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Subject: Navy SEAL Shane “Scavenger” O’Brian

Mission: Seduce and satisfy Lark Sommers!

Lark Sommers’s dry spell is officially a sex-starved desert. Since taking over her mom’s quirky coffee shop in Nowhere, Idaho—putting her own career on permanent hold—Lark’s been, well, miserable. But her friends have a plan…one that starts with a superhot guy with a rockin’ hard bod.

US Navy SEAL Shane O’Brian has no clue he’s being set up. All he knows is that Lark does incredible things to his libido. Still, Shane can’t quite bring himself to tell her what he does for a living. After all, their risqué business is temporary—no strings, no falling in love. Especially when there’s no way this SEAL would ever be tempted into anything more than a sexy little fling…

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Prologue

Last Month

“Hey, Lark. We need two double-whipped, triple-caramel mocha lattes.”

“And one of those passionflower tarts.” The woman leaned so close she was bent over the counter, then said in a faux whisper, “You know, the ones Heather makes. She told me the ingredients in one of those is enough to make a girl irresistible to any man.”

“Heather said what?” Lark Sommers stopped in the act of ringing up their order to stare.

“You know, that the baked goods here are aphrodisiacs,” Cassia said with a wide grin.

“Hey,” Sara O’Brian hissed at the same time, smacking her cousin on the shoulder. “I thought you said that was a secret.”

“Right, like Lark doesn’t know that Heather’s making her aphrodisiacs for the coffeehouse,” Cassia said, rolling her eyes.

Lark frowned at two of her favorite customers turned good friends, then blinked. First at the curvaceous redhead, then at the kewpie doll blonde. The cousins looked nothing alike. Cassia was as sassy as Sara was sweet. And both were usually pretty perceptive.

Sure, Heather baked for the coffeehouse. Lark’s aunt also baked for the market, for the high school and for three restaurants. She provided everything from cupcakes to croissants to half the town. So why would Cassia think the tarts were a turn-on?

Before Lark could ask, Cassia continued.

“Look, I haven’t had sex in eight days. That’s more than a week. If I don’t get laid soon, I might forget my best moves.” The busty redhead sounded as if she was about to cry.

And knowing her Cassia, Lark Sommers figured she probably was. The only thing Cassia Moore loved more than herself was sex.

Still…

“C’mon, Cassia, you know better than to listen to Heather’s crazy talk,” Lark chided, not caring that she’d just thrown her aunt under the bus. That’s what Heather got for trying to stir everyone’s imagination.

“Then they aren’t real?” Cassia huffed, slamming her hands on her hips so hard her bracelets jangled like bells. “But I need sex. Soon. Today. Now. Otherwise, I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Oh my God, hush,” Sara hissed, hunching her shoulders before looking right, then left to see if any of their fellow caffeine addicts had overheard. Color washed her sweet face from her dimpled chin to her pale blond roots. “Do you think everyone in The Magic Beans wants to know that you’re desperate?”

“Desperate? You go a week without sex and see how you feel.”

It only hurt for the first thirty weeks. But Lark didn’t figure sharing that little tidbit of knowledge would help, so she kept it to herself. As the cousins bickered, she tried to remember what went into a double-whipped, triple-caramel mocha latte—and what was up with multiples? And why wasn’t regular coffee good enough for people?

She slid a quick glance toward the counter, with its old-fashioned cash register, antique metal tin of honey sticks and vintage cake servers, one piled high with tiny yam scones under the domed glass, the other with a variety of muffins.

Lark bit her lip, and as soon as she was sure that the two women were totally engrossed with their debate, she surreptitiously slid her laminated cheat sheet out from its hiding place tucked between a commercial coffee machine that looked as if it should be on a spaceship and the midnight blue wall.

After a quick glance at the ingredients and steps, she began measuring, whipping, mixing and stirring. While she did, her friends debated the reality of magical tarts and if it was fair to use them to get a guy into bed. As she so often did over the past year, Lark felt as if she’d fallen down a very dark rabbit hole.

She pursed her lips, studying the only part of the café that felt like her—a half wall of shelves holding ceramic cups, bowls, mugs and dishes. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she’d made them for her mom when the older woman had decided to open a coffeehouse. Scattered around the place on high shelves and display cabinets were a few bigger pieces that she’d shipped from her studio in San Francisco. Guilt pieces, she called them, because she’d sent them instead of taking time out of her busy life and dream career to visit her mom’s new home in Idaho. And now they were all that was left of Lark’s dream life. Just like the coffeehouse was all that was left of her mom.

Knowing if she thought about it too long, she’d sink into a funk that would inevitably have her drinking chocolate syrup from the bottle, she blocked the thoughts. Instead, she carefully chose two of her favorite style, the tall fluted ceramic cups a rich blue glaze dripping over teal.

“Lark, if you did believe in magic, would you think it was okay to use it to get a guy naked?” Sara asked as Lark filled the mugs with the mocha-caramel-caffeine mixture.

