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The Brides of Holly Springs Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Also available in this Anthology Reissue
THE SECRET SEDUCTION

Chapter One

Honestly, Lily Madsen thought, watching the disheveled 'cowboy' climb down from the truck, the man in the snug fitting jeans, chambray shirt, and boots was enough to take your breath away. Or he would have been, she amended silently to herself, it he hadn't been Fletcher Hart. The most reckless and restless of Helen Hart's five sons, the thirty year old Fletcher had a reputation for loving and leaving women, and never committing to much of anything--, save his thriving Holly Springs, North Carolina, vet practice-- for long.

"Why are you being so all-fired difficult?" Lily glared at him and continued the conversation the two of them had started before Fletcher had cut it short and headed off on an emergency call on a nearby farm. "All I am asking for is a simple introduction to Carson McRue. I'll take it the rest of the way."

"I'm sure you will." Fletcher slanted her a deeply cynical look, followed it with a way too knowing half-smile, then strode toward the back door of the clinic, all confident indomitable male. "The answer is still no, Lily." Simmering with a mixture of resentment, anger and another emotion she couldn't quite identify, Lily followed Fletcher into the building, aware that unlike the building, which smelled quite antiseptic, he smelled like he had been rolling around in the back of a barn. And perhaps he had been, she thought, noting the sweat stains on his shirt, the mud clinging to his backside, knees, one shoulder and most of his chest.

Oblivious to her scrutiny of him, he strode purposefully into a glass walled-room. On the other side of the partition were an assortment of cats and dogs in metal cages. All appeared to be recovering from operations, or illness, and were sleeping or resting drowsily. On their side of the glass wall, there was another large crate with a dog inside who did not appear to have had surgery.

Lily watched as Fletcher hunkered down beside the crate and peered in. To her frustration, he seemed a lot more interested in his canine patient, than what she had to say to him. Hands on her hips, she demanded with all the authority she could muster, given the five years difference in their ages, "Just what is your objection to my meeting the man anyway?"

Fletcher paused to give a comforting pat to the ailing yellow lab, who looked up at him with big sad eyes, before straightening once again. "Besides the fact that he's an egotistical tv star who doesn't care about anyone but himself, you mean?" Fletcher challenged.

Lily huffed her exasperation and folded her arms in front of her, trying all the while not to notice how soft and touchable Fletcher's shaggy honey brown hair was, how sexy his golden brown eyes. Honestly, you would think the way Fletcher acted that he was the star of a hit tv show, instead of a local vet who was-as always-in need of a haircut. Just because he had a masculine chiseled face, with the don't-mess-with-me Hart jaw, expressive, kissable soft lips that were also very nicely shaped, a strong nose, and even more well-defined cheekbones, did not mean that she had to swoon at his feet. And the same went for his powerful, six foot one frame, with the broad shoulders and impossibly solid chest, sturdy waist, and long, muscular legs.

"You don't know that for sure," she retorted defensively, privately hoping it wasn't true. "Just because Carson McRue is rich and famous--"

Fletcher headed up the stairs that led to his apartment on the second floor, unbuttoning his filthy shirt as he went. "Let's just cut the bull, shall we?"

"I don't--"

He stopped at the top of the stairs, and stripped off his shirt, leaving Lily with a bird's eye view of lots of satiny smooth male skin, a T-shaped mat of golden brown hair, flat male nipples, six pack abs, and a belly button so sexy it was to die for. With effort, she dragged her glance away from his hip-hugging jeans and American Veterinary Medical Association belt buckle, before she could really give in to temptation and slide her glance lower, to see what was behind that tightly shut zipper.

Oblivious to the licentious direction of her thoughts, Fletcher continued mocking her with thinly veiled contempt, "I know about the bet you made with all your friends. Okay, Lily? Everyone in town does."

