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Two Years Earlier
March 17, 7:00 p.m.
Breathless and shivering beneath the cold lash of rain, Katherine Chabeau hovered outside the entrance to Delany's Pub.
She'd left her coat behind when she'd fled the hospital, never imagining her car would wheeze to death and leave her stranded. The auto club wouldn't be available for over an hour. And Lord knew, nobody in her family would come to her rescue.
An Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. What could be warmer? Safer? More abominably cheerful? Kate shuddered. She wasn't a party girl under the best circumstances, and today had taken the prize as the worst day ever. However, she couldn't sit in her dark car in the storm and wait to turn into a human Popsicle.
Over the past year, she'd turned pro at lowering her expectations. She only wanted a steaming cup of cocoa with whipped cream. It was a start.
She attempted to tug open the heavy door before she remembered and switched hands. How long before that became automatic? Heated air, chatter and lively music cannoned into her. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Suddenly reluctant, she hesitated. Time ground to a halt for a weird, intense moment...as if Fate were holding her breath.
Kate squared her shoulders. Get a grip. She was simply walking into a pub. So why did her stomach roll as if she were making a life-or-death decision as she stepped inside?
Jostled by the roiling sea of green-clad revelers, she finally spotted a hallway leading to the restrooms. She pushed inside the door marked Lassies, and then glanced in the mirror. Blech. She looked as hideous as she felt.
A random act of violence hadstolen her career, incinerated her dreams. Then her fiancé had betrayed her. After the first hit six months ago, she had anticipated tonight's blow. Braced herself to take it on the chin and keep on keeping on. She'd been prepared to kiss her past goodbye.
But not her future.
No matter how badly her throat ached to release the grinding pressure, she would not cry. Kate raised her chin. When the tough got sucker punched, they climbed right back into the ring. She grimaced. She looked like she'd gone nine rounds with Rocky. Her specter-pale face was devoid of makeup except for streaky mascara rimming her brown eyes, dark and flat with shock. Her shoulder-length brown hair hung in ropy hanks, and rain splotched her white silk blouse and black wool skirt. Her stockings were soaked, her black Kate Spade pumps--her reward to herself after a grueling stretch of physical therapy--beyond salvation. She shivered, and goose bumps pimpled her damp skin.
After liberal use of paper towels and the hand dryer, she dared another mirror check. Still more Halloween than St. Patrick's Day. And she was shaking, cold to the bone. Kate rubbed her hands over her arms. She might never be warm again.
Inside the pub, she found an empty bar stool in the corner. When she asked for hot chocolate, the bartender offered an Irish chocolate, with a wee dash of whiskey to warm her insides.
Exactly what the doctor ordered. And a heck of a lot better than hemlock. The promise of whipped cream on top sealed the deal. She ordered two. After all, she wouldn't be driving.
She turned her back on the din and huddled over her drinks. The chocolate was excellent, but it didn't alleviate the cold, or fill the emptiness. Why did being in a crowd always make her feel so much lonelier?
"It should be a felony for such a beautiful lady to look so sad." The husky male baritone speaking behind her was richer and more intoxicating than the whiskey-laced chocolate.
Kate glowered into her mug. She wouldn't fall for that load of gilded blarney on her best day, but especially not when she looked like roadkill. She swiveled. "I'll bet you reel them in by the bucketful with--" She strangled on her retort as she got a glimpse of the speaker.
Gorgeous Hunk Alert. Capital G, capital H.
Charcoal dress slacks and a pearl-gray shirt hugged the guy's big body like they'd been tailor-made to showcase hard, sinewy muscles. Wavy black hair framed his sculpted features. Defined cheekbones complemented a well-shaped masculine nose and strong chin. And, oh, his mouth! Full lips so sexy and kissable, she couldn't help licking her own in response.
He wasn't wearing green. He didn't need to. Eyes as clear and brilliant as emeralds--warm, intelligent eyes fringed by smoky black lashes--sparkled down at her.
She had stared in awe at faces like his gracing marble statues in the vast, echoing galleries of the Louvre.
Over six feet of perfect male magnificence.
Her muse hummed with pleasure, and her fingers clenched with the urge to snatch up a paintbrush. Pain shot up her arm, and loss swamped her. She swallowed a bitter surge of grief. She could never paint again. "G-go away. I'm not after a pickup."
His eyes darkened with concern. "Neither am I. You looked like you could use a friend."
No, he probably thought she looked desperate enough to fall into his brawny arms. "I have enough friends." Mr. Magnificent didn't need to know she'd stopped answering the phone and socializing over the past year. Like she needed more pitying gazes and awkward platitudes. She'd rather drive a clown car for the circus.
He nodded. "Can I call one of them for you?"
