Christie Ridgway

Almost Wonderful Excerpt

Chapter One

Two miles of magic.

Trudging through soft sand, Meg Alexander remembered that’s how she’d thought of her childhood Neverland, Southern California’s Crescent Cove. Even after ten years away, she recalled how lucky she’d felt growing up here.

Meg’s great-great-grandfather had purchased the land as a location to make silent movies such as The Courageous Castaways and Sweet Safari, and the tropical vegetation he’d trucked in for authenticity in 1919 continued to thrive at the cove today. The buff-colored bluffs rising up from the beach were made more colorful by the bright green fronds of date palm trees and the salmon and scarlet flowers of bougainvillea that nestled beside the native sagebrush. Closer to shore, floppy-leaved banana plants, chunky Mexican fan palms and colorful hibiscus shrubs surrounded the fifty eclectic cottages, most of which had been built during the 1920s through 1950s.

Each of the beach houses at Crescent Cove was different, their form-following whims now long forgotten. Their paint schemes were as varied as their shapes and sizes, though the colors selected blended well with the landscape of sand, earth and vivid flora. The single similarity was that in every one, windows peered oceanward.

Meg didn’t dare look in that direction, herself.

Growing up, her mother had told Meg and her little sister, Skye, that merfolk lived in those waters off shore, protecting the cove with their supernatural powers. Growing up, Meg had believed in that, just as she’d believed that sand dollars were the merpeople’s currency and sea glass the discarded pieces from some mysterious merchildren’s board game.

But Meg didn’t believe in magic or mystery anymore.

“Good morning,” an elderly male voice said.

Startled, Meg looked up. “Hey, Rex. Good morning, yourself.” Rex Monroe, ninety-some years young, was the only full-time resident at the cove other than Skye, who had managed the property since their parents’ move to Provence, France. Yesterday, for the first time in a decade, Meg had met up with the nonagenarian as he walked along the sand. Like now, the clouds had been low and damp, the typical gloomy “May Gray” weather conditions. “Getting in your daily constitutional?” she asked.

Rex patted his belly, covered in a flannel shirt tucked into soft chinos. “It’s not just you ladies who have to watch your figures. Are you settling in okay?”

“Oh, sure,” Meg said, waving a hand. It was actually weird being back in her childhood bedroom, ten years after leaving the cove at nineteen, but her sister had been invited to the out-of-town wedding of a former college roommate. How could Meg have refused to step in? Memorial Day weekend was the kick-off of the Crescent Cove summer season. Someone had to be on hand to pass out keys to the bungalows and handle minor crises.

Even if it was a major crisis, in Meg’s mind, to be back here.

“I see you have a satchel of tools,” Rex said, pointing to the canvas bag she carried. “Something need fixing already?”

“Not really. Just trying to keep busy.” Anything to prevent her from thinking of the last summer she’d spent at the cove. “I’m going to scrape the deck railing at Beach House No. 9. I understand that Griffin Lowell has been staying there the last couple of months, but since he’s away for a few days, Skye hired a contractor to take care of the blistering paint while he’s gone.”

Rex gave Meg a piercing look that reminded her he was a former war correspondent, one who’d won a Pulitzer during World War 2. “What? The man Skye hired doesn’t have some sort of electric paint-removing machine?”

“Uh, well…” Meg glanced at the simple metal scraper at the bottom of her bag, sitting beside a few other basic tools and her bottle of water. “You know what they say about idle hands. I thought I’d do the work myself.” An idle mind was even more dangerous, Meg had decided. She had to stay busy to avoid thoughts of that last summer. Of Peter.

Rex nodded as if he understood all she didn’t say aloud. “You come visit me if you’d like some company, all right?”

“Thanks, I will,” Meg said with a bright smile, though she knew she wouldn’t. She didn’t want company. Company might bring up Peter. Company might ask her why she’d run away from her childhood home and never returned. Company might make her admit how much she’d lost, including the happy-go-lucky girl she’d once been.

Meg was too smart to allow that to happen.

“Enjoy your walk, Rex,” she said, and then continued down the beach.

