His Secret Agenda Beth Andrews Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Dean Garret is about to break the number one rule of undercover work.And it's all because his new "boss" is as pretty as a professional cheerleader and has a do-gooder's heart. Who can resist that combination? Still, Dean suspects Allison Martin is hiding something behind her dazzling smile. That something being the runaway mother and son he's been hired to find. To get the job done, he needs to gain Allie's trust.Only, the lawyer-turned-bar-owner isn't cooperating. But she can't remain immune to his good ol' boy charm and sexy drawl forever. Because Dean never fails. And he'll do anything to solve a case. Even if it means he has to break all the rules. Allie could only stare as he closed the distance between them “What about you?” Dean asked as he reached out toward her as if to touch her cheek. But then he fisted his hand and dropped his arm back to his side. “Do you have any secrets you’d like to share?” She swallowed in an attempt to work moisture back into her mouth. “Nothing quite as dark as arachnophobia.” “You sure?” His eyes were steady. Intense. “Because you know what they say about confession being good for the soul.” Except she didn’t need confession. Not when she’d already taken care of her penance on her own. “I’m positive.” “Everyone has secrets, Allison. And I’m guessing yours are more interesting than most.” He leaned forward, and she slanted away. “Guess I have my work cut out for me,” he murmured. Fear, irrational and unsettling, filled her. “What work is that?” One side of his mouth lifted. “Finding out what your secrets are.” Dear Reader, I was seventeen when my best friend’s mother gave me a Harlequin novel to read. I was immediately hooked, but between finishing school and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, my reading time dwindled. It wasn’t until after I was married and became a young stay-at-home mother that I rediscovered Harlequin books. I became so addicted, I read while my son napped as well as when I cooked, ran the vacuum and worked out on the stairclimber! No matter what type of story I was in the mood for—passionate, suspenseful, humorous or sexy—Harlequin had the book for me and, best of all, each one had a satisfying central love story and a happy ending. It was during this time of rediscovery that I realized exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a romance author for Harlequin Books. That dream came true on August 21, 2007, when I sold my first book to Harlequin Superromance. I have to say the reality of writing for this publisher is better than anything I’d ever imagined, and a large part of that is due to the guidance and patience of my wonderful editor, Victoria Curran, and Harlequin Superromance’s senior editor, Wanda Ottewell. This year Harlequin Books is celebrating sixty years of pure reading pleasure. Whether you’ve read these books for years or have recently discovered them, I hope you’ll join me in wishing Harlequin a happy sixtieth birthday! Thank you for reading His Secret Agenda. I hope you enjoy Allie and Dean’s story! I love to hear from readers. Please visit my Web site, www.bethandrews.net, or write to me at P.O. Box 714, Bradford, PA 16701. Beth Andrews His Secret Agenda Beth Andrews ABOUT THE AUTHOR Award-winning author Beth Andrews is living her dream—writing romance for Harlequin Books while looking after her real-life hero and their three children. A self-professed small-town girl, Beth still lives in the Pennsylvania town where she grew up. She has been honored by her kids as The Only Mom in Town Who Makes Her Children Do Chores and The Meanest Mom in the World—as if there’s something wrong with counting down the remaining days of summer vacation until school starts again. For more information about Beth or her upcoming books, please visit her Web site at www.bethandrews.net. To Mom and Dad for always believing in me. I love you. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER ONE DEAN GARRET HAD TWO WORDS to describe the town of Serenity Springs, New York. Freaking cold. And to think just last week he’d been complaining about the weather in downtown Manhattan. Guess mid-February wasn’t the best time to head north into the Adirondack Mountains. Lesson learned. The brisk wind blew through his coat—the coat that had kept him plenty warm during the past three winters in Dallas—and pricked his skin like shards of ice. Snow stung his cheeks and collected on his eyelashes as he made his way across the parking lot to The Summit bar. When he’d arrived yesterday he’d thought the snow was sort of cool. The way it covered every available surface, all pristine white and fluffy, made the town look like a postcard. Or one of those snow globes his aunt Rita collected. But still, enough was enough already. How did people live with this all winter? Thank God he had no plans to stay in town longer than a few weeks. That is, if all went according to plan. He opened the door, stepped inside the warm building and took off his Stetson, hitting it against his thigh to dislodge the snow. He scanned the bar, noting the exits, plus a short hallway and swinging doors that must lead to the kitchen. A guy with a shock of wiry gray hair nursed a beer at the end of the bar. A couple of college-age kids were shooting pool, while three men in suits sat at a table by the jukebox, stretching their lunch hour into two. Or three. A sharp-featured redhead in snug blue jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, carrying a bottle of wine in each hand, pushed through the swinging doors. With her short, spiky hair and slim figure, she deserved the second look the college kids gave her. Dean walked up to the bar. “Allison Martin?” “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not Allie,” she said over her shoulder as she set the bottles with the rest of the stock in front of a large mirror. “I’m Kelsey Martin.” She took one look at him, her green eyes shrewd, and grinned. “But don’t worry, if you’re straight, you’ll get over any disappointment real quick once you meet Allie.” He blinked. If he was straight? He switched his hat to his other hand. “I’m Dean Garret. I—” “Hold that thought,” she said, before crossing to the cash register, where one of the businessmen waited. Dean drummed his fingers on the scarred wood, realized he was doing so, then stopped. He set his hat on the bar and studied her as she swiped a credit card through the machine. How should he play this? Over the past two years he’d had a number of jobs, each of which had required him to be an excellent judge of people. A trait he used to his advantage as often as possible. He jerked the zipper of his jacket down while Kelsey sent her customer off with a friendly goodbye. When she’d spoken to him, there’d been no personal interest or attraction in Kelsey Martin’s eyes, so he’d save his patented I’m-just-a-good-ole-boy-from-Texas routine for the one woman who mattered to him. “Sorry about that,” Kelsey said. “You’re looking for Allie?” “She’s expecting me.” “With Allie, that’s debatable.” He frowned. “Sorry?” “Sometimes…well…time gets away from her.” The guy at the end of the bar raised his empty glass and Kelsey nodded at him. She pulled a draft and indicated the swinging doors with her head. “Allie’s in the kitchen. You can go on back.” He picked up his hat and circled the bar. Opening one door a few inches, he heard the synthesized sound of a syrupy pop song. Great. He had a few simple rules, lines he didn’t cross. He didn’t cheat. He kept to the truth as much as possible. He didn’t get personally involved with the people he worked with. And he didn’t listen to crappy music or even pretend to like it. After all, a man had to have his standards. He stepped into the large, industrial kitchen. She stood at the stove, her back to him, wearing a fuzzy, deep purple sweater that slid off her shoulder ’80s style, as well as black, pointy heeled, knee-high boots and a leather miniskirt. Her dark, straight hair was pulled into a high ponytail but still fell to the middle of her back, and when she did a little shimmy, it took him a moment to realize the harmonizing tones weren’t coming from the radio. They were coming from her. He clenched his fingers, bending the rim of his favorite hat. Turning, she spotted him and took a step back. Then flipped the radio off. “Is that a real cowboy hat or just for show?” “Excuse me?” “Your hat. Real or no?” He stared at the hat in question. “Real as it gets.” She clapped her hands together. “Am I imagining it or do I hear a hint of Texas twang?” “I don’t have a…a twang,” he muttered. A twang was the nasal sound his youngest brother made when he tried to sing along with Brooks and Dunn. What Dean had was an accent that he could downplay or exaggerate depending on the situation. “No offense,” she said offhandedly. “I’m just so excited because you’re exactly what I need.” “I’m Dean Garret,” he said smoothly. “We have an interview? For the bartending job?” She waved her hand in the air. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to that, but first we have something more important to figure out.