Love at Any Cost



Lost in her game, she was oblivious when he quietly entered the room and closed the door, watching as she methodically chalked her stick after every shot before circling the table with all the ease of a pool-hall hustler. His jaw dropped when she executed a three-ball shot he’d only seen one other time in a bar down on the wharf. A low whistle escaped before he could stop it. “Holy cow, remind me not to play you for money.”

Whirling around, she almost lost her balance, knuckles white on the cue and face leeched pale. “What is it with you and not knocking?” she rasped, bodice quivering with every breath.

“And interfere with that mesmerizing display of skill and prowess?” He slipped hands in his pockets and strolled in, his gait as casual as his smile. “The likes of which I’ve seldom seen in a man, much less a woman?” He perched on the edge of the table. “Not on your life, Miss McClare. Where’d you learn to play like that, anyway?” he asked, his fascination with this unconventional girl growing by the moment.

 “Uncle Logan and my father,” she said with a heft of her chin, his compliment dusting her cheeks with a pretty shade of rose that actually accentuated her freckles.

Jamie shook his head with a fold of arms. “Oh, no you didn’t, at least not Logan. I’ve played many a game with him, and I have never seen a shot like that out of him or Blake.”

The blush deepened. “Uncle Logan says I’m a natural,” she said defensively.

He studied her through a squint, in total agreement that she was, indeed, a natural. Heart-shaped face, luminous green eyes a man could drown in and hair the same soft pale yellow of the angel wing cactus that bloomed in Jess’s window. Her creamy skin glowed with just enough freckles to give her that clean, wholesome air of the outdoors. After dinner, Logan had prompted her to sing while Alli played the piano, and never had Jamie been mesmerized by a voice so clear and true. He was certain the woman couldn’t be from a cattle ranch in Texas, but from heaven instead. She possessed an almost angelic quality, and his eyes drank her in, following a shimmering stray from the pretty upsweep that framed her head like a halo. The silky curl traced the curve of her bodice, and he had a sudden urge to see her hair down, spilling as free as he suspected Cassie McClare liked to be, untethered by convention or fashion.

He rose and sauntered over to retrieve a cue, then casually twirled it in his hands, his eyes connecting with hers. He smiled that little-boy smile that had gotten him farther than any college degree. “He says the same about me, you know—in billiards, boxing and the law.”

She folded her arms, her smile as flat as the effect of his, apparently. “And women?”

He grinned, eyes never straying as he chalked his cue. “Sometimes. Up for a game?”

“With you?” She arched a brow. “No, thank you, I don’t play games with men like you.”

Ouch. She was obviously a woman who was honest and forthright, what you see is what you get, and so help him, what he saw, he definitely wanted. But … she didn’t want him. Yet. He softened his approach. “Come on, Cassie, one game of eight ball isn’t going to kill you, and then you’ll have the chance to give me the thrashing I so richly deserve.”

She hung her head and huffed out a sigh, finally meeting his gaze with a candid one of her own. “Mr. MacKenna—”


“Jamie, then …” she began slowly, as if attempting to ease the blow of what she was about to say. Sympathy radiated from those remarkable green eyes that reminded him so much of a pure mountain stream—unspoiled, refreshing. And icy enough to tingle the skin. Long lashes flickered as if begging him to understand. “Look, no offense, but you just broke my heart.”

He blinked. “Pardon me?”

“Oh, not you exactly,” she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand, “but a man just like you—you know, handsome, smart, the kind that melts a woman with a smile?”

A ridge popped at the bridge of his nose. “Uh, thank you—I guess?”

She looked up then, head tilted in much the same way a mother might soothe a child, expression kind and tone, parental. “Look, I’m sure you’re a very nice person, Jamie MacKenna, and we may even forge a friendship before summer is through, but you need to understand something right now if that friendship is ever going to see the light of day.” She took his hand in hers, patting it as if he were five years old, and in all of his twenty-five years, never had a woman given him a more patronizing smile. “You have zero chance …” She held up a hand, index finger and thumb circled to create an “O,” then enunciated slowly as if he were one of the livestock back on her ranch. “Zee-ro chance of ever turning my head because I have no interest in you or any man right now, especially a pretty boy.” She gave him a patient smile edged with just enough pity to get on his nerves. “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I see no point in hemming and hawing around a pesky hornet when I can just stomp on it before it stings.”

