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Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

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Like the sinfully decadent treats she whips up in her bakery, Poppy Blakemore is irresistible, even to a battle scarred warrior like Matthew McAlister. Unfortunately, except for a love for delicious pastry and a passion so hot it ...
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Like the sinfully decadent treats she whips up in her bakery, Poppy Blakemore is irresistible, even to a battle scarred warrior like Matthew McAlister. Unfortunately, except for a love for delicious pastry and a passion so hot it leaves them scorched in its wake, the two of them have nothing in common. He is a straight-as-an arrow helicopter pilot who has been traumatized by combat, while she struggles to reconcile her capitalist tendencies with her counter-culture background.

The passion between them is undeniable, but Poppy knows that anything more than a sexual relationship is out of the question. Matthew wants so much more. Are sex and buttercream going to be enough to hold them together, or is their love doomed like an overcooked madeleine?

  • Note:This book contains explicit sexual content and graphic language.

Captain Matthew “Cotton” McAlister looked down at the control panel of his helicopter to check his coordinates again. A patrol had gone out earlier and had taken fire from this position. Now they’d called in the gunships to take the enemy out. Flying into the mountainous Korengal Valley was always a harrowing proposition, but that day it was even more dangerous than usual. A good harvest the previous fall meant the enemy had plenty of money to buy weapons, ammunition, and young men to hide up in the hills and play sniper. They always ratcheted up the violence level in what he thought of as the most dangerous six miles on the whole planet. The enemy could hike up these cliffs from now until the Second Coming, and army patrols would have no chance of finding them, let alone rooting them out before they could wreak havoc on American convoys, or more importantly, meetings with village elders. All the violence made the leaders reluctant to meet with them, which played hell with their efforts to maintain, or even create, peace. Just last week they’d overrun a camp and taken a shitload of weapons. Fortunately a later patrol had got them back -- at least he hoped they’d got them all back.

Matthew was just gratified that this was one of his last missions. Iraq had been bad enough, but nothing in the world could’ve prepared him for the hell that was Afghanistan. An eerie haze lay over the valley, distorting distances and his depth perception. Not that it would have helped anyway -- after a while, the stark peaks took on a disconcerting sameness, and without their sophisticated instruments, the entire flight would’ve been totally lost. The ominous shapes of their aircraft were the only things moving in the valley for what seemed like miles. Decades of continuous warfare had left the country in nearly prehistoric condition. The high-tech helicopters stood out in stark contrast like a T. rex in Manhattan. Even though he wore a headset, he could hear the whirring sound from his helicopter’s rotors as well as those of the others in his formation. The lack of sound or movement even though it was only late afternoon was an ominous sign. Obviously the residents of the valley knew a gunfight had gone down and had gotten the hell out of Dodge, so to speak.

He adjusted the swash plate control to remain in formation with the other four Apache gunships on this mission. As always, turning his head to direct the Hellfire missiles on his craft gave him an odd sense of omnipotence. He felt almost as though the missiles were a part of his body in some way. Being able to rain down death and destruction from the sky on a whim was a bit unnerving. Of course nothing was further from the truth. Millions, maybe even billions of dollars of technology went into the guidance systems for the helicopters.

After checking the coordinates for the last time, Matthew gave his copilot the thumbs-up and fired on the target, releasing two missiles in concert with the other helicopters. The attack obliterated everything in sight. As he banked to the left to return to base, he looked back at the position they’d just fired upon. On the edge of his peripheral vision he saw a male figure over the next ridge lower an RPG from his shoulder. Rocket propelled grenade? Goddamnit, they hadn’t got all the weapons back.

“RPG. The fucker just fired at us,” he said into his headset as he slammed his control panel to raise their altitude as quickly as possible. But he knew it was too late. As though time had somehow magically slowed to a molasses-like pace, he felt the change in the atmosphere as the missile approached the craft and the concussion it made as it struck his helicopter. The cockpit filled with acrid smoke almost immediately as the helicopter began a dizzying death spiral toward the earth.

Both men braced themselves for contact with the ground. Neither had much hope of surviving. Given a choice, he’d rather end up in pieces on the mountainside than burned to death in the helicopter, but at the moment neither one seemed any more likely than the other. The seats on the craft were reinforced for just such an eventuality, as helicopters were notoriously fragile and easy to take down. Watching the rocky earth rush up to meet them, Matthew knew they were coming down too fast to be saved by even the best steel. Just before they slammed into the jagged cliffs, he had one last thought: Goddamnit, I only had one month left.

