A love-shy billionaire. A damsel-in-distress. Can this temporary marriage work, or will it complicate matters of the heart?

On the run from a human trafficker, Tashi Holland arrives in Granite Falls looking for the one man she was told could protect her. But without knowing his name or his identity, Tashi feels lost, scared, and vulnerable. She has no idea whom to trust, so when she bumps into a man in a café, who pays a little too much attention to her, she panics and runs.

Since he was left standing at the altar, Adam Andreas has been quite content with temporary relationships. That all changes the day he literally bumps into Tashi Holland. With one look into her frightened, emerald eyes, Adam finds himself falling into his old habit of trying to rescue damsels-in-distress—something he has sworn never to do again.

However, one late-night call from Tashi sends Adam rushing to her aid, and little by little, Tashi begins to trust him. But when she discovers that Adam is the man she has been looking for, she fears that he might suffer the same fate as the FBI agent who sent her in search of him.

Will Tashi conquer her fears and trust Adam to protect her, or will she go on the run again in order to protect him?

The Tycoon's Temporary Bride (Billionaire Brides of Granite Falls #4)

Chapter 1

Tashi Holland took a deep breath of the summer air as she exited one of her favorite shops at Stone Crest Shopping Mall Outlets. Bags in hand, she strolled along the walkway, wheeling her way through the throng of residents and tourists who frequented this delightful small town nestled in the foothills of the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire.

She headed for one of the many gazebos in the plaza and, setting her bags on a stone bench, she pulled her camera from her backpack and began clicking away at the breathtaking views of the shimmering waters of Crystal Lake and the green majestic mountains in the background.

Granite Falls was a long way from New York City, the place she’d gone to study photography, and even farther from Ohio—the place where she was born and raised, but never felt any real connection to. Granite Falls wasn’t a bad town for settling down and starting over, but it was remote and lonely. Lonelier, because she hadn’t made any friends and had spent the last few months trying to make sense of the events that had changed her life a year and a half ago.

Sometimes it felt like yesterday, and other times it felt like a lifetime. And then there were times when it felt as if it never even happened. She’d listened to the news and searched the Internet day and night for weeks, then months, trying to find evidence that her nightmares weren’t just some figment of her imagination.

But there was nothing. Never anything—except for one fact.

Tashi sighed and, putting her camera away, she sat on the bench and folded her arms across the stone tabletop and indulged in her favorite pastime. Watching people mulling about and speculating about their lives had helped to keep her mind off her own lifeless existence.

Who was she, anyway? She was a girl with a name, and only a name. One she couldn’t use. She couldn’t open a bank account or use her credit cards. Her driver’s license was useless since she couldn’t rent or purchase a car, or even book a hotel room for a night.

She had the cell phone the FBI agent who’d rescued her had given her—her only communication to the world beyond Granite Falls’ border—but she had no one to call, except the closest pizza parlor and Mountainview Café for occasional deliveries during the past cold winter nights. She kept her phone charged and protected like it was an infant, hoping and praying each day would be the one she would receive that one call she lived for—the call that would give her back her life.

Maybe she would never get her life back. Maybe they thought she’d died during the shootout in that house in New York City, fifteen months ago.

But then again, who were they?

She had no family. She’d never met her father. Her mother died when she was four, and then her uncle who’d raised her suddenly and unexpectedly lost his life to pancreatic cancer almost two years ago. She’d been alone and scared in the craziest city in the world until Scottie showed up. He’d seemed real and charming and had treated her like a princess until…

Tashi covered her face with her hands as visions of that night stormed into the forefront of her mind. Those visions never surfaced gently. They always came at her like a silent freight train speeding around a bend. She only knew it was there after it hit her.

What if Scottie was real, but the man who’d claimed he’d come to rescue her along with the others who were posing as guards and parents were just actors his real parents had hired to get rid of her? After all, she was a nobody, and Scottie was the heir to some multi-million-dollar corporation. Maybe they thought she wasn’t good enough for their son. Tashi had watched enough movies to know that rich people could get away with almost anything. What if they were all fakes? Except…

She wrapped her arms around her middle as the pain seared through her. The one thing about that night that wasn’t fake was the fact that she’d killed a man. She’d climbed undetected into the back seat, pointed a gun at the back of his head and pulled the trigger. Twice. Then she’d watched, numb from head to toe, as he slumped against the steering wheel. It was the blare of the horn that had propelled her into action. She’d pushed the dead man out of the car, and driven off.

His death was the only event that had made the news. It was described as a drug deal gone wrong. He’d left behind a wife and three young children. There were no suspects and last she’d read, the case had been closed.

What if killing the driver was the only real event about that night? What if Scottie’s parents were using that incriminating fact as a means to keep her away from him? If the man who’d claimed to be an FBI agent had made it out alive, where was he? He’d promised to find her and explain everything to her. What was ‘everything’? What did he need to explain?

Tashi didn’t know what to believe anymore. And here she was in a strange town where the agent had sent her in search of a man who was supposed to protect her. A man without a face and a name. Tashi scanned the crowds as she’d done countless times in the past months, hoping beyond hope that her savior would see her, recognize her, and help her.

He could be anybody, even that giant of a man with his arm around the petite woman as they pushed a set of twins in a double stroller. He reminded her of the FBI agent—large, dark, and handsome. The couple nodded and smiled at her as they walked past.

Tashi smiled back. She felt as if she’s seen them somewhere before, but then she quickly averted her eyes as the woman said something to the man, and he turned and gave her another smile.

“She said you’re very beautiful, and I agreed,” the man said over his shoulder.

“Thank you. And so is she.” Tashi’s smile deepened, as the couple disappeared into the crowd.

One thing she could say about this town was that the majority of people were nice and friendly. They probably didn’t think the same of her since she never made any attempts to engage in conversation, nor did she respond to personal questions about herself—legitimate questions people ask when they were interested in someone.

Not knowing whom she could trust, she trusted no one, not even Mindy, her garrulous neighbor, whose kids she’d babysat on a few occasions.

Tashi gathered her bags and left the gazebo. It was laundry day, and she didn’t have a washer and dryer in her one-bedroom apartment—an apartment in the not-so-nice side of town. But it was the only place where the landlord would allow her to pay cash—no questions asked.

The FBI agent had given her a bag of cash and she’d carved out a hole in the back wall of her bedroom closet and hidden the bag inside it. It wasn’t like she could take the money down to the local bank and make a deposit. Her closet was the safest place she could think of to hide it. She’d bought a piece of plywood, painted it white and leaned it up against the wall to hide the hole.  Every time she left her apartment, Tashi worried about someone breaking in. But so far so good.

The car she’d driven to Granite Falls, and the gun with which she’d killed the man had become real estate for fish in the deepest parts of the Hudson and Aiken Rivers, respectively. She had enough money to last her a decade, if she spent it wisely. Hopefully, before it ran out, she’d have some answers to her past and be able to live a normal life.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she’d had a light breakfast. Tashi smiled at the idea of enjoying a juicy, smoked ham sandwich from Mountainview Café, just two blocks over from the outlets. She would grocery shop tomorrow after her kickboxing class. On that thought, Tashi headed for the café.

