Tiny Treats 2 by Trish Milburn

Saint Patrick’s Day. A day known more for parades, boozing it up and green-dyed everything than for love and commitment. But it was pretty romantic, given the circumstances.
Tiny Treats 2
Tiny Treats 2 by Trish Milburn
Colin laughed quietly, tugging his collar up against the unseasonably cold bite in the air. They’d met on St. Patrick’s Day, fifteen years ago, when their cares were few, the responsibilities fewer. He and Jamie had bumped into each other near one of Savannah’s fountains of Kelly green water, while waiting on the parade. She’d sloshed her green beer all over him. Luckily, and obviously, he’d been wearing a green shirt, so it didn’t matter. He could still picture her stumbling through the apology, her pert nose, her brown eyes so big and breathtaking, he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. He’d assumed it was something along the lines of, “I’m sorry,” but it didn’t matter. In that moment he would’ve forgiven her anything. He’d laughed, saying, “Whole place smells like a brewery. Don’t go worrying about adding a little more.” A flash of her blinding smile. “Are you really Irish?” she’d asked, and they talked to no one else for the next twenty-four hours. After that, they went on a date, then they were seriously dating, and soon they fell in love. That one split-second collision of elbows, a brief exchange over spilt beer, and their lives unfolded in ways they couldn’t imagine. They built a world around each other, a family and a home. But homes and families crumble unless you fight to keep them alive. They both knew that, all too well. “Will you meet me at the downtown fountain on your lunch break?” he’d texted her this morning. “It’s not our fountain, but it will do. The last few months have been rough. I want to make it up to you.” “Why are we meeting out here? It’s freezing!” As soon as she walked up, Jamie planted her face in his chest and he hugged her hello. “It’s not that bad, love. Fresh Irish weather.” “In the South, we call it cold.” She slipped a hand under his jacket and shirt, ice-cold fingers tickling his back. “You’re some cheeky tart for that, now.” She merely snuggled closer. He got right to the point, nerves and excitement getting the best of him. “I know I’ve been a bit of an arse lately. And I’m sorry” “A bit?” She lifted one eyebrow, perfectly arched. He’d never been able to master that technique, no matter how much he’d practiced. “Did I say bit? I meant big. A big arse.” She laughed and shook it off easily, the way she did everything. “It’s okay. You know I forgive you.” “Between the promotion at work, the extra hours, the kids’ new schedules – life about drove me mad. It had nothing to do with you, though. You supported me and put up with my shite, and I want to give you something…to say thank you.” Her smile grew into the brilliant flash of teeth he knew and loved. “You got me a gift?” “Yep.” He popped his lips together on the ‘p.’ “Here. Sit.” Colin handed her the brown paper bag as she sat on the wide rim of the fountain. With long, artful fingers – fingers he’d held as they took their vows, fingers that stroked the hair of their children when they were sick, brushed over the back of his neck after a long day and did…other things he liked – she opened the bag and pulled out two small packages. Both wrapped in brown craft paper. She opened the first one, and blinked up at him. “A corned beef sandwich.” He sat down next to her and took the sandwich for his own. “Go on. Open the other one.” She folded back the paper and stared down at the gift. Her tone oozed sarcasm. “And another corned beef sandwich. Gee, honey, thanks. It’s what I always want— oh…what’s this?” She dug out the envelope beneath the sandwich, side-eyeing him as she opened it. Colin bit into his sandwich, trying not to smile over his mouthful. He used to be rubbish at telling her how he felt. It’d been a source of argument and hurt for years, but he wasn’t raised in a home where ‘I love you’ came easily. No one had cuddled him close at night with words of reassurance, reminders of how wonderful they thought he was. How special and loved. Jamie showed him that world. She taught him love by example, and now he knew how to give love in return, to her and the boys. He was still shite with pretty words, but the way her mouth fell open and her hands began to shake as she read the letter, he thought maybe he’d gotten his point across anyway. “We… Ireland? We’re going to Ireland?” “And Scotland.” He pointed further down the letter. “Two weeks, love. Just us and the boys. I’ve booked us in at the best bed and breakfasts in each county we’ll visit. My sister said the boys can stay with her one long weekend because I want to whisk you off to Adare Manor. Have a right nice stay of it. Some time alone, long walks and candlelit dinners, the whole lot.” She lifted her misty gaze to his. “You planned all this?” “I wanted to do something nice for you. After all you’ve done…” Expressing his love shouldn’t feel like opening his chest, but saying it out loud, putting his heart out there so plainly, still knotted him up. The way he managed was reminding himself this was Jamie. His Jamie. With her, his heart was safe. Colin cleared his throat and began again. “After all you’ve done, for the two of us, for our family, I want to do something for you. Something really special. To show you how much you mean to me. How much I love you. With all of my heart, love. I don’t – I don’t know where I’d be without you. I hate to even imagine.” Jamie leaned over, her lips warm against his, her nose cold. “Then it’s a good thing you won’t ever have to.” * * * * Heather McGovern writes contemporary romance that’s humorous, heartwarming and hot as hell. Mild-mannered finance professional by day, glitter-bomb throwing author by night, she grew up thinking she’d either be a herpetologist – frog scientist to be exact – or Wonder Woman. She was born in the Upstate of South Carolina, but moved to Charleston to attend college and graduated with a BS in Biology. After realizing she didn’t want to work in a lab or go to school for eight more years, she moved back to the Upstate to join the ranks or corporate America. She still lives there, in the Magical McGovy Forest, with her husband and son, and lots of pond frogs. If she’s not working on a computer somewhere, she’s playing superheroes with her son. He always lets her be Wonder Woman. She is represented by Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Find out more at heathermcgovernnovels.com and connect with Heather on Twitter and Facebook. Haint and Begorrah By Maureen Hardegree “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough,” Father Flaherty said, his brogue as strong in death as it had been in life. Out of the boiled cabbage stench permeating the church rec hall, he’d materialized at my side. Not exactly the person—or as the case may be, former person—I was most wanting to see. Yes, I was in the lull between handling my last ghost and taking on the next, and yes, his passing had been a big blow to everyone at St. Mark’s. But that didn’t mean I had to shepherd the non-living embodiment of Jiminy Cricket. Avoiding eye contact, I scooted away from the priest most likely to hum Sinatra tunes and settled farther down the long cafeteria table covered in green plastic and a scattering of shiny shamrock confetti. “Yes, yes. You’re lucky enough,” he repeated. My guess? It’s some goober expression that people of Irish heritage say to one another, like we’re in an exclusive club that celebrates bland food, whiskey, and sentimental songs. For the record, my ancestry’s only half Irish, and I can tell you for sure there’s nothing lucky about it. The Irish is what enables me to see ghosts, and it adds another layer of crazy to my already stressed out, sometimes hive-ridden life. Everyone else in my family had joined the music director who was playing the piano in the far corner of the room. I was still pushing around shudder-inducing boiled potatoes and chunks of corned beef that shredded like Twizzlers™ Pull-n-Peel candy. I’d taken my stand against soggy cabbage and its potential to make me dry heave. To be honest, I was somewhat surprised to encounter the spirit of our parish priest. Last summer, I’d “hypothetically” asked him about hauntings. With not a bit of teasing twinkle in his blue eyes, he’d told me the church’s stance was that there was no such thing as ghosts. In truth, he was probably a lot more flabbergasted than I was that he’d been stuck between worlds. Not that I was all that curious about what was keeping him in the here and now. I had plenty of other things to worry about, like the biology test I was supposed to have studied for, and where Drew was. The only reason I’d agreed to go to this St. Patrick’s Day feast, and I use the term “feast” lightly, was that he said he’d be here. That and Grandma MacCormack told me it would make her happy. I searched the message icon on my phone screen for any changes. Nothing. Continuing to ignore the ghostly priest, I poked my fork into a flavorless potato and checked the clock centered in the cheesily-decorated event room’s wood-paneled wall. Metallic clovers and green crepe paper dominated. A bogus pot of fake gold coins sat at the end of an equally fake construction paper rainbow. “Ah, there’s your good friend,” Father Flaherty said, like I’d acknowledged him. I hadn’t. Xavier made a bee-line for me. He didn’t look half bad tonight. Nice butter-colored button-down and jeans, his shaggy hair trimmed, but wearing not a stitch of green. I pointed to my solid kelly three-quarter-sleeved tee. “You’re braver than me.” He turned to the side, angling one of his butt cheeks in range. “Go ahead, pinch me.” “Very funny.” In a matter of seconds, I found myself actually assessing the pinch-worthiness of Xavier’s booty. What was I doing? I had a boyfriend, a hot one. Maybe the “corn” in the beef had affected my brain’s ability to function within normal limits. Managing one last bite of cold potato, I left my unappetizing dinner for liquid refreshment. “Want some root beer? Then your tongue at least will be green.” My mind time-traveled back to our kiss on Halloween. My face burned even though I knew he couldn’t read my mind. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t going to confess what “impure” thoughts I was having to the conveniently located Father Flaherty. My conscience was fine, except that Xavier seemed to be getting cuter, and that really made me uncomfortable . . . and, come to think of it, suspicious of a certain haint who was trying to glom onto me. Father’s supernatural priestly powers had to be at play, making me find Xavier attractive, and that was plain wrong. When a girl likes two boys at one time, someone gets hurt. That someone would inevitably be me. Twilight, anyone? “You want to dance?” Xavier asked, nodding his head in the direction where a gray-haired couple had created room by pushing back tables. “No.” “Why not dance with the boy?” Father Flaherty urged. “Drew is coming,” I explained to Xavier, so technically Father couldn’t assume I was answering his question, even though I kind of was. “It’d be . . . awkward.” “Why? He doesn’t know about—” Discreet as always, Xavier wiggled his dark eyebrows rather than say anything about the kiss that shouldn’t have happened on Halloween. “No, he doesn’t. You know, you really make more of it than it was.” As soon as I said those words, I regretted them and not just because I’d lied. Xavier’s warm brown eyes glittered with hurt. “I guess I’ll get some of that root beer.” Out of the corner of my eye, I spied our former pastor hovering, steepling his fingers, and rocking on his heels like he used to do during sermons when he’d pointed out his parishioners’ shortcomings. “Why must you always cut Mr. Monroe to the quick?” Like I was telling him. Like he would even understand. He’d never been married. He’d probably never dated. In my defense, I only kissed Xavier to help his brother Stevie move on. My feelings for Drew hadn’t been compromised in any way. Well, only a teeny, tiny bit. I knew Xavier liked me more than he should, and maybe I was starting to like him in ways I shouldn’t. I wasn’t sacrificing a perfectly good platonic friendship or my relationship with Drew, a guy I could hardly believe I was dating, a guy I really liked. Fifteen minutes later, I checked my phone for the bazillionth time. Still nothing. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d been stood up by my Facebook-in-a-relationship-recognized boyfriend. “How about now?” Xavier said from the proximity of my shoulder. Before I could answer, Drew’s sister Morgan, mom and stepdad entered the rec hall. No Drew. “Might as well ask where he is,” Xavier suggested. “I can’t. You know how his mom doesn’t like me. Plus, I don’t want to come across as needy.” “But I guess you’re okay with bored, addicted to your phone, and unable to enjoy the moment.” “He has a point,” Father Flaherty chimed in, reminding me that he was still hanging around, trying to get me to acknowledge him, probably needing my help with something I most likely didn’t want to help him with. “A very good one,” he added, drawing out the “r” in “very.” With a sigh, I shoved my phone into my front pocket. No addiction here. “What are you,” I said to Xavier, “fifteen going on fifty?” Instead of walking away at my swipe, Xavier snorted. It figured he’d find my snark amusing, and it made me want to scream. “I have an idea. Why don’t you take your own advice? Rather than bug me, go sing songs or eat more cabbage.” “Nice,” he said, then looked around the room. His gaze snagged on a girl whose name I couldn’t place. Something with a B. Last time I’d seen her, she’d had a mouth full of metal. Now, she was showing off her nicely straightened teeth with a pretty smile. Wishing Drew would at least explain the delay, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and pretended to check it, but watched Xavier walk over to the girl, laugh and show that dimple I liked when I wasn’t mad at him. This was . . . good. This interest in another girl was what I’d wanted. “Ah, Miss Tildy, why must you fight what you feel for Mr. Monroe?” Good try. “If you wait too long, the opportunity will pass you by.” Father Flaherty’s brogue rang unfettered with the “r” in opportunity. Maybe he was right, not about Xavier and me, but about opportunities passing. It was what Xavier had said, with different words. Dad and Mom were singing. Claire, Grandma, and even Audrey were having what appeared to be a good time, and here I was locked to my phone screen, willing a text from Drew, checking the door every three seconds. This evening was winging by. Soon my eyes would be crossing, trying to memorize biology nomenclature for my test tomorrow. Even I knew tonight was a metaphor for my life. Did I want to be a watcher or a doer? Doer. I walked over to where my older and often irritating sister stood and started singing an admittedly off-key rendition of “Danny Boy,” which earned me the familiar roll of Audrey’s a little too dramatically made up eyes. Xavier soon joined in and was sharing a song sheet with the girl with the newly straightened teeth, but he was looking at me. Caught, he shrugged and smiled, his teeth and gums washed in green from the dye in the root beer. This time his dimple was all for me. He wasn’t mad, even though he had every right to be, even though I was the source of most of his frustration. My heart skittered just a little. I couldn’t help but smile back. Maybe one day there’d be something more with Xavier. Maybe Father Flaherty was right about giving my friend a chance. Maybe that was why the priest was here! Our haintly padre joined in the singing. His voice, something only I could hear, boomed. Heartbeat drowning out the music at my epiphany, I debated acknowledging him. All it would require was me meeting his gaze or talking to him. Some ghosts are up front about what they need me to do, and he should be fairly easy to dispatch since I’d already figured out what he wanted—me to promise I’d give Xavier a chance, some day. He’d probably leave before the next song ended. Once I recognized him and offered to do what he wanted, that is. Problem solved. The music director called out, “‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ on three. One, two, and three.” So, Father, I know why you’re appearing to me, and I’m okay with it, I thought at him. “Are you now, Miss Tildy?” Why not? I mean, someday things could work out with me and Xavier. Not now, of course. Father Flaherty’s bushy gray caterpillar-like eyebrows drew together in concern. That uh-oh feeling tolled like a big, old bell in my gut. Before I could get clarification of what I now suspected had been faulty logic, I heard a different voice behind me—deep, pleasant. Familiar. Drew. Xavier’s grin faded, and Drew, smelling of chlorine, slipped his arm around my waist. He kissed my cheek. “Sorry I’m late. I got in some extra pool time.” My Irish eyes should have been smiling, but how could they? I had a mucho grande problemo. I had acknowledged a ghost, solved what I’d thought was the issue keeping him here, and he hadn’t left. Father Flaherty leaned toward me. “I’m so pleased you’ve agreed to revive the teen group here at church.” Crappola. Even worse news, on informing this girl-most-likely-to-fail-at-her-quest, he hadn’t left. He probably wouldn’t until I completed my task to his satisfaction. He’d be with me until I did. My skin tingled, and not in a pleasant way. Goodbye late night texting, goodbye borrowing Audrey’s clothes without asking, goodbye lingering date night kisses with Drew. Goodbye all hope of retaining my quirky but somewhat cool status. I was so screwed. * * * * Although Georgia YA author Maureen Hardegree concedes to having all the usual baggage of a middle child, she is NOT a ghost handler. She does, however, believe in connecting with her inner teenager and in feeding her active imagination—it likes Italian food and chocolate. Maureen is a past president of Georgia Romance Writers and a longtime contributor to BelleBooks’ Mossy Creek Hometown anthologies. Feel free to visit Maureen’s website (www.maureenhardegree.com), Pinterest boards, and Facebook page to say hello and find updates on signings, events, and upcoming 2015 releases, which includes If It Haint Broke, Book Six of the Ghost Handlers series. The High King’s Cauldron By Joan Kayse The water in the bowl shimmered with the colors of the sacred bow before going opaque. Finn Murchadha folded his arms across his bare chest and released a long breath. He’d taken advantage of the momentary lull in the night’s activities to scry his home. Well, less a home than a training camp. Only mortals indulged in such maudlin concepts as abodes filled with family, emotional attachments and significance. Granted the trainees were his children, but he was Solitary Fae and could not grasp the concept. “Finn…” But a Leithprachaun warrior did understand duty. Finn, come back to bed.” The voice, husky from sex, both aroused and repelled him. Another duality that marked his current existence—live in the moment in the way of his kind while manipulating the future. He stalked over to the bed and paused to study the female tangled in the sheets. Hair the color of a raven’s wing, eyes the color of obsidian though emotions could be read by flecks within their fathomless depths. At the moment they glittered bright like diamonds, a signal of a woman well satisfied. Her very talented tongue slipped out and licked her ruby red lips, lips swollen from his mouth crushing hers. He’d not call it a kiss but rather a brutal possession to denote who was in charge. An important difference that even he, a no emotions attached Fae, found to be important. Her arched brows furrowed and the flecks in her eyes flashed red. “What are you thinking about, Leithprachaun?” Tenuous business, this sleeping with the enemy. “Only that I’m a lucky bastard to have ye in my bed.” His redirection had the intended effect. Her eyes hooded and she undulated, thrust her naked breasts toward him. A common affliction among royalty to be so easily swayed by false flattery and Mab, queen of the Dark Banshees, was no exception. In like manner, as a male, the sight of those sweet globes also had its intended effect, his balls drawing tight, his cock straining, jutting out from his groin. Finn climbed onto the down mattress, straddled Mab, gripped her hips and thrust rough and hard into her core. She made no cry, but arched to meet him, wrapping her legs around his waist, urging him into a frenetic rhythm. The reminder that he was the one in control of this game to ply him with her body, addle his mind with sexual pleasure, to steal all that mattered struggled to maintain a hold in his mind. For all that she was attempting to use him for her own devious purposes, it did not negate the fact that her body gave all that it promised. And that he wanted it. They reached the peak together, tumbling over the apex mindless of everything save the heat of their bodies. Time was a relative concept for them both, but in that moment everything else ceased to exist. Finn collapsed on top of Mab, rolled to the side in a sweat-slicked stupor, their panting the only sound in the cottage room. He stared at the thatch ceiling, an unexpected shame washing over him. It shook him, as he’d never before regretted a tumble in the sheets—or the hay, or the meadow or the fecking wall. Sensuality was as much a part of his nature as the brilliant blue of his eyes, clever wit, formidable fighting skills and mischievous ways. And every woman he’d ever been with had been more than willing to partake of his charms. He glanced at the banshee who lay with her eyes closed, lips tilted up in a smug smile. The shame came from lowering himself to the likes of this evil bitch. For duty a voice echoed in his mind. He risked a look to the scrying bowl. Aye. For duty. For survival. “Finn,” Mab purred, “What we could do with the treasure.” She rolled her head, looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. “Together our power could bring the worlds to their knees.” Finn fought down the bile in his throat. That was ever the way of dark ones, subjugating, stealing free will. What had he been thinking, throwing his lot in with the likes of her? Mab reached back and found his cock with her skillful hand. He sucked in a deep breath. Aye, there was that. He reached an arm to roll her round to him, to find her hot, wet entry. While he was Leithprachaun, carnal nature and all, he was also clever. That which Mab sought was now safely out of her reach, so no reason not to live in this moment. “There is nothing to hold us back. Nothing.” An image from her mind flashed across Finn’s, scratched through the physical sensations into that burgeoning place within that cared about the future. A cold shudder shot through him. Gods, what had she done? *** “Swing through, Brady.” Patric rolled his eyes as his brother brought the oak staff up to crosscheck his other brother Killian’s downward blow only to slip and spin, opening his flank to attack. Which Killian did…and then dropped his weapon to ask Brady if he was all right. Feck, they were a sorry bunch. He scanned the forest glen, taking in each and every one of his siblings as they practiced their warrior skills. Lucky bastard he was to be the eldest, centuries older than any of them. To the mortal eye though, he’d appear twenty-one while the rest ranged in age from thirteen to nineteen. In either calculation, they were acting like feckin’ teenagers. “Shite, Killian. He’s yer enemy. Ye don’t defeat him then offer him scones and tea.” A brilliant green light flashed in the corner of his eye. With only a breath to spare, he spun out of the path of a magic sphere, turned and watched it bounce off three trees, singeing branches and raining down leaves before burying itself in a carpet of moss. In moments a rose bush in full bloom sprang out of the soil. He sliced a glare from the pink blossoms to his lone sister, Bridget. “‘Tis sorry I am, Paddy.” Sorry? He was the one who was sorry. Sorry to have been born the eldest. Sorry to be wasting his time with this lot. Sorry that his father was never around. Finn Murchadha was the one who was High King. He should be seeing to his clan’s training, magical and otherwise. Especially since the clan consisted of his children. His will faltered and he softened his expression as he looked at Bridget. The only female Leithprachaun ever born, according to the Fae Chronicles. The youngest at fourteen, beautiful as one of those roses, with bright, golden-red curls, almond-shaped eyes. But her skills were still untested. She was shy, confused, frightened after being brought here only a few months ago, taken from her family, claimed by their father as Leithprachaun. As they all had been. “Paddy?” she said again, her voice filled with trepidation. Patric cringed inwardly. He knew they all thought him aggressive, harsh. But he’d been in this realm longer. He’d been born to magic, to the fight, to the survival. He scowled. To the politics. Even though he felt no personal commitment to help his half-siblings, he felt a duty to make them ready. “No worries, Bridget,” he replied, then called out, “Take a rest.” While the others fanned out to the cooking fire or the forest, or in the case of his studious brother Michael, a book, Patric moved to the far edge of the clearing. He was Solitary Fae and relished being alone. He sat at the base of an ancient oak, braced his back against its solid trunk, crossed his booted ankles and closed his eyes. A few minutes alone ‘twas all he needed. “Do ye really have time to sit on yer arse?” Patric’s eyes snapped open. A few feet away, his da crouched in the mat of the forest floor, arms propped on bent knees fiddling with a stick. Finn wasn’t looking at him, but was studying the others. “What the feck do ye care?” he replied through gritted teeth. Finn made an impatient noise in his throat. “They’re not ready.” Pride raised Patric’s chin. “They’ve come a long way.” He’d been doing the best he could. “Ye’d know that if ye’d been here.” Aye, there was resentment beneath his words. Eldest son, heir, it didn’t matter. He’d needed his father as much as any of them. “They aren’t ready,” Finn repeated, facing Patric at last. Patric sucked in a breath. His da had aged, a major feat given Leithprachauns lived for centuries. His color was sallow, his forehead, mouth and eyes creased with lines. His hair was untended, his mouth set in a grim line beneath the shadow of a days-old beard. His eyes, the same brilliant blue as his own, were dull. “Ready for what?” Finn growled low in his throat again. “Doesn’t matter. It has to be now.” He rose to his feet and shouted. “In the center of the glen. Now.” Patric bristled at the command and noted most of his brothers did too. Only Bridget, young and tender of heart, carried an expression of excitement, but that melted away as her father stalked past her without greeting or touch. “Gather round,” Finn repeated. Patric took his time taking his place in the semi-circle. His da had a lot of nerve showing up unannounced after months of absence, shouting orders, acting as if he were High King, which of course, he was. He scowled. “The Leithprachaun are charged with protecting the greatest treasure known to the world. It is our duty to keep it safe. Ye are my children. Ye are warriors and the time to take up