Chapter 21

The sheriff was not happy with Mrs. Beaumont when he learned she’d purposely not called him in until matters had come to a head. But the same woman who’d spent a great deal of time in the throes of hysteria, Lily noted with interest, now met the lawman’s condemnation with utter equanimity. Mrs. B. was apparently too elated over David’s and Glynnis’s safe return to care if the sheriff approved or not. And when he turned his ire on Zach, she stepped right in to take full responsibility, making it clear that she had acted contrary to Zach’s advice.

Lily watched the little drama unfold with fascination, but eventually pulled herself away to go down to the kitchen to assemble a belated lunch. It was funny, though, she mused, how people could rise to some occasions but completely fall apart on others.

A short while later she carried lunch to the dining room. As she passed the parlor, she glanced in and discovered that although the sheriff had left with Richard, others had arrived to take their place, and overall, the total number of people in the house had grown. Jessica, looking much improved, had come down with Christopher, and Zach’s friends were there. Taking a quick head count, Lily unloaded her tray onto the dining room sideboard, then went back to the kitchen. It didn’t take long, however, before she was headed back with additional servings. If there was one thing she was especially good at, it was making sure there was enough food to go around.

Zach must have spotted her on her second trip to the dining room, for his voice suddenly called out, “Hey, look! Soup’s on! You want some help with that, lollipop?”

The entire boisterous group poured out of the parlor, and suddenly the dining room was alive with voices and laughter. Flashing her a sheepish smile, John Miglionni took the tray out of her hands. Jessica helped her set the table. Lily had barely straightened from arranging the last place setting of silverware when a big blond man with dark eyes and even darker eyebrows came over, hand-in-hand with a slender woman with glossy black hair and white skin. He introduced the two of them as Cooper and Veronica Blackstock, then gave her a thorough appraisal. His brown eyes were fiercely intelligent; the first words out of his mouth were not.

” Hoo-ahh” he breathed. “And you can cook , too?”

“Hey, that’s exactly what I said the first time I saw her.” John came up to join them. “The first part, anyway. I didn’t know about the cooking.” He grinned down at Lily. “It’s a Marine thing,” he explained. “A complimentary Marine thing.”

Overwhelmed by the sudden wash of testosterone,Lily blinked at the two men, and Veronica nudged her husband. “Once you’ve rolled your tongue back into your mouth, isn’t there something else you’d like to say to Lily?”

“Huh?”

“Like how sorry you were to make her drag Zach out of bed this morning?”

He stared at her as if she were nuts. “Why would I say that? There was planning to be done, Ronnie, and Zach would’ve been one unhappy little buckaroo if I’d let him sleep through it just because of a minor bump on the head.” He turned to his friend, who was approaching with a filched bread stick clenched like a Havana cigar between his grinning teeth. “Wouldn’t you, buddy?”

“Hell, yeah.”

“And let me guess,” Lily said dryly. “That’s a Marine thing, too.”

” Hoo-ahh ,” Ronnie murmured, and the two women laughed.

Coop looked from them to his friends. “Women,” he said, shaking his head.

Rocket gave a sage nod. “They’re a mystery.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” Wrapping his arm around Lily’s shoulders, Zach tucked her next to his side while he pulled her chair out from the table. He nodded at his friends over her head as he seated her. “There’s just no understanding them.”

All during lunch Zach teased Glynnis. He exchanged humorous insults with his Marine buddies, and was charming to all the women. And he laughed. He laughed so much it made everyone else at the table laugh, too, just from the sheer joyful sound of it.

Lily could barely keep her eyes off of him. She had never seen him like this. She had honestly believed she understood the depths of his distress over Glynnis’s kidnapping, but what she’d seen must have been the proverbial tip of the iceberg, because this man at the table, this exuberant, head thrown back, happy-with-the-world man, was a whole new Zachariah.

A Zachariah who enthralled her.

And not only her, she discovered. After lunch, as she was clearing the table, Cassidy moved in and started flirting like crazy.

To Lily’s disgust, Zach didn’t seem to mind at all. Far from discouraging her, in fact, he laughed and flirted right back. Gritting her teeth and harboring hot thoughts about snatching a certain brunette baldheaded, she hefted her tray and headed for the door, suddenly feeling every bit the scullery maid Richard had labeled her. She pitied herself more with every step she took. Heck, even Jessica appeared to have deserted her this afternoon. Lily had caught a glimpse of her and Christopher heading up the stairs as if there were a four-alarm fire and they knew where the only extinguisher was kept. Feeling abandoned, she used her hip to ease open the dining room door.

