An unfortunate fluke of timing puts Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Harte in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it costs him his career. Caught in an Iraqi ambush while on a rescue operation, he's hit by shrapnel that damages the visual cortex of his brain. With family wealth, nothing is beyond his grasp, including the women he pays to share his nights. That suits him just fine, until he hires Annie Claire Townsend to accompany him on a mission to help the two damaged soldiers he saved in the same attack that took his sight.

Taking a job as an escort is nothing Annie ever considered until medical bills from her daughter's illness buried her in debt. How could she refuse the ten thousand dollar fee? She has no idea her client is blind until she meets him, and his focus is off. Way off. Nothing about Daniel Harte elicits pity. He's roguishly handsome, assertive, and the sexiest man she's ever met. She can no more resist him than she could stop breathing. But Annie has secrets she can't confide to anyone, especially the man she's falling in love with.



Chapter One

The Deal 

Being an escort usually implied bestowing sexual favors, but Annie had made herself clear to the agency: no sex. Her heart raced. She drew another bracing breath of salt air to calm her nerves and stared at the sleek, postmodern house overlooking the Atlantic.

You have to do this, Annie. You need the money, and the client is paying a bundle.

She left her suitcase in the car in case she got a bad feeling. One lecherous glare and she was out of there, desperate for the fee or not. Car keys in hand, she followed the paved walkway to the front door. She stopped. Could she actually go through with this?

The door to the house opened. “You must be Annie,” a middle-aged woman said.

Now or never. Annie nodded. “Annie Claire Townsend.”

The woman beckoned her forward. “Annie or Annie Claire?”

“Either. I answer to both.” I’m in. For now.

“I’m Grogan.” She took Annie’s hand. “No misses, no first name. Just Grogan. That’s what everyone calls me.” She gave Annie the once-over. “My, my, you’re a pretty one. Even better in person than the picture the escort company e-mailed me. The colonel’s expecting you.”

Grogan was a big woman. Not fat, just tall and big, with masculine hands the size of catcher’s mitts and shoes so large Annie guessed they’d been special ordered. She was no-nonsense-looking plain, but a pleasant demeanor and a twinkle in her eye softened Annie’s anxiety. She still wouldn’t relax completely until she met the man with whom she’d spend three days.

She followed Grogan into a large room that jutted out over rocky cliffs, enclosed on two sides by glass that showcased a breathtaking panorama of ocean, ocean, and more ocean. A stone fireplace covered one wall. One of the most handsome men Annie had ever laid eyes on sat in a soft-cushioned leather chair. Except for the noticeable scarring on his right temple and a smattering of marks on his neck, he couldn’t have been more perfect. A black Lab sat at his feet. The man rose.

“Well, Grogan, what does she look like?”

Annie frowned at Grogan, who smiled back. “She’s perfect, Colonel. As pretty a woman as you’d’ve chosen yourself.” Grogan led Annie to the man. “Annie Claire Townsend, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Harte.”

“Welcome, Annie. I know this was a last-minute contract, so I thank you for accepting my offer.”

The colonel put out his hand in Annie’s direction, but his sight line skewed to the right. Far to the right. Oh my God, he can’t see me. Colonel Harte is blind. Annie’s stomach turned over. A mixture of confusion, sympathy, and doubt hit her hard. She’d signed on to spend three days with a blind man. Why hadn’t the woman at the agency told her so she’d be prepared? What else hadn’t she been told? A million thoughts ran through her mind. Exactly what did he expect of her? Was she in over her head?

She studied the tall, elegant man before her, his hand outstretched. You need this job, Annie. You can do this. She took his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Call me Daniel. No sirs or colonels for the next three days. Have you retrieved her bag, Grogan?”

“Right now.” She put out her hand to Annie. “Keys, please.”

“It’s open. I didn’t think my suitcase was at risk in this neighborhood.”

“I’ll fill you in when Grogan gets back,” the colonel said. “Meanwhile, what would you like to drink? There’s coffee ready on the sideboard, or Grogan can make you tea. If neither suits, there’s a variety of soft drinks and juices. Name it.”

“Coffee will be fine. Thank you, Colonel.”

“Remember, no colonel. Call me Daniel. How do you take it?”

“Cream and sugar, but I can make it.”

He ignored her offer and went straight to the sideboard and a row of cups. He found the coffeepot handle and poured, keeping his index finger inside the rim to make sure the liquid didn’t overflow. “I’ll let you add the cream and sugar. I’m not great with cream. They’re on the tray.” He poured another cup for himself, black.

Aside from his obvious lack of eye contact, she’d never have known he couldn’t see. He poured the coffee as confidently as any sighted person. He appeared to listen while she spooned sugar into her cup, added cream, and stirred.

“To our weekend,” he said, lifting his cup.

She didn’t think it possible, but he was even more handsome when he smiled. Dark blue eyes, brown hair threaded with gray, worn long for ex-military—she’d always known military men to keep their hair short after service as a symbol of their former affiliation. He wore a conservative navy suit with a US Army retired lapel pin, white shirt, and dark pink tie. The outfit suited him. The ragged scar on his temple showed more clearly now, along with the pocking on his neck. She wondered what had happened. Maybe she’d find out as the weekend progressed.

Grogan came into the room. “I left her luggage in the entry, Colonel. Chuck will load it when you’re ready.”

