love charm for carlotta (a short story in the love charm series)

Love Charm for Carlotta


A Short Story




Carly Carson


Amazon Edition


Love Charm Series


Carlotta doesn't believe in love charms.
not when the bad boy hockey player from her past suddenly re-appears in her
Has the love charm brought him back to her? She doesn't intend to
find out. But, in the small town island atmosphere of Martha's Vineyard, it's
hard to escape your past. Do people change, or will she be courting heartbreak
again if she succumbs once more to her high school sweetheart?



Cover design by Laura J. Miller



Copyright 2012 @Carly Carson

Please see extended Copyright notice at end of book.

Stories by Carly Carson in the
Love Charm Series


Love Charm for Ashley:


Love Charm for Brenna:


Other stories by Carly Carson:


Cold Outside


Carly Carson Website:


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Link Directory for Carly Carson (if one of the above links
is broken, please check here):

Table of Contents










from Love Charm for Brenna

Books from Carly Carson

Chapter 1

Vroom! Vroom! Vroom!

Carlotta Mason's heart stopped.

That was the sound of her teenaged years returning in the
form of one bad boy hockey player and his motorcycle. She'd known the sound
when she was 17, and she'd recognize it again if she were 97.

Not because it was the same motorcycle. No, that was
unlikely, as she hadn't seen Jace Burton in more than ten years. But the
reckless and cocky manner in which the bike was being ridden—that identified
the rider as surely as a trumpet call from the heavens would herald Armageddon.

No one would speed on the narrow, winding lane that led to
her small house on Martha's Vineyard. No one, that is, but Jace, who'd spent
most every day of their senior year of high school riding up to this same house
on his battered Harley.

He always drove too fast. He always rocked to a stop right
where the driveway ended by an overgrown hydrangea bush. He always waited for
her on the bike, with one long, booted leg touching the ground, the other
propped on the running board. His hair would be perfectly mussed from the wind
blowing through it, and his broad shoulders encompassed her entire world.

She always ran out of the house to throw her arms around him
in joy, both at his appearance and at his safe arrival.

But today, things were different. She was twelve years older
and a lifetime wiser. The impetuousness of youth had been drummed out of her by
the reality of life.

She willed her heart to start beating again, and then she
ordered herself not to move from her spot in the kitchen. Her hands, buried
deep in a yeast-scented ball of bread dough, would surely anchor her in place.

Boots clattered across the deep front porch, and now her
heart beat too wildly. The love of her life—No!

The boy who'd broken her heart, when her
heart was a fragile, teenaged receptacle of hope and optimism.

The boy who'd never looked back when he'd been offered a
chance to play with a professional hockey team in the National Hockey League.

Carlotta kneaded the bread fiercely, reminding herself that
she'd practically killed herself to eliminate the impulsivity she was born
with. She would never repeat the mistakes of her youth. She no longer bolted
headlong into ill-conceived temptations.

Except for that craziness last weekend when her friends
Ashley and Genevieve had talked her into casting a spell with that—

She froze again.

The love charm.

A blue silk packet made up of a lock of her curly black
hair, a ground-up silver bean her friends had given her, and one of the
overblown blue flowers from the hydrangea bush at the corner of her yard. She
didn't believe in charms and spells, but she'd tossed the silk-enclosed bundle
into the moat at the deCordova benefit. The Venetian-themed ball provided such
a romantic setting, and when she'd seen the moat – yes, impulse had overtaken
her and she'd made a wish and thrown the charm. As she'd expected, no one
interesting had approached her that night, and she'd returned to the Vineyard,
the love charm forgotten.

Now the memory swept into her kitchen, in a sparkle of
remembered hope. She shook her head to dislodge it.

If that damned charm had brought Jace Burton back into her
peaceful life like a boomerang from hell, she'd find herself a voodoo witch and
hex the lot of them—Ashley, Genevieve, and Jace himself.

She'd tossed that rotten heartthrob-without-a-heart from her
life a dozen years ago, and he was never coming back.