“Here. Let me give you a hand with that.”

Lily craned her head around to peer at Veronica as the slender brunette reached over her shoulder to hold open the door. “Thanks.”

“You want me to grab the other tray over there?”

“Oh, please. That would be great.”

Veronica followed her down the hall to the kitchen. “That was a fabulous meal.”

Her mood lifting, Lily shot the other woman a smile. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. I just sort of threw it together, though, so I’m afraid it wasn’t anything special.”

“If that’s the case, then I’d sure love to taste ‘special,’ because I thought it was fantastic.” She set her tray on the counter and unloaded it with efficient competence. Pausing with the vinaigrette cruet in one hand, she looked over at Lily, who was loading the dishwasher. “Zach says you’re a chef for a corporate yacht. That must be exciting.”

“It’s usually pretty fun,” Lily agreed. “And on occasion it’s a pain in the rear—depending on the guests, and to a lesser degree, the weather.”

Veronica nodded. “Working with the public can be hard.”

“Yeah. They can definitely make or break your day. And since the groups we take out tend to be mostly men, being the only woman aboard can occasionally be awkward.”

“You get hit on?”

“Not by the crew. There’s just three of us: the captain, first mate, and me—and Jack and Ben have never been anything but professional. But every now and again I have an incident with a guest. For the most part everyone is pretty cool—they usually take no for an answer with good grace. Only once did it turn into a real problem. Now, that was one of the not-so-fun trips.”

“So, aside from the obvious of being on a boat, how does a yacht chef differ from being a chef for a restaurant?”

“It’s much more intimate.” Fitting the last glass in the top rack, she added detergent, closed the dishwasher door, and turned it on. As the machine began its gentle churning, she turned to lean a hip against the counter and gave her complete attention to Veronica. “In a restaurant patrons are there for maybe three hours, and only rarely does the chef come out to meet them. On the boat, we’re thrown together for anywhere from three days to a week. And I’m a jack-of-all-trades there. In a restaurant, I’d have a kitchen crew and a wait staff, but the Argosy’s , galley is minuscule and sleeping space is limited, so except for rare occasions I take care of everything myself. I plan menus and lay in supplies. Then I prep, cook, serve, and clean up.” She waved a dismissive hand. “But enough about me. What do you do?”

Veronica had barely begun telling her when Coop poked his head in the door. “There you are,” he said, gazing at his wife with a soft expression. Pulling his gaze away, he looked over at Lily. “Do you mind if I borrow her for a while? Glynnis is asking to spend a little time with her. She wants to get to know her better before we have to shove off.” He shot her a cocky smile. “I think she wants to make sure Ronnie’s good enough for me.”

“Oh, by all means, then.” Lily smiled at Veronica. “Thank you for your help.”

“Thank you for the lunch.”

“Yeah, it was great,” Coop added. “Ronnie tells me my earlier compliment was—how did you put it, sweet-pea?—’heavy-handed, chauvinistic pap’? So I take back the ‘looking like you do’ part. But you’re still a killer cook.”

She glanced at Veronica, and they both laughed.

Coop shrugged good-naturedly. “Still didn’t get it right, huh?”

“Close enough,” Lily said. “And thank you. I appreciate the sentiment. I just wish you guys were going to be around long enough for me to make you a meal truly worthy of these nice compliments.”

Coop’s dark eyebrows rose toward his blond hairline. “Tell you what. You get Midnight to bring you by our place on your way back to California, and we’ll take you up on that. We’ll supply the ingredients if you’ll do the cooking.”

“Deal.” But when Lily thought about it after Coop and Veronica left, it plunged her back into a case of the poor-pitiful-me’s. Zach was out flirting with Cassidy in the other room while she did the Cinderella-sans-the-prince thing here in the kitchen. What did that say about him wanting the kind of relationship with her that included spur of the moment side trips to visit his friends?

Not much.

She was taking her frustration out on a messy pan with a scrubby and a lot of elbow grease when two strong arms suddenly slid around her waist and a warm mouth pressed a kiss into the contour of her neck. With a startled squeak, she jumped.

“Hey, there,” Zach murmured, bending his knees and snuggling up behind her. “You almost finished with KP duty?”

“What do you care?” She hunched her shoulder, dislodging his lips from the susceptible spot in her neck. “The last time I looked, you seemed pretty darn pleased to be otherwise occupied.”

