Книга - Lady And The Scamp: Lady And The Scamp / The Doctor Dilemma


Lady And The Scamp: Lady And The Scamp / The Doctor Dilemma
Dianne Drake

Candy Halliday

Lady and the Scamp by Candy Halliday It's a dog-eat-dog world…Attorney Cassie Collins is in big trouble! Her mother's prize pooch has gotten up close and personal with the mutt next door, and pups are on the way. Nick Hardin, owner of Earl the mongrel scamp, refuses to take the matter seriously. Instead he uses his outrageous radio show to poke fun at lawyers who file suit against the Romeo and Juliet of the doggy world. Hostilities escalate until the two humans finally figure out it's much more fun to make love than war….The Doctor Dilemma by Dianne Drake TLC.The best medicine there ever wasMeet Dr. Jack Sutton and nurse Lacy Archer–they're supposed to be running a small-town medical practice, but the craziest things keep happening. Jack can't wait to get back to the big city, while Lacy's making Sunstone her home. And in the midst of handling everything from birthing bovines to using a pair of black panties to cure the hiccups, they're falling for each other. But will Jack have the right prescription for Lacy's case of true love?


Two brand-new stories in every volume…twice a month!

Duets Vol. #57

Popular Jill Shalvis serves up a delightful duo—the disaster-prone Anderson twins and the sexy men they meet!—in a humorous special Double Duets! Rendezvous says this author is “fast, fanciful and funny. Get ready for laughs, passion and toe-curling romance.”

Duets Vol. #58

Two talented new writers make their Duets debut this month. Look for Candy Halliday’s playful romp about a bad boy who has a soft spot for his pooch—and the gorgeous dog owner next door! Then nurse-turned-writer Dianne Drake will tickle your funny bone and send temperatures rising with a fun story about a small-town medical practice.

Be sure to pick up both Duets volumes today!

Lady and the Scamp

Candy Halliday

The Doctor Dilemma

Dianne Drake

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)


Lady and the Scamp (#u6e3c3c50-4019-52a7-a1f6-1b95c439f526)

Prologue (#u16013441-addd-55c3-9b91-6be8412462c1)

Chapter 1 (#u17b9324d-e6ac-5f11-9d25-2597ace1bd17)

Chapter 2 (#ua5357e24-f135-566e-ab61-08b0935790bb)

Chapter 3 (#ub50be05a-1354-58aa-b2a8-6dc17726709d)

Chapter 4 (#u6fbc8e58-802e-5839-80b2-e744b5b7979f)

Chapter 5 (#u807beb93-ff01-58c4-9ab7-664654db383b)

Chapter 6 (#u1c349da7-4cef-531b-9e50-11b05e4715c3)

Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo)

The Doctor Dilemma (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 3 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo)

Lady and the Scamp

“Your place or mine, Counselor?”

Dumbfounded, Cassie almost dropped the phone. “You, Mr. Hardin, have to be the most arrogant, insufferable man I’ve ever met.”

“Well, nobody’s perfect,” Nick agreed, “but you’re the one who said we had a problem to solve. I’m just suggesting we settle things over a bottle of wine and a sensible conversation.”

“Oh, I’m sure you handle all your problems with a bottle of wine and a sensual conversation…”

“I said sensible conversation,” Nick corrected.

Cassie ignored him. “I left Duchess with the vet earlier, but we won’t know for a few weeks if she’s going to have puppies.”

“Then what?” Nick quizzed.

“Then you can save yourself a lot of trouble and pay for the damage your mutt caused, or we can go to court.”

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you, Counselor?”

“What do you think?” Cassie challenged.

He laughed. “Lady I think if you’d let nature take its course the way your fancy show dog did, you’d have a much better outlook on life.”

Dear Reader,

You might say I’m living proof that love has a lighter side. I met my husband on a blind date to, of all things, a Halloween party. Dressed as a punk rocker with purple streaks in my hair, who knew I’d meet the man of my dreams? His incredible sense of humor overlooked my ridiculous costume and two years later we walked down the aisle. This time, however, I had baby’s breath—not purple streaks—in my hair.

A big fan of romantic comedy even before my own personal episode, I got the idea for Lady and the Scamp while watching a telecast of the Westminster Dog Show. The Best In Show winner was all puff and fluff and the poor trainer was having a terrible time keeping her away from the big red-bone hound who won runner-up. “Don’t you know the trainer would have a fit if those two got together?” my husband asked, and by the time we both stopped laughing, the story was already forming in my head.

I had such fun writing Lady and the Scamp. I hope you have just as much fun reading it.

Best Wishes,

Candy Halliday

I owe special thanks to my husband, Steve, for putting up with the crazy life of a writer. I also owe special thanks to my agent, Jenny Bent, and my editor, Susan Sheppard, for believing in me.

This book is dedicated to my wonderful daughter, Shelli, who has always been the pride of my heart and the joy of my life.


CASSIE COLLINS STIFLED a groan as her perfectly groomed mother paced dramatically around the foyer in a full-blown snit. “I still think your father and I should postpone our trip to Europe entirely,” Lenora Collins said with a pout. “The three of us have been taking family vacations together since you were born, and I certainly don’t like the idea of leaving you behind to supervise something as important as seeing Duchess mated to the proper sire.”

Cassie looked down at the pampered pooch she was holding in her arms and absently stroked the dog’s soft white fur. Her mother’s champion bichon frise had finally offered Cassie the perfect excuse to forgo the dreaded family vacation from hell, and Cassie didn’t intend to give in without putting up a fight.

“You were the one who said it would be too traumatic to leave Duchess with a total stranger at a delicate time like this, Mother,” Cassie said. “I know you were counting on Duchess’s trainer to handle everything, but emergencies do come up. All we can do now is make the best of it.”

Lenora made several phony kissing noises toward the recent winner of the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, then again pursed her lips in a surly pout. “Well, I can assure you of one thing. If Duchess’s trainer thinks I’m going to forget the trouble he’s caused us, then he’s sadly mistaken. As far as I’m concerned, it was totally unprofessional of him to leave us in the lurch like this.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “I hardly think having an acute attack of appendicitis qualifies as being unprofessional, Mother,” Cassie argued. “Besides, you’ve already paid an enormous fee to see that Duchess is bred to a champion sire and the breeder arrives from London next week. It’s only logical that I stay behind and handle matters here.”

“Cassie’s right, Lenora,” Howard Collins chimed in as he picked up the last of their luggage and headed through the foyer. “Our daughter didn’t graduate magna cum laude from law school for nothing. She’s perfectly capable of handling things here.”

Lenora Collins snorted at her husband’s statement, then shot another dubious look in Cassie’s direction. “Well, at least promise me you’ll be careful, Cassandra. I can’t say I’m not equally concerned about you being here alone with a hoodlum living right down the street. There’s no telling what a man like that might be capable of doing. Lock your doors and keep the security system on at all times.”

Cassie sighed. Her mother was, of course, referring to their incorrigible new neighbor who had scandalized their exclusive neighborhood from the moment he’d arrived. A cross between Howard Stern and TV’s Frasier, the outspoken radio talk-show host had refused to conform to any of the genteel southern traditions most people in Asheville, North Carolina, still held sacred. To date, Nick Hardin had been banned from the country club, thrown off the golf course and had even been levied a heavy fine for parking his monstrous Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the country club’s manicured lawn.

“I don’t care for Nick Hardin any more than you do, Mother,” Cassie said, “but I hardly think the man is a rapist.”

“Well, one never knows,” Lenora argued in her usual authoritative voice. “Especially since that horrid man could be harboring a grudge against you. You really were foolish to call in to that disgraceful program of his and make a complaint, Cassandra.”

That’s right, Mother, Cassie thought. Make sure you deliver at least one more reprimand before you leave.

Not that Cassie didn’t regret her own lapse in judgment, because she did. She usually let the standard jokes that attacked her noble profession roll off her back. But it had been one particular lawyer-of-the-day joke on Nick Hardin’s radio program that had pushed Cassie over the edge. Stating on the air that “the only difference between a lawyer and a vulture was that a vulture waits until you die to pick your bones clean” had, in Cassie’s opinion, taken things a bit too far. She had called in to the popular morning radio program and politely suggested that Mr. Hardin do a little research on what was considered humorous and what was considered in bad taste.

The creep, of course, had laughed at her comment, but when he insulted her further by suggesting that even a lawyer should be smart enough to turn the dial if she didn’t like the program, Cassie had promptly slammed the phone down in the arrogant jerk’s ear.

“Okay, Mother. I promise I’ll be careful,” Cassie conceded when a blast from her father’s car horn inched her mother a little closer to the front door.

“Well, just remember, you can’t let Duchess out of your sight for a moment,” Lenora cautioned. “I’m still having panic attacks over the ridiculous stud fee I had to pay to that overrated thief from England. After what that snooty man charged me, I’d better come home to a litter of champion puppies.”

With that said, her mother sashayed out the door. Cassie followed, then remained standing on the porch of the rambling old Victorian where she’d lived all her life. “Send me lots of postcards,” Cassie called out as her father’s car pulled out of the drive, but it wasn’t until the black Lincoln disappeared from view that Cassie let out a liberating scream and danced across the porch with her mother’s prize-winning show dog held high above her head.

“We’re free at last!” Cassie cheered as she whirled the tiny dog around in circles.

For Cassie, six weeks home alone would be sheer heaven on earth. And even the fact that she had to play nursemaid to a world-class-champion fur ball didn’t dampen her spirits.


“THIS IS CASSIE COLLINS over on Crescent Circle. There’s a rapist in my backyard! Hurry, I need your help.”

Cassie tossed the portable phone aside when the intruder made another advance in her direction. “Get out of here, you filthy beast,” she yelled, then turned the tables and charged him instead.

Unfortunately, all Cassie accomplished was another futile chase through the trees. Having as much success as snaring a feather in a hurricane, she was no match for the speed demon who darted out of reach every time she lunged in his direction.

After another unsuccessful romp around the yard, Cassie bent over and rested her hands on her knees, drinking in deep drags of air as she tried to catch her breath. When a reddish-gold curl fell across her face, she sent a frustrated puff upward, blowing the curl out of her eyes. It was then that she noticed the gaping hole by the side of the high wooden privacy fence that surrounded the backyard.

His eyes locked with Cassie’s for a brief moment, and as if the culprit could read her mind, he immediately darted in the direction of his escape hole.

“Come back here, you coward,” Cassie screamed, but the sound of the security cruiser’s siren screaming toward the house forced her to temporarily abandon the chase.

Shaking her fist at the black-and-white terrier who had now distanced himself at the far end of the yard, Cassie actually thought she saw the little criminal grinning back at her through his sharp, pointed, doggy-type teeth. Knowing that the chase was pointless without help from her neighborhood troubleshooters, Cassie stomped to the front foyer where a concerned security officer was already pounding his fist on the door.

“Are you hurt, Miss Collins? Did the goon lay a hand on you?” demanded the older of the two officers as he lumbered into the foyer with his weapon drawn.

Annoyed at the sight of the revolver, Cassie frowned at the two rent-a-cops who were affectionately known as “Andy and Barney” in her luxurious neighborhood. “I don’t want you to shoot him, Joe. I just want you to help me catch the rascal.”

“I’ll go first,” the portly officer announced, then sent an official look toward his baby-faced partner, who was anxiously turning the knobs on his handheld police radio.

“Should I call Asheville PD for backup now, Joe?” the rookie asked in a voice that was still struggling with puberty.

“No!” both Cassie and Officer Joe shouted simultaneously.

Pushing past both officers, Cassie took the lead and stomped back through the house with her nervous defenders following closely at her heels. As soon as they reached the wicker-filled sunroom at the back of the house, she pointed through the doorway to the furry assailant the officers had come to arrest.

“There he is,” she said, fuming. “The filthy little beast dug his way under the privacy fence and assaulted Duchess before I even knew what was happening.”

Both officers followed Cassie’s gaze through the door to the terrier, who immediately cocked his head in their direction and showed them the same silly doggy grin Cassie had seen earlier. And then as if to mock her, the mutt wagged his stubby tail, obviously pleased by what he’d been able to accomplish before help arrived.

“You said rapist, Miss Collins,” Joe scolded as he shoved his revolver back into its holster and sent Cassie a stern look.

Cassie glared back. “I’m in no mood for a lecture about a minor technicality, Joe,” Cassie warned. “You know as well as I do, you guys wouldn’t have rushed right over here if I’d called to report a stray dog in my yard.”

Neither of the officers denied Cassie’s accusation, but both men continued to stare at her as if she were some alien life-form who had purposely been sent to invade their peaceful domain. And Cassie really couldn’t blame them. They were used to seeing the calm, collected, professional Miss Collins going to and from her respected law firm every day, not some wild-eyed maniac whose hair was still in a lopsided ponytail from her shower, and who had grabbed the first thing she found in her bureau when she glanced out her bedroom window and saw the lewd tango that was being conducted across her lawn.

“Look, Joe,” Cassie said, trying to appease the man. “You of all people know how difficult it is to deal with my mother.”

When the officer paled at the mere mention of such a trying experience, Cassie pointed to the tiny white bichon frise, who was now scampering across the yard to join forces with the enemy. “Well, I’m warning you. No one in this entire neighborhood will be safe when Lenora Collins finds out her famous show dog crossed paws with the first stray mutt who came along. She’ll blame me for not watching Duchess more closely. And she’ll blame you for allowing some nasty mutt to roam free through the neighborhood.”

Joe’s heavily browed eyes immediately grew wide with concern. Sending a quick glance over his shoulder, he absently patted his holster as if he might need the gun for his own protection. “But y-your m-mother is still in Europe, isn’t she, Miss Collins?” Joe stammered.

“Yes, but I can’t keep Lenora in Europe forever, Joe,” Cassie said, and sighed. “And if we don’t get that mutt out of here before he does any more damage, we’ll all be buying tickets to Europe to save our own lives.”

Joe dragged a meaty hand over his face, then pointed to the woo-some twosome who were currently engaged in what appeared to be another premating ritual. “You mean that little white dog out there is the one who just won all those awards in New York City?”

Cassie nodded, glaring at the poodle-looking paramour whom she’d vowed to protect and keep safe in her mother’s absence. The little witch was her mother’s pride and joy, but now that the current diva of the dog world had succumbed to the charms of a mutt whose only credentials seemed to be an overdose of testosterone and an attitude, Cassie suspected those dog-food and pet endorsements her mother planned to glean from winning Westminster would disappear faster than a pack of antacids at a federal tax audit.

“Man, I don’t blame you for being upset, Miss Collins, but—”

“Oh, I zoomed way past upset when I found them doing an intimate bunny-hop across the backyard,” Cassie interrupted. “Now, are you guys going to help me catch the mutt before they engage in another close encounter of the fur kind, or aren’t you?”

Both men seemed a bit embarrassed by her graphic outburst, but the Barney Fife lookalike finally stepped forward to take up the challenge. “I’ll help you catch him, Miss Collins. I’ve always been good with dogs.”

Cassie held her breath as the lanky officer left the sunroom and strolled across the yard in the perpetrator’s direction. To Cassie’s surprise, instead of leading the officer on another exhausting game of hide-and-seek through the trees, the scruffy little scamp inched toward him and sniffed at the man’s outstretched hand. In a flash, the officer snatched the mutt up. Mission accomplished, he returned to Cassie’s side with the little bandit tucked safely under his arm.

“Peanuts always work,” he said proudly, sending Cassie a wink. “I always keep loose peanuts in my pocket for between-meal snacks.”

