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Protecting The Heart

 

 

PROTECTING THE HEART

 

Copyright © 2016 by Marie Higgins

Cover Design by Sheri McGathy

 

 

Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you have obtained the copy illegally. Please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

 

For more information about author: www.mariehiggins.com

 

Other published stories from Marie Higgins

 

“Stealing the Duchess” – Regency Romance Suspense

“Secrets and Lies” – Victorian Romance Suspense

“Haunting Secrets” – Victorian Paranormal Romance

“Amazon Sunset” – Victorian Romance Action / Suspense

“Love Lost in Time” – Victorian Time-Travel / Suspense

“Waiting for You” – Paranormal / Time-travel Romance

“Becoming a Lady” – Regency Romance

“In the Arms of Danger” – Romantic Suspense

“Crazy For You” – Romantic Comedy

“My Heart’s Treasure” – Victorian Romantic Suspense

 

Your Every Day Hero Series (Romantic Suspense / Romantic Comedy)

“Prince Charming is a Liar” – Romantic Comedy / Suspense

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Altar” – Romantic Suspense / Romantic Comedy

“You Are My Everything” – Romance

 

Where Dreams Come True Series (fairy tales)

“The Witch Hunt” – Young Adult Fantasy

“Champion” – Robin Hood / time travel

“Her Very Own Godmother” – Modern-day Cinderella, romantic comedy

“Keep on Believing” – Historical Cinderella

“Once Enchanted” – Rapunzel romance

 

Christian Historical Series

“A Walk in Heaven” – book 1

“Touching Heaven” – book 2

“Reach for Heaven” – book 3

 

Regency Romance Series – Sons of Worthington

“The Sweetest Kiss” – book 1

“The Sweetest Touch” – book 2

“The Sweetest Love” – book 3

“The Sweetest Secret” – book 4

 

Regency Romance Suspense Series – Heroic Rogues

“Pretending You’re Mine” – book 1

“After the Loving” – book 2

“Wonderland by Night” – book 3

“Worth Fighting For” – book 4

 

Victorian Romance Series

“Love Me Always” – book 1

“Charmed by Knight” – book 2

“True Love’s Deception” – book 3

“Belong To Me” – book 4

“Love Comes Blindly” – book 5

 

 

 

 

She needs money for her bar. He seeks incriminating evidence to close her. Will the auction be the key, or will her kisses melt his heart?

 

Cassidy Hilarion needs money to save her bar. She hopes that auctioning off her waitresses and herself for a night out on the town might do the trick. How can she protect her heart when a gorgeous hottie bids on her and all she wants to do is kiss him endlessly?

 

Mark Carrington is on a mission—to find some incriminating evidence to help his father close down the bar. For years, the Carringtons have tried to get this land from the Hilarions, and Mark is determined to win. But when he gets to know the sexy co-owner he wants more than the bar. He wants her heart.

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

Cassidy Brown locked her legs in military stance and folded her arms across her breast. She scowled at her cousin Joan, the manager of the family bar, The Hideaway, as they stood in the back hallway. “I’d rather be thrown in piranha-infested waters than go out with a man.”

Clinking of glasses rang faint from inside the bar, mixed with loud chatter as the patronage continued to grow. Cassidy had never seen this many men in Coral Gables, Florida, in one place all at the same time. She tried not to think of the reason the bar filled so quickly, and concentrated on her cousin. Lifting her chin a notch, Cassidy hoped to prove her stubbornness.

Her cousin rubbed her temple, her fingers digging into her forehead as if she were trying to get rid of something deep in her skull. “Cass, you have to go out with someone, especially tonight.” Heaving a deep sigh, she leaned around the corner and peeked into the bar. “Do you see how full we are? The bar needs this auction to stimulate business. Look at all those men.”

Cassidy glanced into the crowded room, her heart weighed with indecision, her mind arguing along with it.

Joan shook her head. “Most of those men are even dressed in business suits.” She looked back at Cassidy. “Suits mean business with more moolah than the usual Joe Schmo. Can you imagine how much money we’ll make tonight?”

Cassidy gritted her teeth. The sinking sensation of defeat pulled at her conscience, but she would hold firm to her decision. She had to. Her feelings rarely led her astray. “Yes, I can imagine how much money we’ll make. We’ll just do it with one less girl.”

Joan huffed and grasped Cassidy’s shoulders, looking her directly in the eyes. “Not if they plan on bidding on ten girls and we only have nine.”

“We’ll just explain that Linda—”

“No, Cass. We can’t. Our advertisement said ten women, which means we’ve got to give them that many.”

“But if I’m one of the girls to be bid on, who’ll wait tables?”

“My brothers will. They’re here to help for tonight’s auction, anyway.”

Cassidy’s stomach twisted, her palms moistened. Joan was right. The bar needed tonight’s entertainment to pick up business. If this function didn’t bring in money, The Hideaway would have to close. Joan and Cassidy’s fathers had operated the bar for twenty years, and she couldn’t let it go under now. But her father would turn over in his grave if he knew what they’d planned to bring back their patrons.

Joan swiped a wayward curl behind Cassidy’s ear and gave her a sheepish smile. “I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t think it was important. I understand Lyle ruined the way you look at other men, but tonight is different.” She shrugged. “Just think of it as a business venture that will help you grow.”

Demeaning myself is more like it. “But Joan, I feel like something bad is going to happen tonight.”

Joan lifted her brows. “Nothing bad will happen. I promise.”

Cassidy laughed. “I’m afraid the guy who buys me for the night will demand his money back.” If she hadn’t been good enough for Lyle . . .

Joan cupped Cassidy’s chin and grinned. “Just be the adorable and fun-loving woman we all know you are. Remember, tonight’s date is nothing personal. It’s just one night out on the town. That’s all.”

From inside the bar, the men’s chants, whistling and cheering grew stronger. The auction would start any moment, and Cassidy couldn’t do anything to get out of it. Being the Assistant Manager, she had no other choice, and although she didn’t have to like it, she’d do it for The Hideaway. This was the one thing her father wanted her to do—to continue making the bar a place for everyone to come and enjoy themselves. She couldn’t lose it now.

She gritted her teeth. “Fine.”

Joan beamed and clapped her hands. “Hurry and change into Linda’s dress.”

Cassidy grimaced. “Do I have to?”

“Yes, you have to look like the other girls.”

Pivoting on her heel, Cassidy spun around, her hair whipping over her shoulder. With her hands in fists, she marched toward the back room where the other women being auctioned had gathered to change. It was Joan’s idea to do the auction, and Cassidy’s younger sister, Katie’s idea to wear the sexy dresses. Cass would like to slap Katie for being so thin and shapely.

Of course, Cass remembered what she’d been like at age twenty-two, which is how she got tangled up with Lyle. Worst mistake of her life. Now, at twenty-five, she wondered if tonight she’d make another mistake.

The other nine giggling girls were applying finishing touches to their hair and face, all looking like Barbie dolls. Cassidy rolled her eyes. Mattel could market such a doll—night on the town Barbie, for hire.

She pasted on a smile as she passed the girls on their way out front. “Good luck.”

“You’d better hurry, Cass.” Katie shoved Linda’s dress into her arms. “You only have ten minutes.”

“Oh yeah, ten minutes to make myself into some man’s dream date. I can’t wait.”

Katie grinned, showing her pearly whites, the kind made by the dentist. “You’re gonna knock ‘em dead, Sis.” She spun on her three-inch heels and glided out the door like a model going down a runway.

Cassidy held the dress out in front of her and groaned. No way was her size six body going to fit into Linda’s size four dress. But she had no other choice. She hung the dress over the end of a chair and stripped off her jeans and T-shirt. As she struggled into the black spandex dress, she groaned. So this is what a hippo would feel like wearing a girdle.

Yanking the straps over her shoulders, she tugged it down her legs, but it wouldn’t go any further than her thighs. She growled and tried again, but the stretchy material bounced back. Throwing her hands in the air, she turned toward the full-length mirror. “Seriously?”

Grabbing the sides of the bodice’s deep opening, she pulled it together, and just as before, the stretchy material shrunk back to its original spot. Now she looked like a hippo wearing a girdle whose watermelons wouldn’t fit into cup-size holders. She scowled at her reflection.

Slowly, she surveyed her body again, twisting in front of the mirror to get the full effect. She hated looking like she wore a painted on dress. It wasn’t wise to give the men in the bar tonight the wrong idea, but how else could she let them know that the only thing they’d be getting out of her tonight was a dinner—and definitely not an expensive one—and maybe a movie. That was all!

Fluffing her long hair around her shoulders, she took deep breaths, trying to gain her courage and calm her nerves. It wasn’t working. In fact, she just might pass out. At least that would give her a good excuse to back out.