While Fletcher watched, embarrassed color crept from her chest, into her neck, and finally her cheeks. Lily gulped her dismay. She never should have indulged in such bold talk at her birthday party last week. But then she never should have let her friends talk her into having not just one but two margaritas with her enchiladas, either. Everyone knew she couldn't hold her liquor. The closest she had ever gotten to drinking was the smidgen of crème de menthe her grandmother had let them have in their milk every Christmas Eve.

Alcohol had been one of many things her beloved Grandmother Rose had not approved. And knowing how badly her own parents had disappointed Grandmother Rose, Lily had grown up never wanting to similarly let her down.

Forcing herself to meet Fletcher's boldly assessing gaze head on, Lily demanded archly, "Who told you--?" And more to the point, how much exactly did he know about what she had sworn she would do to win her wager, no matter what obstacles-and they all figured there would be plenty of them-- stood in her way?

"--That you've promised when Carson McRue's private jet leaves Carolina, you're going to be on it?" Fletcher picked up where Lily left off. "Well, let's see. There's my sister, Janey. My brother Joe's wife, Emma. Hannah Reid, over at Classic Car Auto Repair. My cousin Susan Hart. And everyone else who heard you swear that you could get a hot date with the dim bulb in just one week."

Fletcher Hart knew everything, all right. Except of course what had prompted Lily to make such an unlikely, hedonistic boast in the first place. She pushed her rebuttal through gritted teeth. "Carson McRue is not a dim bulb. Or an egotistical star."

That cynical smile again. "And how would you know this?" Fletcher challenged as he unlocked the door and strode into his apartment, past the haphazardly appointed and rather messy living room, kitchen, and bedroom, to the bathroom at the rear.

Lily had the choice of following or cooling her heels. She knew what he would have preferred, and-feeling surprisingly, stubbornly contrary-- did the exact opposite. Pulse racing, she leaned against the hallway wall, her back to the open bathroom door, and continued their conversation as nonchalantly as if she did things this crazily intimate with men she barely knew every single day. "I know because I've watched his TV show every week for the last five years." The action-adventure show about an easygoing Hollywood private eye had been the one bright spot in many a stressful week. Lily had watched the highly entertaining program in hospital rooms, and waiting rooms, as well as at home. And it had never failed to make her forget her problems, at least temporarily. Right now, she needed to forget her problems. Besides, if she won her bet with the girls, they all owed her a day at the spa. If she lost and they won, well, Lily didn't want to think about what she would have to do then. Especially since Fletcher didn't seem to know about the price she would have to pay, either. Otherwise, she was sure he would have already rudely brought it up.

Fletcher kicked off one boot, then the other. "Carson McRue plays a character, Lily. What you see on tv is all an act, albeit a highly polished one."

"I know that," Lily retorted, just as drolly, as she heard a zip, and a whoosh of fabric, and was that the shower, starting? Telling herself she was not going to see Fletcher naked, no matter how brazenly he was behaving, she closed her eyes, and rubbed at the tense spot just above her nose.

"But no one who isn't that nice could actually pretend to be that caring and compassionate." At least Lily hoped that was the case. Otherwise, her goose was cooked. She would never be able to live down this drunken boast. Never be able to get up the nerve to do what she had to do to make good on her lost wager…

"Don't count on it," Fletcher argued right back, as cynically as always. "And anyway, it doesn't matter." The shower curtain opened and closed. Water pelted in an entirely different rhythm and the aroma of soap and shampoo and… man… wafted out on the steamy air as Fletcher scrubbed himself clean. "I'm still not introducing you to him." He spoke above the din of running water.

At Fletcher's stubbornness, it was all Lily could do not to stomp her foot. "But he and the rest of the show's cast and crew will be here tomorrow," she protested hotly, as the water shut off, the shower curtain pulled open with a telltale whoosh, and a towel was ripped off the rack with equal carelessness. "And you're the only one in town who has met him."

Six heavy male footsteps later, Fletcher was standing in the hall. Knowing she would be a coward if she didn't look, Lily opened her eyes. Fletcher was standing there, regarding her curiously and unabashedly. He had a towel slung low around his waist. He was using another on his hair. And, she noticed disconcertingly, he looked every bit as deliciously sexy wet as he did dry.