Cassie shuddered at the sight of the lint-covered peanuts the mutt was happily munching from the officer’s hand, then looked around the yard for the other half of the dissolute duo. Obviously sated by the wild display of carnal acrobatics Cassie had witnessed earlier, the little floozy trotted obediently toward the house in search of her lover. Cassie grabbed the pampered pooch and marched Miss Duchess into the sun-room. When Cassie placed Duchess in her traveling crate and fastened the latch, the shameless hussy actually had the nerve to look annoyed.

When Cassie joined the officers back on the patio, she smiled and said, “Thanks, guys. Now you need to help me find this mutt’s owner. And when you do, I want you to make an immediate arrest for violating the neighborhood leash law.”

Both men exchanged nervous looks. Joe actually laughed. “Hey, you’re not really serious about making an arrest over this, are you, Miss Collins?”

Cassie frowned, but let out an exasperated sigh. “Probably not, but it really would serve the owner right if I did. If that dog has left Duchess with a litter of mongrel puppies, I’ll be facing a death sentence.”

“Hey, I really sympathize with your predicament, Miss Collins,” Joe mumbled, “but I sure wouldn’t want to be the one to make the arrest.”

“Me, neither,” interjected Barney Fife’s twin. “He wasn’t real happy the last time we had to serve him with a complaint.”

Hands on her hips now, Cassie sent both men a puzzled look. “You mean you guys already know who owns this mutt?”

Barney swallowed, sending his pronounced Adam’s apple roaming up and down his throat several times before he managed to spit out the answer. “The little fellow belongs to Nick Hardin. You know, that radio talk-show host who’s caused all the trouble since he moved into Biltmore Forest.”

Hearing that Nick Hardin owned the mutt responsible for her current nightmare affected Cassie like a slap across the face. She immediately reached for the wiry terrier and snatched the little Casanova from the officer’s grasp.

“I really do appreciate your help, boys,” she told her cohorts, then sent both officers a sinister smile. “But if Nick Hardin owns this guy, I’m going to pay him a visit he won’t soon forget.”

“Give him hell, Miss Collins,” Barney said on a giggle.

“You can count on it,” Cassie promised, then turned on her heel and headed for the garage with the relieved security officers trailing after her.

After waving goodbye to her obliging dream team, Cassie opened the door to her silver Lexus sedan, placed the black-and-white scoundrel on the passenger’s seat, then slid behind the wheel.

“So, you belong to the famous Nick Hardin, do you?” she said, looking over at the mutt who was responsible for turning her peaceful Saturday morning into a full-blown disaster. “Well, thanks to you, my scruffy little friend, we’ll see if your obnoxious master still has a sense of humor after this vulture picks his bones clean for the damages you’ve caused this morning.”

IT TOOK LESS THAN five minutes for Cassie and her hostage to make the short trip to the old Tudor mansion Nick Hardin had purchased some six months earlier. When she reached the gate to the aging estate, Cassie pulled into the winding driveway that led up to the house. She had always loved the charm of the old place, especially the brilliant rhododendrons and the multicolored azaleas that lined both sides of the driveway. The old Jeep and the big Harley-Davidson motorcycle that were parked haphazardly in the driveway, however, looked as out of place as the radio talk-show host had been since he moved into her neighborhood.

Eager to give the cocky old coot an up-close-and-personal look at the legal system he was always complaining about on his stupid radio program, Cassie switched off the engine and grabbed the furry scamp sitting next to her. Marching straight to the front door, Cassie paused on the stoop and pressed the doorbell long enough for the blast to wake the dead. When her adversary failed to appear from within his fortress, Cassie reached for the bell again, but the squirming captive in the crook of her arm saw his chance and wiggled from her grasp.

“You come back here this minute,” Cassie yelled.

The naughty little maverick bounded around the side of the house and Cassie dashed after him. Charging through the back gate in hot pursuit, she almost had the miniature monster in her grasp, but a loud splash from the backyard pool brought her to a sudden stop. When she looked up, her eyes widened in disbelief as the lower half of a nude male body slipped beneath the surface of the shimmering blue water.

Ignoring her own gasp, Cassie willed herself to move, but the instincts that kept screaming run didn’t relay the message to her addled brain fast enough. Before she could flee, a bronzed phantom with an upper torso reminiscent of the Incredible Hulk’s broke the water’s surface gracefully with muscled forearms stretched out before him.

Cassie watched in awe as Adonis himself made long, purposeful strides across the water in her direction. This can’t be Nick Hardin, she kept assuring herself, but she’d never actually seen Nick Hardin before, not even a picture of him. It was his politically incorrect attitude that led Cassie to believe he would be much older than this Greek god she had just caught in the buff. In fact, the mental picture Cassie had always put with that deep baritone voice on the radio was one of a middle-aged hippie who was still trying to cling to the lost age of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Please, God, let this Chippendale refugee be Nick Hardin’s pool man, Cassie prayed silently, aware that the naked stranger was now swimming dangerously close to the shallow end of the pool.

To her relief, he stopped when the water was still waist-high, ran a hand through his unfashionably long hair, then stared back at Cassie with eyes the color of midnight. “Well, good morning,” he called out boldly. “I’d given up hope of the Biltmore Forest welcoming committee dropping by, but if you’re the representative it was well worth the wait.”

The second she heard that too-familiar baritone voice, Cassie felt a searing flush spread straight to the center of her cheeks. Squaring her shoulders, she sent him the type of icy stare that she usually reserved for the courtroom. “You’re Nick Hardin?” she managed to say, already knowing the answer.

“Guilty as charged,” he admitted with a cocksure grin. “And you are?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Hardin, but I’m definitely not the welcoming committee,” she informed him curtly, then pointed to the black-and-white half breed who was running up and down the edge of the pool, yapping at his master. “I brought your dog home, because…”

“Hey, if the mutt’s been in your garbage, I’m sorry,” Nick interrupted. “I found the little bandit at a garbage dump when he was only a pup. It’s a bad habit of his I can’t seem to break.”

The overwhelming knowledge that the degenerate dog had credentials even worse than she imagined instantly erased any curiosity Cassie had about the part of Nick Hardin’s body that was still under water. “Oh, I assure you, your dog’s crime is much more serious than raiding trash cans,” she remarked tersely. “Your mutt, as you call him, dug a hole under my fence this morning and accosted a world-champion show dog.”

Cassie watched an amused look cross his painfully handsome face while he digested her statement. At about the time Cassie decided Nick Hardin was actually contemplating the seriousness of the situation, he burst out with the same gregarious laughter he’d exhibited when she called to complain about his stupid lawyer jokes.

How dare he laugh about his own negligence! Reaching for the first thing that caught her eye, Cassie grabbed a towel from a nearby deck chair and flung it in her tormentor’s direction. “If I were you, I’d get out of the pool and get dressed, Mr. Hardin,” she informed him curtly. “I doubt you’re going to find things so funny when we discuss the extensive lawsuit I intend to file against you.”

NICK CAUGHT THE TOWEL easily, but remained in the center of the pool, watching his exquisite guest stomp back around the side of the house. He’d always been a sucker for cutoffs, and this lady had a delectable little fanny that filled out the short cutoff jeans to perfection.

When he’d first surfaced from his dive, Nick decided his fuzzy head from his night out with the boys the previous evening was responsible for conjuring up the vision of loveliness he found standing beside his pool. When he started swimming in her direction, however, the shocked deer-in-the-headlights look she gave him convinced Nick that his visitor was real.

In no longer than it took to shake the water from his face, he had absorbed every detail of her more-than-pleasing appearance. She was literally stunning, even in cutoff jeans and a baggy T-shirt that had Run for Fun splashed across the front. Not that the loose-fitting T-shirt concealed her well-endowed bosom from Nick’s prying eyes, because it didn’t. No more than her extremely short cutoffs kept him from committing her long, perfectly shaped legs permanently to his memory.

The only problem seemed to be her age. Though her manner of speaking and the way she carried herself suggested she was older than she looked, her teenager-type attire and her slightly askew ponytail made Nick suspect she was barely past twenty. Enticing or not, women on the low side of twenty were much too young, even for a thirty-something rake such as he.

Pulling himself out of the pool, Nick wrapped the wet towel around his waist, then wandered into the house, oblivious to the dripping water that trailed across the expensive parquet floors. The last thing he needed to start his weekend off was another irate neighbor. He had left the rat race in Atlanta, seeking peace and solitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains, only to find when he arrived in Asheville that he’d traveled back in time fifty years. The upper-crust socialites who shared his lovely locality had been appalled by his long hair, outraged by his refusal to adhere to their silly rules and dress codes, and mortified by the big Harley-Davidson that had always been Nick’s pride and joy. Now it seemed even his choice of pets didn’t meet with their approval.

From the den, he grabbed the faded polo shirt and jeans he’d worn the night before, then tossed the dripping towel into the sink on the well-stocked wet bar that took up one side of the sparsely furnished room. Droplets of water still clung to his lean, muscular body, but Nick donned his clothes without toweling off, then slipped his feet into a pair of well-worn Birkenstock sandals. After raking his fingers though his sun-streaked hair, he pulled the wet mass to the back of his head, then used a leather strip he pulled from the back pocket of his jeans to secure his hair in a short ponytail.

His first instinct was to throw the irate beauty off his property, but Nick decided maybe it was time he took a more amicable approach where his fellow neighbors were concerned. He had, after all, invested a huge chunk of his financial reserves in the aging estate he now called home. If spreading a little harmony around the neighborhood could give him a reprieve from the scorn he’d been receiving to date, showing his good side might make life in Biltmore Forest a little more pleasant for everyone concerned.

“Stay,” Nick told his unwanted shadow when the frisky terrier followed him faithfully down the hallway to the front door. “It appears you’ve already caused enough trouble for one day.”

MINUTES LATER, NICK found his exquisite visitor propped against the luxury sedan that was sitting in the driveway next to his classic ’47 flat-fender Jeep. Arms folded stubbornly across her chest, she still wore the same surly look on her face. Nick hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, then sauntered down the steps in her direction, wondering if he still had what it took to cajole his agitated visitor into a friendlier mood.

He attempted his most winning smile. “I was just getting ready to fill the espresso machine. If you’ll join me, maybe we can discuss this dog situation over a cup of coffee.”

Lifting her chin defiantly, his visitor glared in his direction. “This isn’t a social call, Mr. Hardin. Everything we need to discuss can be discussed right here.”

“Well at least drop that ‘Mr. Hardin’ crap,” Nick said, trying to get at least one smile out of his attractive guest. “I’m Nick.”

“And I’m what I think you referred to as a vulture on your program several weeks ago,” she replied, ignoring his outstretched hand.

Nick paused, vaguely remembering the incident. But he stifled a laugh when he recalled the entire situation. “Ah, so you’re the attorney who didn’t particularly care for my joke about…”

He watched her aqua-blue eyes immediately turn a shade darker and several degrees colder. “About vultures and lawyers?” she quizzed, finishing his sentence.

Nick grinned in spite of himself. “Hey, I’m sorry you didn’t particularly care for that joke, counselor. But like I told you when you called, you can always tune me out if you don’t like my program.”

“Oh, I’ve tuned you out, all right,” Cassie retorted. “I suspect hundreds of other women who don’t care for your chauvinistic attitude have done the same.”

“Chauvinistic?” Nick moaned, pretending to be hurt. “Hey, you’re way off base on that one, counselor. You see, I’ve always been extremely fond of women.”

“As long as they’re barefoot and pregnant, and know their place, you mean?” she challenged.

Nick flinched. In all fairness, he could understand that his lawyer jokes, and now the incident involving his dog, might be responsible for launching a bumblebee up the legal eagle’s attractive little behind. But he was quickly growing weary of being attacked in his own driveway. Determined to make his snotty visitor vanish as quickly as she’d appeared, Nick deliberately let his coal-black eyes travel over her body with a look that even this uptight attorney couldn’t misinterpret.

And only when she flinched did Nick break his ill-mannered leer.

“Sorry if my appraisal made you uncomfortable,” Nick lied. “But since you’re already barefoot, I was just trying to imagine the pregnant part.”

Cassie gasped and looked down at all ten of her hot-pink polished toes. In her haste to get retribution for the heinous crime Nick Hardin’s dog had committed, she had completely forgotten that she left home looking like some reject from a bargain-basement sale. She hadn’t even realized that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

Clenching her fists to keep from slapping him, Cassie struggled until she finally regained her ability to speak. “If that was meant to shock me, it didn’t,” she huffed. “In fact, that’s exactly the type of statement I would expect from a man like you.”

Raising one eyebrow slightly, Nick grinned. “Hey, I hate to point out the obvious, but you’re standing in my driveway, counselor, I’m not standing in yours. If you find me so offensive, you can always leave.”

His comment brought an even deeper shade of pink to Cassie’s cheeks. “Oh, believe me, I’ll be more than happy to leave once we come to an understanding about the damage your idiot dog…”

“Let’s see. How did you so aptly put that before?” Nick interrupted, bursting out laughing again. “Didn’t you say he accosted…?”

“That’s exactly what I said,” Cassie snapped, cutting him off. “But your mutt didn’t assault just any dog. I’m talking about a priceless dog. A dog that would put a dent in any bank account. Even one as healthy as yours.”

She paused then, giving Nick a chance to comment on the significance of her statement. Instead, he remained silent, keeping his eyes fixed permanently on her full, moist lips. The same type of lips he would have preferred tasting and teasing, instead of watching them spout out a bunch of silly nonsense about some famous show dog.

“Since I’m sure you do little else than listen to your own voice on the radio,” Cassie accused, “you obviously failed to read the front page of the Asheville-Citizen Times a few weeks ago when they did a feature story about the local bichon frise who won Best-in-Show at the Westminster Dog Show in New York City.”

“Let me guess,” Nick scoffed, thinking that even the name of the damn dog sounded pretentious. “This…be-shon free-za, or whatever name you called the silly dog, just happens to be…”

“How clever of you to figure it out,” Cassie snapped.

Stalling for time, Nick let out a long sigh, then removed the leather strip from his ponytail and forced his fingers through his still-damp hair. “So let me get this right. Your fancy show dog didn’t bother to ask for credentials before she lifted her manicured little tail for the first stray male who came along, and you think that gives you the right to sue me? Get serious, counselor. How do I know my dog wasn’t in line behind some other hound who got to her first?”

“That’s so typically male!” Cassie shrieked. “That’s always a man’s first line of defense, isn’t it? Always try to pawn it off on someone else.”

Nick shrugged, unwilling to admit or deny the accusation. “Then what about calling in a vet if you’re so appalled that your dog didn’t hold out for a champion stud? I’ve heard they have this shot you can give…”

“You, Mr. Hardin, are even more disgusting than I imagined,” Cassie interrupted. “How brilliant of you to come up with a man’s second line of defense!” Shaking her finger wildly in his direction, Cassie added, “If you think for one minute I’d risk harming a priceless show dog and possibly prevent her from having champion puppies someday, you’re crazy.”

Unimpressed with her tirade, Nick leaned against the fender of the Lexus while the hyped-up attorney paced back and forth in his driveway, stewing over his unhelpful suggestions. He was tempted to grab her and hold her in a bear hug until she finally calmed down, but he was actually enjoying watching her flounce around his driveway with her fists clenched at her sides. Most women he met were all over him before he had a chance to say hello, but Nick already knew this sexy spitfire would probably scratch his eyes out if he even took a step in her direction. And the fact that she might intrigued him.

“And don’t you dare say something stupid, like requesting a doggy paternity test,” Cassie warned, wheeling around to face him again. “I caught your dog in the act, remember? And if I end up playing nursemaid to a litter of unregistered puppies, I intend to hold you and your worthless dog totally responsible.”