From down the hall, Joan’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, starting the auction. Unfortunately, it was time to go, so on shaky legs, she made her way toward the bar.

The closer Cassidy came to the room full of men, the harder her heartbeat slammed against her ribs. She blamed all of this on Carrington Enterprises. If they hadn’t been bullying her endlessly about selling the bar so they could build an office sky-rise, she wouldn’t be wobbling toward the stage looking like a hooker. She and Joan only had a week to think up a way to raise the bar’s patronage, and since women ran the bar, this was the solution that came to mind.

When she stepped into the smoky, dimly-lit bar, she gasped and pressed her back against the wall. Men filled the room, sitting or standing, elbow to elbow. Some wore faded jeans and cotton T-shirts, and others were in three-piece suits. Their ages appeared to range from barely legal up to sixty-year-olds. By the way they waved their cash and their cat-calls, a passerby would think this was a strip club. She frowned. That would definitely make the bar popular, but in the wrong way.

She kept her gaze glued to the wall. Her heart hammered as she watched the proceedings. The girls on stage actually played up their parts, blowing kisses to the men, and even shaking their booty! Cassidy rolled her eyes. How pathetic—and how embarrassing! But it drove the men wild.

She swallowed the lump of fear in her throat. Hopefully, they wouldn’t expect that from her.

The men continued to bid. Her sister, Katie, went for six hundred and fifty dollars. Cassidy grinned. Knowing her sister, she’d give them their money’s worth. Katie was an exciting girl and always knew the coolest places that were entertaining. The other girls didn’t bring in quite as much, but still a fair amount.

Finally, the moment she dreaded came. Joan called her name, motioning with her hand for her to go up on stage. All eyes turned on Cassidy and fear stilled her limbs. She wanted to turn and run, but her legs wouldn’t agree to move.

She scanned the crowd of onlookers, her gaze falling to a gorgeous man at a nearby table. He sipped his coffee cup, watching her over the rim. His penetrating stare sent ripples up her spine. When he lowered his drink, his gaze moved over her exposed cleavage, down her stomach and then to her legs. Heat pierced through her. Not good! The corner of his mouth lifted in a knowing grin.

He was different from the rest of the men in a way. Wearing a blue, button-down shirt and black Wranglers, he looked more like cowboy than anything. He wasn’t as rugged, though. She’d classify him as casual, yet stylish.

Still, he was one good-looking man. His heated gaze let her know what he wanted, especially the lazy way his lips curved upward. His dark eyebrows slowly lifted up and down, suggestively. Obviously, he thought this was a sex-for-hire bar, too. Boy, was he wrong!

She groaned under her breath. Men like him probably thought women were only good for one thing. Gads, she hated men like that. She’d like to teach him a lesson, but didn’t want to get that close.

Her name echoing in the room drew her attention back to the stage. Joan scowled at her. Cassidy shrugged. Time to put on a show.

Finding strength she didn’t know she possessed, she straightened her spine and walked onto the stage on three-inch heels. She scooted past the local band squished in the back like sardines in a tin can, and moved closer to Joan.

When the roar of applause heightened, fear leapt in her chest. Her lips quivered as she smiled, and her knees knocked. She clasped her shaky hands together against her stomach. How can I look sexy when I feel like heaving my guts out?

“Gentlemen,” Joan yelled above the cheers. “Here is our last prize of the evening. Come on men, we’re trying to rescue our bar. Dig in your wallets and let’s begin. Who will bid on Cassidy Hilarion for tonight’s date?”

Cassidy jerked her head to Joan and narrowed her eyes. Why did Joan use her maiden name? And would she live up to the Hilarion name as her sister had? Could she act like a loose woman?

 

 

 

TWO

 

All at once, men shouted out dollar figures, making Cassidy’s head swim. The bar had collected more money tonight than the entire last month. Shoot, probably two months. It shocked her to think they’d bid even one hundred dollars on her. She wasn’t as young as the other women, and certainly not as beautiful, or as skinny. So what was the gag? Why were the men acting like hound dogs during mating season? It was definitely the alcohol.

“I bid two hundred,” one man shouted.

Another raised his hand. “Two hundred and fifty.”

The higher the amount bid, the more her smile stretched. Although she dreaded the date part, having men bid on her gave her a powerful feeling she’d been without for too long. It’d been a while since she felt attractive. She needed this after she’d had her heart trampled on.

But soon the bidding stopped on one amount. Four hundred dollars. Although it was still a lot of money, she knew the bar needed more. She also knew what she’d have to do to get it.

Taking a deep courageous breath, she relaxed her hands, hooking them on her hips as she tried her best to strut across the length of the stage as she’d witness the other girls doing. Hollers from the audience grew, and with it, her nerve climbed higher. Behind her, the drums picked up a lively beat that met the rhythm of her walk. She swung her hips, and the drums’ volume heightened. So did the whistles in the room.

The bidding lifted to five hundred. Then stopped. Cassidy stretched her arms above her head, lifting the bulk of hair off her shoulders. Tilting her head back, she let the waves fall provocatively through her fingers. The bidding continued to climb to five hundred and seventy-five dollars. Then stopped again.

Several men stood close to the stage, waving their cash, with drunken expressions on their faces. She shrugged. Might as well have fun while she can.

She slinked to one cowboy, bent to his level and let her fingers twist in his hair. His grin grew wider. He jumped on the stage and grabbed her around the waist. She gasped, but followed his lead. Thankfully, he only wanted to dance. She moved with him, keeping in the slow-dance rhythm. If he weren’t such a stinking drunk, this might be exciting. By the enthusiastic cheers from the crowd, they loved it.

The bidding continued, but stopped at six hundred. She’d never be able to top her sister’s bid at six hundred and fifty dollars, but frankly, she didn’t want to. She pushed the drunken cowboy away, and he stumbled down the stairs. She blew him a kiss before sashaying to stand beside Joan so she could finish the bidding.

“Do I hear six hundred and fifty?” Joan called out. No more bids were voiced, just the cat-calls and whistles from the horde of anxious men.

“Okay, six hundred and fifty going once. Going twice . . .”

“One thousand dollars.”

The voices in the room silenced. Gasps and clinking glasses were the only sounds. Cassidy pressed her hand to her chest. All heads turned to the voice on the other side of the room.

Joan waved her hand. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t see you. Would you mind standing and repeating that bid?”

The man rose and the scraping of the chair’s wooden legs echoed through the suddenly silent bar. Cassidy recognized the wannabe cowboy who’d ogled her so openly when she’d first entered. She couldn’t understand why would a man so gorgeous want to bid that high on her.

Even from across the room, she could spot a drunk, and this particular hunk was not one of them. So why did he bid that amount? His blank expression didn’t tell her anything about what he expected. Yet, by the heated gleam in his earlier gaze, she figured she already knew.

“I said, I bid one thousand dollars.”

Joan laughed. “Sold, to the gentlemen in the corner.”

She motioned her hand. “You can come and collect your prize.”

Cassidy swallowed a lump of fear, yet anticipation rose in her chest. Suddenly, an image popped into her mind and she envisioned herself locked in a lover’s embrace with this man while his mouth moved passionately.

Impossible! She would definitely not let that happen.

The man swaggered toward her. Even his walk was sexy. All he needed was cowboy boots and a hat. He still looked too business-style for that.

Keeping his focus on her, he stopped at the bar and handed a wad of bills to Joan. Her cousin didn’t hesitate to take the money, even giggled once the bills were in her grasp. That was when Mr. Cowboy Wannabe smiled…and Cassidy about melted at that point. Her knees grew weak and she scolded her body for having that kind of effect from just a man’s smile. He could try and charm her all he wanted, but now she knew his plans and she was not going to let him win!

He reached out to her. She really didn’t want to go with a man who thought she was a hooker, but her body didn’t listen to her panicked mind, and she slipped her hand into his. Warmth from his body speared through her, creating havoc like she’d never known. Her throat turned dry, but her blood pumped faster and hotter through her veins, yet she followed him as he guided her down the stairs and to his table.

Too many people in the bar doused any idea of their first meeting to be private, and Cassidy was now pleased with the auction’s great attendance.

He pulled out her chair. Her jaw dropped as she sat. Where was he from? Men didn’t do that for women any longer.

The grin stayed on his face as he sat across from her. “Would you like a drink?”

She shook her head, planning to deny, but found herself answering, “Yes.” Curse her lonely hide.

He chuckled and signaled to one of the waiters. She didn’t take her attention off the stranger to see which one of her cousins served them.

“What would you like?” the strange man asked.

For you to go away. “Just a Coke, please.” She didn’t want to drink with him, and she definitely didn’t want to drink something with alcohol. Although she refused to drink anything hard, she might need it to calm her frazzled nerves, after all. His sensuality disturbed her. She didn’t know how to handle the dizziness consuming her the longer she stared at him.

