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Rachel Sutherland imagined the six inches of air between her sister's feet and the ground and realized she would always be miserable. Okay, the new Mrs. Nathaniel Peterson wasn't really floating above the floor, but she might as well be.
"Do you have to flaunt your happiness?" Rachel asked, teasing.
Her sister, Hailey, practically glowed, and it wasn't from the heat of the oven where she'd spent the morning baking her man's favorite kind of cookies. All six batches of them.
Hailey just smiled and tugged the lacy apron over her head and hung it on a hook in the kitchen of their family bed & breakfast, "uniquely" named, The Sutherland. She draped an arm around Rachel's shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. "As delightful as your sour mood is, you won't be bringing me down today."
Rachel gave her sister a light hug. "I wouldn't want to."
Hailey's Navy SEAL husband was returning to San Diego this afternoon after a six-month deployment. In fact, Rachel should probably take advantage of these last few hours alone with her sister. After Nate's ship landed, or docked, or whatever it was a ship did, she doubted she'd see Hailey for days. Newlyweds were bad enough. Separated newlyweds had to be even worse. And she'd gotten used to having her sister all to herself.
"You're welcome to come with me. From what I understand the Navy does it big with banners and music. Families carry signs. The works."
Nate was a good guy, and Rachel really liked him. But she doubted even his good nature would extend to his sister-in-law butting in on the much-anticipated reunion with his wife. That had been a long stretch at sea.
"I'll do you a favor and pass. Although you could leave a few cookies in the kitchen for me. I think the seventy or so you're taking is more than enough."
"Some of them are for Riley, and the other soldiers who don't have families to come home to."
A little thrill landed straight in the middle of her stomach. Just as it always did at the mention of that man's name. Riley. The image of the tall, handsome SEAL with the cocky lopsided grin filled her mind. Which she immediately tried to erase. Only where Riley was concerned, it didn't always work. Usually Rachel was quite good at avoiding the little things in life she didn't want to think about, like bills or a dead-end job. But Riley's image was persistent.
She would however lay money on the fact that she'd never registered on his radar. The man hadn't even so much as flirted with her. It was all the more insulting because he seemed to have a more-than-easy smile for every other woman who'd attended SEAL Nighta speed dating event arranged to bring extra revenue to the B&B and hopefully introduce their single female friends to these seriously hot military men. Riley was the most popular SEAL, with the highest level of follow-up date requests on the sheets the women returned at the end of the night.
Why she was so intrigued by the man was anyone's guess. Although a rugged, sexy male with a stomach so solid that the term six-pack didn't describe it properly was worth a second, third and even a fourth look from any woman with a hint of estrogen in her body. But Riley was not Rachel's type. She'd seen him in action with the ladies, and knew what lay behind those amazing gray eyes, and that was a man looking for his next good time.
She liked having a good time as much as the next person, but she wanted more with a man than just a little fun between the sheets. Rachel wanted a connection outside as well as inside the bedroom. Something meaningful. Which easily explained why she was dateless. For the past six months.
"Actually, Riley was the reason I asked you to come along," Hailey said, as she began sliding cookies into the boxes she'd take with her to the homecoming.
Rachel's throat tightened. "Did he, uh, ask about me?" she questioned, trying to sound casual while feeling something that resembled hope. She knew Hailey and Nate emailed each other when they could. Maybe he had mentioned that Riley had mentioned her and what was she, in seventh grade?
Her sister shook her head, not looking up. "No, I just thought it would be a good idea. Seeing a familiar face."
Pathetic. Man, she was pathetic. When had she picked up this fascination with a man who'd never glanced her way?
"I think I'll pass," she told her sister, as she busied herself returning the butter and eggs to the commercial refrigerator. Rachel loved this kitchen, had spent great nights here talking with her mom and sister about everything from future careers to boys.
Although she and her sister didn't have the same longing to run the family B&B that had spanned several Sutherland generations, they weren't able to give up the place either after their parents' death. Hiring a management company to take over the running of the business freed them up to finish college and pursue their careers.
