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"Crap," Tasha whispered as she pulled up behind the other cars in Max's driveway. She was beyond late.
And this comes as a big surprise to you? her inner smart-ass demanded.
Well, no. But not seeing the men hanging out on the porch, grilling up a storm as usual, and knowing they likely weren't out back, either, since it had been raining off and on all day, just drove the truth of her tardiness home. Because that could mean only one thing, couldn't it? Everyone was either in the midst of dinner oran even worse possibilitywere already cleaning up.
She climbed out of the car and went around to the trunk to haul out her contributions to Harper's mom's going-away party. Dammit, not only had she not meant to be so late, she'd fully intended to get here early to help with the preparations. She certainly hadn't counted on the new man she'd hired for her pizzeria turning out to be a lush. A freaking on-the-job lush.
You had to appreciate the irony here. She'd thought she had it all figured out. With the drop in business now that Labor Day was behind them and most of the tourists gone, her big plan had been to hire another cook to work part-time. She really could have used help with the summer rush this year, yet with it over, they were spared the crazy thrown-in-the-deepend, sinkor-swim pressure. Now the new hire could take his time getting up to speed, and she'd add to his hours as he progressed. Stress-free had been her aim, the end goal to be sitting pretty by the time next summer's rush began.
She snorted. In theory it was such a lovely, proactive idea and one that should eventually provide her some honest-to-God days off. And who knew, maybe it'd even give her a shot at an actual life. That was certainly something she'd had damn little of this summer. Once she got accustomed to the luxury of occasional free days, she might go totally hog wild and build her way up to treating herself to an actual vacation.
Okay, so the mere idea made her heart pound with anxiety and left a coppery taste in her mouth. But wasn't it way past time she got over that?
Not that it mattered now. At this point the question was purely rhetorical. Her new cook, who had interviewed brilliantly, had in all likelihood already been drunk when he'd shown up for work. And if he hadn't arrived with a good head start down Knee-walking Avenue, he'd definitely been fall-on-his-face hammered by the time she'd thrown his sorry ass out of Bella T's. On her own house wine, no less, which just added an abundance of salt to the wound.
But the final straw, what truly and royally most pissed her off, was the way the bastard had tried to blame the wine theft on Jeremy, the Cedar Village boy who'd started bussing for her just the other week. The Village was a group home outside of town that helped troubled boys get their lives together, which was precisely what Jeremy was doing. The last thing he needed was for some ass to come along and falsely accuse him of larceny.
She climbed the porch steps but stopped before she reached the door. Setting down her goodies, she did her best to brush lint off her shorts, then reached into her purse for her lipstick.
One of the first things she'd noticed about Harper when the elegant mixed-race woman had come to Razor Bay was that, no matter what the occasion, she was always dressed perfectly for it. And clearly her mad style skills were directly inherited from Gina, because that went double for Harper's sophisticated mother.
She, on the other hand, had been so rattled by the time she'd gotten the drunk cook out of Bella T's, locked up and run upstairs to change that she'd pretty much grabbed the first thing to come to hand. That had turned out to be this linty pair of black walking shorts andmore fortunatelyone of her nicer tank tops in a rich blue that almost, if not quite, gave her more-gray-than-blue eyes a hint more blue. After topping it with her little black cardigan and grabbing the foodstuffs she'd put together for the party, she'd dashed back out again.
Without a speck of makeup on, aside from the mascara she'd applied this morning so people would know she really did have eyelasheseven if they were so pale one might be excused for thinking otherwise.
She swiped on some lipstick, knocked on the door and let herself in. "Hey," she called out over the laughter and voices coming from near Max's unfinished kitchen. "Sorry I'm so late. But I brought a couple bottles of red to make up for it. And some homemade guacamole and veggie-tray fixings."
She strode in sight of the long table full of people and spotted her bestie, Jenny, first, sitting next to Jake. "Hey, girlie," she said, then greeted the Damoths and Mary-Margaret, who headed the Village, and their hosts Max and Harper and Harper's mom. But she stopped dead in full-out shock as her eyes met the velvety dark gaze of a golden-skinned, chiseled-faced man. Images of a younger face flashed across her mind's screen with lightning speed even as the heat of remembered kisses, caresses, sizzled through her veins, and she blinked, certain she was seeing things.