The south end of Crescent Cove was bounded by a sea cliff that pushed into the Pacific. Though the top of it was wide and flat, there were steep trails snaking up its side that led to various outcroppings from which, she remembered, daredevils used to launch ocean jumps. Skye had posted warning signs against the practice, but from the look of those clearly defined routes, it remained an enticement. The last cottage in the cove snuggled next to the bluff, a two-story, brown-shingled building with blue-green trim and a large deck extending over the sand.

A driftwood sign was tacked to the outer railing, words painted in the same color as the trim. Beach House No. 9.

Meg mounted the steps that led from the sand to the surface of the deck. She dropped her bag on the umbrella-topped table and took in the rest of the patio accessories: single chaises, a double lounger, a stack of extra chairs and a barbecue.

Everything looked in order. Though the current resident was gone for a few days, he’d return for the month of June. After that, No. 9 would have different occupants in July and August. Skye had said almost all the cottages were booked up for summer. That was good, because those months were when Crescent Cove paid its way. It would quiet in the fall and the rentals would be mostly vacant throughout the winter and spring.

Meg frowned at the peeling rails. Her sister was right to be annoyed that the paint hadn’t stayed tight to the wood. Maintenance was accomplished in the off-season and a company had been out in February to refurbish, but their efforts hadn’t lasted.

On the plus side, it gave Meg something to do, besides think of—

No one. No one was on her mind.

Yanking a hair tie from her front pocket, she gave another frown at the blistered railing as she bound her mass of caramel-colored hair. Then she consciously relaxed her facial muscles. “Watch it,” she murmured to herself. “You don’t want to groove permanently grumpy lines.”

Then again, she was a twenty-nine-year-old accountant. Grumpy might already be permanent.

Ignoring that unpleasant thought, Meg tackled the task she’d assigned herself, starting at one end of the railing. Paint chips flew until they covered her feet in their rubber thongs and were scattered over her hands and forearms. They drifted onto her jeans and T-shirt, too, almost obscuring the word blazoned across her chest: Meh.

Which kind of summed up how Meg had been feeling about herself and her life.

Meh. Meg. Just one letter off.

Contemplating that made her thirsty again. She’d nearly drained the puny little bottle of water she’d brought. The May Gray was locked in battle with the sun, and though right now gray was winning, it had definitely warmed up. With the last drop in her still-parched throat, Meg decided to dig through her bag for the cove’s master keys, and dash inside No. 9 to refill her water at the kitchen sink.

Since No. 9’s occupant, Griffin Lowell, had summered in this very bungalow as a kid and they’d been friends back in the day, she didn’t think he’d object. Although according to Skye, Griffin barely resembled the devil-may-care boy who had vacationed with his family at the cove. Now a journalist, he’d spent a year embedded with the troops in Afghanistan and had come back to the beach a loner who wanted nothing more than to be left to himself. Meg hoped he’d find what he was looking for here, though her own return to Crescent Cove had yet to bring her peace.

The sliding door leading from the deck to the living room was heavy, so she left it open as she hustled inside, leaving her paint-chipped footwear behind. It only took a moment or two to replenish her bottle and twist on the cap. As she hurried back out, her bare soles slid on the hardwood floor. She felt herself going down and dropped the container to catch her balance on a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Steady again, she saw the plastic cylinder of water rolling toward the sliding glass door. Rolling toward shoes.

Shoes?

As she looked up, the sun won the war, breaking from behind the clouds. The light dazzled, and made the figure in the doorway a dark silhouette. A male silhouette, with a big, shaggy-haired dog at his side.

Meg’s heart shot high, fueled by pure exhilaration as she recognized the masculine outline. Her fingers tightened on the bookshelf. Peter. Peter!

In one single moment she experienced all the blazing joy of that summer ten years before when she’d met a twenty-two-year old recent college graduate. She’d fallen for him, fallen so deep that there’d been barely a splash, and he’d been equally smitten. The feeling had held all the thrills and enchantment her mother had promised about that thing called love, as happy-ever-after-ish as Meg had fantasized since she was a little girl swooning over the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. Peter Fleming had been her prince.

