Thursday, June 25, 2015


Pre-order available here:
(additional retailers to follow)

Release Date: June 30th

Christy Sheridan has come a long way from the physical and emotional wreck she used to be. She's made Alden her home and is happily engaged to a man who loves and accepts her for who she is, curves, quirks, and geekiness included. Life is good. Until mommy dearest blows into town to "help" her clueless daughter seal the deal.

Cole Bowen is experiencing a world of firsts: first time in love, first engagement, first Valentine's, first in-laws. He's found the woman of his dreams, so he figured dealing with Martha Sheridan was a small price to pay. That is before his monster-in-law plants herself in their home and inside Christy's head, stirring up old demons and destroying her newly regained self-esteem. And while his hands are full with trying to neutralize their meddlesome guest, a mysterious phone call turns his world upside down.

With ghosts from the past resurfacing and threatening to tear Cole and Christy apart, can they make it to the wedding they both so desperately want, or will heavy secrets send their relationship to the breaking point?

Bowen Series Reading Order

More than Meets the Ink (Bowen, #1)
Barnes & Noble:

Heavy Issues (Bowen #2)
Barnes & Noble:

Inked Ever After (Bowen, #2.5)
Barnes & Noble:

To The Max (Bowen, #3)
All Romance ebooks:

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Heavy Secrets, Cole and Christy's novella, to be released June 30th. Read the first chapter here!

