Event planner Emma Henry is used to focusing all her attention on reaching her goals and letting romance fall by the wayside. But when her sister Sam’s bachelorette party prompts the most tightly-wound Henry to let her hair down, Emma’s night ends with the entire town linking her to a man who could lay waste to anyone’s best-laid plans.
Army vet Seth Andersen thought that joining the police department in sleepy Harvest Cove would offer a quiet, normal life. But when he finds himself responsible for uptight Emma Henry at the end of her wildest night ever, his world turns unexpectedly complicated—and he’s surprised to discover he doesn’t mind at all…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Also by Kendra Leigh Castle
For my sister, with love
Breaking up a wild party in his own neighborhood wasn’t Seth Andersen’s idea of a fun Saturday night, but he found himself trudging up the walk toward the door of 121 Juniper a little after midnight anyway. It wasn’t a big deal. When the call had come in, he’d nearly been home, technically off-duty but still in uniform, and Jess, the dispatcher, knew he’d take it. Harvest Cove was a small place. He could manage what would probably amount to nothing more than a “knock it off” conversation with the guy who lived three houses down. Hell, the sight of a uniformed officer at the door was usually enough to drive the point home, and he’d had an impromptu cookout with Aaron Maclean only a week ago. This shouldn’t be a problem.
He sure hoped not, because right now, all he wanted was his bed. He’d learned to sleep through the sounds of artillery fire out in the desert, but he’d rather not have to try to sleep through Pitbull’s praising of his woman’s booty, over and over and over to a beat that could wake the dead.
Judging from the noise coming from the little Cape Cod, Seth figured that the house, not too different from his own, had to contain a couple hundred people more than it ought to fit. He was halfway to the door when it opened on its own. At first he thought Aaron had seen him and was coming out to save some time, but there was nothing masculine about the figure that stumbled through the door and nearly toppled into the bushes. Nothing masculine, Seth realized, but everything familiar.
It was just a little sad that he had the curves of a woman he’d never spoken to so thoroughly memorized.
He blurted her name before he could think better of it, and the blank look she gave him as she shoved her hair out of her face only confirmed what he’d suspected: He’d lived in Harvest Cove for six months, and Emma Henry still had no clue who he was. Maybe it was the time he’d spent in the army—he’d gotten good at blending in with the scenery when he had to. But Seth thought it was more likely that Emma just didn’t notice anything not already on her to-do list. She sure seemed that type, and nothing he’d heard about her had ever changed the impression. Everything from her tailored suits to the way she clipped around in those sexy heels screamed all business, all the time.
Not tonight, though. Turned out she owned a pair of jeans after all—and from the smell, he thought she might be wearing as much beer as she’d imbibed.
“Something wrong, Officer?” Emma straightened, shoved her long, dark hair out of her face again, and put on what he expected she thought was an innocent expression. Not a bad effort, but her inability to stay still while maintaining her balance was kind of ruining the effect.
“Nothing too bad, Miss Henry,” Seth replied, remembering his manners this time as he ambled forward. He was just some random cop to her. Probably just as well. “We’ve had a few noise complaints from the neighbors. I came by to let Mr. Maclean know that he needs to either calm things down or break it up.”
“Oh. Are we that loud?”
He tried not to smile, since she seemed sincere.
“Yes. Yes, you are.”
“Wow. I’m really sorry.”
Her eyes rounded. The light out here was dim, but Seth knew from his previous almost-encounters with her that they were a startling forget-me-not blue made even more striking by her fair skin and dark hair. Usually she had all that hair pulled back, but he liked it this way, with the thick waves down past her shoulders. Some of the ends were damp, though, and Emma was having a hard time keeping it out of her face. She shoved at it again, frowning, her full lower lip plumping further when she stuck it out to concentrate.
She was cute. And really, really drunk. It seemed so utterly out of character for her that he had to work at suppressing his amusement. As he got closer, he could see that her shirt was even damper than her hair, the dark fabric clinging to her breasts. He couldn’t help but notice—her curves were impossible not to notice, even at his most distracted. Still, her bedraggled, slightly bewildered appearance left him feeling more protective than turned on. She needed to be home, tucked in and sleeping this off, not wandering outside at this hour. Bad things happened everywhere, even in the Cove.
Seth sighed inwardly. His bed was looking farther away than he’d hoped.
“Do we know each other?” Emma asked, wrinkling her nose and looking utterly confused.
“How’d you know my name, then?”
“The Cove’s not that big, Miss Henry,” he said. “You run the party-planning business down on the square. I’ve only been here for six months, but knowing who’s who is part of my job.”
That seemed to satisfy her, at least well enough to change the subject. “Oh. Well, Officer . . .”
She blinked and appeared to mull that over for a moment. “Okay,” she finally said, and Seth knew she had tried—and failed—to place what should have been a familiar last name. “You’re not going to arrest anybody, are you? It’ll ruin my sister’s party if you do.”
“Your sister’s party?”
One dark brow arched. “She’s getting married.” Even as drunk as she was, the “you idiot” on the end was strongly implied. He had to swallow a laugh. Not everyone could be wasted and beer-stained, and still pull off “haughty” this well.
“Ah,” Seth replied. Now her presence at the house party—not to mention her condition—made sense. “Bachelorette party, then.”
Seth’s eyes went to the door, considering it. “Please tell me there aren’t any strippers in there.”
She snorted. “If there were naked people in there, I would know. I mean, I think. I hope there aren’t any naked people in there.”
Her small smile hinted at the promise of an absolutely gorgeous full one. He’d never seen her smiling. But he’d certainly like to.
Jesus, Andersen, just get this over with and go home.
He cleared his throat. “Well, whatever the stripper situation is, I need to speak to Mr. Maclean, Miss Henry. Are you heading back in?”
