Serenades

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Whispering Cove, Book 9

Aimee Smith found a home and friends in Whispering Cove. During the Fall Festival she found no-strings fun in the arms of her favorite country singer. Then her fling left town—and she discovered how much of himself he left behind.

Josh Bryan loved life on the road—until one Whispering Cove waitress ruined it. Not that he’s complaining. Before her, there were willing women at every stop, but none stayed in his mind, under his skin, or left him wanting a second taste. Not like her.

Almost fourteen months later, with Christmas festivities in full swing, Aimee’s days at the bar are long and her nights walking the floor are longer. Yet she’s never been happier, at least until Josh walks into the bar in a swirl of snow.

The truth could send him running, have him accusing her of setting a trap…or be her one chance to prove she wants him for more than just his money and fame. That is, if he’s willing to take a chance there’s something between them deeper than passion.

This book has been previously published as part of an anthology series with Cathryn Fox and Mackenzie McKade.

CHAPTER ONE

“This is a big one.” Aimee Smith slid her tray onto the bar and immediately began grabbing drink napkins and a freshly filled bowl of nut mix. “A pitcher of egg nog—not the virgin kind—four Coors, three mojitos, two whiskey sours, a Screaming Orgasm, a Hole In One, Sex at My House, a Dick the Halls and a Piña Cock-a-lada.”

Hauk Michaelsen simply lifted a blond brow at Aimee’s winter name for a piña colada, but he couldn’t hide the smile winking in his eyes. The man who’d seemed so serious at first glance had a sense of humor that rivaled his Norse god good looks. It probably came in handy with his new wife, Vic, because she was always ready to make people smile or laugh with her borderline bawdy humor.

“Another round of rums over here!” Byron Mitchell yelled from the table he was sharing with his meddling pals, Errol and Harold, and Sky, the town’s newest target of gossip. “I gotta leave soon.”

Hauk waved off Byron. The old men had taken it upon themselves to see that all the kids of marrying age were paired off. With the results of their schemes, no one was complaining. “You gonna rename every drink we serve?”

“You have to admit, they fit the theme of the clientele. Besides, men don’t seem to be interested in drinking Cocks Light.” She winked. “At least not the straight ones.”

“You could come up with less obscene names.”

“Less obscene and alcohol do not belong in the same zip code, Hauk. And you sell more of the mixed drinks when I rename them.”

“Or make them up, like your Dick the Halls?”

She’d created the drink during the Fall Festival two falls ago when she’d played bartender for a private party of two—her and the greatest fling a woman could want. With 7UP, rum and a splash of dark crème de menthe, it was a light drink that warmed up the insides. Considering how cold it got in Whispering Cove at Christmas it had become one of the more popular drinks of the season. That it was the cheerful green of the holiday only made it more fun.

She sighed, as she always did when she thought about the night she’d created the drink. It had been cold outside, but inside… She hadn’t needed alcohol to warm her blood.

After filling the order and placing the drinks on her tray, Hauk covered her hand. His friendly gaze locked with hers. “Aimee, how is it motherhood hasn’t settled you down more?”

“I’m plenty settled. With Kendall.” The thought of her sweet little girl had her heart sighing and her breasts hardening with the desire to nurse.

“Why doesn’t Carmen bring her down?” He nodded toward the crowded table in the corner, filled with their closest friends. “She’s the only one of the gang missing.”

“Tonight is children free. Besides, they’re at Carmen’s place. Apparently they had some last-minute shopping and gift wrapping to do.”

“Seems a shame to miss the party.” He set the last drink on her tray. “Maybe you can talk her into joining the fun when she gets here.”

The place was jammed with people who’d gone to the tree lighting in the square. She’d covered the bar while Hauk went to the lighting with Vic and Sophie. He’d cover for her, like he did every night, when she took an extended mommy break.

“I’ll do my best.” Aimee checked her watch—Hauk didn’t allow a clock in the bar so people would more easily forget about responsibilities and deadlines while they were there. “I’m going to make a final pass of my tables before going on break.”

“Never doubted you.”

Aimee hugged his confidence close as she hefted the large tray. In the two years since she and her sister had stopped in Whispering Cove, she’d gotten as used to the lifestyle as her arms had gotten used to carrying heavy trays.

Years of roaming aimlessly, hoping to find a place to belong, had ended when they stepped onto the town’s cobbled streets. They had found jobs they loved, made friends and been taken in as part of a community that was more accurately one large family sharing a home called Whispering Cove.