His jaw sagged. “Hornet?” He’d been called a lot of things, but somehow, out of the pursed lips of this Texas beauty, this stung his pride more than the blasted hornet. A nerve pulsed in his cheek as he replaced his cue in the rack, his smile cool. “Is that so? And what makes you think I have any interest in turning your head?”

She folded her arms again and hiked one beautiful brow, daring him to deny it.

And, oh, how he wanted to. His jaw began to grind. But he couldn’t because it would be a bald-faced lie, and they both knew it. He exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose, finally huffing out a sigh. “Okay, you’re right, Miss McClare—I was trying to turn your head. But I’m not stupid—I can see you obviously have no interest in me whatsoever.”

“None,” she confirmed, brows arched high in agreement.

He nodded, head bowed as he kneaded the back of his neck. “Which means, of course, there’s no attraction whatsoever …”

“Oh, heaven forbid.” Her body shivered in revulsion. “Not in a million years …”

He cocked his head, a trace of hurt in his tone. “Nothing—not even a glimmer?”

She shook her head, face scrunched as if she tasted something bad. “Good gracious, no.”

He exhaled loudly. “All righty, then,” he said with a stiff smile, his pride effectively trampled. Rubbing his temple, he supposed there was only one thing left to do. He extended his palm with a conciliatory smile. “Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way. So … friends?”

She stared at his hand as if it were a rattler about to strike, then shifted her gaze to his, lids narrowing the slightest bit. Absently scraping her lip, she tentatively placed her hand in his.

His fingers closed around hers and he smiled. Ah, sweet vindication …

In a sharp catch of her breath, he jerked her to him so hard, the cue in her hand literally spiraled across the plush burgundy carpet. Thudding against his chest, she emitted a soft, little grunt, and her outraged protest was lost in his mouth, the sweet taste of her lips shocking him even more than he had shocked her. She tried to squirm away and he cupped her neck with a firm hold and gentle dominance, deepening the kiss.

A grunt broke from his mouth when her foot near broke his ankle. “I’ll tell you what, Miss McClare,” he said through clenched teeth as pain seared his leg, “I’ll give you feisty …”

“You … haven’t … seen … feisty,” she rasped, flailing in his arms. With another sharp jolt of pain, she cocked a very unladylike knee into his left thigh, stealing his wind while her words hissed in his face. “Oh … why … didn’t … I wear … my boots …”

Because it’s my lucky day? Jamie thought with a grimace, determined to prove the lady a liar, at least on the score of attraction. Body and mind steeled to win, he jerked her flush and kissed her hard while she pummeled his shoulders in a flurry of fists. All at once, her scent disarmed him—a hint of lilacs and soap and the barest trace of peppermint, and he stifled a groan while he explored the shape of her mouth, the silk of her skin, the soft flesh of her ear.

Relief flooded when her thrashing slowed and her body listed against his with a weak moan. He gentled his mouth, softly nuzzling before finally pulling away. Satisfaction inched into a smile when she swayed on her feet, eyes closed and open mouth as limp as her body. “Nope, not in a million years,” he said, his breathing as shallow as hers. He planted a kiss to her nose.

Roused from her stupor, her eyes popped open in shock and she suddenly lunged, fury sputtering as she hauled back a fist, clearly hoping to dislocate his jaw. With all the grace and speed of his Oly Club boxing title, he skillfully ducked, chuckling when her tight-knuckled punch bludgeoned the air. Hands in his pockets, he made his way to the door, delivering a gloat of grin over his shoulder. “Well, I guess you have a deal, then, Cassie McClare—friends it is.”

She spun around, eyes flashing. “You are nothing but a yellow-bellied snake of womanizer, Jamie MacKenna, and if you ever lay a finger on me again, I’ll hogtie you so fast …”

He laughed, hand on the knob. “Come on, Your Highness, I did us both a favor—now that we know there’s no attraction, we can be friends, right?”

“When polecats fly,” she screamed, and he grinned, shutting the door with a wink. Something hard crashed against the wood and he winced. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered to himself on his way down the hall. “Definitely the makings of a beautiful friendship.”