She hesitated, then turned her head to look at the house. “I guess.”
His eyes narrowed. “You weren’t planning to drive home, were you?”
“No! Why would you think I’d do something that stupid? I don’t even have my keys!” The words were slightly slurred, but they were loaded with real offense. He wanted to believe her. He didn’t want her to be the kind of person who did the sorts of things that so often left behind devastating messes for people like him.
Seth didn’t know why it mattered to him. It just did.
“It’s not an unreasonable question, Miss Henry. You wouldn’t be the first person to make that mistake.”
Emma glared at him a moment, then closed the distance between them, weaving a little but maintaining her bearing until she was glaring up at him, close enough to reach out and touch.
“Listen, Officer Am . . . Alf . . . Amster . . . whatever,” she said, waving her hands dismissively before settling them on her hips. Seth tried not to let his eyes linger, but it was tough. He was a sucker for an hourglass figure, and hers was just about perfect.
“I am a respectablebusinesswoman in this community,” she informed him, the picture of angry, wounded pride. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but just because you get to carry a gun and handcuffs and whatever doesn’t give you the right to—to impugn my integrity.”
He found himself caught between wonder and gut-busting laughter. It took everything he had not to give in to the latter.
“I’m not impugning anything, Miss Henry,” he answered while struggling to keep a straight face. He wondered what other fifty-cent words she liked to throw around when she was mad. The woman was probably a veritable dictionary when pissed off and sober. He found the idea ridiculously sexy. “I’m just concerned for your safety. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
The change in Emma’s expression was instant. Her eyes widened, anger vanishing to become innocent surprise. Her lips parted, just a bit, as she looked up at him and became the picture of vulnerability.
“Really?” she asked.
Seth blinked. He’d dealt with plenty of drunks in his line of work, but he was having a hell of a time finding his footing with this one. She’d been surly and sweet in equal amounts, shifting between the two fast enough to give him whiplash. Right now, though, there was something winsome about the way she looked up at him, something that pushed a few buttons he hadn’t expected to have pushed tonight, or any time soon. Those buttons had gotten pretty rusty, but it seemed like they were still there.
He guessed he should be glad he could still feel an attraction like this, like a hot punch straight through his chest. Maybe he would have been, if the sensation had ever foretold anything but trouble.
Since she appeared to be waiting for an answer, Seth nodded his head. “Really,” he said.
She swayed for a moment, her gaze inscrutable. Then she smiled, that big smile he’d been waiting for that crinkled her nose. For a few long seconds, all Seth could do was stare. Whatever he might have imagined, this was better. As beautiful as she was, that smile was like someone had turned a light on inside her.
“You should smile more often,” he said softly, realizing too late that the words hadn’t stayed in his head where they belonged. At least they didn’t seem to faze Emma, who simply shrugged, nearly losing her footing in the process. Seth moved on instinct, reaching out to catch her beneath the arms before she went down on the walk. Her hands gripped the front of his shirt as she regained her balance. When she looked up at him this time, her face was only inches from his. He caught the faint smell of her perfume, something light but musky, a whiff of exotic smoke. Its sensuality was a startling contrast to Emma’s normally buttoned-up image. A hint, maybe, of the woman beneath.
Do. Your. Job. Andersen.
“You have pretty eyes.” She sighed, fingertips running down the front of his shirt to his hips. His stomach muscles flexed in reaction, and his breath caught in his throat. Parts of him stirred that had no business stirring when he was working. And that was what this was—part of his job. This would be a good time to remember that.
“Thanks,” Seth replied, forcing out the word while removing his hands and stepping back. “I need to—”
“Will you take me home?”
It took him a few seconds to close his mouth. “What?” His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears. She couldn’t possibly have said that. If she had, she couldn’t possibly mean it. And if she did, there was no way he could say yes, because that would require a level of awfulness he was nowhere near considering.
Emma looked up at him with those big luminous eyes, and he wondered whether he’d somehow taken a wrong turn and landed in hell.
“I want to go home. I can’t drive. Can you take me?”
“Uh . . . why don’t you just . . . Hang on a sec,” he said. “Stay here.” This was not his problem. This was Aaron’s problem, because it was Aaron’s party. He walked away quickly, trying not to run and thinking of every unappealing thing he could to erase the wildly erotic images trying to cascade through his brain. He blamed his fatigue. The last few nights hadn’t been good ones, sleepwise, and it seemed like that had caught up to him all at once. How else to explain his reaction to her? She was a beautiful woman, sure. But while he might not be Channing Tatum, he hadn’t exactly had a hard time finding a date when he’d wanted one.
The front door opened again just as he reached it, and Seth was relieved to see his neighbor emerge, purple-streaked hair and all. It was a wonder they got along as well as they did. The only art Seth had ever spent much time looking at was World War II pinup girls, and Aaron had been very up-front about the feminine form, outside of a basic aesthetic appreciation, not being his thing.
As long as Aaron kept his lawn mowed and wasn’t a complete jerk, Seth didn’t much care who the man brought home.
“Emma?” Aaron looked past him at first, beyond to where Emma had just been standing. “Are you okay? Zoe said that somebody told her you didn’t feel good and—oh. Hey, Seth.” He watched Aaron take in the uniform, then wince. “Oh. I guess it’s Officer Seth tonight. This is about the noise, isn’t it? Sorry.”
“Yeah.” Seth shifted his weight from one foot to the other and thought again of his bed. His body was telling him it would actually stay asleep for a solid block of time tonight. That was, if he could ever get to his bedroom. “We’ve had a few complaints. I said I’d stop by on my way home to let you know, since I didn’t think you’d have a problem taking care of it.”
