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Nicolette Ashton's father was always trying to get her to go out on dates. She loved rocks. Men, not so much. She was an introvert, shy and quiet with people she didn't know. She had a lovely face, a complexion like peaches and cream with long, soft, platinum-blond hair and eyes the color of a foggy September morning. Her figure was equally pretty. But she refused dates right and left. There was a man in her life. He just didn't know it. He thought she was too young. Sadly, that didn't keep her from longing for him.
Because of that, she kept to herself. She'd avoided dating all through college by going out with her girlfriends. But her friends said she needed involvement. They insisted that she needed to get out in the world and date somebody. They meant well. Perhaps she did need to get out more. It wasn't as if the object of her affections was ever going to reciprocate them.
So as the end of the semester neared, they set her up with this man. She didn't know him. He wasn't from Catelow, Wyoming, where she lived on her father's cattle ranch. Her date was from Billings, Montana, where she went to college. At the moment, she wished she'd never agreed to the blind date.
He was inconsiderate and frankly rude, especially when she insisted on being brought home to the family ranch, instead of going to her date's apartment. The ranch wasn't so far away, just about a twenty-minute drive. But Niki knew what was likely to happen if she agreed to go home with the man. However out of fashion it might be among her fellow college students in Billings, she didn't go with the crowd. Harvey, her date, refused to believe that any girl would refuse his advances. After all, he was a football star at the college both he and Niki attended, and he was very good-looking. He was used to women falling all over him. But Niki wouldn't.
"You have to be out of your mind," the young man, Harvey, muttered as he pulled into her driveway and raced up to the front steps of the grand Victorian mansion. "There aren't any women left in the country who don't sleep around these days, for God's sake!"
"There are some. I'm one," she said. "I agreed to go to dinner with you, Harvey. Only to dinner."
He made an angry sound in his throat. He pulled up at her door. He studied her in the light from the front porch.
"Your old man home?" he asked.
"Not yet," she said without thinking. "He had a business meeting. But a friend of his is coming to stay with us for a few days. He should be here any minute." It was a calculated lie. There was a friend, named Blair Coleman, who owned a multinational oil corporation. Niki had seen him infrequently when he came home with her father. In fact, she'd had a flaming crush on him since she was seventeen, but he treated her like a child. So Blair Coleman was coming to stay. She just wasn't sure when. "I have to go in," she added.
"I'll walk you to the door," he said. He even went around the car to open her door for her. There was a calculating look on his face, but Niki was too relieved to notice it. She'd unlock the door, go inside and she'd be free.
"Thanks," she said.
"No problem," he said, with an odd, smug little smile.
She put her key into the lock, noticing with a frown that it wasn't needed. The door was unlocked. Maybe her father was home after all.
She turned to tell Harvey good-night and found herself pushed inside the house. He closed the door behind them.
"Now," he said menacingly, "you frigid little tease! Girls who date me always give out. Always!"
He grabbed her and wrestled her into the living room, down onto the sofa.
Niki was frail from a hospital visit that had left her weak and breathless. Even though she wasn't a tiny girl, she was slender, and she had no martial arts skills at all. Harvey was a football player, with the muscle that came with the game. He had her on her back on the sofa, her long blond hair fanned around her oval face with its delicate complexion and pale gray eyes. She was flushed from the illness, and breathless from the aftereffects of it. She did fight him, but she knew she'd never get away in time. He was trying to take something from her that should be her right to give. She was furious. Being helpless made her even more angry.
"Let go of me!" she raged. "You idiot! I am not going to let you
"You can't stop me," he panted, ripping the bodice of her dress as he held her down with his formidable weight. "And there's nobody home who can."
"Oh, I wouldn't bet good money on that," a deep, gravelly voice mused from the doorway.
Niki glanced toward the voice. And there he was, larger than life. The reason she never dated. Blair Coleman.
Harvey was just tipsy enough not to realize how much trouble he was in. At least, not until a man the size of a wrestler jerked him off Niki by his collar and slammed him down onto the floor.
"You can't do that to me! I play football! I'll put you through the wall!" Harvey raged as he jumped to his feet and went for the big man.