He turned to the server and nodded. “You heard the lady.” Linking his fingers, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “So, Cassidy Hilarion, what have you planned for our date tonight?”

To escort you home and make you take a cold shower. She knew what he wanted. It was the same thing all the guys at the bar hoped for when purchasing a date for the evening.

She swallowed hard. “Are you going to introduce yourself?”

“I’m Mark Carey.”

“Well, Mark Carey, I thought we’d start out with dinner tonight.” The audible squeak in her voice horrified her and she cleared her throat.

He grinned. “And how do you plan to end the date?”

Dumping ice down your pants. “We could go dancing.” She shouldn’t want this man, but heaven help her, he made her tongue-tied in the worst way. His hypnotic gaze only made matters worse, too.

He shrugged. “I don’t like to dance.”

“We could see a movie.”

“What if nothing good is playing?”

“We could walk around the park and talk.”

His grin stretched. “Sounds good, but won’t your feet hurt? I’d think those high heels would get uncomfortable.”

He was right. She shrugged. “Then I’m all out of ideas.”

He reached across the table and took hold of her hand. “You’re not going to invite me to your place for a nightcap?”

Her heart jumped, lodging itself firmly in her throat. When their server brought her drink, she glanced up briefly. One of Joan’s brothers grinned. She nodded at him before he turned and left.

She refocused on the cowboy who looked too sexy to be real. Like a drunken moth, his seductive charm pulled her to his fascinating flame. She couldn’t swallow, she couldn’t breathe, and she for sure couldn’t look away from his fascinating eyes. Were they green? In this section of the bar, the lighting shadowed his features.

Cassidy forced her tongue to moisten her dry lips. His eyes focused on the movement, and her traitorous body reacted by shivering. Underneath the table, she fisted her hands.

Finally, her throat attempted to allow a moist swallow so she could answer his question. “I—I—I don’t do nightcaps or anything close to that.”

She studied the chick magnet, waiting for his reaction, but she couldn’t read him. In fact, she really couldn’t tell if he liked her answer or not. His smile remained, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

He pulled away and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms over his massive chest. Her focus strayed to the bulging biceps on his muscular arms.

She cursed the direction of her thoughts. It didn’t matter if he had muscles or not. He was still a man, and all men were alike. They were all cheating good-for-nothings who enjoyed laying the blame at her feet. Only one thing stayed on their teeny-weeny minds, and by the way his gaze kept sliding to her chest, she knew what was on his mind. He’ll be sorely disappointed knowing he would not get what he wanted from this date. He could charm her all he wanted, but she would not give in.

“Let’s leave and begin our date, then.” He stood and held out his hand.

As she sipped her Coke, her movement was unsteady then she set the glass down before placing her fingers in his large one. Just like before, warmth from his body soaked into hers, creating tingles to bite at her nerves, reminding her how long it had been since she’d had this kind of attention. Yet she didn’t want it. How could she convince her body of that?

No matter how much this man made her heart flutter and stimulated every inch of her skin with his heated gaze, she needed to remember he was a man. A man like Lyle.

He’d break her heart if she was fool enough to let him.

 

 

 

THREE

 

Mark tucked Cassidy’s arm under his and escorted the very sexy woman to the door, squeezing past drunks on their way. She shivered, yet her body remained stiff. She wasn’t like the other girls who’d joined in the bidding. So why did the announcer label Cassidy Hilarion the prize?

From the moment he set eyes on her when she walked into the bar and flattened herself up against a wall, he detected her hesitation. The whiteness of her face—contrasting greatly with her auburn hair—her wide eyes and her shaking limbs gave away her true feelings.

Or was that just an act to get everyone’s attention?

Huddled this close, her lilac scent drifted around him, making him want to bury his nose in her wavy hair. His fingers even itched to touch her red curls, but he fought the urge.

After a few minutes of her standing on the stage, a new personality blossomed. He liked the way her hips swung to the beat of the drums and the way her long hair bounced when she flipped it over her shoulders. And he especially liked the way she cozied up next to the drunk who’d slow-danced with her. Mark had mentioned earlier he didn’t like to dance, but he’d rethink it if she’d dance that way with him.

When they stepped outside, the fresh late summer air assaulted his senses. He inhaled a deep breath, enjoying the smoke-free air. Beside him, she shivered. He glanced at her. Her bottom lip quivered while her gaze darted around the parking lot. For some reason, she was scared.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

Her attention swung to him. “Just a little.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her body closer to his. The evening’s temperature wasn’t cool; in fact, the afternoon’s intense heat still lingered in the light breeze.

“My Jeep is right over there.” He nodded in the direction before walking that way.

She didn’t speak, but her teeth chattered. He unlocked the door and opened the passenger side. She climbed in and hugged her arms around her. It was hard for him to believe she was this cold. He hurried and shut the door before the air chilled her any more.

He slipped into the driver’s seat and immediately started the engine. Cassidy still shivered like a naked baby in an igloo. Leaning toward her, he slid his hands up and down her arms, helping to warm her.

She jumped back with wide eyes. “Wh-what are you doing?”

He shrugged. “Thought I could help warm you up.”

“Why do you think I need your help?”

“Your chattering teeth gave it away.” He chuckled.

Her body relaxed slightly. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“Do you want me to try again?”

She hesitated before nodding. Her eyes stayed on his while he rubbed her arms. Like earlier, her scent assaulted his senses. She smelled tantalizing. He’d always had a weakness for women who smelled like a flower in full bloom.

He met her gaze and smiled. “Are you getting warm now?”

“I feel better, thank you.” She laughed lightly. “I guess the adrenaline of the night is finally wearing off.”

He drew back, puzzled over her comment. “Why do you say that?”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t supposed to be part of the auction.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. One of the waitresses called in sick. Joan, the announcer, talked me into filling in for her.”

He smiled. “That certainly explains why you looked so frightened the first time I saw you. So are you really a Hilarion?”

“Yes, but that’s my maiden name.”

Shock splashed through him. “You’re…married?”

“Was married. But I still use my married name, Brown because I haven’t legally changed it back to Hilarion.”

“That certainly makes sense.” He cocked his head.

“Cassidy, what kind of name is Hilarion? I don’t believe I’ve heard it before.”

“It’s an old family name, from when my ancestors lived in Greece. Hilarion means cheerful.”

Mark laughed. “That certainly describes you, especially when you were on stage.”

Her cheeks turned a dark pink.

“So Cassidy. Are you prepared for tonight, though?”

Her auburn eyebrows pulled together into a scowl. “What do you mean?”

He didn’t like the sharp tone of her voice. Then again, his question left a lot of options opened, and she’d already told him she did not do nightcaps or anything close to it. “I mean, are you ready for our date?”

“Um…yes.”

He chuckled. “You don’t sound convincing.”

Her shoulders relaxed and she laughed. “You’re right. I’m still a little nervous. Please, bear with me. I promise to loosen up.”

Turning back to the steering wheel, he adjusted in his seat. “So, where are we going for dinner? Do you have a favorite spot?”

“No. We can go anywhere you want.” Her voice clipped off at the end, her eyes wide once again. Then she cleared her throat. “I mean we can go to any restaurant you’d like.”

Mark tried not to smile. He knew what she thought, and he’d been thinking the same. Too bad she didn’t want to take him back to her place to finish their date. Then again, he really didn’t like easy girls. He could tell already that Cassidy was not one of them.

He put the Jeep into gear and backed out of the parking lot. It was hard to admit, but he’d been edgy and nervous about tonight, as well, but for entirely different reasons. In a way, he wanted her to take him home. He wanted her to prove to him this auction was for one purpose only. Prostitution. Then he’d nab her. He’d have the information he needed for his father to get her bar closed down for good.

The restaurant he had in mind was a secluded place, popular for their private tables. Each booth at Prairie Nights was decorated like a mini covered wagon, accompanied with a complimentary lamp inside that could be turned up high, or down low for more privacy. The booths lined around the walls, and the middle of the room looked like a genuine prairie, even with stuffed dummies of cowboys and wild animals. The food at this place was delicious, but it was the seclusion of the covered wagons that people came for.

Privacy was exactly what he wanted tonight—so that’s exactly where he’d take her.

“Mark, why don’t you tell me about yourself.”

He glanced her way and smiled, trying to quickly think up a lie. No way did he want her to know his true identity. “What do you want to know?”

“Do you live in Coral Gables?”

“No. South Beach.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m an accountant.”

He kept his answers short and clipped, hoping she’d stop asking. But her eyes narrowed, letting him know she wasn’t going to stop.

“Funny, but you don’t look like an accountant, and you definitely don’t spend money like one.”

He chuckled. “I didn’t know accountants had their own look. Are we supposed to be bald? Fat? Wear baggy clothes?”

