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Prince Eric Santiago lied when he told his best friend that he had a plane to catch. The truth was, his pilot wasn't coming to pick him up for the return trip to Tesoro del Mar until the following morning, but after almost two weeks with Scott Delsey and his soon-to-be-wife, Eric needed some space. Spending so much time with the blissful couple and seeing how in love they were only made him more aware of what was missing from his own life.
When he'd accepted the invitation to visit Scott's ranch in Texas, he'd thought his friend might want to offer him a job at DELconnex, his communications company. On more than one occasion in the past, Scott had mentioned that he could use someone with Eric's education and experience, though they both knew Eric had no intention of leaving the Tesorian navy.
Now, of course, the situation had changed, and Eric was willing to consider any possibilities his friend presented. It turned out one of those possibilities was to stand up as the best man at Scott's wedding.
It seemed that everywhere around him people were getting married and having babies. First it was his eldest brother, Rowan, who had been forced by tragedy and tradition to the altar. Luckily for him, he'd managed to fall in love along the way. After six years of marriage, he and Lara were happier than the day they'd exchanged their vows, even withor maybe because ofthe two active young sons who did their best to run their parents ragged.
Three years after Rowan pledged "till death do us part," their youngest brother, Marcus, had found a woman who inspired him to do the same. Recently, he and Jewel had welcomed their first child into the worlda beautiful baby girlwho looked just like her mother and already exhibited the legendary charm of her father.
Both of his brothers had lucked out, and Eric was genuinely happy for them. But the only mistress Eric had ever been committed to was the seaand she'd tossed him aside, carelessly discarding everything he'd given her and taking away everything he was.
As he drove his rented Mercedes northeast toward San Antonio, he forced himself to acknowledge the truth he'd been avoiding for too longhe wasn't just alone, he was lonely.
He envied what Rowan had with Lara, what Marcus had with Jewel, what Scott had with Fiona. And he wondered why he'd never met a woman who made him think in terms of marriage and forever. Okay, having spent the better part of the last twelve years on board a ship might have something to do with it. Add to that the uncertainty of never knowing if the women he'd been with were genuinely interested in him or only attracted to his title or his uniform, and it probably wasn't surprising that he'd reached the age of thirty-six without ever having been in a long-term, committed relationship. Still, the realization wasn't going to fill his life or keep him warm in bed at night.
The rumble of his stomach finally broke through his introspection and a neon sign announcing Shea's Bar & Grill snagged his attention.
Despite the fact that the building was smack in the middle of nowhere, there were several vehiclesmostly dust-covered pickup trucksin the parking lot. His empty stomach again protested his decision to leave his friend's ranch before dinner and he flicked on his indicator to make the turn.
He parked his shiny rental between an ancient red pickup and a mud-splattered Jeep and sat for a moment, wondering if he would look as out of place in the bar as his vehicle did in the parking lot. A man who'd grown up in the public eye wouldn't usually worry about such things, but Eric had become more sensitive to the attentionand the speculation that surrounded himsince the accident.
He pushed out of the car, slowly limped toward the entrance. The deliberate, unhurried movements helped ease the stiffness from his hip so that he was walking almost normally by the time he reached the door. His therapist had warned that he might always have the limp and the discomfortat the time, he'd thought it was a small price to pay for being alive. When he'd had to leave the navy, he'd realized the physical scars weren't the biggest price.
A sign inside the door invited him to seat himself. He bypassed several empty tables around the perimeter of the dance floor and made his way to the bar. As he slid onto a vacant stool, he forgot about his hip and everything else as he glimpsed a vision that was more impressive than anything he'd seen while sightseeing in Texas.
Hermoso espectacular perfecto.
Her hair was as dark as midnight and tumbled over her shoulders like a silky waterfall. She was wearing a deep, V-neck shirt that revealed just a hint of cleavage and was tucked into slim-fitting jeans that molded to narrow hips and long legs.
His gaze skimmed upward again and locked with hers.
