Authors: Louisa George
‘No. What if they don’t?’
‘It’ll be fine—trust me.’
‘That’s exactly what I do not intend to do.’ Her eyes narrowed and she looked back over her shoulder at Lizzie and Callum, who seemed to be managing perfectly well.
Still, given her history, she had every right to be unsure. ‘Just one dance, Cassie, and we can come back straight away. Let loose.’
She snorted. ‘Really? From you? Since when did you become Mr Laid-back?’
‘I’m trying hard to relax. If that isn’t an oxymoron. Give a guy a chance.’
She pulled away. ‘You’ve already had them. And blown them.’
‘I’m fully aware of that. More fool me.’
For someone who usually calculated every move before he made it, he was fumbling around, surprised at how much it mattered that she understood he was out of his depth, that he had no clue what the hell was happening but that he was doing it anyway.
And for a man who prided himself on absolute control, that was all kinds of confusing. He was surprised too, at how much it mattered not to dance with her, but she was angry at him for rejecting her and she had every right to be, but he felt it, deep in his core.
It mattered. She mattered. This woman, who had been prepared to run this hectic, crazy stall on her own because she couldn’t trust anyone else to help her. Who had kept whatever disappointment she’d felt as he’d walked away locked inside her. And yeah, so she’d given him the crappy jobs but she hadn’t railed at him. She had just focused on the one thing that mattered more than anything to her—surviving the nightmare of impending financial ruin. She could trust his sister a little. Maybe she could trust him just a little bit more—he’d seen it once there in her eyes. A softening. But that had been days ago and she’d hardened herself against him again now, he was sure.
But, just like after the first kiss, and the second, he was struggling to maintain any kind of line here. ‘Dance with a friend, then? A client that you need to impress? Someone who you have met a couple of times...
. And, Cassie, I am not going to pretend they didn’t happen, but they don’t have to define what happens next, or our reaction to them. Nothing does.’ He took her hand again. ‘Come on, just look at everyone having a good time. You deserve a bit of that. Right? Think how hard you’ve worked; you can’t watch this all go by.’
‘Sure I can.’
‘Dammit, woman.’ He wrapped his arms round her waist and undid the apron ties.
Her hand grabbed his fist. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Undressing you. And nowhere near as much as I’d like to. Now shut up.’ Throwing the apron to Lizzie, he prepared himself for a fight, slipped his hands under Cassie’s knees and picked her up. Walked her to the centre of the road, ignoring her protests. ‘You are going to dance.’
‘My, my, you can be very bossy. I think I might have to demote you. Teach you a lesson or two.’ Her gaze moved from his eyes down to his mouth and stayed there a second. The air around them stilled, the music going out of focus. His heart pounded against his ribcage. One more kiss. One more kiss would be the beginning of something. What, he didn’t know. But there was that line again and he was teetering on the edge of crossing it.
Her eyes fluttered closed and he caught sight of sparkling silver-blue eyeshadow, thick lashes. Tiny worry lines. A face so beautiful, so etched on his brain that it made his heart contract. For a second he thought she was going to lean in and place her mouth against his.
Instead, she laughed, her eyes bright and glittering. ‘Okay, let’s dance. Seems I have very little say in the matter.’
* * *
It was just a dance. In the sunshine. With a zillion other people around. So it didn’t mean a thing.
Neither did the long, slow caress of her body against his as he gently put her down on the ground. The hardness of his body as her bottom slid over him.
Or the tingle through her nerve endings as he spooned behind her, heat against heat, skin on skin to grind down the road. There was something irresistible about a take-control man. Especially knowing how hard he was fighting this attraction and failing. She’d made him pay his penance for walking away and it made her feel excited to know that he had done that to protect them both from something he felt was out of his control. She just didn’t know how to handle it. Because ignoring it wasn’t working; it was too big for them both—an attraction, a connection that they couldn’t pretend wasn’t there. A phoenix rising, strong and doubly potent. Even when her head told her to stay away from him, her body craved him.
He pulled her close as they edged down the road, following a slow-moving truck with blaring music. All around them people writhed against each other in time with the beat that had attached to her heart and was pumping loud and fast.
‘Just as far as the Tube station, then I’ll go back to the stall.’ Main thing was to keep an eye on her money, not on his backside dressed in faded jeans. Or that T-shirt-clad chest that her hands itched to touch.
‘Whatever you want, Cassie.’
She didn’t know what she wanted—apart from him. On her lips, in her bed. Inside her. Just thinking about that made her abdomen contract in waves of want. And still the boom-boom steady rhythm vibrated around them, her breathing ragged with exertion, her arms swinging in the air in time to the music, his hands stroking down her inner arm, her outer thigh, her hip. ‘This is so not old man’s dancing.’
