Michael Kreegan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, staring into the paned store-front windows of a candy shop. Fake snow had been sprayed in the corners of each pane to give the illusion of frost since it didn’t get very cold in California. Not even in December. Colorful Christmas lights lined the windows on each side of the door. The display in front of him sported a miniature Christmas tree and shiny wrapped packages with bright bows. Red and silver balls hung from ribbons at different lengths from the top of the windows.
But it was the silver wrapped box of chocolates with a hand-crafted tag that read ‘Lizzie’s Sweet Shop’ that had his heart pounding like a jackhammer.
No way. It couldn’t be.
“Hey, Mikey, you coming?”
The sound of his SEAL buddies voice brought him out of his stupor. Jace waited with brows raised on the curb with Brogan.
“Hold on.” He pushed through the door of the shop, tiny silver bells chiming as he walked inside. Immediately the scent of chocolate enclosed him. Familiar in so many ways his steps faltered.
People milled around the shop, almost filling the small space. Everywhere he looked he saw Christmas. Shiny wrapped boxes of handmade chocolates, a real pine tree in the corner decorated to the hilt with presents underneath.
A musical laugh drew his attention to the counter. He knew that laugh. Spent his entire childhood listening to it. Wishing he could be so open and free. That laugh had gotten him into trouble more times than he could count. With parents, teachers, neighbors, the law. It had driven him into the military to avoid prison.
Drawn to the sound, Mike wove his way through the crowd to the glass display case at the back of the store. Chest high and filled with chocolates that he knew were handmade with the Lawson ladies’ secret ingredient. He’d pried relentlessly trying to get Lizzie to share the secret only the women in the Lawson family knew, but the secret was locked up tight. For women only. Damned if it still drove him nuts wondering what made their candies so incredible.
He approached the counter and saw a brunette with a dazzling smile handing a customer a shiny red bag. The shock of seeing her for the second time in eight months about brought him to his knees. Not because she hadn’t said anything about opening a shop here, but because she was the most incredible woman he’d ever known. She’d haunted his dreams for years. At first, a forbidden fruit. And now, fruit he would die to taste again.
Last he knew she would be taking over Lizzie’s Sweet Shop in Michigan, in their home town. Then again, they hadn’t talked much during her three-day visit.
Images of Lizzie, head thrown back, lips parted as he slid inside her filled his head. Pushing those thoughts away, he stepped up to the counter.
“Happy Holidays. Welcome to Lizzie’s Sweet Shop. What can I—” She stopped midsentence when she saw him. Her pretty light green eyes widened. “Michael.”
Looking flustered, she tucked a piece of dark hair behind her ear. “Can I get you something?”
Really? They’d spent three hot and heavy days in bed last April and she thought he wanted to make a purchase?
“Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“I’m really busy with the grand opening and holiday shoppers.”
Mike frowned. She’d been happy to see him during her last visit. Hell, she couldn’t keep her hands off him. Blame it on not satiating their attraction as teens or the fact she was the most beautiful, spirited woman he’d ever laid eyes on, but either way they’d connected on a whole new level. Now, she didn’t seem to want to see him.
Unwilling to be dismissed so easily, he asked, “What time do you close?”
Something flashed in her eyes. Unease? What the hell? They’d known each other since they were kids. And now, intimately.
After a moment, she answered. “Come by the shop at nine-thirty.”
“I’ll be here.”
She forced a smile, not at all like the carefree woman he’d watched just a moment ago, and turned her attention to the gentleman waiting to be served.
Baffled, he left the store.
“Where’s the chocolate?” Jace asked once he caught up with them.
“What?” Mike asked, distracted by Lizzie’s attitude.
“You went into a candy story, man. Where’s the chocolate?”
Preoccupied, he said, “No candy. Let’s go. Donovan won’t hold our table all night.” He strode ahead of them and turned the corner toward Demarco’s Italian Restaurant and Café. Although he’d lost his appetite after the uncomfortable exchange with Lizzie he wouldn’t back out of dinner plans with the guys. It wasn’t often the team got together as civilians.
He managed to skate through dinner and conversation without anyone realizing his thoughts were on a certain brunette that had turned his life upside down so many times he didn’t know which way was up. Although Brogan, stoic and silent as always, had his eyes narrowed on him most of the night. In Brogan-speak that meant he was contemplating something. Right now that something happened to be him.
Mike took a long swig of his beer, relieved when Donovan’s youngest sister, Angela, brought the checks. He quickly paid his, glancing at his watch.
“That’s the tenth time you’ve checked your watch, Kreegan. You have a hot date?” Jace quirked a brow at him with a knowing smile. They all knew Mike liked to spend his downtime in bed with whatever woman he’d picked up in the bar that night. Sex served as a great distraction from missions and grueling training. Jack, Grey, Donovan and Brogan, the only married ones on the team, preferred to spend their time with their wives. Jace had a big family spread out all over the country so he spent his downtime on the phone or on Skype catching up with them.