Aaron shook his head with a sigh. “No, of course not. This got to be a little bigger than I was expecting. We started at the bar, and I think the bar followed us home.” He swept an arm at the cars parked up and down the street. “Guess it’s what happens when you throw a big party in a small town. The whole world shows up. It was supposed to be ladies only, but we’ve gotten a few infiltrators.”
Seth snorted. “Uh, you might want to look in a mirror.”
“I do. Frequently,” Aaron replied with a flash of a grin. Then he shrugged. “I’m the host. I get a free pass.”
“You want me to help clear everyone out?” Seth asked, relieved when Aaron immediately shook his head no.
“Nah, I can handle it. Sam and her friends are staying over. Everyone else can leave the same way they got here. I was starting to worry about what was going to get broken first anyway. House parties are a lot more fun when they’re not at your house, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
Aaron arched an eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Not a partyer, Officer?”
“Very funny. And no, not so much. Used to be, but I guess I kind of outgrew the appeal.”
“Hmm. You’re kind of young to sound like such an old fart.” Aaron tilted his head, regarded him with a fair amount of curiosity, but then returned his attention to the woman farther down the walk. “Emma, why don’t you come back in?” Aaron called. “I don’t think sleeping on the concrete is a great idea.”
Her unintelligible mutter had Seth turning back to look. Emma had apparently decided that standing up was too much work. She was now lying down in the middle of the walkway, curled into the fetal position. That told Seth all he needed to know about her current state.
“You realize she’s going to puke,” he said.
Aaron pursed his lips and exhaled loudly through his nose. “Yep. Look, I hate to ask, but can you watch her while I kick everyone out? Even if you can just get her into the grass so no one steps on her . . .”
“He’s taking me home.”
Her voice was so clear, it took Seth a moment to register that it had come from Emma. He looked sharply at her, seeing Aaron’s startled look out of the corner of his eye as he turned his head.
“Emma,” she interrupted him, just as clear. Her head lifted ever so slightly though her hair covered most of her face. “An’ you said you would.”
“I didn’t say that! I just told you not to go anywhere.” He knew he sounded defensive, but the last thing he needed was for his neighbor to think he’d been hitting on his drunken friend on his way to telling him to shut down his party. He looked beseechingly at Aaron. “I didn’t say that.”
Aaron simply waved him off. “I’m sure you didn’t. She’s just channeling Jose Cuervo right now. It’s kind of like speaking in tongues, but with a lot more sexual innuendo.”
Relieved, Seth laughed and shook his head. “Been there. Do you have a way to get her home? She seems stubborn enough to try to walk there if she manages to get up again.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine here.”
“No, I won’t,” she insisted. “I don’t feel good. He said he’d take me home. He’s a—a policeman.” She gave a woeful-sounding hiccup. “I have beer on me. I want my bed. I hate the ground. This sucks.”
Seth arched a brow when he returned his attention to his neighbor. “You sure about that?”
Aaron frowned and sighed. There was enough alcohol in the puff of air that wafted by Seth’s nose to confirm that Aaron wouldn’t pass a breathalyzer right now, even if he was pretty coherent.
“No. If she really wants to go, I’m sure there’s somebody who can . . . well . . .” His brow furrowed, and Seth knew he was mentally going through the list of people sober enough and trustworthy enough to deliver Emma home. He waited, suddenly certain that the list would be short to nonexistent. Finally, Aaron sighed. “Shit. I drove back here, but I’d be over the limit now. I’m not putting her in some random person’s car and hoping for the best. And not to sound like an ass, but she doesn’t have a lot of friends, anyway. Emma’s kind of . . .” He trailed off, seeming to consider his options, and finally chose a word. “Independent.”
The simple statement struck an unexpected chord with him. Independent could mean a lot of things, but he was pretty sure Aaron didn’t mean it as an insult. He understood not being close to many people, whether by choice or simple temperament. Maybe he and Emma had some things in common after all. Didn’t seem likely, but neither did finding her drunk as a skunk and hanging on to the earth to keep from falling off it. Anything was possible. And the solution to this particular problem was inevitable.
“I’ll take her.”
Aaron seemed surprised. “That’s really nice, but you don’t have to do that.”
Seth lifted a shoulder. “I know. But she seems to think I do, and I can manage a detour before I head home.”
“Aaron, quit arguing with him,” Emma groaned, her voice more muffled now. “Officer Ambi . . . Officer? Just take me home. I don’t feel so good.” Emma’s voice drifted over to them from where she lay, curled into herself.
“Em, you’re staying here, remember? With your sister?” Aaron said, leaning to the side to speak to her. “Your things are in the house.”
“Then give them to Officer What’s-his-face.”
“Seth. It’s Seth,” Seth told her, hoping to avoid further butchery of his last name for one evening.
“Seth. Whatever. I want to go ho-ome,” she moaned. “Everything is spinning. God. Why did I drink so much?”
Aaron cringed. “Those are the words of doom.”
“Impending doom,” Seth agreed. “I won’t leave her until I’m sure she’s settled in for the night.”
He could see his neighbor was uncomfortable with it, and he didn’t blame him. But if Emma really wanted to go home, which she seemed to, he was her only option. Oddly enough, he didn’t mind the imposition. Aaron, however, was going to need more convincing. They were friendly, but they hadn’t quite made it to “friends” yet.
“Look, I don’t sleep much,” Seth admitted. Even though I would have tonight. “I can stay up awhile longer.”
“It’s not that,” Aaron said. “I’m more concerned about leaving her alone. She’s going to be sick.”
“Shut up. I can hear you!”
“I know, Em.” Aaron rolled his eyes, then lowered his voice. “Seriously, though.”
Seth shifted his weight from one foot to the other, leaned his head to one side to stretch muscles tight from a long day, and chose his words carefully so that Aaron would understand he had nothing to worry about. Being a soldier and a cop didn’t have to mean anything, but he was a guy who took the honor inherent in both professions seriously.
