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SEX, LIES AND MISTLETOE
Undercover DEA agent Caleb Black is home for the holidays—possibly to bust his own father. But maybe Caleb's con-man dad isn't the one running drugs. Maybe it's green-eyed goddess Pandora Easton and her irresistible aphrodisiacs. Whatever the cause, his investigation keeps bringing...
SEX, LIES AND MISTLETOE
Undercover DEA agent Caleb Black is home for the holidays—possibly to bust his own father. But maybe Caleb's con-man dad isn't the one running drugs. Maybe it's green-eyed goddess Pandora Easton and her irresistible aphrodisiacs. Whatever the cause, his investigation keeps bringing him right back to Pandora and her bed!
When Marnie Wainwright discovers she's being watched by a deliciously hot private investigator, her wildest fantasies come true. Especially once she and her PI, Jake Brennan, spend the holidays at a quaint inn that caters to sensually adventurous couples. Despite the sexy play, she can't shake the idea that she's still his number one suspect!
"I can't believe I'm back in Black Oak." Pandora Easton's murmur was somewhere between a sigh and a groan as she dropped a dusty, musty-smelling box on the floor behind the sales counter.
"No guy, no matter how good in bed, is worth losing your job, your reputation or your self-respect for," she muttered to herself as she looked around Moon-spun Dreams. The morning light played through the dance of the dust motes, adding a slightly dingy air to the struggling New Age store.
Sometimes a girl just needed to come home. Especially when she didn't have a choice.
Even if that home was falling apart.
Two months ago, she'd been on top of the world. An up-and-coming pastry chef for a well-known bakery in San Francisco, a gorgeous boyfriend and a strong belief that her life was—finally—pretty freaking awesome.
Then, poof, everything she'd worked so hard for the last several years was gone. Destroyed. Because she'd fallen for a pretty face, been conned by a smooth line and, worst of all, been ruined by a good lay.
Nope. Never again.
Pandora was home now.
Which was really just freaking awesome.
With a heavy sigh, she poked one finger at the box she'd rescued from next to a leaking pipe in the back room. It was unlabeled, so she'd have to see what was inside before she could figure out where to put it.
To disguise the musty scent, she lit a stick of prosperity incense. Then Pandora rubbed a speck of dust off a leaf on the braided money tree she'd brought in this morning to decorate the sales counter, and tidied a row of silken soy wax candles with embedded rose petals.
"Not a bad display from a recently fired bakery manager," she commented to Bonnie.
Bonnie just cocked her head to one side, but didn't comment. Since she was one of the two store cats, Pandora hadn't expected much response. Probably a good thing, since the last thing Pandora's ego needed was anyone, human or feline, to point out all the crazy reasons for her thinking returning home to start her life over was going to work.
The cats, like the rest of Moonspun Dreams, were now Pandora's responsibility. She was excited about the felines. But the jury was still out on the quirky New Age store that'd been in Pandora's family for decades. The very store Pandora had wanted to get away from so badly, she'd left town the day after she'd graduated high school.
Before she could settle into a good pout, the bells rang over the front door. Bringing a bright smile and a burst of fresh air, Kathy Andrews hurried in. One hand held a bakery bag, the other a vat-size cup of coffee.
"I'm here to celebrate," Kathy sang out. She stepped over the black puddle of fur that was Paulie the cat sunning himself on the braided carpet, and waltzed across the scarred wooden floor.
"What are we celebrating?"
"That you're back in Black Oak. That you're taking over the family store. Not just for the month your mom is in Sedona for that psychic convention, but for good. And, more important, we need to celebrate the news that your best friend had some really great sex last night."
Pandora exchanged looks with Bonnie. There it was, sex again. But this was Kathy's sex. It wasn't as if that could mess Pandora's life up.
"I'm not so sure having to come home because I failed out there in the big bad world is an excuse to party," Pandora said with a rueful laugh as she took the bakery bag and peeked inside. "Ooh, my favorite. Mrs. Rae's éclairs. I thought she'd retired."
"Mr. Rae's off competing in some pumpkin-carving contest until next Saturday, leaving Mrs. Rae home alone for their anniversary week. Cecilia said her mom dropped off four dozen éclairs this morning with notice that she'd be making pies, too."
One of the joys and irritations about living in a small town was knowing everyone, and everyone knowing your business. In this case, both women knew Mrs. Rae's irritation meant cherry pie by dinner.
