Cassie Rowe ignored the question looping in her head and checked the time on her cell phone. Nearly midnight. Her throat swelled. Only six hours until she boarded a US Coast Guard helicopter as a first-time Red Cross volunteer to help the hurricane-ravaged Virgin Islands and honor her lost brother. Unless she chickened out…
Her jittering knee smacked the bottom of the wooden table inside Mayday’s Bar & Grill and she clamped a hand on it. She’d come all this way and wasn’t about to turn tail now.
She peered around the crowded, nautical-themed bar, the hard-thumping rock music no match for the service personnel and other volunteers ready to ship out of Clearwater with her in a large-scale relief effort. They laughed and flirted in shadowed corners, their grinding silhouettes on the dance floor causing Cassie to experience an unexpected spike of arousal. Her life in small-town Idaho discouraged casual hookups even if she’d had the time. How long since she’d had sex?
She toyed with the miniature anchor on her charm bracelet, figuring her love life would have to remain dormant awhile longer.
Tonight wasn’t about hooking up. She’d only come here to pass a couple of hours since she probably wouldn’t be able to sleep. She’d need some serious courage tomorrow morning to hitch a ride on the same type of aircraft that’d carried her rescue-swimmer brother on a similar mission a year ago…then left him to die alone at sea.
Anger pulsed through her harder than the thumping bass. How could it have happened? Going on this mission, she hoped, would finally give her some answers. And, maybe, honor her brother’s life and wishes. He’d challenged her to break out of her safe world back home. Live a little. And she’d hesitated. Jeff had been the daring older sibling she’d admired but never thought she could emulate. While he’d never given risk a thought, she mulled over possibilities until she wound up doing nothing at all.
She raised his favorite drink—rum and cola—and toasted him. How she missed Jeff. That solid, bigbrother presence she’d always thought she could count on.
Damn it. Grief still snuck up on her at odd times, surprising her with its force. Shoving to her feet, she smoothed down her dress and eased out of the booth. Might as well head back to her quarters since the bar hadn’t distracted her from her thoughts after all. Leaving a fat tip for the waitress, Cassie turned to go and bumped into a hard masculine shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she muttered, swiveling her hips sideways to pass the wall of lean muscle.
“Sorry” came the terse response.
Topaz eyes locked with hers for an instant, the barest connection with a stranger. And then, he was gone. She hovered there for a moment, oddly affected by that disarming gaze from beneath a dark tangle of hair, buzzed at the sides. The handsome mouth that’d curved above a square jaw. A slow shiver tripped along her skin, so foreign that it took her a long moment to recognize the sensation for what it was. Attraction.
Raw and simple. Totally unexpected.
Giving herself a shake, she headed toward the door again, only to remember the feel of the man’s eyes on her once more.
She’d come to the bar for a distraction, hadn’t she? And, much to her surprise, she’d just found one. Maybe she needed to start honoring that promise to her brother now. Tonight. After all, she hadn’t come all this way just to find answers about his death.
She was also here to take risks. Stop second-guessing herself. Live a little. And the gorgeous stranger might be her chance to do just that.
USCG Jayhawk Helicopter pilot Lieutenant Commander Mark Sampson shoved through the crowd, brain still stuck on the deer-in-the-headlights look he’d just seen on the mouthwatering blonde. Those wide, serious blue eyes seemed out of sync with this hard-drinking, hard-partying military crowd.
Not that he had any business chasing beautiful women tonight or even being out. Not when he had wheels up in six hours for a mission that called to him, a mission he needed like he needed air. He’d spent too much time on the ground lately, definitely punishment for a guy who craved action. Adrenaline. The job.
Didn’t matter that there was a major storm system threatening to rain all kinds of hell on his head. He’d been waiting for two days for the worst of the hurricane to pass before they were approved to fly into the Virgin Islands. Time crawled when he wasn’t in the air, his mind on his job and nothing else. He needed to clock more hours in the cockpit and stay in the bubble—stay focused—to put some time between him and his past, and not even a gorgeous blonde would be able to fix that.