Having no job, and no people to visit, she’d learned to spread out her outdoor excursions over several days, just to have a reason to leave her apartment, and keep herself from going crazy.  It had been hard during the cold long winter months. Sometimes she didn’t know which was worse—sitting in her apartment reading, or watching TV and snow fall through her window, or braving the freezing temperatures and trekking through snow banks to do her laundry and groceries. On milder days, she’d walk six blocks to the public library, curl up in front of a warm fire, and read. A few times, she’d even fallen asleep in one of the oversized comfortable chairs, only to wake up to face the long walk back and the destitution and isolation of her apartment. 

Tashi prayed that something would change before winter came around again. She didn’t think she could survive another six months of cold in this lonely town. She’d thought of leaving, but that promise from the FBI agent to find her and explain everything had kept her grounded. She didn’t want to miss him when and if he ever came looking for her.

An hour later, Tashi placed some money next to her empty plate and grabbed her bags from the floor. As she stood up and spun around, she collided, head-on with a solid wall of hard muscle. She immediately felt strong arms close around her.

“Whoa…”

Was that thunder? Was this an earthquake?

Tashi stiffened as a flicker of fear rushed through her. Her face was pressed tightly against a hard expanse of human flesh that smelled so good. A man was holding her. A strange man.

You’re a witness. They’ll be looking for you. Don’t trust anyone.

She panicked, her heart thundering as she fought against him. “No! No! Let me go!”

“Hey, take it easy. I was only trying to catch you before you fell flat on your pretty little face.”

The man abruptly released her. Then he bent down and retrieved her bags that had fallen to the floor. He straightened up and handed them to her.

So it wasn’t thunder. Tashi tilted her head back to gaze into a pair of the bluest, most intimate eyes she had ever seen.

Her heart did a double take and something hot sizzled through her stomach. More adrenaline rushed through her as she took a good look at him—from his waist-length wavy black hair to the tips of his black leather shoes. He wore designer jeans and a gray shirt. Or maybe they wore his tall, hard, sexy frame.

The food stains on the front of his shirt caused Tashi to look behind him where he’d parked a baby stroller. A little girl, who looked about two years old, was fast asleep inside it. Tashi took a long, deep breath as her panic subdued.  He couldn’t be one of the mob’s men. He didn’t look the type. They wouldn’t be running around after her with a baby in tow.  And how would they have found her, anyway?

“I’m—I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I really should look where I’m going.”

“Don’t apologize,” he said in a deep, rumbling voice. “I’m the one who sneaked up on you.  I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He gave her body a bold raking gaze, then his soft blue eyes came back to her face, and that something hot sizzled through the core of Tashi’s body again. It was nothing like she’d experienced before.

Their eyes locked for tense moments as if they were both waiting for the other to make the next move.

“No. I’m fine.” Tashi licked her lips that had suddenly become parched. She tugged her eyes from his, only to stare at his wide and generous mouth with lips that reminded her of blooming rosebuds. They were so pink and succulent.

She studied his face.  It was passionate, beautiful, and irresistible, down to the narrow, hollow grove etched into the taut skin under his straight nose. His features were sculptured so perfectly, so symmetrically, that he was almost too beautiful for a man. Italian? Greek? Tashi took another look at the adorable baby-girl sleeping in the carriage.

He’s married! Not that it really mattered. She wasn’t looking for a husband.  Heck, she wasn’t even looking for a man. Well, she was, but she didn’t know who that man was. She didn’t know if he was supposed to be black or white, old or young, rich or poor… All she knew was that he should be single and his name began with an A. She didn’t even know if the A stood for a first or last name.

“I—I have to go,” she said in an awkward, tremulous voice.

He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but instead, he gave her a sensuous stare that made her heart turn over in response. Close Encounter of the Magnetic Kind, Tashi thought on a raspy breath as she hurried away. What a man! God, she didn’t realize they made them like that. His appeal was extremely unsettling. She’d never been this affected by a man before. It was scary and exciting at the same time.

When she reached the sidewalk, Tashi looked back at the café to find him standing at the wall of glass in the front, looking at her. He smiled, and waved.  She smiled, and waved back. His smile turned to a charming grin and it was then that Tashi felt as if she’d seen him before. It was the second time today that she’d run into slightly familiar faces.

For some reason, she didn’t feel threatened by the man who was now watching her, especially when Miss Felicia, one of the owners of the café, came up and hugged him before bending over to pay attention to the child sleeping in the stroller. She was probably his mother-in-law, Tashi thought, since Miss Felicia was black, the man was white, and the baby had olive-toned skin, an indication that she was biracial or multiracial.

No, Tashi thought walking away, this man wasn’t after her. Nevertheless, she decided not to head home, just in case he was tempted to follow her. She crossed the street and entered the supermarket. She’d do her laundry tomorrow. She didn’t have her list, so it took longer than expected to get her shopping done.

With two bags filled with groceries, and two filled with additions to her new wardrobe, she exited the automatic sliding doors of the supermarket and froze. The tall handsome man was standing near the entrance, talking on his cell, his back to her. He must have heard her gasp, because he turned around and immediately ended his conversation. His dark shades obscured his eyes, hiding his expression from her. For all she knew, he could have been talking to the men who were after her, letting his boss know that he’d found her.

Real fear gripped Tashi this time. Scottie had been charming and sweet, just like this man, but according to the FBI agent, he’d been hired to befriend her and trap her.

Her bags slid from her hands. She heard glass crunching, and then red liquid leaked around her sandals. Blood. Blood splattered on the windshield, on the dashboard, and ran down the back of his fat neck, staining the collar of his white shirt.

Tashi’s heart thundered and her stomach clenched tightly. Dear God. No. She started to run, but didn’t get far. Her eyes closed in defeat as he caught her and spun her around. “How did you find me?”

“Who are you running from? Why are you so paranoid?”

She opened her eyes and stared at him. He’d removed his shades and his blue eyes pierced through her as if he were trying to read her soul. “Why are you following me?”

“I’m not following you. I swear I’m not following you. I wouldn’t do that. Stalking is illegal in this town.” He smiled, and the afternoon sun illuminated his soft blue eyes. “I came to the market to get some pull-ups for Tiffany. Her mother didn’t pack enough this morning.”

Tashi’s breath came out hard and rapid. Of course. He wasn’t one of them. He was married. He had a little girl.

She felt so weak. She was so tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of the unknown.  She just wanted a life. She wanted to feel safe and secure, just for one moment. Tashi gave in to the overwhelming emotions that had been building up for fifteen months. She was only human, after all. She fell weakly against the strong, hard chest. The hot tears ran in torrents down her cheeks, dampening his shirt.  She felt his arms close around her. His fingers tangled in her hair as he pressed her face into his chest.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he whispered gently in a deep voice as he held her, his hands soothing and comforting as he caressed her back and shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay...”

They stood holding onto each other in the parking lot with curious people watching and the warm July sun beating down on them.

After a while, he put his hand under her chin and lifted her face to his. “It’s gonna be okay,” he reiterated, gazing into her eyes. He backtracked a few steps with her, bent down, picked up her backpack and shopping bags, and handed them to her. “Your groceries are ruined.” He bent down and began to scoop up as much as he could of the mess of food from the ground.

Tashi slid one strap of her backpack over her arm and bent down to help him. As they carried the soggy paper bags with ruined groceries over to the trashcan and deposited them inside, Tashi felt an unexpected warmth from his tenderness. His genuine concern for her—a stranger—was touching.

“If you come inside with me, I’ll replace your groceries,” he said.