A loud rap on the front door signaled that Jace didn't
realize he'd been banned from her life.

Her hands clenched in the stretchy dough as if the bread
could trap her and save her from moving.

She forced herself to begin kneading again. Maybe if she
focused on the work she loved, she could press out this compulsion that ordered
her to walk into the living room, approach the door, and open it wide.

In welcome.

She had to resist that instinct because she could never
welcome his re-entry into her life.

She'd moved past that tumultuous time when Jace was the
center of her existence. She never wanted to go back to it.

"Carlotta!" His deep voice boomed through the
house and she heard his self-assurance, his zest for life, and the poignant
memories of her first love—all wrapped up in one word—her name.

And twining through the memories was the sharp, bitter, edge
of pain, a pointed needle scraping through her flesh.

"Carlotta! Let me in."
A brief

A spring breeze, fresh with the scent of the sea, blew the
white, dotted Swiss curtains at the kitchen window. She welcomed the clean May
wind, praying it would cool the heat that washed over her body every time she
heard his voice.

"I know you're in there, Carlotta." He wasn't
angry, but rather amused. He didn't think she could withstand him.

"Do you still leave the door unlocked?" he

She stiffened. Of course the door was unlocked. She'd never
gotten out of the habit, even though she knew it was foolish to be so careless,
even on the Vineyard.

She had a key now, which her parents never had, but she
forgot about it more often than not.

"I know the door is unlocked, Carlotta, because I know
you," he called out. "I'm going to open it now."

She couldn't hear the handle turn from in here, but she
could imagine it. She could picture him walking in, his tall figure dwarfing
the low-ceilinged living room, his boots loud on the hardwood floor.

She should retreat, escape. Her eyes darted to the back

Too late.

"Carlotta." He strode through the short hallway
and burst into her kitchen.

She had to look at him. No mortal, nor goddess, could have
withstood the temptation.

There he stood, six feet tall, brawny, with smooth muscles
pressing up against his short-sleeved t-shirt. As always, his dark blonde hair
had been caressed by the wind, and his strong, even features had only improved
with age.

His blue eyes smiled at her. "I've come back for

Her heart stuttered.

But her voice was colder than the breeze when she said,
"Get out."

"Ouch." He stood his ground. "Twelve years is
a long time to hold a grudge."

"I'll call the cops."

"Carlotta." He shook his head in mock sorrow.
"You know the chief is one of my best friends."

"Was, you mean." Her brows snapped together.
"It's been a long time since high school."

"You underestimate me, honey bun." Two strides and
he'd moved close enough for her to smell his familiar scent of leather, engine
oil, and man. "Even as we speak," he said, "the chief's wife is
scouring the island for a house for me. You remember Annie Dupuis, don't

Of course she remembered Annie, a perky soccer player in
high school, and one of the Vineyard's top realtors today.

But Annie wasn't important right now.

"You!" she scoffed. "You're going to buy a
house? Where would you come up with the down payment, never mind the monthly

Money slipped through his hands like sea water through a
sieve. Granted, he was the most generous person she'd ever known. She knew for
a fact he'd bought prom tickets for some of his hockey buddies who didn't have
the spare cash. Not that Jace had ever had more money than the rest of them.
But if he had a few extra bucks, he was happy to toss them in the path of
anyone he perceived as needy.

She shut off her thoughts. She couldn't afford to think of
him in any positive way. She had to be strong.

"I'm not a high school kid, Carlotta." He managed
to look slightly wounded. "I have assets."

She continued kneading her dough. "Are you here to
brag, then?"

"I told you." He peered into her bowl. "I'm
here for you."

"I don't know what that means." She pounded the
dough. "I'm not available to be picked up like a shell on the shore."

"I know you're not married." He plucked an
unfrosted cupcake off the cooling rack, peeled back the paper, and bit off half
of it.

"Hey! Those are for Tommy Rosen's eighth birthday

"You don't mean as in Tom and Amy Rosen?" He
raised his brows.

"Why not?"