He sat at a corner table alone. When he brought the flat of his hand down on the table, empty beer bottles jumped. He dropped his head into his palms and felt the throb at his temples. Coming here had been a mistake. The happy crowd couldn’t dispel his demons.
He should be at the hotel room the overcrowded base had booked him into when his Elizabeth City, North Carolina, crew had arrived to provide rescue support during the hurricane. He’d head back and organize his emergency response gear soon.
Once he finished his soda, he’d leave.
A moment later, a slap thudded against his back. Ian, a crew member and close friend since his academy days, twirled and straddled a chair.
“Sticking to the hard stuff I see.” Ian grinned as he pointed to the soda can near Mark’s glass.
“No juice for the pilot. How about you? Want a drink?” Mark raised his voice as a Jimmy Buffett tune switched over to hard rock.
“Nah. I’m heading out. Dylan’s my ride and he’s got his panties in a bunch. Just found out he’s transferring to Kodiak when he gets back from Saint Thomas.”
Mark searched his memory, something nagging at him about Dylan, another rescue swimmer he’d flown when they’d been training. Then it hit him. “Isn’t Dylan from Alaska?”
Ian nodded. “Some bad blood there, though. A woman. At least that’s what he was mumbling about before the bartender cut him off. Looks like I’m the DD.” Mark followed Ian’s glance to Dylan, who paced by the bar’s exit. “Besides, better get some shut-eye before the big show.”
“They’re calling it the storm of the century.” Mark swirled the ice cubes in his glass, making them clank together.
Ian leaned his elbows on the table and lowered his voice. “Doing okay?”
Mark jerked his chin up and down while his stomach clenched. “I’ve got it.”
His demons were off-limits.
Ian thumped him on the back again and stood. “Thought so.” He stretched his long arms overhead and a couple of lurking women nudged each other and pointed. “See you on the beach.”
A mirthless laugh escaped Mark. “Yep. Don’t forget the sunscreen.”
With a wave Ian ambled away, trailed by a couple of women. Mark shook his head and lifted his drink.
“Mind if I join you?” asked a silky voice from behind him.
He peered up into the crystal-blue eyes that’d nearly snared him earlier. God. She was an eyeful in an offthe-shoulder short white dress that made him want to slip the elastic neckline lower…or that hemline higher…
Long blond hair shone like a beacon in the dark bar. The woman was classically beautiful but carried herself like she had no clue. She fidgeted with a bracelet and bit her lip as if she was unsure of her reception. Like there was any chance in hell a guy might say no to her.
He swiped away the discarded beer bottles the waitress hadn’t gotten around to picking up from the previous occupants.
“Seat’s all yours.” His gaze wandered over her tanned legs before she dropped into the spot beside him.
She wound her thick hair into a messy topknot, and repositioned a patterned headband to hold things in place. “Wow, this place is packed,” she said, waving her hand in front of her flushed face. “We must be breaking some fire codes.”
As she glanced around the room, his eyes lingered on the profile revealed by her upswept do. Everything about her face was soft and round, from her large blue eyes, to the delicate tip of her nose, and the tender- looking flesh beneath her slightly jutting chin. His fingers itched to touch it.
“Mayday’s has seen worse than this. Is it your first time here?”
“What gave me away?” She did a little eye roll, a self-deprecating gesture that charmed him more than a practiced come-on.
“Most of the regulars don’t bother with conversation.” He pointed out a couple on the dance floor whose groping session was leaving them both overexposed.
“Oh.” She blinked and he’d bet money she blushed, but it was too dark to tell for sure. “How nice for them.” She toasted them with her mostly empty drink.
“I’m Mark.” He held out a hand, unable to resist the excuse to touch her.
“Cassie.” She set down her glass and wiped her hand on a cocktail napkin before folding her fingers around his.
Her touch was cool and impossibly soft, her charm bracelet grazing his skin before she pulled away. The tug of arousal he felt was immediate and too strong to ignore. Which meant sitting with her tonight was going to be more than a distraction.