“You don’t have to do that.” She could have salvaged most of the items and washed off the spaghetti sauce once she got home, but she was too tired to bother. “It’s my fault for being paranoid.”

“Why do you take on so much blame?” he asked. “In the café, you blamed yourself and now…  I snuck up on you there, and I scared you just now. It’s not all your fault, you know.”

A heaviness settled in Tashi’s stomach. But it was. If I hadn’t been so naïve that nice FBI agent would be alive today, and that driver too—even though he was a bad man. It was her fault.

“At least let me reimburse you.” He pulled his wallet from his back pocket.

“No. It wasn’t that much. I’m fine.” She hoped her camera was fine. It was expensive and she didn’t want to have to replace it. At least her phone was tucked safely inside the pocket of her dress. She would die if it was ever lost, damaged, or stolen.

The man’s eyes continued to bore into hers as he replaced his wallet. “Are you in some kind of trouble?” His voice was deep and rich, and it made her feel safe.

Tashi needed that voice at night as she lay in bed trembling and frightened, whispering that everything would be all right. She needed that voice to bring her out of the nightmares that continually plagued her sleep. She swallowed and shook her head, then pressed her hands against her temples. “No. I’m just tired.  It’s been a long day.”

“It’s only noon,” he pointed out in a patient tone.

She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth just trembled. “Where’s your little girl—Tif—Tiffany, right?” she asked, noticing what she supposed was green dried baby food in the tresses of his long black hair. She envied the woman who had this gentle, loving man to comfort and protect her. She wished she had someone like him to lean on. To trust.

“She’s with her grandmother,” he answered, offering her a smile that made her knees weak, not from fear or heartache this time, but attraction. “Come back to the café with me. Have a smoothie and some apple pie. It’ll calm your nerves, make you feel better.  I promise.”

Tashi shook her head. “The apple pie is delicious. I usually have it for desert.” Usually, she thought in wonder. She hadn’t ordered it today, and if she had, she would still have been sitting at her table when this stranger walked in. She would not have stood up and bumped into him. “I just ate and I’m really full.”

“Maybe another time then?” he asked, on a warm smile.

“I’m sorry for crying all over you,” Tashi said, willing herself not to fall victim to his charm. The lingering smell of green beans and applesauce on his shirt made him even more irresistible. He was somebody’s dad—the one thing she never had growing up.

“Why did you cry all over me?”

She hesitated before responding. “It’s just that, when I saw you standing there talking on the phone, and then when you turned around, I panicked. I thought you were—” She stopped, and dropped her gaze.

“You thought I was someone else. The person you are running away from?”

“I’m not running from anyone.” Tashi’s defenses instantly returned.  She didn’t know this man. He was nice, but he had his own family to take care of.  If she were his wife, she wouldn’t appreciate him paying so much attention to another woman—especially one who in spite of the mental brakes she was trying to apply found herself highly attracted to him. She stepped back and glanced up at him.  “I have to go.” She hooked the other strap of her backpack over her shoulder.

“Where? Where do you have to go?” he asked, the beginning of a new smile tipping the corners of his sexy mouth.

“Bye.” She turned and walked away, clutching her two garment bags in her hand.

“I’m Adam. Do you live around here?” he called after her.

Tashi stopped in her tracks. Adam. His name was Adam. His name began with an A…

Her mind rewound fifteen months to the night in New York and the split second just before the first round of shots blasted around her: “When you get to Granite Falls, look for A—” and just before that, “I’ll send word to my friend. He is to give you the protection of his name and family by making you his temporary bride.

Tashi did not dare turn around. It was too good to be true. He couldn’t be that friend. The agent hadn’t said anything about him having a child, and she was certain that if Adam was already married, the agent would not have asked that he marry her. What if he’d gotten married in the fifteen months she’d been wasting away in this town? Well, if he was that man, he could still give her protection, just not as his wife. “Yes,” she said in a voice squeaky with hope. “I live around here.” 

“What’s your name?”

“Tashi. Tashi—” She hesitated, then decided to go for it. “Tashi Holland.”

She waited for some indication of recognition. A “My goodness, I’ve been looking for you for months,” or something along those lines. When none came, Tashi continued on her way.

Tashi.

“Tashi Holland.” Adam whispered her name as he watched her walk through the parking lot, her long jean dress flapping loosely around her ankles. When she exited the lot, Adam realized that she didn’t own a car. The thought that she couldn’t afford a car upset him. How many other basic necessities of life—things people like him took for granted—did she live without?

He was tempted to follow her, even though he’d told her he hadn’t been following her. That was then. This was now—now that he knew she was afraid of something or someone, the urge to run after her and hold her again mounted by the second. Twice in one day, within the hour, he’d held her against him, pressed her cheek close to his heart—his heart that was now beating madly out of control.

Adam pressed his palm into his chest where her cheek had lain.  His shirt was damp from her tears.  His skin tingled from her heat. He fisted his hand as if he could capture her sadness and make it his own.

“What frightens you, Tashi? Who scares you?  An obsessive boyfriend? An abusive husband?” he asked out loud as he watched her cross the street and walk west on Beacon Avenue, pass Mountainview Café, toward Union Street.

Soon she would be out of sight, but positively not out of mind, he thought as he recalled her eyes—wide sapphire pools of mystery and magic, bright open windows to her timid soul.  His pulse quickened as he remembered the rich golden glow and enthusing aroma of ginger scenting her soft auburn curls, and the sensuous bouquet of jasmine and vanilla emanating from her smooth silky skin.

Exotic. Sweet. Enticing.  Lei era la spezia e il sapore al suo stufato—yes, the spice and the flavor to his stew, indeed. The kind of woman a man wished he could bump into again and again—all pun intended.

Adam’s excitement waned when she made a right turn onto Union Street—the low-income part of town, littered with rundown multi-family houses where people existed from paycheck to paycheck. His heart squeezed mercilessly. A woman like Tashi didn’t belong in that kind of neighborhood.  She belonged in a palace surrounded by servants eager to grant her simplest request.

As her diminishing figure disappeared from his view, Adam walked into the supermarket. His concern for the girl sprouted wings and his protective instincts toward any damsel in distress bulldozed through the barrier he’d erected several years ago. It ripped through him like a fist smashing through the surge of a waterfall.

Tashi was in trouble. Not the kind that went away with a threatening phone call or a letter from an attorney. She was in deep. The girl was a bundle of nerves, and seemingly as defenseless as an alley cat trapped with its back against the wall.

Much like Claire, sans the entourage of negative vibes.

As he pulled the box of disposable diapers from the shelf and headed to the checkout, Adam tried to put all thoughts of Tashi Holland out of his mind. He told himself that she was not his concern. He berated himself for asking her name and if she lived in the vicinity.  Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone? 

It wasn’t that he was opposed to helping damsels in distress. It was just that damsels in distress were his weakness.

He’d discovered his Achilles’ heel at age twenty-one when he’d rescued Claire, a damsel in distress from an abusive relationship. A practicing yogi and meditation guru since the age of twelve, he should have known that a woman with that kind of baggage and high levels of toxins circling her orbit would tip his Libra scales way out of equilibrium.

Perhaps the challenge of teaching her to trust again, to show her that not all men were cruel, and most emphatically the fact that she was the first woman he’d made love with had clouded his mind, made him think he was in love with her, and pushed him to propose. It could also have been his father’s frequent referral to the fact that since Adam was his only heir, it was his duty to carry on the Andreas bloodline.

