to even out the underlying muscle, all wrapped up in a sweet smile popped into his head. “Sure. Hard to miss her.”
She didn’t say anything.
“You introduced them?”
Her cheeks took on a pinkish glow.
“Verity Wellington, a matchmaker.”
Her snarl made him grin, and make a note to add extra protection around himself before he slept tonight.
“Every time I interacted with them, I kept thinking they would be good together.” She sniffed, but it didn’t ring true. “So I made a point to introduce them. That’s all I did.”
“I can totally see them working.” He had to give her credit.
“They started dating soon after and got engaged six months later.”
“How long ago was that?”
“They’ve been together a little over a year. Married a few months now.”
“A fast wedding then.”
He wondered what that little note in her voice meant? Did the unshakable Verity Wellington actually have human needs and desires?
His heart skipped a beat.
Odd things keep happening to Dr. Sara Newton. She’s a soon-to-be-unemployed pediatrician with an alleged stalker, a hot cop on her heels breathing dire warnings, and way too much student debt.
It doesn’t help that the hot cop is Clay Morrison, her best friend’s older brother. The man has made her heart pound and her palms sweaty since puberty. The trouble is, he only interacts with her when he’s expounding on new security measures. He sees threats everywhere.
Clay Morrison is frustrated. He hates his new job, misses his Army Ranger days, loves his well-meaning, pushy family—and when did sweet Sara Newton grow up? She won’t admit she has a stalker, and she won’t keep out of his thoughts. He can only protect someone in denial for so long. No matter how attractive she is…
Clay and Sara are circling each other, trying to meet in the middle. Then a brand new threat sends them in a completely different direction.
The man kept to the shadows, his face obscured by the darkness. He scurried past several trash cans, and shimmied around a few trees. The streetlights lit up his face in spurts, but he turned his head, as though the frugal beams hurt his eyes. He peeked furtively around him every few steps, like a mouse making certain it was safe to grab the peanut butter.
Clay Morrison’s eyes narrowed. It wasn’t safe for this mouse to grab this treat. Clay didn’t look furtively around him. He had no trouble avoiding the light that would indicate his presence. The shadows melded him in their embrace as he sifted through them, became them. Two more steps into the darkness and his quarry paused again, raising his head as though to sniff the air.
As though he knew he was being stalked.
Served him right.
With a grimace Clay stepped right into the path of the not-quite-fleeing mouse. “Gareth Wright?”
The mouse jumped and squeaked. The man half-turned, so Clay clapped a hand on his shoulder.
Scared, nearly colorless eyes blinked up at him. Colorless described the man well. His skin, hair, and eyes all combined to form an unremarkable person. One who faded into the background without trying.
Clay repeated the name.
“Y . . .yes, I’m Gareth Wright.” The man’s voice shook.
“We have some questions for you.” Clay straightened his shoulders and rotated one because his bullet-proof vest rubbed wrong. The t-shirt he wore underneath must be creased.
The easy motion sent those colorless eyes to the expanse of his shoulders, further enhanced by his police uniform. This uniform was all wrong. Clay still didn’t know what had induced him to enter police work. A military man, one used to blurry undercover work, should not immediately step into law enforcement. At least, he shouldn’t. Maybe some of his former colleagues would thrive here.
His unfortunate choice of career further proved he needed to stop listening to his relatives. Several hundred know-it-alls who didn’t actually know him that well, it seemed.
“I haven’t done anything wrong.” The mouse squeaked again. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and his eyes scurried around the outside of the hospital where the man had failed to show up for work the last few days.
“Your boss had some questions about your absence. Filed a Missing Persons Report.” His statement was mostly true.
The boss hadn’t particularly cared, but it gave them an opening to question the guy about his recent suspicious activity.
Clay didn’t wait for agreement. He nodded toward the hospital entrance and used the hand on the man’s shoulder to steer him to a small room within the building.
“What do you want to know?” Mistrust colored the mouse’s words.
Reaching into his pocket, Clay yanked out the photos of both Katy Greene, his cousin’s soon-to-be wife and Sara Newton, his little sister’s best friend. Casually tossing the pictures onto the table between them, he carefully noted the colorless man’s reaction.
His gut clenched as the little creep’s eyes gleamed a steady gray before he lost animation.
“I don’t know either of those women.”
“You’ve never met them?” His voice deepened because Clay knew both women personally. Instinct kept pushing him to rip this little mouse’s head off. Years of discipline prevented him. The side of the law he currently represented frowned on such behavior.
I need a new career path.
Wright shook his head. “I don’t know them.”
“You worked at two different hospitals with both of these doctors.”
His quarry jumped at the growled words. Clay dialed back his own emotions because they shot the room’s testosterone levels into the stratosphere. In a chest thumping contest, he would stomp this man into the ground.
And enjoy it.
He kept from baring his teeth, and instead pinned the man with a focused stare. He tapped Katy’s picture. “This woman vaguely remembered you, but the second one didn’t.”
Again, he watched for a reaction. Triumph flared for a millisecond and then died as the man scowled at Sara’s picture. “I work in the sanitation department.” He puffed out his chest. “But I might move to maintenance soon.”
“You have to show up for work regularly to be promoted.”
“I was sick.”
Clay didn’t blink for long moments. “You’ll need to take that up with your boss.”
He asked the standard questions they had to record before he scooped up both pictures and tucked them safely into a shirt pocket.
To further his professionalism, Clay even made a show of writing down a few responses from the man. Who seemed eager to return to work. Wright must have figured out he hadn’t done anything wrong, yet, so he had no need to run.
Greg Gilmore, a former secret operative, and married to Clay’s cousin, Janine, had discovered this mouse’s suspicious activities. However, the little man was nowhere to be found when they wanted to question him.
It had taken a week, but Clay managed to run him to ground. He had employed skills few police officers were taught.
“How did you find me?” The colorless eyes kept skittering to the shirt pocket containing the pictures of Katy and Sara.
Both women sported blue eyes and blonde hair, but were vastly different. Katy’s animated features veered toward cute. While Sara, little Sara Newton, had grown into a beautiful women. Her hair was honey colored and usually piled on top of her head, probably because a bun was the most efficient way to keep the sticky little fingers of her patients from getting entangled in the strands. While Katy’s eyes leaned toward an unusual purple hue, Sara’s were the clear blue of a perfect summer sky. Gorgeous eyes a man could get lost in.
Clay grunted as he cut off those dangerous thoughts and instead answered Wright’s question. “It wasn’t hard.” He left his response there. His flippant reply would hopefully make Wright panic—always helpful.
Wright pushed back his chair and stood, a little unsteadily. “I have to report to my boss.”
The scent of fear kept rising in the room. Clay didn’t bother to soften the edge in his voice. “As per the Central Derry Clinic, your current employer, you need to remain at least thirty feet from the two women we just discussed.” He tugged out a sheet of paper and tossed it across the small table.
The sheet landed exactly where Clay aimed. It fluttered dramatically before settling.
Wright’s eyes widened as he quickly scanned the mandate. “They can’t do that.”
“Yes, they can. And they have.” Clay took his time standing. He had discovered years before that this show of intimidation tended to quell bad guys when they had to look further and further up. The longer the process took, the more reasonable most became.
He tapped the paper, right at the bottom, which promised immediate dismissal if Wright ignored the mandate. Clay didn’t hold out much hope it would hold off this particular man for long.
The crazy ones always ignored good advice.
Life is full of promise for Katy Greene. New town. New job. New BFF. Everything is great…except for the creepy feeling that someone is watching her.
After they confirm Katy’s stalker is real, she has some explaining to do to BFF Leo de Vosse. Not to mention some explaining to herself. When did her feelings for Leo turn into something more than friendship? The stakes are high as she fights for her life with the stalker, and for her heart with Leo.
“You belong to me. He can’t have you.” His voice was so sincere. So serious it sent her heart racing. His eyes didn’t show crazy, but since his words were, adrenaline shot her temperature up while her nape hairs rose.
She had to run, preferably in the opposite direction.
Screaming as she tried to lunge away, her limbs were leaden and wouldn’t obey her instructions.
Doctor Katy Greene awoke with a gasp. Her heart beat far too fast and a clammy sweat stuck Leo’s pilfered t-shirt to her back. She took several deep breaths as the vestiges of the nightmare were replaced by reality.
Reality was definitely better. The phone beside her bed continued to blare and vibrate as the screen lit with a kaleidescope of colors.
Snatching it up, she answered.
The call to work could not have come at a better time. With the insidious whispers of doom and gloom still taunting her from the fringes, she wouldn’t have been able to sleep again anyway. Instead, she shoved the covers away, to race into the shower to rinse off the nightmare-induced sweat.
It took her ten minutes to change clothes and climb into her vehicle, thankful she was heading to the hospital where she worked as a trauma surgeon. This way she would be far too busy to dwell on the awful nightmares that kept plaguing her. They were bad enough she pondered telling one of her two best friends. Either nurse practitioner Trixi Duvall, who was her former roommate, sister, best friend and someone she adored, or pediatrician Leo de Vosse who she had only recently met but who was a kindred spirit if there ever was one, and who she also adored.
Yet she hesitated. Neither of her best friends would provide bad counsel. Both would offer plenty of advice.
Perhaps that was the very reason she kept silent. It wasn’t advice she was seeking. Once she figured out what she needed from them, then she’d say something.
Later that morning, she ran into Leo, and as usual, a little spurt of happiness zinged through her at first sight of him. Her senses always rushed forward and pointed straight at him, so finding him in a crowded room wasn’t difficult. He drew her into his orbit as though he was the other half of her magnet.