yer part in it is at hand.” Patric exchanged puzzled looks with Brady and Killian. They’d heard of this legendary treasure but often debated its existence. Before he could open his mouth to ask his father if he-d gone mad, Finn began to glow. Before their eyes, his father morphed into the tall, strong, powerful warrior of old. Magic, sharp and brilliant, shimmered rimmed his body, streaming out to encompass them all. Patric could not move, could not speak, but could only watch as the magic coalesced into a pulsating orb. Within seconds, a large bronze cauldron appeared within its depths, an even brighter, multi-hued glow emanating from within. Finn raised his hands. “To the warriors of the Fae, I give ye the treasures of life.” A blast of arctic wind swept through the glen, whipping their hair, their clothes and still none of them could move. Smaller orbs separated from the cauldron and one by one, like cannon shot, they flew into their chests. Patric staggered against the weight that crushed his chest. He felt his magic spike, searing him from the inside out. Emotions, raw and jagged as ice, scrapped at his soul. Sweat poured down his face, his lungs seized, unable to draw air. His legs gave way, crashing him to his knees. Through the haze of pain and sensation, he saw his siblings splayed out on the ground. After what seemed an eternity, the wind died down, the glow of magic dimmed. The cauldron dissolved, leaving only his father standing. Groans and muttered curses joined Patric’s as he struggled to rise up. Patric couldn’t get his jaw to work, but then it dropped open of its own accord. Standing beside his father was a boy. No more than eight years old. He was dirty, ragged and wide, gray eyes were round with terror. “Take care of yer sister, yer brothers.” He almost choked as his da laid a hand on the lad’s shoulder. Another feckin’ brother? Finn’s head shot up, his attention drawn to somewhere else. He dropped his gaze and held Patric’s. “Stand strong. Remember yer duty.” Without a sound he too disappeared. A screeching keen filled the air. * * * * Joan Kayse loves HEA and believes Prince Charming could be right around the corner. Um, excuse her while she peeks around that corner. To prevent herself from being labeled a “crazy cat lady” she turned to writing and thrives on creating stories from ancient worlds to magical ones. She would move to Ireland in a heartbeat and grow potatoes, learn to play the bodhran or just absorb the energy. Until then, she lives in Louisville, Kentucky where she shares her home and keyboard with her two muses, Cricket Marie and Grayson the Monkey Cat. www.facebook.com/joankayseauthor @JoanKayse Probability of Love By D.B. Sieders. “Oooh, do you think we’ll find one?” Ellen asked, vibrating with excitement as she stared out over the meadow. Jace followed her gaze in an effort to appreciate the scenery, at least as much as he was capable. In spite of the chill, the advent of spring had awakened dormant plant life. Vivid shades of green assaulted his visual cortex, the patterns interrupted by random colors from budding trees and flowers. Fortunately, the irregularity hadn’t become a distraction. Yet. Still, it took a great deal of his focus to filter the chaos surrounding him: bright sunlight casting a series of indiscriminate glares from sunglasses and shop windows, voices, so many voices competing with the cacophony of Irish step dancers and their accompanying fiddle and drum, and people dressed in a dizzying array of colors and textures with no discernible pattern. He realized, of course, the futility of his effort. He’d never appreciate any of this the way Ellen did. He’d never perceive whatever beauty or joy she found in the experience. She was a normal person. He was not. He took a deep breath, tolerating the myriad scents from flora, fauna, and humanity in order to calm his mind. “We have a 0.01 percent chance of finding a four-leaf clover,” he said, wondering why she or anyone else would be so interested in a plant anomaly. He wasn’t interested, but he knew better than to say so. Saying so made normal people angry. He didn’t like to lie, but given the choice between lying and alienating Ellen, lying was better. And, as his mother had taught him, it was only a “white lie,” meaning small or innocuous rather than referring to color. Lies didn’t have colors, at least not for anyone other than the 1 percent of world’s population with chromesthesia. He better understood the strange idioms neurotypic people used. It had taken his mother an entire afternoon to convince him to stop checking for color to emerge from his sister’s mouth. His sister lied a lot, even for a neurotypic. Ellen hadn’t spoken again. How long had he been concentrating on his own thoughts? Neurotypics didn’t like being ignored. He shouldn’t ignore his girlfriend. He shook his head and quickly returned his focus to Ellen, searching her face for cues signaling her feelings. Was she angry? Had he hurt her feelings? His heart began to beat faster and beads of sweat broke out at the nape of his neck. Physiologic symptoms of a panic attack. Damn. She shrugged. “Well, if four-leaf clovers are rare, maybe that’s why people think they’re lucky. They—” “Do you like me?” he blurted out, unable to stop himself and immediately regretting it. She smiled and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Yes, Dr. Morrow, I like you. A lot.” The churning in his stomach eased. Ellen was smiling. She said she liked him. The cues he’d spent a lifetime studying and cataloging indicated she liked him. That was good. But could he be sure? He was never completely sure. Experience had taught him to question his instincts. “You say you like me, but how do I know you’re telling the truth?” She was making a new face, eyes narrowed and lips pressed into a thin line. A grimace. That’s what it was called. He’d done it again. She pulled her hand back but he wouldn’t let go. “I didn’t mean to make you angry, Ellen, I just…” He closed his eyes and fought the urge to stim. Normal people could get away with fidgeting, but the repetitive movements favored by people like him bothered neurotypics. “I don’t know how to read people. The only way I really know what they’re thinking or feeling is when they tell me. Even then I can’t be sure. They say one thing, but they don’t always mean it. I can’t always tell if they mean what they say.” “Jace, look at—” She stopped. She was about to say “look at me,” but had apparently thought better of it. Yet another concession she made for him. He let go of her hand and headed for the meadow, ignoring Ellen’s voice calling after him. It was rude to walk away. His mother, teachers, and colleagues had told him that often enough, but stress was always a mitigating factor in his attention to manners. Ah, that was better. He had a goal to focus on, to keep him centered. The sun’s brightness no longer distracted him, nor did the noise or irregular pattern of the landscape. In fact, he applied his focus to searching the patches of grass in single-minded determination, dropping to his hands and knees and running his fingertips along curved leaves springing from the stems of woodland violets, buttercups, and members of the genus Trifolium. Not being a botanist by training, he couldn’t identify the species, but it didn’t matter, at least not in terms of the shamrock myth. Any of the varieties could produce four leaves with roughly the same probability. A shadow appeared in his path, and he resisted the urge to reach back and forcibly swat away its source. The hand on his shoulder was equally jarring. He hadn’t prepared himself for the touch, and both the change in his view and tactile sensation disrupted his focus completely. Either she’d caught his involuntary flinch or she remembered the talk they’d had about his rules of contact. Ellen removed her hand and crouched down beside him. “Jace, what are you doing?” Her tone of voice was strange, too calm. No one else was crawling around in the middle of the meadow. He was being weird and it was making her uncomfortable. “If I’m embarrassing you, you can leave.” “No,” she said. She sounded like she wanted to laugh. “Of course you can,” he said, irritated. “Actually, I can’t. You drove, remember?” Her voice quivered. He glanced at her and quickly away. If she wanted to laugh, why did she look sad? Unfortunately, he lacked the will and energy to decipher her expression. “I’m overwhelmed and mentally exhausted. If you’re making fun of me, I’d rather you go back to the car and drive yourself home. I can give you the keys.” Wait, that was a little too…brusque. He took a deep breath. “What I mean is I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay and babysit me.” She didn’t speak for a moment, and he didn’t risk another look at her face. Finally, she said, “Okay, I’m going to do my best to be as direct and clear as I can. You don’t have to look at me. Just nod if you’re listening.” He nodded. I hate this. I really, really hate this. “I am not babysitting you. I came here with you because I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t think about how you might feel about it. It’s noisy, it’s crowded, and those are things you don’t like, right? I’m sorry I didn’t think about that, and I—” “I know you wanted to go out with me because of the way I look, or maybe because I’m the type of guy who appears uninterested.” He’d interrupted her again, which was rude, but he needed to work out his thoughts and get her feedback. That was more important to him, and maybe to her, too, even if she was annoyed by his bad manners. “I know enough about women to understand they want what they think is hard to get. And I may not be a normal man, but I know enough about women to know how to please them physically.” He forced himself to look up at her so he could gauge her response. “Well, you certainly don’t have an ego problem. Maybe you aren’t so different from ‘normal’ men after all,” she said, rolling her eyes. She blushed, too, but even he was able to detect her sarcasm, not to mention anger. And yet, he kept on talking. “But beyond that, why do you stay? I mean, we can talk about work, of course, and I know you don’t like men who aren’t as smart as you, but there are plenty of smart, normal men available. Any of them would be interested in you.” “Oh?” she said, arching a brow. “And what makes you so sure? You say you can’t read people.” He shook his head, annoyed. “Men are easier to read. And besides, you’re attractive, smart, and you don’t have any problem talking to people. I’ve seen the way other men look at you. I’m not that blind to social cues. And when it comes to some things, I know how typical men think. So, why do you stay?” She looked up and took a deep breath. Why were neurotypics always looking up? Skies and ceilings didn’t have answers. “If it were anyone else, I’d swear you were fishing for compliments,” she muttered. He forced himself to look her in the eye. “What makes you so certain I’m not? I like compliments. Just because I’m not—” She talked right over him in a very loud voice, not exactly angry, but filled with some strong emotion. “Yes, you have Asperger’s, but you’re still a guy! I get it, okay?” Oh, she must be exasperated. She sounded just like his mother after he’d taken the telephone apart for the fourth time. That terrible spasm in his stomach started again, along with the urge to crawl under a nearby park bench, which he’d done as a kid more than once. He was a grown man now, and the reaction made him irrationally angry. He sat on his hands and glared at her. “Don’t use the ‘A’ word.” Braced for humiliation, he contorted his features into his best angry face, lest his often-flat affect fail to communicate his feelings on the entire conversation. She sat down beside him on the patch of grass and clover, crossed her legs, and made her “calm-Jace-down” face. “There’s nothing wrong with the ‘A’ word. Is that what’s bothering you? You think I’m going to cut and run just because your brain is wired differently? Newsflash,” she said, then lowered her voice and leaned in to whisper, “this may come as a bit of shock, but I kind of knew about it before we started dating.” He smiled, grudgingly, at the memory of their first encounter. He’d been sitting in his office on Christmas Eve, lost in his thoughts, when all of a sudden Dr. Ellen Sanders knocked on his door. She’d startled him so much that he nearly fell out of his chair. He’d been wary, of course, as he was of people in general and women in particular. Most didn’t bother him very often, aside from a general inquiry about his health, the weather, and all of the other nonsense neurotypics asked about without being genuinely interested in the response. Surprise turned to irritation when he thought she’d stopped by just to engage in dreadful small talk. But instead of adopting his usual brusque manner, he’d spoken with unguarded honesty about his struggles. He’d expected pity, or mocking, but she surprised him by asking him out for coffee. And after the first date, she’d asked him for another. Three months. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. And he’d been waiting for her to decide she’d had enough of his quirks, his terrible manners, and, well, him. She scooted closer and smiled. It looked like a real one. “Jace, I like you. A lot. Being with you is like living life…amplified. I mean, who else would dash off to the middle of a meadow and crawl on hands and knees to find his girlfriend a four-leaf clover?” Life amplified. Maybe she understood after all. Smiling so wide his cheeks ached, he thrust out his hand and showed her the delicate, perfectly symmetric green treasure in his palm. “Who would do something like that? A lucky man.” * * * * D.B. Sieders was born and raised in East Tennessee and spent her childhood hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, wading barefoot in creeks, chasing salamanders, fish, and frogs. She and her family loved to tell stories while sitting around the campfire. Those days of frog chasing sparked her interest in biology. She is a working scientist by day, but she never lost her love of telling stories. Sieders live in Nashville, Tenn., with her husband, two children, two cats, and her very active imagination. You can find Sieders on her Blog, Website, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Getting Lucky By Jenna Bennett You’d think a Greek bar, in the middle of the biggest Greek settlement in the world outside Athens, would be a safe place to hide from the rivers of green beer flowing down the streets of New York, and from the crowds of charming Irishmen looking to get laid in celebration of St. Patrick and the snakes. You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. No sooner had Mavis boosted herself up on a barstool inside Dionysus’s Bar and ordered a margarita—pink, not green—from the gorgeous Greek bartender, than the door opened again and an Irishman came in. There was no mistaking him, and not just because of the top hat with the shamrock in the band. No, it was his eyes, the brilliant green of emeralds, the same color as the T-shirt that pulled tight across his shoulders. Kiss Me, I’m Irish was written in white letters across a broad chest. But mostly it was the face. Soldier, dreamer, poet, and fighter were all rolled into one in that face. Prominent cheekbones, strong jaw, straight nose, and a mouth shaped for blarney. And kisses. Mavis’s stomach twitched, and because she was trying hard to convince herself that she did not have a weakness for good-looking Irishmen, she banished the thought. When the newcomer bellied up to the bar and shot her an appreciative grin, she gave him a fishy stare in return. The bartender chuckled as he put Mavis’s drink in front of her. “Here you are, sweet cheeks. Bottoms up.” He turned to the newcomer. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight. Did O’Leary’s run out of green beer?” “Ross called,” the Irishman said, in a voice flavored with the music of Ireland. He glanced around. “Said there was someone here he wanted me to meet.” The bartender shook his head. “Ross isn’t here.” “I can see that. When do you expect him?” “Dunno,” the bartender said, reaching above his head for a glass. “He hasn’t been in for a couple days. How about a Guinness while you wait?” “Sure.” The Irishman scooted up on the seat next to Mavis and put the green hat on the bar. He ran his hand through hair the color of sunshine and grain and old Limerick gold. “What’s keeping Ross busy?” Mavis sucked on her margarita until her cheeks were hollow, and realized a second too late that it was strong enough to put hair on her chest. She didn’t know Ross, but if he looked anything like the other two—Greek god and Celtic hero—she wanted to find out about him. “Annie,” the bartender said, as he manipulated the taps to build the Guinness. “She’s got him turned inside out, and probably tied to the bedposts.” Never mind. Whoever he is, he’s taken. And good for Annie. “He’s a lucky guy,” the Irishman said, and Mavis spent a few seconds imagining him tied to the bedposts—her bedposts—before banishing that thought, too. Mostly. “The gods preserve me from that kind of luck,” the bartender said piously. He put the beer on the counter, and the Irishman nodded his thanks. “Don’t you get tired of playing the field, Dion?” He wrapped a hand around the glass. It was broad and strong, with long fingers and square nails. One of them was blue, and the hand was covered with tiny nicks and scratches. Craftsman, Mavis thought. Probably good with his hands. Hands he couldn’t use if they were tied to the bedposts. She sucked on the margarita again, and coughed. “When you’re the gods’ gift to women,” the bartender—Dion—said, with a wicked grin, “you gotta spread it around.” “I thought that was Adonis,” the Irishman answered, and the bartender’s smile turned genuine. “I guess nobody’s told you. He’s a goner, too. Won’t be long till there’s just you and me left, to uphold the old honor.” The Irishman grunted. There was a moment’s pause, and then Dion said, “Where are my manners? Mavis, this is Luchtaine. You can call him Lucky. Everyone does. And this is Mavis. She’s tired of the green beer and blarney, so don’t try to sweet-talk her.” Lucky shot her a glance out of those emerald eyes. They were fringed with the longest lashes Mavis had ever seen. Darker than the hair, tipped with gold. The whole package, from his feet to the top of his head, was one big temptation. Oh, yeah. He probably got lucky all the time. Every day, and twice on St. Patrick’s Day. “Nice to meet you,” she said grudgingly. And nice of the bartender to do the introductions, although she had no idea how he knew her name, or that she was here because she was avoiding the St. Patrick’s Day revelry. She must have mentioned something about it when she came in. Couldn’t remember doing it, but how else would he know? “Likewise.” Lucky lifted the glass, and ended up with a foamy mustache. Mavis giggled, and then put a hand over her mouth. Oops. His eyes narrowed, and that only made her giggle harder. He turned his glare on the bartender, who shrugged innocently. His phone rang, and he excused himself to answer it, leaving the two of them alone. “I’m not drunk,” Mavis said, with her hand still over her mouth. “I swear.” Lucky nodded. “Sure.” A minute passed. Mavis sipped her margarita carefully, and just as carefully kept her mind off bedposts. Lucky drank more beer, and wiped his upper lip afterward. It was anyone’s guess what he was thinking about, but it probably wasn’t bedposts. The bartender spoke into his phone, with occasional glances over his shoulder at them. “Must be Ross,” Lucky said. “Excuse me?” “On the phone. With Dion.” “I’m sorry,” Mavis said. “It’s my first time here. I don’t know anyone.” Lucky smiled, and Mavis’s toes curled inside her Manolos. “You know me,” he said. “So how did you find the place?” “I walked by,” Mavis said. “There was this guy on the subway who was hassling me, so I got off early and I was walking home. And there it was.” Lucky nodded. “It’s that kind of place. The kind you don’t notice till you need it.” Mavis nodded too, pleased. “Exactly. I’ve never seen it before, but I thought it would be a safe place to hide.” And take a load off. Since the Manolos hadn’t exactly been designed for sidewalk trekking. Honestly, she was sort of surprised her toes were alive enough to curl. “And then I walked in.” Lucky grimaced. Mavis shrugged. Another minute passed. “So what do you have against the Irish, anyway?” Lucky wanted to know. “With a name like that, you’ve probably got some Irish in you, your own self.” More than a little. Enough to be a sucker for any good-looking Irishman who came along. “Charming,” Mavis said darkly. Lucky grinned. “Isn’t that a good thing?” “Not if you’re soft in the head.” Lucky arched a brow. “I’m not soft in the head. Either head.” “I wasn’t talking about you,” Mavis said, and thought, I bet there’s nothing soft about any part of you. “I was talking about me.” “You’ve only got one head.” He reached over to tap his knuckles against it. “But it doesn’t feel soft.” “Trust me, it is.” Just listening to his voice was doing things to her insides. Once he started whispering sweet nothings in her ear, she’d be a lost cause. That meant it was probably time to go. Mavis drained her margarita and looked around, but the bartender still had his back to them and was talking into his phone. “So who’s Ross?” Mavis asked. “Eros,” Lucky said. “Sorry.” She must have misheard the name earlier. “Who’s Eros?” “Don’t you know your Greek mythology?” Lucky grinned. “Eros is the god of love.” Sure. “I’m talking about the guy on the phone. The one who wanted you to meet him here. Who’s he?” Lucky looked at her for a moment. Mavis got the idea he was assessing her, but for what she had no idea. “He’s a matchmaker,” Lucky said eventually, and surprised a snort out of Mavis. “Seriously?” Lucky nodded. “Seriously.” “So he was trying to fix you up?” “So it seems.” Huh. “With who?” Mavis looked around the bar. There were no unaccompanied women here that she could see. A beautiful brunette in a business suit was at a corner table, talking to an older man, while a gorgeous blonde in a turquoise dress was playing pool. It might have been the blonde, were it not for the fact that there was a guy with her. Tall, brown-haired, reasonably good-looking, with glasses, who was watching the blonde with a mixture of possessiveness and dumbstruck awe at his own good luck. “Brita and Harry,” Lucky said. “And that’s Ariadne over in the corner with Len.” “She’s pretty.” And probably not involved with Len, who was old enough to be her father. Lucky nodded. “And totally hung up on Dion.” Ah. Yes, it was easy to see why. Harder to imagine why Dion wasn’t interested in Ariadne, although maybe he was, and they were just keeping it quiet. Mavis turned back to him. “Do you know everything about everyone?” Lucky shook his head. “I don’t know anything about you. But some of these people I’ve known a very long time.” He took another swig of beer. “You don’t want to know about me,” Mavis said. “I’m not interesting.” He looked her up and down. “You look interesting to me.” “You only think so because you don’t know me. I’m a librarian.” “Librarians are interesting,” Lucky said. “I hear they do it by the book.” “Depends on the book.” Mavis tilted her head to look at him. “What are you?” “A carpenter,” Lucky said. “I do it with wood.” He grinned. Mavis groaned. And on that note, it was definitely time to go. She slid off the stool and took a second to find her balance. The margarita on top of the green beer and the Manolos seemed to have upset her center of gravity. Lucky’s shoulder came in handy as she swayed. He arched a brow. “Still not drunk?” “No.” A little tipsy, maybe. The margarita had been stronger than she was used to. But mostly it was just that her feet hurt. “Let me pour you into a cab,” Lucky said, sliding off his own seat and taking her arm to steady her. “I think I’ll walk. It’ll help to clear my head.” And the agonized screaming from her feet might take her mind off the fact that he was back here waiting for his matchmaker to show up with the perfect woman. “Then I’ll walk with you,” Lucky said. “And make sure some other Irish bastard doesn’t try to bamboozle you with blarney on your way home.” “That’s nice of you.” By now, the only Irish bastard she wanted bamboozling her was him. “But don’t you want to stay and meet the girl of your dreams?” “No,” Lucky said. He tossed some money on the bar and snagged his green hat before raising his voice to get the bartender’s attention. “I’m gonna take Mavis home. Tell Ross I said thanks.” Dion nodded. “Thanks for what?” Mavis wanted to know when they were outside on the sidewalk and he’d put his hand on her back. Lucky grinned down at her. “For getting me here in time to meet you.” She shook her head. “That’s crazy. He couldn’t have known I was there. You heard Dion. Annie had him tied to the bedposts at home.” “Then let’s just call it the luck of the Irish and leave it at that,” Lucky said. And looking up at him, Mavis thought that maybe getting lucky with Lucky wasn’t such a bad deal after all. * * * * New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jenna Bennett writes the Do It Yourself home renovation mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and the Cutthroat Business mysteries for her own gratification. She also writes a variety of romance for a change of pace, including a series about a bunch of Greek gods who have pulled up stakes on Olympus and settled in New York. Eros’s matchmaking agency and Dionysus’s bar feature prominently in all the stories. Luchtaine is the Celtic god of woodworkers, and the carpenter for the Duatha dé Danann. Mavis really is a librarian. For more information about the Tall, Dark and Divine series, or Jenna’s other books, please visit her website, www.jennabennett.com Her Pot of Gold By Lindsey Brookes Happy Birthday to her… Megan O’Malley took another drink of her Shamrocker, the St. Paddy’s Day special at McClanahan’s Pub. A yummy mix of Hornitos Plata Tequila and DeKuyper melon liqueur. Green and fruity and blessedly strong. She needed that to deal with her life. Okay, so maybe her life wasn’t all that bad. It was her love life that was lacking. All the more reason that particular day was getting to her. Not St. Patrick’s Day, but her twenty-fifth birthday. The one she was celebrating – alone. The only thing that made her feel better was Jax McClanahan’s smile. And what a smile that man had. Jax owned McClanahan’s Pub. He was tall and lean with dark brown wavy hair. He wore T-shirts that displayed his muscular biceps with every drink he poured. He was friendly and sweet and had no doubt inherited his ability to talk Blarney from his ancestors. On top of that, he was a really great listener. Sighing, Megan watched as he worked the bar. Not that he had to. He had employees to do that. But he worked every bit as hard as they did. She really liked that about him. Who was she kidding? She liked everything about him. While Jax knew her by name, offering a warm greeting every time she stopped in, she wasn’t the kind of woman he’d ever really take notice of. Not when he had beautiful, confident women coming into his pub nearly every evening hitting on him. That thought had her frowning. If she weren’t so shy when it came to men, maybe she would have taken the chance to ask him out instead of spending the past nine