Chapter One

“How many years do you think I’d get for offing my mom? Because honest to God, if we’re talking single digits, I’m willing to risk it,” Christy said while leaning back on the lounge chair after getting a full-body massage that had left her totally gooey.
They were at the spa, wearing fluffy bathrobes and sipping tea, except for Christy, who was nursing a diet soda.
“Just name a time and place, and we’ll be there with a shovel. No questions asked,” Annie said, and Holly and Tate assented.
“I could claim temporary insanity.” Heck, emotional self-defense too.
“Don’t worry, we’ll vouch for you. No jury in its right mind would convict you,” Holly stated. “I thought you were exaggerating, but boy, were you understating. What a…character.”
Ha. That was one way of putting it.
Annie nodded in commiseration. She’d met Martha a long time ago, when the girls were in college. Christy had gone for an East Coast institution, hoping it would be out of her mom’s range, but going away had been useless. There was no place far enough.
Crazy had its own methods of reaching her.
“Where’s the Grand Diva now?” Tate, Christy’s future sister-in-law, asked.
“Checking out wedding dresses. She arranged an appointment at a bridal shop. I stood her up.”
Her whole posse turned to her, looking stupefied.
“She’s picking out a wedding dress without the bride?”
Yeah, typical Martha stunt.
“I know I should be there, but why, really? She won’t listen to anything I say. I might as well save my breath.”
And a whole lot of pain and abuse in the process.
The girls pondered for a second and then nodded.
“Oh, and remember,” Christy added, reaching for her diet soda. “I’m not here. I’m in the middle of a massive twelve-car accident. Well and healthy but stuck inside the vehicle and waiting for the firefighters to come and cut the roof open to rescue me.”
That her mom hadn’t rushed to her side when Christy called her—and that Christy had known she wouldn’t—already said it all.
“And when your mom realizes your car is intact? Then what?” Tate asked, to which Christy couldn’t help snorting.
“That would imply she remembered our talk. It won’t happen. A total impossibility.”
Christy would bet anything, her first unborn child included—and her second and third—that her mom wouldn’t even mention it. That was the advantage of being disappointed one too many times; no way in hell to harbor false illusions.
Martha’s number-one priority was…Martha. Followed by whatever man she was screwing with at the moment. How she’d managed to marry a decent guy and keep him for several years was beyond Christy. Then again, Fred was too kind for his own good. That or he had a hell of a lot of bad karma from a previous life.
For a split second, she’d considered going to the bridal shop, but then she’d discarded the idea. Defaulting to her smile-accept-and-walk-away technique, she’d nodded and kept quiet. And had run in the opposite direction at the first chance. Let her mother get her kicks. Just let her do it far away from Christy. Besides, there was no damage Martha could do; Christy had told the shop assistant not to reserve anything without her consent.
Holly poured herself more tea. “Doesn’t she know you don’t want a traditional dress for your summer wedding?”
“She knows. She just doesn’t care.” They were talking about a woman who had gotten married four times, once with a beer-can tab as a ring. Appointments at high-scale bridal shops were a dream come true for her. “I feel like a shitty daughter, but I’m so ready for her to leave.”
Martha had come for Christmas with her husband and stayed a couple of days. It had gone rather well, probably because Cole was scary enough and Martha hadn’t worked herself up to be…well, herself. This time around, she’d been in Alden for three days, without Fred, and Christy was ready to face the gallows for a chance to get rid of her.
Fate had thrown Christy the mother of all curve balls when it chose Martha as her sole parent.
Their relationship had always been complicated, to say the least, with Christy spending all her life putting out fires—Martha’s—and eating to cope. Eventually she’d gotten her food addiction under control, but changing her mom and her nasty ways was something out of her reach.
And having Martha living with her without Fred as a buffer was bringing up all sorts of feelings and automatic coping mechanisms that Christy had thought she’d left behind.
Lora, Christy’s former sponsor, had been right: nothing guaranteed recovery, and they were always one upset away from relapse.
“What about Cole?” Tate asked, taking Christy out of her reverie. “Isn’t he putting her in her place?”
He would if he knew. Apparently Martha was learning subtlety, at least in front of a 240-pound, uncompromising ex-marine. It also helped that Christy had asked him not to interfere. Cole was a black-and-white kind of person. Intransigent and not inclined to put up with moronities. Left to his own devices, he would have kicked Martha out the first day.
“She’s…contained around him. I think she’s scared of him.”
“She and half the world, sister,” Holly mumbled.
Christy rolled her eyes and, after reaching inside the pocket of her bathrobe, fished out a sugar-free cherry lollipop. “Come on. Cole is a harmless sweetie.” Who liked macho power tripping and playing with cuffs, but a sweetie nonetheless.
They’d been together for six months, and although they’d clashed several times, he’d kept his word and hadn’t shut her out. He’d leave to cool down—sometimes he went to his brother James’s; sometimes she saw him pacing up and down the yard, muttering under his breath—but he always came back and they always found middle ground.
“To you he’s harmless,” Holly corrected as Christy unwrapped the candy. “Wait until he finds out about the pole-dancing classes. Mike already told Kyra to up her insurance. And to make sure there are no guys lurking around during said classes.”
Cole and his men had started working on Kyra’s dance studio right before Christmas and had gotten it ready in no time. Anything to get the exotic aerobics and the horde of giggling women in tight thongs out of Haddican’s, the local gym, and away from so much bubbling testosterone.
“It’s all Annie’s fault,” Christy shot back, giving her friend the evil eye. “She signed me up without asking.”
Christy wasn’t much for showing herself off, and pole dancing was exactly that, but Kyra had been so excited to have her and Tate on board that it had been impossible to get out of it without hurting Kyra’s feelings.
On the plus side, Martha hadn’t found out about her daughter’s new hobby. She would have made fun of Christy or joined the classes. Either way, no number of twelve-step meetings would have helped Christy get through that trauma. Her mother was many things, but ugly and clumsy she wasn’t. That her ass and boobs were still perkily pointing north and that she moved perfectly to capitalize on that also helped. Working a pole under her reproving stare would have killed Christy and her shaky, newly developed self-esteem. For all Martha’s dumb decisions in her personal life—and boy, were there plenty—she had a witty tongue and knew how to deliver killer putdowns.
“Duh, you would have said no,” Annie replied, bringing her back to the present. “And I owed you one after you got me into exotic aerobics.”
“You know I can’t quit the exotic aerobics. I needed company.” Christy had gone there just on a whim, but then Cole saw her and, in one of his my-way-or-the-highway stunts, had tossed her over his shoulder and stomped out of the class. Now she couldn’t quit, just on principle. She needed to stand her ground with Cole, especially when he was being a control freak and attempting to fuck her into submission, which was very often.
Besides, she liked that class. And defying Cole.
Annie pursed her lips. “A pregnant woman wiggling her ass around a chair and pretending to be sexy is…definitely not.”
“I’m pretty sure Max feels otherwise,” Holly said. “I’ve seen him watching you. No way to disguise that look.”
“What look?”
“That tight expression. The she’s-mine-everyone-back-the-fuck-off glare, mixed with wait-till-I-get-a-closed-door-between-us-and-the-rest-of-the-world.”
Tate laughed. “That’s the standard Bowen look.”
Damn right. Christy had seen it on Cole’s face many times. Before and after fucking her senseless. Heck, while too. She loved that proprietary look. It said she was beautiful and he needed her. For someone who’d battled self-esteem issues all her life, it meant the world. Cole meant the world to her.
“As soon as the baby pops out,” Christy said, pointing at Annie’s seven-months-pregnant belly, “you’re marching into the pole-dancing classes with me. No frigging excuses.”
Annie shook her head. “I have shitty coordination. I’d kill myself.”
“Sure. And the swing up in Max’s room?”
They were all rosy from their facial massages, yet Annie visibly flushed. “Hmm, that’s for yoga?”
Christy couldn’t stifle the giggle. Neither could Holly or Tate.
Yeah, because Max was such a yoga type.
Christy dipped her sugar-free lollipop on her diet soda. “If I’m making an ass out of myself and Kyra is risking the integrity of her new business, you’re joining us after recovering from childbirth.”
Annie grimaced, pointing at Christy’s glass. “That’s gross. I thought you were cutting back on your weird stuff.”
Yeah, she’d thought that too. Until her mom blew into town.
“Cola-flavored cherry lollipop or cherry-flavored soda. Not weirder than scooping Nutella with bacon.”
“True, but I’m hormonal.”
Ha! Pregnancy hormones had nothing on the spike of anxiety that Martha created.
“By the way, Tate,” Holly chimed in, “did you get a pole installed in the bedroom?”
Now it was Tate blushing. “Yes.”
She blushed even harder. She was six months pregnant, and although she had some limitations where the movements were concerned, Christy had seen her dance. Tate really knew how to make it work. She kicked ass. Pregnant and all.
“James loved it. As in really loved it.”
“On a scale of one to ten?” Holly asked, wiggling her eyebrows.
“Thirty. And don’t worry,” Tate hurried to appease Christy. “I made him promise he won’t say a word to Cole about the classes.”
Good, because Mike was right. If Cole found out, Kyra was going to need top-of-the-line insurance, especially with Amantis’s dancing crew and the security detail snooping around.
“Although I don’t see the big issue. It’s for Cole. Whenever you’re ready, he’ll be the one enjoying the result of the classes, right?”
“Right,” Christy mumbled. She’d started liking it, but considering how klutzy she felt at pole dancing, it was going to take a couple of decades before Cole got to see her.
Holly turned her inquisitive gaze to Annie. “And your, uh, yoga swing? Scale of one to ten?”
“Thirty,” she answered after a long pause, red as a frigging tomato.