His face lit up when she hurried toward him.
“You look terrible,” he stated as his blue-green Morrison eyes swept over her. His square jaw and tussled dark brown hair were so familiar that she relaxed, despite his statement.
“Thanks,” she said but didn’t mean. She did step into his personal space since she was feeling chilled. Leo always managed to suppress the chills. Above average in height, and lean, he sported wide shoulders and lean hips. And plenty of heat, thankfully.
He handed her his coffee as he wrapped his other arm around her. “How long have you been here?”
“Since about two-thirty.” She drank his coffee with relief.
“That pileup on 81?”
“Yeah.” It wasn’t the traffic accident that had caused her weariness though. It was the blasted dream. She sucked down more of Leo’s coffee before handing it back. “I need more coffee than this. Infused with chocolate.”
He shook his head at her. “Trixi just mumbled something similar.”
Katy perked up. “You’ve seen Trixi?”
“Yeah, she and Mark found each other in about three seconds when they arrived today.”
“Her guest wing still isn’t finished?” Mark, Leo’s older brother, had been renting Trixi’s guest wing, but a fire swept through and destroyed part of it. Mark had since moved back in with Leo until Trixi’s overwhelming, but gorgeous, inherited estate underwent the necessary repairs.
“No, but they think by the end of the week.”
“So you’ll have your one working bathroom to yourself again soon?”
He brightened. “My cousin is planning to work on my bathroom situation this week.”
“Right.” She had heard this story before. He always had something else come up.
“I’m fairly certain Mark threatened him with a lobotomy if he didn’t fix at least one more bathroom.”
Mark was a neurosurgeon so this was a possibility. “A good inducement.”
Leo cocked his head and stroked his chin. “I might have also mentioned that you’re a surgeon.”
“Have I met this man?”
“Of course.” Then he frowned. “Maybe not.”
Leo and Mark were Morrisons on their mother’s side. That meant they had eight hundred relatives, at least.
“It’s not nice to threaten people.” Her scold fell flat since she shared Leo’s unfortunate sense of humor.
“I alluded to you being really good with a scalpel.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“Janine said you’re good.”
Her friend’s praise sent warmth and happiness through her, because everyone knew Leo’s cousin, Janine Morris, was the real deal when it came to trauma surgery. She had two tours in a military hospital under her belt and a stint in Johannesburg. The woman knew what she was doing. If she said Katy was good… wow.
“Don’t you two have better things to do than stand around and talk?”
“Speak of the devil.” Leo gestured to Janine, who joined them.
“I’m on my way for coffee.” Katy’s stomach growled.
“Yes, and breakfast,” Janine decided.
Leo squeezed Janine, then her, and sipped his coffee before he headed toward the elevators. Katy waved as she and Janine concentrated on obtaining food and liquid stimulant.
“Do we still have additional patients?”
Janine shook her head. “Not from the accident. This can all change though.”
“Of course.” Since Katy was on duty today, she wasn’t going home anytime soon. “Why were you here during the night? You were supposed to be off.”
Janine rolled her beautiful amber eyes. “I had just finished my last surgery and was getting ready to go home when this pileup happened.”
“I thought Dr. Ferguson was supposed to be on duty last night.” Katy selected a coffee cup and filled it. She doctored it up before they headed to the food.
“He was supposed to be, but apparently he was in said pileup.”
“Oh no.” Alarm sliced through her. “Is he okay?”
Janine’s mouth firmed. “After a stint on my operating table, I think he’ll live, but he’s in no shape to work.”
Katy nearly dropped her coffee cup. “So we’re one surgeon short now.”
“At least until he recovers.”
“There is hope he’ll pull through?” Katy paid for her breakfast and followed Janine to a table.
“He’ll be fine, but he’s going to need a few weeks to heal.”
The thought of his empty position caused Katy’s nape hairs to stand on end again as her stomach offered up a protesting roll.
Neonatal nurse practitioner Trixi Duvall has a great job, a great home, a great family, and great friends. All around her people seem to be falling in love, while this happy state keeps passing her by. Adding a great boyfriend to the list veers into the impossible…
Neurosurgeon Mark de Vosse has moved back home but he’s still questioning the wisdom of this. There are far too many Morrisons in this town, and his relatives tend toward nosy. Since his housing situation keeps deteriorating, he needs a place to live, or he’ll end up with some of those nosy relatives. Then several questionable occurrences unsettle Trixi and her grandmother. Moving in with them should improve all of their situations.
Does it matter that Mark is incredibly attracted to his new landlady?
“Johnny called me on his way home from work,” Gran announced that evening at supper. “He asked about your dad’s romance, but then he also asked about yours.”
When both Mark and Gran looked pointedly at her, Trixi offered them her most charming smile.
“She’s not going to tell us.” Mark shook his head.
“No.” Gran tapped her lips. “I wonder why not.”
“You know, that’s a good question.” They eyed her with quizzical expressions, but Trixi was so happy to be in a relationship with Mark not much could burst the bubbles spreading happiness through her veins.
Gran turned to Mark. “Johnny wanted to know all about you.”
“I have plenty of rellys who would be thrilled to answer that question for him.”
“I told him you’re a hard working young man who has set his eyes on Trixi.”
Trixi choked. Mark obligingly tapped her back. “And?” he prompted Gran, although his attention remained on her wheezing attempts to force the liquid out of her lungs.
“He mentioned something about a background check.”
“Did you remind him that her father has probably already done one?”
Trixi sputtered. Mark tapped her back again.
“Of course Rylan did. I never even thought of him doing it, but I should have.” Gran nodded and then resumed eating. “I’ll call Johnny after supper and tell him to call Rylan.”
“Then he won’t have to go to the bother.” Mark shrugged.
Gran frowned then and played a little ditty on the table with her fork. “Yes. Although Rylan might not answer his phone, since he’s involved in his own romance at the moment.”
A coughing fit finally dislodged the liquid so after a few wheezes and another bout of coughing, Trixi could finally speak. “Why?”
Again, her table companions stared at her as though she started speaking Swahili. She returned their dumbfounded gazes.
“Why?” she repeated when neither of them answered her.
“To protect you.” Gran shared a confused look with Mark.
He leaned forward on his forearm and elaborated. “I’m someone they don’t know. They should look into whether I’m a good candidate to date you.”
Then he leaned back, after delivering his news, like it was perfectly normal for her male relatives to look into her male friends. Of course, she’d never had a male friend like Mark before.
Gran and Mark’s easy acceptance of Johnny and her dad digging into Mark’s life, doing a background check on him, was so surprising all coherent thoughts fled. How was pairing a background check with dating considered normal?
“Sweetheart, they’re protecting you. It’s a good thing.” Gran assured her in confident tones.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Mark slid his hand over hers.
“This isn’t the Victorian era,” she remonstrated.
“No, but you have plenty of assets, and the men in our family understand this.” Gran patted their hands before she asked Mark to pass her the pepper.
He squeezed Trixi’s hand before handing the shaker to Gran. Then he started eating again as though this wasn’t the most bizarre conversation they had ever conducted.
Gran scooped up some vegetables and asked about their day.
Trixi wondered when her life had become a romantic comedy.
What do you get when you pair a super soldier and a nerd? Helena Dubrinsky isn’t certain of that answer, but she does know Vladimir Wellington should be declared illegal. Since she’s the nerd in question and still wondering how Vlad, a modern day superman, fell for the likes of her. She’s waited her entire life for him, but the man is not big on communication, so she’s not certain where their relationship is heading. Can this bad nerd pin down her super soldier long enough to obtain the answers she needs? Or will the terrorists eyeing Rurikstan like a tasty morsel keep his attention solely on them?
Bad Nerd Falling
By: D.R. Grady
U.S. Navy SEAL BUD/S training
13 years before
His lungs burned while the ankle he twisted earlier throbbed. All of his muscles ached and his hands were nearly raw from this latest sadistic exercise. Vladimir Wellington kept running, pushing through the pain. All around him guys were ringing out so often it sounded like a constant peal, driving him crazy about quitting. Like a litany. “Time to quit, time to quit, time to quit.”
Next to him, his swim buddy’s jaw hardened. Like Vlad, he seemed to concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other. Also like Vlad, he represented another country, but had been sent here to obtain these skills. They would never become a part of the elite SEAL Teams, but their countries both thought they would benefit by completing this training.
“You quitting?” his swim buddy asked, panting.
Vlad’s own jaw hardened. “No.”
A smile, more a grimy grimace, creased his swim buddy’s face. “Me, either.” He shook his hands, and little droplets of blood splattered the sand beneath them. “My country needs me to finish this. So I will.”
Relief soared through Vlad. That’s exactly why he didn’t have the luxury of ringing that stupid bell. There were too many people counting on him. The image of his prince, leader of their country, a tiny nation in the very center of Europe, rose up before him like an unruly but determined ghost.
“No matter what, you cannot quit, Vladimir. Rurikstan needs you. You must complete this training. Do not quit.” The prince’s mouth was grim, his eyes serious. Vlad received the message loud and clear then. Now he re-purposed within his heart to finish this. It didn’t matter that his own hands were raw, that his lungs still burned and his ankle throbbed. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t seem to breathe. What mattered was that he finish.
Rurikstan wouldn’t stand a chance if he rang out. That meant the girl he left behind might suffer.
Vlad gritted his teeth and put one foot in front of the next. He would continue this until the training ended or it killed him.
What was that stupid American saying Tia muttered the other day that she had to look up? Oh yes, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.” Unfortunately, she could now relate to this ridiculously true saying all too well.
