Chapter 3

 

Edge of Defiance

 

“How long are you going to keep ignoring me?” Derrick asked when Cassie picked up her tray of drinks from the end of the bar.

She carefully hefted the tray onto her shoulder without looking at him. She’d ignored him all last night, only speaking to him when she had to. He could at least offer to trade off some shifts. So while she smiled and joked with the customers, she kept it purely professional with Pat’s nephew.

“I hadn’t thought you’d be the type of person to be petty.”

She sucked in a breath and looked at him. “I’m not petty. I’m just…” Dammit. She sighed. “Fine. I’m being a bit petty.” Then she rolled her eyes at herself and laughed. “Okay. Maybe I’m being a lot petty. But you deserve it for stealing my job. Just tell me the truth. Why won’t you waitress?”

He studied her, as if weighing her character. She wanted to squirm a bit under his gaze. She wasn’t usually such a witch to someone she’d first met, but she’d had a reason. And besides, it was just a question.

One that she really wanted an answer to.

“I’m injured,” he said.

She opened her mouth to ask a question when he held up his hand. “I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you that I’m not supposed to be lifting anything for the next couple of weeks.”

Now she studied him in return. He had been moving stiffly for a guy with such an athletic body. “Why can’t you tell me how?”

“Classified.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

He raised a single eyebrow. Did no one ever challenge this guy? She raised one too and waited.

A small smile played on his lips. “I was hit with shrapnel while on a black ops mission.”

She snorted. “Do I look like an idiot? Tell me the truth or I will make your life miserable while you’re here.”

He laughed. “Fine. How about I had my appendix out?”

“Show me.”

His eyes twinkled. “Are you just trying to get me to take my shirt off?”

She didn’t think that would be a bad thing, but she didn’t want him to think she was interested. “Just lift the side.”

He did. A large white bandage covered his side. Red stained the center of it.

She grimaced. “You’re bleeding.”

He dropped his shirt and shrugged. “I’ll take care of it later. Are we good?”

She nodded and hefted her tray higher. “We’re good.”

It was as she was walking away that she realized his bandage covered the left side of his body. Unless he was an alien, Cassie was pretty sure his appendix should have been on the right.

 

* * *

 

Cassie parked in front of a modest brownstone and checked her watch. Ten minutes early. She checked her backpack to make sure she had everything she needed. Audio recorder, notebook and pens. A clean work shirt for The Black Rose was also in there. She’d head to the pub after the interview.

Just the thought of going to work heated things inside her, but she stamped it down. The first week with Derrick had gone well. It was fun to have eye candy behind the bar. Cassie didn’t mind occasionally flirting with him, but he seemed a bit too serious for her to really pursue. Besides that, she had absolutely no time for a guy right now.

Cassie strode up to the modest brownstone and knocked on the door. A faint barking sounded. She was here to interview a couple who’d been married the year before. She had to do a news piece as part of the application process for a fellowship on “The National,” the Canadian sixty-minute news program that not only did world news but in-depth pieces and hard-hitting documentaries. It was a coveted position and she couldn’t let anything sway her focus.

A voice called out, muffled through the door. “Coming.”

As she waited, she wondered if she should be doing a piece on Canada’s involvement in the war, or on women’s rights in Afghanistan, or something that showcased her ability to get the facts no matter how tough the subject matter.

The door opened and a man of average height with a neatly trimmed goatee and kind brown eyes opened the door. “You must be the reporter.”

Cassie nodded and introduced herself.

“Come in and meet my husband, Tom.” He smiled and swept an arm to welcome her. “We’re both so thrilled you’re telling this story.”

And his smile was her answer. Canada was the fourth country to legalize gay marriage, and she wanted to do a piece on the first couples who’d taken advantage of the law. She believed she could show the best of Canada with it, and hopefully do something different than all the other applicants.

 

* * *

 

Cassie yawned and checked her watch. Just after midnight. The pub didn’t show much signs of slowing down, though it was a Saturday night so that was to be expected. She shifted as she waited for Derrick to make her drink order. Pam the other waitress had taken off early because she hadn’t been feeling well, and Cassie’s feet were paying the price.

Derrick smiled and chatted with one of the many women hanging around the bar. More women than on a normal Saturday night and almost all their gazes tracked the tall, lean bartender whose biceps made even Cassie lick her lips.

Derrick’s arm flexed as he lifted a pint to a waiting blonde. He said something and the blonde threw back her head and laughed. Derrick just smiled and pulled another pint. He turned his head and caught her gaze, and his almost constant half-smile disappeared. She realized then that he put it on for show. And then, he really smiled. At her.

Her breath caught, and her heart stuttered.

He stopped what he was doing and walked toward her. She wanted to look away, to pretend she didn’t feel this attraction. But she was ensnared. She swallowed against a dry throat.

He leaned down so he could speak to her. “What’s your order?”

A flush swept over her face. Oh my God. She’d just acted like a twelve-year-old with her first crush, caught staring and fantasizing about the popular boy at school. She set her tray on the bar top. She was not one of the tipsy women falling over themselves hoping to talk to Derrick. Just because he was good looking didn’t mean he was worthy of her.