His mouth was so near her ear. Kissing distance. ‘If any old man started doing this to you I’d punch him out.’
‘My hero.’ She pretended to swoon.
‘If the badge fits.’ His head tipped back and he laughed, a real deep laugh that came from his belly. It was amazing, really, to see him so free from the constraints he put on himself. The control. The edges he made for himself. When this...this was nothing short of beautiful.
The truck came to an abrupt halt and so did they, clashing against each other. Jack slammed up to her. ‘Whoa. Got carried away there—sorry.’
‘Don’t be.’ And all she was aware of was this conflicted man who gazed at her with possession in his eyes. Her arms curled round his neck and he didn’t protest and neither did that tiny voice of doom in the back of her head. Because they both knew it was the atmosphere and the music that was making her feel fresh and fun. Oh, and possibly Lizzie’s wicked margaritas. And being so close to him.
She knew his boundaries, that he didn’t want more, couldn’t commit. And hadn’t she already promised herself that there would be no more from her? But fun wasn’t off the menu, not after a hard day’s work. In days gone by she’d have played happily without any thought for tomorrow. Maybe she could do it again.
Today was Carnival. Party time. She looked around at all the people in their fancy dress, laughing and smiling, shrugging off the drudgery of everyday life. Everyone wanted just a little bit of fantasy for a day or two. Come Tuesday morning, there would be responsibility enough. It had been too long since she’d had any fantasy for herself. ‘Any time you want to body slam, I’m your girl.’
‘Cassie, there are plenty of things I’d like to do with your body.’ His arms slid around her waist as he pressed close to her.
Her heart tripped. ‘You want to tell me?’
‘I want to undress you. Slowly. Very slowly. And take my time getting to know every inch.’ His mouth was near her ear and she shivered against the hot breath on her neck. ‘But first I want to taste you again.’
Twisting her head round ever so slightly, she felt his lips on her skin. Twisting further, she found his mouth with hers. Then she was fisting his T-shirt in her fingers and pulling him to her. Blood pounded in her ears as a pulse throbbed in her groin. Low and hot and urgent.
His fingers meshed in her hair as he took her mouth in another breathless open-mouthed kiss that she didn’t want to end. The way he made her feel defied all logic, her earlier resistance just a fading memory.
As he opened his eyes the music came back into focus and she realised the truck had moved further down the street. But she didn’t want to move, not a single step, without this man holding her. She looked up into his face, a mixture of relaxed and sexual heat—a degree of frustration of the sexual nature.
His deep voice tripped mini explosions in her stomach. ‘Do you want to get out of here, Cass? Your place is closer.’
She knew exactly what he was asking, and that he couldn’t offer her more than a night, possibly the rest of the weekend. That afterwards he would walk away, uninvolved and probably unscathed.
God, for so much of her life she’d been the one who called the shots. Bossy little sister who got what she wanted. Spoilt teenager who twisted boys round her finger. Then she’d been burnt and all her buried insecurities had boiled over. This would be a chance to take control of this part of her life. To find that fun girl again, to play a little. Because all work and no play was making her feel very dull indeed.
His fingers smoothed down the back of her neck, over her shoulder, sending shock waves of want through her. ‘What do you say, Cassie?’
‘Yes. Yes.’ Her eyes never leaving his, she offered him a consenting smile and with that the tacit promise that this would be the uncomplicated deal they both wanted. ‘But what changed your mind?’
‘Look at you.’ He tipped her chin up and placed a kiss on her cheek. ‘You have to ask?’
Then his mouth was on hers again, taking her as if he had a thirst he couldn’t quench. And she gripped him, even now wondering what foolish idea this was. But dismissing it anyway, because there was no way she could resist that taste, that heat and that promise of more.
But first she had to deal with the rest of her food and clear away her stuff.
Turning to look back up Ladbroke Grove, she saw her stall, the banner bright and happily flickering in the breeze. But no customers, no servers. The parade had long since passed and stragglers wove their way down the road, discarded cups and paper littered the pavement. No sign of Lizzie and Callum. Or her money.
Now there was a more violent pounding in her ears. ‘Where are they? Where’s my cash? Jack? Can you see them?’
‘No. No, I can’t see them.’ He squinted into the sunshine. ‘But don’t worry, they won’t be far away.’
