God was punishing her.
It was the only logical conclusion. Madeline Donovan had done the unthinkable, and now she had to pay.
Sister Margaret had warned her time and again, but she hadn’t believed.
Well, today she was a believer.
A bead of sweat slid down her spine as she took another painful step, wincing as the blister that had formed on her pinky toe half a mile back rubbed against the strap of her four-inch-heeled sandal.
Of course, she could take the shoes off, but then she’d be forced to walk barefoot on a deserted highway in the dark. Seeing as she was on the Lord’s bad side, keeping the heels on was the safe bet.
The wind whipped, swirling around her like a mini tornado as another car zipped past at eighty miles per hour. Stupid Southern-belle curls, long transformed into a tangled heap, flew into her face and blinded her. She pressed closer to the bushes lining the two-lane road. Best not to tempt fate by walking too closely to motor vehicles.
Her dress caught on a wayward branch and she ripped it free. The sound of the tearing fabric seemed to echo down the highway. She sighed with satisfaction. The damned thing’s destruction was the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable day.
Off in the not-too-distant horizon, peeking through the trees like a beacon of hope, a red neon sign blazed in the night sky. The word BAR blinked, winking at her, making her mouth water, urging her on. She’d been following the sign since her car broke down, and it got closer with every anguished step.
Tightening her grip on the small purse, her fingers dug into the tiny crystal beads. She had fifty bucks. More than enough to plant her ass on a stool and get drunk. Maybe not the smartest choice, given her situation, but she’d stopped caring about smart the second she’d pulled out of that parking lot.
All-too-vivid images of this afternoon filled her mind while sweat, already dampening her temples from the humidity and the long walk, trickled down her hairline.
What had she done?
This morning she’d had no idea she would take this kind of drastic measure. There’d been no sense of impending doom, no inner knowledge of what was to come. All she’d woken up with was an upset stomach and the complete certainty of where the day would end.
It hadn’t included walking down a dark, unknown highway in the dead of night.
Now look at her: one act of desperate panic and she was stranded in the middle of Illinois farmland. Well, punishment or not, she would make it to that bar.
With her gaze trained on the red sign, she took another determined, torturous step toward salvation.
What felt like an eternity later, Maddie threw open the door. Adrenaline alone had kept her going for the last quarter mile. Her dress was torn and streaked with dirt, but she’d finally made it.
Maybe God hadn’t abandoned her after all.
A warm gust of humid air and probably a few mosquitoes followed her into the nearly empty bar. She’d have bites tomorrow, but she wouldn’t think about that now.
No. She’d think about that, and everything else, later.
Frozen, she panted for breath so hard that she was surprised her breasts didn’t spill out of the strapless dress. She gave it a hard tug to be safe. No use adding flashing to her list of transgressions.
Tangled, hairspray-sticky curls covered her back and neck like a sweaty blanket. She was thankful she didn’t have a pair of scissors or she’d be tempted to hack it off. This day had been disaster enough; she didn’t need to add bad hair to the mix.
She sucked in a lungful of beer-laced air and glanced around the ancient, dimly lit bar. Worn paneling the color of driftwood baked in the sun too long looked as old and tired as the male patrons sprinkling the tattered landscape. There wasn’t a female in sight.
A trickle of alarm slid down her spine. Maybe she shouldn’t be here alone.
The thought flittered away when her attention fell on an empty stool. She’d be fine. Growing up with three older brothers had made her well schooled in the art of self-defense, and these guys seemed more interested in their drinks than in her.
Besides, she couldn’t walk if her life depended on it.
The bar loomed straight ahead. Its old, faded panels and black countertop could serve on any this-is-where-alcoholics-come-to-die movie set, but to her, it was nirvana. The distance to the stool grew exponentially the longer she stood on feet pulsing with pain. She gritted her teeth. It was only a few tiny steps.
She could do this. She’d already done the impossible.
She took one hobbled lurch, then another, until she was finally right where she wanted to be.
With a weary sigh, she plopped onto the round, cushioned stool. A slow hiss of air leaked from the seat as it took her weight. She closed her eyes. Heaven. She might never move again. An air-conditioned breeze brushed her overheated skin, and she just about groaned in sheer pleasure. Dropping her head into her open palms, she luxuriated in the pure joy of sitting.
She’d made it. The pressure on her feet eased to an insistent ache. She was safe. For the first time since her car had died, she allowed the fear to sink in. She wanted to lay her cheek on the cool laminate counter and weep in relief.
“What can I get for you, Princess?” a low, deep voice rumbled.
Maddie’s head shot up and a man blinked into focus. Her mouth dropped open. In front of her stood the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen.
Was she hallucinating? Was he a mirage?
She blinked again. Nope. Still there.
Unusual amber eyes, glimmering with amusement, stared at her from among strong, chiseled features.
She swallowed, teeth snapping together, and tried to speak. She managed a little squeak before words failed her. A hot flush spread over her chest. Men like this should be illegal.
Unable to resist the temptation pulling her gaze lower, she let it fall. Just when she’d thought nothing could rival that face.
Shoulders, a mile wide, stretched the gray T-shirt clinging to his broad chest. The muscles in his arms flexed as he rested his hands on the counter. A tribal tattoo in black ink rippled across his left bicep. Oh, she liked those. Her fingers twitched with the urge to trace the intricate scroll as moisture slid over her tongue.
For the love of God, she was salivating.
Stop staring. She shouldn’t be thinking about this. Not now. Not after today.
It was so, so wrong.
But she couldn’t look away.
Stop. She tried again, but it was impossible. He was a work of art.