“Perfect. Have a cup of coffee and sit down. You too, Annie Claire.” He walked back to his chair, put the cup on the side table, and sat, offering an affectionate neck rub to the dog, which gazed adoringly at his master. Annie perched on one end of the sofa. Grogan poured her coffee and sat at the other end.

“How much did Grace at the escort service tell you?” he asked.

Other than leaving out a major detail? “Three first-class days in Santa Barbara for a reunion with some army buddies, the payment, of course, and no sex required.”

Daniel laughed. “Succinct and to the point. No. No sex required. Of course, I’m open to sex if both parties consent, but I’d never force a woman to engage in a sexual liaison. I’ve never had to.”

What did that mean? Did women jump into his bed willingly? That’s what it sounded like. With his perfect features, she could understand why, but sex wasn’t part of the deal. Should I say something to make sure he understands that? No, she’d already said as much. Best not to rub his nose in it. Calm. Down. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“Then it’s settled. Okay, here’s the situation. We’re going to meet two men who were injured in Iraq at the same time I was. They’re bringing their wives. I don’t have a wife, so I needed a companion. The friend who agreed to accompany me came down with the flu, and my other acquaintances aren’t…suitable.”

So he was blinded in Iraq. She lost her concentration and missed what he said. Now he’d stopped talking, as if he thought of something important.

“I don’t recall if we found out your age. Did we, Grogan?”

“Thirty-two,” Grogan responded in unison with Annie.

“Hmm, older than I would have thought. By that age, beautiful women in the escort business have usually landed a husband and live in the suburbs.”

A sick feeling churned in Annie’s stomach. Did he think she was a professional escort? Think, Annie. Did you really expect the woman at the agency to tell the client you were a first-time escort and that sex wasn’t included in the contract? No, of course she wouldn’t. Not with that kind of fee involved. Had Annie misunderstood? Had Colonel Harte? “I think you may have misunderstood, or maybe I have. I mean, yes, I took this job, but I’m not in the escort business. Not the way you mean it. In fact, this is the first time I’ve done this.”

The colonel cleared his throat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I understood this weekend position was for companionship only. If I misinterpreted the requirements, please tell me now.”

He sat very still and after a long moment sipped his coffee. Annie figured Colonel Harte wasn’t used to anyone calling him out. Not a lieutenant colonel in the army. When he didn’t respond, she considered making a beeline for the door.

“You did not misunderstand, Annie Claire. I apologize if I said anything to make you think otherwise.”

Stay or go? What should I do? He obviously needs someone to go with him. How could he go alone? The man can’t see. A brief thought of what that must be like flashed through Annie’s mind, causing a wave of panic. “I assume I’m not the first escort you’ve hired.”

“Truth is, my associations over the last few years have been escorts. Beautiful ones, I understand, though I’m not really sure. I take Grogan’s word for it. And no, she’s not my pimp. But she does arrange the trysts.”

“Maybe I am a pimp, Colonel,” Grogan said, “and we’ve been calling it something else.” She turned her attention to Annie. “I choose the ladies at the service, insist on clean medical records, and make sure they aren’t woofs. Even though the colonel is blind and doesn’t look at all like Richard Gere, he likes to know he’s with a pretty woman.”

Daniel broke into laughter. “Now what will Annie Claire think of me, Grogan. Actually, Annie—May I call you Annie?”

Annie nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see that. “Annie’s fine.”

“Actually, I’ve always liked pretty women, but I don’t want any permanent attachments. As you can imagine, it’s difficult for me to meet ladies these days. I don’t drive and rarely go places alone, which is why Grogan arranges those evenings here when I feel like company. If the lady is inclined, there’s sex. If not, there isn’t.” He sipped his coffee, then smiled when he said in a suggestive tone, “As I mentioned, I’d never force anyone.”

Annie’s knees went weak, and her voice croaked a hoarse whisper. “You said you never had to.”

“That is correct.”

He cast his eyes straight at her, and her insides flipped. His blindness didn’t detract from the fact that Daniel Harte exuded sex appeal from every pore. No wonder he never had to force women to have sex. They probably walked in the door of his gorgeous house, took one look at him, and flopped on their backs with their legs open.

“This weekend I need the company of a beautiful woman, which I understand you are. I’m paying a lot of money for your time, and no one twisted your arm to take the job. If you find this arrangement offensive, please tell me now. I can’t accomplish what I have in mind with someone who feels she’s being coerced. It would be very difficult for me to go to this reunion alone. I need someone to help me navigate the area, and”—he pressed a button on his watch, and an electronic voice said, “Eight thirty a.m.”—“I haven’t time to arrange someone else. But I’m worried about our interaction. When I explain my mission, you’ll understand.”

Annie’s heart tugged. How hard it must be for a man like him to admit he needed help. To be a leader one day and to be led the next.

She’d needed help during bad times too. Thoughts of the medical bills clarified that she still needed help, which was why she had gone to the escort service in the first place. He waited for her response. “Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. I accepted this job, and I’ll do what you hired me for—be your helpful companion.”

“Good. Glad we got all that messy business out of the way. Now, I hope we can put this little contretemps behind us. I want us both to have a good time.”

He leaned forward in her direction with a smile that brought heat to her cheeks.

“It’s important we at least appear like we’re enjoying each other’s company.” He got up. “I’m going to get my things. I’ll explain the rest on the plane trip. Grogan will answer any other questions you may have about me.”

With his dog by his side, he walked from the room with a purposeful stride, leaving Annie in a state of curious expectation.