"I found the guy a horse to ride, while he's here. That's it. And all that required was a phone call and video-conference," Fletcher told Lily in disdain.

That was far more contact than anyone else in town'd had, Lily thought, more than a little envious. Why didn't anything that exciting ever happen to her? And if it didn't, how was she ever going to leave her Ice Princess of Holly Springs rep' far behind?

"You're also going to be working at the set, as the animal rights consultant," she diligently made her case for him to help her.

Fletcher shrugged his broad shoulders. Lily's pulse picked up as she saw the loosely knotted towel around his waist, slip a little bit.

Fletcher frowned, unimpressed. "It's a glorified title. I only took the position because of the hefty paycheck attached to it. It doesn't mean I really have any say in what goes on there unless of course they try to do some stunt that would actually harm any of the animals on the set. And right now, the only animal I know about is the horse Carson McRue will be riding when he takes off after the bad guys."

"Fine. Whatever." Lily did not care if Fletcher ended up being bored out of his mind. "The point is, the film crew is only going to be here for one week. And you've got entrée, and I do have a bet going."

Fletcher met her eyes, this time in all seriousness. "One that is bound to guarantee you getting hurt," he supposed outloud.

Lily's spine stiffened. She wished like heck that he would behave more modestly or put some clothes on. Not that she could actually see anything she shouldn't be seeing… or wouldn't see if he were, say, swimming.

"You don't know that," she retorted defensively, in an attempt to get her mind off of what was under that towel. Was that as gloriously male and wonderfully attractive as the rest of him? And how would she-the woman of literally no worldly experience-know anyway, even if she were to see? She'd never seen a naked man! Except on the big screen, and in the movies she'd seen, it was always a rear view… never ever the front.

"Don't I?" Fletcher let go of the towel he had looped around his neck. He flattened a hand on the wall next to her and leaned in close, deliberately invading her space. "Let's recap for a moment here, shall we?" he said softly. "Small town girl-that would be you--, who has never been out of Holly Springs, North Carolina except for that one half-semester she went to college in Winston-Salem before returning to finish up her studies at nearby N.C. State, tries to hook up with a Hollywood hunk who has a reputation for breaking hearts all over the world."

Lily did not need reminding how stifling her life to date had been. "First of all, Fletcher," she retorted, just as definitively, lifting her chin, "it was never my decision to live my whole life in North Carolina, or live at home while I finished my business degree. But I had no choice-my grandmother was ill-and someone had to be there to drive her to medical appointments and see her through the surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments." Lily gulped around the sudden tightness in her throat. "So I did it, and furthermore," he voice quavered even more as she thought about the heartbreak of that awful time, "I was glad to do it."

Fletcher's eyes softened and he touched a gentle hand to her quivering chin. "I know that," he told her compassionately. "I'm sorry you lost her. You know how much I cared about Grandmother Rose. And the pets she had over the years."

Lily did know. An animal lover from birth, Fletcher knew everyone in town, and their pets. His future as a veterinarian had seemed as predetermined as Lily's, who had been tapped to continue the florist business that had been in the Madsen family for generations. The difference being Fletcher had gone into his career by choice. Lily had been forced into hers by duty. And at twenty-five, after years of sacrifice, she was getting pretty darned tired of doing what everyone else felt she should.

"Which is why, Lily, that I and everyone else in this town who care about you do not want to see you make a fool out of yourself over an arrogant thespian."

Those were fighting words! "Don't you think that should be my choice?" Lily tapped him on the chest before she could think-then withdrew her index finger from that warm, hard chest. And leaned back as far as she could into the wall.

Fletcher's eyes grew dark, ominous as he stayed right where he was. "Not if you're going to make the wrong decision, no," he said flatly. "I don't."