“Cassie, I’ll be honest with you.” He didn’t want to mislead her and he didn’t know if he could rein himself in when she stirred this kind of response. “I’m not the best company tonight—”
“Maybe you should let me be the judge of that.” Her blue eyes met his head-on with a look that wasn’t quite as innocent, the self-consciousness he’d detected earlier giving way to a mix of teasing determination.
In fact, he suspected this awkward beauty was flirting with him.
He felt his lips twitch. “You think?”
“I’m definitely no bar scene expert, but I know what intrigues a woman. I can be a fair judge.”
“And how exactly are you making your evaluation?”
He might be on edge tonight, but that wasn’t her problem. Besides, something about this woman shrunk the shadows inside him. He’d linger a little longer. Find out more about her.
She leaned in close and he inhaled her honey-and- vanilla scent. This near, he could make out the pale freckles sprinkled across her nose.
“Well.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Let’s get the superficial out of the way first and judge you on your looks.”
The soda burned as he swallowed the wrong way. He appreciated a direct woman. Didn’t encounter as many as he’d like, though. “And how am I doing?”
“On a ten-point scale?” Her eyes slid along the length of him and lingered on his mouth long enough to raise his temperature, his libido firing. “I’d say a nine.”
“And what did I lose a point on?” He shouldn’t be here, flirting with a woman who didn’t have nearly enough hard edges to be a part of his world. But she amused him. And if he left, who would be looking out for her?
She shrugged sun-kissed shoulders, making the left sleeve slide nearly to her elbow. His mouth flooded. A hungry dog drooling over a juicy bone. “Not much, really. But I couldn’t inflate your ego more by giving you a perfect score on your looks.”
“Who said I have an ego?”
She laughed, a tinkling, bubbling sound that sparked like a flare inside him. “Puh-lease. A woman sees confidence on a man from a mile away.”
A smile maneuvered its way around his face. A damned unfamiliar feeling. “Point taken. Next category?”
“Then we’d move on to more important things. Like humor.”
“Can I throw out the judge’s highest and lowest scores?”
“I’m your judge and your jury.” She pointed a swizzle stick at him. “But since that was sort of funny, I’ll let you slide with a seven point five.”
“I’ll take it.” With his mood, he would have scored himself a lot lower, although the night didn’t seem half as dark with Cassie across the table from him. “Is your next category about money?”
“You think that’s all women care about?” She glanced over her shoulder as she said the words, her gaze taking in the men waving green bills at the bartender. “The size of your wallet?”
“That and the size of our—”
“Regardless,” she interrupted. “I was thinking the next category would be class.”
Another sip of soda polished off his drink. He should leave, but with the alluring, teasing woman beside him, he was no longer sure he wanted to escape.
“What’s my number?”
“An eight. You lose two for not offering me a cocktail as soon as I sat down.” Her impish grin reappeared and his body tightened at the small, sexy space between her front teeth. “You must have known I was nervous.”
He wondered why a beautiful woman would be nervous about sharing his table, but she seemed relaxed enough now. He didn’t want that smile of hers to fade.
“I hope it’s not too late to fix that.” He waved over the waitress hovering on the edge of the crowd. “A drink for the lady.”
Cassie frowned. “I wasn’t going to drink any more tonight. But maybe just one.” Glancing up at the server, she quizzed her on the tequila choices before deciding. “Margarita on the rocks, salt not sugar.”
“Not sweet, then?” he teased once they were alone again, enjoying this time with the woman keeping him on his toes and out of his dark thoughts.
“Sweetness doesn’t get you far in life, I’ve learned.” Shadows crossed through her blue gaze for a moment, but then she blinked and the look disappeared. “I’m cultivating a tart side.”
“You’ll need that if you decide to spend much time at Mayday’s.” He didn’t like thinking about her here without him, though.
He changed topics fast. “Next category?”
“Power.” Her lips pursed as she considered him, the move making him uncomfortably aware of the fullness of her mouth. “You’re a ten.”