“You okay there?” The smile curving his full mouth was pure sin.
That low, rumbling voice snapped her out of her stupor, and she squared her shoulders. “Yes, thank you.”
His gaze did some roaming of its own and stopped at her dress. One golden brow rose.
Before he could ask any questions, she said, “I’ll have three shots of whisky and a glass of water.”
His lips quirked. “Three?”
“Yes, please.” With a sharp nod, she ran a finger along the dull, black surface of the bar. “You can line them up right here.”
When he continued to stare at her as if she might be an escaped mental patient, she reached into her small bag and pulled out her only cash. She waved the fifty in front of his face. “I assume this will cover it.”
“If I give you the shots, are you going to get sick all over that pretty dress?” He leaned over the counter, and his scent wafted in her direction.
She sucked in a breath. He smelled good, like spice, soap, and danger. She shook her head. What was wrong with her? She was so going to hell.
She pushed the money toward him. “I’ll be fine. I’m Irish. We can handle our liquor.”
“All right, then.” The bartender chuckled, and Maddie’s stomach did a strange little dip.
He wandered off, and Maddie released a pent-up breath, trying not to stare at the way his ass filled out his faded jeans. Never mind the flex of powerful thighs, the lean hips, or the—
Snap out of it.
What was wrong with her? She had bigger things to worry about. Her car was dead. She had no clothes. She’d made a huge mess of her life. And she was spending the only money she had on booze.
She couldn’t afford to add impure thoughts to her rapidly growing list of sins. She needed to pull it together. She’d drink her shots, figure out a plan, and be on her way.
To where? She hadn’t a clue.
The future stretched before her like a blank, empty slate. Fear and panic bubbled to the surface. She’d never been on her own. She wasn’t sure how to go about it. It was sad, considering she was twenty-eight, but true.
A new thought worked its way through her muddled brain, breaking over her like the dawn of a new day: she was free. Free in a way she hadn’t been in too many years to count. She could do whatever she wanted. There was no one looking over her shoulder, no one watching her with worried eyes. Maybe she’d have a chance to breathe and remember the girl she’d been before her life had gone to hell.
Before she could think too much about it, the gorgeous bartender returned. He lined up three shot glasses and tilted the bottle with a flick of his wrist. In one fluid pour, the smoky amber liquid filled each glass to the rim. “Bottoms up.”
She picked up the small glass and downed it in one gulp. The alcohol burned as it slid down her throat and hit her stomach, warming her in an instant. She reached for the next shot and downed it, too. Muscles that had been tight for years loosened, and her shoulders returned to where they belonged, instead of hovering at her ears.
The alcohol rushed through her veins at Mach ten, and too late she remembered that she hadn’t eaten. Not her brightest idea.
Oh well, that was the theme of the day.
The bartender stood over her, his watchful gaze burning a hole into her. She didn’t need to look up to sense his questions. She took a sip of water and tried not to fidget.
In record speed, the whisky did its work, with her brain going a little fuzzy and the world turning a little brighter. With each passing moment, her situation seemed less dire. She could do this. It would be an adventure.
And what adventure was complete without eye candy?
Said eye candy still hovered over her, making her skin prickle with awareness. Unable to resist the pull of him, she gave up.
It didn’t hurt to look, did it? Raising her head, she met his amused eyes and smiled.
He smiled right back. “Let me guess, you haven’t eaten.”
“How’d you know?” She traced her fingertip over the edge of the empty shot glass.
“I’m astute that way.”
Tongue-tied, she picked up her water again and took a long gulp, draining it. The ice clinked as she placed it on the chipped counter.
“Thirsty?” he asked, in a low voice that vibrated in her belly.
She straightened and tried to look proper. “It’s important to stay hydrated when you get drunk.”
He laughed. “And why the rush to get drunk, Princess?”
“Stop calling me that.” The scowl she’d intended died halfway to her lips.
Another meaningful glance at her attire. “If you don’t like being called a princess, maybe you shouldn’t wear such a sparkly dress.”
“I suppose you have a point. I’m normally more of a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl.” The last shot of whisky sat in front of her, and she took a little sip. A drop of alcohol clung to her lower lip, which she licked.
His gaze tracked the movement, eyes darkening to burnished gold.
The tip of her tongue stalled mid-swipe and retreated to press against her teeth.
Was something happening here? Appreciating the view was one thing, but she needed to be good. She’d been good for a very long time and now wasn’t the time to break her streak. Maybe the alcohol was playing tricks on her, making her imagine things. She gave herself a tiny mental shake.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He was a stranger. She shouldn’t tell him her name. She shot back. “What’s yours?”
Again, the corners of his mouth twitched. “Mitch Riley.”
She sighed. Well, now he’d been forthcoming so she had to tell him hers. “Maddie Donovan.”
He held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Maddie Donovan.”
She slipped her palm into his. His grip was warm and sure, and a tingle raced along her arm. She snatched back her hand as though she’d been burned.
“Hard day?” he asked.
“You could say that.”
“Wanna tell me about it?”
“No thank you.”
“Don’t you know you’re supposed to confess to your bartender?” He reached for her empty glass and filled it with fresh ice and water before placing it in front of her. “Drink this.”
She frowned. She’d had more than enough of people telling her what to do. She wasn’t about to take orders from a stranger, no matter how gorgeous. “You’re kind of bossy.”
“Proper hydration was your argument.” He moved down the bar and returned with a bowl of pretzels. “Here, eat these.”
Brows drawing together, she stared at the bowl full of tiny brown twists. Once upon a time, she hadn’t let anyone push her around. “What if I don’t want to? What if I want more whisky?”
