"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 bar stool 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 upespecially 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 fiance, 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, butwhether it was the mention of a fiance or the fact she just wasn't his typeit 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 oversize 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 had given 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 as if 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 as though it was his first time seeing a pretty woman. She had a big curly mass of dark hair full of different colorsalmost like a deep cherrywood grainand 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 as if 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 guessthis 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?"