With that said, she marched to her car, opened the door and slid behind the wheel. “I’m taking Duchess to the vet the second I get back home,” she announced as she fumbled with the ignition. “I realize you have little use for legal advice, but it would be wise if you obeyed the leash law and keep that flea-bitten mutt at home where he should have been in the first place.”

Nick suppressed a laugh, then quickly placed his hand on the driver’s side door. Leaning down, he sent his beautiful but angry visitor a slow, seductive smile. “Hey, just for the record, counselor, it might ease your mind to know that our dogs may be better suited than you think.”

“Not in this lifetime,” Cassie assured him, grinding the Lexus into reverse.

“But didn’t you just say your dog’s name was Duchess?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she snapped, taking the bait.

Nick laughed the same hearty laugh she had heard on the radio and by the pool. “Because my dog has a royal name, too. I named him Earl.”

“After one of your motorcycle-riding, beer-swilling friends, I’m sure,” Cassie shot back, then roared out of the driveway, coming dangerously close to hitting the big Harley Hog that was parked at the edge of Nick Hardin’s paved drive.


IN LESS THAN AN HOUR after she roared out of Nick Hardin’s driveway, Cassie drove into the parking lot of an elaborate brick building and pulled in beside a lone red Porsche, thinking that she should have taken her best friend’s advice and gone into veterinary medicine instead of law. Dee had been savvy enough to tap into the gold mine that surrounded the movers and shakers in the dog world. Limiting her practice to champion canines only, Dee wouldn’t have allowed a cur like Nick Hardin’s to place a grimy paw on the pavement in the parking lot, much less receive treatment at the chic canine facility appropriately known as Pedigree, Ltd.

Cassie hopped out of the car, dragged Duchess’s crate from the passenger’s seat, then hurried to the glass front door of the building that had Your Champion Is The Heart Of Our Business stenciled in gold letters across the front.

“Dee…we’re here,” Cassie yelled the second she stepped inside.

“Well, hello Daisy Mae,” Dee Bishop teased as she appraised Cassie’s appearance.

Cassie frowned at her friend’s attempted wit. She still hadn’t taken time to change from her shorts and T-shirt, but she had grabbed her sandals this time. “Don’t start with me, Dee,” Cassie warned. “I’ve already had a morning straight from hell and it’s only ten o’clock.”

“Well, your reason for dragging my butt in here on a Saturday better be a good one,” the tall blonde said as she pulled on a lab coat. “I don’t ruin my weekends for just anyone.”

“Spare me the poor pitiful-me act,” Cassie grumbled. “As much as my mother pays you to take care of this fancy dog of hers, I think you can afford the sacrifice.”

“Touché,” Dee conceded. “Follow me.”

Crate in hand, Cassie followed her friend down the hallway to the first doggy examining room. “I know I was vague on the phone, Dee, but I wanted to get here as fast as I could.”

Dee waited until Cassie placed the crate on the table before she unfastened the latch and gently lifted the tiny dog out. “Hey there, Miss Duchess,” Dee cooed. “What’s wrong, sweetie? Are you under the weather today?”

“No. She was under the sex-crazed terrier who lives down the street.”

Clutching Duchess to her breast as if Cassie had arranged for the lewd rendezvous herself, Dee glared in Cassie’s direction. “That isn’t even funny, Cassie. The champion sire your mother arranged for will be here on Monday. If you’ve allowed another dog to get to Duchess first, your mother will kill you.”

Cassie’s deadpan look spoke volumes. “Of course Lenora’s going to kill me, you nitwit. Why do you think I was practically in tears when I called you?”

Ignoring the shocked look on Dee’s perfectly made-up face, Cassie began pacing around the room, talking more to herself than to her judgmental friend. “Believe me, Dee, if you think I’m taking this lightly, you’re badly mistaken. I’m the one who insisted that I should stay behind to keep Duchess and make sure everything went as planned with those breeders from London. ‘I can handle it, Mother,’ I kept saying until I was blue in the face. And do you know what’s so funny?” Cassie added with a hysterical giggle. “For once, Lenora actually trusted me to have enough sense to take care of things. Leave it to me to screw it up and only reinforce my mother’s opinion that I’m not capable of doing anything right.”

“Lenora doesn’t think anyone’s capable of doing anything right but herself,” Dee mumbled.

Cassie’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you think I realize that?”

“You already know what I think,” Dee insisted. “I think it’s way past time for you to cut the apron strings and stop trying to live up to Lenora’s expectations, Cassie. You’re twenty-eight years old. Get a life and put that dutiful-daughter act to rest.”

Cassie frowned. “Spare me your dutiful-daughter speech, Dee. You’ve been delivering it since we were in grade school.”

“And I’ll keep delivering it until you get a little backbone and at least move out on your own,” Dee insisted.

Circling the room again, Cassie sighed, thinking about her overbearing, hypochondria-impaired mother whom she loved in spite of everything. “You know as well as I do the minute I left home, Lenora would take to her sickbed like she did the last time I mentioned moving out. She expects me to live at home until I get married, Dee. It’s Mother’s twisted form of punishment for me being twenty-eight and still single.”

“Well, if I were you, I’d risk it,” Dee argued. “Call Lenora’s bluff about that phony heart murmur of hers.”

The image of her mother, left hand to her forehead, right hand draped dramatically over her heart instantly crossed Cassie’s mind. “Oh, Lenora definitely has a heart murmur, Dee. It murmurs suck-er every time I play along when she fakes another siege with her imaginary angina.”

Dee laughed, but shook her head in disgust. “I’ve never been able to understand the hold Lenora has over you, Cassie. You’re one of the most talented, confident and self-reliant women I know—except when it comes to your mother.”

When Cassie didn’t bother to respond, Dee realized the subject was closed. Taking a pair of rubber gloves from beneath the examining table, she snapped them into place and transformed from best friend into Dr. Bishop, canine care-giver. She began feeling along Duchess’s hindquarters.

Looking up at Cassie, Dee said, “And you’re positive Duchess and this stray male made contact?”

“Oh, they definitely made contact,” Cassie confirmed. “If I’d found them sharing a cigarette when I finally got over the shock, it wouldn’t have surprised me a bit.”

“Surely you weren’t letting her run loose knowing her condition?”

Cassie felt like slapping the dear doctor across the face. “Of course I wasn’t letting her run loose, Dee. I had the little witch in the backyard. Her boyfriend was just aroused enough to dig a hole under the fence.”

“You’d be surprised how inventive dogs can be when they’re ready to mate.”

“Oh, I’ve been surprised enough for a lifetime,” Cassie wailed. “Just tell me what we can do about it now.”

“There isn’t much we can do, after the fact.”

“But don’t you have one of those pee-on-a-stick doggy tests or something? Surely you have some space-age method that can tell me if I should start knitting little mongrel puppy booties by the dozen.”

Dr. Bishop finished her exam and tossed the gloves in the waste can. “I can do an ultrasound later, but it will take at least nineteen days before I’m able to detect any fetuses.”

“Nineteen days!” Cassie exploded. “And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? The grand stud from London is supposed to arrive on Monday.”

“And that may be your salvation, Cass. If Duchess is receptive to the champion male bichon, and the mutt didn’t impregnate her first, you may get your champion puppies, after all. It isn’t uncommon for a bitch to mate with more than one dog, you know. In fact, I’ve seen litters that have two entirely different sires.”

Cassie groaned. “Must you dog people always use the B word so causally?” Cassie scolded. “Even though I’d like to strangle the little floozy myself right now, I feel like a traitor allowing you to refer to Duchess as a bitch.”

“Well, you’d better get used to the sound of the B word, Miss Priss,” Dee teased. “I’m sure bitch will certainly cross Lenora’s mind if Duchess ends up with a litter of unregistered puppies.”

“That’s what I love about you, Dee,” Cassie scolded. “You’re always so supportive.”

Cassie made several more laps around the small room before she said, “I hate to even mention this, Dee. And don’t start throwing things, but I’ve heard there’s some type of shot…”

Dee sent Cassie a look that stopped her midsentence. “Yes, there is a ‘mismating’ shot available if that’s what you’re referring to, but I’d never use it personally. It can be detrimental to the bitch’s health.”

Cassie frowned. “So, what are we going to do now?”

Dee leaned against the examining table, displaying her best I’m-the-doctor-you’re-the-buffoon face. “Well, we certainly can’t take a chance that Duchess might be exposed again before the proper sire arrives,” Dee said. “I think you should leave Duchess here with me. I know one of the breeder’s stipulations was that you keep the dogs in a home environment instead of a kennel, but it makes much more sense for me to supervise the breeding here. I have the facilities to keep the dogs confined, and I can keep an eye on both of them in case there are any complications.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “And what am I supposed to tell the breeder? The man was rude enough when I called to inform him that Duchess’s trainer was in the hospital and that I’d be taking care of the dogs in his absence.”

“Let me handle that part. I can come up with a long list of valid reasons why I should monitor the breeding.”

When Cassie nodded in agreement, Dee added, “And by the way. I’ll also need to examine your neighbor’s dog. I don’t want to take any chances where Duchess is concerned, Cassie. The dog could even be diseased, plus if he’s a mixed breed and their little rendezvous was successful, the puppies could be too large and Duchess could have trouble whelping.”

Cassie’s laugh was cynical. “Fat chance of that happening. I just had a screaming fit in the man’s front yard less than an hour ago.”

Ignoring Cassie’s comment, Dee turned to the small basin next to the examining table and lathered her hands. “Then call him back and apologize, Cassie. Do whatever it takes. Like I said, Duchess is the one we have to think about now.”

Cassie shook her head furiously. “The day I apologize to Nick Hardin, is the day…”

Dee whirled back around, ignoring the soap that splattered on the floor. “Get out!” she gasped. “Surely you don’t mean the stray belonged to your neighborhood’s resident Hell’s Angel?”

“Oh, he’s an angel straight from the gates of hell, all right,” Cassie remarked, chewing at her bottom lip. “I just didn’t expect him to be…”

“A cross between Antonio Banderas and Brad Pitt—with a body better than Sly Stallone’s?” Dee quizzed, exercising the ability all close friends have of finishing each other’s sentences.

Cassie’s interest perked slightly. “So? You’ve met my infamous neighbor.”

“Yeah, several months ago. I know you were livid after his smart reply about his lawyer jokes, Cassie, but he’s really a great guy. He and Ron are organizing a committee to help children deal with the problems they face after a divorce. Ron says he’s really great with the kids, and he’s real generous with his time.”

Disturbed by the news that Nick Hardin might have even one redeeming quality, Cassie said, “Well, he’s an arrogant ass, if you ask me.”

Dee shrugged her shoulders, then turned back to rinse the soap from her hands. “Well, you know what I always say. Nick Hardin’s one man I sure wouldn’t…”

“Kick out of bed,” Cassie finished with a groan, then added, “You’re incorrigible, Dee. If I had a hunk like Ron for a fiancé, I’d never look twice at another man.”

“But you do have a hunk, remember? Or has your insignificant other finally given up on the ice maiden who won’t share his bed, or accept his proposal to become Mrs. Mark Winston?”

At the mention of Mark Winston’s name, Cassie grabbed her friend’s arm and stared in disbelief at Dee’s fancy Lady Rolex watch. “Damn! Mark’s supposed to pick me up in less than an hour, Dee. I’m supposed to attend one of those stupid fund-raisers with him at noon.”

“I know you say you aren’t in love with Mark, Cassie, and even if Lenora did handpick him as your perfect mate, you have to admit he’s a very ambitious man. Assistant D.A. now. Senator Mark Winston tomorrow. You could have a great life playing hostess in Washington to all those dignitaries from around the world.”

Ignoring Dee’s boring assessment of Mark Winston’s credentials, Cassie blew a kiss toward the little strumpet in the crate. “Take care of Duchess, Dee,” Cassie called over her shoulder as she ran from the room. “I’ll see you Monday when the Brits arrives. And once this is all over I want you to send Nick Hardin a huge bill for your services.”

WHEN CASSIE TURNED INTO her driveway thirty minutes later, Mark Winston was standing on her front porch with a scowl on his face. Looking down over the top of his designer glasses, her insignificant other, as Dee called him, reminded Cassie of a disapproving schoolmaster waiting for a tardy student.

Forcing a smile she certainly didn’t feel, Cassie stepped from the car, aware that Mark’s scowl quickly changed to a look of total shock when he noticed her untidy appearance. “What’s going on, Cassandra?” he demanded, glancing at his watch as if God had suddenly appointed him official time-keeper. “You aren’t even ready and it’s time to leave.”

Cassie walked past Mark as he stated the obvious, deciding she preferred extensive root canal therapy to sitting through another luncheon while Mark made a boring speech. “I’m sorry, Mark, but you’ll have to go without me,” she said over her shoulder as she entered the house. “Not that you bothered to ask, but I’ve had an emergency this morning.”

Having entered the foyer behind her, most women’s version of “tall, dark and handsome” followed Cassie down the hallway. When he marched into the Collinses’ rambling kitchen, he removed the jacket of his expensive Italian suit, slung it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs, then stood with his hands at his waist, waiting for an explanation. Cassie could see the crisp cut of his freshly starched Brooks Brothers shirt from the corner of her eye, but she continued to ignore him while she poured herself a much-needed glass of iced tea.

“Well? Don’t keep me in suspense, Cassandra. What was the big emergency?”

Mark’s insistence on always using her formal name, the way her mother did, had the same effect on Cassie as hearing fingernails scrape down a blackboard. Feeling like a child being interrogated by an angry parent, she whirled around and said, “I’ll tell you what the big emergency was, Mark. A mongrel dog from hell dug his way under the fence and seduced Duchess this morning before I could even swallow my first sip of coffee.”

“And?” he exploded.

Bracing herself to keep from grabbing Mark by his two-hundred-dollar tie and tightening the knot until his eyes bulged, Cassie answered through clenched teeth, “And, after I rescued Duchess, I tracked down the dog’s owner and gave him a huge piece of my mind. And then I had to take Duchess to Dee’s office to have her examined.”

Mark frowned, mulling over her words. “You said you gave him a huge piece of your mind. I certainly hope you haven’t said something to offend anyone in the neighborhood, Cassandra. Your father has personally introduced me to everyone in Biltmore Forest and you know I’m depending on every vote I can get when I run for office this fall.”

“Believe me, Mark, Father didn’t introduce you to this joker. It was Biltmore Forest’s biggest outcast, Nick Hardin.”

“Nick Hardin?” Mark repeated, his dark brows knitting in a frown.

“Yes, Nick Hardin. Like I said, I’ve already given him a huge piece of my mind, and if Duchess turns up pregnant, I’m going to sue that worthless…”

“And you went to Nick Hardin’s looking like that?” Mark interrupted, letting his eyes travel over Cassie’s under-clothed body. “Good grief, Cassie. I’m surprised he didn’t drag you into the bushes and ravish you the same way his dog did Duchess.”

Cassie met Mark’s cold stare, unimpressed with his attitude or with his sudden show of jealousy. “Is it some written rule that a man starts thinking with his family jewels the second the woman he’s dating comes in contact with another man?” she demanded.

Mark’s face reddened. “Well, how do you expect me to react when you go traipsing off to some hoodlum’s house looking like the current playmate of the month?”

When Cassie refused to answer, Mark eventually broke the silence. Using a much softer tone he said, “Look, I don’t like the idea of you living in the same neighborhood as an outlaw like Nick Hardin, much less you showing up at his house in that outfit. He’s trouble, Cassandra. Leave him alone.”

And he’s also gorgeous, Cassie thought to herself as the memory of her neighbor’s tight naked buns flashed through her mind. When she noticed Mark glance at his watch again, she said, “You’d better go, Mark. You’ll be late for your speech.”