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Just set your coat on the chair there.” Shrugging out of the garment, he laid it on the back of the chair, and crossed the room. “Ma’am, I’m not sure I—” She shoved a triangle of quesadilla into his mouth. “What do you think of this?” Since he had no choice, he chewed. It didn’t taste like any quesadilla he’d ever had before. And for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what she’d put in it—not shrimp or crab. Then, out of nowhere, the heat hit him. His throat burned; his mouth felt as if he’d just chowed down on a fireball. “I tried to get Kelsey’s take on it but she wouldn’t try it because it has tomatoes. Isn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard? Who doesn’t like tomatoes?” His face flushed and sweat formed on his upper lip. “I mean,” Allison continued, “she eats pizza and pasta sauce—both of which, I shouldn’t have to point out, are tomato based.” The woman paused long enough to take a breath. “Well?” He cleared his raw throat. “How much hot sauce did you use?” he wheezed. Her eyebrows drew together. “Did I add too much? The recipe called for four tablespoons, but I got called away in the middle of making it and couldn’t remember…I figured another tablespoon or two couldn’t hurt, right?” “You thought wrong.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure,” he said. “Didn’t you try it?” She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like spicy food, which is why I needed an opinion.” She smiled, and it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. “But maybe I should get a second one. Opinion, that is. Just in case you’re like me and can’t handle a little heat.” He scowled. Which he knew was damn intimidating—especially when combined with his size. Even with her high heels, he had a good five inches on her. “Lady,” he growled, “I can handle spicy food. That—” he jabbed a finger at the offending quesadilla “—isn’t a little heat. It’s a blowtorch. My lips are still tingling.” She burst out laughing. Women. He’d spent a good deal of his life studying them, but he’d learned only one thing for sure. They never did what you expected. THE BIG COWBOY BRISTLED, but his hooded eyes gave none of his thoughts away. Allie swallowed the rest of her laughter. Some guys just had no sense of humor. Too bad. He was seriously cute though, with his sandy-blond hair and aquamarine eyes. Cute in an earthy, masculine, too large and with-a-heavy-dose-of-ride-’em-cowgirl way. She preferred dark-haired guys who dressed more conservatively than jeans and a striped, button-down shirt. He picked at the top layer of the remaining quesadilla on the plate. “What’s in this, anyway?” She turned her grill pan off. “Hot sauce—” “Obviously.” “Tomatoes, some lime juice, onion, scallions…” She ticked each item off on her fingers as she spoke. “Cheddar cheese, cream cheese and lobster.” He jerked his hand back. “Lobster?” She stirred the big pot of tomato sauce simmering on the back burner. “Sure. Why not?” He scratched his cheek. “I’ve never heard of a lobster quesadilla before, that’s all.” “That’s why I made it. I wanted something different.” “It’s different all right,” he murmured in his sexy drawl. She tapped the spoon twice on the edge of the saucepan. It didn’t matter what this…cowboy thought about her menu. The Summit belonged to her and if she wanted to liven things up with fancier fare, then she would. Besides, if she had to cook one more boring cheese-chicken-and-mushroom quesadilla for the next Tex-Mex Monday, she’d stick a fork in her eye. She slid the band off her heavy ponytail and combed her fingers through her hair. “Well, let’s get on with your interview. Why don’t we sit down?” He pulled a chair out for her at the small table. She thanked him and took her seat. Studied him as he sat opposite. Okay, so he was polite. She couldn’t help it if she had a weak spot for courteous manners. She flicked her hair over her shoulder again as she picked up the file containing Dean Garret’s råsumå, as well as the job application he’d sent in. “So, I guess we’ll get right to the basics,” she said. “I need someone to tend bar in the evenings from seven to three Tuesday through Saturday. We’re closed Sundays…except during football season.” “Football’s big here?” “We have our fair share of fans. Although if I had to guess, I’d say we’re packed Sunday afternoons because people go a little stir-crazy around here in the winter. They need to get out, and since social opportunities are limited to church functions or skiing, they wind up here.” He leaned forward. “Please tell me there are other things to do in this town beside church dinners and going a hundred twenty miles per hour down a hill on a pair of toothpicks.” “I take it you’re not into religion or winter sports?” He glanced around as if checking to make sure they were alone in the room. “If my mama happens to ask, I attend church every Sunday.” He was afraid of his mama. God, that was sweet. “So it’s just skiing you have a problem with?” “I prefer warmer activities.” Her mouth went dry. Oh, this wasn’t good. She got to her feet. And about fell back to her seat when he stood, as well. Yeah, those manners were mighty impressive. She went to the refrigerator. “Most guys avoid the ice rink—except for the Tuesday and Thursday night hockey league. And since we’re on Main Street, we don’t get any snowmobilers coming in, either. They all stop at The Pineview on the edge of town.” She opened the fridge door and pulled out a diet soda. “Can I get you something to drink?” “No, thank you, ma’am.” He glanced out the window at the falling snow—and she could’ve sworn she saw him shudder. “Is there anything to do here that doesn’t involve the threat of hypothermia?” She couldn’t help but grin. “Not too much. At least, not between the months of November and February.” She pursed her lips as she opened the can. “And sometimes March.” He winced, but covered it quickly. She sat back down and he did, too. “Since you’re not a fan of cold weather, I have to ask—are you staying in Serenity Springs long?” He leaned back, the picture of relaxed, confident male. “I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.” Talk about a nonanswer. “I need someone I can rely on. I’ve been through too many bartenders to count.” He just nodded—in agreement? Pity? Who knew? “To be honest,” she continued, “it’s getting really annoying to hire someone, only to have them walk away a few weeks—or in one case hours—later. I need someone dependable who’s not going to leave me in the lurch.” She sipped her soda and waited, but he didn’t say anything. And the intense way he studied her made her squirm. She cleared her throat. “Now, that’s not to say if I hire you I expect you to stay forever….” The idea of staying at The Summit forever caused a chill to run up her spine. “But,” she continued, shoving aside the uneasiness she always felt when she thought of her future, “I would appreciate at least two weeks’ notice, not to mention a few months worth of work first.” He remained silent. She sighed. Why were good-looking men always such a trial? “I’m not sure if you understand how a conversation works, but that would be your cue to speak.” He hesitated. Her experience as a defense attorney told her he was readying a lie. But when she searched his expression, she saw no hint of deception. Which just went to show she’d made the right decision to quit practicing law. She obviously wasn’t as good at reading people as she’d thought. “I’ll be in Serenity Springs for a while,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee how long.” “If I hire you, I need to know you won’t leave me in a bind.” Still no response. He didn’t try to persuade her he was best for the job, didn’t promise he’d stick it out as long as possible. He sure didn’t seem all that desperate for work. So why was he here? She glanced over his råsumå again. After graduating from Athens high school in Texas, Dean had worked at a Dallas establishment called Benedict’s Bar and Grill for three years before joining the Marine Corps, after which he’d served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. “I see you tended bar before you went into the military, but your recent work record has quite a few gaps. Care to explain those?” “I was trying to find something that suited.” “Since you’re here, I take it you didn’t find what you were looking for?” “No, ma’am.” She picked up a pen and tapped it against the table. “See, this is where we get back to me being able to rely on you to stick around. And from what I can tell of your work history—or at least, your work history over the last two years—you don’t stay in one place long.” He clasped his hands together on the table. “After my discharge I did some traveling. For personal reasons.” “Hmm…” He was hiding something. She could feel it. “So you had a difficult time adjusting back to…what would you call it…civilian life?” “No more than anyone else who served.