Authors: J. M. Stewart
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Suspense
This edition published by
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2013 by Joanne Stewart
ISBN 10: 1-4405-5427-2
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6427-7
eISBN 10: 1-4405-6428-0
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6428-4
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com, istockphoto.com/Geber86
As always, this one goes to my agent, Dawn Dowdle. Every author needs someone like her in their corner. I’m very grateful for her support and for doing what she does best.
To Rachel Brimble. For her support and pushing me to see beyond my box and making my writing better for it. Thanks, lady.
And always to my husband. He isn’t a reader, but he supports my writing addiction, and cheers me on anyway, and I adore him for it.
“Baby, you must be exhausted.”
Cat Edwards stifled a groan as the drunken muscle-bound hulk — a man twice her size who looked as if he could bench press two of her — leaned heavily on the bar beside her. His eyes had long since glazed over and a goofy grin stretched across his beet-red face. He waggled his brows at her, as if somehow he expected her to be impressed. With what? The fact that even propped on the bar he could barely stand up?
Praying he’d take the hint and leave, she shook her head and turned back to her drink. That was by far the worst line she’d heard since she arrived an hour ago, and she’d heard plenty. Apparently, sitting alone at the bar and sipping a glass of wine made her fair game.
Cat darted a glance around, searching the dance floor for the familiar face of her roommate and best friend, Lisa Caldwell. She’d disappeared two songs ago with a guy very like the one currently hanging off the bar beside Cat and had yet to return. She couldn’t believe how packed the place was. Crest Point boasted all of two thousand residents, and she’d be willing to bet everyone between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five came to the pub tonight. Roadie’s advertised the best bar food on the Oregon coast. According to Lisa, the place was normally empty and quiet. Apparently, it had been a part of Crest Point since the town first began, more than a hundred years ago. With dark wooden walls and low lighting, the place had a cozy, almost intimate atmosphere, despite its size. The bar she sat at had been polished to a shine, the edges ornately carved. An old-style jukebox lined one wall, but toward the back stood a small stage almost everyone in the place gathered around.
The pub hosted local bands on weekends and, being Friday night, the current group attracted quite a crowd. Bodies filled the dance floor and spilled out around the nearby tables, with barely enough room to move through the thick crowd. Music pounded throughout the place, the bodies all bumping and grinding to the throbbing beat.
Cat searched the dance floor again for any sign of Lisa among the sea of flesh. What happened to “girls’ night out,” anyway?
“Aren’t … aren’t you gonna ask me why?” His words slow and slurred, the guy beside her slipped across the countertop then jerked upright as he caught himself.
Cat sighed. “No.”
She already knew the punch line —
Because you’ve been running around my mind all day.
Twice already tonight she’d heard the same line, when she was naïve enough to ask why.
She couldn’t help shaking her head as she glanced over at him again. He stared at her chest and didn’t bother to hide it. Following his gaze, she glanced down at her salmon tank-top, wishing she hadn’t promised Lisa she’d stay another hour. She desperately wanted to go home and change. Never in her life had she gotten this much attention from the male population. At barely five-foot-four and a mousy brunette, most men overlooked her. For the most part, it was the way she preferred it.
The shirt was Lisa’s, and per her best friend’s style, it was clingy and a size too small. The dangerously low scoop neckline, combined with the stretchy cotton fabric, made her over-endowment stand out like a blinking neon sign. Lisa had convinced her she looked great and, at the time they left the house, Cat believed her. Now, one hour and five gawking men later, she felt all but naked.
“Lemme b-buy you a drink then.”
“Got one, thanks.” Without looking at him, she lifted her glass in his direction, praying he’d take the hint and go away. She didn’t want to be rude, but she’d discovered the hard way that any amount of interaction would be taken as encouragement.
Cat set her elbow on the edge of the bar and plunked her chin in her hand. What a way to forget a broken heart. Two months ago, she’d caught her now ex-fiancé, who was also her boss, shagging his little blond secretary. Normally, she wouldn’t have been surprised. Most of the men who crossed her life were all the same. She’d believed Nick, had allowed him to convince her the gossips were wrong. It’d been a depressing realization to discover she should have listened to her gut. So, Lisa insisted she come to the bar tonight.
“What you need,” Lisa said two hours ago, “is to get out and live a little. Show Nick you don’t need him.”
At that point, Cat agreed. Now? Well, now she felt in way over her head.
So far, she wasn’t living it up, not even a little. All she’d gotten for her effort was groped and ogled. Was she doing this wrong?
“Good, then you’re free to dance.” The guy beside her snatched her hand and tugged on her arm. A move meant to be suave and cool came across as anything but in his drunken state. Tugging too hard, he pulled himself off balance and stumbled backwards.
Hooking her heels on the lower rung of her bar stool, Cat planted her feet to keep him from pulling her onto the floor.