“You know how important these functions are to my campaign,” Mark grumbled, unwilling to be dismissed without having the last word.

“Which is exactly why you should go,” Cassie told him. “It would take me at least another hour before I could be ready.”

Mark’s jaw muscles tightened as he sent her a scathing look. “Did it ever occur to you that I deserved the simple courtesy of a phone call, Cassandra?” he asked, his temper flaring again. “Who knows? Maybe I would have asked someone else to the luncheon. You obviously forgot all about me the second you had the opportunity to show up on Nick Hardin’s doorstep practically naked.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Mark, you’re blowing this out of proportion and you know it,” Cassie snapped back. “And excuse me for having the misguided notion that I meant a little more to you than just some warm body sitting at your elbow when you took the podium.”

Mark glared back at her, then ran a hand through his dark, perfectly groomed hair. “You are special, and you know it,” he mumbled halfheartedly. “Maybe I would feel more secure if you were willing to make a commitment.”

Cassie stared at the man who was her grandfather’s senatorial protegé and her mother’s answer to who’s who on the social roster. “I’ve told you a million times, Mark, when I decide to accept a marriage proposal, it will be based on love. Not because it will benefit my future husband’s political career.”

Mark frowned, but he didn’t deny her accusation. “Well, it certainly won’t benefit my career or my campaign if word gets out that my girlfriend is hanging around with a bum like Nick Hardin.”

“Why on earth are you so obsessed with Nick Hardin?”

“I told you. He’s trouble. Surely you aren’t naive enough to think he won’t have a field day with your tirade about this dog problem on his damn radio program, Cassandra. I can’t afford a scandal like that this close to election, and you know it. Maybe you should call him and apologize.”

“I’ll do no such thing!”

Mark’s face turned crimson. “Listen, Cassandra, either you apologize to that idiot and head off the obvious disaster you’ll face if you go to war with him, or you can forget about me. It’s up to you. Make your choice now.”

Cassie felt every drop of blood in her body drain to her feet. “If Duchess does turn up with a litter of unregistered puppies, Mark, I will sue Nick Hardin for damages, campaign or no campaign. So, you make the choice now.”

Grabbing his jacket from the kitchen chair, Mark sent her a final disapproving look. “Remember, this was your call, Cassandra.”

“No, this is your loss, you self-centered…” Cassie groped for the right word as Mark stormed out of the room. “Politician!” she finally screamed, but her brave words rang hollow when she heard the front door slam in the distance.

Kicking the refrigerator, which only resulted in scraping the bare toes her sandal left exposed, Cassie let out a yelp, then limped to the kitchen table and, with an exasperated sigh, flopped down in one of the chairs. As amazing as it seemed, only twenty-four hours ago Cassie thought she had the entire world by the tail. Who would have guessed that the wag of a particular little tail would turn her world upside down?

In the short span of one morning, she’d allowed a priceless show dog to do the wild thing with a mutt straight out of the garbage heap. She’d practically been arrested for making crank calls to the security police. And now she had willingly liberated her mother’s idea of the perfect husband to go off and find a more suitable mate.

Well, that’s two major strikes against me as far as Mother is concerned, Cassie thought. First Duchess, and now Mark.

The disastrous turn of events would certainly be good for at least one month of sickbed silence from her mother. And though Cassie should have been near tears, oddly, she wasn’t. In fact, the insane irony of the situation actually struck her funny. She had separated Duchess from her boyfriend, and now Duchess had indirectly returned the favor.

Letting out a long sigh, Cassie rolled her head from side to side, trying to loosen the huge knot of tension that was now trapped between her neck and her shoulders. Praying that a hot shower might relieve at least the muscle-related part of her problem, Cassie started for her bedroom on the second floor. She had just reached the kitchen door when the shrill sound of the telephone sounded through the room.

Deciding it was Mark, calling from his cell phone to apologize, Cassie let the phone ring several times. An apology from Mark was the last thing she wanted. In fact, Cassie didn’t want Mark period. Although her mother had visions of monogrammed towels and dirty diapers where she and Mark were concerned, Cassie had known from the beginning she would never let things go beyond dating with Mark. She had only kept up the pretense to keep Lenora off her back.

After the fifth ring, Cassie answered the kitchen extension, prepared to tell Mark it was definitely over between them. Instead, she almost dropped the receiver when a familiar voice floated over the line.

“Look, counselor, I know we both got a little hostile earlier, but I’m sure this is something we can settle over a chilled bottle of wine and a sensible conversation. How about eight o’clock? Your place or mine?”

Cassie was dumbfounded. “You have to be the most arrogant, insufferable man I’ve ever met,” Cassie informed him.

“Well, nobody’s perfect,” Nick agreed, “but you’re the one who said we had a problem to solve. I’m just suggesting that we settle things in a much more pleasant atmosphere than a courtroom.”

Cassie laughed in spite of herself as a vision of Nick Hardin ushering dozens of women into his “much more pleasant atmosphere” danced through her mind. “Oh, I’m sure you handle all of your problems with a bottle of chilled wine and a sensual conversation, Mr. Hardin….”

“I said sensible conversation.”

“But we both know you meant sensual, don’t we?” Cassie chided.

When Nick didn’t answer, Cassie added, “I left Duchess with the vet earlier, but it’ll take several weeks before the vet can determine if she’s pregnant.”

“And then what?” Nick quizzed.

“Then you can save yourself a lot of trouble and pay for the damages your dog caused, or we can settle this in court.”

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you, counselor?”

“What do you think?” Cassie challenged.

He laughed. “Lady, I think if you’d let nature take its course the way your fancy show dog did, you’d have a much better outlook on life.”

NICK JERKED THE RECEIVER away from his ear when she slammed down the phone, breaking their connection. Chuckling to himself, he tried to imagine the flustered look on her perfect face, but his thoughts eventually switched to more important details. Details like whether or not she was still wearing those Daisy Dukes that had driven him crazy.

Tossing the phone on the cushion beside him, he stretched out his long legs and leaned back on the sofa with his hands clasped behind his head. He hadn’t really expected the enraged Miss Collins to accept his offer, but he couldn’t resist calling the sexy wench, if only to rattle her chain a little. After all, this was the second time Cassandra Collins had gotten in his face. First with her complaint about his lawyer jokes, and now by storming into his life making threats about suing him over some stupid show dog.

Glancing back at the notepad in his lap, Nick looked over the composite of information he’d been able to collect on the feisty female only minutes after she’d left him standing in a cloud of dust in his driveway. A single phone call to one of his buddies at the Asheville-Citizen Times had given him all the information he needed.

According to his buddy, the dog actually belonged to a Mrs. Lenora Collins, the attorney’s mother. The guy also knew enough about the Collins family to give Nick the full scoop. Cassandra Collins was the only child of parents who both came from old money, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Her maternal grandfather, now deceased, had been a respected judge. Her paternal grandfather was a retired United States senator, still alive and still very active in politics.

After graduating at the top of her class from the University of North Carolina, the lovely Miss Collins had returned home to Asheville and joined her father at the family firm of Collins and Collins. Without a doubt, the pretty lady’s pedigree was every bit as impressive as the silly dog she was so upset about. Nick pored over the rest of her vital statistics, which included everything from her age to the fact that she was currently dating the assistant district attorney.

He kept telling himself that he was only interested in the information because the legal barracuda might possibly hit him with the ridiculous lawsuit she was threatening. And despite the hassle it would cause him, Nick wished the lovely lady would make that silly mistake. After all, his syndicated radio program did have the ears of thousands of listeners who thrived on controversy. Taking her down a peg or two over the air would be fairly simple. Unless, of course, those long tanned legs of hers kept turning up in his memory to interfere with his usual killer instincts.

She was definitely attractive. No, when he thought about it, she was downright beautiful. But she was also the epitome of everything Nick didn’t want in a woman. He would never settle down with some hoity-toity socialite, any more than he would marry some career-driven female who would probably refuse to share his last name.

And especially not a woman who had chosen law as her profession.

His own mother’s obsession with her career had been responsible for making Nick gun-shy where career-oriented women were concerned. Her preference for a career over being a wife and mother had resulted in a nasty divorce between his parents when Nick was only ten. He’d been bounced back and forth between his parents until he turned sixteen and put an end to the madness himself. It was the endless steam of court battles that had fueled Nick’s hatred for the legal profession. Even the superb strawberry-blonde who was threatening to sue him now didn’t change Nick’s opinion that greed, more often than justice, was the main reason most people embraced the law as their chosen profession.

Letting out a loud groan when Earl sailed through the air and landed in the middle of his stomach, Nick wrestled the squeaky toy away from his playful partner, then tossed it to the far end of the room. After pulling himself up from the sofa, he strolled through the patio doors, then slumped into one of the deck chairs scattered around the pool.

“If you end up being a daddy, Earl, we’ll have one hell of a fight on our hands,” Nick told his faithful companion when Earl returned with his squeaky toy and nuzzled against Nick’s hand.

But even as Nick sat in the afternoon sun planning his defense strategy, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his perceptive sixth sense was somehow alerting him to danger. Could matching wits with the leggy lawyer be menacing enough to trip his intuitive powers?


And in more ways than he cared to admit.


TO CASSIE’S HORROR, the scheduled rendezvous with the expensive English prince from London was a total calamity. Not only would Duchess not let the courtly stud get near her, she also bit the yapping powder puff squarely on his royal nose, prompting his snooty owner to threaten a lawsuit of his own. Thankfully, when Cassie upped the already preposterous stud fee, which had to be paid whether the dogs mated or not, she’d managed to calm the man’s ruffled feathers.

Now the only hurdle that remained was the ultrasound Dee was going to perform to see if Earl had been successful in making Duchess a mommy.

Forcing thoughts of fleeing to South America from her mind, Cassie reluctantly handed her keys to the valet parking attendant at Asheville’s impressive Grove Park Inn. The last thing she’d wanted to do that evening was attend the annual fund-raiser for the local historical society. Especially since Mark Winston would be there in all his glory with his new lady on his arm.

Cassie’s pride, however, wouldn’t allow her to stay at home. She knew the rumors would be bad enough if she made an appearance. But if she stayed away, she figured she would forever be dubbed as “the idiot who let Mark Winston get away.”

Crossing the lobby, Cassie took a deep breath before stepping into the large ballroom that was housing the charitable event. As luck would have it, the first person she saw was Evelyn Van Arbor, Asheville’s biggest gossip.

Hurrying to the cocktail bar on the far side of the room, Cassie purposely ignored the old snoop, and thought she’d been successful until the woman’s shrill voice rang out behind her.

“Cassandra, darling. Wait up.”

Steeling herself, Cassie turned to face the blue-haired piranha, knowing Evelyn would feast on her every word. After the old woman kissed the air on both sides of Cassie’s face, Cassie said, “You look glamorous as usual, Evelyn.”

“And so do you, dear,” Evelyn gushed, then added, “I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you decided to come, Cassandra. I was afraid you’d let this horrible misfortune with Mark Winston turn you into a bitter recluse.”

It took all of her composure, but Cassie managed a smile. “I’m not sure I know what you mean, Evelyn.”

The woman patted Cassie’s shoulder sympathetically. “You don’t have to act so brave with me, you poor little thing. Mark’s an idiot. And you’re so much prettier than that flighty Dianna Nugent.”

Cassie’s smile was now so forced it threatened to make huge cracks in both sides of her face. “I know there’s been a lot of speculation about me and Mark the last few months, Evelyn, but we’ve never been anything more than good friends. I assure you, I couldn’t be happier for both of them.”

“Oh, you’re much too gracious for your own good,” Evelyn complained as she nodded toward Mark and Dianna, who were twirling around the dance floor. “Besides,” she whispered, leaning close enough to make Cassie nauseous from her overpowering perfume, “Dianna’s father might be a doctor, but he isn’t a good doctor, judging from the malpractice suits that have been filed against him. Mark would have been better off staying with you, where he belonged. At least your father and your grandfather share his interests in politics.”

Cassie started to comment, but froze when a pair of black eyes she hadn’t counted on seeing at the fund-raiser locked with her own. As if her evening hadn’t started out badly enough, she now found Nick Hardin standing at the opposite end of the bar.

Her heart skipped a beat when he sent her a cordial nod, then graciously lifted his glass in her direction, offering a toast. God, please don’t let him come over here, she prayed silently, then quickly dismissed him by turning her back.

Aware that her hands were shaking when she accepted a glass of champagne from the attentive bartender, Cassie swallowed most of the expensive liquid in one easy gulp, then reluctantly turned her attention back to the lesser of two evils. “I’m sorry, Evelyn. What was your question again?”

“I asked what part of Europe your parents were touring now?”

Before Cassie could answer, the old woman leaned forward and grabbed her arm. “Don’t look now, but that horrible Nick Hardin is headed our way. I can’t believe he had the nerve to show up here, can you? Especially after that episode at the country club. Why, the very nerve of him riding his filthy motorcycle up on the country club lawn and parking—”

“Good evening, ladies,” Nick interrupted, silencing Evelyn Van Arbor’s rant.

Cassie took a deep breath, reluctantly turning around to face Nick. Immediately, she felt her knees buckle. Dressed in a snazzy designer tux with his shoulder-length hair slicked back in a perfect Steven Segal queue at his nape, he looked like a cross between Cinderella’s Prince Charming and a modern-day action hero. And despite her first impulse, which was to punch him in the nose for the lewd comment he’d made on the telephone about “letting nature take its course,” he was so wickedly handsome Cassie wasn’t sure she could trust herself in his presence.

Ignoring the cold reception he was receiving from the upper-crust matriarch standing beside her, Nick nodded a cordial greeting to Evelyn, then openly appraised the strapless black cocktail dress that fit Cassie like a second skin.

“You certainly look ravishing tonight, counselor,” he drawled in his deep, honey-smooth voice.

The fact that he was openly undressing her with his eyes while a room full of her peers looked on made Cassie curse herself for giving into a whim and wearing the extremely short frock that was capturing his attention. She’d only worn the stupid thing because Mark detested her in anything flashy. Now it seemed her silly attempt at revenge on Mark had ultimately backfired in her face.

When his eyes left her cleavage long enough to look her in the face, he asked, “How about a spin around the dance floor, counselor? It is, after all, for a very noble cause.”

“I’d rather walk barefoot on hot coals, Mr. Hardin,” Cassie assured him through clenched teeth.

She’d meant to insult him, but instead he laughed good-naturedly at her rebuff, then shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, you can’t blame a guy for wanting at least one dance with the sexiest lady in the room, can you?”

“Of all the nerve…” gasped Evelyn Van Arbor.

Cassie ignored the old snob’s outburst and sent Nick a lethal look that said “go away.” It was bad enough that everyone in the room was already buzzing about Mark throwing her over for Dianna Nugent. But if the elite of Asheville caught her conversing with the devil himself, she knew the rumors would take on a whole new life of their own.

When she sent him another frosty glare, it seemed to do the trick. Nick smiled, made a cordial little bow, then said, “Since it’s obvious I can’t interest you in a dance, then I’ll do the honorable thing and clear the way for someone you might find more suitable.”

When Cassie refused to comment, Nick sent her another mocking grin. “Have a nice evening, ladies.”

He turned and walked away, leaving Cassie feeling extremely guilty. Especially since he’d been so gracious when she’d purposely tried to embarrass him. Normally, she wouldn’t have acted so rude, but her gut instinct told her it was safer if Nick Hardin thought she was a kindred spirit to the mass of insufferable snobs who were gathered together for the evening. The taunting look in his sultry black eyes told Cassie he already knew she found him attractive. And she did. Even though they were complete opposites.