She laughed, and he liked the musical sound of her voice. “No, I didn’t mean that. It’s just…I don’t know. You dress professional, but I wouldn’t have guessed an accountant.”

“What would you have guessed?”

She shrugged. “An owner or manager of a large corporation.”

He chuckled again. “Sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart.”

“Oh, it’s not a disappointment.”

“So, do you work full time at the bar?” He tightened his fingers on the steering wheel, wondering if she’d be honest.

“I’m Assistant Manager.”

“No kidding. And you still let yourself be auctioned off tonight?”

She laughed, and again, it sounded musical—like angels singing. He silently cursed his traitorous thoughts. No, she was not an angel. Devil, perhaps, and definitely a seductress.

She pulled back a piece of hair behind her ear. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help the bar.”

He’d guessed that part. Now it was time to see just how far she’d go.

Mark reached the restaurant and parked. He climbed out his side, walked around the car and opened her door. Once again, there was an underlying question in her narrowed eyes. She couldn’t possibly know him, so why was she suspicious?

“I hope this place is all right.” He smiled.

Her eyes danced with excitement. “This is fine. In fact, their steaks are to die for, especially when they’re smothered with sautéed mushrooms.” She closed her eyes and grinned, rubbing her hand over her belly. She licked her tempting lips.

His heartbeat quickened. Whether she was trying to be or not, she was very sensual. Tonight was going to be very enjoyable, and very torturous. No way would he let her beauty keep him from his purpose. His father, owner of Carrington Enterprises, had tried for years to get the bar away from her father. Mark’s old man claimed that land had been in their family for centuries—not hers. Now with Cassidy’s bar in need of money, his father was trying to buy the bar, but she refused.

Edward Carrington didn’t take no for an answer, and Mark’s father would do anything to get the bar back. Even blackmail. Mark was used to his father’s ruthless ways, and although most of the time Mark didn’t agree, he still got paid well. Besides, for him to take over the family business, he had to follow in his father’s footsteps…as crooked as they might be.

Their meal came, and the first few minutes they were silent as they ate. Mark wanted to sigh with pleasure from the taste of the delectable steak and mushrooms. It had been awhile since he had eaten here, and now he wondered why he didn’t come at least once a week.

Cassidy grabbed a roll in the wicker basket sitting on the table, and then peeled it open. A few pieces crumbled, and one fell to her bosom before rolling into her cleavage. Mark held in a laugh, because he wasn’t sure how she would react.

Gasping, she dug between her breasts and pulled out the crumb. When she met his gaze across the table, her face flamed red with embarrassment. She released an uncomfortable laugh as she swiped her fingers across her chest, checking for any more. That was when she found a second piece of bread that had fallen on her.

“Gads, I’m beginning to believe this roll is part of the male species.”

“Male?” he asked with humor in his voice. “Why do you say that?”

“Because the first place it went was to my breasts.”

He finally let himself laugh. “Lucky piece of bread.”

“Not really.” She brushed her hand down her tight dress. “Because just like men, I won’t let the piece of bread go there.”

“Then that’s very disappointing. I’m sure the bread couldn’t help itself since it was so close and just wanted a peek.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, if that’s all the bread wants, then it deserves a brush off.”

He leaned his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand as he stared at her. “So you’re saying, you want the piece of bread to get to know you first. Correct?”

Her grin widened, which made her amber eyes twinkle. “You catch on quickly. The way to know me is not through my melons.”

He chuckled. “Okay, so say I was a piece of bread,” he said in a low voice, “and I wanted to get to know you better. What advice would you give me?”

“Well,” she rested her arms on the table and leaned toward him, “I would caution you not to crumble all over my chest and dive in between my melons. For starters, that isn’t a good feeling at all, and it makes everyone notice my discomfort. Instead, I would hope that you’d stay together and allow me to get to know you through your texture and scent. If I want to sample you by taking a small bite, I’d hope you would be patient and so that I could see if you are the kind of bread I want to finish eating.”

He couldn’t stop smiling. She was just too adorable. And her analogy…was funny. He’d never heard anything like it, and he’d never think of bread in the same way again.

“So what kind of bread do you like?” he asked. “Do you like them shaped like rolls? Flat like a sandwich? How about burnt toast or French bread?”

She laughed loudly. He’d never heard a sweeter sound in his life.

“I like all types of bread…as long as they taste good and smell heavenly.”

He nodded and gave her a wink. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He pulled back and took another bite out of his steak. She resumed eating her meal, as well. After a few minutes, he realized he wanted to hear her voice again—either laughing or just talking. It was much better than this silence.

After swallowing a mouthful of food, he asked, “So Cassidy, tell me about yourself. What things do you like to do? What makes you happy?”

She blinked at him with wide eyes as she finished chewing. “What things do I like to do?”

“Yes. What kind of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time?”

“What spare time?” She laughed and took a sip of her water. “I work too much to have spare time.”

“But what if you did? What would you do?” he prodded.

She leaned back against the seat as her hands rested on her lap. Her face relaxed, but she still wore that cute smile.

“I like to hike, and I like to water-ski.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “You like boating?”

“Of course.”

“Then maybe I’ll take you on my family’s boat one time.”

She nodded. “That would be nice.”

As the conversation expanded from one topic to the next, she became very entertaining. Her sense of humor caught him off guard and he laughed more times than expected. The ache in his face reminded him how long it’d been since he laughed this hard.

But regardless of how much he enjoyed her company, he needed to get down to the matter at hand. Time to turn on his charm and see what tonight’s auction was really about. Would she act like the hooker he paid for in the bar?

After a few moments passed with nothing said between them, he lifted his glass of water and finished it. He’d devoured his steak, but left a few bites of his potato. Cassidy was the opposite. She’d only eaten a few bites of her steak and rice. Apparently, their conversation hadn’t eased her nerves as much as he’d hoped.

But he didn’t want to waste any more time. Seducing her was vital to his plan.

When she wiped her mouth with the linen napkin and rested her hands on the table, he reached over and clasped onto one. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. As quickly as it happened, she snapped her mouth closed.

“You know, I was thinking…”

She licked her lips. “About what?” Her voice cracked.

“About the rest of our evening.”

“And?”

He grinned. “And I’ve changed my mind about going dancing.”

“But earlier you said you didn’t like it.”

“I usually don’t, but if you’ll dance with me like you danced with that drunk tonight, I think I’ll change my whole outlook on the sport.”

Her face flamed a brilliant red, and in the dimly lit covered wagon, it practically glowed.

“Seriously?” She arched a brow.

He brushed his thumb across her knuckles. “What do you say? Do you want to go dancing? We don’t have to stay very long.”

Using her other hand, she reached for her glass of water. The ice clinked against the glass as her shaky hand brought it to her lips. He bit his lip to keep from chuckling. Obviously, he rattled her. Good. Maybe his plan for seduction wouldn’t be hard at all.

 

 

 

FOUR

 

Oh dear…oh dear… How could she keep calm in a place like this—and dancing with a hottie like Mark?

Cassidy inhaled a steady breath and tried to keep her legs stable as she walked into the lounge with Mark. She’d never been here before, but heard of it. This is where everybody liked to go for date night. They played great music, and they didn’t care how lewd the couples danced. Well, she cared and she would not copy the other dancers!

She bit the inside of her cheek as she scanned the floor. Thankfully, the place wasn’t packed. But then, maybe it would have been better if it were. The more crowded, the less chance someone would see her, and notice her.

What happened to the proper woman who was satisfied with becoming an old maid? Sure, a divorced old maid, but a spinster nonetheless. If her friends or family could see her now, they’d keel over from a heart attack. She couldn’t have that happen. It was a good thing the lights were turned low.

And just her luck, there’d be a slow song playing.

Mark smiled and the rattling nerves in her body made her want to crumble to the ground in a heap. Luckily, he slipped his arms around her waist at that precise moment and kept her standing. She rested her hands on his wide shoulders and nearly sighed aloud from just the feel of his muscular frame. Perhaps he’d been made from the ancient Gods for the sole purpose of pleasing women.

Pulling her closer, he wrapped his arms around her waist. Nice. Her throat dried and it was an effort just to swallow. At least she was able to moisten her parched lips, but every time she did, Mark’s gaze dropped to her mouth. She really wished he wouldn’t do that. It made little butterflies in her stomach come awake and spin around until they were dizzy.

“So, are you going to show me how to dance?” he asked.

She raised her brows. “Um…I don’t know. I think you’re dancing just fine now.”

He cuddled closer as his hands slipped lower on her back. Her breathing accelerated. They were too close. His body shouldn’t be touching hers like this. And yet, this was how people danced, so there wasn’t anything wrong. How long had it been since she’d been in a man’s arms dancing?