South America was the place of choice, apparently. The thump-thump-thump of her heart sinking in her stomach made her nauseous. Reason told her that he was right, but experience reminded her that not everyone had the same trusting heart that she did. ‘Why did I let you talk me into a dance? I knew...just knew—’
‘Hey, Cassie, please. That’s my sister you’re talking about. I’m sure they’ll be here. Wait—over there?’ He pointed across the road towards her van. Still no one familiar. ‘Maybe they’re packing up. Or something.’
‘Or something? Do you think they left the cash box there, out in the open?’ Running over to the stall, she searched underneath the counter. Between the empty boxes, on the floor. Her hard-earned money. Gone. Again. All because of another man. Images of those damned red numbers floated across her vision. She’d let her guard down too much. ‘Do you think someone’s taken it?’
‘Calm down, Cassie, stop overreacting. They’ll be here somewhere.’ He scanned the road and pointed at two figures sauntering towards them from the corner shop across the road. ‘See? Look, there they are.’
‘Thank God. Thank God.’ Air whooshed out of her lungs as she let relief spread through her. Because she couldn’t face losing any more. Not her money. Not the trust she was just starting to build. Not her heart.
She looked over at Jack, with his arm around his sister, waving the money box at her. His smile was rueful and not as bright as before. Her overreaction had hurt him, she was sure, and she immediately felt bad about jumping to conclusions about his sister. But, quite simply, she had to put herself and her business first.
As he neared, she remembered the feel of his fingers on her skin. The thrill of what they’d agreed. The joy of seeing that face spread into a smile. Something inside her swelled just a little more.
Seemed as if her heart was already a lost cause.
‘Tell me, Cassie,
what the hell just happened. Because there’s more here than you’re letting on.’ Jack was trying to be reasonable but knew his voice was just a little fraught, a little too loud. Okay, so Cassie was under pressure—he’d seen the bank statements for himself—but that didn’t mean she had carte blanche to accuse his family of some ridiculous crime.
That she hadn’t trusted Lizzie annoyed him. And put the promise of more hot kisses so far on the back burner the light had gone out.
Stacking the now cleaned boxes and cooking utensils into her tiny spare room, she put her palms up, her chest heaving with exertion and frustration. Her jaw tensed as her gaze hooked on his and didn’t budge. ‘Leave it, Jack. I overreacted and I’m sorry. I should know better than to behave like that. Your sister is lovely and she genuinely wanted to help. I feel bad that I doubted her.’
‘So explain it to me. I’m all ears.’
‘Oh, and this from the man who never quite manages to finish his sentences before clamming up or changing the subject. That kind of explaining?’
Typical—trying to change the focus away from her.
Right back at you, kid
. ‘This is important, Cassie. I get that you don’t trust me, but I hoped we knew each other better than that. She’s my sister. I’m your client—’
‘Thank you for reminding me exactly where that line is drawn. And thank you for helping me; we seem to be done here, so you can go.’ She walked him to the front door. But he would not leave while this hovered between them. He could find another caterer, but he doubted he’d find one as passionate as Cassie. Plus, spending time with her today had just about convinced him that she was organised enough to manage a wedding.
Had. Did he really want someone so untrusting to look after his sister’s needs? He didn’t know.
And this was nothing to do with the dancing, or the laughing or the kissing. Or the A to Z of emotions ricocheting across his chest.
Okay, so it was everything to do with that.
He could pretend he didn’t care but the truth was—and this was the real bummer of the situation—he did. Which was the very reason why he should take heed of her and go. ‘Absolutely no way. I am nowhere near finished. Not everyone is out to get you, you know. If you carry on with that attitude you’re not going to get far in your business. Or your personal life.’
‘Thanks for the heads-up. Must try harder—okey-dokey. I’ll add it to my very long to-do list.’ She looked as if she’d been stung. She looked exhausted, hurt, drawn. Her hand went to her cheek, her face reddening.
It wasn’t his intention to hurt her. But her steadfast reluctance to talk was irritating. He controlled his voice. ‘That’s not what I meant. You’re doing everything right for your business. Honestly, no one works harder than you. But why the need to do it all on your own? Why the lack of trust that anyone can do it with you or for you? Why not let people help if they can? Nate could hire you an assistant or even bail you out the cash you owe; it’d be a tiddly amount for him.’
‘You really don’t get it, do you?’ She let out a deep loud sigh and stomped through to the lounge, where she sat down heavily on the sofa, head in her hands. ‘Because I want this to work on my terms, not because my big sister organised it for me. Or because some man swoops in and tries to take over—believe me, I learnt a hard lesson there. Have you any idea how much it rankles to be babied? For no one to take you seriously?’
He knew how it felt when no one listened, if that counted for anything. ‘Tell me.’