Aimee had dated a few guys in town, but had only gone to bed with one. When she learned she was pregnant, regardless of how careful she’d been, she’d found none of the expected judgment and ridicule that would have come from many of her foster families. She’d simply found support.

“I’m going on break soon.” Aimee stopped by the table in the corner and began unloading drinks for the group that had grown gradually louder as the night wore on. “You guys need anything else?”

Dani and Braydon, Katy and Trent, Andie and Brodie, Josie and Adam, Tabby and Reece. If it wasn’t a table full of newlyweds and adoring couples enjoying a few hours away from infant and toddler interruptions, the heated looks shooting across the bar between Lila and Jon as he played pool might seem out of place.

“For you to tell that horrible boss of yours you’re grabbing Carmen and Kendall and joining us the rest of the night.” Vic laughed as she waved at her new husband, Hauk. He smiled indulgently but shook his head. No way was he giving Aimee the night off when nearly every chair and stool in the place was filled and the only other waitress working was Trinity. She wasn’t a bad waitress, she just wasn’t fast or openly friendly.

Vic and Lila were the only two without a man at the table though their single status didn’t cool the heat that circled them. Sky wasn’t falling for the town as quickly as Lila and Aimee had, but once people had warmed up to her they’d done their best to win her over. Including Byron, who was currently leading her toward the dance floor like she was as valuable as the glass art she created.

Aimee joked that though she’d been told stories about everyone in Whispering Cove being matched up faster than the animals on the Ark, she doubted the same would happen for her. Vic only had to look across the bar to flirt with her man.

“He works you too hard,” Vic said.

“While I’m sure you would be the only person able to talk him into that, we’re short staffed and I need the money.”

Vic sighed dramatically as she lifted her almost empty glass. “That’s what Carmen said you’d say when she insisted on babysitting Kendall.”

“I didn’t know Carmen turned you down for me.” Guilt stung Aimee’s heart. Granted they’d been apart too long as kids and wanted to stick close as adults, but that didn’t mean always sacrificing fun and happiness for each other. “I could have gotten a sitter.”

“You need a prescription to cure that guilt?” Vic asked.

“I have one.” Dr. Dani smiled her sweetest bedside manner smile. A gleam of wicked peeked through. “You need an orgasm. Stat!”

“And there’s no shortage of men in this town who’d give you one,” Katy said with the smooth confidence she offered the viewers of her cooking show. “If you need help choosing one, we could whisper in Byron’s ear.”

Braydon shushed Dani and Katy while watching Byron across the bar. “Say that too loud and you’ll have Grandpa over here crowing about his success with us.”

“Or telling us we should be busy making bigger families,” Brody laughed with an echoing glance toward Harold.

“Or getting after Jon for still being the only one of us without a ring on his finger.” Katy waved at her cousin who smiled from his spot by the pool table. “Then again, if he sticks around to join Dani’s practice, Grandpa Errol will have plenty of time to deal with him.”

“You guys make it sound like you resent their matchmaking schemes.” Aimee laughed as she loaded their empties on the tray. “Fact is, I know better, and I wish I was half as lucky as you to have someone care enough to meddle for me.”

The pub door opened, carrying in a swirl of cold. The chill of near-Christmas air brushed Aimee’s neck, freshly exposed by the new pixie-style haircut Vic had given her. With the chill came a blanket of warm familiarity that had nothing to do with the expected appearance of her daughter or sister.

“Watch what you ask for,” Braydon mumbled. “It may have just walked in the door.”

“Holy shit.” Vic drew the two words, three small and seemingly harmless syllables, into ten long ones. Her next statement confirmed what Aimee knew without looking to see who’d entered. “Dani, that’s some prescription.”

“The holiday festivities just got a lot more interesting.” Andie’s laugh cemented the insight. “And I suspect the concert too.”

The familiarity Aimee had felt moved with a distinct maleness. Warmth engulfed her veins despite the chill on her skin. Her lungs struggled for oxygen. She closed her eyes and counted to three. She knew who she’d see when she turned. As clearly as she felt him from across the room, the knowledge that she’d have to talk to him, tell him, snapped in place.

She turned.

Just inside the now-closed door, with flakes of white still settling on his shoulders and the floor around him, stood the man she’d prepared herself never to see again. His traditional cowboy hat and denim jacket had been replaced by a beanie, scarf and heavy coat that failed to conceal his sex appeal.

“What are you going to do?”

Hide.

“Are you okay?”

No.

Lila looked between Aimee and her questioning friends. There had been questions and guesses about Kendall’s father. Most of them Aimee ignored. Others she denied.