There was a deep chuckle. Harvey's rush was met with a fist the size of a ham. It inserted itself into Harvey's diaphragm and sent him to his knees.
While he was trying to recuperate from that, the big man jerked him up by his collar, drew back his fist and knocked the younger man over the back of the sofa that a shocked Niki was still lying on.
"I'll tell my dad!" the football star raged. "He's got all sorts of lawyers."
"I have a few of my own. Get your butt back here and apologize to this girl for what you tried to do," he added in a voice like a grater.
"I.will not," the boy faltered.
"Your choice. I don't really mind involving the sheriff's department." He was pulling out his cell phone as he spoke.
"Nicolette, I'm very sorry," the boy said at once, his face red as he stared at Niki.
She was on her feet by now, clutching her torn bodice together. Her pale eyes were blazing with outraged modesty. "Not as sorry as you're going to be when I tell my father what you tried to do, Harvey," she promised. "He has some good lawyers, too."
"I was drunk!" Harvey exclaimed. He glared at her. "And you can read about yourself on my Facebook page," he added with a sarcastic smile.
The big man moved closer. Harvey backed up a step.
"Let me give you some advice," Blair said quietly. "Don't think about getting even with her online. I'll have my people checking, just in case. The first time I see anything posted about her, you'd better be on your way out of the country before any of my security people can find you. Are we clear?" he added, his stance as threatening as his deep voice.
"Y-yes. Very clear. Very."
Blair jerked his head toward the door.
Harvey took the hint. He didn't quite run for his car. But he got down the driveway in a hurry.
Niki got a better look at her rescuer when he came back from the window, making sure Harvey left.
He was dressed casually, but in designer slacks that clung to his broad, muscular thighs, and an expensive green knit shirt that outlined formidable muscles. He had a broad face with a big nose and a beautiful, wide, chiseled mouth. His complexion was olive. His hair was wavy and jet-black, with a few strands of silver. His eyes were large and black as jet. They were deep set, under thick eyebrows. His feet looked as oversize as his hands. He was very fit for a man his size. There wasn't an ounce of fat showing anywhere on him. Niki had adored him from the day her father brought him home to visit, years ago. But since she'd been seventeen, there had been no man in her life at all. This one colored her dreams, made her ache for things she couldn't quite grasp.
"Thanks," Niki said in her soft voice. "I couldn't stop him." Her breathing was jerky and shallow.
He scowled. "You have asthma, don't you?"
She nodded. "And I'm just getting over pneumonia." She smiled at him. "Thanks, Mr. Coleman."
He smiled gently, and the fierce look left his face. "Just Blair," he corrected. "It's nice to see you again, Niki," he added. "Well, I would have preferred different circumstances," he amended as he looked at her.
She managed a breathy laugh. "Me, too. I'm just glad you were here when I got home." She was still clutching her dress.
"Did he hurt you?" he asked gently.
"Let's see." He drew her down on the couch and his big hands moved gently to the torn fabric. "None of that," he chided when she flushed, mistaking her reaction for shyness when it was actually excitement at the touch of his fingers instead. "I'm way too old to make a pass at a girl your age. Besides, I'm engaged."
"Oh." Story of my life, she told herself, that the only man I'm even interested in thinks of me as a child. And he was getting married. She felt her heart break right in two. But she didn't let it show. She relaxed her death grip on the fabric. "Sorry. I've had a bad night."
"I noticed." He drew the fabric away from her lacy little bra. But it wasn't the undergarment he was looking at. It was the bruises on what he could see of her pretty little firm breasts just above the cup of the bra. She had beautiful little breasts. He clamped down hard on feelings he shouldn't even entertain, especially now. There were more bruises on her thin shoulders. He winced.
"I wish I'd hit him harder," he said in a cold, biting tone.
"He was so shocked when you showed up," she recalled with a laugh like tiny bells. "He's a football star, you know." She grimaced. "Goodness, I must be an idiot. I didn't even realize that he felt entitled to anything he wanted in life."
"Sadly, some men think that way. Turn around, honey." He moved her so that he could draw the dress down and look at her back. There were more bruises there.
"Is it bad?" she asked.
He drew in a breath and turned her back to him. His black eyes were glittery. "I think we need to take you to the emergency room, and then talk to the sheriff. These bruises are an outrage."