Helena Dubrinsky realized a little too late that she should have never encouraged Vladimir Wellington all those weeks ago. She castigated herself for the dumbest act of her life thus far. Perhaps this negativity stemmed from utter frustration because she rarely saw him…
Sure, he was a fine example of manhood. He was smart, fast, and she feared, lethal. And not just the deliciously yummy, protective type of lethalness, but she was pretty certain the man could take on just about anyone and win.
At the time she had been convinced, smitten really, that Vlad Wellington was her future. No other man had ever made her heart react like he did. No other man had ever smiled and her entire world was suddenly bright and sunny, even through the pouring rain. She couldn’t think of one other man she had ever been even remotely attracted to, other than Vlad.
Was this normal? Because it should be illegal.
She pursed her lips. Vlad Wellington should be declared illegal. The man was far too tempting. Right now she didn’t need that. She didn’t need him. Not really.
“Helena, where is your brain today?” Tia Morrison, her boss and their princess-to-be asked as she dropped into the seat beside Helena and eyed her knowingly. She was tall, blond, and utterly beautiful.
“It’s not here,” Helena mumbled. She was grateful that Tia nearly missed the stool. If it wasn’t for her penchant for clumsiness, their future princess would be perfect. At least that’s what most of Rurikstan thought. Since agreeing to marry their prince, Tia wasn’t nearly as clumsy now. It was like she’d finally gained the confidence owing her.
Where had she gotten that confidence? Because Helena needed a healthy infusion right about now.
“I noticed. Is this about Vlad?” Tia tapped the benchtop with one elegant finger. “Who, by the way, I still haven’t met.”
Helena’s eyes widened as they darted to Tia’s bright blue-green ones. Glowing gems that matched her gorgeous engagement ring perfectly. The overhead lights caught in the old jeweled facets and nearly blinded her. Throwing her hands up to ward off the tear-inducing stream, Helena blinked a few times to clear the ache.
“Careful, that is a registered weapon.”
Tia blinked. “What’s a registered weapon?”
“That jewel on your finger.”
In response, Tia smiled down at the heirloom. “It is nice, isn’t it?”
That was a given, if a serious understatement. Yet the utter beauty in Tia’s smile of contentment and love was far more lovely than the ring. A lonely ache stabbed Helena’s heart. She wanted a love like that. But how did you go about getting it? Especially when the only man you’d ever been interested in was Vladimir Wellington – the most frustrating man on the planet. Four months into a—whatever they had—with him and she knew frustration intimately. If they had dated in the past rather than dance around each other, she might have a better understanding of relationships but alas, she had no idea.
Then what Tia said penetrated. “Wait, you haven’t met him yet?” Helena darted a quick look at his mother, Maria. Who probably outshone even Tia in beauty.
“No, I haven’t met him. I’m sure, because he probably looks like Aleksi and Maks, right?” Meaning he was tall, dark haired, and dark eyed, traits that all applied to Vlad.
“Sort of.” Helena tapped her pen against the lab notebook she was supposed to be writing in.
“Sort of?” One beautiful blond brow rose.
“He resembles them, but Vlad is…” She frowned as the word escaped her.
“Vlad is…” Tia loopy-de-looped her hand in an encouraging manner.
“Lethal,” Aleksi de Leos, their crown prince, said behind them. Tia did fall off her stool in her haste to spin to face her fiancé.
Aleksi caught her with ease and drew her close; so tight it looked like Tia couldn’t breathe. Tia didn’t appear to mind. Her arms slid around him and she lifted her face for the kiss she definitely received.
“I don’t want to see that,” Helena whined as the two love-birds cooed at each other. Really, people in love were sickening.
From the corner of her eye she caught sight of Maria Wellington scampering by. Leaning out on her bar stool she noticed the champagne haired woman wore heels that had to be three inches, if not four. “Maria, you’re going to break your neck in those shoes.”
Both Tia and Aleksi leaned out with her to survey the shoes. “Don’t those hurt?” Aleksi asked.
“Yes,” both she and Tia agreed emphatically.
“Of course not,” Maria overrode them. She scurried from bench to bench, collecting the microbiological materials and tools she needed like she wore comfortable American sneakers.
Helena glanced down at her new sneakers. She had convinced Maria to find her a pair during her recent tour of America. The first time she put them on Helena decided she was never wearing heels again. She was even starting to think like an American, since Maria returned sounding like her home country and Tia worked here.
She glanced at Tia’s feet. “I thought you were planning to start wearing jeans and sneakers in the lab.” She glared at her friend and boss.
“She can’t today, we’re getting our engagement pictures,” Aleksi responded. Since becoming engaged to Tia, his English had transitioned from the more proper British sounding to a much more American twang. She liked it.
“Once the pictures are finished, I’m going to change,” Tia announced as she glanced at the dress she wore, complete with high heels.
“I thought you said you couldn’t walk in high heels,” Helena accused.
“I taught her how.”
Helena turned to Maria who still flitted about the lab, procuring items. “Of course you did.”
“She and Gracia made me.” Tia’s eyes drilled into Maria. “Neither of them are nice,” she added, speaking of Aleksi’s mother, Princess Gracia.
Maria’s tinkling laugh warmed the area. “You are much more confident, love.”
“The thing is, you are quite adept in them now. That negates one of your fears of becoming our princess.” Helena tried to keep the grin out of her voice.
“What were those fears again?” Aleksi looked expectantly between them.
Helena’s lips kicked up while Tia’s mouth flattened. “Pink, makeup, and high heels,” Helena rattled off.
“I’ve mastered the high heels because of General Wellington over there. I’m never doing pink.” Tia sounded firm.
“Good for you.” Helena decided. “If you don’t like it, don’t wear it.”
Tia eyed Maria’s soft cashmere sweater in a beautiful dusty shade. “When I look that good, I’ll start wearing pink.”
“You’ll never look that good. No one will,” Helena stated as she and Tia stared at their lab mate.
“That’s why I said it. Now I never have to wear it. Ever.”
Laughter bubbled. She heard Tia giggle as Aleksi murmured something in her ear and the two became encased in their little bubble of love.
Aleksi kissed Tia before waving to everyone. He left the lab and Tia turned on her.
“Vlad Wellington is lethal?”
I wrote Tall Golf for my final project for Creative Writing in high school. That’s when I finally found my “voice” in writing. I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not a dark, grim, tormented writer at all!’ My voice finally made itself known and for the first time ever the writing flowed and was fun! It’s actually light and fairly easy-going and writing has been much easier ever since.
I’m happy to report I got an A on this project. I’ve always loved it and am thrilled to be able to share it with you now.
By: D.R. Grady
I’m rather tall, 6’8” to be exact. So, of course, every one tends to believe I’m a basketball player. Sure, I like basketball and I’m a competent player, but my favorite sport is golf.
Pretty odd, but my dad is a great golfer, as is his father before him. So, I’m not the first of my family to be so tall and love golf. The blame can firmly be placed on one of my early ancestors. He had a putting green near his home and because it was owned by his wife’s father’s brother’s cousin’s nephew’s aunt-in-law’s, at least I think that’s how it goes; anyway he could play at his leisure. He still had basketball coaches pounding down his door, though. The funny thing is he was always at his leisure on the golf course.
My story begins on the golf course. My dad and I and Gramps were taking a round, Gramps was winning, the old fart, but Dad and I were close behind, until I hit a wild shot and sent the ball spiraling over the next two hills.
Gramps was bent over in pain (laughter), and Dad gleefully calculated the shots I’d need to get that stupid ball (if I ever found it) in the stupid hole, as I jogged away to retrieve it like a good boy. (Hardy Har Har!)
Over the hill and through the stream (Dad couldn’t possibly be counting enough par now) I tracked the dumb thing, and came upon her.
She was the tallest woman I’ve ever seen. At least 6’ and most of her looked like leg. She was golfing with a friend, who compared to us, looked about 4’0”. (I later found out she’s 5’5”.)
Our response was simultaneous.
“Do you play golf?” we said in unison, wide-eyed, and in mock astonishment, looking each other up and down.
“I hate when people ask me that,” she said fiercely.
“So do I,” I agreed.
She held out a hand and simply said, “Annie.”
“Troy.” I gladly shook her nice, warm hand.
We spoke at the same time.
“Go ahead,” I encouraged.
“Played golf long?”
“I played golf before I even knew what basketball meant.”
“Same here.” She laughed. “My mom was a basketball champion, my dad’s a doctor and he has this thing about golf. He even golfs during his lunch break.”
“Wow,” I said, “was it hard to choose?”
“Not really,” we finally found my ball, but continued talking. “I enjoy basketball, and I’m pretty good. My mom’s a good coach, but I really love golf. What about you?” she inquired.
“Long story, I’d bore you…”
“No, come on,” she coaxed.
“Okay, weeellll, my ancestors have all been pretty tall, except my grandfather, he’s only about 6’3” or so.” She sighed and I laughed but went on. “Coaches would bang down the door of my ancestors’ houses to try and get them to join the team. They were flattered at first, but after a while, well, you understand, they got sick of the game. The rebel of the family, my grandfather’s grandfather,” she rolled her eyes this time, “got into golf. He passed it down to us, so here I am, a living example, as are my dad and Gramps, who are golfing with me today.”
“Was the rebel short?”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes!” The gleam in her eyes probably matched the gleam in mine.
“He was seven feet something.”
“Yeah, it’s true.” I nodded, with the idea of further making my point.
“That’s hilarious,” she exclaimed, laughing.
“I know. Coaches were at his door by the time he reached thirteen. For a while, basketball was his life, then he discovered golf. Committed the family sin by dropping basketball for another sport.” I shook my head sadly.
