Read Love at Any Cost Online

Authors: Julie Lessman

Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Single women—California—San Francisco—Fiction, #San Francisco (Calif.)—History—20th century—Fiction, #Love stories, #Christian fiction

Love at Any Cost (7 page)

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 a womanizer, Jamie MacKenna, and if you ever lay a finger on me again, I'll hog-tie 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.”

 7 

Sweet thunderation! Where's a cattle prod when you need one?
Cassie sagged against the pool table, heart racing as if she'd just bulldogged a Texas steer. She put a shaky hand to her chest, certain the corset would pop given the heaving of her lungs. Closing her eyes, she attempted to rein in her temper, but the image of Jamie MacKenna kissing her senseless rose up so strong, she wanted to spit. With a tiny little shiver that felt
way
too warm, she flailed a hand to her mouth in an effort to sanitize her lips, sputtering as if the taste of him made her nauseous.

Roiling, puking, sick-to-her-stomach nauseous. And heaven help her, it did—but for all the wrong reasons. She put her head in her hands, wishing she could just retch, purging herself of any thought of that low and despicable kiss from that low and despicable man. The dominance of his arms, the warmth of his breath in her ear, the possessive touch of his hands. Instead of vomit, a low groan rose in her throat at the memory of the taste of his mouth—a mouth that had tamed her on the spot, stealing her thunder with a strike of lightning instead. Great balls of fire, even his scent seemed to linger—a hint of clove and spice from Bay Rum shaving soap and the trace of a Hershey bar snatched from the candy bowl in the parlour. She shivered again, the warm
chills turning into cold ones. Oh, how she itched to strike with a little lightning of her own—right across that pretty face of his with a slap that would send him smack dab into the middle of next week. She scrubbed her lips with the back of her hand one more time, almost feeling grimy. Daddy was right—
wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

The door opened again and she grabbed the chalk, ready to sail it between his eyes like David and Goliath. And she could too. As sling-shot champ of Harris County, she could take that Philistine down! Her jaw jacked up. “So help me, Jamie MacKenna, you
will
pay—”

The door quickly closed as a frail hand waved in the air like a white flag. “Whoa, Cuz, it's just me.” Alli peeked in, then opened it to enter before carefully clicking it closed.

Blasting out a noisy gust of air, Cassie threw the chalk anyway, firing it clear across the room. It pinged like a gunshot off of a six-foot suit of armor Uncle Liam brought back from Mexico.

Alli whistled. “For criminy's sake, Cass, you look fit to be tied—what's wrong?”

Cassie stomped over to retrieve the chalk and tossed it on the billiard table, almost busting her corset when she bent to pick up the cue and put it away. “What's wrong?” she shrieked, the whites of her eyes the size of a cue ball. She slapped two hands on her hips. “I'll tell you what's wrong—that so-called friend of Blake's is nothing but a slimy, smooth-talking womanizer, just like I thought.” She flopped into one of two leather easy chairs, the whoosh of the cushions matching the frustration that whooshed from her lips.

“I don't understand . . .” Alli joined her cousin in a matching chair on the other side of a cigar table, face in a squint. “I just passed Jamie in the foyer, and he said he felt like you and he had
made a great connection as friends.” She crossed two fingers in the air. “Says you two are like this—you know, real close.”

Cassie grunted, lips in a scowl. “Oh, we're close all right,” she snapped, “only it's more like this.” She put two hands to her throat as if to throttle her neck.

Alli laughed. “Goodness, Cass, what did he do to put you in such a snit, anyway?”

“What did he do?” Cassie leaned in, eyes narrowed to slits. “
What-did-he-do?
” Her anger rekindled all over again. “That flea-bitten polecat made unwanted advances, that's what he did.”

“Seriously?” Alli's eyes spanned in surprise before she propped her chin in her hands on the arm of the chair. Her shock edged into a grin. “Come on, Cass—‘unwanted'? I know at least ten women who'd kill for Jamie MacKenna to give them the time of day, and one of them is downstairs in the parlour right now drooling all over him.” Gaze locked with Cassie's, she nibbled on her finger with a curious smile. “So . . . what kind of advances?”

“The kind that had me in a lip-lock so tight, it gave the corset a run for its money.”

“Oh, my.” Alli's lips tipped up. “I see. So you're saying he stole your breath away?”

“I'm saying the skunk almost stole my supper, and if I'd been thinking, I would have let him have it—all over that pretty penguin suit.” She dropped her head back on the chair and groaned, eyes closed. “For criminy's sake, Al, why can't men just leave me alone?”

“Because you're too pretty, Cass,” Alli soothed, “and smart and funny and—”

“Stupid,” Cassie finished. Her anger siphoned out on a wispy sigh, leaving her limp in the chair. She put a hand to her eyes. “What am I going to do, Al? I don't need this right now.”

Alli rose to sit on the arm of Cassie's chair, massaging her
shoulder. “Come on, Cass, Jamie may have a bit of a reputation as a Casanova, but honestly, beneath that rakish too-good-looking-to-be-trusted surface, he's a pretty great guy, despite the drool from other women.”

Cassie's eyes flipped open. “Then you court him, because I have no stomach for other women's spit
or
him.”

Alli sat back with a sigh. “I wish I could, but regrettably I met Jamie when I was head over heels over Tom Alt, the rat, so our relationship veered toward platonic, you know? And now I just see him as a big brother like Blake and Bram, and he feels the same way.”

“So let Miss Priss have him,” Cassie said, desperate to steer Jamie MacKenna into anybody's arms but hers. Great plains of Texas, she had no time nor inclination for more heartbreak, and that's all someone like Jamie MacKenna would be, she could feel it in her bones.