Once upon a time, Lark had believed in all sorts of magic. In positive energy and thinking good thoughts and wishing on stars. But that was then—she frowned—and this was now.

“Nope. I’m not getting between the two of you.” Grabbing the whipped cream dispenser, Lark shook her head. When a single strand of hair, black and silky, slid out of her French braid, she blew it out of her way. She’d missed her last two hair appointments because she was too busy to leave the café. And maybe, just maybe, because she couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for her haircut at a place called Budget Cuts—the only salon in Little Lake, Idaho—population ten thousand—that didn’t sport a barber pole.

“Okay, fine,” Sara said, shooting her cousin a sideways look. “How about this question. Do you think it’s okay to talk about your lack of sex in public?”

Lark held up a shaker bottle of mocha magic, a chocolate dust her aunt made for the drinks. When both women nodded, she shook a dusting over each mountain of whipped cream and considered the question.

“I think it depends,” she said with a shrug, relaxing now that they were served. She leaned one hip against the counter, trying not to yawn. This getting up at five in the morning thing was for the birds.

“Depends on what?”

“On whether the discussion is between good friends or virtual strangers. On if it’s held in quiet, considerate tones or put out there loud enough for the guy in the corner to hear.”

The three women glanced across The Magic Beans. The café was on the small size so they didn’t have to strain their eyes. Seated in the corner at a table made of a tree stump was a man who looked older than the dirt the tree had grown in. Grizzled and grumpy, Lark had nicknamed the café’s regular. But he wasn’t paying any attention to them, so obviously the sex talk hadn’t reached his hairy ears.

“But most of all,” Lark added when the other two women turned to face her again, “it depends on if one of the friends is getting sex and the other isn’t.”

“Ha, there you go.” Cassia did a little happy dance boogie that did get Old Joe’s attention. He sent them a scowl and a growl from his corner before snapping his newspaper. Cassia gave one last defiant hip wiggle, then she poked Sara in the shoulder. “See, it’s okay to talk about how devastating it is that I haven’t had sex in over a week.”

“Devastating?” Sara rolled her eyes. “I haven’t had a date, let alone sex, in three months.”

“Boo-hoo to both of you,” Lark said with a laugh, taking her bottle of iced lemon water from under the counter to sip. “I’ve been in dry dock for seventeen months, eleven days and—” she glanced at her watch “—nine hours.”

“And you’re not stark raving crazy?” Cassia shook her head and eyed Lark as if expecting her to burst into maniacal laughter or run around the cozy café, screaming her head off.

Or worse, curl up behind the counter and cry. Which, Lark acknowledged with a sigh, was a possibility that grew stronger every day.

But not over sex.

Before she had to admit that, or react to the pitying look on her friends’ faces, the door chimed.

“Well, well, what have we here? Three lovely ladies and coffee. What more could a man want?”

“Eww,” muttered Cassia.

Sara pulled a face.

Lark barely managed to keep her smile in place as Paul Devarue approached the counter. The banker’s pale gray suit did nothing to disguise his bulk, nor did his carefully styled hair hide the fact that he was balding..

Lark told herself not to hold any of that against him. Nor should she blame him for his ongoing campaign to convince her to sell her mother’s coffeehouse so he could demolish Raine Sommers’s legacy to put in a minimall. As he so often said, that was only business.

Yet, no matter now often she told herself all of that, she simply couldn’t stand the guy.

“Good morning, Paul,” she said, grimacing when he subtly nudged Sara and Cassia aside. Before Cassia could nudge him back, Sara grabbed their mugs by the thick handles, shoved one at her cousin and gave Lark a little finger wave.

“What can I get for you this morning?” she asked. “Your regular? Black coffee, large and a banana hazelnut bran muffin?”

The kind that came from the bakery. Not from Heather’s creative kitchen. Not that aphrodisiac-laced treats would work on a guy like Paul. Lark’s mom had always said that the first tenet of magic was imagination.

“Coffee and a muffin sounds just right. The perfect start to the morning.”

Lark glanced at the funky clock on the wall, a mosaic of coffee beans with spoons for hands, and gave a fond thought to the time in her life that she’d called 10:00 a.m. the start of the morning.

“Did you want it to go?” she asked, lifting the lid of the domed dessert dish and, remembering to use a napkin, grabbed the largest muffin.

“Here is fine. With business so slow, I’m sure you can keep me company for a while.”

Oh, goody. Lark filled a rich purple mug etched with stars with coffee and tried not to grimace. That sounded about as fun as being kicked in the gut by a scary clown during a tax audit.

Or barring that, having a pity party over her nonexistent sex life.

 

“I hate that guy. He’s such a jerk.” Her eyes narrow with suspicion, Sara watched the smarmy banker lean forward, damn near climbing over the counter to shove his capped-tooth smile in Lark’s face. “Look at how he’s getting in her space. That can’t be good. A guy like that, he’ll smudge her aura.”