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and studied him. Maybe he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was far from an expert on PTSD, but knew that a person affected by it could have trouble keeping a job. Or it could be something else. Wanderlust. The inability to get along with his employers or fellow employees. And then it hit her why he was so secretive. Why he gave such vague answers. Why there were periods of up to three months unaccounted for in his work history. “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?” He raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?” “The gaps. I’m just wondering…” “Are you asking if I was in prison? Is that even legal?” “In New York State, a prospective employer may ask if a prospective employee has been convicted of a criminal offense, just not if they’ve ever been arrested or charged with a crime.” Something flashed in his eyes, something like respect. But before she could be certain, he said, “That makes no sense.” “That’s the law for you. Besides, being arrested or charged with a crime in no way means you were convicted of said crime.” “You could always run a background check on me.” She sipped her soda. “I could—after I informed you of that fact, of course. But I like to form my own impressions of the people I hire based on what I see and hear from them. Not what the state of New York tells me.” “Would you refuse to hire me if I had a criminal past?” “Article 23-A of the New York Correction Law prohibits employers from denying an applicant employment because the applicant was previously convicted of one or more criminal offenses.” She caught herself and shook her head. She wasn’t a lawyer anymore. No need to talk like one. “I just mean that it’s illegal, not to mention unethical, to refuse to hire you because of your past. So no, that wouldn’t be a problem.” She paused. “But you lying about it would be.” “You make a habit of hiring convicted criminals?” he asked, his accent so sexy it made her want to do whatever it took to keep him talking. She tilted her head in a silent question. “Just wondering what type of people I’ll be working with if I get the job,” he explained. She took a long drink. “If you get the job, you can be assured that none of your coworkers have a criminal record.” After all, Kelsey’s juvenile record didn’t count, and while Allie’s kitchen assistant, Richie, had some past troubles with drug use, he’d never been formally charged with possession. And Allie’s sins hadn’t landed her in jail. Just her own purgatory. “But,” she continued when Dean remained silent, “if you have a problem with people who’ve paid their dues to society, reconsider if you want this job.” And really, did she want someone so…judgmental working for her? “One of my good friends spent time in prison and he stops by quite often.” Dillon Ward, Kelsey’s brother, had served time for manslaughter after killing their stepfather while protecting Kelsey. After his release, Dillon had battled prejudice and his own guilt. Luckily, he’d gotten past all of that and was now able to move forward in a relationship with local bakery owner Nina Carlson. Allie smiled sweetly. “I wouldn’t want any of his criminal tendencies to rub off on you.” “You don’t have any problems with his past?” “No,” she snapped. She inhaled a calming breath. “I don’t have a problem with anyone’s past.” Well, except her own—but that was what she was doing here, right? Her penance. “I have a bigger problem with people in the present. Out of the last three individuals I hired, one stole from me, one walked off the job and one…” Allie squeezed the can she was holding, denting the aluminum. “She was the worst of all. She lied.” “Lying pissed you off more than desertion and theft?” “Deserters can come back,” she said coolly. “A thief can return what he or she stole. But a liar? You can never take back a lie.” He inclined his head and slowly straightened. “I’ve never been imprisoned or convicted of a crime.” “And the gaps in your råsumå?” “As I said, I was traveling.” All the signs, everything she’d ever learned about being able to tell when someone was lying, said that Dean Garret was just what he appeared to be. Easygoing. Stoic. Confident. A sexy cowboy in need of a job. If he could mix drinks, he’d be an asset behind her bar. Once word got around about him, women would flock to The Summit just to hear his Texas drawl. And he wasn’t so pretty as to put her male patrons on the defensive. “I guess that’s all the information I need then.” She stood, and couldn’t help but second-guess herself when he got to his feet, as well. Who knew manners could be such a turn-on? Still, she walked around the table and offered him her hand. “Thank you for coming in.” His large, rough fingers engulfed hers, and damn if a crackle of electricity didn’t seem to shoot up her arm and jump-start her heart. “When can I expect to hear from you?” he asked, still holding her hand. She pulled free of his grasp and stepped back. “I’m sorry, but you won’t.” “I don’t understand,” he said. “Listen, I have to be honest. I’m going in a different direction.” She met his eyes and told him what her instincts were screaming. “You’re just not what I’m looking for.” CHAPTER TWO DEAN DIDN’T SO MUCH AS blink. Hell, he was so stunned, he didn’t even move. He wasn’t what she was looking for? What did that mean? His blood began a slow simmer. Damn it, he was perfect for this job. He’d worked for three years tending bar before joining up. What more did she want? A note from his mother? “If anything changes,” she said, the hint of pity in her tone causing him to grind his teeth together, “I’ll be sure to let you know.” In other words, here’s your hat, get your ass moving. He forced himself to smile. “I appreciate your time.” He pulled his coat on and set his Stetson on his head. Though his better sense told him not to, he stepped forward until she had to tilt her head back to maintain eye contact. Until her flowery scent filled his nostrils. “You be sure to let me know if you change your mind,” he said, letting his accent flow as thick as honey. Heat flashed in her eyes, turning them a deep, denim blue. He tipped his hat. “I’ll find my own way out.” He didn’t slow until he’d pushed open the door and stepped out into the blowing snow and mind-numbing cold. He trudged across the parking lot, unlocked his truck and slid inside. He didn’t get the job? He slapped his hand against the steering wheel. Unreal. He always got the job. Always got the job done. He started the engine and cranked up the heat. Allison hadn’t believed he’d stay in Serenity Springs. She didn’t trust him. He sat there, resting his forearms on the steering wheel, and stared at the swirling white flakes drifting down. His record of success was a direct result of his tenacity. He’d go back to his hotel room and regroup. Come up with a plan to somehow convince her he was the best candidate for the job. That she could trust him. Even if she really shouldn’t. “YOU SENT HIM PACKING?” Kelsey asked. “But I wanted to keep him. I’ve never had a cowboy of my very own before.” Allie, perched on the top rung of the stepladder, snorted down at her sister-in-law. “You can’t have one now, either.” She climbed down, careful to keep her high heels from hooking on the rungs. Once both feet were safely on the ground, she moved the ladder next to the bar. “I don’t think Jack would appreciate you wanting to keep this—or any—cowboy.” They were the only people in the bar. Allie hated this time of day—what Kelsey referred to as the dead zone. The two hours in the afternoon after the lunch crowd left and before people got off work. Allie knew she should be taking advantage of this lull to get caught up on the pile of paperwork on her cluttered desk. She had inventory sheets to go over. Bills to pay. Taxes to file. Liquor deliveries to schedule and grocery orders to submit. All of which bored her to tears. “I guess you’re right,” Kelsey said in mock disappointment, as if she wasn’t completely gaga over Allie’s brother, ever since the day they’d met, right here at The Summit a few months ago. Kelsey tapped her forefinger against her bottom lip. “Hey, I know. What if I slap one of those cowboy hats on the sheriff? And do you think spurs would be too kinky?” “Eww. I think my brain just imploded. And if it didn’t, I wish it would.” Allie climbed two more rungs and reached down for the red paper heart Kelsey held up to her. “For one thing,” she said, hanging the heart from a rafter, “could you please refer to my brother by his name? Or better yet, pick a better nickname for him. He’s the police chief, and you calling him ‘sheriff’ is too weird. What about ‘pooky bear’? Or ‘snookums’?” “You expect me to get down and dirty with a man called snookums?” Kelsey grimaced. “That is just wrong.” Allie glared down at her. “And that’s the other thing. I don’t want to hear anything about you and Jack playing dress up or getting down. Dirty or not. How would you like it if Nina told you all about her and Dillon’s love life?” Nina, a mutual friend, had been involved with Dillon since Christmas. Everyone around Allie had paired up. It was like Noah’s ark. With her all by her lonesome on a life raft. Good thing that’s how she wanted it, or else she’d be depressed as hell. Kelsey waved another paper heart in the air. “Nina’s far too sweet to ever discuss something like that.” Allie rolled her eyes and descended the ladder. She reached the last rung and slipped, twisting her ankle when she landed on the floor. “Ouch.” She rubbed the sore spot through her boot. “Why don’t you be a real friend and hang the rest of the decorations?” “Take your boots off. Why are you climbing a ladder in that getup?” “Because I don’t have any other shoes with me. And if you think I’d walk around in here in my stocking feet, you’re more delusional than usual.” Kelsey picked up the ladder and moved it to the end of the bar. “There. I helped. But I’m not hanging any froufrou hearts. You know how I feel about decorating for holidays. Especially ones as commercial as Valentine’s Day.” What could Allie say? That she needed to keep busy? That if she stopped for even a minute she started questioning herself? Started wondering if she should’ve listened to Evan, her ex-boyfriend, and accepted the partnership at Hanley, Barcroft, Blaisdell and Littleton. Or if her life would’ve been different if she’d never taken Miles Addison’s case. But she had taken it. And she’d been so determined to get ahead that she forgot all the reasons she became a defense attorney in the first place—to help people. People who needed it. See why she hated this time of day? “Hey,” Kelsey said, rubbing Allie’s arm. “You okay? Your ankle isn’t sprained, is it?” Allison rotated her foot while she cleared her thoughts. “No. It’s fine. I just can’t believe you don’t like Valentine’s Day, that’s all.” She climbed the ladder again. She was so counting