“Wow. Swings, dancing poles. The pregnant ladies here like their toys,” Holly said with a grin.
Christy glanced at Annie and Tate, both fanning themselves. “We should change the subject. Before the kinky pregnant ladies faint.”
“You’re a fine one to talk. And the cuffs tucked in the drawer in your nightstand?”
“What? I’m being tactful. The cuffs were the only objects I recognized.”
Okay, they were so banned from each other’s bedrooms.
“Really?” Holly asked, looking intrigued as hell. “What kind of objects?”
“We are deviating from the subject, people. We were talking about how to off my mom, remember?”
Tate waved around. “That’s easy. We bring her here, lock her in the sauna, and turn it to high.”
“It won’t work. She’s from LA. And she lived in Georgia for a while, chasing after some crocodile hunter. The heat’s nothing for her.”
“Or now that we have plenty of props,” Holly said with a wink, “we could plant Tate’s dance pole somewhere in the forest and cuff Martha to it. Leave her for the wolves.”
Poor wolves. Her mother would have them committing suicide in no time. Christy couldn’t do that to them.
“Must be a simpler way. Can’t you just send her to hell?”
Christy shrugged. It was easier said than done. Her mom had the nasty habit of doing something nice whenever Christy was reaching critical mass. She couldn’t send her to hell in good conscience.
The girls couldn’t understand. Annie had a kick-ass mom. Tate too. Holly’s she didn’t know, but the messages between mother and daughter were hilarious, so she imagined their relationship was solid. People with great parents had no clue how difficult it was to deal with bad ones.
“How long until she leaves?”
“Still a while. Thirteen days, nine hours”—Christy reached for her cell—“twenty-five minutes and thirty-five seconds, to be exact.”
Annie chuckled. “You keeping track?”
“I have a countdown set.” Every twenty-four hours, an app sent her a yay-you-can-do-this message. “She’s leaving four days before Valentine’s Day. She wants to be in LA then, so that she can prepare for it.”
“Four days in advance?” Holly asked. “What’s she planning on doing for her husband?”
“For Fred? Nothing. She goes to make sure he gets her all that she wants.”
“Oh boy.”
“You can say that again. How he puts up with her, I don’t know.”
Her smile-accept-and-walk-away technique was failing her big-time now that they were both under the same roof. Or maybe it was that she had gotten a taste for normal and supportive with Cole, and going back to mental was hard.
“We should call Fred and get some pointers,” Holly suggested. “Thirteen days is a long time. Spending your and Cole’s first Valentine’s Day in jail wouldn’t be too much fun.”
“Run to Vegas ahead of schedule. You’re going there anyway for your annual convention, right?” Annie asked.
Tate frowned. “What convention?”
“The geeky version of Valentine’s,” Annie said. “I was there once with her. Memorable. Not going ever again.”
Christy rolled her eyes and turned to Holly and Tate. “There’s a Star Trek convention held in Vegas the weekend before Valentine’s every year.” Plus this year they had the premiere of a new Star Trek movie. “And no, I’m not going. Cole wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that. I’ve been dropping hints about it for a couple of months already, but he isn’t biting.”
Holly patted her on the arm. “So no hanging out with your nerdy friends and stuck with your mom. That sucks.”
Yep. Totally.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Best way to spend Valentine's? Seven and a half months pregnant, on a Florida beach, looking like a whale among sirens, with your feet so swollen they seemed floating boats, and watching your sex God of a boyfriend being ogled and salivated upon by ten-years-younger-than-you, skinny women.
Yep, best way ever. Hands down.
Max had had to travel to Florida for work, and had insisted on Annie accompanying him. "Insisted" was too mild a word. He'd totally taken over and made all the arrangements. She'd been presented with a plane ticket and a "we're leaving tomorrow, pack your swimsuit."
Her man was bossy.
She would have wanted to object, but Boston in February was no match for Florida. The nice weather, the beach. Max kitesurfing, doing one of his stunts while being filmed. Yummy.
Sadly, she wasn't the only one that thought so. Apparently the whole of Florida's female population agreed with her.
When the shooting was about done, Annie stood up from the sun lounger and tried approaching. Several gorgeous groupies, fluffing out their hair, with bikinis that left little to imagination, giggling and swaying their hips like there was no tomorrow, rushed ahead, leaving her in the dust.
Well, what did she expect? Max was gorgeous with that sexy short Mohawk of his all mussed and his trimmed beard. Tanned. All wet from the sea, his muscles bulging and glistening, his dark blond hair bleached by the sun. And that permanent roguish smirk on his face, like he was flirting with life. She'd bet any-frigging-thing all the women on the beach had their girlie parts tingling, just from looking at him.
After wrapping things up, Max turned around and moved toward Annie, smiling. The women in front of her were already breathless, waving at him. He passed the groupies without a second look and went straight to her, taking her in his arms and kissing the living wits out of her.
"One zero for the whale," she whispered when he let her up for breath.
"What?" he asked, totally oblivious to the way the groupies glared and pouted.
"You missed a turn. Your fans there thought you were walking to them."
He snorted. "Don't give a fuck what they thought. I want you. Only you. Haven't you realized it yet?"
Yes, she had. The first day of the shooting, Annie would had preferred to stay behind, intimidated as she was with all the gorgeousness around, but he hadn't allowed it; he'd kept her by his side, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. Kissing her and being sweet in front of God and everyone.
Lots of jaws had dropped.
"You done?" she whispered to him.
Max nodded. "I'm all yours now."
All hers. She loved the sound of that.
"So now what?"
"Now we get ready to celebrate Valentine's," he stated.
"Are we celebrating it at the hotel?"
"Where then?"
"You'll see."
Damn, he'd been so close-lipped about the whole thing. Their kick-ass, top-of-the-line hotel had been fully paid for until the next morning. And by the looks of it, they were pulling out all the stops preparing for the event.
"I need to know what to dress for," she insisted. "Beach picnic? Amusement park? Fancy restaurant? Naked date in the Jacuzzi?" It could be anything, considering who her Valentine was.
He brushed his lips with hers. "Dress how you want, Ace. You'll be stunning anyway and everybody will think I'm the luckiest bastard alive for being allowed to walk by your side. I'm holding you to the naked part for later, though," he added with a wink. "Now let's get going. We're expected soon."
Annie was relieved when she noticed Max had on jeans and a T-shirt. If he would had broken out the tuxedo, she would have been in trouble, seeing as the only outfits she'd packed were maternity swimsuits and flowy summer dresses.
Once ready, he clasped her hand in his and walked her to the car. At her inquiring look, he just said, "Trust me. It'll be memorable."
She had no doubt about it. So far, everything with Max had been.
They drove for over an hour. When he parked the car, she looked at her surroundings and broke into laughter. "The Eternal Sun resort?"
He nodded. "I promised you memorable, love. This is the place to have it, surrounded by couples averaging fifty years of marriage."
She'd heard so much about this place she was giddy with excitement. And a bit terrified, because there was a crowd at the entrance, already waving at them.
She turned to him. "Are they waiting for us?"
He waved back. "Yep. They are all very excited to meet you. We have a busy schedule, I hear. Bingo. Then romantic dinner. Then dancing under the stars and poker for the two-left-feet ones."
They had barely made it out of the car when those senior ladies were hugging and smooching them. Congratulating them on the baby and treating her as if they'd known her for freaking ever.
Bingo was a blast, not to mention the outrageous way those seniors tried to cheat. Dinner too. The common area had been transformed into a very romantic outdoors restaurant, with candles and roses and tables for two, but those seniors didn't believe in privacy, and before they made it to the second course, most tables had been pushed together, and Annie and Max were eating with a loud bunch who, in spite of their nosiness, were adorable.
Annie'd heard the Bowen brothers were very well liked at the Eternal Sun, but she had no clue how much.
Everybody there knew him and treated him like he was part of the family. And Max was so at ease with them too.
By desert Annie's side hurt from laughing so hard. Apparently fifty years of marriage gave for a lot of Valentine's anecdotes, all of them hilarious.
"I've had all sorts of Valentine's dates, from the totally awesome to the totally horrendous," Annie whispered into Max's crook after dinner, as they danced. "Nothing compared to this. This is off the charts."
"Off-the-charts horrendous or off-the-charts awesome?" he asked, spinning her around to the slow music.
She laughed. "Awesome, of course."
"I'm glad you're pleased."
Pleased? They were in the Eternal Sun resort on the dance floor, surrounded by couples who had been together for more than half a century, yet they were still holding hands. Cooing at each other. Laughing at each others' jokes.  
"They loved you," Max continued. "I got the third degree for not bringing you here until now."
"You got the third degree? Because I did too."
A frown marred his beautiful face. "What do you mean?"
"I was asked what were my intentions toward you." Several times, actually, during bingo and dinner. "Everybody loves you here." They'd been singing Max's praises all night long. And warning her about hurting him.
Max laughed. "And what are your intentions?"
"Well, I told them I plan to use you as a sex toy and then dump you to the curb," she joked.
His amused snort was loud and clear. "You can use me as a sex toy all you want, no objections whatsoever. You know my cock will always be hard for you, but you won't dump me to the curb, I won't let you."
The intensity in his words and his erection pressing against her abraded her senses. Man, even in the middle of a senior community he could turn her on, just by whispering into her ear.
They danced until the wee hours and then, as promised, she ended up naked in the Jacuzzi.
Best way to spend Valentine's Day? Or any other day of her life for that matter? With Max. Hands down.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015