"Amy wouldn't mind me snitching a cupcake."

"No doubt you kissed her down on the beach a time or
two." Carlotta didn't like the bitterness in her own voice.

He grinned. "I'll never tell." He popped the rest
of the cupcake in his mouth. "She can't be old enough to have an eight
year old."

"And a ten year old, as well.
She's thirty, same as you." Carlotta tried to ignore the reminder that her
own thirtieth birthday was a mere two months away.

Jace flashed
her a
"A man only gets better with age."

"Keep your roving eye off Amy. Her husband is the
possessive type."

He spread his hands in a show of innocence.
"Got nothing to worry about from me.
I don't mess with
married women."

Carlotta snorted. That would be the only kind of women he
didn't mess with, then.

He leaned closer. "
Which brings us
back to you.
Sorry about the divorce."

She shrugged. "We never should have married."

Especially when she'd been unable to
forget her high school sweetheart.
She and Rob had called it quits after
only a year of marriage. They'd split up without any claims on each other, and
moved on. Last she heard
Rob was living on the west coast.

"Tough, anyway," Jace said softly.

"How about you?"
regretted the words as soon as they were out. She had no intention of
reminiscing with him,
of catching up with current
news. The sooner he was gone, the safer she'd be.

He leaned back
against the counter, and crossed his booted feet in front of him. Not that she
looked at anything below his neck.
At least not

"I never was tempted to hitch myself to anyone,"
he said.

"So many women, so little time," she muttered. If
she didn't stop punching this dough, her pecan rolls would be hard as a hockey

He laughed. "Yeah, that was a phase, but I got through
it pretty quickly."

She rolled her eyes. "So now what—you're gay?"

This time his chuckle was low, and intimate. "You know
that's not true."

Her face flushed. Damn it, why did he have this affect on
her? She refused to remember those high school years. Yeah, he'd taken her
virginity. He'd even been careful and considerate about it. She twitched at the
memory of all that hard virility pushing slowly into her, filling her until she
started to panic. He'd sensed her distress immediately, and talked her down,
stopping all movement within her, but failing to withdraw.
she'd grown accustomed to his presence and began to feel a sense of urgency to
do something more.

Of course, he'd known when that moment arrived as well. He'd
been a mind-reader then, and she didn't need him reading her mind now.

She reached into a drawer, pulled out a linen towel and
snapped it open.

"I have a lot of work to do," she said.
"Thanks for stopping by."

Chapter 2

Jace continued to lean against her kitchen counter, unfazed
by her attempted dismissal. "Let me help you with the cupcakes," he
said. "Then we can deliver them to the
They live next door, right?"

"I'm perfectly capable of delivering them on my
own." She scowled at him. As far as she knew, he hadn't been back to the
island for twelve years. How did he know where the

"Come on." He plucked a toothpick out of her tray.
It looked comical against his large hand. "I want to do that dye thing
with the frosting that you used to do."

"You just want to make a mess. Like a

He grinned. "If it were up to me, I'd make a mess in a
very adult way."

Knock it off." Her
cheeks heated up again, and she turned to reach into the refrigerator.
"You want something to drink?"

Shoot. She'd been betrayed into being hospitable.

"Love a beer."

"No beer. I live here alone."

His blue eyes darkened. "What happened to your parents,

She shook her head. The wound was too fresh. If she had to
speak of their deaths, she'd start to cry.
Especially when
she was already an emotional wreck due to
unexpected appearance.

She pulled a Coke out of the fridge and handed it to him,
then flattened her hand on the counter for support. She couldn't let him see
her tremble.

He put the can on the counter and took a step closer.
"I shouldn't have asked. I thought it might help you to talk about
it." He wrapped his hand around her flattened palm. "I'm sorry."

"I—" She shook her head. "I'm sure you heard
about the accident."

His hand
tightened on hers. "I was in South America when it happened," he
said. "I only heard about it when I returned last week. But I wanted to
see how you're holding up."

"Is that why you're here?" She couldn't bear it if
he'd made a pity visit.