months or so shooting the breeze with him over a drink. No more than that as she tended to be a lightweight. Tonight, however, was the exception – her birthday. Finishing the rest of her drink, she shoved the empty glass across the polished bar top as Jax passed by. “Another Shamrocker, please. When you have a moment, that is.” When he had a moment? Would those “other women” have asked that way? No. They would have leaned over the bar, letting their half-exposed breasts hang out while they said, “Hey, Stud! How about another Shamrocker? Preferably delivered in the form of a body shot if you’re doing the delivering.” Megan glanced down at her mostly-covered breasts. What would Jax think if she undid a button or two on her top? “You sure you wanna do that?” Her gaze snapped up, heat flooding her cheeks. “What?” “Have another drink,” he said, his expression drawn in concern as he studied her from the other side of the bar. “Shamrockers are pretty strong and you’ve already had three of them.” Oh, so not only was she incapable of seducing Jax the way every other woman who came into his pub did, now she couldn’t drink like a big girl? Megan lifted her chin, determined to head into her next twenty-five years a bolder, more confident woman. The three drinks he’d mentioned helping to give her confidence the nudge it needed. “I asked, didn’t I, you Irish hunk.” His dark green eyes widened and then his mouth quirked. “Irish hunk?” Oh, damn, had she actually said that? Be confident, her new inner, alcohol-propelled self demanded. “If the shoe fits,” she said, flashing him her best attempt at a sexy smile. Had her words just slurred? She was pretty sure they had. Did it really matter? There had to be some sort of rule stating a girl was allowed to slur her words just a little on her birthday. In fact, if she had thought to pick herself up a plastic “Birthday Girl” crown, she’d be wearing it on her head right now while slurring! “Megan…” “Oh, come on, Jax. It’s my birthday. Let me live it up a little.” “Your birthday? And you’re celebrating it here?” “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” With the exception of his bed. But that was only in her fantasies. He flashed her that lone-dimpled grin that never failed to make her knees weak. Good thing she was seated at the bar. “Well, happy birthday. One more Shamrocker coming up.” He turned to make her drink. Her gaze dropped down to his jean-clad backside. Definitely an Irish hunk. He pivoted back around, his grin widening when he caught her ogling his backside. Holding her glass out to her, he said, “Here you go, Irish hottie.” Her heart skittered. Was Jax flirting with her? She reached for the fancy glass with its lime wedge garnish. “Thanks.” “Are your friends going to be joining you?” he asked, his gaze sliding over the recently vacated bar stools on either side of her. Her girlfriends, Liz, Shelley and Gina, all worked for the same real estate firm Megan did. The four of them came in to McClanahan’s often as it was just down the street from their office. They’d spend hours there, exchanging work gossip and tips on houses rumored to be hitting the market soon. Megan shook her head, forcing a smile. “Not tonight. They already had plans.” And she’d avoided mentioning her birthday to them, not wanting them to change their plans because of her. “So you’re celebrating alone?” “You’re not alone when you’re in a pub filled with people,” she countered as she plucked the lime wedge from the glass and took several large swallows of the drink. “Besides, I’m an independent woman. I can go out for a drink without having to drag along my wing-girls.” His dark brow arched. “Your wing-girls?” She rolled her eyes. “Like wingmen for guys.” Yep, she had definitely slurred her words that time. “How about I get you something to eat? An order of chicken fingers? Maybe some fries?” She waved his suggestion away. “Can’t. I’m on a diet.” “You look great just the way you are,” he said, his gaze moving over her before settling onto her near-empty glass. “But if you’re worried about calories, you should cut off the ‘foo foo’ drinks for the rest of the night. They’re loaded with empty calories.” “Drinks don’t count,” she announced with a smile. “You pee liquid calories right out.” “Okay,” he said, reaching for her glass. “You’re done with the alcohol.” She laughed softly. “You are so adorable when you play drink cop.” He chuckled. “And you’re adorable when you’re three sheets to the wind, but I don’t want you regretting this night tomorrow.” He walked around the bar, settling into the empty bar stool next to hers. “How about I give you a ride home?” She leaned into him. “To my bedroom?” This time both dark brows sprang upward, followed by Jax’s muttered curse. “Hey, Tony,” he called out, motioning to one of two bartenders he had working behind the bar that night. “I need a coffee over here. Pronto.” “So he can stay awake all night after he takes me home to bed,” she hollered after the bartender. “Lucky man,” Tony said as he came over with the cup of steaming brew. Then he moved on down the bar to refill a couple of empty beer glasses with that night’s themed green beer. Megan pointed to the flyer posted behind the bar. “St. Paddy’s Day pole dancing contest tonight, huh?” He followed her gaze. “It’s purely for entertainment. The pole’s a rental,” he said, nodding toward the stripper pole that had been set up in the center of the dance floor. His attention shifted back to her. He pushed the coffee toward her and stood. “Drink up, Irish hottie. I’ll be back to check on you.” She took a careful sip, her body warming as both the coffee and the fruity, green alcohol moved through her system. Then again, maybe it was the sight of Jax moving about the room, so strong, so confident, that had her temperature rising. She really needed to do something to catch his eye. Ten minutes later, one of the bartenders stepped out onto the dance floor to invite willing females out to give the pole a try. Megan pushed off the bar stool and headed in his direction. “We have our first contestant,” he announced over the mic. She reached up to pull her hairband free, letting her long, red hair fall into a wild tumble down her back. Then she grabbed for the pole, stepping forward to twine herself around it. She turned her head, looking toward the bar just as Jax stepped from the kitchen. His mouth dropped open for about a second before he snapped it shut. Vaulting over the bar, he charged out onto the dance floor – toward her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” “Getting your attention,” she said, arching away from the pole in a playfully seductive pose. “You’ve damn well got it,” he muttered as he reached out to lift her fingers away from the pole. “What are you doing?” she asked as he succeeded, a second later tossing her over his shoulder. Cheering and suggestive remarks rose up around them. “Saving you from yourself,” he hollered back over the music as he carried her off the dance floor. He didn’t stop until they were beside his truck in the parking lot. There, he set her on her feet and stood with her pinned against the driver’s door. She looked up, lamplight from the nearby street lighting his handsome face. There was fire in his eyes. Anger? Or something more? “Jax…” “Don’t say anything,” he said as he lowered his mouth to hers. The kiss made her fantasies seem like child’s play. Heart pounding, she curled her arms around his neck and kissed him back with all the want she’d been feeling for nine months. Finally, he pulled away with another muttered curse. “I didn’t mean to do that.” Her bottom lip turned down into a soft pout, disappointment filling her. “You didn’t?” Releasing her, he took a step back and dragged a hand back through his hair. “Hell, Megan, I’ve wanted to kiss you for the longest time. But you never seemed interested, which is why my kissing you just now was wrong. I should never have taken advantage of–” His words were cut off as she launched herself into his arms and pressed her mouth to his. When the kiss ended, she said, “You weren’t taking advantage. I’ve wanted you to notice me for so long, but I’m no good at flirting. In case you hadn’t noticed, my seduction skills are sorely lacking.” He met her gaze, mouth quirking into a grin. “You were doing a damn good job of it in there tonight. Enough so I wanted to blacken the eye of every man cheering you on out there on that pole.” “You did?” He nodded. “It would never work between us,” she said with a sigh. “I’m not like the other women you date.” “I didn’t realize I had a type,” he said. “But I do know I really, really like you. I like that talking about your family makes you smile, I like that you take in stray animals and find them homes, I like that you eat out a lot because you can’t cook, and that you have a secret yearning to learn to surf, which I am really good at by the way.” How had she ever thought he hadn’t taken notice of her? He had. Every little detail she’d shared with him, just as she had with him. “Jax, hearing you say this is like finding that elusive pot of gold under the rainbow.” “Sweetheart, you are my rainbow,” he said with a tender smile. “Brightening my life in so many ways. What do you say we give this thing between us a chance?” She returned his smile. “I would like that. Very much.” “Happy birthday, Megan,” he said tenderly as he drew her into his warm embrace. And it was. The very best ever. * * * * Romance author Lindsey Brookes has finaled in or won more than 75 RWA chapter-sponsored contests with over a dozen different manuscripts. She is also a four-time RWA Golden Heart finalist as well as a past American Title III finalist and winner of Harlequin’s Great American Romance Novel contest. She writes for Kensington Publishing and Amazon Publishing and has indie-published several of her contemporary romances. Lindsey is represented by Michelle Grajkowski from 3 Seas Literary Agency. www.lindseybrookes.com www.possumhollowseries.com https://www.facebook.com/lindsey.brookes.9 https://twitter.com/Lindsey_Brookes To Love a Leprechaun By Sophia Henry The “Luck of the Irish” led me to the love of my life. I’m not Irish. I’m actually a mix of mostly Serbian with some German, Prussian (does anyone remember Prussia?), French-Canadian and Scottish swirled in. To understand how the “Luck of the Irish” came into play, I’ll take you back a few years, to the exact moment when I knew my then-boyfriend was The One. “I can’t wait to see how the suit turned out.” I said, stuffing my hands into the front pockets of my leather jacket. The unseasonal bitter, March air swirled around me, rattling my teeth and sending a chill straight through to my bones. My heels tapped against the cracked sidewalk as I followed Bennett, my new boyfriend, toward the warmth of an apartment in southwest Charlotte. Bennett turned around and extended his hand toward me. “Me, too. Thanks for coming with me to pick it up, Gwen.” Giddy girliness sent a second phase of shivers through me, and I quickly removed a hand from my coat and grabbed his. The action seemed so small, but I’d never dated anyone who made it a point to hold my hand. Sad, but true. During first date conversation, Bennett casually mentioned he’d like to get a new Leprechaun suit because the one he owned looked like it had seen its best days twenty years ago. On our second date, I gave him the number to a local seamstress I found in an Internet search. Because I’d been at work, I wasn’t able to attend Bennett’s fitting appointment with the seamstress I found for him. Should I back the truck up? Yeah. Bennett and his friend from college run an annual St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hence his need for a Leprechaun suit. “I feel like this is one of those stories we’ll tell our kids one day.” He squeezed my hand. “Kids?” I stopped moving forward and started wheeling backward. “I told you I was going to marry you someday.” Truth. On our second date, after dinner and drinks—many drinks—he gushed about a song he needed to play for me. Though I didn’t catch all the lyrics, I remember something about a true companion and a wife in white on a wedding day. Guys have tried to use my love of music to try to get me in bed on a few occasions. In college, a kid I worked with tried to hook up with me by serenading me with “As Long As You Love Me” by The Backstreet Boys. I ran far away from that kid. Got another job, too. “Yeah, but we’d been drinking. I thought you were sweet talking to get in my pants.” “Is marriage sweet talk? “Hell, no! The ‘M-word’ is the number one way to scare me away.” “Yet here you are.” He tugged my arm to prod me forward. “Here I am.” I followed again, foiled despite my own barriers. For reasons I can’t explain, the thought of being married to Bennett don’t scare me. Especially if our kids got the amazing combination of his dark, wavy hair and my blue eyes. Kids? This dude was already messing with my head. My mind would’ve never considered fictional future children on its own. At a mere twenty-seven years old, had my biological clock hijacked my brain? While Bennett rapped on the black door labeled with a brass B, I studied the spiderwebs hanging from the top right corner of the door frame. A gentle breeze tousled my hair and I swiped a hand against my head as if an angry arachnid had fallen in. The door opened just as an involuntary shiver shot through me at the thought of sneaky spiders. “Bennett!” A short, middle-aged lady in a red velour sweatsuit greeted him by wrapping her arms around him. Despite slightly crooked teeth, she had a radiant smile. A mass of frosted brown waves sprung from her hairline, teased to a height any true Southern woman would be proud of. “Hey, Betty.” Bennett returned her hug. When he pulled away, he slipped his hand onto the small of my back. “This is Gwen. She’s the one who gave me your information.” “Gwen!” Betty wrapped her arms around me. “Come on in. I had a fabulous time making the suit.” Betty released me and stepped aside to allow us into her apartment. We walked directly into a large living area with a family room on one side and a kitchen on the other. I stood next to one of the two worn-in, brown couches which took up most of the small living area. Personal photos hung in various sized frames on every off-white wall of the room. Knickknacks littered every inch of flat surface, coffee tables, counters, even the top of the TV. Through the maze of tchotchkes, I noticed a little boy lying on his belly with his elbows on the dark beige carpet and his face propped in his hands. He wore nothing but pajama pants as he stared at a huge 1980s box TV. He turned around to check us out when we walked in. “Here it is.” Betty grabbed a black, vinyl garment bag hanging over the top of one of the chairs at the kitchen table. She pulled the zipper down, and revealed a bright, kelly green coat, complete with tails and matching short pants. The lapels of the coat were a different fabric, a darker green with hundreds of tiny shamrocks going every which way. Very festive. “It’s the leprechaun!” The little boy yelled when he saw the green suit unveiled. He jumped up and ran to my side. Betty handed the hanger to Bennett. “Go try it on.” Her eyes lit up and she clapped her hands together, obviously eager to see her work of art on the model she’d made the suit for. Bennett looked back at me with slight trepidation before ducking into the hallway which must’ve led to a bathroom. He returned a few minutes later, entering the room with an awkward bow-legged gait like he just slid off a horse. His pants were unzipped, and the jacket hung over his forearm. The fluorescent light from the kitchen bounced off his bare chest and the open silver zipper. “What’s wrong?” Betty asked. “Nothing from where I’m standing,” I mumbled. Bennett shot me a smile and a wink. “I meant with the outfit. Ain’t nothing wrong with that view, sweetie.” Betty winked at me too. I pressed my lips together and averted my eyes. I wanted to crawl under the ugly brown sofa. “The pants won’t zip and the coat is too small,” Bennett continued as if he hadn’t just been ogled like the newest male stripper at ladies night. “Put it on. Let me see.” Betty helped him slide the coat up his arms. Too small, indeed. Bennett had broad shoulders, jacked biceps and pecs, and a slim torso. Even with Betty’s assistance, the jacket wouldn’t budge past his elbows. He flexed a few times. “I feel like a wrestler about to tear off his tank top before getting in the ring.” “I can add a panel of fabric to give you more room.” Betty spoke out loud as she examined the seam at the back of the jacket. Then she lowered her eyes and nodded. “The pants, too.” Bennett’s wide, questioning eyes shifted to me. I understood his concern. The quality of the suit already screamed cheap Halloween costume, and Betty’s solution of adding a panel didn’t help matters. “I need it by next Saturday. Will it be ready?” Betty patted his bare shoulder. “I’ll have it done tomorrow. Don’t you worry.” Bennett left the coat with Betty while he returned to the bathroom to change back into his clothes. “So we should come back tomorrow?” I asked as I waited for Bennett to get changed. “I’ll work on it all night.” We said good-bye to Betty and her son and started back to the parking lot. About halfway down the sidewalk, we heard Betty call out in a frantic voice. “Bennett! Wait!” She ran toward us waving a piece of green fabric. “I forgot to give you this. I know you didn’t order it, but it was such a fun costume, I just threw it in.” Betty handed the fabric to Bennett, whose lips quirked in an appreciative smile. “Aww, Betty, thanks so—” He lifted the fabric. She’d made him a g-string. The material used for the “sling” part matched the material on the lapel on the suit coat, green with tiny shamrocks. But the show-stopping piece de resistance had to be the large, shimmering, gold shamrock placed directly in the middle of the sling. Bennett lowered the unexpected gift to his side, letting it hang from his fingers. “Wow, I—wow. Thank you so much.” “I’ll call you when I finish fixing the suit.” Betty turned around and rushed back to her door. Once we’d secured ourselves in the safe confines of Bennett’s rusty old Honda Civic, he waved the g-string between us like an Irish flag at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. “What the hell is this?” I burst out laughing, unable to stifle the secret I’d just learned. I handed him the business card Betty gave me when we left her apartment, which I’d already read. “Betty Miller. Exotic Seamstress,” Bennett read out loud. He turned to me. “Did you know this?” I shook my head, still unable to speak because the fit of laughter hadn’t released me from its grasp. “She thinks I’m a stripper! She thinks I’m a stripper whose stage gig is a leprechaun! Is that sexy?” “I think you’re sexy.” I leaned over and kissed him, letting my lips linger on his for an extra moment. “But I don’t ever want to see that on you. No offense.” “Yeah, I don’t ever want to see this on me either!” His voice rose to a girlish timbre as he spoke. He shivered and scrunched his face in disgust as if the thong were used instead of hot-off-the-sewing machine. Then he flung the minuscule piece of fabric into the backseat. “This could be the best story ever.” I glanced behind me, where the thong had caught on a box of flyers advertising the pub crawl. “Definitely a story we’ll tell our kids someday.” “Definitely. Just don’t ever show them that thong.” “We never, ever, ever, ever, ever bring out the gold shamrock g-string again. Deal?” Bennett stretched his hand out. “Deal.” I took it and pumped it once, happy to agree to his request. Some women might be into seeing men in g-strings, but I’m not one of them. There’s a song from the sixties that claims the way to tell if a man loves you is “in his kiss.” I can’t argue that, especially after kissing Bennett, but for me, it was in his touch. The way he grasped my hand, sealing the secret of our eccentric experience, the laughter and the inside joke we’d share in our forever future together. Every love story is unique. On a chilly day in early March, in the parking lot of an apartment complex in southwest Charlotte, I knew I’d met the one for me. Fast forward: Nine years, two kids, a cat and a dog. He still wears the same leprechaun suit. And the g-string has never been seen again. * * * * Sophia Henry spends her days writing books featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. Her debut, Delayed Penalty (A Pilots Hockey Novel), will be released by Random House Flirt in Fall 2015. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing her two high-energy sons, reading, watching her beloved Detroit Red Wings and rocking out at concerts with her husband. Sophia is represented by Jessica Watterson at the Dijkstra Literary. To get all the latest news, check out Sophia’s newsletter or connect with her on Twitter and Facebook Springs Love By Sydney Carroll Florida, 1957 Squinting in the sunshine, Phyllis Cavanaugh pasted on a smile as she walked down the crowded sidewalk, returning nods and greetings from the people who passed. Marina held her gloved hand, bouncing along in her new dress and shoes, which ought to stay shiny and white for the next three minutes or so. Shamrocks and dyed carnations supplemented the traditional orange blossom garlands wound around the lamp posts and painted on the banner overhead. The Emerald Springs “Springs-Time” Festival wasn’t even in full swing, and she’d had enough of it already. Half a block ahead, she spotted the knot of plastic cherries that topped her mother’s Sunday hat. As soon as Marina was safe with her grandmother, Phyllis could get back to work—as always. A sharp tug on her arm stopped her short and pulled her in the opposite direction. “Marina, what is it?” God help her if she’d found a mud puddle to jump in. “It’s Chief Doonan, Mama. Don’t you want to say hi?” In two long strides, Emerald Springs’s only police officer stood at her side. She looked into a face familiar throughout her life, and memories flooded in of childhood, high school, and afterward with the old gang together and Ryan still alive. Her shoulders softened, and her smile relaxed into something almost natural. “Patrick, hello.” He doffed his cap and smiled. Sun had weathered his fair skin some, and mellowed his carrot top to sandy copper. A head taller than her five-eight, broad-shouldered and trim, why no local girl had gotten her hooks into him was a mystery. “Phyllis Cavanaugh, you do a green dress more justice than Vivien Leigh.” She smoothed down her linen sheath, flattered and foolish at the same time. “Lovely day for the festivities,” she said. Weather might not be the most brilliant topic, but it beat complaining. “Look at the crowd—I daresay there haven’t been this many in years.” “Lucky thing for St. Patrick’s Day to fall on the festival weekend.” Maybe for the people who got to watch the parade and go get loaded on beer and food coloring at the Palms ‘n Pines, but not for her. “With half my girls competing for Springs Queen and all but two of the others down with the flu, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Luck of the Irish, my foot.” Patrick raised his brows. “You’re not cancelling the mermaid show? That’s why half of these folks are here.” Tell me about it. In a sense of civic duty and park promotion, she’d let the festival organizers talk her into ending the parade at the Emerald Grotto Underwater Theatre for a special St. Patrick’s Day show, followed by a town picnic on the shores of the spring. People were lining up for tickets this morning. “No, the show must go on, more or less.” “It’s going to be neat,” Marina said. “There’s a rainbow and a treasure chest and everything.” Patrick’s eyes widened. “You’re bringing back Under the Emerald Isle?” Her cheeks flushed. “I can’t believe you remember that.” He nodded. “A lot of water under the bridge since the last time you put on that show.” “Another lifetime ago.” Seven years, to be exact. After Ryan came home from the war—and before he left again for Korea. “Mama’s going to be in it, too. Can you believe it?” Patrick looked down at her daughter with a broad smile. “Of course I can. Didn’t you know your mama was the first mermaid at the Grotto—and the best?” Marina gave her a dubious once-over. Donning the sequined tail at thirty-five, alongside girls barely out of high school, was downright ridiculous—but they needed three, and she’d choreographed the routine herself. For Ryan, as his birthday gift, something to remember her by before he shipped out in ’44. So long ago. “I’m a little long in the tooth for such shenanigans—but desperate times, you know?” He waved off her comment. “You’ll do us all proud. You always do.” For a second, he met her eyes directly, peering right through to her private self, as if he wanted to join her on that bleak island. No man in his right mind would stay there for long. She looked away, choosing the top of Marina’s curly head as a safer place to focus. “I manage,” she shrugged. “That’s all.” He cleared his throat. “Guess I ought to double check the barricades before the parade starts. Good luck today.” With a wink for Marina, he put on his cap and turned away, threading through the crowd. She handed Marina off to her mother, who promptly gave the child a candy apple—sure to spoil her appetite and dress in one fell swoop. But, there was no time to make it an issue. She had real things to worry about back at the park: costumes, props, air hoses, and the two other mermaids who’d be performing with her whether they were prepared or not, for starters. Inside the cool, dim underwater theatre, she looked out through the glass into the crystal clear water of the spring-fed lake. Everything looked right, except for the rainbow. The rolled-up bundle of weighted streamers bobbed at the surface, attached to a float. With a tug of a rope, they were supposed to unfurl into a rippling silken rainbow—fat chance of that happening with the rope tangled like it was now. That was the act ruined, right there. Didn’t anyone, other than her, ever think to check things like this? If she wanted something done right, she’d have to do it herself, just like she always did. She stalked out of the theatre, up the stairs to the spring’s sandy bank, where brightly colored canoes lay lined up in a row. Hiking up her hem, she dragged one to the water, hopped in, and pushed off with the paddle. The buoy attached to the silks bobbed just ahead in the middle of the lake. She coasted up alongside it and began untangling the rope. As long as this took five minutes or less, she’d have enough time to put on makeup and wriggle herself into the tail without having a coronary. A shriek cut through the air. Phyllis snapped her attention back to the source of the sound. At the end of the dock where the glass-bottomed boat was moored, one of the mermaids stood pointing, all the color drained from her face. “Nancy? What in the world’s the matter?” Phyllis called to her. Her outstretched finger trembled. Phyllis’s heart turned to ice. Between her and the shore was a writhing, roiling ball of snakes—long and thick, glistening scales of olive and brown and gray, undulating at the surface. Water moccasins. A dozen feet away, children waded in the shallows, their parents spreading blankets for picnics in the grass. People stared, mouths agape. Damn, damn, damn. The occasional snake, or even a gator, made a visit to the Grotto every now