More liquor wasn’t a good idea, but now she had a point to make. Sure, she’d wobble if she got up, but she had something to prove and alcohol fueled bravado.
A crooked, boyish grin slid over his lips. She suspected it was designed to disarm her, but it failed miserably. He placed the flat of his hands on the bar. “If you want more whisky, you’ll have to eat first. I don’t want you knocked on your ass.”
She blew out an exasperated breath. “What do you care?”
“It’s a nice ass.” He peered over the bar to evaluate the body part in question. “From what I can see, that is.”
Just to be defiant, she picked up the rest of the shot and downed it. “I’ll have another.”
He pushed the bowl toward her. “You’ll eat pretzels. They’re good for soaking up alcohol.”
“What about ‘the customer’s always right’?” she huffed and crossed her arms. Was she being ridiculous? Maybe, but who was he to make decisions for her? She’d had enough overbearing men to last her a lifetime. From now on, she called the shots. And if she wanted more drinks, then by God, she’d get them.
Maddie looked past him, her vision skipping around the bar. A blond, surfer-looking guy sat in a corner booth with papers scattered over the table’s surface, perusing them with obvious interest. She pointed to him. “Maybe I need to tell your boss you’re refusing to serve me.”
A deep, amused rumble. “You can’t get higher than me, Princess. I own the place.”
Deflated, her shoulders slumped. “Oh. Well, never mind.”
He pushed the bowl again until it was right under her nose. “Eat some pretzels and drink some water while you tell me what kind of trouble you’re in.”
With her spine snapping ruler-straight, she asked, “What makes you think I’m in trouble?”
He gave her a slow, meaningful once-over. “Do I look stupid to you?”
No, he didn’t. All the more reason to stay away. If she could walk, she’d leave, but for now she was at his mercy. Between the buzz in her head and her swollen, aching feet, she might never move from this stool again and be forced to deal with his bossiness forever.
“I had car trouble. I broke down on Highway 60 a couple of miles back.”
His lips curved down and his golden eyes flashed. “You walked?”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“It’s the twenty-first century. Where’s your cell?” He scowled as though she’d done something wrong.
How could she know she’d need one? She held up her tiny purse. “It didn’t fit.”
His gaze flicked over her. “What’s with the dress?”
Not wanting to say it out loud, she toyed with a piece of the fabric and said, “What, this old thing?”
“Cute.” His jaw hardened into a stubborn line. “So?”
Denial was pointless. The dress fell from her fingers. “I ran out on my wedding.”
“Was this before or after ’til death do us part?” Mitch asked the tipsy bride swaying on the stool. He’d shove those pretzels down her throat if necessary. Irish or not, if she didn’t get food in her stomach, she’d be sick.
Green eyes flashed as brilliant and blinding as the crystals covering her overflowing wedding dress. “Before. I’m horrible, but not that horrible.”
Good. He’d learned his lesson where husbands were concerned. No matter how appealing the woman, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. “I take it this was a rushed exit.”
“If you must know, I climbed out the church window.” She placed a hand over her forehead and squeezed her lids shut. “My mother is going to kill me. She’ll never forgive me.”
Interestingly, there was no mention of the guy she’d ditched at the altar. “I’m sure she’ll get over it.”
Lashes fluttering open, she shook her head. “You don’t understand. I’m twenty-eight. All her friends’ daughters are married. Half of them have kids, and the other half are pregnant. I’ve been with . . .” She leaned in, her eyes darting around the room. “. . . him since I was fifteen. I’m past due.”
Family expectations were something he could relate to. Not meeting those expectations, even more so. “I’m sure she wants you happy.”
Maddie straightened. “Ha! She wants me married. Period. End of story.”
The last thing he wanted was to talk about her abandoned wedding, but he figured his job as her bartender required at least a cursory question. “Do you want to talk about it?” He placed his hands on the counter, hoping he passed for disarming.
The corners of her mouth pulled into a deep frown as she pushed an empty glass toward him. “About that shot.”
Okay, no talking about the wedding. Fine with him. He’d rather argue about pretzels. He pushed the bowl under her cute little nose. “I believe I laid down the law on more shots. You don’t like it, there’s another bar about ten miles from here. The rest of the town is dry.”
Chin tilted in defiance, her knockout, heart-shaped face scrunched up in concentration as she tried to stare him down. Too bad for her—he could do this all day.
Several moments ticked by before she conceded with a long, put-upon sigh, followed by an adorable pout. She picked up a handful of pretzels and shoved one in her mouth. “Happy now?”
“Yes, and you’ll be even happier when you can sit upright.”
“I can sit fine.” The satin on her princess dress rustled as she teetered, belying her words. The veil she wore fluttered around her face, the white a stark contrast to the deep red of her hair.
Grinning, he reached over the bar and flicked the filmy fabric. “No chance to remove the veil, huh?”
She jerked back, hand flying to her head to pat the fluffy tulle, complete with tiara. “Ugh! I forgot.”
He leaned into the counter. “You certainly know how to make an entrance, Maddie Donovan.”
“What?” She smiled, the corners of her mouth a little shaky. “I’d think all the runaway brides would come here.”
He popped open the cooler and grabbed a Bud. “Do I sense a new advertising slogan?”
“Put your picture on a billboard and you’ll have to beat them away with a stick. No slogan necessary.” A bright red flush staining her cheeks, she clapped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with what he suspected was horror.
He laughed, startled to hear how rusty and unused it sounded. When was the last time he’d been this engaged in a conversation?
She peeled her fingers away. “Did I say that out loud?”