His pulse slugged hard, this flirtation ratcheting up the heat in a hurry.
“A perfect score.”
She biffed his bicep. “Really? Like you don’t notice the waitresses falling over themselves to obey your every command?”
As if to underscore her words, the server hustled back with the beverage.
“Would you?” he asked once they were alone again, the words leaving his mouth before he could stop them.
She sucked slowly on a lime wedge, each second of silence building the tension between them. “That remains to be seen,” she said at last.
Which was definitely not a no. Damn but she was keeping him guessing.
“Depending on…?” He balled his hands on his thighs then forced his fingers to relax. Why push this? He had every intention of leaving. With his drink finished, he was out of excuses to dawdle with this tempting woman. He blamed his mouth. Always open one sentence too long.
“How you score in the rest of my categories,” she countered, leaning closer. The move outlined full breasts beneath the gauzy fabric of her dress as her long, silky legs appeared and disappeared when she uncrossed them.
He looked away, beating back the sexual attraction firing through him. He hadn’t expected this tonight. Definitely not from a
woman like Cassie.
“And how many more are there?” A throaty growl had entered his voice, an impatient sound, a hunger he couldn’t hide behind some teasing word game.
He kept his eyes on the bouncers setting up a row of chairs on the emptying dance floor. Forced his focus off her tongue as she swiped at the salt on the rim of her glass.
“You’ve got me on the edge of my seat here,” he admitted, thinking more time with Cassie could make the hours between now and the next mission disappear.
Better yet, she might make those hours better than just bearable. He hadn’t allowed himself that kind of pleasure since…
A stab of pain behind his eyes reminded him exactly how long it had been. To the day. The hour.
She reached out a hand and covered his wrist.
“You okay?” The flirtatious look had vanished, making him realize he’d be an ass to walk away from this chance to exorcise a few demons tonight.
“I could be better,” he started, ready to detail exactly how.
But just then the damn DJ stepped forward and the crowd hushed. “Ladies, it’s time to grab a partner for our lap dance contest. The longer you keep from touching your male dancer, the longer the couple stays in. The woman with the most—er—control, takes home this magnum of champagne…and your man.”
The guy hefted a bottle larger than his head.
Cassie lifted her eyebrows in question. Almost as if to ask him if that kind of game was a possibility. Something about her expression made his lower abs contract with swift, fierce need. Was she teasing him? He had a sudden urge to discover where she drew the line with this flirtation.
While the crowd responded to the DJ’s provocation, he flipped his hand so he was holding Cassie’s.
“So what’s that last category?” he pressed.
He squinted at her until her cheeks pinked and she squirmed. He wanted to haul her out of the bar and back to his room, where he could lose himself in that incredible body and mind-numbing sex.
But even if he was the type for casual hookups, something about her didn’t speak of one-night stands… despite her flirting. Maybe it was the pain tucked in the corners of her laughing eyes, the way her smiles slid off her face too fast, as if they rarely stuck. He was having a tough time reading her.
“It’s one I’m not prepared to judge just yet.” Her words were breathless.
He could feel the thrum of her pulse where he held her hand, the pace a rapid tattoo of nerves or excitement. Or something more.
“Now I’m even more curious.” He slid a thumb along the heart of her palm and imagined himself touching other parts of her that same way. With slow, lazy circles. “You can at least tell me what you would be critiquing.”
Her blues met and held his. No innocence there now. Only heat and daring.
“Sexual prowess.” She drew out the words like a long caress.
His whole body hardened like new-forged steel and just as hot.
They stared at each other across the table, the noisy world of the bar full of lap dancers not even a blip on his radar. He breathed in when Cassie exhaled, their shared air as hot as any kiss he’d ever tasted.
“You ready to cut out of here?” he asked, his voice low and his restraint disappearing.
He wanted nothing more than to drive her wild and fill her head with enough sexy dreams to satisfy her for the rest of the night. He tossed bills on the table, never taking his eyes off her.
She squeezed his hand. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Read Chapters Two & Three on Goodreads HERE
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