and then. A snake. Not this—thing—straight out of a nightmare; and not in the midst of a festival and the St. Patrick’s Day show that everyone else thought was such a grand idea. Smoothly as she could, she paddled around the squirming mass, aiming to get between them and the kids. If she could herd them across to the wooded side of the lake, good. If she could get them to the creek that flowed downstream, even better. Adrenaline jittered through her veins as she drew near. She clapped her hands—nothing. She swiped the paddle through the water, sending little whirlpools around them. Still nothing. Cringing, she prodded the ball with the tip of the paddle. The knot of snakes loosened, fanning out over the surface, going this way and that, alert to danger. She stared at their movements until she heard the hiss. One of them, large and angry, had coiled around her paddle. It fixed her with its glassy eyes and reared back for a strike. With a scream, she dropped her paddle. It floated just out of her reach, a perfectly comfortable resting place for a disgruntled snake. Now she was drifting in the current, alone in the center of the lake, onlookers offering nothing but stares. And why wouldn’t they? This was the moment they’d all been waiting for, for years. Phyllis Cavanaugh, the widow with the nerve to keep running the tourist attraction that put the whole damn town on the map, was finally going to fail. About time, too. Women weren’t cut out for such things, beyond being the pretty mermaids performing underwater acrobatics in sequined tails. But she didn’t listen—thought she could do it all herself. She had to. For the town, for Ryan’s memory, and for Marina. Hot tears welled in her eyes. The show would have to be cancelled, the visitors sent home. So much for a trying to move on, turning a symbol of loneliness and grief into something fun again. A mermaid show and a new green dress didn’t change anything. She’d been alone for much longer than seven years. The Ryan she knew never really came back from Normandy, and when Korea called, he answered, leaving her with his park and a baby he never got to see. The canoe began to drift backward, against the current. Phyllis turned around to see a boat hook attached to the stern. She blinked away the blur of tears and followed the line of the aluminum pole to a pair of hands, strong, freckled forearms and beige shirtsleeves with the cuffs rolled up. Patrick was there alongside her, in the glass-bottomed boat, its electric motor whirring so quietly, she didn’t notice his approach. He handed her another paddle and maneuvered the boat closer to the cluster of snakes. He picked up a wide-mouthed net on a telescoping pole and began to lower it. “That’s a heck of a mating ball—biggest I’ve seen. Must be the weather.” “Careful—Emerald Springs doesn’t need to lose its keeper of the peace to a mob of poisonous snakes. Especially on account of me.” He grinned, sunshine in his smile. “They’re just banded water snakes, and I arrest more varmints around here than I do people. But I’d scoop a hundred cottonmouths if it meant I’d get to spend a few minutes on the water with you.” She snorted. “I bet you say that to all the girls.” Shaking his head, he looked into her eyes. “No. I don’t. Really.” He blinked and returned his focus to the snakes. “I’ll just take ‘em downstream to the swamp where they won’t bother anyone.” “Patrick, you’re a saint.” He laughed. “No ma’am. Just a man who remembers. Now, go. You’ve got a show to do.” Somehow, she’d gotten changed in time. The house was packed, the routine miraculously smooth. For the finale, she tugged the cord, and the silk streamers of the rainbow plunged to the bottom by the treasure chest. Spiraling around the rippling silk, she swam down to the chest and scooped up gold-painted pennies to toss through the cool, sunlit water. Through the glass, she saw Patrick standing at the back, his eyes filled with pride and a smile that made her feel beautiful. Just a man who remembers. The realization flooded through her. It wasn’t only the show—he remembered her, too, as a laughing girl in a mermaid’s tail striking pinup poses for kicks. When she’d married his best friend, he was there. When war, loss, and circumstances made her hard, he’d been there, quiet and kind. Sweet, patient, handsome Patrick—never pushing, just waiting for her to find the treasure right in front of her nose. She’d never really been alone. Never had to be again. * * * * A Florida beach girl transplanted to the wilds of North Carolina, Sydney Carroll keeps busy juggling country life, family, a day job teaching biology, and writing romantic women’s fiction with a vintage twist. Blog: www.badgirlzwrite.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sydney.carroll.71 Twitter: www.twitter.com/SydneyLCarroll Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/sydneylcarroll A Pinch for Good Luck By Lori Waters Rachel walked through the backdoor of O’Malley’s Pub forty-five minutes late for her shift. Mr. O’Malley was shouting orders to the kitchen staff when he spotted her. “Thank goodness, child. You’re a sweet sight for these old eyes. We’re even busier than last year.” Mr. O’s chubby cheeks were flushed and sweat beaded across his bald head. “Did you find him?” Rachel shook her head and slid past him. She blinked away tears as she tied her apron around her waist. The old man sighed. “I’m sure he’ll be home by the time your shift is over.” His frown said otherwise. “Sorry I made you come in, dearie, but I had no choice.” She nodded, still unable to make audible words without crying. Luckily, one of the servers shouted for an order of nachos and wings and Mr. O headed over to the fryer. Rachel pushed on the black swinging door and the crowd noise snapped her into action. Mr. O didn’t exaggerate. The bar was full to capacity. She maneuvered her way through the clan of cheerful green-beer drinkers, careful not to get trampled in the process. It didn’t take too long to get her tables under control. She squeezed past a high-top table on her way to the kitchen, when a sting bit the back of her arm. “What the . . .” Her fingers flew to the site and she rubbed out the burn. “You deserved it.” A deep voice whispered over her shoulder. She spun around to face the jerk that had pinched her—hard. “Why’d you do that?” Her words lost their punch when she met his gaze. He was every known cliché of an alpha male. Tall, dark and oh-my-God gorgeous. His expression conveyed a smugness that irritated her skin like a poison ivy rash. His dark brows arched. “The way I see it, anyone working at an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day without a stitch of green is asking for it.” She froze. Rachel scanned herself. All black. She closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. In the chaos of trying to find Max, she’d forgotten all about wearing green. Not good. Her eyes opened and she stared back at her attacker. He didn’t need to wear green. He wore it naturally in the forest green of his irises. She gave him a quick once-over. “I don’t see your green.” He unfolded his arms and pushed away from the table, exposing a pin that had been hidden in the folds of his shirt. He pointed to the green button that read, Kiss me, I’m Irish. He jabbed his finger closer to the button and smiled. “Kissing the Irish has been known to bring good luck. Want to give it a shot?” Heat warmed her cheeks, even as a pain grabbed her stomach and squeezed. Trust me, if kissing you would bring Max back, I’d lock lips with you right here and now. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of kissing strangers.” He probably wasn’t even Irish. He tossed a strong hand in her direction. “I’m Cameron O’Hare. Nice to meet you.” Okay. Maybe he was. “I’m Rachel.” She shook the hand he offered. The warmth of his touch lingered long after she pulled her hand away. “My friends call me Cam.” Of course they do. Cam. How hot is that? Next, he’d tell her he was a firefighter. One of the other waitresses brushed up against her. “Hey. I heard about Max running out. I’m so sorry. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Rachel’s insides shuddered and she forced a nod. She yanked a napkin out of her apron and dabbed a tear before it had a chance to streak her makeup. She watched as the server moved to another table. “Max?” Cam’s smile faded. “Boyfriend?” He didn’t give her a chance to answer. “If he ran out on you, you should get even.” He puckered his lips and pointed to the button again. Any other night, she would enjoy flirting with this cute guy, but tonight her world was falling apart. She pulled her phone from her pocket, tapping the screen to bring it to life. She held the phone in his direction. “Not that it’s any of your business,” she teased, “but Maximus is my dog. He’s a Maltipoo. He got out last night and I haven’t been able to find him.” She blinked back the waterworks. “I just hope he’s okay.” She bit her lip to keep it from quivering. He examined the picture closely. “Maximus? That’s a mighty big name for such a dinky, little dog.” Rachel pulled the phone back and took a quick look at the picture she’d seen a thousand times before sticking it back in her pocket. “Nine pounds of pure love.” “Where do you live?” Her questioning gaze locked with his. “No.” He grinned. “I’m not a stalker. Just thinking if I see a little dog fitting Max’s description, I’d know where to return him.” She wasn’t sure if he was being sweet or a weirdo but she’d shout to the world where she lived if it would bring Max home. “I live in Belmont.” His eyes narrowed. “Really? Me too.” He leaned his elbows on the table. “I live on Mason Street.” That was only two blocks from her. “I’m on Jefferson.” “Now we’re not strangers at all.” His lips curved. “Hell. Methinks we’re practically neighbors,” he howled in a pitiful Irish slang. “Wait a minute.” His green eyes widened. “Are you the girl that walks by my house every morning about seven a.m.?” Shoot. He was a stalker. “You are.” His tone deepened. “You walk with a little dog . . . Max.” The enthusiasm in his eyes as he put the two together was priceless. Methinks, you’re magically adorable. Rachel sighed. She needed to put some distance between her and this cute distraction. He was keeping her from her customers. Besides, talking only upset her more. “I need to get to my other tables. Do you need anything before I go?” He pointed to the kiss me button one last time. He was determined—she had to give him that. Scrunching her nose, she pretended to give it some thought. “I don’t think so.” She gathered the collection of empty mugs from the table, and was about to walk away when he grabbed her arm. “Wait a second before you go.” Cam tapped his buddy, who was lost in a conversation with a cute redhead, on the shoulder. When his friend looked over, Cam held out his hand toward him. “Hey dude, let me have your pin.” His buddy looked confused, but only for a moment. He shot Rachel a grin, then pulled the pin from his shirt and dropped it in Cam’s opened palm. Without saying a word, he turned back to the redhead and resumed his conversation. “At least let me save you from getting pinched.” He took the button and held it up for her to see. It was green with a dancing leprechaun on the front. He took a step closer, towering over her. She started to set the mugs down. “I got it.” He clearly intended to pin it on her himself. She started to protest but it’d been St. Patrick’s Day a year ago since a man had been this close to her. God, I’m a loser. She sucked in a breath as his fingers slipped inside her shirt to keep the pin from poking her skin. Her knees threatened to give way as the warmth of his touch brushed against her cleavage. His intoxicating cologne engulfed the air around her. Good Lord, don’t pass out. He pinned the clasp closed and slid his fingers from inside her top. She missed the rousing warmth instantly. “There.” He took a step back and crossed his arms. “That should eliminate further assaults.” He shrugged a shoulder. “And who knows, maybe the little guy will bring you good luck.” She stared down at the button. “I hope so.” She needed Max back home safe and sound. She sent her millionth prayer up to the heavens for his safe return. When she looked up, she found Cam still watching her. Holy St. Patty’s Day, she could get lost in those eyes if she gave herself half a second. But charming guys like Cam came with a future broken heart attached to them. No thanks. “I’ve got to get to my other tables. Thanks for the button.” She peeled herself away and went back to work. She was slammed for the next three hours. Green beer kept her busy and busy kept her from thinking. She just wanted the night to end so she could go home and make up flyers and call the animal hospitals—again. Rachel was clearing a table by the window when she saw Cam through the glass. He was pacing back and forth in front of the bar, talking on his cell. Probably to a girl. He must have tons with his charm and that melt your clothes off smile. Her fingers went to the button he’d pinned on her earlier, hoping he was right. She needed all the luck she could get. She grabbed the empties off the beer-drenched table and took one more glance at her gorgeous neighbor. Her heart flip-flopped when she saw him watching her. The corners of his mouth turned up and he waved. She wanted to wave back but her hands were full so she nodded instead. His attention went back to his conversation, so she backed away from the table and headed toward the kitchen. One o’clock in the morning and she could finally go home. She walked toward her car, lost in a fog of worry, when she heard the yelp of a dog. Her eyes scanned the brightly lit parking lot. She jumped when she saw Cam leaning against a truck. He held something in his arms. It was a dog. Her dog. “Max!” She rushed toward them. Max wagged his tail frantically. He jumped in her arms as soon as she was within reach. “Max. Are you okay?” Relief consumed her body as she nestled the little ball of fur close to her heart. “He seems to be fine.” Cam scratched the dog’s ear. “Dirty as hell, but he appears to be unharmed.” She met his gaze. “How did you find him? Where did you find him?” “I’m a cop.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I put out an APB, or I guess you could say an A-D-B for a little dog with Max’s description.” “I didn’t know there was such a thing as an all-dogs-bulletin?” “There’s not.” He shrugged a broad shoulder. “Let’s just say I called in a few favors.” “Thank you so much.” She stroked Max over and over, then paused and looked up at him. “Why would you do that for me?” He grinned. “I guess I’m a sucker for a beautiful girl in distress.” Did he just say I’m beautiful? She opened her car door and let Max in. He hurried over to his familiar spot on the passenger seat, did two spins, and then collapsed comfortably into a circle. His eyes were closed before she had a chance to shut the door. “He’s wiped out!” “He must have had a pretty big adventure. They found him down by the freeway.” “The freeway?” She closed her eyes and thanked God he was safe. When she opened her eyes Cam was leaning casually against her car. My hero. “I’m so glad I forgot to wear green.” They exchanged smiles. “How can I ever repay you?” His grin grew more playful. He took his finger and pointed to his Kiss me, I’m Irish button. “What if I make you a batch of my famous chocolate-chip cookies?” He pointed in slow motion to the pin. Her lips curved. “Oh, why not?” He blinked at her words. One long stride and he had her wrapped in his arms. He leaned in and brought his mouth to hers. The warmth of his kiss sent her spiraling. Only when he eased back from the kiss, did she realize her arms were resting on the nape of his neck. She finally understood the meaning of the phrase, “Luck of the Irish.” If this was where a pinch led her, where would this kiss lead? * * * * Lori Waters writes amusing, heartfelt contemporary romance. She is the 2014 TARA Award Winner in the Series Contemporary category for her story, CHRISTMAS AT THE REKINDLE INN. She lives with her family and very own little Maximus in a small town located in North Carolina. You can follow her at www.badgirlzwrite.com and on Twitter @loriwaters6. Lucky Enough By Natalie J. Damschroder Kyna strolled through the echoing Prudential Center in Boston. It was late, and she should be home in the tiny apartment she shared with three college students. But she was enjoying the solitude, something that had been nonexistent over the last two years. Plus, it was cold outside. Maybe fifty-five degrees wasn’t bad for the middle of March, but she’d been in unending heat for months and was having a hard time adjusting. She tucked her hands into the pockets of her denim jacket and eyed dresses in a boutique window. Sheer watercolor patterns on drapey material. Completely impractical, but the green-and-white one might be fun for Tuesday night, her first St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl. The store was closed, though, being well after 11 p.m. She’d come back this weekend. A sigh lifted her shoulders. No more stalling. Time to brave the lion outside and the roommates who never seemed to go to bed. And then she saw it. Through a restaurant window, on the TV over the bar. Oakland. Kansas City. Football. She plopped down on the bench in the center of the mall and leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees. There were about two minutes left in the game. Her blood hummed and she grinned. Kansas City was up by three. Oakland had the ball. The quarterback threw. Incomplete. But a flag went down, and the ref signaled pass interference. Man, she wished she could hear! The emptiness around her disappeared, and she forgot about the echo that mocked her solitude. The game was at a minute forty-six, and Oakland was inside the red zone. The QB fell back to pass… And the bartender reached up and snapped off the TV. “Wha— Noooooo!” Kyna didn’t stop to think. She launched herself off the bench and through the restaurant’s doors, flinging them behind her and striding up to the bartender, who had halted in surprise, keys in hand, clearly about to lock up. “Turn it back on!” She pointed at the TV. “What?” “The game. Turn it back on! They were about to score!” He glanced at the dark television, and when he looked back at her, a scowl had taken over his face. His tired face, she noted. Lines around his well-formed mouth and circles under his bright blue eyes told her he’d probably been on his feet for a very long day. His nearly black hair was a tousled mess. It looked soft. She swallowed hard. “It’s March,” he said, the slightest lilt of Ireland in his voice. “Yeah, so?” “That game was played in October.” She slapped her hands over her ears. “Don’t tell me! Just please, turn it on so I can watch!” The man eyed her and spun the key ring around his forefinger, catching the keys with a slap into his palm. Once. Twice. “All right then.” It took him forever to get back to the TV to switch it back on. Kyna settled on a barstool, eyes locked on the screen but the rest of her locked on him. “Thank you. It’s only a minute and a half left. It won’t be long.” He snorted, bending to pull a bottle out from under the bar. He placed two shot glasses on the polished wood and poured. The sharp sting of whiskey made her grin again. “American football. It’ll take another hour.” “I haven’t had whiskey in over two years.” Never mind that she’d barely been old enough to drink it then. She reached toward her back pocket for her wallet, but he waved her off. “A woman that determined to watch a rerun of a football game deserves a free shot. Go ahead.” “Thank you.” She sipped it, wanting to savor rather than sling it. The Raiders had scored and Kansas City had the ball again. Another flag lay on the field. She expected the guy to watch the game with her, or at least putter around, but he leaned on the bar and watched her watch the game. “What’s your name?” She winced when the call went against Oakland. “Kyna.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his eyebrows go up. “That’s a proper Irish name, as my ma would say. I’m Shane.” “Just as proper. Nice to meet you.” She clinked glasses and flushed when he smiled right into her eyes. “So tell me how a lass—” “Oh, now you’re laying it on,” she protested. “You’re not that Irish.” He laughed, a rumbly, warm sound. “Tell me how someone passionate enough to care about Oakland—they were winless up to this game, you know—hasn’t seen it.” She smacked his hand. “Thanks for spoiling. So Kansas City doesn’t score?” On the screen, the KC quarterback was sacked. “Never mind.” Shane’s arm on the bar next to hers seeped warmth. She had an urge to move closer. “So?” Oh. He’d asked her a question. “I’ve been in Africa for two years. Peace Corps. No football.” He laughed. “You’re an Oakland Raiders fan and a Peace Corps volunteer?” “God, no!” She made a face, and he laughed again, actually tapping the tip of her nose. Tingles ran down her body. She had to wait for them to pass before her brain was clear enough to answer. “I’m a Patriots fan.” She held up her hand. “I know they won the Super Bowl. My mom preordered the Three Games to Glory DVD for me.” He chuckled, and damned if she didn’t want to sit here all night, making him do it over and over. “But I’ve been a fanatic about football since I was a kid. I was walking through, enjoying the solitude but…I guess…” The realization came to her only as she said it. “I guess feeling a little lonely, too. So thanks for letting me in.” “I’m so glad I did.” He shifted, the move closing the distance between them even more. “Not every day I meet a passionate sports fanatic do-gooder.” She sipped her whiskey. “Not every day I meet an appreciative Irishman who actually likes American football.” “Waaalll.” He straightened and shook his head. “It’s no substitute for real football, mind. But I’m obligated to say that.” He leaned in again. “I do like it better.” She asked about his teams, and they talked sports for a while. She learned he was getting his master’s in health communication. Since she was about to start in the med program at Tufts, that kept the discussion going. She forgot about solitude and the cold outside, and was only vaguely aware that Oakland won the game. Something was happening here. Shane didn’t look worn out anymore. Kyna lost track of what he was describing and just enjoyed his animation, the wild gestures as he acted out the scene in his classroom. Then he asked a question about water quality in Africa, and it was her turn to tell stories. Not all of them were funny. When she told about a young boy dying of a treatable illness, and how she played a role in saving him, she couldn’t help tearing up. Shane cleared his throat and turned away to turn off the television, and she swore he swiped a finger under his eye. “Holy crap!” She’d accidentally glanced at her watch and was appalled that it was nearly three in the morning. “Shane, I am so sorry.” “Uh-uh.” He settled his elbows on the bar and tugged her hand, flipping it over so she couldn’t see the watch anymore. His fingers traced her palm, causing more shivers, but he held her gaze. From mere inches away. “Uh-uh?” she whispered, her eyelids suddenly heavy. “It’s not three?” All she could see now was his mouth. One side kicked up, cutting a bracket into his cheek. His lips were smooth and delicious looking. “I’m sure it’s three,” he murmured. His head angled to one side. “But you’re not allowed to apologize for it.” He slowly tilted forward. A hint of whiskey brushed her nostrils right before his mouth pressed to hers. Her eyes closed. She held perfectly still, savoring the pressure, the perfection. They were sealed to each other, heat-fused, and her chest filled. Two heartbeats later he parted his lips, just a little, and moved deeper into the kiss. She might have whimpered. Shane half-groaned in response and opened his mouth wider. She tasted hunger now, and answered it. The rail dug into her ribcage. Shane’s hand tightened around hers and dragged it forward, as if trying to pull her into his arms. She opened further, feeling empty and incomplete, and his tongue filled her mouth, stroking eagerly. His free hand cupped the back of her head, and she nearly came apart. Would have totally jumped him if they hadn’t had two feet of wood—ha!—separating them. Slowly, she eased back. Shane pressed his hands flat on the bar, leveraging himself up to follow her and clinging to her mouth until the last possible second. When he dropped back his eyes glowed. “Wow.” “Yeah.” She swept a thumb across her tingling lips. “Wow works.” He turned to his left, swept his hand through his hair—damn, she should have touched it while she had the chance—and turned right for half a second before making an obvious effort to stand still. “I really hope you don’t have to work in the morning. I mean, this morning.” He cringed. “I can’t apologize, though.” “I’m working afternoons the rest of this week. So I can sleep in.” Her noisy roommate had an early class and usually made it impossible to go back to sleep after she left, but Kyna didn’t care. The only important thing right now was that she’d see Shane again. But how did she ask without looking needy? “Good, good.” He looked down the bar, then out through the glass, and back into the shadows of the empty restaurant. “So, listen. This weekend—well, every weekend—I work nights. And Monday and Tuesday are going to be insane with the holiday.” “Right.” She slid off her stool, grabbing her jacket from the one beside her and slurping up the last of the cola he’d poured her a couple of hours ago. “And you’ve got classes and stuff. I get it.” Situational romance. She saw it all the time. Hookups overseas between people who never saw each other again. It wasn’t his fault she liked him so damned much. “Maybe I’ll—” “No, that’s not— I mean, dating’s hard, that’s all. Time-wise.” She nodded and kept her head down while she shoved her arms into the sleeves. Getting out of here now was imperative if her memory of this night was going to stay sweet. “Kyna.” He reached over and caught her elbow. “What I’m trying to say, badly, is…would you like to come over and watch football with me on Sunday? iTunes has a lot of the games. I can make brunch and we’ll catch you up on all the ones you missed while you were gone.” A grin slowly took over her face as sunshine filled her body. It had to be seeping out her ears, but she laughed a little. “Are you sure? You don’t know what you’re in for. I’m kind of a nut.” He released her and hopped over the bar—hella sexy move—to stand in front of her. “I know exactly what I’m in for, and it’s going to be brilliant. Now hang on while I lock up, and I’ll walk you home.” She did as he asked and stepped outside, glancing at the bench where she’d sat, completely alone, thinking that was how she wanted it to be, not recognizing the loneliness that came from being away from the people who got you. Something told her she was never going to be lonely again. * * * * Award-winning author Natalie J. Damschroder writes high-stakes romantic adventure, including her two paranormal series, The Soul Series and Goddesses Rising. If you liked this story you’ll probably like her reunion Christmas novella, If You Believe in Me, and the sequel found in the last edition of Tiny Treats. If you prefer romantic adventure without the paranormal, check out her stand-alone romantic adventures here. Learn more about her at her website, www.nataliedamschroder.com, follow her on Twitter @NJDamschroder, or like her Facebook page at /NJDamschroder. A Perfect Lucky Charm By Anna Sugden “Today’s your lucky day, Paddy. You’ll score in the first period.” Patrick “Paddy” Mullroney rolled his eyes at his New Jersey Ice Cats’ teammate, Kenny Jelinek. “March 17 is just another day to me. I’m not freaking Irish.” At least, he didn’t think so. He’d been christened by the nuns at the Catholic orphanage where he’d been dumped as a baby. There hadn’t been a note asking for forgiveness. No clue as to who’d thrown him away like garbage. No name. Paddy ignored the twist in his gut and focused on taping his stick. Kenny shrugged. “Take any help you can get to break your scoring slump, man – even if it’s only your name on St. Patrick’s Day. Hell, I’d change mine to O’Jelinek if it got me a goal.” “That’s superstitious crap. Lucky charms, wishing on stars and skating counter-clockwise around the ice don’t affect your play. The harder you work, the better your ‘luck.’” “Well, Oi’ll be hopin’ for all the luck of the Oirish for ya this afternoon, boyo. So oi will.” His friend ditched the corny accent. “We need to beat the Flyers to keep our Wild Card spot.” Paddy pulled on his Cats sweater. “We play our game for sixty minutes and we’ll get the ‘W.’ No luck required.” Thankfully, it was time for the pre-game warm-up, so he strode out of the locker room. The chilled air made his lungs tingle, whilst anticipation made his blood pump faster. Coming out of the tunnel, he saw the usual crowd leaning over the glass wall, waiting for the players. “You gonna score tonight?” called a dark-haired boy in a red Mullroney jersey. “I’ll do my best, Max.” Paddy tapped his glove against the kid’s hand. “Today’s your lucky day.” “Yeah.” His grin barely faltered. “I’d better hit the ice or the boss will scratch me.” “Sure.” Max nodded. “Say hi to Aunt Shayla first. Dad had to work and couldn’t make the afternoon face-off.” Paddy’s attention shifted to the woman standing beside the ten-year-old and was captivated by a pair of laughing, emerald eyes. He almost tripped over his skates. Damn, he hadn’t lost his cool like that since Juniors, when a puck-bunny-in-the-making had flashed her breasts after he’d scored a hat-trick. Shayla was petite and pretty. Shiny, dark hair framed her face. Her nose and cheeks were pink from the cold. Her green sweater matched her eyes and hugged her curves. From each ear hung a rainbow, with a pot of gold and shamrock beneath. The whole delectable package was enough to make him reconsider his stance on St. Patrick’s Day. He tried not to gawp like a teenager. “Hi.” “Good luck,” she said, huskily. He cleared his suddenly dry throat. “Uh … thanks.” A stick poked him in the back. “Let’s go,” JB Larocque said, a knowing look in his dark eyes. “Time to get to work.” Paddy nodded at Shayla, forcing his legs to move. As he skated around the Cats’ half of the rink, the tension tightening his muscles began to ease. During the shooting drills, pucks flew into the net. “You may not be Irish, but your stick’s heating up, for sure.” Kenny’s shot hit the pipes. “That’s not all that’s heating up.” Larocque smirked as he whipped the puck past goaltender, Ike Jelinek. Paddy told the stud winger to do an anatomically impossible sexual act. The ribbing continued, until the horn blew for the end of the warm-ups. As Paddy headed off the ice, his heart jolted when he saw Shayla smiling at him. Kenny pushed past, wolf-whistling under his breath. Paddy resisted the urge to hook Kenny’s skates from under him and tried to look nonchalant when Shayla stuck out her hand for him to tap. Despite his thick glove, electricity shot up Paddy’s arm when he touched her. At the same moment, something glittery fell to the matting by his skate. The shamrock from one of her earrings. He removed his glove, picked up the trinket and handed it to her. Shayla shook her head. “Keep it as a good luck charm.” Biting back his usual spiel about luck, he thanked her and went to the locker room. Seated at his stall, Paddy finished his pre-game prep. Then, as the clock counted down to game time, he rolled the shamrock back and forth across his palm. He should leave the charm in his locker. Instead, he taped it to his right sock, above his skate. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but they were all listening to the coach’s instructions. When the team went out for the start of the game, Paddy deliberately didn’t replace his glove. Electricity zinged up his arm again, even stronger, as he tapped Shayla’s hand. Her eyes widened. Clearly she felt it too. From the opening face-off, Paddy played better than he had in weeks. His passes were crisp, his shots accurate. Only a sharp Flyers’ goaltender kept the score at 0-0 at the end of the period. A goal was coming, Paddy sensed. It wasn’t luck; the time had come for the ice to tilt in his favour. Still, he removed his glove to pat Shayla’s hand and relished the now-familiar sizzle. For the first time, Paddy followed a superstitious routine as he headed out for the second period. He rubbed the charm taped to his sock and tapped Shayla’s hand, before putting his glove on. Barely twenty seconds in, he scored a beauty. As he skated to the bench, he searched out Shayla and Max, who were cheering, and saluted them. When he scored a second, ten minutes later, he saluted them again. At the intermission, Paddy handed Max one of the goal pucks. Back in the locker room, he scrawled on the back of the other in silver Sharpie — Dinner? As he went out for the third period, Paddy repeated his routine, then handed Shayla the puck. She blushed, looking pleased. Though he didn’t score again, the Ice Cats won the game. Maybe there was something to this luck nonsense, after all. Leaving the ice, he was surprised that Shayla didn’t mention his invitation. No message awaited him in the locker room. Nothing arrived while he was doing his interviews, showering or dressing. So much for luck. He didn’t know why he was so bothered. It wasn’t like they’d said more than a few words to each other. He believed in love at first sight about as much as he believed in lucky charms, yet he’d felt a connection inside. He’d thought she had too. Obviously not. He wrapped the shamrock in a tissue, then stuck it in the top of his locker. He’d give it to Max at the next game. “Come on, man. I’m starving.” Kenny punched his shoulder. Paddy grabbed his gear. He hated corned beef and the last place he wanted to go was an Irish pub, but he couldn’t duck out of the post-game dinner; he owed the guys for scoring the game-winning goal. “If they play ‘Danny Boy,’ I’m out of there.” “Being Irish should guarantee good luck on St. Patrick’s Day,” Shayla Friel grumbled, as she stomped towards the main entrance of the Ice Cats arena. Though she’d been born in America, Shayla’s parents had emigrated from Downpatrick, making her blood 100 percent Irish. That hadn’t helped today. She’d thought it had, at first. Her brother rarely missed a game, but when an unexpected job came up, he’d asked her to take Max. Then she’d got to “meet” her favourite player. Paddy’s interest in her was a dream come true — though her dreams about him were much hotter than their actual encounter. He was even better looking in person, with his dark hair, blue eyes and rugged jaw. Plus, there’d been that delicious fizz that had skated through her every time they’d touched. But when Paddy hadn’t said anything at the end of the game, let alone asked for her number, she’d become embarrassed. She must have imagined the connection between them — everyone said she had her head in a rose-tinted cloud. He’d probably only been nice because she was Max’s aunt. Then, when she’d dropped Max home, they’d discovered one of the pucks was missing. He’d been so upset, she’d promised to return to the arena and get it. Unfortunately, finding an open door this long after the game had ended was a problem. Which was why, having made a circuit of the building, she was now rattling the push-bar of the locked east door, hoping to get the bored-looking security guard to open up. He did grudgingly. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t come in.” She explained the situation, but he wouldn’t budge. “Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked, over her shoulder. Shayla’s pulse jumped. Cursing silently, she forced a smile and turned. “Max lost the puck you gave him, Paddy. I was trying to get back in to see if I could find it. He won’t let me.” “I’m not allowed,” the guard protested. “Health and safety.” “I’ll escort the lady and take responsibility for her. I’ve got to get my keys from the locker room.” Paddy held the door open for Shayla. Once inside, she thanked him. “No problem.” Their footsteps echoed as they walked through the empty concourse. The smell of fast food lingered, even though the concessions were shuttered. “Hopefully the cleaning crew didn’t find the puck. Not that I’m accusing them of taking it, but it’ll be hard to prove it’s Max’s puck.” She winced inwardly at her wittering. “They’ll put anything they find in ‘lost property.’ The Cats are pretty strict about that.” “That’s good.” Shayla bit her tongue. “So … great game. You must be pleased.” “It’s a relief to be back on the score sheet.” “St. Patrick’s Day was lucky for you.” “Yeah.” Did his abrupt answers mean he wasn’t much of a talker or he didn’t like being with her? When they got to the seats, she couldn’t see the puck. “Darn. It’s not here.” At that moment, the shamrock from her other earring dropped to the floor. Strange. She’d had the pair for years and they both broke on the same night? Paddy leaned down to pick up the charm. “Wait — there’s the puck.” He fished it out from between the seats. “How did it get there?” Shayla frowned. “I know I put it in my bag.” He shrugged as he gave her the shamrock. “Weird. Like I know I put my keys in my pocket before I left.” “Well, it’s lucky my earring broke or we wouldn’t have found Max’s puck.” A strange look crossed Paddy’s face as he handed her the puck. “That’s the one I gave you.” She studied the hunk of rubber. “How can you tell? Does it have special markings?” “Kind of. Flip it over.” She did, and saw silver writing. “Oh. I didn’t see that before.” How had she missed it? “I thought you weren’t interested,” he said uncertainly. “Oh,” she said again. “No. I mean yes.” She bit her lip. “I mean I am. Interested. In dinner.” She laughed. “Feel free to change your mind if you don’t want to spend time with a babbling lunatic.” “I’m brave enough to give it a shot.” He gave her a slow, sexy smile that heated her body, right down to her toes. “Let’s get my keys and I’ll buy you that dinner.” As they walked down to the locker room, they debated favourite foods and restaurants. They both loved Mexican and hated Thai. Loved popcorn, hated pretzels. The only thing they disagreed about was barbecued ribs, which Shayla didn’t like. Paddy’s keys were on the top shelf of his locker. He shook his head. “Definitely weird.” Then, he gave her a small, tissue-wrapped bundle. “But it gives me a chance to return this.” The charm from her other earring. “You should keep it.” She smiled and passed it back. “The shamrocks brought us good luck. Your game, finding the puck and your keys.” Paddy tilted his head, considering. “For sure, it’s been a strange day.” He tucked the bundle into his breast pocket. “Perhaps it was the shamrock. Or perhaps it was you.” “Me?” Her heart tripped. “I think you could be my lucky charm.” He took her hand and linked their fingers. “You want to spend time with me and find out?” Happiness filled her. “Definitely.” As they left the locker room, he grinned. “Maybe St. Patrick’s Day isn’t so bad, after all.” * * * * Former marketing executive Anna Sugden loves reading romance novels and watching films with happy endings. She also loves watching hockey and football, where she prefers a happy ending for her teams. When she’s not researching hockey players (for her books, of course), she makes craft projects and collects penguins, autographs and memorabilia, and great shoes. The current books in her New Jersey Ice Cats series are A Perfect Distraction, A Perfect Trade and A Perfect Catch. Anna lives in Cambridge, England, with her husband and two bossy black cats. Learn more about Anna, her books and her shoes at http://www.annasugden.com. You can also follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AnnaSugden.RomanceAuthor), Twitter (https://twitter.com/AnnaSugden), Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/annasugden) and on the Romance Bandits blog. His Good Luck Charm By Janice Lynn “No, there is absolutely no way I am going to pinch Ethan Tyler’s rear-end!” Kayla Keele shook her head to reinforce her words to her insane best friend. “I didn’t say you had to pinch his bottom. That wasn’t our bet. Just that the loser had to pinch their man crush while they had the chance.” Kayla shook her head more emphatically. “What chance? You’re going to get me fired for sexual harassment.” Candy didn’t look fazed. “You can pinch someone not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day without bells and sirens sounding all over the building. You’re not going to get fired. Quit being overly dramatic.” Which was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Candy was the drama queen. Kayla was calm, logical, responsible. Which was why she still wasn’t convinced. Major bells and sirens went off anytime Ethan was in the vicinity. Of course, those were internal bells and sirens that hopefully no one other than her best friend was aware of. Former best friend if Candy made her go through with this bet. “Besides,” Candy continued. “The man is asking to be pinched by not wearing green. He’s probably hoping and praying you’ll pinch him.” “Yeah, right. I’m sure he got up this morning and said, ‘I’m not going to wear green so that crazy redhead in accounting who salivates every time my name comes up will pinch my bottom.’” Kayla rolled her eyes. “What drugs are you on?” Candy laughed. “None, nor do I need any. I’m not the one who lost our bet. Pinch him,” Candy insisted. “If nothing else, I promise he’ll know exactly who you are before the end of the day.” Kayla cringed. There he was, Mr. Gorgeous at the water cooler filling his water mug. Candy was right. He wasn’t wearing green. She had been crushing on him for months. He made her heart speed up and slow down at the same time. Made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe when he was near. Which explained why she felt lightheaded at the moment. Lack of oxygen. He’d walked past her for months, spoke to her without seeing her for months. Which really wasn’t acceptable. Which had her doing something that had she thought about it a second longer, she’d have found just as unacceptable. Face hot, heart pounding, palms sweating, she pinched Ethan Tyler’s perfect rear-end. Then wished the earth would open up and swallow her, because there was no going back to anonymous now. What a day. Ethan Tyler closed his eyes while filling up his water mug from the bottled water station closest to his office. One thing after another had gone wrong. First the report he’d needed first thing hadn’t arrived, which meant he was going to have to work late. Which wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary except he’d promised his sister that he’d be at her St. Patrick’s Day party tonight and that he wouldn’t find an excuse like he had on the Valentine’s Day double date she’d arranged. She seriously hadn’t understood that he didn’t want her setting him up on dates and definitely not on holidays. Women got crazy ideas when you took them out on holidays. No doubt this evening would be no different. Ashley likely had some bubbly female all hyped up about meeting him. When was she going to understand that he was only thirty-four and wasn’t interested in finding “the one” right now? He enjoyed life, dated occasionally, but mainly liked taking his guy trips and seeing the world. Time enough for females and settling down years from now. Lately visiting with his sister was outright impossible due to her nagging about him being single. He liked single. Embraced single. A sharp twinge stung his right glute. What the…? Ethan pulled his mug back, stopping the water flow. He turned, not quite sure what to expect. A friend pulling a prank? A pretty little redhead with a face just about as red looking as if she couldn’t believe what she’d just done hadn’t even made the top one hundred list. “Did you just pinch me?” “I…uh,” she stammered, taking a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” “Didn’t mean to?” The pinch had caught him off guard, but hadn’t really hurt. “You accidentally pinched me?” “Well, no. It wasn’t an accident. It was just…” She winced, then shrugged a bit nonchalant. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day.” He glanced down at his dark gray suit, his cream-colored shirt. His mind hadn’t been on leprechauns and clovers when he’d dressed. He supposed he’d asked for that one. “Here.” Swallowing nervously and looking cute while doing so, the redhead undid a four-leaf clover pin she wore on her dark green shirt. The color matched her eyes almost perfectly. She pinned the clover to his lapel. “That should save you from more pinches.” “One should be safe at work from such shenanigans.” “One should.” She nodded toward the clover. “Hopefully that will save you from further shenanigans, and if not, maybe it’ll bring you some luck for the rest of the day. No harm done.” “I don’t think you know your own strength. I may have a limp the rest of the day. You may have to kiss it and make it better.” “Pardon?” “I’m kidding.” He realized he had no idea what her name was. “I’m Ethan, by the way.” “I know.” She knew his name? Intriguing. Even more intriguing that she didn’t tell hers. She couldn’t be shy. She’d just pinched him. Yet, that’s exactly what he’d guess her to be. “And you are?” “A friendly co-worker making sure you got your green.” She began backing up. Any moment he expected her to disappear like a leprechaun’s mythical pot of gold. She vanished down the hallway. Interesting. Definitely unexpected. But not unpleasant. He’d seen her around, thought her pretty in a quiet kind of way. Their work paths didn’t cross often, but he did recall seeing her around from time to time. Certainly he hadn’t expected her to pinch his bottom. Trying to get his mind back on work rather than on his pinch, Ethan headed to his office. Ethan wasn’t superstitious, but with the way his day turned around he could be convinced there was something to Kayla’s good luck charm. Kayla. Because he’d asked his assistant if she knew the redhead in accounting and, of course, she had. Because every single thing he’d requested of anyone had been granted smoothly, efficiently, and without the slightest hiccup. His late report had even showed up. Just one thing after another had fallen into perfect sync. Except for his thoughts. Because those kept going back to the redhead. Which explained why he stood outside her cubicle. She glanced up, shock registering on her pretty face. “I think there’s something to this good luck charm.” Her gaze dropped to the clover she’d pinned to him. “It’s just a piece of costume jewelry.” He shook his head. “Can’t be. My entire day turned around after our little encounter.” Her brow arched. “Were you having a bad day?” “I was.” “Not now?” “Not from the moment you pinned this on me.” “That’s good.” “Good enough that I owe you.” She shook her head. “You don’t owe me. It really is just a cheap pin. Nothing expensive.” “Nonetheless, I still want to do something for you. Go to dinner with me.” “Pardon?” “Actually, it’s a dinner party at my sister’s. A St. Patrick’s Day get-together. It’ll be crowded, loud, but the food will be good.” “You want me to go to a party with you?” “As my good luck charm.” “You have the clover.” He laughed. “That I do. Which means you should be saying yes. Perhaps it’s lost its magic. Maybe I need to rub it and ask again.” He rubbed his finger across the clover then met her gaze, his eyes twinkling. “Kayla,” he emphasized her name. “Will you go to a party with me tonight?” “Yes.” He waggled his brows, then tapped his finger against the clover. “Might have to start wearing this little gem all the time.” “It loses its power at midnight.” “Midnight?” “That’s when the clock strikes, marking the passing of St. Paddy’s Day.” He grinned. “In that case, maybe I should pick you up an hour earlier than planned. Is seven okay?” “Seven would be great.” Kayla had wondered if she’d overdressed, but when she opened her door, the look Ethan gave her assured she’d chosen well with her green dress and matching heels. She didn’t usually do up her eyes or fluff her hair, but Ethan’s appreciative gaze made it worth the effort. Unfortunately from the time they’d arrived at his sister’s she’d been a nervous wreck. Something about the surprise on his sister’s face, and the disappointment on the face of the woman with her, had Kayla questioning her welcome. “Why do I get the impression I’m a fifth wheel?” she asked the second they were alone. He just shrugged and stuck an appetizer in his mouth. “Right. Was that woman your date?” “You’re my date.” “Was she supposed to be your date?” “You and I met her at the exact same time.” Kayla cringed. “She was. You asked me out to get out of a blind date. I feel so used.” He grinned. “You pinch my bottom and you’re the one feeling used?” She bit the inside of her lip. “I think you’ve played that card enough for one lifetime.” “Not really. It’s like a wild card that I can keep pulling out at will for the next fifty years or so.” She told her heart to stop pounding. He hadn’t meant a thing by his comment. “And you will?” “You better believe it.” He grinned again. “So why did you do it?” She glanced around the crowded room, swayed a little to the music, and didn’t answer. “Kayla?” he prompted. “I lost a bet,” she admitted. His brow arched. “A bet to pinch my bottom?” “That was the punishment to whoever lost.” “Tell me again how you feel used.” She smiled, mainly because he was smiling and there was something warm about his eyes that set her at ease at the same time as her nerves zinged. She’d sort of hoped tonight would cure her of her Ethan crush. That he’d be such a loser that it didn’t matter what he looked like, how sexy his smile was, how buff his behind. Instead, she liked him. A lot. “Tell me about you.” “Not much to tell. I’m an accountant, been with the company since I interned with them and they hired me straight out of school.” “That was like last year?” he teased. “Five years ago.” “Which makes you about twenty-six? Twenty-seven?” “Something like that.” “Ever been married?” “Nope. You?” “No way.” “Confirmed bachelor?” “Loving being single.” But even as he said the words, Ethan questioned their validity. Sure, just earlier that day, he had been thinking how much he liked being single. But at the moment, he wasn’t so sure. What had changed? Other than the fact he held a curvy little redhead in his arms, she smelled of the ocean, fresh and clean, smiled like the sunshine on a cloudy day, and made him wish he’d grabbed a few of his sister’s silly party hats that said, “Kiss me. I’m Irish.” Because he’d really like to kiss Kayla. “It’s time I got you home, Cinderella.” “Better hurry. Your good luck charm is on the countdown,” Kayla teased, having glanced at his watch when he did. “Let’s go. I’m not ready for my luck to end.” Just outside her apartment door, Kayla paused. “Ethan, I should probably warn you, you’re not going to get that lucky tonight.” Not looking in the slightest upset, he smiled, rubbed the clover pin, then leaned in for a quick goodnight kiss. “I already have gotten that lucky tonight. Sweet dreams, Kayla. I’ll see you tomorrow.” * * * * Award-winning author Janice Lynn loves to spin a tale that touches her readers’ hearts by putting a smile on their lips and a tear in their eye. Her favorite read is one with a strong heroine who can laugh at herself and a hero who appreciates the heroine’s strengths and imperfections, and can’t help but love her. Janice strives to write characters who make her want to go along for their adventure and smile several times on the journey to their happily ever after. Janice lives in Tennessee with her family, her vivid imagination, and bunches of unnamed dust bunnies that moved in after she started pursuing my writing career. She has published over 20 books with various publishing companies including Harlequin Enterprises and Dorchester Publishing. Her books have won numerous awards including the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Golden Quill for Best Short Contemporary Romance, the American Title, the Holt Medallion Award of Merit, and the Golden Quill for Best First Book. For more information on Janice Lynn, visit her website at www.janicelynn.net or her author Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JaniceLynnAuthor. Green Beer By Nancy Northcott It should have been me. The thought haunted Brody Hamilton. He and Sean O’Malley had been fighting back to back, then side by side. Until a ghoul strike killed Sean. Brody raised the glass in silent salute. To you, buddy. Wherever you are, I hope you’re having green beer tonight. His eyes burned, and his throat went tight. He swallowed the first gulp hard and made himself not chug the rest. Damn ghouls. The dark magic users, the mages’ deadly enemies, had been more active lately. Their talons could siphon magic or life energy, leave slashing wounds, or inject venom into their prey. Unable to breed among themselves, they kidnapped mageborn and Mundane alike to serve as breeders. And occasionally as snacks. The bartender was eying him again. Brody washed his irritation down with swallow of neon-green beer. Being mageborn, he had higher tolerance than any Mundane, or normal human, customer in the dark, paneled bar. But the bartender couldn’t know that. Except in unusual circumstances, Mundanes weren’t allowed to know about the world—and foes—of the mageborn. Deputy shire reeves like Brody and Sean were charged with stopping those foes, the ghouls and their allies, demons from the Void between worlds. The equivalent of Deputy U.S. Marshals in the secret world of the mageborn, the deputy reeves faced off against ghouls regularly. And some of them died. As Sean had in the big battle in the Okefenokee Swamp just after Thanksgiving. Brody clenched his jaw against a wave of grief. He and Sean had met in reeve training, had fought together, scoped out women together, and ragged on each other. But all that was over now. With one finger, he idly traced a drop of condensation sliding down the glass mug’s side. Really, why take perfectly good beer and turn it green? But dissing it wouldn’t be any fun without Sean to defend it. The guy had loved everything about St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. At least the late hour was clearing the place out. The Celtic trio had packed up, and the basketball playoff crowd had gone after the game ended. As Brody signaled the bartender for another round, the bottles behind the bar shivered out of focus for a moment. Brody pushed a lock of black hair out of his face and closed his eyes for a second. Maybe green beer was more potent than he’d thought. Of course, he’d been drinking Sean’s share as well as his own. A slender, female form slipped onto the stool to his left. Even though