“I have a twin sister,” Seth said. “I’ve pulled plenty of hair-holding duty. It takes a lot to faze me, so if she needs a keeper until her stomach settles, I guess I can do that, too. Like I said, I don’t sleep much. This is at least as interesting as anything on TV at this hour.”
Aaron chewed his lower lip for a moment. “It would be flattering to think you were doing this to win my favor, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, so . . . why? You don’t even know her.”
“Sure I do. Emma Henry, local force of nature, right?”
That made Aaron laugh. “That’s one way to put it. And this is . . . chivalry?”
Seth couldn’t help the slow grin. “The lady demanded an escort. I am but a humble public servant.”
Aaron laughed again, shook his head, then rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.
“Okay, Officer Lancelot, go sweep her off her feet while I get her bag and start kicking people out. I’ll put my number in with her things so you can text when she’s settled. Be good. Hands to yourself except where warranted, or I’ll unleash hell on you, standard disclaimers, et cetera.”
Seth felt a stiffness he hadn’t been even aware of begin to leave his shoulders. Why it was suddenly so important that he be allowed to see to Emma’s well-being, he had no idea. But his instincts had rarely failed him, and he didn’t question them now. “Understood. She’ll be safe with me. You have my word.”
Whatever Aaron heard in his voice, it seemed to satisfy him, and he nodded. “Okay. And you’ve got mine that I’ll have everyone but the people staying over gone within a half hour or so. Thanks for being a neighbor about it instead of, ah . . .”
“A jerk?” Seth supplied.
“You said it, not me,” Aaron said. Something told Seth this wasn’t the artist’s first encounter with cops breaking up a party, and that it probably wouldn’t be his last. Still, the guy was hard not to like, and he obviously took care of his friends. Good qualities, even if he was occasionally prone to get in a little trouble.
Hell, so was he. Or he had been, once.
“Back in a sec.” Aaron jogged up the walk and headed inside. Seconds later, the music stopped, and a strong, clear voice rang out. “Ladies and gentlemen, local law enforcement has just stopped by to let me know that it’s closing time at Maclean’s watering hole, so like the song says, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” There was a chorus of groans. “Yeah, well, considering most of you just followed me home anyway . . . Jesus H. Christ, Al, where are your pants?”
Seth chuckled to himself as he walked to where Emma lay and crouched down beside her. All that thick, dark hair was in her face, and he reached down to brush it aside with a couple of fingers. Her eyes were closed, long spidery lashes twined together, but he doubted she was asleep. Probably wishing for sleep, though. She took in deep gulps of air, a telltale sign that the nausea was in full effect.
Her night of fun was definitely over.
“Ung. Emma. Might as well call me Emma.”
“Okay. Emma. Can you get up?” He kept his voice low and soothing.
“You still want me to take you home?” he asked.
“Uh-huh.” She kept her eyes shut, staying very, very still. “Carry me?”
His eyebrows lifted, though he shouldn’t have been surprised. Drunk didn’t cure bossy, which she certainly seemed to be. “You sure about that?”
“God yes. No standing.” A pause, then a small and oddly attractive furrow of her brow as she sighed. “Please?”
Her voice was plaintive, and defeated, and he couldn’t have denied her if he’d tried. So, carrying it was. He slid one arm beneath her knees, the other beneath her shoulders. “Here we go,” he said, and lifted. She was light in his arms, and turned her face into his chest as he stood, making a soft unhappy sound. He tried not to think about how right she felt, tucked up against him. For all he knew, the woman was hell on wheels when she was sober, and as far from his type as humanly possible. Right now, though, her soft vulnerability tugged at him.
He was the kind of guy who’d been born to protect things. It was just in his nature, same as the need for a certain amount of order. Right now, he wanted to protect her. And he had a bad feeling that instinct would wreak havoc on the order he’d finally achieved here, in this quaint little town where the fact that nothing ever happened was a large part of the appeal.
As his guests began to depart, walking down the street back toward downtown or piling into cars, Aaron hurried outside again.
“Here,” he said, lifting the small overnight bag so that Seth could grip the handles. He followed Seth’s gaze to some of the cars, then met his eyes with a knowing look.
“The ones leaving in cars have designated drivers,” Aaron said. “I keep a good eye on things, and I take keys. I’m not interested in being even a little responsible for somebody wrapping themselves around a tree because they shouldn’t have been behind the wheel.”
The grim look on Aaron’s face, so at odds with his sunny personality, told Seth he was cautious from experience.
“Okay,” Seth said.
“Okay,” Aaron echoed, then sighed. “Well, thanks. She lives in the apartment over her business, down on the square. Entrance is in the back. Have fun with the stairs.” He gave Emma’s hair an affectionate ruffle. “’Night, sweetie. Call me tomorrow and we’ll coordinate getting your car back to you, okay?”
Emma’s reply was an unintelligible mumble against Seth’s shirt, but Aaron seemed to take it as an affirmative.
“Text me,” he said again to Seth, then turned and walked back toward the house, bidding people good night as he walked by them. Seth didn’t miss the soft laughs as people caught sight of Emma in his arms, or the whispers as people speculated. He brushed it off. People would talk—they always did. It didn’t bother him much, though he suspected Emma wouldn’t feel the same. For her sake, he hoped the situation was obvious enough that it wouldn’t prompt much gossip. She seemed like a woman who put a lot of value on her image—which in her case was “cool and professional.”
“I’ve got your things,” he told her, “so let’s get you home.”
“’Kay,” she sighed, snuggling further into him, her fingers tucked into his shirt between two buttons. “I like you.”
He smiled, surprised. “I like you, too. How’s the stomach?”
“Mmph,” was the only reply, and it sounded negative. He thought of his nice clean cruiser and felt a sinking sensation.