this as her workout for the day. “Are you sure you’re female?” “Valentine’s Day is a holiday made by the greeting card companies and retailers to trick poor saps into spending money on a bunch of useless crap.” Kelsey’s voice rose and she began to pace. “I mean, what’s up with sending flowers? They just die. And if I want candy, I’ll pick up a Hershey’s bar at the convenience store.” Allie hung a set of pink hearts and climbed down. “What about jewelry?” She sneered. “Do I look like someone who wants diamonds?” No, she didn’t. Well, except for that gorgeous engagement ring Allie had helped her brother pick out. “You poor thing,” she said, wrapping an arm around Kelsey’s stiff shoulders. “Have you ever gotten a valentine?” “I never wanted one,” Kelsey said haughtily. “I’m sure Jack will get you something superromantic,” Allie assured her. She gave Kelsey a little squeeze. “He’d better,” she mumbled. “And it better be expensive.” “At least now I understand why you want to host a speed-dating event on Valentine’s Day. You’re rebelling against romance.” Kelsey crossed her arms. “I’m all for romance. The speed dating thing gives our customers a chance to find true love. And if they happen to find love while helping our bottom line, all the better.” Allie grinned and folded the ladder before carrying it back down the hallway to the supply closet. Her good humor faded as she realized what had become of her life. Instead of playing a very important part in the American legal system, she now spent her time hanging cheap decorations, preparing the same meals over and over, and avoiding paperwork. She slammed the closet door shut. Well, she’d wanted to change her life. As usual, when she set out to do something, she’d succeeded. And while running a bar might not be as exciting as practicing criminal law, it was a lot less stressful. And she wasn’t unhappy, she told herself as she went into the kitchen. She loved Serenity Springs and had fabulous friends and the best, most supportive family a person could ask for. A family that didn’t ask too many questions. Such as why she’d quit her job and moved back. She owned her own business, which was growing by leaps and bounds. Plus, she got to do something she enjoyed every day. Even if a year ago she hadn’t considered her love of cooking to be anything other than a fun hobby. Hey, she was nothing if not adaptable. She gave her pasta sauce a quick stir, adjusted the flame under the pot and picked up her coat. “I’m going home to change,” she told Kelsey as she walked back into the bar. “The sauce is simmering, so could you check it once or twice? Oh, and I almost forgot, can you switch the appetizer on the specials board to grilled flat bread pizza? I’ll do a veggie one and a chicken one.” Kelsey leaned against the bar and sipped from a bottle of water. “Sure. But hey, before you go, you never told me why you did it?” “We’ve offered bruschetta twice this month,” Allie said, pulling on her red leather coat, “and it hasn’t gone over too well. I thought we’d try something different.” “No, why did you reject Mr. Tall, Not-So-Dark but Very Handsome? Didn’t he pass your test?” Well, damn. And here she thought she’d avoided the subject of Dean Garret. “Actually,” Allie said, lifting her hair out from beneath her coat, “he passed with flying colors. He didn’t hit on me once.” Although she remembered how, right before he left, he’d stepped closer to her, how his eyes had heated and his voice had lowered. Kelsey set her glass on the counter and crossed her arms. “If he passed the test, what was the problem?” Allie shrugged and picked up her purse. “He wasn’t right for The Summit.” “Ahh.” She nodded sagely. “In other words, he didn’t need to be saved.” Allie narrowed her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You only hire the downtrodden, the needy or, in a few memorable cases, the just plain pathetic. You’re like the Statue of Liberty. All you need is a tattoo on your forehead that reads ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your flakes who don’t know the difference between a cosmo and a mojito….’” “So?” Allie asked, sounding to her own ears suspiciously like a pissy teenager. “I don’t know the difference between them, either.” “Which is why you need to hire a bartender who does. Besides, none of the people you’ve hired since I’ve been here have stuck around. What does that tell you?” Allie pulled on her black leather gloves. “That my manager keeps firing them all?” “Hey, I only fired three of them—and they all deserved it. The rest quit. And they quit,” she continued, when Allie opened her mouth to speak, “because though you tried to save them from themselves, they weren’t interested. All they wanted was to get on with their dysfunctional lives.” “Who was stopping them?” Allie zipped her coat. “You act like I offered counseling sessions as part of a benefits package or something.” “Pretty close,” Kelsey mumbled. “Relax. I’m telling you, Dean Garret isn’t right for this job. Trust me on this, I’m doing the right thing here.” “I hope so,” Kelsey called after her as Allie walked out the door. She shivered and hurried over to her car. Yeah, she hoped so, too. And Kelsey was way off base about her trying to save people. She was out of that game. Because the last time she’d played, she’d saved the wrong person. THE NEXT DAY, Dean held his cell phone between his shoulder and ear as he dropped a cardboard pizza box onto his motel bed. “Hey there, darlin’,” he said when his call was picked up, “it’s me. I need a favor.” “I’m not that kind of girl,” Detective Katherine Montgomery said in her flat, look-at-me-wrong-and-I’ll-kick-your-sorry-ass New York accent. And people thought he sounded funny. “And don’t call me darlin’.” The corner of his mouth kicked up. He’d met Katherine over a year ago when he’d worked in Manhattan. The mother of three teenagers, she’d been married for twenty-five years and was built like a rodeo barrel. She was also one of the most savvy cops working in the anticrime computer network in the NYPD, and she didn’t take crap from anyone—least of all him. Was it any wonder he was half in love with her? “Now don’t be that way,” he said, flipping the box open and sliding a piece of pepperoni-and-onion pizza onto a paper towel. “I’m betting with the right incentive, you could be talked into being that kind of girl.” He could almost see her scowling at the phone as she sat behind her very tidy desk. “If you keep up with the sweet talk, my husband’s going to hunt you down,” she warned. Her husband, a skinny, balding postal worker, wasn’t much of a threat and they both knew it. Unless the guy attempted to whack Dean upside the head with his mailbag. “For you, I’d risk it.” “Uh-huh.” She made a soft slurping sound—probably sipping her ever-present coffee—before saying, “So you called me two hours before quitting time on a Friday afternoon in another pathetic attempt to sweep me off my feet?” “Well, that wasn’t the only reason.” Dean bit into his pizza, chewed and swallowed before wiping his hand on his jeans. He slid his notebook toward him and flipped it open. “I need everything you can give me about a Terri—T-e-r-r-i—Long.” He gave her Terri’s social security number, date of birth and last known address. “I need everything you can find, the more personal the better.” “And you think I’m going to help you why?” Dean took another bite of pizza and popped the top of a can of soda. “Because it’d take me at least three days to find out even a quarter of what you could discover in a few hours?” “Yeah. That’d be why.” She repeated back to him the information he’d given her. “Who’s Terri Long?” He finished his pizza. “At the moment she’s my competition for a bartending job I’m interested in.” “Do I even want to know why you want a bartending job?” “Probably not.” “Uh-huh.” He heard the distinct sound of Katherine tapping at her keyboard. “You’re not doing anything illegal, are you, Dean?” “Not at the moment.” Silence filled the line. “What did you do?” “Nothing.” He switched the phone to his other ear. “Nothing you need to know about, anyway.” Like how he’d broken into The Summit last night and gone through Allison Martin’s office until he’d discovered the name of the person she’d given his job to. Technically, yes, breaking and entering was illegal. But he hadn’t stolen anything. Other than information, that is. And most importantly, he hadn’t been caught. In Dean’s book, that meant he hadn’t done anything wrong. “If you get hauled off to jail again,” Katherine warned him quietly, “don’t even think about calling me. Especially if you’re more than one hundred miles away from Manhattan.” “Now, you know how much I appreciated you flying down to Atlanta to bail me out. Didn’t you get the gift basket I sent you?” Katherine grunted. He would’ve been worried if he hadn’t still heard her typing. “Next time you send me fancy chocolates, send them to the station. By the time I got home, Mickey and the kids had already eaten half the box.” “You got it.” He lifted his hips, pulled his wallet from his back pocket and took out his credit card. As soon as he got off the phone with Katherine, he’d call the chocolate shop. “Want me to e-mail you what I find?” “That’ll do. And thanks. I owe you one.” “You owe me at least a dozen. But who’s counting?” Katherine asked with a sigh. “Just promise you’ll be careful.” “Always.” He disconnected the phone and tossed it aside. Allison Martin needed his help to realize she’d hired the wrong person. Now all he had to do was sit back and wait for Katherine to work her magic. Then he’d make his next move. He shot his crumbled paper towel into the garbage can in the corner. Once he had the job, once