there were plenty of empty stools. Ordinarily he’d be on that opportunity like a tick on a dog, but not tonight. Brody hunched over, discouraging conversation. “What can I get you, ma’am?” the bartender asked. “Whatever he’s having.” Her familiar voice and magical aura pierced the haze of grief and beer shrouding Brody’s brain. He glanced left, and his blood stirred at the sight of the trim, athletic woman with her brown hair in a short, neat braid. Scowling, he pushed back the unwelcome flash of heat. A guy didn’t screw his best woman friend. “Stacie, what’re you doing here?” “Looking for you.” She nodded thanks at the bartender when he delivered their drinks. “Why?” She took a sip of the green stuff. Her blue eyes level on his face, she replied, “Because this is where you and Sean always came on St. Patrick’s Day.” That was so typical of her, and it sent something sweet and warm rolling through his chest. But damn, did she think he couldn’t handle himself? “I don’t need a babysitter.” “Of course not. But I thought maybe you could use a friend.” Nothing he could say to that, Stacie bet. Judging by his deepening scowl, he knew it. She raised her mug and looked him dead in the eye. “To Sean O’Malley.” “To Sean.” Brody clinked his mug against hers, and they drank. The Mundane bartender might not realize the beer was finally catching up with the deputy reeve, but she knew him. His brown eyes had just the barest hint of vagueness, and the faint slump of his broad, sexy shoulders— No. Not sexy. Not her college buddy. Not goin’ there. No matter how many times thoughts like that had jumped into her head in the past year or so. Regardless, that last mug had been one too many. She set her hand over his. Her pulse kicked at the contact, but she ignored that unwelcome little hop. “Last one, pal, and I drive you home.” “Like hell.” But his eyes were definitely foggy. Time to pull out the big guns. “For Sean’s sake, Broderick, indulge me. I have to work in the morning, and I’m not leaving you here alone on the first St. Patrick’s Day since he died.” Guessing, she added, “Especially not when you’ve been drinking for two.” His eyes narrowed. Stacie kept her own level. At last, he shrugged. “Can’t have you out in a boat without enough sleep. You might miscount the dolphins.” “As if.” She grinned to cover her relief that he wasn’t arguing. She would take him home and say good night. Tomorrow, the sea air would clear her head. Working as an oceanographer for the southeastern mages’ secret government had definite perks, and time on open water was one of them. Brody insisted on paying for her beer. Afterward, as they headed out to her car, his steps seemed a little too careful. A bit too consciously placed. The radio came on when she started the car. He said nothing, slumping in his seat and seeming content to let the smooth rock fill the night. It was nearly midnight, and the streets in the older part of Brunswick, Georgia, were mostly deserted. At least he had a short commute to work tomorrow at the mages’ Collegium. Masquerading as the Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research, it housed the southeastern mages’ government and law enforcement centers and academy. And sponsored the ocean-monitoring program that employed Stacie. “It should have been me,” Brody said abruptly. “I was standing right beside him.” As usual when he said that, pain lanced through her soul. She took a slow breath to combat it. He shook his head. “I should’ve had his back.” Stacie squeezed his arm. “You’ve always said battle is unpredictable. That no plan allows for everything.” And thank God it hadn’t been Brody, even if that was selfish of her. Eying him, she ventured, “Sean wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up—” “Yeah, well, he’s not here to say so,” Brody snapped. She had no reply to that and so kept quiet. A few minutes later, she pulled into the brick, two-story apartment complex where Brody lived. He rubbed a hand over his face. “Thanks, Stacie.” Instead of getting out of the car, though, he sat there, staring at the building. Maybe he didn’t want to be alone with his memories. “Should I come up?” she asked. Her gut shouted, Bad idea! Seriously, totally terrible idea! But she couldn’t leave him like this. Brody looked at her as though he’d never seen her before. The hint of appraisal in his gaze sent a shiver of awareness rippling through her, but she couldn’t look away. Wouldn’t. He needed her. After a moment, he nodded. “Yeah. Come up.” What the hell had he been thinking? Having Stacie come upstairs tonight, with the frame of mind he was in, was a stupid, dangerous move. She was one of his best friends—even dearer now that Sean was gone—not some one-night distraction. Yet Brody couldn’t get his lips moving to send her home. Or ignore the sweet curve of her breasts under the green hoodie as she walked up the metal stairs at his side. How often had he wondered how that generous mouth of hers would taste? Too damn often. Get it together, idiot. They reached his one-bedroom unit. Silently, he opened the door. He turned on lights as Stacie dropped her purse and jacket on an armchair. At least the place wasn’t a total sty. He’d picked up the combined living-dining area before work this morning. The low, battered coffee table and brown leather couch were clear of old newspapers and magazines. “Should we put on coffee?” she asked. “Do you want to talk? Or maybe play cards?” No, I want to take you to bed. Brody set his jaw. Dude, so not going there. Stacie’s brow furrowed. “Brody, you okay?” She rubbed his arm gently, and his body sprang to attention. Hell. Staring over her head, he managed, “You have to work tomorrow.” “I can stay a while. I could even bunk here tonight.” Finally, he looked down at her, at the worry and affection in her face, the familiar blue eyes and slightly tip-tilted nose. His throat tightened. He should send her home. Instead, his idiot mouth said, “Not if you mean to bunk on the couch.” Stacie’s eyes widened. Her lips parted. Her throat moved in a hard swallow before she choked, “Uh—what?” Maybe it was the beer that had made him blurt that out. Maybe it was the realization that chances could evaporate in the blink of an eye. Maybe it was both. Brody steeled his spine. “I don’t want to lose what we have, Stace, but—I want to see if we could have more.” For a long moment, his breath froze in his chest while she stared at him. Then she smiled. “I want to find that out, too. But I don’t want to rush into anything. Going too far, too fast, could make backtracking tough.” She took a single step that closed the distance between them. Brody slid his arms around her and drew her against him. The sweet pressure of her breasts against his chest made his pulse skip. Now that he was finally holding her, he wanted to let his hands roam. Explore. But she didn’t want to rush. “I can do slow,” he agreed. Stroking her hair back from her temple, he reveled in the way she turned her cheek into his palm and cupped her hand around his. When he tipped her face up, she looped both arms around his neck. He brushed his lips over hers. The contact jolted through him, and he tightened his hold. Stacie’s sigh heated his blood. He kissed her again, flicking his tongue over her lips. She opened for him, and he thrust, staking his claim at last. Their tongues fenced, sliding against each other, as the aching bulge at his groin pressed into the softness of her belly. With a groan, he lowered his hand to her firm butt and pulled her closer. Stacie slid her fingers into the hair at his nape, caressing, and his brain blanked. At last, he raised his head. Stacie was breathing hard, just as he was, and her eyes were hot. He kissed her again quickly. “If you stay,” he assured her, “we won’t do anything you’re not ready for.” “I know.” She smoothed the neck of his green T-shirt. “I trust you.” Thank God. Their almost-decade of friendship wouldn’t mean much if they couldn’t trust each other. “Sean thought I should speak up sooner,” he remembered suddenly. “That I was being a wuss by holding back.” “Is that why you said what you did?” Brody shook his head. “I’d forgotten that. But I suddenly didn’t want to waste any more time.” “Neither do I.” On tiptoe, Stacie nipped his lower lip. A flash of heat shot straight to his groin. He took her mouth in a long, deep kiss. Raising his head, he scanned her face. “So you’ll stay.” She smiled. “I’ll stay. And we’ll see where we go from here.” * * * * Nancy Northcott’s childhood ambition was to grow up and become Wonder Woman. Around fourth grade, she realized it was too late to acquire Amazon genes, but she still loved comic books, science fiction, fantasy and YA romance. A sucker for fast action and wrenching emotion, Nancy combines the romance and high stakes she loves in the books she writes. Her debut novel, Renegade, received a starred review from Library Journal. The reviewer called it “genre writing at its best.” Nancy is a three-time RWA Golden Heart finalist and has won the Maggie, the Molly, the Emerald City Opener, and Put Your Heart in a Book contests. Married since 1987, Nancy and her husband have one son, a bossy dog, and a house full of books. www.nancynorthcott.com Blueberry Delight By Monica McCabe “The answer is no. It was no yesterday, it’s no today, and it’ll be no tomorrow.” Lanie Benton’s refusal didn’t faze Jason. She’d come around. You didn’t work with someone near every day for two months without learning a thing or two. And his Love Meter theory was rarely wrong. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day this weekend,” he stated. The San Diego Zoo was busy for a Thursday and they were headed toward Benchley Plaza, intent on a bite of lunch at one of the cafes. “Not relevant,” she answered. “Sure it is. Long standing tradition requires that you take pity on fools in love.” “You’re confused.” She grabbed an empty drink cup from the sidewalk and tossed it in a trashcan. “Valentine’s Day was last month.” “I tried to get your attention then too. You ignored me.” “I’d ignore you now if I thought it would make you go away.” He sighed for effect. “That attitude is your problem. It’s making you old.” The comment earned him a furious glare. “I’m only twenty-six, Boyo.” “And I’m an easygoing almost twenty.” He smiled wide. “You, on the other hand, are stubborn and nearly an antique.” She scowled. “You sound like my mother.” Jason was pretty sure that wasn’t a compliment. That red-haired temper of hers never failed to rise to the occasion. It’s the main reason she’d be perfect for his friend, Declan. She’s fiery and passionate. Declan is all cool reserve. It’s an opposites attract match made in heaven. If only they’d listen to him. “I bet your mom would love Declan.” “Forget it. I’m not letting a baby like you set me up with anyone,” she declared. “So stop trying.” “It’s not a blind date,” Jason reasoned. “Declan is a big fan of the zoo. Volunteers every year.” Mostly because of Lanie, but Mr. I-Can’t-Ask-A-Girl-Out took the phrase secret admirer to a whole new level. The guy’s shyness would keep him a bachelor forever. “I’ve never met him.” “I bet you’ve seen him around though. He’s Irish. Accent and everything.” She flashed him a look of annoyance. “Doesn’t matter.” “You know, if you’re this difficult with everything, it’s no wonder your love life is in the toilet.” Her eyes narrowed as she turned to face him, hands on hips. “It is not! And I don’t see that it’s any of your business. Bug off.” Afternoon sun highlighted deep red streaks in her braided hair and with a matching burn in her eyes, she looked downright delicious. If she wasn’t so perfect for Declan, he’d seriously make a play for her himself. Despite her advanced age. “Did I mention he plays the fiddle and will be part of the Jazzoo band for Saturday’s fund raiser?” She hesitated. Only for a second, but he saw the interest. Enough to convince him he was on the right track. So he delivered his trump card, the one thing guaranteed to win her acceptance. “Hubert will be performing at Jazzoo, too.” Lately, Hubert’s public appearances were rare. But the four-foot-tall orangutan was a real charmer. Ladies could never resist him. “Set me up with Hubert. I’ll go out with him.” “It’s a package deal.” Jason furiously tossed about this new scenario, trying to figure a way to make it work in his favor. Their favor. “Hubert plays, you know. He’s a virtuoso on the triangle. Declan taught him.” Lanie laughed and Jason sensed a crack in her armor. “The only way I’ll agree to meet this Declan is if I get to hang out with Hubert in the process.” Not an ideal situation. The orangutan was a major distraction and Declan too quiet to compete with a Casanova like Hubert, but he’d work with what he had. “Consider it done,” Jason agreed. “Only a meet,” she emphasized. “Not a date.” “Understood.” That didn’t leave much time to devise a fool-proof plan. He’d need the luck of the Irish to pull this off. “Be here Saturday afternoon at four.” “You owe me for this, Jason Harvick.” “No worries. You’ll totally thank me later.” On Saturday he had to continually remind himself of that fact. The zoo was hopping with season ticket holders, tourists, jazz enthusiasts, and half the population of San Diego. With so much commotion, Jason struggled to train Hubert to make a special delivery in the name of one very reluctant Declan O’Shea. “It’s not going to work,” Declan argued. “Does the lassie even like blueberry tart?” Why couldn’t these two people just cooperate? Between Lanie’s stubbornness and Declan’s hesitant nature, a happy ever after seemed very far away. “It will work,” Jason said. “She loves fruit more than any orangutan. Blueberry will be irresistible.” Hubert helped himself to a strawberry and smashed it against his lips, then licked up the red juice before chewing the mangled fruit. The band had been playing for the last couple hours and just started an hour-long break to eat, drink, and recharge for the next round. Jason had roughly fifteen minutes until Lanie arrived and the power of love took control. “Hubert’s not behaving as well as usual,” Declan said. “Getting an attitude lately.” Jason watched the ape pluck a grape from its stem and sniff it. The poor fruit didn’t make the cut and Hubert threw it into the crowd. “I think he aimed that grape at the lady in the purple hat,” Jason said incredulously. “Told you.” Declan handed a mango slice to Hubert. “He’s been wrecked for the last month or more.” “Wrecked?” “Fashed, you ken?” “Um, no, I don’t ken. Is he ill?” “In a sense.” Declan pushed the blueberry tart around on the table. “I’m thinking he’s a might lonely.” Jason stared at the orangutan in stunned amazement. “Hubert is cranky because he wants a girlfriend?” That would be stretching his matchmaking skills to the limit, but could be interesting. “The lad’s been on his own a while,” Declan said with a shrug. “So have you, but you’re not throwing food at people.” “No?” Declan pointed to the fluted edge mini pie. “Then why the fancy tart?” “You are giving it to Lanie Benton, not throwing it at her.” “If Hubert cooperates.” “I’ve been working with him the last two hours. So far he’s successfully delivered three root beers, a cookie tray, and placed a stack of napkins on the table.” “All good,” Declan said with a nod toward the tart. “It’s the blueberry I’m worried about.” “Too late to turn back now,” Jason said as Lanie stepped into the concession tent. She’d traded her zoo uniform for trendy flats, beige slacks, and a pastel green top that seemed to shimmer in the light as she moved. But it was the softly curling red hair loosely banded with a ribbon that made men stare. She looked beyond fine. Declan made a choking sound. “Faith, but she’s out of me league. I canna do this.” Nerves had sharpened his accent. “Listen up,” Jason said fiercely. “There are no leagues, she’s perfect for you. Now, here’s how things are going down.” He slid the blueberry tart to the edge of the table and pulled Hubert over to join them. The orangutan glanced at the fancy tart and licked his lips. “Not yet, Hubert,” Jason said sternly. “Jason,” Lanie called out softly. All three men turned to greet the vision in green. Declan sucked in a breath, Hubert grunted with monkey interest, and Jason sent up a plea for help from any patron saint within earshot. “You made it,” Jason said lamely. Not a good start. He tried again. “I’ve a couple friends I’d like you to meet.” He introduced Declan and was gratified to see Lanie’s smile of delight. Hubert not so much. He invaded the pleasant exchange by stepping right up in front of Lanie and demanding attention. “You must be Hubert,” Lanie said with a little laugh. “Nice to meet you.” She ran her hand over his head and around to rub under his jaw. The orangutan didn’t move, didn’t blink, he just stared at the vision in front of him with something that looked like adoration. Jason frowned. “I heard you play¸” Lanie said to Declan. “You work magic with that fiddle.” He dipped his head in acknowledgement and smiled at her. “Thank you. It is truly something I enjoy.” “I’m envious of your talent,” she said. “I tried to learn the clarinet once. Didn’t turn out too well.” “We all have talent somewhere,” Declan replied. “It’s only a matter of finding one’s path.” The orangutan’s path led him straight to Lanie where he offered her up a strawberry. “Why, thank you, Hubert.” Lanie took a bite and hummed in approval for his benefit. Jason grabbed the ape’s hand and pulled him back. He gave a snort of displeasure but Jason ignored it in favor of steering the conversation. “Lanie’s talent is in creating phenomenal exhibits. You should see the meerkat burrow she’s designed.” Lanie smiled at him before turning back to Declan. “Jason might be overselling my ability, but I do love my job.” Another strawberry popped up in front of her. This time Declan plucked it out of Hubert’s fingers. “What’s this? Trying to win the girl with sweet gifts?” He ate the strawberry. “I’ll have none of that going on, young man.” They all laughed, except for Hubert. The ape backed away, but if the look in his eye were any indication, Jason would swear he plotted revenge. The thing was, winning the girl with sweet treats was part of Jason’s plan. Hubert was supposed to deliver it, but that didn’t look promising right now. Lanie and Declan didn’t seem to notice. They were totally absorbed with each other, hitting it off just like Jason predicted. Which was fantastic, because he really didn’t have Plan B. Things were going smoothly, however, so he moved over to the drink station for a Sierra Mist. He twisted off the lid and took a long drink, toasting himself on another successful match. His skill was growing. He smiled in satisfaction and leaned back against the counter, then saw something that struck fear in his heart. Hubert had the blueberry tart. And he stood directly behind Declan. With an evil glance at Declan’s back, Hubert dipped his fingers inside the tart and brought them to his mouth for a taste. He smacked his lips in glee and dipped again, this time wiping the fruit onto the white sleeve of Declan’s shirt. Jason slammed his soda and the counter and practically ran back toward the impending disaster. “What are ye doing, lad?” Declan exclaimed in horror. Splat. A dark purple splotch appeared on his chest. When the orangutan dug another round of ammo, Lanie jumped into the fray. “No, Hubert, no!” she yelled, trying to stop the attack. Too late. The blueberry missile plastered her hair and dripped down her temple. The orangutan shrieked in dismay, then hurled the entire pie at Declan’s chest before body slamming the Irishman. The impact knocked Declan into Lanie and all three of them went to the ground. Hubert lay smugly on top of both and reached over to wipe a glob of blueberry tart from Lanie’s shoulder. He was calmly licking it from his fingers when Jason reached them. “Aw, man! I’m so sorry!” Jason exclaimed as he pulled the ape off his friends. Declan rose first and reached down to help Lanie to her feet. He brushed a blueberry off her cheek and laughed softly. “You okay, lassie?” She gave him a nod and smiled before she plucked a blueberry from the front of his shirt and popped it into her mouth. “Mmm, not bad.” He laughed out loud. “Can ye ever forgive a man for being so desperate to meet you that he agrees to this harebrained plan?” “I don’t know…” “What if I take ye to dinner? A little wine, quiet atmosphere, a place where we can talk? Would ye forgive me then?” “Do it,” Jason encouraged her. “Otherwise I’ll have to apologize over and over. And fork out for new clothes. You two are a mess.” “So is Hubert,” Lanie said. “But he seems unconcerned. Is he throwing grapes at people?” “That boy is out of control. I’m taking him to Orangutan Alley. He needs a girlfriend to straighten him out,” Jason said. “So…what about it? You two have a dinner date?” Lanie smiled at them both. “As long as it doesn’t involve blueberries, I’m in.” * * * * Adventuring is in Monica McCabe’s blood. She’s explored glaciers and ancient Mayan pyramids, dived shipwrecks and reef caves, camped in Sasquatch country, and driven across the USA three times. Her latest craze is collecting as many official stamps in her National Park Passport as she can. When not traveling, she’s writing romantic adventure books and anticipating the July 5, 2015 release of DIAMOND LEGACY, a contemporary romance about a dental zoologist and an undercover agent on the trail of diamond smugglers. www.monicamccabe.net www.facebook.com/monica.mccabe www.twitter.com/monicamccabe Date at McCabe’s By Jody Wallace The green beads from the parade float ricocheted off Mai’s head and into the drunk guys next to her. Green beer sloshed her shirt, drenching her with stinky froth. She lifted the now-clingy fabric away from her chest and grimaced. She was never venturing into downtown New Orleans on a parade night again. Ever. “Boobs!” one dude yelled. “More boobs!” Wrong parade, buddy. She grabbed Katie’s arm. Rather, the drunkard jostled her into Katie, and she grabbed Katie so she wouldn’t knock her friend over. The crowd gathered along Bourbon Street for the St. Joseph’s Day Parade was boisterous, alcoholic, and kind of horny—everything Mai wasn’t. “Hey, Katie. Yoo-hoo, Katie? Can we go now?” “Quit being a party poop.” Katie waved at a lady decked out in red and green who tossed her a strand of sparklies. “You’re getting more play tonight than you have in months.” If “play” included letting old Italian-American men kiss her cheek and hand her paper flowers, sure. She’d dodged well, but in the end, a few had nabbed her. On the plus side, they’d been nicer than the beer heads ping-ponging her and Katie between one group of rowdies and the next. There wasn’t anywhere else to go if you wanted to see the parade, which Katie did. Mai and her stinky, wet blouse, however, were done. The music was loud, the people were louder, and the bars were too crowded to find a seat. Her feet and head hurt, and this parade didn’t even have the side benefit of people tossing cabbages and potatoes like the Irish-American parade. If they were tossing cannoli instead of beads and paper flowers, she’d be a lot more invested. About the only thing she liked more than cannoli was the guy who served it at the bakery over in Covington where she was a regular. His tattooed, muscular arms made everything taste better. She blamed her twice-weekly drool session on the cannoli, but it was really all about Henry. By the brassy sound of it, a marching band approached. A slow-moving float wound past, and behind it trooped yet another passel of men in tuxedos, wielding bundles of flowers and big, wide smiles. Crap. More kissers. Mai ducked behind Katie, who was decked out in flowers and leis like some kind of earth goddess. Wasn’t hard to hide—Katie was statuesque where Mai was slight. Easy to overlook. She eyed the marching men around Katie’s jacket sleeve. Some younger guys this time. Cute, too. Several peeled off to kiss women, doling out blooms. A well-groomed man in a tuxedo would normally have thrilled Mai to the core—she was a sucker for a suit—but tonight she’d OD’d. “Woooo!” Katie started jumping up and down and waving like mad. “Flower time!” “Cut it out.” She tugged Katie’s braid. “Not this time.” The grandpa smooch brigade was one thing, but not young ones. Too embarrassing when someone close to her age tried to kiss her. More embarrassing if they kissed all the women around but her. “Hey! Over here!” Mai’s maniac friend kept signaling. With boobs like hers, the whole line of tuxedo guys would notice. “Yeah, you. Come here!” Mai crossed her arms and glared at Katie’s back. Around her men cheered and raised their drinks, women hooted and raised their drinks, and Italian-American guys in snazzy tuxedos presented flowers right and left. Beer bled through her canvas tennis shoes. Trumpets blared, and a knot of people following the parade route muddled behind her. Suddenly Katie snatched Mai and thrust her forward, practically into the street. “It’s your bakery boyfriend!” Katie screamed. “He’s got carnations.” “My what?” Mai stared straight ahead, confused, but all she could see was a tuxedo-clad chest. Broad chest. Silken lapels. Wide shoulders. Smiling face. Oh, shit. It was him. “I’m your bakery boyfriend?” She could barely hear Henry’s deep, rumbling voice over the shouting, the brass band, and the hubbub. His dark brown eyes alight with mischief, he bent toward her so they could talk. “I didn’t know we were dating.” “Hi,” she attempted, but no sound came out. Just a croak. Her face burned so hot, she was surprised her beer-wet shirt didn’t steam. “I. Henry. Hi.” “Mai. Hi,” he echoed, wearing that same teasing grin as when he coaxed her to accept a pastry to go...on the house. “All this time, I thought you came in because you liked my pastries.” This was pretty much the most humiliating thing that had happened to her since she’d fallen down the stairs in front of the professor she’d been pressuring to award her an internship. She was going to murder Katie. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.” “That’s disappointing.” He stepped closer as the parade rolled along behind him. His toes were practically stepping on her toes. The only parts of their bodies that had ever touched as patissier and diner were their fingers. “Better not be some other guy at my bakery serving you cannoli.” He didn’t say that. Did he? “Just you. There’s just you.” It was ridiculous how true that was, but her crush on Henry had nothing to do with it. She was too busy. Her career. Long hours. And her cats. And oh God, she’d thought nothing could look better on this man than a T-shirt and apron, but the way he filled out his tux might light her hair on fire. “Good.” His tribe was kissing women right and left, continuing along the parade route, but Henry—so big, so solid—was fixed to one spot. The spot in front of her. “Give her a flower!” Katie encouraged. Mai squeezed her eyes shut. If she couldn’t see Henry laughing at her, this wasn’t happening. “My friend is insane.” “I think she’s smart.” He pulled a rose from his tuxedo jacket, the real one tucked into his buttonhole. “I have something for you. It’s not a half-caf with three creams and two sugars, though.” “I had beer,” she squawked. “I mean, I didn’t drink it, someone spilled it on me.” Henry’s big hand cupped her jaw, and his thumb brushed her bottom lip. “I’m going to kiss you now.” Mai’s heart nearly choked her. Where was professional Mai? Where was speak up in meetings Mai? Where was gutsy Mai who’d gotten that internship anyway? “I bet you say that to all the girls on the parade—” He didn’t kiss her on the cheek. His lips met hers gently, perfectly, like a light sprinkle of powdered sugar. Once. Twice. “And one on the house,” he murmured against her mouth, before kissing her firmly enough that she was pretty sure he meant it. When he finished and tucked the rose behind her ear, Mai’s heart exploded out of her in words. “I come to the bakery to see you,” she said in a rush. “But you do have the best cannoli.” He smiled. “I know.” “I’ll see you next week?” “You’ll see me in three hours,” he corrected. “Dino’s at ten. First date?” “First date,” she breathed. The parade was a lot more fun after that. So was her date at McCabe’s. * * * * Jody Wallace grew up in the South in a very rural area. She went to school a long time and ended up with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Her resume includes college English instructor, technical documents editor, market analyst, web designer, and general, all-around pain in the butt. She resides in Tennessee with one husband, two children, two cats, and a lot of junk. In fact, she has always lived with cats, and they have always been mean. To discover other books by Ms. Wallace, visit her website at http://www.jodywallace.com. You can also find her at Twitter: https://twitter.com/jodywallace and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JodyWallaceAuthor. To discover meankitties, visit the cat’s website at http://www.meankitty.com Lucky in Love By Tanya Michaels “Sorry.” As she struggled with the zipper, Crystal Walsh flashed an apologetic smile over her shoulder. “I was really hoping to lose the baby weight by now.” Bridget, the stunning bride-to-be, made a sympathetic noise. “Don’t be too hard on yourself—the twins are barely a year old!” Crystal laughed. “You misunderstand. I haven’t even started on the weight from that pregnancy. I was talking about the pounds I put on with Noah, my four-year-old.” “Spending these last few days with you has felt like high school all over again. It’s hard to believe you’re the mother of five!” There’d been a time when Crystal and Bridget had nearly everything in common. They’d shared a seat on the school bus from kindergarten until Bridget got her driver’s license and inherited her older brother’s junk heap of a car. They’d been on swim team together and took horse riding lessons from the same instructor. Yet, as adults, their lives couldn’t be more different. Crystal was settled and raising kids, while Bridget wasn’t even a newlywed yet. Plus, Crystal had spent her entire life in their hometown of Cupid’s Bow, Texas. Bridget had left at eighteen, going away to the University of Texas, where she’d earned a degree in journalism. It seemed like she’d been in motion ever since, traveling, covering different stories, racing to meet deadlines. She’d said in more than one email that she loved her career so much that she didn’t mind not having time to date. But after meeting Sean at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Austin two years ago, she’d suddenly discovered room in her life for romance. Now here they were, counting down the minutes until Bridget’s St. Patrick’s-themed wedding. Bridget’s gown was a crisp white, accented with an emerald bolero jacket and matching ribbon at her waist. The bride was gorgeous. Crystal eyed her own dress in the mirror. She looked very round. And very green. Like a mutant pea that had rolled loose from a gigantic pod. Not exactly the look one wanted commemorated in a zillion pictures. Why couldn’t Bridget have picked one of her willowy, ridiculously photogenic cousins to be maid of honor? Bridget had joked that her cousins were uber-competitive. “If I’d asked one, none of the others would ever speak to me again.” Actually, considering how ruthless the cousins had been during the bachelorette party scavenger hunt two nights ago, maybe Bridget wasn’t kidding. As if reading Crystal’s thoughts, Bridget suddenly reached over to squeeze her hand. “I’m so glad you’re my matron of honor,” she whispered. Her cousins were on the far side of the room, doing final cosmetic touch-ups. “Having you at my side will bring me luck! Only one of my cousins is even married, and she’s barely a newlywed herself. But you—you’ve been in love with Jason half your life.” “I’m just sorry he couldn’t be here this weekend.” Crystal’s husband was traveling for work. Again. She understood the long hours. Providing for a family of seven was far from cheap. She did what she could to help, gardening and clipping coupons. In the fall, she hoped to return to working part-time. Would that lessen his burden? More importantly, would it mean his wife and kids saw more of him? Straightening her veil, Bridget continued, “You and Jason have been in the trenches. You really understand the effort and commitment marriage takes.” “Effort and commitment. Wow, you make marriage sound hot,” Crystal teased. A lasting marriage did take effort—hers was certainly worth it. But romance and passion were nice, too. At least, she thought they were. She only had dim recollections. Lately, between diaper-changing and soccer practices and preparing for grocery trips that took as much planning as cross-continental expeditions, there hadn’t been much time for romance. The last truly heart-pounding, toe-curling, earth-shattering night of passion had been…about nine months before the twins were born. The door to the bridal room opened, and Bridget’s mother entered, accompanied by the wedding coordinator, who cheerfully announced, “It’s time!” Bridget flashed Crystal a smile that was both apprehensive and ecstatic. “Here goes everything.” Crystal leaned back in her chair, trying to bask in the luxury of champagne and not having to cut anyone else’s food. The reception dinner had been delicious, and she’d enjoyed talking to the other people at her table. Of course, now most of them were on the dance floor. Her eyes went to the bride and groom, who seemed oblivious to everyone else present. Their eyes were locked on each other, and the happiness they radiated made her sigh. I am thrilled for them. And not at all jealous, she told herself. It wasn’t as if Crystal hadn’t done some dancing. She’d waltzed an obligatory song with the best man, before he returned to his girlfriend, and had taken a turn around the floor with Bridget’s older brother. It was probably a blessing that she was off her feet, her shoes discarded beneath the table. She wasn’t used to wearing heels. Behind her, a man cleared his throat. If the waiter asked if she wanted more champagne, should she say no, assuring zero headache tomorrow, or just go for it, making the most of her night out before returning home to piles of dishes and laundry? But it wasn’t the waiter who inquired, “Is this seat taken?” She whirled around, half-suspecting that the bubbly she’d already finished was causing her to imagine the familiar voice. “Jason! What are you… Where did you—” He grinned, looking extremely pleased with himself despite the hints of fatigue shadowing his eyes. “I know I missed the wedding, but there’s still time to offer the bride and groom my best wishes, right?” He leaned down, brushing a kiss over her lips. “And to dance with my beautiful wife, I hope. You look fantastic—that color’s perfect with your eyes.” Bridget had been telling her she looked great all day. The words were far more believable uttered in Jason’s husky, appreciative tone. Warmth tingled through her. Although she’d managed to resist crying during the ceremony, now tears stung her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re here.” He’d been on the west coast all week and was supposed to have flown into Houston this evening, then make the drive home to Cupid’s Bow. They’d known he wouldn’t be able to make the ceremony on time and that he’d be dog-tired after traveling all day. He caught a tear on the pad of his thumb, his smile tender. “I hope this means you’re happy to see me and not upset that I crashed the party?” She swallowed, unable to articulate why she was so emotional. After all, she would have seen him tomorrow anyway. This was less than twenty-four hours of difference, a tiny blip in a decade and a half of marriage. But for him to have made this extra effort to be here with her tonight… She drank in the sight of him. “I forget sometimes how sexy you are in a suit and tie.” He had to wear them for work; when he was at home, he usually lived in an Aggies shirt and threadbare jeans. Come to think of it, he was pretty sexy in jeans, too. His grin turned wicked. “I know that look in your eye, Crys. It’s my favorite look in the world. But before I let you drag me back to your hotel room, how about that dance?” She rose from her chair feeling giddy and weightless. When was the last time they’d danced together? And when was the last time they’d stayed in a child-free hotel room? Anticipation rolled through her in glorious waves. To hell with resting her feet! She strapped her heels back on, wanting him to get the full effect of Crystal Walsh, glamorous matron of honor. His gaze swept from the curve of her calves slowly up her body. By the time he met her eyes again, desire had pooled inside her. “Sexy shoes,” he said approvingly. She would have made a joke about leaving them on later, but she could barely find her voice. Instead, she let him lead her onto the dance floor. She closed her eyes, rested her head against the familiar planes of his chest and moved with him instinctively. The music was irrelevant; they created their own rhythm. “Crys?” His voice was hesitant. “I want to tell you something. I’d wait until we’re alone, but…we might be too preoccupied to talk.” She nodded enthusiastically. “Talking’s overrated.” He chuckled, but a moment later his expression turned serious. “All these business trips I’ve been taking? I hate them. I hate being away from you and the kids. I’ve made an appointment for a meeting with my boss on Monday and, if you don’t object, I want to transfer out of sales into an opening in our training department. The base salary’s pretty much the same, but I’ll lose what I make in commissions. Still, I think we can handle it. There’s that money in savings from the mineral rights lease of my parents’ land, and—” “We’ll handle it,” she promised. “Whatever it takes, we’ll make it work.” Emotion clogged her throat. “I have missed you so much.” He squeezed her tightly. “You, too. So very much.” When the song ended, the DJ announced that it was time for an Irish folk dance, performed by the bride and groom and three other couples who’d been practicing. Everyone else cleared the floor. Crystal stood on the side, with Jason’s arms wrapped around her, watching with all the other onlookers. But her husband took the opportunity of everyone looking elsewhere to trail teasing kisses along the slope of her neck. It was growing impossible to concentrate on anything else. After the set, she gathered her wits enough to applaud with the rest of the guests. Bridget came toward her, cheeks flushed with exertion and joy. Her eyes widened at the sight of Crystal’s husband. “Jason! You made it.” “I just got here a few minutes ago.” He ducked his gaze, tone rueful. “I’m afraid I’m pretty much dead on my feet, so we probably won’t stay much longer. But I wanted to congratulate you two.” Bridget hugged him. “Thank you.” They chatted for a few minutes as Sean went to get her a glass of water. “In case you guys leave before I see you again, thank you both so much for sharing in our day and being such an inspiration. Have a safe trip back to Cupid’s Bow! We plan to make it to town for the Watermelon Festival, so maybe we’ll see you this summer.” “We look forward to it,” Jason said, politely smothering a yawn. His shoulders drooped with exhaustion. Once they were alone again, Crystal raised an eyebrow, recalling that her husband had once been the lead in the high school play. “Just how tired are you?” He straightened, winking at her. “Suddenly I feel rejuvenated. It’s a St. Patrick’s Day miracle! But maybe you should get me to bed…just in case?” Hell, yes. They clasped hands and exchanged conspiratorial smiles as they hurried toward the exit. Bridget’s right. I truly am lucky in love. * * * * You can revisit Crystal and meet many more inhabitants of Cupid’s Bow, Texas, in Tanya’s August 2015 book Falling for the Sheriff (Harlequin American Romance). Award-winning author Tanya Michaels considers herself incredibly lucky—she’s married to a supportive man with a wicked sense of humor, she’s raising two bright and feisty kids and she’s fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a writer. Her next book is the steamy mistaken-identity romance Good with His Hands, available April 2015 from Harlequin Blaze. For more about Tanya and her books, please follow her on Twitter. One Magic Kiss By Jeanne Adams Boston, Massachusetts The Clonroad Public House rocked. Literally. The house band, Myriad, was playing full-out, complete with hammering Irish drums, bodrans and the manic wail of dueling fiddles. It was nearly midnight on St. Patrick’s Day. Sheila Connolly’s feet flew through the complex dance patterns as she laughed with breathless abandon. Her BFF, CeCe, was onstage with a bodran. Her other bestie, Peri, up-and-coming star, was singing in Irish with the band’s lead. Even Mike, CeCe’s deliciously gorgeous uncle, who owned Clonroad and tended the bar, was onstage showing off his musical talent, working drums. It was a full-on Irish night. Everyone was in green, and celebrating. A bit wistful at being on the dance floor rather than the stage, Sheila was nevertheless in the spirit of the evening. There was nothing like an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day for your birthday. Sheila executed the last complex step as the song wrapped, and she caught Mike’s eye. His look was hot and speculative. She flushed and stumbled as the song concluded and the whole bar erupted into thunderous applause. Recovering, Sheila laughed like a loon as her octogenarian partner spun her one last time just for fun. She kissed his cheek and wove, still laughing, to their table. The huge wooden trestle near the dance floor held a massive sheet cake with green icing shamrocks and a tri-fold rainbow leading to three fat pots of gold on its smooth sugary surface. It was their birthday cake, Sheila, Peri and CeCe’s, even though they’d share it with all the patrons. This year, Peri would cut the cake. They’d blow out the candles together, but only one would cut the cake. They’d discovered that the person who cut the cake had a major life or career breakthrough, so they made sure to rotate the luck. Peri was poised on the cusp of blockbuster stardom, so Sheila knew it was going to be a brilliant year for her best friend. Next year would be Sheila’s turn. It really was absurd to think of huge breakthroughs in her humdrum life, but she easily imagined it for Peri and CeCe. CeCe was so dynamic, it seemed like the world turned just for her. Last year’s luck for CeCe had been a fabulous promotion, then a surprise interview, with a bigger, better company. “So it’ll be thunder snow for ye this year, Sheila!” the giggling barmaid declared as she set a fresh pitcher of green beer next to the cake. “Yay, thunder snow!” Sheila agreed happily, as she poured a beer. Boston’s record snowfall meant they’d followed a plow to the pub in Peri’s limo. It was a weird thing, but as they cut the cake at midnight every year, they’d get either a rainy rumble of thunder, or if it was cold and snowy, like this year, they’d get thunder snow. The ever-so-sexy Mike, owner and bartender extraordinaire, said it was the work of the Green Knights, celebrating his niece and her best friends, but Sheila always laughed that off. Mike had a deeply mystical bent for an otherwise practical man. It was as baffling as it was attractive. When CeCe, Peri and Sheila met in the principal’s office at in third grade, Mike had been there as well. He’d jumped to defend them on the playground. CeCe and Peri, their uniforms torn and their hair askew, as Sheila’s was, from the fracas, discovered their mutual birthday. Their first detention cemented their friendship. “Cake! Cake! Cake!” Peri chanted as she and CeCe arrived, glowing and gorgeous. “It’s time for CAKE!” “Uncle Mike!” CeCe called, urging her uncle – a mere three years older than the trio – to hurry. “C’mon! It’s time for cake!” “As if I would miss it,” he said, waving toward the bar. Another bartender hustled through the crush with a long, leather box. It was obviously old, the leather covered in gilt Celtic patterns. Mike set it carefully down and lifted the lid. He half-turned and his bare arm brushed hers. Sheila nearly gasped at the heat radiating from his muscled forearm, damp with perspiration from his work at the drums. He quickly shifted away, and Sheila’s heart jolted. He was so careful not to sit next to, or be alone with, her. She wasn’t sure where the easy camaraderie that marked their high school and college years had gone, replaced by this twitchy distance. He didn’t ask her to sing anymore, nor did he give her the easy hugs he bestowed on CeCe and Peri. “Hurry, Uncle Mike!” Peri urged, spinning and laughing as she balanced on impossibly high heels. “It’s nearly midnight!” “Hold on, girl. Candles first!” Mike said, striking a long fireplace match to light the twenty-eight candles on the cake. “Make a wish!” the patrons called. Along with Peri and CeCe, Sheila closed her eyes to do just that. I want to know what’s wrong between me and Mike, and how to mend it. The wish popped into her mind in a blink. It felt right so she opened her eyes, just in time to join her friends in blowing out the candles. “Hurrah!” everyone shouted, and toasts were drunk as Mike handed Peri the silver cake knife. It looked more like a dagger and glowed with a soft, aged patina. The emeralds in the handle winked in the pub’s low light. Peri raised it with a flourish. Sheila moved to give Peri room as the crowd shifted. That smashed Sheila against Mike just as Peri brought the blade swooping down. The enormous clock chimed the first stroke of midnight. The crowd shouted and surged, and Mike’s arms banded tighter to stabilize her. “Thanks,” she said, turning toward him as the blade bit into the icing. The lights flickered wildly. Overhead, as always, came the rumble of thunder. Sheila barely heard it. She was crushed in Mike’s arms, his mouth mere inches from hers. Thunder hammered again and the lights went out. In a moment of delirium – it couldn’t be anything else – Sheila leaned in and kissed him. The thunderous sound now was Mike’s growl. His mouth claimed hers so fiercely, with such wild abandon, that time stood still. Cocooned in the velvet darkness and the press of people, Sheila and Mike stopped time as the shackles on their attraction shattered. Her hands slid into his hair, his dropped to pull her hard against him. Their tongues danced, a heated, fast, and powerful exchange. Sheila never wanted it to end. She wanted more. She wanted every bit of this fierce power which blasted ferociously between them, into them, around them. The lights flickered and she jolted. What would CeCe and Peri think? What would Mike think? She’d jumped him the minute the lights went out, but he hadn’t pushed her away. The laughter and applause as the lights steadied covered her as she struggled to steady herself. What in the hell had just happened? She glanced at Mike. He looked thunderstruck. “Who wants cake?” Peri said, poised to serve the first slice. “Me!” CeCe yelled. Had she seen Sheila plastered against her uncle? Sheila’s lips still vibrated from a kiss that had lasted ten minutes in a mere ten seconds. Peri dished cake onto their special plates, but it wasn’t until she turned to Sheila that she noticed anything. “Here you go, birthday girl!” Peri said, handing Sheila a plate. She then looked at Mike. “Want some cake, Uncle Mike?” “Sure, Peri-girl,” he rumbled, and Sheila felt the bass-note of his voice vibrate from her shoulders to her toes. The beast within roared, making every nerve scream for more contact, more heat. Her belly clenched as he moved away. Cool air rushed between them and she felt bereft. “Mike?” Sheila whispered. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have,” he said, low enough that it carried only to her. “It’s okay.” “It’s not,” he denied. His gaze shifted as he took a plate from Peri. “Thank you, m’darlin’” he drawled, affecting a brogue. Peri’s smile faltered as she sensed the tension. Not wanting the scrutiny, Sheila faked a grin. “Listen to him, tryin’ to sound Irish.” “Everyone does, on St. Paddy’s Day!” a patron next to her giggled. “Don’t ya know?” Peri raised a questioning eyebrow, but Sheila shook her head. Nothing to discuss, obviously, given Mike’s reaction. “And here’s himself,” a woman said, her accent authentic. She sidled to Mike and slipped an arm around him. “Sure as rain, he’s a stud, isn’t he?” she purred, slanting a glance at Sheila. Mike looked annoyed, but his arm, which slid around the sensuous blonde, told a different story. Embarrassed, Sheila blushed, but she lifted her chin and said, “For some, I guess.” It was catty, and Mike’s eyes narrowed. “There,” the blonde said with a tinkling laugh. “You’ve been put in your place, cousin. Now buy me a round, before the night’s gone.” The blonde tugged Mike toward the bar. Cousin? Pretending not to watch them go, Sheila forced a smile. It was her birthday, with her best friends, her true heart’s sisters. Nothing else mattered. Not what happened – she’d blame it on that Green Magic Mike always talked about – or the blonde cousin, or anything. It was a night to celebrate life and birthdays and Peri’s luck. So she did. People laughed and talked, but the crowd barely thinned as “last call” came and went. “You two ready?” Peri asked as the servers whisked away the last of the cake. These pieces had the pots of gold, with each pot having an initial on it. They always took those pieces home, to have the next day. “I’m ready!” CeCe caroled, spinning on sparkly, emerald-green shoes. She snickered, tapping the heels together. “No place like home, no place like home.” Peri snorted a laugh. “One day that’s going to work and you’re going to disappear in a blast of smoke and lightning.” They all laughed at that. Sheila decided it could totally happen to CeCe. Peri was glamorous, CeCe was dynamic. What was she? “I have to go to the Ladies before we head out,” Sheila said, suddenly depressed. She needed to pull herself together. These were her friends. They loved her. They would never leave her out or leave her behind. But for just a moment... Sheila hurried down the dark, paneled hall to the ladies room. Washing her hands, she looked in the mirror. The beautiful carved vines in the mirror frame seemed to rustle. “Whoa, I am officially overserved,” she declared. The words echoed and the silver-etched triskelions in the tile twinkled like a laugh. “And out of my league.” She looked back at the mirror. Green eyes. Auburn-ish hair. Boring. She shook her head. “No. I’m better than average. It’s time I figured out what I am instead of focusing on what I’m not.” As the words came out of her mouth, she felt their power. YES. This year she would figure it out. And next year when she cut the cake? She’d be ready. With a decisive nod, she marched out of the bathroom. She’d taken two strides down the hallway when the door to the barroom’s hidden “snug” – the secret room used for things best kept away from the main bar – opened. A burly arm snaked out and pulled her into the dimly lit room and the door shut with a soft, heavy, whump. “The woman’s my cousin, not my keeper.” Mike’s rasp ran the best kind of shivers up her spine. “We’ve a few things to discuss, lady-o, so don’t think you’ll be going just yet.” Sheila smiled. It was the start of a bold new year. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” * * * * Jeanne Adams knows about magic, and she knows about getting rid of the evidence. She spent 13 years in the funeral and cemetery business, and not only has she driven the hearse, she knows how to operate the backhoe. All this and a LOT of time in cemeteries have given her a great background for writing suspense, and believing in and reading about magic for so many years has honed her skills for the paranormal as well. A multi-published author of award-winning Romantic Suspense and Urban Fantasy, she’s published traditionally by Kensington/Zebra, and is also independently published. Her books can be found on most of the major online retailers. Visit Jeanne’s website at www.JeanneAdams.com. Green Beer and Shenanigans By Sally Kilpatrick “I bet you five dollars you can’t make Greg Gates smile,” Bill said. He had leaned over the scarred counter as best he could to whisper to me. The Fountain had more visitors than usual because it was Saint Patrick’s Day, otherwise known as a new and novel excuse to get out and drink. After all, a person could get green beer only one day a year, right? “I’ll take that bet,” I said as I studied Greg. “Sucker,” muttered Bill. He didn’t like any part of this day except the extra revenue. Saint Patrick’s Day meant using plastic cups instead of handing over long necks. It also meant he had to take the time to put a few drops of green food coloring at the bottom of the cup before he poured in the beer. Since they were red Solo cups, it almost felt more like Christmas than Saint Patty’s. Thanks to an unintentional heart to heart with Goat Cheese last year, I knew Greg’s story. His father had been part of a freak drag racing accident on Saint Patrick’s Day five years ago. He’d lost his favorite aunt that same day the next year. Last year it had been his prize coonhound. Poor Greg had a lot of reasons to hate Saint Patrick’s Day, and he’d taken to sitting it out in The Fountain while surrounded by people too drunk to see how sad he was. And this year his brother Pete wasn’t with him. Maybe it was time to make Saint Patrick’s Day a happier one for Greg. I looked around the bar for someone, anyone to help me in my endeavor. My eyes stopped on Yolanda DeWitt and something just clicked. She was the opposite of Greg in every way and that had to make her perfect, right? Where Greg was blond and prone to freckles and sunburns, Yolanda was a brunette with olive skin. He was rail thin. She was voluptuous and not afraid to show it. While Greg was hard pressed to say fifty words a day, Yolanda could talk your ear off. Well, in the past she’d been chatty and not afraid to show her curves. At the moment she was wearing a tee shirt and sweat pants, slumped in the corner and sniffling. She did this every other weekend when she had to let her kids stay with her ex. Randall DeWitt was a first class son of a bitch, and Yolanda needed someone like Greg just as much as Greg needed someone like her. The cogs and the wheels in my brain started turning, but it was time for me to play piano for a while. I played a little U2 then had to liven things up with something not so Irish. