Sarah had it all figured out.
Shifting gears like a seasoned racecar driver, she maneuvered her convertible sports coupe
through highway traffic and enjoyed the wind on her face. She was confident she’d formulated a solution to the problem she faced and would remain totally in control. Grinning, she geared down and raced toward the exit ramp.
It didn’t matter the little hiccups life sent her; she always managed to manipulate circumstances to her advantage. Even running late, like she was now, she was sure she’d somehow turn it around to her benefit.
"Damn long lines.” She’d left the house bright and early to avoid the Saturday-morning crowds, only to find her favorite gourmet shop packed because of a sale. But lack of time wouldn’t dent her plans.
She went over the specifics. Fact one—her seventy-five-year-old Aunt Lilly and her new seventy-year-old friend, Emily, wanted to go on a cruise. Fact two—Emily’s grandson was being difficult about his grandmother’s impending trip.
Solution—she’d pile on the charm. Sweeten him with wine and goodies, and then steamroll the pain in the ass into letting the dear old biddies go. What harm could they come to on a cruise ship?
Sarah’d have him eating out of the palm of her hand in no time. Then it would be good-bye Aunt Lilly and Emily, sayonara to the jackass of a grandson, and hello to a week of peace.
She glanced at the time and gasped. Avoiding the red light, she cut through a shopping plaza and aimed for her neighborhood side streets. She passed idyllic homes with their mature landscapes and headed for home to iron out this little glitch.
Slowing down, Sarah admired the diamond-in-the-rough mansion that was for sale. If you overlooked the overgrown, weed-infested yard, the tilting front porch, and the broken windows, this grand madam had great potential. Sarah had given the Realtor a lowball offer, and she had dibs on it.
Car doors slammed.
She did a double take and recognized the real estate agent’s car. “I don’t think so.” She slammed on her brakes, reversed to the edge of the broken asphalt drive, and smiled at the plastic princess pacing and yelling into her cell phone. “Hi, there,” Sarah called out.
Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth princess glared over her designer sunglasses and turned her back on Sarah.
“Nice to meet you too,” Sarah said.
The woman snapped off her cell and impatiently tapped her Manolos. “Hurry up,” she barked at the nanny unbuckling the baby out of their luxury sedan. “This is a waste of my time.” The plastic princess glared at the real estate agent making his sales pitch to a man who must be her husband. “Let’s get this over with.”
Not on your life! “Hi. I’m your next-door neighbor, and I wouldn’t bring your little treasure into the house.” Sarah plastered a sincere expression on her face. “There’s a mother raccoon and her babies that live there. She may attack.” And she was telling the God’s honest truth.
“Attack?” The woman took a step away from the house.
If she didn’t want to move here, then it was Sarah’s duty, woman to woman, to give her the ace she needed to stack the deck in her favor. “And don’t let the noises scare you.”
“Noises?” Plastic Princess raised her sunglasses onto her head as her eyes narrowed speculatively. “What noises?”
Sarah shrugged. “The usual. When you turn on the water, the pipes rattle and shake, making the plaster fall off the walls. They’re liable to burst. Then there’s the water damage and mold in the basement.”
“David!” The woman spun on her heels and hastened back to her car. “David! I’ve seen enough!” She flung open the car’s back door. “Strap Junior back into his seat,” she instructed the nanny and yelled again to her husband. “We’re moving in with Mother.”
With smug satisfaction, Sarah took her foot off the brake and cruised toward her driveway.
“The hell we are!” David shouted back to his wife. “You don’t want to see this house, then fine.” His frustration and anger rang over the tall hedges. “But we’re not moving in with that bitch!”
“Problem solved.” Chuckling, Sarah turned into her driveway, and a two-story Victorian home came into view behind large weeping willows. A gingerbread scroll accented a charming turret located at the front of the house. A wooden swing hung under the covered front porch and gently swayed on the whispering summer breeze.
This late in the day, the side and back covered porches were hidden under a lazy shade. Yellow and orange groupings of California poppies welcomed her at the front of the house.
“Next.” She jumped out of her little red car, tugged her black miniskirt over her long legs, and adjusted the gauzy white shirt that hinted at the lace bra beneath. Throwing her purse over her shoulder, she grabbed a grocery bag in each arm and, with a nudge of her hips, shut the car door. Her long, straight hair swung from side to side and brushed the base of her back as she sprinted to the front door and almost tripped on the newspaper lying on the stone pathway.
“That doesn’t belong there.” She hooked her foot under the newspaper, flicked it, and sent it flying into a basket filled with newspapers for recycling. She then kicked the waterspout, and the sprinklers turned on. She glanced over her perfectly manicured lawn and smiled. Perfect.
Juggling the groceries, Sarah opened the front door. “Aunt Lilly, I’m home.”
“Crap.” Her aunt sounded pissed off.