he had her trust, it was simply a matter of time before everything else fell into place for him. He’d make damn sure of it. BEING SURROUNDED BY barely dressed coeds sure made a woman feel every single one of her almost thirty-two years. Allie drew a beer and handed it to her customer, a fully dressed, beefy kid of twenty-two. “Here ya go,” she told him with a grin. Hey, she could flirt with younger guys just as easily as men her own age. And if she gave some kid a thrill by smiling at him, who was she hurting? In the dim light of the bar she noticed him blush all the way to the dark blond roots of his crew cut. He stammered a thank-you as he hurried off. See? She was just doing her best to spread a bit of sunshine wherever she went. Allie turned her attention back to her lineup of thirsty customers. A brunette in a bright pink tube top sauntered to the horseshoe-shaped bar in her three-inch sandals. Someone needed to tell these kids that it may be called spring break, but that didn’t mean they should dress as if they were in Florida. For God’s sake, it was ten degrees outside. Dear Lord, she’d sounded like her mother. And had called her customers—most of whom were barely ten years younger than her—kids. She might as well start wearing support hose and let her hair go gray. “Two cosmos and a strawberry margarita,” the brunette said over the blaring jukebox and loud voices. “Coming up.” Allie poured the margarita ingredients into a clean blender and added a scoop of ice. With the machine whirring, she then worked on the cosmos. After making at least a dozen tonight, she didn’t even have to consult the cocktail book Kelsey had given her. Go her. If she didn’t have another, oh, twenty or so people wanting drinks, Allie would take the time to pat herself on the back. Too bad memorizing the ingredients in a few select drinks was about the only thing that had gone right tonight. After a small Saturday night dinner crowd, The Summit had been inundated with college kids ready to party. The sight of her bar packed wall to wall with customers had made Allison’s heart go pitter pat. Until Terri Long called five minutes before her shift was to start to say she wouldn’t be coming to work for Allie, after all. Seemed she had a shot at the big time—whatever that meant—and wasn’t even in Serenity Springs anymore. Allie viciously shook her cosmo ingredients and filled two glasses. She hoped there was a special place in hell for people who blew off work. That was the last time she’d ever hire someone without checking references. She tossed straws into the cosmos and poured the margarita into a glass. She sent tube-top girl on her way and began filling the next order as the too-familiar opening chords of “Hotel California” came on the jukebox. Allie gritted her teeth. No doubt about it. This was not her night. She finished the drinks and recorded the sale on the register. At least her male customers were easy to please. A smile or flip of her hair and they were falling all over themselves to charm her. Even after waiting in line for a solid fifteen to twenty minutes to get a beer. She just thanked God all they wanted to drink was either beer, shots or the occasional rum and coke. Noreen, her very grumpy middle-aged waitress, was keeping beer pitchers full and the rowdiest customers in line. Allie glanced at the door, where Luke Ericson was perched on a stool, a grin on his too-handsome face as one of the three girls surrounding him whispered in his ear. When he’d walked in an hour ago, Allie had given him free drinks for the night in exchange for him checking IDs at the door. None of that made up for the fact that her feet were killing her, she had a huge cranberry juice stain on the front of her favorite jeans and she was starting to wonder if she was breaking a fire code with so many people in the place. She stepped back toward the line of customers, but stopped when something at the far end of the bar caught her eye. Her heart thumped heavily in her chest—once, twice, before it found a quick rhythm. Well. Her night might be getting better, after all. “You must’ve found something in town to keep your interest,” she called over to Dean. “How do you figure?” She crossed to him. “You’re still here.” “I’m heading out tomorrow. Got a job in Saranac Lake.” She kept her smile firmly in place. Well, that’s what she got for not hiring him when she’d had the chance. “Congratulations. How about a drink to celebrate?” “Whatever you have on tap is fine.” She got his beer and took it over to him. When he pulled out his wallet she waved him off. “On the house.” He studied her for a moment before putting his wallet away. “Appreciate it.” For the next half hour, she poured drinks, all the while aware of a pair of aquamarine eyes following her every move. She set a fresh beer in front of Dean—who seemed oblivious to the fact that the three giggling, just-this-side-of-legal girls next to him were vying for his attention. Sometimes men could be so clueless. “What can I get you?” Allie asked the girl with the cute pixie haircut. She slid a look at Dean. “Sex on the Brain.” “Sweetie, sitting next to this guy—” Allie motioned to him “—would give my ninety-two-year-old grandmother sex on the brain. What drink do you want?” The girl giggled and leaned on the bar, the better for Dean to have a clear view down her low-cut top. “Sex on the Brain is a drink.” Allie glanced at Dean, arching an eyebrow. He nodded. She sighed and brushed her hair back. Well, that figured. “Could I speak with you for a moment?” Before Dean could answer, she walked around the end of the bar, took him by the arm and pulled him off his stool. “Don’t worry, ladies. I’ll bring him right back.” He didn’t fight her and she easily hustled him behind the bar. “Quick. What’s in a Sex on the Brain?” He scratched his cheek. “Couple of things.” “Okay,” she said to no one in particular, “that’s it.” She wrapped both hands around the lapels of his jacket and yanked him forward. Noted how his eyes widened slightly. “I’m not in the mood for games, so you can drop the laconic cowboy act.” He kept his hands at his sides. Just tilted his head to the side. “What act?” She growled. “Listen, I’m tired, I have an endless supply of people waiting for drinks and I’m surrounded by about a million overly perky, faux tanned coeds.” Allie inhaled, then rushed on when he opened his mouth. “I’ve had to pull the same girl—intent on showing everyone her coyote-ugly act—off the bar not once, but three times, and I’ve been hit on by just about every guy in here. But the worst thing is I don’t know what I’m doing. And I can’t call my sister-in-law to come and show me because she caught some nasty stomach bug from my niece. Suffice it to say I’m not in the best of moods.” Allie tightened her hold on his jacket and stood on her toes so that her forehead bumped his chin. “So do not even think about messing with me.” “I wouldn’t dream of messing with you,” he said, his voice husky and somehow intimate. Oh. She blinked. Pried her fingers open and stepped back. “Well then.” She swallowed. “How do I make a Sex on the Brain?” “I’ll show you.” He took off his jacket, and she could’ve sworn every female in the room sighed. His black T-shirt hugged the smooth planes of his chest and molded to his biceps. The man was beautiful. Now if only he’d left his hat on, the moment would’ve been perfect. Allie knew she was going to have some erotic dreams about that hat. Dean tossed his jacket on a shelf under the bar. “Fill a tall glass with ice.” She set the glass of ice in front of him. He stuck a straw in it and added a shot each of peach schnapps, vodka and Midori melon liqueur. He then laid an upside-down spoon against the glass and slowly poured in pineapple juice, followed by orange juice and then sloe gin, resulting in a drink that resembled a stoplight: green on the bottom, yellow in the middle and red on top. “You’re a genius,” Allie declared. “And my personal hero. I’ll give you three hundred bucks to work the rest of the night.” She forced herself not to back up when he leaned toward her. “Darlin’,” he purred into her ear, his warm breath causing her to shiver. “I thought you’d never ask.” CHAPTER THREE ALLISON MARTIN DIDN’T know squat about tending bar. But she sure knew how to work a crowd, Dean thought as he collected empty bottles and carried them to the recycling bin. She’d flirted, socialized and kept her customers happy while they waited for their drinks. He glanced at her as she cleared tables. They’d had last call twenty minutes ago and after the final drink had been served, she’d turned on the lights and dived into the cleanup with the same get-it-done spirit she’d demonstrated behind the bar. The owner wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. And she was easy on the eyes. Tonight she had on a pair of snug, dark jeans tucked into those same pointy heeled boots she’d worn during his botched interview. Her shirt was the color of cranberries, with a wide, square neck and long, filmy sleeves that billowed out over her wrists. Dean took the mixers apart to be washed. She’d had every poor sap in the place drooling over her, wishing that somehow, miracle of miracles, she’d end up with him tonight. “Well, you sure proved me wrong,” Allie said as she came behind the bar and set down her full tray. She’d told him to call her Allie, although he wanted to continue to think of her as Allison. Or better yet, Ms. Martin. He needed to keep as much distance and formality between them as possible. But she didn’t make it easy. He stacked dirty dishes to the left of the three-bay sink. “How so?” “I should’ve hired you in the first place.” She gave him a pat on the