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'But, Rob, I'm fine to work, and I'm only going back to Dublin tomorrow. It's hardly the other side of the world.' Cara couldn't quite keep the tremor from her voice, or stop the way she still felt a little shaky.
Her good friend noticed it too, with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow. 'Right, and I just saw a pig fly past outside. Sit down on that stool now, before you fall down. You are not working on your last night here. I've promised you your two weeks' wages, and you're still owed tips from the door.'
She was about to point out that she wasn't going to be working two weeks' notice, but Cara saw the granite-like expression on his prettily handsome face and watched as he poured a shot of brandy into a glass before pushing it towards her across the solid oak bar.
'Here, I think this is long overdue. You looked as if you were going to keel over at the funeral yesterday.'
Cara gave up the fight and sat on the high stool. The surroundings were dark and warm and familiar. This place had been her home for the past few years, and a well of emotion rose within her at the kindness of her old friend.
'Thanks, Rob. And thanks for coming with me yesterday, I don't think I could have done it on my own. It meant a lot that you and Barney and Simon were there.'
He reached over and placed a warm hand over hers, looking at her intently, 'Sweetie, there was no way we'd have let you go through that by yourself. Cormac's gone now. It's over. And that accident was not your fault, so I don't want to hear another word about it. It's a miracle he didn't bring you down with him. You know damn well it was only a matter of time before something happened.'
Yes, but I could have triedharder to stop them… to protect Allegra… The words resounded sickeningly in Cara's head. She smiled weakly. Rob's words were meant to soothe, but they stirred up the seething emotions that were ever present. The awful burning guilt that she hadn't been able to stop Cormac driving that night. She'd gone in the car with them in an effort to try and be the sober one, the one who would make sure they weren't careless…
But Rob didn't need to know that. She smiled again, a little stronger this time, hoping to make him believe she was okay. 'I know.'
'See? That's my girl. Now, drink that up and you'll feel a lot better.'
Cara did as she was told, wrinkling her nose as the liquid burnt down her throat like a line of fire. Immediately she felt the effect, a warming and calming in her belly. Impulsively she leant across the bar and pulled Rob towards her, kissing him lightly on the lips and hugging him. He meant so much to her. He'd watched out for her for so long. She couldn't contemplate how empty and hopeless her life might have been without him as her friend.
He grabbed her too in a tight hug, before pulling back and kissing her on the forehead. Something caught his eye behind her and he said, 'Looks like the first customers are arriving.'
Cara swivelled to look back briefly, and saw a tall, dark shape through the gap in the heavy curtains that cordoned off the VIP bar from the rest of the club. For some reason a frisson of sensation she didn't understand raced through her, but she dismissed it and turned back to Rob. Up till now it had been blessedly quiet. She decided that she'd leave shortly. She had precious little to pack for going home to Dublin, but at least she'd be ready in the morning for when the solicitor came to take the possession of the apartment keys. Suddenly the thought of going back to that huge, empty, soulless apartment made trepidation fill her belly as she recalled the visit she'd been paid last night, alone in that apartment after the funeral. It was something she knew she was shying away from thinking about, the past week having simply been almost too much to bear.
Cormac, her brother, had left her with nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Since their parents had died and he'd been saddled with his sixteen-year-old sister he'd made his irritation at his fraternal obligation apparent. But he had quickly turned her presence to his advantage, seeing her as a live-in housekeeper of sorts. She hadn't expected anything more, but still it had been a shock to find out that not only had he had astronomical debts, but in the same instant that they'd been paid off…
Rob drew her attention back to him and she welcomed it, the knot of tension in her belly easing a tiny bit. With his chin resting on his hand he looked past her, saying sotto voce, 'Honey, don't look, but that big dark shape that was looking in here just now is the most divine specimen of a man. I wouldn't be kicking him out of bed for talking too much, that's for sure.'
For some strange reason Cara felt that weird frisson again, and also a little self-conscious in her clinging jersey dress. She'd worn it as she'd assumed she'd be working, but now she felt herself tugging it down to cover more of her thighs. She wondered faintly at her reaction, but after the last few days perhaps it was just sleep deprivation and shock catching up with her.
She smiled at Rob's drooling reaction, glad of the distraction. 'Oh, go on—you say that about all the guys.'
Rob shook his head, a mournfully reverent look on his face. 'Oh, no. This one is… like no one I've ever seen before—and unfortunately my finely honed intuition is telling me he's as straight as a die.'
He straightened up. 'Okay he's coming in here. He must be someone important. Cara, sweetie, sit up and smile, I'm telling you—a little flirting and a hot one-night stand with a man like him and memories of that tyrant of a brother of yours would be all but forgotten. Because one thing's for sure—you probably wouldn't even remember your name. It's exactly what you could do with right now. A fresh start and a bit of fun before you go home.'
And then quite seamlessly, without drawing breath, Rob switched his attention to the mysterious stranger, whose presence Cara felt beside her, and said brightly, 'Evening, sir. What can I get you?'
Little hairs rose all over Cara's skin, but she tried to ignore the way she immediately felt the man's presence so acutely, putting it down to Rob's vivid description. She also completely dismissed Rob's well-meant advice. She had no earthly intention of losing herself in a night of passionate abandon with anyone—much less a complete stranger. Especially the night after her brother's funeral, and even more especially as she hadn't experienced for a minute any kind of passion in her twenty-two years. Rob, for all his intuition, seemed to have the impression that Cara was as worldly as she let on. But it was a self-protective front, something she'd found herself projecting to avoid the worst of Cormac's snide comments, and also in the club, to avoid unwanted attention.