“You’re a goofball,” Cassia said, shaking her head. But she twisted in her chair to check it out. “Quit worrying. It’s not like he’s hitting on her.”

“Worse. He’s nagging at her. And if he keeps at it long enough, she’ll cave and sell him The Magic Beans. If she does, she’ll move away and then we’ll lose a good friend. A good friend with a great wardrobe that she lets you borrow. Then what?”

Misery was what.

Misery for Sara, that was.

She’d lose her best friend. The coolest person she’d ever met. Lark was everything Sara wanted to be. Sophisticated yet bohemian. Clever yet sweet. She had a degree in Fine Arts; she’d owned a chic apartment in San Francisco and worked in a fancy art gallery and attended fancy art shows there featuring her own pottery. She’d had it all.

And she’d given it up for family. Lark had come to Little Lake, Idaho a year and a half ago because her mom was sick. When Raine Sommers’s flu had turned out to be cancer, Lark had stayed. First to take care of her mother, then after Raine passed, to take over running The Magic Beans.

Sara thought Lark was the strongest woman she knew.

“Well, she’s not happy,” Cassia pointed out. “She puts on a good face and all. But she’s working her tail off to keep this place going like if she doesn’t her mom’s gonna come back and kick her ass.”

Sara winced and resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. If ghosts where real—and she was sure they were—talk like that would earn a good haunting.

“She promised Raine that she’d keep it going.”

“Lark shouldn’t be miserable just because she made a deathbed promise.” Cassia shook her head. “That’s, like, medieval.”

Sara hummed instead of answering. She knew Lark was sticking around for more than her mom’s legacy. Raine’s insurance hadn’t gone very far, so Lark had sold her San Francisco apartment and taken out a second mortgage on the coffeehouse in the hopes that something—anything—would change the prognosis.

The bottom line was that Lark couldn’t afford to leave. But Sara wasn’t telling Cassia that.

“And speaking of medieval, can you believe she hasn’t had sex in eighteen months?”

“Seventeen months, eleven days and nine hours,” Sara corrected. Then, frowning, she added, “Maybe ten by now.”

“No wonder she’s unhappy. I mean, can you imagine going that long?” Cassia gave an exaggerated shudder, but the horror in her eyes was real.

“Well, her heart was broken,” Sara pointed out. “Between her mom and that jerk, Eric, she’s had a lot to deal with.”

Eric had been Lark’s sexy San Francisco guy. They’d been practically engaged, and he’d cheated on her the first week she’d been in Idaho. Worse, Lark had found out when a friend posted New Year’s pictures on Facebook—one of which was her true love with his lips plastered on a busty blonde’s mouth and his hands on her butt.

“That’s the answer,” Cassia exclaimed, slapping her hand on the table. Sara hissed when everyone, including the woman whose sex life they were whispering about, looked over.

“What’s the answer?” she asked when they all turned back to their own business.

“Sex.”

Sara blinked.

“Sex?”

“Yeah. You know, the horizontal boogie? The mattress mambo? Riding the—”

“Stop!” In defense against the onslaught of euphemisms, of which she knew Cassia had legion, Sara threw up a hand. “We’ve already established that I know what sex is. What I don’t know is why you think it would help Lark right now.”

“Sex helps anything, anyone, anytime,” was Cassia’s sage response.

“How is sex going to help Lark’s situation?” She didn’t ask how it’d help Lark personally. She knew what Cassia would say to that.

“Sex will keep Lark from seizing her engine.”

“What do you mean?”

Her cousin grinned. “Remember that mechanic I went out with for a while?”

“The one who liked to, um, do you on the hood of his Camaro,” she asked. At Cassia’s nod, Sara shrugged. “So?”

“While we were doing the hood hop, he rebuilt my engine.” Smirking at Sara’s arch look, Cassia shook her head. “That way too, but I mean he literally rebuilt the engine of my `Vette. Chewed me out for not taking care of it properly, too. Said that an engine has to stay lubricated if it’s going to run right.”

Confused, Sara lifted her mug to lick the last of the whipped cream from the side. Maybe if the sugar high kicked in, she’d understand.

“Lark needs sex,” Cassia explained patiently, pushing aside her coffee mug, only half-empty. “It’ll give her a boost. If she’s boosted enough, she’ll be able to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she’ll know how to handle the coffeehouse, and let’s face it, she’ll feel damned good.”

Sara pursed her lips and thought over Cassia’s words. Sara was a smart woman when it came to most things, but in the matter of sex, she always bowed to Cassia’s greater knowledge. Everyone did. She wanted to suggest Heather’s aphrodisiac tarts, but knew better.

“So you’re saying if we get Lark some sort of date that she’ll stick around? I mean, that she’ll be happy,” Sara corrected, not wanting to sound selfish.

“It can’t hurt,” Cassia said with a wicked smile. “Now, let’s figure out who to hook her up with.”

“He has to be good-looking.”

“Better if he’s got a rockin’ bod. The kind that will make her mouth water and her hormones stand up and dance.”