arm, and damn if he didn’t want to back up. Out of range. She moved away to empty the garnish tray. “You charmed every girl in here—heck, you even managed to get Noreen to smile, which, believe me, is an accomplishment.” “She was laughing at my suggestion that she stay to help clean up.” “Well, that makes more sense.” Allie washed her hands and dried them on a clean towel. “I’m sure she told you cleanup’s not part of her job.” He rubbed the back of his wrist over an itch on his forehead, then resettled his hat on his head. For some reason, Allie had asked him to wear it while he worked. “I couldn’t repeat what she told me. At least not in mixed company.” Allie waved at a departing customer. “Noreen was one of the very few females in here tonight immune to your charms. And don’t think I missed that brunette with the big—” he raised his eyebrows and she grinned “—lungs hand you a cocktail napkin. I’m guessing it had her name, phone number and even a hand-drawn heart on there, as well.” He kept his attention on the glasses he was washing. “It wasn’t a cocktail napkin,” he mumbled. “I saw her give you something, and it wasn’t very big.” Allie swept her hair back and put it in a messy, sexy knot at the back of her head. “Please tell me she didn’t write her number on toilet paper.” “Not toilet paper, either.” “Come on,” she said, swatting him with the towel. “Don’t be cruel. I’m too tired to play guessing games.” He pressed his lips together as he rinsed a glass, then cleared his throat. “It was her thong.” Silence filled the room. He glanced at Allie, just to make sure she was still breathing. Her mouth popped open. “Oh, my God. You’re a rock star.” Chuckling, she shook her head. “Well, the poor girl was no match against you. You throw out some mighty strong pheromones.” To Dean’s everlasting shame, heat climbed his neck. “She was just…friendly.” Allie laughed even harder. “I think it’s safe to assume she wanted to show you how friendly she could be. Now I have to ask—did you keep it?” “I thought it’d make a nice addition to my collection.” “No doubt about that.” She poured herself a diet cola. “I hope you washed your hands after touching it.” “Washed them and then stuck them in the disinfectant just to be safe.” Allie picked up her tray. “You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that.” He waited until she was out from behind the bar before saying, “And you were right.” She stopped and looked at him. “Her name and number were on the thong,” he said, “along with a little heart.” Which had half amused, half horrified him. Allie laughed again as she went to finish clearing tables. Dean lifted his hat long enough to run a wet hand through his hair. He needed to watch himself. She was damn likable, but he couldn’t let his guard down. Allie came back and set her tray on the bar. “So, tell me about this job in Saranac Lake.” She stood on tiptoe and reached for her soda. He caught a brief, tantalizing glimpse of smooth cleavage and a lacy black bra. He cleared his dry throat. “Tending bar at the Valley Brook Resort. Starts Monday.” “I’m impressed. The Valley Brook is pretty upscale. You must’ve wowed them with your interview.” “Like I didn’t wow you?” She tapped her fingertip against her glass. “Let’s just say I’m used to more…vocal interviewees. You know, people who speak when spoken to.” “Good thing for me the people at Valley Brook didn’t have the same problem.” He dried his hands and grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler. “Besides, I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but it’s important for bartenders to be good listeners. Not talkers.” She set her glass down with a soft clink. “Well, then you must be a great bartender.” He almost grinned. “I saved your ass tonight, didn’t I?” “That you did. Could you hand me a clean rag so I can wash off the tables?” He handed her one, making sure he didn’t touch her, then took a long drink before asking, “What happened to the bartender you did hire?” “Not sure. She seemed excited to get the job, and was even apologetic when she called to tell me she wasn’t coming in.” Allie shrugged. “Guess she had a better offer.” Yeah. She had. He’d made sure of it. Katherine had found out that Terri Long’s real ambition was the stage. She’d followed her boyfriend—a ski instructor—to Serenity Springs. Dean had pulled some strings and got Terri hired as an understudy in an off-, off-Broadway show, effectively ending Terri’s desire to work at The Summit. He wondered if it ended her desire for her boyfriend, as well. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Hope you find someone else.” “OKAY, GUYS, NIGHT’S OVER,” Allie told the last three men left in the bar. “Last call was forty-five minutes ago. Time for you to move on.” Two of them slid their chairs back, but the dark-haired one in the middle, the biggest one, didn’t budge. “I’m not done with my drink,” he slurred. She sighed. Why were the biggest ones always so much trouble? “You’ve got five minutes to finish it and get on your way. Or else I call the cops to come and escort you out.” “That won’t be necessary,” the taller, lankier one on the left said, his Adam’s apple bouncing as he swallowed. “Right, guys?” The shorter one with the thick neck nodded, while Big Guy glared at his beer. “Five minutes,” she repeated, walking away. Since Dean had everything under control behind the bar, she finished wiping off tables. She hated to think about what her night would’ve been like if he hadn’t shown up. Even Noreen had said he wasn’t half-bad. And from Noreen, that was high praise indeed. Allie scrubbed at a sticky spot on a corner table. She had to admit Dean had impressed her. He’d not only saved her ass—as he so eloquently put it—but he’d stuck around to help clean up. Which meant she might get home and in bed before the sun rose. Yep, no doubt about it. Dean was her hero. She wiped the table dry before setting the chairs on it. She just had to figure out how she was going to persuade him to give up his job in Saranac Lake and work for her instead. She ran her hands down her jeans, picked up her rags and headed behind the bar. “You have everything under control back here?” “So far,” Dean said. He was quite the man of understatement. But during the past few hours she’d come to realize that although he talked slowly and took his time, he was far from stupid or lazy. He got the job done, kept the customers happy and seemed at ease whether trying to sweet-talk Noreen into cleaning, or shutting down a young coed when they’d overimbided. Hey, maybe there was something to being laid-back. She’d have to give it a try sometime. She refilled her glass, drinking from it and then nodding at the three young men getting to their feet. “I’m glad they’re leaving. I was afraid I’d have to call Jack.” Dean tipped his hat back. “Jack? That your boyfriend?” “No, my brother.” She ran her finger through the condensation on her glass. “He’s also the police chief.” “That’s handy.” “It’s great,” she agreed. “I can always count on him to bail me out. And then lecture me until my eyes cross.” Was it any wonder she’d never told Jack what had happened a year ago, what she’d done, before she’d bought The Summit? Even after all these months she still had a hard time facing herself in the mirror. She didn’t need to face her family’s disappointment in her, as well. She bent to tie a bag of garbage closed as the three kids passed the bar. Instead of moseying on out, though, the big one stopped. “I changed my mind.” He hefted himself onto a stool and slammed his hand on the bar. “I want another beer before we go.” “Sorry, no can do,” Allie said before Dean could respond. “We’ve already had last call.” “Come on, Harry,” his tall buddy said, glancing warily at Dean. “Let’s get back to the hotel. We’ve got a twelve-pack there, remember?” Harry—did people still name their kids that?—stood and shoved his companion into the bar. “Back off. I want my beer here.” “I’m giving you ten seconds,” Allie said, making her voice as cold as the weather outside despite the uneasiness in her stomach, “then I’m calling the cops.” Harry puffed up his chest, swaying with the effort. “I’ll go when I’m ready to go.” Both of his friends began talking at once, trying to convince him. Before Allie could pick up the phone to call in the cavalry—namely Jack—Dean sighed and tossed down his cleaning rag. She grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?” she asked. He looked at her as if she’d been drinking the disinfectant solution. “I thought I’d convince young Harry and his followers to go home.” “But there are three of them.” He gently peeled her fingers off his arm. “I appreciate your concern, but I think I can handle the Three Stooges here.” Then he walked around the bar. She bent down and picked up the Louisville Slugger Dillon had made her promise to keep under the bar for protection. Her hands shook as she wrapped her fingers around the handle. If she had to hit someone with this thing she was going to be mighty ticked off. Dean, in no particular hurry that she could see, sort of…ambled…up to Harry and his friends. The kids flanking Harry took a step back. Must be Dean’s sheer size. It couldn’t be his fierce demeanor. From what she’d seen of him, the guy was so easygoing she was surprised he didn’t slip into a coma. “You’re ready now,” Dean said quietly. Harry held on to the bar as if trying to remain upright. “What?” “You said you’d go when you were ready. You’re ready now.” “Says who?” Allie blinked. Had she somehow been transported back to grade school? No, they weren’t a couple of ten-year-olds calling each other names. They were two very large, fully grown men facing off in front of