â€śStill as ugly as ever, I see.â€ť
Sean Kowalski flipped the bartender the bird and dropped his duffel on the floor next to an empty stool. â€śRuns in the family, cousin.â€ť
Since they both stood a hair over six feet, they were able to exchange a quick hug over the bar, and Kevin thumped him on the back. â€śDamn glad you made it home.â€ť
â€śMe, too.â€ť Sean sat on the barstool and took a long swig of the foamy beer Kevin put in front of him. â€śSorry I missed your wedding. And Joeâ€™s, too.â€ť
â€śYou were getting your ass shot at in Afghanistan. We wonâ€™t hold it against you. Much.â€ť
â€śStill canâ€™t believe you both found women willing to be your Mrs. Kowalskis. Whatâ€™s wrong with them?â€ť
Kevin flashed him a grin. â€śItâ€™s the dimples, man. Women canâ€™t resist them. Too bad for you we got â€™em from Ma and all you got are the blue eyes from the old manâ€™s side.â€ť
â€śThey do me well enough. How are your parents doing?â€ť
â€śGood. Theyâ€™re looking forward to seeing you, and Ma made lasagna for tonight.â€ť
Sean grinned and patted his stomach. â€śI didnâ€™t stop for lunch so Iâ€™ve got plenty of room. There are a lot of things I miss about my mother, God rest her soul, but her cooking isnâ€™t one of them. Aunt Mary, though? Damn, that woman can put a meal together.â€ť
Kevin nodded, then stepped away for a minute to grab a water. â€śSo, youâ€™ve got no job. Gonna mooch food from Ma and bum an apartment from me. The army was supposed to make you a man, not a useless son of a bitch.â€ť
â€śTwelve years was enough. Donâ€™t know what I want to do now, but I know itâ€™s not more of that.â€ť
â€śNo interest in going back to Maine and helping your brother run the lodge?â€ť
Sean shrugged. It had come upâ€”–especially when heâ€™d told his brothers and sister he was going to hang out with the New Hampshire branch of the family for a while. But spending the rest of his life at the Northern Star Lodge wasnâ€™t something he wanted to do. As a child, heâ€™d hated strangers making themselves at home in his house and heâ€™d never outgrown it. He just wasnâ€™t cut out to be an innkeeper.
â€śItâ€™s a plan B,â€ť he said.
Kevin took a swig off the water bottle, then screwed the cap back on. â€śYou know Iâ€™m just giving you shit. You can crash here as long as you want.â€ť
â€śAppreciate it. Once Iâ€™ve had my fill of Aunt Maryâ€™s cooking, I might go home orâ€¦hell if I know.â€ť It was one of the reasons heâ€™d decided to leave the army. There was nowhere he had to be tomorrow. Or the day after that.
A tall, busty redhead stepped out from a back room and Kevin waved her over. â€śThis is my cousin, Sean. Sean, this is Paulie Reed, my head bartender, assistant manager and all around right-hand man. Woman. Person. Right-hand person.â€ť
â€śNice to meet you,â€ť Sean said, shaking her hand. She had one hell of a grip.
â€śIâ€™ve heard a lot about you. Welcome home. My fiancĂ©, Sam, and I live in the apartment below yours, so give a shout if you need anything.â€ť
â€śWill do.â€ť He watched her walk away because she had a hell of a swing, butâ€”whether it was the mention of a fiancĂ© or the fact she just wasnâ€™t his typeâ€”it didnâ€™t do much for him. â€śJasperâ€™s Bar & Grille, huh? Interesting name.â€ť
â€śIt came with the place and Iâ€™m too cheap to buy a new sign. Finish that beer and Iâ€™ll take you upstairs now that Paulieâ€™s off break.â€ť
Sean knocked back the rest of the suds and picked up his duffel. He followed his cousin to a back hallway, then up two flights of stairs to the apartment Kevin was letting him use for the duration of his visit. It was a decent place and clean, with an oversized leather couch and a big-screen TV. All good, as far as he was concerned.