* * * * *

“Where’s the beef?” Poppy shook her head. Why did people think that was a funny comment to make about her vegetarian sandwiches? No matter how gorgeous the man was, and this one was definitely gorgeous, she wasn’t putting up with any nonsense about her food.

“Probably still rotting in your colon.” She gave her standard response and was struck speechless when he gave her an incandescently beautiful smile in return. Why were the pretty ones always the biggest idiots? At just under six feet, he wasn’t all that tall, which was a good thing as she barely cleared five feet herself, but he had the imposing presence of a much larger man. His almost white blond hair contrasted sharply with dark lashes and brows that framed a pair of puppy dog brown eyes so large and luminous they would have been almost feminine if he hadn’t also been blessed with sharp, indisputably masculine features. Bottom line, dude was hot, and his confident smile and swagger made it clear that he knew it.

“They’re really good sandwiches, but I don’t see how a little protein could hurt,” he responded with a cheeky grin.

Poppy, refusing to be distracted, ticked off the sandwich ingredients on her fingers. “Basil, tomato, and fabulous artisan buffalo mozzarella. You’ve got plenty of protein right there.”

He gave her a look so hot she was surprised her eyebrows weren’t singed off. “I’m not sure what artisan means, but a little meat couldn’t hurt.”

Good Lord, was he flirting with her? She refused to even consider the ambiguity in the way he lingered over the word meat. Instead, she opened her mouth to explain all the different ways that it could indeed hurt, but was interrupted by her much more diplomatic sister, Daffodil.

“I’m sure you’ve got a good point, but since this is your third trip to our booth, I’d say you find something about our sandwiches appealing.”

“Oh, they’re quite good,” the other man accompanying Blondie said. “You almost don’t miss the meat.”

Poppy had to smile. “Damned by faint praise,” she murmured under her breath. She turned to assist another customer, and when she came back to that side of the booth, the two men had drifted away.

“What are you putting in those sandwiches these days?” Daffodil asked. “Those guys act like they can’t get enough.”

Poppy looked up at her leggy blonde sister who somehow managed to be perfectly suited to her name. “I don’t know, Dill. It must be the arugula. Lots of people like the peppery taste.” Poppy tried to ignore her sister’s sly look. Normally she was oblivious to men hitting on her, but this guy was so obvious she would’ve had to be dead and buried to miss the signals. Of course, Poppy knew her curvy figure, especially dressed as she was today in cutoffs and a crop top, drew attention from men wherever she went; the Rainbow Family reunion was no exception. She’d been coming to the counterculture event with her family for most of her life, and it wasn’t unusual for a Rainbow romance to blossom in the majestic setting of a national forest. But these guys didn’t look like typical Rainbows. With their clean-cut, all-American good looks, they were far too conventional for such a gathering. Some people came looking to score drugs, but they didn’t look like that type either. Their closely cropped hair and erect bearing suggested military, but they could be DEA or ATF. There were plenty of drugs around, mainly weed, but the men didn’t seem like narcs either. The other Rainbows would’ve got rid of them by now if they were. So military seemed more likely. She wondered what had brought them here.

“Oh yeah, dozens of booths here, and those guys keep coming back for the arugula.” Daffodil gave her a wry glance.

“They bought some of the pineapple cupcakes too.”

The rest of the Rainbow Family weekend continued that way, with the two guys stopping by their booth several times a day over the long Labor Day weekend. Poppy’s booth was always popular, though many Rainbows objected to the use of cash; a barter system was much more traditional. She had been more or less grandfathered in by her parents’ long membership and, of course, her stellar food. As Rainbows, they had no official organizational structure and certainly no agenda. Poppy was always amazed that the reunion occurred at all, given that it was allowed to develop organically, strictly by word of mouth. Dealing with people who were more concerned with her aura than the bottom line was both refreshing and frustrating. All in all it made for an exhausting weekend, but Poppy couldn’t help but love it. There was certain continuity to seeing people she’d known all her life. There had been little structure in her childhood, but the Rainbows had always been a comforting presence.

When their mysterious guests made yet another appearance on the last day of the reunion, Daffodil apparently decided to abandon diplomacy.