Friday, February 6, 2015

To The Max - First two chapters


Hi everyone! To the Max will release on Feb 10th, yay! To celebrate it, here you have the first two chapters. I hope you'll enjoy them. Kisses, Elle

Chapter One

“You know, if the idea behind a midnight wedding was to discourage people from attending, I think we can fairly say it hasn’t worked,” Annie Griffin heard from behind her.
Shit, busted.
She whirled around so fast, she not only got a dizzy spell but almost fell from the hammock she was sitting on. Thank God someone with a very strong grip reached out and steadied her.
“Wow, careful there.”
As she regained her balance, Annie lifted her gaze to find Max Bowen, the groom’s younger brother, smirking at her. She brought her hand to her thumping heart. “Jeez, you scared me, Max.”
“Sorry,” he said, his light eyes sparkling with amusement. “What are you doing here?”
They were in the unlit part of the backyard, as far away from the wedding reception as possible without actually leaving the Bowens’ property.
“I’m in hiding. Go away.” She shooed him, peeking around to make sure no one had followed him. “You always have a string of girls attached to your hip. Soon they’re all going to be gathered here giggling, drawing attention, and I don’t want to be found.”
Her duties as bridesmaid were done. Tate and James were already on their way to their honeymoon; she could disappear in good conscience.
“Hey,” he complained, sounding offended. “I may need to go into hiding for a while too.”
She gave him a disbelieving look. “You? Why?”
Max loosened his tie and, unfastening the first button of his shirt, sat beside her on the hammock. “Why? Because my ass has been pinched so many times tonight, I swear I can barely feel it anymore.”
Annie stifled a giggle. “Your ass is sore?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” he said, breathing out slowly and running his hand through his shoulder-length hair.
She locked eyes with him, realizing too late he was smiling less than three inches away from her face. The sight of him all but knocked the wind out of her. Max in faded old jeans and a tee was breathtaking. In a tuxedo? A total heart-stopper.
She wasn’t too fond of blond men, but Max was in a league all his own. With model-perfect masculine features, wicked blue-green eyes, and his usual weeklong golden stubble, Max was sexy as hell. Add to his Hollywood looks his laid-back disposition, kick-ass body, and roguish smile, and, well, it was almost impossible not to drool in his presence. A fact the charming devil knew very well and played to his full advantage.
Annie wasn’t sure how, but she managed to break eye contact. “I think the senior contingent from Eternal Sun Resort might be the ones primarily responsible for your ass condition.” She got it that both Mr. Bowen and Tate’s mom lived down there—were neighbors, in fact—but they should never have told the other residents about the wedding. The Bowen brothers were popular enough in the greater Boston area. No need to bring reinforcements from the South.
“Probably.” Max pondered for a second and then grinned at her. “I should just count my lucky stars those ladies are on the short side and can’t reach my nipples, huh?”
Annie burst into laughter. God, Max was such a clown. Although on that one he might be right. “I hear they chartered a bus and made regular stops along the way from Florida to Boston to pick up their granddaughters and nieces.”
And who could blame them? It was not every day that one of the Bowen brothers tied the knot. The standard guest plus one had transformed into guest plus ten. Not to mention the groom’s wedding party, which alone was a sight to behold. All those hunks in tailored tuxedos, standing tall and proud and yummy. Talk about eye candy. She must have gotten a couple of extra cavities tonight just from staring.
Max smiled. “That would explain it. This is the first wedding I’ve attended where there are more people crashing the damn event than actual guests. James should’ve hired his own security company to guard the place.”
He should have, but judging by the way he’d looked, he’d been so over the moon lately that he probably hadn’t thought about anything besides putting his ring on Tate’s finger.
Max seemed to be able to read her mind. “Yeah, I know my brother is in married-man bliss, but there is Cole and me to think about. Well, okay, just me now that Cole is engaged,” he conceded with a rueful grin. “But seriously, with how fiercely protective Cole is of Christy, and the mean right hook she’s developed, I’d say some guests would have thanked him for the extra protection too.”
“Please. Christy is a pussycat.” Nevertheless, Annie sure relished the yellowish remnants of the black eye Rose was still sporting, which, by the way, she’d totally deserved. A real pity no one had gotten that on video. “And you, mister, don’t need protection from women.”
If anything, it was the other way around. He was the ultimate ladies’ man. He’d never hurt for female attention before, but now with James married and Cole engaged, Max was getting so much action he was gorging on it.
His cheeky grin lit his face. “True, under normal circumstances, but that back there is a bit overwhelming, even for me.”
Annie was about to answer, when suddenly Max moved, making the hammock rock like crazy. “What are you doing?” she squeaked, gripping the net hard.
“Lying down. I need to give my poor, abused ass a respite. Come on,” he said, patting the spot near him. “Lie down with me. I don’t bite.”
Oh, she wouldn’t bet on that.
She warily eyed the net. Forget the spiky high heels she was wearing and the skintight bridesmaid’s dress, which was the shit but didn’t allow for much movement. She’d spent three hours in the beauty salon getting her unruly mop of hair pinned up and adorned with dozens of tiny white flowers. “If my hairdo gets tangled in that, I won’t be able to yank it free without looking like the modern version of Medusa.”
“Here.” He stretched out his arm and offered it as a pillow.
Annie doubted this was a good idea, but she was so tired. “I’m not that great with hammocks. I may roll us both over.”
“I’m a professional stuntman. I think I can handle a hammock.”
Well, he had a point there. She’d seen him on the big screen doing the craziest things. Not to mention his fondness for extreme sports.
“I’ll keep us steady,” he insisted. “Come on. You’re messing with the center of gravity by sitting there.”
She hesitated for just a second, then shrugged. “Fine. But I’m not too coordinated. Don’t come crying to me when we find ourselves on the grass, Mr. Hotshot Stuntman.” She slowly moved to lie beside him.
It was a two-person hammock, but he was so big and his shoulders were so damn broad, he took more than his fair share of space. She rested her head on his arm and tried to keep her body at a distance from his, but he was much heavier and her whole left side ended up glued to his right.
“Comfy?” he asked.
Actually, yes, but that was beside the point.
She tried separating herself from him, but gravity and his massive body worked against her. The more she moved away, the more the net bounced her right back against Max.
“Not that I’m complaining, but you’re rubbing against me. Anything you want to tell me, Miss Griffin?” he asked, his words laced with laughter.
This was the closest she’d ever been to Max. She could feel every flex of his muscles, his warm breath tickling her face. In spite of herself, his low, deep rumble and hard body had all her girlie parts tingling, which was so inappropriate on so many levels, she refused to even think about it.
She cleared her throat, trying to sound outraged. “Of course not. Besides, you’re way too young for me.” Eight years younger. Not to mention that at thirty-five, Annie was a good decade older than the women Max usually dated.
“Sure, you’re ancient. Now stop squirming, Ace. You’ll break your femur, and at your age any fracture could be fatal.”
She saw the smirk on his face and went to elbow him, but there was not enough space between them to get a good jab in.
“Watch it. You could easily dislocate a shoulder. I hear all you have to do is sneeze, and there goes the hip.”
“Oh please. Just shut up,” she said, unable to contain her laughter.
Annie hadn’t had much contact with Max before. But since Tate and Holly had started to hang out together, and Christy and Cole had become an item, the Bowen brothers and their crew had ceased to be a bunch of gorgeous guys she admired from afar and had become permanent fixtures in her life. It was hard to get used to such an overabundance of panty creamers, but she was coping. With the occasional panic attack, but she was coping.
Chuckling himself, he pinned her by his side and turned his gaze to the sky. “Settle down and look up, Ace.”
Bossy guy, she thought, but she found herself obliging him. “Wow,” she whispered as she took in the view.
“Everything looks better from a hammock, doesn’t it?”
It sure did. “I’m going to take one to the Friday-night outdoor movie instead of sitting on those wooden chairs. The Arnie marathon they’re running won’t be better, but at least the hammock will improve my viewing experience.”
“I hear they’re preparing a Mel Gibson marathon for next year.”
“That’s marginally better.”
His low voice rumbled in the night. “How do you figure that?”
“More rom-coms, less commando crap. Plus, I could stand to see his milky-white ass again in Braveheart.”
She felt him turn to her and shake his head.
Max lowered a foot to the ground and kicked, gently rocking the hammock. They lay there in silence for a long while, enjoying the view. She should have been more freaked about being there with Max Bowen, but the truth of the matter was she didn’t have the energy to get herself worked up.
It had been a very hectic day. The wedding had been beautiful, and everything had gone according to plan—more or less—but it had been taxing. For a while she’d felt dizzy and out of breath from the excitement and the place being packed. And then there had been the cake. Annie loved cake, even risqué ones, but she must have eaten the poisoned piece intended for Tate—or Christy—because, boy, the little sucker had repeated on her. Now though, away from the crowd, her gaze on the black sky, gently rocking, she felt totally relaxed and at ease.
“The wedding was beautiful,” she said.
“Aunt Maggie and Tate’s mom really thought of everything.”
“Except for the electrified fence around the yard.”