“Family sin? You’re nuts.”
“Nah, you just don’t play basketball.” I sniffed, and got punched for my efforts.
“Yeah, right. I’d beat you silly,” she assured me.
“Perhaps in basketball, the bloody sport, but I’d whip your tail in golf,” I told her in my best British accent, careful not to inform her of my current score. Which was dismal at best. Right along with my British accent.
She pretended to gag, then gently whapped me with her club. Probably to get my attention.
“Hey,” I yelled, “you didn’t even tell me your last name.” She had turned and trotted toward her friend, who waited patiently down the green.
Annie turned around and grinned. “Look, Chester, we both play golf, right?” At my nod, she continued, “So we’ll probably see each other constantly. I don’t know if I can take it.”
I threw my recently retrieved ball at her, and she hit it back to me, more than competently, after scribbling her phone number on the white-pitted surface. I memorized her information then and there. I was sure I’d need it in the near future.
I turned, and after a golfer’s salute, which she returned, rejoined Dad and Gramps.
“It’s about time you showed up, boy, I’m slaughtering your dad.”
“Don’t believe him, Troy, he’s just trying to comfort himself because I’m only three par behind him…”
Math Nerds and Mechanics
By: D.R. Grady
The expensive car sputtered for a moment then abruptly died. Josh had just enough time to steer the vehicle off the road and coast to a stop at the shoulder before the engine shut off. He took a deep breath as he rested his head against the steering wheel. When he assessed the situation, he wasn’t hopeful. He was in the middle of who-knew-where after that last, obviously wrong turn, with a dead car. Without another vehicle in sight, of course.
Beside him lay field after field of varying green. Most of the crops like corn and hay he actually recognized. Not that that knowledge and the assorted other random facts rolling around in his head were going to help him with his current situation.
When he glanced around, Josh noticed he did have an audience. On the other side of the road stood a herd of black and white cows, all chewing with apparent contentment as they watched him grapple with what to do. He didn’t figure they could do much about telling him where he was. This was a shame because it was embarrassing to find himself in this predicament.
Give him a complicated calculus problem and he could solve it. Sometimes without a calculator. Give him a difficult theorem and he could explain the mechanics without having to look up the rules. He was even adept at handling unruly clients and belligerent suppliers. But please don’t give him an automobile to fix.
Out of sheer desperation he checked the gas gauge. Half-full, so forget that theory. Now what? He hopped out and popped the hood. Not that he knew anything about what was underneath, but wasn’t that what people did when they had auto problems? He figured he could look. At least it would give him something to do. Make him feel like he knew what he was doing.
What he took for the engine looked fine. He noted the windshield wiper fluid was three quarters full. Always nice to know. The radiator looked whole and a little shiny. The battery appeared fairly new, with little corrosion. Even though he recognized those things it was still probably a good idea to scratch the plan that he could figure out what was wrong by gazing under the hood. Why couldn’t automobile repair be more like rocket science? Rocket science was easy, this was… not.
He stood by the side of the road with the cows watching him with no other plans as to what to do. A rather uncomfortable feeling.
Surely he could figure out a Plan B or even Plan C. Fumbling in the console he grabbed his phone and after a quick glance at the screen, noticed the battery bar did show enough charge for a text message. Who could he contact to come and look at his vehicle? His parents were on a cruise. His sister was probably at work but Tia wouldn’t have thought to check the gas gauge like he had, so she’d be more useless than him. Bryan, his lawyer brother was at a conference in California and Nick was so busy with four kids and no help he was a barely living version of a zombie. Josh thought his mechanic might be on the same cruise as his parents.
That still left all of his Morrison cousins. Which meant he had to figure out which one to text. Lainy, Ed, and Max could easily help, after they laughed themselves sick. Hey, his Grandmom was knowledgeable about cars, he could contact her. She’d at least be nice about this.
Good, now he was getting somewhere and he quickly scrolled through his contacts before his excitement died. Grandmom was a great idea except he still had no idea where he was. The maps feature on his phone was excellent but it lost the satellite signal a few miles back because his phone was nearly dead and he forgot the car charger. That’s why he took a wrong turn in the first place. When he glanced around again, the fields hadn’t changed and the cows were still staring at him.
Josh glared at the phone, and decided he would take an auto mechanics class, because this was just plain ridiculous. As a grown man, he ought to know how to fix his own vehicle. With both mechanical and electrical engineering degrees and plenty of physics classes to his name, one would think he’d know something about the inner workings of his vehicle.
At this point, he would be thankful for anyone who had any sort of clue as to the inner workings of his car. He made a note in his phone to sign up for that auto repair class he needed to look into. Or he could talk his Grandmom or Lainy into giving him some pointers. Grown men should not stand helplessly beside their useless vehicles. His mechanic would laugh himself sick, but then he usually did when Josh showed up, so that wouldn’t be unusual. Old Jeb was probably sitting by the pool on his cruise ship, being served iced tea by some nice waitress.
With a sigh Josh looked down the road and his heart skipped a beat. Careening toward him, in a truck far older than his sporty little car, rattled a decrepit vehicle along the lonely stretch of road. As it neared, the clanking and sputtering grew louder. The driver evidently spotted him because with some protest, the truck whipped in front of him and stopped. Personally, Josh thought the backfire from the listing muffler unnecessary.
Feeling a bit skeptical, since the owner obviously didn’t maintain his own mode of transportation, Josh watched in some bemusement as a short, coverall clad figure emerged from the cab. The name stitched to the coverall read Ron. Great, he’d tower over the fellow who had been nice enough to stop and help him. Maybe he should stoop a little.
The man pushed the bill of his cap up, waved, and then shoved the front seat forward with a creak. A tool box, well-used, with ominous looking spots of… something covered the beaten surface. But when the man swung the box to the ground and opened the wide mouth, sunlight gleamed off the shiny, well cared for tools in a nearly blinding stream.
The fellow seemed to deliberate for a moment before selecting a tool Josh couldn’t name. He peered under the hood of Josh’s car and then tapped a few things with skill. When he looked up and grinned, Josh caught his breath. No wonder he towered over the fellow. His rescuer was a woman. With bright amber-green eyes and the prettiest smile he’d ever seen. The grease smear on her smooth cheek was endearing and seemed …right.
“Your alternator died. You’re going to need a new one.” She spoke with a husky, albeit feminine, cadence. His heart flopped sideways.
“And where exactly will I find another alternator? Where exactly am I, for that matter?” he asked wryly.
She laughed – it was a throaty, magical sound he wanted to hear a lot more of. “You’re between Oakdale and Franklin. I’m on my way to Oakdale now to pick up some parts. Want a ride?”
Relief and something else unfolded somewhere near his still-not-behaving heart. He smiled at her because he couldn’t help himself. Those amber-green eyes twinkled with a light he really liked. There was something about the entire woman he really liked. And it wasn’t just that throaty laugh, the red-gold ringlets escaping her cap, or her knowledge of automobiles.
“That depends. I’m Josh Morrison.” He held out his hand.
She took his hand solemnly and he appreciated the warmth of hers. The calluses he felt there intrigued him. “I’m Ronnie Lawson.”
“Nice to meet you, Ronnie.”
She murmured a like statement. He enjoyed the semi-smile that played around her lips.
“You’re going to pick up some parts in Oakdale because?”
“Because I’m the only mechanic in Franklin and the parts I need to fix Mr. Slightbow’s Chevy didn’t come in. So I’m on my way to Oakdale to pick them up myself.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “You’re a mechanic?” He sent her truck a disbelieving look.
“I am. The best one in Franklin,” she said with a wicked grin. Two mischievous dimples peeked out of her cheeks. He was entranced. What in the world was a woman like this doing buried in some small town in the middle of fields and cows?
“Nice to be the best there is,” he answered, tongue-in-cheek.
“Yes it is. So are you interested in a lift to Oakdale to pick up your alternator?”
“Are you certain that truck will get us there?” His voice sounded dubious. Most likely because that’s how he felt. His car had to be fifteen, if not twenty, years newer than the truck she’d arrived in.
“Mr. Slightbow’s truck has never let me down.” Those dimples popped again and he was enchanted all over again. Josh hadn’t been aware of having a dimple fetish. This must be new.
Then what she said clicked in his brain and he forgot her dimples for a moment. “Ah.” Now, that explained a few things. This was a client’s vehicle.
“Yep. The best way for me to make certain I’ve fixed the right problem, and figure out if there are more, is to actually drive the vehicle.” She darted a dubious glance at the truck in question. “I’ll have to have another look. I thought I fixed the backfiring problem.” Her frown made the dimples disappear but he still caught himself staring at her.
He found he wanted to spend more time with her. “Of course.” However he could manage to fit in spending time with her, he didn’t particularly care. Josh just knew he intended to do so. “Thank you, I’d love a ride into Oakdale. I suppose I could always push if Mr. Slightbow’s truck lets us down.” For some reason, that thought didn’t bother him nearly as much as it might have before she arrived.
The cows wouldn’t mind if he and Ronnie were stranded together, and he knew he wouldn’t mind, either. Her next statement shattered that little daydream.
“It won’t,” she promised. “I’ve been working on this truck for years, since he never listens when I bug him to buy another one. It’s shot, but the truck still works. It should since I’ve practically replaced everything in it.” She shrugged. “So what brings you to town?”
“I’m an engineer and on my way to meet a client in Oakdale.” He’d just have to figure out another way to coax her into spending a little more time with him. That shouldn’t be too hard. He was supposed to be smart.
“You’re a math geek?” Her husky, delighted laugh made his heart swell. He desperately hoped she had a math geek fetish.