“Emma, I realize we don’t know each other, and you don’t owe me a thing for this, but if you don’t mind, can you not puke in my car?”
One bleary eye opened to look up at him. “No promises.”
Seth nodded to himself as her eye shut again. Whatever happened, he was all in now. Only one thing was certain—after this, Emma Henry would definitely know who he was. And whether or not that turned out to be the extent of their acquaintance, they’d probably be able to agree on one thing.
It had been a hell of an introduction.
Emma woke up slowly, the way she always did. She breathed in deeply as her body adjusted to the light streaming in the window and hitting her closed eyelids, becoming aware of the sensation of her limbs sunken into the soft mattress, the soft sounds of birds chirping outside.
The taste in her mouth like the floor of a truck stop.
She opened her eyes slowly. Her eyelids were sore. As a matter of fact, her entire body was sore. And her head . . .
“Oh. God.” It took an obscene amount of effort just to lift a hand to her throbbing head. The strands of hair that caught between her fingers were hopelessly tangled. Her thoughtless bliss upon waking vanished, to be replaced by memories of the night before. Hazy memories, but they were enough. The part where she’d driven to Aaron’s was clear. The champagne at his house was clear—obviously a bad idea, but she remembered it just fine. Then they’d headed to the Harvest Cove Tavern, and that was where things got a little scattered. There’d been beer. And . . . tequila. And—
“Dancing. Oh God.”
Her voice was little more than a croak, and her throat felt like she’d been gargling with razor blades. Emma gingerly raised herself to a sitting position, though that made her throbbing head a thousand times worse. She squinted around her room, which looked perfectly normal. That was great, except she had no idea how she’d gotten here.
No . . . wait. . . . There was a guy. A cop, I think. Was he at the party?
That’s right. There had been a cop. Somehow, she didn’t think he’d been an invited guest, though she was pretty sure they’d had a lengthy conversation. And she was more than pretty sure that her ride home had been in a squad car. A fragment of that ride returned to her.
“Okay, Emma, you look really green. We’re almost to your place. Can you hang on just a few minutes longer?”
“If you drive faster, maybe.”
He hadn’t just driven her home. He’d come in. To help. Because she’d been a complete disaster. Dread curled in the pit of her much-abused stomach. Emma’s eyes shifted to her nightstand, upon which sat a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. On the floor was her wastebasket, helpfully lined with a plastic bag. It was blessedly empty.
Whoever this guy was, he’d taken care of her. She was deeply grateful and deeply embarrassed all at once. She didn’t like owing people for things. And she didn’t like making a spectacle of herself. It looked like this time around she’d managed to do both.
A familiar feline form wound around the corner of her half-shut door and sauntered in, greeting her with a soft, high-pitched meow utterly at odds with his size. His tail was curved into a furry question mark, as though he was wondering what on earth she’d been thinking last night, too.
“Hey, Boof,” she rasped. He quivered his tail at the sound of his unusual name, which her sister’s fiancé had invented for him. Jake had gotten a kick out of the big kitten’s penchant for headbutting, and he enjoyed adding sound effects when he was around to watch. “Boof” was used frequently. As it turned out, it was also the only thing resembling a name that the cat would answer to. Emma had fought it, but Boof, in true feline fashion, had seemed determined to thwart her.
She was pretty sure that Jake was still gloating.
It was a surprise to see her cat up and about. He usually slept with her. Then again, she wouldn’t have wanted to sleep with herself last night, either. Boof gave another squeaky meow, then sat looking expectantly up at her. Looking for breakfast, no doubt. He loved her, but for the feline, food came first.
She slid her legs over the edge of the bed, steeled herself, and stood. Her legs were wobbly, but functional. Though her feet were bare, she was still wearing last night’s clothes, the scent of which now wafted up to her and had her feeling sick all over again.
Stale beer. Mmm.
At least her shirt was dry now. And her hair. The way they had gotten wet in the first place was a part of the evening she wished she didn’t remember, but she did. Not with perfect clarity, but well enough.
Emma tottered to her dresser, stripped off the offending clothes, and dumped them in a fragrant pile. Then she pulled one of her worn old sweatshirts and a pair of flannel pants out of her drawers, sighing with relief when she put them on. Better.
She walked slowly out of the bedroom, feeling more like an old woman than someone standing on the cusp of thirty. As much as she wanted to stay in bed and hide beneath the covers, something told her she needed to check the rest of the apartment . . . just in case. The bedroom across the hall, the one she used as an office, was empty, as was the bathroom. Everything was neat and organized, exactly the way she liked it. Nothing seemed dangerous except for the big brown medium-haired tabby winding between her legs as she walked. But something nagged at her, though it took her a few seconds to identify what. Then it hit her.
It was a new smell.
She paused right before heading into the open living area when she caught it, faint but recognizable even through the still-unpleasant scent of her hair. She’d always had a sensitive nose, a thing sometimes useful and occasionally annoying. Right now, it was simply . . . illuminating. And mortifying. Because that smell, a subtle, clean, slightly woodsy scent, was the cop’s cologne. The first whiff of it reminded her how much she’d enjoyed breathing it in as he’d carried her to his car. Then from his car. Then up the stairs. And she knew, just knew, that she’d told him how amazing he smelled. At length.
Right before puking her guts out.
I’m never going out again. Ever.
Emma closed her eyes and mouthed several epithets before starting forward again. There was a brief moment of relief when her quick, initial glance around the room showed her nothing. Then she heard the deep, sleepy sigh from her couch, only the back of which was visible from where she stood.
Her feet propelled her forward even though her angrily throbbing brain was screaming at her to go back to bed before it was too late. Still, in a matter of seconds, Emma found herself standing at the corner of her big comfy couch, staring down at the semifamiliar figure of last night’s savior. Her hero.