Max chuckled. “Yes, except for that. I could have done without the impromptu conga line during the reception too.”
“Come on, Max, you rocked the conga line.”
It had been one of the highlights of the night, second only to seeing Tate all but run down the aisle and kiss the living daylights out of James before the priest had gotten a word in, that amazing green dragon tattoo swirling on the small of her totally exposed back. Ah, and the dance of the best man and the maid of honor. There had been so much tension rolling off Jack and Elle, it was palpable.
“Did you see Elle’s face when the bouquet hit her on the head?” Annie asked.
Max nodded. “Epic. I hope the photographer got it. That picture is so going to the wall of fame in Rosita’s.”
Elle hadn’t looked happy the bouquet had defied physics, changed trajectory in midair, and landed on her head while she’d been standing beside her date—Kai, a gorgeous Japanese American full of tattoos. Jack hadn’t looked much happier either. It wasn’t clear if his displeasure had to do with Kai or the bouquet. Both, probably. Not that Jack himself could talk, considering the exuberant blonde he’d had perched on his arm.
“So, why are you in hiding?” Max asked, turning his captivating gaze on her and disrupting all her thoughts. God, the guy was stunning. And this close, there was all the olfactory and tactile data to deal with. Even in his relaxed position, Max oozed masculinity and testosterone. His smell, a mixture of aftershave, clean sweat, and a hint of tobacco from the cigar James had given him, was so male it gave her goose bumps. She couldn’t explain it, but to her, Max smelled like summer and sunshine. Even now, in the middle of the night.
She sighed and turned her face up to the sky. “I’ve been in the dating arena long enough to know that when your date starts talking about himself in the third person, it’s time to hide.”
The hammock shook with his muffled laughter. His hard body too.
“Not to mention the more he drinks, the more arms he grows. And the more his eyes bulge every time he sees a pair of boobs. It’s bad enough that he’s spent the last two hours talking to my nipples, but ogling other women’s goodies on top of that? Gross.”
Steven was a coworker from her office. She’d gone out with him once this past month. The first date hadn’t turned out too horribly, so she’d given it a second try. Bad, bad idea.
He tsked. “Moron. Doesn’t he know your goodies are the best?”
She felt her face flame. Then she realized what he was probably referring to. “You’re talking about the candy basket from the fund-raiser, right?” A couple of weeks ago, for the annual town fund-raising dinner, her candy shop had donated a basket of gourmet candy, which Max had bid on and won.
“Those goodies too.”
God, he was such a shameless flirt. Gorgeous, charming, easygoing. Pity when it came to women, he had the attention span of a hummingbird on crack. Which was irrelevant, really. Not only was he totally out of her league, but there was the age difference to contend with. Eight years might not seem like much, but in mind-sets, they were light years apart. Annie was ready to settle and marry, and Max was… Well, Max was most definitely not. He wasn’t playing the field; he owned the damned field.
“Behave,” she admonished him.
“I am, Ace. I am,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve been meaning to tell you those chocolate things were fantastic.”
“You liked them?”
He nodded. “Don’t misunderstand me; traditional candy is great, but this new shit you’re bringing…mouthwatering.”
Annie smiled, pleased as all hell. She’d inherited the little candy shop in Alden five years ago, when her mom remarried and moved to Ohio. Annie already had an office job in Boston, but she hadn’t wanted to close the place down. So she’d hired a girl to run it during the week, and Annie took care of Saturdays and the odd afternoons when the girl couldn’t.
The shop had barely been turning a profit. With the extra salary to foot, Annie had decided to upgrade the whole concept. Along with jelly beans and candy canes, she went for a more sophisticated line, sporting gourmet chocolates and truffles from Brussels, strawberries with champagne and white-chocolate frosting, and all sorts of products for special occasions.
“Remember to come ready to tweet.”
He winked at her. “Don’t worry. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the whole shebang.”
“You have all of those?”
“Actually, no, but I’ll sign up. How did you think of the whole concept?”
“Honestly? I didn’t. Christy did.”
One day, brainstorming while chatting with Christy about how to reach more customers, her friend had come up with the idea of using Twitter. The shop Sweets had become Sweets and Tweets, and clients got a discount if they tweeted on the spot about the goodies they were buying. Word got out about the new products, and in no time they had people coming from Boston to get their sugar fixes or to buy treats for special dates. This past Valentine’s Day had been crazy. The line had gone all the way to the street and around the corner.
Max smiled. “My future sister-in-law is a charming geek.”
“That she is.”
Annie and Christy had met in college and had kept in contact ever since. A bit over six months ago, Christy had taken a sabbatical from her job as a software engineer and moved temporarily from LA to Alden to get away from her ex-fiancé. Now she was engaged to Cole Bowen and ran Alden’s library. Funny how things changed.
They swung in comfortable silence for a while longer.
“So, I have to ask,” he said after a long pause. “How often do you end up in hiding during your dates?”
She snorted. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I’d be hiding in the bathroom right now if I could be sure that the Women Only sign would stop that self-absorbed pompous ass from entering.”
Annie was an active dater—an optimist. Yeah, the world was full of frogs, but there were princes out there. She just had to persevere until she found hers; it was a matter of probabilities, pure and simple. Easier said than done. A romantic at heart, she’d always kept faith that everyone got a happily ever after, but with the luck she’d had lately and all the frogs she’d had to deal with, she’d begun to suspect “everyone” just didn’t include her.
Max barked out a laugh. “Self-absorbed pompous ass?”
Annie nodded. “Aka Steven.”
“You’re dating the wrong guys.”
Didn’t she know it.
Not that Max would understand her predicament. The guy went through women like most men went through potato chips, a handful at a time. He charmed girls out of their panties as if it were an Olympic sport. Nevertheless, Annie hadn’t heard a single complaint from the female population. Far from it.
“What about the stud gala? Did you end up in hiding there too?”
Annie stilled. “How did you know about the gala?”
“You kidding me? I heard Cole grumbling about you guys buying the gala invitation for Christy. Then I had to listen Tate complain about not getting one. And then James growling and threatening Elle with bodily harm if she dared to buy one for Tate.”
She cleared her throat. “That wasn’t a date. But, no, I didn’t end up in hiding then.”
No, sir, not at all.
“Guys, what are you doing there?” a woman asked.
Annie turned her head to see Christy and Cole approaching.
“His ass was hurting and he needed to lie down,” Annie blurted, tensing. Under somebody else’s scrutiny, lying there with Max felt suddenly awkward.
Christy looked confused. “What?”
“Never mind,” Annie mumbled, clumsily hauling herself up and out of the hammock. Max followed her much more gracefully, holding her when her wobbly legs and the rocking made falling on her face a very distinct possibility.
“How’s it going?” Max asked his brother. “Is the party winding down already?”
Cole looked toward the reception and grimaced. “Nope,” he muttered. Then he turned to Christy. “We’re eloping.”
She smiled widely. “Sure, let’s elope to Vegas.”
Cole’s expression tightened. “I’m not getting hitched by Elvis,” he warned, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and bringing her front to his side.
“Who said anything about Elvis? I was thinking more along the lines of Captain Kirk.”
“So not happening.”
Christy, bless her heart, ignored him and smiled even wider. “Or Spock. We could book the Star Trek package, marry with a Vulcan and a Klingon as witnesses. And wire the chapel so that our friends could follow the wedding through the Internet. Wouldn’t that be a blast?”
He kissed her hard, then whispered against her lips, “I love you, baby, but no fucking way.” If his expression was anything to go by, it was a good thing Cole loved Christy to pieces, because he sure as hell wasn’t a man to be led by his dick, much less into a Star Trek wedding.
“Elope all you want, but I’m organizing your bachelor party. Imagine all I could do with Vegas as the backdrop,” Max said, to which Cole grimaced even more strongly.
“Here you are,” Annie heard someone say.
Shit. Steven, aka Pompous Ass. Her stomach roiled and realization dawned. Oh God, the spell of sickness she’d experienced during the reception? Apparently it had nothing to do with the crowded yard or the cake. She’d reached a milestone—her dates were physically making her sick. Way to go.
Max came closer and whispered, “Is this the guy?”
She nodded and turned to Steven, who was obnoxiously grinning.
“Ready to dance with the king of the night, darling?”
He was now close enough that his sugary smell reached her. Nausea rose in her belly. Trying not to cringe, she took a step forward, frantic for an excuse.
Suddenly, someone tugged her hand from behind. “Sorry, man,” Max apologized. “The prettiest girl in this wedding owes me a couple of dances, and I’m ready to collect.”
Max twirled her and wound her in, winking. “Let’s give him a show,” he whispered. Before she could react, Max wrapped one hand around her neck, the other around her waist. Exaggeratedly bending her backward, he placed his lips over hers.
She hadn’t regained her breath or her bearings when he pulled her up for another spin.
Oh God, too much movement.
“I’m not feeling good,” she managed to get out. Then she leaned over and threw up all over Max’s shoes.
* * * *
“Okay, spit it out, Annie,” Holly prompted, tapping at the table. “I’m the dispatcher for the sheriff’s department. Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ve heard worse. Although, if memory serves, Ben switching teams on you was a DEFCON3 emergency. I truly have no clue what possible planetary disaster DEFCON1 could refer to.”