Or perhaps it was that longing in his heart to share his life with someone special, to create his own home with a wife and children that was filled with joy, happiness, laughter, and respect—much like the one he’d grown up in. Whatever it was that had pushed him to ask, Claire had accepted his proposal, and had seemed excited about marrying him in the months they’d spent planning the elaborate wedding of the decade. 

Then she’d broken his heart.

Eventually, his heart had healed and had forgotten the ache of rejection. A true believer in love and Happy Ever After, he’d opened up to another damsel in distress. He never got as far as the altar with Denise, and he couldn’t say that his heart had been broken the second time around—just a little hurt and somewhat disappointed at failing again.

That kind of consecutive rejection could wreak havoc on a man’s confidence, not to mention his ego—even if that man practiced yoga and meditation on a daily basis. While yoga and meditation were efficient in helping him regain and maintain balance in his inner universe, they, however, were ineffective when it came to matters of the heart and soul.

The heart and soul, he’d discovered, were restless teammates—forever on perpetual journeys to find their one true love—the ultimate mate to complete them. Twice burned, Adam had learned that the best way to deal with his heart and soul was not to engage them, to keep them away from things that affected them most.

For him, that thing was a woman in distress, since the moment he thought he had to rescue a woman was the moment he began falling for her.

After his emotional disasters with Claire and Denise, he’d made a conscious effort to only pursue independent women who didn’t need to be rescued, women who wanted a career more than they wanted love and a family, those who bowed out as graciously as they bowed into their affairs with him. To be fair, he was always mindful to let them know right up front that there was no permanency in a relationship with him. Consequently, he was known as “Temporary Adam” to some, and “The Temporary Tycoon” to others.

Adam had been initially surprised that there were actual women out there who didn’t see marriage and children as the prime reason for their existence, that it wasn’t a goal they needed to attain to feel complete and valued by the opposite sex, or by society. What many women really wanted had changed in recent decades. Some of them just wanted to have fun.

Adam appreciated their contemporary philosophies, and while the opposite was true for him, temporary was working out just fine. The heart couldn’t always get what it wanted, and since he’d conditioned his not to fall in love, it seemed to have ceased its endless quest.

The safest way to keep temporary permanent was to stay away from damsels in distress. That meant no opening of Pandora’s box—well, in this case, Tashi’s box—for a quick and curious peek inside.

By the time he walked back to Mountainview Café and handed the box of diapers to Felicia, Adam had succeeded in putting all thoughts of Tashi Holland out of his mind.

At least that's what he thought.

Chapter 2

Once inside her apartment, Tashi turned the dead bolts and dropped her bags on the floor. She leaned against the door and took deep breaths of the stifling hot air into her lungs. She felt as if she’d been holding her breath ever since she’d collided with that incredible man in the café.

“Adam.” She finally allowed herself to say the name that had been bouncing around in her head during her fifteen-minute walk home—the longest and most difficult she’d ever taken.  Ever since she took the first step away from him, her legs had been wobbly and stiff—a contrasting combination she didn’t know was possible.  It was a miracle she hadn’t collapsed on the sidewalk.

“Adam,” she said again as if repeating it would somehow ease the constriction in her lungs, the quaking in her belly. As the sound of his name bounced off the walls of her apartment, the image of his gentle blue eyes, the lingering feel of his arms wrapped around her, the warmth from his hard strong body made Tashi flush all over. Even now in the delicious aftermath of their brief physical encounter, she felt as if her skin was on fire.

But that fire quickly waned as Tashi remembered the little girl in the stroller. He was married. He had a child, maybe more than one. Ms. Felicia was his mother-in-law. Maybe that’s where she’d seen him before—at the café. She shook her head. No. If she’d seen this man in person before, she would have remembered. He was not the kind of man a woman forgot meeting.

He was kind, and gentle, and considerate. Okay, yes, and sexy and appealing too. He’d offered to replace her groceries even though it was her own paranoia that had caused her to drop her bags. And he’d invited her back to the café for dessert—to help calm her nerves he’d said.  Why hadn’t she accepted? Because he was married, and if she were his wife, she wouldn’t appreciate him sharing anything with another woman, no matter how innocent it looked. That was how illicit affairs began—innocently.

He could be divorced. Separated. Widowed, her lonely heart debated. Could be, she thought, squinting her eyes, trying to remember if she’d seen a ring on his finger.

Tashi slid her backpack off her shoulders and made her way into the living room, where she placed it carefully on the glass-top coffee table.

In an effort to bring down her body heat, she flipped the switch to the air conditioning unit in one of the two living room windows. As the room vibrated from the ruckus of the cooling unit, Tashi plopped down on her posh leather sofa, picked up her laptop from the coffee table, and opened up her browser. There were a lot of men with Adam for a first name living in Granite Falls, but Tashi knew without a doubt that the first name on the first page belonged to the man she’d collided with today.

Adamo Alessandro Andreas. Triple A’s for first, second, and last names. He seemed like a man who would be first, at the top of his game, at the top of everything, including a list of website pages. He was A all the way. Adam, the first man God created. Tashi’s heart pounded furiously at the realization that she’d been nicknamed “Little Eve” after her mother, Evelyn, because she looked so much like her.

Expelling a ragged breath, she clicked on the Wikipedia link. Several images of Adam popped onto the screen and his intense blue eyes seemed to pierce through her like they’d done in person earlier. With curiosity burning a hole in her belly, Tashi leaned back into the sofa and began to devour as much information as she could about Adam Andreas.

He was thirty-two years old, the only child of Alessandro and Arabella Andreas, and sole heir to Andreas International—an exclusive chain of restaurants and hotels situated all over the globe. Tashi remembered walking past both Hotel Andreas and Ristorante Andreas last summer when she’d decided to extend her walking parameters as far as Lake Crystal at the eastern border of town.  It was a long walk from her apartment, but well worth the effort. She’d photographed some interesting sights on the way, and once there, she’d people-watched from the boardwalk, and enjoyed both a delicious seafood lunch and a dinner at two of the local restaurants.

Having nothing and no one to go home to, she’d stayed all day, and had even dipped her feet in the cool crystal water while the town residents and visitors frolicked around her, and mini yachts docked and undocked all day long, picking up and dropping off rich-looking men, women and children in a noisy melee of fun and excitement.

It was nightfall by the time she’d finished her dinner, and although the crime rate in Granite Falls was less than a quarter percent compared to the rest of the state and the country, she’d decided to take a taxi back to her apartment.

Tashi clasped a hand to her mouth.  That’s where she’d seen Adam Andreas before. She’d picked up a copy of Granite Falls People News magazine from the back seat of the cab, and had been absentmindedly leafing through it during the latter part of her ride. She’d turned a page and just as her eyes landed on a photo of four men all dressed in business attire, her taxi ride had ended.

Tashi clicked on the Granite Falls People News link and began to read the first article. The four men she’d glimpsed in the magazine that night were featured together. They were all very close friends, and they were all billionaires. Dr. Erik LaCrosse was a world-renowned OB/GYN who often visited third-world countries to attend to war-torn and natural disaster victims and refugees. Bryce Fontaine was owner and CEO of Fontaine Enterprises—an international conglomeration that comprised of a vast variety of businesses. He was the man she’d seen at the outlets with the woman and twins today. His face was also featured in the Fountain Towers TV ads.  That’s why he’d seemed familiar to her. The glass skyscraper of his Fontaine Enterprises headquarters towered over the town. Many buildings bore the Fontaine name. Wow. And Massimo Andretti, Adam’s cousin, was heir to Andretti Industries—the largest textile manufacturer in the world. They were all powerful men, and they were all married, with children, except Adam.