Perfect. I need a hero like I need a hole in the head.
And yet here he was, looking every inch the white knight she didn’t need. Emma had remembered his scent, his uniform, and a vague sense that he was cute. Apparently, the booze had clouded her vision as well as her thoughts, because in the harsh and sober light of morning, “cute” didn’t even begin to cover it. Not even the hangover from hell could do much to dull her appreciation of this particular sight.
The man was hotness incarnate.
He was still in uniform, stretched out with one arm bent across his chest and the other tucked behind his head, giving her a full-length view of a long, lean body that she could tell was in excellent shape just from the way his clothes fit. He’d untucked his shirt, and the top couple of buttons were undone, so she could see the white neck of his undershirt, a marked contrast to his olive skin. His face, relaxed in sleep, was a study in angles—sharp cheekbones, square jaw, a slim, sharp blade of a nose. His mouth was wide, generous, with soft-looking lips that were parted gently. Thickly lashed eyes tilted slightly down at the corners, closed beneath dark, heavy brows. His short, dark-brown hair was tousled, probably from sleep, and it just made him that much more beautiful.
He was absolutely, completely, horrifyingly gorgeous. And while she stared, trying to figure out whether it was possible to get him out of her apartment without him actually seeing her, the feline in her life decided to indulge one of his favorite—and her least favorite—habits.
If she liked, needed, or was working on something, Boof would inevitably park his big furry butt on it. Too late, Emma realized that she’d stared at the cop long enough for the cat to decide he was of some import to her. In the blink of an eye, Boof was sitting on him.
Emma’s eyes widened. “No!” she hissed, her voice a ridiculous stage whisper. “Damn it, Boof, no!”
The cat looked at her placidly from the center of the cop’s chest, seemed to consider her for a moment, and then bunched himself up to lie down. Emma was positive that if he’d had a middle finger, Boof would have given her one.
“Boof!” she whispered again, a harsh rush of air that the cat had plainly decided to ignore. He gave her the slow, sleepy blink that her sister, Sam, assured her was feline for “I love you.” Emma thought it was probably more like “Screw you, stupid human.” Especially right now.
The cop woke up just as Boof started to knead his chest, purring loudly.
He hissed in a breath. “Ouch!”
Emma stiffened, ready to shout as his hand moved to, presumably, swat at her cat. Instead, he settled it gently on Boof’s back, then rubbed the cat’s soft fur with his fingers.
“Hey, big guy. Watch the claws.” Big warm eyes the color of her morning coffee opened, hazy with sleep. And of course, they found her right away.
“Hey,” he said again, easily, as though it was the most natural thing in the world that he was here, a stranger who’d cared for her through a bout of epic vomiting and then slept on her couch. When she said nothing, he breathed in deeply, stifled a yawn, and pushed himself up into a half-sitting position while steadying Boof with one hand. He kept the hand beneath the cat to cradle him against his chest, then used his fingers to begin rubbing underneath Boof’s chin, against his cheeks, behind his ears. All the favorite places.
Her treacherous cat was immediately in heaven. The cop, on the other hand, quickly returned his focus to her. She wished she could remember his name. She wished she could think of something, anything that wouldn’t make this worse than it already was. Her hair was probably making it worse already.
“You feeling better this morning?” he asked. “Sorry I didn’t split before you got up. I was waiting to make sure you were, um . . . finished,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the bathroom, “before I left. Guess I dozed off.”
His voice was low, with just a hint of roughness that buzzed along her ragged nerve endings. She fought off a shiver, irritated that she was having any kind of a reaction at all to this guy. He didn’t belong here. He shouldn’t still be here. The need to have him gone was so strong that she would have scooped him up and carried him over the threshold, reverse bridegroom style, and then run back inside to lock the door if she could have managed it. He looked pretty solid, though. And he’d probably struggle.
Please let him not try to make small talk. Please.
Emma crossed her arms over her chest and tried to give him her best intimidating glare. The cop just looked back at her, his dark eyes far more serious than his words had been. The quiet intensity she saw in them messed with her resolve, threw her off balance.
Well, maybe it was the hangover that was doing all that. But still.
“You brought me home last night,” she said, her voice sounding like something dredged up from one of the deeper pits of hell.
“Yes, I did.”
She held herself a little more tightly as several more details surfaced in the morass of last night’s memories. “You held my hair. When I was sick.” And rubbed her back while she’d cried about what an idiot she was in between. She would tell him never to speak of it, except that she had no intention of acknowledging it had ever happened in the first place.
The cop licked his lips, a distracting little flick of his tongue as he finally looked away for a second. Knowing this was a little embarrassing for him, too, made Emma feel a tiny bit better. Not much, but it was something. Of course, it hadn’t made him get off her couch yet.
“I did that, too, yeah.”
Emma shook her head, staring at this odd and handsome creature who apparently offered full-service rescue for blindingly drunk women. “Why?” she asked. “Why would you do that?”
His dark brows rose a little. “Because you were in rough shape when I got you back here, and I didn’t want to leave you alone? Plus, you asked me to stay.” He moved his shoulders restlessly. “I just didn’t feel right leaving you like that. Bad things can happen. You’d be surprised.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t argue with that. He’d probably seen plenty of those bad things firsthand, given his job. It wasn’t an explanation she could argue with—she hoped she would have done the same, in his position. Of course, she would have been gone like a thief in the night before things got all weird and embarrassing.
This guy didn’t seem to have any qualms about it.
“Does Aaron know that—”
“He knows,” the cop interrupted smoothly. “I was under strict orders to keep him posted.”
“You’re . . . friends, then,” Emma said, frowning as she tried to remember the connection. Mostly she just remembered lying in front of Aaron’s house. That there was a connection at all, though, eased her mind a little. It was better if this was a friend of Aaron’s and not just some random cop who’d been driving by and taken pity on her.