“Absolutely.” He sent her a return grin. “So, you, um, have a problem with having dinner with a math geek?”
“None at all.” And those amazing dimples returned.
Later that evening, after being shown to their table, Josh found he had difficulty focusing on the menu. His companion cleaned up well. Which he told her as soon as he set eyes on her and hadn’t been able to look away since.
She had blushed and preened a bit under his praise before he settled her in the car she had fixed with little effort this morning. Now her dress swirled around her legs and her high heeled shoes brought her head to his shoulder, barely. Her gorgeous red-gold hair tumbled around her shoulders and down her back. The light glinting off it reminded him of her tools in the sunlight and kept distracting him.
“How did your client visit go today?” She asked after they gave their order. He was glad for the excuse to stare. Why couldn’t he take his eyes off her?
“Fine. I’m pretty sure I fixed their problem.”
“Do you do a lot of this? Travel to fix problems?”
He took a sip of water. “Yes, it’s part of the job. Although I don’t do a lot of traveling. But troubleshooting is something I enjoy.”
Ronnie cocked her head. “Should I call you Dr. Morrison?”
Now it was his turn to blush. Something he hadn’t done in a long time. “No, my sister has a Ph.D. I just have two Master’s degrees.” He cleared his throat. “You should call me Josh.”
There was that smile again, the one that seemed to light her from inside and he basked in the glow. “I’ll be glad to call you Josh then.”
“Thank you,” he managed to utter through the lump in his throat.
“So where do you live?” He liked the sound of that slight teasing note in her voice. Like she liked him and enjoyed his company. Josh agreed – that’s how he felt about her.
“Oh, that’s not too far from here.”
“No, so long as a person knows where he’s going.” His voice was just dry enough.
She laughed, as he hoped. There was no way he’d ever get tired of that amazing laugh. “Maybe you should invest in a car charger.”
“I have, I just forgot it. I also think I’ll take an auto repair class.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know how to fix your own vehicle. I thought engineers knew a lot about mechanics.”
He surveyed her face at a leisurely pace. “Not nearly enough, Ronnie.”
The delight on her face warmed him. “Maybe I could teach you.” Her eyes sparkled.
He discarded his idea of asking his Grandmom to teach him. He decided he still definitely wanted to learn all about auto mechanics. But only this one.
Macy Beckman stared through the open door, dismayed at the chaos. Nick Morrison, her potential new employer, ushered her into the house and Macy swallowed hard as she complied. Okay, so the house looked like several bombs had gone off before the entire disarray was sprayed with water and feathers. So she knew four kids and various wildlife lived here. So the man who might employ her had good looks like she’d never been excited by before.
Gorgeous only began to describe the man. With his dark hair, dark blue eyes, and square jaw, she wanted to stare to her heart’s content. She didn’t give in to the temptation because her mother had taught her that wasn’t polite, but oh, the man was fine.
After viewing the house, Macy concluded the sleepy bedroom eyes were likely a product of the fact that the man didn’t sleep. She knew he was a busy architect and had run through no less than fourteen nannies. Most had all ranged in duration from a week to two hours. When she answered his internet ad, she’d done so with the assurance that she could handle most anything. After viewing this mess and her potential employer her confidence waned. She’d end up overflowing the washing machine because of daydreams about her gorgeous, sleep-deprived boss.
“You’re familiar with kids?” He shoved various unidentified items from the sofas and Macy gingerly perched on the edge of hers. Nick flopped into the other and traced a weary hand over his face. Yes, he looked about ready to nod off. And she didn’t think it was because he found her boring. Then again she was far from scintillating… Macy yanked her thoughts back to the interview.
“I am. I’m the oldest of five kids.”
“How about animals?”
“I’ve applied to veterinary school every year for the last five years.”
He stared at her through his hand. “Veterinary school?”
Macy nodded. Not that any of the schools she applied to took her seriously. She’d never even been granted an interview yet, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t determined. Vet school was harder to get into than medical school. At least the schools she wanted to attend were.
She noticed he didn’t write anything on the tablet in his hand. Was that a good sign? Or was this going to prove as fruitless as her numerous veterinary applications?
A little boy raced into the room, bounded on to the back of the couch where Nick sat then conducted an all out sword fight with an imaginary foe before he bounced off the back. Nick didn’t so much as blink. “My son, Brandt. He’s eight.”
The boy waved before he took up another battle. He made all the appropriate sounds of battle, complete with growls and bangings.
Macy couldn’t contain her question. Darn her curiosity. “Who are you fighting?”
Brandt stared at her for a moment. “My orc army and I are going to defeat the Riders.” He said it so matter-of-factly Macy almost missed what he said. This kid liked orcs and even led an army of them? Weren’t orcs the bad guys? Confusion reigned before her eyes trailed back to his hottie of a father.
Nick sighed at the same time Brandt resumed his battle. “Brandt likes things with big teeth.” He glanced down at the pad in his hand. “And claws. So you can patch up animals if it comes down to that?”
She blinked before abruptly shifting gears with him. “Yes.”
“Maybe I should introduce you to our livestock.” He pursed his lips and let out a shrill whistle. She wanted to purse her own in appreciation. But she was a mature, responsible adult on a job interview. She knew how to behave. It was the doing that tended to get her. A wolverine burst through the door and skidded to a halt beside him. Nick patted him. “This is Riley.”
Macy noted Riley’s butt half sat on the floor, half sat on Nick’s foot. Interesting. Riley had all the markings of a wolf, including the golden eyes. He had to weigh in at somewhere over a hundred pounds. Like as much as her.
“Riley is a Malamute,” she guessed. Malamutes had long been mistaken for their wild cousins, wolves.
A girl, nearing her teens if she wasn’t already there, strolled into the room next. She looked like any normal blonde kid, except for the small boa constrictor wrapped around her waist like a living belt. “Ah, this is my oldest, Savannah. The snake is a gentle, aging soul called Philippe.”
“Who’s this?” The girl’s voice wasn’t sullen, just bordered there.
“This is Macy Beckman. She’s applied for the position of live-in nanny.” Nick was a bit clueless, obviously, but that’s probably why he’d gone through so many nannies. And he was unbelievably handsome – she could overlook the oblivious-to-his-daughter’s-needs for now. Plus he did seem beyond weary.
“I’m Macy. Will I have to take my turn at wearing the snake?”
Savannah shrugged. “Probably.”
“I can handle that.”
“You don’t mind snakes and stuff?”
“No,” Macy said, and although she could elaborate with the girl about her failed attempts at veterinary school, she decided she didn’t want to. Maybe someday she’d get her chance.
“So, do you, like, clean up puke and stuff?” Savannah sounded interested now, and Macy suppressed a sigh. Poor girl. No wonder Savannah was probably hard on the nannies. Obviously the duties of “Mom” fell to her when they were in-between help. This sounded like it happened more frequently than not.
“I do. I’ve never encountered a mess I couldn’t handle.” Macy glanced around the room. Although this one might kill her current perfect track record.
“Our housekeeper broke her foot a few days ago,” Nick muttered, and his cheeks went a little pink.
“Granna fell over Lexus,” Savannah supplied with an impish grin.
Macy interpreted Granna as being their grandmother. “Granna was your housekeeper?”
“Yeah, she came and helped a lot. But the doctor told her she couldn’t come for a while.”
Macy looked at Nick. This man definitely needed her. No doubt about it.
As though on cue, a cat the size of a bobcat sauntered into the room. She glanced around, located the Malamute and took the long circuit through the room. Once the cat located Nick she stretched before launching into his lap. Where she immediately put up signs of ownership.
“This is Lexus,” Nick said as his hand stroked down the sleek feline back.
Savannah leaned closer to Macy and whispered, “She thinks she owns Dad.”
“I see that.” Macy smiled as she stared at the cat. Her markings were gorgeous. Her coat was a dark gray with a silvery white in contrast, and some black, especially on the tips of her ears. “A Maine coon?”
“We’re not sure. She just showed up one day,” Nick said, and Macy admired how his hand stroked down the sinuous back. She could become accustomed to being petted like that.
You’re on a job interview, she reminded herself. Not that the little pep talk helped. She still wanted to feel Nick’s hands on her.
The man’s teenaged daughter was in the room with her. What she needed was a distraction. Fortunately, someone heard her, because another child appeared in the doorway.
She stopped in the archway and posed – there was no other word. Although she could only be about six, Macy had no trouble imagining a cheroot in her hand to accompany the beauty. The gliding saunter, when the girl chose to move, didn’t surprise her, either. This little package was Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, and Bridgette Bardo all wrapped in one.
Her blonde curls were artlessly arranged, and while the pink t-shirt and matching pants weren’t exactly femme fatale garb, they still worked in her favor. This little girl probably had more knowledge at age six on how to extract exactly what she wanted from the opposite sex than Macy had learned in her thirty years.
“This is my youngest, Starla.” Nick’s voice broke into her thoughts.
Yeah, I bet she is, Macy thought. She was perfectly named.
Starla strolled through the room with the same supple grace Lexus utilized and Macy wondered if they traded notes. Both of them could write a book – How to be Spectacular Without Trying. Macy figured Nick faced major trouble with this child when she hit her teens. Or at least with the boys who fell under her spell. Macy predicted legions.
She didn’t envy Nick.
Hopefully by that time, she’d be a graduate of veterinary school and have a thriving practice. Eight to ten years, yeah, she could do it. Dealing with a femme fatale in training wasn’t how she planned to spend the next decade.
She’d rather be bitten, scratched, and pooped on. That she could manage. Of course, glancing around the room again, she did see that as a present possibility. This room alone could provide surprises she didn’t want.
