Fantasy heros belong in dreams, so who is this man who appears in her life as it is spinning horribly out of control and can she trust him?
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J. A. Clarke, Romance Author
Carrie Marks’ boring routine is interrupted one night when a hero rescues her from the brink of disaster as she tries to cross the street. Nick Casey is everything she’s ever fantasized about in a man but nothing like anyone she has ever dared to date. Then her life falls apart. She’s fired from her job and discovers her identity has been stolen. She turns to the stranger who rescued her for help and finds herself thrust into the midst of the problems of his demanding family as she struggles to deal with her own and resist Nick’s growing hold on her heart.
Nick Casey is the master of his own destiny and a generous, charitable hero to many. Successful and good-looking, he has what he wants until slender, blonde, disaster-prone Carrie blows into his life. She accepts his help…but only to a point. She rejects his advances. She turns his carefully ordered world upside down. Nick’s frustration levels rise as his feelings for Carrie grow and he becomes convinced that she is hiding something from him. His sister is trying to drive them apart. His housekeeper is trying to drive them together. His teenage neighbor is trying to date her. Courting a woman has never been so difficult. And then there’s that little problem of embezzlement.
On a scale of one to ten, today couldn't have ranked any closer to the bottom.
Carrie Marks scowled at the receiver clutched in her hand. On the other end of the phone line, Señor Toleado's English had deserted him and a spate of excited Spanish crackled across the connection. She shifted the instrument back to her ear. "Señor Toleado," she began again, forcing her voice to soothing calm, "I don't understand you. Please--" The harangue stopped in mid-stream. A muttered but distinct "bitch" sounded in her ear, followed by a click, then the buzz of a disconnected line.
Carrie groaned and dropped the receiver back in its cradle. No resolution and the customer was angry. She would hear about this one from Sales in the morning. Señor Toleado was a good account in Sales' opinion, never mind that Señor Toleado was close to one hundred and twenty days past due on a seventy thousand dollar order. And, of course, Señor Toleado's wire transfer was on its way. Wasn't it always?
She rubbed at the dull throb in her temples. These days, more often than not, she went home with a screaming headache. The list in front of her demanded action. She couldn't do it, couldn't make another phone call tonight, couldn't bring herself to touch the phone again.
It had become an instrument of torture.
Just this week alone, it had screeched at her in Chinese, delivered curses in broken English and politely told her in a charming, southern accent where she could go and what she could do to herself. But it wasn't the only reason for her horrible week. That morning, Bradley Stone, Sales' wonder boy, had walked by her cubicle, tripped and dumped hot coffee all over her favorite leather purse. His apology was patently insincere and, while he'd been faking it, he'd been making goo goo eyes at cute, two-faced Belinda from Accounts Payable. Then, an hour later, when she went to use the copier, the strap on her brand new, expensive, left shoe had snapped.
Rotten day. Rotten week. Rotten people. She needed a new job. If she hadn't made a commitment when she'd been hired six months ago…
Carrie looked at the phone again. Its smooth, black plastic exterior housed anger, denial, raised voices and blame. She really should make another call. Her reluctant hand hovered over the receiver and dropped again. She just couldn't force herself to do it. It was late. Her headache was worse, despite the Advil she'd taken a couple of hours ago. Tomorrow, after some rest, she'd be able to tackle her job again.
Before her conscience could change her mind, she grabbed her purse and jammed her foot into her broken shoe, then headed for the door and elevator beyond. She would go home to an empty apartment, eat a TV dinner, crawl into bed and get up early in the morning to do it all over again.
Her life was uneventful. Her life revolved exclusively around work. Her life really sucked! And there was no dashing hero to rescue her anywhere in sight, either.
The elevator was empty. No surprise there. Sensible people were home, already eating dinner. The four-floor ride to the lobby was short. The doors opened. She stepped out and crossed the empty vestibule of the Portland office building as she dug for her car keys, which seemed to have mysteriously worked their way to the bottom of her coffee-scented purse. The glass entrance door was stiffer than usual and she leaned into it with her shoulder as she finally located her keys.
Whap! Wind saturated with rain slammed into her and almost knocked her off her feet. She staggered back against the door. Terrific. While she'd been earning a grandmother of all headaches in a windowless room, trying to manage people who generally didn't want to be managed, and had the most extraordinary range of excuses, the gentle morning of late summer had become a howling beast in the darkness of evening. And she was totally unprepared. The vicious gusts wrapped around her, shoved the skirt of her light summer suit halfway up her thighs and swept tendrils of hair into her eyes behind the shield of her glasses.