He felt a sharp tug of attraction deep in his belly, an almost painful yearning, and he could tell by the sudden widening and darkening of eyes the color of a clear summer sky that she was experiencing the same sensation. Instantaneous, raw and powerful.
But then she tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled easily.
"Hey, handsome." The slow Texas drawl made him think of lazy Sunday mornings spent lounging in bedand wasn't that an unexpectedly intriguing image? "What can I get for you?"
She smiled again, and suddenly he was wanting a lot more than he'd come in for, but he forced himself to respond just as casually. "A beer would be good."
She grabbed a clean mug from the shelf behind her. "Any particular kind?"
He tore his gaze from the stunning face to glance at the labels on the taps. He noted the familiar Amstel, Heineken and Beck's brands, but opted for one that he guessed would have a more local flavor. "Lone Star."
She tipped the glass beneath the nozzle to catch the amber-colored liquid that flowed out. "You're a long way from home, aren't you?"
She slid the beer across the bar to him. "Well, you don't sound like a local, and if you were, I would have seen you before now."
He didn't think she was flirting with him exactly. But she seemed, if not interested, at least curious, and he couldn't resist testing the waters.
"You don't remember?" he asked, his tone intended to convey both disbelief and disappointment.
She made change for the ten he gave her and leaned across the bar in a way that greatly enhanced his view of her cleavage. "If I don't remember, you obviously didn't make much of an impression."
He grinned at her quick response and lifted his glass to his lips as she moved down the bar to serve another customer.
He'd struck out with the sexy bartender, but it was his first time at bat after a long absence from the plate and, the way he figured it, it was only the top of the first inning. There was a lot of the game still to be played.
Eric ordered a barbecued pork sandwich with a side of spicy fries and washed it down with another draft as he watched the woman who'd eventually introduced herself as Molly Shea check on her customers at the bar. She took a moment to chat with each one as if they were all old friends, and he knew some of them probably were.
"How long have you been a bartender?" he asked her.
She poured a glass of water and squeezed a wedge of lime into it. "Forever."
"Has it always been your ambition?"
"It's honest work," she said.
"I wasn't implying otherwise," he told her. "You just seem like a woman who could do so much more."
"I can make all the fanciest drinks," she said, deliberately misunderstanding him. "But we don't have much call for them here."
"You're determined not to give away anything about yourself, aren't you?"
"Bartenders don't make confessions, they listen to them."
"I thought that was just a stereotype."
"I used to think so, too. But I learned quickly that a sympathetic ear and a shot of Scotch whiskey is a lot more successful at loosening tongues than a long couch and a fifty-minute clock."
His gaze skimmed over her face. "The ears are nice," he agreed. "But I'll bet it has a lot more to do with your soft voice and warm smile." And the idea of this woman on a long couchminus the fifty-minute clockwas more than a little intriguing.
"Is that why you're here?" she asked. "Are you looking to unburden your soul?"
"My soul isn't burdened."
Her only response was to raise her eyebrows.
"No more than most," he clarified.
She smiled at that, and he felt a funny little kick in his belly. It was lust, he was certain of it. Certain that what he was feeling for this intriguing bartender couldn't be any more than that.
Eric picked up his cup and frowned when he found it empty. He'd switched to coffee after his second draft, and he'd already had one refill, making him wonder just how long he'd been sitting at the bar.
"It's almost eleven," Molly told him, somehow anticipating his question as she brought the pot over to refill his cup again. "Isn't there somewhere else you should be?"
"Not anymore," he told her.
Her eyes were unexpectedly sympathetic as she asked, "Did she kick you out?"
"Whoever's responsible for that lost look in your eyes."
"No one kicked me out." Then he smiled at her. "Not yet, anyway."
She laughed. "You've got another hour."
He was still there at the end of the hour.
And Molly was still as conscious of his presence as she'd been from the minute he walked in the door. Conscious of his attention focused on her as she began tidying up her workspace and wiping down the counters after last call.