She swallowed again and tried to regain her dignity. “Three Keiths, a Guiness, and a pitcher of Kokanee.”

“Coming up.” He moved off as if nothing had happened.

And it hadn’t, she told herself fiercely. The chemistry she felt was all in her head. For all that he flirted with the patrons, she hadn’t seen him take any up on their generous offers and he hadn’t been anything but professional with her.

Could he be gay?

Her shoulders relaxed and she smiled. That had to be it. And it made things so much easier. She could work with him and look at his fine form, but not have to worry about him taking it the wrong way.

He brought back the drinks setting them on her tray. She gave him a bright smile. “Thanks.”

He frowned a little. “Are you up to something?”

“No, why?”

“Well, you haven’t really smiled at me yet. And now you are. It’s making me nervous.”

She laughed. “It’s nothing to do with you, sweetie.”

Now he scowled. “Sweetie?”

She shrugged and walked off with the drinks.

 

* * *

 

Derrick watched the little firecracker walk away from him, her ass nicely outlined by her jeans. Then he scowled. What was she up to? She’d been stiff with him since their first meeting, keeping things professional to the point that it made him grit his teeth. And now she smiled and called him sweetie like he was a little boy? Was she trying to drive him insane? He’d hoped that things had thawed enough between them he could ask her for a coffee tomorrow.

“Excuse me?” A high-pitched giggle cut through the noise of the pub. “Mr. Sexy Bartender?” The same blonde who’d been hitting on him most of the night waved a twenty at him.

Kill me now.

He’d have to figure out what Cassie was up to later. Right now he had a bar to tend. He forced a smiled on his face and went to the blonde. “What can I get for you?”

She ordered her fourth pint and he cut her off instead, and staved off her protests by telling her alcohol inhibits performance. He added a wink for good measure and then gave her a glass of water, which she took eagerly. He knew she thought he might be interested, but really he just didn’t want her falling over at the end of the night.

Last weekend he hadn’t watched the customers so well, and he’d ended up over-serving two of them at the bar. Cassie had ripped him a new one when she’d found a woman puking in the washroom. And he’d ripped stitches helping the second guy out to a cab. Rookie mistakes that he shouldn’t be making.

Tonight he kept watch on everyone, especially the crew of young guys in the corner playing darts and downing pitchers like they’d just won the Super Bowl. Derrick was only twenty-seven, but he’d had his fair share of twenty-year-old guys like that under his command.

He slowed the pour on a pint as Cassie strode among them with yet another pitcher. She set it on the table and turned to go. One of the guys, a tall, over-muscled jock, ran his hand along her ass. She froze.

Derrick stopped pouring and stepped out from behind the bar, ignoring the crowd and keeping his gaze on Cassie. She’d turned back to the guy and said something. The asshole just grinned at her and pulled her in for a hug. Derrick moved faster, pushing one man out of the way.

Another guy stepped in front of him and he lost sight of her for a second. He dodged and broke into a jog. His eyes widened when he got to the darts corner.

Cassie stood over the asshole with his hand held high in a wrist lock.

“Bitch, let me go,” the guy yelled from his knees.

Derrick crossed his arms. Now wasn’t this a surprise. Little Cassie could take care of herself. And that was the sexiest thing he’d seen in a long time.

“Don’t speak to women like that,” she said. “When I release you, you and your buddies are going to pay your tab at the bar and leave.”

Another guy stepped forward, a scowl on his pimpled face. “But we haven’t finished our beer.”

Derrick moved into everyone’s range of vision and spoke low and controlled. He let his willingness and ability to do violence show in his eyes. “Do what the lady says.”

The boys grumbled and set their beers on the table, shuffling off toward the bar.

Cassie looked at him. “I was handling it. I didn’t need your help.”

“I know. But it’s always good to have backup.” He nodded at the guy still kneeling on the floor, his face in a permanent wince. “You gonna let him go?”

She looked at the guy like she’d forgotten he was there and then released him. “Don’t forget to tip,” she ordered, and stalked off.

Derrick went back to the bar to start cashing in people’s tabs, including the asshole’s. He flicked on the overhead lights, declaring the night over. It was twenty minutes early, but both he and Cassie were tired and he didn’t want anyone else to get out of control.

An hour later, the last customer walked out and he locked the door behind them. Cassie had already started putting all the chairs onto the tables so the floors could be mopped. She yawned again.

“Why don’t you get out of here,” he said. “I can finish.”

She waved him off. “I’m good.” Then she yawned again.

He frowned. “Are you okay to drive home? You look like you’re going to fall asleep at the wheel.”

“No,” she said. “I’m fine. The fresh air will revive me.”

“How about I walk you to your car and if you don’t revive then I’ll give you a lift?”

“I’m fine,” she said and kept stacking chairs.

He started stacking them too. It felt good to finally use his body, even if it was only to move chairs. The doc said he was progressing well and should be able to exercise within the week. He couldn’t wait to go for a run. Though he’d been warned to start slow, he wasn’t sure he could. He’d been watching Cassie for a week now and definitely needed to work off some excess energy.