"Cecilia seemed surprised when I mentioned I was coming here," Kathy said, not meeting Pandora's eyes as she took back the bag and selected an éclair. "She said she thought Moonspun Dreams was doing so bad, your mom had given up keeping it open on weekends.
I know I should have given her a smackdown, but the éclairs smelled too good."
While Kathy dived into her éclair with an enthusiastic moan, Pandora sighed, looking around the store. When she'd been little, her grandmother had stood behind this counter. The store had been filled with herbs and tinctures, all handmade by Grammy Leda. She'd sold clothes woven by locals with wool from their own sheep, she'd taught classes on composting and lunar gardening, led women's circles and poured her own candles. Grammy had been, Pandora admitted, a total hippie.
Then, when Pandora had been thirteen, Granny Leda had retired to a little cabin up in Humboldt County to raise chinchillas. And it'd been Cassiopeia's turn.
Her mother's intuitive talents, the surge of interest in all things New Age, and her savvy use of the internet had turned a quirky small-town store into a major player in the New Age market. Moonspun Dreams had thrived.
But now that the economy had tanked and New Age had lost its luster, it was almost imploding. Leaving Pandora with the choice of trying to save it. Or letting it fade into oblivion.
"Cecilia was right. Things are really bad," Pandora said. "No point in risking the best éclairs in the Santa Cruz Mountains over the truth."
"And now Moonspun Dreams is yours. Are you going to give up?" Kathy asked quietly, holding out a fingerful of the rich cream for the cat. They both watched Bonnie take a delicate taste while Pandora mulled over the slim choices available.
Her mother had said that she'd run out of ideas. She'd told Pandora before she left to be the keynote speaker at the annual Scenic Psychics conference that the store was hers now. And it was up to her to decide what to do with it.
After sixty years in the family, close up shop and sell the property.
Or fight to keep it going.
Her stomach pitched, but of the two, she knew there was only one she could live with.
"I can't give up. This is all I have, Kath. Not just my heritage, given that Moonspun Dreams has been in the family for four generations. But it's all I've got now."
"What are you going to do? And what can I do to help?" Both questions were typical of Kathy. And both warmed Pandora to the soul, shoving the fears and stress of trying to save a failing business back a bit.
"I don't know. I've been racking my brain, trying to figure something out." Her smile quirked as she gestured to the small table in the corner. Rich rosewood inset with stars and moons, part of the table was covered by a brocade cloth and a handful of vividly painted cards. "I've finally reached the point of desperation."
Kathy's eyes widened. Pandora had sworn off all things metaphysical back in high school, claiming that she didn't have the talent or skill. The reality was that Cassiopeia was so good at it, nothing Pandora did could measure up. And she'd hated knowing she'd never, ever be good enough.
"What'd the reading say?"
"Tarot really isn't my forte," she excused, filling her mouth with the sweet decadence of her éclair.
"Quit stalling. Even if you don't have that psychic edge like your mom, you still know how to read."
That psychic edge. The family gift. Her heritage.
"The cards weren't any help," she dismissed. "The Lovers, Three of Swords, the Tower, Four of Wands and the Seven of Swords."
The éclair halfway to her lips, Kathy scrunched her nose and shrugged. "I don't understand any of that."
"I don't, either." Pandora's shoulders drooped. "I mean, I know what each card means—I was memorizing tarot definitions before I was conjugating verbs. But I don't have a clue how it applies to Moonspun Dreams. It doesn't help me figure out how to save the business."
Yet more proof that she was a failure when it came to the family gift. Handed down from mother to daughter, that little something extra manifested differently in each generation. Leda, Pandora's grandmother, had prophetic dreams. Cassiopeia's gift was psychic intuition.
And Pandora's? Somewhere around her seventeenth birthday, her mother had decided Pandora's gift was reading people. Sensing their energy, for good or bad. In other words, she'd glommed desperately onto her daughter's skill at reading body language and tried to convince everyone that it was some sort of gift.
Despite popular belief, it hadn't been her mother's overdramatic lifestyle that had sent Pandora scurrying out of Black Oak as soon as she was legally able. It'd been her disappointment that she was just an average person with no special talent. All she'd wanted was to get away. To build a nice normal life for herself. One where she wasn't always judged, always found lacking.
Then she'd had to scurry right back when that nice normal life idea had blown up in her face.
"You're going to figure it out," Kathy said, her words ringing with loyal assurance. "Your mom wouldn't have trusted you with the store if she didn't have faith, too."
"The store is failing. We'll be closing the doors by the end of the year. I don't think it's as much a matter of trusting me as it is figuring I can't make things any worse."