His gaze never left hers once their bodies started moving to the rhythm of the song. Slow and meaningful. There was nothing sensual about the way they danced—not like some of the other couples around them. Still, there was electricity sparking off currents of awareness throughout her body. And she couldn’t seem to take her gaze from his.

This wasn’t anything like she’d experienced with the drunk earlier today. Why couldn’t her hormones have remained asleep? But then the drunk didn’t smell like musk and sandalwood, and the older man certainly wasn’t as gorgeous as Mark.

I’m in big trouble! Especially if they danced like this all night. The way he held her in his big strong arms was so personal, so comfortable, that she might never want to leave.

Taking a deep breath, she slipped her hands up and hooked them around his neck. His hot skin almost burned her fingers. Funny to think she’d been nearly freezing after they’d left the bar, but now she was nearly a raging volcano.

Slowly, lines appeared around his eyes and mouth, almost as if he were in pain. Yet the dreamy look in his dark eyes told her he was enjoying himself as much as she was. Her eyes probably mirrored his perfectly.

“Cassidy, you’re a good dancer.” His voice was low.

“So are you.” She allowed herself to relax against him. Although she shouldn’t, she enjoyed the heat rushing through her. She didn’t really know this guy at all, and yet, she’d become lost in his tender gaze.

She tried to grin, but humor was the farthest thing from her mind. “Are you sure you don’t like to dance, because you act like you do this all the time.”

He shook his head. “I promise, I don’t like to dance. I must be good because of you.”

Her heartbeat quaked to a rocky rhythm as her breathing quickened and became deeper. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead against hers, his body still swaying to the music. She wanted to sigh aloud, to throw her head back and laugh with happiness, but she refrained. She couldn’t act like a numbskull on her first date. He would think she had lost her mind for sure, which wasn’t good on their first date.

What was she thinking? There would be no more dates with him! Lately, she’d been having premonitions—which were quite common in her life, but this one told her of a disaster that would happen with a man. Too bad she hadn’t felt like that before going out—and marrying—Lyle.

When the song finally ended, her chest and lungs ached so much she thought she’d run a marathon in heels. But another song played, and although the beat was faster, Mark kept her in the same position and continued to move slowly.

Apparently, he was enjoying dancing with her, too.

Turning his head slowly, he brushed his lips across her cheek. She squeezed her eyes closed and held her breath. What was he doing? She couldn’t let him kiss her. And yet, she couldn’t find the strength to stop him, either. He left small kisses along her skin, his mouth made its way down her chin to her neck. Without really wanting to, she tilted her head and gave him better access. Okay, so maybe she did want him to kiss her.

When his hot breath fanned her neck, goosebumps multiplied and scattered all over her body. Neither of them broke the rhythm of the dance. But right now, that’s not where her mind was. Instead, she paid close attention to his tender lips and his hands. As he kissed her neck, his hands caressed her back and shoulders. She didn’t mind since nothing was getting out of hand yet. However, the tingles running over her were growing stronger, and she knew she needed to bring this moment to an end very soon.

“Oh, Cass. Your skin’s so soft.” He nipped at her neck and instead of collapsing into a fit of giggles, she weakened against him.

“Mark…do you have any idea…what you’re doing to me?” she said in a voice she didn’t recognize.

His body shook as if he were laughing. “I think so. Your body is trembling.” He kissed her shoulder. “And I like it.”

She couldn’t stop the heavy sigh from releasing this time. This man was a magician. How else would he be able to make her quake so easily?

He lifted his head enough to place his lips over hers. This time when she sighed, her mouth was wide enough for him to deepen the kiss. Fire consumed her. Like a woman starved for affection, she clung to him and met his wild kisses. Glorious heated tremors cascaded over her body, confusing her greatly.

Wasn’t she supposed to be wary of men right now? According to her premonition, a disaster was going to happen soon. She mustn’t let her guard down. Yeah, right. It’s too late for that!

Only after a minute, he broke the kiss. “I want to take you back to my place.”

Breathless, she tried to make her brain work. His suggestion sounded tempting, but she must fight it. After all, doing that with him wasn’t what she wanted to do. This was only their first date, and if she had her way, it would be their last date.

“I-I-don’t know, Mark. I’ve never done this before.”

He lifted his head and looked at her. His brows drew together as he narrowed his eyes. “Really? Didn’t you tell me you’d been married?”

At first she didn’t know what he was talking about, but quickly her brain started working again. Inwardly, she groaned. He meant that… She shook her head. “I’ve never been intimate with a man on the first date. Mark, you might not believe this, but I’m not that kind of woman.”

A relaxed grin claimed his mouth. Even his eyes softened. “I’m glad.”

She blinked. “You are?”

“Yes.” He stopped their swaying. “I wouldn’t think very much of you if you were that type of woman.”

“So, you won’t be disappointed if I tell you our date is over now?”

He swept his fingers along her hairline then cupped her face. “Oh, I’d be disappointed all right, but I’ll respect you more.”

Her grin widened. “Then I think you should take me back to the bar.”

“Will you give me another good-night kiss?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t given you a good-night kiss yet.

He arched his brow. “Mmm, then I can’t wait until we get back.”

He bent his head and captured her lips one more time, but before either of them could make it passionate, he withdrew and took a step away from her. The tease! And here all along she thought women were the ones who tormented.

Her heart softened for this gorgeous, sexy man. How many men had she met who’d taken rejection so lightly? Not many, that’s for sure. Maybe he was a gentleman, after all.

He leaned closer to her ear. “But I’ll have you know, I’ve never been so comfortable on a first date that I held and kissed a woman so passionately as we have just shared.” He pulled back and winked.

Her heart skipped a beat. Wow! She’d been the first. But then, would he want another date? After all, she only said she wasn’t intimate with guys on the first date.

The drive back to the bar was painful, only because she couldn’t wait to have him take her in his arms and kiss her to distraction. Finally, he drove in the parking lot of the bar. Very few cars were here now. She hoped they had made a lot of money selling drinks, too.

He killed the engine, took off his seatbelt, and then leaned over to her as he helped her release her buckle. Once the strap was out of the way, he pulled her in his arms, and covered his mouth over hers. Moaning, she clung to him like a woman starved for affection.

This time, the fiery kiss was more passionate than before. Her mind twirled in a daze and all she could think about was how enjoyable this was. When doubts started to fill her head, she mentally pushed them away. Disaster might strike, but it wasn’t going to happen tonight while they were making out in his truck.

The longer they kissed, the harder her heart hammered, and her breaths grew ragged. She didn’t care if the windows were fogging up, she just kept her eyes closed and enjoyed. She loved the way his kisses heated her up.

“Oh, Cassidy,” he mumbled against her lips. “Your kisses are more exciting than I was prepared for.”

She knew exactly what he meant since she had been thinking different about him, as well.

He kissed her nose and pulled away. “I suppose this was the good-night kiss you were talking about?”

She chuckled. “Plus some.”

“Do you mind if I call you?”

“As long as you call me something good.”

He laughed. “You know it, woman. You’re the best.”

He kissed her briefly on the lips, then pulled back and opened his door. As he walked around to her side, she placed her hand on her chest, her heartbeat still out of control. Gads, what had she done? Her self-control sucked big time. If she wanted to protect her heart, she couldn’t let this happen again.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

“Why didn’t you ask her about the bar?”

Mark leaned back in his chair and linked his fingers over his stomach. His father strode with heavy steps back and forth across the floor in the office as he lectured on what Mark didn’t do last night on his date. His father’s brownish-silver eyebrows drew together, and his wrinkled lips pulled tight.

“There really wasn’t time, Dad.” Mark shrugged. “Besides, if I had said something, she would’ve caught on to why I was there. I don’t want that this early in our relationship.”

His father came to a sudden stop and stared at Mark, his eyes wide. “Your relationship? How exactly do you plan on getting involved with this Hilarion girl?”

Good question. Before Mark had actually gone out with Cassidy, he would have known how to answer it. But now…now things were different. Cassidy wasn’t just some hooker off the streets as he’d first assumed, and she wasn’t using her barmaids as prostitutes, either. Cassidy didn’t even sleep with guys on the first date, for goodness sake!

She was a genuine decent person. Not only that, but he didn’t think he’d ever laughed so hard in his life. He adored her personality. And she was a woman who kissed better than any woman he’d been out with, and he’d been out with many in his twenty-seven years.

He rubbed his forehead. “Dad, I need to get closer to her in order to find her weakness. We won’t get the bar back unless I do.”

“Of course she has a weakness. And I thought you said last night’s auction would prove what she’s doing with the bar will be their downfall. Do you have enough information to give to the tabloids? Bad publication like this will ruin The Hideaway for good.” The older man planted his hands on his hips.

“Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything done last night that would prove she’s a hooker. I don’t know about the other girls, but Cassidy acted very proper.” Except for that incredible dance—and the time in the jeep. Why he had to enjoy it so much was beyond his imagination. But incredibly enough, he liked that.

Mark lifted out of the chair and walked to the window. “I’ll have to dig deeper, Dad. If we are going to bring that bar down, there’s got to be another way.”

“I’ve thought of other ways. That girl is stubborn. Too bad her father, Sean Hilarion, isn’t still alive. I’d know how to blackmail him.”

Mark looked over his shoulder toward his father, arching an eyebrow as he scratched his chin. “Dad? Is there something more to this story that you’re not telling me? Seems to me like you know the Hilarions more than you’re leading on.”

The senior Carrington waved his hand through the air. “Of course not, son. I just want their land. Not only did the Hilarions steal it from our family a long time ago, the land is worth a lot and will bring me a great price.”

Mark leaned his shoulder against the glass and stared out into the afternoon traffic hustling up and down the roads. His mind should be on the conversation with his old man, but he couldn’t get Cassidy out of his head.

He remembered every little detail about her from last night—the way she danced on the stage with the drunk, the nervous shake of her hands as they shared a drink at the table a few minutes later. At the restaurant, she seemed more relaxed, and she made him forget his worries for just a little while. And he couldn’t forget about the dance they shared toward the end of their date, and the goodnight kiss was unforgettable.

“Well? What do you think?” his father was saying.

Mark blinked and glanced at his dad. “I’ll get right on it, I promise.”

“Just don’t let this girl get under your skin, son. If she didn’t play the part of the hooker last night, there’s got to be something else we can get on her that will be bad publicity for her bar. Don’t lose your focus, son. We need that land! I’d hate to think my only son couldn’t deliver this one, simple task just because of a woman.

Mark shot his dad a glare. Oh, sure. No pressure. He’d always hated the inferior feeling he had while in his father’s presence. One of these days he’d take over the company, and he’d run it his way. Not his father’s. It was Mark’s plan to get more shares in the business and be able to buy out his father as quickly as possible. Thankfully, there were others in the company willing to support Mark.

He just waited for the best opportunity to take over.

After his dad left the office, Mark couldn’t help but grin. Although he really should be drilling Cassidy to find a weakness that he could use to put her bar out of business, the ideas running through his mind were totally opposite. He wanted to kiss her again, caress her, hear her throaty sigh. He wanted to pull her soft body against his and hear the little gasps.

Even being with her stimulated him—in an emotional sense, and he couldn’t believe he thought this way. In his life, women had only been good for one thing. Although Cassidy was probably skilled in that area, too, her sense of humor, her manners, and the way she treated him had interested him just as much as her kisses had done.

Where had she been all his life? Then again, he really hadn’t been looking.

Blowing out a gush of air between his teeth, he walked back to his desk and plopped in his chair. Work would not be productive today. Not when his mind was on a beautiful, sexy woman.

But no matter what, he must do as his father instructed. He must find something to use against her to close the bar.

He scrunched his forehead. Why? What was the real story between the Hilarions and the Carringtons? What made his father so eager on getting this? The old man had given up on much larger deals before. So what made this one so important?

Perhaps he’d find out the story first, and then decide if it was worth closing Hilarion’s bar.

 

  • * * *

 

“I can’t believe you’re seeing him again.” Joan’s wide smile and sparking eyes made Cassidy’s face heat up. But shoot, how could it not? Every time she thought about what that accountant cowboy did to her insides… Ahhhh…

No matter if he made her feel like a giddy schoolgirl, something was not right about him. He was too bold in his pursuit last night. True, he did bid a high price and probably wanted something in return, but it was almost as if he was after something besides taking her to his place. Did he want her acceptance? Approval? Friendship?

Shaking off the confusing thoughts, she looked back at her cousin and smiled. “Of course I’m seeing him again. He paid a lot of money for me last night, and just as I told you before, he didn’t get his money’s worth.”

Joan cocked her head and arched a brow. “And how exactly is he going to get his money’s worth?”

Cassidy rolled her eyes. “Not like that. We had a lot of fun on our date. He was the first guy in a long time that made me relax and be myself. I made him laugh, and he made me laugh. We fit together in more ways than one. I think he felt it too, which was why he asked me out for a second date.”

Joan scratched her head, loosening a tight brown curl that had been tucked behind her ear. “He didn’t look right, if you ask me.”

Cassidy snorted. “Honey, he was the only man who did look right last night. He wasn’t drunk or lewd, and he was dressed to kill. No other guy looked that incredible.”

Joan nodded. “Exactly. He was dressed like a cowboy, but he didn’t look like he should be one.”

“What is he supposed to look like?” Cassidy planted her hands on her hips. “Did you want to see chaps and spurs on him with a rope tied at his belt and brown leather gloves on his hands?” She flipped her hand through the air. “Oh, please, Joan. Quit stereotyping him. Mark was the perfect gentleman, and such wonderful company. He was just what I needed last night.”

“Glad he came through for you. I just hope he doesn’t break your heart like Lyle what’s-his-name did.”

Cassidy shrugged. “I will protect my emotions.” I hope. “I don’t want to go through another heartbreak, either.”

Her cousin left her side to help a customer at the end of the bar. Cassidy moved to the glasses and proceeded to wipe them and set them on the shelf behind her. She scanned the crowd tonight. Definitely not as many as last night, but still more people than usual. That was good. Maybe business would pick up after all.

The front door opened and her gaze swung in that direction, hoping the handsome devil she went out with last night would step through the doorway. One of their regulars walked in instead. She let out a disappointed sigh and picked up another glass.

Would she guard her emotions as she’d promised her cousin? She had to. The painful divorce she’d experienced with Lyle Brown had left a permanent mark on her heart. He’d used her and walked all over her, then the final blow was he cheated on her with someone she’d considered a friend.

Yet Mark was so different than most men she’d dated, which really wasn’t a lot. He seemed like a down-home kind of guy. Just the type she wouldn’t mind keeping forever. And boy was he a hottie.

Joan came back and leaned on the counter beside her. The wide brown eyes of her cousin narrowed as she looked at Cassidy.

“What?” Cassidy asked.

“I don’t think I told you the bad news.”

Cassidy arched a brow. “We have bad news?”

“Yes.”

“About the bar?”

“Yes.”

Cassidy set the glass down on the shelf and stepped closer. “What’s wrong now?”

“Well, the auction last night was wonderful. We brought in a lot of money. But…”

Cassidy held her breath, fearing the worst.

“We didn’t make what we needed,” Joan continued. “In order to keep this bar running for the next few months, we’ll need money like what we brought in last night every month.” She shook her head. “I don’t see us having an auction every month. People might start to think our bar is more than a place to drink. Ya know what I mean?”

Cassidy’s mouth tightened into a frown. “Yes, I know.” She breathed a heavy sigh. “What do you suggest?”

Joan shrugged as she twirled a brown lock of hair around her finger. “I don’t know. We don’t want to let our fathers down by selling the bar, but if we don’t pick up business here shortly, we just might have to do that.”

A knot formed in Cassidy’s throat and her eyes burned with unshed tears. Her father’s last wish on his deathbed was for Cassidy and her cousin to run the bar and do the best they could. Hard to believe her father hadn’t been gone very long and she’d already messed things up.

She rubbed her forehead and squeezed her eyes closed. There had to be something else they could do. Having her sister and her sister’s randy friends dance half naked on the bar just wouldn’t cut it. They were not going to turn into that kind of establishment.

If only her father and uncle hadn’t left them with so many unpaid loans when they died, maybe she and her cousin would be able to run the bar without fear of closing the place down. And going to get another loan wasn’t an option, either. That would only put them further into debt.

“Cassidy, I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I think it’s our only hope.” Joan touched her arm and Cass met her gaze.

“What?”

Joan gave her a wistful smile. “Well, what about that statue piece you have of the Colossus of Rhodes? If you sold that to Carrington Enterprises like they’ve offered, just think about how much money you’ll have. Not only will you be able to pay off the bar, but the loans attached to it as well.”

Cassidy took a deep breath, calming the anger rising up in her chest. The statue was not an option, and her family knew it.

She shook her head. “Have you forgotten what our family went through to get the piece, and to keep it? Our father’s father, grandfather, and beyond them have all been able to guard this stone with their lives. I’m sure many have been tempted to sell the piece for money, but its value is priceless, Joan.”

Cassidy clasped her cousin’s hands and continued. “This piece of bronzed stone is a symbol, and has been for centuries. You know the story—the reason it was built.”

Joan nodded.

“Well, our family has believed by keeping the statue with us, it will also help us get along better. Can you remember the dedicatory inscription on the statue?”

Joan shook her head.

“It says; To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom.”