Annie glanced around, making sure they were alone in the terrace. Then, trying not to hyperventilate, Annie uttered those two tiny words, the ones that had her freaked out of her ever-loving mind.
Holly, Christy, and Sophie gaped at her, totally shocked. Thank God they’d been sitting; otherwise her friends’ behinds would have had very close encounters with the floor.
“Definitely DEFCON1,” Christy mumbled and Sophie assented.
“Pregnant? What do you mean pregnant?” Holly asked, sounding stupefied.
“Pregnant,” Annie choked out. “As in knocked up.”
“How? When? Who?” Then, before Annie could answer, not that she was too eager to answer anyway, Holly continued, “Please don’t tell me it’s Steven’s.”
At least there was that: a positive side of this whole mess she hadn’t thought of. “Eww. You nuts? I didn’t have sex with Steven.”
Her friends let out a collective sigh of relief. “Thank God,” Holly muttered.
Annie had been about to chide them for even thinking she’d had sex with Steven after just two dates, but she saw the irony in her predicament and decided to bite her tongue.
“If it isn’t his, then…?” Christy asked, motioning with her hand for Annie to go on.
Annie cleared her throat. “Remember the gala a while back?” she said with a grimace. “The nice Italian escort I met there? Luigi?”
Complete silence.
Annie had attended the yearly gala in Christy’s place. The most prestigious escort agency in Boston had hosted it a month ago at the Ritz Carlton downtown. The girls had managed to buy an invitation for Christy’s birthday, after her vow to get professionally laid, but once Cole had heard about it, he’d put a damper to the whole plan. So they had drawn straws, and surprise, surprise, Annie had won.
“You’re shitting us,” Sophie said.
Annie shook her head. No, she wasn’t shitting them. She wished she were, but she wasn’t.
It had been a great night. Magical, with all the candlelight, the unending flow of expensive champagne, and the great company. That it was a masquerade ball had also added an extra layer of magic and privacy that had been exhilarating.
Apparently’s escorts were highly sought after. They traveled all over the country accompanying clients, some of them very powerful people, to high-profile events. They were not only gorgeous; they were extremely well educated and charming. One of the escorts she’d met that night was a dark-haired, handsome man by the name of Luigi. One thing led to another, and she most definitely had not ended up hiding in the bathroom.
Holly cursed. “What about the whole stash of condoms I put in your purse? Didn’t you think of using them?”
“I used condoms; I swear I did.”
“How exactly did you use them, sweetheart?”
“What do you mean, how did I use them? How does anyone use condoms? Are there so many different ways of using them?” Annie asked, out of breath, her tone of voice rising. She was freaking out. Big-time. But all in all, she thought she was entitled to. “I certainly didn’t put them on my head as new-age hats.”
“Did it break?”
She shook her head. If it had, she would have gotten the morning-after pill, and she wouldn’t currently be about to pass out.
“Are you sure it’s not a false alarm?” Sophie asked, trying to calm her down.
“No false alarm. Five peed-on sticks and two blood tests confirm it. I’m pregnant up to my eyeballs,” Annie said as she, very ineffectively, fanned herself with a napkin. Damn hot flashes. Before she found out about the pregnancy, she’d been having so many of them, she’d even considered going to the doctor to make sure she hadn’t entered some sort of freaky early menopause. Wouldn’t that have been a laugh.
“How did this happen?” Holly asked.
Sophie waved at her. “The usual way?”
“Not helping, sweetie.” Holly chastised Sophie with a look and then turned to Annie. “If you used condoms, how did you get pregnant?”
And here was where it got embarrassing. “It seems there’s an infinitesimal chance of getting knocked up if you start rolling the condom on, realize it’s inside out, and then turn it the right way. Drops of precum get onto the outside of the condom, and voilà, if the semen is of quality and has great mobility, you’re in deep shit.” Annie looked at them, fidgeting. “I was a bit nervous, and there wasn’t too much light…”
She should have left the logistical details to the pro.
All the head shaking she’d done when women in her office got pregnant out of carelessness, and look at her: knocked up on a technicality.
Sophie whistled. “Wow, some super-duper power sperm those studs have, huh?”
“Tell me about it,” Annie muttered.
“Could it be someone else’s?” Christy asked.
“It’s either Luigi’s or an immaculate conception.”
The good thing about getting laid so seldom was that she could pinpoint the conception date with 100 percent accuracy, which meant that if her baby was as anal as she was, he or she should be born in the early hours of March thirty-first.
Holly looked at her, worried. “I hate to say this, honey, and I know these guys are the best of the best, but did you get checked for diseases?”
“Yeah, no STDs.” That was what she’d done first once she’d found out about her pregnancy. And hadn’t that been fun, explaining to Alden’s only doctor, the same one who had treated her all her life, why she needed testing for STDs right after he told her she was pregnant. “All I got from the superstud is a baby.”
“At least you had a valid excuse for throwing up on Max the other night,” Christy said.
Annie cringed at the memory. Talk about making an ass out of herself. The most sought-after bachelor in the whole state was being sweet and offering her a way out so she wouldn’t have to dance with Steven, and what had she done in exchange? She’d puked her brains out all over his shoes, messing his pants too. Well, on the flip side, the second she’d started throwing up, her oh-so-attentive date had all but run in the opposite direction.
Max, on the other hand, had been very nice and understanding. He’d even joked that if he’d been saddled with a date like Steven, he would’ve been puking too.
“Does Luigi know about any of this?”
“Nope. And I never got a last name, so I don’t know how to contact him.” Or even if she wanted to.
Annie had been dazzled by Luigi, who had been so not what she’d expected. He wasn’t a young, buff stud with more muscles than brains. No, he was in his mid-to-late thirties, sophisticated, elegant, and a great conversationalist. She wasn’t a knockout, but she was pretty enough. And so far her body was holding its own against gravity and time, if one could ignore the expansionist tendencies of her ass. Still, Luigi favoring her company had kind of blown her mind. Between that, the alcohol, and the privacy the masks offered, she’d just let go. In the morning, though, she’d panicked and, much to her shame, run out on the guy before he even woke up. How the hell was she supposed to face the proverbial morning after when she had slept with a professional escort in his spare time? At least she thought it had been in his spare time. She didn’t even dare consider he’d been working and she’d stiffed him of his fee. That was just too much.
“It seems Italian escorts are in fashion. has eight Luigis on staff. I’m going to have to ask them for pictures.”
If the conversation at the doctor’s had been fun, she shuddered to think about the one with the stud-agency receptionist.
She might never find Luigi again, and she couldn’t say she felt particularly sorry about it. After all, she didn’t know the guy. But a man had the right to know he was a father. And although she didn’t need a husband, the thought of raising a kid all by herself sucker punched her. Money was not an issue; she had a good job, the shop was doing well, and she still had the untouched trust fund her paternal grandparents had created for her. They hadn’t trusted her flighty father, and thank God for that, because the man was already on his fifth bimbo wife, who was bleeding him dry like three of her predecessors.
So financially she was more than covered, but there were other things to consider. Some mornings it took her forever to decide whether she wanted to have cornflakes or honey puffs—how the hell was she going to choose a school for the kid? He or she would be old enough for junior high by the time Annie had made up her mind.
“You know, I somehow envisioned embracing motherhood differently. Not at thirty-five, without a partner, and knocked up by a gigolo who might or might not be named Luigi.”
After all, maybe Luigi was just his stage name.
“It beats the hell out of a sperm bank, which is what I can see in my future,” Holly muttered.
They were silent for a while. Then Annie sighed. “I’m so screwed, guys. I’m a forensic accountant. What do I know about kids?”
“You own a candy store. I’d say you’re already ahead,” Christy offered.
Well, there was that.
“I should have never gotten up on that flower pot after you,” Annie said to Christy. “You got the good stuff. I got…backlash.” Annie covered her face with her hands. “This is so unfair. You and Cole are the ones humping like rabbits all the time. Me? It was just once. One little screw. Why me? The universe hates me.”
She should have suspected there was some mega cosmic catch to it when she’d won that gala invitation. She never won anything. Ever. On the contrary. She was that jinxed.
Holly interrupted her mental rant. “Wait a second. What do you mean, only once? Wasn’t he, you know, up for a rematch?”
“It was good, don’t misunderstand me, but let’s just put it this way: when an overpriced European escort isn’t working, he starts snoring after the deed.”
“Are you sure he was a member of and not some nutcase impersonating a stud, like in True Lies?” Sophie asked.
Oh crap, she hadn’t thought of that possibility. Annie panicked for a second, then shook her head. “No, can’t be. He knew everyone there.”
True Lies?” Holly repeated.
“You know, the waiter in that Arnie movie, the one who got chicks by impersonating a spy,” Sophie explained.
Christy frowned. “A waiter? Wasn’t he a car salesman? I—”
“People, people. Concentrate,” Holly interrupted, out of patience. “I told you to quit with the outdoor movies.” She turned to Annie. “Are you going to keep it?”
Annie looked at her friends. “Forget the fact I’m thirty-five and my clock is ticking. What are the chances of getting pregnant like this? One in a frigging billion. This baby hasn’t been born yet, and it’s already a damn superhero. Of course I’m keeping it.”