She stared at the wall as a battle raged behind her eyes. ‘When my dad died they tried so hard to protect me, some kind of misdirected focus of grief, I think. They even stopped me from going to his funeral in case I got too upset. Can you imagine? Dumped me with the neighbour while they actually did something with their grief. I just had to swallow mine. I was his baby—something I always cherished.
, he used to call me when I cuddled up on his knee. He was everything to me. I adored him—he was big and brave and my total hero. I couldn’t work out what had happened when he died—only that he’d gone, and I missed him so much. But I wasn’t allowed any grief of my own.’ Her eyes glittered with tears but she blinked them away. ‘I never got to say goodbye.’
‘Oh, Cassie, I’m so sorry.’ To have someone you looked up to, who cared for you, ripped away and never have the chance to ask why or to say how you felt about it—like having a mouth gag, your voice muffled and unheard, no matter how much you tried to scream or shout. Yeah, he knew how that felt.
‘You don’t have to be sorry; it was a long time ago and they meant well, really. I understand that, but it got out of control.
Don’t let Cassie hear about any problems. Don’t let Cassie face any sadness. Let’s all pretend we’re living happy families.
And any discord was always out of my earshot. As a teenager, I came to relish all the positive attention, and then, over the years, grew frustrated by it. But, ever since, I’ve taken little responsibility, always knowing that if I failed I’d have someone to bail me out. I was a spoilt kid who didn’t take anything seriously until I finally worked out what I wanted to do with my life. Hence Sweet Treats. I want to prove to them that I’m capable of doing something substantial. Most of all, I want to prove it to myself. That I am substantial.’
‘Did it ever occur to you that they do this because they love you? Because they want to protect you?’ All he’d ever wanted was a family who’d stick by him. So he’d made his own with his sister. And he’d been as guilty as Cassie’s sisters, trying to ease the way for Lizzie in a genuine belief that he was doing the right thing. But even then he almost hadn’t managed to save her.
‘I know they do. Of course.’ She managed a soft smile. ‘We’re very close. It would hurt them deeply if they thought I was frustrated by them. So I need to show them, not tell them, that I’m a grown-up now. If Sasha had her way I’d be working every day for her charity, where she could keep an eye on me.’
‘Do they know about what happened with Patrick?’
‘No. And I don’t want them to know. I don’t want them to think they can charge in and rule my life again. Or give him the satisfaction of ever finding out how much he hurt me.’
‘What exactly did he do to you?’
She shook her head, her breathing becoming rapid as her forehead settled into a heavy frown. ‘He knew best, he said. How many times have I heard that in my life? Everyone always thinks they know best. He certainly knew a lot and made me think everything he did was for my own good. I believed him. I trusted him, because I had no reason not to. I’d never met anyone I couldn’t trust before. He helped me set Sweet Treats up and ran it for a year or so, which gave him ample time to steal all my money, plus some more from the bank. He organised an overdraft in my name—and with my signature, which I absolutely regret giving—and withdrew to the limit. Then disappeared. Gone.’
‘Bastard.’ Jack’s hands fisted involuntarily at the way she said it so matter-of-factly, but he didn’t miss the darkened eyes. She was trying to make light of it, to show she was moving on. Surviving it, more like, because he knew how much she was in arrears at the bank. ‘Can the police do nothing about it? What about the bank? Surely they want to recoup the costs?’
‘They’re trying to track him down but he’s left the country. Oh, and to add insult to injury, he’d been a policeman, once upon a time, so he knew exactly how to cover his tracks. Now I’m working out a way of paying the money back, plus trying to run the business to a profit. What makes me so angry is how little I allowed myself to see the real him, wanting to believe some kind of romantic fairy tale. I’m gutted that I was so trusting with my livelihood. I won’t be making that mistake again.’
But this was a woman whose father had been misled and betrayed too. Whose flaws had been splashed across the national newspapers and who had been accused of either blinkering himself or, worse, collaborating in a dreadful fraud that had affected so many people. If anything, Cassie was probably afraid to be compared to her father. She raised her palm up and shrugged. ‘What is it that makes people think they can treat me like that? Because, really, I have no idea. I am so sick of having no control. Am I so damned insubstantial?’
‘No way. You are one hell of a woman. Strong, ballsy and very, very beautiful.’ His gaze caught on to hers again and something unspoken tripped between them. The atmosphere in the room crackled with tension—an urgent sexual need mixed with the host of emotions hammering against his ribcage. Admiration at the woman who was trying so hard to be what she wanted to be. Anger that she’d been cheated out of her hard-earned money.
And lust, pure and raw, fizzing through his veins. He tried to focus on her eyes instead of the breasts that rose and fell with her impassioned talk. Or the legs peeking out from the short skirt he wanted to rip from her.