“Someone with a good sense of humor,” Sara decided as she nibbled her bottom lip. “Lark’s had it rough the last couple of years, so someone who makes her laugh would be nice.”

“We want someone with stamina. A guy who can give her a dozen orgasms in one night, and still greet her the next morning with a breakfast boner.”

“A breakfast…” Knowing her cheeks were turning pink, Sara shook her head. Just when she thought Cassia couldn’t shock her any more.

“Yeah. Every woman deserves a once-in-a-lifetime guy. He needs to be temp, though. You know, transient. Otherwise Lark will get all emotionally involved and it could mess with her mind. That’d just put her right back where she is now.”

“I was thinking a local guy, someone who’d make Lark want to stay.” Sara frowned.

“Nah. Lark’s been here a year and a half—if there was a guy who appealed to her, she’d have already met him. We need a temporary guy to pop her cork, then once he’s gone, she’ll be more amenable to looking at the locals.”

“Good point,” Sara agreed.

Lark’s perfect guy, but temporary.

He’d have to be good-looking, fun and nice. Cassia would toss in sexy, so Sara figured that probably mattered, too. Someone who wouldn’t screw Lark over like Eric had.

Sara quit nibbling her lip and started sucking on it instead, her mind racing. It could be one of those two birds with one stone deals. She’d help Lark, keep her best friend and fix a few family issues all at the same time. It was a crazy idea, but maybe…

“You thinking one of those online dating services? Because I tried that a couple of times and those guys lie. They tell you they’re sporting ten inches and they really got three.” Cassia shook her head. “Why don’t I check my history book, see if there’s anyone in there who’d tempt her.”

“Nope.” Sara waved a dismissive hand before the sleek redhead had her little black book cleared from her purse. “I’ve got the perfect guy for Lark. Absolutely perfect.”

1

“Report, O’Brian. Did you complete your mission?”

Petty Officer Shane O’Brian stood at attention. Shoulders back, chin high, eyes ahead.

“Yes, sir,” he barked. “Completed with resources to spare.”

“Is that so. And at any time did the target become aware of your mission?”

“Hell, no.” Eyes dancing, Shane grinned. “He’s as clueless as a newborn. Which, I’ve gotta tell you, is totally weird. Of all people, you’d think he’d be suspicious.”

“Nice job.” Shane’s commander, Mitch Donovan slapped him on the back before dropping onto the couch. Resting his booted foot on the knee of his camouflage fatigues, Mitch laughed. “Gabriel’s a wily SOB, but there’s no way he’d expect an engagement party. Especially since the bride-to-be doesn’t even know they’re getting engaged.”

“He’s going to be so pissed,” Shane observed, handing Mitch the list of what had and hadn’t been done so far.

“That you accessed his private information, evaluated his actions, went behind his back to report said information and actions, then compounded it by bringing multiple people into it in a way that will, when it comes out, be a huge slap in the face?” Mitch jutted out his chin and considered that, then nodded. “Yup. Seriously pissed.”

“I can’t wait.” Laughing, Shane dropped into the chair opposite Mitch. Like most everything else in the apartment, the brown furniture was butt ugly, but it was comfortable. Shane figured that’s all a person could ask for with base housing.

Both he and Mitch, along with their friend Gabriel—better known as Romeo to the SEAL team—had got the PCS—permanent change of station—to the Coronado base a year ago. The three of them had bunked together until his buddies had hooked their perfect women. After they’d moved out, Shane hadn’t seen any point in looking for other quarters—or in replacing the butt-ugly furniture.

“You’re sure he’s going to propose?”

Shane simply raised one brow. They didn’t call him Scavenger for nothing. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t find. Supplies, enemies, information.

“Right,” Mitch said, shaking his head. “Of course you’re sure. Which means he has no clue what you’re planning.”

“That’d be we, not me,” Shane pointed out. “And yeah, I’m sure. Nobody expects a party for getting engaged. Married, having a kid, okay. But for volunteering to hook on a ball and chain?” He gave a pitying shake of his head. Not over Gabriel landing Tessa, or that Mitch was newly married with a baby due any day. His friends had scored some great women.

But Shane figured the odds of military guys, SEALs especially, making it work long-term? Of finding a woman who got what they did, was okay living their life with a man who answered to Uncle Sam, put his life on the line on a regular basis and kept 90 percent of what he did to himself? Pretty much zilch.

Hell, he’d experienced issues himself in his family alone. His own mother was so pissed about his career, she refused to acknowledge it. To keep her happy, the entire family pretended he was a traveling salesman. It’d been funny for a while, but over the past couple of years it’d started getting to him. He’d got to the point that he rarely went back home to Little Lake, Idaho, and since nobody acknowledged his career, none of the family had ever visited him here in Southern California.

Shane frowned, taking the list from Mitch. He was better off without any more emotional crap in his life.