She was flattered, of course. The man was sinfully good looking with that dark hair and those smoldering eyes, a mouth that made her think of long, slow kisses and shoulders that looked as if they could carry the weight of the world.
But he didn't belong there. She'd recognized that fact even before he'd opened his mouth and started speaking in that smoothly cultured voice that spoke of private schools and a wealth of other privileges.
And she wondered what he was doing in Texas or, more particularly, what he was doing in her bar.
She did know that every time she caught him looking at her, her pulse spiked. And when he smiled, her heart pounded and her blood heated. Though her experience with men was limited, she recognized her reaction for what it was: lust, pure and simple. And when a man looked like the one sitting at her bar, she was certain he had more than enough experience being the object of women's desires.
The stirring of her own desire, however, was unexpected.
She wasn't the type of woman to fantasize about having sex with a man she didn't even know. Of course, her lackluster experience with Trevor had pretty much nixed her fantasies about sexand the few brief relationships she'd had since then hadn't given her reason to hope for anything different.
But she poured herself a single glass of winepart of her usual closing up routineand slid onto the stool beside his. "Are you really waiting for me to kick you out?"
"I'm not in a hurry to go anywhere else."
"If I'm going to let you stay while I close up, I'll need to know more about you."
"Where you're frombecause we both know it's not Texas."
"Tesoro del Mar," he told her.
"Treasure of the Sea," she translated.
"You speak Spanish?"
"A little." She sipped her wine. "And is ita treasure of the sea, that is?"
"What brought you from there to here?"
"I was visiting a friend."
"A girlfriend?" she guessed.
"No," he said, then, "yes, there was a woman."
She lifted a brow. "Only one?"
He smiled. "My best friend is getting married. His fiancée is the only woman I've seen since I've been here."
"How long has that been?"
"Almost two weeks."
"And why is it that you're alone in a bar at quarter after twelve on a Sunday night?"
He made a point of looking her over. "I'm not exactly alone now, am I?"
"Alone except for the bartender," she clarified.
"I would say alone with an incredibly beautiful woman."
The heat in his gaze added weight to his words, but Molly wasn't going to let herself get all tongue-tied and weak-kneed just because a handsome man paid her a compliment.
"I'm flattered," she said. "But you're going to be disappointed if you think a few smooth words will convince me to go home with you."
"Since I don't even have a hotel room booked, I was hoping you would invite me to go home with you." There was something in his tone that told her he was only half joking.
"Not going to happen," she told him.
"Is there anyone special in your life?"
She smiled. "There are a lot of special people in my life."
"I meant a boyfriend," he clarified. "Since you're not wearing a ring, I'm guessing there's not a husband or fiancé."
She shook her head. "I don't really have time to date. Too many other things going on."
"That might be a valid excuse for neglecting to return a phone call," he noted, "but it hardly explains not dating."
"Does a broken engagement explain it better for you?"
He nodded. "Broken heart, too?"
She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. "No, and maybe that's one of the reasons I haven't been dating. I realized how close I'd come to making a very big mistake, and I needed some time to figure out what I really wanted."
"And have you?"
"I'm still working on it."
"Me, too," he admitted.
"I would have figured you for the type of man who knew exactly what he wanted."
"I used to be." His eyes held hers for a long moment, then his gaze dropped to her mouth. "Not only did I know what I wanted, but I knew how to get it."
Then he leaned down and kissed her.
And she kissed him back.
She, Molly Shea, who didn't do anything spontaneous or impulsive, was kissing a stranger in a barand thoroughly enjoying every second of it.
BecauseWOWhe knew how to kiss.
Her brain scrambled to find an explanation for this inexpli-
cable turn of events. She wanted to blame the wine, though she'd only had half a glass. She might consider the lateness of the hour, except that she was accustomed to working nights and wasn't at all tired. Or maybe it was just the strength of a purely physical attraction that she hadn't felt in a very long time.
His tongue slid between her lips and the random thoughts and desperate explanations faded into nothingness as her brain seemed to stop functioning altogether.