“’Fraid so.” It had been a long time since he’d flirted, but he hadn’t forgotten how. It had been even longer since he’d felt anything but numb. And numb wasn’t the word that came to mind when he looked at the runaway bride.
“Ignore me.” She held up one of the empty shot glasses. It swayed in her fingers. “It’s the booze.”
“If you say so, Princess.”
Those green eyes narrowed. Her gaze traveled over his face and body as though he were a suspect in a lineup. Trying to keep a straight face, he twisted the cap off his beer and tossed it without looking at the trash can. To his surprise, it was damn hard. He’d smiled more in the last fifteen minutes than he had all last year.
Finally, she glanced around his sad, sorry-looking dive. “Um, what’s your current slogan?”
“I think you can do better,” she said with utter seriousness, then popped another pretzel in her mouth.
She was such a cute little thing. Petite and small boned, she looked as though she might float away in that huge dress.
“I like to keep my business plan simple, catering to bikers and alcoholics.”
Once again, she glanced around. “Mission accomplished. Although I don’t see any bikers.”
“There’s a festival over in Shiloh.”
Auburn brows drew together. “And I’m where, exactly?”
“Revival, Illinois, population 2,583.” He’d recognized the city on her the second she’d walked through the door. “You’re about four hundred miles south of Chicago. How long have you been driving, anyway?”
“Since about twelve-thirty.”
He calculated the math, scratching his temple. “What exactly have you been doing?”
Averting her gaze, she stared down at the bowl of pretzels as though they held the answer to life’s mysteries. “I don’t really know. Driving, I guess. Before my car broke down, things are kind of a blur.”
Her wheels clearly spinning, she took another pretzel and toyed with it, clicking it on the bar.
He kept quiet, taking another sip of beer. Over the bar, the television was tuned to ESPN. The barflies watched, nursing their drinks of choice, only casting occasional looks of puzzlement in the bride’s direction. Mitch glanced over at his bartender, Sam. Ignoring the paperwork sitting in front of him, he watched Maddie with avid interest, raising one brow at Mitch in question.
He shrugged. He had no idea what he was doing, but he wanted to keep talking to her.
Finally, Maddie smoothed down her veil. “Hey, how’d you know I was from Chicago?”
“You’re not from here.” He scrubbed a hand over his scruff, realizing he’d forgotten to shave today. “I lived there until about three years ago. I guessed.”
Slim, perfectly manicured white-tipped nails touched her parted lips before flitting away. Slowly, she craned her neck, surveying the sorry state of the bar, then turned to him once again.
“Why’d you move here?” She asked the question as though Mitch might be touched in the head.
He understood: it wasn’t too long ago that he’d have reacted the same way. “Why not?”
Her forehead crinkled as though concentrating very hard. “Do you have family here?”
It was a normal question, the obvious question, but his gut tightened. He never spoke of his past, let alone invited questions he didn’t want to answer. “I have ties, but no family.”
“What’s that mean?”
A muscle jumped in his jaw. “My grandmother grew up here, but my family lives in Chicago.”
“Why did you move here?”
“I spent summers here when I was a kid. I know people, and it seemed as good of a place as any.”
She popped a pretzel in her mouth, chewing slowly. “Did you own a bar in Chicago, too?”
“No.” The word flat. Why had he mentioned Chicago? A tactical error on his part, forgetting she wasn’t in a hurry to discuss her life any more than he was.
She picked up a sparkly piece of fabric and toyed with the beads. “What’d you do?”
He shrugged. If he started evading now, she’d only make a bigger deal of it, and besides, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t a secret. He just didn’t talk about it. “I was a lawyer.”
Surprise flickered over her face. “Really?”
“But . . .” She pointed to his arm. “You have a tattoo.”
Laughing, his muscles eased. “Princess, haven’t you heard? Lawyers are deviants.”
“Maybe.” Her lips curved, her gaze resting on the black scrolls over his biceps. “But I’m pretty sure none of the lawyers I deal with are hiding tats under their suits.”
Happy to change the subject, he leaned over the bar, close enough to breathe in her honey-and-almond scent. An urge to lick her came over him. What would that smooth, pale flesh taste like on his tongue?
“And what kind of lawyers have you known, Maddie Donovan?” His voice sounded low, with a hint of seduction threaded through it. He really should be ashamed of himself—after all, she was in a wedding dress. But he’d stopped caring about that detail as soon as she’d started arguing with him about pretzels.
Wide eyes met his. Blinking, she cleared her throat, then squared her shoulders. “Um, is something going on here?”
The smile twitched on his lips, and he let it spread. “Maybe.”
She placed a hand on her stomach, her waist appearing impossibly small in the tight, corseted top. “This is making me nervous.”
“Good nervous or bad nervous?” he asked, leaving the past where it belonged to enjoy the unexpected surprise of her wandering into this shithole bar.
“I’m not sure yet. It’s been a while.” She propped her chin on her palm, auburn curls falling over one shoulder. Even in the dim, yellow-tinted light, her hair shimmered with a hundred different strands of red. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but there was something absolutely breathtaking about her.
He wanted closer. The question was, would he work on those nerves or take it easy on her? Maybe a little nudge. “I do like to make pretty girls nervous.”
She gave him a delicate little snort. “I bet that line works all the time, doesn’t it?”
Laughter shook his chest, drawing several surprised glances from his patrons. He always liked a woman who cut him no slack. A rarity. A challenge. It had been far too long since he’d felt the surge of challenge. Hell, it had been a long time since he’d felt the surge of anything. “Hey, I thought it was better than”—he lowered his voice to sleazy—“‘Baby, are you tired? Because you’ve been running through my mind all night.’”