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I had precisely five Irish songs in my repertoire—and they were all pretty slow. I did a little “Whiskey in the Jar” and launched into “Friends in Low Places” to get everyone’s attention again. By that time I had formulated a plan. At my next break I sidled up to the bar despite the crowd. “Bill, I need two green beers. Put it on my tab.” I took both beers to Yolanda. “Come with me. I think you and Greg Gates need to drown your sorrows together.” “Not a good idea, Beulah,” she said. “It’s not a good idea. It’s an awesome idea.” I nodded my head in Greg’s direction and she took one of the beers and headed in that direction. Now here was going to be the tricky part. “Beer on the house,” I said as I set the other beer in front of Greg. I gauged the distance between the pool table and the table where Greg sat. Yolanda stood there, still not knowing why. Chad Bettis had rounded the table to take a shot. Oh, this would be perfect. I dropped my phone. “How clumsy of me,” I said in a loud voice and bent to pick it up. As I made a production of bending over, Chad turned around to see my cleavage just as I’d known he would. As he turned, the pool cue smacked into Yolanda and spilled green beer down her white shirt. She shrieked, and the whole place went quiet, waiting to see if she would smack Chad. “I’m so sorry, Yolanda, it was an accident. Promise.” “Greg, loan poor Yolanda your shirt. I can see you have on an undershirt.” He unbuttoned his flannel shirt and handed it to Yolanda, who only paused a minute before disappearing to the tiny bathroom in the back. And that should take care of that. She’d left her beer at his table and would have to see him another time in the future to return his shirt. They would chat and eventually coax a smile out of each other. So what if I’d cracked the screen on my phone? It was all for a good cause. Back to the piano I went to make up an Irish drinking song Whose Line Is It Anyway? style. My song detailed many of The Fountain patrons. They were getting rowdier by the moment—except for Yolanda and Greg, who were sitting side by side looking straight ahead nervously. As I finished crooning “Danny Boy,” Yolanda stood and grabbed her purse. Oh, no. I wasn’t going to crack my phone and lose a five-dollar bet. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So I launched into “Red Solo Cup.” That ridiculous song helped me in three ways. One, everyone sang along raucously and they were drunk enough they kept singing the chorus when they ran out of verses. Two, I got to leave the piano for this one. Three, Yolanda wouldn’t be able to find her way out yet thanks to the crowd. I crossed the stage and squeezed out the door. No one even realized I was gone because they were so busy singing a love song to their red Solo cups full of green beer. Outside, I quickly spotted Yolanda’s car. She was the only one in town who had a pink PT Cruiser. “I hope Yolanda forgives me for this one,” I muttered. Thanks to an ill-advised relationship with a delinquent who could not be named, I knew how to break into a car. I didn’t need to, though, because Yolanda had forgotten to lock her door. I popped the trunk, hoping “Red Solo Cup” would continue to hold the crowd’s attention. With a little help from the tweezers in my Swiss Army knife, I had liberated a certain fuse from the fuse box. Quickly, I put everything back in order and sneaked back into the bar. Man, I hoped I nabbed the right fuse. It was hard to see with only the security light on. From an ode to plastic cups to “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” and everyone settled down enough for Yolanda to leave. By the time I hit the fourth verse, I was beginning to think I’d pulled the wrong fuse. At least Greg was staring at the door, his face more pensive than sad or angry now. And Yolanda reappeared just as I finished singing. While she was on the old rotary phone by the door, I slipped off the stage and pressed the fuse into Greg Gates’ hand. “She’s going to need this.” His eyes jerked to mine. I shrugged. “Go on.” For a minute, I thought he was angry with me, but then his face broke into a beautiful grin. “Beulah Land, you are no good.” I held a finger to my lips and backed away as he crossed the room to talk to Yolanda, slipping the fuse into his pocket as he went. If he were a smart man, he’d see if he could take her home tonight and be the hero who fixed her car tomorrow. I walked to the bar just as much to get a drink as to see what happened between my potential lovebirds. Bill laid a crumpled five in front of me. “Keep it. I think I owe you that for the two beers.” “Put it in your tip jar,” he said as he went through his ritual of food coloring and beer. “Kinda looks like Christmas,” I said as I looked down at the green beer in the red cup. “Yeah, but you’re playing Cupid,” he said. I took a long pull of the beer. It tasted funny even though it shouldn’t. My next beer would not be green. “I’m more of a leprechaun,” I said. He pulled on his suspenders. “You do like your shenanigans.” I couldn’t help but grin. “Shenanigans” was just a fun word to say. “When are you going to find yourself someone special?” Bill asked. That took my grin away in a hurry. I thought back to Christmas when John the Baptist had come through and shot me down. “Bill, I don’t have time for that kind of mess.” “Well, love tends to sneak up on you when you least expect it.” “Yeah, but I’m a matchmaking leprechaun,” I said. “Love can’t get the jump on me.” “Oh, you’ll have your day, Beulah Land. You just wait and see.” I raised my glass to Bill and took my cup back to the piano. I told myself that girls like me didn’t find a love like that, but a flutter of anticipation sat in the pit of my belly nonetheless. * * * * Sally Kilpatrick lives in Marietta with her husband, Ryan, and her two children. Her debut novel, The Happy Hour Choir will be released by Kensington on April 28, 2015. The Happy Hour Choir won the Duel on the Delta, finaled in the Maggie Awards for Excellence and was a 2012 Golden Heart® finalist. Sally has two other novels coming down the pike—think Shakespeare with cows (Bittersweet Creek) and It’s a Wonderful Life in a funeral home (Giving up the Ghost, a 2013 Maggie finalist). She is also president of Georgia Romance Writers. www.sallykilpatrick.com The Ides By Nicki Salcedo Brad Vargas rolled his divorce papers until they looked like a scroll and slid them into his coat pocket. The last gust of winter pushed him through the red doors of the old pub. The town square was dark and quiet but the pub was warm with light and music. The women wore too tight green shirts adorned with phrases like “Kiss Me” and “Part Irish, All Trouble.” They smiled at him as he walked through the crowd. He forgot his scowl would be an invitation. To say he needed a drink would be an understatement, but he hesitated. He had one more job to do for the night. It was easy to spot the only sober Irishman in the place. Donovan sat at the bar with his back to the door. Vargas would have picked a different spot. One where he could see the door. One where he could track who came into the bar and who went out. Those things didn’t matter to Donovan anymore. He was as good as dead anyway, but not if Vargas could help it. He had a habit of saving the dead. Vargas approached the bar and sat down several seats away from his friend. His thumb reflexively touched the spot where his wedding band used to be. He couldn’t remember how long the ring had been gone, but the divorce papers made the absence seem fresh. Three years had passed since he’d last kissed his ex-wife. The separation was supposed to be temporary. The clock over the bar showed a quarter ‘til midnight. Vargas was used to waiting. “How long you been here, Donovan?” he asked. His friend didn’t look at the time but said, “Four hours.” He ran his hand over his newly shaved head. “What happened to your hair? You going back to the prison look?” “They were shaving heads for charity earlier. Kids with cancer. I gave them my hair and ten thousand dollars. Not bad for an ex-con.” Vargas knew that Donovan wouldn’t like compliments, so he sat silently and stared at the array of whiskey bottles behind the counter. He wondered how many men tried to erase memories by drinking from those bottles. He turned to face the Irishman. “Donovan, what do you need me to do?” Vargas asked. “Two things. First, I’m J.D. now. Don’t call me Donovan anymore. No first name, no middle name, no last name. Don’t call me Sapphire. You got that? Just J.D.” Vargas nodded in agreement. He noticed the two letters were tattooed inside of the man’s wrists like he’d gotten a degree in prison. “Second, I only need you to do one thing tonight. They’ll deliver the package soon. I don’t need your cop brain profiling whoever walks in the door. I don’t need you chasing anyone down dark alleys. You are here for one reason. Make sure I don’t kill anyone.” Brad Vargas would have had Guinness any other night, but when the waitress paused at his booth he ordered a cerveza preparada. Bloody Mary mix and beer. He sat in the back corner of the pub. He could see the ladies playing pool next to him. He could see J.D. waiting for the drop. He could see the red front doors. The doors opened. A woman walked in the pub wearing an ivory wedding dress. The simple silk clung to her curves and stopped just short of her knees. She carried her heels in one hand and a bouquet of white roses in the other hand. She held the stems so that the flowers pointed toward the ground. She was in the wrong place, wrong time. The woman surveyed the crowd, but stopped when she saw Vargas. She approached the table, dropped her shoes on the floor, and put her wedding bouquet on the table. Vargas could see a single tear had dried on one of her cheeks. She turned to look at the clock and sighed. Her eyes looked tired not weepy. Whatever had happened to her, she hadn’t cried for long. She leaned in as she spoke, “You know what they say? Beware the Ides of March.” Sorcha Russell had avoided trouble every day of her life. Until this one. When she walked into the bar she was looking for a man. They told her he’d be sitting alone and they were right, he was easy to spot. His eyes were on her right away. As she grew closer she could see that his eyes were a delicate combination of green and gray. “A man in the parking lot just offered me two hundred dollars to kiss you.” “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. Sorcha like the way he leaned back. It made her feel a little bit powerful, and she’d never felt that way before. Her car sat booted two blocks away in front of the courthouse. She didn’t have the cash to get it unbooted. Her fiancé had been a no show at their wedding. She shed a single tear, not for his absence but because she was relieved when he didn’t arrive. She cried because the wedding had been her fiancé’s idea in the first place. She believed that if a man told you he loved you, he meant it. If he asked you to marry him, it’d be forever. She cried because she thought saying yes would make her life normal. Kissing a stranger seemed like a safer bet. The stranger smiled at her and pointed to a hulking man sitting at the bar. “I think that’s your target,” he said. She hadn’t noticed the other man. She shook her head. Which man was she supposed to kiss? The man sensed her moment of doubt and leaned forward. “Why don’t you tell me your name and who sent you in here?” “Sorcha Russell. I’m a Ph.D. student at Tech.” She pulled a white petal from the bouquet. “The guy was my height, maybe 5’10. Wearing a tweed flat cap and a deep maroon leather jacket. He had two infinity symbols tattooed on his neck. He noticed the boot on my car and said he would give me the money if I played a little joke on his friend in the bar. She put a hundred dollar bill between them. “He already gave me half the money. It’s late. I need my car. I will kiss your cheek and be on my way.” “Why’d you pick me? I just showed you I’m not the only single man in here on St. Patrick’s Day.” “It isn’t St. Patrick’s Day. I told you, it’s the Ides of March. St Patrick’s Day is on Tuesday. You were watching the door, and your drink is untouched. You don’t want to be here. There’s a concealed gun at your hip. You keep your hands on the table. I can tell that you’re a cop. You’re probably the safest person for me to kiss. My dad was a police officer. He was for thirty years. I know how cops breathe and how they watch. That’s why I picked you. I need the other hundred dollars to get my car.” “Fine. Then kiss me.” He shifted in the booth and offered her some space. She slid into the seat next to him. Her dress was not warm enough for the night’s chill and yet he could feel the warmth of her body. “I didn’t get your name,” she said as she pulled a white petal from the bouquet. “Bradley. You need a drink? You don’t have to kiss me.” Sorcha shook her head. He didn’t know if she was saying “no” about the drink or the kiss. Her hair was cropped short so it framed her face. She didn’t avert her eyes when she smiled up at him. “This is actually a better wedding night than I had planned.” Vargas shook his head. “I think it is going to be worse. Those guys who offered you money are not the kind of men nice young graduate students should socialize with, even in desperate situations. They are dangerous. So when the door opens, I’m going to kiss you and you aren’t going to panic or pull away.” The smile on her face died like kissing him was the last thing she wanted to do. Sorcha had been thinking of kissing the cop since she walked into the bar. His lips were welcoming. If he was tense, he didn’t store it in his face. There was a small scar on his lip. Maybe she was angry with her ex-finance. Maybe she was tired of having books and calculations for friends. Maybe she just wanted what any woman would want when seated next to an attractive man. A kiss. A gust of wind entered the bar and for a fleeting moment Brad’s eyes left hers. Then she felt his hand slide under her chin and around the base of her neck. “Come here. Open your mouth.” Sorcha instinctively put her hand on his chest as their lips touched. She hadn’t obeyed him, so he had to kiss her twice before she remembered his quiet voice. Don’t panic. Don’t pull away. Dangerous. She opened her mouth and let her tongue taste him. He tasted spicy and she remembered the Bloody Mary before him. She wondered what would happen if his hot mouth kissed her everywhere. She pulled away just enough to touch the scar on his lip. His eyes searched hers—that kind of tenderness wasn’t a part of the plan. Kiss him and leave. But the kiss didn’t end. Sorcha put a small kiss on his scar and pressed her body against him. His hand trailed from her nape to her hip. He pulled her close and their legs touched. Brad ended their kiss with an expletive. “You weren’t supposed to kiss me like that,” he whispered. His lips weren’t supposed to be so sweet. She bit her lip because her mouth was desperate to find his again. A hand slammed down another hundred dollar bill on the table between them. The guy with the infinity tattoos stood over them. He had a smile on his face. “Wrong guy. But nice show.” Brad tensed next to her. She stilled him by putting a hand on his knee. The bar was empty. J.D. was gone. She had no idea what she’d just done to him. Worse than betrayal. Worse than danger. She’d given him hope. Sorcha might come to regret this day. Vargas pulled out his business card and handed it to the beautiful siren at his side. “Get your car out of the boot and call me as soon as you get home. Make sure no one follows you. I’ve got to go find my friend and make sure he doesn’t do something stupid.” Sorcha picked up the money and her bouquet. He wondered if the kiss was worth the two hundred dollars. He took the white roses from her and put them back on the table. “Sometimes something good happens on the Ides of March,” Vargas said. “What’s that?” she asked. “Beginnings.” * * * * Nicki Salcedo is the author of All Beautiful Things. You can find out more about her and her work at http://www.nickisalcedo.com/ and connect with her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NickiSalcedo and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authornickisalcedo. A Gift from County Cork By Michelle Monkou Alyssa Meade sat at the end of the large dining table, wishing she was anywhere else, but in the Dalys’ luxurious home. Walking through the double door entrance came with a price. She paid with her dignity every time she crossed the threshold. Even the housekeeper peered down her long nose with the hostile air of a toll collector. The slights, blatant whisperings, and the outright disrespect described her experiences with the Daly family. She’d endured the behavior to be with her boyfriend, John—heir to the Daly fortune. To be clear, they dated for three years during university, before she’d met them, six months ago at their graduation. “Ah, my surprise guest has arrived.” Tessa, John’s mother, clapped her bejeweled hands. She wore her hair and clothes in tribute to her obsession of all things Grace Kelly. If Tessa could wear a tiara with the proper royal title as an attachment, she would consider it divinely ordained. A familiar svelte figure entered. Moira Kelly. The Moira Kelly, ex-college sweetheart of John. Alyssa scanned his face for a reaction. Shocked. That was good, maybe. Because the boulder-sized dread that settled in the pit of her stomach was about to ruin any thought of eating. Her cheeks burned as if she sat too close to a roaring fireplace. Her hands clenched and unclenched the napkin on her lap. “John, I was glad to hear that Moira was going to be around for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. We invited her to spend the week with us.” Tessa led Moira further into the room. “What?” John blurted, face turning red. Alyssa couldn’t hide her reaction. Moira had no problem showing hers. “We’ve spoken to her parents. It’s settled.” Tessa hugged Moira with all the warmth that she never mustered for Alyssa. “Please do not be rude and disappear while Moira is here.” His father spoke with the authority of one not used to being disobeyed. “Alyssa and I have plans.” John’s protest had the power of tepid tea. “She’s welcome to come along with us,” Moira said, as she took the seat that was left empty for her—next to John. Blatantly, she rested her hand over his. He moved his hand, eventually. The small hesitation triggered the need to rush to the bathroom. While the flurry of servants and food made its way to the guests, Alyssa tossed the napkin to the table. “Would you pardon me, please?” She hopped up and rushed from the room. A splash of cold water on her face helped the nausea. “Alyssa, are you all right?” John called through the door. She checked the door to make sure it was locked. “Fine.” “I didn’t know Moira was coming.” “John, could I have my privacy, please?” She sat on the covered toilet lid, holding her forehead in her hands. No way she was going back in there. She clicked on Facetime for her best friend. As soon as Deaglan answered, Alyssa unloaded all the sordid details. “I know it’s not the time for I told you so, but John is a nutsack without the nut. You’ll never be good enough, Irish enough, and wealthy enough for their treasured prince.” “I called for you to make me feel better.” Alyssa winced at the truths. “Then, get out of there.” “And go where? I’m out in the middle of nowhere.” “I’m here, Alyssa. Outside. I had an inkling that you may need me before the night was over.” She sprang up and unlocked the door, ready to race down the hallway with her shoes in hand. “Alyssa! Where are you going?” John blocked her exit. “I’m leaving.” She laughed as the realization hit. “I’m leaving you and your fake aristocracy. You pretend to care about me, but that’s when your father isn’t around to lead you by the nose or until your mother reminds you that you shouldn’t. But I was the bigger fool for letting you treat me this way. Being Irish is more than singing drinking songs when you’re drunk. It’s more than puffing up over the history of your surname. And it’s more than worshipping a certain skin color as being truly Irish. If you ever grow up, you’ll realize what you’ve lost today.” She pushed him aside and walked out the door. At the end of the steps, a familiar black sports car was parked. She smiled when Deaglan emerged to aid with her escape. Like a glass of cold water on a hot day, his presence was refreshing and a necessity. “Where are we going?” She asked once she snapped in the seatbelt. “Trust me?” She snorted. Deaglan was one of the first people she met at Trinity College Dublin when she’d arrived from Montserrat and was hit with culture shock and homesickness. They’d collided in the hallway as she tried to determine where her next class was. He’d explained where she needed to go, even volunteering to escort her. They’d shared a history class that first year, which helped to solidify the friendship. They’d been close ever since, until John entered the picture. Then, he’d eclipsed everyone else out of her life. “You’ve got a week off, right?” Deaglan asked. “Yeah.” “And you’re ready to take a break from the prince of nimrod?” “Definitely.” “Then sit back and enjoy.” Alyssa wasn’t in the mood to enjoy anything, but she appreciated Deaglan’s impulsive nature. She remembered meeting John for the first time when she worked the information booth for the Red Cross. He’d complimented her accent, as he tried to place its origin. But most people rarely got it right. After a couple tries, she told him about Montserrat in the Caribbean. Attractive and popular, John had enough charm and good looks to stand out among the students. On campus his personality was alive and fun. They’d grown intimate, without growing close. He never talked about his family. As long as she didn’t dig, they could share any other detail of their lives. She never challenged his reluctance until graduation, when the “what’s next?” question became an issue between them. Why couldn’t she meet his parents? “You deserve better, Alyssa.” Deaglan stroked her hair, tracing its path behind her ear. “You’re so kind.” He snorted. “Kind? I don’t want to be just kind.” “But you are. Always have been. Instead, I have treated you… I suck.” She groaned with embarrassment. “From this day forward, I promise not to be a whiny, needy parasite.” “Oh, my friend…whiny and needy….maybe. But parasite…never.” He picked up her hand and kissed the top. His laughter rang out in the car. Alyssa always had dismissed her feelings of Deaglan. He was like a brother—that’s what she kept telling herself. Too kind, too helpful, too friendly and available whenever she needed him. Dependable wasn’t supposed to be sexy. Yet, she did find Deaglan’s good nature, not only sexy, but comforting. Giving up any part of her soul wasn’t a part of the equation when it came to her lanky best friend. “We’re at the airport.” Alyssa looked over at Deaglan. “And we’re boarding a plane.” “We are going…?” “Home.” There really wasn’t time for much discussion as she raced after his long strides through the airport. “I bought tickets to Montserrat for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Figured you needed to be around family and friends right about now.” He tilted up her chin and hypnotized her with his crisp blue eyes. “Let’s go celebrate being Irish in style.” “Why can’t I have normal friends? I’m not a charity case.” She stepped away from him, and from the temptation to rely on his friendship. “Charity is the last thing on my mind, woman.” Alyssa swallowed. Now her cheeks warmed, but not in anger. Not at all. He held out his hand. “Let’s go.” Alyssa didn’t have to worry about what she’d talk about with Deaglan. Or how she would control the emergence of hidden emotions? Once the plane hit the right altitude, however, she rested her head against his shoulder and slept. “Hey,” she mumbled, stirring in her seat. “How much longer?” “About an hour.” “Sorry, I zonked out on you.” “Figured you needed to rest.” She nodded. Of course, Deaglan knew about the last few days as she and John bickered about meeting his family, about her staying there and where they were headed. The plane landed at the John Osborne Airport. After her passport was stamped with the green shamrock, she was officially home in Montserrat. “Did you book a hotel?” Alyssa only now thought of the logistics. “Why? Are you not going home?” Deaglan answered with a small smile. “Yes. But…well, you?” Her family’s home was a modest three-bedroom. She wasn’t ashamed of her home, but knew that Deaglan would prefer staying at one of the high-end hotels. “Your father invited me to stay. Your mother insisted that I stay. And there is no ex to be invited…I asked.” Alyssa punched him in the arm. “I really like you. Where have you been all my life?” “On the shelf waiting for you to pick me.” They kissed, for the first time, their lips were intimate. No hesitation. No doubts. Nothing to interfere with the pure joy that she had finally listened to her heart. She could stop fighting with the reality that she loved Deglan Callaghan. The week-long celebration of St. Patrick’s Day had a long history in Montserrat. Alyssa remembered the rich stories, embellished with their own storytelling flair shared by her mother and family friends. Everyone tried to outdo the other. Now the stories had a haunting one of loss and resilience after the massive volcanic eruptions almost twenty years ago ripped through the southern half of the island. Many families were gone now, resurrecting lives elsewhere. The rest of the population dug in and moved on with their lives, touting their stubbornness to the likes of their Irish ancestors from County Cork who found freedom in the seventeenth century. Alyssa sighed. She’d enjoy her time here before heading back to Ireland to continue her dreams. “How are your feet?” Deaglan flexed his own, wincing from the effort. “I haven’t been in a parade since I was a small child. Mom would dress me up in my green tartan.” I’ll show you the pictures when we get home. “We’d sing and dance to the music.” All her memories felt so bittersweet, as if she was closing a door on a favorite friend. But when she looked at Deaglan, she only saw her future. “Here’s ya pint, sweetheart.” A woman full of smiles set down their drinks. “I’m Shirley.” “Hi Shirley. Slainte.” Alyssa accepted the Guinness and took a long drink. She smacked her lips, loving the cool bitterness going down her throat. “You are looking intense.” Deaglan sipped on his pint. Alyssa looked around at the patrons also enjoying their drink at the popular Monkey Bar. From where she sat, she could see Nevis across the Bay. “I wonder about the trek that my Irish family made to this Emerald Isle. What did they think when they landed and so many Arawak and Carib people were already part of the fabric of the island? Were they scared?” “Well, they certainly knew how to populate?” They laughed, since so many families still had Irish surnames and the villages and other national emblems carried the Irish influence. “Chile, you’re back to your home?” Shirley drifted closer, overhearing their conversation. “That is a special thing to do. Honoring your past.” Alyssa nodded, enjoying the familiar lilt of the woman’s friendly conversation. “And this is your young man? What’s your name, handsome?” “Deaglan Callaghan.” “Listen to you. We have an Irish man in our midst.” The bar cheered, Guinness sloshing over the glasses onto the table and floors. Nothing mattered. At home, with her best friend celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, everything would be all right. May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go. ~Irish Blessing

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