Emilio hated to see her happy expression fade, but he also wouldn’t pretend that everything was okay for her when it clearly wasn’t.
“You might as well have a seat.” She gestured to the counter stools drawn up to the island. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Water is fine for me.” He didn’t want to impose on her hospitality when she’d probably already worked a long day with Hope. Settling into one of the high-backed bar chairs, he nudged a second one away from the counter to make it easier for her to take a seat.
“I’ve been saving up to further my education,” she explained as she poured two tall glasses of ice water from a pitcher she kept in the refrigerator. All the while, she kept an eye on the kittens, although the group seemed to be losing steam fast, with two of them already curled together in a ball. “So I work as an assistant at a vet clinic in St. Paul, then I’m a cocktail waitress at night.”
He frowned to think of her clocking that many hours but hid his expression behind the glass she passed him. He took a long sip.
“The money is excellent,” she continued as she dropped into the seat next to him, bringing the scent of her shampoo close enough for him to want to lean closer. “But the late crowd can be rowdy, so I always have someone from the bar walk me to my car after my shift.”
He didn’t like where this was heading one bit. He reached for her, his hand landing on her forearm, though he wasn’t entirely sure if he was giving her comfort or taking some for himself. Maybe he just needed the reminder that she was still there beside him.
“That’s smart.” He squeezed the place where he touched, feeling her pulse throb faster beneath his palm.
“But one night, the bouncer had to leave early when his girlfriend called with a crisis—her father had fallen or something.” Cass took a quick sip of her drink before turning to face him more fully. “I didn’t even think twice—I just told him to go and I would take care of closing.”
His shoulders went rigid, tensing as if for a blow. That made no sense when he couldn’t do a damned thing about something that had already happened. “Go on,” he urged her softly.
“I would have been okay walking to my van. There was no one around me. But in a dark corner of the lot, I could see the shadow of a guy—a big guy—shoving a wiry girl into the back of his car. And this girl was fighting, Emilio. Like, arms and legs kicking and flailing.”
He swore softly under his breath, guessing Cass’s reaction. She’d always been a warrior. A hockey player in school, she trained hard to be strong and fit, and she didn’t hesitate to stand up for people who she saw as more vulnerable than her. In the few months they’d known one another, he could recall at least three occasions where he’d seen her step in to defend younger kids in their group home. Whether someone was stealing their food or picking on their clothes, Cass never hesitated to be a voice for someone afraid to speak up.
He’d admired the hell out of that, even as he dreaded what had happened next.
“Did you call 911?”
“Of course I did. But there were no sirens in the distance and no one else around to help her.” Cass looked out the window toward the pool, her eyes faraway. “So I ran over to intervene.” She shook her head as if to clear the images of what followed before she faced him again. “And I distracted him enough to help her get to my car, but I lost my wallet in the struggle, and the police believe the guy has it along with my ID.”
Inside, Emilio raged at the thought of Cassandra struggling with a man who didn’t think twice about hurting a woman, but he kept his voice calm and soothing since just the memory of that night had to be frightening. “He got away?”
Cass nodded, a blond curl sliding into one eye. “Yes. But the girl is safe back home with her family.”
He couldn’t resist sliding an arm around her then, pulling her shoulders into his for a one-armed hug to give comfort and to remind himself she was okay.
“You did a brave thing,” he assured her, even as he vowed to double his watch on the pool house at night.
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