Maybe his buddies would do better. But he doubted it. Mitch had actually walked away from a shot to join the elite Special Mission Unit, DEVGRU. Sure, he said it was because he preferred training and wanted to stay with his team, but given that it’d happened about the same time as he met Livi, Shane had his doubts. And now Romeo was getting ready to pop the question. He’d already started making noises about extended training, taking on things that would keep him stateside instead of hot zones.

Shane got it. He understood why his friends were making those choices. But those weren’t the kind of choices he wanted to make.

So he’d make damned sure he didn’t get himself in a situation that would call for them.

“Any thoughts on the ETA?”

“Not yet.” Shane glanced over his list again. “He’s bought the engagement ring, but you know Romeo. He’s going to want to set the scene, make it something special. He’s leaving on maneuvers in the morning and he’ll be gone for the next two weeks, though, so it won’t be before that.”

When the front door swung open, neither Shane nor Mitch had to school their expressions. They were experts at keeping their faces blank.

And in came Romeo, in all his glory. But if you knew to look, you could see a hint of smug terror in his eyes. Yeah, he deserved this party. Shane casually folded the list into a neat rectangle and stuck it in his pocket as if he hadn’t just been planning on going behind the man’s back

“Yo, Scavenger.”

“Yo, Romeo?”

“Mail for you.” Gabriel tossed a couple of envelopes on Shane’s lap on his way into the kitchen. “You got beer?”

“You’re in uniform,” Mitch pointed out, ever the stickler.

Gabriel simply lifted his hand, showing the gym bag he carried.

“I’ve got twelve hours before I have to report for maneuvers. Tessa’s meeting me for dinner at Zappatos since it’s halfway between here and our place,” he said when he came back with his unopened beer. Just one, since Mitch and Shane were still in fatigues, too. “So I’m using your shower.”

Flipping through the envelopes, Shane waved to indicate he do whatever he wanted.

“Shit.”

“What”? Mitch leaned forward.

“A letter from home.”

Knowing Shane’s family situation, Mitch gave a sympathetic grimace.

Shane stared at the flowery handwriting on the pastel envelope for a second, then with a sigh, tore it open. After all, Sara wouldn’t risk their mother’s wrath by addressing a letter to an FPO unless there was a really good reason. And she usually took care to make the three-hour drive to Boise to mail her letter. But this one had a Little Lake postmark.

Affection, irritation and resignation all tangled together in his belly as Shane unfolded the paper. As he scanned his little sister’s letter, his gut tightened.

“Well?”

“Huh?” He glanced at Mitch with a frown.

“The letter. What’s wrong?”

They’d served together, been through too much together, for Shane not to answer.

“Drama. Sara’s upset about the family rift. She wants me to come home for her birthday. Apparently she’ll be miserable and her entire year ruined if I don’t.”

Shane frowned at Mitch’s snicker.

“Go ahead, laugh. You’re an only child. You have no idea what this means. I have five sisters. If one blames me for her misery, they all will.”

“So? You’re what? Eight hundred miles or so away. They don’t even acknowledge you’re here. And it’d take a hell of a lot for them to storm the base and get to you.”

Shane didn’t laugh because he could imagine them doing just that. Women were scary. His sisters scarier than most.

“Maybe I can volunteer for a mission. Something far, far away,” he muttered.

“Or maybe you can take some of that leave you have built up and go home,” Mitch suggested. “Watch your sister blow out the candles, keep her from being miserable, fix the mess with your mom.”

Just the thought of it tightened his gut.

“I’m already working on an assignment,” he said quickly.

“An assignment that’s on hold for the next two weeks. Take a few days. Go home.” Mitch waited a beat, then smiled. “Consider it an order.”

 

“So, handsome… Wanna join the Mile High Club?”

Damning Mitch for making this an order, Shane peeled his eyes off the book he’d been trying to read. He didn’t turn his head. He just slid a glance to his right in hopes that the whispered question hadn’t been aimed at him.

But the big-haired blonde’s hungry smile dashed those hopes all to hell. And in case he’d been too dim to catch a clue, she skimmed her fingers up his thigh, those lethal nails skimming uncomfortably close to his goods. He wanted to shift away. He really wanted to move her hand. But he’d been trained to never blink first.

Shane was a SEAL. He’d faced down terrorists, shot down enemy combatants and answered to cranky Admirals. He’d once jumped from a burning plane with a wounded soldier in his arms and a parachute on his back.

And he’d done it all with nerves of steel.

But faced with a predatory woman and he froze. He specialized in communications, but he was lousy at this kind of thing. He didn’t have Romeo’s flirting skills. Nor did he have the social ease that Mitch was known for. Added to that, women generally either hit on him or wanted to take care of him. Both of which always confused the hell out of him.

“I’m Kathy, by the way.” The lush blonde gave a low growl when she leaned closer to press her ample breasts against Shane’s arm. “Mmm, you have such an impressive body. I’ll bet you work out a lot, don’t you? I’d love to see more of those muscles…” “Whoa.” Shane clamped down on the hand that was about to test his muscle. “Sorry. I’m going to have to pass.”