And in his kiss . . .

A low chuckle tripped from Alli's lips. “Well, no worries there. Jamie is nothing if not ambitious and although he doesn't like it when Blake ribs him about marrying well, he does seem to have a penchant for the daughters of wealthy politicians—first with sweet Rachel Fallin, then with that snooty Donna Chellis, and now with Miss Priss.” She scrunched her nose. “And Patricia has been dying to get her hooks into him for months now, but for some reason Jamie keeps her at a safe distance.” Alli leaned down to smile at Cassie with a dance of her brows. “While he took after you, dear cousin—a woman he's known all of two hours—like a seagull swooping a picnic on the beach, so at least the man has good taste.”

Taste.
The “taste” of the low-down skunk's Hershey-bar kiss suddenly invaded Cassie's mind, and blood immediately flooded
her cheeks, crashing all the way to her hairline like a tidal wave on that infernal picnic shore. She jerked up, pulse hammering and eyes wide, grabbing Alli's hand in desperation. “No, Alli—you have to talk to him, please, and tell him to leave me alone. I'm so gun-shy after Mark I can't get involved with any man, much less another smooth-talking pretty boy.” A tremor of fear rattled Cassie's body. “I'm just not ready . . .”

Alli stared, her smile fading as she studied her cousin. Her jaw tightened as she touched Cassie's hand, her voice a whisper. “That snake really did some damage, didn't he, Cass?”

Moisture pricked against her will, and she nodded, blinking hard to regain control.
You have no idea. Mark stole my heart, my confidence, my life 
. . .

Alli tucked her head against Cassie's. “I know you're scared, Cass, but I can't help but think that the best way to rid yourself of the memory of Mark Chancellor is to find a man who's nothing like him. And trust me, Jamie MacKenna is as far from that bum as you can possibly get.” She pulled away to look into Cassie's face, her eyes tender. “You need someone like Jamie to have fun with this summer, laugh with, have a good time with so your heart can heal. And Jamie's perfect, especially since he appears to have an interest in you.”

“An interest in me?” Sarcasm drenched Cassie's tone. “Only because I wear a skirt.”

Her cousin's smile was sheepish. “Yes, I will admit that on the surface, Jamie appears to be a flirt, but contrary to the way it looks, he's really not that much of a womanizer.”

Cassie paused to pick her jaw up from the floor. “Not much of a womanizer?” Her voice was a near-shriek. “For the love of all that's good and decent, Allison, the man's practically on a first-name basis with my molars!”

Alli nibbled the edge of her smile. “I'm not saying Jamie can't
seem
like a womanizer—”

“Seem?” One of Cassie's brows shot up a full inch.

“Oh, all right—yes, Jamie can be a bit of a womanizer, just like Uncle Logan and Blake I suppose, but I promise, underneath that roguish veneer, he's really a pretty decent guy.”

“A womanizer? Decent?” Cassie folded her arms in a huff. “I'll tell you what he is—he's a snake charmer, Alli, a man who charms every woman in sight, including you, apparently.”

With a heft of her chin, Alli shot right back. “I'll have you know, Cassidy McClare, that that's not just my opinion, it's my brother's and Bram's too.”

“Well, of course it is!” Cassie rolled her eyes. “They're men—they stick together.”

Alli shook her head, lips pursed. “Maybe, but not when their sisters are at stake.”

“What do you mean?” Cassie said, gaze suspicious.

“I mean that originally Blake hoped Jamie and I would hit it off because he hated Tom with a passion, and Blake would have never wanted that if Jamie were a true womanizer.”

“So you say.” Cassie flopped back in the chair, convinced that Jamie MacKenna was nothing more than a scalawag magician who had obviously cast a spell on Alli as well.

“No, I didn't say it—Blake said it.” Alli sighed. “Told me flat-out I should show Tom the door and consider Jamie instead. Said Jamie's one of the most decent guys he's ever met other than Bram and a hard worker who'll go far in life. He worked three jobs to put himself through school, supports his mother and sister, and he's a champion boxer, who devotes what free time he has to teaching young boys on the street how to defend themselves.”

Cassie's lip curled. “How 'bout the women he kisses—does he teach them too?”

“Oh, Cassie, stop! Jamie may be amorous, yes, but Blake says he's moral to a fault.”

“To a fault?” Cassie's voice cracked as it climbed several octaves. She let loose with an undignified grunt. “Well, the ‘fault' part I believe,” she said, wondering how on earth any man could be considered “moral” when he practically seduced a woman within hours of meeting her.

“Yes, ‘moral,' ” Alli defended. “According to Blake, he seldom drinks even though he works part-time as a bartender on the Barbary Coast.”

“A Barbary bartender who doesn't tip the bottle?” Cassie grunted again. “Ha!”

“It's true. Blake says Jamie only drinks Dr Pepper when they go out, so you see? His morals are above reproach.”

“Oh, you mean like tonight?” Cassie said, tone sticky-sweet.

Alli giggled. “No, not like tonight with mere kisses . . .” She leaned in to whisper in Cassie's ear, the subject matter tinting her cheeks with a pretty blush.

Cassie's eyes rounded at Alli's secret, her cousin's blush obviously catching because Cassie's face burned so much, she thought she might peel. “Good grief, Allison McClare, how in the world would you be privy to information like that?”

Alli peeked at the door, lowering her voice to a near-whisper. “Because Blake told me. Apparently Jamie's mother was a dance-hall girl on the Barbary Coast who fell in love with Jamie's father at the age of fifteen, and the rat refused to marry her until after Jamie was born.”

“Oh, no,” Cassie said in a hush. Her heart turned over. “Jamie's illegitimate?”

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