"No." He rested both hands on her shoulders,
lightly caging her.

"Why then?" Carlotta shrank back against the
counter, trying to avoid his enticing scent, the lure of his bold masculinity.

He gave her a slow grin. "I've always planned to return
for you, Carlotta. They say your first love is the best, and I have to agree.
I've never forgotten how we were together."

Her heart thumped. But she couldn't succumb to his practiced

"That was sex." She managed a shrug. "No need
to get sentimental about it."

He captured her
gaze. "The sex was great. But you know we had more than that

"Save your lines for someone else. They aren't working
on me." She forced herself to duck under his arms and move away. "I
want to know exactly when you decided you needed to look me up. After twelve
years, something gave you the idea that now was the time to do it."

She needed to know that his sudden appearance in her life
had nothing to do with the love charm. If the magic of her charm had been
wasted on a man who wasn't capable of commitment, she'd be devastated.

The dough was beginning to feel heavy in her hands, but she
kept pulling at it. The movement helped to distract her from the ugly thought
that she'd, once again, been too impulsive when she fell for the myth of the
love charm.

She knew better than to believe in magic and promises. But
she still wanted to have hope of a future with love in it. So when Ashley had
told her how the love charm had worked for her, Carlotta had been tempted to
give it a try. Now, for the first time since she'd followed the instructions to
cast the charm into a body of water, an attractive man had approached her. But
she knew Jace could never make the commitment she wanted. If the charm had
caught him, the magic had been wasted.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she waited for Jace to
provide a reasonable explanation for his presence here.

"Let's see." Unaware of the importance of his
words, Jace leaned back against her counter again. "I was at a charity
ball last weekend—"

Carlotta stopped breathing. "What charity ball?"

"Some Venetian thing.
Had to wear a mask."

"Who were you with?" She couldn't help it.
Jealousy reared its ugly head and she was helpless before its bite.
Which was ridiculous as she had no intention of hooking up with him

"Stop interrupting me. I'm trying to answer your

She huffed out a sharp sigh. "You're trying to torture
Might as well get on with it."

"I ran into Jamie Pierce. You remember him,

She nodded.
Another hockey player from the
high school team.

"Jamie said he saw you auctioning off your…favors to
benefit the deCordova Museum. He said some tall dude won the bid." Jace
leaned forward suddenly. "What did he buy, Carlotta?"

She shrank back from his fierce glare.
of your business."
She certainly didn't intend to tell him the man
hadn't wanted as much as a kiss from her.

"Tell me." He stared her down. "Tell me right
now or I'll kiss you."

She froze, her hands stuck in the bread dough. "Why do
you care?"

He straightened up and took a step toward her, towering over
her again. "
I'm feeling possessive, that's

"Don't be silly," she managed, though it was tough
to talk when she couldn't breathe. "I'm making bread." A somewhat
inane comment, but it was the best she could do when his hot male scent was
wrapping around her, slicing through the yeasty aroma of the bread dough.

"Tell me."

Nothing would be
as dangerous as letting him kiss her. "He only wanted my mask!"

She yanked her hands out of the bread and turned away from
him to go to the sink. Disappointment rolled through her again, as sharp as it
had been last weekend. She'd offered to participate in the auction, thinking it
would be a good way for a man to find her if the love charm had been effective.
She'd thrown it into the moat at the Carnevale as soon as she arrived.

But, clearly, she'd made a mistake. The impulsivity she'd
been trying to curb for twelve years had betrayed her again. If she'd planned
her casting of the charm more carefully, maybe if she'd waited until she saw a
man she was interested in…maybe the magic would have worked for her.

Instead, she'd returned to her date, though she already knew
her relationship with the doctor had no future. Otherwise, she wouldn't have
been interested in the love charm. Given that she already had one failed
marriage behind her, she didn't have time to waste. She'd ended the
relationship with the doctor that night.

And now she'd discovered that Jace had been at the same
party. Had her carelessly tossed love charm brought back to her the very man
who'd already broken her heart once?