Chapter Two

Max entered Sweets and Tweets and drew in a deep breath. Man, if heaven had a smell, it surely was this. He’d loved this place since he was a little brat. The endless rows of colorful goodies, the smell of cotton candy. It made his mouth water every time.
He’d been running with Mike, like every morning, when on his way home, he couldn’t resist the allure of the shop, especially now that he was soon to leave for California.
Max scanned around. It seemed the kids had decided to sleep in, because it was ten o’clock on a Saturday and there was no one in the store.
Annie’s mom had moved away from Alden several years ago, but for the most part, the place was still as she’d left it. Painted with vivid and crazy colors, it had a certain hippie, childish look to it. Although that had perfectly suited Annie’s mother, it didn’t match her daughter.
The addition at the far end, though—where all the new goodies were elegantly displayed—had subtle tones and was much more Annie’s style. He wasn’t sure what she did for a living, but she worked in an office and often wore power suits. Pearls on her neck and ears. Hair all contained. Even when she threw on some jeans and a top, she was a far cry from a hippie.
Max found Annie refilling some containers, her back to him. He smiled to himself. Of all the changes that having his two older brothers involved with women had brought, getting to hang out with Annie had been the nicest. He’d always known her—he had an unrivaled sweet tooth, and her candy shop was the only one in town—but he had never socialized with her or run in the same crowd. Until now.
He moved toward Annie. “Hi, gorgeous. How are you doing?”
She straightened and turned around, her ponytail swaying. She looked…green. And becoming greener by the second.
“Sorry,” she croaked as she covered her mouth and, reaching for the trash bin near her, bent over and began throwing up.
O-kay. Not the reaction he’d been hoping for. Maybe he should have taken a shower before dropping by.
Before he could get a word out, she stumbled to the back of the shop, her head never leaving the inside of the trash can.
He glanced around. Sweets and Tweets was still miraculously empty, so he went to the entrance, flipped the CLOSED sign, and locked the door. Following the heaving sounds coming from the back, he made it to the bathroom and knocked on the half-open door. “Ace, you okay?”
He heard a feeble “Yeah.” Worried, he peeked in. Annie was on her knees, leaning on the toilet seat.  She’d stopped puking and was flushing it. The trash bin by her side was already empty.
Max moved to the sink, filled a glass with water, and handed it to her along with a towel.
“Thanks,” she mumbled after she rinsed her mouth.
She wasn’t green anymore, but she didn’t look much better. She was white as a sheet, the hair around her temples wet from sweat, her eyes red and watery.
He was about to help her up, but she leaned her forehead on the seat and sighed. She didn’t seem ready to move, so Max sat on the floor beside her, his back to the wall, his arms on his knees. “This is the second time you’ve thrown up on me. I’m going to start taking it personally. Thank God I’m not a sympathetic puker, huh? Otherwise we’d both be in so much trouble.”
She attempted a smile, brushing some strands of hair away from her face. “Technically, I didn’t puke on you.”
“True. Just lost your breakfast at the sight of me.” Which wasn’t much more flattering.
Annie blushed. “It’s not you. I’ve developed a sudden allergy to sweets.”
“Really? Since when?” Because in his mind, Annie equated with sweets. Hell, the whole woman smelled like marshmallows and candy apples.
“Since I have a picky fetus inside of me,” she muttered low, almost as if to herself.
“Come again?” he asked, trying his damnedest not to choke on his words. Surely he’d misunderstood her. She hadn’t said fetus, had she?
Her faint blush intensified, giving a bit more color to her face. “I’m…umm…pregnant,” she said with chagrin, as if she’d blurted the earlier comment.
“Oh. Congratulations.” She looked miserable, so he reconsidered. “Is this good news or bad news?”
She sighed. “Good news. Just a bit unexpected. Please don’t say anything to anyone. Only the girls know for now.”
He nodded and raked his brain. Apart from that bozo from the wedding, he didn’t remember seeing her with anyone. “Do I know the father?”
“There’s no father.” She cleared her throat and then backtracked. “Well, there is a father, obviously, but I’m doing this alone. Probably.”
“His loss,” he growled, holding her gaze. “If he lets you do this alone, then you’re better off without him.”
Annie murmured, “Thanks.”
“So this is what morning sickness looks like, right?”
Annie snorted. “Morning sickness, my butt. I’m sick all the time. Specially when I come to the shop. The damn smell is killing me.”
Huh. Max didn’t get it. Sweets and Tweets was the best-smelling place in the whole wide world. Surely a fetus should be able to appreciate it. “What smell?”
“Expectant mothers get sick from strong or bitter smells. Me? I get sick from sweet ones. How much more unlucky can I get?”
Max looked at her, all disheveled, sitting on the floor and still hugging the toilet seat, and had to laugh. “Well, keeping in mind you do own a candy store, not much more unlucky.”
“I’m able to go without puking now because your smell is somehow blocking the ones coming from the shop, but I’ll bet the second you leave and I have to go back out there, I’m going to be on my knees again. My abs hurt from throwing up. Well, heaving, because there’s really nothing else to throw up.”
Poor Annie. She looked so miserable.
Max turned his face to his armpit. “You got it backward. I stink. I probably shouldn’t have come straight from my run.”
“You don’t stink. You smell…manly,” she finished.
“Like sweat.”
“You don’t smell like sweat. Not like disgusting sweat, I mean. But like man’s sweat. I mean—” She was babbling.
“I get it, Ace,” he said with a chuckle. “What about the girl who takes care of the shop during the week? Can’t she come on Saturdays?”
“Megan can’t make it on Saturdays. Plus she has school a couple of afternoons too. I’m going to hire someone, if I can keep my head out of the toilet that long, but so far it’s just me. Holly, Sophie, and Christy have been helping, taking turns being here, but today none of them could come.”
“Really?” Because he doubted very much Christy would be too busy to lend a hand.
“Well, no. Holly and Sophie were going to Boston, and Christy doesn’t get many Saturdays free from the library. They’ve been doing so much, I didn’t want them changing their plans to be here, so I sort of lied and told them I got someone to cover for me.”
Ah, that was more like it.
“Let’s just close for the day and get you home, Ace. You’re in no condition to be here.”
She shook her head. “Can’t leave. Kids are due at noon. For many, today is candy day. I don’t want to disappoint them. And Sam and Kyra will be dropping by to get provisions for their pizza night.”
Max couldn’t stifle his snort. “I can’t speak for Kyra and Sam, but I’m sure Mike can do without those. As a matter of fact, he might even thank you. And we can’t have the owner puking all over the patrons. They may take offense.”
“I know. Still…” She sighed, not looking that excited about closing up and getting the hell out of there. “Staying home is almost as bad,” she confessed. “My condo is being renovated, and those smells are killing me too.”
“The fire in the clubhouse. The faulty wiring, right?” Max remembered Cole talking about having to shoehorn that job into their already busy schedule. The complex where Annie lived had been in dire need of a face-lift and some new plumbing, but the management had been dragging their feet for a while.
Annie nodded. “They had an origami lecture that evening, and the whole place was full of paper, so a spark and it went up in flames. On the plus side, the fire got management into gear. And it was about time. Last week, my next-door neighbor almost fell walking down the stairs when the step gave way. Thank God Thelma had great reflexes. If it had been me, I would’ve killed myself.”
Max tried to hide his amusement. “You mean Thelma from the gift shop? The lady in her late sixties with a knee replacement?”
Annie rolled her eyes, and suddenly Max noticed how expressive they were. “I know. But it’s true. All the seniors in my complex are in great shape. They take Mike’s self-defense classes. And they’re constantly organizing dance marathons. I’m not even sure they sleep; that’s how someone noticed the smoke in the clubhouse. Me? I was totally out. Anyhow, now I find myself in the middle of a rather massive renovation, throwing up all the time.”
“You can’t be sick day in and day out.” He had no clue about pregnant women, but barfing her guts out nonstop couldn’t be good for her or the baby.
“Yeah, I know. I’m going to get a room in the motel. My place should be ready in a month and a half. Two months tops.”
The hell she would. Two months in Alden’s only motel was too long. The place was clean but not really comfortable. It was located outside of town, close to Bottoms Up, a strip joint in a deserted lot, and it saw a lot of action of the dubious kind. Annie there? No fucking way.
Alden’s cute B&B was temporarily closed, so the only other option was the upscale club resort several miles away, but that hotel was always booked to the max with conventions and other activities for clients from Boston who wanted to escape from the city without being too far away from its amenities. Not to mention that a couple of months there would cost a mint. Scratch that. Two months there would make four years’ worth of student loans look like a joke.
Annie, oblivious to his thoughts, kept talking. “Christy asked me to move in with her and Cole, but no way am I going to be a third wheel. Sophie’s trying to reconcile with her ex-husband, so that’s a no go, and Holly lives in my complex too. She’s moving in with her cousin and asked me to go with her, but Holly, bless her heart, is a total slob. After two days I’d be ready to hang myself.”
“How long does this morning sickness last?”
“Supposedly only the first trimester. I’m two months pregnant, so just one more month.”
“I may have a solution for your accommodation troubles.”
She scowled at him. “I’m not moving in with your aunt. She’ll smell my condition a mile away.”
Probably. Max shook his head. “Move in with me.”
“In a couple of days, I’ll be off filming, first at the studio and then on location. After that I plan to go to the Rocky Mountains for several weeks. I miss the action. I spent the whole summer here. I’m getting itchy.”
She frowned. “Weren’t you somewhere just a couple of months ago?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was in Pamplona, Spain. Running in front of the bulls for the San Fermín festival.”
Annie lifted her eyebrows. “What?”
“Los Sanfermines is a festival that lasts a week starting July seventh. Every morning at eight o’clock sharp, they let six bulls loose in the city. You run in front of them and try to reach the bullring before getting overrun by them. Or horned. Or crushed under a mountain of guys when someone falls. Plain old fun. My dad did it. My bros too. In my family, being chased by bulls is a rite of passage.”
Annie’s shoulders shook with laughter.
“Of course, after the encierro—that’s what running with the bulls is called—everyone spends the day partying and drinking. The night too. Imagine how difficult it is to run next day at eight. Damn complicated to pinpoint six angry bulls chasing you when you’re seeing twelve.”
Annie was now giggling wholeheartedly. He loved to make her laugh.
He watched her. She was very pretty, in an understated sort of way. Brown hair, huge hazel eyes. Killer lips. She never wore flashy clothes and wasn’t big on makeup. Nor did she put her boobs out there for everyone to gawk at, like most of the girls he hooked up with. Nevertheless, once you looked at her face and she granted you one of her sweet smiles, you did notice her. Big-time.
“You’re kidding me,” she got out between gasps.
“Nope. By the end of the week, if you haven’t been hospitalized from alcohol poisoning or lost your balls from a goring, you’re a man.”
Of course, it wasn’t like that. The people who came to Pamplona to drink and party saw the encierros from behind protective fences or from the local bar. And one of the strict rules for running was not to be under the influence, but making Annie laugh was worth a few exaggerations.
“Somehow I don’t see Cole doing something that crazy.”
“Well,” he conceded, “I heard Cole ran once and then went to the city committee with a list of security concerns and how they should implement changes. I believe the city authorities declared him persona non grata permanently. All Bowen men travel to Pamplona when they’re of age. I’ve already gone several times.” Annie looked at him questioningly, and he shrugged. “What? I might have issues about becoming a man.”
“You’re nuts,” Annie concluded when she got her giggles under control.
Max grinned. “I keep busy. Anyhow, I’ll be away two months all in all. More than time enough for your morning-afternoon-evening sickness to go away.”
“It’s very nice of you, but I couldn’t—”
“Sure you could. You’d have the place all to yourself.”
She was shaking her head, her smile apologetic. “Really, thank you very much, but—”
“Besides, I need someone to look after my pets.”
She stopped shaking her head. “You have pets?”
He didn’t elaborate, and she cringed. “What kind?”
“The fun kind, of course.”