But, no. Dear God. It wasn't, shouldn't be possible, but it really was Diego NoLastName, the rat bastard who'd landed her in a Bahamian jail cell back when she was younger and stupideror at least stupidly naiveand the last person she'd ever expected to see again. Yet there he sat at Max and Harper's table, all black hair, black eyes and dark stubble, looking muscular, vital and bigger than life.
Her brain began buzzing with the staticky sound of a radio dialed half a notch off its station, and her hand went lax. The reusable cloth bag she'd stuffed full of wine and party food dropped to the floor, then tipped on its side.
She barely noticed when its contents scattered in all directions.
Holy shit. The scene unfolding around him went into slo-mo, and Luc Bradshaw came half out of his chair along with every other person around the table. Everyone seemed to be exclaiming and generally making a commotion in their desire to help the long-legged woman who'd stooped to gather the bottles of wine and plastic containers that rolled and skittered across the floor.
To him it was muffled white noise. He stared down at her bent head and unconsciously rubbed his diaphragm over the lower lobe of his left lung. When had all the air in here turned the consistency of Jell-O?
Jesus. It was Tasha.
Like he hadn't known that the instant she'd blown into the room. Still, how many times this week had Jenny, his newly discovered half brother Jake's fiancée, mentioned her BFF Tasha? His damn heart had seized a little every time he'd heard the name, even knowing Jenny was talking about someone other than the Tasha he'd known. It wasn't until maybe two hours ago that he'd finally reached the point where it didn't start up a chain reaction in his chest. So you'd have to excuse the hell out of him if for a second there he'd actually believed he was imagining things. Because what were the odds?
Damn good, it turned out. For this was his Tasha. Of all the women in his past he would have been perfectly content to see disappear without a trace, she had never been among their ranks.
He watched her vivid blue tank top beneath the cropped hem of a little sweater pull free from her shorts' waistband, exposing a slice of pale satiny skin as, sitting on her heels, she stretched to grab one of the runaway bottles. Then he gave her a comprehensive survey from head to toe, concentrating for a moment on her round rump. She was quite a bit more
womanly now than the barely legal girl he remembered.
He swallowed a snort. Well, big surprise; it had been seven years since he'd seen her. So, yeah, she had a little more curve to her. But she still had no hips, and by no stretch of the imagination would anyone call her voluptuous.
Those riotous curls of hers were different, too: more sleekly defined than he recalled. But her long-lidded pale blue-gray eyes and that pillowy mouth with its fuller upper lip hadn't changed a bit.
So screw the minor differences. She could have grown a mustache, sprouted a hairy mole and packed fifty pounds on her long frame, and he would still know her anywhere. He hadn't the slightest doubt in his mind that this was the girl he'd spent two days and one memorable night with in the Bahamas.
"Tash!" Jenny moved to squat alongside the tall strawberry blonde, and it was as if the speed and sound of a movie had been switched back on. "Are you okay?"
Strawberry blond. He'd discovered after his night with her that that was what people called the pale redgold color of her hair. Staring at her, he felt his entire face light up with a delighted smile.
It died an abrupt death when she suddenly raised her gaze and looked straight at him. His entire body recoiled as if a fireball were hurtling straight toward his head, and he dropped back into his seat. Because those eyes, that expression.
If looks could kill, he'd be sliced and diced into tiny bite-sized bits of steak tartare. What the fuck?
She glanced back at Jenny and apparently didn't level that scary look on her as well, because there was no recoiling on Jenny's part.
"No," Tasha said in answer to the are you okay? question as she handed the little brunette first one wine bottle, then another. She must have gathered the rest of the containers as well, for she rose to her feet and extended the cloth sack to Gina, an elegant, slightly darker version of her daughter, Harper, who was Luc's other half brother Max's woman.
Christ. All these relationships were making his head hurt.
"I'm so sorry," Tasha said as the older woman accepted the bag. "I hate the thought of both you going back to Winston-Salem and me missing your party, but I don't feel so hot."
"Yes, you look quite pale, dear," Gina agreed, reaching out to give Tasha's forearm a soothing rub. "You go home and go to bed. Hopefully you can sleep off whatever this bug is."