â€śSo this is it,â€ť Kevin told him when he was done showing him around and giving him the key. â€śYouâ€™ve got all our numbers and Paulieâ€™s usually in the bar if you need anything.â€ť
Sean shook his hand. â€śSee you at dinner, then. Looking forward to meeting Beth and that baby girl of yours.â€ť
â€śLilyâ€™s a firecracker. Had her first birthday a week ago and loves terrorizing the shit out of her cousins.â€ť He whipped out his wallet and it fell open to a picture of a feisty-looking little girl with one of those palm-tree ponytail things on the top of her head, bright blue eyes and devilish dimples.
â€śSheâ€™ll break some hearts someday,â€ť Sean said because thatâ€™s what men seemed to say when shown pictures of other guysâ€™ daughters.
â€śAnd Iâ€™ll break open some heads. Joeâ€™s Brianna looks a lot like Lily, but without the dimples. Sheâ€™s four and a half months now and loud as hell.â€ť Kevin headed for the door. â€śI told Beth Iâ€™d be home by three so she can make something to bring to Maâ€™s without tripping over Lily, who doesnâ€™t stay where we put her anymore. Iâ€™ll see you about six.â€ť
When he was gone, Sean dropped onto the couch and closed his eyes. It was good to be home, even if home was a borrowed apartment. For the first time in twelve years he could go wherever he wanted. Do whatever he wanted. The army had given him a good start in life and he didnâ€™t regret the years heâ€™d served, but he was ready to be his own man again.
The first order of business as his own man? A power nap.
A knock at the door surprised him, jerking him out of a light sleep. It wasnâ€™t like he was expecting company. As far as he knew the only people whoâ€™d be looking for him were family, and he was meeting them at his aunt and uncleâ€™s. Still, he pulled open the door expecting to see one of his cousins.
He was wrong. His unexpected guest was definitely not related to him, which was a good thing considering his body reacted like it was his first time seeing a pretty woman. She had a big curly mass of dark hair full of different colorsâ€”–almost like a deep cherry wood grainâ€”–and whether sheâ€™d be a brunette or a redhead probably depended on the lighting. Her eyes were even darker, the color of strong black coffee, and just the right amount of curves softened a taller-than-average, lean body.
A body that made his body stand up and take notice in a way the sexy bartender downstairs hadnâ€™t. This woman wasnâ€™t too top-heavy and the way she took care of her body made him think if they wrestled under the sheets, sheâ€™d make it one hell of a good match.
Okay, he really needed to get laid if he was going to start imagining sex with any random stranger who knocked on his door.
â€śCan I help you?â€ť he prompted when she just stood there and looked at him.
She picked at the fraying wrist of a navy sweatshirt that had Landscaping By Emma written across the front in fancy letters. â€śAre you Sean Kowalski?â€ť
â€śIâ€™m Emma Shawâ€¦your fake fiancĂ©e.â€ť
Emma Shaw sure knew how to pick a fake man. The real Sean Kowalski was tall, had tanned and rugged arms stretching the sleeves of his blue T-shirt and dark blond hair that looked like it was growing out from a short cut. A little scruff covered his square jaw, as if heâ€™d forgotten to shave for a couple of days and, even squinting at her in a suspicious manner, his eyes were the prettiest shade of blue sheâ€™d ever seen.
Okay, maybe it wasnâ€™t all suspicion. His expression implied he was afraid she was some crazy woman whoâ€™d gone off her meds and was going to start speaking in tongues or show him the handmade Sean doll sheâ€™d crafted to sleep with.