Cassidy licked her dry lips. “Our ancestors cherished the artifact, and so should we. It gave our ancestors freedom—a freedom they deserved.” She shook her head. “No way can I sell the statue and put it in the hands of some greedy money-hungry jerk like Carrington.”

Joan frowned. “You’re right, Cass. I’m sorry for even bringing it up. I guess I’m just desperate right now.”

Cassidy hugged her cousin. “I know. I’m feeling desperate, too. But we’ll think of something else. Perhaps we should find someone to do our marketing for us. They’ll know how to publicize the bar to drive in more customers.”

Joan chuckled. “That’s a good idea, but we need money to hire that person.” Joan turned and walked away, her shoulders drooping lower than Cassidy had ever seen them.

With a heavy heart, she turned toward the bar. Sitting right in front of her, with his gorgeous green eyes on her, was none other than her sexy cowboy.

 

 

 

SIX

 

It didn’t take long for her heart to flip to a different emotion as it knocked crazily in her chest.

“Hi, Mark. I didn’t hear you come in.”

He grinned. “That’s because you were busy talking with your cousin.”

“Yes.” She moved closer and leaned her hip on the bar. “So what are you doing here? Our date isn’t for another hour.”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t wait that long. Hope you don’t mind.”

She smiled wide. “Of course not. Let me just tell Joan I’m leaving, okay?”

He nodded, but didn’t say anything, but his gaze spoke volumes as it roamed all over her body. He must approve of her jeans and a short-sleeve, button shirt. She even wore fashionable black boots. Shivers of delight and a sense of giddiness danced through her. He had a way of looking at her as if he’d never seen anything so lovely. She could only hope that’s how he felt.

It didn’t take her long to tell Joan she was leaving and within minutes, she walked side by side with Mark out the door. His sexy scent of musk would drive her insane tonight. How would she keep herself from throwing her arms around him and burying her nose in his neck was beyond her. Maybe he wouldn’t mind if she didn’t control herself tonight.

He’d chosen a different restaurant, but still as private and pricey as the one they’d been to last night. The atmosphere didn’t matter. All she wanted to do was stare into his amazing green eyes and get lost in them.

Not a lot was said until after they’d been seated and decided upon a menu item. From across the table, Mark grasped her hand and rubbed his thumb over her knuckles in a soft caress.

“Cassidy, you are a very fascinating woman.”

She crinkled her forehead. “Is that good or bad?”

“It’s good.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because of the interesting conversation I overheard you and your cousin talking about earlier.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “Will you tell me about it?”

Gads, if he’s as sweet for the remainder of the evening, her heart might become involved, since it was halfway there, anyway. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about the statue your family has.”

She kept her hand in his, mainly because it felt nice, and relaxed in her chair. “Have you even heard of the statue that was built in ancient Greece?”

“Bits and pieces.”

“What do you know about the statue?”

“Only that it’s a symbol to the surrounding islands that they were a peaceful island, and they wanted their freedom.”

She nodded. “Well, it just so happens some of my ancestors helped build that statue. When an earthquake brought it down about two-hundred twenty-six BC, one of my ancestors kept a piece of that statue for sentimental reasons.”

“That makes sense.”

“It’s a priceless artifact today, and I’ve never wanted to know what the real value is. It’s been handed down in my family from father to first born since the statue crumbled all those years ago.”

“And your cousin wants you to sell it?”

“Yes.” She frowned. “The bar isn’t doing so hot and we need the money, but I can’t sell that piece of stone. It means too much to me and my family.”

His smile softened, as did his dreamy eyes. “I would think less of you if you sold it.”

Heat flooded her cheeks, but she couldn’t look away.

“Thanks.”

His tongue slid out from his mouth and stroked his lips in a leisure fashion. Was it meant to be a hint? Her heartbeat picked up rhythm and her stomach flip-flopped.

“Like I said before, you’re a fascinating woman, and I’ve never met anyone like you.”

She’d better watch out or she’d be giving him not only her heart, but her soul as well.

 

  • * * *

 

Mark had meant every word. The woman sitting across from him amazed him, and he didn’t want to stop gazing into her eyes, nor did he want to let go of her hand. If he had his way, he’d be holding her all night long. He was sure she’d turn him down, but even if they cuddled on the couch, that was good enough for him.

It wasn’t just that she knew how to make his heart pitter-patter like it had never done before, but her belief and dedication in this one little artifact caused a different emotion to circle his heart. He didn’t know why, but he knew his father was keeping something from him. Perhaps the old man wanted the statue piece. Mark didn’t know, but he knew he had to help Cassidy. This woman was too kind and loving to go through the heartache of losing her bar to his father’s company.

Plain and simple—if his father wanted something bad enough, he would lie and cheat to get it. Mark’s father had been doing this since he was a young boy. Why would he stop now?

Mark wouldn’t let his old man go on any further. Even if he had to take over all the shares of the company and kick his father out, he’d make sure Cassidy didn’t sell her precious inheritance to his father. Or anyone. And this realization made his heart melt for the beauty across from him, and made him want her that much more.

He needed to confess his real identity and the reason for bidding on her last night, but now wasn’t the time. A mood had been set and he wanted to see it through. He’d tell her later.

During the meal, they talked on a personal level. She told him a lot about her former marriage, and he couldn’t believe the anger that crept into him. He wanted to punch her ex in the face for all the heartache she’d gone through.

He told her about some of his former girlfriends, but there wasn’t any who had ever captured his heart. Not like Cassidy Hilarion Brown had done in twenty-four hours. And he wouldn’t change a thing.

He tried not to tell her too much about his life, because he didn’t want to lie to her anymore, so he always evaded the subject or steered away. She didn’t seem to notice, and he hoped she didn’t.

Dinner passed quickly, and soon he was taking her home. He held her hand while driving, even when he walked her to her front door. The only time he released his hold was when she pulled keys from her purse. She fumbled with them and he grinned. She wants me to stay longer.

He waited until she looked into his eyes before he stepped closer and brushed his lips across hers. “Cassidy, tonight has been very enjoyable,” he whispered.

She withdrew, her gaze still glued to his. “Would…you like to come in?”

His heart soared. “I thought you didn’t do nightcaps.”

She chuckled. “I don’t on the first date.” She winked, then turned and unlocked the door.

Her apartment suited her. Cute, sassy, and all woman. He loved it immediately. She walked toward the kitchen, her curvy bottom swinging.

“I don’t have a lot of liquor here. I don’t drink believe it or not. But I do have soda. Would you like one?”

She stopped at the archway between the front room and kitchen, and turned to look at him.

He shook his head. “I don’t want anything to drink. I only want to drink in your beauty.”

Her face flamed a deep pink. “Oh, aren’t you the poetic charmer.”

“Only when the occasion calls for it.” He strode to the couch and sat. “And this particular occasion is screaming for words like that.”

She chuckled, walked over and sat beside him. “Then would it be stupid to ask what you want to do now?”

“I’m sure within a few minutes, you’ll know what’s on my mind.”

Her brows rose up and down, suggestively. “Oooh, I love these kinds of games.”

Mark took her in his arms and rested his face in the curve of her neck. Lilacs. Hmmm… She smelled so good. “I missed you,” he whispered as he brushed his lips across her skin.

She shivered and tilted her head back. “Really?”

“Yes. You’ve been on my mind all day.”

“You’ve been on mine, too.”

He smiled and placed little pecks on her neck. “What have you been thinking about?”

“When I’d get to see you again.”

He trailed kisses up to her mouth. She grabbed hold of his head and crushed her lips against his. Letting out a groan, he pulled her tighter against his body and devoured her mouth.

He hadn’t expected the kiss to be so hot, so wild, and so enjoyable. But the hammering in his chest let him know exactly what this woman could do to him. Just like last night. Strange how no other woman could affect him this way.

Shifting them on the couch, he pulled her beside him more as he relaxed back in the crook of the furniture. Their kisses slowed down until they eventually stopped. She raised her head and gazed into his eye. He could stare into her amber eyes forever.

Heaven help me, but I’m sinking fast…and loving it.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

He smiled. “I’m more than all right. I can’t think of anything better than being here with you.”

“Is there something else you want to do tonight? We could watch a movie and cuddle.”

He chuckled. “Sounds perfect. Lead the way, my sweet Cassidy, and I’ll follow you anywhere.”

 

 

 

SEVEN

 

The sun peeked through the blinds and brought Cassidy out of a deep sleep. She’d never slept so well in her life, in fact. As awareness came over her, she realized she was lying against a man. Taking a deep breath, she knew it was Mark.

Smiling, she opened her eyes. They were still on the couch and had a light blanket over them. She had fallen asleep while in his arms watching a movie. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember the movie, either. But she remembered everything they’d talked about. He’d told her a little about his childhood, and where he attended college. He told her of his likes and dislikes.