With a groan, she buried her face in her hands. “Oh my God, it’s awful. Is that what I’ve been missing?”
“I’m just getting started.”
Lashes lifted to the ceiling. “Deliver me from hell.”
“Damn, you’re hard on a man’s ego, Princess.”
“Somehow I doubt that, Slick.”
Amused, he grimaced. “Slick, huh? I’m thinking that’s not a compliment.”
“You don’t need compliments.” She waved a hand over him. “Look at you, all gorgeous. I bet you don’t even have to try.”
With a grin, he pushed the brown bowl closer. “Have another pretzel.”
Auburn brows drawing together, she flashed him a flirtatious scowl. “You don’t even have the decency to deny it.”
The more they talked, the harder it was to keep the smile off his face. The long-dormant muscles started to ache. “Now, why would I go and do that?”
“Because that’s what you do.” She grabbed another pretzel and popped it in her mouth. “That’s the rule: when someone gives you a compliment, you deny.”
“No, that’s what women do.” He placed his palms on the bar. “If I denied it, you’d accuse me of fishing.”
“True. You’re smart and insightful, too? That hardly seems fair.” She pointed to the ceiling. “Somebody up there likes you.”
That was definitely a matter of opinion, but he teased her right back. “At least you know I didn’t earn my degree on my back.”
“Where’d you go to law school?” She gave him a crooked half-grin. “Some obscure school in the Caribbean?”
“Nope. Not even close.”
She scrutinized him, looking him up and down with exaggerated care. “One of those infomercial Internet deals?” She straightened on the stool and cleared her throat. “You too can chase ambulances in thirty amazing days.”
Goddamn, she was cute. He wanted to eat her up in only the very best way. Any last remnants of conscience about her sitting in her wedding dress evaporated. He chuckled, shaking his head. “You don’t think very highly of me, do you?”
“That’s the problem, I do. Now I’ve got to find your tragic flaw.”
“I have plenty of flaws.” A list too long to count, actually. Flaws a good girl like her might not be able to overlook. “But my law degree doesn’t happen to be one of them.”
“I know.” Her tone excited, she guessed, “You were a Navy SEAL who earned your law degree at night after a long day of special ops?”
Damn, his polish must be long gone. “Where in the hell did that come from?”
“Romance novels,” she said, the duh clearer than if she’d spoken it out loud.
“Not even close.”
She blew out a breath and threw up her hands. “Fine, I give up.”
He grinned. “I went to Harvard.”
The loud burst of laughter had the barflies startling in her direction. “You’re kidding.”
“’Fraid not.” That she found the idea preposterous both amused and irked him. There’d been a time when anything less would have been a surprise. “I guess now’s not the time to tell you I graduated in the top five percent of my class.” Shit. What was wrong with him? How was she getting him to talk about things he’d refused to even think about?
“Let me get this straight.” She tapped her manicured index finger on the bar. “You graduated from Harvard at the top of your class?”
“Did you have a job in Chicago?”
“As a lawyer?”
He nodded, refusing to say more.
Confusion was etched in the corners of her mouth. “But you left that behind, for this?”
“That about sums it up.” He tried to make the words light, casual. Some of his enjoyment dimmed as he remembered those days when the whole world had stretched before him, ripe with possibilities. It reminded him why he’d chosen to stay numb instead of joining the land of the living.
She studied him for fifteen long seconds. Head tilted to one side, lips pursed in concentration. Suddenly, her face brightened and she waved a hand through the air. “Never mind, you don’t have to answer. After all, who am I to question crazy decisions?” She pulled at the skirt of her wedding dress, the pristine white ruined by smudges of dirt and a long ragged tear. “I climbed out of a church window and in less than twelve hours I’m shamelessly flirting with the first guy I happen across.”
“Life’s got an interesting sense of humor.” He was relaxing now that she’d decided to drop the subject.
A long, put-upon sigh. “Isn’t that the truth? Clearly, I’m being tested.”
Curious, he asked, “And are you passing?”
Another adorable pout. “I don’t think so.”
That mouth looked like she’d just eaten a bowl of strawberries and the juices had stained her lips. He wanted to bite her. Lick her to see if she tasted as sweet as she looked.
She got all squinty, another pretzel firmly in hand. “I’m drunk.”
Unfortunately. “I don’t doubt that.”
Her gaze caught his. Darted away. Her pink tongue flitted out to wet her full lower lip. It glistened like an invitation. “I’d leave, but I can’t walk. My feet hurt.”
“I wouldn’t let you go, anyway.” He was a little taken aback to find the words true. It had been a long time since he’d wanted anything, but he still recognized the spark of desire. He wanted her, and wasn’t ready for her to walk off into the sunset yet. The right or wrong of the situation didn’t much matter.
She swirled a finger over the edge of her ice water. “Do you think you could stop me?
He cocked a brow and gave her a once-over. “Considering the way you hobbled in here, I think I can take you.”
Dark lashes almost obscured the green of her irises as she squinted. “I’m supposed to be getting independent now.”
“I see,” he said, considering the guy she’d ditched at the altar for the first time. It took a lot to drive a woman out a church window with nothing but the clothes on her back. “Everyone needs a little rescue sometime.”
“You’re not one of those knight-in-shining-armor guys, are you?” She said the words as if they were foul.
“Not normally, but I’m making an exception for you.” He was surprised to find he wanted the role, despite her distain.
“I don’t want an exception.” Her tone had taken on a decided wail.
“Too bad.” Yep, he wasn’t budging on this one. She wanted to stand on her own two feet. He understood, but it only made him more determined.