â€śLady, Iâ€™ve never had a fiancĂ©e, fake or otherwise,â€ť he said in a low voice that made her knees weaken just a little. â€śAnd itâ€™s been a while since Iâ€™ve gone on a decent bender, so if Iâ€™d asked you to marry me, Iâ€™m pretty sure Iâ€™d at least remember your face.â€ť
That would have been hard to do. â€śWeâ€™ve never actually met.â€ť
He stopped squinting at her and snorted. â€śLet me guessâ€”–this is some joke my cousins thought would be a funny way to welcome me home? Okay, soâ€¦ha ha. Iâ€™ve got stuff to do now.â€ť
He started to close the door, but she slapped her hand against it. â€śIâ€™m a friend of Lisaâ€™s. Your cousin-in-law, I guess sheâ€™d be.â€ť
â€śMikeyâ€™s wife?â€ť He pulled the door open when she nodded. â€śMaybe we should start this conversation in a different place. Like the beginning.â€ť
She took a deep breath, then blew it out. â€śMy grandmotherâ€™s raised me since I was four.â€ť
â€śMaybe not that far back.â€ť
â€śShe retired to Florida a couple years ago with some friends and I take care of the house I grew up in. But all she was doing was worrying about me and when she started talking about moving back so I wouldnâ€™t be alone, I told her I had a boyfriend. Then I told her heâ€™d moved in with me. And, because I would only date a super great guy, after a while he proposed and naturally I accepted.â€ť
â€śAnd I got dragged into this how?â€ť
â€śI had just gotten home from having lunch with Lisa and sheâ€™d mentioned sending you a care package. Your name just popped into my head when Gram asked what my boyfriendâ€™s name was.â€ť
He shook his head. â€śLet me get this straight. You told your grandmother that a guy youâ€™ve never met is your boyfriend?â€ť
â€śI just wanted her to worry less.â€ť
â€śMaybe sheâ€™s right to worry about you.â€ť
Ouch. â€śIâ€™m not crazy, you know.â€ť
He folded his arms across his chest and looked down at her. â€śYou made up an imaginary boyfriend.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re not imaginary. Just uninformed.â€ť
He didnâ€™t even crack a smile. â€śWhat do you want from me?â€ť
And here came the crazy partâ€”the more crazy part, anyway. â€śGramâ€™s coming home. She wants to check on the house andâ€¦she wants to meet you.â€ť
As she spoke, Emma made sure none of her body parts were breaking the plane of the doorway, just in case he slammed the door in her face. It was something she might do, if some strange guy showed up on her doorstep and told her they were in a deep, meaningful relationship.
â€śSoâ€¦what? You want me to have dinner with you guys? Pretend Iâ€™m your fiancĂ© for a few hours?â€ť
â€śSheâ€™ll be here a month.â€ť
He laughed at her then. A deep, infectious laugh that made her want to join in even though he was laughing at her. Not that she could blame him. Even her best friend had laughed, although that might have been because Lisa thought she was joking. And she had been at the time. But as Gramâ€™s arrival grew closer and she still couldnâ€™t work up the nerve to tell her she didnâ€™t really have a fiancĂ©, the idea didnâ€™t seem as funny.
Sean obviously disagreed, since he laughed long enough so she shifted her weight from one foot to the other before clearing his throat. â€śSince I know you didnâ€™t come here thinking Iâ€™d move in with you and pretend to be your fiancĂ© for a month, what is it you want?â€ť
â€śActually, I did come here to ask you if youâ€™d move in with me and pretend to be my fiancĂ© for a month.â€ť And no, it didnâ€™t sound a whole lot more sane than when sheâ€™d practiced saying it in the mirror.
â€śWhy would I do that?â€ť
Good question. â€śBecause youâ€™re not really doing anything else. Iâ€™d pay you. And youâ€™re a nice guy?â€ť
â€śLady, you donâ€™t know anything about me.â€ť
â€śI know you just got out of the army, so you donâ€™t have a permanent home. I know you donâ€™t have a job yet. And I know youâ€™re a really good guy.â€ť
â€śI know somebody in my family has a big mouth.â€ť
â€śLisaâ€™s proud of you. She talks about you a lot.â€ť
He sighed and ran a hand over his hair. â€śLook, Iâ€™m not an actor for hire. I think, if youâ€™re not willing to tell her the truth, you should just tell your grandmother you broke up with yourâ€¦me.â€ť
She wanted to argue with himâ€”to make him understand she just wanted her grandmother to be happyâ€”but it had been such a long shot anyway, she didnâ€™t have the heart to keep at it.