“Do you have other children or pets?” She’d better find this out now, before the shock of the mini-Marilyn wore off.
“Yes, I have another boy, he’s ten, and his name is Bryce.”
“Bryce doesn’t talk,” Savannah said. She stared at Macy, as though she expected the new nanny to refute her statement. Macy could see she had some work to do with this girl.
“I have a brother like that.” She kept her voice easy, her tone light, so Savannah wouldn’t feel threatened. How many women had the poor girl broken in? Only to have each leave all too soon. Oh yeah, somewhere in the vicinity of her age. Thirteen, fourteen.
She’d be a little defensive too if she had to do all that work with little to no benefit. Macy hated when she landed into situations like this where she knew they needed her. Now she’d have to go in and fix this Morrison home. Great.
Her eyes slid to Nick Morrison. Of course, the benefits of this job might far outweigh the hassles.
Nick hated to raise his hopes, but he really wanted this woman to stay. He made a mental note to tell Janine, his cousin, that he’d actually interviewed a woman named Macy. They had discussed how much he liked the name earlier at a family get-together. [Shadows and Spice – The Morrison Family Series – Book 5] Back when he had despaired over ever finding someone suitable to take care of his kids and house.
“Are you sure you’re okay with us asking Macy to come live with us?” He asked the table in general, knowing he’d probably only hear a suitable response from Savannah. Although ever since she hit the teenage years, a suitable answer was questionable.
“Yes, Dad, it’s fine.” She sounded disgusted, but that seemed to be normal for her lately.
He glanced around the table. Bryce’s plate was nearly empty, but his nose was planted firmly in a book. Nick saw the cover held mythical looking warriors and maidens, all with long flowing hair, body armor, and swords.
Bryce probably had no idea he’d even interviewed someone for the nanny position. For that matter, he might not be aware they had a nanny vacancy. Wondering if there was anything they could do for his older son, Nick decided to pass over him for the moment. His diagnosis was too new for them to know what to do with Bryce.
His eyes settled on his next son. “So, Brandt, what do you think of Macy?”
“Think she has a tiger, Dad?”
“I doubt it.”
Savannah snorted and threw her younger brother a disgusted look. “Of course she doesn’t have a tiger. People aren’t allowed to have tigers.”
Brandt stared back at her with pre-teen disdain. He had a few years before he hit the same age, but Savannah didn’t appear to daunt him. “People are allowed to have tigers,” he corrected, not without some loftiness. “But you have to have a permit. You’re so stupid, Savannah.”
“I am not!” And Savannah launched a fist, which Nick managed to intercept.
“Savannah, what did I say about hitting your brothers?” Nick maintained his calm only because he didn’t have the energy to get worked up. Every morning when he awoke reminded him that he wasn’t getting enough sleep so any reserves must have fled long ago. At this point, just the fact he could still wake up was reassuring.
“He called me stupid.” Savannah’s eyes flashed with hot indignation and matched her voice. She eyed Brandt like he was an insect she wanted to stomp on. Nick decided not to put the idea in her head.
“Brandt, what did I tell you about calling your sister stupid?”
“Dad, she didn’t even know you can have a tiger with a permit.” Obviously that was something everyone should know. Unfortunately, he doubted many people did. Why couldn’t his children have the same interests?
Nick sucked in a deep breath before answering. “Now she does. But you know it’s okay if other people don’t know much about tigers.”
“Just because a nerd like you would know that, doesn’t mean cool people like me do.” Savannah ended her statement with a haughty sniff and before the fireworks erupted around the table, Nick intercepted again.
“I’m sure Brandt doesn’t know anything about your favorite pair of shoes,” Nick said and made a looping gesture with his hand. Maybe he fumbled a bit, but he thought he managed well enough. Savannah turned away, apparently deciding to ignore them. That worked for him.
“Daddy, you didn’t ask me what I thought of Macy,” Starla inserted. She stared at him through her lashes, which were far longer than any little girl should sport. Mother Nature had been kind to Savannah, but unfortunately, she’d been overly generous with Starla. Nick had never related to Greta Garbo’s father before Starla, but in recent days, he’d begun having kind thoughts about the man.
“I’m sorry, baby. What do you think of Macy?”
“I think she’s going to be our mom.”
Everyone at the table, even Bryce, stopped and turned to stare at her.
Savannah managed to say what no one else managed to force through stunned lips. “What?” Disbelief liberally laced her voice. That was pretty much how he felt, too.
Starla didn’t appear fazed in the least. She blinked her startling blue eyes at them, which fortunately were not laced with lots of makeup, and stared back at them with utter conviction. Nick didn’t doubt she was confident in the ball she just artfully pounded into their court.
What he doubted was whether the family could withstand another heartache. Their mother’s leaving had hit all of them, but especially Savannah, hard. Another woman to blow into their lives and then blow out would devastate them.
And he couldn’t deny that he found Macy Beckman attractive to the extreme. Mother Nature had also been generous to her. He liked her curly honey blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Her smooth, pale skin reminded him of his daughters. Actually, most people would probably mistake his daughters for hers. Like their mother, both girls sported blonde curls similar to Macy’s.
“Dad, how can she say that?” They were the first words Bryce had uttered all day. Maybe all week.
“Well, she can say it. But I don’t know if Macy will take the job.”
“She will.” Certainty dripped from Starla’s lips. She patted her hair before delicately sipping from her water glass. Nick still had trouble believing she was his child. But back to Bryce.
“Why don’t we worry about whether she’ll take the job? She might not like it once she’s here.”
This time, both girls turned eyes of disgust on him. “Dad, no woman likes this job.” Savannah’s voice was firm.
“No way, Daddy, it’s awful.” Starla blinked at him and between her and Savannah he nearly threw his hands up.
“Well, let’s just ease her in, okay?”
“Do you think she likes snakes?” Brandt asked.
“She didn’t seem to mind Philippe,” Savannah answered.
“Then she can be our mom.”
“She’s going to be whether we like it or not,” Starla answered and Nick refused to squirm in his seat. She was six, how could she know these things?
He didn’t know these things. He’d tucked his attraction to Macy away in a far corner of his mind. Falling for one blonde bombshell had been bad enough. He wasn’t doing that again. Nick had sworn off blondes long ago.
And there was no going back now.
Just say no to blondes.
Shadows and Spice
“I don’t repeat gossip, so listen close the first time.”
Greg Gilmore peered around the store shelf and gazed at the cluster of women circling a small silver haired lady. A woman he thought might be married to Rich O’Riley. His current ….former ….something boss.
Another woman, tall, elegant, cool, her mocha skin glowing in the sunlight from a nearby window stood within the inner circle. She was his former doctor. Thanks to her skill, many of the scars mapping his body were mere shadows now. Most of his wounds had been so skillfully stitched he couldn’t remember where they had been.
She had toiled hours in the OR, working tirelessly over him. His prognosis, he later learned from O’Riley, was grim. But Dr. Janine Morris kept piecing him back together. She refused to give up on him and he was alive today because of her stubbornness.
Dr. Morris was a top notch doctor with two tours in Kuwait to her name. Before that she completed a tough training course in Johannesburg. A woman with a brain that could have led her anywhere but that led her straight to him. She could have been a rocket scientist. Instead she joined the Navy and became a surgeon.
She shouldn’t even know who he was, and he shouldn’t know her, except that he lucked out and ended up on her operating table. The tattoo on his inner thigh had identified him, and she only recognized it because she also bore one. Most team members never met – except in extreme circumstances. Greg supposed him nearly dying was considered an extreme circumstance.
Now she bent over a little boy here in Hershey, P.A. His son. Greg’s heart clenched as he studied the boy. Ryan belonged to his sister now, not him. He gave up all rights to his son long ago, and even though that initial choice was still the right one, he could hardly bear to see the little boy. Inside, his heart wept for what he’d lost.
Janine straightened and Greg’s attention shifted to the blonde woman standing beside her. His sister, who cradled a small girl, and who many thought looked a lot like him. KC Gilmore Morrison, just like Janine Morris, was a part of the circle of women eagerly listening to the scoop from the small silver haired lady. They leaned into each other’s personal space, every one of them comfortable with herself and the women surrounding her.
A brunette with a little girl toddling around her legs bobbed a baby in her arms. Greg thought one of the others had called her Lainy. There was a beautiful strawberry blonde who pushed a double stroller filled with two children who had to be fathered by Ben Morrison. The babies were an impressive blend of their parents.
The other strawberry blonde reminded him of O’Riley, but looked an awful lot like the older woman who held the group enthralled with the current news. A small girl with big eyes clung to her hand.
These women were family, a tight group who obviously cared about each other. KC blended with the group as easily as a chameleon to a branch. Greg couldn’t fathom all those people in his personal space. The sensation of not sucking in enough air threatened his windpipe and he forced himself to breathe. The walls eventually stopped closing in on him.
“So what’s the scoop, General?” the dark haired woman asked.
General. A rumble of what could be laughter, but he wasn’t certain, tempted him, but Greg shoved it away from long experience. The woman had answered his question though. General Emma so yes the small silver haired lady was Admiral O’Riley’s wife. Definitely.
“On my way to work this morning I noticed a man driving through town. He looked a lot like our own KC.” His heart dropped. Oh no.
His sister’s eyes went wide. “You saw Greg?” A small catch in her voice made his heart spasm.
“Is that your brother’s name?”
KC’s nod was jerky. Her eyes sought Janine’s. The two women held an entire, silent conversation in that moment. Greg itched to know what they concluded. Were they glad he was here, or did this information come as an unpleasant surprise? He’d like to hear their answer, since it might go a long way to answering that same question for him.