***************************************************

"What in the tarnation did you do to that little filly?" Fletcher's brother Dylan asked, tongue in cheek, an hour later. A tv sportscaster by profession, Dylan couldn't seem to stop observing-and commenting on-everything around him, even when he wasn't working. But then, Fletcher noted, that was all Dylan had always been-a 'watcher' rather than a 'do-er'. Whereas Fletcher could have cared less what anyone else-save the delectable Lily Madsen-- was up to as long as it didn't directly impact him.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Fletcher said, happy that his sister Janey was getting married to a man who deserved her, but wishing Janey and Thad Lantz had selected any other night for their wedding week kick-off party slash 'pig pickin' in his mother's backyard.

Fletcher's oldest brother Mac, looking as much a lawman out of uniform as in, edged closer, a plate of pork barbecue in his hand. "Lily Madsen hasn't stopped glaring at you since the two of you got here and walked in together."

Fletcher forked up some of his own shredded pork and tangy barbecue sauce, irked because they were treating his coming in with the stubborn minx like it was some sort of date and it darn well wasn't. "I didn't ask her to the party," Fletcher said, exasperated. "So don't go making anything out of us coming in together." That was just the way it had happened, thanks to Lily's refusal to give up on her pitch, right until the minute they walked in here, side by side.

"Yeah, we know," the 28 year old Dylan winked.

Cal continued with a salacious grin. "She was on time."

Fletcher shrugged his broad shoulders helplessly. Cal might have been the first of them to get married, but his wife, Ashley's OB/GYN fellowship in Honolulu had him living the everyday life of a single man again. And though Cal kept insisting it wasn't a marital separation, it looked to everyone else like in the family as if it were. Particularly since it had been going on for nigh on two years now.

Not that Cal had ever looked at another woman. Ashley was-and always would be-the love of Cal's life. For all the good it did him, Fletcher noted cynically. "I couldn't help being late." Fletcher finally answered the charge against him. "A sick cow needed my attention."

"No problem. Lily Madsen was only too happy to volunteer to go and find you and drag you over here," Cal continued teasing, even as the beeper on his belt went off, signaling a message regarding one of his orthopedic patients.

Fletcher guzzled his icy cold beer as Cal stepped away to phone the hospital on his cell. "Can I help it if I'm not much for parties these days?" Fletcher asked.

"Who are you kidding?" Joe razzed, looking fit as a fiddle, even in the Carolina Storm hockey team's off-season as he chowed down on liberal amounts of coleslaw, beans, and shredded pork. "You've never been much for parties. Always too busy tending to some sick or wounded animal."

Fletcher wasn't going to apologize for his devotion to his work. He plucked a golden brown hushpuppy off his plate. "That's my job."

Thad Lantz, Janey's fiancé, came up to join the group. "Not 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Thad said, with the same frank authority he used as coach of the Carolina Storm hockey team. "You've got a partner. She takes call from time to time. Or so I've heard."

"And your point is?" Fletcher asked Thad.

"It's best to play as hard as you work."

And all he needed, Fletcher thought sardonically, was a playmate, who wouldn't except hearts and flowers and marriage, and anything else he was ill-equipped to give….

Even as he thought it a single woman came to mind. Beautiful, blond, and all of twenty-five…

