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A Man of Honor
Kingston Family Series
By Miranda Liasson, Alethea Spiridon
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Miranda Liasson
All rights reserved.
It wasn't every day that Catherine Kingston found herself in a badly lit parking lot about to beg an exotic dancer to take her place.
The woman — it was hard to tell, but she barely looked twenty if she was a day — stood in the May drizzle, her skimpily clad form outlined in a dim circle of light. Around the top of the lone lamppost, bugs careened and crashed, unable to avoid the magnetism of the bulbs. The woman adjusted the spaghetti-thin straps on her cami and shoved her key into the door of a beat-up Pontiac Sunbird, its fender as crooked as a smashed-in jaw.
Cat didn't have long to collect her courage before the woman would start her car and drive away. For a moment, she chickened out, retreating into the shadows. Where she'd been for most of her life. The neon fish on the Sticky Fish sign blew flashing green bubbles above her and lit the low-lying mist from the lake that wound through the parking lot, giving it an even more eerie look.
Cat had always followed the prescribed road and had never deviated from it. But she was done being an observer in her own life. She'd lived that way for far too long.
She would get over Preston Guthrie. He'd invaded her blood like malaria, a cyclic, rebounding fever she'd suffered with on and off for years. It was time to finally flush him out of her system once and for all.
Whatever it took, that's what she needed to do. No matter how out of character, how scary or crazy. She had to move on. Her sanity — and her future — depended on it.
He was her brother's best friend, and she'd had a crush on him forever — one that he'd either never been aware of or had never reciprocated. It had taken years to forget him, but she had. Then, last fall, after her fiancé had dumped her, Preston and she had finally met up again, at a friend's wedding, as that crazy bitch fate would have it, right before he'd been called up from the reserves for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Their connection, at least for her, had been shocking, charged with more joules than a defibrillator paddle. And just as short-lived, because a few months later he'd dumped her, too. But despite their long history, he'd done it by disappearing without a word.
In the parking lot, the woman's ignition flared, her car a clanking, discombobulated wreck with a bad muffler. It was now or never. Cat stepped forward and thrust two twenties in front of her face. "This is yours for the address those guys in the bar just gave you."
Oh God, what was she doing? It wasn't too late. She could still back down. Walk quickly back into the bar, have a coffee, calm down. Go home. But she couldn't. That time with Preston — it wasn't really with him, since most of their relationship had taken place by letters and emails and Skype — had been magical. She thought they'd had something truly special and could have sworn he'd felt it, too. Which was thinking on crack, because apparently he hadn't.
She'd overheard his friends talking in the bar, and this crazy plan had come to her. Preston's friends had apparently decided to send an exotic dancer up to his newly constructed mansion on Lake Watchacatchee, where he was staying while he was in town for Cat's sister's wedding. And since said dancer was right here, within bribing distance, Cat decided to do a little trade. Pay her off, take her place. Which was the height of desperation. Normal people didn't do such things. They had polite, calm conversations with their exes.
But she'd never gotten that conversation. Technically, he wasn't even her ex. Unless phone sex counted. He'd never had the decency to break things off; he'd just ... let her go. After his leg injury overseas, he simply stopped communicating. He owed her closure, so she could move on and leave him behind once and for all. Dammit, she owed herself closure. For the sake of her own integrity, she would not back down.
The dancer cocked her head to one side, assessing Cat with a wary gaze. What did she think of Cat's silk blouse, black pencil skirt, and pearls, a world away from the girl's dark hair and dark eyes lined with enough liner to compete with a singer from an eighties hair band? Her low-cut top needed pulled up over her cleavage just as much as her skimpy skirt needed scooched down over her ass. In another context, she might've been considered pretty, but now, she just needed covered up.
"You're that Kingston girl, aren't you?" the girl asked.
Whoa, Cat hadn't expected that. She forced herself not to cringe. Being the daughter of the largest employer in town, Kingston Shoes, had always set her apart. Her family had never lived decadently, but she'd never lacked for things. Everything about this girl cried the opposite. She wondered if she'd chosen this job, or if she'd simply had no choice.
"I'm sorry. Do I know you?" Cat asked.
"My mother cleans your grandmother's house. Sometimes I go with her. I've seen your picture."
Cat was pretty sure she did cringe that time. She bit back an I'm sorry. Her grandmother Amelia, or Grandmeel as the family all called her, was an obstinate, demanding perfectionist from the Old South, who still called the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression." She could only imagine what she was like as an employer.
She forced herself to speak past the virtual wad of cotton in her throat. "Look, I — I know the guy you're going to see. We're old friends. I — want to go in your place. To surprise him, you know?"