That summer, she’d thought she’d met her future, and they could have fed the entire world’s energy grid from the unending pool of their mutual bliss.

And here he was! Again! Her heart raced, thrumming against her ribs. Peter…

Did she say it out loud? Because the dark figure shook his head, then stepped into the room. The dog followed, his nails clicking smartly against the floor. “I’m Caleb,” the man said. “Caleb McCall.”

She stared at him blankly, her racing heart braking to a screeching halt, her brief joy subsumed by the grief she’d experienced that summer, too. Her body began to tremble, an aftereffect of shock.

As she watched, the man swooped down for the bottle, then paced toward her, holding it out. “It looks as if you could use this,” he said.

She released the bookshelf to take it from him, her senses still working at recovery. Of course this man wasn’t Peter. Peter had been gone for ten years, drowned by a rogue wave, it was presumed, when he’d gone out kayaking one afternoon at the end of August.

The stranger might look a little like Peter had he lived, though. Same golden tan, same sandy brown hair—though cut short when Peter’s had been long. The man—Caleb, he’d said—was gazing at her with narrowed brown eyes, concern written across his handsome features.

Now that she was breathing again, she felt a little visceral tug in her mid-section. Handsome? He was more than that. The way he held himself radiated a confident sexiness, as if he understood his place in the world and liked it as well as he liked himself.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked. His voice was low, a deep sound that suited him.

“Sure. You just…startled me. I—” Tensing, Meg broke off, suddenly aware she was alone, at the nearly deserted cove, with a man—albeit a good-looking one—whom she’d never before met. Her sister had admonished her to take precautions with her personal safety. The water bottle was a crappy weapon, but she did have her cell phone in her pocket.

“Rex told me where I could find you,” Caleb said.

The tension in her shoulders eased. “You know Rex?”

The handsome stranger shook his head. “I just met him on the beach. But when I told him I wanted to check into the cottage I rented, he said you’d be here.”

“Oh. Sure. Right.” Though Meg had thought no one was expected today.

The dog chose that moment to whine. Meg glanced down, noting Caleb soothing him with long, masculine fingers, but when her gaze shifted from the man’s hand to the canine’s bicolored eyes, her heart took another jolt.

She knew those eyes.

She knew this dog.

Her fingers tightened on the water bottle, causing the plastic to make a snapping sound. “Who…who are you?”

“I said. Caleb McCall.” His eyes were serious and trained on her face. “I’m Peter’s cousin. Do you remember me, Starr?”

 

* * *

 

Starr.

The name pierced her chest, triggering a sharp ache in its empty cavern. Starr was listed on her birth certificate; Starr was what she’d been called from infancy until nineteen, but nobody had used it in years. She’d made sure of that.

Once she could breathe past the pain, she hastened to correct the man still staring at her with a steadfast gaze. “Call me Meg,” she said. “I’m Meg now.”

The second thing she did was drop to her knees to pet the dog. Her palms stroked over his rough-soft fur. “Bitzer.” She glanced up, Caleb’s quick nod confirming it was Peter’s dog. He’d been a one-year-old when his master had gone missing, and now had a muzzle that was nearly gray.

She pressed her cheek against it. “Bitzer,” she repeated. It was Aussie slang for a mixed-breed dog—”bits of this and bits of that”—and since he looked to be some bit Australian shepherd, Peter had thought the name fit. The animal wiggled his hindquarters and seemed a pleased recipient of her affection, though she didn’t expect he actually remembered her.

With a last fond pat, she stood. Clearing her throat, she glanced at Caleb again. “If you’ll follow me back to the property management office, I’ll check you in.”

The walk up the beach was quiet. Meg was grateful the man didn’t try to chat, because she needed the silent minutes and the cool breeze to pull herself together. Those milliseconds when she’d mistaken him for Peter had shaken her, taking her back to that time when she’d been a naive nineteen-year-old who never anticipated gathering clouds on the horizon. Caleb’s use of that old name, Starr, had been yet another painful reminder of the girl she’d been.

But she was all grown up now. More important, she was Meg, a completely different person. A practical, common-sensical, reality-grounded woman who had moved on from that ten-year-old tragedy. A little sadder, yes, but a lot wiser, too.