He hated turning women down. Even ones who looked as if they could send the plane into a tailspin during a Mile High bounce. But the thrill of being hit on for reasons that often baffled him had long since passed. The thrill of easy sex, easy women and easier times walking away had faded, too.

“Now why would you do that?” Kathy fluttered her lashes, giving him a wicked smile. “Don’t you like adventures?”

Shane laughed. He couldn’t help it.

“I live for adventures,” he deadpanned, figuring there wasn’t any point in telling her he’d scored his Mile High wings years ago, when he’d still been riding that thrill. She’d likely dare him to prove it. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

As soon as the words were out, he mentally cringed. Appreciate the offer. As if she’d just suggested he take the window seat and enjoy the view. God, he was lousy at this stuff. Put him in uniform and he had no problem with communication. But when it came to witty repartee, clever conversation or easy dialogue with anyone he hadn’t known for a while, he choked.

Shane didn’t consider himself shy.

Shy was for girls and toddlers.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t know how to handle women. He was damned good when he put his hands on one. He was simply a quiet man who preferred to get the lay of the land, to get a feel for a person, before he opened up. A private man who believed fiercely in walking the talk. Since he didn’t like people prying into his life, into his thoughts, he didn’t ask questions. He figured if someone wanted to share, they would. Damned if most people didn’t share way more than he could imagine anyone wanted to know about all sorts of things.

As if proving his point, Kathy the blonde took his refusal in good stride. Instead, she dived into a stream of chatter. Resigned, Shane tucked his book into the seat in front of him and gave her the semblance of his attention.

But he was only half listening. The rest of him was making the mental adjustment from his life in California and his job as a SEAL with its military mindset to dealing with whatever was waiting for him when he got off this plane.

Since she hadn’t returned any of the messages he’d left, he didn’t know if Sara told anyone he was coming home or not. Either way, it wasn’t going to be pretty. All warning would do was give his mom time to stew.

It’d been rough enough when his dad had died in a skydiving accident when Shane was seven. He’d left behind a grieving wife, two sons and five daughters. Then in Shane’s senior year of high school his brother Mike, the oldest of the O’Brian siblings, had been killed in a drag racing accident.

Molly O’Brian was a strong woman. She was a loving mother. And she was the best cook in the world as far as Shane was concerned. But the loss of her husband and her oldest son had devastated her. She couldn’t handle the idea of her second-to-youngest child, her only remaining son, living in danger.

And Shane couldn’t set his dream aside. Not even for his mother. When he’d joined the navy right after graduation, she’d had a meltdown, but eventually, with all of his sisters persuading her, she’d dealt with it. If overcompensating by sending care packages that had to be delivered by forklift, insisting he call her every week he was in port and sending him job clippings from the local paper was dealing. But his joining the SEALs five years ago had been too much. This would make his third trip home since she’d issued the ultimatum that he choose between his career and his family.

By the time he’d shaken off the blonde, deplaned and made his way through the Boise Airport to baggage claim, he figured he should have argued harder with Mitch for a dangerous mission instead of this trip. Sara would have understood.

“Shane!”

A few inches taller than most of the crowd, he easily saw his sister on the far end of the row of chairs. His height was always an advantage, but probably not necessary this time since Sara was jumping up and down.

Damn. A weight he hadn’t even realized he’d been carrying lifted. There was a lightness in his chest, a sort of joy he barely recognized.

Then, because he apparently wasn’t moving fast enough, Sara plowed through the crowd to throw her arms around him.

“You look so good. Oh man, I missed you,” she gushed once she’d released the stranglehold enough to lean back and grin.

Shane grinned back.

Damn, his little sister had grown up pretty.

Although Sara was as blonde as all of the O’Brian sisters and Shane’s hair was dark brown, nobody would mistake them as anything but siblings. From their bottle-green eyes to the squared chin, the O’Brian genes ran strong.

“Did you bring a suitcase?” she asked.

It took him a second before he remembered that yeah, he did have a suitcase. It was rare that Shane actually booked a flight. One of the perks of traveling as an active duty SEAL was flying free if he was willing to go standby.

“We’ll grab it, then head back. I’m so excited you’re here. It seems like forever, doesn’t it?” Sara babbled, tucking her arm through his as they moved toward the baggage carousel. “Was it a safe flight? Easy? No turbulence?”

He wanted to say that he’d flown through lightning storms and dived out of a Seahawk into the raging ocean. So it was stupid to think he couldn’t handle a few bumps on a commercial airline.

But he knew hearing that would freak her out, so he shrugged instead.

“It was a quick flight.”

“Oh, Shane. I’m so, so happy to see you. You’ll be here through next weekend, right?”

“I’m here for your birthday,” he said. There was no point reminding her that his welcome was thin at best. Pushing the length of his visit past its purpose was pointless.

“But my birthday party is in two days. And on a Tuesday. Celebrating in the middle of the week is so lame. I want another party. A big one with dancing, music, fun. That means the weekend.” She leaned her head against his arm and slanted him a look through her lashes. “You will be here to celebrate with me, won’t you?”