Only a select handful of people knew the truth, the few she could trust to keep their mouths closed, and aside from Hauk and Carmen they were at the table in front of her. Her friends had encouraged her to tell him, and as far as they knew she was the reason Kendall’s father didn’t know about her. Aimee’d never admitted to them that he hadn’t bothered to return the messages she left for him. Even now, none of her friends mentioned she’d have to fess up to the father of her daughter.

“I’m fine.” Aimee forced a plastic smile that would have made Barbie proud and lifted the tray she’d set on the edge of their table.

“Stop.” Vic ordered in a quiet mother’s tone she’d mastered with her stepdaughter. She stood and took the tray from Aimee. “You’re not fine. You’re on break. I’ll cover for you if Hauk needs the help.”

“But it’s my job.”

Vic nodded toward the door to the kitchen. “It gives me a reason to be near my man.”

“You mean kiss him,” Tabby chuckled.

“None of you are any better,” Vic challenged. “Aimee, you take as long as you need.”

Taking advantage of the excuse before time ran out and he saw her, Aimee shifted into the shadowy corners of the pub and edged her way to the kitchen door, keeping her eyes on the entrance the whole way.

His scarf, beanie and three-day beard weren’t much of a disguise, but it seemed to keep people beyond her table of friends from recognizing him. He couldn’t hide his identity from Aimee, though.

His walk. His wide-legged stance. His dark brows and darker eyes. Even the stubble darkening his square jaw that called attention to his kissable mouth. It was all part of a package she’d know blindfolded.

The man exuded power. Seeing him again, though he didn’t seem to have seen her yet, reminded her why she’d been drawn to him.

Josh Bryan.

Singer.

Songwriter.

Sex symbol.

His posters were plastered on walls across the world. His songs sent women into fits of sighs. His touches… His touches had blasted Aimee straight to the heavens, and try as she might to forget them, and she’d tried, she’d been reminded of them every day since.

Desperate to talk to him, to hear the smooth glide of her name on his lips, to see him look at her with the passion they’d shared over a year ago, Aimee continued toward escape. Six steps would have her at the end of the bar separating them. Three beyond that and she’d be in the kitchen where Carmen would come in with Kendall.

Vic sat the tray of empties on the bar and drew Hauk’s attention. “Aimee’s on break.”

“Something happen? You okay?” he asked Aimee as he turned to her.

Aimee tried not to notice the concern that deepened his gaze and his tone with cautiousness, as if he was gearing up to kick someone’s teeth down their throat for stepping out of line.

“She’s fine.” Vic cast a quick glance toward Josh as a silent answer to Hauk.

Even if she hadn’t been facing him, Aimee would have known Josh was heading toward the bar. Heading closer to her. The warmth of his power growing nearer tingled across her nape with awareness.

Retreat, a quick one, became a critical necessity. Before he could see her, Aimee ducked into the kitchen. Drew, the new cook barely out of high school, nodded a greeting and turned instantly back to his work. He was new to the bar and hadn’t settled into the idea of relaxing at work. They’d wear him down, but she had more pressing concerns at the moment.

Curious, Aimee pushed to the tips of her toes and grabbed the doorframe for stability. She peaked through the window of the swinging door and like the first time she’d seen Josh, she found herself captivated more fully than a kid at a magic show.

At the bar, Josh slid onto a stool and greeted Hauk as easily as if he was a regular. Hauk, being one of the few to know her secret, gave a knowing nod and returned the greeting. They didn’t talk long, but each second that passed was pregnant with a naked truth expanding in Aimee’s soul.

Why he was in town didn’t matter. He was and she couldn’t avoid him for long.

“You okay?” Drew asked as he moved a large pan to the sink.

“Yes.” No.

As if he felt her watching him, Josh looked toward the door she hid behind. She ducked back but not before seeing the hint of a smile that pinched the corners of his eyes. She remembered that smile. It was the one that said he knew who he was and that he could get his way if he poured on the charm.

“Oh crap.” Her words dragged dreadfully.

Josh was more dangerous when he only gave that hint of a smile. When he smiled like that his eyes spoke of seduction. She’d been eager to indulge in his seduction.

Standing, he turned more fully her way. The back door to the kitchen opened and Carmen hustled inside with Kendall’s carrier hooked on her arm. Drew dropped the pan in the sink with a splash. His neck turned pink, as it did every time he saw Carmen. Kendall pulled Aimee’s attention to her with a cry. In that same moment Aimee saw the scene that would unfold in seconds, and she suddenly didn’t care how her sister affected Drew.