Two years ago though, falling revenues and several poor reviews online had Rachel booking a quick flight to her hometown. As a marketing exec, she understood reviews were the lifeblood of the small business. She'd found her childhood home in hopeless disrepair. Seeing the upholsterychosen specially by her mothernow stained and ripped, sent Rachel back to Missouri to make the riskiest move of her life. Riskiest? Who was she kidding? Her actions were the only true chance she'd ever taken in her life.
She quit her job, cashed out her 401k and liquidated the CDs covering six months' salary just in case. Rachel Sutherland was a woman who believed in saving for "just in case" moments in life. A lot of them. Then she blew it all on upgrading the kitchen. Merely the first step in their goal to return The Sutherland Bed & Breakfast to its former glory.
Her sister glanced up from the red, white and blue bow she was tying to the box. "Just think about how sad it is to come home after six months and not have anyone waiting for your return. He's got to be lonely."
"Ha," Rachel said with a scoffing little laugh. "That man is a dog. You remember those SEAL Night speed dating parties we hosted? Riley never missed one. I personally witnessed him score phone numbers with at least three women per night. Trust me, he will not be lonely this evening. In fact, there might be half a dozen women waiting for him to debark. Talk about awkward."
"Disembark," Hailey corrected. "And what if you're wrong? It's dinner. What's one dinner out of your life to make a man feel he's glad to be back home?"
"When did this become dinner? I thought I'd simply be meeting him and handing over a box of cookies."
Hailey smiled. Sweetly.
And Rachel felt herself cave. Although she didn't have far to fall into the cavern of curiosity she had where that man was concerned.
"Okay, but the first hint of another woman, I bolt."
Riley spotted the Welcome Home signs from deck. The music and cheers would be next. He'd done this drill before. Dress uniforms, manning the rails.
The pier below was dotted with families; excited children, women holding up babies, anxious girlfriends. Riley turned away.
No one would be waiting for him with a warm smile, a hug or promise in her eyes for an all-night welcome reception. He believed in clean breaks and no loose ends, and that's how he'd left San Diego six months ago.
He'd volunteered to disembark last. Men with wives, new babies they should have first shot at their women. As they approached the pier, the anticipatory mood on board was growing. None more ready to get on that pier and into the arms of the woman he'd left behind than his best friend, Nate Peterson. Riley watched as Nate scanned the crowd, saw the tension evaporate and a smile spread across his face when the man obviously spotted his wife.
A year ago, Nate would be the first at the party. Hell, Nate was the party. Now the man was a homebody.
And for a moment Riley almost envied him.
Then thankfully that moment passed. The world was a buffet filled with beautiful women. Why would he limit himself to one?
"See you, buddy," Nate called, as he hoisted his duffel bag over his shoulder.
And that's the last he'd see of his friend for at least a week, he'd bet.
Riley watched as each Team Member left. Some left with salutes, others with pats on the back.
"Bunch of us are heading to The Bowery tonight," Ethan Morales, another single man from his Team, said.
But as a second generation Navy man, Ethan still had a family eagerly waiting for him on the pier.
"Sounds good," he replied to Morales's back. The Bowery was known for its locally brewed beer, loud music and the women looking for fun. It was the first place Riley hit after a long training run or a deployment. Guess tonight would be no exception.
Riley picked up his duffel bag. He'd delayed his departure long enough. Most of the happy families and reunited couples should have moved on by now. Good. He hated the feeling of being an intruder into those private moments. In the past, a few of the men had even felt obligated to invite him to their homes. He hated putting his fellow officers and friends in that position, especially since he knew it was the last thing they wanted to do. Now he regretted accepting Nate's offer of a ride home.
Overhead the sky was blue. The day perfect for a return from duty. Hopefully he'd given Nate and Hailey enough time alone on the pier. Riley took a few steps, and stopped.
His throat dried.