Completely free of romantic fancies.

She powered up the computer on the desk in the office and checked the reservation log. “You were due to check in two days ago.” It was why she hadn’t expected him—he should have arrived before Skye left.

“I had a last-minute appointment,” he explained as she handed over the keys.

“Too bad you missed part of your getaway.” The computer screen said he was checking out Monday and it was already Wednesday.

“I hope to still get what I’m looking for.” His gaze met hers, and she felt another tug, a feminine quiver accompanied by a distinct inner whisper. You woman, he man.

She dropped her lashes, surreptitiously checking out the rest of him. Dressed in a T-shirt and battered jeans, he had heavy shoulders, lean-muscled arms, a broad chest. You woman, he man? Thanks, but I could figure that out for myself.

Her appreciation of his male form didn’t diminish when, after a brief goodbye, he turned around and left the office, dog at his side, keys in hand. The hem of his shirt brushed the rear pockets of his jeans, drawing her attention to the curve of his very male backside. Nice.

He man, you woman.

Be that as it may, Meg had no expectation of seeing him again, not until he checked out, anyway. So she proceeded with her day, making more progress on the railing, then returning home in the late afternoon to shower. The fog rolled in again, and she dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of warm sheepskin boots.

By five, she was in the kitchen and opening a bottle of wine. Dinner hovered at the back of her mind, but she hadn’t decided on anything in particular. If she got lazy, she could take the one-mile walk up the beach to Captain Crow’s, a restaurant/bar situated at the north end of the cove. It had an expansive parking lot on the Pacific Coast Highway and was a popular spot year-round, thanks to an open-air deck that sat right on the sand. During inclement weather, plastic screens were unrolled to protect diners from the elements without obscuring the sights or sounds of the pounding surf.

Meg was holding up her glass, appreciating the glow of the garnet-colored merlot, when she heard a rap on the front door. A little surprised, she set down the drink and headed for the entry. With her hand on the knob, she paused, remembering her younger sister’s anxious expression when she’d warned Meg about locking up and staying safe. It niggled her now, just as it had then. Skye hadn’t seemed her usual buoyant self. She’d been dressed in what appeared to be their father’s castoffs, her hair bound in a tight braid, her face devoid of makeup. Yes, she’d been preparing for a six-hour drive, but still…

Another rap sounded against wood.

“Who’s there?” Meg asked.

She heard the jingle of a dog collar first, then Caleb McCall’s deep voice, identifying himself. Without anyone to witness, she didn’t bother suppressing the little shiver of awareness that wiggled down her spine. How had he found her? she wondered. Rex again, she supposed, pulling open the door.

Caleb was still in T-shirt and jeans. Still exuding that masculine confidence. “Sorry to bother you,” he said.

“What’s the problem?” She reached out to Bitzer, smiling when he licked her fingers.

“You should do that more often,” Bitzer’s owner said abruptly.

Meg blinked. “Do…?”

“Smile. You have a great smile.”

The compliment made her girlishly flustered. Which was ridiculous. She was twenty-nine and though she’d lost a lover long ago, there’d been men in her life since. Compliments. Even sex on occasion. But something about this man made her feel flushed and breathless and fidgety. “Uh, thanks,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t squeak. “Did you need something?”

“Sorry, yes. The oven doesn’t seem to work…or I’m not skilled enough to figure out how it should.”

“Hmm, I don’t think lack of skill is a problem you often encounter,” she murmured, then felt her face go hotter. Good God, that sounded like flirting!

He grinned at her. “All the same.”

The cottage he’d rented was just a hundred yards from her childhood home. When he unlocked the door, she smelled a touch of the citrus-scented cleaning products they used. And something else. Already there was a masculine spiciness in the air. Another clutch of awareness fisted in her belly. She pretended it wasn’t there.

In the kitchen, more good scents. Tomato sauce. Garlic. She saw a casserole on the stove and evidence of prep work on the cutting board, including a knife and strips of glossy, plum-colored skin. “You cook?”

He grimaced. “Learning. I think I make a decent eggplant parmesan, though,” he added, nodding at the dish.