She turned instinctively into the full force of the wind to clear her vision and tried to push down her skirt. Needles of rain stung her unprotected legs. The unexpected cold bit into her. Out in the street, cars flashed by, their headlights slashing through the downpour and darkness, their occupants warm and cozy and oblivious.
It was five blocks to the parking garage. Five blocks on downtown city streets that were largely deserted of pedestrian traffic in this weather, this late in the evening. Familiar concrete and brick outlines were blunted and hidden by the rain. Deep shadows and crevices appeared that looked unfriendly and hinted of danger. Anything could be lurking there. It was a night unfriendly to mere mortals, a night for wizards, werewolves and dark heroes with magical powers.
Holy cow! She tossed her head and fought with her skirt. Too much work and no social life translated into way too many fantasy videos and daydreams.
The wind swirled around her, reached cold, wet fingers up the thin skirt she had chosen that morning in defiance of the lateness of the season. Her feet in the broken sandals were soaked already. Considering she had to be back at the crack of dawn, the couch in the south conference room tempted for an instant. She had used it once before when she had worked late on a Friday night and wanted to finish up first thing on Saturday. But tomorrow wasn't Saturday, her co-workers talked about her enough behind her back and the building was already closed down for the night, the janitors come and gone. She was lucky she had made it out before the night guard had shut the elevators down. Lucky that tonight, the night guard was Jim. Kind baby-faced Jim, with a pregnant wife at home and a tough schedule of college classes by day. Irritable, fifty-something Ben would never have called with a twenty-minute warning.
Another gust snatched at her clothes and sent her skirt flying. The hero from her fantasies obviously had other things to do tonight. She would have to fend for herself. She took one last, quick glance at a particularly menacing, impenetrable shadow several feet away, hitched her purse more firmly over her shoulder and raced to make the walk signal. Two blocks later, she shifted from foot to foot on another corner waiting for the red hand to mutate. Light spilled from the wide windows of the Georgia Café nearby. Tonight, its bizarre assortment of purple and burnt orange stripes and polka dots on both walls and furniture was a refuge for college students and suits alike. People filled every small table and jammed the spaces between. It looked warm and cozy and happy. A bright haven of comfort.
The wind smacked her again, hard enough to make her stumble forward a step. The red hand blinked into a white walking figure and she continued forward. Her thick hair, undaunted by the rain, tossed wildly about her face.
No time to react. A jerk on the waist of her suit jacket knocked her off balance. A steel band snapped around her upper arm, dragged her backwards, pushed her to the side. Her broken sandal caught on something hard and fell off. Pain shot through her toe. A wall of water hit her at thigh level as a huge shape roared by. Too close. The pale blur of a face inside the vehicle seared itself on her mind before it was gone.
"Stupid, goddamn idiot," a voice grated in her ear. "You okay?"
"I…" What in heck had just happened? Her body didn't feel like it belonged to her. Her mind had detached itself. The steel band still encircled her upper arm. A large, warm mass had replaced the force of the wind and rain at her back. Her sodden skirt clung to legs that had no strength. Dazed and confused, she knew she had to give some sort of answer and managed to croak, "Shoe." It probably wasn't the most intelligent thing she could have said.
"What? Oh, here it is." The man's grip tightened as he shifted his body. Something nudged up against her bare foot. She managed to slide into the shoe then tried to step away from the thing that had attached itself to her. Her knees buckled. The grip on her arm tightened again. Pain radiated through her elbow.
She really had no choice. Her feet obeyed the force that still had hold of her and within seconds they were inside the orange and purple cocoon of the café. A table by the door was just being vacated. She was manhandled through a layer of people and shoved down into a chair. Someone's loud objection was cut off by a murmured "near accident" and some other words she didn't catch. The band around her arm loosened.
"I'll be right back. Don't move."
The press of bodies around the table seemed to ease. She tried to shut out the noise and activity to collect her thoughts, tried to drag air into lungs that didn't want to work. Her heart pounded. Her hands, resting on the table, shook. Her headache dug deeper into her temples.
Rain spotted her glasses. She raised a hand that trembled to remove them and dry them. When she replaced them again the corner outside, where disaster had almost happened, came into focus. It was just an ordinary corner. One she passed every day. Nothing unusual about it. She couldn't help it. What if he hadn't been there? What would that corner look like now? Her mind refused to hold the image. The noise level swelled. Raucous laughter came from the group next to her. No one realized what had almost happened within yards of them.
She wanted to go home.
"Here you go." A hot mug was thrust into her hands. He was back so soon, this man who accomplished miracles.
He settled into the empty chair beside her, absorbing the space completely. "Drink," he urged. "You'll feel better."