"Your mask?"
repeated from behind her. "What did he do with it?"

She shrugged.
"Gave it to some other

"Strange." Jace placed his hands on her waist and
turned her around. "Anyway, when Jamie told me the story, I knew I had to
see you again."

"Why?" She tilted her head back to look up at him.

This time, he was the one to shift his eyes aside. "I
was angry," he said softly.
"Angry at any of these
men bidding on you at an auction, thinking about you that way."

"That way?"

"Sexually," he said flatly. "You were

"I haven't been yours for a long time, Jace. I married
another man."

Which was a mistake.

"Our breakup had nothing to do with you."

"I told you to wait for me, Carlotta." He stepped


"If that's what it took." His deep voice melted
over her.

"Did you wait for me?" she whispered.

"I'm here now." His lips touched hers, a feather
of a kiss.

She inhaled his scent, all heat and man and always, even in
the spring, with a hint of ice in his essence. He would never live in a warm
climate. If he had children, he'd be a hockey coach, surrounded by other
ex-players who loved the game, its speed, the edge of violence, and the
boisterous camaraderie.

His arms moved slowly from her shoulders, and down her back
in a soothing motion that ended in a strong grip as he eased her against his
hard frame.

"Carlotta," he whispered, his lips nuzzling her
ear. "I missed you."

His hands roved up her back, massaging her gently. She
swayed against him, intoxicated by his touch, even as she knew it was fatal to
her peace of mind.

She could not succumb.

But her lips opened, and his tongue swept in, strong and
sure. She clutched his shoulders and her hips pressed against him. Oh, that
felt so good. A tiny moan escaped her.

"That's it, honey," he murmured. "Let me know
how much you missed me."

His arms tightened around her back again, and he deepened
the kiss.

She yearned into him, even as a voice in the recesses of her
brain yelled out for her to stop. She had to pull away before this went beyond the
point where she could control it.

She had to.

She almost gasped when he lifted his mouth and their upper
bodies separated. Thank you, God. She'd managed to pull back.

Until she realized that Jace was the one who'd separated
them, and he'd managed to untie the neck of her apron, and now it was flopping
down around her waist. She stiffened, though his arms didn't loosen.

"Easy, Carlotta."
brought one hand around to her front and up between their bodies.

"No," she said, though even she didn't know what
she was objecting to. She could feel her nipples pebbled in need, and knew he
could see their shape through her thin cotton t-shirt.

But he was touching her with such reverence. "Please,
Carlotta." The way he said her name was her undoing. If he'd used some
generic term of endearment, she could have been reminded of all the women he'd
had. But his voice was always husky and intimate whenever he said her name,
making her feel special and cherished. She knew it was nothing more than a good
tactic, but it moved her anyway.

When he slid his hand under the hem of her shirt, she didn't
protest again. His fingers were warm and rough, and
perfect as he stroked her.

His breath hitched in and out of her ears. "So sweet,
Carlotta," he murmured. "How I've wanted you."

Never believe him
, she told
herself fiercely.

But his hands felt wonderful.

He lifted her t-shirt, as something clicked somewhere behind
her, but she couldn't focus on what it might be. Not when Jace had dropped her
t-shirt to the floor, and his hands were circling ever closer to her nipples.

"Ah—" He sucked in a gratified breath. "I
knew you weren't wearing a bra."

…" The voice of
her best friend, Amy Rosen shrilled through the open back door.

Chapter 3

head jerked up at the sound
of Amy's voice. Carlotta saw the flush on his cheeks, the dazed look in his

"What the hell—" He yanked up her apron and, by
the time he'd turned so Carlotta could face
apron strings had been tied around her neck.

"Amy—" Carlotta gasped, her mind blank.

Amy's eyes goggled wide. "I thought you were making
cupcakes for Tommy's birthday?" She glared at Jace. "But now that I
see what an ill wind blew in, I'm glad I came over."