“When’s your next shift?” he asked.

“I’m on again tomorrow night,” she said. “Gotta make a living. But at least Sundays are slow.”

“What do you do during the day?”

“I’m going to be a journalist. I’m putting together an application for a fellowship at The National.”

Journalist? Something inside him sank. He didn’t bother to look too closely at it, instead returning to stacking chairs. “That’s great.” He tried to put enthusiasm in his voice.

She put her hands on her hips. “You got something against reporters?”

Yes. They stuck their noses where they didn’t belong. He did black ops missions. He could never associate with a journalist. What if she wanted to know about his life? What he did? JTF2 wasn’t just an elite special operations force, it was a highly secretive one. Part of its power lay in the secrecy.

“No,” he finally said. “I think it’s cool. I just realized that you won’t be here long if you’re applying to the National. Isn’t it based in Toronto?”

She nodded. “The application is due in two weeks. I’ll find out if I’m accepted sometime after that.”

Should he ask her for coffee? It wasn’t like him to wonder about things like this. What was his problem? Was he worried that if he took her for a few dates they’d fall in love and get married?

He almost laughed aloud. As if. Love? Not for him.

Sure, he’d find a woman and get married one day. But after he’d done all he could with the JTF2. No way he was jeopardizing his career for a woman.

He watched Cassie brush her silky hair over her shoulder.

But it didn’t mean they couldn’t have a fling while he was in town.

He smiled and Cassie frowned when she saw it. “I…I think I’ll get my stuff,” she said. “Everything else can wait until tomorrow.”

He kept stacking chairs. She was right, of course; it could wait, but he needed something to do. Something to get rid of this energy that had built up inside him. He needed to go for a run, needed to work out.

Damn. He needed sex.

Cassie walked out from the back, her leather jacket zipped up and form-fitting, her long dark hair cascading down her back. He couldn’t stop staring.

Sexy as hell.

She stopped when she saw him watching her. Maybe some of his thoughts showed. Thoughts of peeling her out of that jacket…

Her eyes widened.

He looked away, stacking another chair. Where was his control? He was not some teenage boy to be overrun with lust.

She hefted her bulky backpack over one shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.” She strode to the back door.

“Wait for me,” he said. “I still want to walk you to your car.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

He didn’t answer but just grabbed his jacket, backpack, and keys from behind the bar, flicking off lights as he followed her. After locking the back door, he frowned as he surveyed the small lot behind the bar. There was only his Black Ducati Monster and an electric blue Kawasaki Ninja.

Cassie unzipped her backpack and pulled out a silver helmet.

He smiled. Why did this woman keep surprising him? “Shall we ride?”

She arched a brow. “Think you can keep up?”

His muscles tightened in anticipation. “I’m up for the challenge.”

 

* * *

 

Cassie loved riding. The power of the bike directly under her, the wind streaming past, leaning into the corners and, mostly, she loved the feeling that she was on the edge. Her heart thundered when she revved the engine and roared down the street.

But tonight was different. Derrick rode behind her, letting her take the lead even though his bike had the bigger engine. She took the long way home, roaring down the parkway along the river. The night was clear and so was the road. Exhilaration raced through her as she accelerated through a curve.

Too soon, the road curved back into the city proper and she steered them back to her little apartment just outside of downtown. She parked in the lot behind her building while Derrick pulled in beside her.

He took off his helmet and grinned. “Great road choice. I like your style, Cass.”

“I aim to please.” She waved her hand awkwardly. “Thanks for seeing me home. I’ll be fine from here.”

“I know,” he said calmly and got off his bike. “But it’s after one in the morning.” He shrugged. “I’ll just walk you to your door.”

She wasn’t sure if she was pleased that he cared enough to stay or irritated that he didn’t think she could take care of herself. Because really? The door was only fifty meters away.

“Besides,” he continued as he stepped closer. “I’d really like to kiss you.”

She blinked. What did he say? “I thought you were gay.”

He straightened and cocked his head to the side. “Why would you think that?”

“Because…” He stood so close, his broad shoulders impressively wide right now. Her face burned as he searched her gaze. Why had she thought he was gay? So she could work with him? “Because you didn’t hit on any of the women throwing themselves at you?”

He snorted. “For someone who wants to be a journalist, you’re awfully quick to jump to conclusions.”

Her face was on fire. She stared straight at his chest, avoiding his eyes. She was an idiot. “Sorry,” she said. She bit her lip and then decided to be honest. “It wasn’t really anything you’d done. It was because of me.”

“Explain?”

She sighed. “I was acting stupid around you, so I…made you gay in my head.” She said the words all in a rush, trying to get them out as fast as possible.

She could sense his grin, but didn’t look up or acknowledge it.

“Why were you acting stupid around me?” His voice was low, and stirred things inside her.

She wanted to step back, but she wasn’t a coward. She could own up to this. Lifting her chin, she said. “I find you attractive.”

His dark eyes focused on her, and the intensity made her draw in a quick breath. Her heart started beating fast.

Very attractive.

His gaze went to her lips. “I find you attractive, too,” he murmured, and lowered his head.

She met him halfway.