A wide grin spread across the woman's thin face. "I get it." She pulled the money from Cat's hand and replaced it with a bar napkin, where an address, blotchy and water-spotted, was scrawled in black pen. Cat didn't need the address, but she did need the girl not to show up there. "This is good," the woman said. "I can be early for my next gig."
"Thanks." Cat wanted to tell her not to go to another bar, to go somewhere where better men were to be found. And if she could figure out where the hell that was, she'd join her there.
Cat waited until the woman drove off, then turned to walk the short way to the grand houses that ran along the lakefront, where Preston had recently built a home. She could have driven, but she didn't want to take the risk of anyone in their small town finding her there. The rain picked up from drizzle to steady May shower, making her regret that decision. She flipped up the hood on her raincoat and walked on.
With each step, her heart hammered faster. She was actually going to do it. Confront him, and finally get the truth out of him about why he had let her go so suddenly. She wasn't doing this impulsive, out-of-character thing because she longed to see Preston Guthrie, even though she hadn't seen him for nearly four months, since just after his injury. Or because she wanted to rage at him for dumping her. Rather, she wanted to eyeball him with a cool, detached demeanor while she heard from his own lips why, in a place where he couldn't run. If he squirmed a little in the process, all the better. All she would have to do is resist his boyish grin, his blue eyes as endless as an infinity pool, and his dangerously hard muscles.
At least she would get all this angst off her chest in time for her sister Maddie's wedding, which was coming up in just a week. Cat was the maid of honor, and Preston, her sister's fiancé's business partner in a venture capital business, was the best man. If they got all their baggage out in the open, maybe they could resolve things so she wouldn't feel like murdering him in front of all the guests and, therefore, ruin the wedding. She needed this closure, for her own sake and for the sake of her sister's special day. At least she would come away knowing why he dumped her.
Then she would finally be over him for good.
* * *
Preston's leg hurt like a son of a bitch. Today had been especially bad, with the plane ride and all the maneuvering he'd had to do, but he'd finally settled in for the night on a cushioned chair in front of the big-screen TV in the living area of his new place, a beer in his hand and a nest of pillows propped under the Velcro brace he wore around his damaged knee. When his buddies had called asking him to join them at Buckleberry Bend's one and only bar, he'd meant it when he'd said no. A cavalcade of raging bulls couldn't make him budge again until bedtime.
He hadn't been back in Buckleberry Bend since before his deployment last September. He'd been flown back to the States after a roadside bomb blew his knee into a thousand pieces in February. He'd endured one round of surgery at Walter Reed, one more a month ago in New York City by a specialist world-renowned for dealing with his particular type of injury. Two down, one more to go.
The house had been finished and then furnished by his staff while he was gone, and this was his first time seeing it. It was beautiful and comfortable, with the finest of everything, but to him, it didn't look lived-in. Before his injury, he dreamed of being here with Cat, of making a home here. It was one of the things that got him through that time. Then everything fell apart.
The doorbell rang at the same time he received a text from the guys.
Sending you **something** to take all your pain away. Enjoy.
What the hell? He prayed the something was a pizza.
He flipped open the app on his cell phone that showed him the camera view of the front door area. A woman stood there in a black raincoat and heels. High ones, showing off an expanse of shapely long leg. The raincoat opened at the top to reveal cleavage, a lot or a little, he couldn't tell in the dim light. Her head was covered with a hood, and he couldn't make out her face.
He pushed another button on his phone, called, "Come in," and remotely released the lock.
His friends were out to get him for staying in tonight instead of joining them at the bar. Or they felt sorry for him, for all he'd been through. He liked the first explanation better. Pity was never his style.
He heard the front door open and shut. "Surprise," the woman said in a breathy whisper.
"Well, surprise to you, too," he said, roping his arm around the back of the chair to see her better. He smiled. Those dumb-fuck friends of his, what or who was this about? But he'd play along. Why the hell not? "Hope you don't mind if I don't get up, sweetheart."
"No need. I know all about you, soldier."
He was certain she didn't. Couldn't know that the searing pain that pierced the flesh of his right leg like lightning rods was nothing compared to what went on inside his head.
So yeah, he'd take the diversion. He hadn't had a woman since ... well, since before Cat Kingston had come barreling back into his life, toppling his world like a bunch of bowling pins.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" The lush tones of her voice held a raw edge of nerves, and something more he couldn't place.
"Aren't you going to take off your hood?" Preston was no fool. After he graduated from West Point, he'd worked in military intelligence until he'd done his time for the Army, and then started a successful venture capital business with his friend Nick. A business now headquartered here in Buckleberry that enabled him to be his own boss and work remotely while he was in between surgeries. For all he knew, his friends had sent a guy masquerading as a woman just for laughs. And if that was the case, the laugh was going to be on them.
"Only when I'm sure you're up for company."