Except for Adam. He wasn’t married. A leisurely smile spread Tashi’s lips as that realization sunk into her brain and her heart.

The article described Adam as the Temporary Tycoon and the last available billionaire in Granite Falls to be snatched from the eligible bachelors’ shelf. He was nicknamed the Temporary Tycoon because he always warned his lovers up front that the relationship was temporary. At least he wasn’t giving anybody any false hopes. “And I shouldn’t be having any either,” Tashi vocally schooled herself. The FBI agent had said she was to be married temporarily, not that she was to marry the temporary tycoon, even though his name began with an A.

So his little girl, Tiffany, must have been born out of wedlock. Lots of unmarried couples shared children these days. She herself was illegitimate, but unlike Tiffany, whose father seemed to be a presence in her life, Tashi had never met hers.

She had no idea who he was, or if he was dead or alive. Her mother died before she was old enough to ask questions, and when Tashi had asked her overprotective Uncle Victor about her father, he’d said that he didn’t know him, had never met him. The one thing Tashi knew about her father was that he was black. Her light-brown complexion attested to that fact. 

Tashi clicked on some more links but found nothing about Tiffany or her mother.  She wondered if Adam was still involved with the woman who’d given birth to his beautiful little girl.  She smiled as she recalled the food stains on his shirt and the dried baby food in his hair that spoke volumes about him as a devoted father. Tiffany Andreas was a very lucky little girl.

Feeling as if her head would explode with the overload of information, Tashi closed her laptop and set it back on the coffee table, but some unseen force made her open it up again. She pulled her phone from her pocket and added the phone number for Hotel Andreas to her list of three other contacts—Mindy, Mountainview Café, and her favorite pizza parlor next to the camera shop on Oak Street. Before shutting off her phone, she made Hotel Andreas her number one favorite.

Tashi closed her laptop again as she tried to analyze her spontaneous behavior. It wasn’t like she was going to call his hotel looking for him. He’d probably not even remember her.  What would she say, anyway? “Hey, Adam, remember me, the girl you met at Mountainview Café the other day?” Nope, she thought with a twist of her lips, calling Adam would be tacky, and could be construed as stalking—the very thing she’d accused him of when she’d seen him at the grocery store. There was no explanation for saving his number to her phone, except that it gave her a connection to him, made her feel close to him—in an odd sort of way.

The apartment was a lot cooler than it had been when she first arrived home, but still her skin felt as flushed as when she’d collided with Adam Andreas. He’d left a lasting impression on her.

Well, at least she could rule one thing out, she mused as she got up from the sofa: a wealthy, powerful man like Adam Andreas was definitely not the one the FBI agent had sent her looking for. It was highly unlikely that a New York City FBI agent would know a man like that, be friends with a man like Adam Andreas.

And she needed to stop thinking about him, she scolded herself as her heart began to race with the memories of being crushed against his body. He was definitely out of her league. Way, way out—like a billion light years away.

Nope, Adam’s knee-jerk reaction to her today was merely hormones—a normal reaction to a man meeting a woman he found attractive. He was probably over it by now. And if he knew she’d killed a man in cold blood, and was a fugitive from the law, his attraction would turn to disdain.  He might even turn her in. Nope, it was best she stayed away from him.  She needed to occupy her mind with something else.

As she walked into her bedroom and began to separate her laundry into two laundry bags, a knot formed in Tashi’s stomach. Her savior was still a mystery. He might forever be a mystery since she had to face the harsh reality that the agent may not have made it out of that house alive.

Maybe it was time she gave up on him and began planning a life on her own. She was so tired of not being able to enjoy the basic human things ordinary people enjoyed on a daily basis. Like owning a car, having a job to go to, making friends, and even—maybe even trying her luck at romance again.

She would do a background check on any potential boyfriends this time—no more Scotties pulling the wool over her eyes. Her uncle was right, there were a lot of bad people in the world, but there were some good ones too, she had to admit. That FBI agent who had saved her life was one of them. 

As the loud music from her upstairs neighbor’s stereo blasted through the ceiling, Tashi knew that it was time she got out of this hellhole. Winters wouldn’t be so bad if she lived in a nicer area of town. With the money she still had left, and a salary from a job, she knew she could afford one of the luxurious studio or one-bedroom apartments at Fontaine Towers that overlooked the Aiken River.

She wasn’t born into a wealthy family, but she’d never lived in such a destitute place either. She’d lived with her mother and her uncle in an upper middle class neighborhood, and after her mother died, her uncle had moved them into a similar neighborhood far away from the previous one.

As a child, she never got everything she wanted, but she’d never wanted for anything. Her maternal grandparents had set up a decent trust fund for her mother and her uncle, but they’d never touched it. That money had supported Tashi through, and beyond college. She had no student loans to pay back, and she’d been able to rent a nice studio apartment close to her university in New York City. There was still a lot of money left, but she couldn’t take the risk of withdrawing it, not that she needed it with all that the agent had given her, anyway.

As she swung her bags of dirty laundry over her shoulder and left her apartment, Tashi wondered how difficult it would be to assume a new identity. She had no idea where to begin or if attempting to change her name would trigger cyber waves that might reach her enemies, and alert them to her whereabouts.

One thing was certain, she could not continue living like this.

* * *

Adam couldn’t sleep. Not since he’d collided with Tashi Holland, three days ago. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get her out of his head, and his other head kept standing at attention and drooling at the prospect of making her acquaintance.

He wasn’t presently involved with anyone, so starting something with Tashi wasn’t a problem—maybe just a quick fling to get her out of his system might be all he needed. His most recent relationship had lasted two weeks, perhaps because he’d found the woman boring compared to his previous lover, Sadie, a fifty-something-year-old with a penchant for younger lovers. Their relationship had lasted about a year. It was the first time he’d been involved with an older woman, and like the others before her, Sadie had known it wasn’t permanent, even though it had begun to feel comfortable for both of them.  So when her company offered her a promotion and transfer to Austin, Texas, she’d immediately jumped on it, and four months ago, she’d spent one last passionate night with him then bid him farewell the next morning.

She hadn’t called since she left, and he’d found himself missing her for a host of reasons.  Sadie had never been married, had no children, was well traveled, well educated, and spoke several languages. She had the body of a twenty-year-old athlete, and was the best lover he’d ever had. She’d even taught him a few tricks she swore would drive any woman out of her mind. Tricks he hadn’t had the chance to try out on anyone else, yet.

Yes, he missed her—their deep meaningful conversations, especially—but not badly enough to call her.

Rules were rules, and he was sticking by his.

Well, that was until he’d bumped into Tashi Holland.

After the first sleepless night and waking up the next morning with a rock-hard cock that refused to go away, even after he gave it some attention, Adam had boarded his jet and flown to Austin. He just needed to forget Tashi. Forget her big emerald eyes, her sexy mouth, her curly auburn hair, and the soft feel of her delicate little body in his arms. Forget that she might be a damsel in distress. Sadie could help him forget.