With every intention of leaving, she turned to slide off the stool—but before she realised it she'd turned towards where the man had come to stand at the bar. She became aware of a pregnant taut silence. Feeling absurdly compelled, she looked up and came face to face, eyeball to eyeball, with a fallen angel who was looking right at her. A dark fallen angel. With eyes that seemed to glow green and gold under long black lashes. And black brows. High cheekbones. A slashing line of a mouth which should have looked cold, forbidding, drew Cara's eyes and made her stop and linger. She had the most bizarre and urgent desire to press her lips against that mouth, to feel and taste its texture. Something she'd never wanted to do with any man before—ever.
This was all within a nanosecond. Along with the realisation that he had shoulders so broad they blocked out what little light was in the bar and he must be well over six foot. From his effortlessly arrogant stance, Cara knew he possessed the kind of body that made Rob drool. He wore a heavy overcoat, but underneath the open top button of a shirt gave more than a hint of dark olive skin and a few crisp dark hairs.
Cara couldn't understand the hot feeling in her belly, the sizzling in her blood as their eyes remained locked for what seemed like aeons. Her breath hitched and she felt dizzy. And she was still sitting down!
From somewhere very far away came a voice. 'Sir?'
The man waited for a long moment before looking away to Rob. Cara felt as if she'd been caught high in the air, suspended, and now she was hurtling back to earth. It was the strangest sensation. His voice was low and deep. Accented. And before she knew it Rob was sliding another shot of brandy towards her and gesturing to the man with an unmistakable look of mischief in his eye.
'From the gentleman.'
Rob moved away, whistling softly, and Cara cursed him silently as she started to protest. 'Oh, no—really. I was just leaving, actually…'
'Please. Don't leave on my account.'
His voice, directed straight at her, hit her like a wrecking ball. Deep, with that delicious foreign accent. Loath as Cara was to look at him again and have that burning hot reaction, she had to. This time the reaction seemed to spread to her every extremity, lighting a fire through every vein and every bit of pulsing blood in her body. And when he smiled faintly the room seemed to tilt. She was vaguely aware that she was still stuck in a parody of trying to get off the stool. All of a sudden it seemed easier to stay where she was.
'I…' she said, with pathetic ineffectiveness.
He took off his coat and jacket, revealing the thin silk of his shirt, and the body Cara had suspected existed was now heart-stoppingly evident. The broad power of his chest was just inches away, the darkness of his skin visible through the material. The hint of defined pectoral muscles. He sat down easily on the stool beside her, effectively trapping her, making her attempt to escape awkward. She was fighting a losing battle and she knew it. Right here, right now, in just seconds, this complete stranger had awoken her body from its twenty-two-year slumber, and she was no more capable of moving than she seemed to be of stringing a sentence together.
'Well… all right. I'll just have the drink you bought me,' she managed to croak out, and sat back on her stool more fully, hoping to put some distance between them.
He turned and angled his body towards her, and Cara grabbed the small glass with every intention of downing the lot in one gulp and legging it before she dissolved altogether. But then he spoke again, making her brain atrophy.
'What is your name?'
She held the glass clutched in one hand and took a deep breath before looking at him, steeling herself not to react. Mortifyingly—especially considering Rob's recent words— she had to think for a second. 'Cara. Cara Brosnan.'
He looked at her for a long moment, his eyes enigmatic and unreadable. 'Cara…'
She flushed at the way he said it, almost like an endearment, and hastened to say, 'Well, actually it's more like Cara.'
She put the emphasis on a flat pronunciation, not the rolling way he'd said it, making her feel as if he'd drawn it like silk over her skin which now broke into goosebumps.
In a small, still functioning part of her bewildered brain she questioned her sanity and this unprecedented reaction. Was it the shock of the last few days? Rob's suggestive words? Her grief? For, while she couldn't say that she'd loved or even liked her brother—not after years of abuse had destroyed those emotions—she wouldn't have been human if she hadn't mourned the best part of him and the fact that now she'd lost her entire family. But she felt more grief for Allegra, her brother's girlfriend, who'd also died in the crash.
The man quirked one black eyebrow, giving him a devilish look that he really didn't need. 'You're from…?'
She welcomed him taking her thoughts away from the pain. 'Ireland. I'm going back there tomorrow. I've been living here since I was sixteen, but I'm going home now.'
Cara was babbling and she knew it. He was looking at her intently, as if he wanted to see all the way into her head. She knew instinctively that a man like this could consume her so utterly he'd eclipse anything else. The minute she thought that, heat bloomed low in her belly, and she felt herself grow damp between her legs. She was drowning in his eyes as he looked at her.
He raised his glass. 'Well, here's to new beginnings. Not everyone is fortunate enough to start again.'
Cara heard an edge to his voice, but he was smiling, scrambling her thoughts. She raised her glass to his, and the melodic chinking sound seemed to restore some semblance of sanity. She took a small sip of the drink, aware of the fact that her previous desire to down it in one had gone. She felt herself giving in to the inevitability of this conversation, this man. Some kind of inchoate recklessness was beating through her.
'And you? What's your name and where do you come from?' She winced inwardly at sounding like a bad impression of a presenter on a TV quiz show, but he didn't seem to notice.
He took another long moment to reply, as if he were considering something, making her nerve-ends stretch unbearably. Finally he spoke. 'I'm from Italy…Enzo. Pleased to meet you.'
His mention of Italy had her insides seizing momentarily. Allegra had been from Italy: Sardinia. She forced herself to breathe. It was just a coincidence, but a painful one. He held out a big hand with long fingers, strong-looking and capable. Cara looked at it and gulped. Reluctantly she held out her own much smaller, paler one, covered in the freckles she'd despaired of for years.
Their hands met, his own dwarfing hers, warm and strong, his fingers wrapping around her hand until she couldn't see even a sliver of her skin any more. His fingers rested on the frantic beating of her pulse point on the delicate underside of her wrist.