Annie didn’t seem that convinced. “I don’t do well with reptiles, Max. Or bugs. As a matter of fact, I don’t do well with fish either. I think they’re creepy. The way they look at you and open their mouth hypnotically. It feels like they know something we don’t and the ones inside the bowl are us.”
Max laughed. Jeez, Annie was funny. He wasn’t sure why he’d offered her his house. The thought just formed in his head, and once it was there, he hadn’t wanted to let it go.
“No reptiles. You’ll love Tango and Cash. And you’d be doing me a huge favor.”
“I’m terrible with animals. Can’t you leave them with your aunt?”
“Nope. Last time I did, her cat upset them.”
“And your brother?”
“Cole isn’t too crazy about them.”
“A neighbor?” she fumbled desperately.
Max snorted. “Excuse me. Have you met my neighbor Wilma, Original Grandma extraordinaire?”
He wiggled his brows and she laughed at his antics. “True.”
“So you see, I do need you to stay at my place and watch Tango and Cash,” he lied. He could actually leave his pets with any number of people, all of whom would be happy to have them or to stop by and keep an eye on them. But Annie struck him as the kind of person who wouldn’t agree to living in his house for free. And no way in hell was he asking her for money. “By the time I return, the renovating at your place will be done and you’ll be ready to move back there. No biggie.”
By the look in her face, it was the mother of all biggies. “Thanks, Max. But I have to decline. It’s too much. And I’m sure you can find a better-qualified pet sitter than me.”
“I don’t leave Tango and Cash with just anyone. Think about it. There’s a big plus: the whole house smells like me. You would get the benefit of a throw-up-free zone without having to put up with me. What do you have to lose? It’s a win-win situation.”
“This is extremely sweet of you, really, but I can’t take you up on your offer.”
She might have been sick, but easily swayable she wasn’t, at least not in this matter, so he decided not to push the issue. “Okay. If you change your mind, let me know. Now, first things first: you done?” he asked resolutely, standing and signaling toward the toilet, which she was still hugging.
She pondered for a second. “I think so.”
“Good.” He helped her up. “This is what we’re going to do. We’ll gather your things and close the shop. I’ll go home, take a quick shower, and come back to open this place so your kids won’t be disappointed and we can contribute to expanding Mike’s ulcer. I just need a crash course on how to work your cash register, and we’re on.” Although if he could manage the one at Tate’s restaurant, which was a relic her father had inherited from his father, he was sure this would be a piece of cake.
Annie wasn’t moving.
“Come on. If you don’t want to go home, you’re welcome to stay at my place. Either way, you’re out of here. Unless, of course, you want me to rat you out to Christy?”
Annie shook her head. No, he bet she wouldn’t want that. “Max, you can’t spend your morning—”
“Are your workers allowed to sample the products while in the shop?” he interrupted her.
Annie assented.
“Then I can spend the morning here, I assure you. A dream come true. Let’s get cracking.”
As he walked out of the bathroom to the cash register, he heard her heaving. “Ace, you okay?”
No answer. He’d left the door open. Guess his smell had worn off.
He’d better bring the cash register to the back.
* * * *
Annie was lying on a lounger in the yard of her complex, near the pool, her work papers on her lap, when she saw Christy approaching. Damn. “He ratted me out, didn’t he?”
Christy frowned. “Who?”
Christy dragged another lounger to where Annie was and sat beside her. “There was no need for it. You haven’t been checking your cell, have you?”
She hadn’t. She’d forgotten it inside her condo, and she hadn’t felt like braving the smells to go get it. Especially now that the workers had left and silence reigned. Besides, Max had assured her he’d have everything under control.
“No. Why?”
Her friend fished her own phone out of her pocket and handed it to Annie. At that very moment, the chime of a message came in. Then another. And another. “It hasn’t stopped the whole day. It’s crazy.”
It took Annie a while to understand what she was looking at. There were hundreds of tweets on the shop’s Twitter account. She scrolled all the way down. She normally received notifications of clients tweeting or Facebooking to get the discount. Now all the messages had the word “Max” in them.
“Your Twitter’s on fire. Your Facebook page too. Instagram and Pinterest are in ashes already.”
“Halloween has come early, my friend. Your shop is full to the brim. People are all but fighting to get in. Not sure about Alden’s policy, but Sweets and Tweets is way over its capacity. Expect a visit from the sheriff soon. Oh, and be ready for Facebook jail because of the obscene remarks.”
God, and she’d told Max there wouldn’t be too many clients aside from the kids.
He’d been such a sweetheart. He’d plugged an extension cord into the cash register and brought it to the bathroom—not the back office, which was currently doubling as storage and reeked of sweets to high heaven. Then he’d sat with her on the floor and learned to use it. He’d even managed to make her laugh, which, given the circumstances, had been a miracle.
He’d turned broody when she refused to let him take her to Christy and Cole’s or to his place. He hadn’t liked it at all, only relenting when she promised him she was going to be in the yard and that the workers would be stopping early for the weekend.
“What’s going on? Is Max giving my candy away?”
Christy laughed. “Please, girl. Max is the candy. I’m telling you, you get him to work there a couple of days per month, and you’re set for life. Not that you need the money. Just saying.”
Two more messages. Annie logged in to Facebook. Oh God. She handed the phone back to her friend. “I should go rescue him.”
“You kidding? He’s having a field day. He was laughing and flirting with everyone when I rushed there to see what was going on. And for your information, he didn’t rat you out—not right away. I had to drag it out of him. You know I’m a tough cookie.” Yes, she was. That was why Christy could hold her own when dealing with Cole. “Why didn’t you tell me Megan couldn’t work today? I could have taken her place.”
“You spend too much time there as it is.” Annie knew how hard it was for Christy to be around sugar, having struggled with emotional eating all her life. “And you didn’t have to come.” She waved Christy off. “Go back to your fiancé. Enjoy your free day.” Mrs. Wilkinson at the library was still having difficulties with the e-collections and was driving Christy into the ground. Her friend deserved a day off.
Christy, of course, ignored her. “No, and you’re right; I didn’t have to come. Because you were supposed to come to me. And stay with me.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure Cole would appreciate having me there.”
“Of course he has no problem with you staying with us, honey. As a matter of fact, if he knew that you’re sick and why, he’d probably be here packing your stuff.”
That Annie could believe. And that was exactly why she’d sworn her friend to secrecy. She had enough trouble as it was making sense of the whole thing. She was still amazed she’d blurted it to Max, but somehow it had felt right. Natural. “Not gonna happen. Not moving in with you guys.” Cole and Christy were starting their life together, and she refused to be a third wheel. A third, vomiting-all-the-time wheel.
Christy huffed. “You’re so stubborn. Damn that the landlord just rented my old apartment. That would have been perfect. What about moving temporarily to your dad’s?”
Annie gave her a you’re-joking look. Like she was going to that place with the wife du jour and the ex-wives fluttering around, with their fake Botox smiles and their calculating, greedy eyes when they thought no one was watching. Although Barbara, the current trophy wife, was somehow more likable.
Her mom and Larry were several states away. And happily clueless about the whole pregnancy thing.
“I know,” Christy mumbled, reading her expression perfectly. “The club resort?”
Annie lifted her shoulders. That was one option, although two months there would be hard to bear. An overdose of entitled socialites would probably kill her.
“Well, Mrs. Wilkinson is thinking about renting a room.”
“Nope. She’ll realize right away I’m pregnant, and I’m not ready for everyone to know yet. Besides, she doesn’t like me. Since I joined the romance book club, she looks at me funny.”
Christy chuckled. “She looks at me funny too. Scratch that; she looks at me horrified. She already thought I was from another planet for introducing the digital collections and suggesting we reduce the paper copies. Diving into the world of cliterature and taking Alden’s women with me is just the last straw.”
“Mrs. Patty’s incident didn’t help.”
The romance book club had kicked off with half the town signed up. But when Mrs. Patty, the lady in charge at the Salvation Army, had to be rushed to the hospital while still clutching her e-reader to her chest, Christy decided to separate the club into two groups based on reading preferences. And heart condition.
“Which reminds me, we’re starting a new book,” Christy added.
They were supposed to be reading a book per month, but they’d polished off the first one in a week.
“Really? What now?”
Christy wiggled her eyebrows. “One word: Highlanders.”
Lord. Horrible timing to sign up for a cliterature book club. She was suffering enough as it was with the hot flashes, without having to read about mouthwatering ancient warriors whose swords weren’t their only diamond-hard accessories.
Several more messages hit the phone. Christy checked them. “More of the same. Max is causing havoc. Not even Cole scowling by his side is deterring the women.”
“Cole is scowling by his side?”
Christy nodded. “We were together when my phone went bonkers. Pity James is still on his honeymoon. If you could get the three Bowen brothers working in the shop, man, that would be a sight to behold.”
“How are things going with Cole?”
A smile tugged at Christy’s lips. “Things are great.”
Annie loved how her friend’s face went soft when she talked about Cole.
“You’re a brave woman.” Cole was a force to be reckoned with. Scary.
“Nah, he’s a total softie. Haven’t you seen the way Max pesters him?”
“You know,” Annie started, “Max offered me his house. He’s going to be away for a while filming. He said I could stay there and take care of his pets.”
Christy was taken aback. “Max has pets? I had no idea.”
“Apparently. It doesn’t really matter though, because I can’t take him up on it. It’s too much.” She wasn’t used to being indebted to anyone to such an extent.
Max lived by the lake—not on the newly developed side but on the old one, in a gorgeous Victorian house he’d totally renovated.
“Why? It’s a great solution,” Christy said. “Besides, who will look after the pets?”
“You serious? Any of his groupies.” He’d just have to mention it or tweet about it, and a thousand volunteers would offer, never mind what kind of hellhounds Tango and Cash were.
At that moment, a woman dressed in expensive clothes entered the yard. She pulled her sunglasses up.
“Barbara, what are you doing here?” Annie asked, surprised.
Her father’s current wife didn’t answer right away. She was too busy gawking at her surroundings and trying to avoid the piles of material that the workers had left scattered all over the place. “I came to the club for my tennis lesson, and I thought to get those champagne strawberries your dad likes so much. I couldn’t even get in your store. Total mayhem, so I decided to check up on you. What’s going on? And why does this condo look like a work site?”
“Store is fine. A very popular friend of mine is tending to it. And the complex is being renovated after faulty wiring caused a fire.”
Barbara scrunched her beautifully sculpted nose job. “Forget renovate. They should bring it down.” She stepped on some cables with her Blahniks, almost losing her footing. “This is a mess. Please don’t tell me you’re staying here.”
“You can’t stay here. You have to come to the estate.” She motioned to the piled materials. “This place was bad enough as it was before. Now it’s downright inhuman.”
Annie rolled her eyes. Most of her neighbors were staying. Yes, it was annoying and exasperating to reside in a work site, but come on. Some people survived in much, much worse conditions. On the other hand, Barbara lived in a mansion, so yeah, to her this was probably the Gulag.
She tried derailing her attention. “Barbara, this is Christy, my dear friend from college. Christy, this is Barbara, my dad’s wife.”
The woman glanced at Christy, offered her a quick smile and a nice-to-meet-you, and then zeroed back in on Annie. “How come you didn’t tell us you needed a place to stay?” she asked, sounding outraged, arms crossed under her gravity-defying, barely two-year-old silicone boobs. “By the way, you don’t look well. Are you sick?”
“Just tired,” Annie hurried to answer. She didn’t want people to know about her pregnancy, especially her dad’s side of the family.
“Although no wonder,” Barbara continued, glancing around with a sneer. “Living here would make anyone sick. Shall I send someone to pack your things? Your dad would love to have you at the estate.”
Really? Because Annie was positive he wouldn’t notice her presence. Or lack thereof.
“Thanks, but no. I’ve already made other arrangements.”
It took a bit of insisting before Barbara gave up and left.
“Other arrangements?” Christy asked when they were alone.
“I’m moving in with Holly and her cousin. It’s just a couple of months. How bad can it be?”