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Sometimes Paradise Valley looked like a Matisse painting had collided with a foreign planet. Cassidy Ware drew in a deep breath and stared in awe at the fusion of golden trees, snow-capped mountains, and emerald reeds among ice blue water. In all her travels, Montana still held the title of favorite place.
But not the place she should be anymore, her mind ventured.
She wished her thoughts would quit messing with her heart.
The stout, older man, fly-fishing half a football field away, struck the perfect pose and Cassidy once again lifted the camera around her neck. Click, click, click. She couldn’t draw a proper stick figure to save her life, but behind a photo lens she always captured something magical.
From a young age, she’d satisfied her curiosity using her camera as a disguise, and while a part of her still believed that to be true, a bigger part of her now wanted to be seen as a person, not just a photographer. Change didn’t happen overnight, but she’d promised herself she’d jump out of her comfort zone more often.
Digging her sneakers into the bank of the river, one foot slightly in front of the other, she continued to snap photos of the fly fisherman and surrounding beauty. Once satisfied, she took a step back, but with the ground overly saturated from recent rain, her foot slipped out from under her. She wavered, tried to catch herself with her arms out for balance, but, “crap!” failed when her other foot slid on the mud-slicked embankment.
Worried about her camera, she lifted it above her head and landed with a thud on her tailbone. Her shoes splashed into the frigid water. Muddy droplets hit her face. The sharp sting in her bottom made her wince.
But—she glanced up into the morning sun—her camera looked unharmed. She lowered her arms and exhaled in victory.
“Hey, you okay? That was a pretty nasty fall,” someone said from behind her. A male someone with a seductive voice that brought to mind an image of tangled sheets and breakfast in bed.
Yep, it had been too long since she’d had a date when her mind raced there instead of feeling grateful for help if she needed it. Thank you, Marietta. If she were anywhere else but the safety of her hometown, old feelings of panic that still crept up on her occasionally might have lodged her heart into her throat instead.
She steeled herself a moment before turning to face the man with the too-charming power of speech. “I’m okay.”
The witness to her clumsiness moved closer, his frame blocking the sun over her shoulder. “Can I help you up?”
Cassidy inwardly sighed. The voice plus good manners took some of the sting out of her pain. And raised goose bumps on her skin. Or maybe that was the cold seeping into her jeans. Besides the chilly water, spring had only recently chased winter away, and today’s temp lingered around fifty-five degrees.
“Sure, thank you.” She turned to her Good Samaritan. “Nick?” she said surprised.
He squinted as his arms moved under hers to hoist her up. “Sid?”
She bristled at the nickname only he used. They hadn’t seen each other since he left to join the navy after graduating from high school, but apparently some things never changed. His sister, Rowan, had told her he was in town after being honorably discharged and she’d figured, now that they were adults, he’d quit with the boy name he knew annoyed her. Guess not.
“The one and only,” she said.
Her foot skidded in the muddy bank and his hold on her tightened. Not sure what to do with her arms, she wrapped them around his middle. Her camera pressed into her stomach, but she’d rather that than be hip to hip.
He took all her weight and moved them back to safer ground. His midnight blue eyes, fringed with dark black lashes, held her gaze, their confidence and magnetism a double dose of trouble. He’d always been comfortable looking people—especially girls—right in the eye.
“There you go,” he said, taking a big step back. Did she smell or something? He wiped his long sleeve across his forehead and that was when she took in his whole appearance. Running shorts, running shoes, a sweaty T-shirt, his black hair curled with perspiration at his neck. “Probably don’t want to stand too close,” he added.
Happy to hear the distance had nothing to do with her, she said, “Thanks.” Then without her permission her eyes took one more peek at his very nice muscular legs before landing back on his face. A face that had only gotten better looking with age. “Sorry I interrupted your run.” And for the record you smell really good.
Her heart rate sped up.
“I’m damn tired and you supplied the perfect excuse to stop running.”
Her heart rate slowed down.
“You didn’t answer me before. Are you okay?”
She rubbed her backside. “Nothing a little aspirin and warm bath can’t cure.” At least she hoped that would heal her pain. Her tailbone seriously felt on fire.