“Smells like it,” Meg said, then turned the dials of the stove. No preheat light came on. She pulled open the door and there wasn’t a hint of warmth. With a little sigh, she played with the dials again, trying different combinations: Bake, Broil, Roast. Nothing woke up the uncooperative oven.

Frowning, she glanced at him over her shoulder. “Can you ‘fridge that food? I’m sure I can get this fixed tomorrow. For tonight, we’ll pick up your dinner tab at Captain Crow’s, or anywhere else you’d like to eat. Just bring me the receipt tomorrow and I’ll reimburse you.”

“What were you planning for dinner?”

“Me?”

His smile was charming. “I could bring the casserole to your kitchen. Use your oven. Feed us both.”

Bitzer pushed his nose into her hand as if he thought it a good idea as well. “I don’t…uh…” More girlish flutters in her midsection embarrassed her.

“I could use a critique of my recipe,” Caleb said. “You’d be my first.”

Her eyebrows rose.

“To eat my home cooking,” he clarified, a laugh sparking glints in his dark eyes.

It was the laughter that got to her. Meh Meg needed a little more of that in her life, especially now. Especially at Crescent Cove. Caleb could be the distraction she needed.

So that’s how she found herself pouring a second glass of merlot as the delicious scent of herbs, onion and tomato sauce filled the air at the house where she’d grown up. They took the wine to the front porch and the pair of generous-size chairs that sat side-by-side. Bitzer collapsed at their feet with a happy sigh.

Meg slid a look at Caleb. His expression gave nothing away beyond a simple contentment with the moment, not unlike the dog’s. “So…what exactly brings you to the cove?” she asked, working herself up to what she knew needed to be addressed, now that they were sharing a meal. It likely wasn’t mere serendipity that brought Peter’s cousin to this particular stretch of beach.

Caleb’s long legs stretched out, then crossed at the ankle. “Needed a break. The thought of here, it sort of…came to me.”

“So you’re familiar with Crescent Cove?”

He turned his head, a rueful smile curving his lips. “I didn’t think you noticed me then.”

Then? Suddenly she recalled earlier that afternoon, when they were at No. 9 and he’d asked if she remembered him. The question hadn’t processed, rocked as she was by that moment of mistaking him for his cousin and by the sound of her former first name on his lips. “You…you were here before?”

“I was the skinny kid who came to visit my aunt, uncle and cousin a couple of weekends that summer.”

She had the vague memory of a flop of hair and baggy board shorts. “That was you?”

“I’ll take your surprise as a compliment.” He smiled again. “I grew a lot in my early 20s.”

“And now you’re…?”

“Thirty.”

Just a few months older than Meg.

They exchanged more life details then. He had spent the last four years with a cell phone app start-up, working insane hours but enjoying himself immensely. Meg realized he didn’t live far from her in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she worked for a large accounting firm that sent her out to smaller companies for independent audits.

“So you left Southern California?” Caleb asked.

“First time I’ve been back in a decade,” she said lightly, and explained about her parents relocating to Provence and her sister attending a wedding in Arizona.

Caleb slowly straightened in his chair, then shot her a considering look. “What happened here a decade ago—losing Peter—that was a tremendous blow.”

A fatal blow to Meg’s heart. Still, even now, something inside her chest gave a painful, ghostly squeeze. Resisting the urge to rub the spot, she turned her thoughts to Peter’s family. They’d lost someone vital to them as well. “Your aunt and uncle were devastated, I know.”

“They were,” Caleb agreed. “Me, too. Peter was the big brother I never had. I missed him so much that his parents gave me Bitzer.”

At the sound of his name, the dog raised his head. Caleb fondled a soft ear, his gaze on his pet. “We’ve been good company for each other, haven’t we, boy?”

Then his eyes shifted to Meg’s face. “How did you get through your grief?”

By running from that summer and from this place. But no one wanted to hear those kinds of truths. “One day at a time,” she said instead. Noting the sober look in Caleb’s eyes, she hastened to add more, not wanting him to think she was mired in the past. “It was ten years ago. Of course I’ll always feel sad about it, but I’m not pining away.”