Josh would come in, see Kendall and know. He couldn’t not know. Their little girl looked just like him with her almost black eyes and dark brown hair. Her little lips would one day grow into the wider mouth that would dominate her face when she smiled. Just like her father.

“Carmen!” Aimee darted from the door to her sister and immediately began shoving her toward the stairs that led up to Hauk’s old apartment where she now lived. “Take Kendall upstairs.”

“But—”

“Now! Please. I’ll explain in a little bit.”

The door to the bar eased open and the noise from beyond grew louder. Carmen’s back was to the kitchen, hopefully enough to hide the carrier she held. She wasn’t one to be easily persuaded, though.

“What’s going on?” She turned on the steps. Her eyes drifted over Aimee’s head and snapped instantly wider. “Ooooh.”

He was inside, but he hadn’t seen Kendall yet. With the hood on the carrier pulled up and the blankets tucked around her the most he’d see was the carrier.

“Carmen.” Quietly and through closed lips, Aimee begged her sister to humor her. If she’d ever needed blind participation she needed it now. “Please.”

“You can’t not tell him,” Carmen whispered.

“I know. I will. Just not right this second. Not like this.” Aimee looked pleadingly toward the top of the stairs. “Please.”

“Fine.” Carmen smiled over Aimee’s head and before she turned to go upstairs, she tossed out a grinning, “Hi, Josh.”

He said nothing, but Drew made some excuse and left the kitchen. The bar noise rose and fell again as he did. Aimee could only watch her baby, who wouldn’t quietly wait for dinner much longer, be taken upstairs. The increasing pressure of needing to nurse and the anticipation of being face-to-face with Josh grew in her chest.

With a bracing exhale, she turned.

Josh had unwound his scarf and unzipped his coat. The opening revealed a T-shirt tightly wrapping his pecs and abs. He wasn’t a big man, but Aimee had spent hours exploring his chest and abs with all their subtle bulges and ridges.

She swallowed.

“Hi, Aims. Aimee.”

His shortened use of her name was a gut punch. He’d always shortened her name, calling her Aims instead of Aimee. The intimacy, the profound suggestion that she was his, swept through her as powerfully now as it had then.

“Josh.” Please let me get through this. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not here. At least not until tomorrow night.”

“What?”

He shrugged. “Byron talked me into playing at tomorrow’s concert. He’d have a fit if he knew I stopped here first.”

“You’re the surprise guest.” In more ways than one. “He’s out there. How’d you get by him?”

“He’s dancing.”

“Sky. Right.” She’d forgotten about the woman seducing the old men with her artistic touch.

“I hadn’t realized how much I missed this place. Or how good the peace of it could be for my writing.”

“So you’re here to write?” If he’d come for her he wouldn’t have waited so long. If he’d given her a thought he would have returned a message or two. He’d have told his manager to let her backstage when she’d gone to a concert to talk to him. He’d blocked her, though, and now here he stood as if he’d never rebuffed her.

“The concert is work. The new music…” He shrugged one shoulder in a show of doubt she’d never witnessed in him. “I’m hoping that works better in Whispering Cove.”

“You say that like you’ve been struggling.” The tabloids, award shows and TV interviews reflected a different angle of his life.

“I have. I haven’t been able to get Whispering Cove, you, off my mind.” He took a step closer. “You wouldn’t be trying to avoid me, would you?”

She didn’t move. She was going to have to stand up to him sooner or later. Now was as good a time as any for that first step.

“You were the one who didn’t return a call.”

He took another step. “You didn’t call.”

“I did. Even went to a concert.” She’d done everything she could think of when she’d found out she was pregnant. Then she’d given up and too much time had passed for him to ever believe it wasn’t a ploy intended to trap him.

“I didn’t know.” Another step. Only a few feet separated them. “Maybe I would have come back.”

“No.” Her heart kicked excitedly. She wanted to believe he could want to be with her enough to change his lifestyle. She’d wanted to believe it when he first came to town and when she’d tried to contact him. She wanted to believe it now despite his lack of response to her attempts. Regardless of his rebuff, the months apart had done nothing to lessen her feelings for him. Or make her stop thinking about him.

For nine months she’d carried his child. Almost five months had passed in single-mom-ville and, with thousands of miles separating them, he’d been a daily part of her life.

“Why not?”

“You coming back for me would’ve made us more than a fling.” She shook her head to reinforce her argument. If she gave in, even a little, she’d fall victim to the hope that had had her reaching for the phone on more than one occasion, especially in the early morning hours when she cradled Kendall back to sleep after nursing. “You said yourself you wouldn’t be trapped into anything more.”