“I hope you’re not doing anything I wouldn’t do.” She could hear Aunt Lilly continuing to swear and mumble from the kitchen. Her accident-prone aunt muttered often, usually when she had just made a mess of something.
“You wouldn’t believe the lines.” Sarah hurried to the kitchen as the heavy grocery bags slowly slipped out of her grasp. “Give me a hand and we’ll have everything back under control.” She dropped the bags onto the sparkling, glass tabletop and sighed with relief. “Made it.”
She glanced over the tidy, almond cabinets, polished granite countertops, and the large arrangement of colorful dried corncobs above the kitchen window. No problem here. “Guess what I bought—” When she turned around, her grin disappeared. “Hell no! Not again!”
Aunt Lilly’s short gray curls were hidden under a large gold turban. Her wax-smeared apron barely covered her flowered dress or her short, ample figure. Flowers, candles, and an open magic book lay on the granite countertop as she waved a lit barbecue lighter.
Sarah pointed at the stuffed crows perched on the counter, and the crystal ball. “I thought Amanda hid all this stuff.”
“She did, but not well enough,” her aunt said with a smug smile.
Sarah rubbed the dull pounding starting in her temple. “Who are you cursing this time?” She didn’t like the looks of this.
“Me?” She gasped. “Oh no, you’re not.” Sarah hotfooted it over to her aunt. “Give me that.” She grabbed the lighter out of her aunt’s hands and tossed it onto the counter. “Haven’t you learned your lesson about meddling in other people’s lives?”
“Doesn’t everything I do turn out right?” Aunt Lilly’s soft, round cheeks flushed with guilt. “Eventually. Besides…” She raised her double chins. “How is a skinny thing like you going to stop me?”
She wasn’t skinny—just slim. “Watch me.” With a gentle shove, Sarah propelled her aunt past the sink, toward the table.
“I’m doing this for your own good.” Aunt Lilly dug her heels into the polished granite floor, but she only slid.
“You’re doing this because you’re an incorrigible busybody who doesn’t know when to mind her own damn business.” She needed to get her aunt’s mind off this ridiculous nonsense of playing with magic. “Instead of blowing up the house, help me unpack these bags.” Sarah pushed a grocery bag toward her and unpacked the other.
Ever since Aunt Lilly had found her dearly departed sister’s spell book in the attic, she’d decided she would solve Sarah’s and her sister’s man problems with magic. But mixing magic with her meddling aunt’s good intentions was and always would be a huge mistake.
The last time her aunt had experimented with magic, Sarah’s normally quiet sister had lost control of the words that came out of her mouth. Amanda had confronted anyone who challenged her and ended up telling her boss she loved him. There was no way in hell Sarah was willing to let her aunt do something similar to her.
Aunt Lilly pulled a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates from the bag. “What’s all this for?”
“To sweeten up Tony.” Sarah set a tray of hors d’oeuvres on the table and pulled off the plastic lid. “I haven’t met the guy, but you leave him to me. Food is a surefire way into his good graces. And before you know it, you’ll be celebrating your upcoming trip.”
Aunt Lilly shook her head regretfully. “If Tony keeps complaining, I don’t think we’ll be going.”
“You leave Tony to me.” Sarah emptied a bag of wrapped toffees into the glass bowl in the middle of the table. “There, all done. Emily and her grandson will be here any minute now, so why don’t we hide your magical paraphernalia and watch some TV?”
Aunt Lilly crossed her arms over her generous bosom and lifted her chin. “Not interested.”
Sarah felt her eyebrows brush against her bangs. “Since when? I can’t tear you away from the thing most of the time.”
“I’ve got more important things to do, like straightening out your life,” Lilly said, easing closer to the candles.
Sarah blocked her way. “If you’re thinking of casting a spell so that I can get a man, think again. I’ve got more than my fair share of them.”
Aunt Lilly pushed her out of the way and waddled back to the counter. “And you scare them away within a month.” She planted her hands on her hips and glared at Sarah. “Now, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.”
Sarah rubbed the growing pounding in her temple. “What’s the difference?”
“The hard way is I cast the spell when you’re not around,” Aunt Lilly said, picking up the lighter, flicking on the flame, and waving it in front of her face. “And the easy way is you stick around so I don’t blow anything up.”
“Oh God.” The last time she was left alone, her aunt nearly set the house on fire trying to rewire the toaster. She must have crossed the wires—the electric shock had knocked her off her feet, making her hit her head and pass out.
Sarah was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. Taking a deep breath, she sealed her fate. “Fine. Get this circus act over with.”
Aunt Lilly’s face lit up. “Wonderful. This will be my best spell yet.”
She doubted it. “All I care about is you finish with this”—she waved at the flowers—“and we hide all evidence of your idiosyncrasies before our guests arrive.” Besides, like the chances of lightning striking the same place twice, what were the odds Aunt Lilly could work her magic a second time?