She almost smiled, thinking that referring to her and Nick Hardin as opposites was certainly the understatement of the century. They were like oil and water. Like fire and ice. They were the most unlikely match Cassie could possibly imagine. And for her own sake, she knew it was better to keep it that way.

Still reeling from the close encounter, she motioned for the bartender again. The man quickly refilled her glass, but as Cassie brought the glass to her lips, Evelyn Van Arbor leaned forward and said loud enough for the entire room to hear, “You did the right thing, Cassandra. It’s time a derelict like Nick Hardin realizes that he’ll never be accepted at a social gathering in this city.”

Cassie sputtered in her champagne and jerked her head around in time to see that the woman’s rude comment had brought Nick to a mid-stride stop. Turning slowly back to face them again, he wore the same cocky grin she remembered from the morning she first found Nick swimming naked in his pool. She shivered.

“Oh, by the way, counselor,” Nick called across a room that was now so quiet Cassie could hear her own breathing. “You never did telephone me with the results of that pregnancy test.”

“Dear Heavenly Father…” Evelyn Van Arbor wailed, and dropped the champagne glass she was holding in her wrinkled, diamond-laden hand.

Cassie instantly sprang forward and grabbed Nick by the arm before he could slither off into the sea of people, who were all now staring in their direction. Pulling him toward the exit door, she managed to push Nick outside onto the large veranda that ran along the back side of the inn. But by the time she hurried out the door behind him, Cassie could already hear the excited whispers skipping across the crowd.

“Yeah, I like this much better,” Nick announced when Cassie stomped up beside him. “Excellent choice, counselor. And it’s such a beautiful night, too. Much too pleasant to waste inside with all those stuffy friends of yours.”

“How dare you say something like that in front of that old gossip.” Cassie fumed.

“What? Did I say something wrong?”

“You know perfectly well you said something wrong,” Cassie snapped. “And by the time Evelyn Van Arbor spices up the story, it’ll be all over Asheville tomorrow that I’m pregnant with your illegitimate child.”

“But that’s how I prefer my women, remember? Barefoot and pregnant.”

“You’re impossible,” Cassie said, resisting the urge to reach out and strangle him. “How did you get invited to this benefit in the first place? You know these people despise you.”

Nick winked, unruffled by her comment. “You’d be surprised what the right amount of money can buy in this world, Miss Collins.”

Cassie sent him a murderous glare. “I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Hardin, but all the money in the world can never buy you class.”

“My sentiments exactly,” Nick assured her. “Take that rich old bat you’re so worried about now. If she had one ounce of class, she wouldn’t dream of repeating any gossip about you.”

The truth in Nick’s statement kept Cassie silent for a moment. Knitting her perfectly arched eyebrows together in a deep frown, she leaned back against the old stone wall that surrounded the veranda, wondering how long it would take her mother to hear through the grapevine that Nick Hardin had sired her first grandchild.

Cassie feared that, with that kind of news, Lenora Collins really would have the coronary she’d been threatening all these years.

“You know what you need?” Nick asked, studying Cassie’s grave expression.

“A submachine gun might come in handy at the moment,” Cassie shot back, but her caustic wit didn’t discourage Nick from lending his advice.

“You need to lighten up a little, counselor. Don’t take life so seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive, anyway.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “Spoken like the true scholar you aren’t,” she chided.

“I might not be a scholar,” Nick agreed, taking several steps closer than Cassie felt was necessary. “But I’m smart enough to know that old biddy will believe you over a…what did she call me?”

“I believe it was ‘derelict,”’ Cassie provided gladly.

Nick grinned. “Yes, I’m sure she’ll believe you over a derelict like me the minute you go back inside and tell her I was only talking about your prissy dog.”

Cassie didn’t bother to tell Nick she only wished it were that simple. She would rather have the entire city of Asheville think she was pregnant than have her mother find out that her precious dog with the award-winning genes had accepted a bad seed under Cassie’s supervision.

Ignoring the splendid full moon that was shining above them and the dreamy music that was now floating out to the veranda, Cassie glared at the incorrigible man who was directly blocking her path. “For your information, I’d rather face a firing squad than walk back through that room,” Cassie told him. “And since you’ve already done enough damage to my reputation for one evening, if you’ll move your obnoxious self out of my way, I plan to get out of here before you pull another stunt that makes us both the topic of conversation for the night.”

To her surprise, Nick’s ink-black eyes instantly flickered with anger. “Now, wait a minute, counselor. Don’t try to blame me for making you the topic of conversation in that room this evening. Your boyfriend, old Markie, did that all by himself when he showed up with a different lady on his arm.”

Cassie reached out to slap him, but her heel caught in a crack in the flagstone porch and landed her face-first against Nick’s massive, rock-hard chest. Angry looks flashed between them as he gripped her bare shoulders with his powerful hands to steady her fall. Entwined in an awkward embrace, neither of them expected the wave of passion that erupted between them.

But it did.

And it carried both of them along like a fast-moving train.

Before Cassie knew what was happening, Nick crushed her even closer to him and sent a tingling explosion rippling through her body. When he brushed his lips against the sensitive hollows of her throat, he left her defenseless, lost in a magical place that Cassie never knew existed. Helpless, she surrendered, but only momentarily. When his hungry mouth inched closer, threatening to claim her own, she finally came to her senses.

“I can’t do this,” Cassie gasped, forcing herself to push him away.

Their eyes locked briefly before Nick released her, allowing her time to see desire fade and a look of mischief take its place. “But we both enjoyed it, didn’t we, counselor?”

The weak “hah!” Cassie mustered was almost as shaky as the two legs that were trying to keep her standing. “The only thing I’m going to enjoy, is taking a huge chunk of your bank account if Duchess ends up pregnant,” Cassie lied, tossing Nick a smirk of her own. “I’ll know the test results tomorrow,” she added, “and if Duchess is pregnant, then we’ll see if you don’t start taking life a little more seriously.”

Before Nick could answer, she pushed past him and marched toward the outside stairway at the opposite end of the veranda.

Within seconds, she disappeared into the darkness without looking back.

CASSIE’S HANDS WERE still shaking when she accepted her keys from the uniformed parking attendant. She quickly handed the man a crumpled bill, then slid behind the wheel of her Lexus, trying to slow her thumping heart and regain her lost composure. Afraid her current rattled state of mind might result in destroying half of the luxury automobiles that lined both sides of the lot, she eased cautiously out of the parking lot, cursing the day she’d been stupid enough to stomp up Nick Hardin’s front steps.

How the man had the ability to arouse her one second and make her capable of murder the next was totally beyond her comprehension. He was the most arrogant, the most insufferable, the most exasperating man she’d ever met in her entire life, yet he had the power to reduce her to a sniveling schoolgirl with one glance from those wicked eyes of his.

Oh, he excited her, all right. He excited her more than she ever thought possible. But the type of raw desire he aroused inside her was pushing her into uncharted waters. Waters she knew could be extremely dangerous. To say her experience with the opposite sex had been limited was putting it mildly. Oh, she’d had her share of pimple-faced boyfriends in high school. She’d dated occasionally in college, and she’d even spent the past few months fighting off the unwanted attentions of a would-be senator. But the male persuasion had never been powerful enough to steer Cassie away from the personal goal she had set for herself the summer she turned sixteen.

It had all started with a conversation she overheard between her father and her famous senator grandfather. The realization that the distinguished Senator Edward Collins resented her for not being a grandson had hurt Cassie deeply. Referring to her as “a silly female who would care more about her coming-out party than she would about the family law firm” had devastated her to the point that her mission in life had become her determination to prove the old man wrong.

She had graduated at the top of her class both in college and in law school, and had surpassed any of the academic records either her father or her grandfather held. When Cassie proudly joined the family law firm, she had also brought with her enough expertise in contract and corporate law to add an impressive number of new clients to the firm roster. Until now, she had always believed that her professional accomplishments would be sufficient to sustain her throughout her safe, predictable life.

But that had been before Nick Hardin had arrived on the scene and punched a gigantic hole in her silly facade.

Leaving the Grove Park Inn far behind her, Cassie headed for the south end of town, preoccupied with the way Nick had made her dizzy the minute he took her in his arms. She let her fingers find the warm flesh of her throat and marveled that her skin still tingled from the ravishing kisses he’d placed along her neck. Just thinking of him now, in fact, made her pulse lurch again and sent even a warmer glow straight to the center of her stomach.

Shuddering, Cassie tried not to think what might have happened if she hadn’t somehow found the strength to push him away. A few hasty kisses on her neck had rendered her defenseless. If his fiery mouth had captured her own…

She snapped out of her fantasy when an oncoming car blasted its horn. Somehow, she managed to get the Lexus back into her own lane, but the quick movement slid the car sideways and promptly landed it in the ditch. Shaking now from fright, instead of her brief fantasy about Nick, Cassie gripped the steering wheel and took long measured breaths until she could force her heart back into her chest.

“Dammit,” she said, pounding her fist against the steering wheel. “What else can possibly go wrong tonight?”

After flipping on her emergency signal lights, Cassie launched herself from the Lexus and stomped to the back of the car. Glaring at the right back tire that was currently sitting in the deep rut by the side of the road, her first impulse was to take her frustration out on the car. Pretending it was Nick Hardin’s mocking face she was abusing, she gave the tire a swift kick and promptly broke the heel of her four-inch stiletto pump.

“Would someone please tell me what I’ve done to deserve so much grief?” Cassie howled. “This was supposed to be my six weeks of fun-filled freedom. Remember?”

When she didn’t get an answer, she jerked the shoe off her foot, then let out a loud yelp when the sharp gravel shredded her new panty hose and took a quick bite out of the bottom of her foot. “Just shoot me now and get it over with,” she mumbled, glaring at the shoe whose heel was now twisted at a silly angle and just as useless as Cassie felt standing by the side of the road, shoe in hand.

After several cars passed without slowing down, Cassie was prepared to throw herself across the pavement when the next pair of headlights appeared in the distance. Fortunately, her sacrifice wasn’t necessary. What appeared to be a small sports car suddenly slowed down, then pulled off the road and stopped a few feet behind her.

“There is a God,” she mumbled under her breath.

Shielding her eyes against the bright headlights with her right hand, she saw the silhouette of a man get out of the car and start walking in her direction. “Hey, thanks for stopping,” she called out, putting on her brightest smile. But her smile quickly faded when she saw who it was.

Sauntering up beside her, Nick leaned against the Lexus, then sent her a silly grin. “This must be your lucky night, counselor. You’ve had the pleasure of seeing me twice in one evening.”

“Are you following me?” Cassie snapped.

“Think about it, sweetheart,” Nick jeered. “We both live in the same neighborhood, remember? Or did you think this highway was for your exclusive use only?”

Cassie’s only answer was a she-devil glare.

Pushing himself off the car, Nick bent down and examined the tire. Glancing back over his shoulder, he grinned again. “What happened? Did you run off the road daydreaming about me?”

The truth in Nick’s statement reddened Cassie’s cheeks faster than a blistering arctic wind. “The only dreams I have about you are of the nightmare variety,” she informed him.

Nick chuckled, then stood up and held out his hand. “Give me your keys and I’ll see if I can get you out of this ditch.”

“Don’t bother, I’d rather walk.”

Nick’s eyes swept from the shoe in her hand to her one bare foot. “That should be amusing, since you seem to have only one workable shoe.”

Cassie was tempted to take off her one workable shoe and make a neat hole in the center of Nick’s forehead with its knife-sharp heel. Instead, she nodded toward the car. “The keys are in the ignition.”

Nick opened the car door and slid behind the wheel, then motioned for Cassie to step away from the car. He pulled the Lexus forward a few feet, then backed it up, and as if by magic, drove it safely up on the graveled shoulder beside the highway.

Cassie waited until he opened the door and got out before she hobbled in his direction doing a perfect imitation of a peg-legged pirate with a sawed-off wooden leg.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, choking on the word.

“Hey, what are neighbors for?” Nick teased, but Cassie refused to look at him again.

When he remained leaning against the driver’s side door blocking her escape, Cassie made a dramatic production of looking at her watch. “Look, it’s getting really late, and…”

“I owe you an apology for what I said in front of Evelyn Van Arbor,” Nick interrupted. “I couldn’t care less what those idiots think about me, but I shouldn’t have put you in that position.”

Cassie slowly raised her eyes to meet his, deciding she was much safer in his presence when he was being rude and nasty. “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it now.”

“For what it’s worth, I did try,” Nick told her. “I went back inside to explain the situation to the old bat, but she was too busy giving an Academy Award performance for anyone who was willing to listen.”

Caught off guard by his sudden show of sincerity, Cassie managed a tiny smile. “Careful, Mr. Hardin, your bad-boy image is losing out to those fine Georgian manners of yours.”

Nick instantly raised an eyebrow. “Why, counselor, if I didn’t know better I’d think you’d been checking up on me.”

Trapped by her own smart remark, Cassie felt the heat penetrate her cheeks again. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she sputtered. “It’s no big secret that you moved here from Atlanta. I simply read in the paper that you…”

Nick interrupted Cassie’s explanation when he reached out and pulled her to him. She did a little hip-hop dance across the ground when he dragged her into his arms. After kissing her so thoroughly that the cloud walk she was doing didn’t require the aid of both shoes, he opened the car door and guided her safely into the driver’s seat.

Leaning down, he whispered close to her ear, “Now, this is the part where you say ‘Follow me home, Nick, so we can finish what we started earlier on the veranda.”’

Outraged that the oaf would have the audacity to think she would hop into bed with him the minute he crooked his little finger, Cassie pushed him backward, then promptly slammed her car door shut. “No, this is the part where I say ‘You’ll come closer to being served Popsicles in hell than you will to finding me in your bed, Nick Hardin!”’

Cassie tore off down the highway while Nick blew her a sweet little kiss.

NICK WAS STILL CHUCKLING to himself as he walked back to his classic ’57 Corvette, which he kept covered in the garage except for special occasions. Feeling the lower half of his body stir at the thought of how good the angry Cassandra had felt in his arms, Nick removed his tux jacket and noticed it still held the faint sent of her expensive perfume. Tossing his jacket on the passenger’s seat, he slid behind the wheel, trying to remember when he’d ever been so taken with a woman.

He couldn’t.

Cassandra Collins had entered his life like a menacing whirlwind, and since the day he found her standing by his swimming pool, everything about her confused his thoughts and made him doubt what he thought were his deepest beliefs. He’d only attended the fund-raiser in the hope of seeing her again, though he had expected her to be on the arm of the stuffy senatorial candidate she’d been dating. To find out she was no longer involved with anyone both pleased him and bothered him that it did.

Nick certainly hadn’t been prepared for their collision on the veranda earlier. In fact, he couldn’t even remember pulling her to him—only that he had. And once her voluptuous body was pressed against his own, nothing else seemed to matter.

For one brief moment, Nick had actually felt complete.

But is this spitfire attorney typical wife and mother material? Nick kept asking himself as he drove along the highway. Not a chance. She was, after all, twenty-eight and still single, which led him to believe that her career came first in her life. She would probably even be the type of woman who refused to damage her perfect figure in order to give him the children he so desperately wanted.

No, Nick already had an image of the type of woman he wanted for a mate. She would be down-to-earth, fun-loving, warm and giving. And she would love him beyond all reason, always placing him first in her life, preferring to raise a family instead of having a career. Even if he had preferred the social, career-oriented type, everything about the sassy attorney’s actions told Nick she wasn’t interested.

Or was she?