"It's not the flu, but bug sure seems like an appropriate word for it." Tasha shot him another lightning-fast malevolent glare, then said a touch grimly to the older woman, "I suddenly feel like a hairy, nasty spider is crawling up my spine. I haven't felt this awful in almost a decade, and what I'd like to do is shoot the bastard between his beady little eyes."
Twisting to set the wine on the table, Jenny narrowed a thoughtful gaze on Luc, then turned back to study Tasha for a second. "Poor baby. You want me to drive you home? Jake can bring your car back in the morning."
Luc watched a look perilously close to panic flash across Tasha's face. Or maybe he only thought that was what he'd seen, because when he blinked, she appeared perfectly calm.
Tasha patted Jenny's hand. "No, I'm fine to drive. I've just been burning my candle at both ends since tourist season started, and I guess it's finally caught up with me. I desperately need some sleep."
"Good thing you've got an extra helper in the works," Jenny said.
An edgy laugh escaped Tasha. "Ah, yeah, about that. It turns out that's not going to happen." She suddenly seemed ready to wilt as she shoveled long, pale fingers through her hair. "I'll tell you about it tomorrow." She looked away from the little brunette to the rest of the company gathered around the table.
Well, except for him. Now that she'd finished eviscerating him with her death-ray stare, she evidently had no desire to even glance his way again.
"I'm sorry for the drama," she said to the group at large, then focused her attention on Gina once more, bestowing on her the sweet, generous smile that had been branded on Luc's brain for seven long years. "Have a safe journey home," she said, giving the other woman a hug. When she pulled back, she gazed at Gina with warm-eyed affection. "I've just loved getting to know you. I really hope you'll come back soon."
"Oh, I intend to, darling," Gina said. "My favorite daughter lives here now."
"Uh, Mom?" Harper said dryly. "I'm your only daughter."
Gina gave an elegant shrug. "But you're still my one and only Baby Girl."
Harper's olive-green irises all but disappeared behind the lashes-fringed crescents her eyes became as she grinned. "That's true."
Tasha exchanged a few more pleasantries with the guests. Then between one moment and the next, she'd said her goodbyes, strode out through the kitchen and was gone.
Luc pushed back from the table and rose to his feet. "Okay if I grab myself a beer?" he asked Max.
"Help yourself," his half brother invited even as Harper said, "Here, let me get it for you" and started to rise to her feet.
No! his mind snarled. But he hadn't spent more than a decade in deep cover for the DEA for nothing. He flashed her the friendly charmer's smile that years of practice had rendered second nature and merely said, "Please, Harper, you don't need to wait on me."
"Yeah, Harper," Jake said. "He's family. Which means he can do the dishes, too."
"Or at least fetch my own drink. Anyone else want anything while I'm in there?"
No takers chimed in, and he left the room with an unhurried stride that nevertheless ate up the distance between the table and the back door. Silently letting himself out, he spotted Tasha heading toward the end of the attached garage, with the obvious intention of making a beeline for the parking apron around front. Clouds the color of a day-old bruise hung low in the sky, but for the moment at least, it was dry, and ignoring the few back steps, he dropped directly to the lawn, landing lightly on the balls of his feet.
He could move fast and silent as ground fog when the need arose, and he came up on Tasha's flank just as she rounded the end of the garage. He moved into its shadow one step behind her and reached out, his fingertips brushing her arm. "Hey, Tasha, wait"
With a gasp, she whipped around. Wild panic flared in her clear gray eyes, and watching her suck in a breath and open her lips, Luc knew she was about one second away from screaming down the house. Snaking a hand around her nape, he clamped his free palm over her mouth to keep her from cutting loose with a screech that would bring everyone inside stampeding to her rescue.
Not that there was anything she needed rescuing fromJesus, he would never hurt her. All the same, he really didn't want his deputy sheriff half brother thundering down on him. He didn't doubt for an instant that if Max heard a woman scream, he would be out here in a red-hot hurry, his big-ass service pistol drawn.
"I'm sorry," he said in the most soothing, nonthreatening voice he could summon. Her lips were soft and her skin warm beneath his hands.