Nick studied her like “warm bath” in reference to her didn’t compute. Her teenage daydreams might have starred him in various rooms of her house in various degrees of undress, but he’d never looked at her as anything other than a pesky “little sister” and Rowan’s best friend.
Cassidy had never admitted to anyone her huge crush on him. Not that he would have been the least bit interested if he’d known. Back in high school, Nick Palotay was one of Marietta’s star football players, had enough charisma to reach all four corners of the state, and looked like a movie star. Every girl who laid eyes on him had swooned. And he’d loved every second of the attention.
“That’s good to hear. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.
She took two steps forward and had to stop to catch her breath. Holy magnum mackerel, her ass hurt. Maybe she’d just stay right where she stood. Snap more pictures.
Before she had time to protest or realize his intentions, Nick scooped her up into his arms. “Hey! What are you—ouch—doing? Put me down!”
“Relax, Sid Vicious. This way will be less painful to your delicate derriere.”
“Did you just say derriere?” she asked, definitely relaxing now.
She couldn’t remember the last time a guy had lifted her off her feet, probably because it had never happened. Would it be rude of her to squeeze his biceps, just to, you know, see what they felt like?
“I did. And if you tell anyone I’ll deny it.” He smiled then, his straight, white teeth on perfect display, and a pleasant and unwelcome ache sparked to life between her hips.
Embarrassment burned her cheeks. She tucked her chin into her neck. Because really? Nick had to be the first guy to make her body tingle in forever? Her crush long over, he was her best friend’s brother. Nothing more.
“Still taking pictures, I see,” he said, walking them away from the river.
“I’m a freelance photographer.”
“With a penchant for fly fishermen?”
She raised her eyes to meet his. “People, actually. Doing everyday and extraordinary things. I work for several prestigious publications and travel more often than not. I’m considering leaving Marietta to make home base New York or LA actually.” Why she felt the need to defend herself she didn’t know. Or maybe it was just that she wanted to impress him. Which was ridiculous. She didn’t care what he thought of her. Didn’t care if she laid eyes on him again after today.
“I always knew you’d be successful at it.”
“You did?” He’d thought about her that way?
“Yeah, anyone who could annoy me as much as you did with all the ‘say cheese!’ was going to do well with it.”
Cassidy ground her teeth together before hitting him in the chest. A chest she couldn’t help but notice had definition beneath the cotton barrier. “Jerk.”
He chuckled. “I’ve been called worse.”
“Says the current hero.” Marietta loved their local heroes like nobody’s business and it was no secret Nick had saved several fellow navy officers during a sub fire last month. Rowan had told her he’d also lost his two closest friends. “I’m, uh, sorry for your loss.”
His jaw tensed. “Thanks, but I’m not a hero.”
“That’s not—” She sealed her lips when he glared at her. Who knew eyes as gorgeous as his could look so intimidating?
They continued in silence, the patch of dirt she’d parked her car on coming into view up ahead. Another runner came toward them on the dirt trail. He nodded and shared a “good morning” as they crossed paths.
“Morning,” she said in return, adding extra cheer into the single word. She didn’t like the tension suddenly rolling off Nick and thought to break it.
“Think you could quit wiggling?” His gruff tone indicated she hadn’t broken a damn thing.
“Sorry, what?” She squirmed, purposely playing dumb and trying to irritate him, but inadvertently rubbing the side of her chest against his at the same time. You should really plan more carefully next time.
That was totally her boob talking.
“I guess your fall affected your hearing, too?” By the vexed look on his chiseled face he knew she’d heard him loud and clear.
“Maybe you should tie a pillow around your waist to prevent further injury the next time you fall on your ass.”
Cassidy didn’t like his implication that she was accident prone, but the comment held deeper meaning that lifted the corners of her mouth. “You remember Rowan and I used to do that?” When she and Ro were around five and learning to skate, they’d tied pillows around themselves to cushion their many falls.
“Kind of hard to forget when for one summer I never had a pillow on my bed.” His voice held irritation, but also a hint of affection. Cassidy wondered if all their recollections would be less maddening now that they were older. Wiser.