"I'm okay." But she wasn't. Her voice croaked and cracked embarrassingly. Her insides felt beaten up. She lifted the mug to her lips and took a sip of hot liquid. Coffee. She hated coffee. The bitter, too-strong liquid burned its way to her stomach. She repressed a shudder. It would probably keep her up tonight when she desperately needed sleep and needed to get into work early to make more phone calls to other time zones.
It seemed an odd, irrelevant thought under the circumstances. It wasn't every night she almost got run over. And rescued. She forced her gaze up.
Her Good Samaritan sat with one hand at rest on the table, the other buried in the pocket of his black raincoat. The hand she could see bore a thick, gold signet ring on his middle finger. A watch, with lots of complicated little dials and numbers, was visible at the edge of his cuff. He didn't have a cup of coffee himself.
Thank him and go, her brain urged. She had no reason to prolong this encounter; no desire to begin that awkward get-to-know-you exchange with a stranger. She opened her mouth. Her tongue was thick and heavy and wouldn’t cooperate with the words. Her feet were stuck to the floor. A peculiar shiver traced along her spine and tugged at her nape, compelling her gaze higher.
The stranger’s raincoat gaped open to reveal a white, pin-tucked dress shirt, bordered by the satiny black lapels of a tuxedo. A black bow tie was tucked in perfect alignment under his square, clean-shaven chin. Her heartbeat, almost back to its normal rhythm, stumbled again. She couldn’t look away. Impressions imprinted in a dizzying blur on her mind—straight, narrow mouth, large nose, dark hair, dark eyes--brooding eyes--eyes that bore a deep crease between them as he stared at her.
Oh, Lordy. An arrow of excitement speared through her. Her heart gave a thud loud enough, she was sure, to be heard at the neighboring tables. She'd just been rescued by a dashing prince. Maybe fantasies did come true after all.
A slow, warm smile crept across his face. A furnace turned on in her stomach. Her heart thudded again.
No, no prince this. Too dangerous. Too enigmatic.
Dark hero. Wizard. The incongruous labels whispered from the edges of her dreams. Yet this was no fantasy. This was a man who had achieved a measure of success in life. Power and confidence radiated from him.
She admired men like this from afar, dreamed about them, but their sheer masculinity intimidated her, and they never, ever gave her a second look.
She took another quick gulp of coffee, felt the liquid sear her tongue. That gaze was too uncomfortable, too intense, too… She focused several inches lower on his face as she set the cup down. She had to get out of here. "Thank you for the coffee and for--" She gestured at the rain-drenched darkness outside the window. "I'm fine. I should go now."
"Take it easy," he said, and the calmness in his voice belied the intensity of his gaze. "You've had a shock. Just sit and relax for a few more minutes."
Yup. No doubt about it. A take-charge kind of guy.
Someone bumped the back of her chair, apologized, moved on. Carrie wrapped her hands around her cup, stared at his chin and desperately sought something to say. Since nothing brilliant came to mind, she settled on, "I'm lucky you were there tonight. Thank you."
"Driver's an idiot. He never slowed or looked before he made that right turn against the light. People in the city are always in too much of a hurry."
She clutched at the clue like a lifeline. "You're not from here?"
"Used to be." The shape of his chin changed.
She focused her gaze a smidge higher. He was smiling again, that beautiful, warm smile. Smiles like that should be illegal. They could cause accidents or vulnerable women to fall in lust. His aura of power dissipated a little. Something inside her began to relax.
"I left the city a little over a year ago. I'm now a happy, unstressed resident of Agnes Cove."
Her knowledge of the geography of her recently adopted home, Oregon, was abysmal. She shook her head. "I don't know where that is."
He clicked his tongue. Startled, she stared him full in the face. "Never been to Agnes Cove?" he inquired, his voice deep and lazy. "Then you're missing out on one of the best little places in the world."
"I am?" Warmth had replaced that initial, uncomfortable scrutiny in his eyes. They crinkled at the corners to match his smile. His dark hair, glistening from the rain, sprang thickly back from his forehead. Wizard. Magician. "What's so special about it?"
His smile spread, narrowed his eyes, stretched his mouth. "Everyone has a different opinion about that. You'll have to come visit and form your own." He took his right hand from his pocket and stretched it across the table. "I'm Nick Casey."
An ordinary enough name for a fantasy hero. She unlocked her fingers from the mug and placed her hand in his. "Carrie Marks." Strength and heat from his grip rushed up her arm, spread across her chest, calmed her trembling. Safe. She didn't want to let go.