“Because I want to.” It was that simple. Besides, she’d probably take off in the morning and he’d never see her again. One night to break the monotony wouldn’t hurt. Before she could respond, he turned and walked the length of the bar. Flipping open the counter, he rounded the corner, striding to stand in front of her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything chivalrous. Won’t you let me?”
Even white teeth nibbled on her bottom lip and he curled his hand into a fist to keep from stroking his thumb over the abused, moist flesh. Glassy, pensive eyes blinked up at him.
He stepped close enough to feel the warmth of her skin. “What kind of a man would I be if I left you stranded?”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” But her voice quivered, giving away her doubts.
The last thing he should do was touch her, but he did anyway, trailing a finger along the line of her jaw. “Come to my office. You can lie down on the couch and get off your feet. Give yourself some time to think about your options.”
She sucked in a shaky breath. “Are you going to take advantage of me?”
“Maybe later, after the whisky has worn off.” He brushed the veil away from her face, pushing the tulle from her shoulders. He wanted to rescue her, but had no intention of deluding her into thinking he was a saint.
“Now’s the time I’m supposed to say something proper, right? Like, ‘I’m sorry but I’m off to join the convent’?”
“That would be a waste.” He stroked over the curve of her shoulder.
She shivered under the tips of his fingers. “I was getting married today.”
And he really should care, but he didn’t. Not even a little bit. He leaned down so his mouth hovered next to her ear. “The dress gave you away.”
She pulled in a great lungful of air. “Are you trying to seduce me?”
“Nope.” He straightened and looked into those big, wide eyes. “Just making sure you’re clear my intentions aren’t one-hundred-percent honorable. Are you going to come with me?”
She scrutinized him for a full thirty seconds, then nodded so slightly that he couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined it until she hopped off the stool.
The second her feet hit the ground, her face contorted into a grimace. “Ouch!” She threw out her hands, using his body to catch herself as she swayed, giggling. The alcohol she’d consumed was surely rushing to her head. “I guess you were right about those shots.”
He slid his arms around her waist, wishing for skin instead of the scratchy beads. “I usually am.”
“Aren’t you modest?” Cheek resting against his chest, she sighed.
The sound was so content that it warmed some of the ice inside him. It had been a long time since a woman had rested against him, and Maddie Donovan felt particularly good.
Over her head, Sam caught his gaze, mouth quirked in a sardonic smirk.
Mitch ignored the smug bastard as she cuddled into his arms like a newborn kitten. Next to Mitch’s six-three height, she was tiny and delicate in his arms. The smell of honey and almonds wafting from her hair enveloped him. Absolutely delicious.
Nails tickled his back through the cotton of his T-shirt as she wound herself around him. “You feel awesome.” She must have put her earlier misgivings to rest.
Damn, he’d always been good at crafting a compelling argument. He smiled. “Do I need to carry you?”
“You have no idea how much I want to say yes.” She pulled away, standing straight. Mitch wanted to snatch her back, but resisted when she squared her small shoulders. “But I’ve already pissed off the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost today. It might be best not to push my luck.”
A deep rumble of laughter shook his chest. With one finger, he tilted her chin. “Let me guess, you’re Catholic?”
Her expression went wide. “Hey, how’d you know?”
She had no clue how irresistible she was. He tucked a lock of auburn hair behind her ear. “Just a wild stab in the dark, Princess.”
The whisky and Mitch’s intoxicating scent made Maddie’s head spin.
She placed a hand on her forehead, closing her eyes for a moment and hoping to get her bearings. What was she doing alone in some decrepit back office with a man she hardly knew? Obviously, her sanity had escaped with her out the church window and run off in another direction.
The right thing would have been to say, “No, absolutely not.” The proper thing would have been to call a cab, thank him for his hospitality and excellent flirting, and be on her way. She would have done all those things, too, except his big, capable hands had stroked over her skin and she’d forgotten about anything other than how strong and safe he felt. When those burnished-gold eyes peered into hers, warming her, hell had simply seemed worth it.
She shifted, trying to find a comfortable spot on the lumpy tan couch. The office décor was a messy mishmash of thrown-together thrift-store rejects, and the uncomfortable sofa fit right in. She squirmed, settling when she finally found a spot without a spring gouging her backside. She folded her hands in her lap.
Was she really doing anything wrong? She was resting. That was all.
It wasn’t like she’d agreed to hot, dirty sex.
Mitch moved, drawing her attention. In the yellow glow of a lamp that looked as though it had been taken from a Dumpster, she watched him as he arranged heaps of the wedding dress, which was overflowing into every inch of available space.
When he’d first confessed his former profession and Ivy League education, she’d been shocked. After all, how could she have guessed when he looked like some rogue golden god crossed with a Hell’s Angel? But now, watching him unobserved, she saw hints of his past in his strong features, caught a glimpse in the hard set of his jaw.
Since investigating the mystery of Mitch was far more intriguing than delving into the motives that had made her climb out a church window, she asked, “What kind of lawyer were you?”
His expression flickered, and Maddie didn’t miss the whitening of knuckles on the fistful of satin he held. The lines around his mouth tightened before his lips curled into a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I was a criminal defense lawyer.”
Yes, she had no problem picturing him in front of a jury. He had the powerful presence, intensity, and charm to command a courtroom. Treading lightly, she said in an easy tone, “That must have been exciting.”
With the skirts of her dress still clutched in his grip, he shrugged. “I defended rich, powerful assholes and sent them back into society. There wasn’t anything exciting about it.”