her. Dean kept his hands loose at his sides. “Bar’s closed.” “Back off.” The guy punctuated his statement by shoving him in the chest. Dean took a step back to keep his balance, and Allie tightened her grip on the bat, her pulse skittering. But instead of losing his temper, he looked at Harry’s friends. “You’d better get your buddy out of here before he lands all of your asses in jail.” Harry sneered. “Why don’t you go back to the range or wherever you came from?” He leaned forward and knocked Dean’s hat right off his head. Oh, Harry, that wasn’t a smart move. “Kid,” Dean said with a quiet intensity that made her shiver, “you have a lot to learn. The first of which being don’t ever touch another man’s hat.” He stepped forward. The two smarter ones backed up. “Now, you’ve got two seconds to get your butt out of this establishment—” “Or what?” Harry asked, with more beer-induced bravado than brains. Dean actually grinned. A dangerous and—okay, sexy—grin that said please give me an excuse so I can smash your head in. Not that she blamed him. After all, Harry had knocked his hat off. “Or else I escort you out personally,” Dean said, making no doubt that it wasn’t a statement, but a promise. The two men stared each other down. Tension filled the room; the threat of violence permeated the still air. Allie cleared her throat. “I hate to interrupt this testosterone battle, but do you want me to call the police?” “That won’t be necessary,” Dean said, never taking his attention off the kid. “Will it, Harry?” “No,” Harry grumbled after a moment. His friends, sensing their chance, took hold of his arms and started pulling him backward. “This bar sucks, anyway.” She loosened her grasp on the bat. Crisis averted. Thank God. Or it was until Harry wrenched free of his friends and swung wildly at Dean’s head. She gasped and raised the bat to her shoulder, but Dean didn’t need her coming to his rescue. In one smooth move he stepped to the side, pulled his arm back and punched Harry. Allie grimaced at the crunching sound of bone hitting bone as Dean’s fist connected with the drunk’s nose. Harry groaned and slid to the floor in a heap. Allie’s palms were so sweaty the bat slipped out of her grip and hit the floor with a loud bang. But nobody seemed to notice. Harry’s friends stared wide-eyed at Dean, and Harry…well, poor Harry wasn’t doing anything except bleeding. While Dean stood there, big and imposing and a little scary, with his hands clenched. He then raised an eyebrow at the two friends. They both shook their heads. Holy cow. The man was like some Chuck Norris wannabe. No wonder he’d patted her on the head when she’d tried to talk him out of confronting Harry and his buddies. From what she’d just seen, she wouldn’t be surprised to find out he could’ve taken all three of the younger men at the same time. Her initial reaction to Dean had been right. There was way more to him than met the eye. Dean snatched up his hat, sat it on his head and knelt next to Harry, who had come to enough to moan. “Another thing you need to learn,” he told the kid cheerfully, “is not to start a fight you have no chance of winning.” WHY DID HE ALWAYS GET stuck working with the softhearted ones? In the last year he’d done jobs for both an inner city teacher whose students ran all over her, and a youth pastor in a small town who wanted to save the kids in his flock from the fires of hell. Too bad the kids were more concerned with having fun than being saved. Dean shook his head and picked out two bottles of tequila from the supply closet. Once Harry had come around, Allie had hovered over the kid. She’d given him ice for his swelling and cut nose, asked if he needed some pain reliever. Then she’d spoken in depth to Harry’s friends, making sure one of them was sober enough to drive. Luckily, the skinny kid was the designated driver or else she probably would’ve made Dean play chauffeur. “Did you have to punch him so hard?” she asked as soon as he came back into the room. “Next time someone takes a swing at me,” he said as he added the tequila to the stock behind the bar, “I’ll politely ask him to stop.” She crossed her arms. “I just hope he doesn’t try and bring you up on charges of aggravated assault. You can claim self-defense, but he might counter that you used excessive—” “I have a right to protect myself.” “Sounds like you know your law.” “I know my rights,” he said, keeping his cool. “You’re the one who’s talking like a lawyer or something.” She blushed. “That’s because I am a lawyer.” Even though he already knew about her past as a defense attorney, he played along. “You’re a lawyer and a bar owner?” “No.” She picked up a rag and wiped off the already clean bar. “I…changed careers about a year ago.” He leaned against the counter. “Is your career change working out for you?” She glanced up at him, a loose strand of hair curved over her cheek. “Oh, yeah. It’s been great. Really, really, really great.” Uh-huh. All those reallys weren’t fooling anyone. “Were you any good?” Her eyes grew sad for a moment. “Yeah. I was very good.” He watched her carefully. “Must’ve been hard to give it up.” The corners of her mouth turned up in a fake smile. “I needed a change.” And if that was the truth, the next time some drunk took a swing at him, Dean would let him connect. “What kind of law did you practice?” “Criminal. So, I take it you excelled in the marines?” After a moment’s hesitation, he decided to go along with the change in subject. He knew when to let something drop and when to push. Besides, he had plenty of time to get to know Allie. To learn all of her secrets. Using the broom she’d brought out, he swept behind the bar. “Why do you say that?” “Uh, because of the way you flattened poor Harry. You must’ve gotten an A+ at hand-to-hand combat.” “Poor Harry?” Dean shook his head, kept sweeping. “First of all, subduing a drunk civilian doesn’t take much skill. Secondly, weren’t you the one who wanted poor Harry’s butt hauled off to jail?” She sprayed disinfectant onto the work areas behind the bar. “I wanted to scare him. I didn’t realize you were going to go all Walker, Texas Ranger on him.” “I’ve worked in a lot of bars. Was a bouncer in a few of them and have dealt with plenty of drunken idiots.” True. Sort of. “And believe me, after a man’s been swung at enough times, he’d better be smart enough to learn how to duck. Or how to fight back.” She rolled her eyes. “Now you sound like Jack.” Jack Martin, the police chief brother. And, according to the information Dean had from the cute redhead who worked the desk at the motel, the first Martin sibling to run back to Serenity Springs from New York. “Jack must be a smart man then,” Dean said, picking up the dustpan. “He is. He’s great.” She took the broom and swept the dirt into the dustpan he held. “But if he asks, I’ll deny I ever said that. As a younger sister, it’s my duty to bug, tease and annoy him mercilessly.” “I’ll have to call my mother and thank her for not having any daughters.” “You don’t know what you’re missing.” He dumped the dirt into the trash can. “I have two younger brothers, Ryan and Sam.” “You’re from Dallas, right? Is that where they live?” “Yeah.” “You must miss them.” His fingers tightened on the dustpan’s handle. He did miss his brothers. Missed his entire family. It’d been almost two years since he’d walked away from them. But he still couldn’t forgive them. Not yet. And he’d never be able to trust them again. Especially Ryan. “Looks like we’re about finished here.” Hey, he could change the subject just as easily as she could. Yes, the best way to get someone to trust you was to pretend to open up to them yourself. But damn, he didn’t want to have this particular conversation now. Or ever. Besides, the bar was too small, too intimate when they were the only people there, to talk about family. It was too easy to forget he was working. “Oh. Right. Hold on.” She opened the cash register, counted out some money and handed it to him. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me.” “Something tells me you would’ve handled things on your own.” He tucked the bills into his pocket. She stepped closer to him. “What would it take to convince you to give up that job in Saranac Lake and work here instead?” His heart picked up speed. He loved it when a plan came together. “Why would I want to do that?” “Saranac Lake is farther north. It’s much colder up there than Serenity Springs.” She laid her hand on his arm as she spoke, her fingers warm on his skin. He stood stock-still, his pulse drumming in his ears. His scheme was working almost too well. “Plus, I’ve been up to the Valley Brook. It’s very fancy. You’d have to wear some dorky uniform.” “For what they’re going to pay me, I’d wear a clown suit.” She inhaled sharply, as if bracing herself, and took her hand off his arm. “How much did they offer you?” Since he really didn’t have a job offer, he made up a figure he thought was reasonable. But when he told her, she winced. Then she swallowed and lifted her chin. “I’ll match it. So what do you say?” she asked hopefully. When she smiled at him like that, his head buzzed. His hands itched to dive into her thick mass of hair. Ah, hell. What he was going to do next could lead him into a whole mess of trouble. It’s for the job, he assured himself. To convince her he was just an easygoing cowboy with nothing more on his mind than his next paycheck. Which was total crap, but he’d hold on to that justification for as long as possible. Because he wanted to touch her, to kiss her before they went any further. Before there were too many secrets and lies between them. “I’ll accept the job,” he said gruffly, “in approximately five minutes.” She