"Yes." The temperature in the room was suddenly one hundred and ten degrees. An inexplicable warmth crept from beneath the collar of her suit, gained heat as it spread up her neck and erupted in fire across her cheeks. She forced herself to pull her hand away and bent her head, hoping to hide the worst of her embarrassment from him. The strap of her purse poked out from beneath her chair. She hadn't remembered putting it down there. "I should go. I've interrupted your evening."
"Not at all." He was sitting back in his chair again, at ease, in total control of his world, in no hurry. "I was just on my way back to my hotel and a very quiet, very dull night."
"How long are you in town?" Carrie reached for her purse. She really didn't want to go, dreaded the rest of the walk to the garage. And it wasn't every day you met your fantasy prince. Tired though she was, something inside her clamored to stay, to talk more about him, about Agnes Cove, wherever it was.
"Just tonight. I came in for a charity event, hence the monkey suit." He made a short gesture across his chest and grinned. "I'm leaving early tomorrow."
She nodded and fiddled with the strap of her purse. This was like her first date all over again. She wanted it to go on forever. She wanted it to end. She wanted to ask another question, but her tongue seemed to be tied in knots. There was really no reason to draw out the evening. She would never see him again.
He leaned forward abruptly. "Will you take pity on an out-of-towner and have dinner with me, Carrie Marks?"
His dark eyes held friendliness and a sincere interest, and she so needed a friend. But it was late. He was a stranger. She had to get up early. She was soaked to the waist. Home and a bath would be a more sensible choice.
Impatience gripped her. She was so tired of being sensible. Sensible didn't attract princes or heroes. Sensible didn't belong in fantasies. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to live the fantasy. Besides, she was hungry…hungry for food, hungry for friendly conversation. And if she only looked at him in small doses, he wasn't as intimidating. "Yes."
"Good." He smiled. "Let's go to the restaurant in my hotel. It's only four blocks away."
Her sensible self popped up in her head again and shook her finger. Stranger, rapist, murderer, her sensible self blared. Carrie mentally swatted her away. Something wild and reckless possessed her on this stormy night. She had found her hero, if only for a single evening. She uttered just a token protest as they both rose to their feet. "I'm a little damp."
"No matter." He dismissed it easily, unconcerned. "The restaurant is dark. No one will notice."
They reached the door. The wind still blew in fitful gusts but the rain had softened to a mist.
"You okay?" he inquired as he held the door open for her. "I jerked on you pretty hard over there."
"I'm fine." The pain in her stubbed foot begged for attention but she could ignore it. Her headache had died down and now only pricked at her temples. She could ignore that as well. Her soul craved this opportunity to live a fantasy.
"This way." He took her elbow and steered her away from the corner of near disaster. Once again, at his touch, the curious warmth suffused her body. In some remote corner of her mind, she wondered at the courage that permitted her to go with this man. Nervousness, for now at least, had been overcome by curiosity, a burning desire to experience this odd twist that fate had dealt her. It was easy enough to go along with him, to let him take charge. She was vividly aware of the mere inches that separated them as they moved down the sidewalk, vividly aware of his height. She was tall for a woman, yet he topped her by a head at least.
They turned at the next corner, still headed in the direction of her garage. But when he moved in the opposite direction one block farther on, her comfort zone crumbled and the fantasy shattered. She panicked.
"I'm sorry." She stepped back, pulled her elbow from his grasp. "I can't do this. I really have to go home."
In the yellow light cast by the street lamp, she thought she saw regret in his face and almost changed her mind again. She waited for him to insist but he didn't. Why would he? He was probably regretting the impulsive invitation already. She was nothing to look at even when she was cleaned up. Tonight, she was quite sure she could add pathetic and bedraggled to the gawky, awkward label of her high school days. "All right. I'm sorry too. Can I at least walk you to wherever you're going?"
"I'm just down the street at the parking garage." Disappointment settled in a cold knot in her stomach and she waved a deliberately vague hand in the air. "I'll be okay."
"I'll feel better when you're safely in your car. Some cultures would say I'm responsible for you now that I've saved your life."
She should deny him, knew she should just walk away, but she couldn't. No one had expressed this much concern about her wellbeing since her last conversation with her parents three weeks ago. She was a coward and deserved to feel this painful sense of loss for a path never to be taken. Other people led exciting, adventurous lives. She was doomed to bland and predictable. In silence, they walked the two blocks to the garage. In awkward silence, they rode the elevator to the fifth floor.
She said her thank yous and was seated behind the wheel of her car ready to close the door, when he reached into the pocket of his jacket. There was a flash of white against the darkness of his clothing. She automatically took what he handed to her. "If you ever make your way down to Agnes Cove, call me. Take care, Carrie Marks." His devastating smile gleamed as he saluted her and closed the door.