But Sadie wasn’t having him. It was over. She’d moved on with another lover who was even younger than Adam, but she’d treated him to lunch. When she’d asked about the real reason he’d flown to Texas, he’d told her about Tashi and the pull she had on him. He’d admitted that he was afraid he might start something he might not have the power to end. And since ending was his thing…

Sadie had had a good laugh, and then she’d said, “You should have known the day would come when a woman would challenge your commitment to your temporary rule, Adam Andreas. You can’t stay balanced for the rest of your life. There’s no excitement there. It’s the imbalance, the chaos that provide us the opportunity to learn and grow, that make us want to take risks to tip the scales in our favor again.”

“You, more than anyone know how to keep me balanced.”

“No, sweetness,” she’d said, resting her hand on his. “This Tashi girl tipped your scale. You and she are on this seesaw together. You have to work with her to tip it back. The fact that you broke your rule and came to see me tells me that you know that your heart knows something you’re not ready to admit.”

“My heart has been wrong before.”

“Was it your heart that was wrong, or was it you, Adam?”

His heart had skipped a beat as if agreeing with her.

“Don’t fight the pull, darling. Explore the possibilities before this opportunity moves on to someone else.”

“What if it doesn’t work out?” he’d asked, trying desperately to refute her wisdom.

“What if it does? Sometimes we just have to live the questions, Adam,” she’d admonished, giving him a lingering kiss on the lips for old times’ sake before sending him back to Granite Falls and his impending fate.

Adam tossed the sheet off his naked body and got out of bed. It was a little past two, but he knew the restless hour and a half of sleep was all he was going to get tonight. All, he thought, gazing down at his cock pressed tight against his belly with drool easing out of it. It was literally becoming a pain to wake up horny with only one way to relieve the tension—well two, but he hated cold showers.

Adam grabbed an elastic hair band from the nightstand and secured his mane into a ponytail as he left the bedroom of his third floor master suite. He crossed the hall, and walked through the dining and living rooms to the kitchen. There he busied himself making a pot of coffee. What he would enjoy more was a strong espresso, but he was out of his favorite beans, and since his mind had been flooded with nothing but thoughts of Tashi Holland lately, he’d forgotten to restock. Coffee would have to do for tonight.

As he waited for the java to brew, he walked to the wall of French doors on the other side of the kitchen and gazed out into the darkness of the night.

Upon his return from Austin, he’d gone straight to the café where he’d met Tashi Holland, hoping beyond hope that she’d be there. Mountainview Café and Hair Salon was jointly owned by Lillian Fontaine and Felicia LaCrosse, the mothers of two of his best friends— Bryce Fontaine, and Erik LaCrosse who was the father of Adam’s goddaughter, Tiffany.

Adam, Erik, Bryce, and Adam’s cousin Massimo Andretti had been best friends since high school. They were closer than best friends. They were brothers who’d sworn a blood oath to always be there for each other.

His brothers were all married with growing families. Massimo had taken a wife just last year and had already produced an heir to the Andretti fortune. Married life had put a damper on their “guy bonding” time, and when they did manage to get together, his married friends did nothing but swap pictures and stories about their children, and talk about silly spats with their wives. Adam, of late, was feeling more and more displaced around them, having no stories of his own to share.

It was ironic that he was the only one of the group still not married when he was the one who’d had the most interest in starting a family years ago—way back when his man-whore cousin, Massimo, had taken an oath never to marry just to spite his philandering father who’d picked out a suitable wife for him. On the contrary, Adam had caved under his own father’s pressures to expand the Andreas bloodline, and had thus proposed.  He’d wanted to make his old man happy even it meant making himself miserable.

Within a year after their breakup, Claire had married some web design entrepreneur, but four years later when his company went bankrupt and he was unable to support her lavish lifestyle, she divorced him. She’d tried to rekindle whatever she thought they’d had, claiming that Adam’s deep spirituality and journeys into his inner universe, and the pressure from his father to immediately start a family had scared her. She’d said she’d made a mistake by leaving him at the altar. He’d told her she hadn’t made a mistake and that he was over her completely.  Lady Fate had been kind to him, and he wasn’t about to throw her gift back into her face.

Ten years had passed, and he hadn’t even been mildly tempted to go that route again. But his desire to contribute to the filial conversations had prompted him to begin taking Tiffany out—once in a while. Being with Tiffany reminded him of the void in his life, but he nonetheless enjoyed spending time with her, and then reporting on the unexpected things she said and did.  He also appreciated the added bonus she provided after Sadie left. Seems like a single man with a baby was the ultimate female magnet. He’d procured several dates because of Tiffany’s cute little smiles and darling antics, even her whining on cranky days. 

But three days ago, Tiffany ate, pooped, and slept at the park and at the petting zoo where he’d taken her on their morning date. It was a hot day and he guessed she wasn’t feeling up to impressing him or attracting ladies, so he’d taken her back to her grandmother earlier than planned. And if he hadn’t, he would not have run into Tashi.

He’d questioned Felicia about the scared little rabbit who’d cried in his arms. How long had she been coming to the café? Did she have a pattern, a specific time when she came in?  Was she ever with anyone? A man specifically. Had she ever ordered out? What was her address? Felicia answered all his questions, but the last.

As fond as she was of him, she refused to give up a customer’s address, just as he would never give up a room number of a guest in his hotel. And so Adam had stuck around for a good portion of the day, and the next, hoping that Tashi would make an appearance, but he got nothing.

Nothing seemed to be all he was getting these days, he thought, glancing down at his now flaccid shaft. With no playmate available, it had gone back to sleep. Too bad he too couldn’t enjoy the luxury of slumber.

At the chime from the coffee maker indicating his brew was ready, Adam made his way toward it. He picked up the coffee pot and a mug and walked back to his bedroom. He pulled on his robe, then made his way down the hall toward his home office. It was midmorning in Europe, a good time to check in with his hotel managers on the other side of the pond. He’d barely sat down at his desk and taken a sip from his mug when his landline rang. He glanced at the display. It was the general manager at Hotel Andreas-Granite Falls.

Now, for what possible reason would his general manager be calling him at two thirty in the morning? A disgruntled guest or an employee, perhaps? What would anyone have to complain about while staying in one of the most luxurious hotels in the world? As to his employees, they knew they would never find better employment anywhere in the hotel industry.

He picked up the receiver. “Yes, Oscar.”

“I’m sorry for calling at such an odd hour, Mr. Andreas, but a young woman called here looking for you a little while ago.”

He frowned. Why would a woman be calling his hotel and not his cell? And why in the middle of the night except for a booty call? The fact that he wasn’t currently involved didn’t stop his cock from stirring at the very thought of playing a game of hide and go seek. “Well, did she leave a name?” he asked with a touch of restiveness.

She said her name was Tashi, sir.

Chapter 3

Adam’s heart flew to his throat and his back became ramrod straight. “Did—did you say Tashi?” He could hardly get the words out as he pushed to his feet.

“Yes. She sounded a bit hysterical.”

“What do you mean, hysterical?”

“She was crying, Mr. Andreas.”

Adam felt like a ton of lead had been slammed into his gut. He pulled on his ponytail in an effort to keep his mind from going numb as his body was threatening to do. “Did she leave a message?” He paced the floor, forcing his blood to circulate.

“She left her number and her address. She said she needed you, sir. I forwarded the information to your cell, but I know you turn on the DND feature after midnight.”

“Thanks, Oscar.” Adam dropped the phone on his desk and sprinted back to his bedroom.

Tashi needed him.