Pandora eyed the last three cream-filled pastries, debating calories versus comfort.
Comfort, and the lure of sugary goodness, won.
"These are so good," she murmured as she bit into the chocolate-drenched creamy goodness.
"They are. Too bad Mrs. Rae only bakes when she's pissed at her husband. Black Oak has a severe sugar shortage now that she's retired." Kathy gave her a long, considering look. "You worked in a bakery for the last few years, right? Maybe you can take over the task of keeping Black Oak supplied with sweet treats. You know, open a bakery or something."
"Wouldn't that be fun," Pandora said with a laugh. Then, because she was starting to feel a little sick after all that sugary goodness, she set the barely eaten éclair on a napkin and slid to her feet. "But I can't. I have to try to make things work. Try to save Moonspun Dreams. Mom was hoping, since I'd managed the bakery the last two years, that maybe I'd see some idea, have some brilliant business input, that might help."
"And you have nothing at all? No ideas?"
Failure weighing down her shoulders, Pandora looked away so Kathy didn't see the tears burning in her eyes. Her gaze fell on the dusty box she'd hauled in earlier.
"We've got a leak in the storeroom," she said, not caring that the subject change was so blatant as to be pathetic. "Most of the stuff stored in that back corner was in plastic bins, so it's probably seasonal decorations or something. But this box was there, too. It's my great-grandma's writing, and from the dust coating the box, it's been there since she moved away."
"Oh, like a treasure chest," Kathy said, stuffing the éclairs back in the bag and clearing a spot on the counter. "Let's see what's in it."
Pandora set the box on the counter and dug her fingernail under one corner of the packing tape. Pulling it loose, she and Kathy both winced at the dust kicking them in the face.
She lifted the flaps. Kathy gave a disappointed murmur even as Pandora herself grinned, barely resisting clapping her dirty hands together.
"It's just books," Kathy said, poking her finger at one.
"My great-grandma Danae's books," Pandora corrected, pulling out one of the fragile-looking journals. She reverently opened the pages of the velvet-covered book, the handmade paper thick and soft beneath her fingers. "This is better than a treasure chest."
"Oh, sure. Piles of gold coins, glistening jewels and priceless gems is exactly the same thing as a box of moldy old books." Still, Kathy reached in and pulled a leather-bound journal out for herself, flipping through the fragile pages. Quickly at first, then slower, as the words caught her attention.
"These are spells. Like, magic," she exclaimed, her voice squeaking with excitement. "Oh, man, this is so cool."
A little giddy herself, Pandora looked over at the book Kathy was flipping through. "Grammy Danae collected them. I remember when I was little, before she died, people used to call her a wisewoman. Grammy Leda said that meant she was a witch. Mom said she was just a very special lady."
"Do you think she really was a witch?" Kathy asked, glee and skepticism both shining in her eyes.
"I'm more inclined to believe she was one of the old wives all those tales were made from." Pandora laughed. "Despite the rumors, there's nothing weird or freaky about my family."
She wanted—desperately needed—to believe that.
"But wouldn't it be cool if these spells worked? Say, the love ones. You could sell them, save the store."
"It's not the recipe that makes a great cook, it's the power," Pandora recited automatically. At her friend's baffled look, she shrugged. "That's what Grammy always said. That words, spells, a bunch of information that wasn't what made things happen. Just like the tarot cards don't tell the future, crystals don't do the healing. It's the intuition, the power, that make things happen."
"I'll bet people would still pay money for a handful of spells," Kathy muttered.
"They'd pay money for colored water and talcum powder, too." Pandora shrugged. "That doesn't make it right."
"Maybe you can offer matchmaking or something," Kathy said, studying the beautifully detailed book. "People would flock to the store for that kind of thing."
For one brief second, the idea of people believing in her enough to flock anywhere filled Pandora with a warm glow. She wanted so badly to offer what the other women in her family had. Comfort, advice, guidance. And a little magic.
Then her shoulders drooped. Because she had no magic to share. Even the one little thing her mother had tried to claim for her had been a failure.
"I'd let people down," she said with a shake of her head. "Hell, when it comes to love stuff, I even let myself down."
"You can't let that asshole ruin your confidence," Kathy growled, lowering the book long enough to glare. "It wasn't your fault your boyfriend was a using, lying criminal."
"Well, it was my fault I let him dupe me, wasn't it? If I was so good at reading people, I'd have seen what was going on. I wouldn't have let the glow of great sex cloud my vision."
Just thinking about it made her stomach hurt.