He stilled, and for a moment she thought he was going to withdraw. But before she could decide whether she would welcome or regret a retreat, a soft sigh es-caped him and he rested his chin on her shoulder. “You’re talking about Cassidy, right? Look, I’m, uh, sorry about that. I got the impression today that maybe she’s not as bad as she’d like us to believe, and I was feeling my Wheaties, so when she started to flirt I just kinda went with the flow. C’mon .” Tightening his arms around her, he wiggled his pelvis against her bottom. “Don’t be mad at me, okay? I’m feeling too good.”

And because she’d seen that glimmer of humanity in Cassidy herself, and considering how enamored she was with this playful side of Zach, she relaxed her tense shoulders. “Hmm.” She leaned back against him. “You do feel good.”

He made a contented sound and went back to nuzzling her neck. “You always smell so fine,” he murmured, kissing his way up the side of her throat. “Like lemon cookies, or something. It makes me wanna just eat you up.”

She dropped the scrubby into the pan and reached for a towel to dry her hands. While she was occupied, he removed the belt that had been returned to her when Richard was released into the sheriff’s custody, sliding it off and dropping it to the floor. Then his hands stole up over her ribs beneath her sweater. A second later warm fingers cupped her breasts.

“Oh!” She dropped the towel, and reaching up and back, curled her hands around the back of his neck, an action that pressed her breasts more firmly into his hard-skinned hands.

He sucked in air. “What color bra are you wearing today?” His voice was a husky rasp. “You always have the greatest underwear.”

“Pink. Or maybe bronze. Lord, I don’t remember.” Reluctantly breaking contact, she turned in his arms. “We could check it out.” And her hands went to the hem of her top.

Zach’s own hands itched as he watched the soft material inch its way up, exposing first Lily’s smooth-skinned, tiny waist, then the rounded undersides of her breasts, covered in some cobweb fine, sheer material. “Blue,” he said huskily. “With green thready stuff.”

“Embroidery.” Which disappeared from view when she promptly dropped the top.

“Hey,” he protested. “That’s what’s known as negative progress.”

“It’s all the progress you’re going to see, though, buddy. Because if you think I’m taking my clothes off in the middle of the kitchen, you’re deluded.”

He looked around him. “Oh. Yeah. Good point.” He bent to kiss her again, and was pleased to see the heavy-lidded arousal back in her eyes when he lifted his head to gaze down at her. Using his index finger, he rubbed the small slick of moisture left behind into her soft lower lip. “Wanna come upstairs with me?”

Still heavy-eyed, she gave him a sleepy smile and nodded.

Weaving their fingers together, he stepped back. For a second, he got caught up in the sight of her hand in his. It was all but swallowed within his grasp, and he found it amazing that so much competency could come out of something so delicate. Then he tightened his grip and headed for the door with her firmly in tow.

Before they could make their escape, though, the door banged open and Glynnis danced in. She stumbled to a halt a few feet away and eyed them speculatively for a couple of heartbeats. Her gaze dropped to their joined hands.

Zach fought a guilty urge to pull his free. Dammit, he was allowed a lov—that is, a sex life without accounting to his sister. He gave her a level look, quirking his eyebrows questioningly.

Her curled lips reminded him of a cat with a canary, but she didn’t say a word about Lily’s hand in his, nor did she ask any questions. Instead she met his gaze. “Coop and Ronnie and Rocket are getting ready to leave. You’d better come say good-bye.”

He’d rather go upstairs with Lily, but all in all he felt too great to bitch about the interruption of something he should’ve known better than to start in the first place. Trying to sneak off in a house full of people—a good portion of whom were his friends—hadn’t been his brightest move. Besides. He grinned down at Lily. It wasn’t as if he were going to miss out altogether. He was simply putting off celebrating in his favorite manner until later.

Dropping Lily’s hand but bidding her to come with them, he followed his sister back into the foyer, where he found his friends standing by the front door talking to David. The group turned at their approach, and Coop flashed Glynnie a smile.

“You found him, I see.”

“I did, but he’s not acting like himself, Coop. After lunch I saw him flirting with David’s cousin. Then just now, I found him in the kitchen holding hands with Lily.” Looking up at Zach, she shook her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you flirt with one woman, let alone two. And for a guy who’s a Mr. Grumpy Pants half the time, you”re frighteningly cheerful today.”

“Yeah, Zach,” John agreed. “You’ve gotta do something about this good mood you’re in. You’re scaring us.”