Despite her silly protests, Nick hadn’t missed the wanton look his kisses had produced in those blue-green eyes of hers. Or how visibly shaken she’d been when she finally managed to get control of herself and push him away. As different as they were, Nick knew Miss Uptight Socialite couldn’t deny the electricity that existed between them any more than he could. He only hoped Cassandra Collins would continue to keep her distance if they were forced to deal with the dog issue.

Heaven knew he wouldn’t have any control over his actions if fate kept throwing them together.

Nick passed the street address he remembered from the notes he’d taken on the feisty female and caught a glimpse of taillights turning into a driveway. He was tempted to follow her home and try his luck again, but this woman had a strange power over him Nick couldn’t fully explain.

She’d even invaded his thoughts to the point that Nick was afraid he was developing a conscience. Rarely, if ever, had he apologized to anyone for his brusque behavior. Yet, he’d apologized to her without a second thought. And the fact that he’d apologized so easily scared him more than he cared to admit.

Turning into his driveway, Nick punched the remote button for his garage door opener, then guided the Corvette into the safety of the garage. Grabbing his tux jacket from the seat beside him, he brought the jacket close to his face and took another deep whiff of her intoxicating perfume.

And then he laughed.

Despite the havoc the woman was currently wreaking on his emotions, Nick couldn’t help but enjoy the mental picture that kept flashing through his mind of the captivating Miss Collins running naked through a fiery ring of hellfire and brimstone to hand him the multiflavored Popsicle she held in her outstretched hand.


CASSIE LEANED CLOSE to the blurred ultrasound screen, thinking that the squiggly image on the monitor was probably what her brain looked like on this particular Saturday morning. She hadn’t slept well at all, waking several times after having extremely erotic dreams involving the man who was responsible for getting her into this mess in the first place.

“Bingo,” Dee Bishop chirped as she moved a tubelike instrument across Duchess’s furry stomach.

“Please tell me you’re referring to a parlor game, and not a name for a puppy,” Cassie gasped.

“Sorry, old girl, but it looks like you’re going to be Auntie Cassie after all,” Dee assured her.

“Look again,” Cassie demanded. “You’ve made a mistake.”

Dee shook her head adamantly. Using the mouse on the computer to draw a circle around a small mass Cassie thought resembled a bowl of Jell-O, she pointed to the vague object. “I don’t have to look again, Cass. I see at least two puppies here. There could even be a third one hiding behind the others.”

Restraining herself from smashing her fist through the expensive screen, Cassie began pacing around the examining room. “God, Dee, this can’t be happening. What am I going to do now?”

Dee switched off the screen and wiped a mass of gooey jell from Duchess’s fur with a gauze square. “Well, for one thing you’re going to give this little cutie the attention she deserves while she’s carrying her puppies,” Dee announced. “Once they arrive, Duchess can take care of everything else herself.”

“You know what I mean,” Cassie snapped.

Taking a doggy treat from a canister on the counter, Dee rewarded Duchess for her cooperation during the test. “No, I don’t know what you mean. You’ve been obsessing over this ordeal for over two weeks now, Cassie, and I really can’t understand what you’re so upset about.”

“Does Lenora’s wrath ring a bell?”

“Oh, please. Lenora will get over it,” Dee scoffed as she placed Duchess back in her crate. “Besides,” she added, “Duchess isn’t the first champion to whelp a litter of mongrel pups, and her little indiscretion can’t take away the title she earned at Westminster.”

“But what about all those endorsements Lenora’s been bragging about all over town?” Cassie quizzed.

Dee rolled her eyes. “You of all people know how your mother likes to exaggerate. Lenora may get a few requests from suppliers wanting to use Duchess’s picture to promote their products, but the pictures they’ll want are the ones taken at Westminster. Duchess’s real earning power will come from providing champion breeding stock.”

Cassie slumped onto Dee’s examining stool. “Current litter excepted, of course.” Cassie grumbled.

Dee sighed. “Yes, current litter excepted, but it’s the current litter that we have to be concerned about now. I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to examine the male. I hope you took my advice and patched things up with Nick Hardin.”

Cassie winced. “I’m surprised you haven’t already heard about the horrible episode he created at the Grove Park Inn last night.”

Dee raised an eyebrow in Cassie’s direction, then listened intently as Cassie recounted the entire gruesome story. And Cassie wasn’t the least bit impressed when her best friend burst out laughing.

“Oh, come on, Cassie. You have to admit it’s hysterically funny. I’d have given anything to see the look on Evelyn Van Arbor’s face.”

“Well, it wasn’t funny to me,” Cassie argued. “And it isn’t funny that everyone in Biltmore Forest thinks I’m carrying that idiot’s child, either.”

Dee’s mouth twisted in a knowing smile. “You can call Nick all the names you want, Cass, but you can’t fool me. You have the major hots for this guy, and from what you just told me the feeling seems to be mutual.”

Cassie blushed, thinking about the scoundrel’s warm lips against her neck and the toe-curling kiss he gave her by the side of the road. “I’ve never met anyone like him, Dee. He makes me swoon one minute and infuriates me the next. It’s like having a crush on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

“Sounds serious to me,” Dee teased.

“Seriously dangerous,” Cassie said, and sighed.

“Well, you can’t stay a virgin the rest of your life, silly,” Dee goaded. “Maybe if you let Dr. Jekyll jump your hide, you’ll find out you like him just the way he is.”

“You know I’m not a virgin, Dee. You were in the other room swapping spit with that oily-haired geek who gave you mono.”

Dee laughed. “I take it you’re referring to our senior year at summer camp?”

“No, I’m referring to the most horrible two seconds of my life,” Cassie groaned.

“Sorry, my friend, but that little disaster doesn’t qualify you as being totally devirginized. You need a real man to show you what it means to be a woman, Cass. And from where I’m standing I think you’ve already found him.”

“And wouldn’t Lenora be pleased if I came home with some motorcycle-riding moron on my arm?” Cassie sneered.

Dee frowned. “When are you going to get a real life and stop worrying about what your mother wants, Cassie? Geez, you’re twenty-eight years old and you still let Lenora call all the shots. This man is educated, he’s funny, not to mention being gorgeous. What more do you want?”

Tired of the lecture, Cassie placed her hands to her temples and tried to massage away the tension headache that had grown to a monumental roar inside her head. “I don’t know what I want, Dee, but I just can’t deal with Nick Hardin right now. If you really have to examine his mutt, you call him.”

“Okay. I can do that,” Dee agreed. “I’ll call him at the radio station first thing Monday morning.”

“And I wasn’t kidding about you sending him an itemized bill for Duchess’s care. Including this ultrasound you just did,” Cassie added.

“That certainly won’t score you any points with the guy,” Dee grumbled. “The ultrasound alone runs close to a thousand dollars. And if you add in all the other charges, including my treating the champion sire for the big bite Duchess took out of his nose…”

“I don’t need a rundown of the charges, Dee,” Cassie interrupted. “And I’m not trying to score any points with Nick Hardin. His cur is responsible for this mess. The least he can do is pick up the tab for the trouble he’s caused me.”

Throwing her hands up in defeat, Dee grabbed a notepad from the counter and began scribbling across the page. “Fine. But I’m writing down some instructions for the special diet I want Duchess on while she’s carrying the puppies. She’s hardly eaten a thing since she’s been here and it’s extremely important for her to have the proper nutrition during her gestation period. She’ll also need to be exercised regularly, at least three times a day….”

“Hel-lo,” Cassie interrupted. “Have you forgotten that I put in twelve hours a day at the office? What do you expect me to do, Dee? Take a family leave of absence until the puppies are born?”

Dee paused. “I’d say you could leave Duchess here, but I don’t think it’s wise, Cass. Dogs occasionally get depressed when they’re left in a kennel for long periods of time. That’s probably what’s causing her poor appetite now. I really think she’ll do much better at home.”

“And who’s supposed to baby-sit her all day?” Cassie demanded.

Dee thought for a moment. “You can always call her trainer. I’m sure John’s recovered enough now to help out, but he sure isn’t going to be pleased about her current condition.”

“Absolutely not,” Cassie argued, shaking her head. “John has five other dogs that he boards on a regular basis. Duchess won’t get any special attention if she’s put back in that situation.”

“Then, what about Louise?”

Cassie paused, thinking about the woman who’d been the closest thing Cassie ever had to a grandmother. “I guess I could ask her to come every day and stay until I get home. But only if you really think it’s necessary.”

“I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I didn’t think it was necessary,” Dee insisted. “We can’t afford to take any chances with Duchess’s health now. Especially since she may have trouble whelping these off-brand puppies.”

Making a mental note that Louise’s salary would be another bill she would forward straight to Nick, Cassie nodded in agreement. “I’ll call her tonight and arrange things.”

“Good,” Dee said, handing Cassie the page of instructions. “I want you to call me if Duchess’s appetite doesn’t improve, or if you notice even the slightest change in her behavior.”

“I may have to call you from the emergency ward when Nick gets your bill,” Cassie mumbled.

Dee laughed. “Well, if nothing else, I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be boring in Biltmore Forest for the next few months.”

Cassie frowned, longing for the days when things were boring. Days when she didn’t know that one glance from a particular scoundrel could make her pulse race faster than a locomotive. And nights when her dreams weren’t invaded with visions of her and that same outlaw entwined in every position outlined in the Kama Sutra.

Dee headed for the door, but stopped when she noticed Cassie’s forlorn expression. “Hey, cheer up, Cass. You are okay, aren’t you?”

“I’m okay,” Cassie lied as she lifted Duchess’s crate off the examining table.

But as Cassie followed Dee out the door, she wondered if she’d ever really be okay again, now that Nick Hardin had kissed her senseless.


Leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on his desk, Nick motioned for the station manager to enter his office. When the man walked through the door, Nick swung his feet to the floor and returned to a sitting position, still thinking about the informative call he’d received from a Dr. Dee Bishop some thirty minutes earlier.

“I’ve been looking over your rough draft for tomorrow’s program, Nick,” the man said, bringing Nick’s attention back to the present.

“Cut to the chase, Bob,” Nick growled. “What’s the problem?”

The bald man took a pencil from behind his ear and began tapping it against the printout he was holding in his hand. “I guess I’m just a little puzzled.”

“About what?”

“About your show over the last two weeks, Nick. What’s happened to the spice? The wit? Hell, you haven’t even included any of your trademark lawyer jokes in your monologue lately.”

Nick flinched, unwilling to admit that he hadn’t found those jokes so funny since he’d tangled with a certain long-legged attorney. “You can run anything into the ground, Bob. I’m sure my listeners were getting tired of my attack on lawyers. It was time for a change.”

“And you think this mumbo-jumbo about Congress passing a law to make gossip a felony is funny?” the editor demanded. “Hell, you’re attacking just about everybody on the planet.”

Nick shifted in his chair, then sent his boss an angry glare. “So, it’s okay to attack lawyers, just leave the gossips alone, right?”

Nick watched as his boss’s ears turned a light shade of pink. “Hell, boy, you’d better stop and think who it is you’re attacking. Those faithful listeners out there are mainly just regular people, going off to work every morning and depending on you to lighten their mood and give them something to chat about at the water cooler. It’s your humor that’s got you this far, son. Don’t throw that success away by attacking the little guy.”

“And you learned that in Broadcasting 101, I suppose.”

Leaning over the desk until his face was only inches away from Nick’s, the older man said, “Now, listen here, Nicky, I don’t know what’s had your shorts in a knot over the last few weeks, but I expect you to get over it and start giving me the type of show that got you syndicated in fourteen states and put all that damn money in your fat bank account. Now, get to work and give me an outline that will keep me laughing all day. Understand?”

When Nick refused to answer, the station manager stomped out of the office and slammed the door behind him, leaving Nick sitting at his desk in a stew. Damn, but this week has already gotten off to a rotten start, he thought. He hadn’t been at his desk long enough to take his first sip of coffee when the vet called to inform him that Earl was going to be a daddy. The woman also insisted on examining Earl as soon as possible. For what, Nick had no idea.

But with the way his luck had been running lately, Nick wouldn’t be surprised if Earl didn’t have some dreaded doggy social disease.

Caught off guard by the call, Nick hadn’t objected when Dr. Bishop gave Earl an appointment for eleven o’clock that morning. Of course, once he thought things over, he was thoroughly p-o’d that the lovely Miss Collins hadn’t bothered to contact him herself. Nick resented being ordered around by a hired associate, and he intended to tell Miss Collins so himself before the day was over.

Glancing at his watch, Nick sighed, knowing he barely had time to dash home and grab Earl, then hurry back downtown to make the damn vet appointment. Calculating he probably wouldn’t return to the office until well after noon, he figured he’d have only a few hours to do the new outline his surly station manager had just requested.

“Damn, I hate Mondays,” Nick grumbled to himself as he grabbed his leather jacket from the back of his chair.

Heading for the elevator, Nick ignored the scowling station manager and banged against the down button with the ball of his fist.

“And where the hell do you think you’re going?” yelled his boss from across the cluttered radio station.

“I’m going to see a lady about a dog,” Nick yelled back, then disappeared into the elevator, cutting off a string of angry curses when the doors finally slid together.

“CALM DOWN, DEE, I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” Cassie said as she listened to the excited voice on the other end of the telephone line. However, when it finally registered what her best friend was trying to tell her, Cassie’s eyes grew wide with concern.

“I mean it, Cassie, get out of that office before Nick Hardin gets there. I’ve never seen anyone so angry.”

Cassie jumped from her chair and hurried to the window behind her desk. Peeking through the miniblinds, she searched the parking lot below her second-story window. She would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so serious. Pulling into a parking space near the building entrance was Nick on his big Harley, with Earl perched between the handlebars looking like Snoopy in his Red Baron pose.

“It’s too late, Dee,” Cassie gasped. “He’s already here.”

Hurrying back to her desk, Cassie rummaged through her top drawer, searching for her compact. A madman was on his way to her office possibly to end her life, yet her first instinct was to make sure she’d make an attractive corpse. Satisfied with her appearance, she slipped the compact back into the drawer, then quickly flipped the intercom switch.

“Sally, a man in a black leather motorcycle jacket is going to burst through the door any minute carrying a dog under his arm,” Cassie told the law student who was her assistant for the summer. “Give him an appointment if you have to, Sally, but don’t, and I repeat don’t let him into my office under any circumstances.”

“I beg your pardon?” came a shocked reply from the voice box on Cassie’s desk.

“Just do it, Sally,” Cassie begged, knowing that the young woman who had promptly adopted Cassie as her role model was probably now making the assumption that the usually professional Miss Collins had suddenly resorted to taking heavy doses of some mind-altering drug.

Trying to quiet her rattled nerves, Cassie forced herself to pick up the brief she’d been working on, but tensed at the sound of raised voices filtering through her closed office door. Within seconds, her office door burst open and Nick stormed inside, holding his fuzzy companion in the crook of his arm.

“I’m sorry, Miss Collins, he rushed past me before I could stop him,” the freckle-faced student wailed as she hovered in the doorway.

“That’s okay, Sally,” Cassie said, then forced a smile at Nick when Sally quickly closed the door and sealed Cassie and the enemy inside the room alone.

Show no fear, Cassie told herself, then calmly rose from her desk. “Is there a problem?”

“I’d say that’s putting it mildly,” Nick growled.

After plunking Earl down on one of the expensive leather chairs that faced Cassie’s desk, Nick pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket. When he tossed the paper on Cassie’s desk, she saw the name Dr. Dee Bishop printed across the top of the page.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” Nick demanded.

“Do you see me laughing?”

“What I see is a woman who has a vivid imagination if she thinks I’m going to fork over fifteen hundred dollars for one vet appointment.”