Mike forced a grin and stood. “Something like that.”
With some ribbing he left the restaurant and headed straight for Lizzie’s. He glanced at his watch as he rounded the corner. Right on time.
When he reached the store he tried the handle, expecting it to be locked since all the lights were off except for the Christmas ones. Bells tinkled over his head as he stepped through the door. He spotted Lizzie behind the counter, pulling chocolates out and putting them in a silver box with a glossy striped ribbon. She straightened, waving him in.
He strode across the wood floor and stopped at the counter. How Lizzie looked over was a mystery. She stood a foot shorter than him.
“Hi,” he said.
Her lips tilted. Not a smile, but almost. “Hi. I’m almost done here.”
“Take your time.”
With a nod, she ducked behind the counter and finished choosing candy for her box. When she finished she closed the glass door and looked at him between boxes of pre-wrapped chocolates and Christmas decorations.
Damn, he’d missed her. More than he cared to admit.
“I’m glad you came,” she said softly.
She drew in a deep breath. “You might want to sit down.”
Something in her tone made his gut tighten. “I’m good.”
“Okay.” After another deep breath, she came around the edge of the counter.
And nearly dropped him to his knees.
Unable not to, he stared at her round belly. Pregnant?
Buzzing started in his ears, his vision dimming. His beautiful Lizzie was having a baby. Some bastard had gotten her pregnant.
Any hopes he had of rekindling their relationship flew out the window. He didn’t do married or pregnant women. He might be a dog but he had morals and you didn’t mess around with another man’s woman.
Anger washed through him along with an array of other emotions. The foremost being the thought of her sleeping with someone else.
Heart racing, his gaze flew to her left hand, resting lightly on her belly. No ring. Not only had someone gotten her pregnant he hadn’t stepped up and married her.
A mixture of emotions coursed through him. None of which he wanted to identify.
His gaze bounced to Lizzie’s. Apprehension filled the deep green depths that reminded him so much of the forests back home.
He tried to speak, but the words refused to come.
Lizzie spoke first. “It’s yours.” A pause. “I’m sorry to spring this on you like this. I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”
The buzzing in his ears grew louder. His? He was the deadbeat who had knocked her up and not put a ring on her finger.
One day, Michael, those chickens are going to come home to roost.
His mother’s words rang in his head. She hadn’t been around much to raise him. Too busy working two jobs to make ends meet after his old man walked out on them and filling in the spaces with booze. She’d never liked that he ran wild as a teen, sleeping with anything in a skirt, but sex kept the truth of his miserable life at bay. When he wasn’t with Lizzie, that is. She made the loneliness bearable. Hell, she’d taken it away with her pranks and stunts that mostly got him in trouble. She’d gotten caught about half as much. Hence her nickname, Lizzie Lawless. He’d taken the fall for her more times than he could count. And he’d do it over again. No questions asked.
Lizzie had something no other girl had ever had. He’d fallen for that uninhibited zeal. The touch of recklessness so much like his own. They’d each had their reasons for wanting to run free and when they ran together upheaval followed.
The pandemonium that followed their hookup eight months ago had resulted in a baby. Dear God, he was going to be a father. The one thing he never wanted to be. Fathers walked out on their family without warning or notice. He’s sworn he’d never get a girl pregnant because his dad’s DNA was in him and he didn’t want to walk in his footsteps.
His life was chaotic. Unpredictable. The way he liked it. A baby would be a distraction. A complication he sure as hell hadn’t been prepared for. Settling down defied his way of life. His restlessness hadn’t gone away from his teen years and being a SEAL gave him an outlet. Once upon it time it had been Lizzie.
But the woman staring back at him with a mixture of apprehension and hope wasn’t the woman he knew. His Lizzie knew what she wanted and went after it. No holds barred. Including the bedroom. Their three nights together had been the best sex of his life. Hell, he hadn’t been with a woman since. There had been many offers, but somehow they had failed in comparison to the woman standing tall and proud in front of him.
“Say something,” Lizzie said.
Pushing words past his dry mouth he said, “Are you sure it’s mine?”
And immediately regretted it when Lizzie went rigid and took a step back. “I’m not the one who sleeps around.”
He winced. Direct hit. Rueful, he stepped toward her but she put up a hand to stop him. “No. We have nothing more to say. You’re the father of my child.” Her eyes met his, slightly sad. “I know you, Michael. Better than anyone. I just thought you deserved to know.”
Dammit. He hadn’t meant to offend her. Lizzie wouldn’t lie. Never had. He’d liked that about her. Even when she told him things he didn’t want to hear.
She shook her head. “Please. Just go.”
Recognizing the determination on her face he held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll go. But this isn’t over.”