“I think I saw him, too,” the woman who looked a lot like Emma said. He thought she was Shelby, O’Riley’s daughter. Had he heard the woman had married Sam Welby? Greg wondered why he suddenly felt so old.
The women all nodded and moved closer.
“I think Mom mentioned seeing him,” the brunette said.
These women were so tight they knew intimate details about each other’s lives. How had General Emma recognized him? Only KC and Janine knew him, but at least three women had identified him. Somehow. How was that for remaining undetected?
Greg forced himself to breathe again when he noticed the walls trying to smash him. The exercise didn’t seem to be working. His lungs threatened to seizure.
“Where was he headed?”
“I assumed he was going to your place, KC.”
Another negative jerk of her head caused his chest to tighten. More breathing exercises helped him remain upright. “I haven’t heard from or seen him.” Her shoulders didn’t exactly shrink in on themselves, but they definitely drooped. His own tensed. Why would she want to see him? He had always shown her an irresponsible artist who couldn’t settle for the wind. Greg didn’t dwell on the pain that coursed through him, but stuffed it into that small dark box where he kept emotions. He had carefully cultivated his reputation with his family. It was rather too late to regret his decisions now. So why was he?
“Where else could he have been going out there?” O’Riley’s daughter asked.
“Harrisburg,” Janine supplied dryly.
General Emma’s eyes sought and located Janine’s. Greg knew she would read nothing in the amber depths, and wondered if Emma found Janine’s inability to show emotion frustrating. Sometimes he did, and he barely knew the woman.
“There are a few cottages on the outskirts of town, and they’re beyond Max and KC’s house and yours, Janine.” General Emma continued to stare at her niece.
Janine nodded. “I thought about those.”
“There’s one less than a mile from our house.” KC sounded a little breathless. He understood – that’s always how he felt in crowds.
A new thought caused a cold sweat to pool at his spine. Now that the Morrisons had recognized him, would they feel free to show up at his door? Anytime?
He shuddered. How did you handle so much family? Even individually they were hard to take, but en masse?
He must have been insane to come here.
Why had he come home again?
Ryan darted from around his mother and scampered by. This little boy was the reason. Greg’s heart tightened so much he feared a heart attack right there in the store. Ryan had meant more to him than he could have ever expressed, and apparently that feeling hadn’t altered, seven years later. He still loved the boy with the part of his being that remained pure. Staring after his son, Greg realized there didn’t seem to be much of his soul left that was uncontaminated.
Janine reached over and plucked the little girl, he thought he heard them call her Macy, from KC. His niece settled back into Janine’s embrace with familiarity and Greg had to swallow down an emotion he didn’t recognize. So this precious child who shared his blood already loved and cherished Janine Morris. So Macy didn’t know him from squat, just like Ryan. That shouldn’t bother him.
But it did.
Here these women were discussing him like today’s news, and he was worried about his nonexistent relationship with his niece and…son… Ryan.
But he had already given up so much – his eyes drifted to Ryan. A little boy he’d loved since before his birth. And a child he was forced to sever all ties with to keep safe. But every minute that passed he longed to know Ryan and his little sister, Macy.
Yet in doing so he would have to interact with the Morrison family. There was no doubt he would ever be able to breathe amid that many people. Ever. Too many people, too many faces, too many expectations he would fall short of. He couldn’t do it. Not even for the precious children and sister and doctor he’d come to protect.
He slipped quietly out the door and followed Janine, who left the store alone. Just in time Greg merged with the shadows and watched as Janine joined the group concealed in the trees. If he hadn’t seen her destination and realized she had one in mind, he would have never noticed the silent figures waiting patiently for her. He kept to the shadows and the darkness was so familiar none of them saw him. That was quite how he preferred things. A few deep breaths and his lung were happy again.
Without remorse, he eavesdropped on their conversation. The SEALs and Janine all kept their voices low and their presence quiet.
“Someone broke into O’Riley’s house?” Janine’s voice, as low as the men’s, still carried just enough that he heard her.
“Yeah,” one of the SEALs muttered. Greg couldn’t tell whether the man was Ben Morrison, Sam Welby, who he thought had retired, or Rex Beaumont because the man’s voice was pitched just low enough.
“Why would you be stupid enough to break into an Admiral’s house?”
“Because he wanted to find a certain secret operative.” This time Greg recognized Ben’s voice.
“Who?” Janine leaned forward, her movement so careful, only someone who knew she was there and was watching carefully, would notice. He had more difficulty not noticing her. She could be engulfed in a crowd of Morrisons and he would still pick her out of the mass confusion in seconds.
“That’s what we want to know,” Beaumont said. “O’Riley told us one of his best operatives had died. We all suspected it was Michael Lamont.”
“Why did you suspect him?” Her voice gave nothing away.
Ben raised a negligent shoulder. “Heard rumors.”
“But whoever snuck into O’Riley’s house asked for a secret operative.” Welby’s voice was pitched in such a way Greg could barely distinguish it. He must have been the original speaker then.
“By name?” Janine’s voice was sharp.
“We don’t know. Haven’t actually talked to O’Riley,” Ben admitted.
“I did briefly this morning,” Sam said.
“And?” Beaumont didn’t stir in the shadows.
“He didn’t say anything about the break-in.”
“Why do you believe the dead agent is Lamont?” Janine’s voice was without inflection. But he detected an intensity the other men apparently missed or ignored.
“We were supposed to pair up with an agent on our last assignment, a clean-up—” Beaumont started but trailed off.
Ben finished the statement. “In the past, Lamont’s had our backs. This time it was some guy we didn’t know.”
“So you assumed Lamont is dead based on that?” Janine sounded incredulous.
“We happen to know he took out those terrorists up in northern PA. We also know he sustained some nasty injuries.” Ben’s voice remained low, so low Greg had to concentrate to hear what he said.
Janine still gave nothing away. He wondered if it frustrated the SEALs. With an internal smile, he suspected it did.
“We cleaned up the traitor for him,” Welby said. “Lamont’s known for cleaning up his own messes.”
Ben frowned and stared at the men with him. “Should we be telling Janine this?”
From where Greg stood he could see her eyes, and they blanked. Her entire face went devoid of emotion. Good girl.
“Yeah, we can tell her,” Welby said.
She raised a brow. “How do you know that?”
“O’Riley let something drop the other day, so I know you know more about this than most.”
“Like the fact you’re a former member of a certain secret operative’s team.”
Ben’s blazing eyes whipped to Janine. “You’re a secret operative?”
“No, I’m a former member of a secret operative’s team.” She stared her brother down. “So, it’s okay to talk to me.”
Even these SEALs probably wouldn’t understand the extent of her training, much less what her duties had entailed or her skill set. In fact, he didn’t fully understand them.
“Just because you’re a former member doesn’t mean we should mention the agent in question.” Ben still seemed reluctant to trust this information to just anyone, even if she was his sister and a former Navy woman. Greg respected the wariness on the SEAL’s part. It was because of men like Morrison that helped keep operatives, former operative, he mentally corrected, like him alive.
“You should trust me because I signed Lamont’s death certificate.”
No emotion crossed either of the men’s faces he could see. Morrison had his back to Greg now, but Welby stood beside Janine, and Beaumont’s face was in profile. Janine’s back stiffened, subtly, but he recognized the movement because his own spine reacted. Greg faded further into the shadows.
“Death certificate.” Beaumont bit off the statement, almost making it sound like a curse.
“So it was Lamont who died,” Ben said. He didn’t move but Greg thought he sensed some agitation from the SEAL.
“I was the attending surgeon. We tried to save him, but couldn’t.” Janine’s voice was low, without inflection again. Greg marveled at how easily she lied. Why these SEALs didn’t detect their own or similar training in her… But then why would they?
One of the men said something Greg didn’t catch, but it warmed him a little that they were angered by Lamont’s death. At least this team seemed to appreciate the man whose ticket got punched up there in Northern Pennsylvania.
Welby’s forehead pleated and his body went taut, like he didn’t quite believe what he heard.
Ben must have picked up on Welby’s unease because he asked a low question Greg didn’t catch.
Beaumont leaned forward, his movement easy and nearly undetectable. “Where did you hear Lamont isn’t dead? Janine said she signed the death certificate.”
“Michael Lamont’s death is filed with the state. His death was listed in the obituary section of the paper.” Janine’s voice didn’t waver. She sounded like she believed every word she said.
Welby shook his head. “I could have sworn…”
Janine’s face didn’t reveal anything, but he noticed she held her spine a little too erect. Tension glistened in the air around her.
Greg leaned closer because while this was probably information he didn’t want to hear, he still needed to know.
“I could have sworn O’Riley said the guy died, but I heard some talk that Lamont finished up another mission.” Welby stared at Janine like she should offer all the answers he wanted.
She stared back at him with assessing amber eyes. “He’s dead.” Her statement was final.
Great, this was just great. If people didn’t think Michael Lamont was dead…
This was yet another reason why he hated coming home. It was nothing but bad news piled on top of bad news. Then he realized if someone, anyone, thought Michael Lamont was still alive, trouble would ensue. And that was exactly why he stood on Hershey soil again. He had heard the same rumors that must have reached the SEALs’ ears.
Greg’s spine stiffened more as he listened. His heart tightened, while his lungs couldn’t seem to draw in enough air. To take his mind off his physical woes, he watched Janine’s amber eyes gleam with a fierce light. Some of his tension eased.
“A dead operative can still cause problems for the living. Especially if Michael Lamont didn’t take all of his secrets to the grave with him.” Ben’s voice was low and flat.