Carlotta stepped forward, one hand outstretched. "Please
don't make a scene, Amy." Amy had always disliked Jace, muttering whenever
she'd had a chance back in high school that Jace was sure to break Carlotta's

Since that was exactly what had happened, Carlotta had never
blamed her friend for her attitude. But she knew Amy had seen the motorcycle in
her driveway, and that's what had brought her over.

Carlotta waved at the table. "The cupcakes are almost

"Tommy will be very disappointed if you don't appear
the cupcakes," Amy said in a warning tone.

"Amy." Jace stepped forward, partially blocking
Carlotta. "Let's leave high school behind us. I'm not here to hurt

Amy rolled her eyes. "Save that for your gullible
women, Jace. I don't intend to stand by and watch you destroy her again."

"Amy." Carlotta glanced at the clock. "We
still have an hour until the party starts. I'll be there on time. And don't
worry. There is nothing going on here."

"Yes, I can see you're immune to him." Amy's gaze
dropped for a moment. "I hope you remember to put your shirt on before you
come over to the party."

"There's no need for that kind of talk," Jace
snapped. "Carlotta is a grown woman who can make her own decisions."

Another shadow darkened the doorway. Carlotta groaned
mentally when Amy's husband, Tom, stepped into the kitchen.

Tom thrust out a
hand in welcome, and Jace strode forward to clasp it.

Jace used the nickname from their hockey days, when Tom had been the goalie.
"Still as ugly as ever, I see."

The two men grinned at each other.

"You haven't changed either," Tom said.
"Still mooching cupcakes and—" Tom's glance flicked over Carlotta.
"—other treats from Carlotta."

The grin was wiped from
face. "Knock it off,
. Carlotta is
important to me."

"Hey, sorry
didn't know
it was that way. That's cool." Tom shrugged. "Did Amy invite you to
the party yet?"

"Not yet," Jace answered. "I think she was
just leading up to it." His lips twitched.

Amy glared at him, but it was too late.

"I won't take no for an answer," Tom said.
"Now that you're back, you
meet my

"Love to." Jace carefully avoided looking at the

Tom wrapped his arm around his wife. "We've still got a
couple things to do to get ready for the barbecue, honey." He herded Amy
out of the kitchen.

Carlotta and Jace were left staring at each other.

"You don't want to go to a little boy's birthday
party," Carlotta finally said.

Jace shrugged. "I do if it means I can be with

"Amy doesn't like you. She's the hostess."

Jace dropped his hands onto her shoulders. "I don't
care about that. I'm too busy working on my fantasy about you and this
apron." He tweaked the strap by her shoulders. "Your shirt's gone.
We're halfway there."

She took a step back. "Not happening."

He groaned dramatically. "Just one little pair of pants
between me and a dream come true."

"I have
to do." She
pulled away and fled to the other side of the small kitchen. Not far enough
away, but at least she'd removed the temptation of his touch.

"Okay." He heaved a big, mock sigh. "Guess
I'll help."

"No." Her voice was sharp enough to chop the
pecans sitting on her cutting board. "It's time for you to leave."

"Don't be silly. In less than an hour, we'll both be
going over to the party next door. Let me help you finish up whatever you're
working on."

She could use help. She needed to get this bread rising,
frost the cupcakes, and change into some nicer clothes.

She handed him a
knife. "Chop up these pecans."

"So gracious," he huffed. But his mouth had a grin
lurking on it. "What are the pecans for?"

She waved to the dough. "Pecan rolls."

He licked his lips
with an exaggerated motion, and Carlotta's eyes locked on the movement. Those
lips had just been kissing her, kneading her into delight just as she'd kneaded
the bread.

"Stop looking at me like that," he
his voice low.
"Unless you want
me to do what I want to do."

Carlotta tried to ignore the way her body fluttered in
response to the look in his eyes. "You can keep your ideas to yourself.
There is no chance that you'll be hitting my house for a good-time reunion and
then leaving town on the next ferry."

Jace gave her a speculative look that she understood
perfectly. He wasn't listening to her words. No, he was thinking of ways to get
around what she'd just said. Like a hockey player
to get to the net, Jace understood all
too well that an indirect approach could often be best.

