Authors: Marina Adair
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Single Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Series
by marina adair
Heroes of St. Helena series
Need You for Keeps
St. Helena Vineyard series
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Summer in Napa
Autumn in the Vineyard
Be Mine Forever
From the Moment We Met
Sugar, Georgia series
Sugar’s Twice as Sweet
Sugar on Top
A Taste of Sugar
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Marina Adair
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant / SOS CREATIVE LLC
To all of the men and women who put their lives in harm’s way to protect our freedoms.
You are the real heroes.
ou need to get laid,” Emerson Blake explained to the line of uniformed soldiers funneling off the party bus and into the St. Helena VFW dance hall.
She’d always had a thing for a man in uniform. It was something about the way they perpetually looked ready—for anything—that had her happy spots singing.
But there was no singing to be had, not today anyway, because these men and these uniforms smelled like mothballs. And the lei in question? That had more to do with the bundle of flowered necklaces in her hand than belting out a hearty “Oh My” anthem. Not to mention her body hadn’t so much as hummed in months and she had no idea why.
Okay, so she had a pretty good idea why, but that would be fodder for thought for another rainy day.
rainy day was to be spent catering to the few hundred seniors who had come out in support of the Veterans of Foreign Wars monthly wartime mixer.
With an open bar, live band, and Copacabana theme, the turnout was bigger than Emerson had anticipated, or prepped for. Heroes from every one of the past five wars were present, which meant that every single silver-haired lady over sixty was there, ready to be seen and heard. Including Mother Nature herself, who sent Emerson a
you can suck it
reminder from the universe in the form of an icy blast of wind that blew into the dance hall—and up Emerson’s grass skirt.
“Have you been lei’d?” she asked the first man in line.
“Not since I was stationed at Pearl Harbor,” retired gunnery sergeant Carl Dabney said, waggling a bushy brow. “So don’t try to give me one of them no-salt-allowed yellow leis. I want a pink one.”
“If I give you a pink one, you’ll go home in an ambulance,” Emerson said, handing him a yellow one. The old man refused to take it.
“If I can’t have any salt, what kind of message is that sending to the ladies standing at the salsa bar?”
“That you have high blood pressure?”
“That I’m a pansy,
hashtag real men wear pink
!” Carl was in his early nineties, carried a cane and a gun at all times, and was a regular customer at Emerson’s food cart in town. He’d also, according to Emerson’s little medical printout, compliments of Valley Vintage Senior Community, survived three wars, two triple bypasses, and a stroke—which made him far from a pansy. It also meant he was stubborn enough to beat death.
Too bad for him, death didn’t have anything on Emerson.
“Yellow means low sodium,” she explained, and Carl snorted as though he could take on sodium and the entire periodic table without even dropping his cane. “I can always give you a white one.”
He looked the white lei over carefully. “What does that one get me?”
“Low sodium, low fat, and if I see you with alcohol anywhere near your person, silver star or not, I get to kick you out. No refund.”
He wasn’t sold. And wasn’t that just great. With three years of the finest culinary training Paris had to offer and five generations of family recipes in her arsenal, Emerson should have been well on her way to cementing herself as a serious contender in the world of Greek cuisine. Yet here she was, still in her small hometown of St. Helena, California, the entire fate of her career—and her reputation—hinging on her ability to corral disgruntled seniors while wearing a pair of coconut shells.
Because when your mother’s ALS goes nuclear five months before graduation and you forgo finishing culinary school to take care of her, shells are bound to happen. Not that she regretted one second of it, but after her mother’s death nearly two years ago, the rebound had been brutal—on everyone. Unable to ignore what her family needed, Emerson had given up her dream of finishing school to help with the aftermath, to be there for her sister, Violet, who had only been four at the time, and her father, who had lost his best friend.
Emerson had become the family glue, and she was okay with that—most days. But today she needed things to go her way.
Not that catering the VFW’s monthly mixer was the most glamorous job Emerson would have asked for. In fact, she hadn’t asked for it at all, but they’d been desperate for a caterer who wouldn’t mind getting into costume, and Emerson wanted to take her business to the next level.