“So, why don’t you just ask my sister out?” she asked, giving the blond a pointed look. “Much as we appreciate the business, you’re going to pop if you eat any more of this food.” Poppy rolled her eyes, wondering why her sister had decided to get all up in her business all of a sudden.

Both men looked surprised, though they recovered quickly. Poppy knew most people were stunned to find they were sisters. The contrast between her sister’s leggy California blonde looks and her own shorter, curvier, definitely African American features was more than most people were accustomed to. Of course, she had been adopted, as were nearly all of her eight siblings. Though at this point she would be hard-pressed to say which of her brothers and sisters were her parents’ biological kids. They claimed not to know themselves, and somehow, she believed them. Poppy caught up with the conversation that had continued without her.

“How do you know that we’re not here to ask you out?” the blond asked with an unbelievably sexy twist of his lips.

“Both of you?” Poppy gave them a considering look. With his striking golden looks, he was the polar opposite of his swarthy friend, who stood several inches taller. “You do know that Daffodil is a priest? She doesn’t roll like that.”

“Hmmm, and would that mean you do? I mean, roll like that,” he asked.

“I’m Michael, and this is Matthew,” the darker man said. “A priest named Daffodil?” He looked up at the sign at the top of the booth. “And I suppose you’re Poppy? Where’d you get those names? Sounds like something out of a strip club.”

“No that would be Petunia, my twin,” Poppy deadpanned. Both men stared at her aghast as though they didn’t know whether to believe her. She explained that all of her siblings had flower names.

“So, you’re literally flower children,” Matthew said. “Your parents must be...interesting.”

“Yes,” Daffodil replied. “Though none of us are named Petunia. Mama doesn’t care for them.” She extended a hand, suddenly as dignified as though she were attired in her robe and chasuble instead of the disreputable cutoff jeans and bright scarlet bikini top she wore with bohemian aplomb. “The Reverend Daffodil Blakemore at your service. I’m the associate rector at the Episcopal church here in town.” Poppy couldn’t help but think that even with her multicolored toenails, Daffodil did in fact look and act like a priest. She wondered why so few other people noticed.

“Well, if you guys are just going to stand there with your mouths open, you might as well be enjoying my lemon-lime cupcakes. They’re really light and refreshing in this heat.” Poppy passed the cupcakes over the counter.

Matthew seemed to come back to himself first. “To be honest, I was thinking about asking you out.” He took a bite of the cupcake, closing his eyes as though having some type of transcendental experience. “If for no other reason than to get these cupcakes again.”

“Keep in mind, he is combat wounded,” Michael added helpfully.

Matthew gave him an exasperated look. “For God’s sake, I broke my leg; it hardly qualifies as a wound.”

So they were military. “How did it happen?” Poppy couldn’t keep herself from asking.

“It’s not that important. Let’s get back to our date. I’ll tell you all about it if you bring some of these cupcakes.”

“Hey, I don’t put out on the first date.” She couldn’t help grinning back at him; she loved people who loved her food. “At least, not the baked goods anyway.”

Matthew’s eyes narrowed with sudden intensity. “Then I’ll have to see what I can do to persuade you. I’ll do anything for the goodies.”

Poppy reached up to pat her free-form Afro. Heat had arced between them so fiercely she was surprised it hadn’t gone up in flames.

“I don’t know. Those cupcakes are pretty spectacular. It’ll take a lot to earn a batch of those,” Poppy said. Was that her voice? Since when did she sound so Regine?

His lips curved into an answering smile. “Believe me, I’ll be bringing my A-game.”

He picked up her hand from the counter and raised it to his mouth. Poppy could only stare in return, held immobile as though under the gaze of a raptor.

Daffodil cleared her throat. “Somehow I don’t think you two are talking about cupcakes.”

Her sister’s saucy comment broke the tension, and they all laughed. Before she knew it, she’d agreed to a date with the towheaded charmer. After exchanging telephone numbers with Poppy and buying out her entire supply of citrus cupcakes, the men were on their way. Poppy collapsed against the side of the booth, her trembling legs refusing to hold her up any longer.

Daffodil gave her an arch look. “Hmmm, I wonder if Sunflower will give me odds on how quickly that old boy will have you out of your panties.” Poppy could only gasp. “Yeah, I thought it would be pretty quickly too.”

Copyright © Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

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