laughed. “What? That makes no sense.” “It makes perfect sense.” He edged closer to her. She took a step back. Then another, until she was pressed up against the bar. “You see, after I accept the job, you’ll be my boss.” “You have a problem with me being your boss?” “Not at all.” He settled his hands on her waist. She tensed, her palms going to his chest. “But once you’re my boss, certain…actions on my part would be inappropriate.” “They might be inappropriate even if I’m not your boss.” But she hadn’t pushed him away—or hauled off and slapped him. So he was still in the game. “They might be.” He tugged her warm, lithe body against his, crushing her hands between them. “I need those five minutes.” He ignored how true that statement was—and how much it endangered his job—as he pressed his mouth against the rapidly beating pulse at her neck. She gasped. He rubbed his cheek against hers and leaned back so he could look into her eyes. His voice barely a whisper, his mouth hovering over hers, he asked, “What do you say?” CHAPTER FOUR ALLIE WANTED TO SET DEAN straight on how things worked at her bar. She was the boss and she didn’t go around letting her employees put their hands on her. Or kiss her neck. Her fingers curled into his chest. He was so warm. Solid. He slowly lowered his head, but she pushed against him. His eyes met hers. She blamed her lack of willpower on the intensity in his gaze. How could she worry about mistakes when he seemed so…sexy, yes…but more importantly, so steady? She slid her palms up to his shoulders. “Okay,” she breathed, linking her hands behind his neck and pressing against him. Finally, his mouth brushed against hers, a featherlight kiss that drove a tingle of awareness and sharp, aching need through her body. He pulled back and stared down at her. Okay, so curiosity had got the better of them. No harm done. She smiled up at him as she stroked the back of his neck, the silky ends of his just-this-side-of-too-long hair. “We still have at least four minutes left. I think you can do much better than that.” Humor lit his eyes even as they darkened with desire. And she knew that his desire was real—even while she suspected it was as unwanted for him as it was for her. Then he kissed her again. He kissed like he’d done everything else so far this evening. Slow. Easy. And with great skill. As if he had all the time in the world to learn the texture of her lips, the taste of her, the way she fit against his body. His tongue swept across the seam of her lips. But not even the rasp of his tongue against hers could break the spell he’d put her under. She groaned and pressed her breasts against the solid planes of his chest. He wrapped one arm around her waist and lifted her so that her high heels came off the floor. He slid his other hand into the hair at the nape of her neck, his fingers loosening the knot she’d tied it in as he massaged her scalp, tilted her head and deepened the kiss. Dear Lord, she hadn’t realized one simple kiss could be so…dangerous. To her peace of mind. Her sense of what she could and could not control. And most importantly, to her willpower. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the danger passed. Though he still held her flush against him, she had the sensation of him pulling away. While she would’ve sworn his earlier kisses had been driven by passion, the touch of his lips on hers now felt…deliberate. Practiced. Contrived. She pulled back, breathing hard—definitely harder than a fully clothed, vertical kiss warranted. Allie frowned. Dean stepped away. His jaw was tight and his chest rose and fell with his own heavy breathing. And while she told herself she was being ridiculous, that like always, she was reading way too much into things, she couldn’t help but think there had been something real and honest about what had happened between them when they’d first kissed. She swallowed and tucked her trembling hands behind her back. “Well, I guess that’s it for now.” He nodded. “We could always move our agreement back a few more minutes,” he said, his tone serious. Despite the fact that there was nothing funny about this situation, she laughed. At herself for being such a complete fool. Because even though her instincts were screaming at her not to trust this man, she was tempted to step back into his arms. “I think we’d better stick to our original agreement,” she said. “You’re right.” He put his jacket on. “When do you want me to start?” “Tuesday. Your regular shift will start at seven, but I’d rather you come in around six so we can get all your paperwork filled out.” She tossed the cleaning rags into the small laundry basket she kept stashed under the bar. “You’ll get two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break. All employees get one meal on the house—” “Free food?” Funny how her male employees always perked up at that. “Yes, but there are two conditions. One, you eat what’s on the menu for that night. There are no special orders.” He nodded solemnly. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think this was a restaurant.” What a smart-ass. “It’s a restaurant for paying customers, but even for them I have a limited menu. While I enjoy cooking and am glad we can offer lunch and dinners, The Summit is first and foremost a bar.” Or at least, that’s what Kelsey kept reminding her. “What’s the second condition?” he asked. “No complaining about the food. If you don’t like my cooking, don’t eat it. Bring a bagged lunch or go hungry. I don’t care.” “I hadn’t realized chefs were so sensitive.” Her face heated and she turned toward the stock in front of the large mirror. “I’m not sensitive,” she muttered, rotating bottles so all the labels faced out. “But it’s embarrassing to me—not to mention bad for my business—when an employee has pizza delivered, in front of the Friday night dinner crowd, because she thinks my beer-battered fried fish stinks.” He made a choking sound, as if trying to hold back a laugh, but when she glanced at him, his expression was neutral. “I never complain about a free meal. And speaking of meals, since The Summit’s not open on Sunday, do you have any recommendations for a good place to eat in town?” “You don’t cook?” “I can get by. But the motel I’m staying at doesn’t even have a minifridge, so I’m limited to takeout until I can find a place to rent. I’ll be glad for any opinions you have on the local real estate market, too.” “There are usually a few apartments listed in The Gazette,” she said. Something kept her from mentioning the newly renovated two-bedroom apartment upstairs. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find something decent before too long.” Kelsey had been after Allie for months to rent the space, but she didn’t want the burden of being a landlord. And since The Summit’s income was more than enough for her to live on, Kelsey didn’t push the issue. And who knew? If Dean stuck around long enough, they could always discuss his becoming her first tenant later. “The Pineview has a terrific Sunday brunch,” Allie continued, “but they close at three. If you’re looking for a good lunch, you can’t go wrong with Sweet Suggestions, the bakery on Main Street. Nina’s food is great and reasonably priced. Other than that, I’m afraid your choices are limited to pizza or burgers.” She didn’t miss his quick grimace. “Is that a problem?” “No. But eating pizza twice a day for three days in a row makes a man appreciate a home-cooked meal.” He glanced at his watch. “If you’re finished, I’ll walk you to your car.” She blinked at the unexpected offer. “Oh. That would be great. Let me put the cash away and get my things.” She took the drawer out of the cash register and went down the hall to her office. Tucking the money in her small safe, she locked it before slipping into her coat and picking up her gloves and purse. After checking to make sure the rear door was locked, she hurried back to the bar. Not that Dean seemed in any rush. He was leaning against the wall by the front door, one ankle crossed over the other, his hands in his pockets. She grabbed her cell phone and stuck it in her coat pocket. “All set,” she told him, zipping her coat. He held the door open for her and they stepped outside into the cold night air. The wind blew her hair into her face as she locked the door. Shivering, she pulled on her gloves. He flipped up the collar on his coat and hunched his shoulders. “You shouldn’t park so far from the building,” he said, nodding toward her red SUV at the other end of the snow-covered lot. “Especially since you leave work so late.” “You sound like Jack again.” She carefully stepped off the sidewalk, not the least bit surprised when he took her arm so she wouldn’t slip. One thing she did trust about Dean Garret—his manners were the real deal. “I usually do, but when I got to work, the guy who takes care of the parking lot for me was plowing, so I had to stay out of his way.” They kept their heads down as they slowly made their way. While her high-heeled boots were stylish, they weren’t exactly practical. But Dean, God bless him, didn’t comment or try to hurry her along. He just matched his pace to hers. The wind blew swirls of snow, like little white tornadoes, around them. She stole a glance at Dean’s strong profile. There was no doubt about it. He was one sexy cowboy. He was also, she reminded herself, new in town. He didn’t have any friends and was staying in a half-rate motel that didn’t even have a minifridge. And really, after the way he’d helped her out by pitching in behind the bar, the least she could do was make sure he had a hot meal. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926250&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.