“He and I are neighbors,” the cop said. “Though after this, I think ‘friends’ works, too. He did say he owes me dinner.” He angled his head down, tilting it to one side. “You sure you’re okay? You’re still pale, and you were pretty sick. Want me to grab you some juice or something before I take off?”
“No,” Emma said, a quick denial that was forceful enough to make him blink. “No,” she said again, trying to soften the sound of it. “I . . . appreciate it. And everything. I just need to, ah, recover. I guess.” She closed her eyes and gave a short, rusty laugh. “I feel like something somebody scraped off the bottom of a shoe.”
His grin revealed perfect, very white teeth. “Yeah, you mentioned you don’t get out much.”
She managed a rueful half smile. “Not like that, anyway.”
The cop’s serious eyes softened, and some small, stupid part of her wished, just for a moment, that he was here because she’d brought him, not because she’d needed a babysitter. It was a stupid wish, and she banished it as quickly as she could. Guys like him were not for women like her. That was a decision she’d made a long time ago.
No jerks. No loose cannons. And definitely no heroes.
“It’s not a big deal. Nobody’s perfect,” he said, drawing her out of her unpleasant thoughts. Emma could see he really believed that platitude. He obviously hadn’t been in the Cove very long.
I’m supposed to be perfect. It’s all I’ve got. But that’s not something I’m going to stand here explaining to you.
“Hmm,” was the best reply she could manage. She wanted a shower. She wanted her coffee. . . . Well, maybe weak tea would be better this morning. What she really wanted was the Hot Arm of the Law here to clear out and pretend they’d never met. To his credit, he finally seemed to get that. He swung his legs over the side of the couch, set Boof gently on the floor, and began to put on the shoes he’d set neatly beside her coffee table.
As she watched her cat flop onto his back and demand belly rubs as a plot to keep the cop’s attention, all sorts of questions occurred to her, most of which she wasn’t all that sure she wanted the answers to right now. But with a little effort, she finally remembered one important thing.
“Seth,” she said, and he looked up at her while he tied his shoe. “Your name is Seth. I’m sorry I don’t remember the rest of it.”
“It’s okay,” he said, flashing that killer smile again as he reached over to give Boof’s belly a quick rub. “You never really got the hang of it last night. Andersen. New guy in town. I know you’re Emma Henry, though.”
“Yeah,” she said, a silly smile curving her lips before she banished it. Totally inappropriate to be smiling at a guy you wanted out of your life ASAP. It would help if he didn’t seem like he was enjoying her company. And that had to be an act, because guys didn’t tend to enjoy her company even when she had her shit together. And that was always.
Make that almost always.
“Well,” she said as he finished tying his shoes and stood. She hated being at a loss for words, but she couldn’t blame Seth for it. This miserably awkward situation was all on her. With luck, this would be the end of it. “Thanks,” she said, “for, you know, everything. I appreciate the help.” And let’s just pretend we’ve never met each other from here on out, okay?
“Not a problem,” he replied. He picked up his duty belt from the coffee table and put it on, then grabbed his keys. A small inscrutable smile crossed his lips before Seth turned to go to the door. God knew what he was thinking.
Emma watched him walk away, hating herself a little for taking a second to admire the way his pants hugged one very nice butt. She had to stop herself from offering a more tangible form of thanks—dinner, a bottle of wine, something more than just a lame “see you around” for having put up with her at her most pathetic. But though her instinct toward politeness was strong, her sense of self-preservation was stronger. Seth was too interesting to see again. Even if she’d been looking for a guy, which she wasn’t, he was completely unsuitable. The sight of the badge on his chest and the gun at his hip just drove that home.
Still, manners dictated she follow him to the door, if for nothing more than to bid him a final farewell and provide a visual reminder that no, he wouldn’t ever want to go out with a woman capable of looking this bad.
“Bye,” Emma rasped. “Thanks again. I’ll make sure Aaron makes good on that dinner offer. You’ve earned it.”
He turned his head to look at her, and for a brief instant she thought he was going to do something terrible, like ask to see her again. Instead, he just said, “It was nice meeting you, Emma. Hope I’ll see you around.”
It was exactly what she’d wanted. And she felt a nasty slap of disappointment anyway as Seth gave her one last devastating smile and shut the door.
Emma looked down at Boof, who had come to rub against her leg.
“Aaron was right. I really am a hot mess,” she said.
In response, Boof gave an irritable meow and headed for the kitchen. His breakfast was late. And really, shouldn’t she and her cat both have more pressing concerns than Officer Seth Andersen? She told herself that the answer was yes as she locked the door, then headed for the kitchen.
And she was still telling herself that as she pulled the curtains aside just enough to watch him get in his cruiser and drive away.
She was sitting quietly at her desk Monday morning, minding her own business, when the sense of impending doom that had been circling since the day before landed on Emma with a resounding thud. The thud, in this case, sounded a lot like the text alert on her cell phone. And the bearer of ultimate doom was her assistant, Brynn.
You might want to see this.—B.
No. No, she really did not. But Emma clicked the video Brynn had linked anyway, then watched silently as someone who looked a lot like her used every rusty skill remembered from childhood dance lessons to wow the crowd down at the Harvest Cove Tavern. Every wobbly pirouette, every random butt wiggle, had been captured for posterity in a shaky video some enterprising soul had taken on his or her phone.
Emma made a soft, pained sound. “The robot? I did the robot?”
Yes, she had. It was on YouTube. It was probably on Facebook.
It was bad.
And since the name BigPimpin372 could have belonged to any number of local jerks, she had no one to chase after to demand the video be taken down. . . . Though when she calmed down a little, she fully intended to try anyway. She just needed a minute. Maybe more than a minute.