At the turn to the down ramp, Carrie's last glimpse of Nick Casey was of a tall, lone man in an empty parking garage, a prince deserted by his princess, a hero abandoned by his… "Oh, for crying out loud," she muttered. Her tires squealed around the next corner. "Stop it, you idiot."
All during the thirty-five minute drive to her apartment, through another thick downpour, she alternated between kicking herself for wimping out on the dinner invitation, and a deep sense of relief that a lousy day was almost over.
And of course he hadn't asked for her phone number. Why would he?
Her headache was back in full force.
* * * *
The next morning, a rotten week became purgatory. At nine-thirty, a call summoned Carrie to the office of one of the partners. Robert Mace, rail-thin and bald, was the oldest of the four men who had formed the paper brokerage nine years ago. Since she had taken the job of credit manager at the company, Carrie's only interaction with him had been to murmur a greeting in the hallways. She had never been in his office before.
He didn't invite her to sit down and a curious dread settled into the pit of her stomach. She adjusted her glasses more firmly on her nose and tried not to shuffle her feet.
"I'll get right to the point." Mace's face was expressionless, his eyes cold. "We don't feel you're working out. We extended your probationary period to give you more time, but now we're letting you go."
The room shifted under her feet. Extension? Not working out? "What?" she blurted. No one had discussed job performance with her the entire time she'd been at the company. She wasn't even sure to whom she reported. "Why? I've done a good job. I've been collecting accounts that were horribly past due. I've--"
"You've been upsetting some of our best customers," he interrupted. "I have to tell you, Mark overstepped his bounds when he hired you. The rest of us felt you didn't have adequate experience. Nor did we really have time to perform the proper background checks before he brought you in."
He made it sound like she was a criminal. Pain bloomed in her chest as her lungs struggled to expand. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"A person who can't manage her own credit is hardly suitable for the job of credit manager."
A terrible, icy coldness seized Carrie's body. Her mind zeroed in on a single failure--a credit card bill paid twenty days late by mistake two years ago. They were firing her over that? "I don't know what you mean," she managed to say in a voice that sounded surprisingly normal.
"I'm not surprised. You strike me as a very disorganized individual. Try running a copy of your own credit report. We'll give you two weeks severance, of course." His tone implied she hardly deserved it. "But we want you gone today. You have an hour to clean out your desk." He opened a file on his desk, reached for his phone and waited, his gaze directed at the corner of his desk. She no longer existed.
Carrie tried frantically to think of something to say in her defense but her mind was too clogged with confusion and disbelief. In the end, she just turned and walked from the office. It seemed to take forever to reach the large interior room that housed credit and accounting. Along the way, the two people she met avoided looking at her. The corporate culture of the company had never been terribly friendly. She had always felt like an outsider, even after six months. Today she felt as if she wore a billboard that screamed, FIRED.
Fired. Let go. Axed. It happened to other people. Not to her. Not like this, when she had been so sure she was making good progress with the mess she had discovered on her arrival.
Her desk was near the door. The others in the room were hidden behind cubicles. Even so, she felt as if all four people watched and listened to her every move. She had a horrible suspicion they already knew she had been fired. She rounded the corner to her cubicle. A large cardboard box sat on her chair.
She had never gotten around to personalizing her cubicle and had very few things to pack. At the end of ten minutes, still numb, she folded down the lid of a box that was three-quarters empty, pushed her chair aside and left the cubicle. At the door she turned. The room was deathly quiet. Not even the click of computer keys broke the silence.
She took as deep a breath as she could with lungs that still weren't cooperating. "Goodbye, everyone. It's been nice working with you." It was a lie. She had never felt welcome, never been a part of the group, but she believed in not burning her bridges. Someone muttered something as she turned and left the room. A snicker followed.
She tilted her chin and marched down the hallway to the front entrance. Anger was beginning to rise above the confusion. In this company where the personnel seemed to be made up largely of family and friends of family, she had been excluded from chat groups and after work socializing from day one. But she had a job to do and she did that job extremely well.
Or thought she had.
The drive home didn't take nearly as long in the middle of the morning. After she carried the box into the apartment, she collapsed onto her couch and tried to collect her scattered thoughts. Where had she gone wrong? What did the reference to background checks mean? Nothing made sense. Ten minutes later, when she hadn't made any progress at all, the doorbell buzzed.
It was the young assistant manager of the apartment complex, embarrassed and apologetic. He'd seen her drive in, he said, and had come to tell her that her rent check had bounced.