"You weren't wearing a bra," he said.

"I wasn't expecting visitors," she snapped.

"And now I can see some naked tit," he added, as
if she hadn't spoken. "It's not fair to tempt a man like that."

"You're the one who took off my shirt," she
countered. "You deserve—"

"Carlotta." He stepped closer. "Are you
really indifferent to me?"

She shoved her hand out to hold him at bay. "I'm not
the pushover I once was, Jace. Those days are gone."

She grabbed a bowl of frosting and the spreader.
"You going to help or not?"

After a long hesitation, he picked up a cupcake. "Let's
do it."

An hour later, they'd finished frosting the cupcakes, set
the bread to rise, and Carlotta had changed into a pink sundress that set off
her black hair and lightly tanned skin.

Jace had whistled when she came out of her bedroom, but he
hadn't made any other moves. Carlotta told herself she was relieved.

They walked next door carrying the cupcakes and a bottle of
wine. People were just gathering for the barbecue. Of course, everyone made a
big deal out of Jace, treating him like a conquering hero just because he
played hockey.

To avoid the high fives and back-slapping, Carlotta looked
around for Tommy. She was thrilled to see that he'd achieved his goal of
sitting on a regular chair, rather than the wheel chair he'd been forced to use
due to weakness from a bad case of the chicken pox.

She swooped down to give him a big hug, and, when she stood
up, Jace was standing beside them. She introduced the man to the boy.

Jace glanced at the child-sized wheelchair sitting nearby,
but didn't say anything about it. He squatted down so he was at eye level with
the child. "I hear you're going to start playing hockey this fall,"
he said. "Your dad is pretty excited."

Tommy beamed. "I'm gonna be a goalie, just like

"Your dad was the best."

Fear flickered in
Tommy's eyes.

"Good genes, Tommy." Jace thumped him on the back,
lightly. "You'll do fine."

"You think so?" Tommy looked up at him anxiously.

"Tell you what. I'll come to one of your games and
cheer you on."

Tommy's brow wrinkled. "You know how to play

lips twitched. "I know
a little bit about it. I'll get a schedule from your dad."

He excused himself to help Tom cook up the hot dogs and
hamburgers. Carlotta helped Amy move food from the kitchen, grateful that Amy
was too busy to argue about Jace.

Carlotta already knew she had to get rid of Jace, and it
would be hard enough to do so without being badgered by anyone else.

When the meal was finished, the kids began running around
the yard, screaming and hollering. Tommy watched from his chair, and Carlotta
couldn't bear the look of yearning on his face.

She pulled her chair up next to his.
going to come over and help me cook something tomorrow, Tommy?"

He tried to
smile, but his blue eyes were fastened on the other kids.

"What do you want to make?

A shadow blocked the long rays of the setting sun. Tommy
looked up and Carlotta followed his gaze. Jace was standing over them.

"Hope you'll save me one of those
pies, Tommy," Jace said.

"Yeah, sure."
His voice
was uncertain. "They're not really pies, you know."

"No problem. I want any kind of
that Carlotta makes."

She wanted to
wipe that smug grin right off his face. Although not as much as she wanted to
be immune to it.

"Don't worry, Aunt Carlotta," Tommy said. "He's
just teasing you '
he thinks you're pretty."

Jace roared with laughter. "Bingo, Tommy."

He squatted next to the boy. "But, since we can't do
thing right now, what do you say to a
motorcycle ride?"

Tommy's eyes popped. "You have a motorcycle?"

"A Harley."

"For real?"

"Why don't you come with me and check it out?"
Jace tapped his own shoulders. "Climb on if you dare."

Tommy stood slowly, his face stiff with concentration.
"I'm not a

"Course not. I wouldn't give a ride to a
-cat." Jace bent a little lower, and Tommy
scrambled up onto his shoulders.