Was he for real? "No, thanks."
"Liam O'Rourke." He held out a long-fingered hand. "I'm at loose ends, myself. My partner, Murphy, is in the hospital."
She should've known. Gorgeous. Gallant. Gracious. Gay. Her shields lowered. She kept her right hand loosely curled around her mug and nodded hello. Nothing personal. She couldn't shake hands with anyone these days. "I didn't realize you were...sorry I was snippy. I'm having kind of a bad--" Decade. "Night."
"No problem. I like a woman with spark." A smile slid across his beautiful mouth, and the room tipped on its axis.
Hello! What was that? Even if he wasn't gay, she did not need more anguish. "I thought you were feeding me a line."
His smile widened into a playful grin. "Nah. Or I'd have said, "Help me find my lost kitten. It wandered into the cheap motel across the street."
Laughter bubbled out, surprising her. She'd thought her laughter long dead. "I'm Kate."
He cocked his head. "Kate...?"
The impulse to ditch Katherine Chabeau's predicament struck her. She'd borrow a strategy from a favorite book and think about it tomorrow. Grab the chance to be fun and flirty Scarlett instead of dependable-as-dishwater Melanie. "Just Kate."
"Just Kate." He savored her name on his tongue like melted chocolate, and warmth prickled over her skin. "You don't need rescuing, then. Damn, and I wanted my damsel in distress medal."
She'd stopped shaking the moment she'd seen him. Mr. Magnificent was a major distraction. "Sorry, I know the upkeep on white chargers is a killer."
"Worse, the claymore is hell on tailored suits." The couple beside her moved to the dance floor, leaving empty seats. Rather than assuming he was welcome, Liam looked at her, his twinkling gaze silently asking permission.
She inclined her head. "Rack your broadsword and sit down."
"You know your armory, Just Kate." Chuckling, he slid onto the stool, a fluid portrait of strength and agility. Yowza.
"I minored in medieval history at Western."
He arched a wicked, glossy brow. "Me too, at U of O."
The bartender greeted Liam warmly and remarked with concern on his and Murphy's brush with the Grim Reaper. Liam exchanged pleasantries with him and ordered an Irish coffee.
Reassured that the bartender obviously knew Liam well, she sipped her chocolate. "A close encounter with the Grim Reaper sounds serious. I hope your partner will be all right."
"The prognosis is good." His Adam's apple jerked, the only indication of the distress beneath his even tone. "He's under sedation. The doc wouldn't let me stay in his room, so my family dragged me here." He pointed out his vivacious, redheaded mother and three tall, dark and buff brothers, who smiled and waved in response. Holy crow. Women probably lined up for blocks to paddle in that gene pool. "They said the diversion would help."
"They're right." She'd spent far too much time in hospitals lately, and had firsthand experience with the strain.
His full lips quirked. "Not until five minutes ago."
He was being polite. Casual conversation with a drowned rat wasn't that appealing. "Have you and Murphy been together long?"
"Almost three years." He took a swig of his Irish coffee.
She hesitated, not wanting to offend. "Did the hospital bar you because of his condition, or are they stuck on legalities?" His brows lowered, and she rushed in. "If he's at Mercy, I know a lot of the staff, and I could pull some strings--"
He choked on his coffee. "Hellfire!" Resonant laughter rumbled out. "If my brothers get wind of this, I will never live it down."
"I don't understand. I thought your family was supportive." His exquisite mouth tilted in a grin. "You've obviously never been here before, Just Kate. This is a cop bar. Murphy and I are police officers. All the O'Rourke boys are SWAT cops."
Partners, not partners. "Oh! Yikes!" She shifted, not nearly as comfortable. At least he was amused. A less secure guy would be furious over her assumption. "What...ah...what happened to him?"
His grin faded. "He took a bullet for me today."
"How awful! That has to be hard to deal with."
He scrubbed his hand over his face. "I'm not sure I can work without him. It's like losing my right arm."
Kate bit the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted blood, but the retort escaped anyway. "I know all about that."
Liam frowned. "You've lost someone close?"
"In a way." Darn it, why was this so awkward? She should be used to it. After today, she'd have to get used to it. She shoved down anguish and waved her maimed right arm in feigned nonchalance. Red jagged scars and twisted, useless muscles were partially disguised by bangle bracelets. "Old football injury."
She stared into her mug, braced for camouflaged disgust, mumbled excuses, a speedy escape. Nice knowing you, gorgeous.
"Kate." Hmm. Still here? She warily glanced up. Compassion glinted in his eyes, but no pity...or distaste. "Forgive me," he murmured. "I didn't realize. I wasn't being flip."