Lamont hadn’t taken all of his secrets to the grave. Unfortunately, a vast amount of information his government would be interested in had resurfaced recently. Months after Lamont’s official death. Greg didn’t want to resurrect Lamont because… well, because he didn’t. He didn’t want to deal with the danger again, or bring it closer to home.
That particular information could land him into a lot of trouble if not absolute danger. Neither of those commodities bothered him. He had survived both plenty of times before. What ate at him was the fact that all the Morrisons, his sister, and the SEALs he had helped in the past could land with him. The SEALs could take care of themselves, but the Morrisons and his sister were innocent. If there was one thing he hated, it was watching the innocent get hurt because of him.
“Maybe we ought to help O’Riley stop the rumors of Lamont still being alive.” Beaumont spoke softly, as he usually did, but his voice was infused with power.
“Like I said before, the man’s death was reported in the paper. His death certificate is on file.”
“Maybe O’Riley better make sure that information is readily available,” Welby said.
“I’ll mention it to him.” Janine’s eyes hadn’t lost their fierce light.
Greg realized he had to leave soon. His breathing was labored and he needed space. He needed answers, but he didn’t think he’d find them here.
He was thankful to have overheard this conversation between the SEALs and Janine. Now he had more confirmation that Lamont wasn’t dead after all.
It was not comforting news.
Before he could escape to his car, the Morrison women filed out of the store while the SEALs drifted away as silently as they’d come. Janine intercepted the ladies exit, jiggling her keys like visiting her car had been the reason for her absence. He was trapped in the cover of the trees until they all climbed into their vehicles and drove away. If he made his presence known, he shuddered at the very thought, he’d have to stay and answer a dozen questions from each of them.
The very thought of that many women in his personal space made him fear passing out from lack of oxygen. Or having a seizure on the very spot. Janine probably wouldn’t be happy with him if he died after all the time and effort she put into keeping him alive.
“That’s all the information I have,” General Emma said briskly. “Now, ladies, how are your family searches going?” She rubbed her hands together, as though disposing of the previous subject to launch the next. He was more than ready for them to move on.
The brunette and Janine exchanged glances. Not the same full on conversations Janine and KC employed, but it appeared this woman and Janine might have a similar ability to silently communicate. They smiled at each other before turning back to O’Riley’s wife.
“I’m still looking. The courthouse has a lot of information.” The brunette rocked her baby.
“And I’ve done some internet searches for John Morris, but there are thousands of them.” Janine’s voice sounded wry.
KC tilted her head. “Have you been able to contact anyone on your island?”
“I have sent letters to several of the women I remember there. I don’t know if they’ll be answered.” Janine’s calm seemed to blanket the entire area. Breathing was easier now. Greg heaved a deep breath, and enjoyed how his lungs expanded. Good, passing out ceased to be an option, for now. Fainting tended to provide much fodder for hecklers and Greg preferred if people ignored him.
After she repositioned the baby, the brunette nodded. “I can take half your names if you want help with the internet search.”
“I’d appreciate that, Lainy.”
John Morris. Why were they searching for him? A memory niggled, but he couldn’t pull the tendrils into a cohesive thought. John Morris. John Morrissey. John Morrison.
He filed away the information for later, when he had his encrypted computer handy. Greg figured he could bounce ideas against a secure server that would help to pull the pieces into something he could use. Hopefully.
“Sure. My courthouse search isn’t moving fast.”
“And Mom and Aunt Heather have been complaining about the mess in Aunt Tilly’s attic.” Lainy rolled her eyes.
“Oh yes. They’ve tried to rope us into helping with that project.” KC shook her head with vehemence before she raced after Ryan, who had seen something and took off.
“Like we’re that stupid.” O’Riley’s daughter rolled her eyes.
“I’ll take a look at some of those names, too,” Emma offered.
“I’ll split the list three ways and send each of you a part.” Janine looked relieved. But tension knotted in Greg’s stomach. Why did that sound like a bad idea?
And why did these women want to find John Morris?
He heaved a silent sigh. The reasons for his returning home kept piling up. A gruesome picture of shackles and chains circling him, looking for an opening to grab and bind kept taunting him.
If this matter enchained him, he was as good as dead.
She’d always had a thing for Mr. Clean. Now here he was in the flesh – tall, muscular, bald, with bright blue, laughing eyes, and a yummy smile. And he’s a pediatrician too, her subconscious reminded her. Sigh.
Could this man be any more perfect?
Of course not. But then, she didn’t know him either. She was only here for an interview. Interview. Oh yeah, right. Perhaps she ought to be concentrating on acquiring the job first. Then she could drool all over him, later.
By then maybe she would be working with Dr. Sam Welby all day long. Maybe even all evening long. Oh no. What if she tripped and landed on her face? What if she threw up on him? Better yet, what if she proved to be a total freak by passing out at his feet?
Hoping she hadn’t gone ten shades of pale, Shelby Conway gulped in a breath and tried desperately to concentrate on the question he just asked her. Which was not, “Will you marry me?”
“What are your career goals?” Yes, that’s what he asked.
“My career goals are to remain in a position, with a top pediatrician for at least the next five years, if not longer. I’d like to further my understanding and knowledge by attending seminars and taking classes in the field as they become available in addition to keeping up to date with various medical journals.
“I plan to aid my patients, and improve their comfort. I intend to hone my skills to be the best I can be in the field of pediatric oncology.” There, that came from her heart, right? She told him everything he needed to determine if she was the best candidate. She hadn’t mentioned any fantasies about him, please?
Oh goodness, please let her get through this interview without falling at his feet and begging him to take her on. Please let her show professionalism and speak with aplomb. Please let her not slip on her drool.
Shelby wasn’t certain who she directed these pleas to, herself or a higher power, but she pleaded nonetheless. She didn’t necessarily need this job, since she already had one, but she did want to move to this area. And having a hot boss like Sam Welby to look at all day, every day, sounded good to her.
“I see you’ve worked at two different clinics, which means you’ve assisted…” he began, and peered at her resume.
“Seven doctors, total,” she finished.
He nodded and glanced at another sheet. “Tell me about that.” He poised his stylus over a tablet on his desk and she swallowed. Keep your mind on the interview. Don’t think about his hands.
“I worked the most with Dr. Sinclair, at Saint Jude’s Hospital. She’s renowned in pediatric care…” and Shelby launched into a fairly extensive explanation. She was proud that she also had lab experience and could relate that to her work. As she spoke, she was happy her mind remained on her professional experience. She relaxed, because she did love her job.
His hand fairly flew over the page in front of him, and he nodded at several key places. Those bright blue eyes glowed with intelligence and cunning. He broke in a few times to ask some excellent questions, and Shelby fought not to melt. She could see how much he cared about his work. She admired that in a man.
Of course, admiring everything about Sam Welby could be a problem. She had enough going on in her chaotic life, but did that stop her from adding a sexy boss to her schedule? Apparently not. No one could accuse her of being a wimp. Snickering at her own stupidity, she yanked herself back to the interview.
“Saint Jude’s Hospital is a premier hospital. Why do you want to leave there?”
She had hoped he wouldn’t ask that question, but of course, being thorough, he would. Resisting the urge to sigh, she answered with as much diplomacy as possible. “I’m leaving for family reasons.”
This wasn’t a lie. She would have remained at St. Jude’s if not for a progressive medical problem. And the advice of a trusted doctor in Atlanta who encouraged her to find her birth family. Not something she wanted to do, but alas, she must thrive on difficulty.
His brow pleated. “Family reasons?”
“Family reasons,” she reiterated, not willing to spill her guts to this very hot man. No way. She would far rather drool on him. Swallowing the extra moisture in her mouth reminded her that was indeed a possibility.
Fortunately, he dropped the subject and moved on to the next question. Shelby responded, and hope bubbled when at the end, he outlined what the job entailed.
Genuinely interested, she interrupted to ask a few questions and was surprised at the admiration she saw in his eyes. Wow, had she managed to impress the hottie?
Whew, go her.
Shelby wrote fast, trying her hardest to record most of what he said. She needed to review this information later since her hormones had her bedazzled. Or his hormones. Someone was to blame for her inability to concentrate, and Shelby suspected it was him. Never in her thirty years had she encountered this problem before. So it was definitely him.
From time to time she nodded and attempted to look intelligent. Shouldn’t appearing smart impress a prospective employer? Yes – more than one of her bosses had said so.
“Do you have any more questions for me?”
Quickly, Shelby quelled the urge to blurt, “Will you marry me?” and instead, located where she had recorded her own questions. She had managed to ask a few of them during the interview, but a few more remained unanswered. Relieved that she at least had the foresight to jot down some questions before the interview, since her brain was working on lust rather than employment, she asked them in succession and was impressed by his answers.
Shelby watched him draw a quick star beside her name and her heart jumped. Oh my. What if he hired her? Would she be able to work with her hormones in a feeding frenzy like this?
Oh, yes, all of her patients. They’d probably care if her mind wasn’t on her work. In that case, them – so that meant she had to learn control if this man hired her.
He smiled as he rose to his feet. Shelby stood too and took the hand he offered. Blinking, hoping she didn’t look as dazzled as she felt, she enjoyed the handshake. What nice hands you have, doctor.
“Give us about a week to make our selection.” He smiled at her again, and her heart jumped.
“That’s fine.” So long as I’m the candidate you chose. “I look forward to hearing from you.” And how. Oh, but I am glad you can’t read my thoughts, or you would probably think I’m insane, Shelby thought as she strolled past him to the hall.
Of course, that’s why she was here, in Pennsylvania, applying for this job.
Because she needed to know if insanity, among other things, ran in the family.
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