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“Mo-om!” Mitchell wailed, embarrassed.
“Got it,” a rough male voice said behind her.
She turned, her face already hot. Maddox Palmer stood in line behind her, his hands steadying the box of candy dispensers and his hooded eyes amused.
Her mouth dried. Oh, no, she thought. She didn’t want to recognize the speeding of her heart or the flutter in her stomach. Feelings like that could turn on you. Men could turn on you.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted.
“No problem,” he said.
Mitchell was watching, his green eyes guarded. Growing up with the echoes and bumps-in-the-night that marked his parents’ marriage had made him sensitive to undertones.
She touched his forearm, hiding her own misgivings to reassure him. “My son, Mitchell. Mitchell, this is Mr. Palmer. He... I...” He shot that boy and the department fired him. “We went to school together,” she finished weakly.
Maddox nodded. “Hey.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mitchell mumbled politely.
Ann lifted a plastic gallon of milk onto the moving belt. “What are you doing here?”
Maddox grinned at her, that rare, invitation-to-trouble grin he’d turned on her in seventh grade, and she almost forgot to be afraid. “In the grocery store? Buying groceries.”
She glanced back at his cart. Beer, bread and cigarettes humped together with a roll of paper towels and a carton of orange juice. “You don’t eat much,” she observed.
“I can’t cook much.”
She smiled faintly. “That would explain the cereal and peanut butter.”
“I eat out a lot,” he said defensively.
“I imagine you have to.”
He shrugged. “Don’t you? Working in a restaurant and all.”
Val encouraged Ann to take her meals at Wild Thymes, but she resisted accepting charity. And she couldn’t afford anything else. She shook her head, letting her hair veil her expression. “I don’t work dinners very often. And I like to cook.”
“Yeah? What does she make?” he asked Mitchell.
Put on the spot, Mitchell shuffled. “Well...” R
ob would have snapped at her son to speak up. Maddox just waited, like one of those Catholic priests. Or a cop.
“Tacos,” Mitchell managed to say at last. “She makes good tacos. And spaghetti and hot dogs and stuff like that.”
Cheap meals. A far cry from the beef and three sides Rob had expected on the table every night. She waited for Maddox to make some disparaging comment.
“Sounds good. Maybe I should come to your house for dinner.”
Was he angling for an invitation? Was he—Ann stumbled over the thought—could he be lonely? She had a sudden memory of him at ten, his cool pose a front for his desperate longing to be noticed. She remembered his quick flush of gratification when she’d offered him a stick of gum, and the time he’d beat up Billy Ward for calling her “Chicken Legs.”
She concentrated on unloading her squashables from the cart, aware that the checkout girl had stopped snapping her gum to listen. What was a nice person supposed to do? “Oh, my dinners are nothing fancy. Nothing you would want.”
“Try me,” Maddox said softly.
His eyes met hers, hot and hooded and intense, and her insides constricted like they did when she was afraid, only this time it wasn’t with fear.
* * *
Hope your holidays are full of wonderful reading!
He shook his head. Obviously, he’d spent too long in Burqa Land. He was not hitting on his dead ex-girlfriend’s lawyer. Even if she did have great legs. And—despite the stick up her butt—a really nice ass. Hard not to notice that.
She hugged her arms across her body, as if the chill had penetrated the blue jacket she wore like body armor. “It’s nice out here.”
He breathed in the smells of salt, sea grass, and pine. Took a pull of his beer, as if he could permanently wash away the dust of Afghanistan. “Yeah.”
She turned to face him, the sun behind her firing her curly coppery hair to gold. “Quiet,” she offered.
“No snipers,” he said.
She looked at him, startled.
Ah, shit. “You didn’t come here to talk about the weather,” he said, covering. “Or the view.”
“Are you all right?” she asked.
He was jet-lagged and exhausted. But at least he was all here. Ten fingers, ten toes. No right to complain. “Fine.”
Her gaze searched his face, uncomfortably perceptive. What color were her eyes? Blue? Green? With the light behind her, it was hard to tell. “Because we can do this another time.”
“You must have thought it was urgent,” he pointed out. “Or you wouldn’t have driven out here.” She took a deep breath that expanded her chest, parting the lapels of her jacket. She wore some kind of lace thing under it, and a thin gold chain that dipped between her breasts and caught the light. Nice. “I had the evening free.”
“Lucky for me,” he drawled.
