“Still as ugly as ever, I see.”
Sean Kowalski flipped the bartender the bird and dropped his duffel on the floor next to an empty stool. “Runs in the family, cousin.”
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. “Damn glad you made it home.”
“Me, too.” Sean sat on the barstool and took a long swig of the foamy beer Kevin put in front of him. “Sorry I missed your wedding. And Joe’s, too.”
“You were getting your ass shot at in Afghanistan. We won’t hold it against you. Much.”
“Still can’t believe you both found women willing to be your Mrs. Kowalskis. What’s wrong with them?”
Kevin flashed him a grin. “It’s the dimples, man. Women can’t resist them. Too bad for you we got ’em from Ma and all you got are the blue eyes from the old man’s side.”
“They do me well enough. How are your parents doing?”
“Good. They’re looking forward to seeing you, and Ma made lasagna for tonight.”
Sean grinned and patted his stomach. “I didn’t stop for lunch so I’ve got plenty of room. There are a lot of things I miss about my mother, God rest her soul, but her cooking isn’t one of them. Aunt Mary, though? Damn, that woman can put a meal together.”
Kevin nodded, then stepped away for a minute to grab a water. “So, you’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.”
“Twelve years was enough. Don’t know what I want to do now, but I know it’s not more of that.”
“No interest in going back to Maine and helping your brother run the lodge?”
Sean shrugged. It had come up—–especially when he’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 wasn’t something he wanted to do. As a child, he’d hated strangers making themselves at home in his house and he’d never outgrown it. He just wasn’t cut out to be an innkeeper.
“It’s a plan B,” he said.
Kevin took a swig off the water bottle, then screwed the cap back on. “You know I’m just giving you shit. You can crash here as long as you want.”
“Appreciate it. Once I’ve had my fill of Aunt Mary’s cooking, I might go home or…hell if I know.” It was one of the reasons he’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. “This 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.”
“Nice to meet you,” Sean said, shaking her hand. She had one hell of a grip.
“I’ve heard a lot about you. Welcome home. My fiancé, Sam, and I live in the apartment below yours, so give a shout if you need anything.”
“Will do.” He watched her walk away because she had a hell of a swing, but—whether it was the mention of a fiancé or the fact she just wasn’t his type—it didn’t do much for him. “Jasper’s Bar & Grille, huh? Interesting name.”
“It came with the place and I’m too cheap to buy a new sign. Finish that beer and I’ll take you upstairs now that Paulie’s off break.”
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.
“So this is it,” Kevin told him when he was done showing him around and giving him the key. “You’ve got all our numbers and Paulie’s usually in the bar if you need anything.”
Sean shook his hand. “See you at dinner, then. Looking forward to meeting Beth and that baby girl of yours.”
“Lily’s a firecracker. Had her first birthday a week ago and loves terrorizing the shit out of her cousins.” 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.
“She’ll break some hearts someday,” Sean said because that’s what men seemed to say when shown pictures of other guys’ daughters.
“And I’ll break open some heads. Joe’s Brianna looks a lot like Lily, but without the dimples. She’s four and a half months now and loud as hell.” Kevin headed for the door. “I told Beth I’d be home by three so she can make something to bring to Ma’s without tripping over Lily, who doesn’t stay where we put her anymore. I’ll see you about six.”
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 didn’t regret the years he’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 wasn’t like he was expecting company. As far as he knew the only people who’d be looking for him were family, and he was meeting them at his aunt and uncle’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 colors—–almost like a deep cherry wood grain—–and whether she’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 hadn’t. This woman wasn’t too top-heavy and the way she took care of her body made him think if they wrestled under the sheets, she’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.
“Can I help you?” 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. “Are you Sean Kowalski?”
“I’m Emma Shaw…your fake fiancée.”
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 he’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 she’d ever seen.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t all suspicion. His expression implied he was afraid she was some crazy woman who’d gone off her meds and was going to start speaking in tongues or show him the handmade Sean doll she’d crafted to sleep with.
“Lady, I’ve never had a fiancée, fake or otherwise,” he said in a low voice that made her knees weaken just a little. “And it’s been a while since I’ve gone on a decent bender, so if I’d asked you to marry me, I’m pretty sure I’d at least remember your face.”
That would have been hard to do. “We’ve never actually met.”
He stopped squinting at her and snorted. “Let me guess—–this is some joke my cousins thought would be a funny way to welcome me home? Okay, so…ha ha. I’ve got stuff to do now.”