There, not ten feet away from him, stood Rachel Sutherland, looking hot, tired and like someone who'd been waiting a while. A discarded ribbon was wrapped around her wrist and she snacked on a cookie?
She also looked like the best thing he'd seen in about a hundred and eighty-five days, but then what else was new? Rachel always looked like the best thing he'd ever seen.
He loosened the tight grip of the handle on his duffel bag and aimed in her direction. Riley watched as her eyes widened when she spotted him. Rachel brushed the crumbs from her hand then angled her head, checking left and right.
What an ass he was. Had he just assumed she was here for him? When had the woman ever regarded at him with anything other than distaste? Clearly she was searching the crowd and waiting for someone else. Maybe one of the SEALs that hung around The Sutherland after their Meet A SEAL nights? Something a lot like irritation mixed with envy hit him in the chest. Who the hell had been making a play for Rachel when he wasn't watching?
Too late to change course now. He continued forward. Riley would be polite and move on so she could greet the man she was here for. Strange, he'd never thought of her as a Navy woman. She'd never given any of the SEALs who'd been at The Sutherland anything other than that polite smile. Not one of her smiles had ever broken into something more warm, more genuine. At least not for him.
He found himself almost wanting to hang around to meet and shake the hand of the man who'd managed to get something other than a "no" from Rachel Sutherland.
She'd stopped scanning the quickly clearing pier and stood straighter, meeting his gaze. His breath hitched, and he realized he wanted to lose himself in those green eyes of hers. Beautiful green eyes that were, for the first time, truly inviting. The coldly reserved Rachel Sutherland who ran the speed dating parties with a watch and a whistle was gone. She even flashed him a tentative smile.
Rachel wasn't here waiting on some other guy. No, she had stood there for over an hour waiting for him.
Something deep and elemental punched him in the gut. This was what it was like to have someone waiting for him. His return.
His feet ate those last steps that separated them.
"Hi," she said, her voice breathless, her skin turning rosy-red. She thrust something toward him. "I brought you cookies."
Riley had never seen Hailey's prickly younger sister look more beautiful. And the woman always looked hot. Today, the breeze caught her hair, ruffling the long, blond strands into her eyes. He reached, feeling the silky glide of her hair between his fingers as he gently tucked the soft strands behind her ear. He smelled the light honeysuckle scent of her. Her gaze lowered to his lips, and he was lost.
His duffel bag hit the pavement, and his fingers sank into her hair. Riley saw the heat in her eyes before her lids lowered. She raised on tiptoe meeting his lips halfway. Warm and soft, Rachel's mouth was everything he'd fantasized about. Her lips parted with a quiet moan that sent a shaft of desire straight through his body.
Rachel wrapped her arms around his neck, one elbow snagging on the pins of his uniform. There were kisses and then there were kisses, and this one was becoming X-rated pretty quickly. Of course it wasn't every day that the woman he'd thought unattainable yet still starred in several of his late-night fantasies was in his arms, kissing him with a carnal passion that nearly met his own.
He was forgetting where he was, what he was doing. Riley reached for her hands, pulling them from around his neck, reluctance in his every move. With one last run of his tongue along her bottom lip, he broke the kiss. Riley settled his forehead on hers, his breath ragged and heavy.
"Welcome home, Riley," she whispered.
They were the best damn words he'd ever heard.
What was it she was just saying to herself earlier today about avoiding the men who were only around for a bit of fun in bed? How she preferred a connection? Well, the pounding of her heart sure told her she was wrong.
Rachel always suspected Riley could be her downfall. She understood that now. It was probably the reason she'd always avoided him. Some hidden, elemental female part of her must have known he was the kind of bad-for-her boy she couldn't resist. Downfall? Heck, she hadn't even put up much of a fight. She'd met her ruin while offering cookies.
Riley could destroy a woman's sense of self-preservation with one kiss.
"Nate was going to give me a lift home."
She cocked her head toward the exit. "I think those two wanted to be alone. I offered and they left."
Riley didn't seem disappointed at his friend's desertion.