Authors: Shirley Jump
“Emotional and unforgettable, thumbs up for Jump.”
New York Times
The Sweetheart Bargain
“Shirley Jump’s stories sparkle with warmth and wit and glow with strong, heartfelt emotions. This is real romance.”
—Jayne Ann Krentz,
New York Times
“A fun, heartwarming, small-town romance that you’ll fall in love with… Shirley Jump is a true talent.”
New York Times
“Shirley Jump packs lots of sweet and plenty of heat in this heartwarming first book of her promising new series.”
New York Times
Praise for the novels of Shirley Jump
“Fast-paced and filled with emotion and larger-than-life characters, this is a beautifully written, heartwarming story.”
RT Book Reviews
“Shirley Jump weaves a story that hypnotizes from the first page… I love it, absolutely love it.”
Coffee Time Romance
“Lots of sizzle, wit, love, and romance.”
A Romance Review
“A hilarious and passionate contemporary romance that I found impossible to put down.”
Berkley Sensation titles by Shirley Jump
THE SWEETHEART BARGAIN
THE SWEETHEART RULES
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China
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THE SWEETHEART RULES
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2014 by Shirley Jump.
The Sweetheart Secret
by Shirley Jump copyright © 2014 by Shirley Jump.
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Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-60760-2
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / April 2014
Cover photos © Shutterstock.
Cover design by MN Studios.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for
author or third-party websites or their content.
To my husband and my children.
You are my heart and my life, and
make every day a treasure.
A writer may work on a book alone, but there are always lots of fabulous people behind the scenes who help make the story come alive. Let me start with a big thank you to the great team at New Haven Pet Hospital, who gave me some wonderful ideas for the dogs and shelter animals. The vets and techs at New Haven Pet Hospital have always treated my dogs and cats with such care and professionalism, as if my animals were family.
Thanks again to USCG Lieutenant Commander Adam Merrill, who gave me tons of fabulous information about the Coast Guard and the heroes who serve in that branch of the military. My husband and my dad are both real life military guys, too, and have been an inspiration to me in a thousand ways. My hat is off to all who serve in our armed forces—you all are the ones we all should thank, every single day.
A big thanks also to my street team, those super-supportive readers who spread the word about the Sweetheart Sisters. I think some of them have adopted Greta as a virtual grandma!
Thank you to my family, for their love and support and the nights of takeout when I was working too late or too hard, or just pretended to so I wouldn’t have to cook (um, did I just put that in print?). And thank you most of all to my readers, who write me such sweet letters about how one of my books touched their hearts or made them laugh during a difficult time. You all make my job so much more enjoyable and rewarding—thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
One toddler meltdown in the middle of Walmart and Lieutenant Mike Stark, who had battled raging winter storms in the violent, mercurial Bering Sea to pluck stranded boaters from the ocean’s grip, had to admit he was in over his head. Mike stood between a display of “As Seen on TV” fruit dehydrators and a cardboard mock-up of a NASCAR driver hawking shaving lather, and watched his own child dissolve into a screaming, sobbing, fist-pounding puddle of tantrum.
“I want it now!” Ellie punched the scuffed tile floor and added a couple of kicks for good measure. “Now, Daddy. Now, now, now!”
Mike looked over at Jenny and gave her a help-me smile. “Do something. Please.”
Jenny shrugged and turned toward the shaving cream. “That’s your department, dude.”
When did his oldest daughter get so cold and distant? For God’s sake, she was eight, not eighteen. On the outside she was all kid, wearing a lime-green cartoon character tank top and ragged tan shorts, her dark brown hair in a long ponytail secured with a thick pink elastic. Ellie had opted for denim shorts and a Sesame Street tee that made her look cute and endearing.
Except when she was pitching a fit.
A mother at the other end of the aisle, whose blond- haired, blue-eyed toddler son sat prim and polite in the child seat of her cart, shot him a look of disapproval. Then she whipped the cart around the corner. Fast. As if tantrums were contagious.
!” Ellie’s voice became a high-pitched siren, spiraling upward in range and earsplitting capabilities. “Now!”
“No, Ellie,” he said, aiming for patient, stern, confident. The kind of tone the parenting books recommended. Not that he’d read a parenting book. His education about how to be a father was mostly the drive-by kind—meaning once in a while he skimmed the forty-point headlines on the cover of
magazine. “I told you—”
“I don’t care! I want it! I want it! Buy it, Daddy.
Across from him, Jenny shot a look of disdain over her shoulder, then went back to mulling men’s shaving lather. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be any help.