Carlotta watched anxiously, not wanting to threaten Tommy's
fragile self-esteem with a helping hand. But she had to say something. Amy was
not in the back yard. "I don't know if a ride would be safe—"

"I asked Tom," Jace said flatly.

He and Tommy walked in the direction of Carlotta's house.
The last thing she saw before they disappeared behind a hedge of forsythia
bushes was Tommy turning around to give her a beaming smile and a big wave.

Fifteen minutes later, long after Carlotta had heard the
roar of the departing motorcycle, Amy came out to the back yard.

"Where's Tommy?"

"Tom gave Jace permission to take Tommy for a

"Carlotta!" Amy braced her hands on her hips.
"Has that man come back to the island just to torment us?"

Perversely, Carlotta felt the need to defend Jace.
"Tommy needed a distraction once the other kids started running

Amy sighed sharply. "Well, looks like the ride is
over." She pointed to the returning duo. Tommy was bouncing happily on his
new hero's shoulders.

"Mom!" he shouted. "I'm going to be
pilot fish!"

"Pilot fish?"
Amy shook
her head. "If you mean some kind of navigator, motorcycles are too
dangerous, honey. One ride was enough."

"We're talking boat navigator." Jace stopped by
the table to let Tommy slide off his shoulders. "He's going to show me all
the tricks of the shoreline."

Amy narrowed her eyes at him. "You grew up on this
island. You know every hidden cove, and every spit of sand on it."

"I did, at one time," Jace said cheerfully.
"But I've been away for twelve years. A man can forget even important
things." His gaze slid over Carlotta.

Amy snorted. But then she glanced at her son, and she
suddenly seemed to realize who might be hurt most in this skirmish.

"I guess Tommy is the perfect guy to show you what you
might have forgotten then." She swallowed. "Thanks, Jace."

"My pleasure."
He gave
her a wide grin.

Carlotta sucked in a breath of alarm as she watched even Amy
melt a little under the force of

She needed to speak with Ashley, and find an antidote to
this love charm before it was too late.

Chapter 4

Jace slung an arm over Carlotta's shoulders as they walked
back to her house after the barbecue. For the moment, he was content merely to
be with her. "Nice night, huh?" he said.

"You're not invited in."

He bit back a laugh. When had she become so prickly?

But he sobered quickly. He had a feeling he might be the
cause. The time had gone by so quickly, he could scarcely believe it had been
twelve years.

"No problem." He squeezed her shoulder. "I
was thinking we could go for a ride. I haven't been to
Beach in years."

Carlotta stopped at the hydrangea bush by her front walk.
"A ride?
Have you listened to a word I've said?"

"Come on, Carlotta." He edged her around so she
faced him. "Look at the stars. Remember how we used to lie on the beach
and watch them?"

"When I was young and foolish."
There was more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.

"You were young and lovely." The waning moon cast
a soft light on her face and she looked exactly as she had twelve years ago,
when he'd been too dumb to know what he was throwing away. Jace swallowed the
sorrow in his throat over all they'd lost. "You're still lovely,

She sighed. "I grew up, Jace. This is the woman I am
now. I own a home. I own a business. I go to work every day."

"Take a break for some fun." He gestured to the
"A quick ride to the beach.
What's the

If only he could get her there, the ocean would soothe her.
She'd always loved the scent of the sea and the breeze blowing against her. He
could see that she'd changed a lot. She'd become more sober and responsible.
But he was betting that the spontaneous girl he'd known back in high school was
still buried somewhere inside her.

"I don't know," she said.

 But she stared at the bike and he knew he'd won. She'd
always loved riding with him.

"Come on." He grabbed her hand and led her over to
his Harley. "You remember what to do, right?"

He tossed his helmet off the handlebars, lifted her, and
deposited her on the back of the seat. He climbed on in front of her, and
turned his head to say, "You don't mind riding without a helmet?"

"Does it matter if I do?" But she smiled, and her
eyes were beginning to sparkle.

"It's a short trip," he answered. "But you
have to wrap your arms around me, so you don't fall off."

Tentatively, she placed her hands on his waist.