Amid the laughter, Ronnie protested, “Hey, that’s not fair. Zach has never been anything but easygoing with me.”

“You tell ’em, sweetheart,” Zach said, and adopted a look of injured innocence. “Why, I’m known far and wide for my cheerful disposition. Just ask Lily.”

“You get to call him Mister Grumpy Pants?” Lily demanded of his sister. “Wow. That must be because you’re related. He made me call him Master Sergeant Grumpy Pants.”

“Hey!”

“But, come on, Glynnis,” she continued as she nimbly dodged the fingertips he flicked at her butt. “Let’s give credit where it’s due here. If you find his behavior unusual today, you’re the one who’s gotta suck it up and he accountable. Because having you home safe and sound is what’s got him—how did you put it a while ago, Zach? Feeling your oats?”

“My Wheaties.”

“Yes, that was it, feeling your Wheaties.” She flashed him a smile so brilliant it nearly stopped his heart in his chest. Then she turned back to his sister. “He’s beside himself with happiness to have you back.”

“I know.” And grinning, Glynnis launched herself into his arms and danced them around the foyer. Stopping, she tilted her head back to meet his gaze and crowed, “I’ve got the power!”

She did, but he rolled his eyes in mock disgust.

“Power, schmower,” he said. Waltzing her several steps up the foyer, he stopped abruptly and dipped her with theatrical drama. Then he snapped her back up against his chest, whirled her out in a fast spin that landed her in front of David, and turned her loose. “She’s all yours, pal.”

“Thanks.” David tucked her under his arm. “I’ll take her.” The couple exchanged moon-faced-in-love smiles.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Zach strolled over to his friends. “You just got here. Are you sure you have to leave so soon?”

Veronica nodded. “I promised my niece Lizzy I’d make her costume for her part in the spring program at school, and I only had it half done when we left.”

“We could only get a single night at the B&B, anyway,” Coop added. “And vacancies here on the weekends aren’t exactly thick on the ground.”

“There’s a decent state park.”

Coop snorted. “Ronnie’s idea of roughing it is a hotel with no room service. There’s no way in hell I could get her to camp out.”

Lily beamed approvingly. “I knew there was a reason I liked you, Veronica. Why anyone would want to sleep in the dirt and do all the chores you do at home with none of the amenities is beyond me.” She offered her hand. “It was so nice meeting you. I’m only sorry we didn’t have more time to get to know each other.”

“I told you,” Coop said. “You come spend some time with us on your way home.”

She shook hands all around, then touched Zach’s forearm. “I’ll let you say good-bye to your friends.” But she gave them a final, friendly smile. “Have a safe trip.”

Zach turned back from watching the swing of her hips as she walked away and found Coop regarding him.

“Hang on to that one,” his friend advised.

He stared at Ice in surprise. “Whoa, buddy, you’ve got things all wrong. We’re not—”

“I’m telling you, Zach. This one’s got ‘keeper material’ stamped all over her.”

“But, hey,” John interjected cheerfully, “if you don’t want her, just say the word. I’d be happy to take her off your hands.”

His head snapped up. “Over my dead body, pal.”

His friends laughed as if that settled it, and Zach just shrugged, unwilling to wreck his mellow mood with an argument.

But late that night, when he was hot and randy and seconds from making love to Lily, he gave his friend’s assumptions a moment’s consideration.

And wondered if there wasn’t something to it.

He was shaking a condom out of the box she’d bought him when he noticed the rubber’s dimensions written on the side. “What’s this?” he demanded in mock indignation as he ripped open the foil packet. Rolling onto his side, he propped his head in his hand to stare down at her. “No Magnum extra large?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please. Do you realize the average condom has a stretching capacity of something like three liters? I read that somewhere.” Taking the condom out of his hand, she pushed him over on his back, then bent to unroll it down his length until her capable fingers had him snugly protected. She held him in a firm, two-handed grip and pressed a kiss on the reservoir tip, then glanced up at him with small smile. “So unless you’re Elephant Eddie and His Amazing Appendage, sizing is mostly a marketing ploy.”

He’d never known a woman who could make him laugh even as she made the blood in his veins run hot enough to scorch from pure, unadulterated lust. And as he watched her swing a leg over his hips and felt her slowly lower herself down, down, ah, sweet Jesus , down on him, until his raging hard-on was seated deep inside of her hot, tight depths, he had to admit that Cooper had a point.

She did have “keeper” written all over her.

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