Emma rubbed absently at the increasing ache in her right temple as the woman in the video threw herself into a chair, tossed her head back to pose dramatically, and upended a pitcher of beer onto herself to the cheers of the crowd. It was a serviceable Flashdance homage, she guessed.
Apparently her sister wasn’t the only one with a flair for the dramatic. Who knew?
Emma made it through the ending, a brief clip of herself singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” into a microphone that had been cut short because the cameraperson hadn’t seemed too steady on his feet at that point, either, and then started to read the YouTube comments before remembering that one should never, ever read the comments. Especially when they were about oneself. A glance at the time stamp told her that the video had been up since early yesterday, probably before whoever took it had fallen into bed. She carefully set her phone down on the desk.
“I have a nice singing voice,” she informed the empty shop. “So there’s that.”
After a few long minutes spent staring at the phone as though she could will it and its contents out of existence, Emma blinked rapidly and straightened. It was time to get back on track. She pulled up the proposal she’d been working on and typed a few words. When she realized they didn’t make much sense, she erased them, then propped her chin on her hand to study the work she’d done so far. The words kept jumbling together, though, and there was a tightness in her chest she couldn’t seem to get rid of.
It had been a long time since she’d had this feeling, but it was one she never really forgot. If she wasn’t very careful, she was going to wind up with a full-blown panic attack.
Minutes went by, slipping into half an hour, then forty-five minutes. Emma tried to remember the techniques she’d once used to calm herself down, focusing on her breathing, the steady inhaling and exhaling. She found she could at least be grateful that it was a slow Monday, and that she had no appointments until early afternoon. Emma closed her eyes, visualizing a quiet meadow, a gentle breeze, solitude.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s okay.
The bell above the door tinkled, but the fact that she was no longer alone didn’t really register until her sister’s voice filled the quiet of the shop.
“Hey, it’s alive!”
Emma’s eyes flew open, startled, and the look on her face must have revealed everything. Sam hurried forward, bootheels clicking on the wood floor, concern etched across her lovely face.
“Jesus, Em, are you okay? You’re as white as a ghost! Did you eat today? Are you sick?”
“No, I’m fine! I was just—just resting!” Her hands flew up defensively, and Sam stopped just short of her, looking uncertain. Things were better between them, but there were still boundaries, old ones, that had yet to be crossed.
“Are you sure?”
Not really. Part of her wanted to grab her sister and cry on her shoulder until Sam’s pretty blue tunic was soggy with tears. The rest of her, however, the bigger part, would never allow that. Comforting her shouldn’t be Sam’s job. She could handle it herself. That was what she did, after all. Emma Henry, Woman of Steel. It wasn’t exactly a superpower, but it would do.
Emma collected herself as best she could, despite the uncomfortable squeeze of her rib cage around her lungs, and pretended everything was fine.
“I’m not dead yet, anyway,” Emma said, keeping her voice neutral and managing a thin smile. Not great, but better than looking terrified. “I’m just putting together a package with some options for the McKendricks.” She gestured at her computer screen. “This seems more like a sweet sixteen party than a baptism, but if they want to go big, who am I to judge?”
Sam hesitated, and Emma could see her debating whether to continue to press. Finally, though, Sam offered up a small mischievous smile. “There aren’t, like, ice sculptures involved, are there?”
Emma let out a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding, and when she smiled again, it was warmer. “Not this time, no. But you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve had to set up.”
“This is why I couldn’t do what you do. You have to keep a straight face,” Sam said, moving to perch on the edge of the desk. It was a not so subtle way to make sure her sister couldn’t dismiss her easily, Emma knew. An effective one, too. Despite all the years they’d orbited each other only distantly, they understood each other well.
Sam had come to check on her for a reason. There would be no avoiding the conversation.
Excerpted from "Every Little Kiss"
Copyright © 2015 Kendra Leigh Castle.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Kendra Leigh Castle:
“Harvest Cove will wrap around your heart like a snuggly blanket on a chilly autumn day.”—USA Today Bestselling Author Katie Lane
“You can feel the sexual tension brimming.”—Debbie’s World of Books
“A story that keeps you interested until the last page.”—Night Owl Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kendra Leigh Castle brings readers the second book in her Harvest Cove series, Every Little Kiss. This is a light-hearted romance that will have reading smiling. With a buttoned up heroine and a military hero, turned cop, there had to be some serious sparks. Castle does a great job with the small town setting and readers will love the quirky characters and down home charm. If you are looking for a great feel good story, this is it! This was my first book by this author. There are a few things I look for when reading someone new and in this case, Castle met all my criteria for an author I'd want to read again and again. First of all, she charms readers with her small town setting for this series. Harvest Cove is one of those little New England towns that people dream about living in. With quirky, off-beat townspeople and that sense of community and forthrightness. Secondly, Castle provided great characters who showed a lot of growth throughout the story. The heroine is a buttoned up event planner that really needed to let her hair down, but when she did, she ended up with one of the local cops. I liked the fact that Emma changes so much from the beginning of this book to the end. She is so straight laced and hard to please and then with the help of Seth's caring and playfulness she blossoms. Seth was a great hero in every sense of he word. I liked that he was former military and that he was looking for a slow pace of life. Both characters were realistic and fun to read about. My last criteria for a good romance, is often the steaminess of the relationship. It's funny, in some books I really want the heat to be high and intense and in some books, depending on how the story has progressed, I just want that slow easy kind of love scene and that's what readers get with this one. It's relatively clean and certainly will put a smile on your face, but it doesn't go overboard which would have completely changed the dynamic of the book. Bottom Line: I would definitely read this author again. I think that her character development was excellent. The setting was well written and played an essential part in the story. The love scenes fit the story and were not too intense. This would appeal to readers who are looking for a good, well written feel-good romance. It wasn't too complicated and it made me smile. Well done!