He grabbed his cell from the nightstand and searched for Oscar’s message as he shrugged out of his robe. He memorized the address then dialed the number Oscar had forwarded while he reached for the pair of shorts he’d draped over the footboard not too long ago.

Tashi’s number just kept ringing, and as the seconds ticked by, the sound of Adam’s racing heart beating against his chest grew louder and louder and his breath seemed to solidify in his throat. 

Tashi was in trouble. What if whomever she was running from had found her?  What if he was too late? Refusing to entertain the horrific possibility, he pulled his shirt from the foot of his bed and raced downstairs like a pack of wolves was after him.

He made the thirty-minute drive to the not-so-nice section of town in less than fifteen. He brought his Aston Martin to a stop in front of 85 Temple Street and got out. The multi-family house was shrouded in darkness, as was the neighborhood with many of the street lamps burned out. Adam flew up the short flight of steps, made a right on the rickety porch, and passed an old ragged sofa, a three-legged coffee table jammed against the wall, and a half-worn-down broom. He knocked on the door with the number four.

“Tashi,” he called. The only response to his call in the night was the bark from a neighbor’s dog. “Tashi,” he said again, trying the door. Of course it was locked.

A prickly feeling crept along Adam’s back as his mind raced ahead of him. Suppose the people she was running from were holding her at gunpoint inside the apartment? Or worse, suppose they’d done what they’d come to do and had already left, leaving her lifeless body to be discovered by a neighbor?

Adrenaline pumped through Adam’s veins. He had no idea what was waiting for him behind that locked door. He could be walking into a trap for all he knew. He thought about kicking the door in, but realized that if her captors were still in there, he might startle them into shooting blindly at him. Then he would be of no use to her. He thought of calling the police, but immediately decided against it since he didn’t know the nature of Tashi’s trouble.  Involving the authorities might…

“Adam.”

He cocked his ears as he heard the faint whisper of his name through a crack in the window on his right. He moved toward it. “Tashi?”  His voice trembled on those two syllables.

He heard a low moan, then, “In here.” It was barely a whisper.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes.  I’m sick.” She whimpered again. “I’m so sick.”

Sick. She was sick. He let out his breath, and on his intake, the stench of seasoned vomit and other putrefied odors he didn’t care to identify wafted up his nostrils. Why hadn’t she called 911 instead of him? Sliding a finger under the crack, and finding no screen, he pushed the curtain aside and peeked inside.  It was still too dark to make out anything in the room. “Can you open the door?”

“I can’t move. I can’t walk.”

The panic, the pain, in her voice brought tears to Adam’s eyes. “Okay, baby. I’m gonna climb through the window then,” he said, sliding his hands beneath the splintered wood on the bottom of the sill.

Her response was another heart-wrenching groan.

It was a small window, but he was a man, and since men always delighted in the challenge of squeezing big objects through tight openings, Adam welcomed the scrapes and cuts on his arms and legs and the splinters piercing his flesh as he forced his frame through the window.

He landed on a pile of clothes on the floor and stood to adjust his eyes to the darkness, even as he forced himself to ignore the stench in the air. Another moan gave away her location and Adam made his way toward her, bumping into what felt like a trashcan at the side of the bed. He swallowed the bile that rose to his throat.

“Tashi,” he called, making his way to the head of the bed. He switched on the bedside lamp and almost fainted at what he saw. Tashi was rolled up in a ball on the bed. Her long auburn hair—encrusted with only God knew what—was spread out above her head, and the pink nightgown she was wearing was stained with human excrement, and blood.

Adam’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. “Tashi.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he dropped down on the mattress and gathered her into his arms. She was burning up with fever.  “Tashi.” He pushed her hair out of her face and cradled her head in the crook of his arm. “Cara, why are you bleeding? Did someone hurt you?”

“No.  No.  I—I have my—my period.”

Adam let out his breath, relieved that he didn’t have to go out and commit murder. “Is it always this bad?”

“No. It’s not because of that. I didn’t know my fridge had died and I ate some leftover chicken.”

“When?  How long have you been sick?”

“Since the day I met you. I had the chicken for dinner that night and I woke up with a bellyache.” She sank her nails into the fresh cuts on his arms and screamed as cramps apparently ripped through her stomach.

Her breath smelled horrible, but Adam pressed her face against his. He spoke softly and soothingly to her, and rubbed her belly lightly as he waited for her cramps to subdue. When they finally did, and she relaxed her hold on him, he gazed down into her eyes. They were hollow, almost transparent like her ashen skin. The vibrant colors he’d seen in her complexion and her eyes three days ago were gone. It was as if he was gazing into the face of a completely different woman—her apparition.

“I have to get you to the hospital,” he said, easing off the bed with her in his arms.

“No. No. No hospital.”

No hospital? The girl was dying from food poisoning and she didn’t want to go to the hospital. “Why, Tashi? Why don’t you want to go to the hospital?”

She started to cry, her lithe body shaking from her sobs. “If I use my name, they—they could find me. They—they’ll kill—they’ll kill me. I have to stay below the radar.”

“Who? The people you’re running from?” he asked, caressing her arms and her back in an effort to calm her down.

She nodded as more tears poured out of her eyes, ran down her cheeks, and into the fresh cuts on Adam’s arms. He steeled himself against the stinging of his raw flesh from her salty tears.

Dear God, his suspicions were correct. She was a damsel in distress. The worst kind, if she was too afraid to seek medical help even though she was one hairsbreadth away from death.  People wanted to kill her. Who? Why?

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t take you to the hospital, but I have a friend who’s a doctor and I’m going to call him. I can trust him. He wouldn’t tell anyone about you. Is that okay?”

She nodded.

He reached into his pocket for his phone only to realize that he’d left it in the car. He picked up hers from the nightstand. It was dead. Her charger was nowhere in sight. That’s why she hadn’t answered his calls earlier. He was grateful she was able to make the last call to his hotel before the device went completely dead.

He glanced around the chaotic room, hardly able to breathe in the foul air. Soiled clothes, used tissues, and dishes with leftover food were strewn everywhere, but he noticed the two empty gallon water containers on the floor. At least she’d been drinking water to ward off dehydration. It was probably the reason she was still alive.

She’d been sick for three days. Sick, alone, and scared to seek medical help. That’s why she hadn’t been back to the café. Felicia had said that she came in at least three or four times a week, and always on Thursdays for the special lunch buffet. Yesterday was Thursday and Tashi hadn’t shown because she was sick.

Adam’s gaze landed on the trashcan he’d bumped into in the dark. Now he could see the gross contents inside it. She’d started using it because she’d become too weak to walk to the bathroom. He shivered as a small black rodent scurried from one corner of the room to the next and disappeared behind the radiator.

Adam shook his head with disgust. He couldn’t ask Erik to come here. He didn’t want his friend to see Tashi in this condition, in this place, this neighborhood. He glanced down at her again.  She needed a bath, and so did he now that he too was covered in her waste.

“Tashi. I’m taking you to my home. No one else is there. It will just be the two of us,” he said, just then deciding that his entire household staff would be enjoying a nice paid vacation for however long it took to nurse Tashi back to health. “Is that okay?”

She nodded, then closed her eyes and groaned as another cramp apparently ripped through her. As he held and caressed her through it, the heat from her body seemed to burn off Adam’s clothes and flesh.

When she went limp again, he eased her back down on the mattress and stood to his feet. She curled up into a ball, trembling. He hated to leave her side, but he had to get going. He took the trashcan into the bathroom and flushed its contents down the toilet.