â€śWell,â€ť she said in a voice that only trembled a little, â€śthanks for your time. And welcome home, too.â€ť
â€śThanks. Take care of yourself.â€ť
Even after heâ€™d disappeared back into the apartment and closed the door, Emma managed not to cry. It wasnâ€™t the end of the world. Sheâ€™d have to tell Gram theyâ€™d broken up and that would be the end of it.
It wouldnâ€™t be the end of the worrying, though. If anything, it would be worse. Now Gram would not only worry about Emma being alone and taking care of the house and a business, but sheâ€™d think her granddaughter was nursing the heartbreaking loss of a broken engagement, too. Even if Gram could bring herself to return to Florida, sheâ€™d do nothing but fret againâ€”the very thing Emma was trying to put a stop to.
Emma crossed the street and happened to glance up as she climbed into her truck. Sean Kowalski was watching her from his apartment window, and she forced herself to give him a friendly smile and wave before she closed her door and slid the key into the ignition.
It was too bad, she thought, and not just for Gramâ€™s sake. That was a man any woman would want to be pretend-engaged to, even if only for a month.
It was a good ten minutes after walking through the Kowalskisâ€™ front door before Sean could even get his coat off. The whole gang was there, but his aunt could throw some mean elbows and got to him first.
â€śSean!â€ť She threw herself at him and he caught her up in a big bear hug.
Heâ€™d missed her more than heâ€™d imagined he would while he was overseas. After his mom died unexpectedly the year he was nine, Aunt Mary had managedâ€”from a state away and with four kids of her ownâ€”to step up and be a mother figure to her four nephews and one niece. It had been good to see his siblings, but being squeezed by his aunt while her tears burned his neck was like coming home.
He got a little choked up himself when Uncle Leo pulled him into his arms and gave him a few solid thumps on the back. Though Leo was shorter than his brother, Frank, he was close enough in looks and mannerisms to remind Sean of his dad, whoâ€™d passed away nine years ago.
â€śYour old man would have been proud,â€ť Leo barked and Sean nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
Then came a gauntlet of cousins and their families. Joe, with his pretty new wife, Keri, who was holding a rosy-cheeked baby Brianna. Terry and Evan with Stephanie who, at thirteen, was growing into a pretty young woman. Kevin introduced him to Beth, who only managed a quick â€śnice to meet youâ€ť since she was wrangling Lily.
Mike and Lisaâ€™s family was a lot taller than the last time heâ€™d seen them. He managed to find out Joey was now fifteen, Danny twelve, Brian nine and Bobby seven before Mary started hushing the kids and herding them all toward the dining room.
â€śDinnerâ€™s ready to come out of the oven,â€ť she said. â€śLetâ€™s eat while itâ€™s hot.â€ť
As heâ€™d expected, the massive dining room table was practically groaning under the weight of his welcome-home feast. Sheâ€™d even made garlic bread that was soft and buttery on the inside and crusty on the outside. Far cry from his own pathetic efforts to recreate it by sprinkling garlic salt on a buttered slice of white toast.
â€śI swear, Aunt Mary, the whole time I was in Afghanistan, the only thing I could think of was your lasagna. Except for when I was thinking about your beef stew. Or your chicken and dumplings.â€ť
She gave him a modest tsk but he could tell by the slight blush on her cheeks she was pleased by the compliment. â€śYou always did have a good appetite.â€ť
The company was as good as the food, and stories flowed like the iced tea as they plowed through the lasagna. He told a few watered-down tales of Afghanistan. Joe told the story of blackmailing Keri into joining the entire Kowalski family on their camping trip. Mike told him about Kevin fainting like a girl the day Lily was born.
He laughed at the description of his cousin going down like a cement truck that blew a hairpin turn and crashed through the guardrail, holding his stomach because he hadnâ€™t been able to resist the third helping his aunt had pushed on him.
â€śItâ€™s game night,â€ť nine-year-old Brian told him when the talk had died down and they were clearing the table. â€śAre you going to stay and play?â€ť
â€śSure.â€ť It wasnâ€™t like he had anything better to do. â€śJust give me a few minutes to let my dinner settle, okay?â€ť
â€śSeanâ€™s playing,â€ť the kid bellowed as he raced back to the others. â€śHeâ€™s on my team!â€ť
â€śWe donâ€™t even know what weâ€™re playing yet,â€ť Danny pointed out.