Eighteen months ago, after realizing the only position open in wine country for a chef lacking the right pedigree was a line cook, Emerson had taken the money her mother had left her and bought a food cart and food license. It gave her the chance to cook the kind of cuisine she was passionate about, authentic Greek street food, and gave her the illusion she was in control of her own life.
Which she so wasn’t.
Illusions could be dangerous, and Emerson knew that better than most. But even though she’d accepted that life didn’t always play fair and dreams died, every day for everyone, she was determined to keep this one alive. Determined to make her mother proud—make their dream of a Greek streatery fleet a reality and in turn make her mark in the culinary world.
So the Pita Peddler was a cart and not quite the pimped-out food truck they had dreamed of. So what? It was a start. A small one, but a start nonetheless.
Food doesn’t have to be pretentious to be delectable, it just has to have heart.
That had been her mom’s motto. One that Emerson tried to embrace. She had delectable down, but she wasn’t sure she had enough faith left in love to nail the last part. But she was trying.
So no one was more surprised than she was when her “little pita cart” had turned out to make serious dough—and fast. Dough that had risen and doubled in size, and now this year Emerson had bigger plans. Plans that needed the extra two grand this VFW event would bring her. If catering the occasional kid’s birthday or wearing humiliating costumes meant upgrading her food cart to a twenty-seven-foot custom-designed gourmet food truck with Sub-Zero fridge and freezer, dual fryers, four burners, a Tornado speed-cook oven, and a twelve-thousand-watt diesel generator all wrapped in Pita Peddler Streatery vinyl—then she’d shell up.
Emerson handed out a few more leis, ignoring the goose bumps covering every inch of her bare skin—which was nearly all of her inches. Behind her, the wind picked up, scattering a thin sheet of water over the marble floor of the entry to the dance hall, her leis whipping her in the face. Outside, the late-autumn storm continued to pound the sidewalk, bending the branches of the maples that lined Main Street and rushing down the already full gutters.
No wonder it was so packed inside. With the potted palm trees, pineapple party mugs, and bottomless-mai-tai bar, it was like a tropical paradise in the middle of an arctic typhoon.
Double-checking to make sure all essential body parts were securely tucked in, Emerson took a deep, humbling breath and held up the yellow lei again to Carl. “At least with this you can do some body shots off Ms. Beamon.”
Carl peered through the door at Ida Beamon, owner of the local wine bar Cork’d N Dipped, who was already inside and standing by the bar. Dressed in a blue-and-white-striped sailor’s dress and red flats, she looked like a one-woman USO. She was also wearing a yellow lei. “You think she’s packing tonight?”
“I heard in the ladies’ room that she swapped out her holster for a garter belt and she’s looking to score.” Emerson wiggled the yellow flowers again. “Last chance.”
He looked at the lei and frowned. “Real men wear—”
“Pink, yeah, yeah,” Emerson cut in, then looked at the large group of seniors still waiting to be checked in and sighed. It was only a matter of time before a riot broke out, and if Carl kept yammering on, it would only get worse. She’d seen it happen too many times with her sister’s Lady Bug troop—one bad bug could lead to an angry swarm.
Time to get tough. “You can either take Ms. Beamon on a twirl around the dance floor or have me escort you out. Your choice.”
Carl studied the yellow lei thoroughly, then sized Emerson up, most likely to see if he could take her. She flexed her guns and narrowed her eyes. “Remember when your grandson Colt came home with a busted face senior year? That was me. And I was only a seventh grader.”
She might be small but she was scrappy.
With a resigned sigh,
, he gave the lei one last skeptical glare. “If I promise no salt, do I have to wear that?”
“Rules are rules.” Emerson leaned in close—real close. Close enough that Carl could see the seriousness in her eyes, and if that didn’t work, she hoped he’d be too distracted by her coconut shells to argue. And wasn’t that a man for you—one well-calculated breath and his eyes glazed over, his mouth snapped shut, and he stopped yammering. “You got to get lei’d before you can do a body shot, Carl.”