Aunt Lilly clicked the lighter on again. A bright flame jumped into the air. “You won’t regret it.”
“I already do.” Drawing closer to her aunt, Sarah continued, “Just remember, in the unlikely event anything crazy starts to happen while you’re on that cruise, I’m going to track you down.”
She’d just made a pact with the devil. Gripping the cold edge of the granite counter for support, she watched her aunt light a row of red, yellow, and white candles. “Did you follow the instructions of the spell book, or have you improvised again?”
“Of course you are.” Why’d she bother to ask? “That’s what I was afraid of.” Her aunt never did anything by the book.
“Quit being such a worrywart.” With dramatic flair, Aunt Lilly pulled one of Sarah’s scarves out of her apron pocket and dropped it into a small dish.
“Where the hell did you find that?” Sarah reached for it.
Aunt Lilly slapped her hand away. “In one of your drawers.”
“Really?” Was nothing private in this house?
“Oh, hush, so I can get this ball rolling.”
Rolling? That was what Sarah’s stomach was doing. This was bad—really bad. Aunt Lilly’s off-the-cuff approach to magic worried her. How could she explain to her aunt that her good intentions always landed short of the mark? Sarah drew closer and prayed this would be over quickly.
Aunt Lilly cleared her throat, and Sarah knew there was no turning back. The candles flickered in readiness, and the air grew thick with tension. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
Ignoring her objections, Aunt Lilly raised her hands over the candles and cast her spell.
“Under layers you will find,
A special person with a mind.”
A rustling sound drew Sarah’s attention away from the candles’ swaying flames to the candies she had placed in the bowl on the table. Her mouth dropped open. The hairs on her arms stood on end. The candies bounced about like jumping beans as, one by one, they stripped themselves of their wrappers.
“Holy crap.” The blood drained from her head only to come rushing back, leaving a ringing in her ears. She kept her eyes glued to the chaotic movement of the candies as they clattered onto the table’s glass top. “Oh God.” She desperately wanted to stop her aunt but knew that if she did, Lilly would only try again when she wasn’t around and hurt herself.
In a theatrical manner, Aunt Lilly projected her voice.
“Keep on peeling, one by one,
For your journey has just begun.”
The champagne bottle unraveled its bright foil wrap. The cork wiggled loose and rocketed past her head. Sarah ducked. She was under attack. “Help!”
Without skipping a beat, her aunt continued.
“’Till you reach the inner core,
Then you’ll see there’s so much more.”
The hors d’oeuvres exploded.
“Shit!” A gooey liquid splattered her in the face. Sarah wiped off her cheeks and, in stunned disbelief, glanced around her. Her aunt had really done it this time.
Mushrooms and cheesy spinach had sprayed everywhere. On her clean almond-lacquer cabinets, on her gleaming granite countertops, on her glass table, and on her polished floors. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sarah watched as the little wieners she’d placed on the table stood up, bounced around, and stripped off their puff pastry wraps.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” The smell of melted cheese and overcooked mushrooms made her stomach roil. “Stop, stop, stop!” she shouted as tiny pellets hit the back of her head.
Sarah spun around and gasped. The colored corn decoration over the kitchen window was popping flurries of white missiles. They rained over her and covered the room in a fragrant layer of fluffy disaster.
“What you see is what you get,
Then the spell’s terms have been met.”
With a final clap of her hands, Aunt Lilly leaned forward and blew out the candles.
Nothing and no one moved.
Shock vibrated through her, shaking her very bones. “You’re a menace to society.” With quivering fingers, she pulled the popcorn out of her hair. “Just look at our kitchen. You’ve destroyed it.”
Aunt Lilly waved her concern away. “We’ll have it clean in no time.”
Sarah grabbed a dishrag and frantically wiped at the exploded cheese. “Let’s hurry.” Befuddled thoughts and feelings assailed her as she tried to get rid of her aunt’s latest disaster. “Hide the candles. Toss the flowers. Do something.” She looked up and screamed.
Aunt Lilly covered her chest with her hand. “What’s gotten into you?”
Oh my God, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “You really screwed up this time!” She inhaled and exhaled. “Anthony?” Her mind couldn’t grasp the evidence in front of her eyes. What the hell was her ex-boyfriend doing walking nonchalantly into her kitchen?
“Who?” Aunt Lilly asked.
“Anthony!” With a shaking finger, Sarah pointed to the kitchen doorway. “What have you done?” The erratic beat pounded in her ears. Had her aunt somehow conjured up her ex-boyfriend? “This is the Tony you’ve been talking about?”
“Yes.” Aunt Lilly’s frown dissolved, and her eyes lit up. “Tony, Emily—you’re here.”
“We did knock,” said a deep, familiar voice, “but no one answered.” He shrugged. “The door was unlocked, so we walked in.”