He started to close the door, but she slapped her hand against it. “I’m a friend of Lisa’s. Your cousin-in-law, I guess she’d be.”
“Mikey’s wife?” He pulled the door open when she nodded. “Maybe we should start this conversation in a different place. Like the beginning.”
She took a deep breath, then blew it out. “My grandmother’s raised me since I was four.”
“Maybe not that far back.”
“She 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 wouldn’t be alone, I told her I had a boyfriend. Then I told her he’d moved in with me. And, because I would only date a super great guy, after a while he proposed and naturally I accepted.”
“And I got dragged into this how?”
“I had just gotten home from having lunch with Lisa and she’d mentioned sending you a care package. Your name just popped into my head when Gram asked what my boyfriend’s name was.”
He shook his head. “Let me get this straight. You told your grandmother that a guy you’ve never met is your boyfriend?”
“I just wanted her to worry less.”
“Maybe she’s right to worry about you.”
Ouch. “I’m not crazy, you know.”
He folded his arms across his chest and looked down at her. “You made up an imaginary boyfriend.”
“You’re not imaginary. Just uninformed.”
He didn’t even crack a smile. “What do you want from me?”
And here came the crazy part—the more crazy part, anyway. “Gram’s coming home. She wants to check on the house and…she wants to meet you.”
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.
“So…what? You want me to have dinner with you guys? Pretend I’m your fiancé for a few hours?”
“She’ll be here a month.”
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 Gram’s arrival grew closer and she still couldn’t work up the nerve to tell her she didn’t really have a fiancé, the idea didn’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. “Since I know you didn’t come here thinking I’d move in with you and pretend to be your fiancé for a month, what is it you want?”
“Actually, I did come here to ask you if you’d move in with me and pretend to be my fiancé for a month.” And no, it didn’t sound a whole lot more sane than when she’d practiced saying it in the mirror.
“Why would I do that?”
Good question. “Because you’re not really doing anything else. I’d pay you. And you’re a nice guy?”
“Lady, you don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you just got out of the army, so you don’t have a permanent home. I know you don’t have a job yet. And I know you’re a really good guy.”
“I know somebody in my family has a big mouth.”
“Lisa’s proud of you. She talks about you a lot.”
He sighed and ran a hand over his hair. “Look, I’m not an actor for hire. I think, if you’re not willing to tell her the truth, you should just tell your grandmother you broke up with your…me.”
She wanted to argue with him—to make him understand she just wanted her grandmother to be happy—but it had been such a long shot anyway, she didn’t have the heart to keep at it.
“Well,” she said in a voice that only trembled a little, “thanks for your time. And welcome home, too.”
“Thanks. Take care of yourself.”
Even after he’d disappeared back into the apartment and closed the door, Emma managed not to cry. It wasn’t the end of the world. She’d have to tell Gram they’d broken up and that would be the end of it.
It wouldn’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 she’d think her granddaughter was nursing the heartbreaking loss of a broken engagement, too. Even if Gram could bring herself to return to Florida, she’d do nothing but fret again—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 Gram’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 Kowalskis’ 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.
“Sean!” She threw herself at him and he caught her up in a big bear hug.
He’d missed her more than he’d imagined he would while he was overseas. After his mom died unexpectedly the year he was nine, Aunt Mary had managed—from a state away and with four kids of her own—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, who’d passed away nine years ago.
“Your old man would have been proud,” 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 “nice to meet you” since she was wrangling Lily.
Mike and Lisa’s family was a lot taller than the last time he’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.
“Dinner’s ready to come out of the oven,” she said. “Let’s eat while it’s hot.”
As he’d expected, the massive dining room table was practically groaning under the weight of his welcome-home feast. She’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.
“I 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.”
She gave him a modest tsk but he could tell by the slight blush on her cheeks she was pleased by the compliment. “You always did have a good appetite.”
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 hadn’t been able to resist the third helping his aunt had pushed on him.
“It’s game night,” nine-year-old Brian told him when the talk had died down and they were clearing the table. “Are you going to stay and play?”
“Sure.” It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. “Just give me a few minutes to let my dinner settle, okay?”
“Sean’s playing,” the kid bellowed as he raced back to the others. “He’s on my team!”
“We don’t even know what we’re playing yet,” Danny pointed out.
“Don’t care. He’s on my team.”
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 left—out of view of people in the house—he almost bumped into Lisa.