She sighed and snuggled closer. They hadn’t done anything improper, and yet, she felt closer to him than she’d ever been when married to Lyle. Love burst in her chest. Dare she tell him she’d fallen in love with him?

No. She didn’t want to scare him away. This was too soon. Even for her! She had to evaluate her feelings a little more first.

He looked good asleep, and she could stare at him all day. Or longer. But she had to go to the bathroom, yet she didn’t want to wake him up.

Slowly, she pulled away from him and stood. He slept soundly, which was what she’d hoped for.

As she quietly stepped around him, she noticed he’d taken out his wallet, keys to his Jeep, his cell, and laid them on the coffee table. Curiosity pulled her to the table and she picked up his wallet. She peeked at Mark to see if he was still asleep before opening the wallet, hoping he’d have some pictures of his family.

Immediately, her attention was pulled to his driver’s license—especially the name. Mark Carrington.

Carrington! Not Carey as he’d told her when they first met.

She let out an audible gasp and covered her mouth. Her gaze flew to his closed eyes. Suddenly, his features became clearer to her. He is a Carrington! He resembles his father perfectly.

Slowly, Mark’s eyes fluttered open. Happiness was his expression. When he finally focused on her and what was in her hands, his eyes widened, and his happy expression was replaced with one of panic.

“You lied to me,” she whispered brokenly.

“Cassidy, I can explain—”

“I don’t want to hear your lies. To think you had to nerve to become close to me and make me fall in love with you…when all this time you were someone else. My father’s arch-enemy, of all people!” She choked on a sob, so she cleared her throat. “Just get out of here, Mark. I never want to see your deceiving face again.”

She flew into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. Leaning against the wall, she sobbed, her heart breaking once again. Yet this was different than what happened with Lyle. And she found herself hurting more.

 

  • * * *

 

It had been seven very long days, and Cassidy didn’t think her heart would ever mend.

Why had Mark lied to her? She now knew his purpose for bidding on her and seducing her. He wanted to get the statue for his father. Why else would a Carrington go out with a Hilarion? According to her father, the two families had been disputing over the statue piece for many years.

She heaved a heavy breath and threaded her fingers through her hair as she paced the small distance in her office. Out in the bar, the radio played another whining country singer. Gads, she hated those songs. They were so close to her life it was ridiculous.

The throb in her head ceased and she breathed slowly. The pill she took must be working. Perhaps she could finish her shift tonight without ripping another man’s head off. If she kept this up, customers would stop coming to the bar altogether. Who wanted to come to a place to forget their troubles and have the co-owner of the bar tear into them like a madwoman?

And she was mad.

Mark had tried to call her, but she refused to speak to him. She felt like a real idiot for falling for his charms, anyway. Why couldn’t he just leave her in peace?

She walked away from the few customers lingering in the bar and moved behind the counter. Although still two hours until last call, she was sure these people would be gone before then. Good. She could close up the bar earlier.

Picking up a dirty glass, she turned her back to the customers and proceeded to wash it. The chimes over the door rang out, announcing another customer. She didn’t care. Mark had made her stop feeling.

“Excuse me, Miss. Can I have a moment of your time?”

The deep sexy voice behind her sent familiar heated tremors over her skin. She swung around so fast, her ponytail flipped over her shoulder. Mark! What was that dog doing here?

She scowled. “You are not allowed in this bar. Please leave before I get someone to throw you out.”

He glanced at the few people heavily into their drinks, and then looked at her with an arched brow. “If it’s one of them, I’m not worried. A feather will be able to knock them down.”

She set the glass down and crossed her arms. “What do you want? Didn’t I tell you I never wanted to see you again?”

“Yes, but I think you’ll change your mind.”

She rolled her eyes. “Doubt it.”

He reached in his briefcase and pulled out some documents and laid them on the bar. Although she shouldn’t care what they were, she peered closer. Every piece of paper had The Hideaway written across the top.

“What’s this?” She fingered the papers.

“Your loans.”

She grimaced. “What are you doing with them?”

“I paid them off.”

She gasped. “What? Why would you do something stupid like that?”

He leaned closer and grabbed her hand. She struggled to pull it away, but he wouldn’t let her.

“Because I love you, Cassidy, and I want to say I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you the other morning, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“I—I don’t understand.”

He took both of her hands in his, his gaze penetrating deep into her eyes.

“I originally came to the bar that first night to see what was going on with the auction. I wanted to bid on you so I could take you out. My father wanted me to get the dirt on you and the bar as a way to put you in a situation where you had to sell him the statue piece.”

Tears gathered in her eyes, but she clamped her lips together and let him speak.

“But once I got to know you,” he continued, “I realized the stories my father had been telling me about you and your family were false, especially about the statue. He wanted me to believe our family was the original owners. Now I know he’d lied to me. The morning you found my wallet, I had planned on telling you the truth over breakfast, I swear it. I knew then that I wasn’t going to follow through with my father’s wishes. In fact, I was going to help you protect the statue so greedy jerks like my father couldn’t take it away from you.”

Her heart melted a notch. She licked her dry lips. “And did you tell him?”

“Yes. I told him moments before I bought up all the shares and took over the company. After that, I had him pack up his office and leave.” He shrugged. “Most of the people in the company didn’t like the way he ran things anyway, so I had a lot of people supporting me.”

She widened her eyes. “You did that? You can’t. You’re a Carrington, and they cheat everyone.”

He smiled. “I may be a Carrington, but I’m not going to follow in their footsteps. I never liked the way my father made the Carrington name a corporate swear word. I’m not a thief, Cassidy. I’m a man who wants to live an honest life, and have an honest, beautiful and devoted woman by his side.”

Her heartbeat took on a different rhythm, and her breaths quickened with excitement. “What does that mean?”

“It means, my dear Cassidy, that I’m in love with you and I want to be with you. Forever.” He winked.

A tear slipped down her cheek and a knot of emotion formed in her throat. “Oh, Mark. I can’t believe you did all of that for me.”

He nodded. “I love you and I wanted to help you.”

She sniffed back a sob and leaned across the bar, wrapping her arms around his neck. His big, strong arms lifted her over the counter and pressed her body closer to his.

“All I can offer you is my name, and a promise that one day the name Carrington will be a name our kids can wear proudly,” he said. “And I can promise to love you as long as I live.”

She laughed. “Well, that sounds like a great promise. But I have to know something.”

“What is that?”

“How do you feel about your wife working in a bar?”

He chuckled. “If that’s something my wife enjoys doing, then that’s just fine with me. I want to make my wife happy any way I can.”

Her grin widened. “Do you think you could stand being married to a woman for forty or fifty years?”

He let out a low growl before kissing her. She clutched him tighter and answered back with a passionate kiss. After a few minutes, he pulled away.

“Does that mean you forgive me?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, Mark.”

He teased her lips with small kisses. “Um, I also need a place to stay. I had to sell my condo to get money for the company shares.”

She grinned. “It just so happens I have room at my place. Interested?”

With a laugh, he picked her up and swung her around. “Cassidy Hilarion. Is it any wonder I love you? You’re the only woman that can make me smile like a complete idiot.”

“Good. That makes two of us.”

She pressed her lips to his to seal their bargain. Just as the Colossus of Rhodes was a symbol to ancient Greece of peace and harmony, so it was for Cassidy and Mark’s future happiness.

 

THE END

 

 

Author’s Bio

 

Marie Higgins is a best-selling, multi-published author of Christian and sweet romance novels; from refined bad-boy heroes who make your heart melt to the feisty heroines who somehow manage to love them regardless of their faults. She’s been with a Christian publisher since 2010. Between those and her others, she’s published over 40 heartwarming, on-the-edge-of-your-seat stories and broadened her readership by writing mystery/suspense, humor, time-travel, paranormal, along with her love for historical romances. Her readers have dubbed her “Queen of Tease”, because of all her twists and turns and unexpected endings.

 

Visit her website / blog to discover more about her – www.mariehiggins.com

Find her on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/marie.higgins.7543

And Twitter – https://twitter.com/mariehigginsXOX

 


Protecting The Heart

She needs money for her bar. He seeks incriminating evidence to close her. Will the auction be the key, or will her kisses melt his heart? Cassidy Hilarion needs money to save her bar. She hopes that auctioning off her waitresses and herself for a night out on the town might do the trick. How can she protect her heart when a gorgeous hottie bids on her and all she wants to do is kiss him endlessly? Mark Carrington is on a mission—to find some incriminating evidence to help his father close down the bar. For years, the Carringtons have tried to get this land from the Hilarions, and Mark is determined to win. But when he gets to know the sexy co-owner he wants more than the bar. He wants her heart.

  • ISBN: 9781370057979
  • Author: Marie Higgins
  • Published: 2017-09-08 04:20:22
  • Words: 14803
Protecting The Heart Protecting The Heart