“Not much point in body shots if I can’t salt her up first,” Carl grumbled, but he took the lei anyway, dropping his twenty on the table before hobbling off.
One down, fifty to go
, she thought, taking in the still-growing crowd.
“With rules like that, I’m glad I came.” A cocky but oh-so-sexy chuckle came from beside her.
Emerson closed her eyes. It didn’t help. She could still feel the weight of an intense, masculine, and very amused gaze as her whole body instantly heated and—
Because it wasn’t just any low, husky chuckle. It was the same panty-melting chuckle from her past that had spurred her every teen fantasy. In her more recent past, say, oh, five months ago, it had whispered wicked promises in her ear.
Promises that took an entire night to fulfill and five months to forget. Not that she’d forgotten. Far from it. But she’d tried.
Never one to run from her past, or anything, for that matter, Emerson opened her eyes and—
sweet baby Jesus
—the wry amusement and combustible heat in those dark blue pools made her knees go weak. And
pissed Emerson off. More than the wet grass skirt that was bleeding green dye down her legs.
Emerson didn’t do weak, not even for a guy who looked like Captain America, G.I. Joe, and an underwear model all wrapped up in a big, badassed army-of-one package.
Oh, Dax Baudouin wasn’t just insanely handsome. Handsome she could handle. He was also dark, inside and out, and dangerous in that mysterious way that tempted her even when she knew better. His body was massive—everywhere—and today it was soaked. All the way through.
Like he hadn’t bothered to get naked before showering.
His white button-up was wet around the collar and down his chest, the material translucent, clinging to his hard-cut upper body and hinting at the impressive collection of tattoos that were hidden beneath.
Great, now she was thinking about him naked. In her shower. His smirk said he knew it. Just what she needed, a little game of I’ve Seen You Naked to make her already humiliating day that much more so.
Clearly, karma was bitch-slapping her for her one transgression.
Then again, Dax Baudouin was one hell of a transgression to have, but she had known that the second she’d agreed to go back to his hotel room. He had been her first and only one-night stand, a no-panties-allowed kind of affair that had blown her mind. It had blown some other parts too, but she didn’t want to think about that here. Not with her goal of a gourmet food truck just in arm’s reach.
“Dax,” she said, forcing what she hoped was a professional and unaffected smile. He smiled back. It started as an amused twinkle in his eyes, then spread to his face and—
She was toast.
That was all it took: a single flash of those perfect teeth and her body started humming. There was no other word for what happened to her whenever he so much as shot a dimple her way. It was as if he jump-started her entire body—brought it to life.
His gaze took a long trip down her body and back up, the corners of that smile turning up farther, and Emerson could practically hear the gears turning in his head, trying to come up with the perfect smart-ass remark about her attire.
“Now back to those rules,” he said, inspecting the different-colored leis.
He laughed softly. “No? To getting laid or the drink?”
“No to both the lei and the drink.” To be as clear as possible, she added, “And no, you can’t mow my grass, put a lime in my coconut, or any other unoriginal comment you were going to say.”
“I’m very original.” He leaned forward, resting his hands on the table, which did amazing things to his biceps. “Creative, even.”
Didn’t she know it. “Why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be off in some war-torn country defending mankind from the supervillains of the world?”
“I’ve had four tours of the most recent foreign war, which automatically puts me on the list.” He leaned in. “I get a plus one, if you’re interested.”
“I’m good.” She crossed her arms and that made his grin grow.
“As for defending mankind from supervillains? Someone else is handling that today,” he said as though it would be just another day at the office. Emerson snorted.
As an army Ranger, Dax was a weapon of mass destruction in a sea of already lethal weapons, handpicked and trained by Uncle Sam to fight the battles that very few soldiers were equipped to fight. He’d been to some terrible places, seen the worst parts of human nature, yet he kept going back, his need to serve stronger than his fear of death. On the rare occasion when he wasn’t on supersecret missions or hiding out in caves, he lived in San Diego, a good nine hours south of St. Helena, which was why she’d agreed to the one-night stand to begin with.