Yours to Keep (Kowalski Family, #3)

Yours to Keep (Kowalski Family, #3) by Shannon Stacey



Dedication


Thank you so much to my readers. So many of you have told me you love the Kowalski family and want more, so I hope you enjoy meeting Sean Kowalski, as well as revisiting the rest of the family.

As always, thank you to Angela James and the Carina Press team for your dedication and enthusiasm. And to my husband, whom I love madly even though he never lets me drive.



Chapter One


“Still as ugly as ever, I see.”

Sean Kowalski flipped the bartender the bird and dropped his duffel on the floor next to an empty stool. “Runs in the family, cousin.”

Since they both stood a hair over six feet, they were able to exchange a quick hug over the bar, and Kevin thumped him on the back. “Damn glad you made it home.”

“Me, too.” Sean sat on the barstool and took a long swig of the foamy beer Kevin put in front of him. “Sorry I missed your wedding. And Joe’s, too.”

“You were getting your ass shot at in Afghanistan. We won’t hold it against you. Much.”

“Still can’t believe you both found women willing to be your Mrs. Kowalskis. What’s wrong with them?”

Kevin flashed him a grin. “It’s the dimples, man. Women can’t resist them. Too bad for you we got ’em from Ma and all you got are the blue eyes from the old man’s side.”

“They do me well enough. How are your parents doing?”

“Good. They’re looking forward to seeing you, and Ma made lasagna for tonight.”

Sean grinned and patted his stomach. “I didn’t stop for lunch so I’ve got plenty of room. There are a lot of things I miss about my mother, God rest her soul, but her cooking isn’t one of them. Aunt Mary, though? Damn, that woman can put a meal together.”

Kevin nodded, then stepped away for a minute to grab a water. “So, you’ve got no job. Gonna mooch food from Ma and bum an apartment from me. The army was supposed to make you a man, not a useless son of a bitch.”

“Twelve years was enough. Don’t know what I want to do now, but I know it’s not more of that.”

“No interest in going back to Maine and helping your brother run the lodge?”

Sean shrugged. It had come up—especially when he’d told his brothers and sister he was going to hang out with the New Hampshire branch of the family for a while. But spending the rest of his life at the Northern Star Lodge wasn’t something he wanted to do. As a child, he’d hated strangers making themselves at home in his house and he’d never outgrown it. He just wasn’t cut out to be an innkeeper.

“It’s a plan B,” he said.

Kevin took a swig off the water bottle, then screwed the cap back on. “You know I’m just giving you shit. You can crash here as long as you want.”

“Appreciate it. Once I’ve had my fill of Aunt Mary’s cooking, I might go home or…hell if I know.” It was one of the reasons he’d decided to leave the army. There was nowhere he had to be tomorrow. Or the day after that.

A tall, busty redhead stepped out from a back room and Kevin waved her over. “This is my cousin, Sean. Sean, this is Paulie Reed, my head bartender, assistant manager and all around right-hand man. Woman. Person. Right-hand person.”

“Nice to meet you,” Sean said, shaking her hand. She had one hell of a grip.

“I’ve heard a lot about you. Welcome home. My fiancé, Sam, and I live in the apartment below yours, so give a shout if you need anything.”

“Will do.” He watched her walk away because she had a hell of a swing, but—whether it was the mention of a fiancé or the fact she just wasn’t his type—it didn’t do much for him. “Jasper’s Bar & Grille, huh? Interesting name.”

“It came with the place and I’m too cheap to buy a new sign. Finish that beer and I’ll take you upstairs now that Paulie’s off break.”

Sean knocked back the rest of the suds and picked up his duffel. He followed his cousin to a back hallway, then up two flights of stairs to the apartment Kevin was letting him use for the duration of his visit. It was a decent place and clean, with an oversized leather couch and a big-screen TV. All good, as far as he was concerned.

“So this is it,” Kevin told him when he was done showing him around and giving him the key. “You’ve got all our numbers and Paulie’s usually in the bar if you need anything.”

Sean shook his hand. “See you at dinner, then. Looking forward to meeting Beth and that baby girl of yours.”

“Lily’s a firecracker. Had her first birthday a week ago and loves terrorizing the shit out of her cousins.” He whipped out his wallet and it fell open to a picture of a feisty-looking little girl with one of those palm-tree ponytail things on the top of her head, bright blue eyes and devilish dimples.

“She’ll break some hearts someday,” Sean said because that’s what men seemed to say when shown pictures of other guys’ daughters.

“And I’ll break open some heads. Joe’s Brianna looks a lot like Lily, but without the dimples. She’s four and a half months now and loud as hell.” Kevin headed for the door. “I told Beth I’d be home by three so she can make something to bring to Ma’s without tripping over Lily, who doesn’t stay where we put her anymore. I’ll see you about six.”

When he was gone, Sean dropped onto the couch and closed his eyes. It was good to be home, even if home was a borrowed apartment. For the first time in twelve years he could go wherever he wanted. Do whatever he wanted. The army had given him a good start in life and he didn’t regret the years he’d served, but he was ready to be his own man again.

The first order of business as his own man? A power nap.

A knock at the door surprised him, jerking him out of a light sleep. It wasn’t like he was expecting company. As far as he knew the only people who’d be looking for him were family, and he was meeting them at his aunt and uncle’s. Still, he pulled open the door expecting to see one of his cousins.

He was wrong. His unexpected guest was definitely not related to him, which was a good thing considering his body reacted like it was his first time seeing a pretty woman. She had a big curly mass of dark hair full of different colors—almost like a deep cherry wood grain—and whether she’d be a brunette or a redhead probably depended on the lighting. Her eyes were even darker, the color of strong black coffee, and just the right amount of curves softened a taller-than-average, lean body.

A body that made his body stand up and take notice in a way the sexy bartender downstairs hadn’t. This woman wasn’t too top-heavy and the way she took care of her body made him think if they wrestled under the sheets, she’d make it one hell of a good match.

Okay, he really needed to get laid if he was going to start imagining sex with any random stranger who knocked on his door.

“Can I help you?” he prompted when she just stood there and looked at him.

She picked at the fraying wrist of a navy sweatshirt that had Landscaping By Emma written across the front in fancy letters. “Are you Sean Kowalski?”

“Yup.”

“I’m Emma Shaw…your fake fiancée.”

“Say what?”

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