God, what a voice. Its rich, dark timbre raised goose bumps up her arms and made her feel edgy. She shouldn’t be reacting to him at all, let alone to the decadent tone of his voice.
Sarah watched the top of his head almost brush the apex of the doorframe as he crowded into the kitchen, and her ears started to ring. Still the same attractive devil she’d known two years ago. Still breathtakingly good-looking, with his aquiline nose, attractive cheekbones, and a strong jawline. And the most ridiculously long eyelashes. Hell, she had to apply two coats of mascara to achieve the same effect.
Dressed in a black designer suit, the pants tailored to the muscular lines of his legs and tight hips, he carelessly carried his jacket over his shoulder, holding it there with the tip of a finger. His white shirt stretched over a wide, firm chest—a chest she remembered caressing, kissing, and falling asleep on.
But there were breathtaking differences between then and now. He used to wear his dark brown hair cut short to his head. Now it reached his shoulders and was tied back. A diamond earring sparkled in his right ear. An earring, for Pete’s sake. Her pulse spun out of control. When had the conservative workaholic been replaced by a pirate?
“Hello?” A little white-haired woman peeked around him. “Oh, mamma mia!” Her eyes rounded at the disastrous mess.
Emily, Sarah presumed.
“Still the same impulsive Sarah.” Anthony’s openly amused gaze surveyed the aftermath of her aunt’s attempt at magic. “I’m not surprised.”
“Oh, believe you me, I’ve changed. I learned from my past mistakes,” Sarah said. “I never expected to see you again.” Popcorn crunched under her sandals as Sarah made her way to the table and dropped into a chair before her knees could collapse.
Perplexed, Aunt Lilly looked between the two of them. “You know each other?”
“Knew.” Sarah crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Anthony. “Briefly.”
“And you never brought him home so I could meet him?” Aunt Lilly pulled off her turban, dropped it onto the counter, and sat down next to Emily.
“He never had the time,” Sarah replied while not taking her eyes off him. It had been work, work, work—and snatches of hot sex in between. “How do you know Aunt Lilly?”
Anthony took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the cheesy spatters off a seat so his grandmother could sit down, then did the same for himself. “We met your aunt and Amanda at Mark’s barbecue, just before your sister and Mark got engaged.”
The pieces were falling into place. Her aunt was always talking about Tony and his Italian family. It could have been anyone, for all she knew. Every Italian family had a dozen Tonys. She just never dreamed Aunt Lilly was talking about her Tony. At least her aunt hadn’t conjured him up with her spell. She briefly relaxed when another thought made her stomach burn.
Her eyes narrowed. “You knew you were coming here?”
Anthony nodded. “Si.”
“To my house?”
The snake. No wonder he hadn’t looked surprised when he’d walked into the kitchen. He had been prepared while she’d been ambushed. Reaching forward, he snatched a candy off the table, and his arm brushed her arm.
She jerked away, furious her actions revealed how he still affected her. A split second later, her sandals seemed to drop off her feet, her soles landing on something squishy on the cold floor.
Frowning, Sarah tentatively moved her foot around, trying to find her sandals. Nothing. Where the hell were they? She widened the circular motion of her foot and cringed when she squashed an exploded hors d’oeuvre. She tried a side-to-side movement, hoping for success, but her toes encountered a wiener instead. Gross.
This was ridiculous. They had to be there. Sarah smeared the spatters over the glass tabletop but couldn’t see anything through the oily blotches of food.
“What happened here?” Anthony glanced around the kitchen.
His deep, resonant voice shocked her back to reality. Resentment slowly bubbled into anger. She had worked him out of her system two years ago, and now he had the nerve to show up again.
“We had a food fight.” Let him think what he wanted; Sarah wasn’t going to tell him the truth. She was no longer that spontaneous young woman he once knew.
Anthony chuckled. “Still the same impulsive Sarah.”
His delicious smile fired up her senses. Her nipples hardened against the lace of her bra; her skin grew warm and too tight. She didn’t need or want this. Just keep it cool. Show him he no longer has the power to ruffle you.
But damn if that was easy. His beautiful face, his powerful body, made her go weak. She was not going down that road again. She needed to remember he was overbearing and inflexible and had tunnel vision to the exclusion of everything and everyone else when it came to his company.
It wasn’t enough he’d placed his work above her when they were dating. She’d always come last. He’d held an iron grip on the day-to-day management of his business in fear of other companies attempting a takeover. Now he’d walked into her home as if nothing had happened, looking absolutely fabulous and sexy as hell.
“You haven’t changed either. Still a stuffed shirt.”
Not waiting for his reply, Sarah ducked under the table and searched for her damn sandals. She couldn’t find them anywhere. Where the hell are they? They can’t have just disa—Her head hit the underside of the table. “Son of a bitch!”