She thought back to that day in the Palotay kitchen when she was fourteen, telling Rowan how nervous she was about having her first kiss. Besides the fact that her parents would ground her for life if they’d found out she liked a boy at school well enough to want to kiss him, she didn’t know the first thing about kissing. Nick had come into the kitchen and overheard their conversation. “I can fix that,” he said all calm, cool, and experienced at sixteen. He’d walked over to her, kissed her right on the mouth, and stepped back. “Still nervous?” he’d asked and then he walked away as if he hadn’t just stolen her first kiss like it was no big deal.
The least he could have done was add some tongue, Cassidy thought now, smiling inwardly at the memory rather than think anything childish about it. Her virgin lips had tingled for hours after that kiss.
Nick stopped and lowered her down next to her old, but reliable, Volvo. “Thanks for the lift,” she said, wishing she had a pillow in her car to cushion her backside while she drove home. “Can I give you a ride?”
“Nah. I’m better off finishing my run.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” she said, waving her finger up and down his body to draw attention to his unfair physique. If only she had x-ray vision so she could confirm whether or not he had a six-pack hiding underneath his shirt.
He tossed her an overconfident smile. Uh-oh. “What can you see, Sid?”
“Oh, you know, that you’re slacking on your cardio.”
“Still afraid to say what’s really on your mind, huh?”
“What? I am not.” Just because she kept her thoughts to herself didn’t mean she was afraid. Her overprotective parents had drilled caution and modesty into her. Molded her into a careful, quiet observer.
“Prove it.” He tossed out with that cocky attitude she remembered him flaunting when they were younger.
“I don’t need to prove anything to you.”
“Not to me. To yourself.”
His too-keen observation set off shivers in places she didn’t know she could shiver. Had he always noticed that about her? Or had he developed some ninja military skill that allowed him to read people in all of fifteen minutes? Didn’t matter. No way was she letting him win this little challenge. He’d won every single one of them when they were kids.
Plus, she wanted to shed that suffocating part of her personality. Had been working on it since she’d made a resolution months ago to walk on the wild side more often.
Nick Palotay equaled wild. A safe wild because she knew he’d never harm her. Although just looking at him kind of hurt. He took eye candy to a whole new level.
She opened her car door, lifted her camera from around her neck, and put it in its case on the back seat. “I see a lot of things, Nick. As a professional photographer, I’m trained to see what other people don’t.”
“You still haven’t answered my question,” he said smugly.
“Fine. I see”—she turned and crossed her arms over her chest—“a good looking guy who…would be perfect for the charity firemen’s calendar I’ve been asked to help with. You fly fish? We could put you in some waders and nothing else. You’d have women angling to get in those pants for sure.” She pressed her lips together in a pleased-with-herself smile.
Nick looked ready to run all the way to Canada. “Oh, hell no.” He slid a couple of fingers inside the collar of his shirt to pull the material away from his neck. “There are plenty of other guys—”
Cassidy cracked up. “I’m joking. Mr. July is already taken.”
“Kidding. There’s no calendar.” And then because she loved seeing him disgruntled and sexy, added, “yet.”
His expression changed then, to something she’d never seen directed at her before. Admiration, she thought, like he was impressed she’d teased him. Put a check in the Cassidy column.
“See you around, Sid.”
“Yeah. Good luck tonight.” She uncrossed her arms and opened the driver’s side door.
“The Bachelor Auction?”
“Right.” He stepped closer so his arm rested on the top of the car window while she carefully sat inside. Mother of Pearl her tailbone smarted.
“I’ll be there to eat and drink since the proceeds are going toward Coach D’s fundraiser as well. Plus, your sister told me if I stayed home by myself while I was in town that she’d do something drastic like post my picture to a dating website.”
“Funny, she told me if I offered a boring date she’d post my picture to a dating website.”
“I didn’t think boring was in your genetic make-up.”
He shrugged. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
“Maybe. Word has it Grey’s will be packed tonight. Standing room only.” Which worked in her favor given it felt awful to sit at the moment. “Thanks for coming to my rescue.”
“Sure.” He shut her door, took off at a brisk pace down the dirt trail. She watched him until he disappeared from sight before turning the key in the ignition.
She might be at the saloon later, but she planned to keep her distance from Nick. He’d starred in all her teenage dreams, and that was where she’d keep him. Because today, the minutes with him in particular, had felt different for the first time in forever, and that scared the junk out of her.
End of Excerpt