â€śDonâ€™t care. Heâ€™s on my team.â€ť
While the family debated which board games to drag out with the ferocity of a cease-fire negotiation, Sean stepped onto the back deck for a little fresh air. When he closed the sliding door and stepped to the leftâ€”out of view of people in the houseâ€”he almost bumped into Lisa.
Sean had always liked Mikeâ€™s wife. She was on the shorter side of averageâ€”maybe five-threeâ€”but she had six feet of attitude and didnâ€™t let anybody push her around.
â€śRan into a friend of yours today,â€ť he told her.
â€śTall. Hot. Batshit crazy?â€ť
It was a few seconds before understanding dawned in her eyes, followed by a hot blush across her cheeks. â€śShe didnâ€™t.â€ť
â€śOh, she did. Knocked on my door and told me she was my fiancĂ©e, and that you knew she was throwing my name around.â€ť
She put her hand on his arm. â€śIt was harmless, Sean. Really. She was just trying to make her grandmother feel better about being in Florida.â€ť
â€śDid she tell you her grand plan?â€ť
The flush deepened. â€śOh, no. Tell me she didnâ€™t.â€ť
â€śI thought she was only joking.â€ť
â€śI thought it was a prank your husband and his cohort brothers cooked up, but she was serious.â€ť
Lisa shook her head, but he could see the amusement tugging at the corners of her mouth. â€śWhat, exactly, did she tell you the plan was?â€ť
â€śWhat did she tell you it was?â€ť
â€śShe was kind of hinting around that maybe you could pretend to be the boyfriend.â€ť
â€śThat almost sounds sane.â€ť He gave a short laugh. â€śThe planâ€™s now evolved into me moving in with her and pretending to be her fiancĂ© for an entire month.â€ť
She didnâ€™t meet his eyes. â€śMaybe she did mention that, too, but she laughed, so I thought she was kidding.â€ť
â€śNope.â€ť Sean folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the house. He should go back in and see if there was any blueberry cobbler left. Emma Shaw was nothing but a weird blip on his radar and he should forget her. But it didnâ€™t seem she was a forgettable woman. â€śSo whatâ€™s her deal, anyway?â€ť
â€śHer grandmother kept talking about selling the house because sheâ€™s afraid itâ€™s too much for Emma. Emma doesnâ€™t want a different house, so she made up a guy.â€ť
â€śMaking up a guy would almost be normal. She made up an imaginary life for me. Thatâ€™s not normal.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s a really nice house.â€ť He just looked at her until she laughed and shrugged. â€śOkay, itâ€™s crazy, butâ€”â€ť
â€śBut itâ€™s all out of love for her poor, sweet grandmother. Yeah, I got that part.â€ť
The look she gave him let him know she hadnâ€™t missed his less-than-flattering tone. It was a look that probably would have cowed him if he had to live with her, sleep beside her and depend on her for a hot meal. But he didnâ€™t, so he grinned and gave her a wink.
She blew out a breath and then her face grew serious. â€śEmmaâ€™s parents were killed in a car accident when she was four, on their way to do some Christmas shopping. Cat and Johnâ€”her grandfather, who died about ten years agoâ€”were watching Emma. When the state police gave them the bad news, they didnâ€™t even consider giving her up. They were all she had and, as their friends enjoyed their empty nests and started traveling and retiring, the Shaws started all over with a grieving four-year-old.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sure theyâ€™re nice people, Lisa, but come on.â€ť
â€śCat tried to hide how much she wanted to go down to Florida with her friends, but Emma knew. And it took her an entire year to convince her it was okay to go. And even then, every time they talked on the phone, Cat talked about moving back to New Hampshire because Emma was alone and the house was too big for one person and there was too much lawn to mow and this whole list of stuff. So Emma made up a man around the house and Cat was free to enjoy her book clubs and line-dancing classes.â€ť
Sean was going to point out the rather significant difference between lying about having a boyfriend and asking a stranger to move in for a month, but his aunt stepped outside and closed the slider behind her.