She geared out of defensive mode. "I know, it's okay. I'm used to it." She'd fended off comments from none-of-your-business nosy to breathtakingly cruel. After today, she'd better toughen up, fast. Jaw set, she awaited his questions. Steeled herself to recite the painful account of a vicious dog attack.
Instead, his bone-melting smile flashed. "Dance with me, Just Kate."
"I...don't dance well." Since her injury, she'd become clumsy, as if her disability had thrown her entire body off balance. But she'd never been able to dance. She couldn't loosen up and find the rhythm. And she hated being a public spectacle.
Liam gestured at the gyrating couples on the dance floor. Several had obviously imbibed the green beer a tad too freely. He stood, his long, lithe body relaxed and confident. "That's not stopping anyone else."
It was only a dance. So why did she get the same eerie tingle as when she'd stepped over the threshold and into the pub? As if she were making a life-altering choice.
It wasn't fear. No creepazoid vibes emanated from him, and serial killers didn't travel with cop brothers and mom.
The DJ had been playing Irish bands all night, and the music segued into U2's "With or Without You."
"C'mon." Liam winked at her. "I won't lead you anywhere you don't want to go."
What did she have to lose, except her questionable dignity? "Don't blame me if you end up in the hospital alongside Murphy."
"Gamble is my middle name."
"Your mother must be clairvoyant," she shot over her shoulder as he steered her onto the crowded dance floor.
"More like wishful thinking." Laughing, he faced her. "It's actually Michael. She and Pop gave us all 'saintly' middle names." He sobered. "Is it okay if I hold your hand to lead?"
Nobody had touched her hand in over a year except medical personnel. Nobody had wanted to. "Y-yes."
He offered his palm...and waited.
She stared at his palm, battling panic. He wouldn't ask if he didn't mean it. Wouldn't offer, then yank away in revulsion.
"Trust me," his husky voice admonished. She looked up into his tender gaze, and he gave her a reassuring smile. "I won't hurt you." His somber tone infused the words with deeper meaning, as if he were making a sacred vow.
She'd experienced the worst of betrayals by people who'd professed to love her. She should be beyond trust. Yet, she was willing to trust him. Why? Her movements jerky, she laid her hand in his. His warm fingers gently enclosed her scarred, stiff ones. For so long, there had been only numbness. Or terrible pain. But the instant they touched, all the tiny nerve endings in her hand shimmered with pleasure, and her breath caught.
Before she could recover from the jolt, he cradled her hand against his shoulder. His right arm slid around her waist, and his broad palm nestled against the small of her back and tucked her close to his powerful body.
He began to sway, and she tripped and stepped on his foot. He smiled at her. "Follow the tempo inside you, not the music."
Her cheeks flamed, and she ducked her head. "My tempo can't carry a tune in a bushel basket."
"Relax, sweetheart." He drew her close again. "It's a dance, not nuclear disarmament."
She chuckled, and it was suddenly easy to melt into his embrace. She rested her cheek on his chest, where his heart beat strong and steady. He was so warm, yet he smelled as fresh as a winter rainstorm.
Heat radiated from him, enveloped her in a bright glow. Warmed her clear through, to where she was cold and dead inside. Instead of trying to keep time with the song, she followed his rhythm. Awareness hummed through her veins, trembled in her belly. The music wove a magical spell, cocooning them alone on the dance floor.
Liam lightly rubbed her back. "You're a natural."
"Only with you," she whispered so low she was sure he wouldn't hear. But his arms tightened around her as if he had.
All too soon, the song ended. Instead of releasing her, Liam kept her for another dance. And another. With every step, every sensual graze of their bodies, heat grew. Their unspoken connection strengthened. The air sizzled between them.
Liam treated her to another Irish chocolate. Sheltered at a cozy table in the corner, she gloried in the keen intelligence and rapier wit beneath his gorgeous exterior.
He treated her as if she were special, not fragile.
She excused herself for a visit to the Lassies' room and bumped into the auto club driver searching for her in the mob near the front. Instead of laboriously writing a check left-handed, she shoved cash at him to tow her car to the garage.
Hours later, Liam pulled back at the end of a dance. She stumbled, and he slid his arm around her. When he touched her, she wasn't clumsy. Wasn't cold. Wasn't alone anymore. And she craved him more than the most scrumptious, expensive chocolate.
He brushed a lock of hair back from her face. "It's getting late. I'll walk you to your car."
Kate crashed back to earth. The ball was over, and she once again turned into a plain old pumpkin. She forced a smile to disguise her disappointment. "I'm traveling by cab."
"In that case, can I offer you a no-strings ride home?"
Maybe there was a sprinkle of magic left. The Kate who had emerged like a wobbly butterfly from her chrysalis over the past few hours looked up into those intriguing Irish eyes and replied, "That would be nice, thanks."