“Good,” he said softly. “Good to know.”

“I’m not even that same person anymore.”

“Hence the Meg.”

She nodded. “Starr still had stars in her eyes. When I left the cove, I felt like I was different, more of a down-to-earth woman than that sentimental, romantic girl.”

“Why does ‘down-to-earth’ sound like a synonym for pessimistic?”

Meg swiveled on her cushion to face him. “I’m not. I just don’t believe in fairy tales anymore.”

Before he could reply, the oven timer dinged. They got to their feet and trooped to the kitchen. Bitzer padded behind, exuding enthusiasm. “Still likes to eat, huh?” Meg asked.

“Likes to be part of the crowd. I even take him to the office.”

As they dished up the eggplant parmesan, Meg discovered that the start-up Caleb worked for was actually his start-up, and the apps his company developed were software products used by the triathlete crowd, from route analyzers to workout logs. As they sat at the kitchen table, plates accompanied by a bowl of tossed salad, the wine and a pitcher of water with a second set of glasses, she again sized up his broad shoulders and lean-muscled torso…for informational purposes only, naturally.

Ignoring the little heated pulse of reaction she experienced just looking at him, she picked up her fork. “Triathlons, huh? I take it that’s your competition of choice.”

He glanced up from his serving of casserole. “I’ve cut back, actually,” he said. “I’m trying for a…tamer lifestyle, I’d guess you’d say.”

Tamer? A man like this, self-made, self-possessed, flat-out sexy, didn’t have a tame bone in his body. Not even his pinkie was domesticated. Not even his little toe.

He laughed. “You look like you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He laughed again, and at that moment, they both reached for the pitcher of water. Their fingers tangled somewhere above the handle. And for a woman who no longer believed in magic, there had to be something else to account for the hot thrill that rushed like pinpricks up the tender inner flesh of her arm. Biology? Chemistry? A reason both logical and objective, likely involving pheromones as well as adrenaline, because two conflicting compulsions were at war inside her: to get closer to Caleb, and to run very far away from him.

Really, she should have paid more attention in her science classes, she decided, because she’d feel better with a solid explanation for why her skin felt hot, why her blood ran itchy through her veins, why her nerves were speed-dialing messages to random parts of her body.

Her belly tensed.

Her toes curled.

Her fingers clutched at his.

“Meg.” His quiet voice made her shift her gaze from their joined hands to his eyes. There was heat in them, and a curious kind of humor, too. “Are you seeing someone?” he asked.

The question gave her the impetus to slide her fingers from his. “No.” She watched him fill her water glass, then his, without spilling a drop. If the pitcher had been in her hand, it would have wavered all over the place. “I had a man in my life a while back, but he wanted marriage and that’s not for me.”

“Really?” Caleb asked, one brow rising.

“Really,” she said, finding his skeptical tone irritating. All women—even those approaching the supposedly dreaded 3-0—weren’t focused on white lace and promises. So she tossed her hair over her shoulder and said the first flippant thing that came into her head. “I’m more into short-term, for-the-physical-release-only affairs.”

Then she thought of how that sounded. Tackiness aside, some might construe it as an invitation. Her fingers tightened on her fork. “I mean, I…”

She had the distinct impression he was laughing again, though his mouth was closed as he chewed a bite of the eggplant dish. He swallowed, wiped his lips with his napkin, then gave her an encouraging smile. “You mean…?”

“I don’t know what I mean,” she mumbled, once again feeling out of her depth. It was infuriating, really, this nervous, edgy feeling. Meg never felt nervous in that way. Men didn’t put her on edge.

“It’s okay,” Caleb said, his gaze shifting to his plate. “I’m a little unsteady myself.”

She didn’t press for clarification of that, though she didn’t believe for a second that he was anything less than rock-solid. He appeared cucumber-cool as he continued calmly with his meal, eliciting more information from her—that she belonged to a book group that read nonfiction only; her favorite recent film was an award-winning documentary about the Great Depression—and offering up some additional details about himself—he had two nieces that he took to Disneyland by himself every year; his favorite movie was the latest blockbuster adaptation of a best-selling fantasy series.