Under her makeup, she flushed to the roots of her hair like only a true redhead could. Which set off another line of speculation he had no business pursuing.
“I agree. As long as your job doesn’t interfere with mine.”
“You’ll hardly notice I’m here.”
Val's gaze skittered over the height and breadth of him, from his shoulders rising above the narrow padded bench to his feet sticking out from under the table.
When she looked back up at his face, her eyes were bright with amusement. “Now, why do I have difficulty believing that?”
Conn’s blood surged. His jaw tightened. He had a sudden vision of laying her down across the table in front of him like an exotic dish for his delectation. He wanted to free her hair to spill over the edge. He wanted to part her firm, round thighs and push inside her soft, warm body. He wanted to take that pale mouth with its full upper lip and watch those gray eyes darken in passion.
Conn set down the roll slowly. As a plan of action, it had a lot of appeal. As an approach to a woman he barely knew and was hired to analyze and advise, it probably lacked something. Subtlety, maybe. Sense.
His appetite for this woman unnerved him. Maybe this kind of reaction was appropriate for Patrick, blissfully happy with his new wife. It was only to be expected from Sean, whose appreciation for anything female was well-known and often indulged. But Con, the middle brother, the cool, logical one, had always let reason rule his selection of partners.
There was nothing reasonable about this attraction at all.
The smell of his skin, the scent of his shaving cream, spicy and familiar, enveloped Tess. She pressed a kiss between his shoulder blades.
“Helping Luke make up his bed.”
Tom frowned at his reflection. “You think after ten years in the Marines, the boy can make his own bed?”
She smiled at his grumpy tone. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to have some time with him alone.”
“You work too hard,” Tom said. “He takes advantage of you.”
Tess knew her man. She’d loved him for almost forty years, since he was a cocky Leatherneck on leave in Chicago, sauntering into her family’s restaurant in Little Italy, trying to pick her up before she could write down his order.
“You’re not upset about the bed,” she said.
Tom didn’t answer. He didn’t talk about his feelings. He never had.
She twisted around him, keeping her arms loosely linked around his waist, until they were front to front. “It’ll be all right,” she said softly. “Luke needs us. Taylor needs us. She’s our granddaughter.”
Tom grunted. “What happened to her mother? You get that out of Luke while you were making his bed?”
“Dawn’s lawyer told Luke it was some kind of brain bleed from a congenital condition. No prior symptoms, no warning.” Tess shivered. “It was all very sudden and horrible.”
Tom stroked her back, instinctively giving comfort. “Christ. Was Taylor with her?”
“No, Dawn was at work when it happened. Apparently she was a receptionist at the law office. The lawyer said they got her to the hospital right away, but it was already too late.”
They stood a moment in silence. What if it had been her daughter, her baby, struck down like that in the prime of life? Tess wondered. She couldn’t stand it.
“How’s Luke?” Tom asked.
He had always counted on her to keep up with the details of their children’s lives, to tell him as much—or as little—as he needed to know.
“He doesn’t say.” And in that, Tess thought, their younger son was very like his father. “But you can see he’s affected by her dying like that. He’s not heartbroken, he was over Dawn a long time ago, but he still feels it. And now this business with Taylor . . . It’s just so much for him to deal with right now, in the middle of a deployment. Did you see how thin he is?”
“He’ll be all right as soon as he gets back to his squadron.”
She bit her lip. “It’s still a distraction.”
“Not as much as you think.” He rubbed her neck, his strong hand reaching under her hair. “Men compartmentalize better than women.”
They were still pressed together, front to front.
Tess grinned suddenly, realizing her husband’s focus had shifted. “Is that what you call this? Compartmentalizing?”
His fingers found the knot at the base of her skull. “That’s one word for it.”
She sighed in pleasure, letting her head drop forward as he kneaded the ache away. “I just worry about them, Tom, no matter how old they are. Matt’s not happy, and Meg’s living with that man who’s never going to marry her, and now Luke—”
“You can’t live their lives for them, honey.”
“I’d do a better job,” she mumbled.
His laugh rumbled in his chest. “You did a good job already. It’s their turn now.”
“But I want them to have what we have.”
“I’d be happy if they’d just stop dumping what they have on you.”
She raised her head. “Tom!”
“We’re not getting any younger, Tess. It would be nice to have the house to ourselves before we’re too old to enjoy it.”
“Mm. You, me, and an inn full of guests. Very romantic.” She settled her weight more firmly against him, enjoying the feel of him hot and potent against her stomach.