“Look.” When she straightened, she yanked her hand back and turned to him, not even bothering to hide the frustration swelling within her. “I’m not interested, okay?”
“Easy now.” He let out a laugh and plunked onto the stool beside her. He narrowly missed the edge but managed to catch himself at the last second. When he steadied himself, he leaned forward and slid his hand over her thigh. “I’m just bein’ friendly.”
Lust and determination filled his eyes and made her skin crawl. She had the sudden, creepy feeling of being a worm dangling at the end of a hook about to be dinner. This was a familiar scenario, one she’d lived a time too many. The boys in high school thought their charm would change her mind. No matter how many times she shoved his hand off her leg, it returned, and each time it inched higher, his grin wider. As if, somehow, he thought with enough persistence she’d cave. To top it all off, his foul breath gagged her.
When he claimed another hold, this time about mid-thigh, and began to inch inwards, she decided it was time to stop playing nice. She gritted her teeth. “Get your hands … ”
The rest of her sentence died on her lips as a pair of smooth, warm hands slid onto her bare shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze. When they continued to move, this time down her arms, her spine stiffened and her teeth clenched. Never again. She was never coming here again, and she was going to kill Lisa for deserting her.
“Follow my lead.” His voice flowed against her ear, rich and smooth and darkly sensual. The kind of voice she could well imagine whispering to her in the dark. It added to the stubble prickling her cheek and, for a moment, her mind twisted off in another direction, filling with naughty fantasies. Suddenly she was dying to see the face behind the voice.
Louder he said, “Miss me?”
Velvet soft lips brushed her earlobe as he spoke, combined with the deep, sensual quality of his voice and sent delicious shivers slipping down her spine. For a moment, Cat forgot to breathe, forgot what in the world she was supposed to be doing. Somewhere through the haze that took over her mind, his meaning finally occurred to her. Her body went limp with relief. She had the sudden urge to turn and hug the man. Chivalry hadn’t died with King Arthur after all.
“You’re late.” Playing her part, she straightened on her stool and reached back to twine her fingers with his. Soft, thick fingers that filled her overheated mind with visions of them sliding over her skin.
The clod’s hand finally released her thigh, and Cat swallowed a sigh of relief then spun to face her savior. “You were supposed to be here … ”
Her train of thought derailed as she came face to face with the center of a broad chest. A thickly muscled chest barely contained by the black T-shirt covering it. Her heart skipped several beats as she followed the muscles upward, past even wider shoulders, until her gaze collided with a pair of dark brown eyes that made her breath catch.
Oh boy. She clamped her mouth shut and swallowed hard. A five o’clock shadow covered a strong, square jaw, giving him a rough and rugged edge. His thick, almost black, hair licked at the collar of his worn leather jacket, just long enough to be rebellious, and tousled by the wind. Her fingers itched to reach up and slide through his hair to see if it felt as soft as it seemed.
“Forgive me.” As he bent down to her eye level, his eyes burned into hers, a hidden meaning in the dark depths she couldn’t quite grasp. She couldn’t concentrate much past the fact his face was now a scant inch from hers. His soft, warm breath fanned her lips, and her gaze zeroed in on the mouth that had sent delicious sensations thrumming through her body barely a minute ago.
Before she could ponder what on earth he meant or come up with a proper response, he took their charade a step further.
He kissed her.
One hand slid into her hair, cupping the back of her head, as that wicked mouth settled over hers. Caught completely off guard, Cat wrestled with how to respond. He’d gotten her out of trouble and kept her from having to make a scene. She hated making a scene, if only because her mother had done so one too many times. So Cat had struggled her whole life with trying to blend in with the crowd, not giving anyone a reason to look her way. Some part of her said she ought to be grateful to him. Another part screamed to slap him. He was taking a liberty she shouldn’t allow.
Her body, however, had other ideas. His head tipped to the side, his mouth slanting over hers, and Cat forgot her name.
The way his warm, velvet lips covered hers made her head swim, plying and tugging in a gentle yet demanding exchange. Like a familiar lover who knew how to make her melt to his whim. No bitter beer taste that made her want to gag. Only hot, heady wetness that drew her in, had her dropping her head back and opening for him. A tiny whimper of surrender left her mouth and, before she could think to stop herself, Cat leaned into him.
As abruptly as he’d kissed her, he pulled away. Lightheaded and breathless, Cat opened her eyes and grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself, then tried to concentrate on calming the fierce pounding of her heart.
Staring straight at her, amusement dancing in his dark eyes, her savior murmured, “Sorry, buddy, this one’s taken.”
Her cheeks flamed as the realization hit her. Oh, she did not just do that. She didn’t kiss a total stranger in the middle of a noisy bar.
Good God. She’d done exactly that. Not only had she liked it, but she’d kissed him back.
Excitement fluttered inside of her, a sense of giddiness that bubbled up like too much champagne, warm and tingly. The sensation mixed with an uneasiness and left her trembling.