Rich, powerful clients tended to produce rich, powerful attorneys, and a million questions sprang to mind. As curious as she was, his past was plainly a bitter subject, and Maddie decided to drop it. It wasn’t any of her business. Besides, if she pressed, he might press back, and the last thing she wanted was to explain what she didn’t herself understand. She nodded at the dress. “It’s awful, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, almost absently. Then his gaze flicked to her. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be, I hate it. If I had anything else to wear, I’d burn it.”
Confusion replaced the tension in his features as the white fabric fell from his now relaxed grip. “If you hate it, then why did you pick it?”
The day in the bridal shop came back to her with a fresh stab of resentment that surprised her. She’d stood on a round platform, head over heels in love with a white satin slip dress that slid deliciously over her body. Her best friends, Penelope and Sophie, had gushed excitedly behind her. It had been “the one.” Captivated by her image, she’d been sold. Then she’d glanced in the mirror. There’d been disapproval on the faces of her mom and Steve, and all her excitement deflated. She’d stepped off the platform and quietly gone back to the dressing room, resigned to pick their favorite. In the end, there’d been no other choice. She’d owed them too much to disappoint them.
Throat clogging, she shook away the memory. She was in the dangerous limbo phase of her buzz, where emotions threatened to rise and take over. She wouldn’t think about that anymore. Besides, it didn’t matter now.
She plastered a smile on her face and waved a hand at Mitch. “Haven’t you heard? Brides are crazy.”
His eyes narrowed, and the set of his jaw made it clear he didn’t buy her dismissal. “Want to talk about it?”
“Nope.” She looked over his shoulder, away from him. It was odd. She’d been praying for someone to notice her distress, to see her, but as Mitch Riley watched her with those intense, knowing eyes, she wished she could curl into a ball and disappear.
If only she could strip off this stupid dress, stand under a hot shower, and scrub this day away. She blew out an exasperated breath. “God, you have no idea how much I want out of this torture device. You don’t happen to have a spare set of women’s clothes lying around, do you?”
“Sorry, Princess, you’re out of luck.” He pushed aside a heap of fabric and helped himself to a seat on the couch next to her knees.
She pressed her legs against the cushions and tried not to think about how good those hard muscles felt against hers. Wanting to recapture the light flirtation in the bar and to forget about the past weighing her down, she said, “I thought guys like you stripped enough women out of their clothes that they would have left a few stragglers behind.”
His expression transformed from thoughtful to heated as he ran his fingers over the back of her hand. “I don’t bring women in here. And I don’t bring them home. But I’m making another exception for you.”
Throat drying up like a desert, she swallowed hard. For the past hour, she’d reminded herself—almost pathologically—that she had been supposed to get married today. But the normal strategies she employed to stay responsible and good kept short-circuiting in her brain. Fizzling out before she could muster any real moral fiber.
She wished she could blame the shots. Or that he was irresistibly gorgeous, with a body designed for sin. Or even something noble, like his quick wit and intelligence.
But she couldn’t blame any of those things.
It was the way he looked at her, like he really saw her.
She drew her hand back before his touch hypnotized her. “I should go to a hotel.”
His gaze dropped to her lips for a moment. Darkened. “Do you have any money?”
Only the change from the fifty tucked in her purse: not nearly enough. Too bad she was drunk enough to be dumb, but not enough to be stupid. She shook her head.
“Where do you plan on sleeping?” His voice had deepened to match the sudden heat in the small room, and thickness coated the air.
Powerful thighs pressed close enough for her to feel his hard muscles beneath the jeans he wore. Her breath did a little stutter. Was this seduction? The better question was, did she want to find out?
She clasped her hands and attempted to concentrate through her alcoholic haze. She had no money, no clothes, and no car. What options did she have?
The smart, safe, and obvious choice was to call her oldest brother. Once Shane found out where she was, she’d be rescued by the time she hung up the phone. One call and she’d be tucked into her childhood bed before the break of dawn. The thought made her want to heave up her shots.
No. Not an option.
The dangerous choice sat right next to her, watching her with a focus that made her want to squirm. It would be so easy to take what he offered, but really, wasn’t that another rescue?
Was that so bad?
It saved her from crawling back to her family, proving she couldn’t even last one night on her own. Rescue, along with getting drunk, had been her only thought as she’d walked through the night, following the red BAR sign like it was the North Star.
So why couldn’t she stomach the thought now?
She breathed out a long sigh that felt like it came from the tips of her toes. That left one other option. She raised her chin. “I’ll call a cab and go to my car. I’ll sleep there for the night and figure out what to do in the light of day.”
He’d started shaking his head about halfway through her proclamation and hadn’t stopped. “Do you honestly think I’m going to let you sleep in a car abandoned in some ditch on the side of the highway?”
She scowled, hackles rising. “There’s no letting me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” I think. No, screw that. I know.
“Hey,” he said, voice soft. He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and, when she tried to yank away, held tight. “I know you can. You’ve already proven yourself.”
Her frown deepening, she cast a suspicious glance in his direction. She was stuck in the middle of nowhere with no resources. Any idiot could see that. “I’ve proven nothing other than I can land myself in a huge mess.”
One brow rose. “Oh? How long did you walk tonight? By yourself, in the dark?”
“I didn’t have a choice, and I don’t have a choice now.”
“There are always choices, Maddie. Don’t forget, you made a hell of a big one today.”
“That doesn’t count,” she said, voice rising. Temper, temper, Maddie. She shook the voice away. “I know my options, and I’m going back to my car.”
He studied her. Summing her up like the lawyer he used to be. “I don’t want to ask, but I’m going to anyway. Why don’t you want to call your family?”