He patted her butt affectionately. “You don’t want me going soft in my old age, now, do you?”
She laughed at him. “I can feel just how soft you are.”
He smiled down at her, the old gleam in his eyes, the one that still made her breath come faster after all these years. “Why don’t you come to bed and I’ll show you?”
From CAROLINA HOME
Solitary Kate hadn’t been invited, though she knew that if she stopped by the charge nurse would offer her a piece of cake. She turned the other way, down the hall, toward the patient rooms. The kernel of doubt hadn’t gone away. It swelled under her breastbone, a small, indigestible lump, a tiny hot spot that upset her stomach and her concentration.
She wasn’t on call tonight. Roberts, the attending, had taken the four o’clock rounds. She had no real reason to drop her sliding stack of paperwork and squeak down the brightly painted, dimly lit floor like a ghost in orthopedic shoes. No reason. Only a burning in her gut. Quietly, she depressed the handle to Jack MacNeill’s room and opened the door.
A pale rectangle of light spilled across the bed to the raised footrest of the recliner on the other side. Between the tall metal guardrails, Jack sprawled with little-boy abandon, covers pushed down and arms and legs every which way. A teddy bear with a limp bow and well-loved plush supported his bandaged hand. In the chair, facing his child, slept Patrick MacNeill.
Even relaxed in sleep, he looked hard and male and faintly dangerous. His wide shoulders crowded the oversize recliner to its limit. Ignoring her reaction to that long, well-muscled body, Kate slipped to the foot of the bed to check Jack’s chart. But she couldn’t dismiss the queer twist of her heart at the sight of Jack’s face turned confidingly to his father, or the way Patrick’s large hand protectively spanned his son’s knee as they slept.
Don t let it get to you, Katie Sue.
She forced her attention back to the patient chart, angling it to catch the light from the door. Blood pressure, temp, intake and output all looked normal. Good. Stepping to the side of the bed, she reached for Jack’s swaddled hand.
And then something made her look up, across his out-flung legs, into the deep-set, dark blue eyes of Patrick MacNeill.
2. As in Carolina Home, there are four point of view characters in Carolina Girl: Meg Fletcher; Sam Grady; matriarch Tess; and ten-year-old Taylor. Which character did you identify with the most? Which engaged you most emotionally? Why?
3. How does Meg's perception of her mother change after Tess's accident? Over the course of the book? On p. 282, Tess says,
"Sometimes love means taking turns. Finding compromises.” “Except you never got your turn. You were always the one who compromised.” “What do you mean?” “Even after Dad retired, you did what he wanted. Lived where he wanted. Moved back here.” “Meg . . .” Tess frowned, her familiar features transformed by the darkening cap of hair goo. “I thought you knew. That was my choice. Your father would have gone anywhere. Back to Chicago, if that’s what I wanted. My brother Nick would have taken me back into the restaurant. But I fell in love with North Carolina when your dad was stationed at Lejeune. You kids always liked it here. Running a bed-and-breakfast was my idea. The Pirates’ Rest is my dream.”Her assertion surprises Meg. Did it surprise you? Why or why not?
4. What attracted Meg to Derek? How do you feel about her kissing Sam while she is still in a relationship with Derek? Is it cheating?
5. Meg and Sam's first sexual encounter in high school was less than perfect.
It hadn’t been all bad, she remembered. Even though he was drunk, even though she had no idea what she was doing, making out with Sam had been exciting. ... Meg drew an uneven breath. She could even look back now on the inevitable fumbling, painful outcome with a certain nostalgia. At least when Sam was laboring inside her—Oh,God, Meggie, you’re so tight—she’d felt like a necessary part of the process." p.161How did you react to that description? Did you find their reactions believable?
6. What were Sam's strengths and weaknesses as a romantic hero?
7. How are Tom Fletcher and Carl Grady alike? How are they different? How does Carl's "hard-assed, hard-charging approach to business and to life" affect Sam personally and professionally? Do you think it has an impact on his relationship with Meg?
8. How did Meg's interactions with the secondary characters (Josh, Cynthie, Taylor) affect your perceptions of her?
9. Did Taylor change or grow over the course of the book? How do you feel about her story arc being unresolved at the end?
10. How do you feel about Meg's final decision regarding her career?
Bonus question :-) - The next story is about the youngest Fletcher sibling, Luke (Carolina Man, March 2014).