Cassie glared at Earl, who had not only spent the past few minutes digging at the expensive leather of her chair, but who now held one leg high in the air while he expertly licked himself where no human could. “The cost of passion runs high these days, Mr. Hardin.” Cassie nodded toward Earl. “If your dog had spent more time engaged in the activity he’s enjoying now, none of us would be in this mess.”

Slightly embarrassed, Nick thumped Earl on the head, prompting the dog to stop the lewd performance and sit obediently in the chair. Locking eyes with Cassie again, Nick said, “Excuse the pun, counselor, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a piece of tail worth fifteen hundred dollars.”

Cassie blanched slightly but quickly recovered. “I have no doubt you’re well versed in what the going price for human flesh is these days,” she said, pleased when his eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “But I warned you from the very beginning that your negligence would be expensive.”

“Negligence?” Nick shouted. “You seem to be forgetting it takes two to tangle, counselor. What I don’t understand is why you think you’re automatically exempt from being negligent. If you’d been keeping an eye on your precious show dog, Earl couldn’t have jumped her in the first place.”

Cassie placed both hands on her hips, her lips puckered in annoyance. “Excuse me for bringing it up, but Duchess was in her own fenced backyard.”

Nick’s eyes hardened. “Just as Earl was in his fenced backyard when I let him out that morning. I had no more control over him digging out of my yard and under your fence than you had when the queen of the dog world decided to lift her groomed tail when Earl sniffed in her direction.”

His heated glare left Cassie slightly singed and more than a little shaken. She watched as he ran his hands through the long, sun-streaked strands of his hair. When he looked at her again, his eyes had lost a little of their anger, but the tension in the room was still bouncing off the walls like supercharged Ping-Pong balls.

“Look,” Nick said. “We can stand here and insult each other all day, or we can try to settle this problem like two rational adults. You tell me. What’s it going to be?”

Cassie had no intention of giving an inch, but she was willing to hear what her opponent had to say. Giving a tense nod to the leather chair that wasn’t currently being occupied, Cassie took her own seat behind her desk. “I’m open to suggestions if you have any.”

Nick dropped into the seat facing her, but Cassie found she had trouble ignoring the way his muscled thighs strained against the faded material of his jeans. The way his leather jacket was unzipped low enough to expose the golden hair peeking over the top of his V-neck polo shirt didn’t do much for her concentration, either. Feeling her willpower ooze out of her like air from a leaky balloon, she had to use every ounce of her self-control to keep from grabbing the lapels of his jacket and dragging him across her desk for another one of his mind-blowing kisses.

Unaware that he was on the verge of being attacked, Nick sent her a semifriendly smile that was a hair short of being a smirk. “Before we go any further, do you think you could humor me during this conversation and stop calling me Mr. Hardin?”

“If you’ll stop calling me ‘counselor.”’

“Okay, Cassandra.”

“Cassie,” she corrected him.

He seemed surprised. “Cassie,” Nick repeated in that deep southern drawl that drove her crazy. “Yeah, I like Cassie much better.” The smile he gave her this time was breathtaking, weakening her defenses even more.

“Well, the way I see it, Cassie, we’re both victims of circumstance in this situation. I happen to know this famous show dog belongs to your mother.”

“That doesn’t have anything—”

Nick held his hand up. “Now, wait a minute. All I’m saying is that I’ve already figured out the main reason you’re so upset about this dog siring a bunch of unregistered pups is because it was your responsibility to take care of her while your mother is in Europe. Am I right?”

Cassie couldn’t disagree. “And you’re a victim because…?”

“Like I said before. Neither of us have any control over Mother Nature. The dogs got together. All we can do now is deal with it.”

Cassie licked her lips involuntarily when Nick leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Despite her determination not to look, the healthy bulge between his legs caught Cassie’s attention faster than if a flashing neon sign had been sewn to the metal tab on his zipper. Forcing herself to look away, Cassie realized he was still talking, but she only caught the tail end of his next sentence.

“…so, I think it’s only fair that we work together on this, and split the expenses fifty-fifty.”

Cassie leaned forward and rested her arms on her desk. “You realize, of course, this one vet bill won’t be all of the expenses incurred during this ordeal.”

Nick shrugged. “Sure, I figured the dog would have to be seen regularly by the vet while she’s carrying the puppies. And then I guess the puppies will need shots—”

“There’s also a weekly fee for the sitter,” Cassie interrupted without thinking.

A dark cloud crossed Nick’s face as he sat upright in the chair. “What did you say?”

“I’ve hired a sitter to stay with Duchess during the day until I get home from the office,” Cassie answered nonchalantly. “I do work for a living, you know.”

“But a sitter? I mean, we are talking about a dog here.”

“A world-class champion,” Cassie reminded him. “Besides, I leave home at seven in the morning and usually don’t get home until seven or later in the evening. Duchess is going to have to be fed properly and exercised at least three times a day.”

With that said, she reached for the calculator on her desk. “That will average out to the sitter working about twelve hours a day. At $6.50 per hour, that will be…” Cassie started punching in the numbers, but Nick’s quick mind did the math before she could finish.

“That’s seventy-eight dollars a day,” Nick barked in disbelief. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re talking about over fifteen hundred dollars a month. And the dog still has to carry those puppies for…”

“At least one more month, maybe a little longer,” Cassie provided. “The vet says there’s no way to know when she’ll deliver. This is Duchess’s first litter. The puppies could be early or they could be late.”

Nick stood up and unzipped his jacket the rest of the way, giving Cassie the impression that he suddenly found the room much too warm. After walking back and forth in front of her desk several times, he stopped and shook his head in disbelief. “So what you’re telling me, is that on top of these outrageous vet bills, you expect me to pay someone to come to your house and sit with a dog?”

“You said fifty-fifty, Nick,” Cassie reminded him smugly, using her first opportunity to call him by name.

A muscle twitched along his lower jaw. “I know what I said, Cassie,” he snapped, “and I will pay my half of the vet bills, but paying a personal nursemaid to sit for a dog is where I have to draw the line.”

Cassie bristled. “Then I’m afraid we’re back to square one, aren’t we?”

Instead of trying to negotiate a plan B as Cassie had expected, Nick snapped his fingers, prompting Earl to propel himself from the chair and into his master’s arms. “Then sue me,” Nick said, his voice full of confidence.

Cassie was so shocked, she couldn’t seem to find her voice. Before she was able to respond, Nick strolled to the door with his furry friend tucked under his arm. But when he reached for the doorknob he looked back over his shoulder and sent Cassie that cocky grin she was quickly growing to despise.

“But I’ll make you one wager, counselor. This will be the damnedest fight you’ve ever had in a courtroom.”

As furious as she was, Cassie wouldn’t permit herself to dignify his last remark with a comeback. And even before the big Harley-Davidson thundered to life and roared out of the parking lot, Cassie’s fingers were already pounding her computer keys, typing up the paperwork that would put Nick Hardin’s latest challenge to the test.


“ALIMONY, PALIMONY…but pet-imony? Remember, you heard it here first, folks. It looks as if the world really is going to the dogs. As if our courts aren’t already overloaded with senseless lawsuits that clog the system and stand in the way of justice, it seems yours truly has been hit with a ridiculous lawsuit that will make all others pale in comparison. In fact, I’m willing to conduct a public-opinion poll here at the radio station to see if my faithful listeners don’t agree that the lawsuit I’m sharing with you today shouldn’t win first prize in the Stupid Lawsuit of the Year Contest…”

Cassie switched off the kitchen radio and began devouring her bagel with the ferocity of a man-eating tiger. Her only satisfaction was the fact she’d been the one to draw first blood. Thanks to modern technology and that wonderful little invention called the fax machine, his truly had been served with her lawsuit less than four hours after he strolled confidently out of her office.

“Stupid Lawsuit of the Year Contest, my elbow,” Cassie mumbled under her breath, then whistled for the ball of white fluff that was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor. When Duchess refused to acknowledge her, Cassie left her chair and drew the tiny bundle into her arms. “You have to eat something, sweet girl,” Cassie cooed as she stroked the dog’s soft fur. “You have little puppies to think about now.”

The old woman standing beside Cassie sent Duchess a worried look of her own. “I prepared her food just like Dee instructed,” she said.

“I know you did, Louise. I’ve tried to get her to eat this morning, but she won’t even take a nibble.”

“Well, the poor little thing’s gonna have to eat something.” Louise sighed, wiping her wrinkled hands on her bright-colored apron. “She’s as limp as a dust mop now. She sure can’t go on like this much longer.”

Cassie gave the dog a final pat and smiled when Duchess rewarded her with a halfhearted kiss on the chin. After handing the dog over to her new nursemaid, Cassie picked up her attaché case from the kitchen table and glanced at her watch.

“I’m running late, Louise, but I’m going to call Dee as soon as I get to the office. In the meantime, you might try tempting Duchess with those milk-bone treats she likes. I bought her some new toys, too. They’re in a box in the sun-room.”

“Don’t you worry about us. I’ll take good care of her,” Louise said as Cassie headed down the hallway. “Me and Miss Duchess will do whatever it takes to get some food inside that little tummy of hers.”

Cassie pulled out of the driveway minutes later, feeling a twinge of guilt for running off to work when Duchess was in such a fragile state. After the initial shock had worn off, Cassie was actually looking forward to having a few more bundles of white fur romping through the house. Or was her ticking biological clock just using this opportunity to bring out her maternal instincts?

Sliding her hand over her taut stomach, she wondered briefly what it would be like to have another life stirring inside her. She’d never given much thought to marriage or to motherhood before, especially since her work had always been the driving force in her life. But now that she thought about it, she realized that she would want a large family. Possibly because being an only child had been such a tremendous burden to bear.

More than once Cassie had wondered if having brothers and sisters may have made life with Lenora a little easier. Dee scolded her on a regular basis for being the “dutiful daughter,” and she had been, but Cassie had done so out of love, not fear. Despite Lenora’s overbearing personality, Cassie loved her mother dearly. And like her father, she had just found it much easier to bend to Lenora’s will.

Thinking about her parents now, Cassie realized how quickly things had gotten out of hand in their short absence. Duchess was pregnant, and Cassie may as well have been pregnant since everyone in Asheville was buzzing about the rumor Evelyn Van Arbor repeated to anyone who would listen. Cassie hadn’t missed the snide looks people sent her way, or the fact that everyone she ran into lately had their eyes focused directly on her stomach.

“Oh, well, I don’t have time to worry about the rumor now,” Cassie said aloud as she pulled into her reserved parking space. She had more important things to occupy her mind at the moment.

Things like whether or not Dee had the ability to pull a magic potion out of her bag of doggy tricks and make Duchess well again.

“NICK, OLD BOY, you’ve really hit pay dirt this time.”

Nick barely grunted when the station manager strolled into his office with a silly grin plastered across his fleshy cheeks. Ignoring Nick’s cool regard, the man perched a hip on the corner of the desk, looking like the Cheshire cat who followed Alice around in Wonderland.

“I’m not kidding, Nick,” his boss said when Nick still failed to respond. “The damn phone’s been ringing off the hook all morning, and the e-mail’s piling up faster than a bar tab at a Shriners convention. Everybody in town seems to have an opinion about this lawsuit of yours, and so far, those for you outnumber the nay-sayers ten to one.”

“I’m flattered,” Nick mumbled, though he really couldn’t care less.

Sure, he’d been fired up when he went on the air that morning, especially on the heels of receiving that lawsuit. But by the end of the day Nick’s rage had evaporated around him like the lifting of an early morning fog. And what settled in its place was much worse than anger.

Like a multimega amplifier, the same name kept reverberating through Nick’s mind in an endless chant: Cassie. Cassie. Cassie.

“Are you listening to me, Nick?”

“Sure, I’m listening,” Nick said as he reluctantly met the man’s gaze.

“I’m serious about this, boy. I want you to milk this story for all it’s worth. I mean, I want this story broadcast right down to the minute when the judge bangs his gavel and ends the courtroom proceedings.”

“I’m hoping the judge will throw the damn case out of court,” Nick grumbled.

“Even better,” the station manager assured him. “Think about it, boy. You’ll be an instant hero to all those little people out there who have their doubts about their ability to fight city hall and win.”

Deciding his boss had evidently lost a few shingles since the last storm, Nick shook his head. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves on this, Bob. I talked to my attorney yesterday and he said there’s a good chance I’ll lose this case.” Pointing to the legal document on his desk, Nick added, “Those papers charge me with being in flagrant violation of the City of Asheville’s leash law. And whether I like it or not, my dog was running loose.”

The manager frowned for a moment, but the frown quickly faded. “Hell, who cares whether you win this case or not? The way our ratings are going up, I’ll pay your damn court costs myself. We’re on a roll, son. Don’t drop the ball now.”

Nick should have felt comforted by the friendly slap on the back before his boss left the room, but he didn’t. Leaving his chair, he walked to the window at the end of the room and stared out at the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains that surrounded Asheville like a protective barricade. He’d fallen in love with the sleepy town several years earlier when he’d attended a radio convention as the guest speaker. Though his friends in Atlanta declared him insane when he turned his back on the big-city lights and headed for a town with a population of less than 100,000, Nick hadn’t regretted his decision once since his arrival.

In fact, it was almost as if some outside force like an imaginary magnet had drawn him to the mountains.

Of course, he hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. His neighbors didn’t care for his unconventional ways. But despite the fact that he would never conform to their ridiculous social protocol, he secretly admired the old families who held their traditions sacred, and who were determined to preserve a heritage for upcoming generations. Nick had been bounced back and forth over the entire nation by the time he turned sixteen. Now, for a reason he still couldn’t explain, it seemed as if he’d finally come home.

Deciding a long ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway might lift his spirits, Nick walked back to his desk and glanced at the outline he’d drawn up for the next day’s early morning program. Despite his foul mood, he had to admit the material was extremely funny. He intended to thoroughly explore what he’d called “Earl’s Day in Court,” complete with a scenario where Earl would have to raise his right paw when he took the witness stand in his own defense.

After stapling the papers together, Nick motioned to one of his co-workers who was passing by his door. “Make sure Bob sees this outline for tomorrow’s program,” he instructed, then grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.

A long ride through the mountains had never failed him in the past. And with any luck, the mountains would come to his rescue again this time and permanently erase Cassie Collins’s name from his memory.

“DEE BISHOP ON LINE ONE for you, Miss Collins.”

“Dee?” Cassie asked the second she punched the appropriate number on the phone pad.

“Yes, it’s me. But before you say anything else, if you’re making plans to string the jerk up, I’ll go out and buy the rope myself.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Who do you think I’m talking about? Nick Hardin, of course. I thought that was why you called me.”

“I called you because Duchess still won’t eat anything.”

“I thought you were calling about Nick’s talk show this morning?” Dee replied. “Everyone else in Asheville is sure talking about it. I’ve heard it’s even going to make the evening news tonight.”

Cassie lowered her coffee cup from her mouth to her desk, suddenly feeling sick to her stomach. “I only listened to the first part of his monologue, and then I turned the stupid thing off,” she admitted.

“Then you mean you don’t know?”

“Know what?” Cassie demanded.

“Oh, Cassie,” Dee whined. “Nick Hardin didn’t use your name, but he left no doubt about who filed the lawsuit against him. He said things like, and I quote ‘I really can’t blame old Earl. After all, his new lady love did just win Best-in-Show at the Westminster Dog Show in New York City.”’

Cassie gasped.

“It gets worse,” Dee assured her. “He also said, ‘I know I should find some comfort that the lady suing me looks more like a model than an attorney, but even so, I admit I was a little shocked that she expected me to pay seventy-eight dollars a day for someone to sit with her prissy pooch….”’