Not that Mike could blame her. On a good day, Ellie was an F5 hurricane. When she was tired and hungry and in desperate need of the third new stuffed animal of the week, she was a three-foot-tall nuclear explosion in Keds. One most people ran from, but Mike, being the dad, was supposed to step in and
The trouble? He had no idea how to handle his daughter. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his kids since they started walking and talking. It wasn’t something he was proud of, and in the long list of regrets Mike Stark had for the way he had lived his life up till now, being a sucky father topped the list.
Now he had thirty days to change that, and if he was smart, he’d start by laying down the law, being the stern parental figure, who didn’t put up with this temper tantrum crap. Yeah, take a stand, be a man, set an exam—
“Daddy! Please!” Ellie’s raging fit ramped up another level—more fist-pounding, more kicking, and then she released the shriek that could be heard ’round the world. Several shoppers turned around and stared. “I neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed—”
“Here,” Mike said, yanking the stuffed animal off the endcap display and thrusting it at Ellie’s flying fists.
Take it, please, and just stop that screaming before my head explodes.
“But that’s the
Uh-huh. Just like the toy he bought this morning and the two he bought yesterday had been the last time, too. Not to mention the cookies before dinner and the pizza for breakfast he’d caved to. No more. He was going to have to take a stand before Ellie became a spoiled brat.
In an instant, Ellie turned off the screaming fit and scrambled to her feet, grinning and clutching the cream-colored bear to her chest like a prize. A toothy grin filled her face and brightened her big blue eyes. “Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
When her little voice came out with the extra lilt on the end of
, it was all Mike could do to keep from scooping Ellie up and handing her the world on a plate. “You’re welcome, Ellie.”
Jenny shot him a look of disgust, then marched over to the cart and plopped her hands on the bar. “Come on. We need peanut butter.”
She sounded so grown-up that, for a second, Mike had to remind himself he was the one in charge, the adult. Then he glanced at his triumphant preschooler, who had just reinforced her belief that tantrums brought results. Okay, the adult figurehead, at least.
Why was it that he could take apart a Sikorsky MH-60 helicopter, work his way through the complexities of the engines, rotary, and hydraulic systems, figure out the problem, and put it all back together again, but he couldn’t manage a three-year-old child?
“If you give her what she wants all the time, she’s just going to be a brat,” Jenny said as they rounded the corner and headed toward the market side of the store. “You do know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Who do you think is the parent here?”
Her arched brow answered the question. “Peanut butter’s this way.” She shifted the cart to the left, one wheel flopping back and forth like a lazy seal.
He bit back a sigh. What did he expect? He’d come home on leave to see the kids, only to have his ex dump the girls in his lap and tell him she was going on an extended vacation and they were his problem for the next month. The welcome mat to Jasmine’s place didn’t include him, nor was he going to leave his kids in that dump Jasmine owned, so he’d packed up the girls and taken them to his friend Luke’s old house, vacant since Luke had moved in with his fiancée, Olivia, next door.
The kids hadn’t wanted to leave their house in Georgia, or their neighborhood, or their rooms, but Mike had taken one look at Jasmine’s house and decided there was no way his girls were spending another night in that run-down trailer masquerading as a home. Last time he’d been here—heck, six months ago—Jasmine had been living in a rental house on the south side of Atlanta, a rental house Mike was still sending his ex a monthly check to finance. At some point, she’d moved to that hellhole, and when he’d asked, she’d refused to say why.
No way in hell was he going to leave his kids in that tornado bait for one more second. But he’d underestimated what he needed to feed, clothe, and entertain two young girls, which had brought him here, to the fifth level of hell, also known as grocery shopping on senior citizen discount day. In Rescue Bay, Florida, with two kids who barely knew him and barely liked him, when he’d expected to pop in and visit Ellie and Jenny for a few days, then head for a secluded beach at St. Kitts with a buxom stewardess who had promised to “forget” her bikini top. The only thing that could make this worse was—
Diana Tuttle’s surprise raised her voice a couple octaves. He turned around, and when he did, his body reacted with the same flare of desire as it had every time he’d seen Diana, ignoring the memo from his brain that Diana was the exact opposite of the kind of woman he wanted.
He hadn’t seen, talked to, or e-mailed the veterinarian in six months. Not since the night he’d left her sleeping in her bed, taking the coward’s way out of ending things between them. Other than a scribbled note he’d left on her kitchen table, he’d had no other contact with her.
From the minute he had met Diana, it had been too easy, too quick, to pretend he was a stay-in-place, dinners-at-the-family-table kind of guy. She had a way of wrapping him in that world, like the mythological sirens that made sailors abandon their ships, and he’d forget reality for a little while.
The reality that he was a crappy father who lacked staying power, and was in no shape to be someone’s depend-on-anything. Especially right now.
“Daddy?” Ellie asked. “I’s hungry.”
“Okay,” he said, but his attention stayed on Diana’s wide green eyes, filled with a combination of surprise and anger.