Shane wanted to close his eyes against the beseeching look in her eyes. He was a SEAL, he reminded himself. SEALs didn’t show weakness.

Nor did they have to keep reminding themselves of that. He scrubbed his hand over his hair. Damn, he wasn’t even technically home yet and he was already acting like a dumbass.

“What did mom have to say about my visiting?” he asked instead of committing himself.

He didn’t need to hear her response. Her face said it all. Downcast eyes, a pouty lip and flushed cheeks. Dammit.

“Sara—”

“Don’t be mad,” she said, her words spilling out in a breathless rush. “It’s going to be okay. I’ve got it all planned. I’ve got a place for you to stay until my birthday, then you’ll pop in like the best present of my life. Mom will be so happy to see you that she won’t have time to get upset.”

He’d flown home. He’d met with his sister. He could pull a fifty out of his wallet, tell Sara it was her birthday gift and grab the next flight home. Technically, he’d followed orders. He could get away with it.

And—he looked at Sara—he couldn’t do it. His family ties were tenuous at best. He couldn’t break them with the only person in the family who didn’t pretend he was a traveling salesman.

 

“Do you have anything that will inspire lust? You know, like magical Viagra that can be slipped into a drink or sprinkled on a plate of spaghetti.”

“Have you considered a little lace chemise? Maybe add in candlelight to go with the wine and meatballs.”

“Lark!” The tone danced somewhere between a whine and a laugh as the woman on the other side of the counter lifted a pink striped shopping bag to wave it back and forth. “C’mon, you know I’ve already covered the basics. I need oomph, though. A little guarantee.”

Lark wanted to point out that nothing in life came with a guarantee, but she knew the pretty brunette wouldn’t listen. The only thing Jenny wanted to hear was the magic phrase that would get her into Dave White’s tighty whities. But Lark didn’t have magic, nor did she feel right encouraging Jenny sneak into Dave’s underwear.

“Jenny—”

“C’mon, Lark. Nobody’s here, to hear us. Besides, everyone knows The Magic Beans sells special treats. Heather says all those exotic ingredients she uses have a special kick.” Her elbows on the cherrywood counter, Jenny leaned forward and added in a persuasive tone, “Your mom would have something for me.”

Lark clenched her teeth so tight, she thought she heard cracking. Then, because she knew from experience that the nagging wouldn’t stop, she angled her head toward the glossy frosting of the brownies under the dessert dome.

“Chocolate is reputed to be an aphrodisiac,” she said, trying to make her voice sound mysterious. “From the time of the ancient Aztecs, it’s been fueling passion-filled nights.”

So had cheap beer in recent times.

But Lark kept that to herself, preferring to hurry Jenny on her way with two huge brownies and a pound of freshly ground dark roast.

The horny housewife hadn’t been gone ten minutes before the source of Lark’s frustration came sweeping through the front door, her lavender hair curling over her wide hips and a trio of crystals dangling from her ears. In her plump arms was a large purple bakery box and on her face was a loving smile.

Lark wanted to scream, but that smile stopped her.

“Darling, I had a baking epiphany after my morning meditation and had to try a new recipe. Sesame mango cupcakes with almond frosting. What do you think? Will your afternoon crowd like them?”

“Heather, you have to stop—”

“Stop?” Heather interrupted, setting the box on the counter and lifting the lid. The scent of fruit and almonds filled the air. “Would you ask Mozart to stop composing? Van Gogh to stop painting? I’m an artist, darling. I must create.”

“Fine, then create edible art instead of rumors.”

“Rumors?” Heather’s brows, as black as Lark’s own, rose to meet her pastel hair.

“Aphrodisiacs.”

“Well, darling, many of my ingredients have been reputed to have desire-invoking results. Just look it up on the internet.”

Lark closed her eyes, wishing for the millionth time that she had her mother’s patience. But, nada. Fortunately, she did have her sense of humor.

“Did you know the internet claims that Elvis is alive, living on Neptune partying with Freud?”

“Well, that’d be a trick, wouldn’t it? Especially as I heard that Elvis was in Brooklyn imprinting his profile on toast.”

Lark burst into laughter. She couldn’t help it. Heather was too sweet, too fun and too much like her sister for Lark to stay mad at her.

“Please stop,” she asked, pulling a glossy red ceramic tray off the highest shelf. “It’s bringing in the crazies. Last week, Mrs. Bell from the post office asked if I could sell her cookies for the nursing home. Apparently the residents are bored.”

“Are they? Well, I’ll have to make a batch and drop off a few dozen.”

“No,” Lark exclaimed, throwing up one hand. “I mean it. The last thing I need are more customers with a sweet tooth looking for the easy way to get lucky.”

“Magic isn’t a cure-all,” Heather agreed, bustling around the counter to unbox the cupcakes, arranging them neatly on the tray. “It’s more a boost, a little extra help. You know that.”