“I’ll kill him,” Cassie screeched.

“Not if I get to him first,” Dee vowed. “He took a cheap shot at me, too. During the last part of his program the jerk had the nerve to say that ‘the only highlight of this whole episode might be uncovering yet another predator who is greedily feasting on Asheville’s unsuspecting citizens.’ And then he went on to ask everyone if they’d checked their veterinarian bills lately and pointed out that ‘the vet who takes care of Earl’s girlfriend drives a red Porsche.”’

Cassie glanced at the waste can sitting beside her desk, deciding she may to use it if the wave of nausea plaguing her stomach washed over her again. After several seconds of silence, she blew out a deep breath and dabbed at her clammy forehead with a tissue she’d taken from her purse.

“I’m really sorry I’ve dragged you into this, Dee,” she finally managed to say. “I should have known better than to go up against a crazed militant like Nick Hardin. Especially since he’s willing to use the media as his weapon.”

Dee remained silent a little longer than usual. “Oh, what the hell. I’ll weather the storm far better than you will, my friend. But maybe you should think about dropping this lawsuit. Do it while you still have time.”

It was Cassie’s turn to remain silent a little too long. “You’re right. Maybe I will drop the suit. But I’m more concerned about Duchess right now. She still won’t eat a thing and she’s listless. I’m really worried, Dee. Do you think I should bring her in and let you check her?”

“Is she drinking any water?”

“A little, but she just mopes around. I swear it’s almost as if she’s grieving over something. Does pregnancy do that to dogs?”

“Now, don’t go into orbit, Cassie, but I don’t think her condition is physical.”

“You mean you’re saying you think the dog is a nut case?”

“No, I’m saying I think it would be a good idea to have that behavior therapist Lenora has on the payroll to stop by and evaluate Duchess. He’s worked with her in the past. Especially before some of the major dog shows. And he knows Duchess’s temperament. Do you have his number?”

“Yes,” Cassie groaned. “But I don’t even want to think about what Nick will say on the air when I add a doggy psychiatrist’s bill to the list of expenses.”

“You asked for my advice, Cassie, nobody said you had to take it,” Dee reminded her curtly.

Cassie removed the clasp from her hair and let the long tresses topple down her back. Along with the upset stomach, it seemed she was now developing a throbbing headache. “Sorry, Dee,” Cassie said with a sigh. “You know I value your opinion. I’ll call the guy the second we hang up.”

“I promise this man knows what he’s doing, Cassie. And he always insists on seeing his patients in their home environment,” Dee added. “See if you can make the appointment for around seven tonight. I’d like to be there myself when he examines Duchess.”

“Will do,” Cassie agreed. “And I’ll even call Louise and see if she won’t fix us a pan of her award-winning lasagna.”

“And after dinner, maybe we can sneak over to Nick Hardin’s house and smother him in his sleep.”

Cassie snorted. “I’d rather see his head roll out from under a guillotine blade, myself, but that wouldn’t be torturous enough for the creep.”

Dee laughed. “See you at seven. I’ll bring the wine.”

Cassie returned the receiver to the holder on her desk, then propped her elbows on her blotter and placed her head in her hands. After massaging both of her temples for several seconds, she searched through the numbers her mother had compiled for Duchess’s care before she left for Europe. When Cassie found the name she wanted, she decided Houston Baumfarger was an appropriate name for a man who devoted his time delving into the minds of the animal world. And had Cassie’s own mental state not been so rattled from the morning’s hectic events, she may have found a little humor in the response she gave when the shrill voice of the renowned dog psychiatrist answered his private line.

“Houston?” Cassie said. “We have a problem.”

IT WAS DARK WHEN NICK pulled into his driveway. He’d ridden all the way to Mount Mitchell which, at an elevation of more than six thousand feet, was the highest point in the state. Embracing the great outdoors usually cleansed his inner demons and left his soul restored, but nature had failed him this time. The experience hadn’t purged Cassie Collins from his thoughts. Instead, her memory had ridden right along with him as if she’d been sitting behind him on the bike with her arms clasped tightly around his waist.

In a far worse mood than when he’d left his office that morning, Nick lifted the flap on the saddlebag at the back of his motorcycle and retrieved two containers of spicy takeout he’d bought from a quaint little Chinese restaurant he’d discovered on the west side of town. A wide variety of eating establishments was the one thing Nick missed most about Atlanta, but that was all he missed. He didn’t miss the traffic, the fast pace or the wild lifestyle he’d left behind when he made the decision to head for the peace and solitude of the mountains.

The turning point had actually arrived when Nick awoke one morning at his sprawling Atlanta home and found that he didn’t know half of the people who were already milling around his pool. When he noticed several people snorting cocaine from the neat little rows they’d skillfully lined up on the glass top of his patio table, however, Nick went into orbit.

Nick loved his brandy and savored the taste of fine wine. He even had a passion for imported beer, but he had never indulged in taking drugs, nor would he tolerate drug use in his presence. Within the space of five minutes, he’d cleared the place out, and he put his house on the market the same day. Within two months, he was on his way to Asheville in search of a better life.

“Hey, buddy,” Nick said when Earl tore into the foyer and began jumping around his legs. “Did you realize you’ve become a celebrity overnight?”

Greetings exchanged, both Nick and Earl headed for the den. But as Nick walked toward the bar, it crossed his mind that other than the bedroom, the den was really the only other room he used in his rambling sixteen-room abode. He’d known from the beginning that he didn’t need such an enormous house, but the Realtor had shown Nick documented proof that his favorite author, Thomas Wolfe, had rented the old Tudor mansion one summer while he finished his celebrated novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Being the hopeless romantic and sucker for nostalgia that he was, Nick had bought the house on the spot. And he finally justified his purchase by rationalizing that the house would provide plenty of room later for him to raise the big family he had always wanted.

But what is my definition of later? Nick asked himself as he filled Earl’s bowl with a healthy portion of dog food. He would soon be thirty-six, and was no closer to starting a family now than he had been at eighteen.

Moving aside when Earl lunged at his bowl, Nick wondered if it hadn’t made him feel a little inferior that his own dog would become a father before he would. When his own stomach growled in protest, however, he decided his stomach took precedence over trying to sort out warped emotions. Without another thought to parenthood, he grabbed one of his favorite brews from the refrigerator and settled himself decidedly at the bar.

Using a plastic fork that was left over from some other evening’s fine dining experience, he dug into the cardboard containers of rice and Szechwan beef, then turned on the TV and channel surfed. When he landed on a particular channel, a loud bark from Earl made Nick pause a little longer than usual. He almost choked on his food when a life-size picture of the current winner of the Westminster Dog Show filled the wide-screen.

Yapping excitedly, Earl put his front paws on the television, trying to lick the image, but his sullen master was far from being impressed.

“Damn reruns,” Nick cursed under his breath, then switched off the television and threw the remote halfway across the room.

“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?” Cassie shouted as she vaulted from her chair.

The slender man sitting primly on the edge of Cassie’s sofa jumped at her outburst, causing some of the hot tea he held in his lap to slosh over the rim of the china cup and puddle in his saucer. After sending Cassie an annoyed look, he quickly glanced at Dee for support. “You asked for my expert opinion, Miss Collins. I’m sorry it wasn’t to your liking.”

Cassie glared into the man’s watery eyes, eyes that were the same color as the wiry sprouts of gray hair that seemed to spring from the top of his head in every direction. Tired of having expert opinions from veterinarians and haughty doggy shrinks shoved down her throat, Cassie stood her ground. “No, Dr. Baumfarger, your expert opinion isn’t to my liking. In the first place, you’ll have a hard time convincing me it’s possible for a dog to be lovesick. And in the second place, it would be next to impossible to arrange for the father of Duchess’s puppies to pay her a conjugal visit.”

The man actually gasped. “Now, really, Miss Collins, there’s no point in being vulgar.”

Cassie ignored the reprimand and launched into her usual pacing mode. When is this nightmare going to be over? she kept asking herself. She stomped around the room several times, but when her pacing brought her back to face the two esteemed doctors who were sitting on her sofa like stone statues, she brought her hands to her hips and asked, “You’re absolutely certain you can’t come up with any other reason for Duchess’s behavior?”

Dr. Baumfarger sent Dee a conspiratorial look, then placed his teacup and saucer on the silver tray sitting on the coffee table. Rising from his seat, he smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from his sharply creased trousers, then lifted his chin until he was literally looking down at Cassie over his beaklike nose. “I’m not in the habit of having my diagnosis questioned, or of making mistakes, Miss Collins,” he retorted curtly. “I’ve told you how to solve your problem with Duchess. It’s up to you whether or not you choose to follow my advice.”

With that said, the man took a step forward in Cassie’s direction. Cassie moved aside to let him pass and made no objection when Dee offered to show the smug canine collaborator to the door. As their muffled voices echoed back from the foyer, however, Cassie strained to listen. “Don’t worry, I’ll convince her” was all she could make out.

“I’ll convince her, my foot,” Cassie mumbled under her breath, then stomped toward the kitchen, heading straight for the bottle of white wine that was already chilling in one of Lenora’s fancy silver ice buckets.

“I’m ashamed of you, Cassie. I’ve never seen you act so rude,” Dee scolded minutes later when she stormed into the kitchen.

Cassie ignored the comment and took another long sip of wine from her glass. “And I’ve never heard such a ridiculous diagnosis in my entire life,” Cassie shot back.

Dee walked over and a poured her own glass of wine from the bottle. “Well, Miss Priss. I guess you’ll never really know if Dr. Baumfarger’s diagnosis is ridiculous, will you? You’ve already made it exceedingly clear that you don’t intend to follow his suggestion.”

Still seething, Cassie attacked the pan of lasagna Louise had left for them, then grudgingly pushed a plate full of the luscious concoction in her best friend’s direction. “Don’t even start with me, Dee. You know full well there’s no way to test that nitwit’s theory, short of kidnapping the mangy mutt from Nick Hardin’s yard.”

“You’ve obviously forgotten we have that terrific little invention called the telephone,” Dee snapped back. “Call the man, Cassie. It might not be as impossible as you think.”

“And say what?” Cassie demanded. “Sorry I just filed a lawsuit against you, but the dog psychiatrist just informed me that Duchess is lovesick. Would you mind letting old Earl come over and sit in the parlor with her to cheer her up?”

Dee grimaced as Cassie’s voice grew higher with each word she said. “Very funny,” Dee tossed back. “I was thinking you might call and explain the situation, and tell Nick you were willing to compromise. You’ll drop the lawsuit if he’ll allow Earl to make an appearance.”

They both took their plates to the kitchen table and sat down, but Cassie only toyed with her food. She’d halfway decided to drop the lawsuit, anyway, but she certainly hadn’t counted on having to call Nick Hardin. Much less apologize and ask him for a favor. Just the thought of seeing him again face-to-face was enough to put her into a tailspin. But asking for a compromise? And one that would undoubtedly mean they would be seeing each other off and on over the next few weeks? Cassie knew spending time with that man would be as dangerous as playing a game of Russian roulette with six bullets in the chamber. She’d never survive it.

Pointing her fork in Dee’s direction, Cassie moved it up and down as she talked. “Okay, Miss Expert,” she scoffed. “Let’s say Nick did agree to a compromise, and that he did let me borrow his dog for a few hours. What am I supposed to do if Earl’s princely presence doesn’t change Duchess’s attitude?”

Dee shrugged. “I guess you won’t know until you try it, will you?” she mumbled with her mouth half full.

Cassie let out a long sigh, then left the table and went back to the kitchen for the wine bottle. After refilling each of their goblets, she looked at Dee and managed a feeble smile. “You realize you may have to go out for more wine. I’ve heard drinking large quantities of alcohol makes it much easier to grovel at someone’s feet.”

Dee’s look turned serious. “No one’s expecting you to grovel, Cassie. But that little dog in there can’t take many more days without any food. I’ll even go with you for moral support if you want.”

“Oh, and that should go over real big,” Cassie quipped. “Nick doesn’t exactly hold either of us in very high esteem at the moment, remember?”

“You’re right,” Dee admitted, polishing off her last bite of lasagna. “He’d probably be defensive and think we were ganging up on him.”

Although she could feel an impending cloud of doom gathering above her, Cassie knew this was one time she had no choice in the matter. Dropping her head in her hands, she let out an agonized groan. “I’d rather have hot needles poked through both of my eyelids than apologize to that man, Dee.”

Dee laughed despite her friend’s anguish. “I know you would, but you’re a tough old girl, Cass. And for Duchess’s sake, I think you can handle it.”


NICK TOSSED THE ARMLOAD of dirty clothes he’d collected from the den into the hall closet, then forced the door shut with his elbow. Hurrying back to make one last survey around the room, he made a mental note to have his cleaning lady come weekly instead of monthly. When he noticed a stack of old magazines still peeking out from under the stereo cabinet where he’d stuffed them, Nick used the sharp toe of his cowboy boot to kick them out of view, then proclaimed his cleaning spurt over.

Whether he liked it or not, the den looked as presentable as he could make it, given the short distance his unexpected guest had to drive from her house to his.

Heading for the bar, Nick poured himself a stiff drink, trying to imagine what Cassie had on her twisted little mind. “We need to talk,” she’d said in a voice as sweet as sugar. “Is it too late to drop by your place for a few minutes?”

Nick was tempted to tell her it was too late to talk the day she filed the lawsuit against him, but something in her voice told him she was nervous. And nervous was good. Nick knew it meant that, for some reason, he now had the upper hand.

He suspected she’d taken so much heat from the publicity his talk show was receiving that she’d made the wise decision to drop the lawsuit while she still had time. He’d hoped as much when he did everything but scream her name out over the air. He just hadn’t expected her to give up so soon.

Finishing off his Scotch, Nick prayed the smooth liquid would calm his jittery nerves. And why shouldn’t I be a little jumpy? he asked himself. The woman had caused him nothing but trouble from the first day he met her. He only hoped she wouldn’t show up wearing those damn Daisy Dukes of hers again. If she did, Nick knew he’d be a goner.

Not that having her fully clothed seemed to diminish her power to send his libido into orbit, because it didn’t. Besides her infamous short-shorts, Nick had also seen her in a sexy party dress. She was even wearing a man-tailored suit the day he barged into her office. Yet each time her saw her, Nick found she aroused him to the point that he felt like throwing her over his shoulder and dragging her off to his cave.

At the sound of Earl’s shrill bark, Nick’s thoughts snapped back to the present. Bracing himself, he waited for the knock, then lingered a few seconds longer than necessary before he made a move toward the foyer. “Stay, Earl,” Nick ordered, then made the long trek down the hallway where his gorgeous opponent was waiting on the opposite side of the door. This would be the fifth time the two of them had met face-to-face.

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Lady and the Scamp by Candy Halliday It's a dog-eat-dog world…Attorney Cassie Collins is in big trouble! Her mother's prize pooch has gotten up close and personal with the mutt next door, and pups are on the way. Nick Hardin, owner of Earl the mongrel scamp, refuses to take the matter seriously. Instead he uses his outrageous radio show to poke fun at lawyers who file suit against the Romeo and Juliet of the doggy world. Hostilities escalate until the two humans finally figure out it's much more fun to make love than war….The Doctor Dilemma by Dianne Drake TLC.The best medicine there ever wasMeet Dr. Jack Sutton and nurse Lacy Archer–they're supposed to be running a small-town medical practice, but the craziest things keep happening. Jack can't wait to get back to the big city, while Lacy's making Sunstone her home. And in the midst of handling everything from birthing bovines to using a pair of black panties to cure the hiccups, they're falling for each other. But will Jack have the right prescription for Lacy's case of true love?

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