"I think we're getting off subject here," Dylan said, guiding the conversation back to where it began. He looked at Fletcher curiously. "We want to know what you did or said to Lily Madsen to get her so ticked off at you." Fletcher turned and looked at Lily. She was deep in conversation with his mother and sister, and the other bridesmaids. And she looked absolutely gorgeous. Like the cherubic angel he remembered her being as a kid, and yet… all grown up. Definitely grown up. Her five foot five frame was slender but curvy in all the right places, her legs stunning enough to make even the most jaded guy stop and take a second and third look. Her baby-blond curls had been cut to chin-length, but these days she wore them in a tousled, unconsciously sexy, finger-combed style that drove him wild. Her soft pink bow-shaped lips had a sensual slant and the rest of her features-the straight slender nose, high cheekbones, wide-set Carolina blue eyes, were elegance defined. She was incredibly feminine, and it didn't matter whether she was wearing the khaki pants and pastel T-shirts he sometimes spotted her in, or the kind of floaty, flirty tea-length floral sundress and high-heeled sandals she had on now, she exuded a sort of purity and innocence that was amazing for someone her age, especially in this day and age. Which was why, Fletcher thought as Lily turned and sent a brief, dagger-filled look his way, he had to stay away from her. Which probably wouldn't be hard, given all the reasons he had just given her to absolutely loathe and detest him. Reluctantly, he broke off their staring match and turned back to Thad and his brothers. Aware they were still waiting for an explanation, he said, "She wants me to fix her up with Carson McRue when he hits town tomorrow to start filming Hollywood P.I."

"And you refused?" Mac guessed dryly.

Hell, yes, he had refused, Fletcher said as he took another swig of his beer. "Lily is much too innocent to be hooked up with a narcissist like McRue," Fletcher said in the most disaffected tone he could manage.

"Let me guess. You gave her a hard time about wanting to go out with him at all," Cal said.

"No," Fletcher replied, beginning to feel exasperated again as Lily shot him another withering look over her shoulder, which was followed by a whole slew of withering looks from his mother and the other bridesmaids. "I simply told her the way it was," Fletcher continued matter-of-factly defending his actions. "And I wouldn't have done that if she had just taken my hint and not even asked for my assistance in garnering an introduction." The male members of the wedding party turned to look at the female participants. Especially Lily, who still looked awfully ticked off, like her temper was sky-high, Fletcher couldn't help but note. "What'd you say to her?" Dylan asked curiously.

That was just it, Fletcher could hardly recall, he had been so focused on Lily and that sexy lilac perfume she was wearing.

Fletcher swallowed around the sudden dryness in his throat, as he pushed away memories of just how soft and kissable her pink and pouty lips had been, how silken her peaches and cream skin. "I just wasn't very helpful." Joe smirked. "Not being helpful usually doesn't earn you dagger-sharp looks like that." Since getting hooked up with his wife, Emma, earlier in the summer the pro-athlete in the family suddenly considered himself an expert on all things female. "So what'd you do?" Joe prodded, grinning all the more.

I got a shower in front of her, in hopes of scaring her away. Unfortunately, Fletcher admitted remorsefully to himself, it hadn't worked. And now, all Fletcher could remember was Lily's eyes roving over him as her face flushed, and her breathing grew shallow. And he wondered what it would be like to see her in-and just out-of the shower.

"Have we been missing something here?" Mac leaned in closer. His work as sheriff had trained him to notice absolutely everything. "Have you two got something going on?"

"Nope." Fletcher said honestly as Lily sent him yet another heated look. And just as suddenly, inspiration hit. Fletcher caught and held Lily's eyes until she finally blushed and turned away with a haughty snap of her head.

"But we just might," he drawled.

Dylan scoffed. "Fat chance, considering she's got her eyes on another prize."

Fletcher had never taken well to disrespect. He wasn't going to start now. He finished the last of the barbecue on his plate. "You think I can't do it?"

"Win her attentions?" Mac sopped up the last of his barbecue sauce with a piece of sourdough bread. "You bet." He set his plate and bottle of beer aside. "You're on."

Cal blinked, sure he had missed something. "What?"

Fletcher stepped closer and dropped his voice to a husky whisper. "Hundred dollars says I can make Lily Madsen forget all about going out with Carson McRue."

Joe shook his head, predicting, "She'll never give up on a date with the hunk, if only because it'll mean losing the bet she made at her twenty-fifth birthday party last week."

Fletcher had heard about that. It didn't matter. Not in the least. Or it wouldn't, when he was through waylaying Lily Madsen at every conceivable opportunity. "She not only will," Fletcher boasted, to one and all. "She'll do it, "he aimed his thumb at his chest, "in order to go out with me."