"It would be my word against his," she said quietly, searching this big man's eyes.
"I saw most of it," he reminded her.
"Yes, but you weren't with us in the car. He could say I promised him whatever he wanted and then got cold feet."
He cursed under his breath. "I don't like letting him get away with this."
"He'll be much too busy explaining his bruises," she said with a flare of humor. "And when I go back to school, I'll swear to everyone I know that I gave them to him!" she said with a little laugh.
He chuckled. "He'll be a legend in his own time."
"Yes, he will," she promised. She cocked her head and looked at him curiously. "You don't look like a man who gets into many fights," she said.
He shrugged and smiled at her. "My
father" odd how he hesitated on the word, Niki thought "founded an oil company. He built it into a multinational corporation and groomed me to run it. But his idea of management was to teach me the job from the bottom up. I started out as a roughneck, working on oil rigs." He pursed his lips. "The boss's son wasn't the most popular guy around. Plenty of other men thought I'd be a pushover."
"I imagine it didn't take them long to learn the lesson," she said, smiling up at him.
"Not long, no," he agreed. "You'll have bruises, Niki. I'm really sorry."
"It would have been much worse if you hadn't been here," she said. It began to catch up with her and she shivered. "I've been on blind dates before, in high school, but nobody ever tried to
" A sob broke from her throat. "Sorry," she faltered.
He bent and scooped her up in his big arms. He sat down in an armchair and cuddled her in his lap. "Get it out of your system, Niki. I'm not afraid of tears," he said softly, brushing his mouth over her hair.
She bawled. It was a rare thing, comfort. Her father had never been a physical sort of man. He loved her, but he never kissed bruises or offered much comfort. Like Blair, he was an oilman, and he'd worked on oil rigs in his youth, too. Her mother had died when she was in grammar school, so it had just been her and Daddy, most of her life, here on the enormous cattle ranch he'd inherited from his father. She was nineteen, almost twenty, and this was the first time she'd ever had anybody offer her a shoulder to cry on. Well, except for Edna Hanes, the housekeeper.
She pressed close to Blair's broad chest and mourned the loss of him. He was going to get married. She'd had this stupid idea that one day she'd grow up enough for him to finally notice her. That was a pipe dream, and it had gone up in ashes tonight. At least, she thought, he'd saved her from that overly muscled brute.
"Poor little thing," he murmured against her forehead. "I'm sorry."
"I didn't know men could be like that," she said brokenly. "I don't date much. I like to live in the past. I'd have been right at home in the Victorian age. I don't
fit in in the modern world."
"Neither do I," he confessed. He lifted his head and searched her wet eyes. "Still a virgin?"
She nodded. Oddly, it wasn't at all embarrassing to talk to him like this. She felt as if she'd always known him. Well, she had, for several years, if distantly. "Daddy took me to church every Sunday until I went off to college," she confessed. "Some of the other girls at school say I'm stupid to think any man would want to marry an innocent woman. They say I need experience, so I'll appeal to a man." She looked at him like a curious little bird. "Is that right?"
He smoothed the damp hair away from her cheeks. She was almost otherworldly. He ached in inconvenient places and chided himself for that reaction to her. She was a child, compared to him, even if she was in college. "I think innocence is a rare and beautiful thing," he said after a minute. "And that your husband will be a very lucky man."
She smiled shyly. "Thanks." She pursed her lips.
"A question?" he teased. "Ask away."
"Will your wife be a very lucky woman?" she asked outrageously.
He burst out laughing. "No. Emphatically, no." He searched her shimmering eyes. "You really are a pain, aren't you?"
She linked her arms around his strong neck. "I truly am." She smiled at him. "What's she like, your fiancée?"
"Black hair, blue eyes, beautiful, sophisticated, very artistic," he summed her up.
"And you love her very much."
He smiled back. "She's the first woman I ever asked to marry me. I've been too busy making money to think about a private life. Well, about a permanent one, at least."
"Is she nice?"
He frowned. "What a question."
"I mean, will she take care of you if you get sick, and stay home and take care of the babies when they come along?" she asked, because she realized if she couldn't have him, she wanted happiness for him, above all things.