Another step. “Maybe I’ve been regretting that.”

Her leg muscles twitched with the urge to close the remaining distance. Her hands fluttered at her sides in an instinctive need to touch.

It was Christmas. The time of year for a single woman to fantasize about a sexy man to share the cold nights with. When the man was famous, kind and generous in bed then one night with the fantasy was enough to satisfy her for months. Her emotions were still all over the hormone-o-sphere from having a baby. That had to be why she was more susceptible than normal.

The weight of tears and emotion and the pent-up dreams of an orphaned girl who’d yearned to be wanted flared into an image of an adult woman dropping to her knees and begging for his words to be true.

With the begging came a flying heart rate and buzzing brain.

Wanting to believe him was easy. Almost automatic. Self-preservation kicked in and screamed for her to get away from him, for her to say something, anything, to get him to leave before he could disappoint her.

He didn’t know about Kendall, and now, with her baby upstairs, hungry and no doubt ready to start wailing any moment, wasn’t the time to break the news. Unless she wanted to prove his words for the pretty lie they were. Telling him about their daughter would certainly have him running if good luck were her friend.

He would regret his return more than his departure.

If bad luck was haunting her, he’d accuse her of going to lengths greater than any other woman to trap him. Hell, avoiding traps was the whole reason she’d agreed to a fling with him. She hadn’t wanted strings either.

But if he meant what he was saying, if he’d missed her and wanted to be with her, there was a chance he would accept Kendall. That they could be a family.

No! If Josh meant what he was saying, he wouldn’t have been in every tabloid with a different woman each time. He’d been a player last time he was in town—living up to his gossip rag reputation. He still was, and, like before, he was using his gift with words to push her buttons.

Even if he had changed his mind about relationships, and she didn’t think he really had, the nomadic lifestyle of living on the road was unsuitable for a baby. She didn’t want to raise Kendall on a perpetual tour, and with each album bigger than the last, Josh’s tours grew longer. His last one—yes, she’d kept an eye out—had lasted ten months and spanned five countries.

No. A relationship with Josh was out of the question. Her heart and libido were going to have to listen to her head this time. There would be no late-night trysts in his hotel room or secret rendezvous in a festival booth.

“I regret nothing that happened between us, Josh.” She held her ground when he took yet another step. He was now close enough that she had to tilt her head to look up to him. If she stretched her fingers out she’d touch him.

That also meant he was close enough to smell, and he smelled more delicious than fudge-filled chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Sweet and decadent, spicy and musky, he was more sinful than the calorie-filled cookies she loved to bake.

“But as amazing as being with you was, and I’ve never known better—” why had she just admitted that? “—I can’t pick up where we left off.”

“Then let’s pick up where we began.” He extended his hand and offered a smile. “I’m Josh Bryan. Nice to meet you.”

She glanced at his hand. A grin tugged at her mouth. She ached to give in, to take his hand and openly return his smile. Giving him a real smile would open the door to flirtations. The touch would awaken the never dormant desire to be wanted. Surrendering to his sway extended her emotional budget farther than she could afford.

Maybe cautiousness had been hardwired in when she and Carmen had been orphaned, split up and passed from home to home. They’d both landed in nice enough places each time, with nice enough people, but nice enough wasn’t enough when you weren’t with your only family.

She and Carmen hit the road as soon as they were both free from foster care. They’d run until Whispering Cove.

Life in Whispering Cove had changed things, but in the loneliness of her thoughts Aimee admitted she still wasn’t satisfied. She wanted a man who wanted to be with her as much as she wanted to be with him. Josh could’ve been that man, if he had a different lifestyle.

“Things are too different for me now.” She couldn’t forget the things they’d done. The way they felt or the way they’d altered her life. Her stomach knotted, and she suspected it had more to do with desire than the anxiety of rejecting a man no woman in her right mind would turn down.

Kendall crossed her mind, and with the thought of her daughter who waited upstairs to be fed, the tingling pressure of letdown passed through Aimee’s breasts. Blissful, the sensation wasn’t unlike the instant release of an orgasm. She pressed a hand to her chest and fought the instinct to close her eyes and sigh.

More pressing was the knowledge that she only had a few minutes before the nursing pads in her bra were soaked and she’d leak through her blouse. Unsexy and undeniable, she’d have to explain.

No. Forgetting all that they’d done was impossible.

He didn’t drop his hand when she didn’t accept it. He instead leaned forward and took hers. “We can’t start over. We can’t pick up. What can we do?”

“I wish I knew, Josh.”