Sean had always liked Mike’s wife. She was on the shorter side of average—maybe five-three—but she had six feet of attitude and didn’t let anybody push her around.
“Ran into a friend of yours today,” he told her.
“Tall. Hot. Batshit crazy?”
It was a few seconds before understanding dawned in her eyes, followed by a hot blush across her cheeks. “She didn’t.”
“Oh, she did. Knocked on my door and told me she was my fiancée, and that you knew she was throwing my name around.”
She put her hand on his arm. “It was harmless, Sean. Really. She was just trying to make her grandmother feel better about being in Florida.”
“Did she tell you her grand plan?”
The flush deepened. “Oh, no. Tell me she didn’t.”
“I thought she was only joking.”
“I thought it was a prank your husband and his cohort brothers cooked up, but she was serious.”
Lisa shook her head, but he could see the amusement tugging at the corners of her mouth. “What, exactly, did she tell you the plan was?”
“What did she tell you it was?”
“She was kind of hinting around that maybe you could pretend to be the boyfriend.”
“That almost sounds sane.” He gave a short laugh. “The plan’s now evolved into me moving in with her and pretending to be her fiancé for an entire month.”
She didn’t meet his eyes. “Maybe she did mention that, too, but she laughed, so I thought she was kidding.”
“Nope.” 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 didn’t seem she was a forgettable woman. “So what’s her deal, anyway?”
“Her grandmother kept talking about selling the house because she’s afraid it’s too much for Emma. Emma doesn’t want a different house, so she made up a guy.”
“Making up a guy would almost be normal. She made up an imaginary life for me. That’s not normal.”
“It’s a really nice house.” He just looked at her until she laughed and shrugged. “Okay, it’s crazy, but—”
“But it’s all out of love for her poor, sweet grandmother. Yeah, I got that part.”
The look she gave him let him know she hadn’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 didn’t, so he grinned and gave her a wink.
She blew out a breath and then her face grew serious. “Emma’s parents were killed in a car accident when she was four, on their way to do some Christmas shopping. Cat and John—her grandfather, who died about ten years ago—were watching Emma. When the state police gave them the bad news, they didn’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.”
“I’m sure they’re nice people, Lisa, but come on.”
“Cat 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.”
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.
“I knew I’d find you out here.” She smiled to let him know she wasn’t offended he’d try to sneak a few quiet minutes away from his own welcome-home dinner. “What are you two talking about?”
“I ran into a friend of Lisa’s today,” he told her, enjoying the way Lisa’s eyes got big and she started trying to communicate with him by way of frantic facial expressions behind her mother-in-law’s back. “Emma Shaw.”
“Emma Shaw… Oh! The one who does the landscaping, right?” Lisa nodded. “She’s such a nice girl, but I haven’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 fiancé doing?”
Lisa opened her mouth, but closed it again when Sean folded his arms and looked at her, waiting to see how—or even if—she was going to get out of the conversation without lying outright to Aunt Mary.
“I…think they’re having some problems,” she finally said. Nice hedge, if a bit of an understatement.
“Oh, that’s too bad. What’s her fiancé’s name? I meant to ask that day, but you started talking about some shoe sale and I forgot.”
It was a few seconds before Lisa sighed in defeat. “Sean.”
“Isn’t that funny,” Mary said, smiling at him before turning back to her daughter-in-law. “What’s his last name? Maybe I know his family.”
That was a pretty safe bet.
“She told her grandmother she was dating our Sean,” Lisa mumbled.
When his aunt pinned him with one of those looks that made grown Kowalski men squirm, Sean held up his hands. “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t even know.”
“How could you not know you were engaged?”
“I was in Afghanistan. And I met her for the first time a few hours ago.”
Her eyebrows knit. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s nothing, really,” Lisa said. “She didn’t want her grandmother to worry about her, so she told her she had a boyfriend and Sean’s name was the first one that came to mind.”
Sean grinned at Lisa. “Told ya.”
The slider opened and Joey’s head popped out. “Sean, you got drafted for Monopoly and they’re going to start cheating if you don’t get in here and take your turn.”
Since he’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 cousins’ kids, who had the real-estate instincts of Donald Trump and the sportsmanship of John McEnroe facing off against a line judge. A guy’s attention couldn’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 didn’t fare any better at Scattergories, though he did come up with “landscaper” 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. Sean’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?
“The grown-ups are breaking out the cards for some five-card stud,” Kevin told him. “We don’t take checks.”
Shit. At the rate he was going, he’d be bankrupt by the third hand.