Even as he laughed when she admitted she’d once sabotaged the book group’s secret ballot process so they didn’t pick as their next read the best-selling, but looked-long-and-boring biography of an obscure former president, and she laughed at the recounting of his determined quest to hunt down the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella to obtain for his nieces a coveted photo—”I began to think the princess was like the fabled but elusive unicorn”—that edgy, breathless feeling did not abate.

It was sexual awareness, of course. Sexual tension.

An exhausting state of being, truth be told. By the time she stretched foil across the cooled, leftover casserole so he could return with it to his cottage, she felt as if she’d spent the last couple of hours on the narrow ledge of a high building. During heavy winds.

Yes, he was a charming companion in many respects, but she was glad the evening was coming to an end as she walked him to the door. Bitzer pressed against Meg’s knees as she stood in the entryway with his master. She patted his warm head in goodbye, then gave in to impulse and knelt down beside him to place a kiss on his soft doggy cheek.

Rising, she met Caleb’s smiling eyes. He held the casserole dish in one hand and gestured toward Bitzer with the other. “Do I get one of those, too?” he asked.

“Uh…” Oh, why not? that voice inside her asked. It was impulse again, or perhaps curiosity that brought Meg up on her toes. What woman wouldn’t want to get a little closer to such a perfect specimen of male-in-his-prime?

She leaned in, prepared to buss his lean cheek.

His large hand speared through the mass of hair at the back of her head, bringing her mouth to his. He didn’t go for a simple peck, or a gentle lips-to-lips brush, either. This was a full-on, fiery kiss, his mouth firm on hers, his tongue sliding inside without hesitation.

A sound came from low in her throat—surprise, appreciation, wonder—and she clutched at his shoulders. Her body flushed hot and she moved closer to his as if pressure could assuage the sudden ache between her legs and the tender heaviness of her breasts.

Caleb’s kiss continued until her head dropped back. Murmuring something, he slid his mouth along her cheek and down her neck. Goose bumps broke out on that thin skin and then shivered down her spine. The sensation jolted her back to reality and she took a hasty step away, staring at him as she inhaled great gulps of air.

Caleb stared back, then he shook his head, a rueful smile curving his lips. “Wow. I didn’t expect it to be quite all that.”

Meg, part-embarrassed, part-pleased, felt her face heat. Now there was a distinct throbbing between her thighs and her nipples were so tight they almost stung. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say we can try that again,” Caleb answered, then wrapped his free hand around her upper arm to pull her close again.

She went willingly, her mouth already parted, eager for his tongue, his taste. Why not this? she thought, her mind going woozy as he licked her bottom lip. Maybe one of those quick, physical releases she’d claimed were her thing was in order. A reward for doing her sister a good turn.

Caleb’s tongue slid against hers and she moaned. Yes, yes. A casual fling. Nothing worrisome, because didn’t he look just like a casual kind of man?

Moving nearer, she accidentally jostled the hand that held the casserole and felt him stiffen. “Oh, no,” she cried, shifting back. “Did it burn you?” She could see the splash of tomato sauce on his shirt, where he’d held the dish against his side.

“No, it just surprised me,” he said, looking down at himself, his expression sheepish. “I completely forgot about the eggplant parmesan.”

She took it out of his hand and hurried toward the kitchen. “Take off the shirt and I’ll run it under cold water. Maybe it won’t stain.”

“It’s an old shirt,” he protested, trailing her.

“Take it off, anyway,” she said, letting her smile bloom, because she knew he couldn’t see it. Her blood was still thrumming in her veins and with his chest bare, she’d be one step closer to the possibility of a doesn’t-have-to-mean-anything hookup with a beautiful, casual man.

Lucky Meg, she told herself. Though she wasn’t usually so impetuous, being with Caleb just felt right. And, after all, didn’t she deserve some good fortune?

Setting the dish on the counter, she whirled around. Oh, yes. Caleb had his T-shirt in hand, leaving for her appreciation a wealth of tanned skin and muscled chest.

In the middle of which was a clearly new, very serious-looking, four-inch scar.