“No.” While Heather arranged cupcakes, Lark began putting freshly washed mugs back on the shelf. “I know that things can happen, sometimes, because of the power of suggestion, subliminal messaging and luck. Not magic.”

“Your mom believed in magic,” Heather insisted, jutting out her chin as she refilled the coffeemaker in preparation for the busy afternoon crowd.

Her own jaw tight, Lark kept her eyes on the mug-lined shelves, carefully inspecting them for chips or dings. Her mom had believed a lot of things. She’d thought dancing in the rain brought good luck, she’d believed in magic and she’d been sure that positive energy and clean living could keep her healthy, that a shaman with his herbal tea or the healer with her glowing crystals could beat cancer.

Lark had believed all of that, too.

Turns out, they’d both been wrong.

“If you’d just believe, just have faith, you’d be happier, Lark.”

“I’m happy enough.”

“You could be happier.”

“Sure,” Lark agreed, refilling the whipped cream dispenser. Most of the afternoon crowd considered their drinks as a segue to dessert. “Maybe if I was planning for a weekend of naked games and wild sex, I’d be happier. But I’m not.”

“You could be,” Heather said. “If that’s what you want, you could eat a cupcake, open your mind to that power of suggestion and make it happen.”

With who?

Lark had spent over a year in this little town and had yet to see a man who gave her the tingles, let alone one who made her think of all-night-sexcapades. No amount of positive energy or suggestive powers were going to change that.

“I’d be happier if you’d quit trying to convince my customers that your desserts will get them great sex. I’m starting to feel like I should be wearing a purple pimp fedora to sell cookies.”

“A lot of them are asking for special treats, are they?”

“Way too many.” Lark rolled her eyes.

“New customers?” Heather asked, her voice muffled because her head was in the supply cupboard.

“Absolute strangers, people who’ve never come in before. Last week a busload from the ski resort stopped in. It’s crazy.” Lark took the stack of paper to-go cups from her aunt, waiting for the other woman to get to her feet before adding, “It’s like you took out an ad or something.”

She stopped talking when she saw the triumphant look flash across Heather’s face.

“What?”

“So my fun with baking is helping your business. Even better than an ad, I’ll bet.”

Sara dropped the cups on the counter so her hands were free to slap on her hips.

“You did that on purpose? Why?” She waved her hands in the air. “No, no. Don’t tell me why. Just tell me why you didn’t tell me in the first place.”

Heather frowned, blinked, then shook her head.

“What?”

Lark rubbed her hand over her hair as if the move would soothe her frazzled brain.

“You apparently put the word out that your baked goods were laced with an extra dose of come-do-me. You obviously did that to bring more business into the coffeehouse. Which I appreciate.” Didn’t she? Lark scrunched up her nose, then decided to mentally debate the merits of higher sales versus the irritation of having a slew of people asking if caffeine would dull the sexual buzz. “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me what you were doing, though.”

“You’d have told me to stop,” Heather said matter-of-factly as she took over putting the to-go cups in their place.

“Of course I’d have told you to stop.” Unable to stand still, Lark turned to pace, then realized that there was no room behind the counter. “We sell coffee. Not happy hard-ons.”

“Here, refill the straws,” Heather suggested, handing over a box.

Lark dumped them in the glass jar by the self-serve station, then, box in hand, started pacing. It wasn’t until her second turn that she realized her aunt had sent her out here so she could walk through her thoughts.

“Why?” she asked, stopping midstride to turn to face Heather.

“You’re not happy here,” her aunt said quietly. “As much as I want to keep you here with me, I know it’s not your place.

Lips trembling, eyes burning, Lark stared at the wall of mugs until she was sure she wouldn’t break down.

“It was Mom’s place,” she finally said.

“Yes, for as long as it would have lasted.” Heather waved her hand to indicate time flying by. “Raine was a butterfly. She’d landed here and might have stayed for a while. But before here she was in Seattle. Before that in San Francisco. Before that…well, you know all of those befores because you were still living with her.”

“Itchy feet,” Lark murmured. Because her own feet were feeling a little shaky, she dropped into a chair. “I went to fourteen different schools before applying to the Academy of Arts.”

“Proudest day of Raine’s life was when you graduated with those degrees in Fine Art and Ceramics. She used to say she was glad to see all those years of making mud pies to serve with your porcelain tea set were put to good use,” Heather said, her tone making it clear that she’d been just as proud. Then her features shifted from fond to stern. “So you know that your mother would want you to still be putting it to good use.”

Lark had to swallow twice to get the words past the lump in her throat. But finally, she said, “And selling baked goods with sexual properties is going to do that?”

“Well, it can’t hurt,” Heather said, tapping the display case. “And if that doesn’t do it, I’ll step it up. I found some lovely silicone bakeware in the shapes of busty breasts and well-endowed penises.”

“Oh God.” Lark dropped her head into her hands. “I’m going to need a fur-lined trench coat to go with the pimp hat.”

 

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