He stepped towards her, not knowing where this would take them, but not caring. He couldn’t think of living another moment without having her. Without feeling her sigh beneath him. He touched her cheek, her lips, fingertips smoothing over the soft skin. Then, without thinking at all, he pulled her from the sofa, crushed her to him, his lips meeting hers with a force that snatched his breath away. He could no more walk away from her than douse the feverish heat that had built inside him since the first second he’d laid eyes on her.
She tasted of margaritas and sunshine, of fire and ice, of passion and heat. His hands skimmed her body that softened against him, the promises they’d made earlier reaffirming themselves in the press of her breasts against his chest and the tight moan in her throat. Her hands roved over his back, gripping his shoulders as the kiss deepened, taking them from warmth to bright heat, from promises to a pledge.
Finally, she pulled away, breathless, her lips swollen from the kiss, her hand travelling down his shirt. ‘So, hey, Mr, I’m rebuilding and taking control of my life. Be very careful because from now on I get to call the shots.’
And that sounded very interesting indeed. ‘Hey, control is my MO. Should I be scared? Or excited?’
‘Both.’ She grinned, took hold of his hand and led him into her bedroom.
* * *
As she closed the door and leaned back against it, Cassie tried to steady her erratic breathing and the sharp burst of sexual anticipation that seemed to render her incapable of moving any further. She looked up into those dark brown eyes, almost liquid with heat and desire, and her body responded, not with the confidence of the words she’d just said, but with a fierce trembling that made her feel weak and strong at the same time. Her heart thumped and danced.
Jack wasn’t a man who would easily relinquish control. He grabbed one of her hands and held it above her head against the door, dominating the space, his muscles bunched and rippling. His other arm lifted and she was trapped beneath him, penned in between the cold wooden door and his body. His smell bewitching her—all she could see, all she could hear, all she could breathe... ‘Jack—’
She wanted to tell him that she knew this was for only one night. That she understood. That she would be fine. That she didn’t want anything from him except pure physical satisfaction because that was all either of them could give.
But she couldn’t find any more words. Just one.
‘Jack.’ It was enough. It was too much. ‘Jack—’
‘Shh.’ He smothered her words with his mouth, nipping and biting her bottom lip until she was incapable of thinking of anything except him. His heartbeat against hers. His lips against hers. His skin against hers. His body pressed against her and she rocked against his thigh, desperate to feed the ache in her core. She was ready for him. Wanted him. Her breasts grazed against his shirt, nipples pebbling with an exquisite sensitivity.
One hand dropped to her skirt and his fingers found their way across her inner thigh to her hot damp centre and she gasped with pure delight as he pulled aside her panties and stroked her nub. She lifted one leg around his thigh, her body flushed with more heat and more and then his fingers were sliding inside her and her brain short-circuited. His mouth now exploring her neck, kissing and sucking until pure sensation after sensation rolled through her and she called his name again and again with increasing urgency.
He stroked her hair as she gave in, as she shattered into pieces, bucking against his hand, not wanting him to stop, wanting him inside her. Wanting him. ‘God, you are amazing.’
Struggling for breath, she laid her head against his chest, pressing kisses amongst the light smattering of golden hair. ‘Whoa. That was...unexpected.’
‘See what happens when I call the shots?’ His heart was still racing against her ear.
‘And you will pay for your insubordination.’ She lifted her head and gently bit down on his bottom lip, saw the flare of unbridled lust in his eyes.
He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, looking for blood. He didn’t find any. ‘Yeah? We’ll see about that.’
When his arms caught under her legs and he picked her up and carried her to the bed she let him lay her down. He climbed alongside her and when he kissed her again and again with a tenderness that almost made her bones melt she forgot about who was supposed to be in charge. It was an equal need. An equal fever. Giving and taking. As the kisses intensified she matched his heat with her own, her tongue meeting his in an age-old dance that stoked the long slow burn in her belly.
His fingers trailed over her T-shirt, tracing tiny circles over erect nipples that strained for his touch. For his tongue.
When he finally reached behind her and unclasped her bra she could barely breathe with the anticipation. With a smile, he pushed off her T-shirt, let the bra fall to the floor and then his mouth was on her breast, his tongue lapping tiny strokes that lit fireworks in her gut and made her moan with exquisite pleasure.
She tugged at his shirt, tried to pull it over his head, wanting him naked, wanting to see the body she’d felt under her fingertips.
‘Wait.’ His hand covered hers, his voice back in take-charge mode. ‘Cassandra, we’ve got all night. Slowly. Slowly.’