“I’m going to clean you up a bit and change your clothes before we leave,” he said, returning to her bedside. She needed a good soak, but he didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary in this dump. A quick wipe-down would have to suffice for now.

He walked to a bureau on the other side of the room and quickly scanned the contents of the top drawer—a neatly folded colorful pile of silk and lace thongs on the left side, and a pile of practical cotton panties on the right. He grabbed the first item from the right pile—a pair of pink boy shorts with white polka dots and the word “Angel” printed on the front.

Two side steps brought him to her tiny closet—more like a hole in the wall. He pulled a lime green dress from its hanger, and a clean bed sheet from the shelf. He set them on the nightstand, next to a box of sanitary napkins, then walked into the bathroom. He took a washcloth from the shower curtain rod, lifted a plastic tub from the floor and half filled it with cool water. Grabbing a bar of soap, he returned to the bedroom, took off her nightgown—the only piece of clothing she wore—and gave her a hasty bird bath.

“Hold me tight,” he said, picking her up. While she wound her arms about his neck and her legs around his waist, he cradled her naked body with one arm while he stripped the bed of the soiled sheets and tossed them on the floor. He arranged a clean sheet on one half of the mattress, eased her back down on it, and dressed her.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice cracking as she gazed up at him with liquid emerald eyes.

Adam smiled down at her, then reaching out, he traced a knuckle along one cheek, wiping at the tear that had slid from the corner of her eye. Her skin was soft and silky. She had lost weight since the last time he’d seen her. She looked so small, frail, helpless, and alone.  “I’m glad you called me.”

Their eyes locked. He’d seen her naked and had bathed the most intimate parts of her body, taken care of her woman’s monthly business, yet it seemed to Adam that there wasn’t an ounce of embarrassment on her side, and definitely not a shred of lust on his. It were as if they were old acquainted souls who already knew each other’s secrets, wants, and needs in every possible form, who’d witnessed the best and worst of each other, and were still…

A sharp pain pierced Adam’s heart and a lump lodged in his throat.

He was paralyzed for a moment, then he turned away abruptly, shaking off that invisible seize on his heart. He took the tub to the bathroom, flushed her bathwater down the toilet, and then soaped and washed his hands thoroughly. He took a clean face towel from a shelf over the toilet and soaked it with cold water. “This will help with the fever,” he said, placing it on her forehead. “Where’re your keys?”

“Living…  Uh…Uh….room...”

Adam’s heart twisted with pain as he watched her writhe in his arms. It was all he could do to hold back the tears from his eyes. He’d never witnessed anything like this before, and quite frankly, it scared the hell out of him.

“Here we go,” he said when she lay shivering in his arms. He scooped her up inside the sheet, and pushed to his feet. She was so light, he felt like he was carrying a young child in his arms.

On his way to the front door, he grabbed her keys from the coffee table, and lingered when he saw her opened backpack on a corner of the sofa. A laptop, a camera, and her wallet were inside it. Remembering that he’d seen her carrying it the day they met, he figured she used it in place of a purse. He zippered it with one hand and slung it over his shoulder.

He locked her dead bolts and descended the porch stairs as quickly and carefully as he could. He laid her on the backseat of his Aston Martin and tucked the sheet around her. He’d love to put her up front beside him, but knew she’d be more comfortable in the back where she could stretch out. He buckled her in and then got behind the wheel. If he hurried, he’d have enough time to give her a quick bath before Erik got there.

“You’ll be feeling better soon, Tashi,” he said, as she groaned in pain again. He called Erik and asked him to meet him at the Andreas estate, equipped to treat a young woman with a fever and a severe case of food poisoning—perhaps salmonella.

He couldn’t answer Erik’s litany of questions about the identity and family history of the young woman. He knew nothing about Tashi, except for the fact that she needed him tonight.

As Adam sped along Route 80 and made his way northwest toward Mount Reservoir, he wondered who Tashi would have called if they hadn’t bumped into each other at Mountainview Café, three days ago. Didn’t she have a job, coworkers, friends, family, or a neighbor she could have called? A boyfriend? Girls her age usually had boyfriends.

Why was she so alone in this world that she had to call a total stranger whose private phone number she didn’t even have? 

There are no coincidences in life, his now deceased friend, Michael Rogers, used to say. The prophetic truth in those words had rung true in the professional areas of Adam’s life. In the past few years since his parents moved back to Italy and gave him absolute control of the family business, he’d been able to expand Andreas International at an alarming rate because of the people and connections he’d made along the way.

But never had the divine power in those words affected the personal aspect of his life until now, Adam realized. He was supposed to have taken Tiffany two days before, but her Uncle Robert had made an unexpected visit to Granite Falls to spend some time with her and her siblings, thus changing Adam’s date day with his goddaughter. Then if Tiffany had been her usual perky self instead of sleeping the morning away, he would not have cut their date short and taken her to the café and her grandmother so early on that fated day. They would still have been at the petting zoo, and he and Tashi’s paths would never have crossed.

It was as if the blueprint for every single event of that day had been carved in stone eons ago, and then set in motion two years ago when Lillian and Felicia had discussed buying out Mountainview Café with their sons. Neither Bryce nor Erik had thought it a good idea. It was too close to the wrong part of town. They didn’t see the financial benefits of owning it. And they were worried about their mothers’ safety on a daily basis. The café had been held up four times in the past two years—the main reason the previous owner had put it on the market. 

But Lillian and Felicia were determined to own a café and beauty salon together. They had purchased it, along with the adjoining pawnshop, torn down the buildings and erected a beautiful structure—one half café and the other half beauty salon. To ease their sons’ fears, they’d hired a team of 24/7 security guards. Two were always on the premises during hours of operation. Mountainview Café and Hair Salon had become a flourishing business where the once-divided social classes of Granite Falls now mingled.

The prices were just right for the poor, and the delicious delicacies from the bakery, along with the remarkable hairstyles Lillian whipped together were just right for the rich.

It was the perfect place for a billionaire to literally run into a poor damsel in distress.

No coincidences. Everyone is simply following the path they’ve been predestined to travel. If Felicia and Lillian hadn’t followed their dreams, and if Robert hadn’t made a surprise visit to Granite Falls when he did, he and Tashi might never have met, and she would not have called his hotel tonight looking for him.

Every person we meet comes into our lives for mutual and specific reasons and benefits—another of Michael’s profound truisms. Tonight, he was saving Tashi’s life—his specific reason for meeting her, her benefit for meeting him. What was her specific reason for meeting him, his benefit for meeting her? What would, could she ever do for him?

As he pulled his car to a stop in the courtyard of his home, Adam realized that he might never know the answers to those questions since he was planning on setting Tashi Holland loose the moment she was feeling better.

This serendipitous liaison between them, this intimate, yet nonsexual relationship was as temporary as his sexual ones. And speaking of sex, or the lack thereof, it was time he began looking for another temporary playmate, one he knew without a doubt he’d have no trouble walking away from once the relationship had run its course. He needed someone to help put distance between him and Tashi Holland before his heart and soul became engaged.

Sadie was right. Balance was safe, and imbalance torment. His scale wasn’t tipped to the point of toppling over yet, and at this stage, he’d rather be safe than relive the pain Claire and Denise had caused him.

Happily Ever After wasn't for him. Temporary was working just fine.

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