"I'm up for it all right. My leg may not work, but I can assure you everything else does." He nodded toward the chocolate-colored Italian leather couch. "Have a seat." Whoever this woman was, he was certain she was not a prostitute. His friends weren't that tacky. No reason he couldn't play along for a bit. Even with his bum leg, he'd had plenty of offers from sympathetic young things pining to do their patriotic duty for a fallen soldier. He'd never been that desperate. Still wasn't. But he'd love a distraction. Love to forget everything for just a few moments: the pain, the hell, the woman he'd left in the dust.
The lady in black sashayed across the room to stand directly behind him, where he couldn't easily turn to see her face. She looped cool hands over his eyes, leaning her elbows on the top of his chair. Raindrops rolled off her jacket and landed on his neck, sending a slight shiver cascading down his back. A clean, delicate fragrance he couldn't quite place enveloped him in a cloud of scent.
"What would you like tonight, soldier?" Her voice was smooth as silk, but her hands trembled, making him think she must be young, inexperienced. She brushed her lips softly along his neck. He would put a stop to this nonsense in a minute, but God, it felt too damn good to be touched.
The image that played before his eyes, stabbing his heart with the same immutable pain as his worthless leg, was of another woman, not vampy, not sultry. Soft blond hair, a smile as sweet as homemade sugar cookies at Christmas. More slender than curvy, but just right for his tastes. There'd been a time before his injury when he'd almost believed he could make up for his shitty upbringing and be the man she needed. But not anymore. And not ever.
The war had changed all that.
That scent. Lavender, that's what it was. Sweet and old-fashioned, a huge contrast to her provocative behavior. Familiar. And that voice, too, once you peeled off the layers of that phony lilt.
His heart accelerated, his senses sharpening with suspicion. "Why are you here?" he asked as casually as he could manage while he reached up his hands and curved them around her wrists. Delicate, just like hers.
"Your friends sent me to show you a good time," she said. He ran his hands lightly up her arms, stopping just below her elbows.
His heart pumped equal parts dread and anticipation through his body. Too many coincidences had raised his spy sense. Her timidity, the disguise, the sweet smell that had permeated his dreams every bloody night in the hot, arid desert. This was no stripper. Or dancer. Or whatever masquerade she was playing at. He didn't know how or why, but he'd recognize Catherine Kingston if he were blind and deaf.
His hands stilled at her elbows. For one moment, he stroked the soft skin, enjoying the forbidden feel of her. Then he tightened his hold, pivoted his shoulders, and sent her tumbling into his lap. The hood tipped back, and he found himself staring into a pair of angry eyes.
"What the —"
She struggled against him, but he didn't ease up. His leg might be just about useless, but everywhere else he was lock-grip strong. He'd pinned her as easily as a judo master's takedown.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. Maybe it was the shock of seeing her, of finally having her in his arms, warm and sweet, after he'd lived through so much, stared death in the eyeballs and spat in its face. Or the fact that he was already turned on by her gentle caresses. In that moment, he didn't give a damn why she was here, only that she was, soft and feminine and smelling as fresh as the lake breeze.
He reached down impulsively and stroked the velvet of her cheek, which was a thousand times softer than he remembered. When he traced a finger across her jawline, the skin of his hand tingled in response. In his dreams, he'd memorized every curve and valley of her face, from her full, soft lips to the delicate arch of her brows, to the light smattering of freckles across her cute little nose. It hurt to touch her, because she was his addiction. The bad habit he'd meanly given up, for both their sakes. Yet it now seemed all his hard work was for naught. He could not drag his eyes off of her, and he couldn't stop touching her. She stared right back, her own eyes piercing but unreadable.
He'd meant to blow her cover, outrage her, and send her storming out his door. But life got complicated. Against his own usually iron will, he pushed his hands deep into the silky thickness of her hair and pulled her closer. Her warm, rapid breaths tickled his face. She swallowed hard as her head tilted back, her soft pink lips begging for his touch. Feeling the fine curve of her skull under his hands, he lowered his lips and kissed her.
And oh God, what a kiss. Catherine Kingston's kiss was a lethal weapon, one he'd imagined every day of his dark existence. Now that he started indulging, he couldn't stop.
She parted her lips, more in shock and surprise, and he took full advantage, crushing his own on hers, thrusting in his tongue and plunging deep. For a moment, she went still as the fight in her drained. In one quick movement, she wrapped her arms around his neck and clutched at him, her hands tangling in his hair. Her soft breasts pressed into his chest, her heat penetrating his T-shirt and lighting him on fire. She entwined her tongue recklessly with his, matching each stroke with her own.
Excerpted from A Man of Honor by Miranda Liasson, Alethea Spiridon. Copyright © 2016 Miranda Liasson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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