â€śI knew Iâ€™d find you out here.â€ť She smiled to let him know she wasnâ€™t offended heâ€™d try to sneak a few quiet minutes away from his own welcome-home dinner. â€śWhat are you two talking about?â€ť
â€śI ran into a friend of Lisaâ€™s today,â€ť he told her, enjoying the way Lisaâ€™s eyes got big and she started trying to communicate with him by way of frantic facial expressions behind her mother-in-lawâ€™s back. â€śEmma Shaw.â€ť
â€śEmma Shawâ€¦ Oh! The one who does the landscaping, right?â€ť Lisa nodded. â€śSheâ€™s such a nice girl, but I havenâ€™t seen her in ages. Not since I ran into you two at the mall and overheard you talking about her engagement. How are she and her fiancĂ© doing?â€ť
Lisa opened her mouth, but closed it again when Sean folded his arms and looked at her, waiting to see howâ€”or even ifâ€”she was going to get out of the conversation without lying outright to Aunt Mary.
â€śIâ€¦think theyâ€™re having some problems,â€ť she finally said. Nice hedge, if a bit of an understatement.
â€śOh, thatâ€™s too bad. Whatâ€™s her fiancĂ©â€™s name? I meant to ask that day, but you started talking about some shoe sale and I forgot.â€ť
It was a few seconds before Lisa sighed in defeat. â€śSean.â€ť
â€śIsnâ€™t that funny,â€ť Mary said, smiling at him before turning back to her daughter-in-law. â€śWhatâ€™s his last name? Maybe I know his family.â€ť
That was a pretty safe bet.
â€śShe told her grandmother she was dating our Sean,â€ť Lisa mumbled.
When his aunt pinned him with one of those looks that made grown Kowalski men squirm, Sean held up his hands. â€śI had nothing to do with it. I didnâ€™t even know.â€ť
â€śHow could you not know you were engaged?â€ť
â€śI was in Afghanistan. And I met her for the first time a few hours ago.â€ť
Her eyebrows knit. â€śI donâ€™t understand.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s nothing, really,â€ť Lisa said. â€śShe didnâ€™t want her grandmother to worry about her, so she told her she had a boyfriend and Seanâ€™s name was the first one that came to mind.â€ť
Sean grinned at Lisa. â€śTold ya.â€ť
The slider opened and Joeyâ€™s head popped out. â€śSean, you got drafted for Monopoly and theyâ€™re going to start cheating if you donâ€™t get in here and take your turn.â€ť
Since heâ€™d rather go directly to jail and not pass go then listen to Lisa try to explain Emma Shaw to Aunt Mary anymore, he gave the women a whaddya-gonna-do shrug and followed Joey to the family room. He was late to the game, so he got stuck being the stupid thimble, but he just grinned and pulled up some floor next to the oversized coffee table.
He then proceeded to have his ass handed to him by his cousinsâ€™ kids, who had the real-estate instincts of Donald Trump and the sportsmanship of John McEnroe facing off against a line judge. A guyâ€™s attention couldnâ€™t wander to a mass of dark curls and pleading brown eyes for a few minutes without hotels popping up all over the damn place. One moment of distraction, remembering the way his body had responded to hers, and he found himself promising Bobby a trip to Dairy Queen in exchange for the loan of a fistful of paper money.
He didnâ€™t fare any better at Scattergories, though he did come up with â€ślandscaperâ€ť when the letter was L and the category was occupations. Stephanie smoked them all, managing to find alliterative adjectives to go with her answers. Prissy Professor. For an F fruit, she came up with fresh figs. Seanâ€™s was blank.
After the scores were tallied, he scratched down a few adjectives for his profession pick. Lovely landscaper. Lush landscaper. Or maybe…lusty landscaper?
â€śThe grown-ups are breaking out the cards for some five-card stud,â€ť Kevin told him. â€śWe donâ€™t take checks.â€ť
Shit. At the rate he was going, heâ€™d be bankrupt by the third hand.