He’d known, of course, that he would see her if he came back to Rescue Bay. In such a small town, they were bound to run into each other. Mike had convinced himself that if he saw her, he’d mumble a quick hello, then move on. Forget.
Yeah, not so much.
Diana still looked as beautiful as he’d remembered. No, even more so. Her shoulder-length blond hair, so often in a ponytail, hung loose around her shoulders, longer than he remembered, dancing above the bare skin with a tease that said,
I can touch this and you can’t
. The blue floral dress she wore scooped in an enticing V in the front, then hugged tight at her waist before spinning out in a bell that swirled around her knees and drew his attention to long, creamy legs accented by strappy black sandals and cardinal-red polish on her toes. In the few weeks he’d spent with her, he’d never seen Diana in a dress. Jeans, yes, shorts, yes, but never anything like this, and a flare of jealousy burst in his chest for whoever the lucky guy was who’d get to see her like this. Sweet, sexy, and feminine.
Then he reminded himself that this sweet, sexy, feminine woman also had a sharp side that could level a man in seconds.
“What are you doing here?” Diana asked.
He started to stutter out an answer, but Jenny beat him to it. “We’re
,” Jenny said with a touch of sarcasm most kids didn’t master till puberty kicked in.
“Bonding?” Diana asked with a little gust of disbelief. “You.”
It wasn’t a question. Still, the word made him wince a little. Maybe because the truth stung.
“We’re just grocery shopping. I’m staying out at Luke’s for a few weeks, with my daughters.” He gestured toward Jenny, who gave him another of her scowls, this one saying,
Please don’t think I’m with him
, and then toward Ellie, who still wore her look of tantrum triumph. His youngest daughter danced a circle in the aisle with her teddy partner.
“Oh. Well. Nice to see you again.” Diana gave him a thin-lipped smile, the kind people give to relatives they tolerate only because of the DNA connection, then turned away. The little basket on her arm was filled with a single package of chicken, a single loaf of bread and four of those frozen dinner things. It screamed
alone on a Sunday night
Something in his chest caught. The same thing that had caught inside him the first time he saw her, six months ago, when she’d been sitting on the floor of a run-down dog kennel, covered in soapy water, puppies, and smiles. By the time Olivia had brought her sister over to Luke’s for a barbecue that night, Mike realized that he was hooked but good. He couldn’t remember the menu or the weather that day, but he remembered every detail of Diana’s attire. The denim skirt that hugged her hips, the V-necked pale pink shirt that showed off her cleavage, and the way her dark pink toes drew his eyes to her incredible legs over and over again. He remembered everything she’d worn, but most of all, he remembered her smile and the way she laughed, like music in the air.
All those same memories returned with a whoosh when he looked at her, tightening his chest, making him crave all those things he knew he couldn’t have. The same things he’d ignored when he’d walked out of her house a few weeks later. And he ignored them now, because if there was one thing Mike sucked at, it was the whole settling-down-in-suburbia, being-in-a-responsible-adult-relationship thing.
Case in point: Thing One and Thing Two.
Ellie marched up to Diana and raised her chin. “Are you a friend of my daddy’s?”
Diana gave Ellie a smile and bent at the knees to match Ellie’s eye level. Diana’s skirt danced against the tile floor, like a garden bursting from the dingy gray tile. “Sort of a friend.”
Four words that didn’t even begin to encapsulate the hot fling they’d had a few months ago. But he wasn’t going to explain
to his preschool daughter.
“Do you fly big he-wa-coppers, too?” Ellie asked.
Diana laughed. “No, I’m a veterinarian. Do you know what that is?”
Ellie nodded, a proud, wide smile on her face. “A puppy doctor.”
“Exactly. Do you have a puppy or a kitty?”
“Nuh-uh.” Ellie shook her head and thrust a thumb into her mouth. She was still doing that? Mike thought Jasmine had said Ellie quit sucking her thumb a year ago. “I wanna see one. Can we go now?”
“Well…” Diana shifted her weight, and shot Mike a glance.
“I wanna see one now.” Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, strangling the bear.
“Ellie, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mike said.
She ignored him and lifted her chin toward Diana. “How’s come I can’t go? Daddy? Don’t you wanna go see kitties?”
The question hung in the air for a moment. The Muzak shifted from a jazz version of a Beatles song to a peppy instrumental.
Diana flashed Mike a look he couldn’t read, then gave Ellie a patient smile. “Well, maybe someday you and your sister can visit the place where I work. We have a cat in the office that just had kittens. And they love to play and cuddle.”
The thumb popped out. “Can my Daddy come?”
The smile on Diana’s face became a grimace. “Sure.” Though she said the word with all the enthusiasm of someone volunteering for a colonoscopy.