“Because I don’t want to.” The words shot out of her mouth, surprising her with their force.
“What about friends?”
Penelope and Sophie would walk through fire for her, but they weren’t an option, at least not tonight. “They’re probably at my mom’s house, consoling my family.”
He scrubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw. “Won’t they be worried?”
“I’m sure they are,” she said. Her voice had taken on an edge that she hoped would pass for determined, but she feared that it bordered on petulance. “But I’m not calling them. I wrote a note and stole my own car from the parking lot, so it’s not like they’ll think I’ve been kidnapped.”
“What did you do, hotwire the thing?” Amusement was plain in the deep tone of his voice.
“If you must know, I have three extremely overprotective older brothers, a worrywart mother, and a . . .” She paused, trying out the words in her mind and deciding she wanted to own them. “. . . suffocating ex-fiancé. They insisted I have one of those industrial-strength, military-grade, combination-lock hideaway keys. My uncle brought my car to the church because his was in the shop. So really, it’s their fault this happened.”
That was the moment she’d known she was going to run.
Surrounded by the smell of gardenias that made her want to gag, she’d pushed her bridesmaids out the door, begging for a few minutes of peace and quiet. She’d gone over to the window, desperate for the smell of fresh air, and there sat her little Honda. The cherry red of the car had glowed in the sun like a gift from heaven. A sudden, almost reverent calm descended on her. It had felt like peace: a feeling so foreign to her that it had taken a moment to recognize it.
Mitch laughed, pulling her away from those last minutes in the church and back to the temptation sitting next to her.
“Princess, you really are something,” he said, still chuckling. “Okay, back to your current options. Tomorrow, you’re going to be in the same situation you are tonight. So how will sleeping in your car help?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’m not calling them.” Every time she said the words, her conviction became stronger, and that damn knot in her chest loosened.
He shifted on the couch, his grip loosening. “Did something bad happen? I mean, other than climbing out the window?”
“No. What do you mean?” This conversation was making her head hurt and ruining a very fine buzz. She wanted to be back out front, where teasing flirtation ruled the day.
He shrugged, his thumb stroking over the fine bones of her wrist. “I don’t know, I thought maybe you caught the groom with a bridesmaid or something.”
“I only wish,” she blurted, then froze. What was she saying? She wished Steve had cheated on her? She cleared her throat. “Wait. That didn’t sound right. I only meant I don’t have a good excuse.”
“You had the best excuse, Maddie.” Sympathy warmed his eyes, and she wanted the charming, dangerous rogue back. Danger was better than this . . . this . . . concern.
“I don’t want to talk about this.” Her words snapped through the air like a whip. “I’m not calling.”
“All right,” he said, gentle tone matching the light brush of fingers against the flesh of her inner wrist. “I only asked to make sure nothing traumatic happened.” A slow smile slid over his lips. “Since I don’t want anything getting in the way when I make my move.”
“Oh,” she said, dumbly. “I thought you wanted to rescue me.”
He laughed, and some of her agitation drained away. “And why do you think I want to do that? Out of the goodness of my heart?”
“Well, yes.” The tension twisting in her belly eased with every passing second.
“No. Not even close.” He raised their joined hands. Turning her palm over, he pressed a kiss to the center, his tongue flicking briefly over the sensitive skin. That tiny lick spread everywhere, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes and all the wanton places in between. No other man had touched her like this, and she didn’t know if she wanted to run screaming from the room or lunge for him.
With her mind a complete blank, she could only stare at him like a deer caught in headlights.
“I can see you’re a woman who appreciates the bottom line, so I’ll put this in the clearest terms possible. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending I don’t want to take you home and lick you until you scream, because I absolutely do. But I have no intention of taking advantage of you while you’ve been drinking, so you’re safe tonight. I want you conscious, level–headed, and willing when we go down that road.”
Maddie licked dry lips, her breath hitching a little as he described such a sexual act in such a blasé manner.
Another swipe of his thumb along the pulse pounding in her wrist. “I want you to come home with me because I find you fascinating and want to understand what’s going on in that good-girl, Catholic brain of yours. I want you to come home with me because I’ve laughed more in the last hour then I have in a long time. And I want you to come home with me because I don’t think I can let you out of my sight, which means if you sleep in a car, I’ll be sleeping there too. I’m thirty-four, way too old to sleep twisted like a pretzel all night.”
He let go of her wrist. She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head and the words died on her lips. “The truth is, Maddie, I need you to rescue me.”
Take A Chance on Me
Series: Something New #1
Published by Kensingotn
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Average rating on Goodreads: 3.75 stars
Number of Reviews: 112 (on Goodreads)Order: Amazon |Barnes & Noble |Kobo |iTunes |Google Play
Gorgeous runaway brides. . .
When Maddie Donovan runs out on her high school sweetheart moments before walking down the aisle, she ends up at a bar in the small town of Revival, Illinois, with only the wedding dress on her back, fifty dollars to her name, and her "good girl" reputation in tatters. Not ready to return to Chicago and face the music, she accepts hot bartender Mitch Riley's offer to stay at his place. But sharing such close quarters is driving Maddie insane with desire.
Always drink for free. . .
Mitch thinks he's seen it all—until Maddie strides into his bar in full wedding attire and downs three shots of whiskey. Though the gorgeous knockout seems tough as nails, he also senses her vulnerability. With a troubled past of his own, Mitch has no interest in ties of any kind—yet he can't help falling for Maddie. Now he's got to find a way to convince her to give love a second chance.
I hope you enjoyed these first few chapters of TAKE A CHANCE ON ME,